(Previously: THE GREAT DUCK MURDER)
At noon I emerged from my nest of rags with a football of dog feces lodged in my throat . . . nothing but static in my head, bones twisted and wrong, tar under my fingernails. Breathing in that stale midday air I knew it was going to be another miserable eighteen hours of wakefulness—of chaos and scattered sadness and barely perceptible tragedies that I alone would witness. Some I would even render myself.
Walking down the hallway I made known to absolutely no one at all my opinion on waking up, and on being alive in general: “This again, huh.”
I needed fluids, so I stomped into the bathroom and drank a half gallon of water from the faucet, hoping to kill the taste and push it—whatever it was—into a bath of stomach acid deep below.
In the mirror I saw a bloated armadillo carcass and decided it was probably my face. I hadn’t shaved in days. There was cigarette ash in my hair. The spiderweb cracks under my eyes whispered, Sooner than later you’ll be dead.
Soaked in cold water I lurched down the hallway toward the stove, slumping against the wall to keep from falling down, and once in the mouth of the kitchen I grabbed a marker and managed to scribble on the dry-erase board above the trash can the only English words I could find in my brain:
“THERE WAS A LITTLE TOOL SHED WHERE HE MADE US SUFFER, SAD SATAN”
Against the adjacent wall was a mile-high stack of tin cans and beer bottles and crushed cereal boxes. On the floor I saw tumbleweeds of cat hair. I put the kettle on the burner and flicked the dial left till fire appeared from some hidden place. It was high time for tea. Hell, it was high time for hate.
Sitting naked on the couch, eyes dumb and drooping, I examined my arms, skeletal and poorly assembled, a thin layer of skin saran-wrapped around the mangled structure of some damn thing that once worked the way it should. The sunlight was all bad and the air was hot and heavy. I took in a chunky lungful and nearly threw up in my mouth but stopped short. Really ought to have just gone ahead and let it out of me, I thought . . . probably would have been more honest that way. But I was barely anything at all just then, and to lose more of myself seemed irresponsible.
I glanced down at my dick and frowned. There was nothing new to report on that front.
Sunset and Dawn were out on the porch sucking down cigarettes like Coca-Cola and I could tell I wanted nothing to do with their conversation. I heard “Well, it’s simply a perversion of the Oedipus complex. . . .” and knew I had to get the hell out of there before I screamed myself stupid.
Stood up and arched my back and listened to the bubbly chemicals between my vertebrae snap, crackle, and pop. For a moment I considered sitting down at the pathetic little desk in my bedroom to sort through case files. We had a whole stack of them that Sunset and I hadn’t bothered with for months . . . we’d been content to jerk off after midnight and dream of nicer weather . . . but the thought rotted away and instead I shook my head and closed my eyes and held my breath and tried to picture someone, anyone, who would drop to their knees when they heard I was cold and empty-eyed for-ever—and finding no one in my mind’s rolodex, I placed one death-white foot forward, not sure why, the wood under my feet disagreeable, then another, still bad, eyes slammed shut and sparkling with violent broken sparks, and walked straight into a wall, feeling nothing. My eyes and brain weren’t making moving pictures of the world any longer, at least not then, and so I bathed in the sad dark soup in my head, hearing the faint mumbling of the assholes outside who were still going on about this and that and sounding a whole lot like a couple of cavemen who had taken a few community college courses one summer a long fucking time ago.
Somewhere in the house, I think near the washing machine, I thought about the impulses of animals: to eat, to sleep, to fuck, to shit somewhere safe.
What were mine? Certainly nothing of consequence. To be destroyed? To cackle wildly in the face of great evil? To be comforted by the warmth of another human body? All window-dressing.
But Jesus, that Roth girl really had combed my hair with her fingers the night before in the dark wastes of ruby-lighted bar over by Lake Merritt. Hadn’t she?
Yes, she had connected her body to mine and quickly disconnected it once I had uttered the wrong thing—or had she simply heard the wrong thing? I couldn’t remember. Probably never knew what I had been saying in the first place. Just rambling for the sake of hearing the sound of my voice, crisp and dumb.
I shivered when I recalled her punching me in the chest and telling me I was a worthless creep before storming out of the place. And I had chased her outside where she threw her bicycle light at me, saying, “God damn these cheap batteries!” and me saying, “Baby, don’t go.”
A trio of homeless guys hanging out nearby chuckled when she angrily sped away from me. I must have looked like a dope, standing there holding that dead light and not knowing why.
