THE MAKE BELIEVE BALLROOM: A Novel (Full text, from 2004)
For those who think, “It has to be better somewhere.
And for those who know it’s not.
The book can produce an addiction as fierce as heroin or nicotine, forcing us to spend much of our lives, like junkies, in book shops and libraries, those literary counterparts to the opium den.
If all else fails, tell the truth. If that fails, write a book about it.
—Roger Solomon Manwell
Of all character traits, emotional and psychological, insanity and a sense of humor are the most human. Few penguins have been observed telling knock-knock jokes. Beavers are likewise humorless creatures, if, of course, you exclude the sinister comedy that is their lives. They’re furry little construction workers with shitty jobs, short life-spans, and their eloquent log homes have little retail value. Raccoons are thieves and lions are lazy, but only a human being can be a maniac and comedian and get paid for it. Crazy lions don’t get shit. No one laughs at Llamas. Except crazy people.
Is that what makes a man a man? The knock-knock jokes and whoopee cushions? Is it those eat the can of donkey spleen and salamander testicles for the grand prize television shows? Is this what it is to be man, grandest creature of all, Homo Sapiens? What would Freud say about that kind of shit? What sets man above the other creatures? Pi, Pies in the face, super soakers, aids, super computers, philosophy and nuclear war? The mind has always been my obsession—the reasons, the why’s, you know, the philosopher’s alibis.
Beavers share a common bond with men. We’re both silly creatures. We’re silly enough to be duped into monogamy, but every now and then our mates catch us being men. That always leads to trouble, for beavers and for men. We’re knotted like a thick blonde braid with these working-class quadrupeds. Makes you want to sing, doesn’t it? Ah, singing. Singing is a beautiful thing, in humans and in nature, but there are few animals capable of playing the piano.
Is that what it is that separates us? Our grand symphonies and operas? Indeed, more to me has been said of God through Ave Maria than the Bible or Koran or Bhagavad-Gita. Surely there is mania, subtle, poetic and graceful mania, in these masterworks of human thought. There is a bit of mania in music, like the Vedas, spiritual chants, Voodoo ritual dances and primitive drums. Insanity can be beautiful. Insanity can be noble.
Insanity is apparent in other areas of nature, of course. There are faint traces of it in other animals, but to a lukewarm degree; it’s rare to find a zebra in a book depository building with a bolt action rifle looking to start some shit. They’ve got those hooves, hard to grip a rifle with a stumped up foot, you see. But a human has the ability and the inclination to do this. They have the beliefs to justify it. It is just as easy for them to justify their beliefs as it is for me to justify mine.
Nothing interests me more than these peculiar bipeds. It’s easy to condemn them as irrational creatures with a penchant for doing incredibly stupid and crazy shit. Exhibit A: Mardi Gras. It sure is fun though. I’ve been arrested at Mardi Gras a couple of times. You might’ve seen me on the episode of cops dedicated to Mardi Gras. The show staggered the imagination. Outlaw bandits ran around with flopping tits, covered with fancy, multi-colored beads. They rolled around on the ground covered in piss, vomit, and alcohol. God bless America.
Swimming pools are hard evidence in support of my argument. Anyone that spends more than ten minutes in a man made puddle should be sent to the corner to think about what they’ve done. They should be removed from their home for their third offence. No soup for them, either. They will learn the error of their ways or die. Murdering someone because they like to go for a swim is a bit extreme, but they have to learn somehow.
What am I trying to say? You could ask. Simple: human beings are wonderfully insane creatures. There’s something fascinating about how the circuitry of a burnt out mind works. I imagine dark rows of bluish diodes shifting about with occasional sparks like lightning bugs in tangled trees. This was my obsession.
This is what brought me to Herman.
I’ve invented a simple test to determine whether or not you’re insane. If you fail this test, you’ll probably enjoy my little story. If you pass it, I don’t like you. Tell me if this sounds familiar:
It’s three o’clock in the morning. You’re hungry, bored, and having trouble getting to sleep. You put on your robe, tie it, and head downstairs to look for some food. You open the fridge. You explore behind milk cartons, jugs of tea, tin-foiled covered bowls from yesterday. You find nothing. You give up and return to your room. This is normal. Food is necessary.
Thirty minutes later, you repeat the process, thinking, “Maybe I missed something.” This is not a reasonable excuse. This is not rational. Congratulations! You are insane.
Ever contemplated the origin of the cosmos while taking a shit? If so, once again, you are insane. Interesting person, perhaps. Insane, definitely.
Put this book down and look around. (You have to pick it back up or you’ll hurt my feelings. Could you live with that on your conscience?) If there are any signs of swimming trunks you must commit yourself immediately for the safety of your family. Do it for the kids man! The kids! Would you want them to turn out like me? For heaven’s sake man, something must be done. It’s a shame that there are people that share my outlook. What do I want to do with my life? Waste it. Waste it and enjoy wasting it. I’m ashamed of being human, and proud of it.
