The Prison of Lake Elsinore – Chapter 1

I think it all began to go to shit after my intervention. I mean, if I had to pinpoint when things actually started to suck out loud, it was then. Me, sitting in a room while my co-workers and friends sat around in a circle talking about how disappointed they were in me. Typical stuff, I’m sure you’ve seen an intervention on TV. Mine was like that only with uglier people and no soundtrack. God, it was so quiet. The whole thing was just a big joke. I had to hear about how my drinking was getting out of hand from my forty-five year old boss who spent the better part of the eighties paying hookers to snort coke off his dick. I know this because he’s brought it up in meetings before. Several times. But I’m the asshole with the problem. I bit my lip and gritted my teeth and just took it. I took in all the words and pleas. I nodded but said nothing. What was the point? If I say I don’t have a problem, then I’m in denial. If I say I do, I’m in rehab. Neither really worked for me. Having spent years in front of principals’ desks getting lectured about doing better helped me hone a technique for looking like I was paying attention when I was really disappearing into my own head. At the intervention I began making shapes in my mind out of the bumpy paint job on those yellow office walls. There’s a monkey. There’s a man wielding an ax and a severed head. There’s a frosty mug. Yes, yes, I will try to do better. Yes, yes, I’m an awful person.

It’s not that it’s not an acceptable leap to make, me being an alcoholic. I drink. Sometimes often. Sometimes a lot. Sure, I first got drunk when I was thirteen, but I was raised Irish Catholic. I got a late start. Taking shots and pounding beers were two of the only useful skills I actually picked up in private school. It’s not like I’ve ever gotten a DUI or have ever become violent. I was a functional member of society. Sometimes I woke up in strange places without my clothes. Sometimes I would get kicked out of Taco Bell for being loud. And maybe sometimes I would even break someone’s crystal vase because of a stumble. But I never missed a meeting at work. I was never late for a deadline. And I was always a lot of fun. I was a happy drunk, but I’m a mean sober, and the intervention quickly went from amusing distraction to pain in the ass. Of course, there was the incident.

They had to bring up the incident.

At least, that’s what they started calling it in the intervention, “the incident.” It was this company function that we had every year on its anniversary. My agency had only been in the ad business for seven years, so we were still young enough and small enough that we cared about each other and our work. Every year the bosses would get together and pick some swanky LA bar that they read about in some Ben Affleck interview in Vanity Fair and would take the group out. I don’t usually pass out in front of the entire company while the president is giving a speech. But hey, open bar. Was it really that big of deal? Everyone was quick to make jokes about it the next day and every day since. It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if when they picked me up to drag me out of the party everyone hadn’t seen that I had pissed myself. Well, more specifically that I was actually pissing myself, at that moment, my pants growing darker and warmer with each step. Not the first time I left a party without my pants, but by far the most annoying. Still, it wasn’t like I was that bad. I didn’t drink every day, and I didn’t drink to excess every time I drank. Sometimes I would get out of hand. Sure. Now, I would watch myself. Yes, yes, I’ll be careful. Yes, yes, I appreciate the wake up call. I will try and do better. I’m glad I have such wonderful friends that care about me so much to bring this to my attention.

That’s when work started to give me that feeling. You know, where the only way you can get through a meeting is to plot all the different ways you could kill yourself. I’ve imagined myself hanging from many a phone cord or my eyes gouged out from that sturdy metal clock in conference room B.
I worked in advertising, the most vile of all professions, besides, you know, the priesthood. I think all failed creatives end up in advertising because it’s so easy and thankless. I faked my way through it for years before anyone caught on that I didn’t know shit. Well, that’s not entirely true. I knew how to think outside the box. I knew how to interface and multitask and how to download someone on a creative brief. I knew how to be hip, cool and (my personal favorite) edgy. I knew how to take the most amazing and creative idea and suck the life out of it little by little until it was as edgy as a Disney cartoon with singing animals. Everything that was terrible about advertising can be summed up in one word: clients. Clients are the worst. They’re entirely too afraid to admit that they don’t know what they’re doing so they micromanage the joy out of everything. And I’m the dipshit that had to sit there with a smile on my facewhile the clients described their needs.

