Adrift in Altamont

  • Bookstore Suspended

I will watch her go.  Her phone in one ear, her finger in the other.  My eyeballs bobbing above the bookshelf.  A copy of Benjamin’s Illuminations in my hands.  I will watch her go.

 

And when I try to remember how it happened—minutes from now, a month, a year—I will slow down the action and fill in the gaps with details perhaps all my own:

Her black hair whipping out behind her.  Slow-motion.  Women fresh from the march with painted signs propped like muskets on their shoulders browsing the women’s studies shelves.  The books falling from her hands, bouncing once upon the floor.  The bell ringing on the door.  A group of flamboyant highschoolers flipping through poetry anthologies trying to phrase their ticklish sensitivities. Her face screwed up (as they say) in a question.  A black cat arching its back on the counter.  A motorcycle growling past in the drizzle.  Her eyebrows furrowed (as they say) in a question.  A picture book of vultures in a yellow leather chair.  Her face pinched, pursed, puckered (as they say) in a question—her body slack, disbelieving then lurching through the door.  

I will remember watching her go in slow motion, my own face a question—though in hindsight I already knew.  In hindsight we had both known all along.  In hindsight fear becomes foreknowledge.  I will remember taking two steps to follow.  Her not being.  There.

 

Then standing beside two men in fatigues arranging a rainbow of zines on a rack.  While outside too many people on the streets filed past.  Mothers marching, children slung in sacks upon their backs, their breaths sweet with milk.  I will remember how she disappeared like a fish through the throng of white people singing “We Shall Overcome.”  One day.  All of them making fists in the air—their hands inside of their gloves.  One day.  While back inside beside a stack of tomes, a young blonde woman in glasses will ask the cashier “Have you heard of a book called Beloved?”     

 

I will tangle the lines between fact and fiction as the days tumble past and I sprawl through depiction.  I will come to wonder if I manufactured this instant.  Because it will come to mean so much.  Must remember.  Holding Benjamin in my hands.  The little boy with rubber glasses who retrieved the clutch of books that bounced once upon the floor.  The acidic old-book-smell inside the store.  Must remember the vultures flapping their leaves on the yellow chair.  Must beware—and attempt to feel—the book Beloved’s despair.  Must remember—before she ran—browsing the art section—before it began—flipping through black and white photos of BDSM.  Must remember how I thought, “I am doing it again,” remembering then—there—sneaking through the Public Library as a third grader with my best friends to stumble and stare at anatomy gems.  BDSM.  Where to begin?  We tied ourselves into knots.  What succor from these naked women hanging from the spine?  We chose who would retrieve the book by drawing lots.  Quietly ripped the fruit from the rind.  We pocketed the pages.  Extended olive-branches of shared understanding like doves.  Semantics in the tone of our eyes: now: airbrushed ornaments in concrete cells, then: those with their skin peeled back, flashing organs beyond their folded lapels.  Even diagrammatic science was sexy.  Then.  Quoth Noah’s empty-clawed raven: “nevermore.”

 

I will remember the girl saying “Beloved,” and remember remembering “rememory.”

 

I will remember the bell jingling on the door.  

 

I will remember watching her run from the store with her finger in her other ear.

 

Fear tightening her face.  The little boy on the floor.  Some news from the doctors.  Different than before.  And the more I tell myself that this is exactly what happened, the more I will come to believe that it could not be—could never have been—any other way.  The horoscopes spin.  Potential evaporates.  Sex becomes science.  Fate catches up day-by-mundane-day. 


  • Stratagem Insouciance

“Come Together”

We will wait on C.’s friend and her husband in the bar of a brewery called the Funkatorium.  It will be packed full of stacked hogsheads and young professionals performing nonchalance.  The A-side of Abbey Road will envelop the space as the performers flit by in an array of costumes.  More gaudy in a way than the drag queens upon their holy alterSprezzatura: a feigned indifference.  Costumes culminating in expensive boots on the one end and professional haircuts on the other.  A proliferation of hipster barbers in the mountain town, claiming the FRINGE and cutting it close.  The lot of these performers IN and OF this emerging consumer culture where blue jeans cost 250 bucks a pop and designer sports coats fit nicely over designer T-shirts.  Where—simultaneously, and right down the street—hip clothing has never been cheaper in the history of the world.  Single-serving outfits stitched by Bangladeshi children.  Tossed into trash cans after clubbing Saturday night.  Jewelry made of plastic and gilt in gold has become a synonym for smiling.  These yuppy-hipsters avail themselves of all of the above.  Yes, in the loop of targeted advertising we buy what we are sold.

