The purple tulips were dying, their heads already drooping over the edge of the red bong.
I’ve been crashing here since the night a fire sent my apartment and all its belongings billowing into Heaven. I can still remember in minute detail how everything was arranged–the bookcase, my editing table, the drawings thumbtacked to the wall–how we picked through the rubble, found the melted records, the charred clothing. I’m still using the orange blanket the Red Cross gave me.
Robert and Tony rescued me after the fire, said I could stay with them until I found a new apartment. They’re both queer as six fingers, but I’ve learned to love them just the same. They have an ambiguous relationship. I’m still not sure who is the transmitter and who is the satellite dish.
I went into the next room and sat on the dark brown couch, stared at the swirling patterns of the stucco ceiling, closed my eyes, the bright light of late-night caffeine quivering under my eyelids, my body simmering as the rush-hour traffic began its slow crescendo.
Robert and Tony’s house is in Goose Hollow, a tiny neighborhood sliced off from the city center by interstate highways at the foot of the West Hills. Because it’s a hollow, the shade and rain keep it damp. Moss is growing on the front porch, the planks are soft with rot and sag. Last week I found a mushroom growing at the base of the bathtub.
It looked and smelled like any other squat, except Robert and Tony paid rent. Run down, but not too sleazy, the dark red carpeting in the front room was splattered with cigarette burns, a mismatched collection of dumpster furniture leaned against the scuffed-up walls. Most of the records were scratched, but that’s the price you pay for roommates.
Starving, I decided to go downtown, get some coffee and a bite to eat. Looking around for my keys, I found a little bag of reefer on the floor, shoved it into my pocket for later. Sometimes it’s best to be the last person at the party.
Up Jefferson Street, over the 1-405 bridge, the wind picked up, my eyes got fuzzy, my fingers cold. I slid them into the front pockets of my jeans. Two men jogged past me in fluorescent Nike outfits marking their progress on digital wristwatches. Shopping-cart people were camped under the next bridge, their houses made of cardboard and plastic. Campfire smoke snaked up from the underpass.
I hurried over the windy bridge. Robinhead was playing at the Jefferson Theater. ‘she gave to the rich and she gave to the poor,” the poster said. Mose Allison was doing a five-night stand at the Jazz Quarry. I’ve always hated jazz–boring solos and two-drink minimums.
Across the street was a Plaid Pantry. I went in and bought a chocolate-frosted donut, then walked outside and spotted Jennifer at the Laundromat next door.
I once tried to be in love with Jennifer, but she wasn’t very interested. Last month, after she got out of the hospital from one of her pill episodes, we drove down to Cannon Beach. On the way home she skidded off the road and crashed into a guardrail near the edge of a three-thousand-foot ravine. To prevent her from being recommitted, I told the police I was driving. Later that night she rewarded me with sex for the first and last time. After the fire I slept in her car for a week, but she never invited me upstairs.
Now we’re just friends, I guess. She prefers men who seem preoccupied, who aren’t totally smitten by her. Maybe it’s the challenge or that she wants something difficult in her life. Her current infatuation with Robert makes perfect sense, someone who doesn’t even like girls.
Sometimes her pharmaceutical accidents seemed like little dramas staged to end in brightly lit rooms, but when the voices in her head accelerated into visions, Jennifer had to go bye-bye.
When I visited her at the hospital, she was strapped down to her bed and I kind of think she liked it, as if she were dangerous or something. The all-new Jennifer has the same problems, different answers. Now I never know what to expect.
Wearing tight blue hip-hugger flares, a Vasar”ly T-shirt, and a thin black-leather choker with a blue stone, she looked like a charter member of the grungeoisie. Her cheeks flushed when she caught me staring like an imbecile, stuffing a donut into my face.
“Oh God, somebody call the police,” she said, pushing her laundry into a large black duffel bag. The Laundromat smelled like a musty basement, an old woman sat beside the fogged window reading the Oregonian with a magnifying glass. My eyes clung to the colors spinning around in one of the dryers. Jennifer’s laundry was almost all black.
“I like the little white ones best,” I said, pointing at her underwear, stacked and folded.
“I’m sure you do, but they wouldn’t fit you.” Jennifer turned away to check her dryer, removed the last two socks.
“I don’t wear underwear, I don’t like the way everything gets all squished up in there. I gotta hang free.”
“There’s not much hanging from what I remember.” She laughed, turned away, closed up her bags. “Be a good Boy Scout and help me carry these clothes back to my house.”
“You got any coffee?” I asked.
“I want the other bag,” I said. “The one with the panties in it.”
“This one has panties, too,” she said, handing me the heavy one.
We walked out of the Laundromat and up the hill toward Jennifer’s place, across the Portland State campus, past the natural-food store jammed with hippies.
“I like your new haircut,” I said. “You look like a boy.”
“Where’d you get the tan?”
“I went skiing last weekend.”
