REPORT A PROBLEM
Rev JD Evans
I left my aunt's house late on New Year's Eve and drove slowly home, wary and watching the sides of the road for the deer lurking out there in the gloom. As I passed a gathered herd of them my headlights set fire to their eyes and they stood there frozen by the roadside. The radio chattered stupidly to watch out for drunk drivers, and then went back to the countdown. I put in a tape of squalling feedback as the old year faded out to nothing and outside the car the fireworks smashed themselves open against the rival stars.
They found themselves, the nine of them, drawn together in familiar rooms, united by a common name, their shared history holding hands and hung in full color on old walls like crucifixes. Their voices rising over the clatter of dominos and the brisk shuffle of cards. It could have been any night, any year, if your blurred the image slightly and just listened. There were jokes and food and laughter, and one of them sat in the kitchen with a twelve-string guitar and gently strummed "Nothing But The Blood of Jesus" while the others listened. While the others sang softly.
Yorba Linda was a long way from here, he thought to himself as he sat staring out his window at the sea playing catch with an old blue baseball cap someone had either left behind or lost some other way. Sometimes he watched the surfers down the beach (and the toned, bikini'd girls in their tiny swimsuits) with a pair of very expensive binoculars. They were probably dope fiends, true, but he did admire their talents. At times he wished he could join them, run laughing and golden into the surf, but then he remembered himself and shrugged in disgust.
The men moved swiftly, unloading the final supplies, untying ropes, retying others, moving quickly about their tasks like ants. A series of gulls and other birds swooped about them, calling raggedly out. They'd be gone for nearly three years, these men, the ones that lived. A child clutched a little black-eyed icon carved from whalebone and watched as the ship moved out to become one with the horizon. The churchbells coughed and clanged and the crowblack priests watched with narrow eyes the last movements of the sea. At night the town lit their lamps with the blood of their sons.
She stood in the kitchen, weeping over the shards of her chia pet. It had been fashioned to resemble a hippopotamus but was now nothing more than chunks of pottery, some pieces holding together by the roots of the weirdly tough clover that sprouted from the pot. Still crying softly, she picked up the biggest pieces by hand and dropped them in the garbage, then swept up the smaller shards. She checked the clock. Still time to make it to work. She glanced at the card in the trash. "Get Well Soon." She wondered just how soon that would be.
In the hospital again with my grandmother. Strange how these places begin to become familiar, the uncomfortable chairs and the hum and click of blinking machinery. I've seen so many of them these last years. There's a smell in the room, a rich pissy yellow smell, a smell that is dark and amber, the kind that makes you gag. I can't stand it. I smelled it for eighteen months before my grandfather died. It smells like sweat and pain and blood and cancer. It sticks in your throat and settles on your clothes, into the furniture. It smells like death.
This place is not quiet even when it tries to be quiet. There are old men dying of cancer down the hallway and the television news channels blurt out their red chronic terrors in forty minute rotations. And there is always the constant chatter of passing nurses across the quiet carpets. Everything here is either wrapped in vinyl or coated in chrome. I am restless and I can't sleep and every time I touch something a long blue spark leaps out and bites my fingernail. The elevators rattle up and down their steel barrels like the rising plungers of syringes.
For some reason I find myself strangely drawn to the aesthetics of hotel rooms and hospitals. I love their cold uniformity, the fact that they are so anonymous, so devoid of any personal humanity, makes them that much more compelling to me. They are the embodiment of the flat and lifeless mystery so inherent in Polaroid photographs. They are stale and yellowing snapshots, moments in time that are at the same instant somehow timeless. These rooms could have existed for decades, or for minutes. They are the empty sets on which we write our own lives and our own stories.
So many stories, here in this little town. Stories about the boys who grow up, and move away, and come back. Stories about the boy who went to California and became a rock star, and didn't. Stories about the boys blown to pieces overseas. You can see their names on a big marble slab beside the courthouse. You can hear stories about the girls who married car salesmen and bore their children and never wanted more. You can hear stories about the ones who married them and that did. There are so many stories here, and they are all incredible.
A dream: I'm sitting in my great-grandmother's old kitchen, the sunlight falling in one golden shaft onto the brilliant black and white checkered tile. There are two men with me: Mark Linkous and Ted Nugent, both cradling guns. Our faces are painted with blood. The tension in the room is incredible, vibrating like a drawn bow before the shot. Nugent breaks open his single-shot twelve gauge and stares through the barrel at me. "I'm gonna roll you in flour like a rabbit," he says, closing it back and pulling the trigger. Click. It's empty. The three of us begin laughing.
