Al thought for sure somebody was urinating on him. He imagined himself a white piss puck in the bottom of a urinal and one drunk after another was stepping up to drain his bladder. His left arm had twisted behind his back, numbed with no circulation. His neck, face, and underside of his other arm sizzled. His head pounded to open his eyes so he squeezed them tighter. The water streams arrived in intervals, six seconds on, 15 seconds off. He was counting.
He thought of the summer between second and third grade when Mike Zimmers and his three little Stingray-mounted disciples crashed him and his bike into the wall in the alley behind his house, unzipped and let him have it, right there in the 105-degree twilight. “What a little pussy,” one kid said as he opened fire.
More ugliness entered his head, like how it’d been a year since he last saw his wife. There was a time when other couples aspired to be them. Friends would ask what’s that glow on their faces. They’d drink wine and beer and Jack Daniels and get all hot and go at it for hours. Then one day she got the dream job, one with a responsibility and a real salary. He’d stayed on with the drywall contractors because a ton of new construction in greater Phoenix guaranteed steady work. They’d moved into a rent-to-own bi-level in the burbs. They went for it and things were good. Al thought that he’d made it to the other side of life.
A car door slammed and its engine cranked once into a nice idle. Smooth, Al thought, German made. He pictured himself behind the wheel of that one, besuited in sober, air-conditioned ease, with a fresh coffee in hand, heading out to work in some smoked-glass, newly carpeted high-rise in the city. He’d have an office with a view. Now that would be some kind of success: an office with a view. Another car door slammed and its engine clicked into a hum. Sounded like an SUV.
Al heard a lawnmower fire up in the distance. He opened his eyes to a squint and the punishing sun unloaded his skull. He lifted a trembly hand for shade and caught fleeting beauty sideways: he was mesmerized by weird mirages of grainy life refracting off wet blades of grass in front of his face, and then behind that a blanched suburban landscape.
He coughed and rolled up into a sitting position and a whole world dizzily flipped right side up. He focused on flawless symmetries of houses and yards that repeated one end off the other and disappeared over the far side of a hill blocks away. And in that moment Al sensed the unreachable success of others – boom-roomy tract houses with polished door hinges and wagon-wheel mailboxes and shiny cars that left no oil stains on driveways. He envisioned happy families so perfect that they left no mark in front yards or on the street, never an errant football or uncoiled garden hose. It looked fictional, cinematic and glowed like yearning. The sprayed-on stucco against the rutty desert beyond it showed no connection between what was old and what was new. There were no nods to previous cultures. It just was. He just was.
His hangover began to make things shift in shapes, the boxy pastel missions became clapboard colonials became prop-up Victorians. Each yard a tally of Home Depot bills, a visionless developer’s idea of a garden of Allah in a desert that for thousands of years hadn’t changed but in less than three had been manhandled into water-needy golf dreams and LED-lighted water fountains and butterfly-winged plants hauled in from Ohio and Pennsylvania that had yet to brown and die. Brand-newness owned everything. It all looked alive and lush but really was, Al figured, a portal into zero.
Al turned to look in the opposite direction and saw the same exact scene, but with a dividing intersection and a distant golf course eating into a rocky hillside. Why would anyone stick a golf course where there never should be one? He reminded himself that folks do what they must to survive. He understood that need to survive, and how it can manifest into a profound blankness that’s a long long way from ever returning to nature. People here overcame the odds to live and breathe on these streets and lead dreamed-of lives with their wives and their wounds and their kids and their things. Ain’t such a bad way to go, Al thought.
This suburbia made him ashamed of the scars he’d accumulated. He felt dirty. He longed for that car and that dog, that wife and that dental plan and that stainless steel refrigerator stocked to the gills. He could be clean, walled in by in-laws and bountiful produce sections and all-you-can-drink wet bars and swimming pools, with big screens in every room and fake Mexican tiles and giant silk pillows on king-sized beds. Everything would be swollen – the cars, the faces, the lawns, the sun, the wallets, the sky, the cancer, the lives. He wanted to be numbed by all of that safety and diversion.
