David Mohrmann grew up writing stories. Later, for more than twenty years a playwright, he taught much of that time on
the theatre faculty at Humboldt State University. His most significant contribution was in the area of political street theatre
(specifically "Theatre of the Oppressed"), inspired by its Brazilian creator, his mentor, Augusto Boal. Now retired from
teaching, David's primary focus is again the short story. Informed by the dynamics of oppression, his work examines the
oftentimes absurd ways in which we humans misunderstand, abuse, or at least too defensively protect our minimal power.
It's All Really Happening
i hold my breath
It sounds like knocking, though I suppose it could be someone getting bludgeoned in the backyard. How can I be sure with
Santana screaming in my ear? Gregg put him on and turned him up awhile ago, claiming it would change his luck. What
started as a friendly game of cribbage, a penny a point like we always play, has now, eleven rounds and a six-pack later,
passed beyond serious.
So far I haven't lost. Thanks to a couple of regular skunks and one double, I'm up nine dollars and forty-two cents. Lucky
for Gregg, game twelve promises to be the momentum shifter. It's his crib, he's ahead ten pegs with only thirteen to go,
and the odds of me getting a twenty-four hand are, both of us understand, as likely as world peace. The weird thing is, I'm
almost relieved. Because I'm not used to beating Gregg Smith. It seems wrong somehow, a breach of natural order which
does not easily coexist with the joy I feel in every fiber of my being.
Gregg deals. I examine my cards with a nearly imperceptible sigh — hopefully sufficient to signal my difficulty in throwing to
his crib. Gregg, on the other hand, decides immediately. Grins when I cut him a six. Oooh oooh oooh, it's one of those
pitiful For God's Sake It’s Friggin Time grins, sending a warm shiver into my brain, swirling there for a few delicious
seconds, then flowing, like firm oiled fingers, down my spine. I'm amazed, unable to remember Gregg Smith ever showing
weakness. He's the kind of guy who always manages to win, no matter what the score. He isn’t tall, but tall enough to
never, like me, look short. Unlike me, who the girls generally agree is cute, Gregg isn't — but not cute in the inexplicably
rugged sort of way they find irresistible. He wasn't an athlete, or good in school, but such negatives made him seem oddly
independent, an intriguing stranger, a man amongst schoolboys. While I am, and know I am, naïve, Gregg is consciously
streetwise and cynical… apparently aware of things I can only guess at, things existing somewhere outside my ability to
comprehend. Finally, there is the fact of his extra ‘g’. His silver bullet. I mean give me a break… Gregg Smith was born in
Sacramento, son of a union carpenter, a fourth-generation all-American kid, but his extra ‘g’ has mysteriously spawned the
rumor 'he may be European.’
“Is that someone knocking?” I say.
“Never mind,” he says. “Play.”
Instead, I hold my breath. It's a habit of mine whenever I feel scared. And yeah, sure, I get how weird it is even as I'm
doing it. Like I'm hoping the rest of the world might stop breathing along with me. I suppose it offers a temporary sense of
shelter, a short respite from reality. What I don't get is, why the hell now? The miraculous six cut gives me the hallowed
twenty-four hand, meaning it makes no damn difference what Gregg is holding because I'm going to win again. I'll be
counting first and I'll be counting out — that's all there is to it!
“What…” says Gregg, “are you waiting for?”
Though this is, definitely, one of those perfect moments I might have the courage to dream of, I would never before have
presumed it might actually happen. I exhale in a rush, knowing we can by-pass the one-by-one pegging exchange expected
to come next. Like the gambler I am not, I pause purposefully. I look Gregg Smith in the eye without a trace of emotion. I
lay down my cards.
At first he seems confused, which adds to my hidden pleasure. He stares at the cards, finally decides he cannot make them
vanish, and lays his own face down in apparent defeat. Then comes the stinger. “So?”
So. One chilling word. No, not the word, it's how he says it that turns my formerly warm shivers to flashing red lights, fills
my mind with distant yet fast approaching sirens.
“So,” I say, trying my best to mimic Gregg’s cool, “the game is over.”
“Yup,” he says. He settles back in his chair, intertwines his fingers behind his head. “Game’s over, Bucko. You lose.”
“Oh yeah… uh huh.”
“You got the count, OK, but how do you know I can’t peg out?”
“Because it’s impossible.”
“Is it?” Says Gregg.
