Clocks are off, again.
Analog, a burden.
Just when the body
was beginning to adjust;
as if the hour
Clocks are off, again.
Analog, a burden.
Just when the body
was beginning to adjust;
as if the hour
I often find it difficult
to answer their question
of, where do you live?
when this here
is just existing.
“A little self-knowledge is a dangerous thing.” – Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
Part One: Dusk
At dusk, one relishes the inexactness of his environment, navigating off sounds and vibrations, relying purely on instincts and what he expects of the terrain, and acting at times impulsively under the crossover of night.
By no means was it a coincidence that such a sudden dismantling of affairs came at the hands of Eddie. Eddie Adams, a fellow who specifically warned me not to trust a man with two first names; a fellow who, furthermore, was dealing with a mild case of self-induced psychosis when the thirst for a cheap thrill reared its ugly head. At the time, and for a brief stretch of static months surrounding it, Eddie’s mind was captained by frequent doses of psychedelics: tiny increments of highly saturated substances delivered on whatever means of transportation they could arrive – over gummy bears, in corked glass vials, on floral-patterned blotter paper – and so rampant the habit ran that most days would end with questioning God, man, time, matter: all condensed into one long exhale. Sometimes crying, often laughing, and a lot of hugging; a powerful cycle of total oneness. A destruction of ego. A reminder of one’s simplest needs. An aberration: the massive flushing of the senses.
Such lunacy was, no less, precluded by first sight of the fellow – his stringy frame, sudden movements, disheveled hair, and sun-tanned skin – as he paced alongside a bus stop on MLK Blvd. one January morning, attacking the voice on his telephone in a heightened pantomime. A whirl of traffic flashed before him, and the Hawaiian cut, flamingo print of his blaze-blue button-up made his chest rise as he squawked around like a bird, puffing his chest out and walking on the wedges of his sandals while he waved a finger. I remember passing him on a bus heading into the city and, even without knowing him, feeling his distress. Meeting Eddie face-to-face a few days later only confirmed, however, that this was simply his preferred way of communicating.
Nico and I sat Eddie down in the center of the room, our chairs propped to fishbowl the long black leather sofa where he sat. Nico was a new acquaintance of mine, a friendly stranger linked off the web who was kind enough to let me into his home to pitch my own story, just weeks prior. Out of respect for the home, I let Nico do most of the talking. Eddie was skittish, but grinning under his caterpillar-sized mustache as he sat before us. I could sense Nico needling his every movement, his eyes appearing uncharacteristically on edge and seemingly unsettled by Eddie’s own unsettlement.
“So, what brought you to the city?” Nico asked. From our few conversations up to that point, I came to notice how he had his way of controlling a discussion, and this was by pitching a single, pointed question; while awaiting an answer, Nico would configure his own lengthy segue that often would bleed into a whole new topic of conversation. At the very least, you would have an answer, but at times his responses were so elaborate and introspective that it would cause confusion over what was being prompted in the first place.
“Well,” Eddie laughed, anxiously. “I heard this was a cool place to be.”
“You said you were living in Detroit before this?” I asked.
“Yeah, just outside of the city. Nice neighborhood,” Eddie shrugged. “Sort of boojie though. Lots of presumption.” He smirked, before realizing neither of us were smiling.
“So, what do you think you’ll be doing for work?” Nico implored.
“Well, I’m open to anything, really. I figure there’s enough service work to go around. Maybe try my hand at a restaurant, or slinging coffee.”
Nico’s demeanor began to change as he rocked back in his seat, and examined Eddie. “Sure,” he said, “You could do pretty well around here. They’re just putting up a new hotel downtown, and that’s supposed to be pretty nice.”
“Yeah, I’m not too concerned about it. I’m really just trying to get out of this hostel I’ve been staying at, find somewhere stable to live,” cracked Eddie. “This whole sleeping with ear-buds in every night is fucking my shit up, yo.”
“Well, you wouldn’t have to worry about noise here,” Nico said. “I’m pretty quiet, and I keep to myself. It seems like Calvin does, too. As long as you don’t mind late nights. Sometimes people come in and out, but mostly during the day.”
“Not at all. I’m a night-owl myself, so that’s cool.” Eddie slid forward in his chair and exhaled with a sort of relief. “So, what do you guys do?”
“I’m an artist,” said Nico. “Freelance, mostly. I started out drawing, but have gotten into oils and acrylics. A little photography, too.” He paused and looked at me. “I haven’t read any of his work, but Calvin here says he’s a writer.”
“Awesome, man. I’m into photography, too,” Eddie replied, and then looking over at me with a smile. “I’ve done some video projects with writer friends as well, a few traveling documentaries. Nothing lately, but I’d love to get hooked up with a good crew.” He began nervously twirling the ends of his bushy, black mustache into tiny coils.
“OK. Well, how long do you expect to be in the city? Where do you see yourself in a year?” Nico raised an eyebrow as he watched Eddie. “The terms on this room are month-to-month. But, I’d like to get a gauge on what your expectations are for the city. Saves us the burden if you all of a sudden are gone one morning and the room is empty.”
“Shit, hopefully right here,” answered Eddie, with a quick smile. “I’m all about the short-term right now, so month-to-month sounds perfect.”
“Good enough. Well, thanks for coming to sit down with us. We can let you know in the next day or so.”
“Oh. OK,” Eddie replied, nervously shifting to stand. On his way to the door, he hopped around the space, taking a long look at the rugged sofa and blemished carpets. “Well, I’m definitely interested. It seems like a good spot. You two seem like cool guys. So, hopefully this works out. Thanks for letting me come by.”
Eddie moved in later that week, bringing with him a pair of duffles, an armful of snacks, a jumbled stack of keyboard kits and a drum set, plus a myriad of tiny trinkets. To each of our respective work zones, his presence was of no hindrance; Nico continued to carve away on his easel, often into the night and well through it. Since Nico naturally assumed most of the common area, and was the longest-tenured resident, my own work was conceited to the dwelling of my bedroom, with novels and notebooks scattered out over an L-shaped desk that had been left behind by the previous tenant.
