published in Volume 7, Issue 2 on July 25th, 2000
We used to live together, three guys and me, the lone girl, in a house that leaned to the left. Seriously. If you looked from the street you could see the tilt -- its back-of-the- gym and alone-at-the-dance recline. The house probably should have been condemned years before we ever offered to move in. The foundation was vericose cracked like a map of rivers for idiot explorers. Every second-floor ceiling leaked. The wiring in the walls were exposed or frayed. Inevitably, something would short a fuse whenever it rained. The floorboards in the living room bowed to the center. You couldn't leave an apple on the coffee table without having it chase after it seconds later. The stairs to the front porch were dry rotted to be like an alarm of sorts. The chimney flooded whenever the shower upstairs ran. There was no respite from the floorboard heat. The thermostat had been set to eighty and then smashed. It was something of a fine science, the opening windows and the positioning fans, in order to pitch a comfortable draft. The stove never completely turned off, either. You couldn't smoke in the kitchen for fear of a gas explosion, and after you cooked, the first floor stank like spoiled eggs. And, of course, there were bugs. Angular bodied, many legged bugs, with weird googily eyes and sticky, greenish paste for insides.
In time, we detailed each of our various, sometimes wholly unrelated, complaints to our landlord, "Leisure Suit" Larry Funk, over the phone and in hastily written, jointly signed letters. But that was long after other things had started to fall apart. At first, we loved the place. Loved it. The ambiance and the decay suited us just fine. What it lacked in creature comfort, it more than made for through sheer force of inspiration. It was the kind of place we figured we'd look back to long after we'd become rock-n-roll famous. It was the perfect setting, we thought, for great beginnings.
Dusty'd found it without really meaning to, while riding his bike home from the library. Staked in the front lawn was a rusty red "For Rent" sign, advertising to anyone interested only the first five digits of a phone number. We spent an afternoon camped out on the front stoop waiting for someone to show up. No one did, of course. It took a neighbor -- a local yokel, overalls and no shirt, grease-soot over sun-cragged skin -- to tell us that the house was empty. "Has been for years," he said, squinting an eye before spitting a wad of tobacky into the shrubs. "If you're interested," he added in a tone he’d may well have found use for before, "the guy who owns it also runs the local flower shop." So the next day we bought a bouquet of yesterday's carnations and gave our florist, our landlord, the bald patted Mr. Funk, one month's rent and another in security deposit. He said we could move in on the first, and he didn't bother to run a credit check or ask for co-signers. "You look like good kids," he told us as he trimmed the stems off someone's roses. "I'm sure you'll be fine."
We were, too, despite the fact that our income came, at best, in dribbles and spurts. We had plenty of good reason to withhold a month's, but we never once were late. Which, of course, meant, we had to scrimp on other essentials. We furnished rooms in lawn chairs and plastic picnic tables. Dusty stole dinner plates, one by one, from his stepmother's flower-edged Corningware set. Lint gerry-rigged cable to the back of an old black-and-white I'd bought off a graduating senior for eight dollars in quarters. And Mac thefted a roll of old clothe from a winter-term production of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," and he made drapes for all the upstairs bedrooms. By the time everything was done and moved in, the last "Last" poster funtacked and dimpled up, we were dead broke and near-exhausted.
It was a dream come true.
We christened the garage that first night, running electrical cords out the kitchen window, across the driveway, and through the broken panel of a small side window. Three amps into one socket; me on fire-watch. We covered every song we knew -- all dozen or so -- playing each louder than the one before. And then, when we were done, we played them all again. We were testing the neighbors, I suppose. At 3 a.m., still half-expecting the cops and then a front page break, we finally called it a night. Mac and I slept in the same bed for the first time. Nothing happened, truth be told. We closed our eyes talking about the things to come, the places we'd go, and the bands we'd someday play with. In the middle of the evening, Mac rolled over and threw an arm around me. I'd like to say I felt safe, but the truth is I just felt sweaty and uncomfortable. He snored and hogged the blankets and woke-up way earlier than me. By the time I made it downstairs that next morning, he was wide-awake if still pajama'd. As were Lint and Dusty. A stack of blueberry pancakes, coffee, and four halves of grapefruit were waiting for me. Lint and Dusty knew, of course, where Mac had laid his head. They assumed all the things I would have, too, if I were them. They may have even seen an end in such beginnings. I didn’t, of course. I finished off the maple syrup and wished this morning would stretch like sunshine out to forever.
