From the curb, 1204A appeared less like a house to me, and more like a 3D representation of the inverse of love rendered in wood and shingle. It felt like it to me, too, even from the first night I pulled up in front in the 22′ Penske. I tried to detect this same thing in other similar houses throughout the neighborhood whenever I walked past them, but none exuded the unhappiness of my hunched and peeling hovel. Maybe it’s the way that watery, dull green paint job looked by the half-light of the moon; like zombie phlegm, or the color of the filing cabinets left behind in your dead uncle’s garage apartment.
Dreams of Splitsville had sustained us both there for a while. Just getting out of the Southeast was a feat. Then it was retail therapy. My wife and I’d kept little lists of appliances and paint chips and such. (That German-made clothes iron was really going to change things.) Sometimes I’d buy something nice, but then keep it in its box, deciding it was much too fine a thing to be installed amid the leaky ceilings & cracked soffits, and serially clogged drains, and the doorknobs and switch plates hazed in hand grunge, and the fritzy wiring and the broken, fetid grout. I’d purchased some nice bone china mugs at one point, only to cringe as I watched the weirdly hostile dwarf who rented the aggrandized potting shed behind our place (1204B) slobber all over their rims during one of his ritual and protracted self-invites. And yet, for five summers we copied ‘n’ pasted our virtual signatures on the dotted line of the renewal notice, our plans remaining tightly furled on a high-up shelf, our belongings gradually morphing from treasure to encroachments. (There would be several Pompeii moments upon opening long-stowed boxes years later, rediscovering something that had been hastily packed away mid-doing with the clear intent of getting right back to it.)
We’d known that 1204A would be a downgrade from the get go, but had decided to live beneath our means for a while in order to save for a place of our own. Of course, 2008 was not the greatest time to start being a saver. To do so during a global recession felt like something on the order of sedition. After all, every bit of economic policy being drafted was designed to facilitate consumer spending and discourage saving. I’d never before lingered on the subject of economics, let alone the dynamics of the national residential real estate market. Just not my cup; but then the well was poisoned, and for a good long while, finance found its way into almost everything we drank or ate. The thesis of nearly every conversation turned to matters of housing, or speculators-vs-savers, consumerism, inflation/deflation, commodities, rentiers, (not renters misspelled — look it up ((or don’t))), lemon socialism, bailout scandals, Georgism, pump ‘n’ dump schemes, debt-to-income ratios, slumlords, down payments, taxes and how much was too much.
Today, I run from any such discussions. The decimal stuff depresses me, and I honestly, finally, do not care. Instead, I think about which of those early Pasolini films I should see, and which Billy Bean albums I still haven’t heard, and what is the best dry brush ink on the shelf, and whether the lilac bush on that one corner is in bloom yet, and absent friends, and my favorite architects, and mastering a new orchestral chord or two on the guitar, and good sculpture, and Jeffers’ Carmel, and where to find chrome-plated slotted equipment rack screws, and whatever else the hell trips my fancy.
On some of those nights toward the end, 1204A got to me so bad that I’d migrate out to the porch, no matter the weather, just so as not to be physically confined within its walls. Careful to avoid the grease spot where 1204B made his nightly kibble deposits for the strays, I’d park my trunk on the top step and proceed to over-think the matter of my own existence, or just play with my beloved feline, Charlotte, for an hour or so (she hated 1204A, too).
There was one night in particular; it stands out as being one of the last of the season perfectly suited to extended porch lamentations. It was late April I think, a moon so bright you could repair a watch by it, and more fireflies than you knew what to do with. A warm breeze hushed through the budding pear tree out front, sending it’s leaves shimmying and glimmering in the moonlight. I guess if a tree could be happy, this one was as giddy as a spoiled puppy. In the distance, a halyard dinged against a flagpole, keeping time for a chorus of crickets. I probably shouldn’t mention the waves of honeysuckle or the shooting stars (two of them). A truly stupendous night. Indeed, I suspect there must be only a handful of nights across an entire lifetime as truly Eden-like.
Meanwhile, my wife was inside asleep. She wanted to leave me. She’d told me so earlier that evening. She felt nothing for me anymore. Her words had set up franchises throughout my brain, doing some pretty ugly business with my heart along with the first few floors below before finally stopping at my guts and dwelling there like a 60 cycle hum. Every square inch of my nervous tissue had been tenderized and subsequently suffused in one after another of cheap, double fight-or-flight cocktails. Not to do the propagandists at the NAR any favors, but I swear that if we’d been installed in an actual home rather than slumming it in some grubby cubby down in scrubhole Texas, things very much most highly probably would not have gone to hell the way they did.
