Yes, we talk about the pain and suffering of depression (rightly so!), and we ignore the allure of this deadly disease because we don’t want to tempt anyone. We don’t want it to look like we’re encouraging people to have a deadly disease. But what happens if we don’t talk about it? How can anyone understand it? I mean, there’s this giant monster sort of hanging around threatening you for days, months, or years, and you stay busy to ignore it. And one day you just say, “Go on then.,” and you get a big hug. You just disappear in there. You’re lost in the warm embrace of infinite apathy. Nothing matters anymore. The cruel family members, indifferent friends, soul-crushing job all just become indistinct parts of a distant life that no longer has any bearing on you. You don’t care whether you live or die, and that’s the scary part. At least it’s scary for other people. You don’t care. This is why someone told me my depression was a “luxury.” I was luxuriating in dissociation and alienation. I was there and not there and couldn’t be reached. And being out of reach has distinct advantages. When you are no longer of the world, the world has no power. What will it take to bring you home?
Betty was the kind of person who kept seeing Elvis all over everywhere. She just couldn’t believe he really died. She’d already visited Graceland twice and seen all the memorials and the so-called “grave site.” But she just thought he was probably hanging around Graceland somewhere watching everybody crying about how wonderful he was and laughing his ass off.
Betty was 18 when Elvis was said by some to have died, and she’d been a fan her whole life. Her mom, Marylou, was lucky enough to see Elvis perform at Magnolia Gardens before he got famous. Marylou told Betty plenty of stories about how Elvis was just a kind of shy boy who loved his momma and was real friendly but also maybe just a little bit sad.
Of course, Marylou didn’t have to say how handsome he was. Anyone who ever saw a picture of him knew he was handsome. Marylou did say she wished her eyes were as pretty as his, and God that little crooked smile of his would make you go a little weak in the knees.
So, Betty sort of grew up thinking that was kind of the ideal man. You know, shy and a little sad with a sideways smile. It’s not that she didn’t like the later Elvis (she was still driving all over the country and keeping an eye out for him wherever she went), it’s just that if someone in a bar looked nice and handsome and a little bit sad, she kind of almost thought talking to him was sort of like talking to a young Elvis. And if this boy in the bar could sing or play a guitar, she thought even better of him.
Let’s face it, not many men have the talent of an Elvis Presley, but quite a few men are shy, sad, and reasonably good looking, especially after a couple of beers. And Betty met more than one or two of these guys, and Betty met with some major disappointment on more than one or two occasions. If you think about it, you’ll probably agree that Elvis probably wasn’t the best partner you could have in the first place, and there was certainly no reason to think the substitute Elvises would be any better.
So it wasn’t Steve’s fault he was shy and sad and had his haircut like Elvis. Lots of guys were just the same. And Steve wasn’t the best musician, either, but Betty liked the way he played “Suspicious Minds.” She knew it was all a fantasy, but she felt that part of the fantasy was coming true.
It was kind of a fantasy for Steve, too. This was the late 70s, of course, and he was a Teddy Boy. It weren’t no accident he looked a little like Elvis, and he liked imagining he had groupies like Elvis, too. The fact that Betty was a kind of groupie by proxy was not a problem for him. But really, how long do you reckon two people can keep up this kind of role-play?
I guess no one can answer that question, but these two gave it a good go. Some people say you become what you pretend to be, and these two were pretending to be fabulous. They went to all these little clubs and danced and drank and just acted like regular little outlaws. Every now and then, Steve would even get a gig, and he’d be sure to play a couple of Elvis songs.
Betty said she was happier than she’d ever been, but Marylou said it was only pretend happiness. Betty said happy is happy. She couldn’t see any difference between pretend happiness and “real” happiness, whatever that is. We all sort of just make it up as we go along, don’t we?
So these two just went along with their rock and roll lifestyle, possibly living even more like Elvis than they knew in some ways. It was a heady mix of Quaaludes, speed, coke, beer, and tequila. Even after a few months, Steve was a pretty fun guy, even if Betty did find herself short on cash from time to time. She understood that he was focused on the music and his day labor gigs sometimes fell through, so she always kept her eyes and ears open for someone needing drywall work or a party band.
