The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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In spring of 1988 I became the caretaker of a twenty-acre plot my sister and her husband had bought as a prospective retirement location in the Black Forest of Colorado: elevation 8,200 feet. It was a great opportunity for me to write and reflect and rest up from the roaring hellfire on earth. The rent was free, and I got a little caretaking stipend because my sister and her husband were generous and understood that I wasn’t doing well financially. My responsibilities were minimal: I had to make sure the worms didn’t eat the trees, the roof of the old single-wide trailer didn’t leak, the pipes didn’t freeze, potential vandals didn’t wander onto the property, and developers from California didn’t come along and put up chain motels and plastic hamburger stands.
The locale was lonely and isolated, so my sister gave me a golden-retriever puppy to keep me company. I had been unhappy for a while and had recently thought of killing myself, but the dog changed all that: at first because she took up so much of my time, crapping and peeing all over the carpet in our little trailer and running off into the dark and towering woods; and later because I grew attached to her. I’d never been able to have a dog before, because I moved around a lot, and you can’t take a dog on a bus or keep one in a rooming house or a residential motel.
My golden retriever was smaller than most, so I named her Shorty. She had a glossy reddish coat, a sweet disposition, and no ability at all to retrieve. Once, she swam after a stick I’d thrown into the middle of a lake, and she almost drowned. Another time, we got lost in the woods, and she was no help at all finding our way back home. I had a hunting dog that didn’t retrieve, couldn’t swim, and had no sense of direction. We were together constantly. I took her for two walks a day, three if you count the mile-long stroll down to the mailbox. I taught her to sit, stay, lie down, and come. I slept on the floor of the trailer, because my back gave me trouble and the bedroom was cold and haunted, and Shorty slept in the crook of my legs. She was keen on spaghetti, corn cakes, and popcorn. She loved snow. When it got down to thirty below and I was blowtorching the pipes under the trailer to thaw them, she trotted around outside as if it were noon of a summer’s day. She was so eager to please that if I gave her a lamb chop she wouldn’t eat it until I told her it was all right. I’d always thought it pitiful how dog owners gushed about their pets and blubbered when they died, but now I understood.
Being caretaker in the Black Forest was as close as I had come to paradise on earth, but after ten months my sister and her husband decided to sell the property. They wouldn’t be retiring for at least thirty years, and Colorado real estate was in a tailspin. Paradise went poof!, just like in the books. But now that I had old Shorty, my elegant and noble companion, I felt I could face anything. I loaded up my sister’s Mazda pickup with my few belongings, told my confused dog to hop on in, and we jostled down the long dirt drive and out of the Black Forest.
It was late March, and there was still snow on the ground in the foothills. I wasn’t sure where to go. Everyone else was migrating west or south, so it felt right to go north and east. Except for the year and a half I’d lived in Niagara Falls, I’d spent little time in that part of the country.
The cities and freeways confused Shorty. At the motel where we spent the first night, she ran from the room and tried to get back in the truck. After a while, though, she got into the rhythm of traveling, and I believe she enjoyed the new experiences and scenery and smells. We stopped often to look over small towns that might have been good places to live. We had long talks, the lonely man and his dog. We stayed in motels and watched movies and ballgames and read the local papers. I couldn’t bring her into a restaurant or a grocery store, and I didn’t want to leave her alone in the car, so when it was time to eat, we often went to the drive-through at McDonald’s. Every time old Shorts saw the golden arches, she began to pad her feet on the seat. She always ate her sandwiches the same way: bread first, then cheese, then meat. Outside of the ticks she picked up in Bardstown, Kentucky, which I squeezed as they rose like drops of blood from her coat, the only bad part of the trip was the vague fear that we would soon be separated.
On a whim I veered north and went to Niagara Falls to see some old friends, an old girlfriend in particular. I stayed with my former boss at the bar where I’d been a famous alcoholic bartender, but it snowed the whole time, and I got depressed because the old girlfriend was living with the guy she’d left me for. Money running out, I wrote a note (“It’s snowin’, so I’m blowin’ ”) and headed down to Chestertown, Maryland, to visit my old best friend Stiff Cliff, who was losing his mind from booze, and his wife, Denise the Christian Shrew, who, apparently unable to contain the charity and grace of her faith, screamed at me whenever she got the chance. Later, powerless to resist that gushing conduit of love from God, she accused me of making a pass at her in the kitchen, and Stiff Cliff believed her. He and I haven’t spoken civilly since. I suppose we were never really friends if he couldn’t trust me. He also had an electric fence surrounding his house. Shorty got shocked a couple of times, and Stiff Cliff thought it was funny.
