Pete

CHAPTER 14

Though Pete showed up to work all the same, evinced over time was the stance he took on The Plains – and, depending on which day of the week, or under the hour in which one implored, his convictions for the city seemed to be in a constant state of flux. Contorted by the overcrowding, he cursed every last one of them until he was out of breath; but then, in his reclaim of air, he would express his absolute enamor with the angelic ways of women who simply smiled back. This was also still home to him. A self-proclaimed nomad by nature, long-haired and hungry, like a leopard Pete sprang from The Plains at the age of 18, leaving behind in his dusty rear-view mirror the forage of friends and family for greener pastures out west – as every young man should, he had a habit of saying. But, a snap of his fingers and it was over before he knew it. Hairless, greatly humbled, and with almost a decade between various pit stops, Pete was compelled to return to The Plains, in hopes of living out the last few hours of the party.

All Dressed Up: A Novel

Half of Chapter 1

By no means was it a coincidence that such a sudden dismantling of affairs came at the hands of Eddie. Eddie Adams, a fellow who specifically warned me not to trust a man with two first names; a fellow who, furthermore, was dealing with a mild case of self-induced psychosis when the thirst for a cheap thrill reared its ugly head. At the time, and for a brief stretch of static months surrounding it, Eddie’s mind was captained by frequent doses of psychedelics: tiny increments of highly saturated substances delivered on whatever means of transportation they could arrive – over gummy bears, in corked glass vials, on floral-patterned blotter paper – and so rampant the habit ran that most days would end with questioning God, man, time, matter: all condensed into one long exhale. Sometimes crying, often laughing, and a lot of hugging; a powerful cycle of total oneness. A destruction of ego. A reminder of one’s simplest needs. An aberration: the massive flushing of the senses.

Such lunacy was, no less, precluded by first sight of the fellow – his stringy frame, sudden movements, disheveled hair, and sun-tanned skin – as he paced alongside a bus stop on MLK Blvd. one January morning, attacking the voice on his telephone in a heightened pantomime. A whirl of traffic flashed before him, and the Hawaiian cut, flamingo print of his blaze-blue button-up made his chest rise as he squawked around like a bird, puffing his chest out and walking on the wedges of his sandals while he waved a finger. I remember passing him on a bus heading into the city and, even without knowing him, feeling his distress. Meeting Eddie face-to-face a few days later only confirmed, however, that this was simply his preferred way of communicating.

We sat Eddie down in the center of the room, our chairs propped to fishbowl the long black leather sofa where he sat. The guy next to me, Nico Rodriguez, was a new acquaintance; a friendly stranger linked off the web who was kind enough to let me into his home to pitch my own story, just weeks prior. Out of respect for the home, I let Nico do the talking. Eddie was skittish, while grinning under his caterpillar-sized mustache as he sat before us. I could sense Nico needling his every movement, his eyes appearing uncharacteristically on edge and seemingly unsettled by Eddie’s own unsettlement.

“So, what brought you to the city?” Nico asked. From our few conversations up to that point, I came to notice how Nico had his way of controlling a discussion, and this was by pitching a single, pointed question; while awaiting an answer, he would configure his own lengthy segue that often would bleed into a whole new topic of conversation. At the very least, you would have an answer, but at times his responses were so elaborate and introspective that it would cause confusion over what was being prompted in the first place.

“Well,” Eddie laughed, anxiously. “I heard this was a cool place to be.”

“You said you were living in Detroit before this?”

“Yeah, just outside of the city. Nice neighborhood,” Eddie shrugged. “Sort of boojie though. Lots of presumption.” He smirked, before realizing neither of us were smiling. 

“So, what do you think you’ll be doing for work?”

“Well, I’m open to anything, really. I figure there’s enough service work to go around. Maybe try my hand at a restaurant, or slinging coffee.”

