by Peter Felknor
copyright © 1998
Web posted June 20, 2003
Before she woke up that next morning, for the first time in my life, it occurred to me that I had lost something.
I thought about what to do with the fact that I had scarcely seen my sister in the days since she'd arrived; I thought about Gayle's son who I had never seen; I thought about having to go to work tomorrow night; I thought about the bills I had to pay and the groceries I had to buy. I had just passed my twentieth birthday, and realized that the dreams I had belonged to other people.
Again and again, I was drawn to the fantasy I'd had about Bellingham, where Gayle would work at the university and I'd come home to find her waiting for me when I was done with my last class. And now I saw that it was a hopeless fantasy. No one was going to give Gayle, with her little boy, a ticket to graduate school--not even Barry, her trusted "father confessor". And whether I would ever set foot inside a college door was growing more and more doubtful. I saw with sudden clarity how terribly difficult it is to break out of the trap of predestination. Most of my kinfolk had been working people who thumbed their noses at education; Gayle was the black sheep of her family, a Catholic whore who had shunned their pious Nazarene religion. Barring a major miracle, neither of us were going anywhere.
I had enjoyed the picture of my workingman's life, camped out in my back booth at the Storeroom Tavern with all the other losers in their coveralls and hunting jackets. But now I imagined other things. Closing the door of my comfortable Bellingham apartment, closing my books at nine o'clock, sending out for a pizza, taking the red wine out of the refrigerator and listening to the stereo on the couch. With my "lady". Later we'd send our friends home-they'd live in the same building and also be majoring in Interesting Things at the college--and we'd make mad passionate love until the wee hours on our waterbed. The Moody Blues would keep us company from the living room. The next morning we'd have cold pizza for breakfast while the mist lifted over Bellingham Bay and we stared longingly into each other's eyes across the dinette. Then she'd be off to her laboratory and I'd be off to Astronomy 210 and we'd be the happiest, most well-adjusted people on God's green earth.
Tammy came in and slumped on the couch. I heard her. She said, "Jesus, I'm sorry." Gayle stirred a little in her sleep. And I knew that I would never get to Bellingham.
Burien Gardens was a long way down, even from Yale Avenue. First of all it was in Burien, a gritty industrial burg west of the Seattle-Tacoma airport--there was no Storeroom Tavern in which to hang my hat and commune with my brethren, no glittering vista of downtown Seattle. Burien Gardens was a wartime apartment tract where every single one of the two-hundred-odd buildings looked exactly the same, like military barracks. Even the streets offered no cheer, continuing Seattle's numbering scheme ten miles south where the numbers were well into the hundreds.
I had moved in with Gayle in February, finally abandoning the charade that I had a home on Yale Avenue. By the middle of January I was at home only long enough to trash the spoiled food in the refrigerator and chase the cockroaches with a can of Raid. Before I left for good I spent an evening with my landlady--her name was Hazel Riley--listening to Elvis. The whole thing made me sadder than sad. I heard in Elvis' shuffling beat and hiccuping voice the sounds of my childhood in Missouri, the summer afternoons when, glazed by the heat, you'd watch the blacks driving to town in their long, low cars that belched smoke. Seattle by comparison had seemed like a jewel swathed in its white mountains and regal evergreens, a town where even the poor people were having fun. If I had to leave Seattle I wanted to go to a place like Everett or Bellingham and sink deeper into the pristine Northwest; but here in Burien I might as well have been back in Missouri.
Along with my new residence came something else that was entirely new to me: fatherhood. I wouldn't exactly say that it was love at first sight between Victor and me--he had been through too much already to fall in love with strangers--but as a part of Gayle I thought of him as a part of me, and soon my attitude seemed to win him over. Victor was a handsome little squirt with his mother's foxy eyes and something of the wiseacre twist in her mouth when she smiled. He liked to play a game where he would dress up in full cowboy regalia--this could take as much as an hour when you threw in all the accessories--and assign me to play a character he called The Mighty Indian. Although Victor was constrained to the usual cowboy arsenal of guns, knives, and bullwhips, The Mighty Indian was bound to no such temporal scruples. I got to fight with ray guns and space neutralizers. Victor especially loved it when I'd back him into a corner, tickling him till he almost screamed, and would announce with great gravity: "White man, you have fought well. I now decommission thee." Then I'd shoot the ray gun at my head and fall over backward. Gayle would be in the living room, curled up with a book, and I could see her smiling at us.