Before I managed to escape, the Christian Shrew lined me up a job with a friend of hers, a ship’s captain in Camden, Maine. He was renovating a turn-of-the-century schooner and hoped to find a cook. I had cooked in a dozen or so kitchens. It looked to me like Paradise again (careful, careful), sailing around the islands of Penobscot Bay, whipping up fine cuisine in the galley, standing shirtless on the prow in my sailor pants with the wind parting my hair, scrambling up to the crow’s nest to shout, “Land ho!”
I couldn’t bring Shorty with me on a boat, so I decided to leave her with my sister. I’d be gone for only a few months, I explained to Shorty, and since I’d be at sea the whole time and unable to spend money, I would have saved enough cash by the fall for us to move back to the mountains or the forest. You’ll see, I told her. Temporary separation wouldn’t be so bad. She didn’t seem to trust the idea, however, and stuck close to me the whole three-thousand-mile drive back to my sister’s house in southern California. I had to move fast if I wanted the job, so I dropped off the truck and the dog with my sister, then grabbed a flight to Boston, got airsick on a small commuter plane to Portland, Maine (and here I was going to work on a boat), and arrived in cold gray Camden by bus, flat broke.
The aged schooner was in a shambles under its rough tarp. It essentially needed to be rebuilt in a little more than two months, as it was already booked for several weeklong cruises in June. My employer, Captain Toil, was a likable chap with thick glasses that distorted his eyes. I had no shipbuilding experience, so I was thrown into the general labor pool, which consisted mostly of kids who hoped to sail but had little chance of being selected. The captain would hire only five crew members: the first mate (a professional sailor, already hired), the cook (me, hopefully), the mess mate, and deckhands one and two.
We had our work cut out for us. Many of the old salts who came around to watch predicted that we wouldn’t make the deadline. Captain Toil drove his team hard, with mandatory twelve- and sixteen-hour days toward the end, and no days off. Though the schooner was named the Adventure, I came to think of her as the Juggernaut, for her power to crush every last soul unfortunate enough to enlist under her banner.
After a couple of weeks I was penciled in as the cook. I had proved myself worthy by sanding, painting, planing, and heaving great timbers, some of which weighed four hundred pounds, and by being the only one of the many hopeful sailing candidates with any real cooking experience. I was eager to get into the galley. I’ve never been good with wood or tools, and, soft suburban lad that I am, I don’t like breathing the fumes from a pot of paint thinner or feeling my right arm vibrate all night from ten hours of operating an electric sander. But before I could start cooking, we had a boat to finish.
More and more men came to work as the deadline to sail approached. Originally there had been seven or eight of us laboring on scaffoldings, or astride the great planer, or across the planks of the ruined decks, and three of us sleeping in the boathouse above the mighty Juggernaut. But as summer pressed in I could no longer count the number of carpenters, shipwrights, painters, and general laborers who’d become involved, twelve of whom eventually lived in the boathouse, packed in sleeping bags across the floor, waiting in line to use the one-and-only shower and the one-and-only microwave. I went to live in the tool trailer, where I could read by flashlight with no one’s smelly feet in my face, and not have to worry about that mad bastard of a shipwright who came in drunk at four in the morning wanting to “fuck someone.”
You may recall that Paradise is traditionally followed by the Fall. After many twelve-hour days lifting those four-hundred-pound timbers, working in cramped quarters, and inhaling dust and paint fumes, I developed a bad cough and began to lose weight. I can’t count the number of times I cracked my head on the scaffolding and was literally knocked flat into the sawdust. But the thought of my reunion with Shorty sustained me. It would be only a few months. Time goes by. Why couldn’t it go by faster?
© Susie Forrester
The week before we were to set sail — only days after we’d heaved the Juggernaut into the bay to fit the masts — I began cooking in the galley: a sort of a dry run for some of the shipwrights and the crew. My handpicked mess mate, Cal of Happy Endings, a steady young man with an Ivy League future who worshiped Hemingway, helped me sling out the meals and wash dishes in the tiny sink. The absence of electricity and other modern comforts supposedly enhanced the ship’s rustic charm. Water was heated in pipes that circulated through the wood stove. Large blocks of ice would eventually be hoisted in through the hatches for refrigeration. The fire in the stove had to be maintained constantly to keep proper heat. To have breakfast cooked by eight o’clock, you needed a fire started by six. Cooking onboard a ship was turning out to be a bigger challenge than I had thought.
