I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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— for Ian Dunn
After two decades of wandering the country by bus and living below the poverty line, I’d been unable to find whatever it was I was looking for. My adventures had not supplied me with the artistic depth and raw material for a sensational first novel. I’d bet every last chip on the literary roulette wheel, and the ball had chuckled and hopped around and landed on someone else’s number. It was 1995, and I was thirty-nine years old. Maybe it was time to retire from writing and be a proper nobody, relax for a change, sleep late, buy some new underwear, feel the wet grass under my bare feet, plant some fruit trees, and play pinochle every Friday with my neighbors Bill and Madge.
In my search for the perfect place to live and write, I often bought one-way tickets to destinations that didn’t pan out. The right city or town was more often revealed than selected from the map. I knew how to spot it from the bus window if I paid attention: A sign advertising weekly rent. A barefoot boy carrying a fishing pole. A neat city park with layers of Arcadian shade. Two old men smoking pipes in front of the hardware store. Cured hams and salamis hanging in a grocery window. A friendly wave. A jingling ice-cream truck. Dogs singing along with the noon siren at the factory. A saucy, well-read lass in spectacles and cutoff jeans who waitressed on the weekends at the local cafe.
Of course this was not a real place. I needed to stop thinking it was. I imagined instead a trailer park not far from Belmont Park racetrack in southern New York, or a tin shanty (or maybe a houseboat) in some forgotten bayou town with a good diner and a Piggly Wiggly grocery store. Like all my prospective destinations, though, both were a long way from where I was now, seated on a bus to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Usually I at least had a decent sum of money in my pocket and the right frame of mind, hunkered into my seat, body trim, beard on my face, cap pulled down tight, with a good idea of where I was going, even if I didn’t end up there. Life on the road was not a joke; I was not some Russian tourist come to gape at the Grand Canyon. But lately it was all wrong. I could feel the wreck up ahead. I was irritable and low on funds. I had made the mistake of presuming that this trip would somehow be different from the rest.
Next to me sat a glossy-headed, baby-faced, going-nowhere joker wearing an orange TV-newscaster blazer. Each time he tippled from the pint in his pocket with an air of juvenile mischief, he aroused the attention of the bus driver. The joker shook some pills from a bottle and offered me one. I hadn’t taken pills for recreation in many years, but I swallowed it. I didn’t even ask what kind it was — I was that out of sorts and unhappy with myself.
A few minutes later the joker fell over in a stupor, and I thought for a moment he might be dead. So did the driver, who yanked his bus to the side of the road, stomped back, and began to shake the joker’s shoulder.
Hey, buddy. Wake up. You ain’t dead.
The joker sprang awake and did a marvelous impression of sobriety, vehemently denying the bus driver’s accusations. The driver finally returned to the wheel. The joker slumped back into his repose.
The last time I’d taken a pill without knowing what it was, I was eighteen; unable to feel much effect, I took a second pill and washed it down with plenty of beer. Then I stood up and walked straight into a wall. I woke the next morning on the bathroom floor, lucky to be alive. Youth is for making mistakes, but now I was no longer young.
When the pill kicked in on the bus, I fell into a rough slumber and dreamed of wildfires and spilled orange juice and murder and everyone running around. An exquisite backstory was implied, and by the end I was confessing to the crime; it had been me all along. The police were only mildly interested.
The joker got off in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In Albuquerque I walked around for an hour or two in the Navajo-blue dusk, looking for something to eat and waiting for that guy who ran the avant-garde press to come out of a doorway and say, “Hey, we’ve been expecting you.” Then I returned to the station and thought about buying a ticket for Winnemucca, Nevada, which I had passed through on numerous occasions and had liked for its long, eccentric assemblage of letters and windblown, tattered existence, and also the affordable rent and the casinos and the possibility of working in a silver mine and making some kind of big strike and never having to work again. But I was down to a few hundred dollars, not enough to start over in Winnemucca unless I wanted to stay at the YMCA for a month. So I called my parents in Southern California to ask if it might be possible to live with them until I got back on my feet.