 

“Something”

Painfully on display as they scroll through their phones.  Their fingernail pop art matching their dress prints: wedges of fruit or pizza slices, slices of white clouds on blue skies, yellow geometric skeletons on purple backgrounds, and birds.  The blonde birds in bright lipstick and delicate, webbed, golden jewelry made—DIY—by friends of friends will talk of practicing yoga and making kombucha from a communal mother.  Passed hand to hand through the brand new neighborhoods bulldozed into the sides of the mountains.  These blonde- or brown- or ginger-headed birds in bright pink lipstick and tight blue jeans, in dresses over tights with glittering pumps upon their feet, these drinkers of sour craft beer with next week’s potluck on the mind, these birds still play the part of TROPHY to the fuzzy-bearded young professional men in their brown leather boots and their Buddy Holly glasses who consider themselves—without a single exception in this chic industrial barroom full of hogsheads and hardwood and wrought iron and hair gel—outdoorsmen.  Who consider themselves outdoorsmen who, without exception, have the latest flashy gear to prove their identity: crashpads, quickdraws, trad racks, play boats, headlamps, backpacks, dome tents, Jetboils.  Outdoorsmen one and all, gearheaded granolamen, driving all-wheel drive Subarus with roof racks, ready to blaze into the remnants of this country’s wilderness.  Inheritor’s of their fathers’ fathers’ mischief capped in coonskins, reeking of blood and sex and gasoline.  Wet blankets soaked in smallpox.  Misty eyed at the mention of any frontier.   

 

“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”

That’s why they drink this burgeoning beer.  All of them well aware, I am sure, that the Funkatorium was the pet project of Wicked Weed, a local brewery that sold itself to the mega-conglomerate Anheuser Busch-InBev less than one year ago.  A local brewery that traded independence for a big-fat-fucking check from the world’s largest brewery owner.  But that was their plan all along.  So the owners have since explained.  And these casual cool performers are well aware—no skin off their backs—these pretty birds, these well-groomed outdoorsmen.  A simple fact: in the beer frontier, these businessmen/brewers saw a hole and staked a claim.  Alcohol is their oil and they should be admired for that. 

 

Of course these patrons grumbled about it over steaming bowls of organic quinoa at the local co-op when it was still BIG NEWS.  Of course they repeated what they had overheard inside this or that hip barroom over the course of a few weeks.  But really, it was no skin off their backs (metaphors from slave-times percolate the language).  The taste is what matters, they reassure one another now.  The taste is what matters.  Really.  The place is still as independent as can be.  Wink-nod.  Wink-nod.  They are well aware—but they don’t care—as they perform nonchalance in the pale light of this room in their array of very expensive, very carefully curated duds.  Sprezzatura.  Always sizing each other up, always jonesing to one up the Joneses at the other end of the hand-hewn craftsman table.  Soaking in suds.  This is why they pick up their phones—one after the other—and point them toward the speakers to capture songs on Shazam.  The hits on Abbey Road spin by—one after the other—caged by these colonists not because they LIKE the songs but because the songs sound like they SHOULD BE LIKED.  When witnessed the difference is not so subtle.  

 

Carefully tipsy—each and every one—with designated drivers.  This FUN has been pre-planned and programed into their calendar.  All along.  They live their lives on a leash.  They think themselves well aware of reality.  As they throw back Budweiser beer and cheers one another on this or that mild milestone: a marriage, a promotion, a cruise this summer, a baby on board, etc.  This Bud’s for you.  Life: one long string of advertisements.  That’s what we’re living for. 

