Tuesday
Jul282015

Desolation of Avenues Untold

By Brandon Hobson


Civil Coping Mechanisms
August 2015
978-1937865481


 

Born drove south on a barren highway, partly stoned, wearing sunglasses and listening to the acid rock station. His son Will liked the station, hardcore, full of teen angst. There were no more radio stations except a few small local ones, and those were mostly in Spanish. He listened to a song heavy with drums, crashing cymbals and screaming.

He drove to the airport, observing the speed limit. Outside the sky hung low and bare; it was hot and dry, the peak of summer. Open fields surrounded him. Desolation. The barren highway felt like an absence of a human presence. He saw a hawk circling low in an empty sky and wondered whether it was a sign of bad things to come.

Kathy had called earlier to remind him of Will's flight number and gate. She also told him not to let Will eat fast food, not to smoke pot around him, and to try to be on time at the airport. When he arrived he checked the monitor at baggage claim. For a moment he had a ridiculous fantasy that Will would come racing down the escalator, running to his embrace. But Will was eleven now and getting too big for these things. Born waited until he finally saw Will walking down the terminal, wearing his bowler hat and carrying a cane, Charlie Chaplin style, a leather bag slung over his shoulder. He was in no hurry.

The hugged awkwardly. "Mom said you'd be late," Will said.

"You believed her?"

"She bet Tom twenty bucks."

Will: a beautiful, compassionate, brilliant boy. Most of the time, especially around others, he was evasive and quiet. He was diagnosed with Asperger's at the age of five. Born and Kathy saw signs in him as early as age three. Will paced a lot. He wouldn't give eye-contact to anyone but them. He preferred to play alone and always slept completely under a blanket, even in the summer. The hand-flapping was the last straw. "It might be autism," Kathy kept saying. "I've read about these things. Lots of kids are being diagnosed these days. We're OK, right?" When Dr. Patel confirmed the Asperger's, Born assumed the worst, but luckily things turned out fine. Asperger's was not the end of the world. Strangely, Born was happy Kathy had married someone with more money. Tom was able to put Will in a private school, which relieved some of the anxiety about Will's social situations. Will had smaller classes, a safer environment, more attention from the teachers. As much as Born hated to admit it, Will was better off with his mother and stepfather.

Will had grown his hair out so that his bangs were now in his eyes. The last time Born had seen him was in March, spring break. Before that it was Thanksgiving. Will had spent Christmas with Kathy and Tom in the Cayman Islands, where they swam in the ocean and ate swordfish and went snorkeling. Born stayed home and got high and watched reruns on cable.

"I brought movies," Will said. "Also, your beard's scraggily."

"I'm going for the derelict look."

"Just for the record, I don't think you're a dead beat."

"Who calls me that? Your mother?"

"No."

"Tom? Your grandmother?"

Will walked quickly. "Which movie do you want to watch first? Do you want to watch one tonight?"

"I have a work party I have to go to for a little while," Born said. "It won't take long at all."

"Tonight?"

"It's bad timing, I know, but I'll make it up to you. You can stay home and watch TV if you want. I won't be too long. I just have to make an appearance."

At baggage claim, they got Will's suitcase and headed to the parking garage. Born pulled onto the freeway and drove into the late afternoon sun, heading past deserted buildings, empty fields, oil derricks. He asked Will about his novel. Kathy had said Will spent most nights in his room, at his desk, typing away at his computer on a science fiction novel.

"You didn't tell me you were writing a book," Born said. "I heard it from your mother."

"It's about a deadly mosquito plague. That's all I should tell you for now. My editor's giving me a bunch of crap about some of the longer sections."

"Your editor?"

"Brock. He's an eighth grader."

"Am I in it? Your mother told me you have some sort of deformed creature named Born."

"That's right."

"You named it after me?"

"No."

"But he's named Born."

"Born was born crippled with disease. He's a fat, disgusting, worm-like thing that crawls. Round and hairless excrement. You have hair."

They drove past a wide, meandering river. Will turned up the radio, mentioning something about a band called Microdot Acid, but Born found himself thinking about all the water moving in the river, with its dirty water full of dried leaves and broken tree limbs floating down the current, tree branches hanging over the edge. Driving, he was struck with a childhood memory when he and his brother were at a river by their grandmother's house outside of Salina, Kansas. They had walked along slippery rocks in the shallow water, throwing pebbles and seeing who could throw the farthest, and for whatever reason Born pushed his brother so that he slipped and fell in the water, busting his lip open and knocking a tooth loose, and he ran all the way back to their grandmother's house holding his jaw and screaming while blood ran out of his mouth.

Soon they were past the countryside and heading back into Desolate City, past the old drive-in theatre and old motels on the south side, past the Blackwelder district where all the drugheads hung around. Will took a throat lozenge from his pocket and put it in his mouth. Kathy had mentioned he'd developed a strange attachment to throat lozenges and not to question it.

"We'll need to make a quick stop," Born said. He needed to stop by Doug Akerman's house. Akerman biked everywhere and didn't own a car. It was one of the benefits of living in west Texas, he'd always said. You can bike twelve months a year. Born had promised to drive to the Bryant house for the party. Akerman he had met one rainy Saturday afternoon at Vintage Vinyl on Bowery Avenue. They were both looking through vinyl and realized they shared a love for 80s New Wave and college rock. Akerman had earned an MFA in Creative Writing from somewhere east, and though he'd never published a novel, he'd written several short stories and articles that appeared in impressive magazines. Akerman, in his early forties, was also Born's main provider of high-grade, good old marijuana. Akerman was stuck on his novel, titled Black Lung, for several years, and he felt like the only way he could ever get through it was by smoking pot and writing a little at a time until he could finish. Smoking helped him beef up the book and fill in important details. He thought better stoned. His book was already pushing five hundred pages and he had more in him. Akerman always had a little extra he kept in a baggie just in case.

