Episode 529 — Poe BallantineBy TNB Editors
June 27, 2018
Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Poe Ballantine. His new novel, Whirlaway, is available from Hawthorne Books.
Get the free Otherppl app.
June 27, 2018
Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Poe Ballantine. His new novel, Whirlaway, is available from Hawthorne Books.
Get the free Otherppl app.
April 10, 2018
The last time we talked we learned you were born in a log cabin and the illegitimate son of the Queen of England, what good that did anyone is hard to say, but I see you have another book coming out. Quite the coincidence.
I’ll say, and thanks for asking. Yes, it’s a horseracing, record collecting, and insane asylum novel called Whirlaway. It’s also about psychic evanescence, which is existing and not existing at the same time. It’s a funny book, I’ll add, but what else would you expect from the illegitimate son of an English Queen?
I understand you’ve used an unreliable narrator for perspective. What are you thoughts on this? Have you done this before?
Never intentionally. And I don’t like it as a rule. In my opinion, the writer should be doing the heavy lifting for the reader, being as clear and succinct and accessible as possible, but in Whirlaway my narrator is an escapee from a psychiatric hospital, a diagnosed and heavily-medicated schizophrenic, so I really had no choice. Poetry is supposedly the art of indirection, the way spaces become bridges and that sort of thing. Also at the heart of Whirlaway is a death mystery, and I found an unreliable narrator quite useful for this.
April 10, 2018
As an illustration of what I was up against at Napa State Hospital, what they used to call an asylum for the criminally insane, my fellow inmate Arn Boothby, an angry three-hundred-pound paranoid schizophrenic who regularly “cheeked” his meds, tried to kill another inmate one day in the client convenience store by grabbing his throat and throwing him through a glass display case. I was standing in line to buy a pack of breath mints at the time and can attest to him saying, “P. S. I Love You,” as the blood spread across the tiles. Boothby was tackled by two psych techs; a staff nurse and hospital police converged within minutes to beat in Boothby’s brains behind closed doors. Boothby told me later they would’ve killed him had not Dr. Fasstink inadvertently intervened. Boothby went to jail, vacation time for most of us at NSH, and I didn’t see him at the card game for a few months. When you’re surrounded by murderers, bank robbers, arsonists, and child molesters you’ll play cards with just about anyone.
July 09, 2011
My neighbor, a divorced PSA mechanic, who invites the children in and pours them draft beer to promote drug sales and his chances with the girls, offers me my first taste of methamphetine at age fifteen. He calls it “crank,” like the name of a car part or a grouchy old man. I’ve never snorted anything before. Crank looks nasty, like ant poison and pulverized glass, all chopped up on that mirror. Whiffing something straight up your nose into your brain seems a violation of human dignity and tastes even worse, like the dirt from a vacuum cleaner bag. I try not to cry the burning pain is so terrible. I am certain I will sneeze blood all over the curtains. I think I’ve done permanent damage. But then comes the drip drip drip, that bitter alkaloid savor with which the meth user learns to associate pleasure, and I wander around grinding my jaws and feeling like Bruce Lee grafted onto Aldous Huxley for about twelve hours. It takes three days to weather the most desiccated and noxiously enervated hangover I’ve ever experienced. I vow never to do it again — “never again never again,” the chant of the methhead. I do it eight or nine more times, and then as if God really loves me, crank vanishes from my neighborhood—and no one misses it.
Ten years later, dead broke, I come back to the old neighborhood to live with my parents for a few months, to write, as I explain it. I’ve quit school again. Seems that I’d learn one thing in college and that is that college is not for me. But I won’t be here long. I just want to put up the novel about the redneck chiropractor with the crystal ball, sell it hopefully, make a little cash, and start the talk show and interview circuit. Even though I’m sufficiently talented, I suspect that I should’ve finished school, gotten a degree, weaved some sort of safety net, just in case the novel doesn’t pan out, just in case I am a sham, but that seems gutless to me, even more gutless than coming back home to live with my parents.