 

I will be Old Scrooge, I will be Maxwell, staring them down, mumbling humbug, envisioning silver hammers splitting skulls.  I will order the sourest thing on the menu and not be able to taste a thing.  Blood and guts running from my nose.  C. will sit on a stool beside me, thinking about the call from the doctor that morning.  And as we rotate toward each other, her parallel thighs in black blue jeans will come to rest between my own.  We will talk about dressing alike.  Even while living apart.  Busted Vans and black blue jeans, flannels and shades on strings.  We will figure it impossible to put a finger upon when it happened.  Spiraling out from this idea to the arbitrary nature of everything in the world.  We will talk about dogs that look like their owners and owners that look like their dogs.  Everyone and everything wearing costumes and playing pleasantly in the chaos around them.  We will fit right in with this fucking bunch, and hate ourselves for being there.  Wondering if they wish their clothes worn-out like ours, distressed from the rack at the popularly overpriced vintage pop-up down the street.  Well, C. will say.  They need only wait.  An attribute for which we Americans are not well known. 

 

“Oh! Darling”

I will think about C. thinking about her mother.  

 

About sitting in the chilly hospital waiting room with Oprah Winfrey on the television screen, while her mother wastes away on the bed beside her, her half-closed eyes fixed on the June day outside the window.  Sweltering.  Surreal.  About her father asking the nurse at the reception desk if he might borrow a blanket for his daughter—him mumbling about forgetting to bring C. a sweater, worried that the nurse might think him negligent, although there is plenty on his mind, he says out loud, defending himself as the nurse raises her eyebrows in what seems to be a judgment upon his parenthood, the word SINGLE-PARENT fluttering erratically through his skull like a moth against a bulb—really, plenty on his mind, he says again, forcing a laugh—as he asks again if he might borrow a blanket to wrap around his daughter’s shoulders as she sits with her dying mother and June sweats outside the window.  

 

“Octopus’s Garden

Then C. will put her jean jacket back on and we will not look so much alike.  While the silly carnival of performers jibber-jabber around us, pose for picture after picture on their sleek fragile phones.  Oh what a joy.  As we observe to each other that this is why they came.  For every girl and boy.  To prove they came.  Knowing they’re happy and they’re safe.  Tautologies rule this world.  I was once told by an Altamont native that at any given time—whenever she stepped from her front door—she expected at least sixty percent of the people around her to be tourists.  And that’s lowballing, she said.  That’s lowballing.  Especially in the fall with the leafers.  

 

Yellow leaf, red leaf, blowing down blue ridge, the smell of locust fire in the always-spreading suburbs.  

 

  1. will sit and think about the phone call.  Think about her mother’s death.  She will grasp again for a fleeting reason.  Then smile to herself and swallow the absurdity with a mouthful of beer.  A sucker for sours herself, she empties the glass of a traditional red ale aged with blackberries and dates in whiskey barrels packed with brettanomyces and named—no joke—OBLIVION.  

 

When a guy in a J. Crew and Patagonia get-up tells me that he loves the Charlotte Hornets and asks if he can buy what he calls my REALLY RAD RETRO CAP, I will laugh and shake my head as if I do not speak his language.  I will pull C. away from MUGSY BOGUES, man, MUGSY BOGUES, and ALONZO MOURNING, man, and DELL CURRY—that’s Steph’s Dad, man.  Did you know that?  And LARRY JOHNSON—grandmama, man, grandmama.  Did you know Larry Johnson was grandmama?  

 

Of course, a horse, a horse.  Gold-toothed Larry Johnson promoting converse sneakers in drag might have been my first conscious exposure to cross-dressing.  But instead of having a conversation, this asshole will blather on about his purchasing power, opening his wallet that I might peek inside and be dazzled by dollar bills.

 

Incoherent.  Ignorant of reality.  Seeing no strangeness in treating a stranger in a bar as a manikin in a storefront window.  Everything in the world for sale.  One just has to know the price.  If I could have anticipated the moment, I would have made a deal with the devil, would have pawned everything I owned for the opportunity to vomit on command.  To spew Budweiser beer all over the curated duds of this bright capitalist with the consumable earth spread-eagled beneath his feet.  

