We hauled ass up Scottsdale Road. The heat laid a blanket of death across the desert, and we poured sweat past Indian School. I hadn’t seen them in 25 years. We’d just hammered through Old Town, stopped a few cars, mildly terrorized people by flying around them out of nowhere, and pissed off a few couples and street musicians. Boyle pedaled past a driveway in the sidewalk and hopped over the curb into a parking lot. I stared at him while he coasted up toward the red light at Thomas. He’d known my parents and watched TV with us. He knew me back when I was 15, when the family was whole, just before my mother died and everything went to hell. I’d searched google a few times for Merrill Boyle, and then one day it occurred to me to find him on facebook, so I did. I never knew where Tim lived or saw him outside of school. He coasted up next to me and said something, then waited for the Merrill to get further ahead of us.
“Why the fuck is his freewheel so loud?”
“Because he’s Bad Boyle.”
He gripped down his bars and leaned back to a coast and smiled up the road at him, “How’s the book tour going, man?”
“New York City after this?”
“I think so.”
We waited at the light, the three of us. My legs and shoulders were still sore from the gym. I’d been going every day for the last week, and I started to feel better on the bike. The light changed and Tim took off ahead of us, picked up the front end and rode the wheelie for a good block, at speed. I yelled at him, “Fuck yeah!”
Boyle smiled, “Dude, before he showed up at our school he was in Maryvale, grew up there.”
“No shit. I never knew that.”
“West Side. The fucking hood. That’s where he learned to wheelie, in first grade. Some Mexican bully—beat up every kid in the neighborhood except Tim.”
Tim set the wheel down and looked back, “What are you talking about?”
“I’m paraphrasing your story.”
“Arthur, Arturo, whatever his name was.”
“Oh. You mean Alfie.”
I started laughing. Tim tapped his brake and fell back next to us.
“Toughest kid in the neighborhood. He threatened to kick my ass and I went home crying about it. Dude, he didn’t even wear shoes.”
I launched off a curb and let them get in front of me. Tim called over his shoulder.
“I had a Redline. Once he saw it we were buddies. He taught me wheelies. He could fuckin’ ride a wheelie forever.”
We pedaled east down McDowell, then waited at another light. Tim got the jump on us. He looked back, “About five years ago, my mom told me why he was so nice to me. Because my dad found him and told him if he touched me he’d kill him. Kind of bummed me out, even all these years later.”
Merrill and I broke up laughing. My strongest memory of Tim had been from high school lunch, when I opened a packet of ketchup that sprayed over the table and blasted across his shirt. I watched the ketchup destroy his shirt and a streak of fear ran down my spine—all through school I had a bubble butt, and in the dead heat of the desert or not, I wore a flannel because it kept it hidden. Nobody thought about the flannel, or cared about it. At Deer Valley High there were three sects: Stoners, Mods, and Jocks. Though we were neither, if we had to pick a side it was with the stoners, because they wore jeans and flannels, concert shirts, high tops dragging the concrete, a complete and perfect slovenliness. Merrill laughed and looked at me, “Dude, that’s fucked up. Let him wear your flannel.” The thing was, Tim sensed my fear, and wore his shirt like that the rest of the day. I’d pass him in the hall and see his shirt sprayed with ketchup, and felt a sense of debt toward him that never left. Like with Alfie, old feelings died hard. Being back in the desert with them was good for me. I’d been without roots for over two decades, going city to city, writing, moving: constantly searching for something I couldn’t explain. We waited at the last light before our turn down into the greenbelt. The light changed and I coasted next to them on the bridge and we stared down at the lights of the skate park. I watched their profiles. The three of us were the same age as our fathers were back when we were in school. Now we were well into our forties, still on the bikes, still talking shit and looking for things to ride over. Except the two of them had families now, and I had my dog, which was fine with me. The last few exes had gone ahead and burned up that road for any other woman who might actually not turn out to be an evil pile of shit.