This neighboorhood hasn’t changed much. Drawn out to thematic absurdity these small drafty plywood ranch-style homes, with their split rail fences, wagon wheels, dangling branding irons, and varnished cow skulls, remind me of the gaudy little shacks on miniature golf courses. Thrown up in a big hurry back in 1957, many owners have not made much effort, despite rocketing California real estate prices, to keep their sheds from becoming eyesores. I’m not surprised to see Muenschau and Coombs just where I left them, sitting in Muenschau’s old pickup truck, smoking homegrown and listening to Bob Dylan under the pepper tree. They wave at me, their eyes cheery slits. Howdy boys, I say. What’s new? Not a whole lot, I see. How’s the bass fishing? All right, just one toke, but then I gotta go…
Coombs, a runty blond with rusty hair and a sharp Adam’s apple, who I believe has some sort of undiagnosed form of Tourette’s, but is too poor, simple, and uninterested to do anything about it (until the last twenty out of a million years in human history our flaws, quirks, idiosyncracies, our “neurological disorders” were simply our “personalities”), grew up four houses down from me. I remember him in his baby carriage. I remember him catching me in the catwalk on the way to school one morning and going on and on about “the hounddog” until he showed me the Irish Setter that had hung itself by jumping still attached to its leash over a brick wall. Here he is ten years old drinking from a bottle of Ten High on the couch in a ramshackle gas-and-chicken-feather-smelling house piled high with furniture and trash, his mother in her muumuu glued to the telly. As I recall he began smoking pot in the second grade. A high school dropout, Coombs is inclined to violence and can often be disruptive and obscene. He has a variety of tics. He claps, hops, and hoots. He screeches, coughs, barks, spits, grunts, gurgles, clacks, hisses, whistles, coyote whoops, gives you the finger, wants to arm wrestle (he’s very strong) and finishes your sentence for you in a ghostly mumble that seems for a moment by his expression that he is reading your mind. Marijuana ameliorates his symptoms, turns his jerking, aggression, and swearing into squirming, repetitive questions, giggly blank stares, and an occasionally pithy observation such as why do people have hair?
Muenschau, twenty-nine, who lives on the next block over, is a slump-shouldered reed, his eyes Charlie Chan chinks in a Slavic face so thick it looks like a mask. His receding hair he wears also in the Chinese detective mode, ponytail down his back. I would estimate his IQ at somewhere around 70. Serene and steady as a tortoise, he hasn’t had a girlfriend since he was eighteen. He likes to sleep, smoke dope, and boat fish for bigmouth bass. Muenschau lives with his mother (his father died of cancer a few years ago), he’s never lived on his own
Coombs and Muenschau work in a chemical warehouse down on Logan Avenue in the barrio not far from downtown San Diego, and Muenschau’s cousin gets me a there too. Coombs and I are “parts pullers.” We’re handed a phoned-in requisition from a jobber, or parts retailer, and we fill a plastic crate with car wax, parts dip, Marvel Mystery Oil, fuel filters, brake fluid, engine starter, and the like, then pick up the next requisition. Muenschau delivers these “parts” to the various retailers. The days go by fast enough, though by the time I get home the sun is almost gone and I’m too tired to write. Still I don’t feel ready to sit down to serious composition quite yet. Physical labor feels good. I feel “real” again. I don’t have to ask Dad for money. The neighbors pound me fraternally on the back and I sit in their lawn chairs out in the driveway smelling the oil dripping from their Ford Rancheros and Dodge Darts and hoping the daughter comes out in her terry shorts as we lament as every generation of humanity since the advent of language the brevity of the days and the general decline of morality. And I’m writing all this down in my head, don’t you fret, it’s the Chemical Warehouse Novel, a real blue-collar gem.
After work I drink a beer or two, have dinner with my parents, watch or listen to the ballgame with my father, who has advanced himself to that insensate goal that he manages to score most every night. I scribble a note or two (Ramon drove the forklift, blades raised, into the second deck, lifting up Fram Country, it is high prairie now, foothills almost, and the wild sheep seem unsettled by the early snow). Then I am restless, loins astir, my warehouse muscles taut, my parched youth in need of a night’s slaking. I walk past the suburban windows with the warm life inside and often end up on the next street over where Muenschau and Coombs sit in the scented blue homegrown haze of Muenschau’s Ford cab. I slide in, open a beer, take a hit. We share the threads of our bottom-of–the-world tapestry, back orders, a busted vat of lethal parts dip, Barry pinned two ribs broken by a runaway pallet of Pennzoil. They’re content with work, sleep, dope, and Jack-in-the-Box. They have no fear or thought of dying and leaving nothing. Time is a sort of funny, irrelevant gas. Marijuana supplants the need for sex. Myself, I’ve got work to do, dreams to cash in. I can’t derail again. Even high, I know I’m running out of time. Pretty soon I’m going to start that novel. Martin Eden here I come. See you bright and early in the morning, fellows.
