could have turned out differently
ye ever to stand in the hard Sophoclean light, and take your wounds
from it gladly."
The freeway to hell is hot-topped with a surface
made utterly from good hearts. Along the way, there are entire
refugee camps in the woods made up of people trying to get back.
I was walking back from the deli with a backpack
full of Pabst Blue Ribbon tall cans when I saw the burlap sack
by the side of the road. And I can honestly say that I have not
been the same since.
I had my knife, too. I'm still kicking my own ass
about that. Right now, it's probably the most expensive thing
I own. It's a little Spyderco Harpy, keychain-sized, sharp enough
to cut copper pipe. I could have unzipped that sack right away.
But would it have been worth it, after all? Would
I not still be here at the Joke Man's campsite, unshaven and unshorn,
cooking expired Polish sausage over a cinderblock fire pit, looking
like some sort of hangdog Walt Whitman? Would I not still have
an impacted wisdom tooth, a bench warrant out for my arrest for
unpaid tickets from the last time I was dumb enough to go downtown
and sell plasma, and my very own tailor-made ghost?
Yeah, the ghost. That situation just got a hell
of a lot more interesting.
But we'll get there. I have to tell this one the
way the Joke Man would: right from the beginning, simple and direct,
and not leave anything out. And with the Joke Man's methodology
... well, you find on the street that what people don't say is
just as important as what they do.
Or something like that. I don't know. I didn't get
much sleep. Anyway, let's go:
sack had been laying in a big pile of oak leaves so long that
the patch of ground beneath it had sunken considerably. It was
a few feet back from the road, visible if you were on foot.
From the road, it would have been another unremarkable
hillock in the underbrush. Around it, the leaves were turning
to soil. Orange highway-department poppies grew in lush, verdant
festoons at those edges. At its far end, a pair of motor-oil stained
panties (must have been some night) had randomly blown
over the neck of a Mickey Bigmouth bottle.
sack was, in fact, vaguely body-shaped. I stopped, looked again,
then really looked again. It did not have the appearance of a
funerary tableau, not really. It had the look of having been thrown
from a speeding car.
And I came totally unhinged. I just stood there
I was starting to freak out, and the deer-in-the-headlights
look in my eyes had actually come with me from home, in somewhat
more latent form. The sack was the last straw from several bales
of similar strapped to my back.
Paradoxically, I practically ran back to the apartment.
I had beer to drink, and Ali would be in class until six. There
was always the possibility that one of my four pet temp agencies
would call back. I knew already that all five of the referrals
the Unemployment Office had thrown me were actually snapped up
the day before. So I shrugged, like I do, and made my way back
to the apartment.
That night, the dream tore me out of bed.
I stood where I had been, just past that weird
intersection by the deli, and walked into the underbrush, clicking
open my knife. Somewhere, a bird cried out.
The guy in the sack was skinny, wearing a jaunty
Alpine hat that was filthy with loam and mold. The feather was
almost matted completely down. He couldn't have been more than
21, but the kind of 21 that knew everything about 21 before it
ever hit 12.
His little rounded, transparent fish-teeth gleamed
in a death rictus. His goatee had been coming along well. His
arms were folded at his chest. His shakepole frame was wrapped
in a green flannel shirt, torn-up jeans and a pair of high oxblood
Doc Martens boots with cone spikes around the upper rims. The
Docs looked as if a pen full of small, rabid dogs had been clinging
to them for weeks and only recently divested themselves.
I swallowed hard, putting the knife away. I felt
like I had opened Pandora's Box.
The guy turned to look at me. Sort of. His head
lolled in my direction and the rolled-up eyes popped open. The
skin of his face had gone a purplish-gray that looked painful.
When he spoke, I intuited his style of speech
as pure back-sticks tweeker, full of pops and buzzes and stops
and starts, conversations picked up an hour later under the manic
babbling high of Methedrine.
"You know, man, it's like floating in a
vat full of warm oil. You know nothing's going to happen. It's
My coughing and crying woke Ali up. She made a disgusted
noise in her sleep, rolled over on the futon and stole all the
A cold black fear fell across my heart like the
wing shadow of a carrion crow.
It was just about eight a.m. I got up and made coffee,
hitting the snooze alarm six billion times in the process until
Ali got up, half an hour late, to drag her ass to her Anatomy
and Physiology lecture.
I had to call three of the four agencies back, and
was knocking my brains out on some ghost story. The coffee pot
hissed and howled like The Great Gurgle in a Mercer Mayer cartoon.
It was a normal day.
It was too late for Howard Stern on any channel
I knew about, so I pulled up KGON on Web radio in the other room
and listened to Mick Jagger advising me that if I didn't get some
shelter, I would soon fade away.
