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First thing in the morning, when I take out the trash, I see it: syringe on the lawn. Still bloody. Surreal, isn't it.
First memory like a shot in the vein. Four long years of youth sliding cold silver glint into waiting blue.
My neighborhood is turning. You know what I mean. It's no big deal, it's no more or less real than TV, than the places I have lived, than all those little white-lined streets running for all they're worth like tracks trying to run off an arm. We can feign a nation of shock all we want, it's still an old story. Somebody wants something more than their own life. Somebody else is terrified by all that want.
I teach literature in college now. My neighbors all have enough money. We don't say the word "bourgeoisie" in America, so I'll just say middle class. But we all know there is no such thing as middle class. There is a preoccupation with respectability and material values all right, and there is a mediocrity of us all running around wearing our consumerism like little brand name helmets, but cmon' now, let's be frank. We want protection like soft warm cocoons. For example, what do they do in my neighborhood? What else, the dreaded neighborhood watch. Guy down the street stops me one night as I'm heading home lead-armed with grocerieskeep in mind he's never spoken to me in his life; in fact, I've never seen him poke his mole head out of his white houseanyway, he stops me, and he's bobbing his head around like a scared rodent and hiseyes are darting out of their sockets and he says it. He's so titillated he is sweating. Have you noticed the problem? What problem. You know. He looks one way then the other. I'm thinking, go ahead, no cars are coming, we are on our own street, we are in front of our own houses. He continues. All the dope peddling. The drug deals. And that woman being paraded up and down the street all day all night every day every night. There is a long pause while we consider this.
Who could miss it? What moron wouldn't notice? Not because they're doing anything TO us, but because they're doing it too NEAR us. And isn't that just America all over? This is my house. My street. My neighborhood.
An image: the needle against the flesh threatens with its obscenityits sterility, its mechanism of invading living skin.
I carry my groceries back to my house. Clark, my other neighbor, the one across the street who lives with his mother and wears undersized rock concert T-shirts and the exact same baseball cap every day of his life, a guy who inherited his money from an accident at work which works and works him over into bitter and pale and beer-bellied and pot-eyed, waves to me from across the street. He crosses and stands on my lawn. He says to me, talking about the drug deals just across the tracks, they'll never change, it's like I always say, once a junkie, always a junkie. I feel anger welling up in my belly and for an instant I want to hurl all my knowledge at him like obscenities. Instead of saying shut the hell up you fucking ignorant asshole I want to say Keats, Byron, Shelly, Van Gogh, Bacon, Eliot, FaulknerI feel this whole list of famous "M's" rise up my throat for god knows what reasonMozart Mingus Monk Munch Miller Milo and Malcolm evenI want to move on to Germans, French, Swiss, periods, genres, I want to say if we didn't have junkies we wouldn't have art, but I don't, I just stare at him until he turns away and walks silently back to his yard, his porch, his door, inside. What the hell am I going on about? It's just Clark. Why am I so worked up? I turn back toward my own house. Then it hits me: we are alike in our silences and I am stunned.
I manage to make it inside. My husband is in there. He is in his room-made-into-a-studio, painting. We don't make enough to rent him studio space. So we do what we all do. We invent ways to live what we cannot have. I set the groceries down with great relief. Not because I am tired, but because I know he is responsible for dinner, because never again in my life do I have to be responsible for dinner. This is part of my love for him. Sounds dumb, I know, but you'll never know the relief a junkie or a woman can feel when the pressure of the giant script-life begins to lift. God how I love him.
And he loves me too, because I can kiss the scar on his wrist like it bleeds a sweet white sugar. You see, we are learning to live in these houses, these lives. We are loving over our outcast and beaten hearts. For the longest time, neither of us could afford therapy, insurance, or any other route to wellness. Today we probably could afford a health fix for at least one of us, but neither of us has that much investment in the sicknesses. Just as well.
Cherise, the woman on the other side of us, waddles out to feed her cats. A great lumbering woman who is all heart. As if the body puffed her out from all that heart. Our dog ate one of her cats. Well, he didn't really eat the thing, just killed it. We don't know exactly how many cats she has over there. We suspect our dog will eat some more in time. Cherise understands. She goes inside. She will come out at exactly 6:30 a.m. and start the Suburu and go to work. She will come home at exactly 5:20 p.m. and go inside. Every day. On Friday one half hour before the garbage truck comes she will put her trash in the can. One time, out of the blue, she asks us if we want some poppies. She says she has some bulbs from somewhere in Asia and then she lowers her voice. You know, she hushes, the funny kind.