About this time Javier Medina, a heroin addict with fed pen time and gang activity also on his resume, makes a surprising re-appearance. Honestly I never thought I’d see him again. It’s been five years since he disappeared. But the news is he’s kicked. And he wants to start over and reenter this dispiriting suburban theater we call society. I have to say he looks good, like the old Javier, the track star, the varsity basketball player. And he’s got a tagalong heavyset Boston honey named Flora with messed up teeth who seems homey and solid, the kind of maternal influence a guy teetering on the brink might need. And I’ve always liked Javier. He has a nimble mind, loves to ad lib, he’s a fountain of jokes and odd expressions. I’ve soiled my garments! he cries. Or in a barker’s patter: What’s the difference between an epileptic oyster shucker and a prostitute with diarrhea? Standing over a charcoal grill he twirls his spatula and announces: if it’s smokin’ it’s cookin, if it’s burnin’ it’s done! He can quote Tom Waites by the ream. And though he appears to be a hard case, the sort of gnarled chap you’d expect to see snarling in a federal cage, squat with long arms, scarred hooked nose, that dark humor of Mayan rage in his eyes (and he’s so quick no one around here even thinks about fooling with him), I’ve never had a reason to dislike or distrust him.
All Javier needs now besides the power to resist, is a job. Not an easy task for an ex-heroin addict with a criminal record who hasn’t worked officially in three or four years. But the answer of course is the chemical warehouse. They’re always hiring. I put in a good word for him. And whether or not I’ve done him a favor, Javier is hired, and he throws himself into his work up there on the Fram deck all alone, works like an ox filling jobber crates with oil, air, and fuel filters. It’s hot and dusty up there. I started there myself. But there’s a satisfaction in working alone, in having the territory to yourself, and the work, at least weightwise, is pretty light. I christen him the Sheriff of Fram County, warn him of the rattlesnakes and the cold winters up there, the wild Indians and porcupines.
I don’t see Muenschau and Coombs much anymore since Javier arrived. They’ve moved out of the truck and spend their evenings indoors in the Medina home, an easier place to keep your beer cold, flat well-lit surfaces to roll your doobies, an address to have a pizza delivered, better speakers for your Moody Blues, and so on. Worries me a bit that they might be a bad influence on Javier, but Javier will have to weather stronger temptations than this, and he has known these boys all his life. He’s exactly Muenschau’s age. They went to school together every grade, until Muenschau fell behind and then eventually quit. I understand also that a little pot is probably a good thing. A man who kicks by himself, without methadone or 12-step or a personal psycho-safari-guide through the jungle, the man who can assert the staunchest independence, not only against addictive compounds but against the social institutions that turn us to addictive compounds in the first place, actually has a better statistical chance in the long run of staying chemically independent. I don’t entirely reject the methadone rationale. I tell myself it’s probably good that Javier has found himself a healthier substitute or at least some way to transition to the boring suburban existence that awaits him. As long as a needle doesn’t appear, what’s wrong with a little party? No one is telling the ex-junkie that he must wear a straightjacket and sit on a wooden pew reciting flower names for the rest of his life.
Muenschau and Coombs seem to be improved by their new relationship with our resurrected comrade. They seem more intent, hard working, focused, less trivial. Though they are smoking more, and seem suddenly concerned about such matters as the new shipping and receiving table and whether or not the NAPA order goes out on time, and they might even be a little rushed and even agitated at times, I find the change if not refreshing then at least interesting. I’m ignoring some obvious signals: the dilated pupils, grinding jaw muscles, constant sniffing, and those faraway looks like men in death-row card games (note also that Coombs Tourette’s symptoms have all but disappeared and Muenschau, as practically sexless as they come, has begun seriously talking about girls), but since I don’t see them much anymore I’m convinced that their new indoor life, perhaps some of Mama Flora’s navy beans with ham and homemade Boston cream pie, and the model progress of Javier has inspired them to some sort of temporary self-motivation.
After work one night I stroll down to the Medina house, open the gate, appease the affable golden pound-dogs Pancho and Claude, and knock on the door. Flora answers, her eyes lucent, her chin thrust aerodnynamically forward. Highly animated, a featherduster in her right hand, she seems flushed from exertion. By her reaction to me I might be her missing millionaire uncle. Hey man, she pants, shaking the feather duster at me. Come on in.
Oh, a party. Hello everyone. Get him a beer, Flora. I ease into the living room. Javier is drawn up barefoot in his recliner singing along with Dan Hicks “I Scare Myself.” Coombs leaned intently over the coffee table is slowly tearing the pages from a hot rod magazine. Muenschau smoking stoically in the rocking chair might be the Polish Marlboro Man. A nonentity named Flatmo who I went to high school with stands in the corner in leather jacket, long rat black hair sliced down the middle, a shimmer on his boots, jabbering intently with a girl I’ve never seen who has the ring-eyed aspect of a bandit. Flora has resumed her dusting of the hearth. Against the wall below a painted-by-numbers “Blue Boy” sits a nice looking girl, daffodil hair, serenely satin gray eyes, looks like Dawn Fairburn from long ago. It is Dawn Fairburn. My word, what are you doing here?