Mac worked, most days, at the university library. He stacked books for a five bucks an hour. He held down the job mostly because they'd let him leave for full weeks at a time. It would be good for our tour dates later on, he figured, but, on barely a hundred bucks a week, it was bad for living well now. Lint was a computer programmer, a whiz with all things inanimate, and Dusty -- six foot six, an easy two forty, lacking almost completely in all manner of coordination -- taught second grade. Together, they did lots of speed. As far as I could tell, only Mac and I ever slept. And he probably wouldn't have if I didn't tempt him into bed. He would have watched TV and hit the crank until morning, if it wasn't for sex and, or so he said, the look in my eyes.
At the time, I delivered pizza for "A Peace of the Pie," this tacky sub joint next door to the college bookstore. Marvin, the pot-bellied townie who spun the pies, liked to swat my ass as often as he could. Every order came with a pat on the behind. His hands were always red with tomato paste and by the end of the day, there were visible prints on the seat of my pants. The situation was, as my mother liked to point out, not exactly what my biology degree had prepared me for. I tried to explain about selling out while both my parents tried to convince me of buying in. Everybody claimed only to want the best for me, but I was unconvinced there was such a single thing. There was just getting by, or so I figured, and I keep the job mostly because Marvin let me keep the delivery van at home at night during the week.
We decided, early on, to pool our money as best we could. We tried our best to live collectively, but Mac and I were always coming in short on our share. Lint and Dusty didn't mind so much except when our expenses cut into their drug fund. When they found out we were spending band money on birth control, they went ballistic. Dusty punched out a window. We had to take him to the hospital while we all were fucked up. We drank herbal tea on the way. A whole steaming pot-full in the back of the van. Lint had heard it fucks with the drug tests. "Gives up a false negative," he’d said. Dusty was crying the whole way, his hand wrapped in a dish towel, bleeding into his tea cup, terrified that they'd throw his ass in jail after they stitched him back together. At the hospital, the doctors concentrated only on what Dickie’d done to himself. They told him he'd be lucky to be able to hold a pencil much less play the guitar again. The medicine they gave him for the pain caused him to collapse the next day in front of his second graders. The tranquilizers tugged at his heart opposite to all the uppers in his system. The admitting nurse at the ER said it was like trying to go up and down a ladder at the same time. "Instead," she said, "he just fell off." After that we switched drugs, selling the last of the rock of speed for a bag of Quaaludes and some heroin for sniffing. Dusty traded Lint guitar and amp for drums and sticks. It was a Faustian bargain if there ever was one, but one that made us sound as a band, none the worse.
The house soon desperately needed a woman's touch. None of the boys had much decorating sense beyond a talent for stacking empties into giant pyramids and leaving their underwear around. So my solution: I stole plants. I started by swiping pots right off people's front porches. It seemed somehow wrong to me to pay for greenery. God grew it and he ain't getting no royalties there. So I stole as I saw fit. Sometimes even the cactus before the pot. In time, every windowsill, every tabletop, every crag, and every crevice had something stood on it. It got so you couldn't cop a squat without having to move a flowering brocade or a gentle-wilting fern out of the way. Watering them was a weekly chore that no one else pitched in on. The boys weren't much interesting in greenery they couldn't smoke, and, frankly, we all avoided working around the house as much as possible anyway. We convinced ourselves that the house was so dilapidated that an unwashed dish or a two-inch dust ball could only add to the ambiance. But my plants... When I'd leave for a weekend home, even if all the boys were around, I had to beg other friends to commit themselves to their care. I had to call in odd favors I'd hoped to hold on to longer, trading out airport pick-ups for a half-hour’s time over Memorial Day. Mac even started calling me Ficus, and every time he did, right on cue, Lint would crack, "Ficus, she barely even knows us." And every time they’d both laugh away like it was the funniest damn thing ever.
It was a good three months before we played our first real gig. We set up a stage off the back porch and posted flyers around town for anyone who cared to come. It was summertime and school was out. The town was a hodgepodge of locals and exchange students too poor to pay the transcontinental. Mac broke a string halfway through the second song and, in punk-rock frustration, sent his microphone hurtling out into the backyard. Someone stole the CD player out of Lint's bedroom. The beer was gone before midnight, and someone tried to microwave soup while it was still in the can and blew out the fuse box. It was admittedly not our finest moment. A little too rock-n-roll, maybe, for anyone’s good.
Margaret, who'd been an occasional lab partner until she graduated, showed up unexpectedly. She was, she said, moving back to town.
"I'm getting married," she told me, confidentially, while we malingered in the kitchen trying to make drinkable sangria out of cooking sherry, lemon juice, and sad aged apples.
"Get out," I said, shoving her. "To Tim? How long have you two known each other?"
"Eight months or so. He proposed last week. Completely out of the blue."
"I thought he still had another year of school."