I struggle to hold his stare. Can’t. Of course it's impossible, what's the guy talking about? And here I must admit, try as I
might to deny it, being a valedictorian has given me, if nothing else, a certain sense of mental superiority, making it easy to
believe (in a situation such as this, at least) I simply cannot be fooled by the likes of Gregg Smith. Believe it or not, Bucko,
I have the cards to trump your silly bluff! Before I do, however, I'm admiring them one last time, my undeniable pairs of
sevens and eights, when I suddenly get slapped awake, like police in my rear-view mirror, by the remote possibility — the
one-in-a-fucking-million possibility — that he, by some sick twist of fate, is holding the exact same pairs!
So yes, okay, maybe it is technically possible, but — even so — I would never fall into the trap of a quadruple match. It is
the only chance of him winning and we both know I would never let it happen.
“You’re saying you have matching pairs?”
Gregg leans forward. “Did I say that?”
“No, you didn’t. The point is, there's no other way you could —”
“What I’m saying,” says Gregg, his eyes impenetrable, “is you don't fucking know what I have. That’s the point.”
Tired of knocking, I suppose, in steps Jerry Nash. The interruption is a slight relief, bringing with it the frightening possibility
of Gregg calling me a cheater in front of my friend. I hold my breath and wait, looking at Jerry more closely than I have in
years: at his faded blue overalls, his bare feet, his straggly hair and chin of fuzzy whiskers. Jerry lives in the house next
door — another of his father’s Santa Cruz rentals. It was Jerry who ended up offering us this place for the summer. Friends
since fourth grade, we'd gone to Homestead High together, class of ‘67, though we did stop hanging out during our junior
year. I'd gotten into sports and student government while he focused primarily on drinking and screwing off. Bummer, but
he never did graduate. Rumor was he'd gotten busted for marijuana. That was a couple of years ago and I haven't seen
much of him since. He'd grown his hair long, started hanging out with older guys, and wasn't particularly friendly the day I
delayed him on the street to ask if his Dad had any houses for rent. I was surprised when he called later to say yeah.
Though we’ve been neighbors for almost a month, Jerry is usually off in his Volkswagen bus to unknown locations and
“Hey,” says Gregg.
“Hey,” says Jerry.
“Well…” says Gregg, “you got it?”
Jerry answers by tossing a plastic zip-lock next to my cards. “Not very good stuff. You can have it.”
“Thanks man,” says Gregg. He opens the bag, pulls out a bunch of leafy stems. I see what it is and can't seem to help
wanting that fact to be known. I pick up one of the stems, take a sniff.
“Smells OK to me,” I say, and instantly regret it — knowing, even if they don’t, how stupid I am for saying it the way I do,
as if this is a smell I am familiar with.
“Better than my socks,” says Jerry. He's looking at me, smiling like I've just missed a great joke. But it's a friendly smile.
Makes me feel taken off the hook.
“Got any papers?” Says Gregg.
Jerry reaches into his side pocket, pulls out a pack of zig-zags. He throws the papers on the table like an afterthought, then
slowly opens his hand, like a magician, revealing a tiny square of aluminum foil. “I also got this.”
“What?” Says Gregg.
“Forget it,” says Gregg. “What are you, crazy?”
Jerry fondles his fuzzy chin. “May be.”
“No maybes, man, that shit is dangerous. Thanks for the pot, all right, but you can take that shit away.”
Jerry smiles, looks at me. “Mark?”
I can feel Gregg’s eyes too. No doubt, he expects my support. It makes me feel good. Encouraged. Like a little kid feels
when a big kid chooses him for his team. Which is what I truly want, I guess, to be on Gregg Smith’s team. To be like
Gregg Smith. At the same time — and this confuses me — I feel totally fucked up for wanting that. And there's no chance
to give it any thought. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but somehow I trust to not do what is reasonable.
Jerry sees me waffling. “C’mon, man, why the hell not?”
A thin hesitation measures my last line of resistance.
in my tracks
As we're walking down the street it dawns on me. That we're walking. I have no idea where we are, how we got here, or
where we're going.
“We're not lost, right?”
“Not yet,” says Jerry.
“Wait,” I say, stopping in my tracks. In my tracks, I think. It's weird, as if I can see myself stopping, in my tracks, before I
actually stop. I look at the neon sign in a shop window. OPEN, it says. I'm sure I've seen this same exact sign. I can’t
remember where. “Have we been here already?”
“Could be,” says Jerry, as if speaking to a child. “If you, uh, don't mind there, champ, we're trying get to the boardwalk,
After what must be less than a minute — for me like hours — I notice we're walking again. To the boardwalk, I suppose, the
thought of which excites me and hurries my step. Too bad I have no idea how to get there and feel totally incapable of
figuring it out. No, I didn't remember where we were going, but I do remember once being there as a small boy, the then of
that blending in my mind with the now of this. I remember my Dad taking me and my sister for a whole weekend, getting a
tiny motel room across the street, the cheapest we could find so we'd have more money for rides. It's a great memory, and
maybe explains why — not wanting to ruin one of my few great childhood memories — I haven't been back?
