His mind seems relatively strangled. Relatively because there is always something hardly breathing about the way he is able to conceal and not conceal his general heights and dips of unaware and overly aware, his sensitivities and his numbness. That he is diurnal should be a surprise to anyone he encounters, should surprise you if you can see him yet. But even that is a lie – slow flickering light of the television at night, watching the infomercials and thinking of that girl, her bursting out of her bikini, oiled up and beckoning to his suffering, silent self. Even she is a lie, but less of a lie. But she's hard to find during the day. So he stays up late.
You won't like him. I'll tell you that straight out. I won't even bother with literary formula or telling my own lies to make that point. I won't show you what he is, but I will tell you. Nights he stays home; days he goes out. He doesn't make victims, not like you would think, but there is something thieving there, something needy and greedy. He laughs all day, veins breaking red around the edges of his nostrils. He shuffles his feet and tells you how clean he is, the word "clean" sitting high and dry on his molars, sending a slight vibration from his jaw into the air. The less you know him, the more you are equipped to see -- a fifth of Jack in a brown bag beneath the driver's side of his little pick-up truck, a grocery sack full of Black Label empties in the trash outside the door to his motel room. Small offerings to himself and his god, little prayers of warmth, mornings. Afternoons. Nights.
Drying out in Flagstaff because it was as far as he could get from Vegas, he felt himself still pulling down the arm, still watching the cowgirls ring in for a jackpot. Drying out in Flagstaff, he remembers a donkey trip with his parents down the Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon when that would be enough, when he was small on the outside and big on the inside instead of the proportions that bind him tight and hard now.
Drying out in Flagstaff, he's thinking about calling a hooker for a little action, a little shine. What he needs is that shine, whatever way it comes. He rifles through his toiletries kit, looking for anything that might pull a moment of shine. Anything that would feed him for a bit. Mouthwash maybe. A few Valium. Momentarily, he has a vision of skinning a cactus from the hotel's landscaping, placing the cool, fleshy bits under his tongue and finding some shaman high, some desert release. He might flower here in the desert, for just a bit, or find some oasis here in the hotel room, scratchy sheets and whores on the television.
I only know from having watched for so long that when it takes you completely, you have to sail or go down with the ship. Substitutes don't substitute anymore – throwing money in the slots or chips on the table, young, dirty, insincere hookers going through the motions you've set out for them, handfuls of pharmaceuticals you might lift out of some sleeping passenger's bag on the bus. And what comes back to you in uninvited sobriety puts you in the uncomfortable position of sifting memory from hallucination, rifling through your bag to find stubs for a tour of the Hoover Dam, to prove that the trip was not just another in a long line of hallucinations. To prove you were there. Down through all of that granite and flipping out under the weight of it, security guards with their hands under your arms and your singing, singing silent maybe or out loud. Incessant in any case. Pissing your pace. Grim.
We get shit-faced in the desert. Drawn there, somehow, to pour ourselves full. Does it call us there – some prayer of solidarity? Is it a class thing, some generational thing? We get drunk at home, but we get shit-faced in the desert. And we may start out in Palm Springs, we may work our way through Las Vegas, but in the end, it's the less glamorous towns where we piss down our legs. Not even Reno, but Needles or Barstow, Bakersfield or Flagstaff.
* * *
My tongue is slipping in this, I think. Forgive me; forgive me my language, my tongue numb with the saturation of it. I forgot about her, and it's really about her. As you know.
She is there, light of the television also, but in a hotel. A nice place really, just outside of North Dallas. She's wound up in her hair, anti-pilgrim of infidelity that she is, having strung herself too tight again. It doesn't take much. You might make her a cocktail, but you'll have to raise her head to it. She's not much of a drinker.
When he thinks of her, he imagines her slender feet, how she'd never quite make it out of her panty hose, how she'd end up sleeping in them like some kind of armor. When he thinks of her, he imagines her slender feet, nylon "nude," sliding into a pair of fancy sandals, the kinds of shoes that only women who want to be unsteady would wear, tiny little spike of a heel beneath a narrow, flimsy platform, lined with gold foiled fabric, and the rest of it woven delicate with what looks like fishing line to him, and little opalescent sequins studded perfectly over all of that. She might die like that; she is so tiny and vulnerable.
