Category Archives: los angeles

The Dating Game

meth freeYesterday, I attended Gay Pride in Los Angeles for the first time in over 12 years, and for the very first time completely clean and sober.

It was an interesting day: I spent much of it volunteering for a recovery-oriented organization: setting up and decorating this organization’s booth, stringing twinkle lights, handing out pamphlets. It hardly felt like work, though, being surrounded by so many also-recovering friends and making so many new ones.

It was all going well until around 3 PM, when my husband called from home to ask me a question.

I had to strain to hear him over the din of the crowd and the thumping bass from multiple DJ’s scattered all over West Hollywood Park, but by hunching over behind a tree and cupping both hands around the phone and my ear, I could make out what he was asking:

“Andy, why is there a can of butane on the shelf in the service porch?”

I knew exactly what can he was talking about. It was yellow with red printing, and was about as tall as a thermos but much thinner. I’d purchased it last spring, while I was still using, to refill the torch I used when smoking crystal meth.  I had kept it hidden…though easily accessible…under my desk, in a box of receipts and other paperwork, and I’d forgotten it when I finally got clean and sober on July 7th, 2012. It had remained there, in hiding, until this recent cleaning spree, at which point I discovered it. My initial, reflexive instinct, upon finding this can of butane, was to throw it away before Patrick saw it:  If he sees this can of butane, he’ll think I’m using again.  

That was followed by another thought:  “What if he sees this bright yellow can of butane in the trash? He’ll think I’m hiding something from him.”

Mind you, all of this went through my head in less than ten seconds. Ultimately, realizing that I have nothing to hide, I decided to place the almost-full can of butane on the shelf in the service porch with all the other cans and bottles of cleaners, solvents and miscellaneous toxic chemicals. I continued cleaning my office and didn’t give it another thought.

Until yesterday at 3 PM, when Patrick asked what it was doing there. I could tell from his voice that he was trying to sound light-hearted, like it was just a casual question along the lines of, “did you pick up the bread from supermarket on your way home?”  But having known this man for twenty years, I could also hear the slight note of dismay under the lightness of tone.

I responded in a reassuring voice, explaining how I’d come across the butane while cleaning my office not long ago, and that he didn’t have to worry, I hadn’t relapsed…I’d purchased the can last year when I was using and that it had just been taken out of hiding. Nothing to worry about.

I waited for him to sigh with relief.

Instead, however, he dropped a bombshell:  “Then why does the manufacture date say October 4, 2012?

I was dumbfounded. This had to be a joke. I even asked him if he was joking.

“No, I’m not joking. There’s a stamp on the bottom of the can, and it says “Manufactured on October 4, 2012.”

“But…I got clean in July. That’s not possible. I bought it last year. I swear to God, Patrick.”

Even in the face of seemingly incontrovertible evidence, Patrick held out hope that I wasn’t, yet again, lying: “I’m sure there’s some logical explanation,” he offered. I could actually feel the hope in his voice, the wanting to believe me.

But the date was there, stamped onto a can, screaming “he’s lying again!”

I started shaking, standing there in West Hollywood Park, surrounded by people celebrating.

butaneThe rest of the conversation is already a blur in my memory. There was panic, there was a feeling akin to having relapsed, there was the old self-loathing and shame of having been caught in a lie. I’d lied to Patrick so many times about being clean when I was actually back on the pipe, and now it was happening again.  I felt nauseated, I wanted to cry.  I began to get angry the way I used to when I’d been caught out and knew the jig was up. But there was a difference:

This time, I knew I hadn’t relapsed.

Which made it worse, because no matter how loudly or angrily or tearily I proclaimed my innocence…the fact remained: The can of butane I’d retrieved from under my desk had not even been manufactured until four months AFTER i’d stopped using all drugs and alcohol.  It was my word versus some factory date-stamping machine, and I already knew which of us had the most credibility on this particular issue.  It was like Gay Pride and The Twilight Zone had converged suddenly, and I was wracking my brain for some explanation.

The idea of Patrick at home, listening to me rambling on asking ridiculous questions like, “maybe they post-dated the can? do they do that?” made me so sad I could barely stand it. I knew I hadn’t lied to him, yet I knew that as long as that fucking can with that fucking date existed, he would never be able to believe me.

And that is when things got really strange.

As I’ve written about in previous entries, my drug use brought me to some dark places: hallucinations, paranoia, delusions….not to mention great swaths of memory that seem to have been completely erased.  Which means that even though I’ve been (mostly) in my right mind for many, many months now, I still have trouble trusting my own perceptions. Confronted with that “manufactured date,” I began to doubt myself and my own memory:  Had I relapsed on meth and forgotten about it?  Was that possible? Is my  brain that fucked up?”

The only thing I knew for certain was that I had to get home and try to figure out how the fuck a can of butane I purchased in the spring of 2012 had a manufacturing date of October, 2012 stamped on its bottom.  I made some hasty goodbyes to my friends, fought my way through the crowds and back to my car.

Driving home down Melrose Avenue, I burst into tears.  I knew in my heart I hadn’t relapsed. And even though I have a brain that deceives me sometimes, I started to realize intellectually as well that I hadn’t relapsed, and here’s how I knew: I am not capable of using meth “just once.” Or even just a few times. If I had relapsed at some point, I could not have forgotten it, because that one relapse would have stretched on for weeks or months, or until I crashed and burned in a fiery cloud of secrets and psychosis. I have never used meth just once or just a few times and then stopped.  I’d proven that to myself and everyone who knows me time and time and time again for ten years straight. I am a meth addict, and a hardcore one.

Just as confidence in my own recollection and in the integrity of my sobriety was slowly returning, my cellphone rang. I saw Patrick’s face staring up at me from my iPhone, and I momentarily considered not answering.  But that’s called avoidance and that’s old behavior.  So I picked up.

“Yes?” I said, expecting more accusations, in the manner that they would seem to pile on in the past.  First he finds the butane, then he goes looking for something else to back up his theory that I’m using again. I’m half expecting to hear him demand I take a drug test when I get home, and I’m ready to tell him to go buy one and I’ll take a drug test any damned time he wants me to, when I hear his words:

“Honey, I made a mistake.”

Excuse me?

photo“This butane was manufactured in Asia…they do their dates differently, like in Europe. It wasn’t manufactured on October 4, it was manufactured on April 10.  The date on the can is 10.4.2012, but in China that means it was made in April. Not October. I’m so, so sorry.”  I hear the pain in his voice, his sadness at having freaked me out so badly.

