01
Dec
08

Thou Aren’t With Me

1.

I veer off the access road and pull my truck to what used to be the edge of civilization, to the Home Depot store, and pull up to the dock in the back to drop Daniel off for work.

He and I worked here together nine summers ago, beginning immediately after graduation. The store was brand new then, occupying what for our adolescence and childhood (and the adolescences and childhoods of several generations previous) had been farmland. We were eighteen, living in our first apartment together at the Mesa Villas, and following identical arcs then, and it made sense to unload trucks for a year, take community college classes, enlist the aid of a guy who was a junior when we were freshmen to get beer, and occasionally hook up with girls who we’d considered unattainable just a semester before impending adulthood brought them down to our level.

The whole thing was originally intended as a springboard to bigger and better things, and for one of us, it was. As I promised myself, I left for real college fifteen months later, eventually graduating from Texas A&M with a degree in construction science, which was itself a springboard to the same Dallas suburb I had just left. In the four years I was gone, our little suburb came to occupy more space, and my job today is to oversee the filling of that space with retail stores. I work today at this new edge of civilization, as a project manager in a trailer at a construction site occupying what used to be farmland.

It was here at Home Depot that our paths originally diverged, when Daniel skipped our first day of American History to stay a few extra hours and cover somebody’s shift. I doubt very seriously that Daniel found his calling that day while I was learning about the first Americans crossing over the Bering Strait from Asia centuries ago, but he certainly found a comfortable spot. The co-worker of ours whose shift Daniel was covering called in to quit later that day and Daniel was offered a full-time position. He never did make it to class, choosing instead to razz me for the next twelve months when I would leave work at noon to drive to “thirteenth grade.”

I check my rearview mirror as I pull away from Home Depot and toward the trailer, and as always, that’s where I spot Daniel.

 

It’s a Tuesday spent in typical Tuesday fashion. I attend meetings with subcontractors and kill the time between the meetings in the bathroom of the trailer. The bathroom is the perfect hideaway for a person in my position. The desks are set up in the middle of the trailer with no partitions to speak of, so if I want any privacy the bathroom is as close as I get. And I need my privacy. I need to be away from questions about where I’m eating lunch, what I’m doing tonight, if I want to accompany someone to church. More than privacy I need anonymity, and the bathroom provides that in a way I can’t seem to find anywhere else. Those of us who work from the trailer are supposed to be out on the site, so no one’s in there often enough to know I’m in the bathroom, reading the paper with my pants up.

I’m interrupted from my reading by a beep on my two-way, followed by the inevitable, brusque, “What’s your twenty?” of Bryant. We have a meeting in twenty minutes with the electricians from TXU, here to install meters on the back of the northernmost strip mall that is finally nearing completion.     

Bryant is a field supervisor who is supposed to report to me but doesn’t seem to understand that. Our relationship is a complex one: at 37, he’s ten years older than me and resents the path I took to get here with a smoldering fire that he makes no attempt to conceal. To be honest, he should resent me: I went to college and learned my end of the construction business in air-conditioned trailers just like this one during the summers. Bryant, on the other hand, dropped out of high school to marry his pregnant girlfriend and learned my end of the construction business by keenly observing people like me while he was busting his ass in the field. He’s infinitely more qualified to do my job than I am, yet I am his superior. I have a job that he earned, and he hates me for it, and I would hate me too. But it is Bryant’s arrogance, however justified, that prevents me from developing the respect for him that I know I should have. Asshole changes the station from sports talk radio to religious talk radio when he’s in my truck, he talks down to me in front of our vendors, he interrupts me even when I’m right.

Bryant is twice the man I’ll ever be in this business, and I should be learning from him. But he undermines his own superiority by flaunting it in that insecure, childish way. If we got along we could really help each other out, but it’s no use trying to impress someone like him. It seems like my best case scenario is that one day he’ll do me the courtesy of waiting until my back is turned to try to embarrass me.       

 

Work comes and goes as it always does and the gas light comes on in my truck before I get to the tollway, so I stop off at a Race Trac. The massive gas station and convenience store is situated at a corner that, before it was a corner, was a patch off a two-lane highway where a farmer and his wife ran a roadside stand. Years ago, my parents would pull over and buy watermelon on our way out of town to spend weekends at Lake Texhoma.

My credit card isn’t working as I try to pay at the pump, so I walk into the store and get in line to pay cash. In front of me is a huge woman trying to keep one foot in line while corralling three screaming kids. Strands of black-gray hair damp with oil and perspiration stick to the sides of her face as she ultimately quiets them down by threatening to make them put their Slim Jims back. She has no similar plans for the 44-ounce fountain drink sweating in her hand. In front of her is a guy my age that looks a bit like our high school quarterback. I study his face and hope he doesn’t notice me. I remember that FBI agents concentrate on a person’s eyes and nose when looking for fugitives who may have put on weight, colored their hair, or grown facial hair in an effort to disguise themselves. That guideline comes in handy in a case like this because if this is him, he’s highlighted the tips of his dark hair, grown a thick goatee on his chin, and put on thirty pounds. It can’t be him, I convince myself as he looks at me and I look away, and it probably isn’t. I can’t imagine him going from what he was to this. There’s not a trace to be found on his face of the energy once on constant display when we were growing up. His eyes had a spark that was intense when responding to cheers on the football field and flickered on even in the tedium of geometry class. If that is his face, the energy has been buried underneath a layer of soft fat, perhaps intented to insulate him from whatever made his eyes lose that spark. He puts a copy of Maxim back in the magazine rack before paying with his credit card for a Mountain Dew Code Red and a Mrs. Baird’s cinnamon roll.