Any woman like that, slightly strung out and heading for a greater fragility, any woman like that used to do. He is waiting to find her always, in a way, to replace the original broken figurine. She must not be steady. She must wobble a bit, and need to lean. The features of her face must be soft enough to blur into recognition with a bit of red lipstick and some dark mascara. He thinks of her, waking up in her North Dallas hotel room, her tiny sandals thrown across the floor. Or one sandal on, perhaps, just barely snuggled to her toe, which hangs over the edge of the bed. Vulnerable.
He is drawn here, for you. But don't get too invested. He is just one. When I think of the men that might have tried to awaken her, when I think of the geographical and emotional lengths she traversed, I come back to this man. There are the men that I know – the lawyer, the dentist, my father, the salesman. But these others, like this one in Flagstaff, these are the men I suspect made her feel in control, these are the men that kept her at arm's length from herself, their need for her to be weak and vulnerable being enough of a cover for her, a place she could go. A vacation, a role. A way to get off.
That's an important thing to know about yourself, about the way that your sex works, and I suspect that she did. I hope that she did. Today I will say that she did.
Red-rimmed and adding an extra syllable to her name. Not that swift on the uptake, perhaps. Bits of their lives worn in the tattered linings of their coats, rolled up moments of regret gathering like lint in the corners of their pockets. My mother's lovers.
* * *
I'm not supposed to write about her like this. It reveals a lack of strength in my own character; it reveals too much. It reveals an unappetizing side of my demeanor – an inability to leave her autopsy alone, to let her dissection rest. It's unsavory, undutiful, unladylike. In poor taste. Not to mention confessional. It's unflattering, to both of us. I should leave her alone. The woman is dead, for Christ's sake.
I drafted this essay, almost exactly as you see it now, about a week ago. I was going to leave it buried, not come back to it.
Yesterday I read a scathing editorial by a well-known poet who addressed (through gritted prose) what is wrong with American writing today. He described this very essay with uncanny accuracy.
And so I am back.
* * *
He is in Flagstaff, this time, but once he was not him and he was in New Jersey, strung out so far from my own frame of reference that I can hardly find him there, can hardly hear his inebriated snores or smell his dank breath. His version of himself there, the East Coast version, is not so clear to me, not so certain as my would-be cowboy back in Arizona. I don't think of him as much, won't waste your time with second-rate descriptions of him.
And so he is in Flagstaff.
And he is at home, with me. As you might have predicted. I start with my fathers, always, wear the badge of their damage. I find men who might father me, women who might father me, employers who might father me. I'll let the dog father me, if he's willing to give it a shot. And then I carry it forward in whatever way I can and cannot see.
But while we are here, spinning so far back, then let me show you this: Dark curls and a fine line of mouth. Pinafore and a splash of flowers across her puffed sleeves. She wants more, and will have it. She'll take a bite out of the apple, and then find herself there inside of her mouth, chewing herself up. Poisoning herself. From hunger. From her own father.
Like mother. Like daughter. And so on.
Back in Dallas, moving forward from there but back from here, she pulls herself up, opens her eyes with great effort, knowing that she has a flaw about her, an inability to process through this veil the ways that others do.
She was just walking, just walking through a parking lot, the asphalt hot and sticky in the humid Dallas July. She pulls herself up on her elbows, on her thin arms, feels the single shoe still hanging on, despite her need for it. She flicks it off with some effort, and she moves into the light.
She is not in a parking lot. She is in a hotel room. There are things of hers that make the room distinct, smells and items and even just the quality of air here. She is that kind of woman, the kind of woman who can change the barometric pressure just by waking, alone and confused in a hotel room in North Dallas.