I’ve known Dawn since the second grade. She and I were much alike, scurvy outside children who scored high on tests and tried to pretend we weren’t smart so the other kids would like us. We almost went steady in fifth grade. Dawn had a bad skin problem and was rejected by the Allied Powers of Popularity. Then long about ninth grade she blossomed into Brigitte Bardot and left us all in the dust. The last time I saw her was at the Strand, the movie theater in Ocean Beach, but she barely acknowledged me, she was so radiant and thronged with admirers. I heard that she married the high school QB. I have a look around and wonder where young Joe might be.
Presently there’s a clack clack clack and Flatmo, emerged from his frothy entre nous with the bandit girl, taps the razor a last time and is handing across a mirror to Muenschau. The guests lean in as if Pavlov has rung a bell. Muenschau is all business, head tipped suddenly back, nostril clamped. Blood seems to fill his left eye. The silver platter floats to the next hand. Bowed heads jerk up with muffled anguish and then silent blinking at the ceiling, like some kind of devotional rite.
When the mirror comes around to me I stare into the smeared lines. I’d really thought that like smallpox and yellow fever this stuff had been sprayed into extinction. In all the places I’ve been in the last ten years I haven’t seen it or even heard it mentioned except by a pair of black-toothed biker-losers who were using it intravenously. A few vague memories trickle back through a general sense of misgiving. Dawn smiles at me, long lost beautiful Dawn with those uplifted Swedish eyes, the pleasant undulant mouth, the legs she knows just how to cross. The look says to me, go home if you want, you’d be stupid to stay, but of course if you do stay there are many things I’d like to tell you. Besides, it’s Friday. I realize she probably needs amateur psychological help. You can’t be doing lines of crystal meth all alone in the house of an ex-junkie if you’re happily married. I wonder if she remembers that time on the playground of Grover Cleveland Elementary after school when we were the only ones left after everyone made kites and we were still flying our kites and I was thinking about asking her to go steady with me. She seemed to be waiting for me to ask her to go steady, too, but I never did.
One line certainly won’t hurt, I think, and the gifted artist among his less-gifted peers cannot be a sissy pants down on the wharf. I bend to the task. Whoosh comes the flying insect killer up into my cranium, the caustic eye-watering flames, the feeling that I will bleed or go blind. It’s crank all right, the same blistering pestilence the PSA mechanic gave me when I was fifteen, changed in name only. Coombs to my right, restless as a cat, hunches over the mirror and rips whatever’s left off the glass, then fingers the corners and rubs his gums, as if the stuff is coke. I’d chide him, but it doesn’t matter does it? Sniffing back bitter drops I’m at ease for the first time in years. I’d forgotten this part: the stuff works on me—the same way it diffuses the majority of Coombs motor tics, praxias and lalias—like Ritalin (trade name for central nervous system stimulant methylphenidate) works on hyperactive children. I can’t explain how but it slows us both down somehow.
Overall the effect of this inhaled form of industrial-strength speed is Pentacostal Church Meets Hercules at the Beach. There’s a feeling like love, galactic in its proportions, blend in fulfillment, well-being, and above all potency, the sense that if you wanted to you could do anything, finish a novel, write a symphony, spin the couch with two people on it like a basketball on your fingertip, wallpaper the living room, find a girl settle down have a family, drive on up to Canada and sell all the belts you just tooled, anything, it’s just instead that you choose to stay here and talk with these wonderful people who share your dreams who are as loving and optimistic as you because after all they are your family. And the stuff isn’t like cocaine, it costs nothing and lasts for hours, days if you want; you’re not chained with a bunch of blithering bootlicking snufflers to endless hundred-dollar packets scared to death of tumbling off your high at any minute.
With robust leisure we devour from the carousel mirror. I feel like Sir Isaac Newton after seventeen cups of coffee. I am immortal and indestructible. While Coombs and Muenschau arm wrestle at the coffee table and Flora cleans behind the stove (say what you like about the scourge of methamphetamine in America but look at all the spotless kitchens!) I chain smoke, play ping pong, foosball in the garage, listen to records and speak authoritatively on all subjects, make jokes, play darts, play cards. I drink a case of beer, which has the same effect as water. Flatmo, the dealer, is cutting this stuff out free because he’s rich. That’s his BMW out front. You don’t see those kinds of cars in my neighborhood unless they belong to (and I don’t mean automobile) dealers. Funny he was a nothing for so long, a bug in a yellow corduroy jacket, not even enough to dislike. Now he can have three girls a night, four if he wants, take them all in a Lear jet to Newfoundland in the morning. Women love meth more than men (I mean that both ways), power and escape plus all the supermarket magazine promises: energy, weight loss (take thirty pounds off your fanny!), improved self-esteem, and increased sexual stamina.