My grandmother is a kind woman. She had five children and, when my grandfather had open heart surgery, she had to support them all by working twelve hours a day and six days a week in a cotton mill just to buy them shoes and keep them fed. She had no concern for herself and wore the same rotted pair of Reebok’s for at least fifteen years before we got her a new pair for Mother’s day.
She was just a wee lass when the Titanic was swallowed whole by the hungry gullet of the sea. In the summer. we walked around in her fenced in yard to look for June bugs. We’d tie their legs to a stick once we found them just to watch ‘em fly around in circles. She collected porcelain angels and did her crossword puzzles every night. Other than that, she played a mean harmonica. I’ve never met a more superstitious person. In twenty seven years, she never missed a day of church. In keeping with the law of the Lord, she never cursed when angry; she spelled the words out. Sometimes my uncle was an ‘a double s.’
She thought a cross could keep her toilet from overflowing. Some quiet nights she stood in front of that American standard porcelain God shouting, with her crucifix held in front of her, “The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!” I couldn’t make this shit up. Superstition is a pure distillation of insanity.
Sorrow, regret, loneliness, heartache – all wonderful traits for human beings – but apparent in other animals. Regret is hard to see in the lower animals (you know, the animals that are too dumb to wear clothes and work at McDonalds) but it’s there. My grandmother’s cat, Entae, a runt of a black tabby with a gimp leg, had to be Italian. She exhibited a lot of common human characteristics. Other than cat food, she’d only eat ham and lasagna, spaghetti, rigatoni. Baloney was out of the question.
After eating about eight bowls of lasagna one night, I believe she regretted it almost as much as my mother, who had to truck down the stairs at three in the morning with a plastic baggy bought with the sole intention of scooping up cat shit and other less friendly bodily excretions.
There is more insanity at work here than you might notice at first glance. Let’s examine: there is a company, made of men that launched, funded, and marketed a product to be used primarily in dealing with cat vomit. The logic behind this is staggering. Staggering.
How could this come about? Let’s muse. Want to muse with me? Come on, I’ll be nice. One day there are three young business school grads on a train. They see three cats form a small circle and vomit ritualistically all over their patent leather loafers. A day which will forever live in infamy.
“My god!” says Grad I to the other two with a slack jawed gape. Tiny tendrils of drool dangle from his mouth.
“What did he do this time?” Grad II questions.
Grad III just sits there with a blank gaze. He stares at the birds for a while. “Durrr,” he adds emphatically.
“We could make a product designed for dealing with this situation!”
“Out of what?” asks Grad II. Grad III is still staring across the horizon with a doleful look on his face.
“Little trash bags!” he said.
“Brilliant! We could paint little paws and bones on them. It’d make millions. People love buying stupid shit for their pets.”
“Ahh,” the third one nods in agreement. Together, Grad I and Grad II make Grad III the boss. He sits at his desk and just agrees. His employees consider him ideal for upper management.
I have an uncle that believes dogs have the power to talk, but instead use psychic powers to make people think they’re not talking.
After a cursory glance at daytime television, it becomes obvious that people have little concern for the fact that they only have about fifty years to live. But they’re content to use the one life they’re allotted with spray on hair treatment and boots that turn into roller-skates.
This is a massive universe, staggering in size. Some say it’s terrible, some say it’s wonderful, and some just drink beer, play the lottery, and pay little attention to social matters.
Some believe the universe is wonderful because it brought forth life. There are others that believe it’s terrible for this very reason. Any man that spends a significant amount of time in an IRS building will have little humility before the wonder that is life.
Omar Khayyam had it right in The Rubáiyát:
A moment’s halt – a momentary taste
Of being from the well amid the waste
And Lo! the phantom caravan has reached
The nothing it set out from, oh make haste!
This perspective of Miss Milky way seems to be lost on men who spend their days concerned with raking in as much money as possible so they can have nice cars with digital surround sound and a little voice-operated flip-down DVD screen that can’t be watched while driving. They don’t have peacock tails or feathers, but they do have voice-operated flip-down DVD screens and they work just as well and serve the exact same purpose.
I’ve spent most of my life watching and judging others. No, I’m not Christian: I’m just interested in human behavior.
There is nothing as horribly entertaining as insanity at its most terrible and fabulous: dancing. Dancing is a seizure with style. There’s nothing more insane. Dancing has to be the craziest of all human inventions. More terrible than the atom bomb, more insidious than the first pointed stick someone thought would be nice to fling at a rabbit. More ghastly, perverse, and demented than the sequel to Caddyshack. It chills me to the bone just thinking about it. To the bone.
If our culture is ever unearthed, billions of years in the future, after every single car with digital surround and flip down DVD screens has been buried under thousands of pounds of earthen ash, I pray that a vastly superior alien culture never comes to Earth and stumbles upon Sweatin’ to the Oldies with Richard Simmons. What would the vastly intelligent alien races with pointed ears, glitter, and rhinestone collars think of us then? They’d be laughing from Sirius to the other side of Andromeda. This haunts my dreams.
