In Poe Ballantine’s short story “Decline of the Lawrence Welk Empire,” the narrator loses a limb to a blow from a machete. After that story appeared in our January 1996 issue, one reader wrote to ask, “Does Poe Ballantine really have only one arm?”
I laughed at first, but when I sat down to dash off a reply, I realized that I couldn’t say with absolute certainty that he didn’t. It was a reminder of how little we know about many of the writers whose work we publish.
Ballantine has since informed me that the arm-chopping episode, at least, is complete fiction. But the following essay is not. We publish it here, imagining that our readers — most of whom are familiar with Ballantine’s work from his six prior publications in The Sun — are as curious as we are about the author’s life.
A short story by Ballantine, “Man Standing under a Rocket Taking Off for the Moon,” follows the essay. As to how much of the story is true, your guess is as good as ours.
— Andrew Snee
I took the bus from Iowa down to Memphis, a funny pressure in my chest, a nervous futility, an unaccountable fatigue. I walked along the railroad tracks and the streets of white clapboard houses, the air smelling of soap and tar. I passed a place called Duno’s Lounge. There was a Help Wanted sign in the window, but I couldn’t go in. This had never happened to me before. I told myself I was just fed up with asking for minimum-wage jobs, that I needed a rest. I got a motel room along the creosote-smelling Wolf River and walked until I came to a market called Louie and Wu’s on Warford Avenue, where I bought a can of Spaghetti-O’s and two bananas and a box of week-old doughnuts on sale for ninety-nine cents.
I rode the bus from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, and walked the streets. I bought a paper and took it to a McDonald’s, where I ate three cheeseburgers with a cup of coffee. I saw a job in the classifieds. With the wind blowing and rain threatening, I made phone calls, trying to find a room. No room, no job. Feeling oddly relieved, I walked to the Eudora Welty Library and visited the Writer’s Room, where there were photos and writings of the famous Mississippi authors: Welty and Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. I studied a map, then went back to the bus depot and ate a candy bar and waited.
Laurel, Mississippi, was about the right size, the right look. There would be no excuses here. I simply had to find a job. I thought I might have Epstein-Barr virus, though I didn’t even know what Epstein-Barr virus was. All I knew was that it made you tired, and that it lasted a long time. I walked down to the Safeway and bought pound cake and oranges. Then I went back to my motel room and slept for two days.
The bus wound south through the worn-out Coca-Cola towns, the rain like smoke, the weeds growing up through the porches. In every park, plaza, or town square sat a war memorial. The graveyards with their fog-stained markers always had fresh flowers on the graves.
I was down to about seven hundred dollars when I met a guy on the bus who said there were oil-derrick jobs in Houma, Louisiana, down on the delta: fourteen days on, seven days off; good money. I could make a few thousand in a few months, not have to work the rest of the year, find a nice place somewhere and sleep. He wrote down two addresses for me.
Houma was bigger than I had expected, a whole city built on two hundred millennia of collected river mud and items flushed from toilets as far away as Brainerd, Minnesota. I tried to walk to one of the addresses the guy had given me, but it turned out to be more than five miles from my motel, so I gave up.
I spent the next night in the New Orleans bus terminal. Behind me a kid played the world’s loudest pinball machine. From outside someone threw a beer bottle at the window and it bounced off and shattered on the ground. I tried to call some friends on the pay phone, but no one was home. For the first time in my life, I wondered where I would go next.
If I’d had the money, I would’ve kept going forever. I liked sitting on a bus, looking down through the scratched blue windows. But at the rate I was going, I had about a month before my feet would be sticking out of a bunk at the Baptist Mission. I went to Hot Springs, Arkansas, and stayed at the Holiday Motel on Ouachita Avenue for eighty-five dollars a week. I didn’t even look to see how much money I had left. It was a nice little room with a ceiling fan. The oven in the kitchenette was broken. I boiled chicken potpies and drank ice water and lay under the slow-turning fan.
