I found a dead baby bird on San Pablo Avenue today and took it home and buried it in my back yard
I thought about getting health insurance and bought a new amplifier instead
An electronic sign reads my car’s speed as I approach it
It flashes “35” in yellow LEDs—too fast for this road
Some other fucking sign says “don’t do this”
Another says “don’t do that either”
Leave that thing alone
Keep off the grass
You can’t be here
Put that down
At night I drive around Berkeley in the police car and chain smoke and laugh about absolutely nothing
I had a girlfriend one time. Or anyway I think she was my girlfriend. Her name was Ashley Alexander and she had red hair and was pale and thin. I liked her a whole lot. She had come from Germany. Her family lived there because her father was in the military. And when she moved here her neighbor, a girl I knew named Amber, told me she was “weird” and that we would be good friends. How she ended up being my girlfriend I don’t know. I think she asked me. I don’t think I ever kissed her on the lips.
It snowed one winter. I remember it was a lot of snow. She told me her parents were out of town and invited me over to “get snowed in together.” There ended up being two or three feet of snow on the ground and school was out for a week. I could have spent that whole week with her and the snow would have come down hard and we’d have been there in that big house, but I didn’t do it. I was clueless and went sledding with my friends instead. And I think the thought of someone wanting to be around me was terrifying for some reason.
I can’t even remember going sledding. I’ll bet I would still remember that week with Ashely Alexander.
A boy named Kyle went to her house instead. He’d tagged along with her friend Emily. He was the worst person I’d ever met. She called me and said he was there and that she didn’t want him to be—and that she thought he was a miserable sack of shit. I told her to tell him I would punch his face off if he didn’t leave her house. She told him. He left. He never looked at me again.
I remember a girl coming up to me at school one day. She said, “Hello, Mr. Alexander.” And she winked. Later that day I told Ashley I couldn’t be her “boyfriend” anymore. I had to be alone, I told her.
That summer she met a bunch of horrible people and went insane. She chopped off her beautiful red hair and turned into a boozing jerk. My friend Brent ended up dating her around this time. We went to her house one morning after she’d been drinking for days and days. We pulled the good cop / bad cop routine. I was the good cop. I made her laugh and I hugged her. Jesus, she was a mess, but I loved her anyway. She was pissed at Brent for being so hard on her but she told me I was OK.
(Later that day Brent would take off his pants in the driver’s seat of his own car and show me the enormous knife wounds on his legs that he’d given himself the night before.)
Ashley went to a different school after that. I didn’t see her that often. She would call me at night and tell me she hated her friends and asked me to come see her. Mostly I didn’t. I don’t know why.
Once, at 2 a.m., I showed up in her basement room and picked her up off her bed and was swirling her around the room for some reason, maybe because it was funny. Her mother heard us and came downstairs and caught me there. She said, “Ryan, you know I love you, but please put my daughter down and come back when the sun is out.”
The last time I ever saw Ashley she was wearing cowboy boots and chugging a 40 in the backseat of my friend Ginny’s car. We shared a cigarette and she said I looked different. I said, “You look different too, Ashley Alexander.”
The last time I talked to her she said she was moving to Austin and getting married. She told me to keep sending her messages late at night.
I tried doing that last week. It was the first time in maybe two years. The number was dead. Maybe she is too. I sure hope not.
She was a good one. I hope she’s breathing somewhere. Hell, I just miss that god damn girl sometimes.
Most nights I stare at my muted television and watch Harrison Ford make out with Sean Young
The sun has just come up and I am rocketing across the Bay Bridge in a Tesla electric sports car. The driver is half-drunk and asking me to read from a stack of paper at my feet. My leg is still bleeding from a bicycle wreck the previous night and I may throw up inside the one hundred thousand dollar car at any moment.
San Francisco is on both sides and the sky is completely cloudless. As we rip past the city and head south towards Palo Alto, the driver tells me there are bagels under my seat and that I am welcome to have one. She tells me to keep reading from the paper. My head is pounding and I feel gutted and twisted and horrible and I want the car to crash and for San Francisco to explode.
At the airport she opens the trunk and I get out. I make eye contact with a silver-haired man and when I do he sneers at me. He says to me wordlessly that it is ridiculous for anyone my age, or maybe anyone at all, to be driving around in such an absurd vehicle. I am too tired to tell him I agree.
I walk around to the back and collect my bag. I wave to the driver, saying, “I’ll see you when I get back. I think I’m coming back.” She squints her eyes and smiles a little and turns away.
“I’m getting a root canal today,” she says, not looking at me. “And then I’m getting a tattoo.”
She gets in the car and slams the door. The little silver car rockets through the passenger unloading zone at eighty miles per hour and disappears soundlessly around a corner.
• • •
Gate 30 is full of terrified, miserable people who are probably on their way back to Wisconsin. An old woman drops her sandwich in front of me and screams, “Aw, fuck it! I don’t fuckin’ care anyway!” and storms off, dragging her wheeled suitcase with her. Over the next ten minutes, three separate people walk by and examine the corpse of the sandwich, which has exploded onto the millimeter-thick piece of shit carpet, saying, “Oh no!”
