an excerpt from Single Stroke Seven

The factory’s renowned meth head convulses in an ellipse on the office carpet and screams for the help of some higher power in between accusations such as “you cut off my balls” and “you fucking feminist.” During this Polaroid moment when I’m hovering above the writhing spectacle on the floor, crimson dropping off my fingertips, the factory management team streams out of the conference room and forms around us in an impenetrable wall of gasps. And gulps.

Defensiveness sucker-punches me into saying, “He attacked m–” but I stop when milky puke fountains from Steve’s lips, a sight that inspires the inner ring of seven managers to dry heave or hurl, almost immediately succeeded by the outer ring of eight, similar to a chain reaction of weeping at a funeral.

“Lilith, drop the switchblade,” my boss says, his voice cracking mid dry heave. “And get over here now.”

While I want to clarify how switchblades are spring-loaded and that what I jimmied away from Steve is a butterfly knife, I keep quiet and drop it since I’m not the one on the floor with a crotch spewing blood. I shimmy through the layers of managers, hopscotching over their puke puddles and praying that I don’t add insult to castration by losing my footing and tumbling over Steve’s seizing body.

When I venture within lurching distance of my boss, he snags me by the arm and stuffs me into the adjacent copy room notorious for office quickies and ad hoc firings.

“You think about what you just did,” he says, and jerks the door shut.

Outside, a debate rages on over who’s going to apply pressure to Steve’s wound and who’s going to stand guard over me. “I brought my gun in just in case,” one manager says. “HR should really keep one in their office. They could mount it next to the defibrillator.”

“Kill the lights,” another manager says. “It’ll disorient her.”

The overhead halogens fizz off, and I feel the air conditioning graze my sweat-spackled neck and induce shivers that ripple through my spine like taser currents. I step out of the draft and feel my way around the room for a box of Kleenex or roll of paper towels, anything to wipe the blood from my hands, but quit when I realize I’m probably finger-painting random surfaces a murder-house red.

Eventually, my eyes adjust to the darkness and latch on to a red, blinking light emitting from the dashboard on the industrial copy machine. The vermillion flare illuminates the ceiling like a cop car’s emergency lights and increases in vibrancy as if subliminally warning me that my job security is dangling by a thread thinner than the skin holding what’s left of Steve’s balls to his body.

Fuck. I can’t get fired, even if I am just a secretarial peon at a bottling plant festering on the lip of the San Francisco Bay like a puss-filled herpes sore. This sweatshop bailed me out of my decade-long gig as a contract janitor, doubled my hourly pay, freed up my nights and weekends, and guaranteed that I’d never have to touch another piss cake or sanitary napkin receptacle again. Four months in, I fuck up by doing something eccentric like hacking off Steve’s balls.

I shut my eyes to block out the maddening light and migrate toward the supply cabinet, knowing I’d better pacify the “empty paper tray” notification before it drives me psycho. I reach for an unopened ream of paper, and just as I tear open the packaging, the halogens buzz to life and blind me with a wash of brightness.

The closet door swings open and I hear a woman say, “They’re taking you to the station for questioning. I’ll get your statement later.” I shade my eyes with my hand, and through blood-slicked fingers I see the dayshift HR rep accompanied by a ragamuffin cop who looks more like a reject from Police Academy than an officer of the law who came to break up a knife fight. “For now, you’re suspended pending an internal investigation. I encourage you to reflect on the company’s zero tolerance for violence policy.”

“I don’t know who did what,” the cop says. “But to cover my ass, I’m going to read you your rights.” He pulls a laminated card from his pocket, and while he recites his CliffsNotes I hoe my memory for the factory’s violence policy, which I vaguely recall was a backwards decree for the California lawsuit-paranoid workplace. So if someone’s beating the gooey shit out of my lower intestines, I’m supposed to lie on the ground taking it like a total puss, and if I exhibit any sign of aggressive defense, I could be terminated faster than the instigator because he/she could suffer from an undisclosed mental illness, fall under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and sue the company and everybody else within sight for millions, and probably win because this is California, it’s 2015. Shit like that happens all the time.

“But Steve attacked me,” I say. Perhaps the HR rep forgot how she fired Steve last Friday for failing a reasonable suspicion drug test, and had she been here a few minutes ago when he kicked in the office door and said, “Bitch, give me my fucking paycheck,” as he lunged at me with a butterfly knife, this rent-a-cop would be cuffing Steve, not me.

But I guess the blame game boils down to whoever’s privates are still intact.

At the San Leandro Police Station I’m interrogated in the corner of a leak-stained, bug-zapper lit alcove that reeks of musty piss. The best of the Bay Area’s floozies, addicts, and gangbangers wail profanities and threats into the air, a collective ambiance that brings me back to high school in east side San Jose, only this time, I’m the one cuffed to a desk.

“Let me get this straight,” the investigator says. “Steve came at you with a knife.”

“He jousted…like he wanted to…stab me into…Swiss cheese,” I say. My veins pulse with panicked adrenaline, and every time my heart beats, it feels like a grenade going off in my chest. I see the vibrations pulse in my line of sight.

“And then you took the knife from him and–” The investigator pantomimes Psycho motions. His green tie bobs against the folds of his Michelin Man belly. “Gouged out his…” There’s an inflection in his voice as if he’s setting me up to take a dive.

