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Saturday, March 22, 2014

encyclopedia of the second hand: high


It started when you spun around.  Holding your arms out, you rapidly twirled around, first a snowflake, then a bird, then a cyclone. Then you stopped, and the house and the ash tree ran around you as fast as they could. It was like a dream.  There were things that you could do that were like dreaming, except that you were still awake. Sometimes you would have a dream where you were just spinning and spinning, and you would wake up and feel sick. You would wander upstairs and lay down on the sofa in the living room, which looked interesting and almost like a  room with a new personality  in the dark. You fell to the ground, shrieking. It was as if you had found a secret door in being awake that led to being in a dream. Another thing like this was swinging and looking up at the sky. It didn’t work if you paid attention to anything else.  You had to keep your eyes fixed on the vast, cupped blue, and you would make a pendulum’s course, getting near it and then going back and then, the swingset rocking, your slightly damp hands clutched tight to the rusty chain, kicking your legs, getting near it again, until you had achieved enough speed that you straightened your legs.  Then there would be that point where you would fall into the sky. Also, you could say a word over and over again.  You could say Dita, for instance.  Dita hated it when she caught you doing this.  She’d say stop, Street, or I’m going to slap you. When you said it so that each time you said it hooked together with the next time, like a chain, than it would stop being a word.  It would get strange.  The word would get numb.  Your nose got numb when you went to the dentist.  He did something to you and when you got home you touched your nose and it felt like it was fake. 


    Mark started wearing a green army surplus jacket with his name stitched on the back of it when he was twelve.   The coat was too big for him, the hem of it hung below his knees and it billowed out in the winds of March and April.  He wore it as if he had reversed the proposition and was too big for the size of it,  hunched in it,  leaned forward walking, a wizened parody GI tromping through alien territory, although he’d lived in your subdivision longer than you had, he’d been there seven years, which was more than half his life.  Your coat rode just where it was supposed to, covering the length of your back and a little below your belt, and though it was thick, like Mark's coat, it felt softer to the touch, springier.  It had a corduroy outside and a cotton wool lining and a discrete zipper.  Mark's coat was the same all the way through, and it had an immense zipper and a plenitude of buttons, like metals he’d gotten in his secret campaigns.  He added the words of Dopers where it had US Army written on it in various places, like the pocket and like on the sleeve, in indelible black magic marker, and when Mrs. Morgan saw it she had him taken down to the principle’s office and his Mom had to come down and have a talk with Mr. Ramses about her son. That was the year Mark wasn’t in your class.
    You are going down to Mr. Vermillion's workshop, which is in the basement, looking at the back of that coat descending one step at a time before you. Yesterday Mark had taped a peace symbol on the back of the coat, using electric tape.  Today the tape was peeling off.  There is a switch at the top of the stairs that turns on a light which hangs on a cord above Mr. Vermillion's worktable.  The bulb casts a spiderwebby, uncertain illumination over the dark recesses of the cellar.  The stairs are just unpainted pine boards, like the stairs in your basement when yall first moved into your house. There's not even a rail on the one side to hold onto.  Dad said that was typical for Tennessee. He said Tennessee and Kentucky was where you ran into the real, pickled Yahoos. That was where the Vermillion’s were from. Dad liked Mr. Vermillion, but still he said that about Tennessee. Dad of course being from up north had seen a do it yourself opportunity in the part of the house that they had left half unfinished, and over time he’d put in a tv room and a bedroom - yours - and a toolshop and he’d made the stairs real stairs, with carpet on them.