But I felt life falling down all around us. First Ronnie, the Mormon kid I'd worked with in Wyoming, managed to trail me all the way to Seattle. Ronnie, a wild wastrel even among lapsed Mormons, told me he'd sought me out in Seattle because he wanted to "settle down" and have someone to swap stories with when he was "old and gray". I had often thought of Ronnie rather idealistically--he'd wax poetic while we drank whiskey under the high cold mountain stars and improvise songs on his ruined old guitar, singing in a stunning clear voice that seemed to come from somewhere else. The next day he'd take his pay straight to the truck stop and sleep with three or four prostitutes. Ronnie wasn't a big guy, but he had an enormous dick that hung halfway to his knees. And he looked every bit the happy idiot, letting his tool lead him through life without a care. I could easily imagine Ronnie spending the rest of his days on the high plateaus of the mountain West with no real address, then dying happy at age eighty in a bathtub with a fifth of Old Grand Dad in his hand and a hooker riding on top of him.
Within a week, Ronnie had indeed managed to "settle down" in Seattle. He found a job washing dishes at the Hilton downtown and was soon living in Rainier Valley--Seattle's biggest, baddest black neighborhood--with Torrance, one of the many former California hippies you could find any day on any Seattle beach, staring off into the gray water of the Sound and the clouds wrapping the Olympic Range. Torrance was truly awful. She had frizzy hair of no particular color and eyes that seemed incapable of focus. She and Ronnie were a disgrace to the block they lived on--they didn't manage to get their trash out to the curb, they left take-out cartons on their front porch for the wind to blow around, and Torrance in her wild affection for cats let cats breed everywhere in the house. There were dozens of kittens around. The first time Gayle and I came over Torrance went topless without apology; the next time she was completely nude. I had to ask her to put something on. I saw bruises on her buttocks; "it's a great experiment we're conducting here," Ronnie enthused, waving a bottle of tequila around. The television droned ceaselessly. The entire place reeked of cat shit, and the only furniture was the secondhand mattresses scattered here and there, splotched with cat leavings and the byproducts of human love.
Ronnie and I had been close in Wyoming; he'd even followed me to Montana when I got a job harvesting wheat because he'd decided that our "conversation" wasn't over. But I began to avoid him in Seattle. I needed to clear my head if I was ever going to think of a way to get Gayle and Victor out of Burien Gardens.
In March Bryan at the lab put Gayle on the midnight to eight a.m. shift. It meant a larger shift differential for her, and she needed the money; but I was still working five to one and had just been promoted to department supervisor. That not so subtly changed my relationship with all the young miscreants I worked with, and I wasn't really happy about it. I'd stop at the package store on Ambaum Boulevard in Burien nearly ever night and buy a couple of quart bottles of beer, then take them back home to 1216 SW 139th Street Apt. #315, sit at the kitchen table, drink, and stare at the walls. I missed the Storeroom Tavern. People in Seattle moved to a certain kind of beat in the foggy darkness, on their way to jazz joints or to shoot a few games of pool, but down here nothing seemed to be alive. All I had in the way of entertainment were my neighbors' domestic quarrels. Burien Gardens was the end. I began to forget the allure that Seattle had held for me in the early Yale Avenue days and dream about the empty roads that went up and down the Powder River country in Wyoming. I thought of my sister shaking her tits in a New York disco. Even Gayle seemed far away.
I didn't know what was warping her, living here in the Gardens or things that had happened before. Gayle's sexual tastes were geared heavily toward pain. She liked me to tie her to the bed with leather straps and slap her while we fucked. I had to drink straight vodka to be able to go through with it. I loved Gayle very much and it hurt me to see the depth of her confusion; the last thing I wanted to do was hit her. I loved the translucent alabaster of her skin, her little breasts and sculpted hips. The strange vulnerability that gave her such a potent appeal was the very thing she wanted me to destroy. She talked of chilling things, dressing me in leather and having me blindfold her and handcuff her to the bathroom sink. She wanted me to be an "intruder" and rape her. One night, sitting alone with my beer, I remembered the purity of our first lovemaking and wept.