Since I’d seen them last, my mother and father had moved from the lower-middle-class suburbs of east San Diego, where I’d grown up — white flight, it’s often called — to an upper-middle-class gated community in the north county, about three miles from the coast. It was a point of both embarrassment and pride to me that my schoolteacher father and court-reporter mother, with a little help from a California real-estate boom, could afford to live in their big, new house, which would soon be worth more than half a million dollars. From the upstairs bedroom, where I hid out and wondered how it had all gone wrong, I watched the maritime mists creep through the tennis court across the street.
Growing up in a tough, drug-infested neighborhood, I’d fought (and mostly lost to) the bullies on my block every Sunday. After leaving that world, I’d continued to deny myself easy paths, deliberately working menial jobs since the age of seventeen: orderly, bartender, truck driver, factory worker, cook. I’d never gotten a college degree and still clung stubbornly to my quaint, idealistic notions about art, chief among them that some arcane process of self-sacrifice, self-imposed poverty, risk-taking, riotous living, worldliness, tramping about, and isolation would eventually instill in me a distinct literary style. My intent was to become the voice of the poor, depressed, and uneducated, but it was going to be slightly more difficult to pull off sitting in the upstairs bedroom of a half-million-dollar home.
My parents were kind to me. They even seemed to understand my latest head-scratchingly desperate move. My Bronx-born father, who’d traveled some in his youth, still believed I was going to make my way in the world of letters. (A little late, isn’t it, Dad?) My more practical mother, a Colorado girl who’d grown up on small farms where she’d helped can vegetables and collect wood for the winter, admired my discipline, though I could see her cringing inside at how the boy she’d raised had stumbled and dreamed his way through his twenties and thirties, and though he sometimes wrote ten hours a day and had completed enough book-length manuscripts to form a bridge across the Bering Strait, he couldn’t get a single one of them published.
The neighbors, no doubt curious about my parents’ unfortunate new tenant, would stop by to borrow a tool, share a recipe, or admire the remodeled sunroom. If I was unlucky enough to be caught out in the open, my father would introduce me as a “writer,” and the neighbor would look at me exactly as you would a thirty-nine-year-old who’s come home to live with his folks. What do you write? the blinking, baffled guest would ask, and I’d mumble about my latest novel-in-progress. Oh, that must be very relaxing, one neighbor replied. On another occasion, when I was headed back upstairs to safety, I overheard a visitor ask, Why doesn’t he teach?
Admittedly it was a relief to live in an environment free of cockroaches, panhandlers, endless futile bus rides, drug deals going down in the parking lot, street fights, and suicides. I also didn’t have to clock in for an eight-hour shift five days a week. I can really get some work done now, I told myself, the peace and quiet spreading into my soul like soft French cheese.
A year earlier, living in a basement apartment in Iowa and banging away on another novel that had unraveled on me, I’d had a breakdown of some kind: a head-on collision with reality, followed by splintering and tinkling glass and me crying on the side of the road and realizing I needed some rest and a hard recalculation of my choices so I didn’t have to die by my own hand. And though I’d run from that place and managed to conceal my incapacitation from others (perhaps I’d missed my calling as an actor), I hadn’t escaped those self-destructive impulses.
I moved about lightly in the house of my retired parents and tried to stay out of their way. To keep from alarming them, I pretended that everything was all right, that I had a plan, that I would be moving on soon, that I was a late bloomer extraordinaire. Every morning I skipped breakfast, avoiding coffee so I wouldn’t have to leave my room to pee, and I bore down on my unfinished works: the island novel, the childhood novel, the pool-hustler novel, the convalescent-hospital novel. Since I’d cooked in sixteen restaurants, I prepared most of the meals at lunch and dinner. I also mowed the lawn and washed and waxed the cars. In the evenings I sat with my mother and father in the living room, and we’d have a glass of wine and talk about the garden, the utility bill, the new neighbors, the game on television. The sun would go down. The cars would swish ceaselessly past on the boulevard below. When my parents turned in at 8:30, I’d pour another glass of wine and head back upstairs.