 

Back in the truck I sit in traffic on the tollway and wait in line again, peering through the inch of heat-distorted air that rises from the tops of endless rows of leased sedans, trucks, and SUVs adorned with bumper stickers supporting the President and the Lord, or admonishing those who would disagree with the sovereignty of either. An Escalade informs me that “it’s a child, not a choice.” “Marriage= one man, one woman,” declares a Lexus GX. From the back window of a GMC Yukon a fading sticker reads, “Bomb France First” in coral pink and powder blue. I saw that one a few times in the months before the Iraq war, when Bryant insisted on ordering “freedom fries” with his Number One burger at Sonic.

As I sit in traffic, my phone beeps with a text from Daniel, letting me know where to meet him for a drink after work. An invitation from Daniel for a drink after work usually means his co-workers are too drunk to drive, at an establishment too far from home for him to call a cab. That’s certainly the case tonight. It doesn’t take me long to find their table at On the Border, as he and three of his co-workers are having the loudest fun of any of the patrons, drawing the resentment of the servers, perhaps envious of Dan-and-crew’s good time. Daniel introduces me to his co-workers for the fiftieth time and within seconds, I’ve forgotten their names and they’ve returned the favor. At least they have an excuse, as they’ve been drunk every time I’ve met them. To be a good sport I sit for one beer, then begin the monumental task of dragging Daniel’s sloppy ass home. Once in the door, we diverge paths yet again, each of us to our respective sides of our perfectly symmetrical two-bedroom apartment.

 

I’ve got a birthday coming up, my 28th. I know that every birthday I drift further and further from a time when Daniel and I sat with our class and basked in the gaze of elementary school teachers who saw infinite potential in us. It makes me ashamed that this is what I turned that potential into, and embarrassed that Daniel doesn’t seem capable of a similar shame. In a rare moment of candor my mother once told me that her 28th birthday was the one when she realized that she wasn’t ever going to be on Johnny Carson; that she had already come as close to being extraordinary as she ever would. As I set my keys on the nightstand, I shudder to think that my greatest accomplishment may be behind me, mostly because I couldn’t name my greatest accomplishment.

 

 

Morning. Bryant and I are going over the itinerary for the day over Krispy Kremes, even though I’ve already eaten breakfast. I microwaved two packets of instant oatmeal at five-thirty this morning and ate them standing at the kitchen counter. In my first spoonful there was a big, sandy clump of brown sugar that hadn’t quite dissolved. It was without question the best bite of oatmeal I’ve ever had, but the rest of the bowl tasted bland without it.  

My phone beeps with a text that I’m going to have to read later, as I know I can’t let down my guard in front of Bryant by getting distracted. Which is not to say I’m not already distracted; I just can’t let Bryant know that I am. I’d rather be anywhere than right here, a middle man on a project that wouldn’t miss me if I disappeared and doesn’t when I do. There’s no purpose I serve that’s not already being served; no unique sense of responsibility; no ownership over my destiny. If there was some concentration of sweetness at the beginning of my life that can account for this present blandness, I don’t remember it.

I snap out of auto-pilot when Bryant reminds me that the suits from the office are coming in this afternoon to check on our progress. “Suit” is not really an accurate description, but it doesn’t have the same ring as “golf shirt,” which is no longer much of a distinguishing term. Everyone wears golf shirts now, from upper management employees, to the upward-mobility-minded guys in the field like Bryant and me, to the dropouts and illegal immigrants that we order fast food from, to the lifeless attendant at the gas station that I had never actually seen until my card quit working yesterday, to the meathead with the pierced tongue who sold me my cell-phone (a tribal armband tattoo peeked out from under the sleeve of his golf shirt); even maintenance men, car salesmen, and youth ministers. The only difference is whose logo is embroidered on the front. The world has turned its back on the coat and tie, thinking a coat and tie mean you’re not young anymore. You’re shoveling the first scoop of dirt on the ideals of your youth when you accept the mantle of responsibility that comes with a coat and tie. People mistakenly think they can escape that responsibility if they can find a way out of that coat and tie, as if it’s the vestments themselves that suck out your soul. Management switched to golf shirts for the same reason as the youth minister, which is the same reason Cadillac bought the rights to those Zeppelin songs: nobody wants to admit they’ve gone corporate.

 

Bryant and I are interrupted by Karen, the sweet lady that serves as a secretary of sorts for our company. Her desk is in the trailer next to ours, but she stops by our trailer each morning to make sure we’re all “on the same page”. Karen is a woman of considerable patience, and hers is the patience that only trials and experience can bring, having raised twin sons on her own. They’re about my age. One is in prison in Huntsville for the forseeable future, having beat a pizza delivery guy into a coma while trying to rob him. The other is shipping out to Iraq in a week for his second tour. In very uncharacteristic fashion, Karen is a half-hour late to work for the second time this week, and Bryant is visibly peeved. Patience only runs one way with him, apparently. She shrugs.

“Sorry, guys. Took me a while to find the cat when it came time to let him in this morning, plus there was all this traffic from an accident on the tollway.”

“Glad the cat’s all right, but some of us have things to do today,” grouses Bryant.

“You need to learn to relax, hon. If I hadn’t been running late, I might have been in that accident. The cat may have been God’s way of keeping me from harm.”

The logic of divine intervention always escapes me. There are Christians in Africa who are limbless because of their beliefs, but around these parts, God blesses His flock with good parking spots, green lights on the way to a dentist’s appointment, promotions at work. And who’s to say the people in the accident weren’t themselves believers? Everybody else seems to be. But I can’t begrudge Karen whatever keeps her sane. For her, it’s heavy reliance on her faith and her Virginia Slims. I don’t know how she stays on top of things so well while spending at least half the workday smoking outside the trailer. Yet she’s always cheerful and never edgy, a superhuman feat for someone mired in this construction project. The lines in her face betray the stress taking its toll, however, and smoking does little to help that. It appears as though someone has tried to fill in those tiny lines with tar.  