If we’re ever to move forward as a species, I think that it’s vital, important, pertinent, imperative, necessary and essential to seek out and eliminate every single VHS recording of Michael Jackson’s Thriller just so we don’t embarrass ourselves in front of the other galactic civilizations. What would they think of us then? All our toupees, plastic forks, glide on deodorant, and little cell phones with catchy ring tones can’t beat away the fact that we’re dying and doing a poor job at it. Dying is a lot easier and less complicated than we make it out to be and a lot more entertaining than most people give it credit for.
I always wanted to think that humans had a higher purpose than the other animals. Because we could use microwaves and laser printers, we must’ve been ordained with some important task in life. I don’t know, something more special and fulfilling than playing checkers or slinging burgers out of plastic windows. Could that be our purpose? Life is temporary; plastic lives forever.
After years of research, I found humans to be the least intelligent of all creatures on the Earth.
Every day after work, paid slave labor really, I walked down the walkway with grime and dirt all over me, covered in dust with blood on my elbows. My cat would be asleep in the grass. Just lounging in the sun without anxiety pills, nerve medication, cigarettes, opium or Dairy Queen. She had no care or worry about paying her light bill or the cat across the street with the great personality and caring eyes. Nothing. The sun, the grass, and the occasional grasshopper is enough for her. She is not cursed with consciousness.
My neighbor’s cat would be stalking mine. A dog would wait for the right moment to surprise attack on the cat too occupied with my cat to know what was about to happen. Of course, there are drawbacks to being forever carefree. Cars. Cats are often hit by cars. Humans are often hit by cars. Cats still come out on top. In lieu of the fact that they just get hit by them and don’t have to pay for them beforehand, they win.
If you didn’t laugh at that, you’re communist.
So, ladies and gentleman, what higher purpose do we have? Working at a fast food joint doesn’t seem to be a divine business venture. Functional, yes. Divine? Far from it. And, for some reason, I don’t believe that popping pimples has much to do with the Glory of God or the penultimate destiny of the universe. Call me crazy, but I don’t see how this really matters in the grand scheme of things.
This talk of insanity reminds me of something a friend used to chant when presented with something he didn’t understand: “Crazy? I went crazy once. They put me in a box. The worms ate through the box. I hate worms. Worms make me crazy. Crazy? I went crazy once. They put me in a box. The worms ate through the box. Worms make me crazy. Crazy? I went crazy once…”
Why lapse into this rambling inanity now, you could ask. Halfway through the story, the necessity of this small squib of a prologue will become apparent. This story is about an old man whom many in our small redneck mill village believed to be crazy. Crazy? I went crazy once…
A cousin of mine once wrote to the senator of our great state of South Carolina. She had a wild theory about why everything, as she put it, was kickin’ up dog shit:
“Dear Mr. Man in Charge,
Ninety-nine percent of children that get involved with drugs, gangs, violence, and small after school republican groups, have ketchup in their system. Coincidence? I think not.”
There has yet to be a reply. Sad sad sad.
She lived alone in a small box-like apartment. The same kind of apartment Herman lived in. Apartments in some parts of the south are ground level, like homes, and have front porches, back porches, and a clothesline divided up between the houses. They’re made of brick and insulated but dank. These are the kind of apartments that always leak when it rains.
Herman Prince was a guitar, dobro, mandolin, fiddle, piano, saxophone, and music theory teacher. He spent a lot of time in front of his house shouting at pigeons, begging them to have some of his bread. I once saw him using tape and cardboard to fix a broken window on his car. The first time I saw him, he was using a lucky rabbit’s foot to scrape ice off his windshield in the winter. He drove around town in a noisy station wagon with rust speckled along the doorway. The muffler always dragged the ground behind him.
Ordinary, maybe not. But what is ordinary? Ordinary is just a kind word for boring.
My dad introduced me to Herman on a long and lazy day in May. My friends had graduated and I was stupid enough to ruin my future on a whim by telling one of my teachers to give a donkey a blowjob for a bucket of baloney. What a waste, but no matter. My life was going nowhere and I was glad. I couldn’t picture myself in a dim grey cubicle pecking around on a keyboard with a tie and a suit. I couldn’t picture myself doing that. I couldn’t picture myself paying thirty grand to go to college just so some pompous blowhard could read to me. And I’d just quit my job. No school, no job, no money, no friends – everything I’d always wanted.
There are certain confessions I’d like to make before I continue. If you’d rather skip to the story than listen to me moan and groan about everything, I welcome you to find the first chapter and start there. Chances are, however, if you do that – something bad will happen to you.
I was born and raised in the American south. For the record, I’m writing this in an outhouse with crayons on the back of a box of cereal. Though we are often stereotyped as insignificant hillbillies, we pride ourselves on being insignificant hillbillies. We have little technology and only a dollop of intelligence amongst us. Yes, it’s true. We’re all crazy ass religious nuts with more shotguns than teeth. We all vote republican and have sex with our relatives. I take offense to this. I have never voted and I could care less about religion.
Yes. Everything you’ve heard is true. Even the things that cancel the other things out, or the things that go on to say that there are a number of reasonably intelligent and sophisticated people running around in the south with clean clothes on.
