UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
A word on the wildness of our nights. Bursts and seizures and gulps of life. Free from the world of
Portland is Budapest, with a sprinkle of the wild west. It’s a palliative, this change of venue, with all the creature comforts of asylum. In the place of strength and sharpness I feel a degeneration of mind, no surge of spirit like a freshet of wind, no vigor.
Summer camp, Haudenosaunee, August 1991, when you stood up in the canoe and threw a boulder through my hull. That sinking feeling. The oars, you threw those out, too.
Years of reproaches and stumbling home late to your wrath. Something broken, a ceramic swan, a wine glass, and your world halted abruptly.
Do not wonder why I left you, but why I waited so long.
The rumor is I’m down and out, but you know what they say, ‘No ashes, no Phoenix.’
I often wish I was more like you, brilliant with money, brilliant to the tops of your boots.
The thrill of chasing the first spring fly around the house. Our home was a chorus of affirmations. ‘I love you,’ ‘Wonderful meal, darling.’ We had a lot of ideas then, we were ideas factories … ideas I now question the salience of.
That time at the Hartzeim’s, over marijuana and margaritas, when you stood up too fast and fainted, I never told you that in the scramble to catch you I hit the cross end of the coffee table, and we both nursed that next week bruises to our pride.
Yours were nebulous, the colors of sunset.
Homeowners insurance doesn’t cover broken pride.
Received your letter of last week re: alimony. Let me assure you: What I lack in initiative I make up for in lack of ambition. Long hours at the office isn’t hard working. It’s hard loitering. The rounded shoulder of the bureaucrat. All this trouble started when I sat down with me and my strength and let it atrophy behind a desk.
You want a man who makes things happen. Who thinks a dim scan of the papers is understanding the world. Whose opinion will not wait. You created the myth of my indispensability. You entreated me, impossibly, to make every day my masterpiece.
I rolled into Portland looking like a million of the weakest currency. My house – I don’t own it, my dwelling, let’s say, with ivy climbing up the sides, and ants – abuts a residential street. Gimmicky mailboxes, and every other front door is painted red. I’m curious to see who walks where, and when, and if, like Kant, I can keep a clock to their schedules.
Morning calisthenics: One hundred pushups. One hundred jumping jacks. One situp.
Why did you ever bother. I was fine without you, sedate, comatose. You woke me up rudely, and I should not have been awakened, rudely. Girls like you like catcalls, and I’m the quiet type.
Catcalls have no intrinsic value.
To say I need you is to say, I miss your discriminating tastes, your contempt for cheapness, your top-shelf prejudice, because without you, like cattle, I will consume what I am fed. And how you made me sing for my supper, and our addiction to games of chance, and how we thundered down the aisle, and your get-rich-quick schemes.
Memory lane is no more than books and records to me, alphabetized sentimentally.
Last night around 1 a.m. I heard screeching breaks or the voice of God … but I was stone-cold sober, so surely it was God.
In this bar, Ye Olde Lamplighter, thinking of tonight's writing to you, and the drinking to reward the writing, and, emboldened by the British punk on overhead, running out on the bill. You won’t talk to me, you won’t call. Am I chopped liver? You and your ilk. You know I’m upset at you when I mention chopped liver.
* * *
June, with a late October feel: blustery, with pangs of loss. We were cheated out of a spring. It’s dead here Sunday nights, death by grand illusion. In the sky, clouds moving on like galleons, a tempest I recognize from fourteen years ago in Yellowstone, crossing South Dakota in an RV with foreign plates, and everywhere we were asked if it was true, if we had really traveled west all the way from New Jersey.
The bartender here has the singular distinction of having run for governor in the last go ‘round. If he was elected, the whole state would be drunk.
No one of us in this mongrel compost is any better than the other, or any worse, but in these faces I recognize my kind of people. Here I have seen teenage girls in navy-blue skirts, Catholic-school uniforms, waiting for their rides, debating the likelihood of the Immaculate Conception.
Imagine it. You have threefold exceeded your daily allotment, four beers have become twelve, and you are slathered with cologne so that no one gets close. The air conditioning’s busted and sweat’s running down the back of your leg. The guys on the stools next to you are lamenting the secularization of the world. Impeach the president, reinstate the general, disband the U.N.
Human relations as they are. You have to talk about it to make it work. Saw a lady I recognized at the end of the bar, studying the numerous reflections of herself.
I don’t mind telling you all this. I was always desirable to women, as were you.
Gladys’ hair was up and frosted, like shavings of soap. She looked no stranger to picnics off lavatory floors. I bought her a beer. “I hope you’re not one of those johns who just wants to talk,” she said.