We rolled down the street for the park, down the grass bank and into the lights over the concrete. The skaters and BMXers got along just fine. It was a public park. Not to sound like a decrepit old fuck, but back in our day a free, public skate park was unheard of. The popularization of bikes and boards had created the parks on one hand, but on the other it took much of the artistry and personality out of the forms. The individual expression of one rider had fallen victim to mass trending. All the bikes looked the same, and the removal of brakes had stripped away style. Every rider looked like the same rider to me, only varied by the degree of difficulty in their tricks and the color of their skinny jeans. I watched the little bastards and wondered if it was me being jealous of their youth, but it wasn’t. It was genuine disgust. We caught our breath and watched the park under a dim light near the grass. Boyle set his bike down and stretched. He’d stayed the same weight since high school. It was baffling to me. I mean, each of us stayed in shape the best we could. Like Tim, I’d put on a few extra pounds of labor muscle and a bit of fat, to be fair. But to weigh the same I did in high school wasn’t a possibility, to look like Death. But Boyle pulled it off. He and his wife had become addicted to yoga. People in the desert went one of two ways: completely happy or completely depressed. The smarter ones used their surroundings, the mountain trails, the lakes, the warm nights for riding distance, or working out indoors to contrast the burning heat of summer. The ones who went the other way were usually night owls, addicted to meth or lazy potheads who had some menial job and said fuck it. Boyle stood there and went on about moves, and about their Tuesday night class. He started doing reps of some kind of frog squat, deep stomach breathing shit. It hurt my legs to watch it. He went faster. It looked goofy and out of place where we were. He squatted and breathed, “Dude, the Tuesday class is fucking insane. The instructor’s name is Scott Page. It’s like boot camp yoga. It’s brutal.”
He kept going. Tim looked around, hoping nobody was watching. Boyle stopped and breathed, then gave me a nod. I looked at him, “Fuck Scott Page.”
Tim laughed. Boyle picked up his bike and sat, “You’re still going this Thursday, right?”
“I’m going,” I said, “I said I would.”
He looked at Tim, who just shook his head at him, slow and without any room for argument, “I’m not fucking going to yoga.”
We saw a gap in the action under the lights. The three of us bombed into the park and rode the same line in file, down into the big bowl, then the hip, then back into the little bowl and out by a ledge, then up to Fry’s for water. We sat out on the ledge and watched the people walking out. We started talking about family, my life as an author, about getting older, Merrill’s baby daughter and Tim’s boys becoming men. He drank his water and shook his head, “I’ll be watching TV and I’ll see my oldest son walk past the screen and I’ll think, ‘who’s that man walking around in my house…’” – Just being there was good enough for me, it was a reconnection of blood. We were into our forties but we weren’t. It was bizarre. I realized those of us who stayed true to two wheels remained younger than the others. It fed the vibrancy of youth, it neutralized life’s routine. It fought cynicism. The world provided plenty of that off the bikes.
Down into the park it was emptier, and we rode the bowl without stop. I realized at one point that we were the older dudes, bigger bikes, carving the big bowl with soul, not worried about the big trick, and maybe some grudging admiration was earned from a few old skaters and young hipsters on their bikes who never thought of riding as religion. We were proof for them. A flash of confidence ran through my blood when I dropped in and pulled a clean 360 out of the small bowl. I did a few more and rode up to Tim with my phone. I set it to video.
“Tim, fuckin’ get me doing a 360 out of the mini-bowl. Gonna post that shit.”
I rode around, dropped in and carved the bowl. A fat skater kid with an afro rolled in out of turn. I dodged him going up the opposite bank, lost speed, but went for the 360. Down the transition, to flat bottom, up the other transition, lift, twist, then straight to a rolled ankle, a 90 degree change at once from a flat foot to my ankle bone touching concrete. Shock, pain, fear of immobility, and anger. I dropped the bike and walked as lightly as I could. I sat and watched my back wheel spinning. I knew I had about 3 minutes before I swelled to uselessness. There went my last week in Arizona working out and swimming every day and riding with my buddies at night. I was so pissed I saw red. Tim walked over and handed me my phone, “You can’t be doing that shit, man. We have to ride this week.”