By arrangement, a few passengers arrived a day early, and I baked a humpbacked birthday cake (oven too hot) for a man named George. He and his traveling companions were understandably dismayed by the underdeveloped state of the ship, the great commotion of the workers, and, no doubt, the shape of their cake. Captain Toil put them in the only cabins that had been completed. The next day, the rest of the passengers began to arrive, and supplies were laid in, along with the blocks of ice. Not all the cabins were finished, so the would-be passengers milled about on deck, toed the scuppers, and peeked over the side at the oil slicks while the carpenters sawed and banged away and the painters hurried to slap on paint.
My cabin was one of the ones not finished, and I had spent the previous few nights sleeping on a bench in the galley. After I’d cooked lunch for forty, the tourists — many of whom had booked this trip months in advance — began to filter down to talk to me out of boredom and to acquaint themselves with my life story as I began preparations for dinner. They had many special requests, allergy specifications, dietary restrictions, and so on. Like an inventor swept up by the sudden force of a revolutionary idea, I realized that I did not want to cook breakfast, lunch, dinner, and afternoon snack for twenty-nine people on an old leaky wood stove in a cramped galley with a bad cough and my pants falling off under the frosty brow of Captain Toil for the rest of the summer, so I hastily packed my bag, scuttled up from my hole, and made for the gunwales.
There was a burst of applause as I jumped down onto the dock below. I did not look back to see who was clapping, though I suspect it was unanimous: frustrated shipwrights, painters, last-minute carpenters, and especially those who had paid to be out on the open water by now with the sun on their noses and the sea breeze in their hair and someone baking cupcakes for them in the galley below. I still don’t know if the Juggernaut sailed on that cruise.
As I walked away whistling, I had in my possession one hastily packed bag and four hundred dollars in cash. (I resigned the notion of ever collecting all the wages owed to me.) I found the bus station closed, but it was a warm late afternoon, and I had nothing pressing to do, and no idea where I was going anyway. There was only the eventual goal of making enough money to retrieve Shorty and settle down in a cabin in the woods.
I spent an hour in the sunny window of the dank but well-stocked library trying to read Proust, still too excited by my reckless departure to absorb much of what I read. The librarians seemed especially enticing that afternoon, their bodies outlined in electricity, their buns verily tingling. I’ve always been drawn to librarians: These are the women who take care of the books. But I had become afraid of women due to my inability to make sense of them and the strange way they often looked at me when I was completely in earnest. The library was closing soon, so I sauntered back downtown and sat on the bench in front of the bus station. As the sun sank, I enjoyed that wonderful tranquillity of leaving a terrible job, even if another one was waiting right around the corner.
To my surprise, along in their Subaru came my handpicked mess mate, Cal of Happy Endings, who had also jumped ship, and his friend Flamboyant Jerry, a thin-armed kid who had worked several weeks with us, renovating the ship and admiring the men as they came out of the shower. They had my French chef’s knife and my alarm clock, which I had left in my haste, and they offered me a ride to Frederick, Maryland, where Flamboyant Jerry lived. He said I would like Frederick, claimed it was affordable, and since it sounded like as good a place as any, I threw my bag into the back and climbed into the car.
We drove through the rain down the turnpikes, past the regimentally eerie Howard Johnson complexes, stopping for snacks and gas and trying not to feel lost or overwhelmed by these densely flowing Eastern Rivers of Humanity. We all felt shakily proud of our bold failure. We were beatnik symbols of giddy freedom. We were freed slaves. (The wage for working on the boat was to have been two dollars an hour, plus meals and accommodations; there was the joy of sailing, too, I suppose, but I have never enjoyed sailing that much.) I was the scatterbrained leader of the screw-ups. My brash act had liberated these kids and allowed them to return home with no money and treat it like a victory. Recognizing my influence over their impressionable, romantic minds, I discoursed freely upon various half-baked ideas such as the importance of getting your nose broken in a swimming pool, determination versus free will, and the color at the top of the rainbow made from human sadness that all the gods clamor to see.
At last we found a restaurant that wasn’t a Howard Johnson’s. Our waitress had a speech impediment, and when she inquired about dessert, Flamboyant Jerry insisted she recite the names of the pies over again, hoping to hear her say, “Gwam-quackah-cwust,” just once more. She slapped down the check and stalked away while Jerry cried with laughter. He had a cruel streak despite his love of men and sailing.
