A Long Short Story


This piece, a chapter from an as yet published novel, Tougher Than Us, will be featured in an anthology of Texas Beat writers forthcoming in 2012 from the University of Texas Press

“Man the best ship you have with twenty oarsman, and go in quest of your absent father.”


Ever since she called last Spring, two scant weeks after my trip to Spain, I’ve done nothing but remember all the things we did together, things I’ve tried hard to forget, stupid, silly things, wondrous things. All the effort at repression has made me realize that I’ve lived in two moments since I first met her some ten years ago, the present--The Zoe--moments that seemed to stretch out and out so that I got stuck in them even as they drifted into my other state of being—-The Waiting—-the not-Zoe, until they melded into one long, slow pulsation of longing.  Ever since I can recall, she’d lay her head in my lap, sleeping, and I’d stroke her brown hair looking down at her face guarding over her like a night watchman.  While she slept, I’d run my fingers through her hair, my hand a living comb, changing her part from the middle to the left side, then to the right side, reading the change of countenance, as if there were three of her, the one who loved me, the one who couldn’t admit it, the one who one day would.

The day she decided to marry Nature Boy (my name for the tree hugging poet she met in NYC), she called me. Funny thing is, she couldn’t say much and I couldn’t say what I wanted because I knew it was too late to say anything.  We hung up after a brief conversation, but in a sadomasochistic act, I wanted to hear her voice one last time and called her back. That conversation was even more distant, more painful.



“You’re really going to do it, huh?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Well, I guess I should congratulate you?”


“Well, congratulations.”



“I’ll let you know where I wind up.”

“Yeah.  Be careful, okay?”



That was it, as close as I can recall, but what I remember most is the conversation in my head that went something like: “Why the fuck are you doing this?  Don’t you realize that I love you and that you love me and that it’s fucking madness to think you’ll find love outside of us?  Don’t you realize that I’m eating myself alive?  Goddamn you, goddamn you.”  In retrospect, I guess I should have hit her with the real thing.  Either way, though, I wouldn’t have wound up any happier.  So maybe I did well.

I got drunk that night, found the first girl that reminded me of Zoe and didn’t stop till I realized that a string of un-Zoes weren’t going to bring me any closer to being able to rest.  I fucked and I fucked that whole Spring.  Brenda, the 30-year old virgin who cried when we had sex for the first time and started baking me zucchini breads that I never touched; Kate the scratcher, who would sit on my couch and use her index finger to neurotically scrape away at the raw wounds that covered the inside of her thumbs while she obsessed about why I couldn’t just open up and be honest; Marcy, who accused me of trying to rape her psyche because I “made” her watch Persona despite what I knew about her “vulnerable state”; Alyce who tried the jealousy trip once too often and went home with a guy right before my very eyes, only to come over later that night and bang on my door until the neighbor called the cops.  There were a few others I met in Indianapolis bars whose names I don’t remember.  But I couldn’t make it go away.  I didn’t sleep much the next six months.  Always the same dream.  Me in my little one bedroom house, Zoe coming in and decorating the place for me with flowers and white laces and boughs of all sorts of green shit, like the place was something from out of The Enchanted Cottage.  And then her walking out to a waiting Nature Boy and leaving me behind in a house I couldn’t live in alone.

At the end of the summer, I went celibate.  I decided that if I shrinkwrapped my cock, I might get a bit closer to sanity.  I’ve given her up by making my body some sort of temple in her honor.  Call me a freak, but it isn’t hard to do, not at all.  I just shut them out, shut it out.  I do a lot of running, have even stopped jerking off.  Why bother?

The poetry dried up too.  Nothing to write about I guess.  And today I find out that the third part of the triumvirate of my adulthood obsession, my father, is gone. The Evangelist is dead.

My mother called this morning, about six, an hour after I’d fallen asleep. I knew something was wrong.  No one calls me before two p.m.  I thought maybe Antonio when I heard her voice.  “Your father died last night,” she said. I don’t remember much else. I think I asked how and she told me she didn’t know.  All she could say was that he’d been found in a motel outside of Houston. As she told me, I got up out of bed and paced around my apartment. It was impossible news, something I’d never even considered. The Evangelist dead?

I hung up and sat on my couch. How could this be? I got up and walked back to my bed and it hit me that I was no longer Rafa, Jr.  “I’m Rafa, Big Rafa, Rafa, Sr.” and I fell on the bed and wept, for what I’m not sure yet. For him? For the answers I’ll never get? For the father I should have had, could have had? After twenty or thirty seconds, I got up and went into my wallet, pulled out The Letter, reread it for the umpteenth time, but with one big difference.  I knew now that I would never get another one, and that this advice, that and the $20, was the totality of his legacy to me. 

Some goddamned legacy. Half-truths…don’t believe even this…finding The Word: all a bunch of shit. All a justification for having a restless, horny heart. All my adult life, and I’m turning thirty-two in a month, all these years spent trying to get at what drove that bastard to leave while trying everything not to be him.  All my life, attributing every foul deed and thought to his blood flowing through my veins.  And of course, he doesn’t die in me, he just goes and dies on me.  Goddamn him, but He probably won’t---

“I’ve come to the conclusion that I serve mankind more beneficently as an installer of satellite dishes than as a mediocre, generally unheard of, barely-practicing poet.”  I say this to Tull with corazon, hoping that my friend will disagree forcefully, convincingly.