Exhibit A: we did a commercial for a breakfast cereal. The client wanted something “edgy” (because nothing says hardcore like frosted grain). When we showed him the rough cut, he said he liked everything but the music. “It needs to be bolder,” he said. When asked what he meant by that, begging him for clear and distinct direction, he responded with “it should be more bold. You know, bolder. Similar to the track you have there, but something bolder. Stronger, but definitely more bold.”

The fuck?

My work life became a Venn diagram. In this circle, stupid intervention from lame coworkers. This circle, stupid comments from lame clients. The overlapping area was complete burnout. They probably should’ve fired me at that point, but you can’t just get fired in corporate America, at least not before the recession. You have to have a review, a low performance rating, a period to change the performance and another review to show that the performance had not improved. I lasted a good six months beyond my point of no return. I stopped going to meetings. If I made it into work before ten it was only because I hadn’t gone to bed the night before. I stopped returning calls. I stopped coming up with any ideas. People requested not to work with me. I would sleep at my desk for hours only to wake up and hide in the bathroom for an hour while touching myself inappropriately. Getting fired was the best thing that could’ve happened. I needed some time off to figure things out. I was twenty-seven years old and I was having a mid-life crisis.

The best thing about getting fired while under contract is the tasty little severance package along with the ability to collect unemployment. That coupled with cashing out my 401k meant that I didn’t have to work at all. I thought I would be creative again. I would be a writer. I would pen the great American novel, or the Los Angeles equivalent—the great American screenplay. Take two parts Tarantino, a dash of Smith, a scoop of Sandler and the perfect role for Natalie Portman and you’d have it. If I ever actually managed to write the fucking thing. Between sleeping, hanging out, the internet, the crazy shit my Tivo finds for me, and watching movies for “research,” I haven’t made it much beyond “Fade In.” I work best against a deadline and left to my own devices, well, I wouldn’t start looking for my name at the multiplex anytime soon. Not that anyone ever knows who the writer is anyway.

The worst part about collecting unemployment though is having to prove that you’re out looking for a job. Knowing that I was approved for nine months of benefits, to me, meant that I had nine months to worry about finding a job. Not so to the California Unemployment Agency, Los Angeles division. Every month or so, I had to pop into their offices, show them I was job hunting excessively so they knew I was being a good little boy. And here I sit, filling out their forms, looking at my recent past in a series of blue-lined boxes. Address? Shithole. Last employer? Douchebags. Experience? That would be helpful. In case of emergency? This is the one that got to me.

I think when things are good in your life, that box gets filled in much easier. In case of emergency. If I were to suddenly have a heart attack or aneurysm in the middle of the unemployment office and they had to drag my body to the hospital, who would they notify? It was a tough one. I had friends that would probably make sense. I could put Liz. Could be funny to see her running down the hospital corridors, worried about me, but angry that I dragged her away from whatever the hell she’d be doing. It’s meaningless, really, in case of emergency. In case of emergency, call fucking 911. Don’t worry about my personal shit. Hook my ass up to a morphine drip until I’m conscious again and I’ll figure out who I want to talk to at that point. I put my sister’s name down. Closest family I had, both geographically and otherwise. Still, it’s nice when you can put a name in the box that isn’t a sibling or a parent.