That night we stayed at an apartment that belonged to friends of Jerry’s in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, a pleasantly drowsy town with newspapers yellowing in the racks and old men covered with cobwebs on park benches. I would’ve liked to rent an apartment there and send for Shorty, but there was nothing — not an outhouse, treehouse, lighthouse, or charnel house — for less than four hundred a month. Jerry’s friends were out, so we never met them, only saw their fish tank full of gerbils and dozens of boxes of breakfast cereal arranged like books on top of the refrigerator. The apartment was as hot as a reptile cage, and I slept poorly on the couch.
The novelty of quitting a job wears off about as quickly as a six-pack of beer, and by the time we’d reached Frederick, we were just three sober young men out of work. Flamboyant Jerry invited me to stay at his apartment, where we were greeted by a man in a kimono, who turned out to be Jerry’s roommate. I picked up a newspaper to check the rents and saw that Frederick was no cheaper than Pennsylvania or any other place I’d investigated in the last several months. I was growing discouraged about my future. I hardly had enough money to be a decent homeless person in the East.
A party formed that night — Jerry had many friends — and I felt suddenly old and tired and out of place. Uncomfortable even at the smile of a pretty young girl, I feigned exhaustion and went to bed early. The next morning I got up with the sun and, without so much as a thank-you, slipped out and trudged across town to search for the bus depot. I didn’t know where it was, so I looked for poor neighborhoods, greeting many winos and making many wrong turns. I even broke down and asked directions, but to no avail. Finally, in an impotent rage, I smashed my bag against a pole, breaking my alarm clock and powdering a bunch of aspirin. A minute later the bus depot magically appeared (prayer and sacrifice do work!), and I bought a one-way ticket for Hot Springs, Arkansas, because I had finally given up hope of ever living in the East. I had been warned many times against moving to the South, home of rednecks, lynch mobs, and cross-eyed, inbred banjo players with bad teeth, but all this suddenly seemed interesting to me and pointed auspiciously to the possibility of affordable rent and getting back my dog.
The Hot Springs bus depot was across the street from a boarded-up hotel. Except for the fairly new depot, the whole area was lush with weeds and seemed abandoned. I walked aimlessly for a long while, trying to get the odd lay of this gambling resort along the boundary of a national park. Hotels and room rentals seemed abundant, but all were wrong for one reason or another. After many miles I finally came upon the Best Motel: eighty-five a week, ceiling fan, kitchenette, and dark curtains to my liking. Neither the TV nor the oven worked, but it had a deep, tiled shower, and the mattress was firm.
I stayed at the Best Motel, slept, drank red wine, shook the aspirin dust from my clothes, and looked for a job. Hot Springs had the right feel. It was a bit hot for Shorty, but I still thought she’d like it. The rent was cheap (you can almost always tell by the motel rates), and the people were at least outwardly friendly. There were lots of tire places and catfish huts and newly opened nightclubs, and plenty of jobs at very low pay. I applied at several restaurants, two nightclubs, a hospital, and the Holiday Inn.
Then I got an interview at the prestigious Palace Hotel, which stood thirty feet above street level, like an island at the head of Bathhouse Row, a strip of mostly closed but regal old bathhouses. Across from the row was an eruption of campy tourist attractions — Coney Island grafted onto downtown Tijuana — with such memorable exhibits as a counting chicken and a Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.
At the Palace I checked in at personnel and then climbed a long, steep flight of stairs to a door marked Employees Only Beyond This Point — as if anyone else would undertake this Mayan escalade. Opening the door, I entered a massive ballroom of a kitchen, alive with clanging pots, roaring flames, and hissing jets of steam. I moved carefully along the slick ceramic tiles while everyone eyed me from their work stations as if I were an evil invader from the planet Herpes.
The chef was about my age, thirty-two, with straight black hair that he kept whipping back out of his eyes. He wore tall black clogs that looked slippery. Apparently satisfied with my work history, he sat across the desk from me, fingertips together, and said with a straight face, “You don’t use dope, do you?”
I replied with an equally straight face that I didn’t.
“I can’t get good help because no one can pass the drug test,” he said, gesturing futiley.
And isn’t it funny that I hadn’t smoked pot in four years, except nine days earlier with the shipwrights at a card game, just for the hell of it?
I had never thought of cooking as being important enough to warrant a drug test. What difference does it make if the French fries are a little darker today? But I drank a lot of water and crossed my fingers and peed in the cup and passed the test and won that minimum-wage job. Later I discovered that half the people who worked there used dope.