“Poetry?  What have you written lately?” he asks looking through a box of cassettes I haven’t listened to since the last time he came through town.  Lots of Rush and Boston from our long gone stoner college days.  Tull isn’t about to grant any undue comfort.  He is sitting next to me, the thinning red hair atop his head in a ludicrous Viking puff, an exclamation point to his oft-vitriolic commentary.  What should I expect?  He is not literary.  He likes television.  He hungers for instantaneous information despite his Luddite protestations to the contrary. 

And yet, I have no answer for his no-nonsense question.  Truth is, I had written nothing for months before my mother called with the news about The Evangelist, since I decided that I would not go to a funeral, since I quit the teaching gig in Indianapolis that I’d hated since day one. 

“My fate hangs in the balance,” I say. It’s supposed to be a joke, a half-joke.

He doesn’t answer.  He is preoccupied with a map now.  He has unfolded it roughly, tearing it along a crease, ripping the heartland in two.  Tull does everything with a maddening lack of restraint, going through life as if he is being paid by the package to open Christmas presents for someone else’s children. Rip, rip, rip.

We are driving southeast with the express purpose of climbing the Smoky Mountains.  Well, not climbing so much as riding. Tull believes the trip will bring him a measure of peace.  I want the trip to bring something else, an answer, at least a clue. Hell, I’d call it inspiration if it wasn’t such a tired cliché.  It’s happened before, a trip to someplace unconventional and unhip, even unpleasant.  Places like Presque Isle, Maine, or Bustamante, Mexico.  The last thing I wrote was on a short trip.  I drove south by myself, heading for the border, but I stopped well short:

I would like to steal you away from yourself,

escape to Mexico

Then have you come looking for us.






Not much?  But it was. Yes, another poem for Zoe that I never sent, but that nonetheless gave me some comfort, as if I was doing something instead of just feeling low and insecure, spending a lot of time doing sit-ups or moaning because I was so unlovable. Of course, that only lasted until I realized that it was a pathetic cry for permanency, of the futility of looking for something, of feeling like I’ve had to steal everything that’s come my way. That everything that I’ve done so far, including the poetry, boils down to an escape plan.

Similarly deluded, Tull has taken to insisting that peace lies just around the corner in some rustic setting.  He imagines something unspoiled, untouched.  Virgin land for the Viking with the preposterous red beard grown for our road trip.

Finally, he puts the map down and says, “you bring the average schmuck ball-shattering joy by installing satellite dishes.  Tits and sports 24/7. No one wants anything more in this shitty society”---

I worry about Tull lately. The end of his second marriage and the collapse of his work life have combined like bad medicine. He has grown so sick of his job that he is given to talking about taking a shotgun to work.  It was his running gag for a while, but lately it has taken on a disturbingly realistic dimension.  He has concocted a hit list.  His hit list has grown.  He has contempt for everyone at his office.  He refuses to ride the elevator anymore.  He would rather walk up to the tenth floor of his office building than to pretend not to notice his coworkers.  He insists he is being watched and so he does things to throw off his enemies.  He wears an eye patch on the third of each month, laughs at inappropriate times, yelps in the bathroom.  Even by Canadian standards, Tull has become so strange, his colleagues steer clear of him.  They call him "The Prophet."

He phones me late at night and says he is so sick in spirit that he must escape soulless Toronto before it devours his will to live, pulls the plug on his already comatose sense of brotherly love.  He must come see me and the two of us must go back to nature.  “I’ve been checking out Tennessee on the web,” he says, “the Smoky Mountains.”

I told him to come down.  There has not been much to do this winter in Indiana except think about The Evangelist and the death of my desire to write. It’s been brutally cold and dreary.  I thought I’d relish the solitude, put it to good use.  But I watch television constantly.  I have five hundred plus stations.  I work only as often as I want to, and that isn’t very often.  Living is cheap and three or four installations a week keep me in orange juice and bagels, the yin and yang of my diet.  But Tull’s call reminds me that it’s getting to be Spring.  It’s early April.  Eliotian sentiments prick my desire to write; will the corpse sprout again?  Tull keeps talking about just wanting a few days where nothing happens.  Not me. I want something to happen, anything, something that will spark a poetic response, a thought, a trigger.  A signal flare from the depths of my Midwestern hibernation---

Tull fears what the city has done to him.  He swears that he’s losing his hair because of all the stress.  “I’m waiting for the whole goddamn thing to fall apart,” he tells me every week, writes in every email.  “Yuppie jerks think they’re the lucky ones. That they’re the ones that’ll be spared, but they’re not.  They are one-hundred percent fucked, just like you and me.” 

I don’t say anything to him about it, although lately, too often, I feel he’s right.  When it gets too heavy, I say, “Everything’s going to be fine.” 

“C’mon, Rafa, no more beautiful bullshit.  We’re at the end.  Too late for that”---

My book of poetry, Just Looking, never took off despite some critical attention.  I guess a book about observation and the inability to act, modern paralysis, and all that, was somewhat canned.  Maybe it was just boring. Right now, at this point, I don’t care.  I’m no longer a new voice and I suspect that I don’t have much to say. How could I? A man, my age, still as unsure and confused as the day I got up on my feet. That’s why I quit the teaching gig. I couldn’t look into all those dead eyes. So I answered an ad for the satellite job, and here I am---

Tull has brought a duffle bag and the infamous Coleman lantern.  “We are sleeping in a hotel,” I tell him.  But he counters that we are going into the mountains.  He can say what he likes, but I’m not going to sleep outside. My people spent hundreds of years doing that involuntarily.  Mexicans migrants on the picking trail, sleeping on the cold, hard ground.  “We don’t do that anymore,” I say, the indignant voice of my people.

