I drove her car to Norms for some dinner, where I finished the novel. Something snapped in my head, something changed. The last line in Hunger wound the book up air-tight and gave me chills. Such selfless, beautiful work. All the wonder of pain, the blood of words that dripped onto the page like rain, like breath upon a burn. The next day I sat in the same booth and read Ask the Dust. The warm colors smiled. The whole book was like swallowing the ocean. I drove home looking for his characters walking the streets.
I noticed this young couple reading. I made the block and parked across the street, walked up and shot their photo. It didn’t occur to me until later that I noticed nothing in their pockets: no phones, no media, no headphones. They weren’t waiting for anything. They were outside reading because it was good outside, and they read in silence bracing each other, absorbing the sentences, and it filled me with a kind of warmth I hadn’t sensed in years, in many years. I was just thinking earlier about the feeling of holding a paperback, the old and good feel of it, and while once in awhile across the city, I see someone reading a book, this scene was too perfect for me not to capture. Going by my own career, and seeing how big ebooks out-sell paperbacks, the rise and domination of that: paper is dying. Downtown a few days ago, I drove up First and waited at a light. Looking around, every fucking face was buried down into a phone. Bus stops, smoke breaks, walkers, drinkers: faces down, smart phones. I said to myself, “And the books will burn.”
Seeing these two made the drinks taste better tonight, and the thought of smoldering punk burning up into a flame of orange and blue and silver crossed my mind the same way coffee crosses blood. Back home behind the machine, blasting vintage metal and waiting for summer.
…the love for the written word and the sun-torn highways flush with mountains and small stations, a cup of hot coffee next to my typewriter, the feeling of life warm down my arms, is no longer real to me. It’s a grainy film, a mirror I use for my own self-image, and it keeps me going in here. It keeps my blood warm in a sea of cold, controlled environment, a place where autonomy and expression are simply not possible on an outward plane. A place where your own death is welcomed hungrily, because it would be a diversion from the horrible nothing. My life in here is a new, sick dream. I exist by minutes in this cell, by dark hours of uniform garbage. It’s pushing 9:30 p.m. and we’re celled in for the night. I sit and pencil this to you, Helena, my muse, for lack of a definitive word, because I need you here next to me, a friendly face to listen without words. Know that I write this with a gun to my head, while every 15 minutes the hacks walk by and make their count, while the lights of the cities across the States are lit and waiting for spring to burn off to summer. I’ll start from the phone call now, and will soon revert to form, because I need to make this letter to you as clear as I can, but bear with me for a chapter, Helena. After all, you taught me how to write, how to sit and be water, bone, blood, and fist while the words fire from chest to arms. Yet what I wouldn’t give to feel my bare feet in the grass, my hands upon warm dirt. I sit in this concrete box freezing. The pencil moves across the page while outside my shadow looks around for its body.
We walked toward the ocean.
“No hippies for Papi?”
“I hate those motherfuckers.”
We stood at the edge of the dry sand. The water was from everywhere, from places and times unknown to God and Darwin. All the beauty the sea holds hidden, the oldest of things beneath the fear of its depth, the mystery of life tucked safely away in the catacombs of her body, in the hearts and thoughts of whales. The sea floor more naked than the Moon or Mars, more untouched by mankind’s infant comprehension than either. The answer to everything waited in the recesses of her trenches, in the paradise of her undiscovered countries, a land beyond the throes of Shakespeare’s capture of death, beyond theory and faith. We stood and watched the ocean while the Sun moved down. The frost of a wave rolled up and clawed our feet while a gull bit through the surface and came up empty.
He postured himself like a gorilla, and it sickened me. Then he took a swing. I ducked it, and he lost balance. Before Gus could make it over the bar I was on top of him, landing blows in his face. I blacked out. Rage took me over. His face was that creep kissing Helena, his face was the watch resting on the edge of a canyon, his face was my stomach twisted for the last four months, not to mention Tijuana or Farmington or Boulder City, or the nightmares. I felt his bones moving down there. I heard women screaming. Gus had to choke me with the club to pry me loose. He pushed me back and yelled for everyone to exit the bar. They left, and he locked the door. The gorilla was unconscious. Gus leaned over him and cracked the billy-club over one of his hands until he was satisfied. He grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me back in the room. He held the club and looked at me.