Late into the night in that small bedroom with the orange-sherbet curtains, I read stacks of books I thought would save me: the Bible, the confessions of saints, Jung, Abraham Maslow, William James. I entertained a variety of theoretical propositions, old and new, holy and occult, rejecting each as it failed to stop me from wanting to take my own life. The novels of Tolstoy felt wickedly irrelevant, but his later works, written as he toppled from his throne and lay prostrate before a mighty and irresolvable pointlessness, spoke to me. I was not partial to the better-known works of George Orwell, except for Down and Out in Paris and London — which is not so much a novel as a memoir of his experience among the destitute (sound familiar?) — but I found his direct and insightful nonfiction reports of “unpleasant facts” invaluable. I did not much fancy the literary output of Flannery O’Connor, whose sublimely distant stories about the Holy Ghost inhabiting the disgraced might have served the English-lit student well; what I wanted to know was how she passed the unbearable days and confronted doubt, demons, defeat, and death, all of which she examined in her collected correspondence. (Her letters consoled me so much that I thought of Flannery as my imaginary girlfriend.) The verses of Ralph Waldo Emerson seemed too quaint to be of help, but his prose was a different matter — in particular, the essay “Compensation,” in which he describes how the man whose temperament makes him unfit for society is “driven to entertain himself alone, and acquire habits of self-help; and thus, like the wounded oyster, he mends his shell with pearl.” I could not appreciate the creative fantasies of C.S. Lewis, though I marked as commendable his inquiries into the nature and existence of God, and how belief might come to a nonbeliever, as had happened to him — doubt forming into credible substance. In the end, however, none of these could hold me back from the edge of the abyss.
On the rare occasions that I left the house, I borrowed my parents’ car and ventured a few miles down the interstate to the off-track-betting facility to meet with friends, quaff a few cups of beer, and play a racing card (consistently losing, of course).
My trusted friends were of little help, even when I revealed the true depth to which I had sunk. They all told me one of two things: either that happiness would make a dull man of me and kill my art (what art?), or that I was bound to my nature as the masochist is bound with shrunken leather thongs to the torture rack.
Even my sister, a good and loyal lifelong friend, was unable to offer succor. She was having a bad time of it herself, her marriage and business both failing. I called her up to commiserate. Projecting my own feelings onto her, I said, Thinking about escape? Running away? Killing yourself?
Yes, she admitted.
That would be wrong, though, wouldn’t it? I asked. Think how I’d feel. How sad I’d be. I’d miss you. What if I killed myself?
I’d understand, she said.
Every two weeks or so I’d head inland through the mountains to visit my sister in her sprawling exurban mansionette on two acres of citrus and avocado trees, a railroad car stuffed with old computers and office equipment out back. We’d sit in the living room in the stripes of sun coming through the slatted blinds. Like me, my sister had never finished college, despite having graduated from high school at fifteen and being only a few credits shy of an environmental-engineering degree. Instead she’d married and was on her way to having four children with a man who could not translate his prodigious intelligence into the software empire he envisioned. Within a few years he would get busted for distribution of Ecstasy, a federal crime for which he would receive a mandatory prison sentence compounded by his possession of a firearm.
Sis knew the marriage had been a mistake from the beginning, but she’d hung on, like me, due to a lack of viable alternatives. Her house was full of children, both hers and those of her friends. I loved the children’s spontaneous joy and made-up games and outrageous proclamations, and I wondered if I would ever be involved in some important way in the life of a child. Or perhaps I had already sacrificed that part of my life for nothing, too.