I think some part of me understood that I was about to lose my mind, even though, as far as I could see, there was no reason for me to lose my mind. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before, nor to anyone in my family. I was young and strong. I was simply traveling around, trying to find a spot where I could get a job, stay as long as I liked, then move on. I’d been doing it for fifteen years.
But even the part of me that didn’t realize I was about to lose my mind could see that something was wrong: The traveling had lost its meaning, and I couldn’t see a place in the distance where it would ever end. I was writing stories and poems, but having no success. I had given up, for the time being, any idea of finding a woman. The thought of starting over again from scratch in a new town — the strangers, the empty boarding room, the low-paying job where they would lead me through the door marked Hazardous Chemicals, the willful isolation and poverty — seemed like self-flagellation. I had a cough like a flock of wild Canada geese. I had far less than the amount of money it would take to make a reasonable stand. Every place was wrong before I even got off the bus. I physically could not ask for a job. I would not have put it this way at the time, but I needed help. An institution was the natural choice. Voluntary commitment. The name of the institution I had in mind was Iowa State University.
I took a slow bus back to Iowa, my last state of legal residence, my anxiety now converted to a sluggish and complacent sense of defeat. It was late spring. I had enough money for two weeks at the Ames Motor Lodge, at $125 a week. I got a job at a transmission factory. On my first day, they led me through the door marked Hazardous Chemicals, and for the next two weeks I sprayed, cleaned, and painted until I graduated to the Hymco, a belt-driven cleaner like a dishwasher that steamed the grease off the newly machined parts. I wore goggles and earplugs. I ate lunch in the brightly lit lunch room with its walls of snack machines and bulletin boards filled with dazzling reminders and advice for idiots, and it was like being in elementary school all over again, right down to the steam-and-creamed-peas smell of it, and especially the gentle, switched-off eyes of my co-workers. It rained every day for three months. I walked two and a half miles to work in the cold rain and two and a half miles home in the hot rain. The town flooded that summer; it was the Great Flood of 1993.
I found a little basement apartment in the middle of town for $245 a month and started college in the fall. I hadn’t been in school for fifteen years. I got a federal loan and a Pell grant, quit the job at the transmission factory, and took a part-time janitorial position cleaning the city-hall gymnasium every weekend. I walked across campus the first day of classes with all my books under my arm, and it was like being in a big amusement park: safe and clean, with plenty of trash cans and soda-pop machines and people in brown uniforms cleaning up after me. Everyone was happy. Even I was happy. As I walked along under the trees with the chattering, excited children, I wanted to laugh: I had voluntarily committed myself to the state institution.
I decided to be a psychology major, since I had a bunch of psychology credits saved up from my long-ago college experience. I would be a drug counselor. It seemed the only thing I was really qualified to do, having spent ten years screwed up on drugs. Now that I was done with them, I felt I could help others with the knowledge I’d gained through my stupidity. But psychology was difficult to swallow. It was entirely theoretical. If you were good with words, it seemed, you could become famous by making up your own psychological disorder: Attention Deficit Disorder, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Repressed Memory Syndrome, Mississippi Small Town Traveling Syndrome. In the hundred years since the birth of psychology, two million maladies had thus been named, and twice as many theories proposed, but no one had yet come up with a single scientific law, rule, or objective formula. I thought a hundred years was a long time to study something supposedly scientific without establishing even one empirical law.
In my spare time, I wrote stories and sent them out. Although I had given up thinking it would happen, I began placing a story or a poem about once a month. They were little magazines that paid in copies. Nobody read them. Still, for a few days after each acceptance, I felt vaguely worthwhile.
I fell in love with my Spanish professor, though I had no intention of falling in love with anyone. Love is insanity, love is heroin, love is chocolate and brandy on fire blistering your lips and nose for the pleasure of your tongue. She was twenty-four, fresh from Spain, and spoke hardly any English. I spoke some Spanish, most of which I’d picked up working in kitchens. For the first few weeks of class, I served as translator for the Iowa children who knew only “taco” and “hasta la vista, baby.” She took me aside and thanked me. She was so short I wanted to kiss the top of her head. She smelled like a puppy. I wrote notes to her in Spanish on my class assignments; she wrote back in English. I thought to myself, Finally, after all the hard lean years, something is coming my way.