The Twilight Zone episode ends so suddenly my breath is almost taken away. I burst into tears, and start blubbering a bunch of stuff I can’t remember. Stuff about being mad at Patrick, but not being mad at Patrick, because Patrick was reacting the way anyone who’s been lied to consistently about this kind of thing would react.  Stuff about being angry with myself for doubting my own brain…my own memory…my own sobriety.  Then, came relief that this bizarre mystery was solved. Relief that even though it had felt akin to a relapse, my sobriety was still solid.

I told Patrick I’d talk to him later, and called my friend Jonathan, who helps guide me through this recovery.  I explained what had happened, and his calm approach to the situation calmed me further. As I always do when I get off the phone with this man, I felt much more centered.

I went home, then to the gym, and later….the stress gone from my system, I returned to pride and resumed my shift at the booth i’d volunteered to work. From that vantage point, I got to witness the full drug and alcohol spectrum: sober people, people who can drink but aren’t alcoholics, and the severely alcoholic or drug addicted…the latter group stumbling sloppy and slurring along the path in front of our booth, looking both sad and ridiculous and presenting a better argument for sobriety than any pamphlet could ever hope to do.

When I got home late last night, my husband had posted a mea culpa via his Facebook status:

“I earned a gold medal in conclusion jumping today. To be fair, I got thrown by the different Gregorian dating systems used in the world today. (mm/dd/yyy vs dd/mm/yyyy). Learn from my error and never assume foreign dates follow our system.”

I am so blessed to have this man in my life. When I told some people about the incident last night, there were a couple who responded by saying, “um, you have eleven months clean and sober..he should trust you by now.”  I disagree. After so many years of constant, bold-face lies, the fact that he is still here and he still loves me and that he still hopes for the best for me and  has provided me with support and love when I’ve most needed it gives him a pass in the ‘absolute trust’ department.

I’m the recovering addict, I’m the recovering liar. The burden of proof, the responsibility of mounting a defense, even when it comes to stupid fucking Chinese butane can manufacturing dates, is on me.  And just like that long-forgotten butane can, I’m sure there are other buried secrets I’ve forgotten about that may rear their ugly heads unexpectedly. But I’ll deal with them as they arise, and hopefully I won’t let them freak me out as badly as this one did.

I’m just happy to have been acquitted, and so quickly.

Ghosts of Los Angeles: The Hillside Stranglers

“I have never experienced another human being. I have experienced my impressions of them.” – Author Robert Anton Wilson.

7d_4It is one of the many sad by-products of human nature: the more brutal and prolific a killer is, the more likely he or she is to be enshrined in infamy, bestowed with awe/fear-inspiring nicknames, and garner legions of morbid, gore-crazy disciples. The names Charles Manson, The Night Stalker, Jack the Ripper and The Green River Killer are forever enshrined in our lexicon.  Conversely, only a few victim’s names are easily recalled (Sharon Tate, for example), while those of Kristina Weckler, Elizabeth Stride, Kelly Ware and countless others are remembered only by grieving family members, police officers intimately involved with the case, or hardcore true-crime buffs with particularly muscular memories.

chevy chase

our former home in the Chevy Chase Estates

In 1998, my partner and I had just purchased a home in the Chevy Chase Estates in Glendale.  I had recently become interested in the true crime genre, and was voraciously devouring Darcy O’Brien’s “The Hillside Stranglers,” a compelling account of the brutal, late-70’s murder rampage by Los Angeles cousins Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi that terrorized the city and held the world in its thrall.  It was extremely disconcerting, some thirty-odd pages into the book, to read that the third victim of the depraved pair had been discovered only yards from the house into which we’d just moved.

Overcome by morbid curiosity, paperback in hand, I walked down the front pathway of our hilltop home and made my way up Chevy Chase Drive, until I located the spot described in the book.  Referring to the paperback in my hand, I read O’Brien’s words:

Between the golf course fence and the road lay a deep drainage ditch, then a steep embankment, then a metal guard rail about three feet high.  They swung the body out over the guard rail, trying to heave it into the ditch. But she landed heavily and rolled with a rustling of leaves down the embankment about fifteen feet and came to rest against an invisible guy wire.”

There was the guard rail. And there was the wire with the steel guard at its base, some twenty years later, still rising out of the leaf-covered ravine.  This was, beyond a doubt, the right place.  Having once visited Auschwitz, and having stood on the same platform that so many unfortunates – including several of my friends – had poured onto from countless railroad cars, I recognized the feeling I was experiencing now: the almost tangible sense of sadness associated with being in a place where something horrible had once happened.

I stared at the spot for several minutes before heading back to my house to continue reading, where I soon learned that the Los Angeles girl who had lived 21 years of hopes, frustrations and dreams – before that night she was kidnapped, tortured, killed and dropped on this hillside – had been named Lissa Kastin.

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Lissa Kastin, widely-circulated victim photo

The book offered a grainy, black and white photo of Lissa and it was, to be blunt, unflattering. A three-quarter view of a face that looked too round and too large-nosed to ever be called pretty was the only image presented of this young woman.  Somehow, the homeliness of the photo made her tragic ending seem even more pathetic.  The description of her final hours…both horrific and nauseating…saddened me deeply.  Reading of her final torment while less than a mile away from where she had been tortured and strangled, and only yards from her interim resting place, removed the comforting filter of distance usually present when reading about the ugliness of murder.