“At least I’m out of Gog and Magog,” he says.  “Toronto is Babylon with shittier weather.  It’s God’s horror movie.  Everywhere you look, drug addicts, criminals, whores, homeless, the sick, and those are the decent people.  Jesus, it’s gotten to the point where I can’t breathe anymore.”  He takes a long, violent pull on his baby blue asthma medication dispenser.  “There’s no fucking human beings anymore,” he continues.  “I can’t stand the shits I work with.  They all think life’s a fucking bowl of cherries and they’re the only ones with spoons.  I gave this girl a nice gift.  A hammock from Peru.  She never called back,” he says now taking a purely gratuitous pull on the dispenser.  He inhales like he’s hitting a joint, breathing deeply as if the fumes not only relieve his clogged lungs, but also his tortured mind.  He holds his breath and exhales towards the cracked-open window of the pick-up releasing the leftover pollution from the big city, the gaseous vestiges of his private Gomorrah.

“The weather’s going to get better, and I could’ve hung it up outside,” he says.  “Besides, she didn’t really appreciate it. People don’t appreciate things like hammocks anymore.  It isn’t high tech enough.  That,” he says with emphasis, “is exactly what’s wrong with Toronto”---

Heading south on I-65 thru southern Indiana, we approach Louisville, the first town in Kentucky.  Crossing the Ohio River, the city is not as impressive as the expanse of the water below us.  Tull cranes his neck, nodding in approval. 

“I can feel the chain being broken,” he says deeply satisfied. “I love rivers.  Water makes a place better.  Carries away all the bullshit.  Not like a lake where everything collects until the stink stifles everything.  A river cleans a place right up,” he says taking a deep breath even though the windows of the truck are rolled up tight. 

We reject the city silently and it disappears as suddenly as it came up, the tops of red brick buildings and Kentucky Derby billboards dropping behind the confused spaghetti of highways pressed against the gray sky. We turn towards Lexington.

“You’re lucky,” he says.  “No worries working by yourself.  No one trying to goddamn motivate you.  At the shithole I work at, they’re either hounding you by keeping track of how many phone calls you take or stroking you, blowing warm little puffs of sunshine up your ass.  You should get a load of the better management gurus in khaki pants cutting through halls cooking up new ways of wringing even more work out of your labor-slacked balls.”

The highway is crowded, more cars and trucks joining the concrete river’s flow as people leave work.  “Sometimes I feel like poor Gadget, like I’m growing a grapefruit-sized tumor in my head from all those phone calls.  They don’t care.  But they fucking should,” he says hinting at something ominous--a Casual Dress Day threat.

“I feel much more relaxed here,” he claims.  “In the U.S. people are tougher.  Better constitutions.  Not like in Canada.  Example: we had a blizzard and fuckers protested.  They picketed the mayor because he didn’t clear the streets fast enough.”

He pronounces his most withering judgment on his fellow Torontoans: “Wimps.  Can you imagine something like that happening in Texas?”  Tull still idealizes the Lone Star state.

“That’s what I tell them at work—-‘tough it out like they do in Texas.’  Everyone’s worried because our company is going to merge with some big conglomerate.  ‘Don’t worry,’ I say, ‘We’re going to get it in the arse.  No doubt,’ I say, ‘No doubt.  They’ll let us swing for as long as they can, and then, boom, here comes the big chorizo, so pick a hole and open wide’---

We are getting close to Lexington.  “Lots of farms out here,” Tull says, drawn to the hallucinogenic green of the rolling Kentucky farmland.  “Look at all those acres and those nice fences.  You never see fences like that in Canada.  Americans are the best goddamned fence-builders in the world.” 

I almost quote Robert Frost but restrain myself just in time to keep from sounding like an asshole.

“These people have the right idea out here,” Tull says. “Not a damned thing around.  All of nature surrounding you, peace and quiet.  Toronto is crazy, Rafa.  People pressing in from every direction, wedging their noses in other people’s cracks.  And the meetings!  Meetings for the sake of meetings.  I emailed my boss the other day—-‘All these meetings.  You know what the agenda ought to read for these meetings?  Item 1: we will all jerk each other off for an hour on how far to stick our thumb up our ass.’  Toronto,” Tull sneers.  “Nothing but perverts and jerks.  I’m heading west to Vancouver.  Start over.  I’ve just decided that.  People aren’t as pussified there.  That’s important.”  I remind Tull that he’s tried the go west fantasy before.

“Why didn’t you stay in British Columbia if you like nature and solitude so much?”

“Legal troubles,” he says cryptically.  “Let’s just say B.C. is off-limits. No can do.”

We climb gradually into Appalachian country.  The radio plays bluegrass.

“That’s corny music,” Tull says.  “Turn it off.”

“If you listen for more than two seconds, you can learn a lot about this place,” I say.

“Yesss,” Tull agrees after a few seconds, “you can hear all sorts of influences, can’t you? It doesn’t really make sense, banjoes and mandolins and violins.”  He develops a theory.  “These Europeans probably came out here and they were from different parts and couldn’t speak each other’s language.  Music was the key.  I can add to that, one of those hayseeds thought when he heard some other forlorn hillbilly strumming on a guitar or violin, and before you knew it, there was a hoedown,” he laughs.  “Yeah, a regular hoedown, those poor fucked farmers going into their houses and telling their overworked wives to put on their pretty, pitiful little bonnets for a bit of fun.  Can you see it?”