Yes. It’s all true. We all sit around on the back of pickup trucks with a piece of straw in our mouth, petting a coon dog and plucking a banjo while maw and paw ride horses to the general mills store to get feed fer the chickens. That’s our culture, ain’t it? You’ve seen the movies, read the books, and heard about the absurd backwood odysseys that often crop up in the south where everyone has an outhouse. Want a true shock? Like the kind you have in those dense mystery novels when the harder than stone heroine with the tortured past finds out her brother did it? I’m writing this on a computer in a room with electricity! And by the grace of God, we have indoor plumbing. I don’t even own a banjo.
Our town sits between two big cities. These big cities have a combined population of eight to ten thousand. They have all the fancy eating places like McDonalds and Burger King. We have curb markets and family owned grills that line our littered streets. Main Street consists of three churches, a tennis court, a basketball court, a gym, a family owned drug store, City Hall, a doctor’s office and post office. We’re also proud of our traffic light. Yes, one traffic light.
This town is beyond boring. It’s like an English speaking wasteland where forgotten shadow figures lurch through the barren streets at night, asking for money or cigarettes, just wanting to keep their lives going. We go through robotic motions every day, and that’s our life. We just live and die and disappear. No news reports or memorial services, just cheap caskets and plastic flowers. We live like hungry robots wrapped in skin, burning under sweet Sol, going through the motions ‘til we die or get murdered for twenty dollars.
These gravel roads are dark, packed with rotting houses, heavy with fog and garbage. People around here get on drugs because there’s nothing else to do. Few of us could afford college even if we wanted to go. That’s for folk with fancy high school diplomas and people that go on to do big things with their lives. Going to college has nothing to do with learning. No one goes to learn; they go to get a piece of paper that says they’ve learned. One of our graduates, God how we’re proud, became assistant manager at a cotton mill on the outskirts of town. He even climbed his way to the top of the retail world when he was featured on a billboard. “You’ll be grinnin’ when you try our linen,” the sign read. Pure class.
Everybody knows everybody in this town. Most spend their time walking up and down Main along the littered sidewalks, or filing in and out of churches. There are thirty five churches within ten square miles and one library. This is not a healthy ratio.
As such, Herman was infamous in our little town. Of course everyone said he was crazy. “He never stops talking,” they said. “Good guitar player, though,” they added. “I heard he makes really nice birdhouses,” some gushed. It was true. He made and sold birdhouses of high quality, hand painted, lacquered and varnished. On Saturday’s he had yard sales for his birdhouses. For a couple of dollars extra, he’d even sew a name on a small cloth and hang it from the perch for the name of your bird. Still, rumors buzzed like bees.
I’m guilty of the same thing. I’ve made up rumors myself. “They say that man has the largest…” Why did I do this? For attention? To have someone know that I was alive? I really don’t know. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not anything, actually. Just one of those lonely shadow figures that creep along the fog-lined streets at night, watching other strange faces light up in the dark with burning cigarettes, speckled along the streets like fireflies. Just looking for my home, for something to keep me going. For something to make the struggle worth it. And that is what I’m doing now.
Herman was the grandmaster of crazy, my father said. Apparently, continuous talking is enough to make somebody crazy. Spending twelve hours a day in triple digit heat for two hundred dollars a week to pay for TV’s and name brand shoes, however, is completely logical. It’s normal. Of course it is. You’ve got to pay for designer slacks and stylish shoes, paper napkins and nice collections of jewel studded carrying cases with certificates of authenticity at low low prices, priced to own! Get yours now!
There were maybe five or six two star cafes in our town, since Taco Bell and the other high class eateries were too classy for us. The one hotel that graced Main Street was set ablaze by the owner in order to collect the insurance money. He’ll learn, in prison, that in order to collect the insurance money you have to have a policy. If you’re going to be dumb enough to break the law, you should be smart enough to know it. Wal-Mart wouldn’t even be caught dead in our tiny town. Not even the Wal-Marts that dropped out of high school would come about.
So, how did I meet the grandmaster of crazy?
I grew up with my grandparents and didn’t meet my father until I was a grown man. I met him and found out he was a talented guitarist, artist, and pothead. He told me his father played, his father’s father played, and his father’s grandfather played. So I had to play. I had to be better than they were. And of course, I knew Herman was a guitar teacher and I knew how crazy everyone thought he was. There are people around here who think I’m crazy. Especially because of one rumor that suggests I danced around on my front porch in a wedding dress while a strange Hispanic man laid under me and filmed the entire sordid affair with a cigar in his mouth and yellow spandex draped around his exotic shoulders. This isn’t entirely untrue. (The dress wouldn’t fit and the young man stole the camera. You just can’t find good help these days. And plus, I started the rumor.)
So, my dad arranged a meeting for us.
It was sometime after noon when the alarm clock rang. My dad was going to take me to Herman’s house sometime around two. I would drive myself, but I had an unfortunate accident involving my car, a liter of vodka, and a swing set. I’m not proud.