On occasion, I would step out into the half-lit, often silent and haphazardly arranged space for a pot of coffee, a bite to eat, or a small bout of conversation with Nico, if he was between sets or had so much as looked up from his task. Many of my first days in the city – known as The Plains – were, however, spent alone, pondering the various events that led me down there in the first place.
For on a whim, I had thrown caution to the wind and bid farewell to the only place I knew to be home, one bleak January morning. Smiling with a wad of cash lining the inside pocket of my windbreaker jacket, and carrying two duffle bags containing a few extra sets of clothes, I caught a ride from a childhood friend who happened to be making his way down south, to see his father.
To my peers, leaving home was something of a protest, not something natives often did; it was even ascribed by those much older and wiser than I as an act of bravery. Yet, when the word brave arose, I was never quite sure how to respond; rather, it seemed to require more courage to stay put and be buried close enough to the cradle than to embark upon a journey into the unknown.
For as exciting as the endeavor seemed on the ride down, however, a cold, rather surreal sensation came over me as I stepped out of the car on that cloud-covered, misty morning, which would be my first of a few hundred on The Plains. The sky was tempestuous, and never before had I felt so alone and isolated. Oneiric visions had brought me to the city, but those same dreams had a subtle way of contesting the very act of leaving, after all. As I stood, with a brisk wind at my back and those bags at my side, all alone on a busy street corner in the middle of the city, flashing to memory was a rather vivid dream, which had occurred on the night I was offered a ride down to The Plains, and out of town for good.
I was standing alongside the edge of a swimming pool with my cousin, Ivan, whom had just months prior taken an ode to the road and left home for greener pastures. We were among friends and family at a backyard barbecue, and in the pool there appeared a fat child, as if out of thin air. He could be heard screaming, flailing on his way down into the deep water. The party became paralyzed; people only looked at one another desperately as the boy continued to drown. Ivan and I stared at one another, waiting for the other one to act, but finally it was he who jumped into the water and saved the boy. As the child sat on the edge of the pool, gasping for air, I knelt beside him. When I asked him if he was okay, he said nothing, but instead looked around to his spectators and then promptly vomited all over me.
The mist would dissipate, as would the impression of winter. In its best light, the city exuded a certain dynamism, which rang out through the streets and lingered across the lush, green sea of land that surrounded it. Abound, in its throes, were crystal-clear, natural springs for swimming, effusive trails for hiking, and steely sky scrapers for stargazing. Yet, as with any truly thriving metropolitan, life on The Plains was also laden with its own share of prickles: cacti sprang from street corners, pests thrived, gaping holes swallowed whole city blocks, and on any given morning one was almost certain to encounter the odious aromas of sweaty armpits, stinky feet and stale beer as they made their way through the main arteries of town. For these reasons, many of its residents held seasonal affairs, and they would be known to duck out of town, or out to the hills for some peace of mind.
Before reaching the nearby hill country, however, there lay a slow-sung neighborhood called Tennyson, which came embossed with massive colonial-style and southern-Victorians homes built around the late 1800’s. It was a part of town, moreover, that, nearly two centuries prior, had housed some of the city’s most esteemed iconoclasts; its epitaph even outdated a handful of western states in the union. As if transported to a distant time, under different circumstances, Tennyson was, perhaps more than anything, a perseverance of arresting architecture, imbued with a ‘you-first’ pace, chock-full of quirky characters, and saddled with hilly streets that rolled on endlessly, like snow drifts upon the flat lands of Middle America.
Tucked into the neighborhood’s nest of lancing palm trees, barreling cacti, and ardent rose gardens there was a three-story shop built out of old wood. A bronze plate on one of its walls ennobled it as a historical landmark; though, present day it boasted giant jungle animals made of papier-mâché, which came jutting out over the sidewalks and swallowed the whole city corner where the building sat. While out exploring the neighborhood a few days after moving into town, I was compelled to step inside.
Filling every aisle of its front were vintage globes, early 20th-century typewriters, gold-plated carving knives, ceramic ashtrays from the Philippines, and coral-studded necklaces. Furs from the finest exotic animals were tacked up along the walls, some even dressed its floors. Ship-wheels, stern holes, and masts also came peppered throughout the shop: scattered, as if to preserve the feeling of constant travel; and, at waist height on nearly every corner table were collections of delicately crafted wooden boxes, in which one was meant to trap and encase such feelings. Eclectic in its allure, the shop was, almost obtrusively, nostalgic, tacky, and yet, cunningly resourceful. As I stumbled through its corridors for nearly an hour, the staff was nowhere to be found. Curious, I thought: an open door, inviting an honest hour of perusal without doubting the dignity of one’s intentions, as if an art collector had opened his doors to the public but had simply gone for a long lunch in the meantime. Endless, the hours seemed to amount in researching, collecting, and pricing myriad goods, and yet the face of the individual behind its mystery went unseen. I left without seeing a single soul.
Aside from brief excursions through town for coffee or to buy groceries, the casual routine of my first few weeks in the city was conducted alone, reading or writing at my desk. Though isolating, this time was pleasantly reminiscent to the toy-filled twilight of my youth, when I had nothing more than solitude and an imagination with which to mold blank slates into great stories. All of this changed, however, one day when Eddie came rapping at my door.
From the hallway, I heard him call out, “I’m running some errands, you should come. The bus leaves in ten minutes.”
Seven minutes later, I stood by his door with the same rap, looking out from an open window in the living room and at the busy street below. “Eddie. Eddie? Are you ready?”
“Yeah, yeah. Go ahead!” he yelled. “Meet me down at the bus stop. I’ll be right there!”
Hurriedly, I grabbed my bike from the balcony and then rushed out to the street. Our apartment complex, The Terrace, was a stone’s throw from a busy street corner where the city busses stopped. Among a bunch of hotel workers in crisp white shirts and black ties, I stood quietly watching the traffic hurdle by. The bus soon arrived, and I stood there watching the driver’s expression go flat as he waited for me to make a move. There was still no Eddie, so I watched the vessel inhale before shutting its doors and then barreling on toward the city.
