BLEEDING GUT BLUES: EXCERPTS

CHAPTER ONE    CHAPTER THREE      CHAPTER FIVE


I woke up on the lawn, if you could call it that, mostly rocks and weeds. Looked up: white siding, cement steps, blue-painted metal door. God, my head hurt. I got up slowly, pulled myself up the stairs by the railing. I opened the door carefully, no creak, searched the faces of the sleeping bodies on couches, chairs, floor, found one face I recognized from the night before, but no one else. Where's the fucking bathroom? I stumbled, ambled, leaned left, nearly fell over, used the wall to steady myself, and remembered the piss-hole might be at the end of that stretch of brown shag carpet. Aim yourself and walk - walk walk walk, white door, thank god, found the toilet, unzipped my fly, ahhhhhh. I washed my hands and face and picked the dirt and lawn out of my hair.

The most important parts of the night before came back to me in waves. The phone call. California? I got in a car after that. God, why did I do that, where the fuck am I? Shit, I was supposed to call Danny. I needed to get going.

I scanned the living room for my shit. There was my backpack, in the corner, at the foot of the couch, on top of my leather jacket and underneath a cute blonde with half a breast hanging out of her tank top. She was sleeping vigil over all my claimed possessions: the jacket, the bag, the two shirts and one spare pair of pants inside. A Walkman, book of CDs, spare set of AAs. Angie's notebook, and with it, all the forgettable minutia of her life detailed in large, round cursive, ending with a faint pencil sketch and the where and when of a lunch appointment held over a year ago.

I approached the bag’s zipper with care, my eyes on the blonde’s still lids, and gently let the pull graze against each alternating pair of teeth with a series of soft clicks marking its progress. I grabbed its open lip in my fist, and perused the coffee table – third-full bottle of Jim Beam, check, into the bag you go. Two percocets, check. Roaches in the ashtray, thank you very much. Nerves at the highest frequency, I opened the blonde’s handbag with the silent unfastening of a clasp. I dug out her coin purse, pocketed thirty-two dollars, and put the whole mess back together how I found it. Jacket slung over one shoulder, pack hooked around the other, I walked out the front door without disturbing a soul.

The first sign I passed said I was ten miles out of Carbondale, one of the cluster of college towns sprinkled between the miles of dead villages and corn. I knew I could get a bus from there. I kept walking, long weeds waving in the breeze ahead of me.


- - -


When I was eight years old, my father died. After the funeral, my mother stopped at the package store, gathered a jug of wine and a bevy of empty boxes, and I watched as she tore our home portable. We drove for what seemed like weeks, slept upright in the car sometimes, in dank motels other times. We lived off dumpster donuts and gas station hot dogs. She didn't talk much; didn’t then, didn’t ever. The roads and towns and days blurred to a paste. I was completely disoriented – in shock, really. My father had been the at-home parent, my mother worked, and suddenly I was alone with her, driving past landscapes I’d never seen.

Our voyage terminated in southern Indiana, in one of those small towns that stopped living thirty years ago, all the empty storefronts intact except for the letters deteriorating in the sun and snow. She’d wandered off the highways before, and I didn’t look up from my lap until she announced we’d be staying. I raised my head with a jerk, waited, watched her face, but it was still blank and there was nothing more, so I stuck my nose out the half-open window. We were passing through the main drag, and the scant crowd of pedestrians seemed to come in only two classes: the very old and the very poor. All the trappings of civilization appeared intact, but there was no upkeep, nothing new or emerging save the overgrown plant life splitting the sidewalks. We passed three antique stores, a grocery, a Goodwill, and just past the limit, a Dairy Queen, all the commerce available for thirty miles except for a bar tucked behind the Elk’s lounge and a barber shop on the other side of town.

I’ll never know why she stopped there. Maybe it was the most drastic change from our home in Boston that she could imagine – landlocked, spread out, and still. Maybe she just ran out of money.

She found us a trailer among a dozen others in the kind of faceless, fallow patch of land that’s usually meant to be temporary. I lived there for eight years. Across from us, so did a single mother, a boy about two years older than me, and identical twin girls. My mother never signed me up for school, mailed off for workbooks instead, so I watched out the window, shoveling cereal into my mouth from the bowl held under my chin, as the three neighbor kids waited for the bus. Their distant activity was a distraction in those first few weeks, benign evidence that life in the world was continuing without me. I watched the girls play hopscotch, caught the boy lighting fire to a patch of crab grass, even smiled as he stomped it out in a panic, like he was startled that it worked. Back in the old neighborhood, I went outside, played with anyone who’d done the same, all the kids were family and any or all would do, but I couldn’t say hello to these kids, didn’t want to, felt content behind glass. I don't know. I couldn't wrap myself around my surroundings: new home, new state, new parent, essentially. Emptiness permeated everything, though I wasn’t able to pinpoint it that well at the time. I just knew it was too much, and devising a strategy for making new friends was one more decision than I was willing to make.

In the end, I didn’t have a choice. They approached the door like an armada, you will notice us, we will be friends. When I answered, two of them were shoving each other on the landing. Danny introduced himself first, then Christine. I barely made it through, "We just moved here from Boston," before Chris caught Danny in a headlock, and they weren't listening anymore. With his head out of the way, I could see their sister, the other twin. Her blonde hair was longer than Chris's, nearly made it to her waist, and her round face was the same but softer. She waved from a distance.

"Hi, my name's Angie," she said.

"My name's Ellis."

