F e b r u a r y   2 0 0 3

Guest Writer

Things could have turned out differently
Gimme shelter
by Edward Morris Jr.

eek ye ever to stand in the hard Sophoclean light, and take your wounds from it gladly."

– Ezra Pound

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:

he 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.

The 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 wondering.

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 just disgusting."

My coughing and crying woke Ali up. She made a disgusted noise in her sleep, rolled over on the futon and stole all the covers.

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 thing.

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 nothing.

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 more subtle.

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 October.

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 once.

The 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
24 hours."

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 afterward.

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."

But 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 me?"

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 think.

nd 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.

Let 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 directions.

ometimes, all we need to continue to be alone
are the dead, rattling the walls that close us in."

– Charles Bukowski

E-mail Edward at dante3000@gmail.com, and don't miss his previous work.

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