I sighed at that, looking back at the bedroom from
the computer desk. The leaves on the crabapple tree down below
the window were starting to turn. It was getting late in the year
for Ali and me both, and we were both so very, very tired.
We picked up the other one's bad habits. I won't
bore you there. She just didn't care anymore. That was the whole
It had started out as a noble experiment between
us, but she never finished any noble experiment she started on
spec. She had put up with so much of my shit and I had put up
with so much of hers. She was five years younger than me and in
a totally different world; I was still laid off, the honeymoon
was over, and the green grass grew all around. Nothing that a
steak dinner and a good movie would not have initially cured.
But we never talked about anything anymore. It was
like we were trying to hit bottom. For us, bad was better than
So much of the time, I wanted to scream at the top
of my lungs. But I just sat there. Like I do.
Leslie was supposed to come over later, which meant
that I had to suddenly remember some overdue books or something
and gracefully disappear. Leslie couldn't run me down to my face.
Making me feel like a refugee in my own apartment was so much
I had given up, after a while. Some days, Leslie
got Ali out of my hair for a time and allowed me to write and
think and relax. And what male human would have a problem with
his girlfriend having a girlfriend? Or so I thought at the time.
As soon as Ali perfunctorily kissed me good-bye
that morning and shambled off to class, I had my shoes on. But
I wasn't walking back up to I-5 for more beer. As Hemingway once
wrote, this would have been an incredibly bad time to get tight.
I knelt there, looking at the sack. I could almost
see the shape of the face beneath its burlap shroud.
I had a yard of things I should have been doing.
I knew that even then. But I could not have stayed away, pacing
back and forth and tonguing the new socket of my bottom left wisdom
tooth, endlessly, endlessly.
Once I hesitated, with my hand on my knife, I reached
down and touched the place that could have been the face. It was
hard, and it felt vaguely like meat. But it could have been anything.
My fingers seemed to burn with frostbite when I
pulled them away. It felt like some kind of atrophy, like being
stuck on pause. I didn't like it. It made me think of everything
I had been avoiding.
I shivered, standing up. It was coming on cold for
Cowardice is a spiny beast. Long after you could
possibly ever amend it, you find yourself still tonguing the socket,
returning to the scene of the crime again and again.
I was starting to think about the Joke Man, tall
and skinny and mullet-headed at his eternal bench under the gazebo
at Lovejoy Fountain, with his eternal posse and pit bulls and
half-rack of Pabst.
He and his cronies lived in the woods just down
the hill from the sack, below I-5 and that surrealist
intersection where Broadway, the freeway, Fifth Avenue and numerous
supporting cast met in a non-Euclidean mess and exploded in midair.
They had a whole squatter colony, right down the
ridge. The woods went on a long way, down between Macadam Boulevard
and the Naito Parkway, past even the Rhododendron Gardens and
Oaks Park. If you worked at it a bit, you could hike clear to
Milwaukie through those woods and only have to cross the highway
cops and CHIERS probably never did any sweeps back there because
the government would rather bust speeders by the off-ramps than
go through the paperwork of rousting out 10 or 15 old drunks who
probably couldn't pony up for one squatting ticket between them.
I could see several old armchairs down there in
the woods, drawn up in a ring around one of their
fire pits, walled in by empty beer cases. The Joke Man was not
down there, though.
He would probably still be on the long wait down
at LaborReady at First and Arthur, those interminable folding-chair
hours from 5:30 a.m. for job orders that ground slowly if they
ground ever at all. The Joke Man got too restless to spange all
the time, he said. He'd only be out there by the highway with
a sign around the holidays.
It was nowhere near nighttime, but people were already
driving with their lights on early in the day. Fucking Oregon.
The word was starting to taste bad in my mouth, like the secret
name of some rain-drenched parallel world where night fell earlier
and earlier each day and science could not explain why.
That morning, down at LaborReady, I'd seen the Joke
Man sitting in the front row of folding chairs with his crew,
double-fisting coffee and holding forth:
"The only difference between them SUV-drivin'
mamma jammas and us is that they knew the right people to find
jobs that'd support their habits. That's a good book, kid."
I stood there for a moment, with my copy of Neil
Gaiman's "Stardust" in my hand, until I realized
he was speaking to me.
"Oh, uh, hrrmp. Yeah. It's a classic."
"Kid ..." The Joke Man leaned forward,
frowning through his handlebar mustache. "Why are you tryin'
to look so broke-down? Don't you know it gets greater later? Hell
He looked around. "We're all in the same boat.
We're all on the bus, man, bareback survival. We all have to pretend
to keep it together sometimes."
"It's all comin' down." I gulped. My bloodshot
eyes would not stay in focus. "I'm still in my first
He looked amazed. "You're in a program?"
I shook my head and sat down. "Breakups Anonymous."