Danny got free and punched Chris in the shoulder. He ran past her as she clutched her arm and cursed, and then he was down the steps and behind the trailer. Chris took off after him. Angie crossed one sandaled foot behind the other and stared at me, a clear span of still air left between us. Her eyes were huge, clear, light blue. I realized I was staring, too. I looked down.

“Where’s Boston?”

“It’s in Massachusetts.”

She blinked at me. I pulled a little plastic compass out of my pocket. I’d gotten it out of a cereal box; it had a tiger on it. I liked to know which direction we were going while we were on the road, and for some reason, I still carried it with me. I moved to where she was standing, turned my body northeast, and pointed. “That way.”

Her eyes shot in that direction as if she’d be able to see the city from there, right over those trees. She leaned close to look at the compass. “Can I see it?”

“Sure.”

She walked around the small dirt lawn between the two trailers, focused on the compass in her hand. I followed her, watching over her shoulder as the device reliably found north again and again. She sent us in circles, mesmerized. When she’d had enough, she handed it back to me and sat down on the steps leading to her own trailer. I sat down next to her. She plucked a long feathery weed from the ground, brushed it against her cheek, and threw it back in the grass. I searched for something to say. So did she.

“What’s it like there?”

“Where, Boston?”

“Yeah.”

“Um, well, it’s louder.” I looked down and rotated the compass in my hand, running my fingers along the edges. There were so many things, I didn’t know where to start. “There’s lots of people. The lights are pretty at night. There’s a subway.”

“I’ve seen subways before, on TV. Did you get to ride in it?”           

“Yeah, all the time. There’s water, too, a huge bay with boats. There’s a lot more stuff there, lots of buildings, stores, restaurants. There’s an arcade my dad used to take me to.”     

“Where is your dad?”

That was the first time I’d been asked that question since he died. My family wasn’t religious; I didn’t have an answer. “He’s gone.”

She nodded in understanding, which surprised me. “My dad’s gone, too. He’s coming back, though.”

“Mine’s not.” I put the compass back in my pocket.

She turned so that she was facing me and held out her palms. I knew this game. I let mine hover over hers. She giggled. She tried to slap my left hand with her right before I could pull it away. I jerked away in time; she missed, slapping her own hand instead. Fake out on the left, then she got me on the right. She squealed in victory. I offered my own palms, and we played, laughed, without a word. It’d been so long since I’d laughed, it felt alien at first, surprised me, but there it was. For a few minutes, for the first time since our exodus, I didn’t feel like a phantom. The world had interest again, and she, the bearer of good tidings, she was the world.  


- - -


Halloween rolled around. I couldn’t fit into any of my old costumes, so I dug my hockey mask out of the packed boxes still stacked against the wall. I hit up Angie’s door for candy first, but her mom whisked me inside. “The Lord’s brought you here tonight, sweetheart.”

The twins and four or five other girls I’d never seen before were dressed like angels, eating white-iced cupcakes around the kitchen table. A few adults were standing, mingling, sipping off cans of soda in the cramped living room. “Have a seat on the couch, honey.”

Danny was sulking in an armchair to my right. He wasn’t wearing a costume at all. I shot him a look, and he rolled his eyes. Mrs. Nealon sat on the couch between us, shifted the mask onto the top of my head, and clasped her hands over mine.

“You see, honey, Halloween is the devil’s birthday. He doesn’t want to celebrate it alone, so he tricks little boys and girls into joining him by offering them candy. He almost got you, but it’s all going to be okay because the Lord’s sent you to me…”

Behind her, Danny’s face exploded into a wild, spastic grin, and he held his pointed fingers at the sides of his head like wiggling devil horns. I couldn’t help it, I laughed. His mother’s head swung behind her like a mallet to a gong.

Daniel. Room. Now.”

He stood and bowed. Mrs. Nealon got up, and Danny ran to his room. She stood for a moment, glaring in the direction of the bedroom, then sat back down and turned to me.

“Would you like a cupcake?”

I walked to the kitchen, grabbed a cupcake, and found a place to stand next to Angie. She was braiding another girl’s hair. Some of the glitter from her paper halo had fallen onto her forehead, and she twinkled as she turned her head toward me under the florescent overhead light.

I whispered in her ear, “What’s going on?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, why are you all dressed like angels?”

“Every year, Mom throws a party on Halloween for the kids at church so they don’t go trick-or-treating.”

“Why are there only girls here? Is your mom in a cult?” I looked down at my cupcake with suspicion.

“Danny wasn’t allowed to invite any friends over this year because he’s grounded.” She ignored the cult remark, eyes back on her work, thick strands tucked between fast fingers that left a neat rope behind.

A red-headed girl was staring at me from across the table. I took the hockey mask off my head and averted my eyes downward.

“What church do you go to?” she asked. I looked up, and she was still giving me that judging, skeptical look that little girls are so good at. My eyes turned back to my shoes, no need to dwell there.

“I don’t go to church.”

The girl snorted. “You’re going to hell,” she said, flatly, matter-of-factly, as if she were informing me that I smelled bad or my fly was open. She turned back to her friends, satisfied that I did not, as she had suspected, belong. I had to agree.

“Angie, I’m gonna go, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“No! Come outside with me for a minute.” She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the back door, glaring at my metaphysical judge and jury across the table. The girl shrugged.

Once we were on the back steps, she whispered, “Are you going trick-or-treating?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Can I come?”

I’d like to say I was some kind of noble little gentleman, that I protested, took up for her best interest. No, you’ll get in trouble. Won’t your mom notice you’re gone? I didn’t, though. She ducked inside the house, came back with a pillowcase hanging from her gripped fingers. Her other hand found mine, and we ran like hell through the field behind the trailer park, laughing with the euphoria of freedom.