She seemed upset, edgy, the way all pill freaks are when their medication hasn’t kicked in. Preoccupied, she acted as if I were a side effect from her multiple prescriptions. I shut up and followed her long legs up the hill. She was oddly hipless, like a skinny boy. Tall, with brown hair and blue eyes, she walked with nervous elegance, as if she were on a runway surrounded by cops.
Jennifer’s apartment was in a converted hotel stuck between two Victorians, remnants from the old neighborhood destroyed when the federal government built the interstate. Portland is a cheap place to live, rents are low and there’s no sales tax. However, most of the old wooden houses have no insulation. The apartment buildings with radiators are swarming with cockroaches, so you have a choice, freeze or bugs. Jennifer’s place was sparse, a futon, some books, clothes piled neatly on metal shelves. Stark and angular, there was something Japanese about it, like a prison or a fashionable boutique. The emptiness always bothered me.
Jennifer unpacked her laundry bags, piling clean clothes onto the top shelves. I went over to her beatbox and sorted through the CDs: Aphex Twin, Orbital, Moby, and Nine Inch Nails. Jennifer worked at the UFO Cafe as “events coordinator,” a fancy name for booking bands.
“Is techno still the rave at the UFO?”
“Techno and ecstasy,” she said. “It’s very sexy.”
“All those hippies jumping around to disco? A bit scary, don’t you think?”
‘maybe you should come down more often, a few nights in a smokey bar might do you some good. Maybe you’ll get lucky and somebody will take you home.”
Jennifer filled a small pan with tap water and placed it over an electric hot plate. I lay on the futon and stared at the sixty-watt bulb burning above her bed, then the little wind-up clock ticking away the afternoon. I could smell Jennifer in the white pillow, started to fantasize, watching her move around the apartment. The room was like a museum on a rainy day, bare white walls, high ceilings, polished wood floors. Jennifer was impossibly clean.
“Why don’t you buy some furniture for this place?” I asked.
“I want to move to New York soon,” she said, taking two cups from the cupboard. “I’m going tomorrow morning to check it out.”
“You’re going to New York?” I suddenly had an image of a bunch of bugs fornicating on a PBS special.
“It’s getting to be so fucking boring here.” She poured the boiling water through a Melitta filter.
“Why would New York be any different? You wouldn’t even know anybody.”
“I crave anonymity,” she said. “And I do have a friend, Courtney, remember?” Jennifer turned away, poured milk into the coffee. “Besides, I’m worried about her, and you should be too.”
Courtney was my roommate at the time of the fire. She disappeared that night and at first I assumed she was dead, but the investigators found no remains. A few days later she phoned Jennifer from Times Square, babbling on about some new rock star boyfriend. The fire had started in her room and it wouldn’t surprise me if she had done it on purpose. She was always mapping out her disappointments in messy journals, but I never expected her to create such an intense drama. She really pissed me off.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be an asshole,” I said. She handed me a cup of coffee. “I don’t want you to leave.” I grabbed her hand, forced her to look at me. “People who go to New York never come back the same.”
“I don’t want to be the same!” She pulled her hand away. “That’s the point!” Jennifer went into the bathroom and slammed the door. I pulled out the Baggie I found at the house and started to roll a joint.
New York seemed like a huge festering wound, what was the attraction? We all read the same magazines, see the same films. Why does everyone insist on the New York experience? If you want to be surrounded by despair, move to North Portland. If you want energy, have a double espresso.
“Have you seen Robert today?” she asked from behind the door.
“Robert Robert, you know which Robert.” The toilet flushed.
“You’ve got mirror balls for eyes, darling. Robert’s on the futon with Tony this very minute.”
“You are so wrong.” She walked back into the room, stood by the window. “Robert may seem gay, but believe me, I know.”
“That’s him! David, come here, look!” Jennifer pointed outside.
I set down my coffee and went to the window. Some old hippie was getting out of his Volkswagen van.
‘see, I told you, every day the same thing.”
‘so, he’s a psycho killer!”
“How can you tell?” I asked, watching him adjust one of his Birkenstocks.
“Just look at him.” She pointed. “He’s got a beard, a van, and he always carries those green garbage bags.”
‘maybe it’s his laundry.”
Jennifer whirled around, paced across the room, a worried look crinkling her face. “This town is full of psycho killers!”
“He is definitely not a psycho killer,” I said.
“How do you know?” She put her hands on her hips.
‘don’t you watch television? Homicidal maniacs always look normal.”
“Everyone in Portland fits that description!” she said, throwing her hands into the air.
“What you need is some protection.” I pulled her belt loop, coaxing her closer to me, gave her the joint, then placed my arm around her waist.
‘stop it, you’re giving me the creeps.” She squirmed away, lit the joint with a small plastic lighter. Her pupils were dilated, her palms sweaty, and she had a peculiar body odor, eau de paranoia.
“You’re so tense,” I said as she picked tiny pieces of reefer from her little pink tongue. I rubbed her shoulders, her back muscles, following the outline of her bra.
“Cut it out!” she said.
“I have a boyfriend.”
“You need a boyfriend.”
