Betsy Shebang - Column for 4/2
"So is this, what, thirty days' notice?" Peggy asked, with a sigh.
"Yeah. It's thirty days' notice."
"Okay. Do you know anybody who needs a room?"
I've decided to die.
I put my stuff in boxes - everything. Nobody was around in the middle of the day. My door would be closed when they returned. I filled my waste basket, then two trash bags, then five boxes with garbage I should have thrown out years ago. Things I had kept for ten years. Even twenty years. Things that had never been of use to me, finally recognized for what they were. My quest to postpone the ugly landfill process has finally been called off.
I carried a trash bag - one of the big green ones - into the bathroom and swept a whole shelf of old shampoo bottles into it. They were all sticky with dust, each one leaving a ring of white where the black paste of bathroom residue didnít collect. I grabbed the old grey soap that nobody used and pushed it into the bag. I threw out the loofa with the red mold growing on it. Every day Iíd wondered whoíd used it to give it that color. I went out of my way not to touch it. Destroying it made me feel clean.
I've spent my whole life writing and I've never done anything worth writing about. Every time I try to make up something it just becomes a complaint about how the world is rocketing downhill. Iím through with it. I'm tired of looking at beautiful women I can't have. Iím sick of wasting my time. All I ever wanted to be was a screenwriter, and maybe a director, who sometimes performs. And, yes, I also wanted to be a musician, and a sort of comedian. And a fetish photographer. A whole world of shameful lunacy is storming inside me, and Iíve been living the life of a wheezing air pump for the past fifteen years, just eating and shitting and breathing and sleeping. Iím hateful of it. Iím ashamed. Iím sorry.
Iíd never actually driven from Seattle to Los Angeles before. I brought everything I thought Iíd need. Most of the stuff in my room was garbage, all a kind of scar tissue kept as a shield against life, now packed in boxes in the center of the floor of the room I used to live in. Peggy will find it in a few days, when she knocks on my door because another creepy guy needs to think she gave him the wrong number. I couldnít care less now.
Today I just drove. A box of tapes and a tape player were belted onto the passenger seat. In the back seat I had clothes, sleeping bags, food, and my computer, in big clunky pieces. I felt like I was driving into the wilderness, carrying all my weapons.
I didnít have a map and didnít want one. Anybody who canít find California on a map doesnít deserve to get there. I was in no hurry. I needed time to decompress. I would arrive a different person.
I was driving through the woods - still in Washington, I think - after sunset when I started to get tired. No other traffic was on the road. The air was thick with wet drippy fog and the only light came from my headlights carving a tunnel of light through the trees. I couldnít get any radio stations. I put on an old tape of Jimi Hendrix or something and I tried to keep driving, but my eyes were closing and I realized I hadnít been sleepy when it was dark outside in months. I pulled off to the side of the road, draped both sleeping bags unzipped on top of me, and leaned the seat back. When I turned off the faint dome light, the whole world was black.
Several times I woke up with a start, remembering that I was behind the wheel but forgetting that the car wasnít moving. I heard myself shout "I CANíT SEE!! I CANíT SEE!" as if to alert any cars that my lights were off before I slammed into them. The next time I opened my eyes it was daylight and I felt stiff and alive like I couldnít ever remember feeling before.
The ground was still wet from the nightís fog. Beside the car was a steep upward slope of bushes and dirt; across the pavement was a green meadow bordered by a rusty barbed-wire fence. Trees filled the hills and formed a horizon in every direction. I didnít know where I was. It was a two-lane road, level where I parked, turning up a hill behind me - behind us, myself and the car - and dipping down some distance ahead. I couldnít see the whole valley, but the road rose up again after what was probably several hundred feet, climbing up another hill in the distance, then curving back into the trees.
Ate breakfast of soy milk and cashew nuts, walking around the car and feeling close to the Earth. A cold breeze was picking up, shaking off the last of my sleepiness. I threw the spent containers in the back seat and went to take a leak into the bushes, almost in celebration. No cars had traveled over that road since...since the night before? I felt strangely at home, like Iíd bonded with this place overnight. Like Iíd finally found a way to immerse myself into the world.
Then I remembered that...well, I was home. I no longer lived in Seattle. I no longer lived anywhere. I live where I am. And for now, I live right here: alone in the woods, with a road leading everywhere beneath my feet and a nearby downhill plunge to get the engine started.
Suddenly I had a strong urge to take off all my clothes. I was at home and the green, wet world would welcome me more deeply within its bosom - its womb. The feeling was positively romantic: sensual, sexual, but not lonely. It was one of those rare times I felt like I could masturbate outdoors without feeling like some kind of addict. For this moment I had escaped the suffocating judgment of the world; this was somehow pure and holy. I was alone with God, the trees, and my beloved car. I had everything I would need. I was the happiest man alive.
I would relish this feeling and proceed, my belt loosened in celebration of my new identity as a sensual creature of the Earth. No longer would I be so tightly bound, tightly wound, securely fastened in place. My wallet pushed up from my back pocket into the airy world, and I didnít care; pointy sets of second-string keys for doors I would no longer enter rattled familiarly in my pocket and, in a sudden gesture of some kind of rebirth, I pulled them out and threw them in the back of the car, to scrape against my leg no more. I would be a new man from this moment on. God, I wanted to fuck something.
I put my solitary car key into the ignition, turned it one notch and released the brake. The warning buzzer sounded because I wasnít wearing my seatbelt; duh! I wasnít even in the car - and the vehicle slowly began to roll as I pushed it furiously along, jogging beside it after only a few steps. Then something was wrong.
It was like somebody had touched me, or something had left me. I whipped my head around. I was still alone. Jogging beside the car. Breathing nervously. Something was changing.