“Rolled my fucking ankle.” I watched the fat skater pull out his phone and change his music on the other side of the bowl, “Little prick.”
I worked my shoe off. It hurt like shit. Boyle rolled up.
“Fuck, man. You alright?”
I rolled off my sock. My ankle was the size of a tennis ball.
I tried to walk but there was no pressure allowed. I sat back down. Tim looked at it then nodded at me, “Should I ride back and get the truck?”
“Yeah, man. Thanks.”
He took off. I coasted down the ledge and stuck my foot in the water of a fountain, rather a little waterfall built in by the steps leading up to a gazebo. Boyle pedaled over, “Want me to go get some ice?”
“Yeah, thanks.” I reached for my wallet, “Let me give you some money.”
“I got bucks.” he rode off up the side of the bowl and disappeared. I sat there and stressed, looked at my phone for the footage. At least it was captured. There were two videos. One of me rolling in, then it was cut. The other was me sitting on the ledge right after I wrecked. He’d missed the entire thing. I laughed. I sat there a long time, and the pain started to make its way through the shock of the roll. Twenty minutes passed. I looked around, “Come on, Merrill. Fuck.”
I saw his shadow pedaling down the bank then up the side of the park. He had a whole bag of ice. He shook his head.
“The dude at Fry’s was a dick. Wouldn’t let me bring my bike in. A guy on a mountain bike with a lock helped me out.”
He dropped the bag on the ground, tore it open, grabbed a handful of ice and put it in a plastic shopping bag. I stuck it on the swelling. I could barely move my foot. We waited there for the sound of Tim’s truck. He’d become an excavator over the years. Boyle fell into construction and I became a writer. I thought about it while Boyle talked to a kid on a BMX about riding, his school, about his life. Boyle was a natural parent. He was good with it. I reached down and pulled the bag off after I was numb. I knew what was coming the next fist of days: swelling on both sides of the ankle, swelling of the foot, all with the lovely purple, yellow, and red colors of a rolled ankle. I was fucked for some time, just the way it was. The kid rode off and Merrill looked over his shoulder, “There’s Tim’s truck.” I grabbed my sock and put it in my pocket, got my shoe on, and made it to the truck. I had no food at the hotel for the micro-fridge, so Tim sat in the parking lot at Fry’s while Merrill went in to get me one of those fat people carts. I grabbed the handle above the back door in the cab of Tim’s truck, and lifted myself down into the parking lot. I saw Boyle cruising out of the store on the cart. He got up, I sat and I rolled around the aisles and pointed to things for him to grab. I was bitching about the slow engine of the cart, and whenever I had to reverse, to pull the lever backward, it would beep like a forklift, and it made me feel obese and embarrassed. I told Boyle and he laughed. I noticed that people look at you differently if you’re in a cart like that. Even though I wasn’t fat or crippled, there was a feeling of exclusion coming off them. I thought about my buddy, Eric, in a wheelchair for the last 16 years after a horrifying car accident, and I felt a whole deeper level of respect for him. Back at the hotel, they flanked me while I made it across the street to the grass of the mall to let my dog do his things. Back in the room they were gone and I was on my back, full of ibuprofen and anger, my ankle wrapped with ice while the bag melted and soaked through the sheet. The next day there was swelling, colors, and an afternoon phone call from Merrill checking up on me while the sound of Tim’s truck idled outside of my room while he dropped off a DVD, a comedy to get my mind off the injury. He’d been working at a site a few miles west of the motel. Boyle hung up, Tim drove off, and I re-wrapped the swelling and stared at my bike across the room. I thought about the two of them, I thought about the distance between high school and where I was. My dog jumped off the bed and lapped up his water, jumped back up and curled next to me. I turned off the TV and stared at the ceiling until the inactivity became oppressive. Out at the pool I floated in the deep end while some old guy flying on meth swam around me and told me his life story.