Then the dream stopped. Al suddenly realized that he’d just come to dead center on someone’s front lawn, a tightly trimmed triangle of mowed grass. And that cascading water that he thought was piss? That was sprinklers. He looked at the house whose yard he sullied and saw a woman standing in the middle of the living-room window. She had thick arms, mom hair and was directing a head-shaking scowl right at him. “Ah, fuck,” he mumbled. He knew that he was a long ways from his shitty downtown apartment. He figured North Phoenix. Way north of Thunderbird Avenue. He pulled himself up and began to stumble toward the sidewalk, a hunchbacked stagger straightening into shuffle-walk. His mouth tasted like rank cat boxes and his cracked lips stung. He moved toward the rise in the street.
The new house and her new job had meant the drinking and the frolic would suffer, and it did, big time. Before long they’d stopped touching each other too, completely. Al figured things would’ve fixed themselves if only he’d slowed his drinking. He’d promised he’d go cold turkey but that never happened. So he’d switched from everyday drinking to “only on weekends.” His weekday sobriety stretched out to two months and he was surprised at how long he tolerated himself as his own personal disciplinarian. He’d pitched in more with the chores too, the dishes, the laundry. He’d taken up jogging. He did anything he could to combat the pall of sadness that was beginning to suffocate their household, where laughter and music and conversation and sex and food and movies had, in the beginning, created one impenetrable bubble of domestic bliss, where mornings burst with possibility and nights wound down on gentle gestures of warmth and love.
But things continued to head south. He’d go to work, and so would she. He’d come home and drink too many beers and she’d make supper and then they’d watch their TV shows in bed and she’d doze off. The next morning they’d wake up and hit repeat. Al never did learn to converse like a grown-up, much less query someone calmly when things were bad. Instead, he’d either clam up and pray for sunny outcomes or shout mean, hateful things.
A hot breeze smelling of swimming pools rustled his hair and stung his burned skin. The chlorine got him. He stopped, teetered, and placed his hands on his knees. He saw a squat, sweat-soaked guy mowing a lawn wearing only black bike shorts. Al’s insides roiled like a cement mixer. Dear god, no … He felt it come up. Oh, god … The bitterest, most foul booze-y swill surged up and splashed the sidewalk between his shoes and decorated his lower pant legs. The street dived and he nearly fell headfirst into his own sickness. He heaved a second time. Pure bile.
A silver SUV rolled by, a mom driving and three young kids in the back. He might as well have been a bloody carcass dangling from a mangled car that had just screeched into a telephone pole at 60 miles per hour, because that’s how he felt when those kids glared at him. Their expressions shifted from happy-playful to little-kid versions of the “what-the-fuck” look, with wrinkled brows and curled lips. Great. He now scared kids.
Had SUV mom caught Al fouling up the sidewalk she’d have called the cops, if she hadn’t already. He was frozen in humiliation, mortified, but he had to move. He dragged his forearm across his mouth, wiped it on his pant leg, straightened up and continued down the street. Sweat ran down his back, legs and face. But he felt a little better.
The worse he’d feel the better his wife would look. And she was pretty hot to begin with: curvy but lithesome, with big, nature-filled breasts and a perfect, stop-traffic ass. Eyes worthy of old Van Morrison. Sexy-smart.
She’d taken to nightly, need-for-privacy calls out in the backyard. He’d watch through windows. She’d talk and pace and smoke and laugh and she’d whisper and her face would have that look of dreaming and wonder like it had when she and Al first connected.
When the phone calls would end she’d step back inside all happy, only to deflate at the sight of Al. His efforts to smile and pretend that kind of arms-length detachment was good enough to sustain a marriage only stung his gut more. She’d never said a word about those 45-minute phone conversations, until he’d worked up the nerve to ask.
“It was nobody. Work stuff.” Then she’d head off to mix a drink and then to the computer and that would be that. Tension smothered all hope.
