Everything grows into somethingThe folks at the Special Collections and Archives of the University of Rhode Island Library have agreed to take my journals and papers for safe-keeping. So, for the past few days I have been busy getting all that in order to say goodbye to. The library gave me boxes in which to stash it all—fifty years’ worth, maybe 10,000 pages in all. The oldest of these files have followed me from Harlem to Berkeley to New Jersey to San Francisco to Samoa to Rhode Island. The 26 years of Samoa papers still retain the fond moldy smell of the islands.

There are at least a thousand poems and hundreds of pieces of both finished and abandoned prose to sort through. Every time I moved I threw away more than I kept, but there is still too much. I sort it all through yet another, final filter, filling black garbage bags with the less than necessary. So much paper waste—I have not lived a forest friendly life. But I do get to revisit raising my son in the benign bush of Tutuila and re-fear cyclones I had forgotten.

I’ll share a few pieces here, all from decades ago.


I want a t-shirt
that says on its back
Use Other Side First.
I want a ticket
that no one will question,
a friend in high places.
I want a history
where no one is named
and facts have no dates
but eons have names
like Nancy and Jane
where nothing happens.
Please pass the eraser.
Between us we can
get somewhere fast.
I just feel it rising
out of the sidewalk
and into my soul
nothing that I ever
needed or wanted
as naked as I am
as useless as cops
as salty as sex
as open as a wound.
I want an old day
to stop by and visit
to sit by the window
and tell me about
what the king will say
to the queen when they
finally are left alone
and all her sorrows
have dissolved in tears.


Santa Pajama

Santa Pajama was a bedroom community just up the coast from Vaudville. We drove up the coast road. The ocean was so calm it looked asleep. Samantha slathered sunblock onto her arms and face and shoulders. It was May.

When we got there I couldn’t find the place. I kept rereading the directions she’d taken down over the phone and kept getting lost. Samantha pretended to sleep.

What I finally found was the wrong place on the boardwalk above the beach. But the people there knew who Buddy was and sent us to a bar on the Vista Verde where we could find him. He wasn’t there but Samantha knew the bartender — remembered him from a Shinto halfway house up in Nofloss — so we stayed and drank diet maitais.

I found Buddy’s phone number on the on the toilet partition in the men’s room. I left a message for him on the machine that answered at a Swedish phonesex service. When I went back to the bar Samantha was gone and there was a new bartender. Her purse was still on the floor beside her empty barstool.

I slept in the car, in the back seat. I’m short. In the morning a 13 year old girl wearing a pair of men’s peach jockey shorts as a halter top and a pair of Italian roller skates was asleep in the front seat. I married her. We’ve got three kids now. We don’t live there anymore.



in order
just to know
questions re:
without which

Hong Kong / Vows / 1976

Hong KongI gave it all away, all the cash I had on me down to my least coin. It was like feeding chickens. That back street in Kowloon was famous for its beggars, and once I started handing out cash it didn’t take long. Pierre Cardin suit, Italian shoes, silk tie, a foot taller than all the poor dudes that crowded around me. In my coat pocket was my final purchase—a pint of Wild Turkey. I remember it was a chilly night, December. Of course, I had a hotel room to go back to, and the next day I could go to the bank and get more cash, but I was celebrating my freedom by giving away my chains.

Seventy-six was a tough year, my thirtieth—burn out and break down at my editor’s job in Berkeley, a state of imploding confusion in my so-called love life, shrinks and drugs and a growing fear of others. There was the odd but deeply felt conviction that I didn’t want a future, but I had zero attraction to thoughts of suicide. I didn’t want to perform; I just wanted to wander and watch. It had taken me less than a month to get sacked from my Hong Kong editing job.

