You are reading Fiddleblack #7
At a rest stop parking lot I chanced on a dead man slumped behind the wheel of a Buick LeSabre. I would explain later that I could feel it as soon as I pulled into the lot: the matter-of-factness of flesh. I could smell the manure from the slaughterhouse to the north. I used the restroom, washed my face, and pulled back out to the Five heading south.
I remembered concentrating very intently with D.
“Aaron?” D. said. “You’re so quiet. Are you okay?”
I nodded. I was making the memory corporeal, removing it from my head, placing it in my fingertips, in my thighs, over the ridge of my shoulders. For safekeeping. Like Muybridge’s horse, I wanted to learn if all four hooves left the ground at once.
D. asked if this was my first time. My entry had been less than expert. Again I nodded, and kept on making it corporeal as her friends watched TV in the other room. She was intelligent, and had at one point been in a relationship with a boy a year older who I admired. I would always feel good about that; that my first time wasn’t with one of the wounded doves, though I hadn’t lit upon that phrase yet. I understood she was proud to take care of me, and I was grateful for it.
This place was called America’s Finest City by people who didn’t subsist on fried eggs and bologna sandwiches. Of course there were the sunsets. Each could be counted on to be more astonishing than the next. Hume be damned.
I lived with three friends in a student-housing slum down the strip from San Diego State. No schooling—we sold weed and mushrooms and offered little to ourselves in the way of dignity.
Late at night, the whole complex lit up and boozy, an airy redhead called S. who lived downstairs appeared on the balcony.
“Want to give me oral sex?” she said, as if the seduction had happened long ago and she’d no need to replay it.
Her body was expressive in a way that made me believe I’d become a skilled lover. Just weeks before, when I’d had sex with A., she’d just lied there on the bed. I’d known A. since elementary school and she was visiting San Diego for the weekend from our hometown. A. told raunchy jokes that always suggested a casual understanding of the grub reality of fucking. But her stillness on the bed belied this, and with her my body was inarticulate, like a pair of flippers struggling to open a pickle jar.
I knew A. was in the apartment building, drinking with our friends and laughing about cunts and cocks, and there had been a tacit understanding that we’d sleep together again. S., the redhead, asked if she could stay the night and I told her no, that I’d promised my bed to A., that it wasn’t what she thought.
“We’re old friends,” I explained. S. left angry and I understood that I’d managed to hurt everyone.
I was awoken by a friend, the sun stabbing at me.
“A plane hit the World Trade Center,” my friend said. “Shit’s going down right now.”
I blinked at him to correct the blur in my vision. “You hear me?” he said. “It’s Armageddon.”
I knew A. would be there on the couch with everyone watching the news. She didn’t come to my bed last night. She knew about the redhead. It was clear. I could already feel it in my bowels, which knotted whenever I revealed myself to be base and gutless. My tongue stuck to my palate like a sick barnacle hunting for moisture. I closed my eyes, let sleep happen to me.
K. told me Reno was called The Biggest Little City in the World. San Francisco’s lesser-known moniker was The City that Waits to Die.
“Due to the earthquakes,” she said.
There was Oak Town: The City by the City by the Bay, Berserkley: Athens of the West, V Town, The Silent City, City of Pride and Purpose, Slownoma in The Valley of the Moon, and (The real) Surf City, USA. She was an East-coaster by birth, but she knew the West.
When Oakland pastor Harold Camping predicted the rapture to be May 21, K. thought it a good excuse for us to go to Yosemite for the weekend. We hiked passed a road-closed sign that warned of rockslides. In a meadow we lay and snapped photos of each other and I possessed a deeper well of feeling that made me more than I’d ever been. By late afternoon the end of the world had passed, and we hiked back to camp, sun-drained and beautiful.
We struggled to build a fire with damp wood, the water hissing out of the cracks. K. drew my hand to her mouth to bite out a splinter.
“I’m destroying your finger,” she whispered, “among other things.”
“What other things?” I said.
“This can’t last,” she said. “I’ll run you off, eventually.”
“Maybe I’ll run you off,” I said.
“This can’t last,” she said again.
We moved into a one-bedroom in Oakland the same month of Camping’s second doomsday. We would stay in bed all day until hunger compelled me to rise on blood-drained legs and go for take-out. She would sprawl out in the blankets, raise her arms luxuriously and say, “I’m swimming in an ocean of bed.”
I would look at the skylight and think for all the sunlight you gain, you’re losing time.
Months later, she got drunk at a bar and her wallet went missing. She threw her purse and bike into the street and slammed her fists against storefront windows. She picked fights with passers-by and screamed that she was black and poor and had no one in the world. I picked up her things and walked a block behind. There was nothing I could do for her.
The night she didn’t take the late bus home to Oakland, staying with a friend in San Francisco instead, I knew she was edging away from me. It took five more months before she finally left. I’d discovered there’d been another man, and learned for the first time what it was to lay next to someone who was thousands of miles away.
The real first time was on August 25, 1999. It was my friend’s birthday and I’d gone overboard on a bottle of tequila and ended up in bed with R., a girl with whom I’d experienced my first kiss years earlier.
“You want to?” she said, and I thought I heard an expectant joy in her voice, but also something that had to do with surprise, as if the suggestion were outlandish.
I couldn’t get hard and tried to worm my flaccid penis into her, writhing my hips, endeavoring to bring myself to life. Soon I was apologizing.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I came.”
The nakedness of the lie gutted me. At sixteen I hadn’t yet understood that that lie would trumpet some larger bathos. But even then I decided to try to remove the memory, to place the shame somewhere else as best I could and never revisit it.