“Well, at least we’ll be on time for the next one,” I said to Eddie, when he arrived a few minutes later.
“Fuck,” he panted, sliding a pair of cheap sunglasses onto his forehead and then looking over his shoulder. Eddie was wearing a puffy green jacket and navy-blue pinstripe pants. “My bad, dude. Did you at least try to stall him? Sometimes I’ll give them a story about how my bike tire is flat and it’ll take extra time to load, or how the groceries make my backpack too heavy so that’s why I’m a little slow to move.”
“Didn’t even think of it…no.”
“Next time give it a shot, sometimes those dudes are down to chill, yo,” cracked Eddie. “One time I was riding downtown, and in-between stops the driver just threw the bus in park. He gets out, walks up to the burger stand and orders a dang cheeseburger! It’s five o’clock on a Friday – traffic is wicked backed up. These people on the bus were coming from the airport and they started looking around, asking me if this was normal,” Eddie laughed, and then wrenched a hand into the front pocket of his bag for papers, a plucking of tobacco and a pinch of weed. Eddie quickly rolled the concoction into a single cone and then knotted its end. “See, it’s not all that bad. If I would have been on time, I wouldn’t have had time for this.”
Grinning, he puffed on the twisted tube between his teeth, while I watched the faces of a few other bystanders as their expressions turned from curious to scornful, and then to downright concerned. Concern for Eddie’s lack of awareness, curious of his bombastic banter, yet scornful toward his apathy for authority and the general regard for others.
“So, what brought you here?” I asked him, once he was through with a rant on the unreliable nature of city busses.
“See, it’s funny,” said Eddie, “for the longest time – or, well, at least the last four or five weeks – I joked that one day I would leave for warmer weather. Winter was hitting Detroit, and for some reason the south came to mind. Like, the south?” Smoke spun out of Eddie’s nostrils as he smirked.
“Hm. But, why The Plains?”
“Right, right,” laughed Eddie. “I had a mutual friend – this girl – who just moved to Detroit from here. So, naturally it seemed like a reasonable flip. You know? She went up there and I came down here. But, like, I could have ended up in Mobile. Memphis. Christ, El Paso?”
“You make my trip down here seem like a breeze,” I quipped.
“Well, I’m sure you at least had some money saved. I had figured about a month’s rent and some food. The rest went to a train ticket down here. And that’s almost gone.” Eddie chuckled with ease, and then extinguished the spliff onto the curbside right as the next bus came rumbling forward.
The envy was mutual – to detail the countryside in a shared railcar with reborn retirees and well-endowed train hoppers posed a much more thorough surveying of the land, and in its offerings there seemed to hold the opportunity for one to reflect on both the overlooked and the allegorical elements of the great United States. In Eddie’s rehashing of his dealings with stuffy old women with evangelical outlooks, and the deranged daughters escaping their toxic mothers, I lost my own train of thought, as well as the ambition to unearth what possessed him to take such a risk; perhaps, I concluded, his previous state of affairs had paled in comparison to the threat of sleeping on a park bench with his puffy green jacket as a pillow.
Assuming place near the back of the bus, we sat across from one another with our belongings sprawled out. But the tone turned suddenly when Eddie took off his shades and looked at me.
“We need to step up our cleaning,” he said. “The roaches, have you seen them?” The space around his eyes tightened. I bit my lip and nodded.
“I even brought it up to Nico…But he brushed me off. Says they’re normal, says it’s the south.” Eddie exhaled audibly. “So, maybe we go to the landlord. It’s been getting worse, I’m sure of it.”
Under my breath, I said, “I know what you mean.”
“The other day I was cooking with one,” said Eddie, smirking now as he reclined in his seat. “He was hanging out on the stove top, so I was like, ‘Hey, little guy, be careful! That burner is hot! No, not that one!’” Eddie’s words caught the earshot of two other passengers nearby, whose faces twisted with amusement. “Seriously though, those things can grow to be like three-feet long!” he exclaimed. “Maybe we can just open the doors and direct them over to the neighbors place. ‘Be free, little guys!’”
When we arrived at the store, Eddie instructed me to meet him near the hot-foods section and then disappeared into a mass of people; on our ride in, he had prefaced that we eat before doing any serious shopping. When we reconvened at one of the check-out lines, Eddie seized the attention of a pretty girl behind the register, who had piercings all along her eyebrows and ears, and a big bullring in her nose.
“If I may?” Eddie leaned forward, grinning. Indolent, the girl only looked at him as she kept scanning his items. “So,” he said, “I’ve come to realize that septum piercings for girls are a lot like mustaches for guys.” The word ‘mustache’ was inflicted so as to pose an invitation for conversation, but the girl merely rolled her eyes and pressed her lips together before handing him a long paper receipt.
On the store’s rooftop terrace we laid out what was an immense spread of smoked meats, coleslaw and white bread; Eddie had been going on about the disparity he was starting to see everyday in the streets, before stopping suddenly to tilt the conversation toward the egregious nature of tipping in our country, and how it had seemingly reached a point of no return.
“I feel like when I get asked for money on the street I come up blank on excuses,” he said. “I know I shouldn’t feed into it, but it’s a guilt thing. I know there’s a dollar in my pocket, where else is it going to go?” Eddie rolled his eyes and said, scornfully, “Tipping a barista? Fuck that.”
“Well, one is employed. The other isn’t.”
“Yeah, but tipping is out of control these days,” he refuted. “Everything is centered around it. I feel like it’s contributed to a lower quality of service overall, since the people working for it almost seem to expect it. There are even jars at those stupid convenience stores. What happens if I would rather just smile and say, thank you? Would you really rather have a dollar?”
“Sure, I would.”
Eddie frowned. “Okay. But, what if they don’t see you tip? What is it worth, then? Is it more about the recognition for you acknowledging their service, or your actual gratitude for the service? So many times I’ve put a dollar in their jar and they don’t see it, and when they turn around and hand me a drink, it’s like I can feel their passivity. That pisses me off.”
“It’s all about timing,” I countered.