Nico’s demeanor changed as he rocked back in his seat and examined Eddie. “Sure,” he said, “You could do pretty well around here. They’re just putting up a new hotel downtown, and that’s supposed to be pretty nice.”

“Yeah, I’m not too concerned about it. I’m really just trying to get out of this hostel I’ve been staying at, find somewhere stable to live,” cracked Eddie. “This whole sleeping with ear-buds in every night is fucking my shit up, yo.” 

“Well, you wouldn’t have to worry about noise here,” Nico said. “I’m pretty quiet, and I keep to myself. It seems like Calvin does, too. As long as you don’t mind late nights. Sometimes people come in and out, but mostly during the day.”

“Not at all. I’m a night-owl myself, so that’s cool.” Eddie slid forward in his chair and exhaled with a sort of relief. “So, what do you guys do?” 

“I’m an artist,” said Nico. “Freelance, mostly. I started out drawing, but have gotten into oils and acrylics. A little photography, too.” He paused and looked at me. “I haven’t read any of his work, but Calvin here says he’s a writer.” 

“Awesome, man. I’m into photography, too,” Eddie replied, before looking over at me with a smile. “I’ve done some video projects with writer friends as well, a few traveling documentaries. Nothing lately, but I’d love to get hooked up with a good crew.” He began nervously twirling the ends of his bushy, black mustache into tiny coils.

“Okay. Well, how long do you expect to be in the city? Where do you see yourself in a year?” Nico raised an eyebrow as he watched Eddie. “The terms on this room are month-to-month. But, I’d like to get a gauge on what your expectations are for the city. Saves us the burden if you all of a sudden are gone one morning and the room is empty.”

“Shit, hopefully right here,” answered Eddie, with a quick smile. “I’m all about the short-term right now, so month-to-month sounds perfect.”

“Good enough. Well, thanks for coming to sit down with us. We can let you know in the next day or so.”

“Oh, okay,” Eddie replied, nervously shifting to stand. On his way to the door, he hopped around the space, taking a long look at the rugged sofa and blemished carpets. “Well, I’m definitely interested. It seems like a good spot. You two seem like cool guys. So, hopefully this works out. Thanks for letting me come by.”

As Eddie slipped out the door, Nico turned to look at me. “Well, that was interesting,” he said.

“Sure, but I think he seemed all right.”

“Agreed. I’ll get ahold of the landlord tomorrow to get some papers together, then.”

Eddie moved in later that week, bringing with him a pair of duffles, an armful of healthy snacks, a jumbled stack of keyboard kits and a drum set, plus a myriad of trinkets. To each of our respective work zones, his presence was of no hindrance; Nico continued to carve away on his easel, often into the night and well through it. As Nico naturally assumed most of the common area, my own work was conceited to the dwelling of my bedroom, with novels and notebooks scattered out over an L-shaped desk that had been left behind by the previous tenant.

On occasion, I would step out into the half-lit, often silent and haphazardly arranged space for a pot of coffee, a snack, or a small bout of conversation with Nico, if he was between sets or had so much as looked up from his task. Many of my first days in the city – a place called The Plains – were, however, spent alone, pondering the various events that led me down there in the first place. 

For on a whim, I had thrown caution to the wind and bid farewell to the only place I knew to be home, one bleak January morning. Smiling with a wad of cash lining the inside pocket of my windbreaker jacket, and carrying two duffle bags containing a few extra sets of clothes, I caught a ride from a childhood friend who happened to be making his way down south, to see his father.

To my peers, leaving home was something of a protest, not something natives often did; it was even ascribed by those much older and wiser than I as an act of bravery. Yet, when the word brave arose, I was never quite sure how to respond; rather, it seemed to require more courage to stay put and be buried close enough to the cradle than to embark upon a journey into the unknown.