She knows the rules. You answer when your benefactor calls, in a cheerful voice, even if you’re indisposed. Jukebox kicked on, and I walked her to the dancefloor as if leading her to bed. A trot in her step, and in her eyes, a gleam. She was like taking a bad pitch and golfing it out of the ballpark.
“I do everything in cowboy boots,” she said. “I mean everything.”
I heard Flynn coming up behind us. A cartography of broken capillaries beneath his eyes, and that unmistakable voice. “Here comes the warden,” I said. I tipped my cap, in deference to the beers he owes me. Gladys waved.
“There, but for the grace of God, goes God,” she said.
“Hello, Glad. It looks like you moved up a weight class.” Flynn clapped me on the shoulder. “What I love about her is that she’s handy. She fixed my fireplace. And the patio, she took care of that, too. Gladys, I want you to meet my girlfriend, Jo.”
“Hello,” Jo said. “Flynn tells me you were the man of the household.”
Jo was heavy-set and slathered in rouge and she wanted to spar. “You left me for her?” Gladys asked.
“Not here,” said Flynn.
“Why? You bastard, it’s a simple yes or no question.”
“You’re a broken record,” he said. “You spittle. You slang. All you talk about is the weather.”
Strange how in victory Flynn looked as if he had been baited and bronzed and hung over her mantle.
“He cleans up well, doesn’t he?” Gladys said. “New pair of jeans, some boot black, he's a new man, a head-turner. Instantly the city is all his: what a joke.” She prodded him in the ribs. “Are you going to let this john (that’s me, btw) feel me up and not stand up for me? Some man.”
“What, beat up every guy in town you dance with? Sorry babe, I like my teeth.”
After five minutes of this banter you’ll want to quit drinking, which I didn’t. I returned to my stool to lick my wounds. A girl walks in, head to toe in American Apparel, orders a Pabst, doesn’t touch it, reads some from a battered paperback, and asks me to watch her purse while she’s in the loo. I forget who said hello first, or what’s your name. Graduate of Humboldt – ‘the Dartmouth of the West Coast,’ she said. Now she was homesteading at a friend’s apartment, free to surface at night and thrash about, clubbing, cavorting on a Southern Comfort fade, in stilettos that gave her backaches.
I told her I liberated the flag at the Alamo from the national archives of Mexico. I told her about our game in Vegas, where we’d sit in the wooden lounge chairs at Margaritaville and watch the couples parade by, guessing at who was paying for sex. I told her I was John Steinbeck incarnate, that I owned one of his tobacco pipes I bought at auction, that kind of acolyte.
“You’re an author?”
“No,” I said. “Just a writer.”
“Some writers have a hard time turning from a full page to an empty one,” she said, “and that’s what makes us just writers.”
“Because there’s no money in it,” I said. “Not with my looks.”
“You could write something commercial,” she said.
“Don’t think I haven’t tried,” I said.
Reliving the greatest hits of this conversation, I suddenly get why you never listened to me: it was the implausibility of my idiom. I was not adept at making things that didn’t happen sound as if they did.
I’m in a place in my life where I don’t have to arrive at any of these epiphanies.
I’ll let you guess if this is true: Leaving the Lamplighter we paused, swaying and loud, at a bodega. I needed to pick up a few things: Contraceptives, champagne and roses.
* * * *
We’ve some real weather now, the wind is up against the windows, I’m windblown, it’s breezing through my clothes and hair, knotted with the breakage of leaves and crooked knuckles of twigs.
Forgive me the bad start to this letter that you doubtless will judge me for, and should.
You may need the money, but don’t sell the house. Burn it to a cinder before you sell it.
Lately, when the Pernet hits me just so, I feel the old confidence, the rap in my voice, and the fuss I make is marvelous.
One day I’m going to check my pulse and it won’t be there.
Our boy is not your bragging rights, and his politeness is no evidence of your good parenting.
If I’m a deadbeat then why haven’t they revoked my license?
Four years old two weeks ago. It’s a shame he couldn’t see California when it was more golden than it is now, blindingly golden, and how hopeful we were when everything tasted wonderful and the days were brand-new. If you told me then that I couldn’t claw to the top on merit, I wouldn’t have believed you. My friends here call you ‘California,’ it takes some of the sting out of you, and I say California and I don’t talk much anymore, for reasons I’ve dismissed as water under the bridge.
The whole point of this letter was to describe the water.
If he was a girl, I liked the names Caitlin and Clover, and Emily Roebling.
I left you because you had me thinking about what to put on my gravestone.
Given what’s happened, I can’t end this letter to you in the old way:
Yours ‘til charcoal sprouts,
J.F.W.A native of Southern California, Zachary Amendt worked as a bureau chief for City News Service, Inc., the nation's largest regional news wire service.
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