But for those few minutes back in the bar her touch had gone right in me, and then through me, and working its way along the tar pits deep below, gave me the faintest hope for myself and every living creature out there who is insane and foolish enough to say ‘yes’ to tomorrow. . . .
Every night I drive aimlessly around Lake Merritt and through downtown Oakland and into the peaceful vanilla suburbs surrounding Berkeley. I try to forget about how little money I have, and how I don’t have health insurance, and how I probably own too few pairs of underwear. I go to dark places and see the darkness there. And once inside of it I park beneath a row of trees and get out. I wander the streets and put poison in my lungs. I stare emptily at warmly-lit windows and wonder about the mundane things going on behind them.
I walk by playgrounds and remember that children exist.
In vain I hope that someone will invite me into their house to drink tea and listen to music. Or climb small buildings and look at the hills.
No one else is around. I am alone. I am the only one seeing the nothing that happens there at night.
Later I drive back to Ghost Town and park the car two blocks from my house. I kill the engine and sit there listening to a few songs. Eventually I decide to go home. Walking down Sab Pablo Avenue I see graffiti on the sidewalk that I have passed hundreds of times. It says “GOD IS LOVE.” I think about getting a can of spray paint and changing it to “GOD IS TIRED.”
As I turn onto my street a homeless man asks me for a buck and I hand him a two-dollar bill I was planning to include in a letter to a pretty girl in Lafeyette. He tries to sell me a suitcase and I decline.
Further down another man asks if he can give me his dentures for collateral. I say, “Collateral for what?” and with watery eyes he says, “Brother I just need ten dollars to make it through the week.” I tell him to keep his teeth and I go inside and find whatever bills I have on my desk and give them to him.
I lock the door behind me and put the kettle on the burner. I make sleepytime tea and take a melatonin. I have absentmindedly made the fatal error of combining the two. Either I will sleep forever or I will die before the sun comes up. As far as I can tell there is no real difference between these outcomes.
Dante jumps on the kitchen counter and chirrups to let me know he is hungry. With a silver knife that is not mine I slice a puck of expensive cat food in half and shovel it out of a tin can and into a little blue bowl. I pour warm water over it and set it on the floor. He laps it up and purrs.
I don’t open the cabinets or the refrigerator to make food for myself. I have no food for myself.
I go into my room and sit in the center of my bed. Under the glow of many Christmas lights I write letters to people in Texas and Virginia and Quebec and Nova Scotia. The window is open and I hear my neighbor screaming at her children.
Blade Runner is muted on my television. I glance up at the screen and watch Harrison Ford kiss Sean Young for maybe the five-hundredth time in my life.
No one will be coming to kiss me tonight or any night. When they want to see me they will make me come to them. And mostly I won’t.
When I sleep I dream of all the different ways I could die.
Tonight my car is on Stinson Beach. There are no stars and no moon in the sky. I am sitting in the driver’s seat looking at the ocean. I am not thinking of anything. After a while my vision goes black.
Now I am someone else and it is daylight. I trace the tire tracks in the sand to the decommissioned police car resting near the shoreline. The inside windows are covered in blood. The person behind the wheel is probably dead. I am probably dead. I don’t approach the car. I wince at the sun. I stare at the waves.
The sun has just come up and I am rocketing across the Bay Bridge in a Tesla electric sports car. The driver is half-drunk and asking me to read from a stack of paper at my feet. My leg is still bleeding from a bicycle wreck the previous night and I may throw up inside the one hundred thousand dollar car at any moment.
San Francisco is on both sides and the sky is completely cloudless. As we rip past the city and head south towards Palo Alto, the driver tells me there are bagels under my seat and that I am welcome to have one. She tells me to keep reading from the paper. My head is pounding and I feel gutted and twisted and horrible and I want the car to crash and for San Francisco to explode.
At the airport she opens the trunk and I get out. I make eye contact with a silver-haired man and when I do he sneers at me. He says to me wordlessly that it is ridiculous for anyone my age, or maybe anyone at all, to be driving around in such an absurd vehicle. I am too tired to tell him I agree.
I walk around to the back and collect my bag. I wave to the driver, saying, “I’ll see you when I get back. I think I’m coming back.” She squints her eyes and smiles a little and turns away.
“I’m getting a root canal today,” she says, not looking at me. “And then I’m getting a tattoo.”
She gets in the car and slams the door. The little silver car rockets through the passenger unloading zone at eighty miles per hour and disappears soundlessly around a corner.