    The new Mr. Vermillion never used the old Mr. Vermillion's workshop, in fact wasn't around much to use anything except on the weekends.  His name was Ralph Purse, and Mark called him Purse to his face without Mr. in front of it when it was that Mark called his father sir.  You called your father Dad and your cousins on Dad's side, who were from Pennsylvania and D.C., called their fathers Dad.  It was a Rebel thing to call your father sir. It was like military school or something, you would never do it.  Your Mom's sister had girls, your cousins Jan and Elenore, and they were Rebels since they lived in New Orleans, but their Dad was gone because of D‑I‑V‑O‑R‑C‑E.  Now, however, Mark was totally different.  He'd gone to Chattanooga for a year with Mrs. Vermillion and they'd tried to sell the house, you'd see a strange car in the driveway every once in a while and a guy in a suit or a guy and his wife leaning against the window where you could see in the living room.  It was like something was happening in there besides it being empty and they were trying to block their reflexions with their hands up to the sides of their heads in order to see it.  You'd walk past the sign that said for sale and you'd knock it so it swung in an arthritic arc, creaking, on the whitish brown chain that kept it suspended from the arm of the post.  Two arms, in an F: with the sign between.  Bluebent Realty.  You even went into the house.  The first time to see, the second time because Keith, who kept saying we should.  Well, it wasn't that hard,  sometimes the real estate people kept the back door unlocked and yall just had to go up the stairs and you were in the house, which was spooky enough.  So one cold fall day that's what you did.  You unscrewed a light bulb and put it in the kitchen sink and you dropped a rock on it, but the rock wasn't more than a pebble, really, and it didn't bust it.  The sound in the empty house was funny, it was the type of sound that you immediately wanted to hush up, like it would get you in trouble. But there was no need to go along with that impulse, since there was nobody in the house except you and Keith.   You went down the stairs and out the back door and found a bigger rock and took it back inside.  Now when you dropped the rock the bulb popped. Then Mark came back.  The van arrived with everything and he came to your window and rapped on it.  You went around to the back door and were glad to see him, and he said lets watch them unload all our crap.  He was wearing that green coat and he smelled like cigarettes and grass.  He smelled like Norman Lee Sick.

     Norman is a year older than you and he lives down on Nielsen and he waited at the stop with you to catch the bus. He seemed to like to sit next to you, and every once in a while he'd give your arm a hard pinch and say how come you think you so smart, Street, and he'd do a stoned laugh. How come?  You'd say back boy I like your haircut, Norman.  Norman's father is a coach at the high school and he makes Norman get crew cuts, so his hair made him look like he had a flat head. Once you saw Norman's father carrying him to the car, Norman kicking and screaming, his feet actually not touching the ground.  Now Norman was a heavy kid. His father was cursing up a blue streak, and then Norman got him with a good kick, probably he landed it in his Dad's balls, and his Dad suddenly let him go.  Norman sprinted.  Still, the next day he had that haircut again. His Dad got in the car and circled around the neighborhood and caught him.

    The Vermillion's basement isn't totally under ground, because, like your house and most of the houses on the street, it was built on a slope.  That meant that while the back part of the basement is underground literally, planted against the hill the house straddled, the front part - which was really the farthest back part of the house - had a door you could go out of and be in the back yard where the hill sloped out.  Now the Vermillion house has a story more than your house, which is tacitly taken as a sign of who is richer, so you wonder why Mr. Vermillion left the basement looking so junky, except that Dad said it didn’t matter if you were rich or you were poor if you were a hillbilly. Also, there was something slightly prissy about Mr. Vermillion,  with his three or four strands of hair combed over his big bald spot and his attitude of really never getting down the suburban ethos, of being puzzled by it with a certain giraffe‑like majesty and dumbness.  He wore bermuda shorts and mowed his lawn, but he would do it pushing the lawnmower with one hand while with the other he was drinking a glass of scotch or whiskey.  He and Dad drank together, Dad drank scotch or whiskey with him and wine with Mom. Mr. Vermillion and Dad would sit out in lawnchairs in your back yard and shoot the shit on firefly spotted, deeply blue June evenings. You liked to sneak up on them and listen to them talking while  the blue  stretched as far as it was going to and started to dip into darkness, and the last pink clouds on the horizon, filled with that pink like straws filled with cherry Koolaid, went blue and gray and then stopped being there.

