It is 6 a.m. and I am trapped in a Starbucks in Houston, Texas. I took a bus from Lafayette with a stopover in Houston—and it was here they denied me passage to Austin.
If I could cry I guess I would have cried when they told me they couldn’t reprint my $90 bus ticket, and that I would be stranded in this fucking city until I figured out what the hell to do with myself.
With nowhere to go I sat in the station squeezing my backpack with what little strength I had left in me. The twisted scum you see at every Greyhound station haunted my stronghold and lustfully eyed my bag and my shoes and my jacket. I can’t imagine why—it’s all shit. Nearby two idiots talked about how they wanted to assassinate the president. Several diapers were changed just inches from my leg. A cooler full of ice and hot dogs spilled out onto the floor. Some guy asked me if I had a sandwich in my pocket.
I stared at the sky from behind filthy glass and waited for the sun. I figured when it came up I would be relatively safe—and maybe then the dead-gazed psychopaths outside would disperse and I could go somewhere that was quiet and not lit with hateful fluorescent bulbs.
But they decided to clean the lobby around 5 a.m. They threw me out onto the street. It was still black and shadowy. As soon as I walked through the doors and into the humid grease-stained nightmare of downtown Houston in July, a dozen or so people descended upon me and asked for money and drugs and sinister favors. And I said to them: “Jesus, look at me. Do you really think I have any fucking money?”
A woman approached me as I struggled to get away, saying, “I just got out of jail. Can I have some money?”
“I have nothing,” I said. “Nothing. I’m stuck.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t spend a year in jail.”
I didn’t know what else to say so I said this: “OK.”
I kept walking.
For a mile I traversed the ugly parts of this town. I saw dozens of shirtless men in their fifties curled up in the grass or in the doorways of darkened businesses.
And now here I am, finally, alone in this stupid coffee shop. I have had way too much coffee and can find no friendly faces. There is a live Crosby, Stills & Nash album blaring from the speakers. My ex-girlfriend is mad at me and there’s blood in my mouth.
I have no idea why there is blood in my mouth.
In an hour I will start walking again and attempt to find some way to get west. There is a woman waiting for me 160 miles in that direction. She has said I can sleep in her bed while she is at work. I cannot imagine a more beautiful thought to cling to. Maybe that thought is the only thing keeping me alive right now.
And listen: if I get out there and they try to kill me, I hope it’s fast and painless.
I love you all. See you in hell. ☆
Awake on wet sand, acute shock, limbs at bad angles. Definite memory loss. I lurch upright and pat my pockets, they’re empty. Sound of waves crashing, only the faintest bioluminescence cast by spray-paint splotches of plankton on the sand. Bad footing, I’m hunched and stumbling, if I could only find north, maybe the moon but it’s just a shapeless blob, no fixed arc of passage. Maybe the water, depending on the ocean it might indicate west but the sound of surf is from everywhere. Then the plankton and the moon wink out. Complete, unbroken black. So much gravity.
Catapulted back into my body, sweating, panting.
I fell asleep to howls and maniac engines surging up and down the street, all bad nerves and cacophony. Too frantic to process as lulling static. Seems the noise dug deep and scooped something out of that snake pit.
I’ve had a lot of dreams. I’ve been writing them down for six years or so. I’ve never dreamed of total darkness before.
Even if I’d found north or west, which way from there I don’t know. Sipping scotch in the cramped smoking lobby of the bar after a nine hour shift on the line, writing that bastard nightmare down, it occurs to me the terror of the place was dependent on what in my dream jargon I call the known-whence. (The normalcy against which the dream is judged strange or extreme—not, in this case, a product of lucidity.) Without the context of supposed to be somewhere with important things in my pockets, the nightmare would be powerless.
Excepting, that is, the sensation of crippling weight. I talk to the man beside me for an hour or so. He has one dream only, most every night, of floating through dark space. I explain the difference. I was not drifting, I’ve had those before and this sure as hell was not one of those. I was fueled by sheer terror, moving in violent spasms reminiscent of cytoplasmic streaming, and I was heavy. Heavy in that ton-of-feathers way.
The man’s name is Alexander. He is a dancer and a fellow cook, not unpleasant company. He points to my ring and names the stone on it and tells me whoever gave me that loves me. He tells me he is choreographing a dance performance titled Dirt.
Well, Xander-man, let me tell you something about dirt. Have a sip of this here scotch. The taste is, at its heart, the pure taste of dirt. That’s why I like it.
And maybe that’s got something to do with why you mystic-types refer to me as an earthy soul, and why I have dreams of slogging through sand, and why I’m stupidly proud of them especially when they hurt.
NEW ORLEANS—Ryan “Baby Star” Starsailor announced today amidst the torrential rainfall and violent chaos of the 7th Ward that he had come out of retirement and would resume his previous non-occupation of traveling the United States of America under the pretense of “wanting to hang out and write some crap.”
“I just got sick of paying bills, man,” said Starsailor, wiping tears from his eyes. “Those Oakland streets were really chewing me up. I have a lot of fun over there and I’m gonna stick around for a long time, but I gotta start going places like I used to or I’m gonna pop.”
Starsailor, whose recent trip to New Orleans awakened him to the fact that he had been vacantly staring at the same walls for far too long, says he plans to completely change the way he earns money and fills the hours in order to accommodate his desired lifestyle of transience and discomfort.
“When I get back home I figure I’ll drive rich people around in that old police car me and John have to make some money. I’ve done it a couple dozens times in San Francisco and people go nuts about it. Maybe now that I’ll be making my own schedule and earning every penny myself I’ll have time to go off and finish my novel. That thing needs to be done already—before I’m done, if you know what I mean. It just isn’t happening right now. I’m spread too thin. If you saw me right now you’d say, ‘Now there goes a broken man.’ I’m static and vapor. I’m a ghost’s fart.”
