— for George Ledbetter
In early May of 1994 I borrowed a car, threw my meager belongings in the back, and headed west from Ames, Iowa. That “time to go” voice had been coming more frequently. I figured I would go all the way. The farther you travel west, the higher the suicide rate gets, and I thought perhaps this move would give me the momentum I needed.
I was thirty-eight years old and five thousand dollars in debt from a student loan that I’d wasted by dropping out of school. All the sacrifices I’d made in an attempt to become a novelist had amounted to nothing. To top it off I had just had a dizzying romantic flop with a Spanish professor I’d had no business being with in the first place. Before this latest stab at higher education I had been drifting for some time, continually starting over fresh in a new town — fifteen states in ten years — also without any measurable results. The road had long since lost its savor. I was not in the best state of mind. It was no coincidence that I was thousands of miles from the people I loved.
I made it as far as Chadron, Nebraska, a bucolic, hardscrabble, sandblasted prairie town of five thousand in the northwest corner of the state, elevation 3,400 feet. A quaint, forested, friendly, snow-still-on-the-ground-in-May town, Chadron had a water tower, a few grain elevators, a tanning salon, a video-rental store, a stoplight, and a curling yellow sign in the pet-store window that read, “Hamsters and Tarantulas Featured Today.” There were abandoned houses everywhere. The town was dying but still politely hanging on. I felt a certain kinship. I thought, You know, we can’t all win the game. So why not just shut up for a change and be satisfied with what you have? Why not just be a good neighbor and live an honorable life and take out the trash? Why keep torturing yourself about fame and art? Why not relent, marry a reformed hooker, buy some old furniture and a ping-pong table, open a dusty bottle of Kentucky straight, and enjoy the brief time you have left on this planet of sorrow?
I rented a room for sixteen dollars a night at the Roundup Motel out on the highway, across from the Chuck Wagon restaurant. The place was clean and homey: doilies, a hand-quilted counterpane, pine wainscoting. The local phone book was about the size of a Reader’s Digest and covered the small-town residents and businesses of four states. In the weekly paper, the Chadron Record, amid the softball scores, the courthouse news, the sermon of the week, the ads for supercheap houses, and the sparse job listings, I found a textual antidepressant called “Police Beat,” a log of the week’s calls to the Chadron Police Department:
5:24 P.M. Caller from the 400 block of Chapin Street stated that the dog across the street is not supposed to be outside because it is so small. She stated that the dog should be inside and if the owners didn’t want it she would buy it from them. Officer told caller that he could not require the owner to sell the dog. Officer then inspected the dog and it was not lacking anything. Officer informed caller that just because the dog is not played with does not make it abused.
7:09 P.M. Caller from the 100 block of Main Street requested an officer at the above location. Caller advised there was a man who seemed to speak only Spanish and was making some girls uncomfortable, and no one could get him to stop.
9:03 P.M. Caller from North Main Street advised she thought she needed to go to the loony bin.
In the Chadron Record I also found a rental for $150 a month in the alley off Mears Street, not far from the Native American Center and one block south of the railroad tracks. My new home was two rooms, furnished, bathtub and toilet, two tall Siberian elms in the yard, a bit “rough,” as the agent described it, with a small refrigerator that froze all my vegetables, giving new meaning to the word crisper. In the bedroom was Betsy Ross’s original mattress, whose broken springs stuck up through the fabric like the welded tails of pigs. But I could arrange my body on it the way a river arranges itself through a forest, and it was better any day than a hard chair in a bus terminal or the front seat of a borrowed car at a rest stop.
The next day I got up and drove to Iowa to return my friend’s car. I took a shuttle back. (Greyhound doesn’t come to the panhandle of Nebraska, one reason I chose the area.) My fellow passengers — half a dozen troubled youths being shipped to Job Corps, a vocational camp in the pine woods twelve miles south — laughed when I told the driver I didn’t know where I lived. I’d been there only once and couldn’t remember the address, and it was dark. Finally I just told the driver to drop me off out on the highway. The youths were still laughing as I walked away across the fields with my ripped suitcase and a hamburger I had bought in Valentine still uneaten in its styrofoam box.
