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One afternoon in eighth grade, we were sent one by one down the hallway to the nurse’s station to get our eyes checked. It wasn’t the regular school nurse—this one was just skin and bones, a monotonously jolly redhead. I forget everything about the test except that she ended up screaming, “What the hell is the matter with you? Why don’t you have glasses? How do you expect to see the blackboard?” The next evening, my father took me downtown to get glasses, but they weren’t going to be ready for a couple of days. Those must have been the final days I liked the way the world looked. From now on, everything was going to have nothing but little depleting cracks in it, crevices, pittings. The smooth life was over. 


One Saturday in ninth grade, I found an old Hawaiian guitar down in the garage. I was soon playing it with open, homely, remedial tunings. The chords I formed came out blunt and thuggish. I sang-spoke private, pert verses about how I’d had to start counting on my dreams to put me through to whoever I even was. There were a couple of songs (taunts, really, the first of many last straws) that dragged a few local people around in my heart. (My love was already a love with way too much grit and distance in it.) Another song aimed straight for my mother (no relation). 


Then I must have been fifteen, fifteen and a half. My youth was just a backdrop for other kids’ youth. Across the alley from my bedroom was a second-story room rented by a young man, said to be an engineer of some sort, who never once closed his curtains. He stood up a lot, or walked in place, with his back (often bare) to the window. No TV set in the room or any furniture other than a bed that I could make out. There was something presumptuous about somebody that young being that unsightly already. I got a good look at what it would look like to one day grow up, peel yourself away from whoever you must have once been intended to become, then tactlessly start making both ends meet.


But why can’t I keep coming of age? Right there in my own family was a kid just a couple of years older to beat me to a pulp whenever the fancy struck. I didn’t even have to leave the house and sample society in the rough. I was later playing slide guitar in a garage band all through high school, and one of the songs we covered had a line about “kisses sweeter than wine.” I’d heard identical claims in other songs on the radio. It wasn’t until my first month in college, though, that I collected my first kiss, and I hadn’t yet tasted any wine, so I wasn’t sure if I was having the appropriate experience. The kiss didn’t seem to taste like anything other than a kind of refining saliva. When I was twenty-seven, twenty-eight, I had an affair. The woman wasn’t married, and neither was I—neither of us was in any sort of relationship at the time or had been for a good long while—but none of that made what went on between us (it lasted just short of six weeks in a snow-brilliant spring; I no longer even had a phone that worked; she would just show up at my door, often right before she went back to work at some packing plant where they were keeping her on as a probationary hire) feel any less illicit or shameful, though I’ve never been able to put my finger on why exactly it always felt so wrong. And she wasn’t the sort of person you could look up afterward online. Her name, for one thing, was just about the same as everybody else’s, though she’d wanted me to call her Button. And she was always moving. She’d been between moves when I knew her. There was a shimmering intermittency about her, and her hands were as large as a man’s. She didn’t even seem to have a laugh. She looked barely pressed into herself. I’d met her at a sandwich shop where the only available seats were at a long counter facing the windows. She sat down next to me, and in no time her sandwich wrapper, bag of chips, and can of soda were touching each of mine. “Cheers?” she said cheerlessly. Her sandwich had nothing in it but blunted illegible vegetables. When we got to my apartment, she pleaded to teach me that everything in life should ideally bode of the very next thing, which might be nothing more than not lifting a finger to turn on the overhead light to see just how much pinker the rash might be getting by now. Everything about this woman seemed unwearied but sparse. She was impressed that I had a separate towel just for shaving. She seemed sure of herself only in fits and starts. She was almost always perspiring. The one thing she ever wrote down for me was the name of some kind of hard-to-find onion she said she liked, and the handwriting was an unlooping and sorrowing thing, straitened, not what you would expect from somebody about to desert you. Then again, how much do I know of myself even now? 


But how did I get it into my head, so early on, that friendship is something you’re supposed to have with only one person, and it’s supposed to be engulfing, and you’re not supposed to survive it? At the time, I didn’t know a soul.

     It wasn’t until I’d turned twenty-two, twenty-three, and living in a minutely towned corner of a neighboring state, that somebody—she was a woman of endeavors, an example-setter, unsoftened, fettered but emotionally resourceful—first turned to me in what was beginning to feel like the final hour of a party and said, “What are you thinking?”

       So I blabbed everything. 

       It all came out. 

      To wit:

*We almost never visited relatives, but one Sunday—I must have been five, six—we drove to see some sister on my father’s side, and a little girl maybe my age or a little older led me by the hand across the large yard and into a dirt-floored crawlspace beneath a porch (I remember the cleansing smell of the dirt), and it was either her parents or mine who later found us down there and pulled us out, and all of them howled and howled;

*When I was in seventh grade, the orthodontist needed to see me late in the morning on a Monday every other month, so I’d have to leave school early and walk halfway across town, and I felt like a truant (I’d keep to side streets and alleyways, cut through parking lots and a cemetery treated now as just another neglectable public garden), and I hated the appointments, hated opening my mouth for a man whose face was practically planetary, and weeks before, to make the day of the appointment seem further and further off, I’d have started dividing the remaining days into half-days, which doubled the time until I was due, and then into quarter-days, which quadrupled the time, then into one-eighth-days, etc.—all the way down to one-twenty-fourth days, though I never once thought of those units as hours: they were (thank God!) something clemently other;

*I’d once been out grocery shopping with my mother—I was maybe fourteen; the two of us were getting along again; my father kept warning us to stop kissing each other’s ass—when we ran into some bossy, bleakened neighborhood lady my mother knew mainly from the Tilghman Boulevard bus, and the bus lady looked into the cart I was pushing and said, pointedly, to my mother, “What are you going to do with all that ham?” I’d never seen my mother look so beet-red and accused;  