We climb higher and higher, big trees, pecan and oak, flying by as we listen to bluegrass, seeing a circle of Eurofarmers square dance in our mind’s eye.  I am beginning to get a feel for hillbilly culture.  I almost appreciate it.  “Imagine coming up here straight out of a crowded tenement in NY or Warsaw or some shanty in the middle of a barren potato field in Ireland, and thinking you’ve escaped only to find yourself on this cold hard mountain?  Nice land, but what to eat?  And when the winter hit, if you got so much as a sniffle, that just might be your ass,” I say. 

Tull looks out the window snorting every once in a while in agreement.

“Say son, better stack granma out with the wood.  We’ll give’r a proper burial when the thaw comes,” I say imitating a pioneer.  “How many times do you think those words were spoken around here?  Say what you will, but they had to be tough.” 

“But you want to know something, Rafa,” Tull says.  “Not tougher than us.  My mom and dad sound off on how hard the old days were and why can’t we youngsters do what they did and work hard and get a house and get married, and stay married and all that good shit.   Know what I say?  It ain’t like the good old days anymore!  Life’s tougher now.  STRRRESSSSS!” he hisses as if his pressure cooker has sprung a leak.  “Mind-fucking, body-shaking STRESSSSS!  They’ve got NO clue what it takes to make it out there.  This ain’t the good ol’ days, Ma, these are the Last Days.  Just take a look at who’s running things: brutal bastards with cutthroat logic.  Merging, they call it.  Merging!  That’s code for fucking.  They’re merging us right up the ass.  No Sir! I tell my pop when he starts on one of his cracked rants about kids today.  You got no idea, old man.  Stress!  Ball-shrinking stress.”

We pull over to get coffee.  A large mall in Lexington.  It is grotesque, with linen stores the size of aircraft carriers and bookstores that hold more than the Library of Congress.  We wade through dozens of people waiting for lattes as if we were at some yuppie coffee bar in San Francisco instead of a redneck outback.  “Canadians don’t like the US; everyone hates you guys,” Tull says beginning to get impatient.  He is going to take out the long wait on my country.

“This is the motherland, the core of American identity,” Tull says.  “It’s all here: the country with its halfwits and hillbillies, bluegrass and incest, and lots of half-baked patriotism. But they all love Jesus,” he says. “Listen, these dummies got no chance of recognizing the Antichrist unless he shows up in a neon suit plugging the Blessed Whore of Babylon in the ass.”

His rumination tempts me towards making a Kerouac-like defense of America, to wax idealistically, a Mexican Whitman alive to democratic vistas.  But before I do, I get a look at the two Republicans in silly golf pants that are standing in front of us. They’re eavesdropping and one of them, with skin so pale it’s almost translucent, gives me a two-second glance. It’s one of those “put the greaser back in his place” looks, one that makes me feel like I’ve got to justify my existence north of the Rio Grande. I forget all about defending America.

“We should be like Huck and Tom and head for the Mississippi River,” Tull says suddenly.  “I saw it on the web.  We can get on a riverboat ride, three hours.  We’ll get high, eat ribs and then float down the goddamn Mississippi River.”

“Why are we going up these mountains then?  We could’ve just gone straight to Memphis.  We’re killing a lot of time,” I say.

“I need nature,” he replies.  “I just know that at the top of the mountain I’ll suddenly understand how to once and for all gouge out the eye of the shitstorm---

While I drink my coffee, I walk around the bookstore.  All these road trip books, Kerouac, Twain, Hemingway, Acosta, Kesey, Rivera, Hunter Thompson, all of them crisscrossing the continent, in deserts, on the ocean, over mountains, in the cities, in bars, jails, whorehouses, churches, and none of them ever finding anything much.  Well, anything approaching the It Kerouac longed for.  But I guess that’s the point. The artist knows he can’t really ever find what he desires, because what he desires most of all is the search itself. The elusiveness of the It is what fuels the search, keeps him trying to invent the vocabulary to describe it.  But to find It, to define It, and thus to possess It, would ultimately be tragic.  Better to live in its absence, and thus keep desire alive.  Keep the muse close, tantalizingly close, but at day’s end, impossible to get hold of because that would be The End; as sad as the closing words of a novel that you know will have no sequel nor sibling.

Of course, I don’t believe that. At least I didn’t used to. I thought that somewhere along the line, I’d get an answer, goddamnit. I wanted to crawl into the ass of the origin, come out with a hunk of wisdom. But now, I have to confront that poetry hasn’t gotten me a fucking thing. Answers, love, refuge? No, and hell no.

I don’t want to write about inaction and paralysis anymore. I want to act and then write about it. The only person I’ve ever known who even did anything close to that, is dead now, and his magnum opus finally added up to a cryptic warning to not believe anything except that nothing is true.

It’s like this: day in, day out, I drill holes in people’s wall. Discrete little holes, just wide enough to accept the cable I lay, black and smoothly encased in plastic, running the length of a bedroom or living room wall, whichever the customer prefers, connecting them to convenient and always accessible entertainment and information.  A modern cacophony of disconnected, unimportant, vapid blips, making everything profane and worthless, in fact, making the very idea of “profane” all the more profane by ridiculing the very notion that something might have once been considered profane. I have become a conduit for mindless observation. I have become the quintessential one-night stand.

In short, I do essentially the same job as a satellite installer that I did as a poet, only I’m far more effective at the former than I am at the latter---

It’s getting late when we spot a motel called the Irish Inn. Tull takes this as a sign.  The place is a dump, but we’re twenty miles outside Knoxville and we don’t want to go hunting in that unknown city.  Tull gets the keys from the late night clerk, a young black guy who looks exhausted.  I stand back and look at the lobby, a smelly, dank room with a depressing couch that has been pissed and puked on enough times that it has formed an intricate, intensely malodorous pattern.  I try to read it, but its sole message seems to be “stank-ass.”  There is a vending machine behind that offers a collection of obscure snacks, candy bars only a sugar-fiend would recognize.  And then it hits me. This is exactly the kind of place that The Evangelist croaked in, unheralded, unloved, alone.