All my belongings were piled on the floor just as I’d left them. Exhausted, I fell into my unmade bed, troubled-youth laughter echoing in my head. In the morning I ate the hamburger cold and then went shopping and bought a gallon of red wine and three packs of Old Golds and some lamb chops. My life was now settled: one cup, one plate, one fork, one knife, one spoon, Bible, fingernail clippers, radio, scissors, toothpaste, notebooks, grease-stained raiment, pots and pans and pens all in their proper places. A few cool days of spring left with snow still on the ground. How many times had I done this: vowed to end my days, started over, lied to myself about settling down, and believed that something essential in me had changed when nothing of the kind had happened? And how long would it be before I was packing up all my crap and running off again?
Chadron is a Sioux word for “city of barking dogs.” Each resident was required to tie his or her dog up in the yard until it barked itself cross-eyed, presumably to frighten off coyotes. Even so, there were times when the peace of the town, the quiet of inaction, was so thick that I had to get up and check out the window to see if the world hadn’t come to an end. Time there was as big as the sky, especially when you didn’t know anyone. I would take long walks past the abandoned homes, the rows of trailers and prefabs, the original nineteenth-century log cabins, the classic Puritan boxes, the Dutch bungalows, the Georgian mansionettes with their wide, columned verandas and weeping birch trees out front.
1:20 P.M. Caller from the 200 block of Morehead Street advised a man was in front of their shop yelling and yodeling. Subject was told to stop yodeling until Oktoberfest.
4:28 P.M. Caller from the 500 block of King Street advised it appears someone broke into the above location through a window. Caller was unsure if anyone took anything but it appears unknown subjects used the coffeepot.
1:26 A.M. Caller from the 300 block of Lake Street advised he just got home from the bar and his truck had been wrecked. Caller stated he didn’t drive tonight because he knew he’d be drunk.
When I’d quit school midsemester the year before, the professor who taught Beowulf had insisted I see him in his office. I called him from a pay phone instead. He urged me to stay in school and said that I had much to offer. My grades were good enough to make me eligible for many privileges, including an assistant-teaching position and possibly a handsome fellowship and admission (because I was a “nontraditional” student — i.e., old) into an Ivy League school. He wondered what I would do if I quit without getting a degree. I told him I did not know, but I wanted more to show for my life’s work than a bench named after me or a memorial tree. I didn’t want to sit comfortably in the cafeteria with the vents blowing Alzheimer’s spores as I dozed in my chair with an unopened volume of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in my lap.
“Do you remember where the glory in Beowulf is?” I asked him. “It is out amid peril in strange lands, pitting one’s wits against monsters and the mothers of monsters. It isn’t in the warm mead hall with roasted meats and the comfort of jesters and wenches.”
Sometimes you can hear a nod on the other end of the line. I don’t think he’d ever dreamed that Beowulf would have this effect on a student. He let me go after that, and even wished me luck.
In spite of the fact that I’d already laboriously composed fourteen complete novels that were unfit to print, the recollection of this well-told but adolescent dragon tale — and the fact that I had nothing else of any consequence to do — had stirred within me the desire to start another. If the horse throws you off, get back on. Even if it kicks you in the head and you suffer irreversible brain damage, who’s going to notice? Wasn’t Thomas Pynchon kicked by a horse?
My trusty IBM 286 had burned up in the Iowa heat the year before, and I didn’t have the cash to replace it, but I had never been able to write anything worthwhile on a word processor anyway. In truth I had never written anything worthwhile under any circumstances, but that was, I believed, because I had never reached down with both hands into the luscious golden muck of my own miserable soul. So I decided to write my next novel longhand. It would be about the little girl I’d known when I was a kid whose stepfather had raped her. I had learned recently that she’d died. A terrible alcoholic, she’d been married twice but never stood a chance. Dead before age thirty-five, and I had never lifted a finger to help her.