That’s just how things go sometimes. Liz and I dated for a while even though we never quite solidified into that in case of emergency coupledom. Even when we were together, we were never really together. Liz dumped me over two years ago. Now, we’ve officially been not dating twice as long as we ever dated, and yet we still can’t seem to shake each other. I think we love each other, but I know we don’t like each other very much. We fight. We fuck. And occasionally we’ll see a movie or get some dinner. But we’re not dating. This is fine, I suppose. It works for both of us, really. But it makes it difficult to find someone new when someone reliable is in the same zip code. Plus, the no job thing isn’t really the chick magnet you’d think it would be. So, I keep calling Liz. And for a day or two it’s great. Then we do our Sid and Nancy thing, swear we’re never going to speak to each other again, busy ourselves for a week or two, and then come crawling back. Whether it’s love, sex, or familiarity is wholly irrelevant. Liz and I were never gonna work out anyway. As much fun as she is, she’s still a church every Sunday kind of girl. And me, like most people raised Catholic, I’m an atheist.

My friends are slowly trickling away. I never realized exactly how many of my pals were connected to the agency until I left. Now, all they do is bitch about how miserable they are and envy me for leaving, not realizing how miserable I am and how much I envy them for being able to put money into their bank account. I talk to Wes a lot, though. We didn’t gel a whole lot at work, but once I left we started hanging out more and I realized he wasn’t such a dickhole. He’ll go to the bar for a pint or two, but he’s also someone I can talk to about the crazy dream I had and he not only appears interested, he tries to help me figure shit out. If I’m feeling too much like a slug, he’ll talk me into playing tennis every day. We’ll do it for about a week and then we’ll be too busy for a few more weeks, at least until my pants start feeling snug and I think sweating with a racquet in my hand might help me drop ten pounds. Wes has his shit together. And for someone that doesn’t, it’s good to have friends like that around you. It’s motivating. Supposedly.

If I want a friend to wreck myself with, well, I’ll call Gavin. Gavin is older, thirty-two I think, but he’ll forever be twenty-eight until he gets a solid acting career. He’s a charming guy, really. Everyone is drawn to him. Men, women, whomever. They all get pulled into his orbit eventually. It’s partially because he’s a decent-looking guy, I’m sure, but it’s mostly just his personality. You just want to be around him. He’s a great guy too, but not in the same way that Wes is. I would never tell Gavin my dreams. He’d just make fun of me or tell me that it meant I was gay. He’s not one for deep analysis. But when you get dumped, he’s the guy that will take you to the strip club and will keep you balls deep in lap dances all night. Then he’ll go home with the stripper.

I sat there in that dull employment office looking over my resume while bad covers of Celine Dion tunes played overhead. This is my life, I thought, looking at the flimsy paper. My life, easily chunked into a series of bullet points not exceeding a page in length. My employment history was sparse. My education nothing close to impressive. My personal achievements were mostly lies. I could type. That was true at least. The worst part wasn’t trying to find a job. It was trying to figure out what the hell job I wanted, coupled with the painful realization that for anything I wanted to do, I was nowhere near qualified. I’ve always thought I was destined to be a rock star despite my inability to carry a tune or play guitar well enough for people to want to listen. There were not a lot of job postings for rock star anyway.

I wore a tie today. I have no idea why I wore a tie. It’s not like I need to impress the people at the agency. There’s a woman to my left in sweat pants and a tank top. It was probably because I haven’t done laundry in a while and the only clean clothes I had were my button down shirts. Maybe I just wanted to wear a tie. It was a good fake out. I could feel better about myself, not feel like a complete loser, because I could manage to shave, shower and knot a piece of cloth with polka dots.

I had sworn off ties save for weddings and funerals, so I’d forgotten how annoying it was around my neck. I spent twelve years in private Catholic schools where ties were required and upon graduation I had told myself never again, not unless the occasion called for it and work would never be such an occasion. Thankfully, the average business dress code in Southern California is a little more casual than the rest of the country. Our president might wear a polo for a special meeting. Coat and tucked-in shirt for a really important client. I’ve never seen him in a tie. I was a copywriter, which meant that I could get away with t-shirts with funky designs or logos from early 80s animation. If I showed up to the agency in a tie, I would’ve gotten laughed at. And probably punched in the neck.