For as exciting as the endeavor seemed on the ride down, a cold, rather surreal sensation came over me as I stepped out of the car on that cloud-covered, misty morning, which would be my first of a few hundred on The Plains. The sky was tempestuous, and never before had I felt so alone and isolated. Oneiric visions had brought me to the city, but those same dreams also challenged the very act of leaving, in the first place. As I stood, with a brisk wind at my back and a few bags at my side, all alone on a busy street corner in the middle of the city, I recalled a rather vivid dream, which had occurred the night I was offered a ride down to The Plains, and out of town for good; there I was, staring down the consequences of a serious decision. 

I was standing alongside the edge of a pool with my cousin, Ivan, whom had just months prior taken an ode to the road and left home for greener pastures. We were among friends and family at a backyard barbecue, and in the swimming pool there suddenly appeared a fat child. He began screaming, flailing on his way down under the water. The party had become paralyzed; people only looked at one another as the boy continued to drown. Ivan and I looked at one another, waiting for the other one to act. Finally it was my cousin who jumped into the water and saved the boy. As the child sat on the edge of the pool, gasping for air, I knelt beside him. When I asked him if he was okay, he said nothing. Instead the boy looked around to his spectators and then promptly vomited all over me. 

The mist would dissipate, as would the impression of winter. In its best light, the city exuded a zeal that rang out through the streets and lingered across the lush, green sea of land that surrounded it; abound were crystal-clear, natural springs for swimming, effusive trails for hiking, and steely sky scrapers for stargazing. Yet, as with any truly thriving metropolitan, life on The Plains was also laden with its own share of prickles: cacti sprang from street corners, pests thrived, gaping holes swallowed whole city blocks, and on any given morning one was sure to be welcomed by the odious aromas of sweaty armpits, stinky feet and stale beer as they made their way through the city. For these reasons, many of its residents had seasonal affairs, and they would be known to duck out of town, or out to the hills for some peace of mind. Before reaching the nearby hill country, though, there lay a slow-sung neighborhood called Tennyson, which came peppered with massive colonial-style and southern-Victorians homes from the late 1800’s. It was a part of town, moreover, that, nearly two centuries prior, had housed some of the city’s most esteemed iconoclasts; and its epitaph even outdated a handful of western states in the union. As if transported to a distant time, under different circumstances, Tennyson was, most simply, a perseverance of arresting architecture, a ‘you-first’ pace, quirky characters, and hilly streets that rolled on endlessly, like snow drifts upon the flat lands of Middle America. 

Tucked in the neighborhood’s nest of lancing palm trees, barreling cacti, and ardent rose gardens was a three-story shop built out of old wood. A bronze plate on one of its walls donned it as a historical landmark; though, present day it showcased giant jungle animals made of papier-mâché, which came jutting out over the sidewalks and swallowed the whole city corner where the building sat. While out exploring the neighborhood some days after my arrival, I was compelled by some strange energy to step into the store. Filling every aisle of its front were vintage globes, early 20th-century typewriters, gold-plated carving knives, ceramic ashtrays from the Philippines, and coral-studded necklaces. Furs from the finest exotic animals were tacked up along the walls, and some even dressed its floors. Ship-wheels, stern holes, and masts alike were also peppered throughout the shop: scattered, as if to preserve the feeling of constant travel; and, at waist height on every corner table were collections of delicately crafted wooden boxes, in which one was meant to trap and encase such feelings. Eclectic in its allure, the shop was, almost obtrusively, nostalgic, tacky, and yet, cunningly resourceful. As I stumbled through its corridors for nearly an hour, the staff was nowhere to be found. Curious, I thought: an open door, inviting an honest hour of perusal without doubting the dignity of one’s intentions, as if an art collector had opened his doors to the public but had simply gone for a long lunch in the meantime. Endless, the hours seemed to amount in researching, collecting, and pricing myriad goods, and yet the face of the individual behind its mystery went unseen. I left without seeing a single soul.