My new novel sustained me. It was my psychological Jesus: comfort, purpose, magic, spirit, ego loss, transformation, salvation, forgiveness, sacrifice. I jotted down gems on napkins, chanted sage insights sotto voce until I had them memorized, snatched up my 110-sheet Mead notebook and scrawled epiphanies in the margins. The novel was my mad lover and my only faithful friend. It sang to me its sea-nymph song as the alley dogs yapped and the homeless combed through the dumpsters for aluminum cans; as the grasshoppers munched through the blasted verdure and the tumbleweeds bounced past the windows. Now and then I would lean back in my chair and think of my academic debt, my self-enforced jack-off solitude, the stubborn lifetime of menial jobs that awaited me. Whenever I thought about tying a plastic bag over my head and breathing till all the funny colors went black, I read the Police Beat.
8:46 A.M. Caller from the 900 block of Parry Drive advised a squirrel has climbed down her chimney and is now in the fireplace looking at her through the glass door, chirping at her.
9:08 A.M. Caller from the 400 block of Third Street advised that a subject has been calling her and her employees, singing Elvis songs to them.
9:36 A.M. Caller from the 200 block of West Third Street advised that John Lennon was at the bank yesterday three times and he’s already come once this morning. Caller stated he told her today that he’s the ruler of the world.
Wherever I’d traveled — except Las Vegas, a fluorescent strip of flypaper for the lost, desperate, and insane — I’d never had much trouble finding work. In Chadron I put in applications at all six non-fast-food restaurants: the truck stop, Valentino’s, the 120, the South Forty, the Chuck Wagon, and Helen’s out on the highway. Cooking jobs are usually the easiest to get, but there were no positions open. The Chadron economy had been a little slow since about 1897. A sense of agreeable lethargy presided over all. Sometimes you’d see drivers sitting for hours at the four-way stops, tires flat, birds building nests in their hair. What was the hurry?
I filed at Job Service (unemployment). I was in no hurry either. I had four hundred bucks, the rent was paid, and my longhand novel was underway. The fierce pink sunsets and the magnificent storms with their purple splits of lightning did their best to entertain me, though I have never found much solace in the grandeur of nature. After a week or so I was notified that the convalescent hospital had an opening for a breakfast cook. The position appealed to me since there is less pressure in institutional cooking, but the captain of the old folks’ kitchen thought me overqualified. So he sent me across town to a hotel whose owner, Jeanne, a tough-talking, orange-haired German divorcée, needed a lunch-and-dinner cook. She was suspicious of my work history and my frequent moves. (“You’ve cooked in New York and the Virgin Islands?”)
“Where are you from?” she demanded.
“Born in Denver, raised in San Diego.”
“How did you end up here?”
It was a question I got asked without fail wherever I went. I moved every few months, I explained, to remote and unlikely places. Listeners were usually skeptical but vicariously allured. I believe most people want to wander, though they don’t trust someone who does — employers, especially. Jeanne asked why I moved so often. I was reluctant to tell her that I was a writer and that, since I was romantically inept, travail and travelogue were the only material I had. Instead I presented a cliché about restlessness and travel being the best education, and this satisfied her.
Jeanne hired me as a full-time dinner cook at $4.25 an hour. She could not believe that someone with my qualifications would walk through her door and submit to four and a quarter an hour. She assumed I was one of the dozens of frauds, hustlers, bounders, and thieves who had paraded through her kitchen over the years on their way to Las Vegas. For a week she wouldn’t even let me take my tool bag into the kitchen for fear that I would haul out a prime rib in it.