• • •
Gate 30 is full of terrified, miserable people who are probably on their way back to Wisconsin. An old woman drops her sandwich in front of me and screams, “Aw, fuck it! I don’t fuckin’ care anyway!” and storms off, dragging her wheeled suitcase with her. Over the next ten minutes, three separate people walk by and examine the corpse of the sandwich, which has exploded onto the millimeter-thick piece of shit carpet, saying, “Oh no!”
A pretty girl is sitting across from me. With one hand she is holding a paper cup filled with coffee and in her other hand she is reading something on her phone. It makes me feel weird. I don’t care that she is pretty anymore. I don’t care that anyone is pretty anymore.
I look around. Everyone is holding coffee with one hand and a phone in the other. For a moment I consider bolting out of my seat and running around knocking coffee and phones out of everyone’s hands, screaming, “Be free, ape folk! Be free, you crazy god damn fools!” I figure some TSA officer with a bad haircut and a clip-on tie would taze me to death in seconds if I did that. Instead I stare at my shoes and calculate how many miles I will have to travel before I can lie down in a bed again.
One thousand six hundred miles is the magic number. The number makes me feel exhausted.
After a few minutes the old woman returns with a fistful of napkins and scoops up the remains of her lunch. “Can’t just fuckin’ leave it here like this! That ain’t no way to act!”
A doughy middle-aged man in a blue polo shirt is pacing around me and talking on his cell phone. It is one of the most idiotic conversations I have ever heard—something about lawn furniture and football. He is talking about these things as if they are nuclear launch codes. Somewhere else I can hear a couple discussing the logistics of wearing their jackets on the airplane when they don’t yet know the cabin temperature. The woman is holding a book called When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles. With her other hand she is moving a stroller back and forth. The child inside screams and announces to the world that it would like some ice cream.
I am half asleep in my chair listening to Flood. I feel like a bucket of dog feces. I try to remember why I am going to Austin and can think of no good reason. Briefly I seriously consider taking a train home.
• • •
Eventually they file all of us dumb sacks of hamburger meat onto the plane. Everyone’s face is drooping and the air is foul. I pick the window seat on the wing and slump against the wall and fall asleep.
I wake up in San Diego.
In San Diego I find a chair near my connecting flight and decide that anyone who likes airports is a delusional moron. Looking around I notice that my gate to Austin is between the gates leading to Baltimore and Oakland. I am surrounded by portals to every city I have ever lived in—and in chronological order.
When my plane arrives a famous porn star steps off the jet bridge and walks by me. I look up at her and she smiles. It is a strange, uncomfortable smile. She is mostly not real anymore. Her lips are not her own. Every man in the room watches her as she approaches a little cafe to order coffee. They dart their eyes around nervously.
As the plane begins to board, I regret not going back to Oakland when I still had the chance. A woman in line behind me whispers, “There’s the boy from San Francisco! Guess he’s going to San Antonio, too.”
• • •
Rudie calls me when I get to San Antonio. He says he is walking around baggage claim looking for me. I tell him my baggage is on my back.
We find each other near a crowd of cheerful elementary school children. They are excited to be in San Antonio.
Together we walk to the parking garage and get in his car. He asks me if I have any deodorant in my bag. He says, “I love you, but right now you smell like a homeless person.”
The sun sets on the drive to Austin. I look at the sky and realize I had not thought about Texas at all in the nine months I have been away from it.
• • •
Rudie parks his car on my old street. We get out and go into the house next door to the place where I used to live. Inside are my old neighbors. I remember liking them and I remember them liking me.
Everyone I used to know is gathered in the kitchen. Their feelings must have changed, because when I come in they look at me like I am Adolf Hitler. I ask if I can leave my bag somewhere. One of them says “sure.” I ask where Jason is—I haven’t seen Jason in almost a year—and someone says he is riding his pedicab downtown. I say we are going for walk and they look at the ground and say nothing.
I tell Rudie I know of a diner nearby. He and I walk down lamplit streets and through dark fields of grass to get there. As we pass Spider House Cafe I point to all the swirling neon and madness and say, like an old man, “I liked that place. I used to go there all the time.” In my brain I feel an annoying sentimentality for all the god damn queso I ate there. We keep walking and I watch a band set up on the outdoor stage. Soon it will be loud and my memories of melted cheese will vanish.