The Palace had three bustling restaurants. Because of my cooking experience (I neglected to mention the four days in a ship’s galley on a wood stove), I was assigned to the Crystal Room, “the finest gourmet restaurant in Arkansas,” according to our accident-prone, constantly slipping-on-his-clogs chef. The Crystal Room served mostly nouvelle cuisine, which is small portions of quail and veal kidney and the like on hot plates with a muck of fancy sauces and tricky garnishes such as cucumbers fanned into birds of paradise and radishes carved into Mount Rushmore and all sorts of other needless fooling around to entertain the rich, who need more noodles in their diet, in my opinion.
I was not immediately embraced by the people of Hot Springs. Rarely, to be fair, am I immediately embraced anywhere, but I had this expectation that the South would be more hospitable than the rest of the country. It wasn’t. A mentally handicapped dishwasher actually called me a Yankee on my second day, and I felt as if I’d done something wrong, until I remembered that the North was the side that had opposed slavery.
By the time I got my first paycheck I was literally down to a nickel, but soon I was making seven hundred a month, and since you can’t have a dog in a motel, I checked out an apartment for rent down the way that allowed pets. As the landlady led me up the stairs, she stopped, her false teeth flopping around in her jaws like a mouse with its tail caught in a trap, and confided to me: “We don’t rent to colored here. It isn’t that we’re prejudiced. It’s just that colored and white don’t get along.”
The apartment was furnished: two big chairs, a bathtub, a table, and a bed. My neighbors were indeed all white — or, at least, they looked white, the notion of pure race being a fallacy in America — and half of them were crazy, like Jake, an old, muttering, droopy-drawered cracker who’d stroll uninvited into my kitchen and start looking over my personal items as if he had stumbled upon a yard sale; and Vida, who smoked so much I believe it was she who eventually burned the place down.
Summer, which lasts six or seven months in that part of the world, was well underway, the shrill chee-chee-chee of the parakeets and the apes swinging past the windows on vines and the mosquitoes feeding lustily and the magnolia and the morning glory and the golden jonquil all laden with heavy, twinkling drops from the thunderstorms that passed over without fail every forty-two minutes. The heat in my un-air-conditioned second-floor apartment was a killer. The brick walls would cook all day in the sun, and at night, when I got home from work and sat in my big green armchair, I felt like a roast quail without the fancy garnish. It was so hot my thumbs would sweat. The bathtub would be hot to the touch. I wanted to send for Shorty, but it wouldn’t have been kind to leave her in this brick kiln all day while I was gone. She seemed happy with my sister, and I thought it better to keep saving money, find a more agreeable situation, and pick her up the following spring.
While I waited for my savings to accumulate and Southern hospitality to kick in, a recently hired Mexican waitress named Claudia, who spoke terrible English, began to flirt with me near the steam table. She was svelte, in her twenties, with mildly aquiline features — French blood, I imagined, mingled with mestizo. I spoke barely functional kitchen Spanish. She offered me a ride home one day — my first since I’d started working there. (You can’t get much more southern or hospitable than Mexico.)
From the beginning, little alarms would go off in my head when Claudia came around. She was aggressive, prideful, and secretive. She drove a Chrysler Cordoba the color of a Martian dust storm. Her English was about as good as my Spanish, although she had no qualms about telling me how bad my Spanish was. Because I wore a silly seventies mustache and one of those cotton Chef Boyardee hats at work, she insisted that I looked “Italiano.”
Every time we worked together, she offered me a ride home, and living nearly three miles away, I always accepted. Once, we went to a bar, and she dragged me by the hand across the room to show me where she had removed pictures of herself from a bulletin board. The rest of the evening was taken up with her explanations of her high moral standards, which were somehow related to the removal of the photos. Her reluctance to discuss her past should have been a red flag, but Hot Springs is a gambling resort through which players, tourists, itinerants, and migrants constantly flowed. Nor was I nosy about possible immigration issues. And though she intimated that she had several children by several different fathers, she never seemed in any hurry to get home to feed anyone or hang art projects on the refrigerator.
Eventually she came up to see my room. I knew from her lectures that she was not interested in sex — at least, not outside of marriage, and especially not with a guy she barely knew. So we had a drink, and she studied my bare walls and talked about Mexico and the people at work. When it was time for her to go, she grew angry with me because I did not kiss her good night. Having totally missed the point, as usual, I kissed her, and then all at once the passion rose, the red rose, the silver thorn, the bloody rose.