Short-order cooking requires one to perform an endless succession of overlapping forty-five-second tasks that all must be executed in thirty. Short-order cooking is spinning in aggravated circles with a smoking spatula while waitresses shout, a bell rings, a tray of rolls burns in the oven, and a broken egg dries on your shoe. When I got home my nerves would be barking, the bell would still be ringing in my ears, and I’d find a steam burn on my wrist. Dear Coroner: No need for an examination. Please just write, “Short-order cooking,” as cause of death.
A brief, wet spring gave way to a murderously hot summer. The days were as long as medieval dragons and even harder to kill. It was so hot the squirrels took off their jackets, dredged their slender bodies in cornmeal, and arranged themselves with pearl onions in buttered pans. The creeks turned belly up in their dusty beds, the cicadas screamed from the trees, the wild rhubarb wilted, the sky turned white, and the town melted into a puddle of lava-colored sunlight. Even the mosquitoes and the weeds seemed to long for winter.
By early July my rustic cottage, under its giant hot-air balloon of an attic, was consistently ninety-two degrees at 4 A.M. I lay in insomniac short-order fibrillation on my sweltering bed of nails listening to that “time to go” voice. And regardless of what delusions I recited to myself (In the next town I’ll stay), whether I wrote early or late, read Vivekananda or Vonnegut, talked to God or the cracks in the ceiling, I still felt like a character in a French existential play about hell. To escape the voice I roamed the aisles of the public library and the grocery store, spent an evening now and again at a tavern, wrote letters, and listened to the radio and the howling wind.
I also got to know my crazy neighbors: an armless used-car salesman named Hazel and his gigantic, simple-minded sidekick, Byron, who had come home from school one day thirty-seven years before, at the age of fourteen, to find that his parents had simply left town without him. Hazel, who was from a good Catholic family, had been taking care of him ever since.
On Tuesdays, Hazel’s day off from the lot, the two men often took what they called “tiny trips,” which were actually meandering, daylong, beer-fueled, Odyssean expeditions without destination along the cattle trails and barbed-wire ridges of Willa Cather consciousness. Since I had lost all fear of dying and had Tuesdays off myself, I would go with them. I rode in the back of Hazel’s burnt orange ’76 convertible Impala, distributed the cans of warm beer, kept an eye out for cops, marveled at the massive cloud structures, and let come what may out of the Grendel darkness as the drunk and armless man drove with his feet.
The whole purpose of a tiny trip was to land yourself in some unaccountable condition as far away as possible from home — Wyoming, for example, or the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota at midnight. These forays were miniature versions of what I had done all my life: escapes from dreariness and decrepitude, perils in strange lands inhabited by mostly self-invented monsters. Hazel was an exceptional driver, one bare foot on the wheel, the other planted on the gas, chin mashed down on his chest, the lone finger that extended from his right shoulder twirling a friendly greeting to all who passed us open-mouthed.
I took careful notes of things Hazel said. (“I’m half plowed under”; “A man without a car is not a man”; “Hell, Byron, when you get paid, you’re like rain: good for the country.”) Being with him and Byron was like living in a merger of Of Mice and Men and A Farewell to Arms, or perhaps some other genre not immediately recognizable as a love story. They were also about 226 times more interesting than the book I was working on.
6:22 A.M. Caller from the 900 block of Morehead Street reported that someone had taken three garden gnomes from her location sometime during the night. She described them as plastic, “with chubby cheeks and red hats.”
7:14 A.M. Caller from Regency Trailer Court advised of a dead bird that the caller stated died for no apparent reason.
8:34 A.M. A caller at Third and Elm advised that the Doritos truck had missed the corner and went into the ditch. Contacted someone about bringing the front-end loader and pulling them out.