Glaring at me, Eddie said, “What, so next time am I supposed to be like, ‘Hey dude, I know it’s not much, but I just gave you a dollar?’” But then he jumped up in his seat, excitedly. “Or, no. Better yet! Next time I’ll just write it on the bill.”
I laughed. “Like, from Eddie?”
“Yeah, totally! I’m all about defacing currency. Dude, especially vending machines,” he snickered. “Have you ever tried giving one a ripped dollar? You can totally mess with them.”
A few moments later, Eddie made me aware that we were awaiting a drop from his supplier; almost on cue, a thin man in a black beanie and mirrored sunglasses appeared from around the corner. He recognized Eddie with a nod, before sliding smoothly onto the cedar bench next to us. The rest of the rooftop was empty, save for a hooded father chasing his tumbling toddler through a maze of tables and chairs.
“Thanks for coming through, dude. I know it’s your day off,” Eddie huffed, and then slipped a bill into a half-empty bag of snacks and handed it over to the guy in exchange for a small plastic bag of grass.
As soon as we got back inside the store, Eddie caught the scent of a swirling beauty donning a loosely wrapped bun of hair and clawing eyelashes, and then he tore off. When I caught up with Eddie, he was standing in the frozen food section, staring down a bunch of individually wrapped burritos, his basket leaning heavily to one side with a few cartons of coconut milk. He stood there, frowning in a spell of indecision.
“What’s with the milk?”
“Have you ever had it? I’ve cut out most -” Eddie stopped as his eyes flickered down the open aisle. “Oh, dude. There’s that chick! The one with the English accent. Her hair.” He looked over his shoulder nervously before lowering his voice. “I think I’m in love. I want to ask her out. Come with me?”
I nodded her way, but just then she had disappeared around the corner.
“Ah, forget it…” Eddie set down his basket and began rubbing his hands down his pants frantically. “I don’t even have a pen. I hate relying on phones. Social media. All that. The odds are really against you.”
After fumbling through my sack for a moment, I retrieved a pen and tore out a sheet of notebook paper. “This will do?”
“Perfect. Thanks dude, I owe you one,” he exhaled, before galloping away and leaving me alone, staring at a display of frozen pot-stickers that were buy-two, get one free.
Over in the next aisle I found the two of them at arm’s length from one another, Eddie with his head buried in a row of frosted cookies and the girl pulling boxes of rice cakes forward.
“Are those good?” he asked, causing her to turn.
“These rice cakes?” she laughed. “I don’t know. I’m sure they are? I’d like to try them. This store is huge, though, it’s hard to sample everything.”
“Yeah, how many people even work here?”
“Over 500…I think we’re hiring,” she said, emphatically. “You should apply.”
“Right on, thanks. But I probably won’t do that, to be honest. I’ve worked for the company before.” Eddie leaned back, smiling. “We should hang out sometime, though.”
After peering down at the precarious nature of his wardrobe, the girl said, “Yeah, totally.”
“Cool. Well, I went ahead and wrote my name and number down. No pressure, but now it’s on you.” The girl nodded, and then extended her hand to the two of us.
“Great,” she said, smiling. “I’m Carla.”
“Eddie.” Then he cocked his head towards me. “That’s Calvin.”
“Nice to meet y’all. I’ve gotta run though, see you later!”
On our walk back to the bus stop, Eddie’s eyes were immediately captivated by a swarth of black, beady-eyed birds as they circled a mess of rice and beans laid out on the sidewalk. Shreds of broken tortilla chips were also sprawled out in the street, surrounded by a paper bag holding half of a burrito wrapped in foil. Wafting scents of seared meat arose as we approached; the birds, meanwhile, continued casually squabbling and plucking at their mess of a feast.
“Woa, look!” Eddie bellowed, pointing a free hand at the unfolding scene. “I’ve gotta take a picture, dude. Those are like, whole burritos!”
Both of his bags were suddenly dropped. He ran right up to the birds. They continued devouring and squawking at one another, prancing in powerful struts, and furiously plucking chunks of tortillas before bobbing for more. I had seen them around before; insoluble, these beasts were notorious throughout town for their insatiable appetites, and they were known to topple entire outdoor dining tables, challenging you for scraps of unclaimed food. A number of establishments had even drawn up laminated signs, warning of such behavior, and claiming no responsibility for the damage they might inflict as they neurotically coexisted with us humans.
“Come on bud, you can’t eat out in the road like that!” Eddie shouted, kneeling next to a pair of scampering birds, his fingers tapping away on his cell phone in search of the best angle.
A man in a long, tan trench coat was passing by the wreck, but stopped before us to say, “That was from some homeless dude a few minutes ago.”
“Oh shit!” guffawed Eddie, as he bounced back onto the sidewalk.
“Yeah. The dude went on some rant. Started tossing his food into the street and yelling at the people on that corner,” the man explained. “Don’t know why he’d lose a perfectly good burrito like that.” Carrying two shopping bags of his own, the guy suddenly became entangled in the bird’s web, visibly enraged as he swung the heavy paper sacks around to defend himself.
Still crouched, with his cell phone active, Eddie let out another laugh and shouted his way, “I think you have burritos in your bag, dude!”
“No! Just peppers,” the man turned back to yell as he scurried away.
He started speaking to me once he got settled into the Crow‟s Nest. Perched in a seat just below mine, after folding the black plastic garbage bag in neat lines along his lap, the old man turned to face me. I was listening to music, and had to take out my earphones and ask him to repeat the question.
“Would you like one?” he gave a smile and tugged proudly at the trash bag draped over his shoulders and chest. “I have extras.”
“I‟m fine,” I assured him.
“You know, it’ll be raining cats and dogs by tonight. They say about midnight, but that‟s really like nine o’clock.” He grinned. “That’s what ma’ bones are telling me.”
I looked out the bus window. The skies were dark and gray, covering the heads of skyscrapers like a wet wool blanket. Pellets were seen sinking along the adjacent windows and diluted the finites of passing faces on the street.
“Is that right?” I said, finally. “The forecast called for it to be a flip of the coin, whether it’ll pour.”
