The town fidgets on a rock outcrop spouting with springs. Only a few decades ago its salient features were a few old-time stringband musicians busking on the pavement, a minor moviehouse, a tractor showroom, the teaching college and the big Baptist church that owned the majority. Some of those old boys and girls are Grammy winners since, but the theater awaits refurbishment and the tractor palace is a coffee shop, the university is open to everyone and the Baptist Church is at most number two on the scene. The university has become the largest landholder in town. It owns almost everything. Another two thousand students and it can advance to a higher football division. Football has cleaned up the town.
But it won’t sit still. Lifting up off the rocks, it tries to climb the sky. The Knob will knock it back. Thunderstorms would knock it down the mountain, anyway, before it ever reached the Knob. But like a weed through a crack in the pavement it will not be stopped reaching.
Every summer afternoon, torrents erupt over the ridge and momentarily rage; the air deliquesces below, showering Main Street with a refresher before blowing out, scattering remnants of rain south of town. Rats live in the flowerbeds along Main Street. Bears wander onto campus during summer hiatus, taking the conference center above the baseball stadium for theirs, and amble away out of sight into the ravine, west, toward Tennessee. They’re still there but out of sight. There is a lot yet out of sight in the town; though it thinks it would be transparent, free and clear for the world to see through, it has not had enough of suffering….
Most of the neighborhoods are obscured by big hardwoods and mountain laurel and rhodo between the finger hills, the gaps, the hollows. Those houses are tenanted by university staff, active and retired. But somebody’s trying to scrape it flat and build upward ever more every year.
Barring university faculty, administration and directors, and a few business owners and summering guests, most of the people of the town are pretty poor and cannot afford to buy a house, whether situated in the municipality or outside it. In two decades real estate has doubled in value. Student housing comprises the majority, the rents exorbitant. Homelessness is rampant, and the town, which has the Cadillac of shelters, serves as a layover for the permanently itinerant. Although, unless they can prove, provisionally at least, that they have established residence in the seven-county service area for ninety days, they may be granted no more than three nights hospitality. Having proof, they may languish indefinitely, provided they are either working or actively applying for work and participating in programs of recovery. Many opt to camp out instead of putting up with the rules.
On summer evenings, the sky fills with vortexes of swifts that funnel down in twos and threes into the red brick chimneys behind the old apartment buildings—now restaurants, antique stores, galleries, boutiques, cafes and college-novelty shops—between Main and Pitts. Lavender clouds with apricot linings speed overhead, seemingly within arm’s reach. The atmosphere of enchantment becomes the townspeople, becomes the town….
One may hear the click of dogs’ nails in the clean, vibrant air over the sidewalk as people finished with the workaday obligations enjoy another and walk their animals. One may see lawyers plodding homeward from their offices, either past the bald blank courthouse or away from it; the last cars exiting the library parking lot, most of them turning left or continuing straight across Queen to continue down the hill to turn at either Main or Waters, homeward; the Knob staggering overhead, reaching up to bat climbing clouds which deftly elude its horny hand, as if the vaporous masses were thistle-fluff blown up the tor and the Knob an eager child stretching to fetch them in a silky ball; see and smell and hear restaurants filling for dinner, musicians arranging their equipment upon the terrace stage; and over balcony grilles come the clink of dishes and utensils and soft music and laughter to mingle in the bystreets, in a synaesthetic melange of aural and olfactory delights, with the aromas of roasting coffee, cinnamon, and ginger drifting from the cafe bakery and the blunted pungency of sautéing garlic, onions, mustard and turnip from the bistros whose kitchens back the alleyway feeding them.
Around the entrances of the few bars, students congregate and smoke organic blends, bumming smokes; and in the kava bar mech mods and vaporizers are in heavy use while their utilizers haphazardly play chess or board games, laughing, friendly, relaxed under the soporific sway of the mud-tinted Fijian potion.
As yet, nobody has anything they really need to do, nowhere special to be. A seeming youth (though he is past forty) would like to make the acquaintance of this recent arrival from the city; she looks to be alone and in need of a tour of the town. Although, about that he is mistaken: he is the stranger here. Notwithstanding he’s been a resident these fifteen years—yet he is apart.
He reads a poem he’d written while sitting on the concrete stair before the white boarding-house across from Hill’s Wrecker Service—the ragged red and blue clouds tearing by overhead. The poem is about the capricious and vagrant sky, the magnificently glowering sunset out of sight behind the college library, the harrying clouds, the revolving swifts, the crackling ambience over Hippie Hill, and she listens attentively to him declare that it is not the drugs and not the alcohol and not his exhaustion but some objective beauty that had bewitched him to exaltation to conjure the poem. She kindly admires the poem to him.
He had removed his shoes and socks before delivering his recitation and now sits massaging his sore heels and arches and toes and ankles.
