"The Past is a Placebo/Dissolving Down the Drain" - Firewater
It’s Thursday, late. Outside, a September storm is dying, but still releases the occasional half-assed lightning hiccup. I am lying on my tum on the floor of my basement room, wearing boxers, one sleeve of my pajama tops and one (matching!) sock. I’ve got my knees up in the air at a ninety-degree angle behind my body, jerking back and forth as the beat-to-hell Fats Waller record sputters and skips on my turntable. “Ain’ Mibehavin.’” THUNK. “Ain’ misbehaving.’” THUNK. A cup of quite strong ginger tea is precariously balanced by the white carpeting, but it’s been ignored for a good while now and it’s growing cold. I type furiously on my laptop – hands on keys tlicktlicktlicktlicktick. I am intent. I am focused. Cosmo, the Cat-who-is-basically-a-dog is half-sitting, half-lying on my back, legs tucked underneath his body, purring, contented. His weight makes it hard to breathe.
I ignore this.
The lights go out again, one last capitulation to the storm.
I ignore this, too.
I ignore it because I am superwriter. I am taut. My focus is steely, unwavering, and I have transcended physical sensation. I am absorbed into… make that devoured by my work. Also, the goddamn paper is due in five hours, so I don’t have much choice BUT to keep working.
“Y’know, Mark, you don’t have to be running around like a chicken with your head chopped off,” Amelia-the-Ex would say.
I am writing a short memoir piece for a college class. And, honestly, I’ve done enough stuff that this should be easy. I’ve been to Alaska, London, the Dominican Republic, Canada and, accidentally, New Jersey. I’ve lived in Chicago and volunteered at the shelter in Denver and built houses with the Catholic Hippies in Maine. I’ve been a maid, a dishwasher, a reference librarian, a door to door salesman, a tour bus washer, a comedian, a pretzel slinger, and I spent the better part of a month painting two houses bright pink. I’ve been homeless, close to death, almost married, heartbroken, and I’ve been escorted by the fuzz out of Aspen, Colorado. I’ve even been a professional writer, although “professional” translates into “never made more than fifty bucks.”
I’ve also been Santa Claus.
“Wow,” John the Musician says, “To think that, out of all of history, I know the real Santa Claus. And he’s sleeping on my couch.”
It was a pretty speedy operation, mercenary in it's effectiveness. Kids are plopped on Santa’s lap, pictures are taken, and money shoots up the tubes to Santa’s corporate masters. I’ve decided to write my memoir about my life as Santa, and maybe try and look at the cultural idea of Christmas and What It Means from the inside out. Besides, well, being Santa Clause kind of like ascending to Godhood. Sort of. Except itchier around the beard area. And I don’t think Zeus was ever soaked by the pee of nervous children. “Ho, ho, ho,” I mutter to myself, tlicking the keys.
Cosmo, the cat-who-is-basically-a-dog shifts his weight and nicks me in the ass with his claws. “SheeOW!!” I tuck and roll, trying to force the cat off of me. Cosmo barks (yes, really) and scoots. I inhale, hard, and read what I’ve written. The lights come back on.
“Being underployed makes one long for the comforts of fast food conformity.”
Ack! What the hell does that even mean! But not only is the writing congealed crap, but there’s no real plot, no real sense of going anywhere, and I can’t even write decent dialog for my “characters” – who are also my best friends! The lights in my room click back on, and I face facts. It’s also surprisingly boring. My Santa-life meanders and runs together, and the events that seemed so exciting at the time turn into sad little half-stories when you drag them into the light.
Which means that I am not superwriter. I am worthless and I should leap off a bridge to my demise because that would show them, except it’s cold out and I can’t find my jacket. And who would feed the cat?
Jerking spasmazoidally in frustration, I roll off to one side tipping my forgotten teacup and my ginger spice blend cum low level biological weapon soaks into the carpet. “GAH!!” I vocalize, unconsciously. Cosmo, (TCWIBAD) looks away from outside the window to flash me the “Have. You. Lost. Your. Goddamn. Mind?” look which all cats have perfected.