“Thanks,” Tull says taking the key.  The clerk says checkout’s at 11:00, and we walk out.  We climb up three flights and find our room.  Tull turns the key and gives the door a shove.  The light and television are on.  There is a six-pack of longneck beer sitting on the nightstand next to a bed that looks freshly mussed. ESPN blares out hockey scores and generic highlights.  We stand there nonplussed but not as nonplussed as the naked guy who walks out of the bathroom brandishing a hard-on.  He is hairy with a gut sticking out farther than his rod.  “What the fuck,” he asks, too surprised to bother hiding his cock. “Get the fuck outta here!”  His pecker bobs angrily and Tull and I take a step back.  “They gave us the wrong key,” Tull says.

“Who the fuck gave you the wrong key!” he roars moving towards us.  “You wanna suck my dick?  Is that it?”  We back out fast and head for the stairs.  “What kind of place is this,” I say rumbling down the steps gripping my duffel bag tightly. “Maybe we should just head outta here.  Find a place down the road closer to Knoxville.”

“No,” Tull says.  “It’s too late and besides, Knoxville’s probably even more of a freak show than this place.  All that’s happened was we walked in on some guy getting ready to spank.  But they better give us a deal now.”

He marches into the lobby and heads for the night desk. “Hey man,” he says to the clerk.  “You gave us the wrong key.  We walked in on some guy beating his meat.”

The clerk rubs his eyes but doesn’t act surprised.  Without saying a word, he reaches down and pulls out another key.  “This room’ll be better.”

“Hey, man.  I think maybe we should just take our business elsewhere,” Tull says leaving the key where it is.  “I should get a discount. The guy’s boner was pointed at me.  Give me money back.”

“I can’t do that,” the clerk says sitting up a little straighter.  He is more animated now. “This room I’m giving you is better for the same price.”

“Look,” I say, “this guy was two-fisting.”

“I’ll tell you what,” the clerk says. “I’ll let you take the remote control for the TV set for free.  We usually ask for twenty bucks deposit.”

“Throw in some of those snacks,” I say pointing at the vending machine.  We both choose O’Henrys, the only remotely familiar candy bar selection.  “This place is fucked up,” Tull says ripping into the candy as he plunges past the night desk, shoulders squared, a mad Ahab in search of an unharshable high. “Jesus, I came here for some peace and things are fucking up already.” 

We get to the room after climbing four flights and attempt to unlock the door, but it’s already open.  “This door doesn’t lock,” I say holding the key. The doorframe is askew so that the hole doesn’t match up with the bolt.

Tull doesn’t say a word.  He puts his beat-up green suitcase on the bed and turns right around heading for the lobby.  A few minutes later, the clerk is with him.  The two of them stand in silence as the guy tries to force the door to lock.  He pushes the door hard, then he lifts it by the doorknob trying to make it align right.  Next he shoves it hard enough to wake everyone in the place up.  A picture of a prairie sunset falls off the yellowing wall. 

“Doesn’t work,” the clerk concludes. 

We take turns looking at each other and then decide to give up.  “Fuck it,” I say and the night clerk walks out. 

The bathroom leaks and there is a long yellow streak of ancient urine in the tub. There are no towels, but there is a slant-eyed TV and two dixie cups next to a filthy ice bucket.  “Fire up a joint,” Tull says lying on the bed. “Fire one up before I fire up this dump.”

We are no longer headed for the Smokys.  Too much has happened for us to feel good about this part of Tennessee and Tull pronounces his irrevocable judgment: “east Tennessee is fucked.  No peace of mind possible here, Rafa.  I had the feeling that all this traffic, all these people crowding the highway was a bad sign.  People screw everything up,” he says with disgust.  He is lying in bed wearing the red, white, and blue sweater-jacket his Peruvian ex-wife knit him years ago when the two were still in love.  His red boat shoes point disconsolately at the cracked ceiling of our motel room.

“Sartre said that hell is other people,” I tell him.

“Yeah, well he got that one right,” he says as he puffs on a joint like a manic Humphrey Bogart.  There is no pizza delivery so we can only watch CNN and eat O’Henrys.

“Information moves too fucking fast,” Tull says as he scans stations.  He is catching a lift from the mota.  “Pure goddamn bombardment.  Some fuckers have 500 channels,” he says flipping every four of five seconds.  “How the hell is anyone supposed to make sense of anything?”

“You can,” I say. “if you treat it like a game.  As you surf try to connect all the images and words into some sort of mad poem.  You win when you’ve come up with a storyline, what we asshole literary types call a narrative.”

“Not interested,” Tull says chewing. “You should call that game ‘HUH?’”

“No,” I say, feeling high now. “It’s just like life. You go around walking the street or to the store, maybe your girlfriend’s house, and you’ve got all this input crashing down around you. But somehow, you make sense of what is nonsensical, as if things have a natural balance and harmony.  A coherence.”

“You don’t have a girlfriend,” says Tull.  “Anyway, I don’t buy it. That’s why I’m here.  Nature.  I don’t want to have to give it any kind of meaning or order.  It’s time for it to get on the stick and give me a little meaning and order”---

Heading west the next morning towards Nashville things seem better, more hopeful.  A change of direction will often do that for me, for most people, I guess.  The drive is nice, pure buzz, listening to classic rock and roll, a thoroughly engrossing symphonic experience as we steer down the heights we have climbed just the day before.