Before losing consciousness, Starsailor had this to add: “Baby—what else can I say: I’m back. I’m ready to go places and write and sleep on your couch while you’re at work. I’m a free man. I gotta be free. I was dead for a while but now I’m alive again. As alive as I’ll ever be, anyway. And that’s something. It certainly isn’t nothing.”
Alf lived in a cabin that he built with his hands in the woods of Tennessee. He kept bees there. Everyone told me he was a good man. They said it with traces of reverence.
I can’t remember his face. I do remember his soft white beard and the peaceful feeling you got just looking at him. I do remember his build. Short, thin and strong.
He spoke softly. I don’t think he spoke much. I only remember one thing he said, as he turned around to walk back into the trees with three dogs at his heels.
“I’m up to my ass in dogs,” said Alf.
Just inland from the cliffs there’s an abandoned naval battery overlooking the ocean, concrete jammed into dry hills and sage. From this vantage were mounted two 16″ artillery guns that could fire two-thousand pound shells twenty-five miles offshore.
The guns are gone now. Deconstructed and shipped off in favor of subtler defense systems. The two archways at the back of the hill are the nostrils of a fossilized dragon, expelling phantom breaths that smell like old copper, but it’s only the wind blowing clear through.
The northern nostril is a dark rectangular corridor smeared with graffiti. At the end the light through the arc slit spills over a circular pit surrounded by a guard rail, where the rotating gun mount once rested. Now the pit is full of stagnant rainwater, the rainwater full of aquatic foliage, the foliage teeming with newts.
Floating in the shade, legs outstretched, with dark backs toward the surface, soft white underbellies to the murky below. They hover at one depth or another, undulate forward or backward, up or down. Ribbons of dirty, fleshy life that want for nothing. The calm is unbroken. It seems to be paradise.
To ask how they got there is like asking how fish got into the ocean. Through the cracks, don’t you know. Wriggling through little fissures of happenstance. A newt plucked from the nearby tidal marsh by a hungry stork circa 1965, wriggling free of the beak a hundred feet up, plummeting down, a lifetime of horrible animal terror in the air. Then the splash, the discovery, perhaps some androgynous transformation not unknown to amphibians to yield a squirming spawn, the First Newt’s descendants trapped by sheer concrete walls, unaware of the desolate coastal landscape, of any outside. Sacred tranquility, sludge and quiet.
There is the very human desire to mess with the thing. Introduce variables. A population of crabs. A vial of mercury. An octopus. Anything. For a purpose more sinister than knowledge, more sinister than control, that childish sadism, breaching the walls of eden, ravaging the natives with religion they never thought they’d have in them ’til they saw your kind of death, your kind of science.
Or, the paradise is not what it seems. A newt colony established and maintained by snakes. Lifetimes of fresh livestock for the sunbathing reptiles.
Or the wriggling forth from the beak of the stork, what has over generations become the mythological origin of the newt city, opting for noble death by gravity—the wriggling escape was staged, an intentional loosening of grip, at the right speed, moment, altitude, with a gentle torque, and down the little bastard went. Into the water to sire a plentiful feeding ground, hidden away for storks-in-the-know in times of drought.
The mythology, too, part of the theater. To make the newts proud, blind to the occasional disappearance of a newt-friend snatched in the night by untold slithering horrors. Oh no, that newt was never here at all. Relax. Float. The water is particularly salty this morning don’t you agree. Glub, glub.
I don’t feel well. I closed all the shutters in Leila’s room partly for the novelty, but mostly because I’m tired of seeing the sun. A thunderstorm woke me this morning and I figured it would keep raining all day—in fact I hoped it would, I haven’t seen rain in three months—but it stopped around noon and the sky has been clear since.
Beyond the closed shutters and ten feet below me is a little garden. I tried to get to it but an iron-wrought gate kept me from entering through the back door in the kitchen. When Leila gets home I will ask her where the key is. For now I am trapped inside this ancient house.
All day I have watched the light move across the sky, have watched the plants shake on this desk whenever I tap a single key on my computer. The air conditioner is on and the room is cool. The rest of the house is steamy and humid but it feels nice.
At this point I have had three cups of tea and a sip of Leila’s lukewarm Anchor Steam she took from a bar last night—a bar where you can get a haircut while you drink. I found an apple in the refrigerator and ate that too. It didn’t do much for me though. My stomach is so empty it hurts. I have considered walking to Cake Cafe a mile away to get something to eat. I haven’t been there in three years. I remember it being good. But I also feel fine here even with all that emptiness inside me.
And anyway the door is still locked, and I still don’t know what to do about that. I could open a top-story window and climb down but I don’t know how I’d get back up. If I fell I might break something. Despite the State of California’s near-daily insistence that I have health insurance, I don’t actually have health insurance. So I’m here.
The entire house shakes when a truck passes. At least a hundred have passed by today. I don’t know if that’s normal. I’ve only been here a day.
In the darkness Leila and I walked beneath gaslit lanterns and alien vegetation. She told me a cyclist was hit by a tractor-trailer just blocks from where we were. She said someone took a picture and she had seen it. The cyclist was decapitated and his legs were separated from his torso. People are getting raped and mugged too, she said. New Orleans, for all its strange beauty, is still mostly a lawless place. As we went along I scanned the blackness and the hidden places there for the ugly faces that would do us harm.
A complete stranger has just called. She says she wants to take me to a park. I told her I would go as long as she had me back by six-thirty. That is when Leila returns, and when the two of us will eat those little squares from Golden Gate Park just to see what happens.
Tomorrow I go to Lafayette. On Monday I go to Austin. After that I guess I’ll go home.