I'm sitting on the couch and there she goes by. The woman being paraded up and down the street. He is skinny with desperation and she is skinny with fatigue. Both have the ashen flesh of heroin. I feel like I know them in the dumbest way. They are always swearing. She is always following him. Up the street. Down the street. And then again. Sometimes I just think of one word: cadaverous. I used to think, the closer you get to death, that's where the life is. Now I watch from inside my house through a plate glass window. I hear my husband pissing in the toilet. The ordinary sound is enough to bring me to my knees. I want to say, thank you, thank you, thank you.
I see a guy come out of the alley right after them, buttoning his goddamn fly. I think, the thing about the 1990s is that we have no irony, no subtlety, no reason to allegorize anything. Jesus, buttoning his fucking fly and heading on down the road. How is it that America can say anything with a straight face? I watch the man and the woman walk like sticks out of sight.
An image: withdrawing the needle, the skin slides itself closed leaving just this tiny red hole.
Later, I'm inside, the living room window just plain glass against the night. Phyllis, across the street, is at it again. She waters her flowers and yard at about 11:30 p.m. every night. She's bent and rounded in the back from age, but she still looks feisty. She's got her white hair in a sassy little bun on top of her head. Once I saw her march over to the couple yelling at each other on the corner and tell the guy he was just an arrogant loud mouth. He took a step toward her and she didn't budge. Five-foot-nothing and she just stood there, kind of bent-over and with the eyes of a roach: You ain't never gonna get rid of me buster, I can outlive the ice age, I'm gonna live to be one hundred and ninety years old.
Next time I see them I am alone in the house. I am in the living room on the couch. I am reading student journals. I encourage them to write about what scares them. Turns out nothing much scares them. AIDS, not getting a job, babies. I am in this one journal that is different. I am on this one sentence: and I feel like I'm invisible and then I hear all kinds of noises. I cannot remember the face of the student. I look up. There they are. Just like punctuation. I can hear the refrain of the sentence. Sometimes I feel like I'm invisible and then I hear all kinds of noises. Why why why always why from mother, from father, from therapist, from doctor, from counselor, from teachers, from friends, from lovers, why why why. This time I see her face: cadaverous. I fly out the door. They stop. I know exactly what they are seized by as I wave to them: what the hell does she want? She is not a man.
How much for her. How much for an hour.
Let's get the fuck outta here, she says.
Look. I've got one hundred dollars. I want an hour. One hundred bucks is one hundred bucks, isn't it?
He looks down the street. He looks at her. She's got gimme a fucking break on her face. She doesn't look at me once. He looks back down the street, thinks he sees someone, then doesn't. Finally he shoves his open hand toward me to her Jeeeeezus fucking Christ.
But a deal's a deal, and he shuffles off a bit after giving her some kind of stare down. I'm back home for a long second, but she doesn't know it. Like a transplanted heart I live on this street in this life with this job and these neighbors always in danger of the body rejecting me. Come inside my house.
There are no names. Some people understand this. She stands there with her bony arms in a knot across her chest. She has long stringy hair permed a year ago. Dark circles cupping worn-out gray eyes. Some sweater from 1972. Bell-bottom jeans. Jean-jacket tied around her waist, pulling your eyes down to the floor. You don't want to look her in the eye and you can't help looking her in the eye.
I don't want towhat the fuck do you want with me?
She sits down.
This is what me a woman who teaches English thinks looking down at a woman who sucks dicks all day and all night every night as she sits on my couch. This is what me an x addict reformed by love and understanding and given something to believe in because of books thinks looking at her. This is what me who could not stand to be alone in a room with just me thinks: she looks like Mary. This is what Mary must have looked like after Jesus. No way for the body to bear the miracle, the burden, the unbelievable history of nothing. When I see an image of Christ I picture a Mary so drawn and gaunt and tired and angry to the point of emaciation that she can barely wear her own face.
She smokes. Her shaking is familiar between us. What do I think I am going to do, teach her?
I've got this woman in the house. I have one hour. Sometimes all the hours of life we have lived riponly an instantthen suture back up as if nothing ever entered.
Something in common: you can't stare a whore or a junkie down. Either they look away, making you think you are invisible, making you think you fell off the goddamn globe altogether, or they stare through your skull and out the other side leaving a gaping hole where your psyche used to be, and you are left some hollowed out moron afraid of crazy people, afraid of ghosts, afraid of your own, relentless shadow. We stare each other down until she says look man, what's this all about? You want something? Smoke? Smack? Horse? You want me to do something? This is fucking weird. She takes another drag and quivers like an angel. No, not like an angel. Like an ordinary woman being eaten alive by her own heart, her own veins, her own cunt.