Finally Dawn and I are out on the patio, cigarettes burning in our fingers. In her summer dress she’s a petite version of perfection, bronze legs, gold hair falling like coins, the mouth that pouts, those inquisitive brows (or brows that seem to say wouldn’t you like to know me a little better?). You know I’ve actually never talked to her except in the most modest of exchanges. She’s not exactly what I thought she’d be, she says “ain’t” and “don’t” for “isn’t” and “doesn’t,” the way most of these sons and daughters of machinists, punch press operators, navy captains, and firemen of this neighborhood, speak. That’s the way I speak too. We can’t betray our class, can’t appear to be snobs. She’s smart though, knows the difference between the famous German movie director and the novel by Saul Bellow. I wonder as I regard the luxuriance of that mouth, the glacial glimmer of those eyes, how she squandered her chance, why she isn’t studying international business at UCSD. I mean, you can leave this neighborhood, be successful, just when you come back don’t forget to say ain’t and don’t.
Her marriage has been dead for some time, she explains. A mistake to marry so young, to select such an obvious candidate, a man on his wedding day already slipping from his greatest achievement. Yes, he had scholarships to Cal and Utah State but he never even replied. The aging newlyweds are kind of messed up on meth, she admits, but on his party days he likes to hang with the boys, play darts for a weekend, go fishing and fall out of the boat, sizzle a football through the leprous mist and talk about that game against Lincoln when they were down by seventeen but came back to win it on a sixty-yard option with no time on the clock. And he’s probably sleeping with someone else. They stay together because it’s convenient, she says, because they don’t have that much money, because they don’t want to distress family members who are already perplexed by Ken and Barbie on the Rocks, and because in the diminishing middle of the constantly divided sum they don’t know what else to do.
I assume, not having seen meth in long-sequence action yet, that she describes a phase. It is a hard time in our mid-to-late twenties when we realize that we are not going to be movie stars, acclaimed bestsellers, or famous athletes as our childhood fantasies and our millions of hours of television watching dictated. Likely she assumed her captivating features would land her in a Breck ad or a Roman Polanski film, not the living room of an ex-heroin addict. I tell her I’m working on a novel. She says she plans on going back to school soon to get her teaching credentials. Our dreams seem not only accessible, close enough to touch, but completed. But it’s true, isn’t it? I mean if I weren’t out here (bladder swelling) leaning against the brick and chattering with an angel from my past I’d go home right now and type it up, be done with it, mail it off tomorrow.
God strike me with a urine-soaked newspaper if I ever do this drug again, the aftermath is simply unforgiving, a hangover infinitely more excruciating than alcohol, as if your nerves have been shaved by an asthmatic witchdoctor, pumped with mustard gas, and then stomped crookedly by a drunken plumber who refuses to scrape his boots. Unlike coke or heroin, there is nothing whatever subtle or romantic about this souped-up bathtub solvent concocted from the very items I move daily at the chemical warehouse, this industrial plague, which I believe Nature to keep her mortal quota has supplied in lieu of polio and cholera. There are good reasons no one writes songs about meth: the same reasons no one writes songs about polio and cholera.
I am back at Javier’s the next Friday. Amphetamines can be useful, I tell myself, a creative dynamo even. Think of Bob Fosse and Ayn Rand. For five years I was Howard Roark, the uncompromising architect hero in The Fountainhead, a novel that Rand wrote on amphetamines. And don’t you fret, if Ayn Rand can do it, I can too, my drugs are about twenty times stronger than hers.
Javier, Muenschau, Coombs, Flora, and I begin another two-and-a-half-day binge, which starts the moment we leave work on Friday afternoon. We stop and get plenty of cigarettes and beer. We take measures for reinforcements. I make provisions to visit my parents and appear to have slept. Like Nazis and religious fanatics, we escape into power. As many as twenty revelers might flow in and out of this Fiesta of the Damned, every one of them blighted, greasy, sniffling, ashen, babbling, molars wearing down, arteries hardening, heart straining, brain flickering, though the luminous diabolical deception inside, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, refuses to yield.
Parties for me have always been events where inebriation was requisite to relaxation but now with the meth I am the Effortless Me, amiable, witty, vibrant. Dawn and I find excuses to take walks, to chat on the patio. We volunteer for liquor store runs. We seem to have the most in common, or perhaps that is only another way of saying the most to lose. We fizzle into Sunday evening like the dead returning to Gomorrah.
