Ashleigh Bryant Phillips is from North Carolina and we met on the internet because she went on a book tour with my friend Bud Smith and Bud told her some stories about me and then Bud told me some stories about her.
We exchanged numbers and texted and talked on the phone and I told her to listen to the song ‘House Cat’ by Mark Kozelek and she sent me a video of a hooting owl.
And then she sent me a postcard.
The photo on the postcard was of an Australian soldier standing next to a camel in the year 1917 and the Australian man was putting his wrist into the camels mouth to show how docile the camel was.
On the backside of the postcard was a message written in black ink from a ballpoint pen.
This is what the message said:
After all that house cat and owl talk the other night I fell asleep and in my dream you were there in my house in the country waking me up, you were jumping on my bed. Then you started making out with your hand so I made out with my hand and then we went downstairs for coffee. I started making Café Bustelo when a big fat landlady with a long hot pink satin robe appeared. She scared me and I spilled the coffee on the floor. You were standing at the storm door talking to the neighbor dogs through the glass. “It’s OKAY,” the landlady said, her robe was lined with feathers. “Let’s go out on the street for coffee,” you said. So we left the mess on the floor and walking out we were suddenly in the hallway of an old apartment in NYC. We passed by an apartment door that had a missing dog sign—a pug. But when we read the sign it said “My name is Mr. Churchill and I’m sorry I bark so much, I’m old now and blind and get frightened easily—sorry for all the noise.” We agreed it was a heartfelt moment and went out on the street.
Nice to meet you,
I read the postcard and I came up with an idea.
This is what my idea was:
I am going to quit my job in San Francisco and move to North Carolina.
I am going to live in a house with Ashleigh.
We are on a porch swing on her porch and we just shared a cigarette because sometimes we like to share a cigarette even though we both don’t like to smoke.
I’ve been here for a month.
And I say, “Have none of your boyfriends had cars?”
And she says, “Well, my first one didn’t.”
And I remember that I met her second boyfriend.
He was wearing a tight white undershirt tucked into some jeans and his hair was parted and slicked back with pomade.
He had big lips and he talked with his hands and he bought me a beer.
I know he had a truck.
I think he tried to sell it to me.
It was a stick shift, though.
And I can’t drive a stick shift.
I can’t do a lot of things.
I have my arm around Ashleigh and I’m looking at her and then I look out at the street where you can see the bugs under the lights and I say, “I never needed a car growing up and then I moved to cities where it would have been a pain in the ass to have a car.”
And I know I’m just defending myself because I do feel a bit emasculated.
But that’s okay.
It’s just that I moved here, to Woodland, North Carolina—a town with a population of about 800—and I don’t have a car and I don’t have a job.
I quit my job as a bookseller at City Lights and I moved out here to live in this house with Ashleigh and I knew it wouldn’t be easy getting a job around here, but when I was in San Francisco I didn’t worry about that because I was in San Francisco.
I’m here in Woodland now.
This is where I live.
Ashleigh’s mom, who I call “Mama”, said I could probably get a job at the prison if I sent in an application.
She said they’d probably hire me the next day.
“What kind of job would it be?” I asked her.
“A prison guard,” she said.
She didn’t say it like she was joking.
She said it like it was a job like any other job and like it was a job she could see me doing.
The first thing I thought of when Mama said “prison guard” was an image of a prisoner with his arm around my neck and a shiv in his hand.
I don’t think I would be a good prison guard.
“He’d have to cut all his hair off,” Ashleigh said.
“No he wouldn’t,” Mama said.
But I think I would.
But maybe it would be good.
Maybe I could be a good prison guard.
The best prison guard.
Everybody’s favorite prison guard.
But I think that what would happen is I would die in a prison riot.
We get up off of the porch swing and we go back inside and we sit down on the couch and we fall asleep on the couch and then we wake up and it’s not even midnight so we go upstairs and get in Ashleigh’s bed and we go to sleep and her alarm wakes us up at 7:10 in the morning.
She has a job and she needs to get up and get out of bed in the morning.
She’s a writer but she works at an insurance firm and it’s a good boring job.
Monday through Friday, 8:30-5:00.
She goes downstairs and gets ready for work and makes us coffee and I get up and throw some shorts on and put on my shoes without putting on any socks.
I’m going to drive her to work because it’s her car and if she takes it then I’ll be stuck in the house all day which is what I’ll be anyway because I don’t really have any idea where to go during the day unless I’m with Ashleigh.
It’s a ten minute drive to the insurance firm and I pull up in front of her office building at the same time as the other employees and they see me dropping off Ashleigh and they’re probably wondering who the hell this guy is with his mustache and his big glasses and his long hair and why the hell is he dropping off Ashleigh and why the hell doesn’t he have his own car and his own job and his own house?