Aside from brief excursions through town for coffee or to buy groceries, the casual routine of my first few weeks in the city was conducted alone, reading or writing at my desk. Though isolating, this time was pleasantly reminiscent to the toy-filled twilight of my youth, when I had nothing more than solitude and an imagination with which to mold blank slates into great stories. All of this changed, however, one day when that Eddie fellow came rapping at my door. 

From the hallway, I heard him call out, “I’m running some errands, the bus leaves in ten minutes. You should come.”

Seven minutes later, I stood by his door with the same rap, looking out from an open window in the living room and at the busy street below. “Eddie. Eddie? Are you ready?”

“Yeah, yeah. Go ahead!” he yelled. “Meet me down at the bus stop. I’ll be right there!”

Hurriedly, I grabbed my bike from the balcony and then rushed out to the street. Our apartment complex, titled the Terrace, was a stone’s throw from a busy street corner where the city busses stopped. Among a bunch of hotel workers in crisp white shirts and black ties, I stood quietly watching the traffic hurdle by. Soon the bus arrived, and I stood there watching the driver’s expression go flat as he waited for me to make my move. But there was still no Eddie, and so I watched the vessel inhale before shutting its doors and then chugging along to the city. 

“Well, at least we’ll be on time for the next one,” I said to Eddie, when he arrived a few minutes later.

“Fuck,” he panted, before sliding a pair of cheap sunglasses onto his forehead and then looking over his shoulder. He was wearing a puffy green jacket and navy-blue pinstripe pants. “My bad, dude. Did you at least try to stall him? Sometimes I’ll give them a story about how my bike tire is flat and it’ll take extra time to load, or how the groceries make my backpack too heavy so that’s why I’m a little slow to move.”

Since it was Eddie’s errand, after all, I was unbothered by the snafu. “Didn’t even think of it…no.”

“Next time give it a shot, sometimes those dudes are down to chill, yo,” Eddie cracked. “One time I was riding downtown, and in-between stops the driver just threw the bus in park. He gets out, walks up to the burger stand and orders a dang cheeseburger! It’s five o’clock on a Friday – traffic is wicked backed up. These people on the bus were coming from the airport and they started looking around, asking me if this was normal,” Eddie laughed, while wrenching into the front pocket of his bag to retrieve papers, a mix of tobacco and ground herbs. He quickly rolled the blend into a single cone and then knotted its end. “See, it’s not all that bad. If I would have been on time, I wouldn’t have had time for this.”

Grinning, Eddie began puffing on the twisted tube between his teeth, while I watched the faces of a few other bystanders as their gestures turned from curious to scornful, and then to downright concerned. Concern for his lack of awareness, curious of his bombastic banter, yet scornful toward his apathy for authority and the general regard for others.

“So, what brought you here?” I later asked him, interrupting what had become a rant about the unreliable nature of the bus schedules in this town.

“See, it’s funny. For the longest time – or, at least the last four or five weeks – I joked that one day I would leave for warmer weather. Winter was hitting Detroit, and for some reason the south came to mind. Like, the south?” Smoke spun out of Eddie’s nostrils as he snickered.

“Hm. But, why The Plains?”

“Right, right,” he laughed. “I had a mutual friend, this girl, who just moved to Detroit from here. So, naturally it seemed like a reasonable flip. You know? She went up there and I came down here. But, like, I could have ended up in Mobile. Memphis. Christ, El Paso?”

“You make my trip down here seem like a breeze,” I quipped.

“Well, I’m sure you at least had some money saved. I had figured about a month’s rent and some food. The rest went to a train ticket down here. And that’s almost gone.” Eddie chuckled with ease, and then extinguished the spliff onto the curbside right as the next bus came rumbling forward. 

The envy was mutual – to detail the countryside in a shared railcar with reborn retirees and well-endowed train hoppers posed a much more thorough surveying of the land, and in its offerings there seemed to hold the opportunity for one to reflect on both the overlooked and the allegorical elements of the great United States. In Eddie’s rehashing of his dealings with stuffy old women with evangelical outlooks, and the deranged daughters escaping their toxic mothers, I lost my own train of thought, as well as the ambition to unearth what possessed him to take such a risk; perhaps, I concluded, his previous state of affairs had paled in comparison to the threat of sleeping on a park bench with his puffy green jacket as a pillow.