No one was home when I opened my eyes. I threw off the covers and stood at the window for a minute or so yawning. It was too early for me, and I didn’t really feel like showering. Thankfully the heat had dropped under ninety degrees.
Thank God for small favors and favors for small Gods.
The sun drifted wistfully over the mill behind our house and the deck in our backyard. Even Sol had overslept.
“It’s ‘alf past five already,” I imagined Sol saying to the stars when the intergalactic alarm went off. “Oh bugger, better put the kettle on.” And so Sol rolled out of bed. Even stars have to pay the bills or God turns off the light. He has the power to do this. We know it. Sol is a clever girl and knows it too.
Whether or not our sun is male or female, as of yet, is pure speculation. However I refuse to believe that a male sun could keep up such a long commitment. Unfaithful buggers.
It had been a late evening for Sol the day before I met Herman. The moon didn’t show up until sometime after ten. Sol complained to Alpha Centarui A and his twin sister, even Wolf 359 popped in for a bit. His solar system didn’t support life. He always bragged about being able to sleep late. But he always brought Sirius, the biggest prick known to man. “I’ve got a G2V spectral type,” he boasted. “I am the brightest star in the galaxy, you know. It’s cool, you want to have sex with me. I get that a lot.”
“What about Canopus?” Sol asked. “Canopus has certainly put on weight. Vega, now she’s a big girl.”
“Canopus? Vega?” Sirius laughed. “You can’t be serious.”
Sol and the Local Group resisted a ridiculous word pun and went back to their game of poker. Giant solar flares threw mammoth cards.
“No!” he shouted. “You’re not serious, but I am! How terrible that must be for you!”
“Makes you want to go Nova doesn’t it? Sometimes I don’t want to get up in the morning.”
“Well, take your pills,” the neighborhood chimed before they lugged back to their sleeping worlds.
“See you on Thursday,” said Sol. “We’ll play pool.”
I imagined that Sol and the Local Group had an understanding. The first and most important rule: never invite Sirius to parties. The second and not quite as important rule: never let the life that relies on us know that we know it relies on us. “If life knew we were aware and conscious, it’d be devastating,” Sol said. “They would always want us to perform odd jobs and we’d never get any sleep. Not that we do anyway…”
“Some days,” thought Sol as she spun above her blue-green water world, “you just want to pack it in.”
Today was a day like that for Sol and for me. Many months had passed since I was voluntarily fired from my job, and getting up before lunchtime was a chore. My dad tried to get me another job, some sort of volunteer work, but I don’t do volunteer work unless I’m being paid for it.
The money was good enough with the old job to provide all of life’s little necessities: cigarettes, Tylenol, books, hot wings, my nerve medication (some sort of anxiety ailment that causes my chest to hurt all day everyday), a pint of vodka or six. The work didn’t bother me. I just woke up one morning and felt like Sol, sans the billions of dependant life forms. I just had one: a seventeen year old brother. He said I could quit if I wanted to as long as I could still pay his cell phone bill. As long as I paid that, he said, we had no qualms.
If I hadn’t quit my job, I never would have met this aging miser. I would’ve met him sooner, and after we agreed upon a time and location, he stood me up. As an eighteen year old with a large nose and no cash flow, I know what it’s like to be stood up.
The only peculiarity about this: we agreed to meet at his house. The next time we spoke, he told me he forgot how to get there. Then he asked who I was and why I called. He asked me if saw Hank to tell him he was waiting for his call. I told him I’d keep a look out. He forgot how to get to his own house. This struck me as clever, intentional or not, so I went home to play a bit of chess with my brother for a while.
The next day, after another scheduled meeting, he stood me up again. Only this time I figured I could leave a trail of bread crumbs and he’d be able to follow them over the meadow, through the woods, and all of that gibberish. My father didn’t like driving back and forth to the same ground-level apartment complex every day. Gas costs an arm and a leg and grave robbing is illegal. So my father was pissed.
He wasn’t too fond of Herman even though he urged me to take lessons from him and “admitted” his “savant like musical talents.” I didn’t know if he disliked him out of wounded pride, because my father was a one timer failed guitarist. He admitted his “savant like” talents. My father thought a savant was a mix between a genius and a retard. Those are his words.
He admitted that he was a very kind and caring person, but he hated him. Why? How can you hate a kind and loving person? It’s easy, actually. People do it all the time, everywhere. It’s easier than knowing them
My only real worry was that he would eat all of the bread I took such pains to place. I was chased around by a few cats, some pigeons. A strange man in an electric wheelchair even followed me around shaking his crooked finger at me for being wasteful.
“People are starving!” he yelled. He slammed his high-end scooter into over drive and bounded towards me at the blistering speed of five mph.
“So are pigeons!” I responded. “And they don’t have the evolutionary advantage of skipping round to the Fast Stop to pick up a loaf, now do they?”
The man shook his head and trudged on. I knew him, otherwise I wouldn’t spend so much time trying to pretend to be clever with him. He went to the same mental health department as I did some odd months back, and he always complained about the coffee. They never had coffee at our anger management meetings. This, he said, was the main problem. My anger management class really pissed me off. I was glad they were out of coffee. Those people kicked around in bunny slippers with their brains wired together by Thorazine and lithium. Coffee was the last thing they needed.