"Oh, that first 24. Didja drop the dime
yet? Don't look like it."
"Tonight." I sighed.
"Kid ..." The Joke Man grinned with surprisingly
white, strong teeth, and clapped me on the back. "When there
has not been enough profanity invented to properly express what
you have to say ... there is usually a woman responsible. You
need a tarp?"
I had to think about what a "tarp" would
mean to him. Then I got it.
"Where's your campsite? I might actually take
you up on that."
And he told me ... but he was not done.
"What do LaborReady and lesbians have in common?"
It took me off guard. I shrugged. He glanced derisively
at the reception desk.
"Neither of 'em do dick."
Even after all of our cursory conversations at Lovejoy
Fountain, this was the first time I'd ever heard a joke from the
Joke Man without feeling obligated to offer him a handful of change
He looked pleased at the smile that bloomed across
my face in the wake of the laugh, and spread his palms outward
as if to hand the world back to me. "Rejoice, kid,"
he rasped. "You're free."
My smile grew rueful and self-deprecating. "Gimme
a little while."
I was already mentally preparing to sleep outside. And I could
not have said why.
Only that I was laid off, it was a quick fix ...
and I wouldn't be going it alone. It was the last fact that held
the most weight for me at the time.
That evening I wrote until 6:30, when she showed
up, and then my whole world warped out of sequence ...
"Do you want to break up?" I heard
her say. I was staring out the window at the crabapple tree. I
could not meet her eyes. The pestilential mess of that apartment
was already feeling like a refrigerated storage unit to me, no
matter how high the heater went. I couldn't hear her anymore,
and I had to stretch to read her lips.
"... Oh my God, you're breaking up with
The words were fading in and out from full fathom
five. I could hear the ocean in my skull. The static from sender
to receiver was very loud. In Communications theory, I believe
they call that a noise problem.
My feet and face had gone numb. I knew I wouldn't
be able to sleep that night. Even the
petulant, tired look, twisting Ali's beautiful face out of all
semblance of everything she pretended to be, seemed put on. All
I could do was walk away. Anything else would have been the most
embarrassing sort of suicide.
"Do you think that's best?"
"I don't know. I hope I'm not wrong."
She said I could stay a month till I got on my
feet. I told her I'd be gone in the morning. I slept in the dryer.
The next morning at six, I shuffled up to the Joke
Man in the front row of folding chairs at LaborReady just as the
receptionist was shoving the Personal Injury video into the VCR
for some hapless new victim down in front.
"About that tarp ..."
Of course, I had to wash the dishes at the campsite
that night. I expected that. But we all got sent out on some bullshit
warehouse detail for a few hours, so there was money for cheeseburgers
and beer. It could have been worse. At least I got my time to
now ... it is almost Christmas. No one knows where I am.
At least not firsthand. I blamed myself initially,
hiding out in the foothills like Osama bin Laden while
my old life faded away and my name went down the grapevine with
Leslie's party-line tabloid version of something that had once
seemed so clean and right and correct.
But then, I skulked down to the library at Tenth
and Taylor yesterday afternoon, and checked my e-mail. My overdue
fines had all been paid off a week before Ali and I broke up,
so they had no problem with one more dirty squatter paying them
a visit. Especially since I wasn't spanging out front.
There was one e-mail in my inbox. I had sent off
a manuscript to this agent in Seattle and completely forgotten
about it for the six-week industry protocol waiting game. I can't
imagine why I forgot. It's not like I had an incipient breakup
on my plate at the time.
He got it, all right. And now I am no longer thinking
about Ali, for one of the five-minute periods of not thinking
about her that my brain allows me each day, even now.
I am thinking about a postbox down at the Outside
In clinic. I just called them with 35 cents of returnable-bottle
money. They told me to come check every morning. The manuscript
has been edited for publication. He just wants me to take a look.
All those afternoons of Ali throwing her friends
in my face, where I could hear in her voice the sounds of Leslie's
hand so far up her ass she could have counted her fillings ...
All those jobs that never called me back after I lost the pimpin'
one on 9/11 last year ... All of that means nothing now.
Now I can really walk away. Almost.
the rest of them work their fingers to the bone digging the graves
they broke ground on when they were born. It doesn't change the
fact that I still have my half of this pie to eat.
I really needed Ali. And maybe things could have
turned out differently.
But I'm here now, at the side of the road up the
hill from my new tarp. And I'm clicking my knife open. And I can't
stop crying as I kneel down.
The burlap sack hisses a little puff of very old
dust around the blade as I unzip it at the seam.
I look to the sky once, trying not to vomit. My
heart is still as broken, and the clouds are still as black.
But when I finally make it to the pay phone at the
deli, the cops and the coroner have no problem understanding my
ometimes, all we need to continue to be alone
are the dead, rattling the walls that close us in."