San Francisco to Los Angeles International. I blew a few frequent flier miles and put myself in first class. It was ten a.m. but the stewardesses were handing out glasses of champagne. I took one.
Saint Albans to Sissonville, West Virginia. My parents drove us in the Ford Escort, a very small white car. It burned large quantities of oil, such that puffs of acrid white clouds huffed from it like a smokescreen. I remember my father?s thick, gym-teacher hands on the wheel of the car.
I picked up the Mustang convertible at LAX. My customer asked me to drive two hours south of Los Angeles to meet him.
Our house is three bedrooms for my mother, father and us four children. Dad built a bed for me by attaching some two-by-fours to the ceiling with lag bolts. He bolted a slab of particle board to the two-by-fours and laid a mattress on top. I slept there for six years. Our back yard had a leaky septic tank. Once it overflowed and filled the back yard with raw sewage. Behind the back yard was a forgotten dump. I remember taking a slingshot into the dump and firing rocks at empty baby food jars on an old rusted refrigerator. I did it enough to get good at it. Once I cut my finger on the glass.
The security camera inspected my car and the massive gate swung open. With one finger I finessed the Mustang through the manicured streets. I drove past houses the size of city apartment complexes. Over the hill, the Pacific Ocean scintillated like the eyes of God. I drove past three women and two girls in the complex. Every one of the girls and women had breast implants. The mansion at the end of the road was the largest in the complex.
All the kids played Little League ball. There was a concession stand. Two makeshift shutters covered the windows of the concession stand, hinged and padlocked against the screams of the summer crickets. It opened only when one of the grown-ups brought ice. The drink of choice was something called Round the World, which consisted of putting the cup of soda on the left fountain, and sloshing it past all the 7-Up Pepsi Orange Lime ingredients, until you had this funky orange-brown witches’ brew.
He opened the front door of the mansion, called me by my first name. Oak, stained glass, vaulted ceilings, extremely rare video games. He asked me if I had brought swim trunks. His swimming pool overlooked the ocean. I guessed five million in the property, but did not ask.
The bleachers at Sissonville High School were typically strewn with trash. The concession stand had a standing deal with the kids: they would give you a trash bag, and if you brought it back full of trash, they would give you a twenty-five cent cup of soda. I opened a verbal account with the concession stand. In a few hours you could collect several bags of trash.
He tapped on one of his four keyboards, talked at length, showed me prototypes. I took notes, made a spreadsheet, discussed, rebutted. He listened, smiled, patted me on the back.
Two bags of trash equals fifty cents, which was enough for a slice of microwaved, square, pre-fabricated pizza. The pizza was oily, with little flecks of hamburger or sausage. There was always plenty of trash around, so there was always plenty of pizza. I remember picking up trash and listening to the music coming over the loudspeakers, from the AM radio. It was bluegrass country, simple and hot and deep, songs about love and death and God. It always seemed to me to be about a place that never really existed, a place within the heart, a dream that you half-remembered upon waking, in sweet agony because you couldn?t remember clearly the faces you?d seen.
With one finger on the wheel I finessed the Mustang around the jogging blonde actresses. They swiveled and flashed perfect teeth at me. In a few hours, I cleared over four thousand dollars.
And you try to remember who you have been. You try to be real. You try to be yourself. But sometimes you don’t know what real is, and you can’t remember who you are.
I put on my sunglasses and plugged in the satellite radio. I cranked Cherryholmes, Chet Atkins, Flatt and Scruggs, songs about love and death and God. With the top down, I bolted eighty miles per hour up the Pacific Coast Highway, past the juice joints and the stucco malls, the sunset red and hot blue on the deadly beautiful ocean, and I did my best to remember.