My old companion on the motorized wheelchair used to work as a forest ranger before his brain collapsed. The police reprimanded him and sentenced him to two months in our wonderful upstate institution.
As the story goes, one day the man saw something that made his brain try to gag itself. In the woods, men are sometimes forced to resort to horrible things in order to survive: eat their friends, wipe with poison ivy, eat at Arby’s. The survival instinct is there, a strange knack we inherited from our tree climbing ancestors. The old man came to the conclusion that deer somehow planned to murder him while he slept. He barricaded his doors, set traps. He realized then that he never wanted to work with deer again.
When the arresting officer found him downtown, butt naked with a pair of antlers in his hand and covered in deer blood, the man jeered, chortled, slapped his hands and sprung to his feet. “They don’t taste good!” he shouted. “They never come to help with the plumbing!” This quip secured him a couple of months in our famous hole in Columbia. Now he’s in an electric wheelchair. Just spends most of his time riding around town, picking up pecans, shouting at strange men that leave curious trails of bread along the roads.
When Herman didn’t show up, my dad took me home and parked his truck. It idled in the driveway, shot off tendrils of smoke from the rusted radiator. My dad jumped from the torn leather seats, littered with empty Tylenol bottles, roaches, and shotgun shells.
“One more time,” he said, “and we’re done with him. Just because he wants to visit the old folk’s home, he thinks we have to wait on him. He can forget that shit.”
My dad dragged my heavyset amplifier out of the back of his truck, set it on the splintered blacktop that ran beneath his feet, and lugged it across the sidewalk to my front porch. He stood there with me for a moment. He took his hat off and rubbed his balding head just to give me the fear of hereditary disease. It always worked.
“Here’s a pack of cigarettes,” he said. “Don’t tell your grandmother I’m buying ‘em for you. She’d tan my hide if she found out I was givin’ you cigarettes. Now practice son, practice and you might be better than me someday.”
“A lofty goal,” I said. “Come by tomorrow. I’ll leave a message on his answering machine about his no-shows. Clever though they may be.”
My dad nodded, flicked his cigarette in the tall grass that lined the porch. It bounced beside my cat, startling her, and she darted across the yard. She hid under one of the run down automobiles my uncle worked on in the yard.
I dragged my amplifier into the living room and, already tired, I dropped it beside the door and kicked off my shoes. My grandmother sat under the lamplight in the family room, inking tiny blurbs into one of her massive crossword puzzle books.
“Where you been?” she asked. She sat her crossword on the stand beside her aged recliner. “I made vegetable stew and you ain’t even wait to finish it. Why you always runnin’ off with that old fool anyway?”
“Because he’s my father,” I replied. My brother walked through the living room with a friend. My grandmother removed her glasses and sat them by her crossword puzzle.
“What’s up, faggot?” my brother asked. He sure did love and respect his big brother. I felt like I was more like a father because I tried to teach him things when he was stolen from his mother.
“Ha,” he said, giving me the finger. “What’s up?”
“My blood pressure,” I shouted. I flung a candle holder at him. It slapped the wall and spilled onto the floor as he darted aside.
“You missed, lefty,” he said. “We still gonna check out your telescope when it gets dark?”
“If it gets dark, sure.” I looked around. “Things are not what they seem.” I vocalized the Twilight Zone theme.
He disappeared out of the room with a slight chuckle. I heard him flip the switch on his video game system as it plugged into him again. My grandmother turned her attention to me.
“I know he’s your father and you want to spend time with him, but he’s a bad man. He ain’t never have anything to do with you and now he’s back actin’ everything is fine. We took you in and raised you when he ain’t want nothin’ to do with you.”
“At least he doesn’t beat me every time I say ‘damn’ or ‘hell’ or even ‘pissed.’ He might not be much of a father, but he’s a good friend and that’s more than Stanley will ever be to me. He doesn’t beat me when he catches me with a cigarette, either.”
“Because he doesn’t care about you,” mother said.
“He had a funny way of showing it. Most people say I love you with flowers or candy, not with drop cords and leather straps across the back.”
“He bought you everything you wanted.”
“And he never gave me the only thing money couldn’t pay for: just a little time. He could’ve at least thrown a baseball with me or watched a movie. Anything would’ve made me happy. Instead he puts me in the back room and fills it full of toys, enough of them to hide me completely so he wouldn’t have to spend any time with me.”
“After he had that open heart surgery, he couldn’t get around like he use’ta. He was always hurtin’ and too sick to get out of bed. You know that, Thomas. He had emphysema.”
These talks happen all the time, but my grandmother is a good old lady. She spends most of her time in the recliner by the lamp in the living room with a word puzzle, like her mother, a glass of tea, her cat Entae, and some country and western music going. She played a damn mean harmonica just like her mother.