    You sit down in an old brown recliner and fossick in one of the holes in it and pull out fuzzy bits of stuffing.  Mark is moving around in front of his Dad's work table. It is funny that his Dad never took his stuff.  The table is the familiar issue of some Sears carton, one filled with little plastic packs with screws and nuts in them and lathed pieces not quite lathed to precise fit and somewhere a sheet of instructions on it that has complicated diagrams  with dotted lines connecting things and that algebra of pieces A B and C, etc. Well God it was a while back when Mark's Dad put that baby together, and it wasn't quite even, still.  Mark is getting a tube out of one of the boxes on top of the work table.  He unscrews the cap from the tube.  It is a little red tube. He finds a nail. He punctures the aluminum colored hymen at the mouth of the tube, and he takes a plastic bag and squeezes some grayish gel into the bag. Then he holds the bag up to his mouth and he takes a hit.
     He passes the bag to you. God damn he says. You think the Tennessee in his voice is funny.
     Do you want to do this? You are a little nervous, but it doesn't seem that big a deal.  I don't know, you say.  I'm just going to do this once. You put the bag up to your mouth and breath in the chemical, rather sweet odor of the glue.  It hits the back of your throat in a sudden clump and you drop the bag.  God damn, you say, trying to imitate Mark, to be funny.  You close your eyes and see a white spot, a bird turd, in the velvety whirling dark.  Your eyes are open again, and you get up.  

    Mark opens the door after a while, and you see, through the spring sogginess, that  rich blur of green and white and blue: sky, leaf, flower. It is sharp and primary to your eye.  Mark's lawn is patched with different greens, with the green of crabgrass and the lighter green of bermuda grass and the different greens of  wild onion and dandelion and thistle, and there are a lot of bare patches too.  This is because nobody takes care of the lawn anymore. Mr. Purse put down the bermuda seed one Saturday, he used one of those broadcasters with the canvas bag and the winnowing fan and the crank,  but because he isn't here on the weekdays it was wasted effort. Dad comes home and waters your lawn before dinner and on the weekends he uses weedicide to get rid of crabgrass and the nettles. Dad says you have to take care of a lawn. This is the season of appetite, you can feel how everything bursts into life from the earth where it has all been asleep (from science class you know that there is an exact parellel between the seasons and the day: spring is waking up, summer is being awake, autumn is falling asleep, and winter is sleep) and how the trees almost clutch at the rain, bringing it home. Getting high on the rain, man. And you too. You want.  You'll be in bed and you'll put your hands under your head, your elbows out.  A sailor on a bunk.  You have a map of Indonesia from a National Geographic which you like to spread out on the floor, kneeling down, looking over all those unpronounceable orangutan names, the stutters and clicks defying any shape you can set your mouth in. Wonderful map blue for the sea, the islands a crushed backbone, scattered vertebrae. On the shore you'll cast up, there'll be tall coconut palms like you've seen in Florida, at Uncle Victor's house who really isn't your uncle, and oiled, naked women (who aren't at Uncle Victor's house, too bad). You do one more hit, but you don't think you'll do any more, since the feeling you get is that you are in a bell, an almost translucent, silvery bell, and it makes you slightly uncomfortable.  It is interesting, though.  Your body is a chemical toy, and here's just another proof to put alongside dizziness, sleep, fever, deja‑vu, hard‑ons and all the assorted sometimes fearful phenomena of everyday bodily experience.  Mark says it is not the best high, he goes into how you should try grass, that you are going to some day and what is the hold up? Lately he's been on you about this.  Actually, it isn't that you are afraid of it, it is because of the smell.  You don't want your clothes to smell like Norman Lee's.
     Which speak of the devil and he appears.  Norman Lee is standing in the doorway in a blue jacket of shimmery material like his Dad wears.  It has Gladstone Goats on the back.  The highschool is the Goats, and there is a drawing in white of a goat kicking a football.  Next year you'll be a Goat. Norman says that he has some money. He steps in the door and stands just a little ways in. He's wet. He looks at you.  Hi Street. Norman takes two tattered green bills out of his pocket. He is dripping onto the concrete of the floor.
How much is that? you ask.
           None of your business.    
Mark says he'll be back, and he runs up the stairs.  Norman says what are you doing, and you say nothing much, we're just doing.
    You're high, Norman says.
    No, you say, not at all.  We're just smoking some cigs.
    Yeah? Let me have one.