1988. California. Thinking about my first time, thinking about the ocean 25 years back, a room, the gorgeous faux-beach-spiritual and her place: one room, a kitchen table with one chair and a bed. And on that bed, being introduced to a few firsts as a teenager. In between the first—a healthy bong rip—which now just makes me laugh because it became such a rare occurrence in my life, and the third, sex—which also makes me laugh for the same reason—I was introduced to Slayer on the FM radio. Some kind of thrash metal hour in San Diego. Later, when I would see them live, I would watch the insane, hair-farmer culture thrashing around possessed, which was fine, but I wondered if they got the genius of Slayer, the writing, the speed and placement of sounds in the album Reign In Blood, speed and grace to the likes of which I wouldn’t hear again until I heard the track Sugar Coated Sour by The Dillinger Escape plan. Anyway, this isn’t a fucking music review, it’s about how I considered Slayer to be Mozart for the 20th century. It made enough of an impact on me to throw their name into a couple of works of mine, debuting in March of Time and Skin:
“I asked her to tell me her life story. Halfway through it, my forehead lifted from my skull, stretching the skin above my brow. Then it stopped, shook the skin loose and the skin ballooned softly. All of the people in my life were released from my brain, and they hung there lightly. All of their words and movement slowed down to the energy of ghosts floating through me, through my chest. I heard bits of her story, but I really heard the music on the radio next to her. It was technical and evil. I wanted ask her who it was but the DJ came on and said it was a block of Slayer.”
25 years later, in a motel in Arizona while on a book tour, I pound coffee and listen to South Of Heaven and write this post. Also, more than happy to read this review.
Listening to Slayer because they never get old, reading a good review about one of your books, keeping an eye on the pool outside while on the road promoting another book, is a feeling I can only describe as surreal, regardless of the long and weird road taken to get here. Few precious things need not be forgotten in my mind, and things like this that make the cut laugh me through the dark and light ages.
She tossed her smoke and stumbled toward me, leaned down and put her hands on either side of my waist.
“Want a lap dance?”
I loathed strip clubs, could count on one hand how many times I’d been in one, and it only took three fingers. But she was obliterated there, and I was in the Rome of that place. She corralled the pugs into her room with her and closed the door. I stared up at the painting again. The horses didn’t look happy to me, they looked trapped. They were running around the property line to blow off steam so they could deal with where they were. She returned holding a CD, wearing a short dress and heels. She loaded the disc and hit play. Rebel Yell started, and she moved her hips to the song, staring down at me through a mess of wavy dark hair, her nose sitting there the way it was, her eyelids heavy with drink. She gyrated off-beat to the song, and lifted her dress up and off. She lost her balance and stumbled back into the stereo, and a few things fell from the shelf. She kept going, made her way over to me, turned and spread her ass in my face. The thong was blue, and the tampon was still in. She slapped her ass and pressed her hands to her knees and shook it for me. Ricky walked out and grabbed a coke from the fridge. He was in his boxers, half awake, and he glanced at the room casually, popped the can open, nodded to me, then went back to his room. She kept going, and the CD started to skip. She walked over and beat on the player, and kept beating on it, and then she beat it even harder until it started to break apart. The stereo was her life, the state, a man on the couch that didn’t care if she lived or died, but a man she thought she needed. I looked above it all to the painting. They were definitely trapped. I watched a few cars lurk down the street and waited for her to finish. The noise stopped and she stood facing me. The stereo was destroyed. I expected her to break down crying, but she didn’t. She stared at me, her face flushed and reckoned with hatred. Without breaking eye contact, she pulled the tampon from herself and dropped it to the floor. The rawness of it ran hot in my blood. She walked over, pulled me to the floor, ripped off my pants. She rode me hard and mean. I pressed up into her and let her go at it. Her face was angry, and she shuffled back and forth onto me and dug into my chest, then hauled off and punched me in the face. It was a hard hit, a right cross to my jaw. My skull echoed and she went harder. I stared at the tampon. It laid there looking sorry and pissed. She reached over and threw it across the room. It rolled under the sink.