A pretty girl is sitting across from me. With one hand she is holding a paper cup filled with coffee and in her other hand she is reading something on her phone. It makes me feel weird. I don’t care that she is pretty anymore. I don’t care that anyone is pretty anymore.
I look around. Everyone is holding coffee with one hand and a phone in the other. For a moment I consider bolting out of my seat and running around knocking coffee and phones out of everyone’s hands, screaming, “Be free, ape folk! Be free, you crazy god damn fools!” I figure some TSA officer with a bad haircut and a clip-on tie would taze me to death in seconds if I did that. Instead I stare at my shoes and calculate how many miles I will have to travel before I can lie down in a bed again.
One thousand six hundred miles is the magic number. The number makes me feel exhausted.
After a few minutes the old woman returns with a fistful of napkins and scoops up the remains of her lunch. “Can’t just fuckin’ leave it here like this! That ain’t no way to act!”
A doughy middle-aged man in a blue polo shirt is pacing around me and talking on his cell phone. It is one of the most idiotic conversations I have ever heard—something about lawn furniture and football. He is talking about these things as if they are nuclear launch codes. Somewhere else I can hear a couple discussing the logistics of wearing their jackets on the airplane when they don’t yet know the cabin temperature. The woman is holding a book called When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles. With her other hand she is moving a stroller back and forth. The child inside screams and announces to the world that it would like some ice cream.
I am half asleep in my chair listening to Flood. I feel like a bucket of dog feces. I try to remember why I am going to Austin and can think of no good reason. Briefly I seriously consider taking a train home.
• • •
Eventually they file all of us dumb sacks of hamburger meat onto the plane. Everyone’s face is drooping and the air is foul. I pick the window seat on the wing and slump against the wall and fall asleep.
I wake up in San Diego.
In San Diego I find a chair near my connecting flight and decide that anyone who likes airports is a delusional moron. Looking around I notice that my gate to Austin is between the gates leading to Baltimore and Oakland. I am surrounded by portals to every city I have ever lived in—and in chronological order.
When my plane arrives a famous porn star steps off the jet bridge and walks by me. I look up at her and she smiles. It is a strange, uncomfortable smile. She is mostly not real anymore. Her lips are not her own. Every man in the room watches her as she approaches a little cafe to order coffee. They dart their eyes around nervously.
As the plane begins to board, I regret not going back to Oakland when I still had the chance. A woman in line behind me whispers, “There’s the boy from San Francisco! Guess he’s going to San Antonio, too.”
• • •
Rudie calls me when I get to San Antonio. He says he is walking around baggage claim looking for me. I tell him my baggage is on my back.
We find each other near a crowd of cheerful elementary school children. They are excited to be in San Antonio.
Together we walk to the parking garage and get in his car. He asks me if I have any deodorant in my bag. He says, “I love you, but right now you smell like a homeless person.”
The sun sets on the drive to Austin. I look at the sky and realize I had not thought about Texas at all in the nine months I have been away from it.
• • •
Rudie parks his car on my old street. We get out and go into the house next door to the place where I used to live. Inside are my old neighbors. I remember liking them and I remember them liking me.
Everyone I used to know is gathered in the kitchen. Their feelings must have changed, because when I come in they look at me like I am Adolf Hitler. I ask if I can leave my bag somewhere. One of them says “sure.” I ask where Jason is—I haven’t seen Jason in almost a year—and someone says he is riding his pedicab downtown. I say we are going for walk and they look at the ground and say nothing.
I tell Rudie I know of a diner nearby. He and I walk down lamplit streets and through dark fields of grass to get there. As we pass Spider House Cafe I point to all the swirling neon and madness and say, like an old man, “I liked that place. I used to go there all the time.” In my brain I feel an annoying sentimentality for all the god damn queso I ate there. We keep walking and I watch a band set up on the outdoor stage. Soon it will be loud and my memories of melted cheese will vanish.
At the diner we stuff food into our mouths and drink a gallon of coffee. Rudie says he is going to move to Tokyo soon and wants me to come to his wedding there. I tell him that I am never going to get married, but that I like weddings anyway. I like Tokyo too. I tell him I haven’t been there in three years.
We talk about Nakano prefecture and the little curry restaurant there. Rudie says it still exists—he ate there weeks ago. I feel pathetic when news of this restaurant is exciting to me, because for god’s sake, what affect does that have on my life at all.
I pay the bill and we shamble out of the place. In the parking lot I hear music in the sky. Bands are playing everywhere for miles. It sounds psychedelic and terrifying. Rudie says he is going back to San Antonio and we hug and he drives off.
I start walking towards the university campus. I take a plastic filter from my breast pocket and shove a crumpled cigarette into it.