Before long I’m frightened by these weekly binges, these accursed cycles against my will, these destructive cravings that have supplanted the fragile existence of everything I stand for, art and independence and the pleasure of family, evenly paced conversation, scratch cookin’, and sleeping in on Sunday morning. I’m starting to look haggard. The excitement I once reserved for my novel and women is now spent on the drug binge release and my blathering camaraderie. My head swarms with shadows and black flies, my vision with chips of mica. My novel and future have dissolved like the toxic dust in my lungs. Each time I peek over the ledge of that mirror heaped with oily piles of crystalline brain cleaner I try not to see the ravaged man with the inflamed nostrils and the dead-lit eyes.
Coombs has begun to dig at raw patches on his scalp where the hair is falling away. Though his Tourette’s symptoms have diminished they’ve been been replaced by a more sinister set of signals. He has, for example, stopped going to work half the time. We drive by to pick him up and he’s still asleep, sick he says. (Sick is right). Also he’s begun to discuss in detail the bane of all intelligent minds, Nostradamus and the prophecies of Edgar Cayce. Once a simple, playful soul, he’s inherited the dark burden of a goofed up planet trapped in time. He’s worrisome, not fun. He’s a self-medicated, self-made spook. Aren’t you concerned about your liver, man, I ask him, your heart, your brain? I don’t think about things that way, he answers. And when Coombs has to spend a weekend in observation because his Edgar Cayce infatuations have gotten too real, no one goes down to visit him. Frankly we’re a bit afraid, as if we might be waddling downtown to visit our own future. Anyway, he’ll be all right, he just has to lay off the powder a while, which he doesn’t.
The once plump Flora thinks her emaciation somehow appealing. Later she leaves for Boston for good because she is pregnant and knows a child would stand little chance of survival in our roller coaster off its tracks.Javier replaces her with a much more attractive, less housecleaning-oriented girl named Brenda, courtesy of Flatmo, and no one thinks much about Flora anymore. We don’t miss her at all, especially Javier.
Muenschau is having gum problems and suspects that his teeth are falling out, He has begun to date a sixteen-year-old-girl known affectionately and salaciously around the neighborhood as “Da Beef,” also a chronic meth user, leaves him to marry another much older man cross town (who by coincidence is a meth dealer, too), and Muenschau distraught and crying locks himself in the Medina bathroom refusing to come out. I wonder if he will cut his wrists or try to flush himself down the toilet. We think we might have to call someone, who? His mother perhaps? At last, after I confess to him seven rousing romantic failures (plenty more where that came from) he comes out mopping his eyes with his bony wrists and vows to quit drugs. Think of that snooze-bar life he once owned, slow smiling dreamy shake hands with everyone watch the same Twilight Zone over and over because you don’t remember it, catch a big glittering fish on Sunday now mama with roast beef on the table scattered like sheep shit in the hot Wyoming wind. Yes, he’s going to quit these awful drugs, go back to the gentle life where he can keep his teeth a while longer, he says, though he doesn’t quite make it.
Javier and I are the only ones who make it to work every day now. Granitelike and inexhaustible as Javier seems, he startles me sometimes because he appears to be shrinking, his face is turning to vellum, his hair is patched with gray. The trembling smirk on his face seems to say that his premature decay is not only intentional, but somehow funny. Sometimes he turns around and he looks fifty years old.
I don’t know how many weeks or months have gone by, but it’s Sunday night and Dawn’s got to get home. She hasn’t called her husband in two or three days. Doesn’t know if he’s been out all week partying, moved to Idaho, filed divorce, sold the house, gone off on a jaunt to Vegas because he’s heard LA Dodger pitcher Bob Welch is signing cards at the Stardust, or died on the rug from an overdose, but she must get home.
And I aim to get her there, see her safe, she’s practically my cousin we have the same grammar school blood in our veins the same unfinished dreams the same empty gift boxes littered across the floor, the same shame, the same disbelief. She’s starting to look rough, her teeth oxidized, hair desiccating, she’s skinny not thin, her nice little ass has shrunk to two apples in a paper bag, her once luminous skin is fading, glass-crack wrinkles are spreading from the corners of her eyes. She’s looking less like Brigitte Bardot and more like Ernest Hemingway every day. But do you think I care? My love is a loyal love, an indestructible super power love, you know if we would’ve gone steady in the fifth grade none of this probably would’ve ever happened…
Quacking and waddling, grinding and blinking away, we approach her house. It must be four in the morning, dead quiet, cool autumn verging on winter, moths tumbling around the lamps. He must be asleep, I say. Come inside, she says, reaching down to take my hand. I squeeze her fingers. The house is dark and smells sepulchral with loneliness. Young Joe is not dead, not here anyway.