A story I sold for twenty-five dollars to a little San Francisco literary journal made a few ripples: it was nominated for a prize and inclusion in an anthology. Two strangers sent me letters of appreciation. I read the story one night at an open mike sponsored by the university creative-writing department. A low buzz of approval built as I read. A few people came over to my table afterward. An English professor began to seek me out. A high-school girl started coming over to my apartment. Someone asked me to read at the bookstore. For about a month, I was the greatest writer who ever lived.
Meanwhile, I was embarrassed to tell people my major. The more I studied psychology, the less sense it made. The professors seemed to be making it up as they went along, and were mostly goofy or creepy, which is what happens when you make things up all day and then try to live by them. I discovered that, before I could be licensed by the state to help drug addicts, I would have to get a master’s degree. I figured by the time I finished graduate school I wouldn’t be of much use to anyone. Besides, how could I represent ideas I didn’t believe in? I was like an atheist studying to be a priest. Quitting school seemed the most honorable thing to do, but I couldn’t face going out again on my own where they would make me mop floors and cook hamburgers and spray for roaches, where I would live around poor people who coughed and drank too much. I was already a writer (even if I couldn’t make a living at it), so I decided to switch my major to English.
I had promised myself I would never deliberately enter an English department or a writing program. Groups do not create. “Fainthearted animals move about in herds,” the poet Alfred de Vigny wrote. “The lion walks alone in the desert. Let the poet always walk thus.” But I thought, Well, I can get a job teaching. It wasn’t quite selling out. I had lived in the real world. I had done my time. Let someone else push the wheelbarrow up the ramp for a while. I deserved these ivied walls, this Pepsi-belching, government-subsidized comfort.
Many a morning that winter, I woke up in love and walked three miles through the snow to school. I wrote letters to my Spanish professor, stopped by her office, wooed her. I was dazed by love, like someone hit in the forehead with a two-by-four. She was too young. We had little in common. I had no money and — though I didn’t know it at the time — no interest in settling down or becoming stable in any fashion. At thirty-seven, I’d never had a relationship that worked. Nevertheless, I pursued her. She giggled and blushed and nodded, and we spoke crudely in each other’s tongues. Her great appeal, I’m sure, was that we could not communicate.
An English professor began to seek me out. A high-school girl started coming over to my apartment. Someone asked me to read at the bookstore. For about a month, I was the greatest writer who ever lived.
I read whenever I could at the university open mike. People often came over to my basement apartment afterward — writers mostly, and writer hopefuls, the English professor. The high-school girl came over late. She wanted me to make love to her, but I wanted to be true to the Spanish professor, the real junkie-love of my life. I liked the high-school girl. She had spirit. She would be going off to Boston soon, to art school on a full scholarship. I worried that if she finished school she would have little chance of doing anything interesting: How can you expect to produce anything interesting or different while sitting in secure, climate-controlled comfort year after year, doing exactly what you’re told? How do you get your certificate of long-standing conformity and then expect somehow to stand out from the crowd? I tried not to think of my own situation in the same light. I was the exception (which is what every member of the institution thinks). In any case, I had put too much into it to quit now. I was committed. I had a good chance at a ten-thousand-dollar writing fellowship, and would likely teach while attending graduate school. I couldn’t imagine returning to a hot kitchen where stupid people turned hash browns on an eight-foot grill. I sat in the chilly, whirring, fluorescent-lit rooms and listened to the professors drone. Every evening, I switched on my computer and stared at the unfinished essays that were due on the eleventh or the twenty-third.