One afternoon, as we sat striped in sunlight at the dining-room table, I related a psychological experiment from the 1950s in which rats placed in a spinning vat of water drowned in fifteen minutes, but if a rat was rescued, dried, fed, rested, perhaps given a few encouraging words, and then returned to the vat, he would swim for as long as sixty hours before he drowned. That was us, I said, still swimming.
We had a good laugh.
I turned forty in my second-floor sanctum, the glowing orange-sherbet light in the curtains seeming to rob me of my will, thoughts of self-annihilation coming faster, like strobe blasts on a dance floor. Each evening, on my knees before sleep, I clasped my hands and closed my eyes and asked God to please kill me. . . . OK, then, just let me die. And I’d lie on the floor like a rabbit trapped in a brush fire.
Out of disgust I began regularly to strike myself in the face with my fists, hoping my neck would break. I’d also begun spitting on myself, a new low. When I was eleven, I’d had seven teeth pulled from my crowded mouth in preparation for braces. I was given chloroform and woke up in a dusky green haze puking blood. That had been a walk down the beach in Mozambique compared to what I was going through now.
Every two days or so I manufactured a homemade mental-health strategy. Since I was also reading books on tribal religions, my strategies were often akin to the wondrous process by which an ordinary aboriginal tribe member was transformed into a shaman via a near-death experience. Among the Sisaala of the northern Gold Coast of Africa, for example, the witch-doctoral candidate is “seized by fairies” and turned into a lunatic for several months until the madness is distilled into divine healing powers. Though supernatural abilities would have been great, the only sorcery I was really interested in was staying alive.
The mad poet Ezra Pound, who called himself a “moron,” gave me a ticket out. He advised that the real poet has no choice but to return to the dark underworld, since the light is known and the artist must retrieve what is unknown. Whether or not I was a real poet or could even locate the “underworld” (wasn’t I already there?), embracing the source of my torment was preferable to moldering in an orange bedroom and asking God to kill me every night. So I organized my meager finances, brushed my chipped teeth, packed a bag, and with nausea and trepidation bade my mother and father farewell.
The thought of another start filled me with dread, but I told myself I’d been sitting passively on the shoreline for too long. The rapids and spills and hard rowing and cold dunks and capsized canoes are what shape a person. If you avoid the tests and trials, you’ll hate yourself, the gods will hate you, the eyes of your parents will melt from sorrow, the neighbors will mutilate you with their tongues, your soul will turn into ripe French cheese, and each identical evening will drag gravely by your door like a condemned man in the moonlight.
Once I was in motion, the metaphysical meaning-of-life questions (like why can’t I ever win and find an understanding girlfriend?) were mercifully replaced by more-pressing issues. Returned to the simplicity of the hunter-gatherer, I focused on food, shelter, the sorting of bad omens from good, and the appreciation of the miracle of being alive.
The scenery blurred past the bus window like the wheeling reels of a slot machine. Just outside Tucson, Arizona, a massive black thunderstorm appeared up ahead, pulsing with electric-green fire like a satanic amusement park. It was the type of meteorological event that, had I been driving, would’ve caused me to stop or turn around. But the bus driver, no doubt on a deadline — or perhaps a masochist from the leather-thong school, or possibly my escort to the underworld — steered straight into it. The rain was tremendous. Hail cracked and burst against the windows. The bus shimmied and bounced and at certain points seemed to lift into the air. Eerie, phosphorescent explosions bathed the passengers in turquoise light, revealing their contorted, wonder-stricken faces.
On the other side of the tempest, my skin tingled with relief. (For depression take one large electric storm.) The woman next to me was visibly shaken.
I thought we were going to die there, she said. She appeared to be in her forties, with a bony face and gray, flyaway hair.
So did I, I replied.
I’m not afraid of death, though. I won’t be alone.
How do you know that? I asked, genuinely interested.