 

“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”

Instead C. and I will walk away, and stand tangled in the rock garden outside.  Snow piled over the cairns and melting in the sun.  Unable to be grasped.  Unable to be owned.  She will point out how everything is underwater, how everything is still shaded by the snow, how throwing shade might be a defense mechanism, how our eight appendages together make an octopus, how I might hum squidbilly Harrison licks instead of pointing out the faults of these objectifiers, instead of pointing out the hoarding of these thing-collectors.  Away from the birds and the hungry outdoorsmen, this moment becomes a little hideaway beneath the waves.  Beyond the endlessly echoing arpeggios and the crescendo of windy static and white noise.


  • Lost Baedeker of Elusion

Soon these friends will come.  Soon.  Talking of being exhausted.  Talking of being frustrated for the duration of the day.  They don’t know why, they’ll say.  Just frustrated.  Nothing going right, they’ll say.  Too much spring cleaning in the big brand new house filled with big brand new things.  Talking.  They don’t know why, they’ll say.  Too many things.  Frustrated.  Nothing going right.  Sufferers of ennui.  They don’t know why.  Talking.  A general malaise over the sunny snow-struck town.  Frustrated.  About everything.  Confused perhaps that buying big brand new things didn’t fill them up like they thought it would.  Wondering perhaps why pregnancy didn’t have the heft that everyone promised.  Snubbed by expectations at every turn in the road.  Fumbling then choking over the word SHOULD.  Frustrated.  We are all racing toward the bottom, are we not? I will ask, raising my glass as if this is a toast.  

 

The woman in the yellow wife beater and no bra will jeer at the husband as he sits beside me looking past his wife.  As he winks at this stranger even as he nuzzles his flat-black converse sneakers between the thin ankles of his wife beneath the table.  We will drink our beers and listen to their announcement.  SURPRISE.  We will congratulate them, of course.  Of course there was a reason she was not drinking.  Of course, C. will say she thought something was up.  Of course.  They will say, enough about us.  Enough about us, of course.  And ask us about living long distance.

 

We will talk about the length of the drive, about the space-between being healthy, about how we have done it before, about books, about the illegal Airbnb, although nothing about the not-yet-weaned-seven-year-old.  Nothing at all about the illness, of course.  Although nothing of the phone call that morning.  Of course the husband will ask about our plans for the rest of the day.  He is what C. calls an ACTIVITIES-KID.  The entirety of his life mapped out.  And filled with things.  The wife, on the other hand, will not pry.  She knows we are on a romantic getaway.  That’s what she will call it.  Here in the land of the sky.  Acknowledging that we do not see so much of each other.  But of course her husband will ask.  And of course we will realize that we forgot that he would ask.  And of course we will have no plan of escape.  We should have made a plan we will say with our eyes.  Taken a cue from this energized queued up capitalist.  

 

Should have taken out a blank piece of paper before they arrived and drawn ourselves a map.  A tool of colonization my professor wrote in the margins of my final paper.  Nothing more.  Everything has become arbitrary.  A globe of wandering imposters.  We should have drawn ourselves a map for direction.  Instead.  We will stare blankly.  Shrug our shoulders.  Look into the wells of each other’s eyes—for just a moment—pleading for the right words of declination.  Then allow ourselves to be lassoed into supper.  Of course.  Just before we leave the brewery, I will see the husband down the hallway to the bathroom pinning the woman in the yellow wife beater against the wall.  He will see me seeing and wink at me while he whispers in her ear.  She will laugh and slip her hands down his pants.    

 

And when we leave, the two women will climb automatically into the backseat of the Honda Fit.  The two men into the front.  As if there was an understanding about who pilots whom along these white-washed streets.  A Leave it to Beaver arrangement.  Inspecting the glove box, stretching his legs in the passenger’s seat, the husband will say: This car is not so bad after all.  Then talk about a friend of his who could have gotten us a deal on a Suburu. 

 

We all fall into habits, passively consenting to a million things a million times a day.  The women will whisper in the backseat about the intuition of their bodies.  Personal.  Political.  Powerful.  An assertion of shared community.  Informing the way they see the world.  Which they seem to assume to share.  