One day, an editor from New York wrote me. She’d seen one of my stories, she said, and thought it was “beautiful.” She wondered if I could send her something for her new magazine. I told her I didn’t have time to write anything for her new magazine. I was too busy writing an essay on Faulkner’s mustache, and an essay on Beowulf’s homosexual cousin Leonard, and an essay on Joyce Carol Oates’s terrible childhood. I had to read six Victorian novels and eight African American novels and two hundred other assorted literary chestnuts, warhorses, puzzle pieces, and party favors. But when I compared the things I was writing for my classes to the things I had written on a bus or in a laundromat or in a room with only a desk and a bed and cockroaches doing water ballet in the bathroom and an old man coughing next door, it filled me with dread: I was going soft. The idea had been to get the psych degree, get back on my feet, and get out. Now I was dawdling in the English department, contemplating advanced degrees, and preparing to ask for another Pell grant. I’d already run out of money the semester before and taken out a provisional loan. Slowly, I’d become reliant on the U.S. government. I was even peevish when my checks were late: You don’t want me to have to get a job, now, do you? And I could see that even a master’s degree wouldn’t be enough: in order to ensure a lifetime of scholarly, mop-free leisure, I would have to get my doctorate at least, and perhaps a postdoc. The days in which a college diploma alone offered admission into the educated noble class are gone. Anybody who can sign his name can get a student loan and an undergraduate degree. I was being driven, like every comfort-seeker, by the sheer competition with other comfort-seekers.
About six weeks into my fourth term, I was sitting on a bench in the sunshine out in front of Ross Hall just before my literature-appreciation class, and I knew that if I spent another minute in one of those chilly, whirring, fluorescent-lit rooms or swallowed another ounce of the ignorance of the learned, I would turn into a pudding pop. I quit that day, that minute. As I passed through the dim, green, bureaucratic halls getting signatures and stamps of approval, the women staring into their computers couldn’t understand why I was leaving. I was five thousand dollars in debt and only a semester away from graduating with honors, with a fellowship and teaching position awaiting me. “Will you be attending part time?” the women asked. “No.” “Are you intending to return?” “No.” It was like throwing a briefcase full of money off a bridge, or spending a year and a half working on an intricate toothpick sculpture, and then putting a match to it.
It took me a week to get a full-time job driving a truck — I needed to start paying off that debt. I began to work in earnest on the story for the editor in New York, and I started a novel, an adaptation of the story that everyone had loved, English professors and high-school girls alike; the one nominated for a prize and inclusion in an anthology; the one oohed and aahed over at the open mike. I would merely expand it, add a theme. The material was already there.
It was the middle of winter. I drove my truck through the ice and snow every day. Twice, I went up to the Spanish professor’s office in my trucker’s clothes on my lunch break, but she wouldn’t talk to me, wanted nothing to do with me: I had quit school, thrown away my future. She hadn’t come all the way from Spain to date a college dropout. “Soy un escritor,” I told her: “I am a writer.” But she did not understand. Or maybe it was me who did not understand: she was the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and I had left the garden to go dig ditches in Albuquerque. “Have dinner with me,” I pleaded until she acquiesced. I waited at the restaurant, but she never showed. She was like the people who picked up your trash and filled the soda-pop machines and trimmed the trees: once you quit paying the money, they were gone. The amusement park was closed. The lights were off. I went home feeling as bad as I’d felt in a long time.
I drove the truck and worked on the novel and the story for the New York editor, staving off mental breakdown by staying busy every waking minute. In the evenings, the writers and writer hopefuls and the high-school girl often came by. I was more interesting than ever, now that I had thrown everything away. They were all eager to read the novel; they thought I must have something. I drove the truck and came home in the evenings and wrote for three hours. On the weekends I wrote all day. When I had saved seventeen hundred dollars and was six months ahead on my loan payments, I quit the job and wrote full time.
I finished the story at last and sent it off to New York. When the third draft of the novel was finished, I had three spiral-bound copies made and handed them out to my admirers. The responses seemed to take forever. Gradually, in kind and roundabout ways, the people who loved my writing told me that my brilliant book adapted from a prize-nominated story was an imitative, chicken-hearted, commercial-driven waste of time.
The story came back, too. The editor didn’t think she could use it in her magazine. She thanked me and asked if I could send something else. Something else? I thought. I had worked on that story six months. It had taken me as long to write that story as it had to write the goddamn novel that wasn’t any good either.
All right, I said to myself. I’ll fix these things. I’ll make them work. I’ve been at this game for quite a while, practicing, suffering, slaving, studying. I’ve sacrificed everything I have, done everything humanly possible. They have to work.