“Oh, it’ll dump all right. I‟m sure of it. You don‟t need technology to tell you that. Don’t own a single piece of it. Once telephones got to be the size of bricks, I said no, thank you. We don’t need those to communicate. Because you can communicate telepathically with anyone. Like right now, my partner knows where I am. I can wave and say hi. That’s how we used to do it.” The man winked. Around his eyes were lines of time, sunken into the skin.
“Now that’s something,” I replied. “You raise a good point, though. Things have become rather complicated these days, because of all the advanced technology.”
“Yes, they have. And things started to really speed up right after I got back from the war. Nam, that is.” He took a deep breath. “Boy, I remember seeing the skies turn ice white. Like the color of that SUV over there.” He pointed out the window to the passing traffic and grinned. “It was so bright that you could read a book in the middle of the night. They were dropping all that Agent Orange from helicopters. It came pouring out of these cauldrons; big cauldrons that were suspended by chains. It covered everything like molasses, and then incinerated it all so that nothing would ever grow there again. We didn’t know what it was, we had no idea.” For a moment the fellow chuckled, but then his face grew serious.
“There was a day after I got back when I was going about my business in the garden, and all of a sudden I fell flat on my face. A year and a half later I woke up, and I had to learn how to walk and talk all over again. Goo-goo ga-ga.”
He chuckled again as he fumbled with his ensemble, carefully folding the plastic bag in neat creased lines. “My mother told me not to go,” he went on, looking up at me with a childish grin. “Like hell, I was going. But, see! I had to eat crow when I came back.” The old man laughed. “It’s not so bad, though, once you get through the first few bites.”
Stretches of weeks at a time would go by where Eddie’s phone was either without service or in-between carriers; his absence, however, coincided with my running into Reyansh Signh one day, while out delivering to one of the tech hubs downtown where he worked. Nico had introduced the two of us during my first few weeks upon The Plains; but, since then, Reyansh and I hadn’t crossed paths. Yet, in seeing me that day, he exuded a genuine interest in becoming friends.
Reyansh was a handsome programmer whose disdain for a rigid, Middle-Eastern upbringing had sent him to the deep American-south for its comparable climate and friendly tax-laws. He was supposed to have gone back home with a degree, but was quickly compelled to keep with the Western ways and find somewhere to settle down. Something about The Plains had enticed Reyansh as a college graduate, so he made a brave, but calculated move to assimilate himself into the city without ever having stepped foot on its soil.
When we met that day, and seemingly every day after that, his search for a life-partner was as effusive as it was ongoing. Though, even after minor victories, I saw in his eyes an insoluble thirst that seemed to always keep them moving. Those eyes of his were dark and imploring, but his chestnut-brown complexion helped paint his innocuous smile as boyish and charming. This particular feature made a difference when the light was dim and most forgiving, which happened to be in the sort of places Reyansh frequented the most. Each weekend it was a new club or venue that he had heard about or wanted to try, and it didn’t take long for Reyansh to express his desire to take me under his wing, to show me the art of his approach, and perhaps bestow a useful tool for when the time came for me to navigate alone. There was much to learn, he insisted, about us and how we navigate, the differences between his people and mine, but also, what women really wanted.
Fueling the fascination with such incongruence was the tangible distance she was known to keep; on various occasions, but most often when the hour ran well into the night, and any uncertainty of our feelings had been resolved, Alix’s deliberate measures to maintain a strong, focused mind for the early hours of the morning became increasingly common.
“I really should get some sleep. Tomorrow is a big day,” she said one night, retreating from her closet with a folded business wardrobe in hand. The room was completely dark; yet, the peak of physical attraction still clung to the walls, and could be felt hanging with indifference on bare hooks as Alix maneuvered the space. “You can stay, if you want,” she quickly added. “Or, I can take you home. Let me drive you home.”
“Don’t worry about it. I should probably get some sleep myself. I do have to work…tomorrow night,” I replied, before gathering my belongings from her nightstand. “Busses are still running, don’t trouble yourself.”
Alix was insistent as she went to grab her keys from the dresser. “Are you sure? It’s nothing, really.”
“No problem at all. Get some rest. I’ll see you this weekend?”
“Sure, that would be nice,” she said, and then with a kiss I was sent out the door.
Riding the bus alone at night through the city’s varying neighborhoods had a way of washing the senses; the pretense of an isolated paradise in which Alix resided would halt suddenly in favor of the stark, downtrodden extension of the city I called home. A cross of the interstate and one could see how the rag had been wrung out, leaving behind only a drip of dirty water. The latter was well-defined, first by the flickering neon of refurbished food trucks, and then by regional fast-food chains and mega-lot grocery stores, at last dotted with doleful discount bins found in abundance: all fodder for the fray. As it went for the former – Alix’s hood – boutique shopping centers had been adroitly inserted into the lobbies of pristine, newly constructed apartment complexes, further adding to the air of affluence that was slowly making its way into other parts of the city.
Such a sudden split of lifestyles seemed uncanny – a marvel, an outsider might say – if only it had occurred without compromise. And yet, more than ever, embattlement loomed on the horizon, for my lay of land was a glaring prospect for wide-eyed developers and adulated entrepreneurs affixed on their reflection in the burgeoning lagoon. I often wondered, then, of the day that thirst would become sated, and the metropolis would sink accordingly.
Eddie was stocking a filterless cigarette with freshly ground herb while we sat near the back of the bus, alone with nothing but the wheel bearings and screeching brakes beneath our feet. Passive, aggressive, and all together agitated over being out so early, he remained silent, tuned into his tedium until it was through, and then promptly dove into his black notebook with a flurry of frantic scribbling, pausing suddenly at each surge of inspiration, and finishing a few with an exclamation point. Once or twice I saw him smile, but Eddie would quickly subdue the expression so as to maintain his edge over the situation. Without saying it, Eddie seemed to understand my reluctance to stay cooped up in the apartment, dwelling on the eventful weekend as if it were a sort of climax I might not ever reach again. The empty bus, the sterile air of another lecture hall, and each playful post-it note were hopeful attempts to distract the mind from wandering too far in one direction. For almost a week had gone by, and I still hadn’t heard from Alix. But to this, Eddie simply scolded me for not following the first rule: Don’t leave anything up to chance. Now, I was just a number, and the odds seemed quite unfavorable for such lightning to strike in the same place twice.