“From time to time as they drove towards Glendale, Lissa Kastin continued to protest, and when at last Bianchi pulled into Angelo’s driveway and cut the motor, she refused to get out of the car. But Bianchi coaxed her into the house, suggesting that she had no choice, which she did not.” – excerpt from The Hillside Stranglers, by Darcy O’Brien

The book offered little detail on her life: she worked at a restaurant called The Healthfaire on Vine near Hollywood Blvd., she lived in an apartment on Argyle near Dix street; she was health-conscious and wanted, like so many other 21 year-old Angelenos, to break into show business.   I barely knew this girl, yet I felt strangely connected to her. Perhaps it was because we had both ended up, through quirks of circumstance, in the hills of Chevy Chase Estates, where my burgeoning meth addiction had already, even in its infancy, brought me into contact numerous times with the dark underbelly of Los Angeles.  Or perhaps it was just a vague sympathy I felt for the girl in that unattractive photo. Whatever the reason, I found myself on the internet, researching everything I could find out about her.  Aside from a few stories in the LA Times that noted that she and several other victims had lived in or near Hollywood, there was very little information.  I also noted that in almost all of what little did exist, her name had been spelled incorrectly, as Lisa Kastin. In fact, even in the written indictment of Angelo Buono for the murders of ten young women her name had been spelled wrong, adding for posterity yet another layer of indignity to the brutal conclusion of Lissa’s life.777c331ea62badd02a7ea16fcd1a16ff

Years later, long after we had sold the big house on the hill and moved away from the conservative surroundings of Glendale and into our current home in the more bohemian climes of Mount Washington near downtown LA, I continued to think occasionally of the pudgy, moon-faced, and sadly doomed Lissa Kastin. Once, having told another true-crime aficionado about having lived at the place where the third victim had been discovered, she screwed up her face, thought for a moment, and then replied: “Wasn’t that the ugly girl?”  That sickened me a bit, and I bizarrely began to argue in defense of this person I’d never met.  However, with little evidence to counter my friend’s assessment, I realized that Lissa Kastin would always be regarded by true crime fans as the Unattractive Victim of The Hillside Stranglers. This was the girl, according to  O’Brien’s book, with the unshaven legs, the girl whose killers had deemed too unattractive for their usual modus operandi and so had devised more horrific means of violation. To me, it seemed like the ultimate heaping of insult upon the ultimate injury. Perhaps it was this, the continued degradation of this young woman even after death and my sympathy for her,  that kept her in my thoughts long after I’d forgotten details of other crime victims from the pages of other true crime books.

“From that point on the procedure was the same as with Judy Miller, except that Angelo worried that this girl might fight, so he kept her handcuffed and cut off her clothes with a big pair of upholstery scissors. Naked, she appealed to neither cousin. Angelo especially was put off by her unshaven legs and derided her as ‘some kind of health nut.'”  – excerpt, The Hillside Stranglers by Darcy O’Brien

Lissa Kastin (center) with fellow “L.A. Knockers” dance troupe members.

Not long ago, having watched an abysmal film version of the Strangler story, I googled her name for the first time in years and discovered that a second photo of Lissa Kastin had been introduced to the internet.  The difference between the grainy, black and white photo circulated after the crime and this one was enormous. This had been no ugly girl. While perhaps not a great beauty,  the photo that I found showed her in full, crisp, color: standing by a brick storefront on Melrose Avenue flanked by two friends, and it would be no great stretch to describe her as “cute.”  They are all wearing t-shirts that read “L.A. Knockers,” the name of the modern pop-dance troupe she had belonged to.  She looks off into the distance, a cascade of dark curls falling over her shoulders.  There was so much life in this photo, and for the first time, I felt like I was seeing the real Lissa Kastin.

Further googling lead me to a Youtube video of a late 70’s performance by the L.A. Knockers.  They were a campy, not overly polished but highly enthusiastic and clearly committed troupe of young women having a balls-out good time. It was strange – almost shocking considering the impressions I had gleaned of Lissa Kastin over the years –  to imagine her strutting onstage with them.  Yet, clearly, not only had she danced with them, but the L.A. Knocker’s blog states that she was among the founding members. This girl, who has been in and out of my thoughts for years, had just undergone a radical image transformation in the space of five minutes.  This girl, who was already dead for more than ten years before I even moved to Los Angeles, and who I have been fascinated by despite knowing so little about, was suddenly, if only momentarily, alive again, smiling and dancing to 70’s disco music.  All former impressions of this girl whose body had ended up near my front lawn were wiped away.

ishot-1345231I found myself annoyed that so much detail regarding the lives and personalities of her killers was part of the public record, while so little effort had been taken to accurately convey even a portion of the joyful personality I was seeing in this one new photo. I was able to imagine her now not as the black-and-white, tragic sad girl, but as a flesh and blood, full-color human being. Even if this new perception was based only on a single photo and therefore possibly a false perception, It mattered only to me that it was a better, and probably more accurate fiction than the one the media had led me to believe about this girl I’d never met, yet somehow cared about.

It continues to dismay me that the mention of the names “Hillside Strangler” or even Bianchi and Buono will elicit recognition from anyone who is old enough to remember those years.  The name Lissa Kastin, however, will usually draw a blank stare.   And although I suspect few will really care, if the subject ever comes up again I will be sure to say that she was cute, in a unique way. I’ll tell them that she was a dancer, and I’ll do whatever small part I can to humanize this young woman – who had family and friends who loved and cared about her – and who has been reduced by news accounts to a statistic and by true crime literature to an unattractive girl who had the misfortune to not be aesthetically pleasing to the monsters who raped and killed her.

As someone who spent years saddened by – yet, blindly and stupidly believing – the unflattering characterizations of this young woman, it’s the very least I can do.  And I when I look at new photographs of victims that are found on the pages of the LA Times on an almost daily basis – like little newsprint ghosts – I will remind myself that any impression I glean from them is only a captured split-second of a full and hopefully rich life that has been wiped away forever.

Forward to the 4:27 mark to watch Lissa Kastin performing with Los Angeles-based avant-garde dance troupe “L.A. Knockers.”  She’s the girl on the far left.

Life and Death at Three Thirty Three

NOTE: At the end of this month, it will be eighteen years since I lost one of the best friends i’ve ever had. Even though so much time has passed and so many wonderful – and truly awful – things have happened since, I still think of him almost every day. I loved him so much. This story is about the last year of his life.

Two months after we return from Maui, I am sitting in my office on the Universal lot when the phone rings. It is Mike, calling from Rochester, New York, having flown there a few days ago to visit his friend Sharon. His voice, usually boisterous, sounds so small and scared I don’t recognize it at first.

“I need a favor,” he says.

“What is it?”

Mike and me, parasailing on Maui, May 1995

“I need you to go to the Gay and Lesbian Center and get the results of my AIDS test.”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Last month, Patrick and I had gone with Mike to a fourth of July party at Chris Kattan’s house in the valley. Mike had seemed a little subdued, and I kept asking him if he was okay, my constant insecurity causing me to think that maybe I had offended him somehow. He just wasn’t acting like the gregarious Mike I’d always known.

“My shoulder’s been hurting,” he explained.

I gave him a massage, sitting on the lawn, surrounded by Groundlings, but it only seemed to make it worse. He hadn’t gone to the doctor, he said, because he didn’t have insurance and couldn’t afford the visit. I told him I’d pay for the visit, and that he just needed to go, but he brushed it off and refused to talk about it any more.