Still, the day-to-day uncertainty can start to get to you. Betty told Steve she didn’t make enough to keep paying for everything, and she didn’t think she could go on not knowing whether they could make it to the end of the month on any given day. He didn’t get defensive or anything. In fact he was very understanding, and he had a solution. He figured he could get a gig pretty near every night in Austin, and houses were going up like weeds there, so he could surely get plenty of work. And that was that. They threw their bags in the car and headed to Austin with a foolproof plan for a brighter future.
We used to chase roadrunners. Actually, I don’t think “chase” is the right word. We rode our dirt bikes around the dirt roads and trails, and sometimes a roadrunner would jump out and run along in front of us or alongside us. We never wanted to catch them or hurt them. We just liked seeing them.
It’s kind of like when dolphins escort a ferry you’re on. It sort of gives you a warm feeling to take the trip with them. The roadrunners made us think of the cartoon, of course, but we never worried about the coyotes. They only came out at night, anyway, and I don’t think they really had any particular interest in roadrunners in the first place.
So we liked to see the roadrunners and the rabbits that would run along the trail. I don’t think I ever saw a roadrunner get hurt, but rabbits had a habit of running into the spokes or under the wheels. It’s no fun having a rabbit run into the spokes of your wheel. It’s a bloody mess, and not at all pleasant for a boy who’s squeamish. Other people, of course, would just pack them home, skin them, and have a little fried rabbit for dinner, but that was never to my taste.
So, those were the main animals we’d see, except for the copperhead snakes. I don’t know why they like to stay in the trails, but they do, and they’ll fight to keep the spot. We had thick boots, of course, but they always gave me a little shiver, anyway. If you’ve ever felt that thud against your boot, you know what I’m talking about. That’s just involuntary.
All this happened at the cow lease out on farm road 942. You’d only drive down 942 if you owned land there, leased land there, or wanted to buy drugs. If you ever saw a car pulled over on the side of the road out there, you could pretty much bet any money it was someone waiting to buy drugs or sell drugs.
I was never a customer or a dealer, but I thought it was a pretty bad arrangement they had. If I knew what they were doing, surely the local law enforcement knew what was up. It was just so obvious, because no one had any other reason to be stopped on the side of the road, unless their car was broken down.
It was years before I found out law enforcement definitely knew what was going on, because they were in on it. They were an integral part of the East Texas Drug Distribution Network, such as it was. I know now what I never suspected then. If an out of towner came in and tried to sell drugs on 942, that person could be guaranteed a night in the Polk County jail, and Polk County hospitality might not live up to the stories you’ve heard about southern hospitality in the US.
The Polk County Sheriffs were really nice people, but that description pretty much applies to locals only, see? The whole area was sort of overseen by the Ku Klux Klan, and you’d be naïve to think the local cops weren’t part of the KKK. In fact, if you went the other direction on 942 from where the cow lease was, you’d come to a dirt road that led off to the left.
If you turned down that road, you’d see a big banner that said, “Welcome to Klan Kountry,” or something like that. It was both a welcome and a warning, depending on who you are. I was pretty much local and had lots of kinfolk around there, but I still found it intimidating. The area was familiar to me, all right, but I never did feel at home there. What’s more, I never wanted to feel at home there. I like having friends, you see, but I guess I prefer people who are a little more open minded.
So I drove around and enjoyed the roadrunners and rabbits and such, but I kept to myself mostly, and I learned to never really trust anyone. And I learned to never really feel safe. Don’t get me wrong, I could pass for one of them easily enough, but I had to focus. I had to watch what I said and how I walked.
It was easy enough to fall foul of their good graces. Any suspicion that you were a heathen or a pervert, rather broadly defined, would be enough to put you at risk, so you had to be careful how you walked and how you dressed and everything. This is why you can’t trust what you see in East Texas. Some of those rednecks who look like KKK members are actually liberals, atheists, gays, and so on, but the closets in East Texas are larger and more securely sealed than in other places you might have been.