Along with a bag of groceries, I was transporting three pounds of psilocybin mushrooms in resealed corn flakes boxes in the backseat of my Chevy Corsica. I’d spoken with my buddy stationed in Fort Drum just before leaving Sonoma, who’d assessed the risk of this drive and determined the whole thing to be extremely moronic.
I might make four grand, all told, but an arrest likely meant doing time, maybe years. I wished we hadn’t had that conversation. I was relying on my nerves for the trip, and now, driving the Five, I was a puddle of sweat.
It was getting late, the sun dipping to the west like a sinking ship. I thought for years I’d coined that term until I realized one afternoon that it came from Dylan’s “Meet Me in the Morning.” It’d crushed me to think that I’d been aping someone else’s line for so long, even if it was Dylan. I traced my own inception of the term to eight grade, 1997, while working on a screenplay that I never finished, and this was all before I’d bought Blood on the Tracks from BMG Music’s catalog—twelve CDs for a cent. On the form I’d filled in a fake name, Seymour Carrazco, and a neighbor’s address, and for a week watched intently for the package to arrive. Now, seeing the sun dip, I decided to keep using the term as my own.
I pulled into a rest stop and a vile air overtook me. I smelled the cows from Harris Ranch. I thought this was the moment, presaged by the sinking feeling in my heart, that I would be busted for possession with intent to distribute and sent to some Central Valley lock-up packed tight with cholos and meth heads.
There was only one other car in the parking lot, a Martian-red Buick LeSabre. I parked and walked passed the LeSabre and knew immediately that the man behind the wheel wasn’t drawing breath. The man was shirtless, sun-baked, wearing a three-day scruff. His lips were purple, eyes set deep in their sockets, still bearing the shock of his final thoughts.
I handled the payphone mouthpiece but replaced it on the receiver without dialing. The man was passed help, and three pounds of mushrooms was too much weight to draw any sort of attention to. I relieved myself in the bathroom and washed my face. Look at the sun, I thought, sinking like a ship. Well ain’t it just like my heart, babe, when you kiss my lips?
I ate ceviche tostadas in Coyoacan. At the house where Trotsky had lived, I stood in the room where Ramon Mercador struck the old man in the head with an ice axe.
I thought about K.’s wallet that went missing, how it turned up the next day in the photo booth of the bar. I thought about finding the pic of her naked that she’d emailed to some guy with the message: “home alone 😉 hope we can fuck soon.” After he’d been struck, it took Trotsky a whole day to die.
That night I slept with an artist from Xalapa. I’d been drinking for going on twelve hours and the artist seemed utterly enamored by a gay man from Colorado who spoke perfect Chilango Spanish and was apparently the most hysterical person on God’s green earth. When I could barely keep my eyelids from falling shut I announced I was going to bed and the artist pulled me aside.
“Let’s get to know each other,” she said. I kissed her and wrapped my arms around her and she said, “I’ll follow you, Aaron. I want to follow you.” That my body was too tired to perform was to me in that moment a tragedy beyond scope or rival. I said I was disappointed and she said she was too.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “We are more than what is done to us.” I didn’t know what she was referring to, or whether she was translating properly, but I believed her nonetheless.
The next day the artist was draped over the lap of an Australian with a purple birthmark on his bicep who’d lived in the hostel for the last year. They cuddled together on the patio with the carefree attention of practiced lovers and soon retreated to her dorm room.
It stung me that she could be so callous. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, I thought. She is an artist, after all. I thought about what she’d said the night before, how her burning flights of wisdom were really just English platitudes reconfigured by her accent.
Weeks later, after I’d returned to Oakland, she sent me a Facebook message:
“could you remember me what happened the last night together? everything was with protection right?”
Two condoms, I thought. The first sagged from my failed erection like a mud flap. The second when I’d finally worked up just enough blood to feverishly beat out the sunrise.
“don’t worry,” I wrote back. “protection was used.”
“hope to see you again,” she responded. “:) youre sweet so probably we can spend time together around mexico 🙂 well thanks to write to me and see you.”
She also wrote something about going to the Riviera Maya in December for the end of the world party, and how the culture there was dazzling. Dazzling was my word, not hers.
K. and I rented a car and drove down the Five. When we passed Coalinga, I didn’t think of the dead man in the LeSabre from a lifetime ago. His blue lips and his deep-set eyes—I didn’t think of those things. At the western edge of the park we hiked a long barren path, the Joshua trees jutting out of the desert, their fronds exploding in tightly contained bursts. K. knew the photos would turn out dull.
“There’s no depth in the desert,” she said. “No matter how close, everything’s too far away. Besides, pleasing to the eye and pleasing to the mind are two different things. That’s what dudes don’t understand.”
“I understand that,” I said. “And I’m a dude.”
We took photos of our shadows on the scorching slabs of granite.
“We are shadows of our former selves,” I said. I’d meant it as a joke.
She squinted toward the horizon and let dirt pass through her fingers and catch in the breeze. When the sun sank lower and our shadows elongated across the length of the formations she had us pose for another shot.
“If I’m going to be a shadow,” she said. “Might as well be the biggest shadow I can be.”
On the drive out, we stopped in 29 Palms and bought two cacti. When things ended, she kept one and I kept the other.
Ezra Carlsen is a writer based in San Francisco. His journalism has been published in California magazine and San Francisco Public Press. His fiction has been published by Fiddleblack, and is forthcoming in the journal REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters and in The Southern Humanities Review.