I find out later that a few days after the party the pain had grown so intense he had driven down to the county hospital at USC. There, the doctor had asked him if he was part of a “high risk” group. Upon learning that he was, the doctor suggested that he be tested for AIDS before they do any other expensive tests. Mike balked at having the test done “on the record,” so he went to the Gay and Lesbian Center and got tested anonymously. They had given him a number that he was to bring back with him when the results were ready. Before he got the results, though, he had made the already scheduled trip back to New York.

While there, he had collapsed in a restaurant, and an ambulance had taken him to the emergency room.

Now, Mike is calling from his hospital bed.

“I’ve got cancer,” he says matter of factly.

I’m stunned, and for a moment I assume he is joking. But he stays silent, and I start feeling scared.

Cancer? If he has cancer, why do I have to go get his AIDS test results? It makes no sense.

“What?” I ask, confused.

“It’s lymphoma. But they don’t know if it’s AIDS-related or not, and the test they did here will take a few days. My results are already in at the center, so if you could go find out we’ll know sooner.”

He reads a number to me, which I transcribe onto a sheet of legal paper and fold up and put in my wallet.

I don’t know what to say. I never know the right thing to say in these situations, and this time is no exception. I start to say one thing, change direction midsentence, say another thing, and it just makes no sense. I grab onto myself mentally and give a shake, and say firmly:

“I’m on it, Mike. I’m going now.”

He gives me the phone number for Rochester General, I tell him I love him and hang up, needing to get this done, now. My friend is sick and I feel totally helpless. It’s the middle of the workday, but I find my boss Michael and tell him what’s up. Fortunately, Michael is a good man with an enormous heart, and he lets me leave, even though we’re overwhelmed with the enormity of this project. I drive to the Gay and Lesbian Center in Hollywood, where I sit in a waiting room, nervous as fuck before I am called into a small office and a counselor gives me the news that I….or, actually Mike…is HIV negative.

I am thoroughly relieved, but still shaking from the pent-up anxiety of awaiting confirmation of what I had assumed would be bad news. The counselor thinks, of course, that my emotional reaction is about my own health, and I want to tell him that I have never taken an AIDS test, that I’m way too big a pussy to even risk getting that kind of bad news. I want to tell him that these results are actually for my friend who is in New York with cancer, and that I always use rubbers…but of course I don’t and sit almost twitching with impatience has he walks me through a refresher course on safe-sex guidelines and compiles a stack of pamphlets to hand to me.

It is still the pre-cell phone era, and I drive quickly back to Silver Lake to fill Patrick in and to phone Mike with the good news. There is also no internet, no google, none of the research tools that will be commonly available in a year or two, so I can’t be certain, but it seems pretty damned likely to me that regular lymphoma has got to be a whole lot better thing to have, a much more curable thing to have, than AIDS related lymphoma. It is 1994, and the word AIDS still has the smell of certain death about it.

I call Mike, and give him the news. He seems relieved as well. I want to talk to him more, to find out more about how he is feeling, but he is tired, and he mentions a morphine drip, which actually reassures me a little because it explains the listless tone of his voice.

Genhos

Rochester General Hospital

The next day, Patrick and I book a redeye flight to Rochester, and check into a small inn near the hospital. Upon arriving at the hospital, we find Mike in a private room, sleeping. His sister Julia is there, and she looks exhausted. She’s only been back in Los Angeles for a brief time after her run on Saturday Night Live, and she is currently weathering the scathing advance reviews of her movie “It’s Pat.”  Although Julia and I have always been friendly towards each other, we are not close. Patrick, having been in the Groundlings Main Company with her, knows her better than I do.

“Is that woman still out there?” is the first thing she asks.

Patrick and I are perplexed, and I poke my head back into the hall.

“Just some nurses,” I say.

“Oh, good,” she says, sounding relieved, and explains that an ardent fan had recognized her. “She’s very sweet,” Julia explains, “but I’m just not up for it right now.”

I look at Mike, sleeping with his mouth open, snoring. That, at least, is familiar and thus reassuring. He looks pretty good, despite the IV lines and scary-ass medical equipment surrounding him, and my sigh of relief is audible.

“So how is he?,” Patrick and I ask at the same time.  Pinch, poke.

Julia has a slightly nasal, adorable quality to her voice that is common to all the Sweeney children, but even that doesn’t lessen the impact of her next words.

“It’s not good. It’s Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and it’s stage four.”

Hodgkin’s? The shaky-head Katharine Hepburn disease? Wait, no.., that’s Parkinsons. I look to Patrick, hoping to see some recognition of these words in his face. But he seems as perplexed as I am.

“What does Stage Four mean?” we again ask simultaneously. We exchange annoyed looks with each other.

“Well….” Julia struggles to find a way to say what she has to say. “Basically, the doctor said that Stage Five means you’re dead.”

The next day, I’m alone in the room with Mike, who is still drifting in and out of consciousness, and I take on the task of hitting his morphine drip button whenever the machine decides it’s time for him to have some more. He seems happy to see me, but emotional enthusiasm has never been Mike’s thing, acerbic and wry being his two brightest colors.

“You didn’t have to come all the way out here, you know,” he slurs.

“Shut up. Of course I did.”

Mike Sweeney, 1982 yearbook photo. He was class treasurer.

“I really thought I had AIDS, you know.”

“Well, you don’t have AIDS. And thank god, because they can’t fix that. This… they can fix” I say, trying to convince myself as much as I’m trying to convince him.

Mike, never demonstrative, reaches out and grabs my hand, surprising me, and I look away as I feel tears start to well up. We sit there in silence, and I continue to hold his hand long after the next wave of morphine has pulled him back under.

Over the next couple of days, Mike begins to regain some of his strength. I don’t know if it’s simply the rest, or if it’s the chemicals they’re putting into him, but his cantankerous nature begins to reassert itself. The doctors and nurses who are treating him are finally introduced to the real Mike. I suspect they like the weakened version of him better.

It might be because Mike, always a bit of a control freak, has decided to regain some of that control by demanding a business card from every doctor that stops by his bedside to impart information to him.

Before the doctor has barely uttered the words “hello, Mike,” he immediately interrupts them by saying, tersely, “Do I have your card yet?”

“Excuse me?”

“Do I have your business card yet?”