Sitting in front of the computer that night, working on the novel, trying to make it come together through sheer force of will, I finally had my nervous breakdown, mental collapse, whatever you want to call it. The pair of helpful, knitting hands that had been holding me up for so long stopped all at once, and the yarn fell to the floor. I felt myself sinking and breaking up, like a Chinese junk in a sea of green mud.
I remember walking the streets, bewildered terror, jewel-thin anguish, the cold, sinister clarity of sound. I wanted somebody to talk to, but there was no one. Besides, what would I say: “I’ve lost my mind”? I talked to God instead. I said, “Help me, God. Please, please, help me.” I couldn’t seem to breathe. My guts clenched and churned like sweat shirts in an antique washing machine. I was grinning up buckets of tears. The insides of my glasses were wet: my head would shrink up like an old pumpkin, then suddenly swell with a big spurt of boo-hoos, and the tears would fill my glasses.
I remember the grocery store. Through the glass, it looked too bright, fractured, tilting this way and that. I went in, seeing everything through the blurred prisms of dried salt on my glasses. I figured the employees would know at once I was insane. They would call the police, the hospital. I bought a pack of Old Golds. There was a yellow forty-cents-off coupon on the wrapper. The cashier peeled it off. I paid the money. I remember thinking, I can be insane and still get forty cents off a pack of Old Golds.
I brought the cigarettes home and smoked them one after the other. I understood then why crazy people smoke cigarettes, why they consume them raggedly and unceasingly, leaving a fine blizzard of ashes wherever they go: there was something in nicotine like the gentle arms of an old killer; something in that marvelous, poisonous plant alkaloid, evolved over millions of years for the purpose of deterring herbivores and insects, that was saving me. It was even better than college. Cheaper, too. I had a few more boo-hoos, and then I made a pact with those cigarettes. I said: “You get me through the long days, and I’ll let you kill me.”
That night, I started out of sleep with a piercing sadness, thinking of the Spanish professor I thought I loved. I had never been awakened by sadness before, by the face of a beautiful española whose irresistible mouth shaped the gorgeous chocolate syllables of failed romance. I got up and smoked a cigarette and sat in the dark. I stayed awake in the chair with my bare feet on the cold tile floor, the insanity-salve smoke spinning up in blue-gray spirals from between my fingers, the darkness filling up the curtains. I did not want to be awakened by sadness again.
I have heard that God never puts more pressure on a man than he can bear, but that night I cracked from too much pressure. I don’t blame God. God was saying, “What are you doing? Where are your priorities? What kind of spineless little TV-believing materialist are you, anyway? There is a room waiting for you at the end of the road: a table, light, time, a PaperMate Flexgrip Ultra Fine. Go to it. Stop making your life harder by trying to take the easy way out. There is no easy way out.” But I couldn’t hear those words, couldn’t hear God. I had to learn the lesson on my own.
The key to a long life is the perception of a long life, and no one perceives a longer life than one who cannot sleep. The clock might as well have been a painting of five minutes after three. For days I walked the streets or sat in a chair at the public library looking out the window. For the brief periods I was in my apartment, I smoked cigarettes with the windows open and the cold air rushing in. The walls buckled in on me; ghostly echoes spiraled down. I could not look at the novel. I did not want to wear the clothes or eat the food or sit in the furniture of the man who had done all those things that now made my hours intolerable.
I bought a pack of Old Golds. There was a yellow forty-cents-off coupon on the wrapper. . . . I remember thinking, I can be insane and still get forty cents off a pack of Old Golds.
I suddenly began considering romance with a writer hopeful who had come over to my apartment twice. She was not particularly attractive, but she was pleasant and intelligent. I thought — with whatever I was using for brains at the time — that I might marry her, even though I had never seriously considered marriage before. I called her up with the intent of proposing that night, of getting married as soon as possible. I asked her to have coffee with me, and she agreed. I imagined I would explain things to her over coffee, and she would understand and eagerly wed me. Then everything would be all right again.