On another of those endless nights before Gayle returned home, I was flipping through the bookshelf when I found a little corduroy-bound volume that I thought must be the poetry Gayle had written back in her Everett hippie days. Well, there were some poems, mostly amateurish stuff with a rare glimpse of the tortured soul beneath; more to the point, there was a list of fifty-seven men, of whom I was the fifty-seventh. Next to the each man's name was a date, or, in my case, an opening date followed by a hyphen. By way of cross-referencing I soon figured out that this was a list of the men Gayle had slept with. Lonnie Boise, Victor's father, had had the longest run with a little over two years between his opening and closing dates. At the beginning there was George Willets with an entry of 1/25/67; 1 computed backwards and discovered that Gayle had been all of fourteen, probably a high school freshman, when she lost her virginity. Three of the guys from the lab were on the list--Jack, Sam, and even Joe who had gotten lucky with my sister. It jarred me to think that there was a man on the planet who had slept with both Tammy and Gayle. My eye continued to scan, and it wasn't long before I picked out good old father confessor Barry as well. I put the book carefully back on the shelf and never mentioned it to Gayle; I could only wonder how long my own run was going to last.
Near dawn Gayle would come in wearing her maroon wool coat and kiss me. I'd usually be quite drunk by then, but I'd go with her to pick up Victor from the sitter's. Kathy Sundstrom lived at the other end of Burien Gardens, a mile or so to the north. She was a young girl, pretty in a tired and Irish kind of way, who lived with a hulking Alaskan Indian named Flett and their twin baby girls. Every morning, the dawn breaking in the washed-out Burien sky, Kathy would answer the door in her flannel robe while she groped for her coffee and we'd go and gently shake Victor out of his slumbers on the couch. Sometimes Flett would put in an appearance and punch me in the shoulder. He called Gayle "Grail". Once I asked him why. He took me aside and said, "You've found your little pot of gold there, hoss, the goddamned Blarney Stone." Later in my life, in another city, Flett was going to become one of my best friends. But I was so far down in Burien that I couldn't see that Flett's punches and wisecracks were his way of trying to cheer me up--he would later have to explain that to me himself. And I was entirely too self-centered to see that, compared to Flett, I had it pretty posh. Flett worked in a cannery and was supporting his wife and two babies. it wasn't like an Indian to wear his sorrows on his sleeve, and I might have learned something from Flett's manfulness.
We'd motor back over to our apartment and I'd get Victor ready for school while Gayle fixed him breakfast. By now I'd feel the thin beginnings of a hangover, but I did the best I could with the Cheerful Dad act. One morning Victor asked me, "You've been around for a long time. Are you going to marry my mom?"
"I don't know," I answered. "I might like to."
"You'd better do it, then," Victor said, in a dead-level serious voice. One more thing slipping away from me. I'd met Lonnie, Victor's dad, and had liked him; he was an unpretentious electrical worker who lived on the north side of Seattle with his new wife and their baby boy. He wouldn't rap Gayle, even when we went out for beers together once. "She needs a lot of love," he told me. "She's a little messed up--I don't know. I'm not a real imaginative sort of fella. You'll probably do better with her."
"Victor's a great kid," I said.
"Oh, the greatest. Wish I could have him back, y'know, but I don't bear Gayle any hard feelings and things are probably better the way they are. She needs something. Listen, take care of her, will you?"
Lonnie shook my hand hard and wouldn't let me pay for the drinks. Back in Burien I couldn't help asking Gayle what she hadn't liked about Lonnie.
"He's too traditional, " she said.
"Too traditional?" I stammered. "How?"
She had sank back on the floor pillow she liked to sit on. "But boy, could he fuck."
"Then why did you leave him?"
"I told you about the other men," she complained, sitting up crossly. "He freaked. That's too traditional for me."
"Hey, I might not like it if I had to share you, either."
Gayle closed her eyes. "Go to bed," she said. "You're drinking too much, lately."
I kept my voice level. "I think it's time we talked about this, Gayle."