It had been a long time since I’d had sex: years. Johnny Appleseed I wasn’t. I had gotten out of the habit. I preferred the freedom of being unattached, of not having to grapple and lie. I preferred the purity of solitude and the raindrops pattering the drum skins of my window screens and sliding like glass beads down the necklaces of the telephone wires. I preferred sitting in my big green chair reading a book while my thumbs sweated. I preferred the simplicity of no emotional debt and getting on the bus when it was time to go without someone throwing vegetables at my window. Yet there was a stronger part of me — my reproductive system, I suppose — that cast the final vote that night.
The garments of the cook and the waitress fell to the floor. We wrestled and groaned. I felt like a big, slobbery dog that had been drugged. Somewhere deep within me the tadpole spark caught, normalcy flourished, and we fell together into my hot bed under the spinning ceiling fan with the insects cheering outside.
“Fantastico!” she cried, sucking on my neck.
You’re lying, I thought. But even though my purity and freedom were toppled like a pyramid of beer cans in a college dorm room, I felt good. I felt like a man. I felt alive. Yes, she was a bit unusual. Yes, there were a few husbands, or boyfriends, or biological fathers lurking in her past. Yes, she could now call me, drive under my window and honk her horn, demand to know my business, and slip into my room late at night while I was sleeping. But I had myself a girlfriend. Finally, I had myself a girl.
Except the next day when I came into work, she was gone. Not sick, not on vacation, not playing hooky, but gone. One of the dining-room captains said that she had tried earlier that morning to get her check, but without success. She’d refused to leave an address for them to mail it to her. All I had to remember Claudia by was an earring she had dropped on my floor and a neckful of embarrassing hickeys.
We’d had unprotected sex, and I was immediately struck by two thoughts: (1) having children by different fathers is her hobby, and I may have sired a child I will never know; and (2) she hates men, or maybe just men who look Italian, and she gave me some viral parting gift.
A few weeks later I came down with yellow diarrhea and a debility like I had never known. I missed two days of work. A month later I was sick again, this time with flu symptoms. Sick again two weeks later, I knew the lowdown and terrible truth: Claudia had given me AIDS.
Oh, how sad and foolish I had been to fall into such an obvious trap laid by a strange woman whose single purpose was to spread disease and suffering, a literal man-killer. But sadder yet was a pink envelope I found in my mailbox one evening that October. Inside was a letter from my sister:
I have some very sad news. Shorty died last night. I don’t know what she died from. She was healthy and happy and full of energy last time I saw her. I don’t know if there was anything I could have done or not done. I don’t know what else to tell you except I’m sorry. Paul is burying her between the fruit trees.
I have some very sad news. Shorty died last night. I don’t know what she died from. She was healthy and happy and full of energy last time I saw her. I don’t know if there was anything I could have done or not done. I don’t know what else to tell you except I’m sorry. Paul is burying her between the fruit trees.
I cried then, letter in my lap, astounded by the depth of my attachment to this animal and the callousness with which I’d abandoned her for the pleasure of a sailing trip. I felt thrust back to the days when I’d been inconsolably alone and misunderstood. For the thousandth time I wondered at my ineptitude at forming relations with humans. Perhaps my peripatetic pattern was not a brave, poetic sacrifice — “the life of the drifter” — but rather a method by which I could indefinitely postpone the obligations of adulthood, love, and family. Pink letter in my lap, splotched with tears, I vowed never to fail the test of loyalty again.
A few months later I moved to Vegas, where I could be invisible and make some money for a change. I got a job as a cook at the Hacienda, then at Binion’s downtown. I got an HIV test, too, finally. Negative. Funny, it made little difference. When I wasn’t cooking, I watched TV or worked at the little table in the kitchen on my Great Las Vegas Novel. And at night I kept having dreams about old Shorts: We were face to face in the grass, a knife between us. She was walking away from me on a beach. In the last dream she let me hold her. I took this for forgiveness.
Seventeen years later I still have the letter from my sister. My pink tombstone. My clean little knife. My neat, flat souvenir of betrayal.
After reading Poe Ballantine’s essay “My Pink Tombstone” [November 2005], I have to say there is no writer better able to make me laugh and cry in the same piece. His work reminds me of that intangible feeling you can’t quite place, a memory of something that happened long ago. Maybe it’s the memory of how things felt when your heart was still on your sleeve.