*When I was a teenager, I never exactly watched TV, but I sat in front of the thing (this was a furnitural black-and-white set, mahoganied), and I somehow outfaced it, bested it, put it to rout;

*All my life I’d never once been able to think, but I’d taught myself a trick by which I could simulate thinking, and that was the only way I’d come all the way up through the grades; 

*Then I was nineteen and back in college for the summer session after having dropped out early in the year after a halcyon failure in love, and I now had a dorm room all to myself, a tremendous electric fan, a smoke-blue lout of a textbook to confuse me further about the human constitution, peanut M&Ms by the pound in the crimpled sulfur-yellow bags, and I’d nap furiously to put an end to an afternoon, and in the evenings make do with a guitar so cheap, the strings had to be tilted just so to get any real notes worked loose, and my songs were songs with nothing rhythmal or rhyming about them, just updated murks and starriness from my heart, lines about bleeding gums and a stepsister long dead in Texas;

*I was twenty-one, twenty-two, home for the holidays, and it was already starting to get late on New Year’s Eve, and I told my parents I was going out to a bar with Mark, and my father said, “Why just the two of you? That don’t look right. That won’t look right to people”; 

*Here I was now in my middlemost twenties, padding my life with all these slighting, tiring, fine-shaming passions . . .        

     There was something of the onliest about this woman. She got away with looking a lot older than she was. She almost always wore the same sort of oyster-gray and scooped-out short dress that left you understanding things even more crookedly about her. She had broad shoulders, teeth that looked staged. You could tell she’d had to settle for far too many odd wracks and facetings to her being. Depression makes some people cocky, and I was already starting to like watching any new mood strike her sidewise. She had me over for dinner just twice. The first time, there was an estranging underglaze to the meat (lamb?). The second time, she asked if she could go through my wallet. She took forever. Then: “Let’s get your hair cut first.” 

     Next to her toilet, petite hueless soaps wrapped in tissue paper were tiered from practically floor to ceiling.

     We didn’t once dare to shudder in the same way about each other. She was a lot higher in the hierarchy.

     I later got a peek at the letter of recommendation I’d waived every right to see. I’d somehow expected some mercy, a lulling tone, words pearled in resentful approval. I was described as “another type that’ll soon enough get cold feet.”     


It was after three in the morning when the Greyhound bus (I was headed home to my parents and their sunglasses, their heartburn and thoughtless amity) roared through what might have been downtown Kansas City. The city—the heaped skyscrapers, the lesser towers of stone and glass—looked suitably brute and unearthly. Just that quick, I thought: “I’ll drop out of school, move to Kansas City (or wherever this is), get a job in a nine- or ten-story brownstone department store downtown, read a different perky magazine every evening, and perfect a life of earnest, well-earned loneliness.”   

    A year and a half later, I did leave school. I left it no better than I had found it. 

    I moved back home.

    Home by this point had nothing in the living room but a picnic table and a couple of long wooden benches. The three of us often went out for hot dogs and reeky regional root beer.

     I lasted just shy of a month.

     I moved to a snug suburb one state over. The highway-facing sign for the apartment compound read, “If you lived here, you’d be home by now.” I found a job that almost never involved my being home. I was on the road a lot. One day a week I was expected in the office. Officefolk were only just now learning to greet the news of co-workers’ relatives’ deaths with “There are no words.” I suffered tidal stomachaches and a worthy pain in my mouth which skimmed from tooth #14 to tooth #17 and then back again, and my phone number (whenever I could remember it and had to impart it to this or that fair-game. unrooted-for, fluttersome, self-shadowed demi-mademoiselle with a filthless smile and a finger or two already in the spirit world) always came out sounding suspect or boastful (but only because of the area code). I could sometimes feel life starting to try things with me. Every night I went to bed wishful and valiant, in the know. 

     I have not been telling this right. What have I even been saying?

     A kid a year ahead of me in high school had had a monstrously ovoid head and claimed to know what he was doing. After he graduated, he put off college for a year and got a job behind the counter in the drugstore downtown where there was a well-stocked rack of bus schedules just inside the door. I stopped in there every few months for any revised schedules for the Union Avenue and Tilghman Boulevard routes, and then I went off to college, and then another college after that, and then into the roiling world of work, but I still came home once in a while and needed a bus schedule, and he was always still right there behind the counter, still ovoid of face, meaningfully older, bearded now, bespectacled. There were roseate entailments of disease on the backs of his hands. Then the store went under. Then most of the other stores on that block and on the three or four blocks on either side of it went under too. The buses still ran, but the people still riding on them looked antsy and overprovoked and one by one started springing a leak of one sort or another.

     My parents were all but gone by then anyway, though they weren’t about to go off as a team. I was told to get the last of my shit out of their garage—four or five boxes coming apart at the bottoms and stuffed with  stumped pencils, dulling hundreds of index cards bent this way and that but still blank, file folders with notations dreared over both inner and outer panels, batteries likely expired, rubbed-down and grimy cap erasers, zany birthday cards mostly from my parents and a sackcloth-and-ashes aunt, Sunday-school papers, second- and third-place award ribbons, graduation gaudery, a sweatshirt and coarse-fibered purplish shorts and a jockstrap never once worn (it looked more like a bandage wrap), all from phys.-ed classes the state made everybody take even as a senior in college. I hauled it all out to the curb for the weekly offering of trash.

     To this day, I tower over my shadow.