“This is going to hurt.”
“Stay the fuck away from me, Gus.”
“Listen, I have to break your nose, bud.”
“You want to go to jail? You want to get locked up for assault?”
“Why would I go to jail? He started it.”
He pointed to the door and talked through his teeth.
“That prick’s gonna need plastic surgery! I couldn’t stop you for almost a minute. You want me to get sued? You want to go down for a felony? Fuck you. Now put your arms down and take your medicine!”
His words frightened me. He walked out of the room and called the cops. He came back in with a bottle of Ten High.
“The pigs are on their way. Here, take a swig, a nice long swig.”
I grabbed the bottle and took a long swig. I handed it back over and looked at him.
The club came quickly. It wasn’t so bad. What really hurt was the sound and my eyes filling with water, my gums pulsing. Gus then punched me in the eye. He tossed me the bar towel from his pocket. I walked out behind him.
I sat in the booth next to April. I looked down at the guy. I heard the sirens. He was all blood. I held the bar towel to my face. My nose was definitely broken. The towel was full of red and yellow. April buried her head into my arm not to have to see the guy. My knuckles were cut up and splintered and they stung. The cops were knocking violently. Gus let them in, and some paramedics jogged past them with a stretcher. The cops moved me to the other end of the bar. Gus and April told one of them that the guy was getting aggressive with her and I’d stepped in to make peace when the guy swung and broke my nose and that I had to keep fighting him off of me. He wrote down their statements. When they tried to question me I told them the only thing I remembered was getting hit in the face and defending myself. They were utterly pissed off that they could not arrest me or trip me up with a different story. It was worth taking the pain to see them writhe. The gorilla was coming around. One of the medics called an officer over.
“Hey, Frank. He’s carrying.”
The medic was holding up a baggie of weed. The cops forgot about me and raced to the gorilla. He was on the stretcher.
“Hey, now! That ain’t mine! It ain’t mine!”
Then he started yelling death threats. Gus nodded and smiled at the threats. A medic was finally sent over to me.
“How are you doing?”
“I think he broke my nose.”
“He sure did. Do you want a ride to the hospital?”
I looked at Gus. He was shaking his head, rubbing his first and second fingers against his thumb, indicating money.
“No,” I said.
“I’ll take him.”
After everything was over, Gus sat in our booth and had a shot. I was gauzed up and throbbing. He told me to make sure I got to the hospital so everything would be official. He also told me I owed him for a quarter ounce of weed. He bumped me up fifty cents an hour and told me if I ever did something that stupid again he would kill me then fire me.
April was still drunk, so I drove her car. A doctor checked me over and gave me a prescription. We swung by a 24-hour pharmacy. Back in my room I popped the codeine with some coffee so it would dissolve faster in my system. I undressed in the dark and laid down. Soon I was floating amongst the greatest men who had ever walked, and everything in the world was fine, just fine.
April came in and sat on the bed. I pulled the covers over my middle. She was still drinking. She could hardly speak. Her question barely made it out.
“How are you?”
She finished the bottle. I could smell the alcohol on her skin. She threw the blankets back like they were bothering her, and she rubbed my stomach. At once she was down there, her head bobbing. I was powerless against the feeling, the feeling of her mouth, the smooth motion over me, the codeine, the bridge of my nose humming a deep, steady ring. She was going at it, and I was in afterlife, weightless over the wars and destruction. I saw coastal lines sink in the ocean, the perfect hand of God reach down and splash the water over continents of filth and waste and lies and greed, making them clean again, young again. It was a cleansing by nihilism. I was up there, I was up there, I could do no wrong. She finished me off and walked out. I succumbed to the codeine.
Conversation with my favorite clerk in Austin the night before I leave town:
“Just the beer?” “That’s right.”
My buddy grabs the six pack, opens the door and lights a cigarette. I grab a Nutty Bar and toss it on the counter. The clerk looks at it and shrugs, “Don’t worry about it, man.”