    They all gone, son.
They aint any you mean.  You higher than a kite. You know how I know? Mark told me you and he was going to get high. High high, man.  So don't be a liar, Street.
    None of your business anyway.
    Mark comes down the stairs at this moment with a lunch sack.  Hey, he says, I tell you what I'm doing for you, Lee. I'm putting in a few papers free of charge. And you be sure this ain't no dry backyard weed either, it's juicy.  I'll do ANYTHING to please a customer.
     You laugh, recognizing by the tone of Mark's voice that he is pretending to be like that guy on the car advertisement who will do ANYTHING for your sale. The guy walks around in a barrel, without anything else on.  I'll strip myself naked to satisfy my customers, he says.
    Mark takes a rolling paper out of the bag, and he gets a pinch of brown weed from the bag and spreads it out in the paper.  Then he rolls it.  He is pretty good at rolling cigarettes.  You used to smoke with him when it was just pipe tobacco he'd swipe from his Dad.  Norman never does come all the way in, but he sits down there in the doorway, the stoop made by the concrete floor being a little above the ground, with his legs a little outside.  Mark takes a lighter out of his back pocket and lights the joint, and takes a big hit.  He passes it to Norman, who gestures to you.

    I'm fine.
    After a while Norman leaves.  Him being there was making you uncomfortable, even though he pretty much ignored you sitting on the stoop passing the joint to Mark and grunting to what Mark said about the pot.  Mark went to praising it for being smooth shit. Then he started onto Cynthia, the girl who sat in front of him in science.  He said he sure would like  to turn her on alright. He'd been talking about her lately. Then he started singing the minute you walked in the joint, I could see you were a man of distinction. Then Norman said he had to get on now, and we watched him slog across the back yard in the drizzle, carrying his lunch sack. He climbed over the fence between the Vermillion's and the Scassio's. He cut across the Scassio's front lawn until the jut of the way the Scassio's house lay to us hid him.

    After a while, we decided that it would be a good time to shoot the B B gun.  Mark had one and you didn't, because Dad didn't want you breaking the windows and shooting at the bird house. When he talked about this at the dinner table one night he had that look on his face which he had when he envisioned the yard being cratered and the trees (the laurel tree even now just beginning to leaf, bringing forth delicate, shy fronds, as if in response to Dad's seductions, his blandishments of fertilizer and pine straw; the dwarf fruit trees in the back corner of the yard on the raised beds; the sweetgum that was there from before, the birdhouse in it on the lowest branch, that scattered  weaponry of spiny nuts every autumn) torn down by some monster kid of his distant spawn run amuck.  You promised you wouldn't, although you knew that in the face of Dad's vision your voice didn't even blend in. It wasn't a campaign you really wanted to embark on, however.  There were times that you wanted to get things from your folks, but mostly these were essentials, like a bike. The B B gun didn't fall into the  category of essential or hauntingly desireable objects, and you could always use Mark's.

    In one of the darker corners of the basement was an old television set.  It was one of those ones that looked like furniture instead of an appliance the way plastic framed television sets look, it was definitely the living room television, encased in wood and mounted on a wooden trundle, with a big broad screen and a wooden door over the panel of vertical and horizontal and contrast buttons. It was perfect.  Mark and you had idly discussed this before.  Nobody was ever going to use it again.  It didn't even have color.  Inside it something had gone wrong and the images it showed would warp, they would suddenly go up and go up and go up like on a blind someone was continually pulling down and letting snap up with insane persistance, or they would concentrate to thin shivers of white and then distend to thick murky  blobs.  The sound was alright, though.
    Mark went upstairs to get the gun and you rolled out the tv.  Then Mark was downstairs again and you and he were pushing the tv out the door, which was a heavy job due to the slight elevation of the concrete floor of the basement over the yard mentioned before.  Then wheeling it through the yard was difficult.  The wheels left a track in the yard, you rolled it over a muddy bare patch and the wheels got gummed up and that made it harder to roll.  Dad would kill you if you'd done this in his yard.  Next Mark went in and found a long orange extension chord.  The thing was that just shooting the television would be fun, but if it was on it would be more fun. Maybe it would explode. So he snaked it out to the tv, and said plug it in.  You took the chord and you took the plug from the television, which was wet, and you connected them.  At that instant they sparked and you jumped and dropped them.  You weren't shocked.  You yelled at Mark you should have plugged the extension chord in after, goddamn idiot. He was laughing at the way you jumped. It didn't hurt you, he said.
    I could have been killed.