I hit “erase,” and Santa vanishes like it was December 26th. I mutter the procrastinating college students’ prayer “Its due in four hours Please Jesus don’t let me fail” and consider my options. Maybe I’ll just start over. I was going to write “How I Lost My Virginity, a Tragedy in Three Acts,” but decided I’m far too prudish to let anyone read about my sex life such as it is. But necessity is the mother of desperation, and I’m lacking in other ideas.
I am six years old. I have been pulled from Mrs. Whaley’s second grade class for “Special” lessons. The sad-eyed woman in front of me steels herself for one more try. “No, Mark,” she says. “THE THeatre.”
I scowl. “TUH! TEATRE!”
“No.” She says. “The Theatre.”
“TUH!” The fluorescent lights make it hard to breathe.
The woman is clearly losing patience. “Why don’t we have a five minute “recess” and we’ll try this again.
I mumble the worst word second-grade-me knows under my breath, and watch the woman head out into the hall.
Fact one: I am a complete failure. Fact Two: I can’t write. Fact Three: Nobody will ever really love me. Fact four: I will die alone and unmourned, in a pauper’s grave. Probably in New Jersey.
Acknowledging these truths cheers me up a little, and I decide to adopt a Zen-like attitude. I breathe in deeply, exhale. I open my mind to the universe. “Buddha nature,” I think. “Must…find… Buddha… nature.” I am serene, and peaceful. And calm. No, I transcend calm. I am overwrought with serenity. I am one with the myriad beauties of creation. I speculate that Buddha nature lies somewhere between cat and dog. (Cosmo, now on the windowsill, burps.) I am the very PICTURE of humble serenity “Ommmm,” I chant, solemnly. “Ommm.” I am as implacable as time, as uncaring as the wind. I am CERTAINLY not going to throw my shoe through the window because fuck all this college bullshit, anyway.
“Trying,” lectures Matt-the Busdriver, “Leads to failure.”
I disentangle myself from the lotus position and soak my spilled tea up with a pink-paint splattered T-shirt, imagining the Buddha doing the same, big belly jiggling too and fro. It takes me a couple minutes to get it all, and in that time the upstairs roommates wake up long enough to turn the lights off and head from couch to bed.
Now, completely calm, I resolve to face my problem with cold, logical, understanding. Now my first problem is that, as a writer…. HOLY SHIT! The ginger tea residue I didn’t get sopped up is actually dissolving the carpet. I put off writerly concerns and post-haste it up the stairs to the kitchen, searching for sanitizer, paper towels, and gloves. A fizzing noise is coming from the carpet. Yes. Definitely gloves. Thick, thick gloves.
I head up the stairs and I reflect. My hand brushes the light switch and the kitchen is bathed in a soft glow.
My biggest problem as an autobiographer? My memory is bad. This is a running joke to more than one of my groups of friends.
“Do you remember the NAME of the STORE where you got that CD?” Matt-The-Bus-Driver asks? “No. OK, Do you remember STORES? Places where you go and you give them money and they give you things?”
“Yeeeeeaaaaah. Let’s ask MARK for directions to the pet shop. That’ll go GREAT,” Amelia-the-ex sneers. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen Texas.”
“And you don’t even smoke weed,” John-the-musician howls.
But it’s not THAT bad, I protest in my defense. I’m just not good at proper nouns, like streets, buildings, cities. Or people’s names. Or faces. I joke that I never forget an ass, but I lie. I generally forget everything about everybody. And sometimes it goes beyond forgetting names. I distinctly remember forgetting, not so long ago, which pedal on my car is the brake and which is the gas, as I sit there, paralyzed, the traffic light turning green….red…..green.
I dropped a child when I was Santa Claus. This is what I remember. The child was on my lap. The child was crying loudly. Then the child was on the floor, looking shocked. Then the parents were threatening to sue me and the child was crying really, REALLY loud, while his (her? Hard to tell.) older siblings walked over to me, blushing. “Hi, Santa!”