If the answer is no, Mike demands one. He reads the name on it aloud, and asks if he is pronouncing it correctly. Once he has the pronunciation down, He takes a pencil from his nightstand and transcribes basic notes in tiny writing on the back of the card about what the doctor has come to tell him about his condition or treatment, often asking the doctor to pause or slow down so he can get it all down accurately.

If the doctor has already provided a card on a previous visit, Mike pulls the rapidly growing stack from the nightstand drawer, asks the doctor’s name, and then searches for the correct card from the stack he has arranged alphabetically.

“Ah, here you are,” he says, and quickly peruses the notes on the back to refresh his memory before he allows the doctor to continue.

The reactions of the doctors and the multitude of specialists ranges from smirking bemusement to blatant annoyance.

“Michael, I was just here this morning, we spoke for twenty minutes. You remember me.”

Mike doesn’t give a shit, though. This is his illness, these people are working for him, and goddamnit, he’s going to keep it all straight in his head. This flood of information would be confusing enough for someone not being given intravenous morphine. No patronizing medical professional will be playing God in Mike Sweeney’s hospital room, not now, and not ever. I blush red when this scene goes down, and  it does almost hourly, but I’m glad to see Mike’s feistiness manifest itself again.

gsh

CLICK TO WATCH “GOD SAID HA!” .. Mike’s sister Julia’s poignant and hilarious one-woman show about The House of Cancer. Julia nails Mike’s funny but often trenchantly sarcastic personality. I’m so glad this film exists to remind me of my friend.

I begin to suspect that all these doctors have been informed that Mike is the brother of a celebrity, and perhaps this explains why each of them, to a one, bow to this slightly humiliating ritual on a continuing basis. Celebrity is a funny thing, and even in my short time with Patrick I’ve experienced the benefits of being next to it. Being seated at restaurants before others who have been waiting, free drinks at bars, all sorts of odd little unexpected perks, including my own lush, private suite at Cedars Sinai when I was admitted for kidney stone surgery earlier in the summer. I know it’s all bullshit, and I feel a little guilty about it at times, particularly since I’m really only an adjunct, but I still take those free drinks. And now, if being the brother of a celebrity means Mike is going to get more attention paid to him, then I’m grateful for it. I demand that Patrick, who has just begun what would turn out to be a four-year stint on “Ellen,” remove his baseball cap while we’re in Mike’s room, hoping the doctors will recognize him. Double the celebrity, double the attention? I hope so. Or at the very least, double the tolerance for Mike’s irritating card-game.

Patrick and I return to Los Angeles a few days later, and a few days after that Mike comes home to begin chemo and radiation treatments. He has no health insurance, so Julia organizes a benefit screening of “It’s Pat” to help defray some of the costs. Mike is an extra in a party scene in the film, and already I notice the difference between the Mike who was filmed a year before and the Mike sitting next to me in the theater. He’s only been back in town for a couple of weeks and he’s already lost a considerable amount of weight, which he is happy about, but his hair has also begun to fall out, which he is not happy about at all. The photos we take together at the event show him dressed in a sports coat and dress shirt and wearing a baseball cap.

from left: Mike, Patrick, Cheri, Andy at our friend Amy’s wedding, 1994.

Unlike me, Mike’s appearance has never conveyed any foolish preoccupation with vanity, he’s always projected an unconcerned affability that is usually associated more with straight men. In fact, people are usually taken aback when they find out that Mike is gay. He doesn’t hide it, he isn’t closeted, it just isn’t the most obvious part of his often bigger-than-life presentation. Still, I know he does care about his appearance, and the hair loss bothers him until he comes up with a solution. He shaves his head and adopts a pseudo-goth look, trading in his usual baseball shirts and baggy shorts for jeans, rocker t-shirts and leather jacket. His normally pudgy face has new angles suddenly, and I think that for this moment in time he is actually happier with his appearance than he’s ever been. His lack of eyebrows is still bothersome to him, and at one point I convince him to let me try to draw some on with an eyebrow pencil, but it looks ridiculous and the effort is abandoned.

Mike’s treatments leave him incredibly weak, and by October he has moved into Julia’s home in the Larchmont District. He keeps his converted garage apartment on Sierra Bonita in the Fairfax neighborhood, even though this will require Julia to pay the rent on it for him. But he demands this, because being Mike, he’s not comfortable not having a place to retreat to in case he feels a sudden need for solitude. Mike loves his family, but he’s always valued his privacy. As a child, he once installed both a deadbolt and a doorbell on his bedroom door, something his mother once told me and I found absolutely hilarious. I admire Julia for stepping up to the plate and putting her life on hold to care for her brother, who, to put it mildly, can be trying. At one point, Julia makes a business trip back to New York, and while she is gone Mike heats her swimming pool to what I jokingly call “second mortgage” setting, and every night that she is gone great fluffy billows of steam waft out of her backyard and over the neighbor’s fence. He knows she’ll be furious when she gets her gas bill, but, lying on a blue pool raft drinking a beer at midnight…in October, he simply says, “What is she gonna do to me? I’ve already got cancer.”

For the most part, Mike deals with the hand he’s been dealt bravely and with his trademark black humor. When he’s up to it, we go shopping at the Beverly Center, and when he asks the clerk at Nordstrom if the store offers a cancer discount, I can only shake my head and smile. The clerk’s spluttering response is priceless, and Mike enjoys it so much the question becomes part of his standard routine every time he has to pay for something. If the clerk says no, Mike parries back with, “It’s stage FOUR cancer. I’m a stage away from being dead. Maybe you could check with your manager.”

When I’m available to take him to UCLA for his chemo treatments, he insists on stopping at El Coyote for margaritas on the way home. This doesn’t seem wise to me, and I hate the parental tone in my voice when I suggest we take a pass. He angrily insists, and we eat chips and salsa and drink margaritas until we’re shitfaced. He usually has several hours before the waves of nausea hit, and he spends those nights on his knees on the mission tile floor of Julia’s guest bathroom. I know he’s sick, yet he still seems indestructible, somehow, even with the weight loss and the nausea and the irritating thrush he’s developed in his mouth and throat. His humor, his personality is still so manifest that it is able to dull my worries a bit, most of the time.