Motel 6. Arizona. Small break on the tour for the Lolly book, a commercial book of sorts for which I was hired. It’s been interesting for me. The main reason I took the job was because of the strictures—to have a company ask me to write their story without any hard profanity, sex, etc. presented a whole new take for me concerning the novel, to extend a clean form for length. And to see the writing take a fresh form, to feel that rush of being outside your comfort zone; it’s something every writer, musician, painter, actor, director—creators of all forms—should do once in awhile. Whether it’s a job writing a book for a company that has a bizarre, beautifully odd story they want readable for everybody, or whether it’s an exercise behind the keys to keep you sharpened, to keep the writing new. After nearly 25 years of writing (since I was a teenager) the feeling remains the same, the salvation of the words, not be dramatic, but the feeling that is unfailingly home regardless of how far you take it, twist it, pervert it, shine it, or take a break from it; it remains. And the right project outside of your steady work can be good on a few levels, actually. For me, getting back to my “vintage” stuff has been like seeing an old friend or my dog after a long separation, but a necessary one. This morning it’s good to get back to some missing teeth within the smile of the pages. Here’s an excerpt from my new book, Gutted Rose & Other Stories, being released next year.
Elsa sat on the floor and waited. The floor was easier when she was hurting. Why, she had no idea. Maybe because she saw the room from a different angle and it threw off the pressure. She heard the hallway door open and the sound of Dag’s freewheel being pushed up the hall. She sat the table and opened a book. The door was always opened, and Dag pushed his bike in.
“You know you were just sitting on the floor.”
“Oh, fuck you. No I wasn’t.”
He kissed her scalp and sat across from her. He raised an eyebrow. She shrugged, “Where were you?”
“Had to outrun a cop. They got those fuckers thick as flies down there now, on mountain bikes. More than usual.”
She didn’t care. He was there now. And he didn’t care that she would rather run it up than see him alive. They were both fucked without it. He cooked her up while she set the rig out. She thumbed what was left in the baggie.
“Are you getting in on it?”
“Don’t worry,” he watched it cook with her, “I just sorted myself out on the way over.”
“The cop saw you finishing?”
“Exactly. Didn’t kill the course, but it was really shitty timing on his part.”
She smiled into the spoon. She would probably love Dag even if they were both clean, but she couldn’t love him if one of them were. They’d tried that. One toppled the other, then that one toppled the other. They were connected to fall. Dag had enough for the rest of the week, and what he’d given Elsa would get her by until then, unless a cop popped him and he did another ten days in county, which meant nine days in medical. When that happened, Elsa sold some ass. When Dag was out, he was constantly hustling to keep them both covered. Dag shot her up and they fucked, then walked down the street and watched a plane get ready to land off to the northeast of the bridges.
He stepped off the plane and pulled his fedora low on his brow. It was slow at the airport tonight, but old habits in public died hard. He’d had a good time in the city on set, survived the wrap party, gave a long interview with Playboy about his life as an actor, then blurred back to Portland to spend two weeks with his family, or his mother, really. His father didn’t have much to say to him, never did. A couple of fast whispers as he walked through the baggage claim, a few cell phone shots, and he was in the back of the car. The driver looked in the rearview and smiled.
“You know who you look like?”
He stared at the driver and smiled. The driver was an old man. He wanted to make the kid laugh. Hell, the kid was 40, but he was still a kid, he still had his baby face. He was famous for it. He’d seen the kid grow up. He pulled onto the access road.
“Saw you on Late Night. You’ve been busy.”
“I’ve been going non-stop. Good to be home, friend. Name?”
The driver laughed, “Like you’ll remember. Lenny.”
“I like Lenny.” Alex said. Brubaker smiled at him. They played the same game every time. Brubaker was older now, a lot older. He’d been a driver for the old man before the old man retired from film. He was the only one in the family anyone could fully trust, including the people in the family. Alex thought about it. His cell rang. He looked at Brubaker, “I have to get this.”
Brubaker raised the window between them. Alex put the phone to his ear.
“That was fast.”
“I told you I had to come here last weekend. I offered to bring you with me—”
“Yeah, as your fucking buddy from the city.”
“Don’t do this to me, Christian. You know what I’m up against.”