Who knows? Who cares?
What matters is, here I am, on my way, and it feels totally unreal, as if I am still the same excited little kid, in my tracks,
going with his Dad to the boardwalk.
“Colors getting brighter?” says Jerry.
Exactly what I was thinking, I think, and that’s what I mean to say too. The problem is, it takes a lot of concentration to get
the words out and by the time I eventually do I'm not sure they make any sense.
“Feel the jaw? The tingling?
As soon as he says it I notice a thick feeling in my jaw. Not tingling, I wouldn't say. Don't know what I'd say. Something
strange for sure. Something I wish wasn't there. I move it around, my jaw, my jaw — up and down, back and forth —
astounded by the way it works. I open my mouth and out comes a huge yawn. I feel my eyes watering, tears overflowing
onto my cheeks, air blowing out my nostrils. I reach up and massage the tears into my skin. Can hardly believe the beating
of my heart. Jerry's face looks like a painted flag waving in the wind.
“This is the rush,” he says. “It’ll last maybe a half hour, then mellow out.”
“OK. I mean, it’s OK. Really, it’s not bad.”
“No, man, it’s good. Everything's good. It’s strong, that’s all.”
“Yeah,” I yawn, eyes watering, heart beating, air coming in and out, in and out. I look across the street at an old woman
moving in impossibly slow motion. “Wow,” I say, meaning Do you believe this? — convinced it must be part of the effect.
“Hey,” says Jerry, “Mark.”
And though my name does sound familiar, it cannot quite reach me.
“C’mon,” he says.
many things happen
On our epic journey to the boardwalk many things happen. When they do, like the impossibly slow old woman or the grass I
can practically see growing or the two blond kids shooting pistols at me from the octagonal window or the Chinese men
smoking purple cigarettes or the Hell's Angel or the black and white dogs eating out of an orange garbage can, I can think
of nothing else.
I am aware, as we get closer, there are crowds of people to look at — far too many people to look at — and I instinctively
know, without a trace of thought, to focus entirely on what's straight ahead. Music comes from unseen places, mixes with
shapes and colors, and I tell myself it's OK, it's natural, for a lot of very complicated stuff to be happening at once. I'm
letting Jerry lead me through it, glad I simply have to follow.
During our often delayed trip I've learned a few things. Things I’d already known, of course, and now in a completely new
way. It makes me laugh out loud at what I take for granted. Sidewalks! Stoplights! Stars! Not to mention concepts like
Fences and Laws! Democracy! Chains of drive-thru fast-food restaurants! And the idea of God is simply inconceivable,
which is, I realize, exactly the point!
I would tell Jerry why I'm laughing if it wasn't nearly impossible to talk. Besides, I understand he's been through this…
probably often. To Jerry, it would be no great revelation that I have no fucking clue what's going on.
I spot a woman walking toward us from far away. I can see she is older, maybe in her late twenties. Dressed in black, she
occasionally disappears as people move between me and my vision of her. I refuse to be distracted. When she next
emerges I see her face clearly: a soft yellow, the color of luminous corn, like one of those plastic translucent Halloween
masks, her mouth perfectly shaped, her blood red lips opening and closing like a tropical flower on fast forward. Her page-
boy hair is a glowing pink that fits perfectly with nothing. From this distance I can’t make out the color of her eyes, which
might be why they most hold my interest. I watch them moving around inside her head, seeing things, sparkling, eclipsing
to a sharp dark line at every blink, then widening as she's drawn, magnetically, elsewhere. Truly amazing. Absolutely
Suddenly, like lasers, her eyes find mine. Instantly closer, I feel the two of us locked into each other… can feel myself being
pulled toward her.
The feeling is more frightening than pleasurable.
I hold my breath.
That's when the lights go out and everybody screams.
lions and tigers and
Praying this must be temporary I try to calm down, confident Jerry will tell me if there's anything to be done. Though it's
pitch black, I know he's standing by my side. I close my eyes and see him smile. Gregg Smith’s face goes floating by. Cards
tumble graffiti-like from what must be inside my brain. Cautiously, heart pounding, I take a few deep breaths. Jerry is talking
but I can’t hear because of the noise. I open my eyes and the lights flash on, and people, still as statues, begin to move.
“Hey there, you with me?”