 

Later that day, I pull up to Home Depot to pick up Daniel. He slings his backpack into the backseat of the cab and asks where I’ve been.

“At work, ass.” I laugh.

“Is your phone out of batteries?”

I check, and sure enough it’s off. Before we pull out of the parking lot I turn it on and find the battery full, then toss it into the cupholder.

“Weird. It’s been acting up lately.” The phone emits twin beeps from inside the console.

“Well, I called to see if you wanted to watch the Ranger game at Chili’s. Hey, you’ve got an unread text on here, you know.”

I head toward Chili’s and resist the urge to tell him not to mess with my phone. If he gets the sense that I don’t want him snooping around, he’ll start giving me shit because he’ll know who the text is probably from.

 

“R U busy 2nite?,” I read once safely alone inside the bathroom at Chili’s.

Mandy is a girl that I met about four months ago on craigslist. We meet up every couple of weeks at her place. We’re not dating; in fact, I don’t know any more about her now than I did within a few hours of meeting her. I think Mandy is a couple years older than me, as she has graduated from a unit in the identical apartment complexes like the one I live in to a small house on a row of identical houses. Ours is a pretty utilitarian relationship. She slotted me in this role not long after our first meeting, which was a date, presumably after deciding I wasn’t husband material. We’re both just killing time with each other, but she appears to be actively searching for something better and not finding it.

You’d think all that pent-up frustration would lead to better sex, but no luck. Daniel screws a couple of the girls that work with him at Home Depot, and when he talks about it, he likens it to animals going wild in the jungle. Mandy and I are about as far from that as two people under 50 can be. If I were to make a similar comparison to Daniel’s, it would probably involve two kitchen appliances coming to life and silently doing it in the missionary position with the lights off.

But I text back an affirmative reply, as lackluster sex still better than no sex. Before putting my phone back in my pocket, though, the thought occurs to me to see what time she originally wrote me this morning. As it turns out, her original message is from last night. I’m a little pissed to think I didn’t get the message until now and that my malfunctioning phone might have cost me a piece of ass. As I start to push the bathroom door out, however, my phone beeps with a message from Mandy saying I was “a lil L8”, but tonight would be okay.

We watch the game, Daniel is pretty wasted by the seventh-inning stretch, and I pay the check with cash. I should have checked to see if my card was working again, but I’m in a bit of a hurry. 

 

Thankfully, I don’t have to come up with an alibi, as Daniel is passed out on top of his sheets before I leave to go back out. Waiting to make a left turn onto Mandy’s block, I see a sign stuck in the grass of the median that says, “What Do Today’s Headlines Mean For Christians? Learn to Decipher Biblical Prophecy Wednesday Nights at Meadow Oaks Community Church!”

She’s left the front door unlocked so I’ll be waiting when she gets out of the shower. I take the opportunity to look around her house, something I’ve never taken the time to do before. I peruse CDs by Faith Hill and Gretchen Wilson. I recognize from previous girlfriends’ apartments a print of “Starry Night”, an Anne Geddes calendar and Mary Engelbright prints in frames and mattes cutely designed to look as if there aren’t thousands of them in similar single girls’ homes nationwide. It’s a design element that her place shares with Chili’s. And there are books. Tons of them, which surprises me because I hadn’t really thought of Mandy as being smart. A closer look at the dozens of varieties of Chicken Soup for the Soul reveals that the dominant genre seems to be inspirational, which restores my original impression, and that leaves me feeling a little relieved. There’s an electric bill on the coffee table that has her last name on it. Hofstadter. I hadn’t known that.

Before long my interest in Mandy’s living room wanes, and I don’t want her to catch me snooping, so I help myself to a glass of water in the kitchen. As I replace the Brita and close the refrigerator door, however, I notice a photo tacked to it that captures my interest in a way that nothing else in the house had. It looks like it was taken at a sorority function from Mandy’s days at Baylor. She stands between two friends, all with plastic cups in hand, smiling a smile that I didn’t know was in her repertoire. The picture makes me imagine a time I didn’t previously know existed, one in which Mandy is a natural beauty with a natural smile. She looked so much lighter in her prime, and not just because she weighs about twenty pounds less in the picture. It’s from a time when she wasn’t trying so hard to rush headlong into marriage, motherhood, adulthood, and she’s having fun instead of carrying all that baggage that makes her so uptight now. I look around the house again and see for the first time that every book, every framed print of an Impressionist painting, every trinket in here is soaked in her flop sweat from being close to 30 and unable to find a husband. Her biological clock determines her every move, from rejecting me to buying this house in anticipation of the right guy coming along so she can hurry up and start a family. I take the photo off the fridge and hold it and I feel a weird sense of loss, because it tells me she wasn’t always this way.

I always get girls just a little too late.

 

I wasn’t in that big a hurry to lose my virginity nine years ago, so I felt I could afford the luxury of a partner I’d want to remember. Because of Daniel I was running around with a different peer group that summer. He had always been on the periphery of the popular crowd in high school, but us having our own apartment within a week of graduation vaulted him near the center of it. I was absorbed into the circle too, but more by default. I had played JV baseball and run varsity cross country with some of the guys, so they knew who I was. I was inoffensive; didn’t get in the way, smart enough to know I was no main attraction. Fitting in was so much easier for Daniel. Everything was. When I heard our houseguests talking over cigarettes on the patio, the place in Mesa Villas was always “Daniel’s kick-ass apartment”, forgetting to mention my name.