And that’s why stuff kept going down, you know? Steve would get a little high and start shooting his mouth off. Oh, man, he had a black girlfriend when he was in Tennessee. He thought organized religion was for sheep, man. Che Guevara was his hero, or at least he really liked those posters with his face on them. And what’s the big deal about sex, anyway? If it feels good, go on and do it. There’s no God to tell you it’s wrong.
So the law enforcement, you know the ones who dealt drugs?, didn’t really like Steve. They kind of followed him around and gave him a lot of shit. It pissed him off, but he also kind of liked it. He had enough family around there to sort of protect him from real harm, but he didn’t have enough connections to avoid constant harassment. Or at least that’s what he thought.
So he’d go to the bar in Seven Oaks and talk trash all night while sipping beer and slipping out for a few hits off a joint from time to time. Everything seemed okay. It was all right. The local women liked Steve well enough. He was good looking, and he could make them laugh, so everything seemed fine and dandy. He was in the catbird seat.
And, hey, no one ever knows how things are going to turn out, do they? And no one ever really knows what causes what or who wants what. I mean, some people don’t think Michael Hastings crashed his car. Not everything gets solved. Sometimes you’re just left to wonder. You just move on with your life, and tell yourself you’re free. I mean, it’s not like you live in some kind of God damned communist country or anything. Is it?
Eddie had a beach house in Bolivar. Now, Bolivar, Texas wasn’t exactly a resort. It was mostly retired people and stragglers who like to fish and comb the beach for sand dollars and whatever. It’s not too far from Gulf Coast refineries, so things aren’t exactly pristine, and people don’t go on too much about the smell of the fresh air. It was just kind of a grimy place with gritty people wandering around.
The only place to drink was Bob’s Sports Bar, which was just a bar, really, with a TV, but people seemed to find their own places to drink, though you never saw scantily clad hotties strolling the beach with fancy cocktails. You’d more likely see grungy men and women pushing off in a fishing boat with a couple cases of beer.
You had a fair mix of retired people, refinery workers, laborers, and a few artists and musicians. From time to time, you could see music at Bob’s. If you wanted a nicer restaurant or bar, you’d have to take the ferry over to Galveston. I used to like walking out on the jetties and just taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. You’d hear the horns on the ships approaching the ship channel, the sound of rats scuttling across the rocks, and the bickering of older couples loading up their boats to try their luck at the trout, red fish, and flounder just beyond the breakers.
And you could smell, always, the remnants of dead fish, shrimp, crabs, and so on. When people would clean their catches, they’d put them in barrels at the marina, but of course various predators would also leave carcasses scattered about, which would add to the pungent aroma that is Bolivar. And, yeah, the refineries added their own sweetness to the miasma.
If you looked around, you’d see a bunch of clapboard houses on stilts, many a little worse for wear. You’d also see a shipwreck out in the water. Some of the locals could tell you how it got there and how long it had been there, but most people just thought about it the way you might think of a mountain in the background. It was just always there. Something you expect to see.
The beach was named Crystal Beach because it was crystal clear and clean in someone’s imagination. In reality, it wasn’t the worst beach. It was usually covered in driftwood and seaweed, but not as much litter as you’d find on a commercial beach. Most people on the beach lived nearby, so they weren’t interested in making a mess of it.
So Eddie loved Bolivar. It was a great getaway for him, and he spent as much time as possible there. He loved the fishing, walking out on the jetties, going to Bob’s from time to time, and just hanging out on the porch with a cold beer. He liked the sights, sounds, and even smells of Bolivar, but he didn’t like his next-door neighbors.
To be honest, I personally never even understood his grievance with them. His kids said they didn’t think he even remembered why he was mad at them, but he was mad at them all right, and he did everything he could to cause mischief. Understand that Eddie was a gruff and ruddy sort of guy, never really in a good mood, but I can’t remember ever seeing him do anything that actually hurt anyone in any way. Maybe when he was younger he did, but he was pretty harmless in his middle age.