“Sure” I say, several bright faces passing as if disconnected from their bodies. One of them is the woman I’d been watching.
I turn around to look. Can't figure out where she went. Can't find her pink hair anywhere.
“C'mon man,” says Jerry, “this is no time for that.”
It happens again by the merry-go-round. If I didn’t know better I'd swear the people are every bit as fake as the big
painted animals they're riding. Weird as such shit obviously is, it's better than the sudden blackness and the screaming.
What the hell's going on? I hear the same high pitched voices over and over, and realize the screaming, too, is fake. No
one's scared… not really… it's just to trick me, freak me out.
I try holding my breath. I wonder if the fear I'm feeling is also fake, like the animals, the people, the screams — something
I'm making up to scare myself. But why? Why would I… ? I don’t understand. As I'm trying to think it through the lights
come back, lions and tigers and zebras stuck in mid gallop, people bouncing up and down on top of them, waving, and all I
know is I can't do this anymore. Or stop breathing. I turn away, gasp for air, start to walk. Eventually Jerry catches up.
“Where you headed?”
“I don’t know.”
“OK,” he says, and off we go, simple as can be.
“I don’t get what’s happening.”
He looks at me and smiles his goddamn cosmic smile. “Well, yeah… what else is new?”
“No, Jerry, I mean it.”
“Uh huh, Mark, so do I.”
The lights go off. Everyone screams their fake screams. I grab hold of his jacket.
What the fuck’s going on?”
“Hey, man, take it easy.”
The lights come bouncing back. People are looking around, looking lost. I drag Jerry to a nearby wall, crouch down and pull
“What’s wrong?” he says.
“The lights… they keep going off.”
“Yeah, right, I did happen to notice.”
“You did? You knew it? Why didn't you tell me?”
“How long is this going to last?”
“How should I know?”
“You mean you… you gave me this shit without even… without ever… ?”
“Wait, wait, I —”
“What am I supposed to… I mean, I mean how do I… ?”
“No, man, no. You don’t get it.”
“The light thing,” he says (his head glowing like a Japanese lantern), “is real.”
it's all really happening
What am I supposed to say to that? I'm cold, shivering, and I can't help thinking maybe this guy is as fake as the rest. I
push him off, stand, try to get away. He reaches out with both hands and grabs my shoulders.
“What do you want?”
“Hey,” he says, “it's okay. Really.”
“No,” I shout, shaking loose, “it's really not, okay?”
“Wait. Mark. Will you please just stop!”
“Something's wrong here, am I right?”
“Right,” he says, looking me square in the eye. “The lights. Something's wrong with the fucking lights. An electrical short or
whatever, who knows what? The thing is, they keep going out, OK? This whole damn deal, Mark, it’s all really happening.”
I close my eyes. Hold my breath. It takes awhile to reconsider because I thoroughly believed these blackouts were only
going on inside my head… like I was having some kind of psychotic reaction. I'd heard of people going crazy on acid,
jumping out of windows, shit like that.
“You mean the lights are going out for you too?”
“For me, for you… for everyone, Mark. Get it?”
this same thing
I have to admit, I don’t. Though his words make sense, it's as if they're coming out of context, like something crucial has
either been left out or desperately needs to be added. I look at the bustle of the boardwalk. At the people. I sit, and Jerry
sits with me, like visitors from another planet, and we watch without speaking. Then I have this thought… which does not
seem the least bit crazy… thinking this same thing is, like Jerry says, happening for everyone. Not the off and on lights, I
don't mean that. I mean how each of us looks through our own private selves to see what's outside — filtering it in our own
acceptable ways — making what is, in fact, the same, appear to each of us like something different. We believe what we see,
we defend it, because, and only because, it is our personal experience, as if there's nothing else to think about. We make it
ours. We own it. We mistake whatever actually is for what best fits us. And here I am getting it, clearly — not what is but
why and how we miss it. Which changes everything. Which makes me a lot less sure of what I see. Like the grouchy old lady
over there with those crying kids. I mean yeah, that's what I see, OK, but maybe she's a very loving person who's finally
tired after a whole day with her grandchildren, giving them every damn thing they want, the little brats. Or maybe I'm
making that up too and should flat out admit it. Which feels good, really good, getting how much I don't get. And I realize
the possibility of seeing everything the same… everything at once… the whole picture… all the people I don’t know… will
never know… living out their lives in ways I now, for the first time, truly understand. Tears are rolling down my face and I'm
wondering why is it usually so strange to see? Why haven’t I ever seen it before?
Jerry puts his arm around my shoulder. “Mark,” he says.
“Please… keep… breathing.”