A couple of nights before that night in Kowloon I had done a Kiwi bloke I had met the favor of taking him to a respectable whorehouse. He was headed off to an Arctic oil rig for six months and wanted a weekend of companionship to send him off. I knew where to take him from wandering and watching, not from performing. The American Nam thing was winding down, and there were a lot of under-employed prostitutes in Hong Kong now that the Yanks were no longer coming there for R and R. He picked his girl out of the second group the Mamasan sent over to our booth. He seemed happy and I got up to leave. Only Mamasan wouldn’t let me. She and a line of her girls blocked the door. What about me? Her girls weren’t good enough for me? By now some of the girls were cursing me in Cantonese and others were crying and running away. Mamasan picked up a bottle and waved me away from the door. The Kiwi bloke was laughing, but it wasn’t funny. Mamasan yelled something toward the back of the room, and the most attractive, princess-petite girl we had yet seen, dressed in a slit green silk kimono, stepped through a bead curtain. I would take her, Mamasan insisted. But I’m a priest, I told her. Ha, she said, priests like it more than most. Mamasan walked over to take the shy girl by the arm and bring her to me. I bolted for the exit, shouldering aside the girls who tried to stop me. They clawed at my back as I got the door open and hit the street running. Those words, but I’m a priest—that lie—stuck with me. Why not undo the lie and become a priest?

There are three vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience. You can’t grow up Irish Catholic without knowing that. I had a brother who was a priest. So, I decided to start with the first vow, poverty, and gave away all my cash. But that was just symbolic. I had decided that what a vow meant was to disavow all interest in what the vow forbade. Henceforward, money would be a null set. If I had some, fine; if I didn’t, fine. Its accumulation would no longer be of any interest to me, no longer any sort of index of success or failure. As I gave my cash to the beggars on that cold Kowloon back street, I smiled and said, “Null set, null set,” and they smiled back, nodding, saying “Nur sut, nur sut.” We had a great time.

I moved out to Zhang Zhou then, a tiny island on the outer edge of Hong Kong Territory, where there were no roads or vehicles and a room was cheap, a two hour ferry ride from downtown. A junk with an eternal oil slick trailing from it was anchored in the rock-bound cove outside my window. I considered the other two vows. I knew enough about the history of Christian chastity to know that it wasn’t about fucking but about non-attachment to the non-spiritual. I couldn’t imagine denying my impulse to fuck, but I had non-attachment down cold, as it were. If I couldn’t make a virtue out of that, I might at least employ it as an armoring vow. Obedience was the bigger problem. Thirteen years before the Jesuits had rejected me because of my psychological problems with authority. But I found a way around that one, too. I would pledge my obedience to myself, that inner self I had always fought with. If it said head north, I’d head north. If it said find a place to hide, I’d find a hideout. If it told me all this is wrong, I’d drop it and leave. One morning the junk and its oil slick were gone.

I tried to live that way the next five years, on the road a lot. For a while a few people worried about me, but they got tired of that and left me alone. I didn’t make much money, but I didn’t starve. All in all I don’t think vows are a very good idea—that authority thing again. After a while I was happiest when I forgot them and just got on with what I was doing, though I was still broke.

The Keys – Part 3

Underwater ChristThe following short story, “The Keys” © John Enright, is from “The Disease of His Need for Women & other stories.” It has been serialized into three parts. This is part 3.

The family reunion went downhill from there, but it didn’t last long. It’s amazing how quickly some people can pick a fight. It was obvious Bengy didn’t want them there. Polly had been hoping that her brother would lend them some money to help get them set up somewhere in the Keys. The family story she had heard was that Benjamin had gotten into the real estate business and was doing quite well in Florida. The trailer smelled like the den of a yeti or some other undiscovered beast. Bengy insisted that they all have a drink to celebrate this auspicious moment. Norman, who never drank alcohol, declined. That was all it took. Bengy went off, sort of forcing himself into a tirade. It started with him mocking and insulting Norman. Then Polly defended him, giving Bengy his opening to turn on her. A lot of old family bile was spewed. Polly knocked something over—there was little spare room in the place with the two of them in it. Bengy smashed a bottle and waved its jagged edges at Polly’s face. Norman instinctively stepped forward to grab his arm, and Bengy turned on him, slamming him against the door. Bengy was holding the broken bottle against Norman’s ribs and screaming at him when Polly smashed her brother over the head from behind with a big bronze Buddha, and it was over.