“I grabbed his knife-wielding wrist and bent it away from my internal organs.” Had I known his hand would bungee into his crotch, I wouldn’t have tried so hard to defend myself. Maybe.

“What are you, five foot four and…” he looks me up and down, “…a hundred pounds?”

“A hundred and…twenty…nine.”

“Maybe soaking wet in a wool coat and clutching a twenty-five-pound dumbbell.”

“Depends on the day, I guess.”

“This is a serious assault. A man’s testicles aren’t connected to his crotch anymore. His penis is dangling between his thighs like two hot dog halves.”

A Clockwork Orange-like nausea pummels my gut and a wave of sour acid bathes the back of my throat. “I’m starting to feel sick,” I say at the peak of a heave.

“You’re feeling sick?” He rises from his chair to hover above me like a salivating bullfrog above a gnat. “That man will never be the same, so you better buck up and tell me what the hell happened. You got some sushi dicing skills that you’re just not telling me about?” I wonder if Steve was his college roommate or drinking buddy, or if all guys stick together in situations like this. “And what is with your freakishly long fingers? Snag them in a pasta press or something?” I glance down at my stringy and blood-crusted fingers sprawled across the table like red licorice twists. “Anyway, we’re pulling security tapes and if we find anything that strays from your story, we’re hauling you back in.”

At least I didn’t castrate Steve in a country that passes eye-for-an-eye sentences.

After the interrogation, I return to the factory parking lot, climb into my Chevy van, and haul ass down the main drag en route for the South 880 freeway. My pores seethe with sweat at the thought of having to crawl back to the janitorial industry to mop, scrub, and sanitize human detritus like a proverbial social lobster. A squad car’s red and blue lights ignite my rearview mirror like the Fourth of July. My anxiety peaks.

I assume it’s another routine traffic stop inspired by my white, windowless industrial van so often associated with taboo crimes like abductions and human trafficking, until I park on the shoulder and two officers rush the Chevy as if the cab were full of ISIS artillery. One shouts a series of conflicting commands such as–

“Get out of the vehicle now and put your hands in the air.”

“Lie against the ground with your feet spread.”

“Exit the van and slowly walk toward us with your hands behind your ears.”

–while the other yanks me out of the car and jams me face-first against the scorching gravel. With his knee in my back, he cuffs me and belts out a slew of detail-revealing questions like:

“Where were you at nine this morning?”

“Why was this van seen driving circles around San Leandro High School?”

“What’s your connection to a seventeen-year-old girl named Yolanda Santiago Oswaldo Fernando Sanchez?”

“Did you remove Yolanda Santiago Oswaldo Fernando Sanchez from school property?”

“When was the last time you had contact with Yolanda Santiago Oswaldo Fernando Sanchez?”

I’m too busy choking on street grit kicked up by passing traffic to explain how I’m in a band called Dissonanz and I use the Chevy to haul our equipment to and from our live shows. “I’m a drummer,” I say in between hacks, although I instantly realize that “I’m innocent,” “that’s not mine,” or “I was unintentionally dismembering some guy’s junk when poor Yolanda was abducted” would have held more credibility.

They jimmy open the back cab, and I hear them say an echoed, “holy fuck,” meaning they’re probably gawking at the nylon straps bolted to the van walls (straps I use to hold down bulkier drums and equipment) and the wine-stained mattress (a mattress I use to cushion said drums and equipment).

“What the hell’s with all the Worcestershire sauce?” one cop asks. “There’s a mountain of empty bottles in here.”

“It makes everything taste like steak,” I say.

“Like your victims before you go bath-salt psycho on them?”

“No, I–”

“You’re fucking sick.”

His partner climbs into the cab and ransacks the equipment as if Yolanda were hogtied beneath the clutter. In my peripheral view, I see woodblocks, toms, and cowbells rocketing through the air in bell-shaped curves. Cymbals soar like Frisbees. Mallets and drumsticks shoot like arrows, and crotales whiz like clay pigeons before cracking against the street.

“She’s not in there,” I say, since I’d rather feel my bones snap and my nails ripped from my fingers than listen to my lifetime collection of equipment destroyed in a percussive holocaust.

“Stay down and shut up,” one cop says. “Don’t make me break out the stun gun.”

I jam my chin against the ground and clamp my eyes shut, holding my breath against exhaust plumes farting from a caravan of diesel trucks. As my lungs writhe for air, I imagine away the heat and humiliation, and visualize what I might be doing in less than four months. At the end of August, I’ll turn twenty-eight and officially age-out of eligibility into the 27 Club–a distinguished group of legendary musicians like Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, and Cobain who all went down in a self-destructive tailspin of sex, drugs, and booze at the age of twenty-seven. I have no desire to go down like any of those prodigies. When learning about the tragic yet esteemed guild as a kid, I knew I had to make a significant splash in the music industry before the end of my twenty-seventh year. Since then, every passing day condenses the pressure that I’ve placed on myself to accomplish something remarkable, to break out of Northern California and perform in front of world audiences.

Now, as I fry against the asphalt like a sausage on a cast-iron skillet, I find comfort in the conviction that something momentous will go down for me this summer. It has to.