I remember that night wandering out past that happy pear tree and ripping out weeds by the fistfuls, like some green-thumbed fiend from a Robert E. Howard pulp. Fuck all these fucking thistles, man… It was probably a little after 1AM. I guess I must’ve given hell to about a good dozen or more when I heard the jingle of a dog collar from somewhere in the street behind me; there, being dragged past my curb by their spazzy whippet was a thoroughly modern couple of the shampoo/sugar/gluten-free persuasion. The kind of kids who have a ping-pong table outside the cube farm at their startup company and think it means they’re working for a really progressive outfit. Thankfully, they were too engrossed in discussing something to do with their new chicken coop to notice the sad weirdo lurking just off-screen, wielding a giant thistle still dripping milk from its taproot. They may have been the vile sort, but I did truly envy their unawares; 1204A meant nothing to them. They’d probably never even noticed it.
Composing myself, I flung the thistles up onto the roof and then crept back inside, silently making plans to drive back over to the old neighborhood once I was finally gone and go for a nice late night walk, just so I could walk right past 1204A.
“Oh! – these are a-MAZ-ing,” swooned the permed, hennaed cashier at the Walgreens as she scanned my Kleenex, even sneaking the box a mawkish little hug. According to the packaging, they contained a wonder ingredient — something called Cool Touch, which was supposed to make them seem, of all things, cool-to-the-touch. “Yeah, it’s like they came straight outta the crisper!” I studied the box, envisioning a group of chemical engineers somewhere out there in the vast shadowy lowlands of the territory, brainstorming new & improved means for mitigating the afflictions of the oozing masses; a real hell of a bunch.
“You ever tried ‘em before?” she asked. I told her I hadn’t. “Oh, they’re just the best. Way better than Puffs.” Then, with an exaggerated splutter: “They kill Puffs.” I told her I liked Scott tissue best, but that after awhile, it started to feel more like something woven in the Outer Hebrides against the ol’ mucus membranes, and so we discussed our preferred toilet tissues for a spell. Her name tag said FANNY, but the obvious humor eluded me at the time. Fanny was something like the headwaiter who’d tried everything on the menu at least once, and I commended her on her supreme authority of the paper products aisle.
Once past the automated door, I let go a long sigh, and then treated myself to another, and another, until I was ventilating exclusively by long warbling sighs. I’d done it; I’d ventured from my blue little corner out into a hyper-lit public space while maintaining a reasonable facsimile of highly random slob. I even mustered some convincing smalltalk, despite not one thing in my life being small. That’s when I first stumbled on the formula — and maybe it’s something that’s obvious to everyone else but me, but essentially, all there really is to being strong is acting in a way that is exactly opposite to your suffering. (Try it out and let me know how it works.)
As I navigated the old 240 homeward through the backstreets, my woman’s words sloshed around my brain pan. A torrent of resentments and recriminations that’d apparently gone untagged for years had suddenly been dragged out into the sunlight and flopped at my feet like a pile of dirty transcripts recovered from a house fire. In summary: I’d gotten everything wrong. Apparently, whenever she’d expressed how right and wonderful I was over the years, she was also acting in a way exactly opposite to how she felt.
In one of the more desperate hours, straying ever nearer ankle-clutching-&-begging territory, I began deconstructing and illustrating my love for her, to her. I expounded upon themes of loyalty and patience and caring, describing what exceedingly rare, highly endangered forces of good they each were, and how we both needed to do our small part to keep them from the shadows. I told her how afraid of how natural being alone had always felt to me — like a laziness or a vice to which too many people I’d known had too readily succumbed, all the while telling themselves how their handicap was really a kind of enlightenment. I told her I needed to have at least one other soul in my life for whom I’d do anything, and with whom I wanted to do everything. Us against them. It came out sounding almost lyrical, and felt like it, too. It was also something like an epiphany for me, for in that moment, the full realization of these things about myself were gelling as I mouthed the words: damn…yeah, I really *do* feel this way.