The party was always at our place. I was surprised to see how quickly the popular crowd lost a bit of its luster now that high school was over, but having them around meant having Melissa Valle around. Melissa wasn’t a cheerleader, but could have been if she had wanted, opting instead for student council, yearbook staff, basketball and volleyball. She was also better-looking than any girl I could think of at school. She was there the first party we had, and it was a momentous occasion for me when I asked her if she wanted a beer. In those ten seconds I had managed more conversation with her than I had in eight years of middle school and high school.

Toward the end of summer people didn’t come by as much, but one Friday night in mid-August we had a blowout. It seemed like everyone who had ever been over that summer made it by that night, kind of like the last episode of Seinfeld. It was the last party most of them would have at home before going to college. The next time they all saw each other things would be different. Childhood friends would be replaced by frat brothers or sorority sisters by Thanksgiving, and conversations would never again come this naturally. It was different for Daniel and me, who were staying behind. Our shitty apartment, with its strangely wet-smelling carpet and walls whose paint had trapped the previous tenants’ cigarette smoke like a fly in amber, was about to become an island unto itself, with no one left in town to come by and hang out.

The night was winding down around two, and I went in my bathroom to take a leak before going back in the living room to start cleaning up. When I came out I saw Melissa poking around in my bedroom. She was thumbing through my yearbook. I pulled two beers out of my mini-fridge and we sat on the bed and talked about how much things were going to change in the next week. Inevitably the conversation turned to old times in school, and I worried that we wouldn’t have much to talk about. It seemed strange to reminisce with someone that I had never actually spoken to until that summer, but we shared a remarkable number of communal memories, having walked the same halls, had the same teachers, listened to the same gossip, eaten at the same burger places. Our world had so defined us from outside that there was no need for individual thoughts and feelings to come from within. At that time in our lives, to know our suburban world was to know us. We hadn’t yet had to develop our own ideas, our own personalities.

We went back into the living room to discover that everyone had gone home, including her ride. She helped me throw a few Natty Light cans into a trash bag, but we were rolling around on the floor before the job was done. Early the next morning I dropped her off at her friend’s house. A few hours later she and her family packed their Suburban and drove to Lubbock, and she began college life.

I had spent the last eight years admiring Melissa from across a classroom or cafeteria or parking lot, she blissfully unaware of my presence. It was probably the same for a lot of guys at our school. But for a few hours I was the center of her attention as she patiently coached me through my first time, pretending not to notice my inexperience, her straight black hair hanging down to graze my chest as she hovered over me. For months afterward I wished I had somehow been able to connect with her earlier, when we would have had time to have something that meant something.

Too late.

 

I look up and see Mandy standing in her bedroom doorway with her hair in a towel, wearing a t-shirt and gym shorts. She seems a little peeved to have caught me meddling with her things. Through the parting haze of my daydream, I note that Mandy’s reaction to me going through her stuff contrasts pretty starkly to my reaction to Melissa going through mine. She turns around toward the bedroom and I follow, her big ass a lighthouse leading me to a shore I’m even not sure I want to visit now.     

 

 

2.

I want to find the inventor of the phone that doubles as a two-way radio and throw acid on him.

Waiting on Bryant’s and my orders at Steak and Shake, I find myself surrounded by Golf Shirts barking into two-ways. The voices that respond are loud and garbled and communicate nothing, like ghosts trying to send a message from another world and not quite getting through. These conversations are ubiquitous wherever I go during work hours, and occur increasingly often when I go out at night, but I don’t recall being this annoyed by it before.

When cell phones became popular it was irritating enough to hear just one end of every conversation. Back then I could at least pretend that the person gesturing meaninglessly and hollering into his hands-free set was talking to someone smarter than him, and it would make humanity’s future seem a little less bleak. Knowing that there is a person of equal or greater stupidity at the other end of every conversation doesn’t do much to reassure me.

And suddenly the curtain is ripped back to display my naked hypocrisy as my own two-way beeps and Bryant wants to know what’s taking so long.

“Hold your horses,” I respond and turn the speaker volume down.

The phone chirps again.

“You there?”

“Uh, yeah, Bryant.”

And again.

“Hey-Low-hoo..” Now he sounds like one of the ghosts. I can’t even imagine what response he’s looking for with that condescending sing-song tone that I bet he uses with his kids all the time. I shut the phone off.

Later he predictably asks why I didn’t have my phone on me. Rather than argue, I tell him I had my hands full when he called, and if he wants to know why Steak and Shake takes so long, he can go pick up lunch from now on.

“Easy, killer,” he says in a condescending, don’t-blame-me tone that I bet he uses with his wife all the time. He’s not used to being talked back to.

 

My meditation time in the bathroom this afternoon is interrupted when I remember that I’m supposed to call Daniel. On our way to work this morning, he had mentioned going out tonight, and I want to make sure it’s still on. I use the land line here in the trailer instead of fighting again with my phone. The argument with Bryant didn’t amount to much, but it’s all the disagreement I have stomach for today.

“Phone still messed up?” asks Daniel, seeing I’m not calling from my cell.

“Yep. Are we still on for tonight?”

“Yeah, but there’s not much going on for a Friday. Maybe hit the big club in Addison later. Want to eat at Archie’s before that?”

“Where?”

“That Mexican place by the old Family Dollar store we ate at when we lived in the Villas.”

I didn’t know it had a name.

“Yeah, I miss that place. Guess you still need a ride home from work, since we’re going to the same place.”

“You know it. See you at five.”