• • •
It is nighttime and the wind is cold. I am walking through campus and my hands are in my pockets. In the dark I think that Austin is a toy city made of cardboard and plastic and I am trapped inside. I am wandering the shelled-out nightmare ruins of a life that used to be mine. Everywhere I look is someplace I have been before. Now I can see none of it is real anymore. I have left it and it has gone from me too.
At twenty-six my life is the worst episode of The Twilight Zone ever written.
I have made my way into the central part of this strange place. I stand at the foot of the clock tower and slam another cigarette into the filter. I had bought a pack earlier at the airport to use as currency. People always want a god damn cigarette from you. And if you give them one, they tell you things or invite you along to wherever they’re going and sometimes, later, into their cars and homes. Then it gets weird—all because of a cigarette.
I am thinking about where a cigarette might take me when two boys walk by. One of them is talking loudly and the other has no choice but to listen—maybe because he thinks this person is his friend, or maybe because generally it is rude to run away from someone even if what they are saying is complete garbage.
In this case the garbage is the worst kind of toxic waste: “Dude we got drunk and took xanax on the beach. Then we fuckin’ did some fuckin’ MDMA and later acid back at the house. Dude—then hours later we smoked a buncha weed. Hah! And we’re just so high and feeling so great and someone says something about sleep and the whole room laughs. It’s like, come on, dude. Sleep? How can you sleep at a time like this?”
And on and on.
As they pass I watch them. And when they look at me I don’t look away. I had told a friend the week before that I have stopped looking away. It really rattles the squares when you do that—when they catch you eyeing them and you keep doing it anyway.
The dopey kid talking about ingesting near-fatal quantities of drugs looks nervous as hell about it. He watches me out of the corner of his eye and seems to falter. His voice lowers and the story, or whatever you want to call the damn thing, tapers off into a pathetic mumble. He doesn’t feel cool anymore. I have invalidated his entire life with silence and a stony glare.
The pair is silent now, walking somewhere in that late hour, maybe to a nice place where no dumb jerks like me can sneer at their idiot banter any longer.
Jesus, I think. These god damn kids are fools. I was a fool as well back then, no way around it, but I was a different sort of fool. At least my mind was straight. At least I told half decent stories. Well—maybe they’re studying engineering. Maybe they’re going to grow up to be biochemists. I’m just another loser with no place to go. I’m on a college campus where I have never taken a single class, and I’m smoking a cigarette and judging strangers on the merit of their storytelling.
I look across the way and see the Texas State Capitol lit up the color of the moon. I wonder if I should go to it. No one is expecting me anywhere. I am prepared to sleep outside. If I die and some larger animal eats what’s left of me I am fine with that.
• • •
The main drag is empty and I am alone. I hear a bird shriek out and immediately assume it isn’t real, just a recording. I haven’t heard a bird in months.
When I reach Pearl Street I stop and think about a girl who used to live in a big house there. I haven’t slept in almost two days and in my delirium and insanity I consider that maybe she is still inside and all I have to do is go in and find her. And when I do I can lie down next to her and fall asleep.
I walk up to the front door and, gazing in at the warm light in the center of all that emptiness, I remember that she is five years older now and thousands of miles away.
Some kids are sitting in a car parked outside. They are laughing and talking. When I walk down the path to get back to the sidewalk they stop and look at me with disgust. My eyes are sunken and my face is pale and gaunt. I feel old and unwanted.
For miles I walk through the darkness not feeling anything. I reach Guadalupe Street and head north, retracing a path I have taken hundreds or thousands of times before.
As I turn onto 34th Street I blink and feel the warmth of my eyelids on my frozen face. My vision begins to dim and I nearly collapse.
The front door to Jason’s house is unlocked. Inside all the lights are out. I tread through the gloom to get to him. He is asleep on his bed. His arm is lit up by the moonlight peaking in through his bedroom window. I nearly place my hand on it but decide not to.
I go into the living room and sit cross-legged on the floor for a while. I wonder if Jason stills knows me. I consider waking him just to ask. I become fearful when I realize the answer might be “no.”
A rooster crows somewhere nearby. The sun will be up in less than an hour. I crawl from the floor to the couch. The room is freezing. I don’t have a pillow or a blanket. I take off my denim jacket and throw it over my legs. I wrap my arms around my torso and close my eyes.
I feel like I don’t have a lot to say because I am simpler now
The other night I had what I guess you would call a “sex dream”
Like all the other ones I’ve ever had, it was fucking terrifying
I’m there with this woman thinking “God why am I doing this” and every time I look at her face it’s different
And her face keeps morphing and morphing . . . even while I’m looking at her
I don’t know any of these women, I have never seen these faces before
Maybe they are an amalgamation of a whole bunch of people
And worse: sometimes the face isn’t a face at all—just a swirl of color as it settles on a solid form
In my dream I got up and went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror
On my chest was a tattoo of some 1920s-looking guy with a handlebar mustache
“Why oh why do I have this godforsaken tattoo”
The man is looking into a birdcage, and inside is a tiny woman playing a violin
Above his head a speech bubble: “Hell of a bird!”