She asked me whether I didn’t think it was unfair to burden a person with so much devotion. The inference was that I was loving her to death. I sat there for a long time, blanking out on the patterns in the homely blue quilt my mother-in-law made for us in back in the day — days I never would’ve dreamt I’d look back upon as the better of the bunch, for they’d been lean and uncertain. Finally, the question just seemed insane. No, I said; no, I don’t — but it was no I don’t garnished with a silent fuck you, already. Up until that point I’d been talking like it might be the last talking I ever did, as you do when you feel like how I was feeling, but no was suddenly the best I had. I was being rendered down to an unedited, binary state of being, all mannerisms, wit and guile skimmed away, leaving only my sloppy heart running down my shirt cuff like a melting clown nose. It does something to a man’s mind and to his body to be so naked. Personally, I’m not sure whether it’s grown me or shrunk me.
The card was what really did it. She’d sent it a few years earlier when she’d first started traveling for a new job. Reading it again, I started sobbing in place, my big dumb tears smacking the tiles in our ugly rented kitchen. She’d constructed it herself one afternoon at my suggestion that she’d been working too hard and needed some creative downtime. I remarked how much I liked the finished product, (she’d used my favorite colors). She remembered this, sneaking it out in her luggage a few months later and posting it to me from her hotel room. She’d addressed it to Sweetums. On the inside of the card was her loopy script full of gooey stuff. There was even a line where I could see she’d squeezed in an extra affectionate adverb or two as afterthought. (That’s when you know somebody loves you; when their feelings splash out over the neat margins of their bespoke stationery.) When I showed it to her that night, she reacted as though I’d produced a sneaky bit of evidence.
“I don’t know — I don’t remember how long ago I wrote that,” she muttered, glancing over her missive. I told her I did — that I remembered. I told her I’d counted up the days from the postmark; just over a thousand. Then I said something like — what difference does when make when someone says forever? If anyone can love any person that much, only to turn on a dime and slam their heart shut some 1,000 days later, well, then…what’s the fucking use? Of any of it?
“Probably,” she shrugged, “I just wrote something I thought you wanted to read.” And just like that, I found myself lost in a room without any doors in my own little house of pain.
Back home, I sat down on the concrete porch and wept as quietly as I could. I’d be goddamned if I let anyone hear me carrying on, especially that witch inside. I cried by and for myself. I cried because people were so fucking rotten. I wrapped my arms around myself like you do to feel like someone’s holding you when there isn’t anyone. They were the lean, strong arms of the man I’d long ago cultivated to camouflage the too-sensitive kid tucked beneath. I’d been born with a soft heart — something like a boiled pumpkin inside a thin glass box, albeit, glass painted to look like cold rolled steel. The humble wizardry of muscle tissue and manner were my only remaining armor. But I could feel the walls going up even as I sat there; ramparts growing thicker and higher until, finally, there would be no way in or back out again. I might even secretly go around wishing that someone strong enough might one day crash the gates; but I already knew nobody could ever be that strong, nor brazen enough to hazard a go, because, to start with, their own walls wouldn’t allow it. Maybe I’d even grow bold enough to lend someone a hand; but then, dismantling one’s own firewall feels something akin to slow suicide.
Years earlier, I’d helped my woman removed a wall or two, allowing for ready access to all my jelly spots. But now, sitting there in the dark on the steps of our loveless home, sopping up the exit wounds with cool-touch Kleenex, it was impossible to do much else beyond dream up blueprints for better, stronger defense systems; to go back and redraft the schematic for a 2.0 release, utilizing the narrative arc of Lee Hazlewood lyrics and old MANDOM commericals as general templates.
It’s getting to be that hour when you start dragging out the heavy equipment: meaning; desire; love; hate; good; evil; life; death. Meaning’s a good one. File under The One That Got Away. You silently pine for it like a dead pet. It certainly can’t be found in or anywhere near your guitar playing tonight. Mostly it just feels good to sit and be with your machine; the foreclosed farmer sat alone in his shut harvester with no crop to thresh.
You were after a specific attack character achievable only with the use of a certain super-thin plectrum blasted against some .013 round wounds. You really needed that sound. You scoured the place up, down, and sideways, but still could not find a single pick in any of the usual crannies. It seems like just a week or so ago, you couldn’t get away from the dizzy things. They’d go flying from your pockets into the lawn as you pulled out your house keys, or you’d find them used as bookmarks, or in the clothes dryer, or the silverware drawer. You got annoyed seeing them everywhere, but now you wish you could locate even one. A collar stay could almost work; but no…maybe there’s one in the guitar case, but you look, and there isn’t.