At the diner we stuff food into our mouths and drink a gallon of coffee. Rudie says he is going to move to Tokyo soon and wants me to come to his wedding there. I tell him that I am never going to get married, but that I like weddings anyway. I like Tokyo too. I tell him I haven’t been there in three years.
We talk about Nakano prefecture and the little curry restaurant there. Rudie says it still exists—he ate there weeks ago. I feel pathetic when news of this restaurant is exciting to me, because for god’s sake, what affect does that have on my life at all.
I pay the bill and we shamble out of the place. In the parking lot I hear music in the sky. Bands are playing everywhere for miles. It sounds psychedelic and terrifying. Rudie says he is going back to San Antonio and we hug and he drives off.
I start walking towards the university campus. I take a plastic filter from my breast pocket and shove a crumpled cigarette into it.
• • •
It is nighttime and the wind is cold. I am walking through campus and my hands are in my pockets. In the dark I think that Austin is a toy city made of cardboard and plastic and I am trapped inside. I am wandering the shelled-out nightmare ruins of a life that used to be mine. Everywhere I look is someplace I have been before. Now I can see none of it is real anymore. I have left it and it has gone from me too.
At twenty-six my life is the worst episode of The Twilight Zone ever written.
I have made my way into the central part of this strange place. I stand at the foot of the clock tower and slam another cigarette into the filter. I had bought a pack earlier at the airport to use as currency. People always want a god damn cigarette from you. And if you give them one, they tell you things or invite you along to wherever they’re going and sometimes, later, into their cars and homes. Then it gets weird—all because of a cigarette.
I am thinking about where a cigarette might take me when two boys walk by. One of them is talking loudly and the other has no choice but to listen—maybe because he thinks this person is his friend, or maybe because generally it is rude to run away from someone even if what they are saying is complete garbage.
In this case the garbage is the worst kind of toxic waste: “Dude we got drunk and took xanax on the beach. Then we fuckin’ did some fuckin’ MDMA and later acid back at the house. Dude—then hours later we smoked a buncha weed. Hah! And we’re just so high and feeling so great and someone says something about sleep and the whole room laughs. It’s like, come on, dude. Sleep? How can you sleep at a time like this?”
And on and on.
As they pass I watch them. And when they look at me I don’t look away. I had told a friend the week before that I have stopped looking away. It really rattles the squares when you do that—when they catch you eyeing them and you keep doing it anyway.
The dopey kid talking about ingesting near-fatal quantities of drugs looks nervous as hell about it. He watches me out of the corner of his eye and seems to falter. His voice lowers and the story, or whatever you want to call the damn thing, tapers off into a pathetic mumble. He doesn’t feel cool anymore. I have invalidated his entire life with silence and a stony glare.
The pair is silent now, walking somewhere in that late hour, maybe to a nice place where no dumb jerks like me can sneer at their idiot banter any longer.
Jesus, I think. These god damn kids are fools. I was a fool as well back then, no way around it, but I was a different sort of fool. At least my mind was straight. At least I told half decent stories. Well—maybe they’re studying engineering. Maybe they’re going to grow up to be biochemists. I’m just another loser with no place to go. I’m on a college campus where I have never taken a single class, and I’m smoking a cigarette and judging strangers on the merit of their storytelling.
I look across the way and see the Texas State Capitol lit up the color of the moon. I wonder if I should go to it. No one is expecting me anywhere. I am prepared to sleep outside. If I die and some larger animal eats what’s left of me I am fine with that.
• • •
The main drag is empty and I am alone. I hear a bird shriek out and immediately assume it isn’t real, just a recording. I haven’t heard a bird in months.
When I reach Pearl Street I stop and think about a girl who used to live in a big house there. I haven’t slept in almost two days and in my delirium and insanity I consider that maybe she is still inside and all I have to do is go in and find her. And when I do I can lie down next to her and fall asleep.
I walk up to the front door and, gazing in at the warm light in the center of all that emptiness, I remember that she is five years older now and thousands of miles away.
Some kids are sitting in a car parked outside. They are laughing and talking. When I walk down the path to get back to the sidewalk they stop and look at me with disgust. My eyes are sunken and my face is pale and gaunt. I feel old and unwanted.
For miles I walk through the darkness not feeling anything. I reach Guadalupe Street and head north, retracing a path I have taken hundreds or thousands of times before.
As I turn onto 34th Street I blink and feel the warmth of my eyelids on my frozen face. My vision begins to dim and I nearly collapse.