Four hours later, we’re the only customers in a real Mexican restaurant. This is not the chain Mexican restaurants we usually go to; this place is the last remaining occupant of a run-down shopping center, owned by a Mexican family. Kitchen and all, the whole operation doesn’t take up 500 square feet. My menu is a piece of aqua-colored paper that was run off a copier low on toner, then laminated so the drops of hot sauce that inevitably fall upon it are easily cleaned off with a wet rag. Our table doesn’t have a drink and dessert menu of slick photos selling watermelon margaritas or two-inch-thick caramel-drizzled brownies. It’s a card table topped by a vinyl tablecloth with a couple of cigarette burns melted into it. The hostess isn’t a flirtatious college student luring us into thinking we’ll have a shot with her if we buy more drinks, she’s a junior high-age girl, presumably the daughter of the folks in the kitchen, who went back to her math homework one card table over after giving us our water. She was a little kid the last time we ate here.

While we eat, the girl is joined at the table by the aproned couple we’d previously only caught glimpses of throughout our meal. They sit down and help her add and subtract fractions, their doughy laps identical facing Daniel and me, neither of them daring to sit squarely at the table, to get too comfortable, in case either of us needs our yellow-clear plastic cup refilled. The chicken in my enchilada is veiny and sinewy, boldly ignoring the pretense I’ve become so used to in food that tries to make its consumer forget that it’s an animal that died on there, embarrassed by the severity of its sacrifice. 

 

From Archie’s we drive back uptown to go to the club. This place is the only occupant of another strip mall, but that’s because it’s leased every space, knocked down a few walls, and turned it into an “entertainment complex” split into massive quadrants that claim to give clubgoers a “four clubs in one experience”, making a hefty promise with that claim but delivering mostly mediocrity. It is to bars what the chain places are to that Mexican place we ate dinner at, a spit-shined imitation trying to mask its character deficiency with sheer size. Without VIP passes, we have to park in a lot across a major intersection, then catch a ride in an airport-shuttle-looking van whose purpose is to circle the lot, pick people up, and drop them off at the door so they don’t get run over or arrested while walking a quarter-mile to get to the party. We wait in line moving no faster than growing grass with other guys, corralled like cattle in a high-density feed lot while girls are rushed in ahead of us like the whole outdoors is on fire and the only escape is inside, paying a third of our cover. The sight of girls passing of front of us achieves the club’s desired effect of dangling steaks just out of tigers’ reach; once inside, we’re all going to sprain our shoulders reaching into our back pockets to buy them drinks.

Once inside, we bypass the country dance section, currently in chaos with a few guys shoving each other on the dance floor. The move is a strategic one, as Daniel knows that the discord, though quickly quelled, will funnel girls into the adjoining quadrant, where people are grinding away to a throbbing beat on a dance floor framed by ficus plants and purple walls. The strobe lights and loud music seem intended to induce seizures. Pretty effective, if some of the dancing here is any indicator. The crush of people intimidates me a bit at first, but I’m comforted when I realize how easy it would be to get lost in a place like this, should the need arise.

“I’ll buy if you fly,” Daniel says with a faux-wicked grin, handing me a twenty and a ten. I nod, having instantly decoded his message. Giving me entirely too much money is his way of telling me to buy four drinks. He’s planning on having girls for me to give them to by the time I get back from the bar. How does he do that, anyway?

We each hold up our ends of the unspoken bargain and I walk back from the bar just in time to hand a beer to a girl whose name I don’t quite hear over the music. Daniel and the girl’s friend already have their eye on the door, but they too have an unspoken agreement to go through a certain number of motions before heading home together, now that they’ve got their friends pawned off on each other.    

The girl and I talk for a bit, neither of us hearing much nor absorbing that which we do hear. I still don’t know her name, only that she switches to amaretto sours after a Bud Light and a Michelob Ultra. I’m trying to keep Daniel and his girl in my field of vision, but eventually they slip away without so much as a goodbye. The girl and I know we’ve been ditched, and we try again to make conversation. It’s hard to hear each other over that Shakira song that’s been everywhere this summer, so we try to position ourselves between quadrants, but it only has the effect of doubling the number of songs we have to compete with as country music mixes with Shakira. They combine and create an interference that’s a little much, but it may work to my advantage, if the music gets so irritating to her that leaving the bar seems a practical alternative.  

“Your friend was in a big hurry to get out of here,” she says. Good sign. Maybe she’s segueing towards the door.

“Yeah, well, he’s got to get up early tomorrow for work.”

“On a Saturday? What about you?”

“Not till ten. I’m meeting the concrete guy at the site to take some measurements for sawcutting.”

“Are you a construction worker?”

I try to make a joke.

“No, but I play one on TV,”

“Ohh…kay…” Her voice trails off a bit.

She doesn’t get it. I’ve either confused or insulted her. Her eyes leave mine, then travel over my shoulder to look for someone else to talk to. As she looks around, the light hits her face in such a way that for a second I can see what she is going to look like when she is old.

Awkwardness sets in as it dawns on us that she doesn’t want to go anywhere with me. Once she starts texting another friend for a ride home I vanish into the crowd rather than buy her another drink.

It’s hard for me to get too worked up over the loss of the girl. I’d have a tough time picking her out of a police lineup, now that I’m wading in a sea of club girls just like her. Besides, what did I miss out on? I’m an expert in that field, thanks to my recent pantomimes, both with Mandy and other girls from the club.

There was a time when encounters like the one we would have had were called sexual conquests, but that would be a misnomer. All that was once on earth for man to conquer has been discovered already, and it’s now marked by tourist attractions. Come morning, I wouldn’t have known any more about that girl than a family visiting Disneyland would have learned about Aborigines from the It’s a Small World exhibit.