I arrived early at the coffee shop because I couldn’t stand to be anywhere other than in the bosom of salvation, which had not been Memphis, college, Old Gold cigarettes, literature, or a young woman from Spain, and therefore had to be matrimony with a somewhat plain girl I hardly knew. She was late, and while I was waiting for her a man sat down at the next table and struck up a conversation. He had a thin, harried face, and wore a crisp denim shirt with pearl buttons on the pockets. His eyes were the same color blue as his shirt, and his eyelids seemed raw. He said he was thirty-five, worked in the television industry, and had just returned from LA. All his friends were dying of AIDS. It was a terrible thing to watch someone dying of AIDS, he said. His boyfriend had just tried to run him over with his car. He thought he was losing his mind. He needed a shoulder to cry on.
My fiancée came in and rescued me. She was warm and pleasant and well rested. I got us coffee. I thought I’d start by asking if she liked living alone.
“You don’t look very well,” she said.
“I haven’t been sleeping.”
“I heard you quit school.”
I couldn’t explain. The words peanut-butter cup came to mind.
“What are you going to do, go back to crummy jobs?”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’ll find my way.” I suddenly saw how ridiculous the idea of marrying her was. “I’m leaving town,” I said.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know.” I was convinced she would see that I was mentally disturbed, but she didn’t seem to notice. We moved our mouths, talked aimlessly about writing, about likes and dislikes. I gave my speech about how college can teach only the consumptive side of literature. The gay man seemed to agree, but my ex-fiancée only regarded me with the familiar bland expression of the university dweller. I asked about her plans for the future. The gay man eavesdropped. We finished our coffee. I paid the check and walked her to her car through the crinkling, shimmering black gloom.
When I’d said I was leaving town, I hadn’t really thought about it. But now my mind was becoming so cluttered with thoughts of suicide that I knew I had to leave. I have always believed it is better to leave town than to take your life. Leaving town is a symbolic suicide, after which you get to make a new start, with memory of all your previous lives. I borrowed a salt-devoured ’64 Dodge Dart from a friend who seemed happy to be rid of it. He looked at me cheerfully and confidently, as if I knew what I was doing. I packed all my stuff and left behind the buckling walls and the fractured grocery store and the clock painted five minutes after three. I left at night, driving west, the direction of escape after disaster, the direction of decline and the setting sun.
All the time I drove I couldn’t get suicide out of my mind. Self-destruction was the road behind, the road ahead, a black razor ribbon through my scrambled brains. I felt nauseous, leprous, pickled, raw. I felt as if I’d been wrapped in newspapers, lit on fire, and kicked all night by merry trick-or-treaters. I smoked the soothing cigarettes, tapped the ashes out the window, watched the tumbling shower of sparks as I flicked the butts onto the highway. I could feel my heart creaking and straining like the rotten mast of a mutinied ship on a stormy night. I stopped and peed behind some trees, looking up at the sky. My urine had a sharp smell, like musk ox and adrenalin. The sky was impersonally flat and godlessly bright.
I stopped to visit friends in Lincoln, Nebraska, whom I hadn’t seen in ten years. I stayed three days, and every evening we drank for auld lang syne, smooched and gargled and tackled each other around the neck with the crooks of our arms. A lonesome housewife from down the street showed up the second night. She had left her husband in Alaska for one feeble reason or another, and now she was a dental technician with a cheap apartment and two kids and sad blue eyes and a loneliness like a well in the ground with the splashing sound thirty seconds after you drop the rock. The third night, we ended up together, hopeless and drunk. It somehow seemed the best solution to our respective mires of failings, misdeeds, shortcomings, and itchy American insatiability. I hadn’t been with a woman in a long time. I was mentally ill and drunk; she was desperate for kindness and attention. We each had a notion about getting something from the other: the song-love learned about in childhood and believed in by the insane and the lonely; the chief cause of pain on earth.
Our little alcoholic tryst was a catastrophe. There was no love, only appendages and holes, and I could not function. My failure lowered the already dismal opinion I had of myself. I took my forty-foot hangover and my suitcase with the shirttail sticking out, kissed and shook hands all around, climbed back in my borrowed car, and limped away west.