It dangled over my paper, the tie. I would pull it back and it would fall forward, making me splotch my forms. I had forgotten how annoying and useless ties were. In school, the tie was the only article of clothing that was free from color and style restrictions so it was the only chance to express any sort of personality. I always went for the craziest colored eyesore ties. I wanted everyone to see that I was not the khaki pants and blue blazer. I was the concentric circles of alternating black, purple and orange. Back then, the tie said I wanted to be noticed. Today, it said I wanted to be taken seriously. I should really stop expecting my accessories to be my only PR agents.

I scribbled Jody’s address in the in case of emergency box. I suppose it’s not that lame to be twenty-seven and have your sister as your in case of emergency. At least it wasn’t my parents, I had that going for me. Jody is an executive at an event-planning firm. She works an eighty-hour week to my none. She technically lives in San Diego, but it’s a bitch of a commute so during the week she sleeps on my couch. It’s not that she doesn’t miss her husband. She and Nick have one of the most disgustingly sweet relationships I’ve ever seen. But I think she enjoys the reprieve from her three stepdaughters. I’m just grateful it gives me a good reason to ask her for money. Jody’s always helped me out no matter what. She pays my phone bill and I’m merely expected to proof read her important documents whenever she asks or play therapist when she’s stressed out about something. It’s a sweet deal.

In familial terms, I’m what is referred to as an “oops.” If you’re not familiar with the term, let me break it down for you. You might need a pencil to keep track. My parents, Justin and Karen Porter, were married in the summer of 1950 in Indianapolis. They were fresh out of high school and my mom was knocked up. Justin Junior was born later that year, forever and always Dad’s favorite. Jeffrey was born the following year. James two years later. Joseph, the year after that. The first four would be collectively known as “the boys” for the rest of their lives. They were close, being brought up when my parents were dirt poor, living in the same room for nearly a decade.

In the early 60s, Ma, Dad and the boys moved out of their two-bedroom place in Fountain Square and into a three-bedroom place in the suburbs. Ma was pregnant again and wanted more room for the baby. When Joey was eight, Jack was born. The separation in age and the shift in geography meant that Jack was never considered one of “the boys.” This would be the cause for the enormous chip that has always sat on Jack’s shoulder. It didn’t help that “the boys” still had to share one room while the baby got his own.

Finally, there was a daughter when Jessica was born the next year (we’re up to 1963 if you lost track). John was born in 64, named for a dead president, a legacy he could never live up to. This second tier of kids would be referred to as “the kids.” “The boys” moved into the basement while Jack and John took over their bedroom and Jessica got the solo room. Jody was born in ‘69, something no longer youngest John would never forgive her for. It was eleven years later in 1980 when my mom gave birth to me, Kenny. She was forty-eight. For the first few months of her pregnancy she was convinced she was going through menopause.


I’m not sure why I didn’t get a J name. Mom always said she just ran out. No matter, I was never much connected to the other siblings anyway. I was the odd one out, always. The only kid that was ever in the house when I was a child was Jody. As such, I was the only Porter child to always have my own room. My brother Jeff likes to bring this up every holiday.

“Not only did I not have my own room, I didn’t have my own bed until Justy went off to college.”

I’m the youngest of nine children. I have six brothers and two sisters. Four grandparents I never knew. I have ten in-laws, Jody was married once before and Jack has two divorces under his belt. I have eighteen nieces and nephews, eleven of whom are older than I am. I have twelve grandnieces and grandnephews. And then there are the three step-nieces from Jody. I have more family than anyone I’ve ever met. This is never more evident than in the family portrait that hung in my parents’ hallway for twenty-two years, only to be put in storage a couple years back when they moved to the apartment. It was taken in 1983. I was too young to remember, but having to look at it nearly every day for the first chunk of my life gives it an almost memory-like association. It was taken on the back porch with various family members standing behind or in front of the staircase like someone multiplied The Brady Bunch. I sat on my mother’s lap, my bright red hair in the center of the entire picture. Thankfully, my hair grew into a more manageable shade. My father is behind my mom, hand on her shoulder, the most affection I’d seen her get from him. To their left, Justin, his wife Linda and their four kids (Justin the third, Marcus, Annette and Lauren). On the other side of my mom is James, wife Donna, and David, Matthew and Helen. Their youngest, Helen, is only six months older than me. We were in the same class for first through eighth grade, people thought we were siblings, but we didn’t get along well and I never saw her much outside of school. Her dad was a little bitch too. Up the stairs was Joey, wife Adrienne, and their kids Danielle and Lucas. Next to them, Jack and his first wife Anna. He hated that my parents left that picture up after the divorce. On the porch above my parents stood John, with an awful haircut, and Jody in all her teenage glory. Jeffrey and his wife Kelly stood next to them with their kids Marielle and Darrin.