"He does," she admitted, "that's why I'm moving back for now. After that, who knows? He wants to move out west. Lord knows, neither of us want to stick around here any longer than we have to."
"What's so wrong with here?"
"Melissa, look around you, it's nowhere."
"It's not nowhere."
"Well, it's close enough. You guys have your band. It's fine for you for now. But, you know, it's still pretty much nowhere."
"Yeah, well," I said as the lights outside flickered back on, the fuse box fixed. "If this is nowhere, then I guess I'm just not ready to be anywhere else yet."
Shortly after the party, and for no apparent reason, the right side of the house started sinking again. Noticeably. From the front yard, you could see the basement pulling up, out of the ground. The next door neighbor, the same guy who'd helped us move in, called the planning and zoning commission. He was worried that our house would topple over onto his. His wife was an invalid. She looked like she was going on ninety-five. Deaf as a post and not half as pretty. She spent most days in a rocking chair, watching the world out a front-facing window. She was the one to first notice the tilt. "Leisure Suit," came over on an hour's warning and our filled the basement with concrete. He just backed up a truck, threw opened a small side window, and filled her up. There were things stored down there that no one had thought to move. Mac lost an old stereo. Dusty had boxes of textbooks and a chest of winter clothes. Lint had hidden various dime bags of drugs and a collection of well-thumbed pornographic magazines. I'd stored my prom dress, which I thought someday I'd want to perform in, and a locked box with my passport and other assorted important papers. All of which became firmament. None of which had much value beyond the sentimental, the bureaucratic, or, in Lint's case, the illegal. All of it was lost, forever, to help to stop the shift, and, for awhile afterward at least, nothing much moved at all.
Before graduation, unbeknownst to us, Lint was offered a programming job out in California. It was a lot of money, stock options, and a benefits plan replete with retirement planning. He turned it down on principle alone. He saw little to gain in designing systems for status-quo corporations. Lint always fancied himself something of a hacker. When stoned, he liked to talk about the old days and his 1200-baud modem, the kind you actually had to put the phone receiver on. The Web to him was not a marketing tool, but, rather, digital liberation. His vision was of a world without boundaries, linked together electronically, binarily, through phone-lines and satellite hook-ups, through terminals and C-languages. The money his friends made on stock options infuriated him. He claimed Bill Gates stole ideas he'd seen circulating 10 years earlier. The drugs, he said, helped him feel more wired. When he's really fucked up, he'll write code. Strange programs that seem to do nothing. Made me feel lucky to at least be delivering pizzas. Lint worked for the college, troubleshooting computer problems from the basement of the Student Union. One night, not long after that first gig, he hacked into the financial aid department and repaid 10 years worth of loans for a couple hundred students. The police showed up at our front door not two days later, nightsticks drawn, badges hung loose off shirt pockets. They took Lint away with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. He was handcuffed. The lights on the squad car were left to whir. We had to bail him out with what was supposed to have been that month's rent money, along with two-grand I borrowed in tears from Marvin. It became big news. The local newspaper carried the story and some wire service picked it up. We all thought it was at least a chance to plug the band, except we didn't have a name yet and none of the stories said anything at all about the rest of us. Lint would have been in a remarkable amount of trouble (the school was intent on pressing charges) if that same California company hadn't stepped in. They offered Lint legal representation (and the influence of a few well-placed alumni) if he'd agree to accept their job offer. Which he did. In fact, he almost seemed happy not to have to say no anymore. Which I can understand. There is something oddly liberating in having all choice taken from you. He left us two-months rent and a bag-full of assorted-color pills and, with teary good-byes, took off.
I'd become pregnant a few weeks earlier, but I didn't figure it out until after Lint moved away. Dusty put his hand through the window again when we told him. This time, at least, the left rather than the right. It took another twenty stitches to sew Humpty Dumpty back together again. Mac and I were not getting along by then. We were having sex more often than we were speaking. Which is to say, I'd climb into bed with him, we'd get wiggly for a half-hour, and then one of us would roll over and off and I'd be asked to leave. It didn't even feel like sex anymore, which may be why I forgot, at times, to take my pill. I'd double-up the next day, so I didn't think it was a big deal. It was not, as Mac accused, a twisted attempt to forge a relationship. It was an accident compounded by ill logic. Simple as that. We were not meant to be parents together. I knew that as well as anybody. As long as he'd pay for it, I was happy to have it taken care of. And he did. He unrolled three hundred dollars from a hiding place inside a tube sock in his top drawer. "Emergency money," he called it, and I was too shocked to object. He didn't come with me, though. No one did. I said I didn't want company. I said I wanted no one else to have a memory of it, which was as bald a lie as I’ve ever told. If anything, honestly, I wanted to spread this memory, like butter on toast, as thin and broad as possible. Let it melt away into the crannies and be forgotten. Instead, I am still haunted by the music of a life being taken. The rhythm of it. This strange slurping, this periodic sucking, the last of a thick milkshake drawn up through a straw. When I came home from the clinic, I shot up with them for the first time ever. Which, of course, was a big mistake. What with the blood I'd lost and the trauma my body'd been through, cheap cut heroin was the last thing I needed. There was an ambulance that I don't remember, and I had a near-death experience that yielded neither a bright light nor any voices from beyond. It just left me in the hospital for two blurry, forgettable days. Mac had to call my parents. Apparently, he burst into tears over the whole thing. They both wanted me to come home. "To get the help I needed," they said. But I wanted none of it. I just wanted to go back to my room in my sloped house where I could at least count on everything quietly rolling to a wall.