 

I will wonder why the husband thought he and I were in cahoots.  I will wonder whether to tell C. about the woman in the yellow wife beater with her hands down his pants.  And wonder whether C. will tell her friend.  And wonder—again—if it is possible to pinpoint where anything begins. 

 

As I park the car C. will get a call and rush into the dark.  Over the crackling salt in the road, over the rinds of dirty snow along the curb, over the ice-cracked asphalt.  Ravaged.  She will rush from the car with her finger in her other ear just as she did that morning at the bookstore.  And the married couple and I will stand with our doors ajar and watch her disappear like a fish.

 

Then.  We will walk inside, this married couple and I, and I will explain how I do not feel that it is my place to explain, and explain how, when she returns, C. will explain, and then—nonetheless—I will proceed to explain.  As best I can, I will say.  I don’t know much, I will say.  It’s not my place to say, I will say.  Before I say, and say, and say.  It is not my body.  She would not want this.  It is not my secret to tell.  But I will tell it anyway.

 

Away.  Disembodied.  Upon this stage in this restaurant: fey.  I will watch myself perform in the light of their concerned cliché.  Grilled over the fire of their unease, a spineless fish fillet.

 

Until finally, I will nod toward the window, indicating C. who will by that point be wandering back from the dark.  C. who will be standing outside on the sidewalk, oblivious, pushing back her toboggan to reveal a furrowed forehead.  I will glug down a Narragansett tallboy, trying to make small talk after coughing this anvil onto the table.  We will all wish that we had hammers in our fists to tink-tink-tink some understanding into being.  C. will come inside on the verge of tears and explain what I explained.  We really don’t know much, she will say.  We’re finding out in real time.  She will hold up her phone and shrug her shoulders and chopstick limp noodles from the lukewarm brine.  She will apologize.  They—the pregnant couple—will say there’s no need to apologize.  She will explain more and apologize again.  Again they will say no need.  The husband will nod his head knowingly and begin expounding upon what little he knows about what he calls THE DISEASE.  While we shake our heads NO.  No, no, no.  Although we said we do not know much, we certainly know more than him.  No.  Stop explaining, we scream with our eyes.  Infuriated all of a sudden for some reason as we dump the plate of Japanese French fries into the Ramen broth.  I can’t taste anything, I will keep saying, squirting Sriracha into the bowl.  I can’t taste anything, trying desperately to shut him up and escape from this ever-deepening hole.  And I can’t hear anything, I will try again.  My head is full of blood and the whole world is underwater.  I can’t hear a goddamned thing, I will say. 

 

Though by that point—of course—everyone will have stopped talking.  


  • Long Distance Double Date or Rules of Thumb for Donuts

As we leave the restaurant, the husband and wife—the ones who will have, over steaming bowls of very expensive ramen, been complaining to us about moving into their brand new big house, about filling it with brand new big things, the ones who just announced to us their pregnancy and their sprawling alien frustration with the world, the ones who went silent after the word CANCER and then went about constructing an imaginary narrative of our future as if it was already chiseled in stone, then—subsequently—went about systematically reminding us that their life was no picnic either—this couple will meet a couple of old friends on the sidewalk outside, and we—C. and I—will continue straight to C.’s car and watch from behind the windshield as these sufferers of ennui hold their sides and laugh and slap each other’s shoulders, and hug and kiss each cheek, and laugh and laugh and poke and wink, and promise to see each other soon.  

 

Behind the glass, we will sit confirming that neither one of us wants to hang with them any longer.  I shouldn’t have told them, she will say.  It doesn’t matter, I will answer, reaching for her hand.  It’s nothing against them, she will say.  No, I will agree.  Of course not.  A long day.  It’s been a long day, we will both agree.  Perhaps a movie in the bedroom at the Airbnb?  

 

But there—again—we run a risk.  Neither one of us wanting to surprise the suckling couple on the couch again.  Thinking back to the night before, I will ask C. if she thinks the child’s eyes looked accusatory when we walked in.  The mother, of course, C. will say.  She knows he’s too old for that.  No, the child, I will answer.  Didn’t it seem like he was daring us to pass judgment?  Didn’t it seem like he was daring us to continue thinking precisely what we couldn’t help but continue thinking?  He’s only seven, she will answer.  He doesn’t care about you.