So when he caused mischief, it didn’t amount to much. His neighbors had a big century plant on the border between their property and his. If you don’t know what a century plant is, it is a large agave plant. It’s a succulent, so it just looks like a big, blue cactus in the shape of a flower. They’re popular around the Gulf Coast because they grow well and impress the eye. They’re called century plants because folks say they only bloom after 100 years and then they die, so it’s a real treat to see one in bloom.
Well, that’s not how Eddie saw it. He hated the God damned neighbors, and he hated their God damned century plant. He’d sit out on his porch every night and drink a few beers and then go relieve himself on that plant. No one really understood why he thought the best way to kill a plant was by pissing on it. Sure, maybe it seemed disrespectful, but it wasn’t poison in any way.
At least, it didn’t seem to be poison for the plant. That thing grew up like Jack’s magic beanstalk, which delighted Eddie’s kids to no end. They teased him constantly about how he helped that plant grow. He had five daughters, and they really enjoyed annoying him, and annoying him was easy, but I guess it was all affectionate in the end.
Of course, other neighbors got wind of it and started asking Eddie to come pee on their tomatoes and everything like that. They would say that and just laugh in his face. He always acted like he was so mad he might blow up the world or something, but nobody ever believed he would do anything more harmful than fertilizing a despised neighbors plants.
After a pretty much fruitless day of hunting that big trophy buck Johnny said he saw, the guys were just sitting around the fire doing all the things you’d expect a bunch of grown men to do around a fire: you know, drinking beer, pissing on the fire, throwing pennies in the fire to watch the flames change colors—the usual stuff. The only difference was that Ricky had one of those new Q-Beams, I think they were called. It’s like a flashlight, except it has the brightness of a thousand suns or a million candles or some other damned thing I can’t remember.
The idea was that you could shine this light around and see animals in the dark, especially if you happened to catch their eyes. So they were just shining it around, not expecting much of anything, especially with all the noise they were making, and sure enough they picked up some reflections.
They suddenly went all quiet and started shining it around more slowly to see if anything jumped out at them. They were all cool about it. They were like, “Hey, man, maybe it’s a bobcat. I’d like to have a bobcat to mount on my wall.” But they were getting a little more serious about their search for wildlife or game or whatever. They were aware, also, that a few black bears were moving back into the area, and it would be nice to get a glimpse of one.
“Just remember,” Jimmy said, “If it IS a black bear, you don’t want to run a way from it. If you run, it WILL chase you, and it WILL catch you. No, you want to stand up to it. Show it your ready to fight it—man on bear.” At that, they all laughed, “Don’t worry, Jimmy, we’ll punch it right in the nose if it tries to get you. There ain’t no black bears around here, anyway, though.” But Jimmy still thought they’d better take a minute to verify that fact.
So, anyway, they kept shining that light around and just looking for bears or bobcats or whatever. Hell, I guess they would’ve been excited to see a ‘possum or armadillo or anything really. And sure enough, they picked up another little glint of something. They kept shining until they could see a set of eyes just as clear as if it was the light of day.
And then they saw another set. And another. Pretty soon they saw seven or eight pairs of eyes, but they thought they saw much more than that, because their adrenaline production had picked up a bit, if you know what I mean, so they were convinced they were surrounded. And then they heard a little sound that was kind of like a dog but different enough for them to know they were surrounded by a vicious pack of wolves. At least that’s how it seemed to these drunk boys who’d been pissing on a fire all night.
They weren’t too worried, though, because they had guns and everything. They were on a hunting trip, after all. It was about that time that Ricky remembered they’d left the guns in the cab of his truck, and he thought it might be a good time to go get some of them out. So he walked slowly out to his truck as Bobby shown the Q-beam on it to light the way.
Once he opened the truck, Bobby started shining the light off at the trees to see if he could see any more animals. About that time they heard a bark or a howl and a crashing sound over by the truck. They were a little worried and Johnny called out, “You good, Ricky?” Ricky shouted back that he was and then came back to the fire without his gun and didn’t say anything.
After that, they all decided it was time to get some shuteye, so they all just got in their respective campers and went quiet. They next morning, when Ricky got up, Johnny was waiting for him. He said, “Looks like you had quite a night fighting them ol’ wolves, Ricky! The barrel of your gun is clogged with mud and the whole gun looks like you dropped it in slop. There’s also about 8 or 10 holes punched in the dirt by your truck.”