We roll into Nashville in the afternoon.  It is warm, humid, smaller than I thought it would be.  The main strip is a whites-only Disneyland.  “This is what America would be like if blacks and Mexicans hadn’t shown up,” I say walking past the hick bars on Broadway.  The shops celebrate country music and little else.  People with puffy hair mill around a big-dicked racecar on display in front of a Nascar store.  They give each other knowing glances like they’ve been allowed to glimpse a secret that only they can fully appreciate. Standing next to me, a redneck wears a t-shirt with the face of a mustachioed Nascar god wrapped around his beer belly.  The face seems to be grimacing in agony. 

“There’s gotta be a place where we can get ribs around here,” Tull says breaking the spell.  “This is the south.”  We spot a place called The Gnawbone. It smells good. “Let’s eat,” Tull says. “On me”---

There’s a cheap but clean motel on the outskirts of town, near the new football stadium, just across the river that separates the black side of the city from downtown.  We check in and while Tull sleeps I go out to take a look at things.  The Nashville downtown is connected to the outer city by a series of bridges that span the Cumberland River.  It isn’t a beautiful city.  Nashville is a mixture of old modernist buildings, a few neoclassical structures, and many postmodern monstrosities, including a Hockey Arena apparently designed by George Jetson.  I walk the length of one of the bridges.  It is that part of the day, just before the brightness of the afternoon begins to fade, perhaps just after it has begun to fade, and one cannot so much surmise it through the senses, as intuit the slight decline in the intensity of the light.  The sky is a canvas on which all my future disappointment and failure has already been drawn.

It makes me feel like I have to do something about it, maybe reverse the curse by throwing some charmed object into the river below.  An offering to the rivergod.  I can’t find anything but an old crushed beer can, though.  But I don’t throw it because the traffic’s too heavy and I’m sure to be spotted by a goddamned cop.

When I get back to the room, Tull is sitting at the edge of the bed.  Marijuana is in the air.  “Been taking a look through the entertainment guide,” he says. 

“What’s that, a new euphemism for you smoking our stash while I’m out?”

He ignores my comment.  “This place looks like it’s strictly for hicks except for a place called the Siren Club. Sound alright?” 

“Not to me,” I say throwing myself on my bed. 

“What’s wrong with you?” he asks.  “This place might have some life.”

“I thought you didn’t want anything but a little peace and quiet.  What’s happened to your back to nature thing? Anyway, I’ve given up on something happening.  This place is dead.  I’ve been reduced to looking for things to throw off a bridge”---

Eleven o’clock and we find the Siren Club on the edge of the black district.  The blues music sounds pretty decent from the door.  We pay our cover and order a couple of beers.  The band is good.  “Big talent pool in this town,” Tull says.  “I bet musicians from all over come up hoping to make it.  Lots of session players making a living backing up the hicks.”

We drink until we feel good, cheered by the music loud and mournful, alive with sex.  “Red House,” Tull yells during a lull and the band complies. 

We keep drinking.  I switch to gin and tonics, Tull still downing Mexican beer.  We do not sing along with the band anymore. The crowd has gotten large, rowdy.  It has drowned us out.  A tall black man is smoking menthol cigarettes.  I ask him for one and he hands me the pack.  I take it, nod my thanks.  I smoke quickly, deeply, and the room swirls around me.  I am officially drunk.  Oh shit.  I look over at Tull.  He does not look drunk.  He seems as if he is contemplating something important, deathly so. 

He’s eavesdropping.  Next to us, a young woman, a dirty blonde, eyes painted satanically dark, chain-smoking and complaining loudly tells her friend, a heavy brunette with a tight green dress that pulls her belly into two doughy loaves, that she is tired of fucking strange men.  Her friend is not convinced.  “Every time Jimmy leaves you, you go off the deep end, Tif.  And you say every time that you’re not going to take him back, that you’re not going to go to bed with the first man you see, and you do it anyway,” she says.

“Fuck him,” Tif says.  “I don’t care,” and she takes a bewitching pull on her cigarette.

The blonde notices Tull and smiles.  Tull smiles back.  Before I know it, we’re sitting at the table with Tif and Whitney.  Drunk as I am, I cannot make Whitney attractive.  I squint. I look at her from different angles.  None of it works. 

“Wanna know your future?” she says to me.  “Give me your hand.”

She takes it, palm up, using her other hand to stroke the lines that face her.  She peers, reading what there is to read. 

“Can’t see anything?” I ask.

“Well, I can’t be sure.  It’s dark in here.”

“Well give it a try.  I was just thinking about my future today.” 

“You might not like it,” she says.

“That’s okay.”

“When you stretch your pinky in this direction, well, that says you’ll only have one true love your whole life,” she says looking closely.

“And this line, it fades out and that means the lady of fortune hasn’t decided what to do with you yet, although I can tell this line here means you better watch yourself around water.” She fingers the crease in my hand.

“Why water?”

“Your life line ends here. Death by drowning.”

“I don’t swim so I don’t go near water. This is as wet as I get,” I say finishing off my drink.

“There’s lots of ways of drowning,” she says.

“Well, I’ll drown a dry bastard,” I say and I get up and lumber towards the john. 

I pass table upon table of well-dressed Nashvillains out on the town.  They seem to have it together.  They can control themselves.  Something about the southern façade, the need to project competence, self-reliance, the easy come, easy go line of horseshit.  I find the bathroom, red and black floor tiles making me even dizzier.  I try and concentrate on feeling still.