I’m not trying to say I look special.
Walk down a street in Brooklyn and you’ll see ten assholes who look just like me.
Maybe I’m overthinking it.
But I don’t look like I’m from around here and I don’t sound like I’m from around here but it doesn’t matter because I live here now.
I watch her disappear into the building and then I drive back to the house and I open up my laptop and look at the jobs I’ve applied to so far.
I’ve applied to be a public safety officer at a small university in the neighboring county.
I don’t think I would be a good public safety officer, but I think that the college students would like me.
I wouldn’t keep them safe, but they might like me and they definitely wouldn’t put their arms around my neck or point shivs at me.
But I don’t think the college will give me that job.
I don’t think they’ll look at me and think, “This man will protect our campus.”
I’ve applied to work as a cashier at a Food Lion grocery store.
It’s been about a week and they still haven’t called me.
I even went in there and met a man named Robert and shook his hand and told him it was nice to meet him and could he please hire me?
But I still haven’t heard from them.
I would be an incredible cashier.
But they won’t call me.
Or maybe they already did.
The problem is my cellphone doesn’t get service in Woodland.
It doesn’t get service in most of the towns around here.
So I’ve started calling all of these places using Ashleigh’s phone and telling them, “Hey, if you want me, can you please call this number instead of the number I put on the application?”
And it’s all sort of confusing and I don’t think it helps my chances of getting a job.
I’ve applied to work at a Dollar General down the street from the house, too.
Neither of them have gotten back to me yet.
I close my laptop and I feel sweaty and hungry and I think I should take a shower even though I know I’m going to do pushups and sit-ups and planks later in the day.
I take a shower anyway.
I’ve been working out again because it helps me feel productive and also because I don’t like my body and I want Ashleigh to like my body.
I’ve showered and dressed and I make a grilled cheese sandwich and I eat it and then it’s hot in the house and I strip down to my boxers and put my shoes on and do pushups and sit-ups and planks and I’m covered in sweat and I take another shower and while I’m in the shower I think about how Ashleigh is at her job right now and she’s doing her job and she’s making money.
And I get out of the shower and I dry off and I put on the same clothes I wore after I took my first shower and then I open up my laptop.
There’s an email from Ashleigh and it’s a bunch of links to a bunch of jobs and some of them look good or good enough and I am grateful.
She’s at her job and she’s emailing me links to other jobs so that I can have a job too.
I apply to all of the jobs she sends me and one of them is a job working in the bookstore at the small university where I applied to work as a public safety officer.
And one of them is working as some kind of office assistant at some office and I can’t tell what it is that the people in the office do or with what they need assistance but I apply anyway and goddamnit I hope they call me, or Ashleigh, I hope they call Ashleigh and ask for me so that I can work there for a few days, or maybe a few weeks, maybe a month, and hate it and quit and go through all of this again.
And then it’s 4:45 and I’ve got to make sure I did all of the dishes and make sure I didn’t make some kind of mess in the house because I’m going to go pick up Ashleigh from work and she can’t come home to a mess.
It wouldn’t be fair.
I am a stay at home dad who doesn’t have any children.
When I told Ashleigh this, she pointed at all of the plants in the house and told me that I do have children.
The plants are my children.
If that’s the case then I am a bad father because a lot of them are dying.
I try to get to the insurance firm right on time but I get there early and I see the other employees again and I don’t know what to do so I wave and a man with a beard shrugs and waves back at me and gets in his truck.
He pulls out of the parking lot and then Ashleigh comes out of the building and she comes up to the driver’s side window and says, “I want to drive.”
So I get out and I get in the passenger seat and Ashleigh drives us back home where I’ve been all day and where my plant children are dying.
She asks me what I did all day and I tell her that I didn’t do too much and I ask her the same thing and she tells me about how maybe she’s going to buy some life insurance for herself but she’s not sure yet and I don’t know what that is or why she needs it now and I don’t know if she knows either.
We pull up in front of the house and we sit in the car and let the cool air conditioning blow on us.
“I feel like it should be the other way around,” I say. “I feel like I should be the one with the boring job and you should be here, writing good books.”
“Well, this is like what Carson McCullers and her husband did. She’d work a boring job while he wrote books and then he’d get a boring job while she wrote books.”
Ashleigh turns off the car and the cool air stops blowing.
“What was her husband’s name?” I ask. “Who was Carson McCullers married to?”
“Hmm,” Ashleigh says and then she sighs. “You know, I forget who he was.”