An excerpt from Eternal Graffiti
Montauk, New York, Fall 1980
I don’t know if this is a confession or a purge, a scream or a lullaby. But I’m compelled to get it all down, and not for sentimental reasons, not to warm myself in the bittersweet glow of nostalgia. No, this sojourn into antiquity is a beginning, a becoming; I write out of necessity. My beloved ghosts are here with me. Sarah, the misfit and mystic, Shooky, the aspiring, drug-dealing Casanova, and my angel, Kiera. I failed them all, each in a different way, so I accept their scrutiny. I welcome it. As I begin to tell you our stories, they remind me that even under the most favorable conditions truth can be cagey, cunning, mercurial. Often it doesn’t like being known, and when unwanted truths are about to emerge self-deception is its vengeance, its favorite trick. But it will be no match for me. I write in blood.
I chose to rent this little house on the outskirts of Montauk because it’s perfect — battered but not broken, and close to the ocean, where I can walk away from this writing when I need to, and breathe. Yahweh, my tuxedo cat, is here with me too, taking this temporary move out here with me in stride, sitting behind my Remington as I type, following with bemused detachment the candle flames fluttering from a not-so-subtle entertainment of wind coming through a crack in the window. All day long I’ve watched the Halloween wind reshaping the dunes, making endless changes, corrections, revisions, the uncompromising architecture of sand resisting finality, refusing to be conquered, and the wind never satisfied. It’s like watching an artist at work. I know that’s what I’m facing, not that I’m an artist by any means. I’m just a twenty-eight-year-old itinerant man on the verge of losing my mind.
If I am to move on, to do more than survive, I have no choice but to reclaim the moments over the last ten years I care to hold on to and the wreckage from those years with which I will try to make peace. There is no place left to go, no place left to hide, no way to Houdini my way out of what all too often feels like the straitjacket of my past. I know I’m fucked unless I get through this. I’ll make mistakes but they won’t be of any consequence, no threat to your understanding, or perhaps even to your empathy. You may see that as a disclaimer and I wouldn’t blame you. But I think of it this way: if my life were to be brought to light in a series of Impressionist paintings, not representing actual reality but rather new realities in themselves, this would be a walk in and around and through the stories each of them would tell.
On the Monday after the long Thanksgiving weekend in 1970, I came home for the last time to the little rented house my mother and I lived in. Two bedrooms, one bath, tiny living room, washer and dryer on the covered back porch. A typical low-rent box in Rockville Flats, California, an all but forgotten, end-of-the-road, jerkwater town on the southwest ass-cheek of the Mojave Desert. It’s bordered in all directions by a barren landscape probably not so different from the one Christ wandered into as a would-be savior.
I remember walking into the house excited and a little afraid (which I never would have admitted at the time). My best friend Shooky and I were running away to Venice Beach early the next morning. It was something we’d been planning for months. Steven Gregory, our high school principal (at his core a simpleton, a gray suit with a head on it), told us earlier that day that because we were such fuck-ups we’d have to repeat our senior year. That sped up our departure date by months. No way were we going to stick around for that.
I found my mother sprawled out on the couch, unconscious. She worked the counter at Winchell’s, selling donuts and coffee to truck drivers all night long on the graveyard shift. She must’ve traded with somebody to be home at that hour. I could smell the bourbon from ten feet away. I was probably as high as she was drunk. Shooky and I had been getting stoned for the last few hours. The hash had taken me to a magical place — an otherwise inaccessible neighborhood
in my mind, one that was free of existential angst, uncontaminated by any form of law enforcement, where Rockville Flats’ fossilized, infertile hills were uncharacteristically alive with the sound of music.
But there she was, my one and only mother, bringing me down again. She lay there in her white blouse, her nametag slightly askew (Janet), her black polyester slacks, and her fat little brown shoes rounding out an ensemble of hopelessness. Her whiskey-soaked brain was surely submerged somewhere on the edge of eternity, her I’ve-smoked-for-twenty-years-and- I-ain’t-quitting-now-and-you-can’t-make-me lungs sounding, as usual, like the tired engine of a battered old train desperate to make one last trip to Clarksville. I had grown so accustomed to seeing her in that condition that it hardly fazed me. I felt nothing. No, that’s not true. I felt pity, which is worse than feeling nothing.
So it was another one of those days when everything in and around and about the house was redundant and stale, bereft of soul, devoid of hope. I wish now I had a happier memory of that last day with her, maybe just a tiny moment, maybe just her asking me to pass her the TV Guide so she could do her crossword puzzle and me saying OK, but then everything would have had to be so different. I was out of control back then and embraced it fully — the perpetually stoned-out peace-and-love poster-boy hippie kid who, underneath it all, was consumed with rage and hurt and resentment. Why that was will, I hope, become clear. No wonder my mom was a drunk. I stood and watched her wheezing, and chose not to think about the “good ol’ days” when she and I got along. This time I was leaving. There was no point.