Alex rubbed his eyes. Brubaker glanced back. Alex stared off over downtown. He made Brubaker take the same way every time. The Fremont Bridge onto 405.
“You know what it’s about, babe. Please don’t do this. I’m fucking begging you.”
“I know what it’s about. I can’t hide like this anymore, Alex. Your head’s so far up the ass of your—”
Alex hung up and texted him that the call was dropped and he’d call him from home. A text came back: CHICKENSHIT.
Alex watched the city from the bridge. He loved Christian, he burned for him. The world had their suspicions, jokes were made on SNL, Comedy Central Roasts, references to him being gay, but he wouldn’t admit it. The bridge was in the mirror. Brubaker rolled the glass back down.
“You gonna tell ‘em this time, kid?”
Alex squinted at him in the rearview.
“Tell them what, Bru?”
Brubaker shook his head, “Gonna leave that elephant in the room again.” Alex reached into his pocket and lit a cigarette, “Mind your own business.”
The Native down in the corner cell with the shower, I don’t like the motherfucker, and he doesn’t like me. He was getting released in the morning a month back, when a female C.O. walked by and caught him jacking off with his back to the door. She popped the little bastard with an indecent privacy charge, and he received one year in county, in the same cell. He shaves his head bald due to his receding hairline, which I find odd in a Native so young, his early 30s, and he works out constantly. During the time when we have to stand in front of the cells, spoons in pockets, waiting to be waved down for chow, he shoots me steady, hostile looks, but I can’t take him seriously. In light of what happened to him, I can’t take him seriously.
I got a letter from Jack, or rather legal mail, the interview with Mia that he did, his letter of summary to Zane and therefore the DA. I read it. It was good. She was honest with him about me, about the two of us having sex, the whole nine yards. I tossed the envelope in the shelf space cut into the side of the bed. It reads #4 on the envelope over my name and SID number. Pod 4. I started to think about it, and my brain snapped open, a part of it that has been shut off, the thinking part, really, and I started jotting down things that ran across my mind with 4:
4 legs to a dog.
4 quarts to a gallon.
4 body systems.
4 primary body tissues.
4 rivers from Eden.
4 pecks to a bushel.
4 business quarters.
4 quadrants to a circle.
4 suits in a deck of cards.
4th dimension, the coordinate dimension to the existing three dimensions, related as time, to describe any event. Einstein derived that there is an extra 43 seconds of arc per century relative to Mercury’s orbit.
4 Rushmore heads.
4 food groups.
4 faces of God, or rather Ezekiel’s vision of God: 4 living creatures.
4 is the last description of basic grouping: 2 is a couple, 3 is a few, 4 is several or more.
4 to an ideal family.
4 outer spheres.
4 layers of earth.
4 colors of race.
4 phases of life: youth, adult, middle-age, elderly.
4 main principles of evolution: embryology, morphology, biogeography, paleontology.
4 sub-sections of evolution: population genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology, and genomics, which is basically machine-driven genetic sequencing.
4 rows of checkers/back row of chess.
Impatient today, languid, angry, a man unkind. I would seriously not wish this upon my worst enemy. I want to be whole again, to feel the air pulsing around me, the beat of the city, the warmth of life. All this dead time, though it occurs to me that I’ve spent a great deal of my life in a small room writing, and it also occurs to me that being able to leave that room was part of the glue that held me to the writing, because what was on the other side of the door was the enemy. The jobs, the faces, the human race going on mechanically, all of it was the enemy in my youth. It’s reversed in here, like how obesity once meant wealth. And nothing is more mechanical than jail. Shit, all those hours I thought I was beating the rap, all the time I saw the general public as something to avoid. I was a young fool in love with the word, and that’s all there was to it. Knowing that now hardly lessens the grip I have on that time. It calls me back to it, actually, but there is nothing further from the romance of life than jail. Nothing. Even death is a release, a peace, or it must be. It’s hard to imagine seeing any of these guys on the outside. Like I can’t imagine Bates in street clothes.