I nod at at him, “Thanks, brutha.” I shove the Nutty Bar in my pocket. He stares at my buddy, “So, man, I met this girl in a bar and we went back to her car and fucked. She’s a little bit big, has two kids, but I’m wondering if I should see her again. She keeps texting me.” His phone chimes. He looks down at it then back over the counter. My buddy tosses his smoke and walks up to the counter next to me, “You fucked her in her car, walk away.”
“Well, we didn’t really fuck, well, we did.”
I stare at him, “Dude, did you fuck her or not?”
“A little bit.”
My buddy and I start laughing. I stare up at the guy. Not sure how tall he really is, because he stands on pallets behind the counter, and the floor back there is already elevated. But he looks like a Hindu giant. I’ve never seen him on the other side of the counter, and tonight I take note of his head gear. I don’t know if it’s a do-rag, or some kind of hipster do-rag, or something fashionable I’ve never heard of. I shake my keys in my pocket, “How is that possible?”
“I just put it in for a second or two.”
My buddy’s staring off over the counter, picturing it. The guy looks down at me and raises his eyebrows, “Should I take her seriously, man? I don’t know.”
“Listen,” I said, “If a woman fucks you in her car outside of a bar on the first night, you’re either really special, or she’s a whore.”
“She said I was really special, man.”
“All whores say that.”
We throw some more jokes around and leave. Outside it’s humid and I’m thinking about the drive back west, thinking about the ease of naked conversation like that, which only occurs in places like Austin, and only on corners like this one. I watch the traffic on Guadalupe. My buddy lights another one, and I start calculating the time it will take to get to the border and get a room. If I can get within a two hour range of El Paso before I sleep I’ll be in good shape.
I wrote the following short story in my hotel room just now and posted it right to the site without looking it over once. The thing with writing, as any writer will tell you, is that it’s not just writing, it’s rewriting, it’s reading it over and over, even when a pro editor is on-board. This gets to a point soon enough. Often, people are shocked when they ask me about my influences: S.E. Hinton -my first author-, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Knut Hamsun, John Fante, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Kurt Vonnegut, Nelson Algren, Charles Bukowksi, Vladimir Nabokov, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Stephen King. I’ve left out quite a few here. Now, the word influences: I’ve never been a fan of that word. Inspirations would be better. I once had this incredibly dumb woman in Oregon argue with me about Stephen King. She was another Portland douche (douchette?) who hung around the shitty “community” of “writers”, who aped the famous, boring, collegiate writers, usually from the eastern U.S. -A “community” of “writers” with no fire or passion, but sentence nerds, plain and simple, performance artists, closeted or open about spoken word. Performers. Now, when she asked me about my influences, when I mentioned King, she laughed like I was joking or something. When I told her that his literary short stories are better than almost anyone else’s, including and especially Hemingway’s, she almost lost her mind. I believe she said something to the tune of “Stephen King can suck the dick of all airport bookstores everywhere.” Of course, her writing was barely better than her boyfriend’s, and both of their writing was just plain awful, like all writing that comes from circles like that, like the people. Forget subjectivity and perspective and opinion, in fact, fuck it: It was awful. Cut and dry. What I’m getting to here is that while it’s good to be aware of what we like, don’t like, love, or flat-out fucking despise: and while it’s important to know your sentences and to be mindful of putting out your best and most refined work, not to ignore the animal of what you do, the exercises that keep your tools sharp, that keep your mind ablaze and your senses quick, an ear to the wind or whatever the fuck you use to symbolize what it is that keeps you going, keeps you ready, keeps you hungry. One thing I love about writers like King is the way a story haunts them until it’s out of their heads. A reoccurring thought or image gets a hold of me and starts to fuck with me until I write it out, short or long. It’s not constant. I usually just sit down to write, like earlier today. But, this afternoon I was walking my dog while my room was being serviced, and a thought hit me, moonlight reaching into an orphanage type setting, a blue and grey and sad cityscape, decay of soul, desperation, when the image of the window got darker and more twisted, and by the time I sat down this story had already started writing itself. Whether or not I’ll use it anywhere is not certain. I don’t even really have a title for it. It’s a short, short story for me, which is why I wanted to post it here, unedited, raw. To circle back to the point of all of this, I had that good feeling again when I hammered this out. It’s been a long and strange grip of months for me creatively, and just strange, period. There’s been constant re-reading and editing, constant corrections and second-guessing, which is also a big part of writing, not the biggest, but a serious component, a burly one, too. But this afternoon: getting back to the bare line, the blood and nerves and beauty of the word, the creation, just to kiss the mouth of the unknown, is something not only good to get back to, but something every creator feels foolish over abandoning, whether it’s reasonable or not: outside work, pressures, money, relationships, all of it. Or whether it’s just from taking a long break. Today the first sentence back into my swing of things became this.