I stare at the mirror, into my eyes in order to regain my equilibrium.  I look old, I notice, old like I remember thinking The Evangelist was old when I was a kid.  I see him in the mirror as he swims inside me somewhere, peeking out from the depths of my eyes like he’s just waiting for me to become him despite my lifetime of resisting that, of resisting his laugh when it comes out of my mouth, his old jokes from spilling out when my guard is down, his jabber-walk when I am in a hurry, his meanness when I strike out at the women who have tried to love me.  (Did she say only ONE true love?)  I am thirty-two.  The Evangelist’s age when he left, when he had already fathered two children.  I am childless, unsure of myself.  I am no patriarch.  I am a thirty-two year old boy on a fruitless trip.  “Bet your ass, fear water,” I say to The Evangelist as he looks back at me from the glassy surface of a suckass pool.  I lean my forehead against its mirrored twin, as if praying to him, to our grave and graven image.

“You fucker,” I say to him. “You goddamned fucker.” A man who’s just taken a piss, double-thinks his plan to wash his hands. “You answer me now. Just what the hell did you think you were doing leaving me?  Just what did you think I was going to do with all the piddling bullshit riddles you left me with? Answer me, now, answer me.” 

Just then, my Viking friend enters the bathroom.  “What are you doing,” he wants to know.  “Jesus, you are really hammered,” he says stepping up to the urinal.  “Should’ve stuck to beer.  Mexicans shouldn’t drink gin.  Can you handle yourself a while?  I think Tif is ripe for a  boff.” 

“Fuck you,” I curse at him.  “I wanna go home.  You gotta drive the fucking truck,” I say throwing the keys in his direction.  Tull is quick and he catches them before they land in the pisser. 

“I can’t drive,” he reminds me. 

“Gotta,” I say.  “You gotta.”

The girls help me to my truck. Whitney gets in behind the wheel.  Tull goes off with Tif and the two of them get into a white Escort.  They follow behind, then flash their lights to catch our attention as they turn into a liquor store.

“Not feeling too good, huh?” Whitney says.  She’s being nice to me.  I am leaning my balloon head against the window.  I feel like moaning but resist.  We get to the hotel and I manage to get to the elevator before I throw up into a fake plant suspended from a blue wicker hanger.  “Good one,” Whitney says.  She is much nicer than I gave her credit for. 

“You got us here,” I congratulate her. 

“Yup,” she says, “got us here.” She leads me to my bed where I dump myself, fully clothed.  Tull and Tif arrive.  They are in a high mood.  They have a bottle of Tequila.  They have ice and a lime.  They are going to do shots.  Tull grabs the plastic cups from the sink.  He is sure now that he is going to get laid.

Whitney watches them from the other side of my bed.  They don’t invite her to come over. 

“Wanna lie down?” I ask her.  “No funny business. Just lie down?”  I feel bad for Whitney and her heavy frame and her heavy life.  She gets in with me and before I can stop myself I say, “I’m sorry that I said you were fat.”

“You never said I was fat, asshole.”

“Oh,” I say trying to recover.  “I meant sorry I thought you were fat.”

“Fuck you,” she says getting up.  “You’re no prize either, and I hope you do drown, you jerk.  Let’s get out of here,” she says to Tif and before Tull can even launch into protest, the girls are walking out the door with the bottle of Tequila---

In the morning, we smoke a joint to paper over my hangover.  It does the trick and I am even willing to have breakfast. We eat waffles at the Waffle House before starting back to Indiana. “On the map it says we’re going to go right past Lincoln’s birthplace,” I say.  “We should check it out, see where old Honest Abe was born.” 

“Sounds good to me,” Tull says and we drive until we find the exit.  “There’s the sign,” Tull points.  I turn off the highway pulling onto the small farm road that leads to the birthplace.  “Think it’s a log cabin?” I say.

“Hell yes.  We’ll take a picture in front of it.”  He holds up his disposable camera.

He starts in with the old stories about his father, the tortured Irishman, the poor drunk who loved his family and his drink in reverse order.  “It got to where every night I’d have to go fetch the old man,” he says.  “Imagine that, having to walk into the tavern and drag your dead drunk da’ home.  God he was stubborn,” he says playing his father’s greatest hits as we drive south.  “He put up awful fights.  Once I found him asleep on the railroad tracks.  I had to pull him off before he got cut in half, and the whole time him cursing, telling me ‘piss off, runt,’ while he kicked at me with his puked-on hobnails,” Tull muses. “Jesus, it gets old trying to save someone who wants to goddamn die.”

“The Evangelist is dead,” I tell my best friend.

“Holy shit. Dead?” he says. “Why didn’t you say anything about it.  When’d it happen?”

“Been a couple of months.  The thing is, it’s really fucking with me, Tull.”

“No doubt.”

“Why should it, though?  The man’s been dead to me since he walked out for the last time. Why’s it make a bit of difference that he’s stopped pulling breaths?”

“Hey, buddy, when your old man kicks off, you kick off with him.”

“I had a crazy idea that I’d find him when I was a kid.  The Letter had a postmark on it from up north.  Minnesota. Man, the place had a magic ring to me all through my childhood. I was going to play detective as soon as I got old enough and follow his trail.”

“Jesus, Rafa, I’m sorry,” Tull says.

“Got up there a couple of years ago,” I say. “It was right in the middle of winter. I was there to read a couple of poems, dumb fucking poems. It didn’t hit me till after I left that I’d just spent a couple of days in the place I’d imagined would be the starting point for my big, great expedition. How the hell are you supposed to track someone through ice?  Know what I did?”


“Mind you, this was only about two years ago. I wrote the guy a poem.”

“What about?”