At night she watched Wheel of Fortune without fail, then dusted off the collection of porcelain dolls her mother left for her when she died When my mother dies, I’m going to steal all of her dolls and leave them in wicker baskets all over the state. I think that’d be a good gesture about her nature. She was content, but had to have her tea, her crossword puzzles, and her cat. It seemed to me that she needed them as much as I needed cigarettes.
She didn’t much care for my real father, as my grandfather didn’t before he found the bucket and kicked it.
My real mother became pregnant with me at the tender age of fifteen. My father spent most of his time playing guitar and smoking pot, so my grandparents thought him unfit to be a parent. They even went so far as to draw up a restraining order against him.
Since my mother was on heavy doses of cocaine while pregnant with me, my grandparents tried to adopt me when my mother gave birth. They couldn’t then, but after child services came to the house and found me in a baby pool in the living room and my mother in the bedroom asleep, they stuck me in an orphanage as the slow machine of bureaucracy churned. Interestingly enough, the only side effects of being a cocaine baby is never having a heart rate under 160bpm. Fun stuff. I can never relax. It seems like my heart pumps not blood, but cocaine.
After a couple of years in an orphanage in those tiny beds and stark white burgundy floors (all the walls were white and all the floors were a shiny sort of burgundy), my grandparents adopted me. My grandmother is my mother and my great grandmother is my grandmother, the lady that tied strings around the legs of June bugs in the summer.
My surrogate father, after being released from the orphanage, beat me like a rag before he died. If he hadn’t died, I would have killed him myself. He never let me stay out with friends or smoke. And every time I brought home a grade lower than a one hundred, I’d be tied to the same radiator and spanked. He tied me and my brother down because he had emphysema and it was hard for him to chase us. Sometimes, just to fuck with him, we’d run in his room at night and throw water on him just to run around until he tired out.
He didn’t let me stay out later than ten on school nights. This is enough to warrant murder in and of itself. He hated my friends and kept me from them out of spite. He never let me go anywhere, he never let me do anything, and he spent all of his money just to keep me happy in my tiny bedroom full of toys I didn’t want bought by people that didn’t want me to begin with.
“I don’t want to argue with you again, Thomas,” my grandmother/mother said. “There’re some hot wings on the stove if ya hungry. Some mashed potatoes on the table, too. But get out of the way, my stories is on.”
Within minutes, she was wired to the television again, nodding with glassy eyes. Entae dozed on her lap.
After supper, my brother and I played a game of chess, listened to some music, (Chopin, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis) and then went to look through my telescope. I sat on the deck for a while with my brother as he looked through my telescope.
I had just stubbed out a cigarette when my grandmother bumbled down the back steps by the deck. “Telephone,” she shouted. She piddled toward me in a floral muumuu. For people that have never been to the south or been around a really fat man, you may not know what a muumuu is. A muumuu is a towel with delusions of grandeur.
“Thanks,” I said. She handed me the phone and started back for the house. “Bring it in when yer done with it,” she said. “If you leave it off the hook, it’ll go dead.”
“Hello?” I said into the phone.
“I was on my way,” Herman’s rapid voice explained. “I got sidetracked when I saw bread all over the road. That bread looked nasty, so I assumed that old man had been tryin’ ta feed the pigeons that dirty stuff. But the pigeons must’a hurt that poor old man’s feelings or something and ran him off. We can’t let the pigeons get sick, buddy. We can’t let that happen.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Pigeons are quality birds. That much is true.”
“Pigeons is good birds. After I got all them crumbs up, I went to the grocery store and got some of that San Francisco bread – the fancy stuff. Cost me damn near five dollars, but it was worth it. Them pigeons sure liked it. And no self respecting pigeon could’a ate that other stuff.”
I’d spent days wandering around in the summer heat carrying a guitar case like a bum, but I could at least take solace in the fact that somewhere a group of lucky pigeons enjoyed an evening of fine dining.
“You should come over tomorrow, bud,” he said. “I ain’t got nothin’ planned. Nothin’ special anyway. Just sittin’ round, pickin’ for a while.”
“What happened?” I asked. There’s one problem when it comes to meeting someone that isn’t there: you can’t pretend to forget your wallet when the check comes.
“I would’a called ya yesterday bud, but I had to go to church and God’s only open on Sunday.”
“And the day before?”
“Scooby Doo marathon.”
I despaired, hoping all the while that someone somewhere on Earth at sometime was doing something more fun but enjoying it less than me.
It’s all fine and good to be lazy, though. For one thing, I’m just glad I didn’t have to dig any more ditches for some head honcho construction tycoon. They fired me for not showing up and – this might be important – also for being linked to a small case of arson involving a tractor, a bundle of plywood I was to carry, and a bunch of random janitorial utilities that had cropped up around outside the mill where we were digging the tunnel. The case is still pending because, as my lawyer suggested, I plead insanity. I had certified papers to prove it too. Captain Smug Asshole down at the probate office will have to pine over the lost opportunity to ruin the life of a youth just looking for a good time.
It was an overcast Tuesday afternoon with damp grass from the day before. My dad pulled up in front of our house and honked the horn of his ragged pickup truck. I put away my drawing, and strode toward the truck.