Then one day he’d walked in the front door after a gnarly 11 hours of hanging drywall in the ugliest, hammered-together suburban skeletons you can imagine and it was as if someone had backed a moving van up to their front door, loaded it up and motored it off. Looked like a tornado had ripped through the scene too, dust rats and torn up newspapers, half-empty bookshelves askew. The floors were all scratched and a good-sized chunk was taken out of the wall. The terrified cat was hiding in some crawlspace. First, Al hyperventilated. Then rose the worst kind of scream: it started in his toes and blossomed straight up through his body and out his mouth, and was dead silent. She’d left him.
Only her things were gone, mostly. Like the antique Victorian chaise and matching chairs, and that strange silver giraffe (she loved giraffes) that had a home atop the mantle, and the Flannery O’Conner first editions and Bessie Smith and New York Dolls albums. Al loved that she sometimes played Bessie Smith and The New York Dolls back-to-back after her first drink of the night. It made her so happy. It killed him that he’d stomped out all that happiness. It killed him that it had gotten to the point that whenever she was happy it had nothing to do with him. It killed him that he felt diminished next to her.
The closets held nothing more than his ugly, washed-too-many-times shirts that’d she’d always hung there after doing laundry, and his crappy coats misaligned on flimsy hangers.
Things she’d left behind stung the most, like the framed picture of them on the steps of his grandma’s house in Idaho. Grandma snapped that and two weeks later she was dead. She’d left things he’d bought her on birthdays and anniversaries, or to show that he’d been trying, books, lamps, a rug. He couldn’t look at things she’d given him, slightly imperfect gifts chosen with the purest of love’s intentions and filled of promises that she would never, under any circumstances, live without him.
A couple blocks more and Al was beginning to feel as though he was the star of his own cartoon and the outdoor setting was merely a wraparound backdrop that repeated every three houses or so, again and again, only in slo-mo. Felt muted, like he was trapped in someone else’s trope where anguish was supposed to have been written out.
Two boys on mountain bikes began riding circles in the street beside him. One had skinny legs and unkempt hair and wore a black Pantera tour t-shit; the other was fat with bushy red hair and ruddy cheeks. They looked about 14 and wore baggy shorts. Al felt sorry for the fat one.
They split wide to let a German car power by. Its driver was scooting up in his seat as he passed. He wore a tie. The skinny kid waived at the driver. Al imagined this guy’s version of normal absolutely blew away his own version of normal. It made him wish that he could go back and undo every fucked up thing he ever did.
Al was “never there,” his wife would say. Oh, he may have been there physically, but that’s it. Even before things had worsened until they were never good, he’d already been feeling like he had to suffer and pay. Besides having to resume the meetings (he’d hate himself more if he didn’t do the meetings), he had to push to be honest and that shit was hardly second nature. He had to relearn how to fake happiness like he did when he was a kid, even when there wasn’t one goddamned thing to look forward to. Like after the time his scoutmaster from his Boy Scout troop had his pants off and things got horrible and ugly.
Al maintained a faltering gait on the sidewalk. To stop thinking of his ex-wife he pressed hard to recall the previous night. One thing for certain was that he’d consumed mad amounts of alcoholic beverages. That was fact because he’d been hitting the bottle each and every night until he saw angels. That’s just what he did now.
He remembered walking into the Emerald Lounge on 7th Avenue, meeting his old friend Shelly there. She then drove to the golf course way out past Sunnyslope, beyond Thunderbird Road, with a bottle of Southern Comfort and 12-pack that they’d purchased at some liquor store along the way. The golf course was graveyard quiet and they stretched out together beneath all those stars, chasing the beer with the Southern Comfort. Shelly was cool with her cowboy boots and big sad eyes and never-ending embraces. He’d known Shelly since before he got married and she obviously knew something was wrong with him because she always told him that everything would be all right, as if she really believed it herself.
Al glanced over his shoulder and saw that the two teens were still pedaling in circles beside him. Shouldn’t the little fuckers be in school or something? The thought prompted Al to rifle his pant pockets, where he found the brass loop with his three keys (car, mailbox and front door), and four wadded up dollar bills. He never carried a wallet because he’d never replaced the one he’d lost last. It was the same deal with a cellphone. But four dollars felt like riches. That’s how it was now: Four dollars. That was for beer and a phone call once he happened upon a gas station or convenience store.