Dawn and I are still holding hands. Let’s screw, she says. Christ, I thought it would be different somehow. OK, I say. Where? The guest room, she says. We sneak down the hall. The guest room has a bunny theme, a sewing machine, at least not a reaping machine. We kiss hotly with much tongue. She’s not for foreplay, ripping open my jeans, pulling my t-shirt over my head. I take down her costume and we kiss naked. She’s still wearing her socks. She’s very agile, not a shy girl, strong too, even if she’s lost ten pounds in the last four months, hasn’t eaten for two days, her eyes hollowing in their sockets. Amphetamine has the largely fraudulent reputation of a performance enhancer, but the one real pleasure left to us, the one desire not entirely supplanted by endorphins, we attack as if unleashing twelve Hoover Dam turbines. I believe we’re also exercising a form of desperation, the shoveling over of emptiness, the heated lunging chase after that answer beyond our grasp, but we leap across each other like chattering jackrabbits. Headboard clapping against the wall, the bed seems to swing, the sky seems to spin. This should’ve been my girl, I think. This should be my dream come true. I let go and listen for the front door. She reaches up to kiss me, eyes aglitter, and says: Where were you when I was thirteen?
Now with the “need” for Dawn the weekends have an added demon riding upon the serpent’s neck. We slip away, sneak off, staggering departures we leave early, make an excuse, find union in a car, in a park, on the cement pad behind the liquor store. Once we have it out in the dawn’s early light of some kind of ridiculous leafless bush. Every effect of this graceless union conspires to make me ill. But this drug drives me to frenzy, pushes every last raw sin to the tips of my tensile nerves. I’m electric with desire. I’m a boulder of a cock. She’s a lake of wetness, arched up, watching me slide into her, her front teeth pushed forward, her eyes as if switched off. And then we’re whamming and slamming, the bush rattling and she’s moaning and I have to cover her mouth. I wonder what we must look like crashing into each other in this skeleton of a bush, two skinny blue apes, two corpses? I want to get this over with. The sun is coming up. I’m not going to do this again. Is that all I ever say? But I’m not. I’m going to run away. I’m going to go someplace where no one will find me. I know I will be the same person, but I’ll run again, and then eventually I’ll get old and desire will fade and then I can live in peace.
My reprieve comes in the form of a phone call in February. An old friend who I cooked with in Colorado has just graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and has landed his first job as a chef in the dying city of Niagara Falls, New York. He can’t find any decent cooks. Would I like to come out and help him? If I could reach down through the phone wires I would hug him. He has no idea how he has saved me, though of course he hasn’t.
One last night together, drunk and cranked up (the last time, I really mean it), Dawn kisses me violently, stares into my eyes. I’ll come with you, she says.
Hungover on the plane it is winter, the cities below are icy and gray, and I have this picture in my head of a scurvy, outside girl flying a kite all alone on an elementary school playground.
That winter Flatmo is arrested again (manufacturing, possession with intent to sell), sent up to do several years of federal time. Paroled early, his “friends” vanished, his money and sports cars gone, he returns ironically to the only place he can get a job, the chemical warehouse, where he settles back into his high school role of nonentity and a room in National City overlooking the shipyard.
Over the next few years I hear that Muenchau has moved on, has been kicked out, has married a woman twice his age who physically abuses him, and then the last time I hear about him his cousin, who got me the job at the chemical warehouse, tells me that Muenschau is living alone in a shack with a hundred cats and that his hands are “registered weapons.”
Javier loses everything (isn’t that the idea, but wait, just a blast of this and I’m back on top again, heh heh). His parents give up on him. I lose track of him completely, imagine if he isn’t dead he has returned to prison. Then one day I see him at a 7-11 in El Cajon (the meth capital of the world at the time), shoving a twelve-pack of Busch onto the counter. I don’t recognize him at first. He smiles at me, weak chagrin. My God, Javier. He’s thirty-six years old, a shriveled, ruined old man.
July 02, 2011
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in a little log cabin in Kentucky in 1822.
As long as I’m “often described.”
