“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.