Polly was so pissed she insisted on tearing the place up, looking for money. “That asshole owes me,” she said. Bengy was still on the floor where he’d landed. He hadn’t moved, but he seemed to still be breathing. All Polly could find was a couple of hundred bucks. When they left there were still no neighbors around. They headed south, for Key West. About ten mile markers down the road, when Polly began to breath more evenly and the almost perfect circles of red on her cheeks had faded, Norman dared to speak. “When he comes to he’ll report us, won’t he?”

“Of course he will, the prick.” Polly was looking out her side window.

“I don’t need any more jail time.”

“He never saw the car. He doesn’t know what we’re driving. I’ll think of something.”

Norman had never seen more cop cars per ten mile stretch than he saw along that stretch of US 1—local cops, sheriffs, state troopers. Everyone was doing the speed limit. So he did too. In Key West they checked into the cheapest motel they could find, near the navy base, as Mr. and Mrs. Leonard, a name they’d never used before. Two days later Polly had changed her hair color to blonde, sold the car, and told Norman to grow a beard. Norman didn’t like any of this, especially selling the car, there at the end of the last highway. “We need the cash,” was all Polly said. She was concerned about running out of money to eat. “There’s a ferry back to Miami. Don’t worry.” She went out that night to see if she could turn some tricks in the nearby bars. “I might have to come back here,” she said as she left.

“Just call first. I’ll be gone.” Norman was watching TV, channel surfing, looking for something totally distracting, but he noticed that he kept coming back to the local news station, just checking in as if waiting for a message. Around one a.m. the message arrived: Murder at Tavernier Key. Responding to an anonymous phone call, police had found the body of retired Catholic priest Benjamin Churchward in his burglarized residence. “You call that place a residence just because he was a white priest?” Norman said back to the woman news reader on Channel 9. “If he was just some black dude in that funky trailer park, it wouldn’t even be news.”

The news did not please Polly when she returned an hour later. She started to cry and couldn’t stop. It got so that all Norman could do was leave. He walked down to the big painted marker where US 1 ended, declaring this the southern most spot of the continental U.S.A. At three a.m. there was no one there. Norman picked his way in the dark down to the edge of the water. Back up on the street a cop car cruised by. Norman had never learned to swim. That had always embarrassed him, just another hidden hint of his helplessness.

The next afternoon they were on the ferry north to Key Biscayne and Miami. Polly looked terrible. She never looked her best as a blonde, and her big face was all puffy from a night of weeping. The sunglasses didn’t hide much. Norman could tell she didn’t want to talk, and she thought they shouldn’t be seen together. So he spent most of the ferry ride—except for a squall that they passed through—by himself up on the prow of the boat. Back in the motel room Polly had split the cash they had left—$1375 each. It was after dark when the ferry’s engines slowed as they approached the dock in Key Biscayne and Polly was standing beside him.

“I’ve decided,” she said. “I’m going back for the funeral. You gotta head in some other direction.”


“He’s family. I killed him. I gotta go back. I killed a priest, Norman. It doesn’t get much worse that that.”


“My brothers and sister will be there. Now wouldn’t it look suspicious if I didn’t show up? You know, before, when he was alive, I was free of him. But now that he’s dead and I killed him, I’m like his slave forever.”

Key West southern marker

There was no goodbye hug or kiss. Norman was one of the last passengers off the boat. He stood on the dock for a while, clueless as to which way to go. This was the sort of freedom he hated, the freedom of outer space—his future as empty as his past was full and forgettable.

The Keys – Part 2

Overseas Highway 2 The following short story, “The Keys” © John Enright, is from “The Disease of His Need for Women & other stories.” It has been serialized into three parts. This is part 2.