I was telling this story at my job. I work at Goodwill, taking people’s donations and sorting them. “I didn’t do it on purpose,” I tell my co-worker. “But the little bastard deserved it. For sure.”
Whitney-the-feminist (who, like most everyone else but me who works at Goodwill has an advanced degree and is completely overqualified for this gig) is hanging men’s suits on racks. She stops. Looks at me. “Urh-Huh. Remind me never to let you near my children.”
Now, I honestly believe that kid-meet-floor was an accident. It would have to be, right? A slip of the ‘ol butterfingers. Coulda happened to anyone. But she has a point, validated further if one reviews the evidence. I have a fairly large lap, and a sitting child has a very sturdy center of gravity. Also, it was a long day, containing MANY crying children. And while I am certainly a patient man, well, a reasonably patient man… Well, look, OK. I only dropped ONE kid out of maybe a thousand, right? Either way the percentages probably come out in my favor.
And my carpet is probably ruined. Armed with 2 pairs of rubber gloves, one winter glove one bottle of Extra Strength Green Spray Stuff and a towel, I head back downstairs CTCWIBAD trotting loyally behind me ‘till we get to the top of the stairs where he runs off to play King of the Refrigerator with the other cats. .
I am 21 years old. I live in Seattle, and work at the bakery. Occasionally, I scrounge up a couple of spare dollars as a stand up comic. Tonight is one of those occasions.
“And then the dog said you may be a bastard, but at least you’re not a son of a bitch!”
“Well, g’night folks,” I say. “You’ve been lovely. Charloette Lewis will be along in just a couple of minutes.”
I trudge backstage, change clothes, slink over to the bar. I bombed, but I am the second of the three comedians, which is the best position to be in if you bomb. The first comedian has come back and host and the closer has to have the longest set of material, but the second can limp off the stage and vanish.
I consider going home, but I decide against it. I really do like Charloette’s stuff and it’s contrary to my exorbitantly cheap nature to leave before seeing ALL of a show that other people have paid for.
I drop into a corner booth, rest my head in my hands, cover my face, the light is very dim, but I still it still feels like a heavy spotlight. Blarf. I consider suicide, decide on alcohol. As I look up I feel pressure on my shoulder.
“Hey kid,” Charloette Lewis says. “Saw the end of your set - You blew it. Totally.”
I am certain I look like I’m going to cry.
“But you got some funny stuff.”
“Really?” I am desperate for any sort of encouragement.
“But, uh, I’m not sure how to say this…” Charloette Lewis sucks in her breath “have you considered being a little less, uh, yourself like? A little calmer, maybe, uh… more confident, like. You’re freaking people out. Just a bit.”
Splirt. Splirt. Splirt. I spray green stuff on the carpet and rub my paper towels back and forth. The simple, mechanical rhythm, calms me a bit. Having attained Buddha nature grants me new insight into my problems. The failure here isn’t really mine. See, autobiographies are pointless and stupid. I wander over to the window to see if the neighbors are up. I look out and see nothing. The nearly full moon has ducked behind a cloud.
“Making EXCUSES,” says Amelia. “Always, always Excuses!”
No, no sweetie. Check it. I read a lot of biographies and autobiographies, mostly of musician-types. And there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between the two forms. How many times have I read some dude’s autobiography and he’s all “I am this virile stud muffin and here is a much pared down account of my sexual conquests.” Then you read a BI-ography of the same fella written by an outside observer and it goes “Yeah, he was basically this tremendously sensitive, shy sort of guy who sort of smelled like old cheese.” I’ve seen many, many variations on that particular theme. We are in no position to judge our own life. I rest my case.
“Naaaah,” says John the musician, “But look at how wrong we are about other people. You liked Charles, remember? And then he went on and stabbed Bongo 17 times.”