We all present a veneer to each other here, and have no intention of allowing anyone to break through it. And dammit, that just doesn’t work with sex. Sex is organic: a hot, sweaty, stinky thing that undermines all the showering, brushing, combing, gelling, and spraying we do to trick people into engaging in it with us. When you get so close to a person that you can smell their stink, that’s where nuance is revealed. Nuance. Nuance is what separates a neighborhood bar from a club complex and Archie’s from any number of places that line the expressway with fifty-foot-high signs. We humans don’t smell like strawberry bubble gum or Axe Body Spray after all, and the force with which sex rips away that premise is jarring. Jarring and exhilarating. Makes me feel alive the way some people feel alive when they skydive, or bungee jump, or put their hand on a hot stove, or make little cuts with a razor on their thigh.

 

Once outside I ignore the van, defiantly walking across both parking lots to get to my truck. An H2 deviates from its path to the exit to nearly sideswipe me, its engine roaring as a douchebag with an upturned golf shirt collar leans out the window and screams mindlessly in my direction. Embarrassed and angry, I spit futilely at it as it peels away, the taillights illuminating a bumper sticker that says “W: Still the President”. Once I reach my pickup, I climb in and sit wearily in the cab with the keys in my pocket, as if these extra few seconds of sobering up will make the difference in my reaction time on the road.

During the walk across the parking lots my mind dredged up a long-forgotten lesson from my major field of study, that of economy of space. There are at least a dozen acres of automobiles here idly sitting, when the people that use them need only the four acres of space in the club. We devote more space and resources to inactivity than we do to activity. As a child I looked under sinks and stared at electric outlets and gas meters, wondering where the pipes or wires went, fascinated by an idea of a grand unifying underground network of sewer lines that tied every building in town together, connecting us all somehow. But here I see a dark side to all that, and I’m part of the problem, paving over creekbeds where fathers used to take their children looking for arrowheads, so these trucks can sit here comatose while their owners shop in strip malls. What a waste. I blink, and when my eyes open I find I’ve reimagined the lot as a valley that stinks like gray death, with the SUVs replaced by hundreds of buffalo lying dead with only their tongues cut out. Texas has come along way from being the wild frontier it still imagines itself to be, and I wonder where we deviated from what we should have been. 

I turn the key and drive, noting in my newfound consciousness the waste of space perpetrated by the single-story office parks I pass, each one an island surrounded by concrete lots where nothing can grow anymore but the occasional dandelion daring to poke through a crack in the pavement, only to be Roundup-ed out of existence the following Monday.

The radio cuts out abruptly as I merge onto the mostly empty tollway, leaving the cab as silent as a glacier. I park in the last covered spot in the apartment complex, realizing as I get out that I don’t remember anything about the drive home after the radio died.

I stare at the ceiling for a minute as I lie in bed in the empty apartment. An unfamiliar light from outside casts the texture of the ceiling into a fine relief and I notice for the first time an irregularity in the spot right above my head. I follow a pencil-thin straight line of a shadow until it makes an approximate right turn, then is obscured into darkness. It’s a backwards L shape, which I deduce is mirrored by an invisible upside-down one just like it that completes a rectangle where someone has patched the ceiling. I wonder for a second what could have necessitated this repair; the apartment complex is only three years old.
I can’t concentrate. My speculation of the repair drops from my mind silently, softly into a pool of jelly, causing barely a ripple as exhaustion takes over. I close my eyes and with an automatic precision like a pinball machine, my eyeballs roll up into my head, as if searching up there for some kind of trigger that will begin sleep. My breathing gets deeper and slower in a way that it has a million times before. I feel like I’m aware of the sensation for the very first time but I somehow know I’m always aware as it’s happening; I just forget every morning so it feels new again every night. I feel the descent of my conscious into my subconscious like an elevator, and I am suddenly watching it from above at the top of its shaft. As it plumbs the depths, passing each floor, I hear a single word resonate; it’s a word I can’t quite make out but one that I know is the truest thing inside me, warmly repeating, softer and softer as it descends further down, away, away.

 

3.

The concrete guys still haven’t shown up and it’s ten-thirty. I’m a little pissed, this being a Saturday morning. I walk back to the trailer from the empty hull of a building where I was supposed to meet them, pausing before I climb the trailer steps to knock mud off my boots from the first rain in a month.

“There he is!” a nasal voice calls out from inside a red Dodge pickup. It’s the foreman for the concrete guys. My relief that he’s here and we can get this done makes me forget that I was just pissed at this guy.

“I thought we were meeting inside the lease space,” I say, walking out to the padlocked chain-link gate to meet him. “Let me guess, you don’t have a key for this gate.”

“Naw, Bryant never got me one.” The idea of Bryant making a careless mistake is deeply satisfying to me. “I tried to call you, but it just rang and rang. Voicemail didn’t even pick up.”

“Yeah, I need to take it in. Not sure what’s wrong with it.”

Once inside the lease space we make idle conversation while he takes measurements, marking up the slab floor with a can of fluorescent orange paint. Monday his crew will return to cut long blocks out of the concrete, creating small canyons that will later be filled with underground PVC pipes. Some of the pipes will deliver electricity to plugs mounted in the floor, others will take sewage and waste water away from the building. Ebb and flow.  

He leaves and I go into the trailer to read the paper. Liberated by the absence of anyone else from the job site, I spread the paper out in my lap and put my boots, still a bit muddy, up on a bare spot on someone’s desk instead of having to go into the bathroom to read it.