A few little girls with young girl braids jumped rope in the yard in front of Herman’s – a mirror home to his, precise and exact. We pulled into the section B driveway of the Leisure View apartment.
The Leisure View apartments resemble cupboards with small front porches and littered, tiny front yards and low ceilings. The best thing about living in such a neighborhood is everyone is too embarrassed about where they live to come and borrow sugar.
Herman’s apartment looked just like all the others. They looked like small brick Lego blocks connected together. People from up north say they look like houses because of the fact that they’re shaped like them and only have one floor.
A slide with overgrown grass beside it lay in waste behind a rosebush and the water of a small baby pool with a yellow alligator’s face on it bobbed and swayed with the trees as they sang their song of approaching rain. A rusted mailbox drooped beside a birdhouse with a wooden redbird atop it – on which the number 11A stood out in stark black print with white trim.
My dad turned off the truck and it sputtered to a stop. “I’m tellin’ you,” he said, “he’s about five or six shades past crazy.” I looked at his apartment for a moment. For a moment I thought of all the stories we’d been told about him. People treated him like a homeless man even though he never asked for money, and people would hurry to avoid him in a store.
“Crazy?” I asked. “You forget who you’re talking to. I spent a month in the rubber hole.” I lifted my shirt. “See?”
“There’s a difference,” my father said. “You’re that other kind of crazy. The smart-ass-spends-too-much-time-by-himself type crazy. It’s not a destructive, pathological type of mania. Your mother has it, but you just take shit too far. All Herman does is flap his lips.”
“Lips cause nothing but trouble anyway,” I said.
“What about eating?”
He turned his head and chuckled, looked across the battered sidewalk.
“You shouldn’t try to cut things out of you anyway, boy,” my father said. “You’re not a qualified surgeon. We don’t want you to get busted for practicing without a license. We’ve seen it before, you know.”
“Wasn’t your brother arrested for something like that?” I tried not too laugh. He knew what I meant.
“Yes, Thomas. My brother, your uncle, was arrested for practicing proctology without a license.”
We looked at each other for a moment. After that moment, we decided it was that funny, but agreed not to talk about it anymore anyway.
An old man stood in sandals and a tank top in one of the other yards, bent over the hood of a broken down Corvette with grease up to his elbows. With a walker, at a steady pace, an old woman combed the streets for cans to recycle. Everything seemed normal, save for a strange group of Janitors that stood smoking cigarettes at the end of the road. They seemed unprofessional to the extreme; their threadbare suits looked like costumes. Same uniform, hat, and yellow glove dangled from their back pockets. Bunch of bums really. My kind of people.
“He’s a nice man,” my father said. He lit a joint and passed it to me. “Try not to have a panic attack this time.”
“He’s really lost his shit, but he’s as nice as they come. Especially since that wreck. He’ll talk your fuckin’ ear off, man. Don’t pay him any attention. He never makes sense. Just nod and force a smile and take one of your pills.”
“That shit dulls my brain,” I said. “And I’m southern enough as it is.”
“You know, he’s full of almost half enough shit as you.”
“It’s that bad, huh?”
My father laughed, saying, “he’s a good teacher. Ah, somebody should just give him a joint and calm his ass down.” Those little squiggly lines of heat beaded off the sidewalk. “Man it’s hot. I’m going to pick up some more xanax’s for you. You wanna have a few beers later on?”
I passed the joint back to him, inhaling, going, “Ah…”
“You gone drink with me or not, boy?” he asked. He took the joint, put it to his lips. He wiped the sweat off his forehead, saying, “Well?”
“Nah, conflicts with my medicine. Makes my chest hurt.”
“Well, I could use a few. Maybe that would settle me. I’m about to run man, so, just don’t get too personal with him, you know? He’ll never stop calling, coming by whenever he wants. It doesn’t matter to him. Take everything he says with a grain of salt; watch out or you just might step in bullshit. He makes shit up for no reason, man. Just don’t ever feel sorry for him.”
“Thanks for the advice,” I said. I got out of my dad’s camouflage truck, amp in one hand, guitar in the other, and headed toward the door.
“See you later,” my father said. “Make sure you give him the ten dollars or he’ll hound you forever. And,” he added, “if it’s at all possible, try to get your head out of your ass long enough to get some sunshine. It’s been too long since you been out of that house anyway.”
My dad pulled out and turned around in the turnaround at the end of the road. Steep, wooded banks rode up on both sides of the road. I walked along the long brick sidewalk, up to the door, dropped my amp and guitar.
As of this moment, the element of surprise and suspense must be lacking in this little squib of a story. To up the suspense, maybe I could gun down the kids at the playground, take their bikes, hop in the car across the street, kick the old man in the throat, and laugh derisively as I barrel down the back roads with little regard for life or limb as a fiery explosion licks at the charred fender of my smoking muscle car. What will I do? Will I open the door? Will anybody give a shit either way?
Stay tuned. Continue reading The Make-Believe Ballroom – Full Novel (2004)