THE ONE AND ONLY: BUTTE, AMERICA
“They’re more anchors than land makers,” says one of the men; he is a drifter, or so it seems by the way he carries himself.
This here is Butte, America, as they so aptly dub the old mining town in south-west Montana. Butte was, after all, one of the hottest spots in all of America, rich with minerals and oozing with opportunities to aid the folks in pioneering our historic western expansion.
It was around the late 1800’s when Butte really began to boom. First, the word of gold and silver brought an influx of cultures from every cardinal direction; it was the copper, though, that made them stay, turning this town into one of the most prosperous cities west of the Mississippi River – between Chicago and San Fransisco, it quickly became the largest. Butte, as it so happens, also became one of the first cities to receive running electricity, just a couple years after New York City. Given copper’s high conductivity properties, this small town was a big point of pride for the entire United States. For nearly a century, folks flocked here, filled with promise and hope for a better future.
But lest one forgets the present time – a sunny, but brisk day amidst the dog-days of summer, year 2021 – the flavor of this town is not lost, nor is its history.
In fact, this man – whom later introduces himself as Frank, to a pair of strangers as they wait in life for their coffee – and the way he speaks of others just like him, merely reflects the dichotomy of the town. There is only one Butte, America, and it is unique in many ways; in some, it is visibly striving for progress; but, in others, Butte appears passive to the thought of being stuck in a realm of antiquity. All of which is edified by the many abandoned buildings which boast an aesthetic of careful craftsmanship from a time in our history when such a thing was emphasized; there is an overwhelming amount of detail to be found in the many archways and windowsills of the now-empty banks and bread shops. These were, at one point, some of the tallest buildings in the entire country, designed for the rich folks and working class to cohabit as they created one of the wealthiest communities in the west.
Butte, was, in fact, widely regarded as ‘The Richest Hill On Earth’. As such, while walking the streets, one does not have to think long and hard about what sorts of characters and activities occupied such places, especially with the reputation that its transient community and vibrant nightlife maintained, for more than a few decades.
But for as much has changed around here, some of the most concrete truths remain the same.
Since we are creatures of habit, it is of little surprise what brought me in their company, on this fine Saturday morning; it is the only place of its kind that is open at this hour – a small coffee house that doubles as an art studio and gallery.
This is just another habit, as well, for Frank, who speaks of others on first name basis, with the timid barista, a young girl whom is still abashed over having to kick out a grown fellow – someone they both happen to know – but moments prior.
“Oh, are you talking about Sam?” Frank asks her.
“Sure, I think that’s his name,” she replies. “He was yelling, a lot. For no reason, too. I told him twice to calm down – before I finally had to tell him to leave.”
“Yeah, that’s Sam,” smiles Frank. “He yells a lot when he wakes up.”
As I remain seated, in a far corner of the cafe, turning page after page of a Calvino classic, I feel a slight deal of remorse; remorse for this barista, yes. But also for myself, for not having the heart to tell her that this same fellow – Sam – is sound asleep on one of the sofas in back, hidden but perpendicular to both the studio and a series of lounge chairs set up as a quiet place to read.
But at last, another poor soul in passing speaks up, some moments later, and gives up Sam; the barista scurries out, only to return a few minutes later, visibly distraught.
While she is away, a line forms at the counter, where two older men converse in casual rhetoric; it is as if they have known one another for years. One of the men has a son in high school, standing six-feet-five, and weighing in at 350 pounds. He plays on the offensive line for the local football team. Tonight, they’re going head to head with one of their bitter rivals.
“Where’s he going?” asks the other man.
“Not sure,” says the father. “He wants badly to be offered by the U. But, he might have to settle on Western.”
“Hm,” grunts the other man. “Should be a game. Heard them boys have some real prospects. A couple are even next level.”
“They sure do. That quarterback can sling it all over the yard. Those scouts have his number alright,” says the father. “Now, what about you? Have you been to any games yet?”
“A few, yeah. I actually planned to go tonight. In fact, I used to play there myself. So, I show up from time to time to catch a game,” replies the other man. “Part of that is pride. The other part is ego.”
Once the crowd thins, it is just the barista and I left in the shop. I later step out to use the bathroom. Before me, spread out on a small table that has been set up adjacent the art studio, are two men. One of them is Frank, the other is the fellow he came into the cafe with earlier. They wear similar attire – baggy jeans and oversized sweatshirts, each with a few sets of holes in them – and carry themselves in an accordingly indolent fashion. At first glance, I even catch sight of the smudges of dirt that underscore the one, unnamed fellow’s eyes. Those eyes, moreover, are fervent; for he and Frank are exchanging thoughts over the sketchbook that is spread out on the table. Frank is explaining his process; the other fellow nods occasionally, listening intently.
Deciding that I am not ready to retire from the spot – for, it is one of the few of its kind in town, and I have grown quite comfortable frequenting it on my occasional jaunts through Butte – I return to the cafe, collect my belongings, and then bury myself in a plush, suede arm-chair that sits before two large bookcases, stocked with subjects that span from art theory to introspection. Fitzgerald, and one of his short-story collections is quick to catch my eye; I settle in, content.
But a pair of patrons soon discover me, as they peruse the space, seemingly for the first time, linked in arms. One of them immediately sparks up conversation. Her name is Tracy. Her companion, a tall, stocky fellow, meanwhile disbands himself and begins to stroll away, towards the gallery.
I find out that Tracy is from here, a Butte native. She, along with the man, have seen a lot change, explains Tracy. It sure isn’t how she remembers it, growing up. Even so, Tracy says she didn’t even know such a space existed – this secluded cove stocked with literature and periodicals. Rather, she frequents the used-bookstore down the street, and goes on to gush over the expansiveness of their free-section.