I was at Pruitt Lake with my father and we were leaving. I was five years old and down at the boat ramp splashing in the water. "Quit that!" My father yelled, snatching me up, "that water has acid in it!" On the way home he said "when we get to the house, I'm gonna have to cut it off." I stared at my finger the whole way, and when we got home he sent me inside to get a knife. I came back and said all I could find was a butter knife. "Well, bring it out," he said.
Drive through Longview, Texas and see what you can see waiting there. Burger Kings. Dairy Queens. Home Depot. Wal-Mart. Sam's. Taco Bell. Wendy's. Best Buy. Target. The Gap. Starbuck's. McDonald's. Circuit City. Books-A-Million. Gas stations. Petco. Another McDonald's. Kroger. Strip malls. A church. Two churches. Kentucky Fried Chicken. Car lots. Prefab housing, rows and rows of it. Goodyear Tires. Bennigan's. Outback Steakhouse. Chili's. Applebee's. Gated communities. Rosewood. Everwood. Everose. Stereo installation. Places you can get your truck lowered. Raised. Banks. Lawyers. H and R Block. Muffler repair. Sonic. Forests of flagpoles and steeples that compete to penetrate the passing clouds.
Remember those nights in the parking lot uptown. Nights of blood and liquor and laughter, your frozen breath pouring from you like a ruptured steam pipe. Kids in pickup trucks with beer, girls in mustangs with wine. Cold nights, but you didn't mind the cold. A cigarette and a smile, young and full of grace. Those handsome kids in fast cars whose luck had been pared down to its barest thread, like the faintest dust of a moth's wing, or that hypothetical void between the canvas and the masterpiece. You see them scattered across the highway, cast like reckless dice.
It's very hard at this point to find any optimistic hook to hang your hopes on, no point of light to focus on and so aim for. Time will drag on and you'll numb yourself with drink and sleep and unimportant decisions. Static distractions. The lights will be swallowed up and the idea of waking up another morning like this is terrifying in its unrelenting clocklike certainty. The ruthless world keeps spinning and you're still here, nailed to the earth by gravity and your own sense of meaningless doom. You'd almost laugh. "It hurts to breathe." "Of course it does."
He traveled a lot for his work. He was a salesman for a company that sold components for the electrical systems of speedboats and yachts. The company had its sights set on the big time, and sent him all over the six-state region. He was home maybe twice a week. His wife didn't like it, he knew, and understood she got lonely, which is why he always announced his arrival home at least an hour beforehand, so he wouldn't catch her. But he did anyway. Walked right in on them, jumped back and said "I'm sorry!", and closed the door.
He stares out at you from the photograph. He is nineteen there and a virgin, wearing a pair of clunky black glasses, Army-issue. He'll be this age forever, staring intently, hair cut short. This is the last photo of him ever taken. He was killed in August, 1968, a little less than a third of the way through his tour of duty. They hung his picture in the courthouse, and his parents wept and his friends got drunk. If he'd lived he'd have had nightmares for the rest of his life. His photo speaks no thanks for this small mercy.
Do you ever feel as if you've completely run dry? Like the best moments of your life have already gone by and they weren't even that amazing to begin with? Stalled. There is no movement here but the idiotic orbits of the blood. And you gnaw yourself to the bone. Right now sleep and wakefulness have so blurred themselves together they might as well be one and the same. At times like these it really does seem hopeless, and you've never felt more isolated and alone within yourself. You feel like you're dying. You haven't spoken even fifty words today.
It was snowing, and he turned from her, stumbling away. He fell to his knees half a block away and plunged his hands into a snowbank until they were so numb they burned, and he could imagine them fused in the snow. And hand on his shoulder. Her voice. The voice of his love. The voice of his death. "What's the matter?" she asked. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Her body, the body he loved, white as the snow. He was crying and the tears distorted everything into something strange and monstrous. "It's just you're so beautiful," he said, at last.
He was driving home this afternoon beneath a sky so spotless and blue it seemed somehow surreal, the windows rolled down, letting the wind whip his hair recklessly awry, the radio blaring fine music that seemed to physically press inward on his ears, when he was struck by a strange blast of pure and uncharacteristic happiness. It wasn't something he was expecting, or even terribly familiar with these days, and by the time he began thinking about it, it had already begun to fade, a Polaroid in reverse, the vividness of feeling fading into the gloom of his natural self.
Ahem. Note to self: you had better figure something out soon, you know. You spend all day locked into your routine and then dissect yourself when you lay down in the dark. You hide in sleep because it's easier than wakefulness and accountability. You can't keep doing this, that's for sure. You've got a whole lifetime left of this, and you fall asleep every night counting the years that are stretching out before you like a jail term. You're nailed to this earth and you better make the best of it, or at least quit your goddamn bitching and moaning.