Born was always drawn to the intellectual stoner type in both his private and professional life. He grew to appreciate Akerman's wit and charm. Akerman was smart and athletic. Some days they played racquetball, other days Ackerman sketched naked bodies in charcoal on a large pad of white paper while Born got high and watched. Kathy couldn't stand to be around him, claiming he was a bad influence. When Born was going through his depression after Kathy left, at the right time Akerman would show up at his door with a twelve pack of beer or a bottle of cheap red wine, and they would watch the Mavs on ESPN or listen to The Smiths on vinyl and talk late into the night. Akerman was thuggish and bisexual; you couldn't tell by looking at him that he was into guys. If they went out to a bar on weekends Born never knew if he'd try to pick up a man or woman.

So Born wasn't entirely surprised when he pulled into Akerman's drive and saw a woman come out of his house with him. He'd been trying for some time to hook up with a new visiting assistant professor from the department named Liz, who resembled the actress Nastassja Kinsky. But the woman with Akerman turned out not to be a woman at all, but a guy wearing a red leather coat, a black skirt, and six inch spikes. Her hair hung down in long dark curls. She was small and dark-skinned, possibly Hispanic, and wore a scarf around her neck to hide, Born assumed, her throat. She was laughing hard at something Akerman was saying as they reached the car.

"Hey guys," Akerman said, climbing in, smiling. He leaned forward and clapped Will on the shoulder. "Hey, Will."

"Hi," Will said, not turning around. The transvestite's perfume filled the car.

"Guys," Akerman said, "This is Echo. We met a little while ago. Echo, this is my friend Born Chaplin and his son, Will." Born put on his sunglasses and turned around, trying to smile. "Nice to meet you," he said.

"You look like Charlie Chaplin," Echo said to Will.

 

As a young child Will loved stories. Fairy tales, scary stories, parables—anything. When Will was three or four Born used to read to him from a book called The Ice Palace, which was written and illustrated by an Icelandic man named Hauksson who later committed himself into the psychiatric ward after suffering severe hallucinations in which he saw demons hiding in the bushes outside his window. Born remembered reading an article in the New York Times about Hauksson's breakdown, such a strange case, and how he never wrote another word. Hauksson died in the early 1970s, a poor, lonely, ill man. But he wrote a beautiful book set in a blustery cold Northern land called Lung about a peasant who stumbles upon a palace made of ice that's considered one of the most beautiful structures in the world. Everything inside the palace is made out of ice: chandeliers, mirrors, chairs, staircases. There's an enormous, circular ice balcony where the peasant sometimes sat looking out over an immense land of snow. To cope with his loneliness, the peasant teaches himself to sculpt ice, and for the remainder of his life sculpts various ice creatures—mermaids, demons, dogs—to keep him company. Soon he begins talking to them, carrying on whole conversations. When he sculpts his finest masterpiece, a beautiful woman with the head of a beast, he falls in love with her. He takes her away from the palace and gets lost in the woods. A blizzard arrives, and ultimately he freezes to death. The story ends when two travelers, many weeks later, find him frozen and embracing the sculpture.

Born was thinking about that book as he drove home with Ackerman and the transvestite in the backseat. Will always wanted him to read him that book before bed. It was a good life for a while. Back then, if anyone would've asked him if he thought he would ever be divorced and going out to bars, or having secret affairs, or going to parties with drag queens, he would've told them they were crazy.

Akerman and Echo sat with Born in his apartment while Will unpacked in the bedroom. Born's buzz was gone, and he looked forward to stepping away from Will for a bit, as pathetic as it sounded, and smoking a little pot in the car on the drive to Susan's house in Pine Hills. It was early. They had time for a drink before leaving. Born had some vodka in the freezer that he never drank but kept for these occasions, so he made drinks and brought them to Akerman and Echo in the living room. Echo excused herself and went into the bathroom, and as she did so Akerman leaned over and spoke quickly and quietly, nearly a whisper.

"I need to get rid of him," he said.

"Who?"

He motioned with his head. "The kid fell apart at my house. I couldn't dump him. His sister recently died and it killed the moment before I could even fuck around with him. Then he told me it was a lie. She didn't die."

"What?"

"I met him at the Quick Stop on Sixth. I went in to buy cigarettes and he was using the ATM machine. Turns out his grandmother lives in my neighborhood."

"How old is he?" Born whispered.

"Twenty? I don't know."

"Twenty?"

"It's my fault, Born. I picked him up. He's Puerto Rican, my weakness. I hit on him and brought him back to my place this afternoon. I couldn't tell him to leave. I'm such a fag. We shared a joint and he broke down in tears."

"Don't panic. Just stay calm."

"Help me get him to leave," he said. "Think of something."

"I can't think."

"What can I do? Quick—think."

"Stay calm."

They heard the door open and Echo emerged from the bathroom, a Puerto Rican beauty, hair readjusted, with red lipstick and smelling strongly of perfume. She sat down and took a sip of her drink. Born and Akerman stared at her.

"What?" she said.

"Nothing, you look great," Akerman said.

"It's a good thing," she said. "You know, I don't wear control-top panty hose. So you got any more weed?"

Akerman shushed her, putting a finger to his lips.

Echo looked at Born and mouthed: Sorry.

"It's okay," he said.

But he knew it would be a big deal to Kathy. Still, he and Will had an understanding and knew how to keep secrets. It was why he took Will to eat fast food as much as he wanted, or let him watch late night movies on cable without Kathy ever finding out about it. Will was smart.

Will came into the room after he finished unpacking. "I changed my mind," he said, putting a throat lozenge in his mouth. "I think I'd rather go with you guys to the party."

"Super," Akerman said.