You take your usual spot on the third step from the landing and play with your thumb instead. You strum, thump, pluck, mute, detune, re-tune, and then hobble through a few scales ’til your ass gets tired. There’s the usual pet shapes, maybe a part of something you loftily refer to as a composition that you’ve been working on for a lifetime now (taxonomy-depending, we could be talking several lifetimes). The notes produced are exactly opposite of what you were after — chubby and warm, yet devoid of soul coal. Indeed, at best, there’s a few scant cinders yielding barely enough heat to barre a chord. Even your muscle memories are growing spotty.
Not much doing tonight, is there kid? Not much doing on a lot of nights lately. Thousands, probably. It’s been a real bad spell.
When was the last time you replaced the strings? You sit there, actually trying to pinpoint the exact night you were in that awful music shop, knowing all the while that it’s that other stringed machine that’s fucking you up tonight. Lately, you are more physically aware of this other machine than you have ever before been. It’s been clocking some real hard mileage on some very bad fuel over the last year or so. Blaming your guitar strings for your playing would be like taking an open-wheel racer across the Baja peninsula and then blaming a bad shave for why everything came apart after mile one.
You hurt, and the hurt is so deep as to border on the unreal. It is actually bizarre to hurt so much. Lately, whenever you hear the word heartache in a song or read it someplace, it’s like you’re unfolding a series of hidden wrinkles within the word itself, its true dimensions fanning out like some phantasmagorical blueprint replete with detailed footnotes and exploded views. All the references you’ve heard over the years become clear after finally sitting down and reading the codex. Don Covay; Roy Orbison; Barry Gibb; Doc Pomus; Charles Aznavour…all of them contributing architects.
If you make it through this, you know you’ll look back at the brink in awe of how close you were. Maybe some humid night several thousand nights from this one, you’ll be slouched in one of those injection-molded Adirondack chairs in some old buddy’s carport, listening to some Capcity sides and glugging some good suds as you compare scars from all your exit wounds. Someone’s flirty half-sister’ll light some fireworks at the end of the drive; cheap thrills will ensue. You’ll remain plopped there, delighting in your own dumbness, staring at the half-sister’s perfect little ass through the sulfur fog banks plaiting around the old street lamps. And it is in that instant, lungs full of mossy midnight air, that you will realize that you feel just about as close to fine as you’ll ever get. You contrive and fixate on various such banal scenes evermore frequently and in evermore detail, as though they might represent the zenith of the human experience. Could be they do.
You put the guitar up and go put the sprinkler out. With this machine, you have better luck.
RIP Summer 2013. You sure gave me hell.
The kid next door went nuts & murdered his father last week. In fact, one week ago this evening. There’s a certain disquietude following such a thing…the Aftermath wagon’s been parked in the driveway everyday. Yesterday afternoon, in almost the exact spot where I first shook Dan Davis’ hand, there sat a red biohazard bin.
I’d only met Dan once, about a month ago when I was first moving into my new place. He possessed a sun-burnished patina and a smiling, mid-life lassitude that made him instantly likable. You could also tell he was intelligent. You just know, sometimes. And friendly; by the end of our brief encounter, he’d already suggested we get some drinks one night. Dan’d mostly come by that day to make sure his son’s car wasn’t in the way of my moving truck. I recall he was cradling a yap-happy chihuahua in one arm — only one of an increasing number of four-legged surrogates his wife had adopted as more of their children headed off to school. He mentioned having a couple of sons still yet living with them, “pre-University, sleeping ’til 2 PM,” he smiled, “you know the drill.”
“Yeah, I met Lance,” I said. Dan’s eyes widened.
“You met Lance? He talked to you?”
I’d met him three or four nights before I’d met Dan. He’d apparently been investigating my frequent comings-and-goings all throughout that week. (I opted for the word investigating even before reading in the deposition where Lance insisted he was a special agent trained by the CIA.)
I was by late that night dropping off some cargo when I heard a voice pop out from somewhere behind me in the dark: “You movin’ in?” His gruff tone sounded cartoonishly affected to my ears, as though he was trying to disguise his voice or sound meaner than he was for some reason. I turned to discover a rangey, slightly pumpkin-headed figure standing on the stacked stone bank dividing our drives. I said hi and then motioned him to the end of the driveway where we might make proper introductions. There in the dark street we shook hands, or rather, I imposed my hand on his. His movements were jerky and bursty and he spoke in a weirdly truncated syntax. Throughout our brief exchange, Lance kept his left hand placed over his mouth. At the time I thought he was simply trying to obscure the ludicrous mustache I managed to glimpse despite his best efforts (I’ve returned to this curious mannerism several times since the incident). Despite his cautious reticence, he explained how he lived in the house behind his parent’s and I responded about what a nice setup that must be, and that I also had a little outbuilding behind my shack that I planned on fixing up. He seemed uneasy, so I kept things short, telling him we’d be seeing each other around. Turns out, we never bumped into one another again.