Shelter Skelter (or Mess Around, or Three Dogs and a Woman )
The cots were lined up platoon-style. I’d been on the fourth one from the window for over a month. Hell, maybe longer. Six years on the streets can fuck your idea of time, let alone the onset of schizophrenia. Or that’s what the “doctor” said my last time in county. A thing about county for a man like me, it’s Paradise, especially when they’d put me in the bad pod, where nobody gave a shit about my fake vagrancy or bad shoplifting, or whatever charge I could catch to get me inside, in one of the single cells with a paperback about anything, long hours of secured, safe sleep, three meals and a shower. The judge told me next time I’d be sent to prison, five hours east, and from what I’d heard about it, it was worse than the streets.
Only ones there longer than me were Vic and Barnhill. No one knew Barnhill’s first name, and no one gave a shit. I think I heard Vic call him Phil at one point, but I can’t be sure. Those two stuck together like glue. Vic had the window cot, and Barnhill was on the third one, next to mine. The second one was for a skier. Every new one under the age of 30 was a skier, from what I understood. I wouldn’t actually see anyone ski until the guy on the second cot left and a young one took his place. The guy who left was like Barnhill, fat and bearded and constantly farting. I’d grown used to it. The other cots down to the door had all been taken for months. The sad part is I was lucky to have a cot, no matter how much Barnhill’s ass repulsed me, or how much Vic’s yellow, canine baring smile at other homeless fags got under my skin. I’d heard about the second cot for weeks. They’d laugh about it, but when Barnhill’s buddy lucked into a halfway house I was close to the end of my rope as it was, and seeing the new kid come in and set his stuff down in between those two fuckers had already started to disgust me. The bunk to my other side slept another neurotic, like me, only he was new there and 70, a decade older. He would break out laughing or crying out of nowhere, or both at the same time. It was goddamn heartbreaking.
The moon looked in the window at night, over the vampire-like profile of Vic and the gut of Barnhill. It bounced off the two of them and streaked the long floor in front of the cots all the way to the doors. It was tragic and also beautiful, I guess, an adult orphanage with all the grey tones of a movie about a real orphanage, except our gatekeepers were tired and apathetic. Most of them didn’t even walk in there unless there was a fight or a body. I’d counted three deaths while I was there, an old addict who went clean too fast, a drifter who made the place his last stop before his AIDS took him, and a guy who just simply died in his sleep.
The lights went out and the doors were shut for the night. I heard the whispers, the persuasion, and then Barnhill’s pants hit the floor, the heavy thud of his leather belt, and his smell wafting up from the covers as he threw them off to the side, the smell of his balls and ass. A blind man who’d never broken a sweat or went unwashed for a day would smell cheap wine and the thick odor of flowering dogwood trees. I often closed my eyes at night and thought of walking down the street beneath those white blossoms with a tall glass of bad red to get to sleep.
The kid was a bit slow, to make it worse for me, but he was also unopposed to them. To go skiing in the shelter would be a low even I couldn’t fathom, on my back in the dark gripping the cocks of those two and stroking them until they shot. Vic bragged to us more than once that last month he and Barnhill came at the same time. I heard the cots shaking and looked over. Barnhill’s gut eclipsed the kid, but I could see Vic’s knees up and back and parted, a birth pose. Barnhill farted and laughed while the kid stroked them. It was wet and loud and it smelled awful, one of his worst ones yet. I covered my mouth and nose and stared at the cot to my right. The old guy was on his back smiling at the ceiling, listening to the three of them. I looked over at Barnhill. His beard and neck-fat below a rotted smile, his gut being bounced up and down by the kid’s strokes, his face vibrating there.