Six months in, the Spielberg job is also taking up much of my time, and this holocaust project has turned out to be much more complex than a simple documentary. We’re in the midst of opening offices all over the world, training interviewers in multiple languages, translating documents, hiring camera crews, and the days are much longer than they’d been at my 9 to 5 corporate job at ABC. I love the work, however, and it keeps me distracted from Mike’s situation. Unfortunately, it is also keeping me distracted from my relationship with Patrick, and I sense a growing emotional distance between us during those times that we actually do manage to spend together. There is just too much to think about, and in my chaotic mind holocaust survivors and cancer patients are accorded top priority.

Christmas time rolls around, and because my parents are still in the middle of a messy divorce, I opt to stay in Los Angeles, alone. I don’t know Patrick’s family very well at this point, and frankly, don’t feel the desire to be around a functional, intact domestic unit. Mike is flying home to spend the holiday with his family in Spokane, and around two o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, not long after Patrick has departed for Joshua Tree, a yellow cab pulls up in front of our little Silver Lake house.

Through the front window, I see Mike get out of the backseat, and I open the front door.

He has made an extensive detour on the way to the airport to wish me a merry Christmas and to give me a gift, a small white envelope. I feel guilty because I haven’t bought a gift for him, though I make it clear to him I haven’t bought gifts for anyone this shitty holiday season.

He’s running late, so he can’t come in, but we hug each other, and as always I’m grateful for it. Hugs from Mike mean a lot to me, because he has never been very physically demonstrative with anyone.

After he’s gone, I open the envelope and pull out a note that says “Thanks for being such a great friend. Have a Merry Christmas.”  There is a P.S.: “These should help.” At the bottom of the envelope are four Dilaudid tablets.

The sole benefit of Mike’s cancer has been the sheer quantities of painkillers he’s been provided, more than he actually needs at this point, I’m pretty sure. He was thrilled to be prescribed Marinol, a pill version of marijuana, but after trying it we agree that it can’t hold a candle to smoking the real stuff (which we do, often, from his leaky red plastic bong). Soon, Mike realizes that as a stage four cancer patient, his doctors will provide him with pretty much any pain medication he requests, and over the past couple of months, when Mike is up to it, and I’m not working, we’ve been getting messed up on morphine, Demerol, and now this amazing Dilaudid.

I consider taking one of the pills, but decide to save them for tomorrow, already feeling an advance wave of depression creeping over me. I’m pretty sure tomorrow is going to suck. I’m already feeling sorry for myself, what with my being alone (even if it’s by choice,) my cancer-ridden best friend, and my suddenly demented parents and their soap opera crazy bullshit.

I sleep in on Christmas morning, and after lunch I pop two of the tablets. Soon, I am floating on a hazy, happy cloud. I put on an Andrews Sisters Christmas CD and sit cross-legged on the living room floor playing Sonic the Hedgehog for hours. It turns out to be one of my favorite Christmases ever, courtesy of Mike Sweeney.

Upon returning to LA after the holidays, Mike takes a sudden turn for the worse. Now, he is not just thin, but skeletal. The yeast in his throat, a result of the chemo weakening his immune system, makes speaking difficult. He is over-medicating himself, so it’s often hard to tell if it’s the disease that is causing the stupor or if it’s the drugs, which are now being administered intravenously through a port that’s been put in his chest. Then, suddenly, everything goes from bad to really, really bad. Julia is diagnosed with cervical cancer, and must undergo a radical hysterectomy. The absolute unfairness of this, the sheer cruelty of the universe, makes everything seem, suddenly, even more surreal than it had already been. Mike, voice slurred, takes to answering the phone at her house by saying, “Hello, house of cancer, how may I help you?”

Julia’s parents move to Julia’s guestroom to help take care of both their kids. I feel terrible for them, and try to assist as much as possible, as do all of Mike and Julia’s friends. At one point, Mike becomes so frustrated by this sudden influx of the family – which he loves dearly, but that he’s spent his life trying to individuate himself from – that he insists on moving back into his apartment on Sierra Bonita. It’s a bad idea, but Mike, as always, is inflexible.

Cheri, who has left her music business job at A&M and is now pursuing an acting career (she is still six months away from landing “Saturday Night Live”) is temping, so when she’s not working she’s taking care of Mike. I spend as many nights on his couch as I can, and the bond the three of us formed in Hawaii grows even deeper. One night, Mike, in a near stupor, is sitting in the chair in his small living room. Cheri is standing behind him, gently rubbing his shoulders. Mike begins to cough, then to choke, a terrifying rasping rattling sound. Suddenly, a great wad of mucous frees itself from his throat, and lands on Cheri’s right hand. Mike, so far gone, is oblivious. I almost gag at the sight, but Cheri betrays no reaction to the sticky mess on her hand and continues to stroke Mike’s shoulders until the coughing has subsided. Only then does she give him a kiss on the top of his head and move to the kitchen to wash the gunk from her hand. I’ve liked Cheri from the moment we’ve met, but this small act of kindness to my friend, her refusal to cause him any possible embarrassment – even in the state he’s in – endears her to me further. Of course, being naturally hilarious – which Mike and I have long known, and the world will soon discover – she still manages to get Mike to crack a drugged-out smile several times that evening, despite his discomfort.

me and mike

Last photo of Mike and I together, March 1995. The next morning he would enter the hospital for the last time.

This is the last night we all spend in Mike’s apartment together. The next day, he is back in the hospital. He slips away slowly, so slowly that it is almost impossible to detect the line between drugged consciousness and coma. It comes as a surprise to me when his nurse tells me this, and when she tells me he probably won’t wake up again, I don’t know what to feel. I don’t want to lose him, but I don’t want him suffering. I climb into his bed and spend the night sleeping next to him, the sickly sweet smell of the yeast in his mouth and throat hovering in the air around my head.

Mike’s family doesn’t come to visit often now, with the exception of his younger brother Jim, who has always seemed to worship his big brother.  It’s not because they don’t care, because they do – intensely – but because the Sweeney’s are now in triage mode, horrified and stunned by the imminent loss of one child and brother and focusing their energies on saving another child and sister.  I can’t even bring myself to think about what they must be going through.