Assuming place near the back of the bus, we sat across from one another with our belongings sprawled out. But the tone turned suddenly when Eddie took off his shades and looked at me.

“We need to step up our cleaning,” he said. “The roaches, have you seen them?” The space around his eyes tightened. I bit my lip and nodded.

“I even brought it up to Nico…But he brushed me off. Says they’re normal, says it’s the south.” Eddie exhaled audibly. “So, maybe we go to the landlord. It’s been getting worse, I’m sure of it.”

Begrudgingly, I said, “I know what you mean.”

“The other day I was cooking with one,” said Eddie, now smirking as he reclined in his seat. “He was hanging out on the stove top, so I was like, ‘Hey, little guy, be careful! That burner is hot! No, not that one!’” Eddie’s words caught the earshot of two other passengers nearby, whose faces twisted with amusement. “Seriously though, those things can grow to be like three-feet long!” he exclaimed. “Maybe we can just open the doors and direct them over to the neighbors place. ‘Be free, little guys!’”

When we arrived at the store, Eddie instructed me to meet him near the hot-foods section and then disappeared into a mass of people; on the ride in, he had insisted that we eat before doing any serious shopping. When we reconvened at one of the check-out lines, Eddie seized the attention of a pretty girl behind the register, who had piercings all along her eyebrows and ears, and a big bullring in her nose.

“If I may?” Eddie leaned forward, grinning. Indolent, the girl only looked at him as she kept scanning his items. “So,” he said, “I’ve come to realize that septum piercings for girls are a lot like mustaches for guys.” The word ‘mustache’ was inflicted so as to pose an invitation for conversation, but the girl merely rolled her eyes and pressed her lips together before handing him a long paper receipt.

Winter Storm Wonderings

As I continue to board one bus after another, I can’t tell if they’re running free of charge to let people back into the city, or allow them get the hell out.

Another peculiarity on my way through town is the pristine condition of the power company’s building, particularly its large, sheet glass windows. Each one perfectly intact. No caution tape or not a single beam of wood blocking the door. Even the slightest knick, I surely would have thought.

But, no? Nothing? 

Let it pass. There are bigger fish to fry.

For one, the fifteen board members who have stake in this ‘reliability council’. Yet, those same members are not even required to live in the state of Texas in order to make executive decisions on it. One lives in Canada. 

Let that one marinate. Lest they resign, which seems only necessary, we will sit in front of now-working televisions, waiting for someone to step up to the podium; until then, pour me another.

The Rest of Day One

The sun has fully set over campus. It is dark now, aside from a few sporadic street lights. The air has grown colder, though the absence of wind renders us light on our feet as we continue to make progress on the beer supply. If not for Josh’s absolute – and otherwise inexplicable – disregard for one of his back molars, our consumption would be reduced to only cans; alas, the cold bottles are a fun alternative, even if their contents are a few months out of date. He continues cracking them, one by one, laughing as he hands me a fresh, cold beer. A certain street is reached, and then everything goes dark. An echo of laughter, jubilant teens in their towers as they turn the occasion into a party, putting on hold any notion of an ongoing global pandemic. It’s hard to blame them, these adolescents with ample endowments and not a care in the world, as they look past us, and our earnest attempts at simple conversation.

Hey, how’s it goin’? we ask one or two, on occasion.

Eh, fine. And you?

Oh, just fine. Thank you.

My parents, too, always told me not to talk to strangers. But since reality had suddenly been flipped upside down, that sentiment could understandably be shed, no? For, who knew what any of this all meant, anyway? Or, better yet, who knew what was coming?