The front door to Jason’s house is unlocked. Inside all the lights are out. I tread through the gloom to get to him. He is asleep on his bed. His arm is lit up by the moonlight peaking in through his bedroom window. I nearly place my hand on it but decide not to.
I go into the living room and sit cross-legged on the floor for a while. I wonder if Jason stills knows me. I consider waking him just to ask. I become fearful when I realize the answer might be “no.”
A rooster crows somewhere nearby. The sun will be up in less than an hour. I crawl from the floor to the couch. The room is freezing. I don’t have a pillow or a blanket. I take off my denim jacket and throw it over my legs. I wrap my arms around my torso and close my eyes.
The Legionnaire Salon, after midnight . . . everyone spilling out onto the street, smoking cigarettes and ignoring a lone dope merchant I always see working on my street. He somehow recognizes my face as I stagger through the crowd . . . a crowd where I look like everyone else: burned out and grease-slicked and uninteresting. He rolls through a few small clusters of dead-eyed white kids on a mountain bike I’ve never seen before—he’s never on the same bicycle twice—and me, twisted and insane and slushed all around, I stand there swaying gently and pretending to understand what he’s saying. He holds up a plastic bag filled with shake but I can’t make sense of why anything at all is happening to me . . . and wanting to be away from faces and voices I make an excuse and walk away.
“What would you offer me?” he says to my back. “For all this? The weed? The bike? Whichever. You can have one or the other—or both. Shit, I’d sell you both.”
“I’ve got nothing, man,” I say, turning around. I flatten my hands and hold them horizontally in front of me. “Nothing at all. And I know you don’t want nothing for that something.”
“You know me,” he says. “You see me all the time. You know I’m all right.”
“Yes, I know you. And actually I like you a lot. But I have twelve dollars in cash at home and that is all I have. Tomorrow I must buy eggs with that money. And do what with the rest I have no idea. Hide it, maybe.”
“Ask around, will ya? I know you know some of these kids.”
Standing there drooling on myself I think, for god’s sake, I know none of these fucking kids.
By the corner I see another man from my street sitting on a little stool with his back against the wall. He’s older. He has the biggest hands I’ve ever seen a person have. He looks upset. And despite that fact that he’s a pathological liar I figure maybe he’s genuinely upset tonight.
I wave, he motions me over with his gigantic hands. And getting close he says his car has been destroyed by “freaks”—and how will I get to work in the morning? he says, what with the windows being smashed out, and the engine fucked beyond repair.
He points to a drawing of a woman he has propped up beside him. Yes! In the dimness of my brain I remember that he draws. John and I saw him and some of his students at a restaurant a few months before when we were roaring drunk on hot sake . . . he was half insane that night but funny as hell.
Standing there beside him I think, well, insane pathological liar or not, this creep knows what to do with a piece of charcoal. That much is true. What’s my excuse?
“Can I draw you? For whatever you’ve got in your pocket?”
I search my denim jacket for something and find a two-dollar bill I didn’t know I had. I hand it to him. He puts it in his pocket and rests his head in his hands.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do tomorrow. Or ever.”
“Do you have anything else?”
“I don’t. You’ve got it in your pocket now.”
I see John across the way and walk over to him. “John,” I say. “Our friend is here.”
“What?” he says. He looks like he wants to punch my face off.
“Just follow me.” John follows me.
“Oh hey, neighbor,” says the artist as we approach.
“Do you have any money on you?” I say to John. John doesn’t check his pockets.
“Are you sure?”
The three of us stare at the ground. No one has any money.
John says he’s leaving and quickly darts away from me. I watch him and a few others walk down Telegraph and turn left on Grand Ave. I follow for a bit, mostly because I’m not sure what else I should be doing. At the corner of Grand I fall to my knees on the sidewalk. I look around. Across the street is the gas station where I always fill up the Doomsmobile and buy smokes. I feel nice for a moment, thinking about that god damn gas station.
Further down Telegraph, near the Fox Theater, I see dozens of police SUVs—the ones the city purchased recently to scare everyone. I hear sirens and see flashing lights. Over there, someone is hurt maybe.
I stand up and make a terrible noise with my throat. My blood feels awful. I try walking and collapse once more.
John, far away now, spins around and recognizes my shape rotting on the sidewalk like a bag of garbage.
“Is that—” he says.
He walks to the end of the block and turns left. That is the dark street where we left the car next to a dead meter and an empty parking lot—and where, in seconds, I will wait quietly until voices which know the way tell me where to go.