There’s a war going on between Israel and Hezbollah. A graphic of a map with little cartoon explosions superimposed on it shows the proximity of Lebanon to Iraq, in a part of the world everyone around here claims to have an innate understanding of, despite never having been there. Theories abound in the trailer that turn the religious history of the region (which is also the religious history of Christianity) into a mash-up of a ghost story and a horoscope, in trying to explain the unexplainable. Karen once said authoratively that the strife over there is God’s way of punishing the Israelites for not accepting His son. This guy Dave retorted that the stage is being set over there for the Battle of Armageddon to be fought over Jerusalem. The only time I rode in Bryant’s truck he had a pamphlet sitting on top of a Bible that read, “Heed the Prophecies of Daniel!”. He’s said on more than one occasion that the world will end sometime soon (when they were selecting a new Pope last year, Bryant’s favorite radio program predicted that the new Pope would be named Peter, like the first Pope, and that would be a sign of the End Times), but not since I asked him why he kept showing up to work if he believed that. He’s now the only one of my co-workers who won’t share his faith with me, after I suggested, just to get a rise out of him, that religion is doing more to cause the world’s problems than it is doing to explain them. These Rapture-watchers I work with simply ascribe all that shit across the globe to a cosmically predetermined track we’re on that we can’t do anything about, just strapped into our seats while the car flies over a cliff. But as sick as Bryant’s mindset is, it’s probably easier to accept the idea of a fireball destroying the earth and all us fornicators than it is to try and comprehend the real human suffering going on in parts of the world where there are no strip malls, to imagine what causes that desperation that makes blowing yourself up on a commuter train or in a nightclub seem like a perfectly logical reaction to the world around you.      

Satisfied with having caught up on current events, I try to slide my feet off the desk and stand up all in one motion, but the left leg of my jeans gets hung up on a drawer that’s not closed all the way. The Dallas Morning News goes flying as I lose my balance and fall in a way that I’m glad no one’s here to see. I flop like a fish on the way down and almost regain my balance, but ultimately get so disoriented that I can’t even get a hand beneath me in time to brace myself, and hit my chin squarely on the linoleum floor. I run my tongue across the roof of my mouth but taste no blood, the sound of my teeth hitting together still ringing in my head, and stand up, slowly and gingerly, like I’m relearning the procedure.

I see it when I’m picking up the scattered newspaper, the Metropolitan section opened to the obituaries as if serendipitously. Off to the side of the page, I spot a name I vaguely recognize in small, stern typeface in the death notices. Perhaps still dazed from the fall, it takes a minute for me to figure out that the Amanda Hofstadter named here, age 29, killed in an early-morning automobile accident, is most likely Mandy.  

 

 

As a rule I never call in sick, preferring instead to cash in my unused sick days at the end of the year. Weird to consider that I’m so dedicated to being here in body, while my spirit hasn’t shown up in quite some time. Today, however, I make the phone call from a reclining position in my bed, putting my chin to my chest while I talk in an effort to make my voice sound strained. Daniel doesn’t need a ride to work, since he returned to his girl from the club’s place last night for a repeat performance.

I roll out of bed and go to the closet, where I pull a dry-cleaning bag up off a clothes hanger in the back to check on my nice shirt and slacks. Everything seems to be in order, so I’m out of excuses, and I run to the gas station to pick up a paper so I can re-check the time and place of the funeral.

Not having anywhere to be until three on a weekday is a feeling I haven’t had since the summer before ninth grade. The first summer I was legally able, my dad had one of his friends, Ray Cooley, put me to work. He would buy old houses and renovate them, which is how I got started on the path to my current career choice. The first summer I worked for Ray Cooley, before I had a driver’s license, he would pick me up in his truck and drop me off in neighborhoods old enough for the shade trees to have grown full and thick, forming a canopy over the street, lined by houses with wood siding. I’ve always had a summer job, or an eight o’ clock class, and now my career, which my hold on is getting so tentative that I feel I can ill afford to display my indifference towards it by not showing up.

Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, I take a deep breath, allowing air to fill my ribcage, and my breathing feels freer than at any point in my memory. I feel a sudden burst of energy and before I know it I’m on the tile floor doing pushups for the first time in forever. I don’t know how many I do, but by the last two or three, my arms begin to shake and I can barely push myself up. Satisfied with my effort, I rest my hands on the counter with my elbows locked and look again at myself. My breath is heavy, causing my tongue to spill out over my bottom teeth as I pant. I haven’t worked out regularly since college, but I only recently noticed that my body was starting to lose its modest muscle tone from those days. As the blood rushes into my chest and shoulder muscles I feel proud to think that for at least one day, I’ve done my part to combat the aging process. Taut. It’s a way I haven’t felt in a long time.

 

People arrive in pairs for Mandy’s service. I’m the only one that enters the funeral home alone, and I sit towards the back to watch people file in that I don’t know mourning someone I barely knew. I recognize the other two girls from the photo on Mandy’s fridge. They got fat like her, but not before they found husbands. All Mandy’s friends are married, it appears. Seeing these couples trickling in with their futures still ahead of them makes for a grim reminder that Mandy no longer has a future.

A minister speaks for a while, somberly at first, but ends with a lilting message of hope beyond the grave. The lights dim a bit, a motor hums softly as it lowers a white screen down above the podium where the minister was speaking, and a slide show filled with photos from Mandy’s life (that photo on her fridge wasn’t an anomaly; she really was beautiful at one time) flashes on the screen as those in attendance rise and line up to view her body. My sparsely populated row, the only one with an odd number of mourners, is among the last ones to rise, and we all shuffle reluctantly toward the casket. Unusually, Mandy’s head sits propped up on a pillow in a less exaggerated version of the way I was holding my head when I called in sick this morning. A waxy film appears to cover her face, which is decorated with makeup of a color I never saw her wear. It all conspires to keep her from looking like it’s really her in there, which probably takes a bit of the shock away for those who knew her.        