It’s late March, and Cheri and I are sitting at Mike’s bedside. Though deep in coma, his face bears an expression of concern that is disconcerting to me, and causes me to whisper repeatedly in his ear, “it’s okay, Mike.” Sometimes, his lips will move, and we convince ourselves that he can still hear us. We tell him funny stories, we play music for him on a portable CD player. The Breeders, Dionne Warwick, and his most recent favorite, The Crash Test Dummies. When we begin reminiscing about Hawaii, I get an idea. I drive to a record store in Westwood and buy a nature CD of ocean wave sounds. We play the sounds of the surf, extend his arm so it’s dangling off the bed, and place his hand in a small plastic tub of warm water on the adjacent chair. We then grab onto opposite corners of his mattress and attempt to replicate the rolling motions of the ocean. We talk about our trip to the nude beach, that day he loved so much, the day he floated naked on the inflatable raft in the warm waters of Little Makena Beach while Cheri and I huddled on the shore both fully dressed and totally embarrassed. Perhaps it’s only because we want to see it, but his face seems to relax – not quite a smile – but the strange, agitated look has definitely subsided a bit.

The next day, I talk to one of his nurses and she tells me that Mike’s problem is that while his body has been shutting down, he still has the heart of a 31-year-old, and it is refusing to stop beating. I think it’s more than that. I think it’s because Mike, who has never done anything he didn’t want to do, has never accepted the fact that he is dying. For all the time we’ve spent together, we’ve never discussed it, and now I am ashamed of myself for not having had the courage to broach the subject, even when it had become clear to everyone that the cancer was winning. I explain to the nurse what my suspicions are, and I half expect her to laugh at my theory. Instead, she stands next to mike and starts talking to him.

“Mike, I want to you picture yourself on a trapeze, swinging through the air. Back and forth. You have to let go. Just let go and trust that the next trapeze with be there. Let go, sweetie.”
She continues to whisper that to him for a few minutes while I stand there holding his hand. It is less than an hour later when I notice that the pauses in between his breaths are growing longer and longer. I find the nurse and let her know, and she comes in and examines him. “It’ll be soon,” she says.

I panic, because Mike’s brother Jim had arrived earlier and I told him there had been no real change in Mike’s condition, so he had decided to head down to the cafeteria before settling in for his visit. I’m freaking out, asking the nurse to please page Jim Sweeney, when our friend Mary Jo walks in the door. “He’s going,” I almost shriek. “Stay with him, I have to find Jim!”

I finally locate him exiting the elevator on Mike’s floor, and we hurry back to the bedside. I call Cheri at Disney, where she is temping today, and tell her to get here as soon as possible.

The three of us line Mike’s bedside, holding his hands, his feet, silent, as his breathing slows, then seems to stop. We look at each other. Is it over? Another ragged breath answers the question. It goes on for almost fifteen minutes before he slips away, and I swear to god, this God I swear I don’t believe in, that I can feel his soul leaving his body. The nurse checks his vitals, and confirms that he is gone.

I look at the clock on his bedside table, and the digital numbers read 3:33.

Three thirty three.

3:33 PM is the time on my birth certificate, and 3:33 PM will be the time on the death certificate of one of the few truly close friends I have ever had.  I bend over, tears dripping from my cheeks, and place a kiss on his already-cooling forehead. “I love you,” I try to whisper, but the “you” ends in a ragged gasp as my throat clenches tight.

Cheri arrives about ten minutes later, and when she discovers Mike has already passed, she lets out a low keening moan,  and I move to put my arms around her. We stand there holding each other for a long time, until our friend is covered with a sheet and wheeled from the room. After a few phone calls are made,  those of us present hug and console each other for a bit, and finally Cheri follows me in her car back to the little cottage in Silver Lake.  There, we lay in silence, holding hands, on top of the comforter in my bed. Soon, the sunlight begins to drain from the room, and we fall asleep.

‘The Advocate’ of Total Bullshit

me and pThis is something that has been bothering my conscience for a long, long time. For eight  years and one month, to be precise.

Late in 2004, my then-partner (now husband) Patrick – a minor celebrity of sorts in the gay community – and I were asked to write an article for the gay publication “The Advocate.”  The angle of the article was to be parallel stories: mine would be about my struggles with addiction, and Patrick’s would detail what it had been like – as someone who had never used hard drugs –  to love and live with a meth addict.

Since I had been off the pipe for several months and felt “cured” of my addiction, I agreed to the proposal, and Patrick also acquiesced. We both knew how crystal meth was devastating not just our own home, but the community at large. We  felt  that perhaps by sharing honestly the struggles we had faced  thus far with my addiction, we might potentially help someone, somewhere, feel less alone.

page 1

Unfortunately, I had failed to take into consideration the serious toll my recently-ended, months-long meth run had taken on my ability to remember words, let alone put together sentences. Paragraphs seemed too gargantuan an undertaking, so this article, on my part, is so poorly written it makes me cringe when I read it now. I’d pulled some nice florid passages from my journals, tried to tie that together with a basic narrative, and failed miserably in my estimation. That, however, is not what I need to apologize for..though I do.

What I’ve shared with only very few people is that by the time our story hit the newsstands (and the internet, which I’d completely forgotten to consider, and which has since made employment very, very difficult – *slaps own face*), I’d already relapsed big-time.  I end the article by telling the world of my Miraculous Deliverance From Addiction!  Like it was just that easy, anyone should be able to do it.

Then and now, I felt like I was lying to the world, and every letter we received thanking us for telling our story was like being stabbed in the heart with a shame-spike.

ishot-2132151

In fact, by the time the photographer for the magazine showed up at our home to take the photos to accompany the article, I’d already been back on the pipe for two or more weeks.

Years later, when I finally reached the point of desperation…the point where I knew I would die if I used even one more time…. it took real work to get clean and sober. It took surrender, it took humility, it took some mighty fear-conquering. It meant forcing myself to talk to people like myself, and it took being willing to admit to them that I knew very little about staying clean, and then…the hardest part of all…it took asking them for help. In other words, it took some serious fucking work. And it still does, every single day. And it will for the rest of my life. I know that now.

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So I want to offer this long-delayed apology to anyone I might have hurt or misinformed (or kept in their disease for even a minute longer than they should have stayed there) by implying that salvation is something that just, you know, happens. Maybe it does, on occasion…but as regards meth addiction, or any addiction I suppose, please believe me now when I recommend that you not sit around and wait for it to show up, as I put it, “miraculously, and out of nowhere.”  That ending was total bullshit. That wasn’t deliverance, it was a momentary  break between binges. If you’re struggling with addiction, ask for help. Please.

I am really, truly sorry.

(CLICK HERE to read the embarrassing original Advocate article)

 

Sober Musical Interlude #1

Sinéad_O'Connor_-_How_About_I_Be_Me_(And_You_Be_You)

“The Wolf is Getting Married” can be found on Sinead O’Connor’s 2012 release “How About I Be Me and You be You?”