“And of course you’d say that,” says Cynical-Matt-the-Bus Driver. “You won’t even admit you dropped that kid.”
But, I dunno. Charles was a good guy, especially for having stabbed someone seventeen times. And I am almost probably certain I didn’t drop the little rug rat. But you all are missing my point, anyway. We can’t, or choose not to, see the constantly patterns in our lives. We all fuck-up, and we all fuck-up in the same way over and over again. When we’re all dead and gone ain’t much left but a pattern of repeated failures, and we’re all brilliantly dull to them.
Tuh Teatre! Tuh! Tuh! Tuh!
Besides the dropped child incident, I thought I was a very good Santa, thank you very much. It wasn’t my fault the costume didn’t fit. I was younger and thinner back then, and the costume was most definitely built for a plus-size guy. Even notching my big, black belt up to the last loop left me with a solid foot-and-a-half radius of unfilled belly space, meaning I had to hold my pants up with one hand at all times.
And then there was beard. The elastic would give way, and it would slide on down my face, forcing me to fix it single-handedly. And my glasses kept falling off my nose, which was fine because when I wasn’t wearing the glasses I could actually see. Yeah, I may have been a tad rough looking. Still, what I lacked in appearance I tried to make up for in can-do enthusiasm, ho-ho-hoing with all my Santa Claus heart.
Still, reflecting back, I don’t blame the mall-goers for thinking I was drunk. Perfectly understandable mistake, although it’s certainly lacking in Christmas spirit to think so low of Santa Claus. I do, somewhat, blame them for calling the local Hot 97 radio station and telling the DJ that I was drunk and where I was. And I certainly DO blame the local talk radio station for failing to do the responsible thing and sit on this information instead of informing the greater Seattle community to “Head on down to Northgate Mall and see the drunken Santa!”
John-the-musician (Who lasted one day as a Christmas elf) pats me on the shoulder. “Hey Cat. Don’t feel down. (heh heh.) It’s your first day, you know? It’ll all turn smooth.”
But the thing is, John, Matt, Amelia, drunk Santa is always the last to know. All of Seattle knew I was drunk Santa before I did. I didn’t have the distance from my predicament to appreciate how stupid I looked. tsagsagsdgasgds
I grant myself a brief reprise from cleaning the carpet to celebrate my deep spiritual understanding of human nature with leftover cheese and odd-color-of-orange spread sandwiches, twizzlers, and beer. I gather my cleaning supplies and head back towards the kitchen, humming “Can’t stand you ‘cause your feets to big.” After stocking up on provisions I kick the door to my basement open with my legs, but a cat – not Cosmo- runs between my legs, and cat (Cosmo) follows at surprisingly high velocity. Surprising because Cosmo is not a small cat, approaching “dog” in size as well as in temperament and voice, and that’s a lot of fat to be moving THAT fast. Which means that a Cosmo, me, and foodstuffs collision could make for another semi-serious mess. Luckily, Cosmo’s reflexes are still decently catlike and he’s skidding to a top, furiously trying to apply the brakes to linoleum. I scoop him up, and march downstairs cat in one arm, food and beer in the other.
The shock of almost being grounded by 20 pounds of cat has cost me by Buddah nature, and also my smugness. But, in exchange, I gain some clarity. But look at it this way. we still wring truth from our lives? Isn’t the purpose of writing, especially writing Can’t about me, me, me, me, me to attempt to recreate for ourselves the kind of objective distance?
So if I CAN’T write about myself, doesn’t that make me a self absorbed asshole? Or am I just
afraid, fersinstance, to challenge my IDEA of myself. Huh. I vaguely notice that the sun has started to rise.
I am a good person. I would NEVER effectively beat up on a three year old from a position of power, right?
I sigh, drop food and cat and beer onto a pile of dirty laundry.
“Or maybe you just wouldn’t admit it” Matt-the-Bus-Driver states.
I flop myself down next to the rest of the stuff, bouncing a couple times on the camping mattress which has been temporarily serving as my bed for the past three years. I check to see if I got the tea stain out of the carpet.