Polly’s brother’s address was off mile marker 94 on the Keys highway, which Norman had figured out meant 94 more miles before the end of the road, US 1, at Key West. Mile marker 94 was on Tavernier Key. He followed Polly’s directions as she read them, down a few lazy sandy streets until they found themselves in a gated trailer park—one of those home trailer parks where none of the trailers have wheels any more and all of them are up on cinder blocks, forever in off the road, with creeper vines and bougainvillea overcoming them. “Have you ever noticed that nobody ever goes to the trouble of repainting a trailer?” Polly observed.

The place reminded Norman too much of a slew of things he was always trying to forget. That double-wide back there, for instance, was twin to the one where he had last seen his kids back in Kentucky. That Pontiac surrendered to the weeds across the road was the same vintage as one he’d left behind somewhere once. He expected to hear a baby crying, but it was all still. No one was up and about. “Let’s not do this,” Norman said. “This isn’t anything like what you said it was going to be.”

“Hell, we’re here. It can’t hurt to try. You stay here. I’ll do it.” But Polly didn’t get out of the car. “You said I looked pale. Should I put on some makeup?”

“Do you think he’d notice at this time of day? Do you think he’d care?”

“It is sort of early still, and I did think his place would be a bit more palatial than this,” Polly said, still sitting there.

“Well, let’s not do it then.” Norman started the car back up.

“No. Fuck. I’ll go. I just forgot how much I dislike the bastard, that’s all.”

After Polly got herself out of the car, Norman—on pure unthought instinct—backed up and turned around and got the car pointed out of the trailer park and parked on the shoulder beneath some low trees near the gate. He had never met Polly’s older brother Benjamin before and he had no intention of doing so now, unless he had to.

It was only a couple of minutes before Polly came back. “He’s in there, but he ain’t answering. I’m not doing this alone, you shit. Come on.” All Norman knew from Polly about brother Benjamin was that he had been momma’s boy by becoming a priest, thus giving momma the trump card in her small Catholic Pennsylvania town. Then he became an ex-priest or a retired priest or an exiled priest or something. Polly never talked about her family much. Neither did Norman. There was a lot of painful shit in their pasts they didn’t talk about much. What was the point? It wasn’t like there were any lessons to be learned from past fuck-ups. The next one was always different.

Polly’s earlier knocking must have woken Benjamin up, because at her first knock this time he opened the trailer door. He was a big man, bigger even than Polly but along the same lines. He was bald and clean shaven and round. He had a sheet wrapped around his rotundity like an amateur’s toga. He was holding a gun, a large hand gun, as suited his size. As he swung the door open he said, “Come and get it, you assholes.” He stopped when he saw Polly standing there on the cement block stoop.

“Yes, Bengy, it’s your little sister Polly come to pay a family visit,” she said, never taking her eyes off the gun.

Father Benjamin lowered the gun, and with it the sheet slipped down on his chest, revealing a rather unmasculine nipple. He stared at his sister for a full minute, never seeming to see Norman behind her, then said, “I thought it was someone else,” and turned and walked back into the dark interior of the trailer, leaving the door open behind him. Polly didn’t follow him in. Norman slipped to the side, further out of sight. Polly and he had pawned their last gun a week or so before. Family. See what I mean? Norman thought. Just leave them alone. It’s like an impersonal curse. He didn’t even have a knife on him.

“If this is a bad time, we can come back later,” Polly said into the darkness.

“Who’s we?”

“Just me and Norman,” she said.

“Who’s Norman?”

“Look, Bengy, forget it. We were in the neighborhood, and I thought I’d stop by to say hello, that’s all.”

“No, you’re here. Come on in. I’d like to meet this Norman. But give me a minute to get some clothes on.”