She said her sister had died at the age of two and had been buried in a white dress with a blue ribbon in her hair and her Raggedy Ann doll at her side. My seatmate, just four at the time, saw her sister a few nights later in the same white dress, sitting on the corner of her bed. The dead girl told her that everything was fine and not to worry. The sister’s spirit came again another night, eighteen years later, all grown up and tall and pretty with blue eyes. My seatmate told her mother about it, and the mother said she had seen her, too, and even described exactly what her deceased daughter had been wearing. The mother said eighteen years was a long time to wait to see your daughter again, but now she knew why God had taken her so young and that time didn’t matter and we would all be together again someday.
As I listened, I looked around at the other passengers: There was the bearded, emaciated young man with multiple sclerosis I’d conversed with at the Phoenix stop. He had recently lost his job and the use of his right leg and was going to live with his grandmother in Kansas. The reedy, red-eyed Indonesian woman with track marks up her neck had spoken something unintelligible to me just before the storm, then nodded off. The two ne’er-do-wells lounging in the rear had gone bust on their dream trip west and were headed back to Oklahoma to play video games in their mothers’ basements. At last check the roll sign above the bus windshield had read EL PASO, but there was nothing to convince me we hadn’t already arrived at our underworld destination, our grim chauffeur the storm-riding ghost of Ezra Pound.
I thought there must be a reason for this inordinate amount of suffering. (Even the very few who “win” — who get what they ask for and find happiness — are destroyed by time.) Could it be that the only way to form a soul of merit was through aggravation, deprivation, and pain? In the far distance, through a candied haze of unrealistic expectations, was a future filled with inexhaustible possibilities. Homemade mental-health strategy number 633: like Emerson’s wounded oyster, I would mend my shell with pearl.
In Las Cruces, New Mexico, my gaunt, gray-haired seatmate stood, arranged her purse over her shoulder, shook my hand, and wished me luck. I felt split open like a vandalized jack-o’-lantern, and compassion for others radiated from some still-lit candle within me. I wished her luck, too. Silently I wished her a soul that would one day gleam like a pearl.
My one-way ticket read Odessa, Texas, a place a fellow traveler had once described to me as the armpit of the Lone Star State. In my mind this meant affordable rent, lack of pretension, and no tourists, but in reality “armpit” might’ve been too high on the body. I’d forgotten that Odessa was an oil-refinery town, and though oil-field work pays well, I was sentimental about keeping all my fingers. The town was also too sprawling for a person without a car. Ditto Lubbock, which felt unnameably sinister, and Plainview, where a nearby state prison had also just opened, providing many well-paying jobs and putting the rent out of my reach.
The clerk at the Plainview bus depot, noting my air of dejection, recommended Hays, Kansas. He had once known a girl who’d lived there, and he said it would meet my trifold checklist of affordable, walkable, and uneventful. I had enough money for only one more move. It was a relief to let a stranger make the choice for me.
While waiting for the bus to Hays, I wandered the nearly empty depot, watched the rain stream down the tall plate-glass windows, and nursed my regrets. I should have built a safety net, gotten a degree and perhaps a teaching job, as my parents’ baffled neighbor had suggested. I could have traveled around Europe, seen a dentist, had modest adventures, maybe even married and fathered a child. This was the greatest regret: that I would spend the remainder of my days alone.
But if you’ll allow me to jump ahead for a moment (my bus won’t leave for seven hours): In a transient-motel room in Hays I would discover that, during the worst part of my life, I had unknowingly become a better person, learning the importance of humility, empathy, and self-honesty. I’d also produced what was, in hindsight, some of my best work. I would continue to follow in the tradition of writers I admired by directly addressing the unbearable passage of days; confronting doubt, demons, defeat, and death; and drawing from experience maps that I like to think have served others who are lost.
My trusted friends were right: to defy one’s nature was no less pointless than for a goldfish to jump from its bowl on the bookcase. The real me and the dream me with the mother-of-pearl soul were one and the same.
The ticket clerk and I were alone in the depot. He clicked on the radio. The cold Texas rain poured down.