“Robert is my boyfriend.”
“Robert is your girlfriend.”
“Fuck you.” She got angry, pushed me away, walked across the room, and leaned against the bricked-up fireplace, the white mantel a landing for her immediate possessions: keys, a paperback of the Basketball Diaries, some unopened bills. She flipped through the envelopes. I followed her, stood behind her. She took another hit, then pressed out the joint in a silver ashtray. I put my arms around her. Jennifer turned around and pushed her hands against my chest.
‘stop it, please!”
“Give me a chance, I might start to grow on you.”
“I don’t want anything growing on me, thank you.” She walked into the bathroom.
I turned away, stared out the window. The world outside was so perfect, all the cars parked between the painted lines. I wanted her in a bad way, but was so stoned everything had a doubling-over effect, this turned into that, and it was too risky to come to any conclusions, although my head was full of them.
“I have to take a bath and get ready for work,” she said.
“Are you asking me to leave? What about the psycho killer?” I pleaded. Jennifer acted indifferent, handed me my flight jacket, kissed me on the cheek.
“It’s better if you stand guard outside,” she said. ‘meet me at the UFO for a drink later, around eight, OK? I’ll put you on the guest list.” She pushed the door closed and I sauntered down the carpeted stairs imagining her sliding into a hot bubble bath, her naked white skin covered with goose bumps.
I crossed Alder Street headed toward Speed, a coffeehouse downtown. The place was always crowded because the owner provided free newspapers and everyone was so cheap they’d go there just to save a quarter. The green door was propped open. I sat at a small table beside the radiator and ordered a breakfast special. The room was noisy, a K-tel compilation of seventies classics was blasting in the kitchen. The tiled floor reminded me of grade school, everything varnished and old, the mismatched tables and chairs the kind you see when someone clears out their basement and has a yard sale. Initials and names are carved into the wooden tabletops like picnic benches at interstate rest areas. Courtney used a penknife to carve her name into every single one.
Speed is a birthplace of conspiracy theories, a rest home for the terminally unemployed. For a single man, there’s no better place to meet women, it’s a neutral zone, like the library or a church.
Two girls in long flower dresses at the next table were gushing about some band that had played at the UFO the night before. The pretty one with short blond hair had gotten the drummer’s phone number, the other was daring her to call right now. Her rosy cheeks flushed with embarrassment when she noticed me snooping on their conversation.
I stared at the wall opposite me. Band flyers were stapled over one another: Theatre of Sheep, The Vena Rays, The Miracle Workers, Candy 500. I should be in a band, musicians always get laid.
At the next table Simon was mesmerized by a Philip K. Dick paperback, his long thinning red hair noosed by a blue bandanna, like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, twenty years later. I heard him read last week at a UFO open mike. He rambled on about AIDS being a space virus brought back from the moon by homosexual astronauts, that the greatest failure of our generation was Hinckley missing his target, and that the hole in the ozone was in preparation for the second coming of Christ. A bad poet, but a good source of acid. There’s a lot of sixties fallout living on the rim of Portland, like a cereal bowl the morning after, the milk gets hard and forms a crust impossible to scrub away.
Simon practically lives at Speed. He loves to tell stories about hanging out at Vortex with Hendrix, as if 1969 was last year, constantly reaching into flashbacks about his silver-glitter platforms, the methadone clinic, or the palm trees of Nam. He hates it when I make fun of his mellotron, some precursor to the synthesizer. Simon insists he was one of the original Paul Revere and the Raiders. Right.
I glanced out the window. A fat sparkling rainbow arched over the building across the street, a long line of people were waiting outside the record store, Dead tickets had just gone on sale.
Portland is a city of greens and grays, of wool sweaters and rubber shoes. The trees were ripening into autumn colors, the first winter rains had begun. There’s a sense of dread this time of year, like running out of pot and knowing the only way to get high is to drink the bongwater.
The food came and I started shoveling it down, skimming the newspaper for atrocities, none of which really affected me anymore, just more inspiration to die in some spectacular fashion.
Rolling a cigarette, I added a little weed, turned through the gray pages of the Willamette Week, nothing was happening. Jennifer was right, this town is deadsville. In the Help Wanted section, someone had already circled counter clerk at a video store. The paper listed a few other employment opportunities where the most challenging aspect of the job was the psychological capacity to convince yourself that you weren’t a total loser.
“Anything else?” the waitress asked, scratching under the collar of her black turtleneck. She added up my tab, then set it between the salt and pepper shakers. I left a five spot on the table, got up and walked outside, lit the cigarette, and headed back home to get some sleep.
At some point I hope to have a glorious alibi to cover up the miserable failure of my life, like a car crash or brain cancer. My greatest anxiety is that it won’t come soon enough. Passing the unemployment office, the line for food stamps was curled around the room like rope stacked on a sinking ship. I stopped at the Plaid Pantry, bought a lottery ticket, scratched off the silver lining. Not even close.
Copyright ” 1995 by Michael Hornburg. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.