"Oh, for Christ's sake," she moaned. "Don't go soft on me, Alan. I told you before that I'm not another one of your prom queens."
I took that last line to bed with me. Gayle's philosophy was a mess, a strange admixture of feminism, a female deity called the Great Mother, ancient cultures like the Samurai, and the Catholic church. She worshiped symbol and ritual. I cared for none of these things. I wanted a girl to love and food to eat and a whitewashed Protestant church in which to say my meager prayers. From underneath the bed I pulled my fifth of vodka and took a long pull, hoping to simply pass out. But by then the little kids were riding their plastic-tired Big Wheels around and around on the cul-de-sac we lived on and Gayle fell across me, naked, saying "Let's fuck."
For the first time in my life, I didn't want to fuck.
"Let's just go to sleep," I said.
"Oh, yes, 'go to sleep'. You could have stayed up in Seattle if you wanted sleep. With your idiot landlady and her record collection. With your back issues of Penthouse and your rubber sponge. Oh, sweetie, don't try to play man of the world with me. Do you think a guy like you gets to stick his dick in something like this every day?" She reclined against the foot of the bed and spread her legs. I almost threw up, so revulsed was I at Gayle's language and the horrifying way she used her body. Before I knew quite what I was doing I was up and pulling my pants on; then I remembered the car keys on the kitchen table; then I was out the door, buttoning my shirt. It was raining. I didn't care. It was always raining. I started the Volkswagen--a minor miracle these days--and spun around the cul-de-sac and out toward Ambaum Boulevard.
It was then that I noticed something strange. Coming out of the cul-de-sac, I had to fight the steering wheel to straighten out the car. And it was not the fault of the car; it was the fault of my depth perception, or something like it. For although I could perfectly well see that the street was straight in front of me, I had to fight the sensation that I ought to be turning the wheel, that the cul-de-sac was going on and on and I was caught in an endless loop. Soon I felt vertiginous, but I tried not to let it bother me. I got on State 518 and headed east toward Interstate 5. "Gayle's right," I told myself. "You're drinking way too much. Spending too much time staring at the walls." Now I had no trouble keeping the car straight, but little flashing lights were parading in front of my eyes. "Hey," I said out loud. "This is fucked up."
Then I was on the Interstate. I didn't want to go to Seattle, so I turned south with a vague idea about going"'a White Pass and on to Yakima. I didn't know why. The rain was pouring down and it wasn't even really light yet. There were nothing but semi-trucks on the road, and when they passed me--the little Bug could only do about fifty--I was totally blinded. Lights flashing in my brainpan, mud on the windshield, the deathly gray of a coastal dawn, the roar of trucks passing me at seventy. I saw the exit for Fife in the gloom and decided I'd better pull off before I reached Tacoma.
There was a Stop n' Go store near the highway. I sputtered in and bought a bottle of beer and some beef jerky. I didn't know what to do next--maybe I could make it to Spokane, where I had a friend from my ranching days--and then I wondered, what am I thinking about? One little argument and you're on your way to the Rockies--and stealing your poor girlfriend's car to boot? I was suddenly ashamed of myself. I turned around in the lot and braced for the trip back to Burien in the pouring murk.
But I never got there. As soon as I was inching up I-5 again the hallucinations started to come thick and fast. I pulled harder at the beer, hoping they'd go away, but it didn't help. By the time I'd reached the exit for Sea-Tac Airport and Burien, I forced myself to face the truth: "You've got a brain tumor, buddy."
Now I saw the waste I'd made of my life. Because I'd made a point of not liking people, I'd spent years as a near-vagrant. My relatives in Missouri had all but disowned me. High school classmates would remember me as a kid who smoked cigarettes in the parking lot and muttered to himself. It was clear that I was never going to college. Other than Gayle, and possibly Ronnie, I didn't have a real friend in the world. For that, I had no one to blame but myself.
And then I thought of Everett and Bellingham, of The Dream: If I could only save Gayle and Victor, I would have done something worthwhile. Something worth dying for, even. Except now, in the ultimate ironic twist, I was going to die before I got the chance to do it. I thought of Moses overlooking the Promised Land in his death throes. And then I was very sad.