On the one hand, yes. I no longer see a brown tea stain on the white carpeting. On the other hand there’s now a tree-inch radius blue stain cause by the… Hmm. According to the label, the green stuff was toilet cleaner.
Damn. ShitShitShitHelluvaShit. And also Shit. I really need the damage deposit I paid on my room. I am a poor College student, and 200 bucks is a helluva lot of money.
“To your broke ass,” sneers John the Musican.
I consider my options. Option one: I could paint the carpet white, stain and all. Option two: I could buy a rug and put it over the blue spot. Option three: If I burn the house down they’ll never.. but maybe I’m not thinking clearly.
No. Time to take stock. I AM going to lose my 200 dollar deposit, eventually. And
IMMEDIATELY I have a paper due tomorrow, which I am going to fail.
Still, worrying won’t do much good. I try to regain my Buddah nature, but it is truly difficult to find oneness with the divine when God so obviously and demonstrably hates me.
But taking stock wasn’t such a bad idea. Question: Besides memory, besides the courage to admit their faults, what do GOOD writers got that I don’t.
Clean carpets. And they start working more than one day before their assignment is due.
Good. What else?
I am 25 years old. I am standing in the campus police station of Evergreen State College. They tell me that my father just died. “It’s too bright in here,” I tell them.. “My eyes hurt; I can’t see.”
I tell my girlfriend. Amelia hugs me, as I cry, asks if there’s anything she can do.
Two days pass. I am home, going through his things. There’s a funeral. It passes in a blur.
I return to college, fail my classes that semester.
And then get on with my life.
But sometimes there’s this little voice, like. In the back of my head. It says“Your dad died.” And I figure that can’t be right, and that I need to wake up now. So I try to force myself to consciousness, to reenter the real world where obviously that couldn’t be true. And then I realize that I’m already awake and start to laugh and end up sobbing.
Heh. I smile. The neighbors still have their Christmas lights up. Maybe that’s why I have Santa on the brain. And besides my first day as drunk Santa, there might still be some lessons worth learning.
Here’s one: Faith, true faith, is pretty damn boring. I’d read stories about Santa Claus before, and they always had children’s eyes growing wide as saucers as they gaze up adoringly and blah…blah…blah. Actual kids, it turns out, don’t do much in the way of speechless, shocked awe. They either fairly categorically either accept or reject the reality of Santa Claus, and either way it’s not such a big deal to them. To the believer “Here’s Santa Claus” is about as exciting as “here’s the dinner table” and, lacking bells and whistles, is considerably less exciting than
“Here’s a fire truck.”
But that’s a lesson learned after the fact. Which is when lessons happen, really. The process of living - of finding the delicate balance between the pure joy off existence and the annoyance of having to deal with all of this total bullshit – doesn’t leave much time to forge the raw material of sensory experience into little nuggets of wisdom.
Hmm. The sun’s coming up now, and light is poking through my dusty basement window. I finish my snack. Cosmo head-butts my leg, demanding attention and I reach down and stroke his tail. Then I drop down in front of my laptop and start to take some notes. Well, I did figure some stuff out in the last hour-or-so. Maybe I can write about that. I flick off the lights to let the sunshine in, quietly exorcize the ghosts of absent friends and lovers, and start to type. Then I drop down in front of my laptop and jot some notes. “Memoir is about learning, I guess. Doing the learning from experiences that living gets in the way of.”
Left to his own devices, Cosmo sniffs at the blue spot on the carpet, looks puzzled, and vomits. Ah well. The carpet’s a problem for another day. Right now I’ve got to try to make sense out of my life. At my laptop I juggle some titles: “Reflections of Drunken Santa,” “On Failing to Write My Memoirs,” and finally “Was an accident.”
I finish off my beer and continue typing. “It’s Thursday, late. Outside a summer storm is dying….” But it’s well and truly passed now, the sky is cloudless and the sun is very bright.