The kid coughed, “My arms are gettin’ tired.”
“Shhhhhh,” Vic said from behind the side of Barnhill’s gut, “It’s okay, buddy. Just keep goin’…”
It could’ve been the quack in county was right about me, or it could have been fatigue, it could have been the years of bullshit I’d lost, but a song broke into my head watching Barnhill’s face while the kid jacked him off.
Ah, you can talk about the pit, barbecue
The band was jumpin’, the people too
Ah, mess around
They doin’ the mess around
I pictured Ray Charles, a black and white photograph, sunglasses and soul patch, his famous smile oblivious to the size of the world, oblivious to things like skiing in the shelter, watching two scumbags jacked off by a homeless, retarded kid. The cots squeaked and cracked with each stroke, each stroke becoming a race for the kid’s tired arms. A smile tore across my teeth as I watched Barnhill’s face jiggling above all his fat, his stink.
Now, ah, when I say stop don’t you move a peg
When I say go, just ah, shake your leg
And do the mess around
Yeah do the mess around,
Everybody’s doin’ the mess around…
The smile became silent laughter. The guy next to me whispered, “What is it?”
I told him. He started laughing with me, then sang out a line:
“Now let me have it there, boy!”
Barnhill farted and the guy next to me laughed, louder and louder. Vic hissed from the window, “Shut yer fuckin’ mouth, you motherfucker!”
We laid there and laughed. We laughed because of our joined situation, we laughed because all of us in the shelter had fucked up huge, we’d fucked up bad to be there. We’d lost family and love. We’d done something, lost control somewhere. I felt the back of Barhnill’s hairy arm across the bridge of my nose while he connected with the old guy’s face.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP, PRICK!”
I shoved his arm out of my space, “What the fuck, Barnhill?”
I looked over at the old guy. He shielded his eyes with the back of his arm and cried silently. His nose bled off to the sides and trailed itself down his neck. He rolled over on his side away from us and sobbed, “I had this life, a beautiful thing, three dogs and a woman…”
The kid let go and sat up. He stretched his arms, “I need a break.”
The guy next to me sobbed louder. Vic sighed bitterly on his back.
“Great. Great fuckin’ night.”
The light flipped on and the graveyard counselor looked in.
“You all alright?”
Barnhill farted and a few cots laughed. The lights went out again and the kid started back down the slope. The old guy next to me kept sobbing. I wanted to reach over and squeeze his shoulder, but I didn’t.
Sitting here in my hotel room, going over some files from the last 20 years or so. It’s been a long time since I’ve read any of these, and looking over these files, especially the poems, I’m called back to a lot of the days and nights that now feel so alive and jumping, even though most of those nights were spent alone in my place(s) hammering out pages on my electric. A few of these came up off the page and stood on their own in front of my monitor, so I decided to post them here. Looking back on my twenties and early thirties, I have to laugh a bit at the levels of poverty and emotion, the feeling of the cassette player stopping and switching sides, the rising of the smoke from the ashtray, the liquor, the day-old coffee cold and the sounds of the other tenants walking, falling, fighting, or knocking on my door to use my phone or hide out from a fight that had brewed with their girlfriends. There was always a job, or a search for a job, there was always a feeling of waiting, even though now I can see that I wasn’t waiting for anything. I was getting the words down like a madman. Not a lot has changed. I no longer smoke and I no longer drink every night, or even every weekend for that matter. Once every few weeks or so, I tie one on and pay dearly in the morning. The point is, you get older and you start to value your mornings more than your evenings, you start taking care of your body, watching what you eat and drink because it will either make you or break you. It’s funny, really. Now that I make a living off the novels, which is fucking mind-blowing to me, even after years of doing it, I’ve noticed the core of the work remains the same, the same feeling is there for me. I’ve been getting back to the short story lately, and even the poem, though I hate the words “poem” and “poetry” because of the image they portray of the person writing them. Whenever I hear the word “poet,” I feel violent disgust, because I visualize what most mentally sound people visualize: some insecure, narcissistic asshole pretentiously writing a “poem” for others to read in order to pad his ego because his father didn’t hug him enough or his mother stopped telling him how good he looked. I contemplated a book of poems to submit to my publisher called Stories in Under Two Minutes or Less, but then I thought better. And while it’s justifiably true that “poetry doesn’t sell anymore,” in Dead Birds Hot, I sneaked in a few poems between the stories. It was fun for me. I felt like I was spiking the punch at a church social of sorts. In my next book, Gutted Rose & Other Stories, there are quite a few poems. The beauty of having a publisher smaller than the huge NYC houses is that they take risks, they gamble on content. They’re already braced for anything. I have to respect that fighting spirit. Here are a few short things I’ve found today that I wanted to post here. The first one is from way back when, the two that follow made the cut for Dead Birds Hot, and the last one is just ridiculous, but I remember laughing after I wrote it, drunk in 1997. Anyway, I was thinking about poetry this morning, and the fact that poetry doesn’t sell. I’ve even heard the phrase, “poetry is dead.” I would say the true poet is dead, but that’s just my opinion. All the poets I respect are dead, that’s for sure. That would have been a better way to say it. But fuck it, no reason to start treading lightly at 42.