“Jesus, I don’t remember but a couple of lines.  Something about searching for a sound, something about his voice, the music of salvation.  Anyway, that’s not the point.  The point is that there was nowhere to send the fucking poem to. No forwarding address, at least not until a couple of months ago.”

“Did you go to the funeral?”

“No. But I sent Antonio the poem.  Told him to stick it in The Evangelist’s coat pocket.  Thought maybe it’d be poetic justice to have him go through eternity with my goddamned Letter. Pictured him walking through whatever circle of hell no accounts are condemned to, reading and re-reading it in perpetuity.”

We drive on for what seems a long time, quiet now, the bluegrass and trees giving me a sense of what this part of the country must’ve looked like 150 years ago.  It occurs to me that this is the same land The Evangelist traveled with his father on the migrant trail forty years ago. I remember the stories still. The hardship. The loneliness. The faith involved in survival.

As the road gets narrower and the rolling landscape grows dimmer, The Evangelist’s words come back, me a kid listening with all my imagination as he described the road poetically, as he evoked the family I never knew journeying in the old Ford pick-up I never saw--my grandfather having died long before I was even born, and thus as much a myth as Lincoln and his log cabin.  Yet here I am, on maybe the same road he took all those years ago, feeling, no counting on all the differences between him and me.  Same road, different circumstances, different men.  But how different, really?  What’s so different about me, what’s so goddamned special?  Freer?  Savvier?  More principled? All these years I’ve resented him, thought of him as a selfish shitbag who hurt a lot of people, but all I’ve done to make myself his opposite is to insulate myself, keep everything at a distance, careful to choose the artificial instead of the genuine article: my entertainment, my relationships, my poetry.  Maybe I’m no better than The Evangelist—-my  father—-although I’ve tried to make myself believe that I am. But if I were honest, I’d admit that maybe never making anyone happy is as big a shortcoming as causing them pain.

“What’s wrong?” Tull asks.

“Thinking about my old man,” I say.

“Yeah,” Tull replies.  “I was thinking about my dad there too.  Fucking drunkard.  Old drunkard,” he says almost tenderly.  “Should be there when he kicks off. Can’t gut it out though.  Can’t go back.”

I keep my eyes on the road, as if perhaps sighting Lincoln’s log cabin will make everything alright. I can feel dusk coming on. 

“Trying to pull it together,” he says to me.  “My pops couldn’t do it. Yours couldn’t either. Makes you feel like you’re the next one in line now, the next one to fuck it all up.”

“Goddamn destiny,” I say, my eyes on the road as I  keep a look out for the log cabin.  It’s a distraction, this looking for the origin of something grand, something failed.

“Oh, well, fuck it,” he says making the decision to change the subject.  “Would’ve been nice to get laid last night.”

“Sorry about that.  It wasn’t very professional of me.”

“No sweat,” he says, “although it might’ve taken the edge off.  But what the hell, she was probably all scurvy and anyway it’s been good being on this trip with you.”

We ride on for a long while until Tull breaks the silence. “Listen, Rafa, I was thinking, we’re close enough.  I get the general idea of where this fucker was born.  No need to get too sentimental about it.  Lets turn this thing around before it gets dark.  I’ve had enough of this good ol’ country time lemonade shit.”

“I got an idea,” I say stopping on the side of the road. A few hundred yards away, I have spotted an old dilapidated red barn. It is faded and peeling, ghostly quiet, and I half expect to hear the whinnies of phantom horses.  We walk up to its opening and as we get there, it begins to rain lightly, its smell making gentle fingertaps that catch me by surprise.  In only a few seconds the scenery has become an iridescent green, as if the landscape has come to life.  In fact, green has stolen the show.  It is disorienting, the grass and trees seeming to have crept up on us while we weren’t looking.  It’s as if we’ve caught them in the act of growing, something nature does as we while our time away fruitlessly in the gray, concrete city.

“We’ll take a picture in front of this thing,” I say.  “Yeah,” Tull says smiling. “Who the hell’s going to know the difference?”  We bring our heads close together, two brothers who never did find a father. I hold the camera at arms length and aim so that the lens will capture our moonfaces and the barn house backdrop.  I snap the picture.  We’re going to claim to all who see it that this is honest Abe’s birthplace.  That we made it all the way---

Weeks later, just as Spring finds its way up north, I send Tull the photo taken in front of the pseudo-Lincoln barn.  I’ve tacked up a picture of the Cumberland River to the wall of my lair.  I took it just as we left Nashville.  It’s a kind of talisman that’s supposed to represent my willingness to brave the waters rather than fear them, or something like that.  The sibyl Whitney made me think about this one true love of my life business.  I couldn’t figure it for a while, but it dawned on me after looking over some of my old verse.  On the picture I sent Tull, I’ve written him a few words to that effect.  “I’m trying to be sincere,” I write, “not trying to make you laugh.  So listen up.  The world can’t end just yet because no good story can be told without a good ending.  So this one has to go on. And by God, it’s tough, but I’ve decided that there’s no one tougher than us. These aren’t just words, Tull, because put enough words together and you have history, you have stories. And Jesus, we got a lot of them still to tell.”

As for me, right this minute, I’m sitting at my desk, gazing up at the picture of the rivergod under which I’ve tacked The Letter. Somehow they’re supposed to represent Faith and Truth. And the truth is, there is no real truth, no real origins, only the search. That’s where the faith comes in.  To marry them in action, I take pen in hand, blank page waiting, and holding my breath, I steady myself for the shock of the plunge. . .

I dive in--

hope that somewhere

beneath the murky waters

lurks my worth--

--while Poem