* * *
What do you give a woman who has everything? What can she give herself? I've learned this from her, this character. That when you have everything, you must take from yourself to try to fill yourself up. This can be good or bad, depending on what you have to offer yourself. She does not recognize much in herself that is of value to give. Characters like this suffer themselves to find replete. She needs a savior, a knock on the door, a stronger character to knock on the door and to set this scene right for her. If you can find her there, if you know the number on her door, if you have a key to her room, then you might enter, you might try.
* * *
Cold wind, West Texas sleet and wind chill of twenty below. No human should be able to stand after consuming this much alcohol, much less a girl of one hundred and ten pounds, with light bones and a car to drive from drink to drink. It's cold outside, deathly so, but she is thinly dressed, not so much to attract, but to blend. That's why the drinks came to travel down her throat. And that's how she ended up here, in front of this ancient wall heater with this boy. They are going at each other, in the spirit of the thing.
He makes her laugh, and genuinely, this boy, and she tells him so, has real affection for him. His pants are dumb, she thinks, too much of a trend she snubs – too tight and with stripes that frame his crotch -- and so is his hair and his shirt. He has a dated, clichéd Eighties look, but it being the Eighties, she doesn't recognize that as such, though in retrospect she will, and with a sad smile. But beyond that, his speech is quick and he keeps her eyes focused on him.
They are good together, falling here on the floor in front of the heater in a fit of laughter, pulling their clothes off despite the freezing cold.
This is his house, shabby and cold, overflowing ashtrays everywhere and a filthy kitchen. His bedroom is through the other doorway, and she wants to go in. And like every other boy, he tries to talk her out of it. She tells them what she thinks he will say – that she is too drunk, that she will regret it. But she won't, she insists; her feelings for him are genuine. It isn't love, but why should it have to be? She wants to come closer, to come close to this affection. And why not?
It isn't, he says, that she is too drunk. It is, he stutters, that he is – that she wouldn't want him if she knew him sober. That he will have nothing to offer her tomorrow. He doesn't want to disappoint.
(I remember the way your eyes fell, the way I recognized at once how you stepped off of this path to say this to me. Such an honest thing to say, so brutal. And your eyes went from hazel to the soft gray of my father's, and your face was like his then, clearly, and your sway like his as well. And through you, I finally knew him. And in myself with you, I finally knew her as well. This was the gift you gave me. And I can't even remember your name.)
* * *
You won't like him, maybe. I've grown to. I don't have a name for him or a place, dates or receipts for what he bought her or wooed her. Just this picture of him that I've made up, his belly bare and round as he is awakened in Flagstaff by the sound of semis on the highway.
I don't have any of his facts; I just know, somehow, where he ended, her bit of him having intersected him, probably not in any defining way. I know how he ended because in twisted ways he is my counterpart, after all. Just as my father was, in his own way also. Just as the two of them are forever conjoined as well.
In the end, we were all dragging the heavy cross of her through the sand.
And then there is this story. Like mother. Like daughter. That we passed it between us like a nasty cold. Without even knowing it at the time, we committed and hid our same variety of sins, played at our same wheel of fortune.
Ironically, you had wanted nothing to do with me, really, but you gave me your whole claim -- you gave the whole of your pain, the whole of your behaviors. The whole of your problems and their self-destructive solutions. I played them out, put them away, but won't give them up any more than I would your china, your glasses, your girlhood photo collection.
What did you have of crystalline, of reverence? How many men did you pass through before you were offered your humanity, your womanhood? And what sustenance did you give them, and in what ways did you change them when you thought you were only the somnambulant, only the hypnotized wing walker? The figurine. Sugar skull. Bride.
What does it take to feel beautiful and loved and desired? For any of us. But especially you. And especially me.
I would like to know that you got your fill, that you reached your destination. I would like to have you back to teach you all of the things that you were never able to teach me. I would like to know that there was more gained than paid in Dallas and Flagstaff and New York and Amarillo. I wouldn't be naive enough to insist on love, but what I would want for you is an array of moments -- lucid tremors of understanding that made the risks of your body and heart worthwhile.
And I would want that for myself, as well.
And for them too, Mother, for all of them that spread themselves like blankets underneath us so that we could do our work.