Jeanne’s daughter Lorri did not trust or like me at first. She had run her mother’s kitchen for two years but had no cooking experience otherwise. I had cooked in fifteen or sixteen restaurants. After a few weeks of listening to my guilelessly earnest blather and watching me braise lamb, toss almonds in sauté pans, darken a roux, flip eggs, and flash my knife through a dozen onions, she finally conceded the broiler to me and became my friend. Lorri was an artist who sold her paintings for thousands of dollars. She was a wine snob and a skeptic on all things spiritual, especially ghosts (her mother’s hotel was reputedly haunted), even though she’d once been spattered with mint jelly (or was it ectoplasm?) while all alone in the dish room, right after she had expressed aloud to no one her distaste for mint jelly.
Lorri and I stayed up late many nights after work smoking menthols, drinking wine, and jabbering about art, God, sex, music, and the characters who passed through the doors of her mother’s 77 Longbranch Saloon, which was patronized by a mix of cowboys, Native Americans (who were personae non gratae in most other drinking establishments around town), police officers, bikers, and gays. A cowboy-Indian-biker-police-gay bar — tell me the last time you walked into one of those.
After painting, Lorri would sometimes come over to my place late with a bottle of good wine. She never forgot to bring a corkscrew, the one piece of basic kitchen equipment I did not own. (The wine I bought rarely had a cork.) She also brought her own glasses. Lorri looked like her mom, buxom with Teutonic cheekbones, dimples, a thick head of hair, and eyes that bored straight into you. She also shared her mother’s directness of speech. She had gone to art school in Colorado and spent two years as a cocktail waitress at a famous nightclub in Denver, where she’d met a number of rock stars.
“What are you working on?” I’d ask her.
“Oh, it’s a portrait of that girl I was telling you about from Hay Springs.”
“The Satan-worshiping dwarf?”
“That’s the one. It’s in the car; do you want to see it?”
Portraits were her specialty. She had the uncanny ability to coax the scary, vulnerable, lost, and shattered parts from her subjects, which didn’t always please them. She painted me once. I looked intently confused and appeared to be dressed in a straitjacket. I thought it was a good likeness.
“I was afraid you’d hate it,” she said.
“I have many faults, but I’m not afraid of the truth.”
“You’re not going to stay very long, are you?” she asked me one night.
“I’m going to try and stick it out for a year. I don’t know if I’ll make it.”
“You can write here as well as any other place. There aren’t too many distractions.”
“If I were selling my pieces for thousands of dollars and getting invited to art shows all over the country, I could probably stay. It’s never the place. I’ve lived in a dozen nice places.”
She crossed her legs, lifted her glass, and looked up through the bottom of her vin extraordinaire. She always sat on my recliner. She had tried the love seat once, but you sank into it so deeply it was like sitting on a floor with armrests. “Tell me one writer who’s doing what you’re doing,” she demanded.
“Which is all the more reason to keep going, isn’t it?”
“At some point you have to put it all down on paper, right? You have enough material by now, don’t you? Jesus, you’re even taking crazy trips with your yahoo neighbors.”
“Tiny trips,” I corrected her. I had a gulp of wine. “You know, when I was a kid, I took a trip to New Orleans and lived on the streets, and when I came back I was hailed as ‘the Traveler.’ It was the first time I’d had a worthwhile identity. So I immediately went back out on the road and did it again. Now it’s twenty years later, and I don’t know how to stop. I’ve created my own velocity, I suppose. I’m like an escaped electron in a particle smasher.”
She laughed and refilled my glass; my suffering always made for good entertainment. That was an art, I understood, to be refined. “I need some ballast,” I said, “something to keep me from floating away so easily. A vacuum cleaner maybe, or a piano. They wouldn’t let me on the bus with either of those.”
“Or a girl,” she said.
A more compatible woman I had not met in a while. Of course, like picturesque towns, all the compatible women I’d known had never worked out. Anyway, she already had a boyfriend: George, a drummer in a rock band who had made all her bad dreams disappear. Isn’t that the way it always works?
1:06 P.M. Caller from the 400 block of West Second Street advised that she came home for lunch and noticed that someone had put a tiki light in her front yard by her trees. Caller stated that she is afraid to move it and is requesting an officer.