    The next thing was to turn on the tv.  You were still a little scared and maybe you'd been shocked.  Being scared like that felt like getting an electric shock.  Anyway you didn't want to turn on the tv and maybe get a real shock.  On the other hand, you didn't want to act too scared.  In the end honor won out over fear. You went over to turn it on.
    It was your idea to turn it on in the first place Street.
    Yeah, yeah.
    It was drizzling a little. You opened the little wooden door, examined the panel.  Just switch the little power switch.  You reached out and touched it and recoiled, as if you had already felt a shock.  You reached out again and turned it on. Everything at this point had a strange immediacy for you.  You were glued to the idea of turning on the television, it was an urgent thing to do: to have it out here in the rain, to blast it.

     There was a great hiss, and you jumped away.  Just then Mark shot the BB. Instead of hitting the tv, it hit you in the leg. The television was sputtering, and the pictures on it were cavorting horizontally and vertically, spasmatic like some victim of exorcism.  You fell on the ground, and immediately regretted it, because you felt the damp soak into your pants and your shirt.  You thought shit, I've muddied up my britches. Mark shot again and hit the glass, putting a crack in it. The splutter was louder. You cried out to Mark he'd goddamn hit you.  Maybe you were bleeding.  You rolled into an upright position and started to roll up your pant's leg.  Mark came over and both of you stared at the exposed bit of leg. There was a red mark on the calf. Mark said he wondered if the little bb itself was in the grass somewhere around you, and you and he patted around a little bit looking for it.  As if finding it would explain anything.
     You were disappointed with the impact of the b b‑ies. You had a vision of a movie bullet shattering the glass wholesale, smashing it, and flames leaping up.  Although that probably would not have been cool, Mrs. Scassio would surely have come out and yelled at you, or somebody from some house would have come out.  But instead you and Mark had to shatter it bit by bit.  You'd take a shot and he'd take a shot, and you tried to make the cracks you made connect to those he made, until you'd caved in most of the glass and exposed the inner vestibule, that strange chamber where the tv rays landed after touching down invisibly and swiftly at numerous high tv towers. After a while Mark went

back in the house and came out with a box of kitchen matches, and you lit one and threw it in hole in the screen.  That made it more interesting to shoot at. Flames started coming out of the tv after a while.  You and Mark squatted close to it, hanging your butts down so that they weren't quite touching the grass and hugging your knees and watched the tv burning. When it really started going you said Mark ought to get some baking soda to put it out. He said why, and you said do you want the goddamn thing to burn up and everybody to see it?  Oh, Mark said, Purse isn't going to notice. But as it got more serious you got nervous.  Mark just watched it.  You went and found the hose folded up behind some wet shrubbery next to the back wall of the house, and screwed one end to the faucet there. Then you turned the faucet on and got a big squirt of water in the face from where you hadn't screwed tight enough.  You were thoroughly soaked now.  You raced with the hose to the tv like you were a fireman, and doused the fire and squirted some water on Mark, to get him back for the bb.

    The next day the tv was still there, charred and ugly, like it had been taken out of some  detonated structure, one of those buildings the Americans bombed in some World War II movie.  The orange wire snaked out to it, it was all like you had left it the day before, except in that day's rain it looked even more desolate.  God Mrs. Vermillion hadn't said boo to Mark about it.  After school you and Mark rolled it back across the lawn and into the basement, and after all that labor when Mark said do you want to toke you said yes. Yes, you would.  

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