Yes, two true-story collections and two novels. Things I Like About America was my first and most popular non-fiction work. It addresses among many other things, losing my virginity with a psychopath, wrestling on a porch in the rain with a junkie, battling crack addiction, and finding a friend of mine in Mexico who’s been dead two days. God Clobbers Us All was my second book with Hawthorne: it’s a death, surfing and LSD novel. Then came Decline of the Lawrence Welk Empire, a tropical island love triangle with obeah damnation and a sexy but sometimes headless jumbie. My last book was 501 Minutes to Christ, where I hop a freight train to France, try to kick meth, and talk about what it was like to lose a multiple book contract with Houghton Mifflin, though I never actually use the words Houghton or Mifflin. My Dutch isn’t that good and it gives me the hiccups.
Basically it goes like this: the newly arrived math professor from our state college in Chadron, Nebraska, a terribly nice fellow who lived two blocks away from my family, disappeared one day without a trace. Ninety-five days later he was found burned and bound to a tree in the remote hills about a mile south of campus in what was then an incinerated prairie forest. A number of news teams, law enforcement officers, and bloggers, including psychics and ghosthunters, exhausted themselves in the so-called investigation, but this case remains unsolved, a profound mystery. Since I knew almost all the players, the police, the Sheriff, the math professor and many of his colleagues and friends, and every last one of the “suspects,” I became the natural repository for this story. Love and Terror is also about my quaint High Plains small town, its eccentric residents, my rocky marriage to a beautiful Mexican woman, and my exceptional, purportedly autistic son, who was four years old at the time.
“Twilight Zone Shit,” is what my friend Sheriff Karl Dailey calls it, and though I don’t pretend to know, I do include the body of forensic evidence and the full spectrum of possible scenarios, including prairie dragons and space aliens.
I don’t even have a degree. I was cleaning floors at Safeway at the time.
I try to write four hours every day, mornings if I can. Most of what I write is discarded. Jack London used to set a goal of a thousand words a day before he gave in to the first of his twenty-six drinks. I might get down six thousand words, I might record twenty-two. I don’t force things because the next day I know I’ll just have to throw it away, and I’m not pressed by the need for a drink, wealth, or legitimacy. Production in writing is often about the acceptance of moving backwards. I am developmentally slow and usually have to go through at least ten major versions of whatever I’m working on before I start to see the gleam. I’ve been working on Love and Terror now for five years, and I thought it was done three years ago. One thing I’ve learned through the “creative process” is that most of the time you don’t get a say.
Extensively. I have about a hundred notebooks arranged in such a manner that I can never find what I’m looking for.
I write as fast as I can, which is why I like a computer.
No, ink pens had just been invented and most people were switching over from papyrus. I teethed on a Royal manual typewriter, then moved to an electric Smith-Corona, followed by an IBM Selectric (also an electric typewriter), then it was a 286 clone (a computer I bought in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1989). I had a ThinkPad for a time. For many years I composed whole pieces including novels in longhand, but I can’t write fast enough to do that anymore.
My earliest influences were John Steinbeck and Pauline Kael.
Yes, I learned a good deal about structure and atmosphere from her movie reviews.
Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Mockingbird Wish Me Luck by Charles Bukowski, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, The High Window by Raymond Chandler, Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy, The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham, Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson.
Yes, I don’t read a lot of new books. I don’t have the time to sort them out.
Don’t just watch the river, jump in.
I am easily bored and not much of a joiner. In Mexico, by the way, I lived on three hundred a month.
Bukowski derived from Henry Miller, who I’m also occasionally compared to, and there are similarities. Both men came from working class backgrounds, both started and published late, both traveled widely and lived lustily among the poor, wrote with humor and heart, worked a number of mundane jobs, were totally ignored for years by the mainstream literati, and both rejected convention and academia. I’m also often compared to Kerouac (another disciple of Miller), I suppose because he traveled.
I have two stories upcoming in the Sun magazine, a story in the 2011 Spring edition of Ecotone, Love and Terror is slated for 2012, following that a novel in 2013 called Rodney Kills at Night, about a Lakota Indian boy who accidentally kills his stepfather and flees the reservation to become a standup comedian in Las Vegas. Al Saperstein just finished a great documentary on me, “Poe Ballantine, a Writer in America,” available soon. I’ve also just made a big pan of chicken enchiladas. You’re welcome to as many as you like.
The difference between the writer and the person who wants to write can be reduced to one word: work. The devotees have significantly better odds of success than the dreamers whose mouths never close. Luck, timing, passion, courage, and talent all play a role, too. So does a complete investment in the truth. I wouldn’t for a moment recommend that you pursue literature, since it’s been replaced for the most part by visual media, but if you learn to trust your instincts, if you give everything you’ve got, if you don’t quit, if you really love what you do, if you’re willing to put your ass on the line, you might produce a work of note or at the very least learn something valuable about yourself. Good luck, however, avoiding the nervous breakdown.