5:37 P.M. Caller from the 400 block of Ann Street advised that his sister had come into his home and was pretending to be his wife.
7:13 P.M. Caller from the 500 block of King Street advised that somebody cut his clothesline in his backyard and hung a scarecrow on it. He advised he just wanted it on record. He also advised that he was going to keep the scarecrow if nobody claimed it.
That September I was so sick of living in a hotbox and working in a greasy hole and being shouted at for minimum wage and having novels blow up on me that I took more tiny trips in the hope that I would be killed in a car wreck. This brand of recklessness often backfires, becoming instead a sort of unlikely protective talisman. But on one of these trips, in Harrison, Nebraska, the last town before Wyoming, I did have the pleasure of witnessing Byron finish what was billed as the largest hamburger in the world — free to anyone who could eat the whole thing. The fifty-one-year-old Byron had never graduated from high school, but he paraded around that day clutching his Official Completion of Burger certificate as if he were up on a platform in a gown and pasteboard cap. “That was easy, like a regular hamburger,” he crowed every few minutes, his big cuckoo-bird face flushing brightly. “Like a little old cheeseburger. I might just have me a fudge sundae. Extra fudge on it. Shee-ut.”
I took unusual satisfaction from Byron’s late-life achievement. Raymond Chandler, I recalled, did not publish his first novel until his early fifties. Colonel Sanders didn’t begin franchising Kentucky Fried Chicken until he was sixty-two. Noah did not invent wine until he was six hundred years old. Maybe I could still have my moment in the sun.
By late October I did not quite have enough money to leave Chadron, but I knew I wouldn’t make it through the winter. Lorri gave me a ride to the bus terminal in Rapid City, an hour and a half north, where I bought a one-way Jack Rabbit Lines ticket to Hot Springs, Arkansas. I planned to hole up in a weekly motel and interview a friend of mine who had spent most of his life in correctional facilities. Since all the probing around in my miserable soul had yielded nothing, I believed our conversations could provide my breakthrough material at last.
“You’re coming back?” she asked.
“To visit, sure.”
“My mother’s going to have a hell of a time finding someone to replace you.”
“Cooks are a dime a dozen.”
“Not in Chadron they’re not.”
Lorri waited with me inside the depot as the first snow of the year began to fall; then she hugged me and wished me good luck. It was Halloween, and I had six hundred dollars. My eastbound bus, which smelled of caskets and toilet deodorizer, was nearly full, so I had to sit in the back with the slackers and the potheads. The kid in the window seat next to me couldn’t have been more than nineteen. His blue-dyed, sheepdog haircut hung over his eyes. He wore a scrap of a goatee and turned his Walkman up all the way so that I could share his enthusiasm for heavy metal. He glanced at me now and then and finally peeled off his headphones. “This too loud for you, man?” (It would be a few years before the troubled youth would call me “mister” or “sir.”)
The snow had begun falling in earnest, and the flakes were flickering furiously past the glass. The nose of the bus divided the storm, which swirled before us as if we were entering an endless, hypnotic spiral.
“No, it’s fine,” I replied. “My mother is a big fan of Barbra Streisand, too.”
“Look at all this snow.” As he waved his left hand about, I saw the scars.
“Like traveling down a time tunnel,” I observed.
He considered this. Past or future: that was the question. Were we blazing trails or burning bridges? “I was on a bus once,” he told me calmly, “and I put both my hands through the window.”
“I was freaking out. They wouldn’t pull the bus over.” He held his hands up as if they were still bleeding.
“They pulled the bus over.”
“Where you coming from?” I asked.
“Seattle. I couldn’t get my disability checks anymore.”
“Where you headed?”
“I’m going back home to Hammond, Indiana. What about you, man?”
“Arkansas,” I said. “I’d go home myself, but I don’t know where that is.”
We laughed together, my new friend and I, traveling to that place on the other side of the snow, where everything was finally going to be all right.