Betsy Shebang - Column for 1/29

Chapter 9

Eugene was the smartest person I knew growing up. He drew really well, he read constantly and he wrote essays and mailed them to people, which made everyone else think he was emotionally unstable, but to me it defined cool behavior. There was nothing he didn’t enjoy doing. He started meditating when he was ten, I think. Once he said he achieved some kind of meditative trance while walking around in a circle in his backyard, and for years he tried to do it again, over and over. I don’t think he ever got it to work a second time.

In college we sorta did comedy together. He was very funny. I rented a room from his grandmother after college and then he moved into the room when I moved out.

Eugene meant a lot to me growing up, but I had kinda given up on him since college. He’s 29 now and as far as I know he never leaves his grandmother’s property. And the best thing I can say about his grandmother is that she’s not as bad as his parents.

Eugene’s grandmother Grace is a retired physics professor who published some groundbreaking new model for acceleration derivatives or something when she was in her twenties. She’s very very smart, very sweet and generous. She’s a virtuoso harmonica player and she washes all her garbage and stacks it in bundles throughout her house. She never throws anything away. New stuff comes in but nothing ever goes out. I’ve heard she’s gotten worse since I lived there. Fortunately, she has only one cat.

When I moved out I tried to convince Eugene to come with me. I called him five years ago and he said he was going to move out when he was “ready”. He’s never going to be “ready”. Everything he’s ever owned is in his grandmother’s house and now he’s stuck there like a pile of aging newspapers. Eugene really, really needs somebody to burn his house down.


I thought about calling ahead but I didn't. I’m not sure if I could remember the number or not. Somehow parking in front of that house reminded me of the time I’d spent living there. It felt threatening, like the disease ward I’d only just escaped. I left my car parked in front of the liquor store at the end of the block, as if to protect it, and stepped over a few fresh newspapers on the porch as I arrived at the door.

I was hoping I wouldn’t find him there, actually. I was hoping his grandmother would tell me he’d moved out without telling her where. I got excited as I knocked.

Eugene answered the door wearing a bathrobe.

“Toby!”

“Eugene!”

“What are you doing here?”

“It's a long story. Can I come in?”

“Yeah, I'll clear some space.” I was afraid he’d say that.

Eugene carefully turned to look behind him, adjusting his robe. Underneath it he was wearing loose grey sweatpants and a Rush t-shirt. I think I was with him when he bought it.

“Where's your grandmother?” I asked him.

“She's at a Mensa meeting.” He backed into the house, pushing things aside as he did. I took a step inside.

Beside the door was a row of bales of folded plastic bags, each bound with string and stacked three feet high. Beside them sat a tower of five rusty VCRs balanced atop one another, like a depressing suburban totem pole. Every flat surface in the living room held a stack of newspapers. Piles and piles and piles and piles of newspapers. A couch, some chairs and some kind of home-gymnasium thing poked up from underneath the lake of boxes and garbage and newspapers.

The dining room to the right was filled with furniture, with several matresses stacked vertically against the wall – or, against the rows of bookshelves, filled with books - with bed frames and headboards leaned against the mattresses. Two couches were placed facing each other beside the bed frames, each stacked high with fishtanks and paintings and more boxes filled with bottles and papers and antique board games and books; all of it was packed with great efficiency, as if the whole house had been due to arrive at some distant island where several city blocks of worn-through civilization could be unpacked and reassembled.

Grocery bags full of brand new packages of napkins and toilet paper lined the hallway. The shag carpet had long since suffered a slow, terrible death.

“Does all this stuff belong to your Grandmother?”

“Yeah, it's been like this for a while.”

“She fixes VCRs?”

“No, she just keeps them.”

“Does she have anyVCRs that work?”

“Yeah, on her desk.”

I hadn’t even registered that there was a desk in the living room, but I couldn’t pretend to be too surprised. “Huh. So, Hi! Good to see you.”

“Yeah, hi. Thanks for coming by. C’mon.”

I followed him down the hall to my old room. It smelled no different than it used to, like a used bookstore after a minor flood. I don’t think I’d ever noticed that before. “So how's life in Portland?” I asked.

“Uh…’sokay.” Eugene crossed the room to the bed, stepping across a wide moat of magazines and papers. A pair of scissors and a thick stack of cut-out articles waited beside a Eugene-sized depression in the blankets, the shape framed on all sides by more old magazines and newspapers, like a chalk outline. Hundreds of worn books had been lined up against the wall beside the bed, each jagged row arranged directly on top of the row beneath, as if all the shelves had vanished at once and the books settled together like a jigsaw puzzle. This was new.

“You ever think about putting up shelves?”

“I’ve thought about it, but...you know, that'd be like a commitment to stay here.”

“You're not going to?”

“I dunno. I'm sick of it. I'm ready to leave.”

“You are?”

“Yeah. I just need to get away.”

“You said that five years ago.”

“Yeah. I needed to get away five years ago too.” He chuckled, like I’d asked the wrong question.

I glanced around. Again, there was a desk I hadn’t noticed at first. “Your grandmother ever heard of storage lockers?”

“She’s got three of them.”