By this time, Johnny was laughing so hard I worried he might have a cardiac. They still give Ricky a good ribbing about that every time they go to the hunting lease.
Someone said Jim lived in Seven Oaks. Now, to some people that might sound like a compliment or, at least, a nice comment on account of the fact that some pretty nice places are named Seven Oaks, but Seven Oaks, Texas isn’t one of them, and Jim didn’t own or rent any kind of home in Seven Oaks.
Jim lived in Livingston, Texas, which was a few miles south and happened to be the county seat of Polk County, which was a dry county, meaning you couldn’t buy a drink of alcohol in Livingston come hell or high water. If you liked to imbibe a drop or two of spirits, wine, or beer, you’d have to drive north or south on highway 59 until you got out of Polk County.
If you drove north on 59, you’d cross the county line and be greeted by a sign saying, “Welcome to Seven Oaks.” If you drove a tiny bit further, you’d see the Seven Oaks bar. I don’t think it is there anymore, but you’ll still find a liquor store there.
Anyway, that Seven Oaks bar didn’t exactly have a concealed parking lot, so your car would just be sitting there for God and all the world to see.
So if any of your nosy neighbors or family saw your car there more than once in a week, they might start gabbing around about how you lived up there or something. It was a not so nice way of saying you were a drunk.
I don’t remember anyone ever saying he was an alcoholic, though. In fact, his sister insisted that he most certainly was not an alcoholic, though she did concede that he made a habit of being drunk, so she was willing to say he was a habitual drunk, but he never got the DTs if he didn’t have a drink for a few hours or anything like that.
And he could clean up and get through a Sunday sermon all right if push came to shove, and alcoholics can’t really pull that off, so he just stayed drunk because he wanted to—not because he had to.
And I guess that’s all that matters sometimes, you know? We’re all just trying to do good enough to pacify the family and the neighbors. If you can keep that up, you might just have a pretty good life. And who knows, someday you might hit it big with one of those scratch-offs you keep buying at the Seven Oaks bar.
People overstate the importance of first impressions. It’s possible to change your impressions of someone, for better or worse, on second or third impressions. It is even possible to change your mind about someone after 25 years. I’m sure of all that, but some people sure do make memorable first impressions.
Sharon pretty much introduced herself to me by saying, “Well, I’m a Black bisexual woman who just wants to make trouble and maybe help make a better world.” Some people would say that for shock effect, but I don’t think she really cared about that. She just liked to vet new friends. It’s sort of like those signs that say, “You must be this tall to get on this ride.” If you were bothered by her introduction, then she didn’t need to waste any more time on you.
As far as I could tell, she loved life. She loved men and women. She loved humanity. Somehow, the world can’t accommodate people like that, though. Some of us just never find a safe place. One day she would talk about all the drama women cause. The next day she would lament all the baggage Black men bring on dates with them. What’s the difference between anger, fear, grief, or love?
Blame the structure of the world. Blame biology. Blame the devil. Do what you want, but it is hard for some of us to feel connected to anything. It’s like that Jimmy Cliff line about how loneliness would never leave him alone. You know, we’re all in this together—it’s just that we seem unable to share the burden of that, so we’re all seekers.
So, anyway, at her funeral, her aunt gets up and tells all the family and other busy bodies that no one knows where Sharon is now but Sharon and God, and no one else even needs to worry about it, so just shut your mouth and show a little respect. I guess some people think Heaven is a hotel that rejects people who couldn’t find safe shelter on Earth. Some people believe in a God that locks the door for his most sensitive children.
I guess that’s just our nature. We all want to feel we’re blessed. We want to feel protected in the end. We’re not like the others, somehow. Flannery O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin had this vision of good Christian folks like herself having their virtue “being burned away” as they descended into Hell while her inferiors sang and praised their way into Heaven. Some of us find out we are like the others before it is too late. Some of us don’t.