The skinny kid pulled up next to Al and rolled along. The kid looked at Al, up-nodded once, and said, “What’s with you, dude? Lost?”
Al formed a weak smile. He was too tired for hassles and felt some kind of heatstroke coming on. He said, “Yep. Pretty normal for me.”
The kid spun a few bike lengths ahead and pulled a wheelie. Then he flipped around and pedaled toward Al and said, in all seriousness, as he was passing, “Too bad for you, dude.” Al watched him roll back around and rejoin the fat kid. The two bumped knuckles and steered a big circle in the street, going a little faster than before, leaning in harder, the skinny kid leading the fat one. No matter how tough those pubescent turds thought they were, Al thought, or how tough they supposed they could one day be, they couldn’t shake that strangely healthy-happy look of factory-made kids from the suburbs, with their big feet in super-expensive kicks, and all the hyper energy needed to jump curbs and pull 20-second wheelies. The overall affect of boyhood menace is really just silly when it hasn’t been grown into yet, when grimy little convicts are only just festering inside, dying to get out.
Al finally made it up over the rise and saw where the subdivision ended and the desert began. It was only four houses away. He spotted the tall sign of a Circle K rise above the large patch of desert. That was his refuge and he felt like a wild rock pigeon heading for home. He could make it for sure, and he’d get refreshed. He’d be able to figure out where the hell he was. He’d use the payphone to call his pal Jerry for a lift back downtown. Jerry didn’t do much so Al knew he’d be home. Jerry was a pretty damn good friend. He’d have beer and shade while waiting for Jerry’s air-conditioned truck to pick him up. Then he’d be home, ready for the night to come down. Al always looked forward to the nights. As long as he had the night, he had something to count on.
In the event Jerry wasn’t home, though, he’d call up Shelly, if he could only remember her phone number. He wasn’t sure what their status was after the previous night because all he could remember were those stars. How he wound up on that woman’s lawn was a mystery.
Al stepped into the desert and was relieved to be off the street. His stomach had relaxed some but he felt a sunstroke coming on. He stopped in the shade under a mesquite tree and used the bottom of his shirt to wipe the sweat off his face and out of his eyes. He told himself he’d rest a long minute before making the final couple-hundred-yard slog to the store.
He heard the two kids rolling up in the dirt and stopping a few feet away behind him. He wondered why the hell they’d still be following him? He spun around and saw the fat kid first. Just a sweaty blob with a balloon face and an uneasy look about him. The skinny kid pushed his bike to the ground picked up a rock and stepped toward Al. The rock was strangely spherical for this part of desert, Al thought, and looked heavy too. It was nearly three times the size of the kid’s fist.
“A rock, eh?” Al said, nodding. The kid licked the sweat off his top lip. He looked corrupt as all hell.
Al remembered the note. The one his wife had left for him on the day she’d moved out. It said: Don’t hate me, darling. I had to leave. I couldn’t stand by and watch the light fade out of you. Al had no idea what she meant by “fading light.” But she’d always maintained that he was dying faster than anyone else she’d ever met. And he understood that his mere presence alone could never right any kind of a wrong. He could never just be in anyone’s house of good, or even OK, tidings. He still really longed for her. He told Shelly just the night before how he still longed for his ex-wife.
The kid shifted and the rock came at Al’s face and the desert was loud with heat so it buzzed, and the electrical wires that arched between giant transmission towers buzzed, and he could hear the air conditioners hum and the swimming pool filters hum, and it all looped together into a strangely hypnotic suburban aria, a sizzle of safety and comfort that was absolutely circling everywhere.
Brian Smith is an award-winning journalist; first as a staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times and then as an editor at Detroit’s Metro Times, two of America’s top weeklies. He’s written for both subterranean and mainstream magazines, such as Popsmear, Magnet and Rolling Stone. His essays have appeared as alt weekly cover stories, or as liner notes, including the Rhino/Warner Brothers deluxe reissue of Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies. Before writing fulltime, Smith wrote songs and fronted rock & roll bands and has the albums, songwriting credits and damaged liver to prove it. He lives in Detroit with his girlfriend and is finishing up his debut collection of short stories.
–Art by Ezra Letra