What I wouldn’t give to be in a bookstore again, to have a selection of true literature from which to pull, to see a novel of mine perched upon their shelves like a trophy. I have to beat this case, Helena, I have to see the impossible through. Let their evidence tower over me, but let three jurors see the burning truth, see through the contrivance of the state, the bullshit of the state and the corrupt police work, the lies from the midget whore, with her freakish, little hands holding a tissue to her nose. Let the state throw me at the wall. I have to be heard.
Small disgusts are luxuries now. Boredom, a day trapped in the house due to weather, a shitty job, bills, one beer until payday, a flat tire, a bad driver in front of me, a parking ticket. Luxuries.
Hardwood floors, and the carpet of a staircase. Closing the door behind me in the bathroom, a toilet seat, hot water. A living room past a kitchen, a cup of coffee on the table by the couch, the sweet taste of music, the idea of drinking whiskey after the sun falls. All of it, and so mad am I with love for the world in this cell that it breaks me into tears.
Over breakfast, I heard about an inmate who last year smashed a deputy’s face in with his fist, grabbed his keys and got out of the pod and down the hall to the final door before the outside, when he was tasered. On top of the 15 dollar charge for the taser cartridge, he was thrown in the hole, given a muumuu to wear and has existed on bread loaf and water since. He just sits there and rots in the dark. I watched the deputy and the jumpsuits. My whole life has been spent getting away from shit like this, on a larger scale. The uniform of life, the blindness of ignorance and the lack of question. I chose the metal to live, to burn upon the dense air, the road and the sunlight, the words and wander, the feeling of the words leaving my fingertips and entering the keys in long rips of light and grace, the burning of fog and swamp, long lines of blood without the mercy of fading.
A barber’s chair, a clean haircut, clean neck and ears. A black t-shirt, jeans, sneakers. A fucking belt. Change in my pockets. Contact lenses, and not these old and scratched glasses, mismatched nose pads, cracked and dated. Being able to again own fingernail and toenail clippers without having to check them out from the pod desk. The mania of being in here has created a pair of palms compressing my chest and back together at all times. I know I have to stay strong, I know that I have to fight this. I miss you and our time behind the machine together so goddamn much it’s crazy. The resentment of this place has easily and effortlessly crossed over to hatred. The faces, the fucking faces, Helena. Seeing the young faces is especially sickening. Eyes filled and frozen in the rictus of paranoia and morbid fascination, but mixed with an evil numbness. I don’t hear any older inmates scorning the younger ones, no warnings imparted, zero edification. Misery does not love company in here so much as misery eats itself. The cards shuffle, paranoid and desperate questions spark self-doubt, the long and dark miles of not knowing your fate, but thinking you do, and what you think is based on what you see, the worst possible outcome.
Basketball games. I should be thankful for them. They get the cell doors popped open, depending on the deputy, who is usually a fan of sports, and it keeps the population in here seated and mesmerized, freeing up the phones and tables. It’s the dawning of a raw time, Helena. I can’t tell you how important you are to me. It’s not comprehensible. I know things have to work out if I am ever going to be seated in a soft chair with my music, your solar eyes resting beneath the keys, waiting for the right feeling to trigger the right sentence, so you will awake and pull me down home.