“What’s in them?”

“Eh…lower-priority stuff.”

“Huh. So, what are you doing nowadays?”

“Ehh, Just...I've been sorting through some stuff. Trying to get organized. What are you doing here?”

“Can I move this stuff?” I picked up a stack of records and clothes from the desk chair.

“Yeah – just put it down there.” He pointed where I was standing. I did my best.

“I'm driving down the coast. Sorry for just dropping by. I just figured I haven't seen you in forever.” I sat down.

“That's okay. Where are you going?”

“Down South. Southern California. You been doing any writing?”

“No. I've been meaning to. There’s like, surface tension. It's hard to get started.”

“Huh. Been drawing or anything?”

“No. My stuff's in a box around here somewhere.”

“Why haven't you been writing?”

Eugene had been scratching his back behind his neck and swaying his head back and forth. Now he looked up at me. “Why are you asking me that?”

I glanced around the floor again. “Sorry. I remember liking your writing. I was hoping you were still doing it.”

“Haven't had time. I'm trying to avoid stress.”

“You been working?”

“Uh…I was doing phone support for Think Link for a while. I guess you were here when I did that.”

“And you stopped doing that?”

“Mmmh. People are afraid of technology and they take it out on the phone people. Anyway, there’s space for me here.”

“So have you been working here?”

“Helping my grandmother out with stuff. That's my rent.”

“Mmm hmm.”

I was still looking around, but something had changed. I got nervous. I was going to say something to him. I didn’t even know what yet. I stood up.

Eugene was still looking up at me. “So...you came by for a reason.”

“Yeah. Eugene...grab five things. I’m taking you to Los Angeles.”

“What am I grabbing five things for?”

“We're going to Hollywood. We always talked about making movies. If you want to do it before you die, you need to come with me. Now.”

Eugene’s head jerked to the side a few times. “So you’re going to…show up in Los Angeles?”

“Just like the Muppet Movie. And you’re going to go with me. Come on.”

“I think your business plan is missing some paragraphs.”

I nodded. “I know. Grab five things. I'm kidnapping you.”

“Oh! You're not kidding.” He laughed and looked down again.

“No. We're leaving now.”

“Okay, Toby, I think it’s a great idea, but…” He sighed. We both knew what he was going to say. “Where are you going to live?”

“I’m not sure yet - ”

“Okay, come on, how much money do you have? I can’t even afford to get my own place here. And people who can’t afford to live in California make a lot more money than people who can’t afford to live in Oregon.”

“I know. We'll have to get crappy jobs for a while. I've got my computer in the car. We'll write scripts together. You know we can do that. Our main goal at first has to be to get attention.”

“Where are we going to live?”

“We'll get a place. I've got some money. Not as much as I started out with, but what's important is that we get there. Nothing will happen unless we get there.”

Eugene lifted his hands in the air, sortof shrugging. I said it again. “Nothing will happen unless we get there. We’re just going to be stuck doing the same things for the rest of time and when we die they’ll say we were very talented and never did anything with it.”

“Toby...good luck.”

“Eugene, you're coming with me. Come on.” This was weird. I was angry.

“Toby, how long is your money going to last? A month? A week? How much do you have?”

“Look, I don't know what we're gonna wind up doing. Worst case scenario, we'll run out of money. Worst case scenario, at least we tried to do something. Then after we run out of options we can turn to crime and drugs. And through that, we can meet people and start networking.” Eugene didn’t laugh. A door slammed in the living room. I was hoping to be gone by now.

“That's my grandmother.” Eugene said. We each looked at the ground again. End of round one. The mad referee had arrived. We heard her shuffle through the living room and she appeared in the doorway, carrying two grocery bags filled with toilet paper. For some reason I was furious. I smiled.

“Why, hello, Toby!” she said, like I lived next door and was her favorite person. She does have a way of annoying people while failing to actually piss them off.

We moved into the kitchen and Grace put some water on the stove for tea. The cupboards above her were stacked with dishes and held closed with twine. Dozens more plates and cups and pots were stacked on the counters. I’d lived here before and I could think of nothing but what long-dormant substance might soon be floating in my cup.

Grace smiled again. “So are you moving back to Portland? Do you need a place to stay?”

“No, actually, I'm just on my way to L.A.”

“Oh. Well, it's good to see you, Toby. You know there'll always be room for you here – Oh, Eugene?” She’d placed the bag of paper products on the kitchen table; now she picked it up and handed it to him. “…can you put this in the hallway? They were on sale, I couldn't resist – “

Eugene took the bag and she continued. “Thanks. So, were you going to be staying here tonight?”

“No, actually, I was just hoping to come by and be taking off right away. I gotta be going.”

“Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Have you had any soup? You need some soup.”

“Oh, but I was just leaving. I actually don’t even have time for the tea, I’m sorry – I really appreciate the offer, though.”

“I'll give you a couple of cans of soup. Do you like cookies? Everybody likes cookies. Have you eaten lunch yet? I'll get you some groceries for your trip.”

“Oh, thank you very much, but you don't...Grace, are those VCRs in the living room working?”