The first snow came early that year. The new freshmen were barely a month back in school. Somehow, it stuck. The heavy flakes stayed the night, and the morning after was beautiful, bright, and sun-shiny alive. Lint called from California to laugh at us. He was on the beach, working in the sand on a laptop, talking on a cell phone his office paid for. We teased him about getting soft, even if our snow was already half-melted. It wasn’t even beautiful by then. It was just slushy and gray. Great for snow balls, bad for drainage. That night, as soon as the sun set, temperatures dropped again, and the snow froze. From snow to water to black, beautiful ice. A tree that overhung the kitchen, bent humbled already, collapsed through the roof just after midnight. Mac called "Leisure Suit," waking him to confess to the bad news. Larry came right over, a jacket and snowshoes thrown over his flannel pajamas. He had chains on the tires on his Camaro. We were all freezing, standing outside. The house was split open like dropped watermelon and even despite the eighty degrees the thermostat was set to, there was a draft too cold for anyone's comfort.
"She had a good run," Larry sighed, surveying the damage. "You kids got anyplace to stay tonight?" And when none of us had an immediate answer, he offered, "Come on back to my place. I've got an extra bed. We'll see what else we can do in the morning." So we spent that night, the three of us, snuggled in together, on a queen-size sleeper sofa in his guest room. Dusty hogged the blanket, and Mac kicked me every time he rolled over. Larry woke us at daybreak with an offer of coffee and another apology. The contractor had gone by the house. He'd taken a look and said that it might as well be bulldozed. Everything in it was cracked somehow. There was no fixing just one part. He wouldn't be able to get permission from the town if he'd wanted to. "It's best," Larry said, "if we all just start over."
There was, after that, brief talk of moving elsewhere, but since school had started again most everything available was rented. What was left was somehow worse than what we had, and so, one by one, we each measured out our contingency plans. We couch surfed for awhile, and we still practiced, when we could, in the garage. Lint offered us all jobs out in California, and Mac, for lack of anything better to do, took him up on one. We had sex one last time, Mac and I. On Margaret's couch of all places. It was uncomfortable and over much too quickly. He told me that he loved me, but he still left before I could decide why. When he got to California, he sent a postcard addressed to me but meant for Dusty too. Apparently, the weather was great.
Since I wasn't earning any money slinging pizzas due to my standing debt to Marvin (which I refused to let Lint pay off for me), I was having a hard time making a go of it. I borrowed money from my parents until they gave me an ultimatum: Move home or make it on your own. Dusty said I could substitute teach, but that held little interest for me. I felt the future had finally arrived. Occasionally, I'd walk by the house. My stuff was still stored in it. Someone had put police tape up across the front door, and the neighborhood kids had knocked out most of the windows. There was nothing to do with my plants but let most of them die. I guess that's when I knew. It felt like we'd gone out of business. Shortly after, I sold off whatever I didn't absolutely need. I got six dollars for the television I'd paid eight for. Someone gave me fifty cents for each of Lint's stepmother's dishes. There were raggedy posters and clothes that no longer fit right that I sold for dollars and cents. It's amazing how so much can amount to so little. I raked in just short of thirty dollars for everything, and then I felt compelled to offer half to Dusty. "Keep it," he said, smiling, "you need it worse than I do." And I did.
First thaw, Larry brought in the bulldozer. The house was razed in a day's work, but the funny thing was that, apparently, there was nothing they could do about the basement. It was rock hard, solid concrete. Short of a massive excavation it was stuck there, anchored in the ground, like a memory of a mistake. When my parents came and moved me home, I made them drive by on the way out of town. "That's where I used to live," I said, pointing to the place where nothing was now.
"Oh my," my mother said.
"Exactly," I told her. "Oh my."