I grabbed a box of Cocoa Puffs, a carton of milk, a mixing bowl and a spoon, and took them into my room. I ate my chocolate breakfast food like I thought a gladiator would eat chocolate breakfast food, and felt like a Roman emperor when I was done.
I picked up the beautiful Gibson Hummingbird guitar I’d bought with drug money and practiced a few songs I’d written. I put the first stack of records on my little stereo, cleared off my “homework” table, set up my scale, took out the block of hash and the two pounds of weed I’d scored in Anaheim the day before and started to work. I had to weigh and cut as many grams of the hash as I could by the time Shooky came by to pick me up at five the next morning. Whatever I didn’t finish I’d do in Venice. I didn’t mind staying up. I loved the work; it took me out of myself. I bagged the thirty-two ounces of Michoacán first and set them aside to be ready for packing.
Two or three hours after starting in on the hash I realized that the last record had ended, and I heard nothing in the house except the mousy squeak of the dope scale. It must have been around midnight or later. Something was wrong. No wheezing. I walked out into the dark little hallway and looked into my mom’s room. It smelled of stale cigarettes and dirty laundry. Piles of clothes were everywhere. Her bed was a sad, concave, spoon-like thing supporting a sheet-sculpture of the Alps. The bathroom was right across from my room. She wasn’t in there either.
It was only three or four steps to the living room, which was still and dark, except for the slow sweep of a car’s headlights moving across the walls and the cottage-cheese ceiling. I flipped on a light. Mom had not moved since I’d gotten home. She always screamed at me if I ever woke her, so I tiptoed up to the couch and leaned over to look at her face, which was turned inward toward the wall. I lifted her eyelids and saw a frightful mackerel stare. I put my head to her chest and couldn’t hear a heartbeat. That was as close to her as I’d been since my father Harry left when I was eight. She’d clung to me for a short while after that.
Yelling her name, shaking her, slapping her, nothing had any effect. The fear I felt flipped my otherwise pleasant and mellow hash high for a loop. I wasn’t sure what to do. I headed into the kitchen to get a pan full of water to throw on her, but then somehow I realized that the idea came out of anger rather than from an effort to try and save her (this had happened more than once before), so I decided I’d better call 9-1-1.
It seemed like the ambulance was there before I hung up the phone. The medics went to work. From my stoned-out perspective it looked like they were performing open-heart surgery. My mother moaned and threw up on the weird brown suburban shag carpet. Two cops parked outside and came sauntering in. I paid no attention to them. I was fixated on the unfolding drama. Mom passed out again. “Fuck!” one of the ambulance guys said quietly. They made their magic orange gurney spring to life. They flopped her onto it and then shot out the door as if she were a time bomb that might blow up the whole block.
I noticed then that one of the two cops was Officer Beatrice Walls, whose new blond bowl cut surprised me for its radical unattractiveness. We knew each other from a previous idiotic skirmish. Most of the cops in Rockville Flats knew me. I hated all of them. About a year before, Walls busted me for shoplifting. I’d stolen a Penthouse and dropped it accidentally on the way out of the store. I was the catch of the year for the store rent-a-cop, but a routine bust for Walls. This all happened while I was cutting school. The judge dismissed the charge if I agreed to do twenty hours of community service. So I spent a little time digging around in a county irrigation ditch for a couple of weekends. Big deal. The school suspended me for five days for truancy. Suspending a kid for cutting school is like punishing a masochist. I was thrilled. I could feel Walls’ eyes on me. She whispered something to her partner, an Officer Duke, a tall, tanned rookie trying very hard to look menacing. He nodded. She seemed to be his mentor. He stood by studying everything she did.
“Sorry about your mom, Owen.”
Walls sounded like she was teetering on the edge of sincerity. I said nothing. I was trying to appear as though I wasn’t high. We were standing by the open front door. The ambulance backed out of the driveway and screamed its way to the hospital. Walls’ squad car was parked like nobody else would ever park, diagonally, on the lawn. The obnoxious, manic, red and blue twirling lights exacerbated my disorientation.
“I guess I have to go to the hospital?” I asked her.
“Sure,” she said, closing the door. “But first I’d like to know what’s gone on here tonight.” She took out a flip notebook and a pen and stood there poised to write.
“Nothing has ‘gone on’ here tonight.”
“Your mother just got hauled away in an ambulance.”
“You’re blaming me for this?”
“Well, what happened?”
“She doesn’t need an excuse to get shitfaced, does she? She and Romeo have been having problems. Maybe that’s what it’s about this time.”
Walls squinted. “Oh, come on!”
“Hey, it’s not my fault that that’s his stupid name.”
She turned to Officer Duke. “See what I mean?” Then back to me. “What kind of problems have they been having?”
“They can’t agree about where to retire on the French Riviera.”
“Watch it, pal.”
“I am watchin’ it.”
“What are your mother’s drinking habits?”
What a stupid question! What an idiot! “You saw her just now. What’s the mystery? She’s a goddamn raging alcoholic. The whole police department knows that.”