Before I looked back on the ground I knew what Iíd find there. My wallet was now twenty feet behind the car. It lay open, the wind pulling at the twenty-dollar bills spilling out of the pocket. I pulled my hands away from the car frame and saw it move away from me. The slope was turning downwards.
My heart pounded, like a hammer nailing my feet to the ground. I threw all my weight onto my left foot, turning back toward my wallet and running furiously to retrieve it. In a single step I remembered that my wallet would still be there after the car had slammed into a tree or whatever was at the bottom of the ravine into which Iíd launched it. I slammed my right foot to a skidding stop on the damp road, turned and ran toward the car again, now just out of my reach in front of me. With my next steps I found myself flashing back to the image Iíd just seen of my wallet lying on the pavement with my budget for the trip spilling out into the gathering wind. I knew I should be running toward the car, but...well, somehow knowing my money was spilling out of my wallet every second made me less interested in running towards the car. It was at this point that the schism happened.
It was like a two-party system of government had suddenly established gridlock over my brain. I stopped in my tracks. The car was rolling away from me, picking up speed down the hill. My wallet was behind me, spilling all my money into the wilderness, like a confusing metaphor in a political campaign commercial. I stood in the middle, shifting my weight, as if to win the sympathy of the gods with my idiot dance.
I glanced back at my money and took off running full tilt toward the car.
The door was still open, and by now it was rolling straight down the middle of the road, as if to pursue career plans of its own. I ran very hard, like I hadnít run in years. Jeez, decades. Spending every bit of speed I had, I just kept up with the carís pace, following at a steady five feet behind.
It made me furious. Iím not even sure what I was angry at. I kept expecting the car to decide it had teased me enough and come to a sudden stop halfway down the hill. Hadnít I learned my lesson?!? But the car would not stop. And thatís when the light switched on inside my head.
This moment was everything I had avoided all my life. This was responsibility. This was adulthood. I was the only human being for perhaps hundreds of miles around, my car was rolling toward oblivion, and I was the one who had pushed it. Maybe this was a good thing. Somehow this thought made me calm down and run faster at the same time.
I came closer to the car, running furiously. I could hear the buzzing of the seat belt alarm, which in itself sounded more like a humilating taunt than a safety feature, since the car could plunge off a cliff right now and nobody would be hurt.
I finally caught up with the driverís seat, put my left hand on the door and set my right hand onto the roof, swung myself into the seat and grabbed the wheel. In an instant I hit the clutch, turned the key and turned it back - nothing happened - threw the car into second gear, turned the key again, pulled my foot off the clutch and I lurched forward as the engine slammed on. Itís always hard to remember exactly what order to do those things.
I steered back into my lane and it was only a second or two before we (the car and I) had dashed past the bottom of the ravine and started to motor back up the other side. Gunning the engine to be certain it was still running, I slowed to a stop, rolled backwards onto the shoulder, and turned to head back the way Iíd just come.
I pulled up next to my wallet and left the engine running. Some of the money was still inside, some was bouncing slowly up the road, and a few bills were caught in the grass on the shoulder, which I took as a personal favor from God. I quickly kissed the ground and said "Thank you." Being alone at times like that makes me all the more grateful.
I gathered up all the money I could see (I got most of it; Iím pretty sure I lost some), sat sideways on the driverís seat and breathed heavily for a few minutes. Finally, I pulled my legs in, closed the door, turned the car around again and headed South.
I numbly steered around a few curves and found myself shaking. Not quite crying. I was in a filthy car with everything I could stand to own. No other human being even knew what part of the country I was in.
For the rest of the morning, two images rattled in my head like sharp stones in a rock tumbler. The first was the picture of myself as an adult, finally chasing after all the things Iíd long expected to be brought to me, finally forced to choose between security and reality. I felt strong, and oddly somber, just thinking about it.
The second image was of a guy Iíd seen on the street, years ago. Iíll call him "Sisyphus in a bike helmet." Bike helmets, as you know, are designed to make people look like idiots, as some kind of sacrifice to the gods of traffic safety, but Iíve always suspcted this man wore his helmet more to hide his face than to protect his skull. He wore a school backpack that was heavily weighed down, packed full. A nylon bag awkwardly jammed with more stuff pulled down at his side. With one arm he carried two plastic bags and one paper bag, all filled with groceries. With his other hand, he pushed a bicycle and balanced a pizza. He moved slowly, and not proudly.
I watched with some disgust as he pushed his way up a long hill, and I thought about ambition. Ambition, you might say, is everything you want to accomplish, in the long run, despite your available resources. The things you want to accomplish with your available resources are just plans, and those are important as well. But some people live their entire lives plagued with immediate ambitions that are far out of balance with their immediately available resources. A man is determined to carry a pizza and ninety pounds of groceries up the hill; he owns one bicycle. Thereís an imbalance there, and in the end, it will be humiliating. The image of this man forever reminds me that determination, in itself, is not necessarily a good thing.
I get confused when I think about this stuff. I believe itís important to work hard, but I know itís better to stroll lazily in the right direction than to run valiantly in the wrong direction. I believe dignity is a waste of time, but I also think itís important to pull my head out of my own ass once in a while and see myself the way others do. Trying to do too much with too little sounds like resourcefulness, but in reality it makes people look and act homeless, even when you see them walking out of their houses. Every move looks desperate, like a plea for assistance from someone who clearly canít satisfy his own basic needs.
The image of the guy with the bike helmet just made me feel embarassed, and frustrated, and hopeless. Iíd seen the guy in a reflection in a store window. The guy was me.
Copyright 2002 Betsy Shebang
Columns by Betsy Shebang