A lot of ex-cons and drunks lived in the building. My room was the corner spot on the 3rd floor. The old man in the room next to me was deaf. The girl in the room across from me was a diagnosed schizophrenic. She almost never wore clothes. She was maybe 25. The government gave her 500 dollars a month. She kept her door open. Big black men walked in there and shut the door. It was a shitty place to live. The bathroom was never occupied when I had to use it. I was the only one in the building who showered regularly. But the toilet was well used. Every time I walked in there I came face to face with a bowl full of dead shit and sometimes a syringe on the floor. The bathrooms on the other floors were worse. I had a sink in my room. I pissed in the sink late at night. I was the youngest tenant, and the only one with a job. I had to walk past the landlord’s office to get up to my room. I’d walk in and deal with him. “How was workin’ tonight, young man?” “It was work.” “Anybody asks you anything about this building you tell them you don’t know.” “Right.” “Don’t tell them my name, neither.” “I’d rather die.” “And don’t bring no girls up there, neither.” “Alright, Dave.” “Fact, don’t bring nobody up there.” “Got it.” It was almost the same scene every night. I’d get in my room and shut the door. Then he’d knock. “It’s Dave.” He’d sit on my bed. Dave was tall and slim and black. Dave smoked menthols. He was fifty. He had the job and nothing else. I never saw him laugh. The world was out to get him. He sat down and lit up. I leaned on the desk. “Feels like I just saw you, Dave.” He nodded to my typewriter. “You writin’ stories ‘bout me an’ this hotel?” “No.” “See to it you don’t.” “Let me have a menthol, Dave.” “Can’t do it. I have one every hour. I have the pack timed.” “Bullshit. You’re on your second smoke since I walked in.” “Still can’t do it.” I lit one of my own, “Dave, and don’t take this personally, you need to get out of the building once in a while. This place is getting to you.” “Can’t leave. One a you might try somethin’ on me.” “Like what?” “Sneak somebody in, move out without notice. I run a tight ship here.” “The place is fucking destroyed, man.” “You have any stories about me here?” “Seriously, Dave. Take a walk down 23rd or something. Ease your mind.” The front buzzer sounded. Somebody had walked in downstairs. He jumped up and ran out of the room. I locked the door, closed the blinds and laid in bed. I listened to the street and the wind, the hours taken by the jobs and the rain, the repeating day and night varied only by a new tenant getting the boot or a new story that I would start and maybe finish. The winter and the cancer air of the hotel had become a morbid process, and my job was another tumor that had grown from it. I closed my eyes and thought about hot sand.
The desert met us at nightfall in New Mexico, but we had stopped in the Texas Panhandle to look at the stars. They were bright and close to the desert, dusty and forever, and bulging from their firmaments −swirls of galaxy and all things mysterious, the beauty of our pilgrimage wept in blinks of white and silver, and flashes of modest reds from the convex sky. And there at the turnout, we undressed and fucked on the hood of the car, and our bodies were a speck of tongue writhing beneath giants and fleeting space junk.
The boat was rocking so bad you could run up and down the door frames. People like to imagine the ocean as being blue and beautiful. I used to imagine it that way. When you’re that far out at sea the water is black. Day or night it is black and deadly looking, like obsidian in slow motion. Black as far as you could see. The boat was small, anyway. We were going side to side like the boat was plastic. Everyone was grabbing their survival suits. Some were crying and some were scribbling down their wills. I laid in my rack and drank from the flask. Let them fire my corpse. I sat back and thought how it figured that I would end out there. I masturbated one last time, emptied the flask and closed my eyes. If the boat capsized then their survival suits were useless. The boat crashed through the swells and you could hear the waves roaring into the sides. My last thought before I made myself sleep was Helena.
It was calm and dark. I didn’t know what to expect. There was no light or movement. I heard nothing. I reached out and pulled the curtain back and stood in the dark. Then I felt it, a gentle rocking beneath my feet. I walked to the door and went outside.
It was warm out there. I was shirtless. The Sun sat dark red on the horizon and it was huge. You could look right at it. The black water stretched out far to reach it. I breathed in and held the handrail, watched the horizon melt around the Sun. How small we were against the grace of the heavens. Our petty dreams, our need for self. Our weak assurances.
I was the only one out there. I saw a whale emerge from the water and twist out there in front of the red. It hung there upside down in front of the Sun, it hung there careless and lazy, totally oblivious to us, to the human refuse of the boat, sacrificing our luck and lives for a goddamned dollar. It went back through and my heart swelled in my chest so fast that it cracked my bones. Something happened to me which I could not understand. I wept. I stood there and wept at the beauty of what I saw. I wept when I thought that the moment was meant for me and me alone, as I so badly wanted it to be that way. I so badly wanted to be chosen by God there, to be pulled out amongst the clean cold blackness of the water, to stand naked on the back of a whale before the harmlessness of a sun which was now trained for damage. I wanted that scene, I wanted to be transcended into that scene forever. I wanted everything to be beautiful again. I wanted to be beautiful again.