I drove the length of Nebraska, stopping in little towns. At a grocery store in Hastings I bought apples and sardines. I went to look at the Little Blue River, then drove up to Willow Island to get a room for the night. The bedspread had pink pompoms, and there was a chrome Art Nouveau lamp on the night stand. The whole room crackled in a bath of sterile white light. I switched off the lamp, got into bed, and stared up into the hissing, sleepless darkness. The blankets smelled like root beer and electricity and an old home permanent. I thought of suicide 1,287,000 times.
I left early the next morning. It began to snow around Lisco, along the Platte River; then the snow changed to rain. Somewhere, soon, I would have to make a stand. I tried to fight the feeling of futility, but it was as fixed and inevitable as the gray light of the sun through the clouds. I couldn’t seem to put any distance between myself and failure. Wherever I went, it was always the same. There was no point in going on, no sense in prolonging the misery.
Scottsbluff is a cloudy, bleak town in the very western part of Nebraska. I got there around noon and found a motel for thirty-eight dollars a night. A red pickup truck and a blue Honda Civic were the only other cars in the lot. We were all in a row — Rooms 7, 8, and 9. My room was as bleak as the town. The windows were small, like jail windows, and filled with gray clouds. There was a strange little nook where the TV sat. I put my suitcase on the bed. The rain began to tick softly against the dusty windows.
I decided to wait until night. Night is the time to die. The arms of the old killer are gentler then. I went out in the afternoon, bought a pack of Kools, and had my last meal at McDonald’s: three cheeseburgers, small fries, small coffee, black. I felt sorry for myself, like a mother whose son is climbing the gallows steps. I blubbered into my bandanna, mopped my eyes and face. The manager came over and asked if everything was all right. He was the first person to recognize that something was wrong — a perfect stranger. He asked if he could get me some more coffee. I said no and went back to the motel, where I sat in a chair and smoked the Kools one after the other.
When it was time to die, I took all the money out of my wallet and put it with a note on the corner of the dresser for the maid. Then I got down on my knees and prayed to God, asking him to forgive me for what I was about to do. The bed was high, and my elbows were way up there, as if I were once again eight years old, reciting the Twenty-second Psalm. Then I got up and fastened the plastic grocery bag from Hastings around my head, knotting it tightly like a bow tie at my throat. I stood in the middle of the room breathing in and out. The plastic crackled and shrank and steamed up from the heat of my breath. The blurry colors of the television flickered through the veil of the shrinking, then expanding, bag. Dying this way does not take long. The people who find you don’t have to look at your face. I grew vaguely excited, euphoric. Then I yanked the bag off and threw it aside.
I left Scottsbluff the next day, skipping breakfast, and drove to Alliance, another bleak town, and then on toward Chadron, the next spot on the map. On the way to Chadron, just outside of Alliance, I stopped at a roadside attraction called Car Henge, a full-scale model of Stonehenge, except with old, silver-painted cars instead of stone monoliths sticking up out of the ground and stacked on top of each other. I’d never stopped at a roadside attraction before. I was the only one there. It was cold and windy and gray. I got out and marveled at whatever Car Henge was: homage, science, art, burlesque, religion. It was too cold to stand out there for long.
When I got back in the car, I was suddenly hungry. I had one apple and a can of sardines with chilies left. I peeled back the lid and poured the sardine oil onto the dry ground. A Winnebago rolled up next to me, and a bunch of kids tumbled out and dashed toward the ring of silver-painted automobiles. The sun came out for a moment and sparkled on the dust across my windshield. I sat with the car door open and the wind howling and ate the sardines. Somewhere long ago, in a place called Memphis, I had begun to lose my way. How had I come to value and believe in so many unimportant things, to fear and resist the life that was naturally mine? Down the road, in Chadron, a pretty little town of five thousand with snow still on the ground in May, a hotel cooking job and a shack for $150 a month awaited me. A few snowflakes started down. I ate the apple and watched the long, feathery slants come out of the sky.