I say look, and I step toward her and put my hand near her neck and shoulder as gently as I can and she says I don't fucking lick pussy. I'm not into that shit. But I'll play with your tits if you want. I feel more stupid and cacophonously deaf than I've ever felt in my life. I look at her for a long minute. I drop my hand to its ignorance. What does one say back to words like that? Finally I tell her that I just wanted to give her an hour break. Rest. Eat. Sleep. Drink. Smoke. Do whatever you want. She looks at me like I am out of my fucking mind, her mind bolts toward the door. I guess you can leave too, if that's really what you want. That's really what she wants, but she stays.
Nothing happens for exactly one hour. Nothing. And aren't you just a little disappointed? Weren't we all hoping for something else? What a lousy movie our lives would make.
I leave the room, so I don't know if she slept or ate or what. Here is what I do: go to my computer and write like crazy. I know I can write without stopping like I know addiction. I don't think I feel benevolent but I'm afraid I might. I think of the most stupid things in the universe I want to do for her and I write them down. Play her Schubert, wash her hair, give her a foot rub, cook her a real French dinner with six courses, give her my vintage crepe silk dress, watch Catherine Deneuve movies with her, read stories by Colette to her, paint her fingernails, dunk her in a luxurious bubble bath, give her all the money in my savings account, buy her a plane ticket, take photos of her and last but not least, hold her. I come back an hour later positively fevered and swelling with compassion and she's standing there plain and unimpressed. S'that it is all she wants to know. Yeah, I say, that's it. And then she's gone, he's there to meet her down the street, there is another guy there too, they walk off and become smaller and smaller in sight as if they are walking back to childhood.
My husband returns. Do I tell him? Once a junkie, always a junkie. I tell him. He is mildly furious. Well, actually, he's kind of turned on. I mean, on the other side of his worry that they will come back and rape and kill me and burn down the house is this kind of erotic curiosity, you know, a whore in the house and we're thirtysomething white teachers, pretty little white artists in their bordering-on-dangerous neighborhood with their inconsequential middle class neighbors looking through plate glass windows like fat owls. During dinner he keeps sneaking peeks out the window into the black nothing. I guess we might both be hoping she'll come back to us. That something will happen. I guess that has its own sweetness. An American sweetness: find something to save. Find something to kill.
The last dangerous thing we did was load up on mushrooms and wander out into the streets of our own neighborhood. At the tracks a train brushed by like wind and I just grabbed on and jumped up. He stood there. He told me that he watched me cling to the train like an insect until I disappeared into motion and night. Eventually I came to and let go and did a kind of strange and complex military roll into a pile of gravel. The bruises and cuts left on my body told such a funny story. I journeyed maybe 100 yards. He stood still as night thinking: my wife is a train.
Did she tell him? The guy she came with, the guy she left with? I keep wondering. Nothing to tell, really. Maybe it creeped her out, maybe a guy's hands and slobber and dick are ordinary and familiar and a woman who gives you an hour of nothing is a wacko. Could be; I remember a different logic in my body, even if my mind is beginning to forget. It's the body that pulls you to the next hour, not the mind. It's the mind that makes up stories to cover for the body, so the body won't be found out as the junkie it is.
I am drinking a scotch. No big deal, just drinking a scotch. My husband is in his pretend studio, painting. She has been gone a week. I am watching TV, trying to recognize something.
And then I see them, through my living room plate glass window like a giant screen I see them passing in the night. The neighborhood watch. I hear the murmur of low voices just out of my vision, or is it the TV in the background? I turn from the images on the set to the image of the walkers still fuzzing over vision. Their flashlights swing back and forth with purpose and conviction. They've all purchased some kind of Day-Glo vests and matching orange caps. Women with children are packed into the middle of the group, men on the outsides. Their heads bob with the passion of their mission. They do not look afraid. They are all wearing different forms of Nikes that glow like lowly beacons with every step. They are perfect in their movements, synchronized, beautiful. They will cover maybe five blocks north and south and five east and west. Manifest destiny. There is no one suspicious on the corner tonight. There is no one dangerous in the alley. Our streets are quiet and empty, people venture out onto their porches, children ride trikes on the sidewalks. It is one hour of safe and sound. We are warmed like a summer out of time. Our streets are clean and cured and unculturedno, that's not what I meant at all, uncluttered, I meant uncluttered.