If you follow this blog (and thank you SO much if you do)  you know that I write dark, depressing stuff full of angst and anger and, well, as my husband puts it: “meth, death and bated breath.” The reason for this is because it’s the way I process feelings like guilt and shame for all the wreckage i’ve caused in my life and the lives of those who care about me. And believe me, there’s been so much wreckage I could tattoo “brought to you by Irwin Allen” on my forehead.  But here’s the thing: I don’t want anyone getting the impression that I am a depressed, miserable person. Even in the midst of the melodrama I write about were many, many moments of joy. My dogs, my husband, long walks, time spent with family and friends.

I also want to let you know that the last eight months have been the happiest of my existence. I’m restricted by tradition, so I can’t provide specifics as to why or how, but let me say this: I am learning, at the bruised-fruit age of 48, to like myself. I’m not talking about my looks, or my career, or my belongings…all the things I have mistakenly thought were me and which caused great despair as one by one, they began to disappear.  I’ve learned to let myself be loved even on the days when I feel utterly hideous and unloveable. I’ve learned that being kind to others is a far more uplifting and productive pursuit than sitting around hoping others are going to be kind to me. There are still days when the thorn-bush has roses, but overall, I’m feeling extremely optimistic.

Which brings me to a favorite of what I call my “sobriety songs,” The Wolf is Getting Married by the amazing Sinéad O’Connor, who became one of my personal heroes the moment she tore up that photo of the pope on Saturday Night Live (I have my issues, as does she, with the roman catholic church).  The title is an obscure Arabic expression meaning, loosely translated, “a break in the clouds.”  The song seems to have been written for, perhaps, a love interest. When I listen to it, I think of a collective of people: my family and old friends who have always loved and supported me (even when I was stumbling around like an early Walking Dead prototype.) I also think of all the new people in my life: the sober ones – particularly my new Tuesday night family – friends who are guiding me and helping me and crying with me and rooting for me and loving me, until I can transition from mostly liking myself to actually full-on loving myself.  I also think of my trio of spiritual advisors who brought me home to my higher power.

Their smiles make me smile. Their joy gives me joy. Their hope gives me hope. I am so absolutely surrounded by love these days. Maybe I always have been. But I’m actually able to register it now, and it’s powerful. There’s been a break in the clouds, and the sun feels fucking amazing.

I used to have no wolves around me
I was too free, if that’s possible to be
No safety, is what I mean
No solid foundation to keep me

But the sun’s peeping out of the sky
Where there used to be only gray
The wolf is getting married
and he’ll never cry again

Your smile makes me smile
Your laugh makes me laugh
Your joy gives me joy
your hope gives me hope

 

The People in The Trees

NOTE: INSANITY AHEAD: A short, totally CRAZYPANTS story I wrote in 2003 – in the midst of my addiction – about The Tree People.  If you don’t know what Tree People are, consider yourself very, very lucky.  This is so badly written it makes me cringe, but it definitely shows the delusional/psychotic state of mind of a meth addict in active addiction. Yup, crazy time.

danutreeThe trees rustle with their movements, and only on rare occasions can I see them fully. They move in my peripheral vision, jumping from tree to tree, or standing stock-still, fading in and out of their bark-and-leaf camouflage. The wind carries their voices, but I can not decipher the words. It is via some strange form of telepathy that they convey the daily orders I must follow…. or suffer some horrible, indeterminate consequence. Most often they require atonement, and I kneel on the hillside, eyes closed, under the giant Bougainvillea, silently asking their forgiveness for my dark-sex-drug behavior, for the shameful atrocities I commit on their sacred soil.

My partner, who does not use methamphetamine, can not hear them, and as much as I argue with him, refuses to concede their existence.  I try every form of rationale to get him to understand: the arrowheads we’ve found in the dirt in our yard, the centuries of American Indian settlements that the small enclave of Mount Washington was  built upon.  When I attempt to point a Tree Person out to him, he says he doesn’t see, and grows angry at my insistence.  Meth, it seems, has opened some strange doorway that allows me to peer into their world, and it saddens me that the People in the Trees are not yet comfortable enough with this man I love to make their presence known to him.

I’ve divined, somehow, that austerity and simplicity are the hallmarks of this hidden race of people, forced by the encroachment of modern civilization to move underground, and they have learned to live, unnoticed, among us. This is not to say that they do not appreciate a Winchell’s Old Fashioned Chocolate doughnut now and again. It is a fact that I have shared with no one that they regularly devour the five or six I leave for them on a tray each evening behind the pool shed, my own version of a peace-offering. Though I have never witnessed the devouring of these offerings,the scattered crumbs and overturned tray that I discover each morning is testament enough to their gleeful orgy of consumption. Occasionally, I will  test the breadth of their palates and purchase a cinnamon roll or an apple fritter. These too have proved very popular with The People in the Trees. It is this generosity on my part, I believe, that has facilitated my recent ability to understand many of their whispers and ability to psychically  divine their needs, intents and moods.

shedThis pool shed, at the far end of our yard, away from my partner’s suspicious eyes,  has become a chapel of sorts, the place where I can most clearly hear their words. They have made it known to me that this is where we will most safely begin the process of communing. Inside the shadowy structure, lying prone in an inflatable pool raft, I  catch quick glimpses of them peering in at me, quickly, deftly, with a stealthy skill that they have honed from centuries of hiding. They have learned, somehow, to make their whispers resemble the swishhh-sound of wind through branch, and I have learned to tell the difference.

Still, as clever as they may be, they are not immune to some trickery on my part. Though they are masters of camouflage, they are not a deceitful people at heart and therefore  susceptible to the manipulation I am a master of. In the shed, lying back in the purple pool raft, I pretend to speak on a cellphone, telling elaborate stories with great, fanciful detail to the imaginary person on the other end. Gradually, I lower my voice, until the Tree People outside the shed must move in closer to understand my words. I am extremely proud of turning the tables this way: it’s about time THEY strain to

raccoon

hear MY words! This trick yields no clear view of any member of the tribe, yet I can clearly hear them scuttling across the roof and sliding oh-so-slippery quiet down the side of the hill behind the shed. I can see them in my mind: brown-skinned, angular faces pressed up against the flimsy plywood walls, eager to hear the latest exploits of the The Bringer of The Doughnuts.

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