I’ve replayed this encounter over a few times in my head, as probably anyone in my boots would; an unusual enough kid, sure — tetchy even — but then, I’m no paragon of mild manners myself, so who am I to judge? Certainly, there was nothing about my encounter with Lance to suggest he might be capable of cold-blooded patricide.
That’s the thing that I keep coming back to every night: the horror of being destroyed by your own creation. It disturbs to imagine how one may conceive of, create and nourish their own executioner. Think about that — a ticking time bomb made from the flesh of your flesh. As a childless artist, the closest equivalent for me might be dying from a violent paper cut or something.
“You met Lance…” Dan repeated to himself in half reverie. Then he gently cautioned me, should I run into him again — just be nice to him, adding: “He’s autistic.” Perhaps the explanation for everything lies in that single postscript. I don’t know enough about Autism to speak to that. All I know is that the man from next door was stabbed to death by his son — the same son he implored me to be nice to — and it’s ushered forth a suite of new, unusual, and heavy feelings in me that just won’t go away.
(names were changed, etc., etc.)
Alone with camera, one moonlit midsummer midnight, wandering the deserted lanes of my soon-to-be-former stomping grounds…
I’ve always been a walker, and Crestview has been a not-bad hamlet for said — particularly those long, circuitous late-nighters when your heart is so heavy you start envying the dumb and the dead, and find the only thing that makes you feel even a little better is to move your legs. It’s like a secret weapon against the bad stuff. Patsy was righter than I bet even she realized.
I know I’m not the only one who adheres to this ages-old spiritual liniment. On one of my last walks through Crestview, I heard in the near distance what sounded like a woman seized with either panic or orgasm (surprisingly hard to discern). It was enough to make me stop in my tracks and start scanning the bushes. That’s when I saw her — a young cyclist tearing ass down the crossroad ahead of me, gasping for air as she leaned into it like a two-wheeled female Ichabod Crane. Only no-one was in pursuit, nor was she outfitted in a fancy helmet or designer skinsuit which might connote serious cyclist; she was just another haunted kid trying to outrun her demons after midnight on an old Schwinn Collegiate.
Crestview started out as a blue-collar neighborhood in North Austin, Texas with small, affordable lots for returning WWII vets. Many of the modest blockhouses built on on those lots still remain, (2 bed/1 bath), though most have been retrofitted with some kind of contemporary razzle dazzle to entice young, readily credulous renters to cough up $1500-$2000 a month for an 800 sq ft hovel with leaky carport and dying agave out front.
Talk to the veteran cabbies, and they’ll tell you how Crestview used to be THE place to score back in the day; heroin, mostly. These days, you might could score a Dr. Pepper (you’ll pay boutique prices for it, too).
Years ago, whilst on a similar late-night stroll, I encountered a distraught pregnant kid plopped and sobbing on the curb, her distress due in part to having been tossed from a car by her beau just moments before. With some wariness, she approached me for help and cigarettes, though I could only oblige her the former. She was clad in a too-tight black bathing suit and flip flops and liked to swear a lot. With my humidified lick of forelock plastered across my forehead and my Murray’s Space Shoes, I’m certain I made an impression as well. Taking in both me and her surroundings, the first thing she asked was, “…this a rough part a town?”
Throughout the following years, I’d get hit with that same question by several newcomers and passers-through. I wondered myself upon first arriving. Despite the bike lanes and the churches on every corner, it’s still kinda got that look, especially after dark; like a scrappy kid with a brand new pair of laces in his boots.
Crestview looks considerably less dicey during the day, and by the day. You’ve got the pretentious cubist McMansions with their shed roofs here and there, looking like misfiled coffee table books jammed in next to all the drab chainlink’d tracts. Across from the ancient IGA you have the delicatessen where the DINKS go to enjoy eight dollar sandwiches with their designer breeds hitched to the benches out front. The reality is that you can walk around Crestview after midnight on any Saturday of the year in your bikini – male or female – completely unmolested (but be prepared for rape by your landlord or in the checkout lane).
Not a terrible place to collect your mail, Crestview. I’ll miss my late night walks.
All (un-retouched) photos by g. edward weitl 2013