She bids him wait and goes inside—the while he contemplates a beer, a smoke, sonorous sexual congress—emerging a minute later to ask would he like cream and sugar in his coffee; but he takes it black, and she puts the steaming cup in his cupped hands.
What he prefers is beer but fears to ask for one lest she think him ignominious and shun his conversation.
She sits again and takes a cigarette from her pack and lights it and gives the rest of the pack to him. Clearly, she pities him; were he not so stoned on beer and vanilla extract and cough medicine it would hurt. She wishes him well, and he can tell she is sincere that she has enjoyed his poem:
And taking from beneath the iron table a guitar case he had not noticed until then, she departs.
Immediately replacing her, or so it seems to him, a variation on the pattern—this one tall and waifish and with willowy fingers and full lips—who has also with her a small instrument case, withdraws a fiddle from it and strikes up a ballad on the porch of the Song of the End of the World Cafe. Inside a quarter hour, a whole ensemble—banjo, dulcimer, flattop box, harmonica, Dobro and snare—echoes ricocheting down the back alleyway off the last shopfront, diffusing.
After a spate of waning sympathetic inleanings and straying attendance, having had enough of the band’s frolicsomeness, he takes to his heels to speed his way on a necessary errand.
Now, down the street at Natural Foods, families and singles dine and shop for organically got groceries. A chain store, a deli therein purveys hot food daily, fresh juices and smoothies, breakfast, lunch and dinner; all bathed in- and outside in a soberly stoic ambience of healthy commonweal and wealth, smelling of familiar aromatic spices congruent to such cuisines— Continental Indian, Middle-Eastern and Pacific Rim—as those places habitually serve, and the cashiers are friendly and alert.
A man might steal a bottled beer every now and again from among the rows of singles, slipping the beer in his back pocket once he had arrived in the aisle where no camera surveilles the floor, before sauntering out between registers where no cashier is, or casually excusing his egress, going behind customers standing waiting in a queue, pretending friendliness. The children of the families and the parents ignore him; and if the grocery personnel are aware they do not make an issue of it.
The thief talks to none and no one talks to him—He comes and goes like a ghost and enjoys his paranormal invisibility. Howsoever imaginary, yet his anonymity is a source of self-entertainment—a negative capability of positive effacement—so he does not prefer camaraderie: He does not wish to be burdened with others’ thoughts, others’ actions, others’ wills, other selves—will not be thwarted in his license.
He is not belligerent with the world but stands in sharp contrast to it nonetheless, being incapable or unwilling to accommodate it.
Outside, he will slip vulpinately around the corner through the darkening lot behind the store where he habitually sits drinking—invisible, in plain view on the top stair in a floribund niche before a wrought-iron gate, not lately breached by any hoofer—and, when he finishes his bottle, will drop it into the grass beside the stairs; later to return, afterhours, with a sack, and collect his empties for disposal in the recycler at the front.
For everybody in this town is concerned with the environment—not to be concerned is worse than stealing.
When he gets too high, or sick, he is remiss and may stand encumbered, perhaps institutionalized several days, before returning for his leavings; or he may go to jail or hospital, never making it back before a town agent cleans after him. Also, he may never return.
A musty smell, like dirt and rotting leaves and something else besides, permeates the hedge, but he has almost lost the ability to smell. The something else is something, if not human, then alien to the outdoors: viscid spit on the back of a hand, rank matters under umbered nails, cloacal musk from reptilian glands, fecal fingers from happy trails: All have smelled and refused to own our unplumbed shame—That’s the smell.
Redolent of a little league coach he had as a boy, similar but not identical; he had wondered if all redheads had that distinct, piquantly sweaty smell. More like his grandmother’s house, piled with papers, littered with them upon which the dogs urinated and shat, and the cats. Whatever it was, held the mat together under the shrub. The odor in his catalogue of memory had a specific and distinct source which, though he could almost cross-reference it, eluded him.
He rocks onto his knees in the litter of dead brown broken needles and broken tamped leaves, undoes his belt with stiff shaky fingers and urinates, wavering like a reed shaken by a wind. He has not had a drink since a midnight beer begged from a college lad—literally begged; its acquisition had taken following the boys a block after what party they had been coming from. He had quaffed the can of Rolling Rock before crepitating back to his sled under the privet hedge.
The hedge grew up between the library and the white house on the northwest corner of the intersection, two streets deep off Main into one of the university neighborhoods. The house divided into several apartments, up- and downstairs.
