“We have been waiting for this since the echo from Hemingway’s shotgun receded into the hills of Ketchum, Idaho,” wrote The New York Times Book Review. Or something like that. That was the start, really.
Despite my sudden fame, I kept my reclusive habits, inadvertently fueling the mystique. I still don’t have a phone, preferring the less-urgent devices. My social accounts went virtually unattended. Of course, I had quit the toy factory and Dirty Streets – The New Yorker wanted my byline now – although I could still be found some nights at The Driftwood. That’s where the actor Johnny Depp found me, although I hid in the bathroom the entire time and refused to look at the film treatment that he shoved under the toilet stall door before finally leaving. Harry and the strangers clinging territorially to their bar stools had no idea what the deal was, or who Terry Gross is, and they’d never listened to National Public Radio. I told my publicist that I would only do interviews with obscure bloggers.
Photographs of me existed. There was one on my driver’s license. It looked like the mug shot on one of the white trash vs. cops TV shows. Entertainment Weekly and a couple of other publications used it with their reviews of From Wondrous to Strange. Reader’s Digest, of course, used an artist’s rendering. But mostly, you had to go on what you read in publications like The Times: “A tall, slim man with long hair and a way of always tilting his head to one side or the other, never holding it square on his shoulders. It seems as though he was eavesdropping on the entire world without considering his own thoughts as perhaps being something of value.”
I still avoided eye contact, owned no clothes that weren’t a variation on darkness, and walked with the slight, deferential angle of a yacht heeling to the wind.
More so, now, because I was a fraud, and only I knew it, yet. It was another man’s work that the world was clamoring for, and I had chained myself to it. Perhaps if I made it into autumn, as the trees were dying, and the adulation waned, I’d be free once again. Probably not. I’d been sleeping for only five hours a night for a few years now, nurturing the edgy buzz that prompted the words I write, that no one read. Now I was sleeping only half that, and feared I was beginning to hallucinate. Monkeys staring at me on the silent televisions from behind the bar mocked me, speaking in some kind of mechanical, industrial theatricality, one moment menacing, the next startlingly beautiful. When I did sleep, the scattered dreams that I could remember were actually nightmares, darkened trains hurtling down the tracks toward a seaside cliff. I had what I wanted, yet….
Anything worth holding always slips through your fingers.
And what about that poor woman who I had left behind in the Cadillac? Wasn’t the last person seen with a dead person usually a suspect? How long before the cops figured out that was me? I’d probably left something behind to tip them off. Maybe I had set my wallet on the fender of the Cadillac…. Nah, I could feel it in my pants pocket. I’d had the same wallet for years.
It should have been no surprise, then, that late one evening, just a month into my entry on the best-seller lists, with an ex-agent and a new agent and a couple of lawyers siphoning away my money, I sat in my car as the streetlights cast shadows that became elegant art on the sidewalks. There is a reason spooky rhymes with beauty. I could have driven into the Willamette River, where you could meet me at the bottom. But, no. My mortal coil is wound too tightly. I had my old suitcase, my computer, a United States map stained by burger grease and a half-dozen used books that had been sitting at my bedside for the past year. They mocked me as relentlessly as the TV monkeys, for I had never touched them like their previous owners had done, underlining passages, filling the margins with scribbled notes. I had brought along one such well-caressed copy of Sartre’s Nausea, with this passage marked:
I have never before had such a strong feeling that I was devoid of secret dimensions, confined within the limits of my body, from which airy thoughts float up like bubbles.
These words were like eavesdropping on a conversation between friends or, even better, lovers.
Two people approached the car, talking – “Life used to be so life-like,” a woman was telling a man, “now it feels like TV….” – and then they passed.
Two more men approached from the other direction. “If I had your money,” one was saying, “I’d burn mine.” They too passed.
A group of young black guys walked down the other side of the street. The self-absorbed urban style of bling and low-slung trousers had given way to its obvious antithesis, the studious, serious Malcolm X look. Dark suits, white shirts, skinny ties and eyeglasses, even the guys with 20/20 vision. They spoke in the precise, aloof phrasing of the British Royal Family and gathered on the street corners beneath solitary street lights to sing the music of Sammy Davis, Jr. The rural white guys went right along with it. The last trend was over, the one where white kids venturing alone into black neighborhoods and saying something stupid to a street gang, so that they would get pounded good and show up at school or work with a couple of strips of white medical tape holding a broken nose in place. “He went into the city last night and got his ass kicked,” his peers would say admiringly. Head lacerations and superficial stab wounds in the shoulder were a badge of honor. They added a James Dean mystique. But now the white guys were wearing dark suits, skinny ties and eyeglasses. And speaking in complete sentences, free of contractions or serious grammatical lapses, but with anti-materialistic hipsterism. This, however, was called the Allen Ginsberg look.
The group of black guys passed as well. It was as if I were invisible.
I had a six pack of cold Olympia on the passenger seat next to me. I balanced a package of Dominicans on the dashboard, and next to them a few sticks of beef jerky. I started the car, punched in the cigarette lighter and reached for a cigar. I felt around for the little tab on the cigar ring, found it and tugged until the cellophane fell away. The sweet odor of the tightly rolled dead leaves was like walking in a mossy forest.
A metallic plink near my right knee told me the lighter was ready. I examined the glowing end in the dark, then held it to the cigar. I carefully turned the cigar as I drew on it, to ensure that the end was evenly lit. I replaced the lighter and rolled down the window about half way. The smoke reached for the opening. It floated like airy thoughts.
I jumped at a sharp knock by my ear, and saw a dark shoulder at the window, silhouetted against The Driftwood’s neon beer lights. An unshaven face tilted down toward me. “Spare $18?” the man said. Then something about a bus, and a hospital, and baby diapers. These guys always had elaborate stories. They walked past lawyers in expensive suits and went straight to me, because I looked like a long-haired, bleeding-heart liberal. And they were right. He figured I’d hand him a $20 and say, “Keep the change.” I reached over to the passenger seat and felt around for a bottle, and handed it through the window to the bum.
“Still cold,” I said. “That’s what you want.”
“Save me a seat when you get to the top,” the guy said, and disappeared into the darkness behind the car.
The car idled. It may have been a 1973 Volkswagen Bug with 237,024 miles on it, but it ran like 180,000. The ash trays were full.
Rain misted in though the window. I tucked my sunglasses a little more securely into the sun visor – I didn’t use them much in Portland, but I would need them where I was going now – and reached around the floor of the car until I found the music that Harry had given to me, Three Shits to the Wind. I plugged the portable player into the cigarette lighter and popped the disc into the player. I heard sinuous saxophone, ethereal cello and crazy, disjointed piano. I followed it all of the way to Laredo.