There are one hundred and eighty-four days left in this ledger, days that all link hands and hold you back. Days that all link hands and hold you up. That all link hands and go sliding down the mountain together. Days of drunkenness and days of drudgery and a few days when you won't want to wake up and some when you're happy. Where will I be at the end of this, in one hundred and eighty-four days? I don't know. I hope it's not here. Anyway, I'll talk to you later. Let me know how things went for you.
A year now since I saw you last, or close enough. We've since gone through a handful of others each, the two of us burning them up like matchsticks, neither of us able to explain ourselves to them, why they didn't measure up. Tomorrow or the day after is your birthday. The fact that I'm forgetting is a good sign, I think, but the important things are going to stay. Like the time you called across two time zones to play guitar for me, or the way your hair smelled at your father's funeral three Aprils and a lifetime ago.
The hamburger corporation needed a young black kid, about ten years old, to be in their new ads, and after weeks of searching, they found him. His name was Marcus King, he was nine years old, and he was perfect. Except for one thing: he was too black. They had faith, though, and he signed on. And they began a series of procedures—shock treatments, hunger therapy, sleep deprivation—until Marcus was just how they needed him: still black, but not too black but now he was outfitted with the dated, awkward raps of a blonde kid from Hartford, Connecticut.
The ship rolled and his wife moaned. She'd been seasick for eight days, and the stench of the animals (he'd never imagined so much shit) was not helping. Nor their constant noises; shrieking, bellowing, roaring with pain or fear or hunger. Everyone was becoming nervous, skittish, worried. His sons fought among themselves and urged him to begin slaughtering the animals, but he refused. He knew to wait. He had visions in his dreams of ravens over rippling waters who would not return to him. The ship rolled again and he wished he had a drink to calm his nerves.
In the dream we've got his body out upon a bed, covered to the neck in white sheets, waiting for the light to change to push him across the street. It is late at night and the oil refineries paint the sky orange with blooms of flame. We're taking him to the free clinic; this man, who means so much to so many, though he and I are strangers. Instead of flashing WALK the sign says A POET AND A PROPHET, and we wheel him across to whatever fate awaits him. I feel like a boatman on the Styx.
When they left the plant, Wendell Evans and Charlie Caison stopped at the liquor store and bought a case each. Charlie almost immediately began pounding his, and during the twenty minute drive between Avinger and Linden, he killed half his case, and by the time they pulled into Barker's driveway he was already badly twisted. He opened the door and fell out at his friends' laughing feet. "Hey," he said, then nonchalantly turned aside and vomited. Butch Hollis took a drag on his cigarette, held it, squinted. "Caison," he said, expelling smoke, "you look like the dried-up drippings of a gutterfuck."
They laughed about it, years later, at the funeral. Charlie had been the first of the group to go, a temporarily sobering thought. They went to the bar and had a drink in his name, and Andy, his brother, told them about the time Charlie made a pair of wings from scrap lumber and tried to fly off a steep hill. He'd broken his collarbone, but six weeks later he tried again and ruined his knee. They laughed again and had another round, then drifted slowly home one by one and wondered to themselves where the good times had gone.
The Devil lay in an alleyway in South Nashville, gingerly cradling his quickly swelling jaw. He knew better than to come to places like this—they were rough as hell, so to speak. He stood, then nearly toppled. One of the heels of his very expensive cowboy boots were was broken. He pulled them off, cursing, then felt around for his cigarettes. Crushed. And his wallet was gone. Fucking fantastic. He was relieved to find his cellphone, at least, and made a call. "Hey, Linda, it's me. Yeah. I'm in town. Business. Look, I need someone to come pick me up."
I remember the winter of 1994. It was an icy cold blue-white, and it was impossible to distinguish where the road met the horizon. The sun, when it came out, was a flat silver disc, pale and watery, but it rarely came out. They would send me at dusk to the landlord, to pay the rent. It was always so quiet, as if the cold swallowed the sound. I would come home and go out to my room in the garage to shiver and read and listen to music. My breath traced the words on the page. I was thirteen.
The young lawyer from Illinois had been in his room for ten days. He barely spoke and never seemed to eat. His boarders, fearing suicide, had removed his shaving razor and now a wisp of dark brown beard had painted his hollow cheeks. He did nothing, only stared upward at the ceiling, as if trying to see through it. Visitors were turned away by prolonged silences on his part. The other boarders discussed him downstairs. "But why? What could have done it to him?" "Simple. It was a woman." "Aha. Poor boy. He'll get better though. They always do, in time."
There are still those among us who have heard The Word, or who think they have, whispering to them from some dark recess at the back of their mind. And whether or not is the real Word or a false One, it nearly always drives them mad. And they often are able to hide this madness, are even able to rise to positions of power, and they tell us with shining eyes that they have heard It, still smiling as, cradled in their arms, they lay us out upon their altar. Our blood will be on their praying hands.
The Tip Jar