He knew the voices of two residents, a young man’s voice, guttural and flaccidly muttering. And a girl in her early twenties, who lived downstairs. When she drank she became ultimately obscene, describing sexual exploits in bold pornographic terms to her girlfriends. She seemed an object lesson in gender inequality, contradicting the past fashionable norm. Her little dog (he could not refrain thinking what that pooch might be led to do for the girl in her estrus) was his bane. The dog would set about snarling and terrifically yapping. He lived in terror lest he should be discovered and the young woman call the police. He pondered, could he kill it before he let that happen …
He had discovered the tarp that covered him while passing through the parking lot of the brick house across the street one afternoon. That evening, a storm struck. Necessity being the mother of invention, he remembered the tarp.
Earlier, circulars had been stacked under the tarp. Now the tarp was folded on the slab. He tented it and crawled under, shivering, wetter now, having absorbed minute, heavy moist air. His body partially blocked the back door. He was not thirty minutes when suddenly someone was beside him kicking the tarp out of the way, and he’d had to move. They were both starkly terrified a moment, eyes wide, locked upon the other. He came up apologizing for his being there, and she, after the shock had begun to fade—replaced with chagrin—began to reassure him, saying “No No No—Don’t go. You don’t have to go. I’m sorry … I’m sorry….” But he, being afraid of the police, had immediately fled to the James House porch.
An hour later—wetter still, his clothes damp through—he found a grocery sack stood on the porch with a note of apology stapled to its lip. Inside was food: curry beef and rice from the Thai restaurant on Main, crudités and an apple, a pear, yogurt and water and natural fruit drinks and soda from Natural Foods. She had given him enough food to eat twice, but he had eaten most of it there and then.
A few days later he saw this same young woman in the light of day as he walked up and down the street waiting for an unobserved moment to steal into the covert. But he dared not acknowledge her, for by then he had stolen the tarp for his bed. She saw him but neither did she obtrude.
Well, I guess I’m gonna go down the James House (a community center) and sit awhile. He had developed a habit of talking in a monologue. Numberless incoherencies, spontaneous discharges of anxiety and stress, plagued him constantly while he was alone. Phrases that had once meant something fitted in a specific context—adolescent secret languages he had developed spontaneously with boyhood friends—now preserved nonsense with cumulatively complex meanings, often obscene in nature—invaded and dominated his personal patois. He repeated phrases innumerable times, incessantly in moments of physical and emotional distress. His chatter: the vituperative curses, the self-condemnation, the incredulity, suspicion and bitterness and doubt—these attitudes had become coterminal with him; more than habitual haranguing, they had become his identity. He sat a while, a half hour, then he could not stand sitting any longer in his strange invisibility.
Among others it was assuaging, but alone his invisibility frightened him into believing that perhaps he had no existence in the world. His modus operandi had seemed to become a modus vivendi. He had to get up, walk—anywhere.
When did that happen, he wondered? He was not the only who slept outdoors, who stayed drunk and lived a survival mode of existence. Summertime, there was plenty like him. Though most formed little enclaves of a sort in the woods, tent cities and such.
Despite his relative youth and vigor, he bedded alone. In this he was different from most: He never really bedded at all…. His lifestyle was not sustainable—he was not surviving. He drank. That’s the only purpose-driven thing he did. When he laid himself down, it was to rest not sleep. He did not expect to sleep—the cough medicine he was addicted to would not allow sleep. When he slept it was accidental, inevitable. He would pass out for a couple of hours wherever he happened to be.
He had to get something to drink. Stores would begin selling at 7:00. He walked southeast around the university and up into the surrounding neighborhoods in the half hour between six-thirty and seven, a would-be shortcut to the store. Wandering in the lanes and courts of the neighborhoods surrounding the university, he felt like an interlocutor. He liked it.
At the second drive he stopped and removed his shoes. His feet were in bad shape. Blisters wrapped his toes like pigs in blankets. While normally bony and angular—“like wolf feet” a high school girlfriend had told him while they lay smoking after sex—they were now smooth, yellow and tumescent with broken veins.
He had slipped badly of late. He did not want to go to the shelter to clean up. He would have to talk to people there, and people talk to the police. He might have warrants. The shelter staff was obliged to call them when anyone wanted by the police entered the facility—whether to sleep or eat or merely to shower, whatever, didn’t matter. Otherwise, it was a charge. Harboring a fugitive or some shit. It pissed him off, thinking about it. Once jailed, who knew how long they’d keep him? He’d get there one way or another, eventually, but he was not going to just lay down for them. He wanted to drink. Nobody liked jail, he reckoned, but for sleeping it beat the shit he was putting up with, putting himself through. But he could take it—drunk. Take away drink his life was unbearable. With drink, not only was it bearable, he could put up with anything. Even getting busted was not too bad so long as you did not have to do it sober. So, he’d have his fling. Maybe tomorrow he’d go see the sheriff and find out what they had on him. But today, he was going to have a good time. That was the plan. The difference today, he’d do things as he saw fit; he’d do things his own way.