“They put them out in a cart, on the street,” says Tracy. “Cuz, I can’t afford to shop at that other one, up the way.”
“I know what you mean,” I reply. “I like to support local businesses, but those new books can really add up. A buddy and I went in there last time, and spent almost $100 between the two of us.”
Tracy whistles, flashing a grin. “Yeah, I’ll stick to my bookstore. Now, say, do you think they’ll mind if I swap one of these out with one of mine?”
I shrug. “Don’t see why not. I thought of doing the same-“
Suddenly there’s a crash. It sounds like a chair has just hit the ground; next, we hear the sound of shuffling feet and muffled voices. The clamor startles Tracy, causing her to turn a foot and walk quickly to the corner of the cove. She peaks her head around, while I sit and watch her, watching the action unfold. What can be made out as tense, curse words are exchanged between Frank and his friend. They grow more excitable and enraged by the second. The fellow challenges Frank to a fight, right there on the spot.
“Bring it,” Frank beckons. “I’ll take you right here, right now, punk.”
“You don’t have the guts. Take your shot!”
“You don’t know me! I’ll take you down!”
“Sit down, fool!”
They go back and forth like this, for some time. Tracy turns to me, awestricken but unabashedly amused. Peculiar, I think to myself, for these two men were, less than an hour ago, prattling on to the poor barista about how they were so noble – at any point, even ready to step in when such senseless confrontations arose. Sam, in particular, was the subject of this discussion.
“If that sort of thing ever happens again, I’ll gladly step in,” I remember Frank saying to the barista. The propensity to do the right thing, however, had at some point inexplicably escaped this man, as evinced by his readiness to put an end to the fellow whom he, just moments prior, had professed a desire to partner with for his next art project.
Since I see these two men, Frank and the squalid fellow, squatting together, some two hours later, on a soiled city curb, watching the day go by, I can safely assume that they made up, without acting upon their vile outbursts for one another; they even share the same 40oz beer, smiling at each passerby. Seeing them again, another couple hours after that, albeit on a different corner but with a fresh forty, epitomizes that timeless vortex which tethers itself to the name, Butte, America, and accordingly evokes one simple question: where the fuck am I?
As I leaned against the stone barricade next to him, I smiled at certain points of emphasis while he rambled on, nodding only on occasion. Windows for interjections were sparse and seldom seized, but I was comfortable that way. Rather, Eddie made a person feel comfortable because it never was inferred that they had to do any of the talking. He would chomp away, running on about the heat, or how his underwear was bunching up around his crotch but he was dealing with it. The latter, I presumed, was why swimsuits were a staple to his wardrobe, along with a few large-billed hats and shirts with flimsy fabric. The white shirt he was wearing that day was made of thin cotton. It clung to him from the heat, and by the time he stopped moving, it was entirely transparent and stuck to his slim torso. Without doing a single sit-up or crunch, Eddie boasted of his inexplicably well-kept six-pack, and would smile at the irony while sipping from his poison.
Though Pete showed up to work all the same, evinced over time was the stance he took on The Plains – and, depending on which day of the week, or under the hour in which one implored, his convictions for the city seemed to be in a constant state of flux. Contorted by the overcrowding, he cursed every last one of them until he was out of breath; but then, in his reclaim of air, he would express his absolute enamor with the angelic ways of women who simply smiled back. This was also still home to him. A self-proclaimed nomad by nature, long-haired and hungry, like a leopard Pete sprang from The Plains at the age of 18, leaving behind in his dusty rear-view mirror the forage of friends and family for greener pastures out west – as every young man should, he had a habit of saying. But, a snap of his fingers and it was over before he knew it. Hairless, greatly humbled, and with almost a decade between various pit stops, Pete was compelled to return to The Plains, in hopes of living out the last few hours of the party.
As I continue to board one bus after another, I can’t tell if they’re running free of charge to let people back into the city, or allow them get the hell out.
Another peculiarity on my way through town is the pristine condition of the power company’s building, particularly its large, sheet glass windows. Each one perfectly intact. No caution tape or not a single beam of wood blocking the door. Even the slightest knick, I surely would have thought.
But, no? Nothing?
Let it pass. There are bigger fish to fry.
For one, the fifteen board members who have stake in this ‘reliability council’. Yet, those same members are not even required to live in the state of Texas in order to make executive decisions on it. One lives in Canada.
Let that one marinate. Lest they resign, which seems only necessary, we will sit in front of now-working televisions, waiting for someone to step up to the podium; until then, pour me another.
The sun has fully set over campus. It is dark now, aside from a few sporadic street lights. The air has grown colder, though the absence of wind renders us light on our feet as we continue to make progress on the beer supply. If not for Josh’s absolute – and otherwise inexplicable – disregard for one of his back molars, our consumption would be reduced to only cans; alas, the cold bottles are a fun alternative, even if their contents are a few months out of date. He continues cracking them, one by one, laughing as he hands me a fresh, cold beer. A certain street is reached, and then everything goes dark. An echo of laughter, jubilant teens in their towers as they turn the occasion into a party, putting on hold any notion of an ongoing global pandemic. It’s hard to blame them, these adolescents with ample endowments and not a care in the world, as they look past us, and our earnest attempts at simple conversation.
Hey, how’s it goin’? we ask one or two, on occasion.
Eh, fine. And you?
Oh, just fine. Thank you.
My parents, too, always told me not to talk to strangers. But since reality had suddenly been flipped upside down, that sentiment could understandably be shed, no? For, who knew what any of this all meant, anyway? Or, better yet, who knew what was coming?
It is quite the social experiment, in a strange, oblong sort of way, as we keep our hearts out on our sleeves. What if someone would have lent a hand, or even the simple suggestion of such, even without the intent of following through? Surely we would have replied with, hey man, have a beer. But, to that, we only had our own supply to consume in a timely manner. After all, the beer is only growing warmer with every block amassed.
