Oh shit, it's that guy, I thought. That guy. The one who, just by being there, makes all the posing I naturally excrete and bullshit I exhale seem just... silly.
I'd heard of him. I knew the titles Beautiful, Naked & Dead and Out There Bad. I knew he'd been invited to read at the newly birthed N@B-LA event. I knew people thought well of him. But there's just no substitute for occupying the same space, to take the man's measure.
He's big. Large. Physical, sure, but there's a density of spirit to him that's immediately, tangibly present when you shake his hand. You call those hands? Paws. If mastiffs had hands, they'd look something like this guy's mitts.
He writes fiction, right? Yeah, but fiction that's been there. Method fiction. Maybe call it non-false-tion. But, his latest... takes it to a whole new level.
Last year I got to spend a few moments with him in a Cleveland bar immediately after hearing him blister ears reading from his (at the time) forthcoming memoir. That memoir, All the Wild Children, is out now from Snubnose Press, and I asked Josh to contribute a piece to the CriMemoir series - and if you dig the following contribution, you will need your very own copy of All the Wild Children.
Doing Karma Time by Josh Stallings
(Some bits are excerpted from All The Wild Children.
Some are new; hell if I know which is which)
Today I went to the Glendale jail and spoke to my son through a phone and video screen. He's down for possession. Says it wasn't his. I let the lie slide between us. Behind me a young Latina is flashing complicated hand signs. Behind my son a young gangbanger is flashing signals back at her. They are using our time to make contact, the guards don't see it. I am distracted as the boy shakes where tits would be if he was a girl, he is trying to get her to jiggle 'em for him.
I focus on my son, his beard is long, his hair dirty. He is coming down off a rough hard road. He tells me he has the flu. I think he is kicking dope, but I don't say it. I tell him I'm pissed he stole my shit. My Epiphone arch-top that I never got good enough to deserve. My power tools I wish I had taught him how to use, the camera his mother gave me for Christmas, and my laptop. The laptop stung. It is what I wrote on. I finished both Moses McGuire novels on it. An old scratched up write iBook. Not worth shit to anyone but me. But that's the deal with petty crime, you steal shit that only matters to the original owner and sell it for dimes on the dollar.
When I first discovered what he stole, I wanted to strangle him. I wanted to pound his head into the wall. I was a ball of rage. I loved him and I wanted to do him harm. It tore me up that he would steal from me. I would give my family anything they needed.
"It's not personal, it's what junkies do, they steal" his mother told me. I wanted to yell at her. Not because she was wrong, just because she was in the room and he wasn't.
I have et most of my anger go by the time we are in the jail talking through the video camera. All he stole was a bunch of useless crap I didn't need. He either did it to hurt me, or he didn't. I either deserve that or I don't. "When I was fifteen, I robbed my best friend's house," I tell him, "I creeped several houses, stole other people's shit."
The first house I creeped was the home of my childhood best friend. Creeped, makes it sound cool, edgy, retro. What I did was break into Peter’s house and take from a family that would have given me anything I asked for. It wasn’t cool, it felt scary and fucked deep in my gut. My older brother was shooting dope at the time, he and his best friend would creep houses to buy dope, at least that’s my assumption. I wanted to be cool like them. I told them about a house we could hit. My brother was nodding in the Ford while his running mate and I rifled the house. We stole their whiskey. We stole their TV set. We stole their Navaho rug. We stole Peter’s mother’s jewelry box. I know there were trinkets in there that Peter and his brother gave her. I remember a gold plated football or it could have been a basketball, it was worth nothing at pawn, I wonder what it was worth to Peter’s mother.
I had justification. Righteous reasons for hitting Peter’s house. I hated Peter. I hated his hope and possibility. I hated his university plans. I hated his mother for being home every night. I hated his normalcy. And as we drove away, loot in the trunk, I hated myself.
Facts are, I hadn’t a clue what the world looked like from inside Peter’s skull. I’m sure he was just as afraid of the future as me. His parent’s divorce had left him just as soul fucked as mine. His only fault was that somehow he had slid over the line from us to them. And we took them down. I carry the shame of that night deep in my gut. We have talked as adults. Made amends. It is still there as I type this. Less. More accepted. Still there.
Is criminality genetic? My old man was busted for armed robbery. My grandfather sold bootleg booze. My father is an artist. My Grandfather was a cop. I am a writer and movie editor. My son is a cook and a musician. And we are none of those things. Those, the crimes included, are things we did, not who we are. What we have done and what has been done to us is just some shit that happened. Charlie Huston and I were in a dive bar last week, he was giving me props for All The Wild Children. “It’s fucking brilliant, great, so the real question is…” I held my breath, ready, “The real question is, what the fuck are you writing now?”
Name dropping aside, it is still the only question that matters. I see it like this, for a brief and stupid time I rode racetracks on my Ducati. To do this I had to remove the rearview mirror. At 137 miles per hour who gives a fuck what is behind you. The shit you need to be aware of is coming from the front and it’s coming fast.
I broke into houses and stole shit. My son stole shit. This is not who we are. We are just two guys in rough water trying to swim for shore. We are making it up as we go.
Jail. I tell my son maybe his stealing my shit is karmic justice. Neither of us laugh. It's not funny in the face of this moment. The screen is flashing 1 minute left. I want to say so much. I want to hold him and tell him lies about how it will be OK. I won't post his bail, he knows it, says he understands. I'm not sure I do.
"I love you son."
"I love you too Dad."
I don’t get to say goodbye before the screen goes cold blue and he is gone back into the POD. Back into his caged world. He is not a criminal. I am not a victim. We are two men with questionably moral pasts and a deep love for each other. And that had better be enough.
I was asked by a nosey family member why I didn’t bail him out. Told we should get into family therapy and deal with our issues. Didn’t I want to talk it out, get closure. Fuck no. No really - FUCK NO. What I want to do is sit on my back porch, watch our dogs play and talk to my son about books and music. Hear what he thinks of Bruen’s new book. Laugh some, drink some coffee, watch the sky grow dark and then all go to bed. What I want is to not have my boy sleep in lock down ever again.