On The Road Again

Headed south. Once they started naming winter storms, I knew we were in trouble. I grew up in Buffalo, where winters were something to be forgotten, not personalized and memorialized. Connie and I are escaping, driving to Florida, a couple of geriatric snowbirds. We will take our time. No one is chasing us. It puts me in mind of another trip, 45 years ago.

Summer 1970, Across Canada

Trans-Canada HighwayIt was a month after the killings at Kent State, June 1970. Linda and I chose to drive across Canada rather than the dangerous States from Berkeley to New Jersey to spend the summer with her family at the shore. It meant an extra thousand miles or so in our ten-year old MGA, but it was also new country for us—Oregon, Washington, Vancouver, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba. It went smoothly enough. We blew a grease seal on the left rear wheel in Moose Jaw, but I found a mechanic to replace it. I’d had a luggage rack attached to the rear trunk lid. Most of our luggage was strapped on there beneath a tarp. Linda wore a Mexican serape.

For most of the 1400 miles across the Canadian high plains we had the two-lane blacktop of the Trans-Canadian Highway pretty much to ourselves. Empty, empty country. Cool sunny days. We drove with the top down. We spent the nights at cheap motels. Near Winnipeg we heard that the road farther east to Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie was much too rough for our little sports car. We were advised to head south from there, to North Dakota. We reluctantly followed the advice.

It was strange to feel trepidations about returning to your own country. In the weeks before we left Berkeley, I had been involved in the campus-wide protest and strike against the war in Vietnam. I was in grad school at Cal, in the Anthro Department. I was spokesman for our program’s group. I had been tear-gassed and chased, attacked and retreated, been at every demonstration and confrontation. Governor Reagan made sure that there were as many troops as students on the campus. After a while, it was more than just a protest against the war; it was a fault line splitting society. And the other side had both the weapons and the dispensation to do as they pleased. The semester ended in hiatus. Incompletes all around. Linda was tired of it. She missed her family and her home away from such confusion. We packed and headed north.

Picture: a small, pale blue, foreign sports car with California plates, its back piled with luggage beneath a dark blue tarp. Up front, a hippie couple—he bearded, his long hair flying behind him in the top-down breeze; she, a small dark beauty in a Mexican serape. Our arrival at the lonely U.S. border crossing station was probably the event of the day, if not the week. A squad of brown-uniformed officers surrounded our car—amused happy faces. One officer, laughing, motioned for me to drive forward and pull off into a parking lot. Linda grabbed my arm. “Whatever you do, don’t let them take me away. I must stay with you. Don’t do anything stupid.”

It took more than an hour, but they did not try to take either of us away. One officer checked all our papers, while another proceeded to unpack the car. Everything came off of and out of my carefully packed little blue chariot. Every piece of luggage was unpacked, its contents spread across the macadam. My tennis balls were bounced. Linda’s perfumes were all sniffed. Nothing was left unfondled. As he went about his deconstruction, the officer made verbally clear how much he despised us and what we stood for. He had a son who was a pilot in Nam, and as far as he could tell we were his son’s enemy. Etc. He had a point, and he kept repeating it. Linda held onto my arm, but I wasn’t going to say anything. Finding nothing, he finally left. It took us more than an hour to repack. All of this inside a cloud of mosquitoes, the big ones.

But our real welcome back to America did not happen until later that day, around dusk, as we pulled into Fargo. We had not eaten since breakfast, and there up ahead were the golden arches of a McDonald’s. We laughed. Why not? A classic American meal to welcome our stomachs back to their homeland. No drive-through for this occasion. We parked and went in. There were no other customers. We stood there, looking up at the menu above the counter, trying to decide what to order.

“No, no, man. It’s the real fucking thing,” someone said. I looked down, and the two counter boys in their matching uniforms were gawking at us. “Hey, hey! Come here! Look!” Within a minute, the entire staff of the place was standing behind the counter, staring and laughing. The girls were pointing at Linda. “Hippies,” someone said. “Well, I’ll be.”

We left without ordering. I don’t remember where we ate that night, but I will always remember Fargo.