As our navigation is nullified by a dying phone – as it turns out, new batteries have a hard time keeping up in frigid temperatures – we are left to rely on the remembrance of certain streets, and which ones cut off without any notice. I have been to Steve’s a thousand times before, but not under these conditions. There’s a point we reach, right at the top of the hill, where MLK Blvd dips down into Lamar Avenue, and all that we see are the impressions of light from an oncoming line of traffic. Nearly a dozen headlights beam brightly, their horns heaving after having been stalled by one single car, midway up the hill, which is now stuck. The driver has gotten out and is dressing the area around her tires with kitty litter. It is only imminent that the rest will follow, unless they are able to unstick themselves from the sudden slabs of ice that have formed under their tires in the time that they were stationary, waiting for her to get unstuck.
Absolutely absurd – this is insanity, I say to Josh. We have to turn around, even if it means trying a few more dead-ends until we find the right street that will take us straight through to Steve’s.
After some time – at least, an hour after our quoted arrival time – we show up at Steve’s place: a quaint duplex at the end of a dead-end street. There’s something eery, yet quite pacifying, about how the skyline sits, streaming itself through shreds of barren trees on the edge of the street. When Steve answers the phone, I ask where we could park the wheels.
What wheels? Did y’all ride scooters? he naively quips.
Not exactly, I retort. So he tells us to find the back door, where we are to unload all the groceries in one swift effort, saving as much internal heat of the house as we can.
Hurry up and get in, he urges, as we stumble inside. Inside the building it is significantly warmer, much more than our own apartment that we left during the daylight hours. Certain items are to be stored in certain places, others are busted out and broken down for immediate consumption.
What about the cart?
We can return that later for you, Steve says, brushing off the notion of any inconvenience it might pose, when the world is turned right back up, and the sun is shining endlessly upon the hilly streets of his quiet suburban neighborhood.
Steam is rising from the many pots, placed precariously throughout the apartment, giving off the faint glimmer of hope as we hear the gas stove click and ignite what will be a surprisingly voluptuous spread for dinner. Simply relieved, Josh and I are, to receive respite amidst this sidewinding experiment of sudden survival mode. The two of them – Steve and his partner – at least appear partially equipped for the conditions, and proceed with offering all sorts of coping mechanisms.
How about some chocolate?
Sure. Why not? I’m not driving.
Soon, it all melts away. However, sleeping with all of your belongings huddled by your side, as your breath can be seen beating back against the air, is a rather unenviable way to be ushered back into the sober hours of the day, when the song of birds accompanies the strong sunlight that comes in through the slotted blinds. Everything suddenly comes rushing back.
Where the hell are we? And who is that, sleeping in a ball on the love-seat above me?
All of the air in the mattress I have been sleeping on has been usurped by a small, unidentifiable hole, forcing me to roll around on the floor, searching for but a few spots of support as I grapple with what is to come. Josh and I still need to get home, and in a timely manner, at that.
As I wait for Josh to stir, I decide to pull from one of Steve’s shelves an old book of mine, one that I had long forgotten about, and bid farewell to without actually saying goodbye to anything else around it; but, that is for another day. Peeling back its pages, moreover, is quite pacifying, as I sit in the throws of his lush, suede arm chair, overlooking the odd arrangement of the living room, while Josh soundly snores. In no time, he, too, is abrupt to wake; shaken by the sensation of frigid temperatures in an enclosed building. His eyes flicker, and he’s soon to realize how the set of circumstances bestowed upon us are so far flung from a dream. If given the blessing to keep sleeping, surely he would. But his boss beckons, and he is summoned home, to at least give the obligation a solid, earnest attempt, despite the conditions.
All the while, the rest of the house sleeps. We know we can be quiet enough, so as not to disturb Steve and his girlfriend from their sleep schedule. A swift effort is made to relocate and repack all of our perishable belongings – plus a few bottled beers, just in case the stores remain closed for the day – before hitting the road. But, one similarly aloof effort is given on the door, only to discover how the stark, unnatural contrast in conditions – internal moisture and frigid external temperatures – have sealed the sliding glass door shut.
Are we stuck here? Josh and I laugh, looking at one another with large eyes and addled expressions. Surely, if I am to attempt, and fail to open the door, instead cracking it down its center, that my five-years of friendship with Steve might come to a sudden halt. When he swoops into the room, some fifteen minutes later, Steve snickers at the thought, but fails to disagree.
Trekking downhill, as the sun seeps its way out of the clouds, and splits over the town, things don’t seem so bad. Our feet feel lighter and, despite the constant struggle to find solid ground, the roads are nearly entirely void of traffic – foot, or the like. We see remnants from the night before: stacks of cars, spun in odd directions across the road, and snuggled up to snowbanks that have now become ice blocks, as well as empty beer cans and tattered rolls of yellow caution tape.
Is this a vacated crime scene, or a simple call for help that went unanswered?
Many looks are sent our way – even a few earnest inquires – especially over our heavy, brown grocery bags, as we descend from the direction of the nearest store. One grizzled fellow even appears ready to fight, and his truculence lingers long after he staggers off in the opposite direction, visibly disappointed to learn that our goods only came from the night before. Apocalyptic, almost, in ways, how the world around us feels empty, stripped down, and sundered by the elements. Elements which, no less, bare no resemblance to what is to be expected on any given day of the year, in the sunny city of Austin, TX.
We fail, moreover, to consider what this what will do to the foliage: each of those palm trees which sway with the wind now seem stale as they stand, slathered in snow, showing especially stark against the sky blue aperture overtaking the town. Josh elects that we take the long way home, for it is assumed that the foot traffic will be sparse, and scenery lush. Along the river banks, steam flows fluidly, gradually rising to uncover the small tropes of turtles taking a breath before dipping themselves back into the icy ballad, which would otherwise be brimming with canoes and kayaks. Birds swoop and skim the surface, and for a few fleeting moments it feels as if humans were not meant for this terroir, after all.
Returning to the apartment, Josh and I graze over our groceries: it is enough, for now. Yet, gradually reinforced is the chilling notion that acquiring said goods was a mere stroke of dumb, intoxicated luck. Luck which, no less, feels to be waning with each hour that passes, the people on the news predicting more precipitation for the days to come.