 

Then the husband and wife will be climbing into the backseat, laughing and talking about old friends.  Then remembering—all of a sudden, when they catch our eyes in the rearview mirror—that we are much older friends, and that they are supposed to be performing SOMBER.  Decorum mandated.  So.  They will say again into the silence as we roll down Haywood that the day has been frustrating for them.  So frustrating, they will say, but they don’t know why, as flurries fall against the car. 

 

What infidel world is this?  When we buy our way into good graces by playing roles of expectations.  Conforming to images that we believe everyone else already sees.  And thus believes.  To fit oneself comfortably into the image is to become static.  To become the stereotype is to die the only death that ever existed.  Criminals in striped pajamas scream through their iron bars.  Well?  What did you expect?  Syphilitic seamen seeps from the mouths of blind boys, and girls with short-shorts—shorts deemed too-tight (passive)—wake up in alien landscapes with their underwear inside out.  Well?  What did you expect? we say, and say again.  And say again.  

 

Of course we will hit a pothole on the way to their brand new house, and C. will begin to cry.  Out in front of the Tastee Diner where drunks feed hot dogs to each other behind the plate glass.  A flat tire, blown through the sidewall—un-patchable.  The husband and I will jack up the car on the wet asphalt, he taking the jack out of my hands and doing it wrong, I wrestling the jack from him to start over again.  All along, he will be telling me what to do, and I will not be listening.  Mouth breathers in the diner fogging up the glass.  Ketchup smeared in dancing phalluses across the condensation.  Then I will do the telling, and he the not-listening.  Praying that the voyeuristic fools—the fools finger-painting curses in condiments—will not rush out of the diner suddenly with French fries in their hands to give us their two cents to boot.  We will go on like this for some time.  Until C. tells us to stop.  Until C. tells us to shut up.  

 

Heroine on a dim stage—arms spread to the blistering stars—she will shake her fists at nothing in particular and ask why men are such idiots.  Her friend, standing beside her, emerging Madonna-like from the shadows, will nod her head—sadly—in agreement, holding all along to her belly that is not even close to showing yet.  Now prepping for transformation.  

 

Into the silence, C. will worry aloud about not being able to get back to Durham.  About not being able to get to work on Monday.  But really she will be thinking about the phone call from the doctor that she received in the bookstore that morning.  And the second phone call in the parking lot that smelled of East Asia as the clouds swooped down—like the Assyrian wolf on the fold, the whole world gleaming in purple and gold—as the sun dropped into the valley.

 

No farther than seventy miles, no faster than fifty miles an hour.  Rules of thumb for donuts, the husband beside me will say.  He will hug the jack and the tire iron to his chest as if he never loved anything more.

 

It takes four hours to get home, C. will mutter to herself.  It’s my birthday.  Before she begins to cry again.  No matter, I will answer.  No matter.  There’s nothing to worry about here.  I will find a tire in town tomorrow morning.  I will make it better, I will say.  No.  C. will shake her head.  No.  There’s nothing you can do, she will say.  There’s always something I can do.  No.  C. will shake her head.  No.  Emphatic.  There’s nothing you can do.

 

And she will be right.  And she will be writing.  She will be wright, and she will be writing.  She will be rite, and she will be writing.  She will be right, and she will be writing, she will be wright, and she will be writing, she will be rite, and she will be writing, she will be right, and she will be writing, she will be writing, she will be writing, she will writing the words to this song long after I have given up.  Long after I have tallied the project into the long string of lost causes.  She will be forever writing words to the tune of tangibility.  A rite of passage.  I have gotten it wrong.  I always have.  I am always getting it wrong.  But she—adherent to truth, reality rooter—will forever be writing the words to the world on the head of a pin.  A maker of worlds.  Of service.  A builder.  A ceremony unfolding in the shape of a friend.  In her righteousness, I hear James Agee’s radio test—Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful?  or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? Or is it beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life—always refusing THE END.  Always righting my wrongs.  Always obscuring the scrawl of my palimpsest pretend.  



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