It’s a lovely portrait, cozy, and it would be the last one with all of my siblings. My friends would come over and marvel at it, stunned that I would even know all the names. Everyone enjoyed how I had so many siblings, never really registering the fact that I was raised completely on my own. My parents were done parenting around kid six or seven and when Jody left the house, it was pretty much just me and the television. I got a lot of checks for graduations and birthdays, but other than that this whole sibling thing baffles me. Even Jody is more surrogate mom than sister most of the time.

As a kid, she was the one dressing me and feeding me. I think she was so hurt by John’s rejection of her as his younger sibling that she didn’t want to make the same mistake. Plus, I was a better doll than any she had. Jody got married at nineteen to a drug dealer, but they were divorced before I could ever use it to my advantage. She was different after the divorce, more protective and sweet. I was fourteen, on my way to becoming a real bastard, but she was the one that kept me grounded. She would answer any question I ever had, be it about sex, drugs, or any other high school bullshit. If I got in a fight with my Mom, she would kick the shit out of me until I apologized. More than once she would act as surrogate when I got in trouble at school, which was a lot. Having gone to the same private school as eight other Porters was quite a burden, especially when a few of my siblings were what schools like to call “gifted.” I was not. I was just there. I think if it hadn’t been for Jody I probably would’ve wound up in prison. Or worse, I’d still be in my parents’ basement.

Jody moved to Los Angeles my senior year of high school. When through some miracle I got into USC, I followed her out here. It wasn’t at all out of character for her to crash a dorm party or to buy me beer when I got a dirty apartment off campus. I lived with her for a time after graduation until I got on my feet. We rarely fought, save only those moments when were just around each other entirely too much. Plus, we knew the best and easiest ways to piss each other off. Picking a fight was almost too easy sometimes. Things had worked themselves into a nice groove and then she met the marine, Nick Chaley. Jody went from single party girl to wife and stepmother practically overnight.

That’s good though. She’s responsible and stable, just the kind of person you’d want in your corner, in case of emergency. I can’t imagine any of my other siblings doing much if they were notified of something happening to me. I see Jeffy so rarely that I feel like I wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a police lineup, which is funny, since it’s one of the more common places you’d find him.

But who am I to judge? I’m sitting in an unemployment office at two o’clock on a Wednesday, changing contact information for my prior bosses to people that liked me better (probably because they never had to manage me). I’m so very tired despite sleeping thirteen hours the night before. And I’m wearing an expensive silk tie because I think it will prevent people from instantly realizing what a complete fuck-up I’ve become. And I keep wondering, when did it all go wrong?

You know that feeling you get when you’re driving home at night and you’re suddenly on a different street than the one you started out on? You’re still on the right path, but you have no idea how you got there. Did I take twenty-sixth? Did I cut through Rose Ave? You blink and it’s like you were asleep, unsure of how much time you missed and you’re left with that simple, nagging thought—how did I get here? Well, this was not like that. It’s more the opposite of that. I feel like I’ve been watching everything in slow motion. I’m in the movie, on some train tracks strolling along, and I see the train. I hear it. I have time to jump off. I could probably even make it down the hill if I jumped now. But I don’t move. I stand there helpless, waiting and watching the train as it chugs forward, frame by frame, until it’s close enough to knock me out of shoes.


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