“The ones by the door? You know, they're not. Some of them are a bit rusty. I just hate to throw them away, you know.”

“'Cause this is gonna sound strange, but when I get to Southern California, I'm actually going to be working with some friends on a video installation at a gallery, and I noticed you had all these VCRs that you didn't seem to be using.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And they're on a very very low budget. And I was actually wondering if you weren't using these VCRs, if this group could possibly make use of them.”

“Can your friends fix them?”

“They're very good with things like that.”

“Well, I was hoping they'd go to a good home. Do you want to take one of them?”

“Well, if you weren't going to be using any of them, actually, I was hoping my friends could use all of them.”

Eugene took two, I took three. Somehow we got the door closed. Grace stayed inside.

“Which way is your car?”

“By the store.”

“You didn’t tell me about your friends in Southern California.”

“I don't have any friends in Southern California.”

“Huh?” We walked past my car.

“Your grandmother is very sweet, but she's a sick woman. And now, she's a sweet sick woman with a little more available floor space. If she gives away one pile of garbage every day…she’ll be able to escape when the fire happens.”

An inviting dumpster poked out from behind the liquor store and after a moment we stopped beside it. The lid was open and I threw my pile of equipment over the rim without stopping. I turned to take the remaining two from Eugene.

“What are you doing?” he protested, clutching at them.

“What you should have done five years ago.” He threw one arm on top of his load, lifted one knee to support it, lost balance and I pulled the weight out of his hands. Stumbling, he chased the rusty pile into the air, and watched them tumble over the rim of the dumpster. He turned toward me.

“Toby, you're not going to change anything. She's just gonna fill up the space with something else.”

“That's not my problem.” Eugene followed me back toward my car.

“So what are you going to do now?”

“Leave.”

“Why'd you leave Seattle? What can you do down there that you can't do up here? Really?”

“It's gonna sound stupid.”

“You already sound stupid.”

We stopped in front of my car and I fumbled for the keys. I didn’t really want to find them yet. I stopped looking and stood awkwardly in front of Eugene, trying to look earnest instead of disgusted and not sure if there was a difference. “The only things we talked about as kids were movies and girls. We didn't even really talk about girls. We just talked about movies. Making movies. We knew that's what we were going to do. Not because it was practical. It wasn't practical. We just knew that's what we were supposed to be doing. Now I don't even know what that feels like. What am I supposed to be doing? I don't know. What do I want to be doing? I barely know that anymore. I haven't written anything because nothing is worth writing about. Nothing feels necessary to me, and that's a really scary feeling. So I'm not going there because it makes sense to go there. I'm going there because nothing makes sense.”

Eugene didn’t say anything. I tried to remember what I’d just said.

Eugene said “Yeah, that's rational.” I think he was joking.

“Eugene...what if we get there and we find a secret? Something we can bring back here?” I started fumbling for my keys again. “I don't know, I'm sounding like an idiot.”

“Toby...Why don't you stay at my grandmother's house, and we'll –“

“I am not going to stay at your grandmother's house. I'm sick of talking to you about this.” I unlocked the door.

“Toby, you're making a mistake.”

“I can't learn from my mistakes if I never make them.”

“Okay. Bye.” Eugene waved and walked away.

I climbed in and closed the door, wanting to vomit. My car smelled like sweaty bananas. I’m not even sure I’d noticed it before. Everything I owned was packed in beside me. I was no better than Eugene.

I felt like I had watched him drown. I threw him a rope but he wouldn’t let go of his fucking newspaper clippings and moldy book collection and lifetime supply of toilet paper long enough to take hold of it.

I thought about getting some kinda snack food but I just started the engine. I had so much of everything I’d need I wanted to throw most of it away again. All of it. I pulled on the seat belt, glanced in the mirrors and backed out of the parking lot.

Now I didn’t even know which direction to drive. There were freeways in each direction. I tried to think of something I could do there that I couldn’t do anywhere else, to convince myself I hadn’t wasted the hours it took to get there. I didn’t want to study a map. I wanted to be somewhere else as quickly as possible. I had a weird feeling like I’d just spent an hour in the company of ghosts. I dunno. At least Eugene’s grandmother leaves the house once in a while. I sat in the car, engine running in the middle of the boulevard. Finally I put it in first and drove back across the mouth of their street, back the way I’d come.

First I wondered if I knew anybody in Northern California who needed to be rescued from his or her miserable life. Then I had to admit that I was just looking for a way to put off arriving in Los Angeles. Then I decided that the only person that needed rescuing was myself and the fact that Eugene was so pathetic made me feel better and that was a kind of satisfaction I desperately needed to avoid. I was tired of being a scared fish looking for smaller and smaller ponds. The rest of my life would be a one-way trip away from Eugene’s grandmother’s house. Then I wondered what I’d do when I got to Los Angeles and ran out of money. By this time I’d passed maybe seven houses from Eugene’s street and I was ready to strangle both of us. I glanced in the rear view mirror to watch the street sign retreat in the distance, somehow out of fear it would follow me. What I saw, running toward me down the middle of the street, was Eugene.



Copyright 2002 Betsy Shebang

Columns by Betsy Shebang