I’ll tell you, when he came out of that waiting room, he sure did look rough. I mean, you’d say he’d really been through the wringer. His friend Bailey was waiting—as patient as she was solicitous. Fighting brain cancer takes courage, of course, but so does supporting someone with brain cancer.
But Bailey was a saint, and it was nothing to her to go round to get her car (they had to use her car, because he’d loaned his Lexus to another friend), meet him at the patient pick-up, gingerly pack him into the car, and drive him for more than an hour to his home in the suburbs. It was another hour drive back to her place, but she didn’t mind, because she was one of those kind-hearted people like they tell you to be at church. Of course she made sure he was comfortable and had plenty of fluids and snacks before she left him.
Bailey was a saint, like I said, and she would have done all this even if he hadn’t told her he struck it rich as an inventor, although she was mighty impressed by those drawings of the roller coaster he designed. Just touching the Mylar gave her a little rush. She’d never known anyone who’d made it big, and of course she was excited he wanted to invest in her bagel shop.
I mean, it really was nice of him to take her to that furniture auction and bid on the front bar for the shop. A lot of people wanted that old bar, as it was in good shape and was old enough to be considered an antique by American standards, but he just kept upping his bid till it was his, or hers, you know. She almost couldn’t believe it. No one had ever written a check that big on her behalf before. No one had ever invested anything in her, if you want to know the truth, but he really seemed to believe in her. If you’ve ever had anyone who really believed in you, then you can understand what she was going through.
She was sad for her friend, of course, but she’d also never been happier. She’d never felt this appreciated. She’d never had this much confidence. She would be happier a little longer, because it’d be another week before she learned the check bounced.
And it would be two more months before anyone asked if she knew what Munchausen syndrome was.
Sometimes life just smacks you in the face. You’re just minding your own business and out of nowhere comes a big punch to the gut, or, yeah, a slap to the face or whatever. This mostly happens when you’re young. By the time you reach a certain age, if you are so lucky to live that long, you’ll be punch drunk enough, trust me.
Anyway, that’s why she couldn’t believe her rabbit was dying. No, she wasn’t pregnant or anything—her pet rabbit was riddled with tumors and needed to be put down. She’d never lost anyone that close before, and the tears came in waves. She was inconsolable, as you are when you lose something precious.
So she called her mother for comfort, which is a pretty reasonable thing to do, even for someone who is technically grown up and fully adult. Relying on mothers for comfort is a habit many of us never break until fate forces our hand on the matter. She called her mother and told her the devastating news, but her mother wasn’t really as sympathetic as she had expected, so she was a little crestfallen for a minute.
Her mother listened for a minute or two to the tears and lamentations before saying, “You go on like this for your rabbit when you know I have cancer, too?”
It was true that her mother had cancer and she definitely knew about it, but she was still naïve enough to believe doctors could save lives. She had heard of people surviving cancer, so she assumed her mother would be one of those, not one of the unlucky people you hear about in other families. We’re always pretty sure the worst things won’t happen to us, aren’t we?
She would be sadder and wiser soon enough, and maybe the rabbit served as a kind of omen or preparation for what was to come. Maybe it would help her get through the days, months, and years ahead. When you look back on things, it’s hard to say what helped or didn’t as you can’t imagine how bad things might have been otherwise. Trauma and grief can be pretty all consuming, you know, and your imagination for other possible worlds disappears.
You’re just sort of stuck, boxed in, and frozen.
Anyway, that’s how it all started. Tests, promising results, surgeries, promising outcomes, more tests, different doctors, different hospitals, different promises, and different prognoses were all to follow. Sure, the best of us indulge in magical thinking or just wishful thinking, anything to not indulge in despair, even when despair is rationally the correct choice. You pretend that rabbit cancer is categorically different from human cancer. You pretend doctors are magicians. You just get on with it.
Or sometimes you don’t. You decompensate. You look for comfort in anonymous sex, “mood altering” substances, or purely defiant denial. And you’re done for. Death keeps coming, and you find out you’re strong enough to face it down. I know, some people aren’t strong enough to face it down, but anyone reading this has been strong enough so far, so you’ve been strong for a long time.