I decide to skip the interment, having already intruded enough to draw quizzical looks from those who truly belong there and may suspect that I’m more spectator than bereaved. Walking out of the chapel into a long corridor, my nose itches and I pause for a second to sneeze. I look up to the ceiling and breathe through my mouth to help things along, but the sneeze goes away.

I pull my truck away from the line of cars forming for the procession and a feeling grows inside me, stretching out like a shadow over my thoughts. I worry that one day her mom or dad may see me in public, parting the crowd to seek me out and ask me why I was at their daughter’s funeral. I was the only one there who didn’t go over to console them, and I know they noticed that.

Perhaps I’m overrating the interest in my presence relative to Mandy’s parents’ grief, but the thought persists and scares me because can’t have the little barriers that keep my life compartmentalized giving way and allowing the elements therein to mix together. When I would attend family picnics as a child I would search and search for the paper plates that had dividers to separate brisket from beans from potato salad from cole slaw. If I couldn’t find them I’d just load every item onto those little dessert plates and try to carry four or five of them at once. It’s a weakness I’ve never gotten over.

 

I’ve got just enough time to stop by Home Depot to pick up Daniel from work, so I head his way. Daniel’s already waiting when I get there, so I apologize for being late.

“Hey, Classy Guy, look who’s all dressed up,” he says as he climbs into the cab. I forgot that I was still dressed up, so I don’t have much to offer in the form of a response. “Big birthday plans, bro?” He catches me off guard again. How did I forget my own birthday?

“Yeah, let’s grab a beer.”

“Sure you want to be seen in that outfit with a guy like me?” I can’t help but crack a smile. For all our differences, he’s still my only friend, and I appreciate him. He remembers the names of old restaurants. He remembers birthdays.

“Course.”

Minutes later we sit at the bar at Applebee’s and Daniel finally asks, “So what’s on your mind?”

“I don’t know. Remember when I worked for Ray Cooley?”

“Yeah, that was a while back. Something happen to him?” He’s still guessing why I’m dressed this way.

“No, no. I was just remembering something about that first summer, when he was still driving me to work. He’d drop me off at one of those old houses, then I’d be all alone in a house with a bucket of paint, some lightbulbs and a few tools, getting the thing ready to turn around and rent out. Well, in one place the bathroom ceiling had big black splotches all over. That was nothing new; usually when I encountered that problem I’d use a little bleach on a sponge to clean the mildew off and get it ready for a coat of paint. But on this one I scrubbed like crazy and couldn’t get anywhere with it.”

“Okay.”

“So when Ray stopped by later to bring me lunch, I showed it to him. After he looked at it awhile, he told me it wasn’t mildew that was causing the black stains, the black was showing through from underneath the white paint. It looked like there had been a fire in the house at one time, he said, and the walls had been permanently stained by smoke. Rather than replacing the wallboard, they had just painted over it. Ray and I walked through the house and we didn’t find any other evidence of smoke or fire damage. They had rebuilt the whole rest of the house, but cheaply attempted to salvage the bathroom, which I guess was all that remained of the house after the fire.”

“And that’s why you’ve been so bummed out lately?” It’s a leading question. He wants me to say it myself.

“I’m just in a rut, and I wonder if I don’t need to tear down and rebuild.”

“Oh, okay. Look, you’re just going through what I went through a couple years ago, while you and everyone else was graduating from college. You’re discovering the cycle.”

“What cycle?” I ask, impressed that Daniel has given this much thought to the topic.

“Following your dreams. Getting burned. Seeking comfort. Losing your edge. It happened to me before it happened to you. You just manage to stave it off for a while by getting a, uh, career.” He leans toward me a bit and raises his eyes to meet mine, exposing white crescents underneath his irises. “So what are you going to do about it?”

“What did you do?” I ask.

“I fucked up. I kept on doing what I had been doing, and sometimes I feel like the only difference between me at nineteen and me now is a suspended license and the beginnings of a gut. But we’re not talking about me.”

 

I don’t have an answer for him. The next time the topic comes up is a rainy morning several weeks later, when I’m calling him from a pay phone on I-20, far from Applebee’s. I need to make sure he’s gotten the instructions I left for him on the counter, next to my dead cell phone. I’ve got a few loose ends that I won’t be able to tie up from where I’ll be. I hang up the phone and climb back into the truck I’ve been riding in for the last few miles, with an old man who was kind enough to pick up a hitchhiker in 2006. The old man pulls out a can of Copenhagen, and I wince a little as the sweetly sick smell of snuff wafts my way. It takes me back to the time after JV baseball practice when Daniel and I tried to dip snuff and spent all afternoon throwing up. The old man at the wheel told me he can get me to Dalhart, then I’m on my own, which will be tough. I’ve still got three days to get to Montana before the offer of a job on a ranch expires, but who knows how many drivers will be as kind as this one with a face like a road map.

By the time I get to this new edge of civilization Daniel will hopefully have sold my truck for me, and wired me half the money. The other half is his, and it still won’t repay him for the advice he gave me: Go somewhere and get uncomfortable. He seemed a little surprised on the phone this morning to see that I had taken his advice, but he congratulated me nonetheless. Maybe it will inspire him to do something similar.

The West Texas dust makes the rain come down like mud, obscuring my view of road signs through the windshield.


1 Response to “Thou Aren’t With Me”


  1. October 14, 2011 at 3:22 am

    I wish I had known you when you wrote this.


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