I drove to Seahurst, a tiny well-to-do community that occupied what would otherwise have been Burien's beachfront on Puget Sound. The rain had moved off and full daylight--or what passed for it in the Seattle spring--had emerged in its stead. I stood on the pebbly beach and gazed at the Sound with empty eyes, I wondered what had ever brought me to this gray place and why I didn't want to leave. I'm going to die here, I thought. And it seemed all right, which made me feel even worse.
There was no one in the emergency room at tiny Burien General Hospital. The receptionist told me that a doctor could see me right away.
"You're drunk," the doctor said immediately. He was an older fellow with a paunch and a kindly look. "Other than that, what seems to be the problem?"
"I've got a brain tumor," I said. I explained my symptoms while the doc scribbled notes. "Hmm," he muttered, "it does sound serious."
They x-rayed me while the doc asked me some other questions. What was I eating these days? Losing weight? Night sweats? Using drugs?
I realized how much I hated doctors and hospitals, how the proof of my love for Gayle and Victor was that I was going through this at all. Without them, I would have sat on the beach at Seahurst and listened to my life ebb away.
Did I have a wife? Well, I'd better call her, because they were sending me to the hospital in Seattle and I'd be there for several days. "I guess they're going to operate?" I asked, despising the timidity in my voice.
"Oh, no," the doctor smiled. "No brain tumor, I'm afraid. Looks to me like you're very depressed, though. Something we'd better see to right away."
"Depressed?" If I hadn't been so relieved at my sudden lease on life, I might well have punched the doctor and walked right out of there. But now I wanted to laugh. Depressed, was it? I had good insurance through the laboratory. It might be worth the trip just to see what the headshrinkers would make of me--or, at least, what they'd come up with to explain those little lights swarming around the room. I asked the doctor about it.
"Poor nutrition," he guessed. "Common with severe depression. I don't suppose you've had much to eat besides beer lately?"
I thought about it. Actually, two or three days might go by between the times when I ate. Gayle would try to have dinner on the table before I left for work at 4:30, but we'd both be so groggy that she would concentrate harder on fixing an after-school snack for Victor. I wasn't much for peanut butter sandwiches or hot dogs, and so I'd head out to the curb to wait for my ride with Jack, telling Gayle that I'd catch a slice of pizza at Mr. Ed's on my way out. But I never did. I'd eat crackers from the vending machine at work if I felt like it, but cigarettes--I'd started really smoking again--seemed to be all I needed most of the time. Then there was that blessed hour when Gayle and I were at work together. We'd sneak a minute or two outside and neck, and by then my breath would smell like something burned, like bad circuitry. Gayle never seemed to notice. I'd look past her shoulder as I held her and wonder what people were doing in all those office towers downtown at one o'clock in the morning. I'd wonder what the roaches were doing in my old place on Yale Avenue and what manner of vagrant or migrant was living there now. Sometimes my legs would grow tingly, my feet would get light, and our ascension to heaven through the yellow fog seemed imminent. But the closest I got to ascension was in the hours that followed, when I'd drown myself in cheap beer and vodka. Sex was increasingly a thing I did for Gayle. I couldn't remember having ever really enjoyed it. I was walking farther and farther away from myself into a very dark place.
They took me to St. Luke's in an ambulance, and I didn't call Gayle until I was admitted and getting comfortable in my room. It was ten in the morning. Gayle was beside herself. I told her I was in the hospital in Seattle, that I thought I'd had a brain tumor but it turned out to be nothing but depression. She surprised me; she said, "I'm glad they're taking care of you."
"Am I depressed?" I asked.
"My God, Alan, you're falling apart. You don't eat. You wear the same clothes for days. I can't believe you can still get a hard-on in the morning. When you talk it doesn't even make sense sometimes."
"Baby? When I went around our cul-de-sac, I felt like I wasn't in control of the car..." The nurse was bringing me something on a tray, two rust-colored pills and some orange juice. I ate the pills and drank the juice and the nurse was almost out the door before I cut Gayle off and asked what I'd just taken. "Imipramine," the nurse said. "You'll feel better." She turned on her heel and was gone.
"Imipramine," I told Gayle. "I just took some. I don't even know what it is."
"Oh, baby," Gayle whispered. "Oh, baby."
to be continued