She scribbled all that while looking at me and not at the notebook, as if that were supposed to impress me. “Where’s the attitude comin’ from, Owen?”
She snorted. “That’s just dumb. That’s it for now.” She barked at the rookie: “Let’s go.”
“I gotta use the bathroom,” he said.
I stared at the couch, which still retained a vague but discernible outline of my mother’s body. I was thrown off-kilter by how rotten I felt after hating her for so long.
“Do you have any other family?” Walls asked.
“There’s nobody else.”
“What’s your dad’s name?”
“Where is he?”
“Hey!” Officer Duke shouted. “You’d better come check this out!”
She made a serious tactical mistake by not keeping an eye on me — a fuck-up that maybe could have put her back on a motorcycle, standing on the street in ninety-eight-degree heat, pointing a ray gun at passing cars. I’ll never know. All the stuff on her utility belt shook as she jogged toward my room. In my emotional hash-infused fog I’d completely forgotten that I’d left my door open — a fuck-up that was far worse than hers. I took off running, winding my way around the black and white and off into the night. But there was nowhere to run. I knew I was finished. The cool desert night air was my last taste of freedom. Walls and Duke were chasing me now, demanding that I “halt.” I asked myself, for what? To give myself up to whatever horrors were in store? Was Walls going to shoot me if I didn’t stop? Part of me hoped so.
I ran so fast and so hard that she was forced to slow down — she was out of shape — and I didn’t know where the hell to go at first. I thought about going to Shooky’s but it would be a big mistake leading the cops there. I could hear sirens screaming.
A few houses were already decorated for Christmas, some festooned with bright, colorful outdoor lights. I’d seen them earlier, and on that sad night they looked more cheerful than ever. Santas, elves, sleighs, candy canes, and reindeer all congregated on the front lawns. Christmas trees decorated with more lights and glittery ornaments and topped by golden stars and golden angels stood in the windows of those houses. All this made the undecorated houses look like tombs.
I crossed Rockville Flats Boulevard and looked behind me and there was Duke, stopping, turning around and running at full speed toward the sound of the sirens. I couldn’t figure out what the fuck that was about. He was running away from me. Walls was getting up off the ground. I threw myself over the fence that separated the boulevard from the no-man’s-land I’d spent so many afternoons and nights getting stoned in and headed to Manderley, a special little spot where Shooky and I always hung out. I took a second to rest and breathe. It was pitch dark. I could see
flashlights, lifeless eyes not blinking, coming over the fence. I shimmied down a steep pitch into a ravine. It was even darker there, a pool of octopus ink. A minute later about a dozen of those dead flashlight eyes appeared around the perimeter. A cop shouted a blistering command to a police dog. It was Duke! So he was the K-9 cop. He’d gone for the dog. I was impressed. His command cut into the night air like a bayonet. I couldn’t understand what he was yelling but there was no doubt it sounded like deep trouble. I was Lee Harvey Oswald. I decided that if those bloodthirsty bastards were going to catch me I was going to make them work for it. They were in my backyard. I ran west, toward the Pacific Ocean. I’d always wanted to live by the ocean. So what if it was more than a hundred miles away? I could hear the wind, my breath, my feet landing on the hard uneven ground, the crazy dog barking viciously.
Beatrice Walls shouted, “Owen, Owen!” in the loudest fake-friendly voice she could muster. “Everything is gonna be OK if you just stop running and show us your hands!”
No way out. No hope. I was the fun they were going to have that night. But I kept going. All the king’s soldiers were relentless in their blitzkrieg, but they were taking the long way around because they knew nothing about where they were or what they were doing. The flashlights moved across the ravine, the beams getting bigger, brighter. I found myself in a large open area that a science teacher once said had been a lake in ancient times. My only hope was to get across the lake and climb up to a ridge that a million years ago probably served as a platform from which cave men practiced their swan dives. From there I might stay free a little longer. I scrambled up the hillside and after a few attempts I pulled myself up onto the ridge. But the not-very-well-regulated militia was closing in. They knew more about where we were than I thought. I started running and slipped and fell into a ditch, eating the dry dirt, scraping my hands on the little bastard rocks. I crawled like a wounded diamondback under a big gooseberry bush. The cops were converging on me now, no more than thirty feet away. I heard one set of footsteps approaching, crackling on the rocky ground.
Walls said, “Owen, we know you’re under there. Show us your hands and come out! Unless you prefer to be dragged out by the dog.” Another command from Duke and the dog went crazy, as if he hadn’t been fed in weeks and wanted to crack my skull with his teeth.
I looked behind me and saw nothing but a cluster of flashlights and the ominous silhouettes of the Flatvillian soldiers behind them. Above me, through the branches of the bush, the spectacular panorama of useless stars. There was a sudden violent rustling sound. In what she probably thought was a career-restoring move, Beatrice Walls dived under the bush and pointed her deputy cowgirl six-gun an inch from my temple. I looked at her in shock — she knew me better than that — and then I turned to face the ground and waited to die.
“Don’t be stupid,” she said.