A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Poe Ballantine has been a secret for so long he’s decided he likes it that way. He lives in Chadron, Nebraska, with his wife, his son, and Charlie, a twelve-year-old King Charles spaniel inherited from a dying friend. His latest book, No Talking to Imaginary People, is out this month from Bourbon Flashback Press.
Decorah sat in the impact crater of an asteroid that had struck the earth hundreds of millions of years ago. One of the extinct giant sea creatures exhumed from its crust — the shrimp-looking Pentecopterus decorahensis — had been named after the town.
Einstein said that time moves at different rates throughout the universe. He must have been to Mexico, where time not only moves slower but has an altogether different texture and flavor than American time.
The next two hours are the most precious I will ever spend with my father. He is alert and not visibly suffering. Though not a chatterbox, he converses with us all.
Well honed by disappointment, my instincts told me this book contract was not going to work out (it wasn’t) and that the philosophical differences I had with my editor were not going to be resolved (they weren’t). But at the age of forty-three and looking at my first — and maybe last — realistic shot at a career in letters, I was like an old dog not yet willing to let go of a bone.
Even at the peak of my methamphetamine days, I would have had trouble talking for seven hours. I aim to please, however. A longing to please is both my weakness and my strength. It’s why I cook, why I write, why I take five years to get a sentence right, why I’m so goofily polite, why I reply to fan letters from prisoners.
Next door, in a run-down daiquiri-pink house with bedsheets instead of curtains on the windows, lived Whitey Carr, who loved to pound me every Sunday with his tiny fists. My mother said I had to feel sorry for Whitey because he’d lost his mom, and his brother, Raja, had come back crazy from the war.
After two decades of wandering the country by bus and living below the poverty line, I’d been unable to find whatever it was I was looking for. My adventures had not supplied me with the artistic depth and raw material for a sensational first novel. I’d bet every last chip on the literary roulette wheel, and the ball had chuckled and hopped around and landed on someone else’s number.
Sundays were the worst for the smallest monkeys. The fathers who had the day off would get drunk and beat their boys, who would dash out their front doors to pass it on down. On Virgil’s second Sunday on Blue River Avenue, right after he told everyone how he’d once shot a cougar between the eyes, Wally flipped Virgil over his back, and Virgil’s head hit the pavement with a sickening thud.
While my contemporaries wailed in the throes of romantic and copulatory obsession, I suspected that every form of adult intimacy, sex especially, was less like the delivery of a vital and sophisticated pleasure than it was a sleek torpedo you never really saw coming until you were struck broadside and blown to smithereens.
I had once believed in answers, saviors, miracles, and sages; divine justice and ideal love; the discovery of a lost Taoist parable or a missing biblical passage; a scientific intervention or progressive sociopolitical system that would liberate the oppressed; perhaps even news from NASA about habitable planets accepting applications for novelists. But I knew now that none of this would happen. The letter from a publisher, the spiritual breakthrough, the scientific solution, the literary prize, the big-hearted city, the understanding woman — they were all a mirage.
To give me a better shot at catching a long-distance ride, my father dropped me off at the Pine Valley entrance to Interstate 8, about forty miles east of San Diego. He waited till I’d arranged my equipment along the roadside, then took out his camera.
We did come upon a low cave, ten or so feet to the back, but there was nothing inside except empty beer bottles and a white paper bag shaped like a cat. So we sat like castaways at its entrance, knees touching, and watched the hourglass glitter of the moon on the black surface of the ocean. That was all. It was my first experience of nervous teenage heaven, and I doubted I would ever know anything so fragile and sublime again.