All the death and sunshine of death, the rains that bring down the fires, the low slip into the shadows of waste. Born to run the hills, born to walk the city looking for something that will turn a boy into a man, a follower into a leader, a punk into a pimp. The city is yours, boy. The city is yours like your shadow is yours. I walk to the van and check the time on the ticket again. I know it reads 6:48, I know what time it reads but I am killing time. I feel like a creep waiting on a woman while homeless men hit me up for change. Been years. Been years since I’ve been with a woman who looks like her. I reach in my pocket and shake my change. My fingers feel her skin and my nose moves across her neck and over her shoulder. I feel her legs around me. I reach over and grab a pillow to place under her ass. She lifts up, I put it in and her eyes roll back, her nails dig into my sides and I’m fucking her, I’m actually fucking her. I pull my phone from my pocket and read the time. She’s late, she’s late because she’s figured out that you are nothing, she’s late because she’s stalling you. You who travel the roads to nowhere, you who barely escaped prison because of the truth, you who disdain your race and the hands of time. But time is watching, boy. 40 years of breath and blood, all the moments mean now, all the moments find you here, waiting on the her. Waiting on the mercy of her skin, the touch of her lips, the smell of her perfume. Waiting on her to descend the rotted staircase, where lesser men have walked to see the trash of sex on the third floor. Waiting for your Luciana, waiting for her boots to appear and walk you to the end of your year.
I walk to the edge of Chinatown and stare at the lions. It occurs to me that I’ve never touched one of them. I rest my hand upon a gold snout and look back across Burnside to the Paris, which has been turned into a pornography theater. Years back when I was young, I’d walked its halls looking to rent a room. I didn’t rent the room because the hallway looked and smelled like piss, and the room was diseased from years of alcoholic junkies doing what they do. I knew what they did. I’d seen it from my father, then from others as I lived across the country. I watch my old city, a woman I no longer care for, a pair of shoes that have become worn by water then forgotten. Destroyed by the ocean of southern California and tossed in the Willamette. The city around me holds its beauty with her buildings and bridges and light, but the people have failed her with lousy art. She has been failed by fashion queers and males too weak to fuck her women like men should, failed by people who no longer make art from their brains and blood. I hold my palm to the snout and watch the boring damage. I think about Luciana, a trapped pearl, a fast beating heart running for empty, her fires and wants relegated to opaque, throw-away encounters. The beauty of her is lost on the bad seeds, the weakness, the boys she devours who will never become men because they’ve turned the city into a mother who spoils them, and distorts her daughters with the lowest of hopes. And I used to run these streets drunk and mad with love. I used to see bums throwing fists and men opening doors for dresses, graffiti with high art and hard messages, artists proud of their city, the freedom that sweat brought after a day of breaking rocks, bleeding into nights of creation in tiny living rooms across the districts, and my heart aches for that again. It aches for the calling back of good things, for the rebirth of real love. All of this planted in my mind, I have to smile because I know that Luciana rebuilt the city for me with one phone call the day before I was about to leave. It doesn’t make me wrong about anything, but lucky that I’ve been able to remember my city, to feel it once again. One more burst of color, one more pulse that blows the dust from the keys.