It is quite the social experiment, in a strange, oblong sort of way, as we keep our hearts out on our sleeves. What if someone would have lent a hand, or even the simple suggestion of such, even without the intent of following through? Surely we would have replied with, hey man, have a beer. But, to that, we only had our own supply to consume in a timely manner. After all, the beer is only growing warmer with every block amassed.

As our navigation is nullified by a dying phone – as it turns out, new batteries have a hard time keeping up in frigid temperatures – we are left to rely on the remembrance of certain streets, and which ones cut off without any notice. I have been to Steve’s a thousand times before, but not under these conditions. There’s a point we reach, right at the top of the hill, where MLK Blvd dips down into Lamar Avenue, and all that we see are the impressions of light from an oncoming line of traffic. Nearly a dozen headlights beam brightly, their horns heaving after having been stalled by one single car, midway up the hill, which is now stuck. The driver has gotten out and is dressing the area around her tires with kitty litter. It is only imminent that the rest will follow, unless they are able to unstick themselves from the sudden slabs of ice that have formed under their tires in the time that they were stationary, waiting for her to get unstuck.

Absolutely absurd – this is insanity, I say to Josh. We have to turn around, even if it means trying a few more dead-ends until we find the right street that will take us straight through to Steve’s.

After some time – at least, an hour after our quoted arrival time – we show up at Steve’s place: a quaint duplex at the end of a dead-end street. There’s something eery, yet quite pacifying, about how the skyline sits, streaming itself through shreds of barren trees on the edge of the street. When Steve answers the phone, I ask where we could park the wheels.

What wheels? Did y’all ride scooters? he naively quips. 

Not exactly, I retort. So he tells us to find the back door, where we are to unload all the groceries in one swift effort, saving as much internal heat of the house as we can.

Hurry up and get in, he urges, as we stumble inside. Inside the building it is significantly warmer, much more than our own apartment that we left during the daylight hours. Certain items are to be stored in certain places, others are busted out and broken down for immediate consumption. 

What about the cart?

We can return that later for you, Steve says, brushing off the notion of any inconvenience it might pose, when the world is turned right back up, and the sun is shining endlessly upon the hilly streets of his quiet suburban neighborhood.

Steam is rising from the many pots, placed precariously throughout the apartment, giving off the faint glimmer of hope as we hear the gas stove click and ignite what will be a surprisingly voluptuous spread for dinner. Simply relieved, Josh and I are, to receive respite amidst this sidewinding experiment of sudden survival mode. The two of them – Steve and his partner – at least appear partially equipped for the conditions, and proceed with offering all sorts of coping mechanisms.

More wine?

Absolutely. 

How about some chocolate?

Sure. Why not? I’m not driving.

Soon, it all melts away. However, sleeping with all of your belongings huddled by your side, as your breath can be seen beating back against the air, is a rather unenviable way to be ushered back into the sober hours of the day, when the song of birds accompanies the strong sunlight that comes in through the slotted blinds. Everything suddenly comes rushing back.

Where the hell are we? And who is that, sleeping in a ball on the love-seat above me?

All of the air in the mattress I have been sleeping on has been usurped by a small, unidentifiable hole, forcing me to roll around on the floor, searching for but a few spots of support as I grapple with what is to come. Josh and I still need to get home, and in a timely manner, at that.

As I wait for Josh to stir, I decide to pull from one of Steve’s shelves an old book of mine, one that I had long forgotten about, and bid farewell to without actually saying goodbye to anything else around it; but, that is for another day. Peeling back its pages, moreover, is quite pacifying, as I sit in the throws of his lush, suede arm chair, overlooking the odd arrangement of the living room, while Josh soundly snores. In no time, he, too, is abrupt to wake; shaken by the sensation of frigid temperatures in an enclosed building. His eyes flicker, and he’s soon to realize how the set of circumstances bestowed upon us are so far flung from a dream. If given the blessing to keep sleeping, surely he would. But his boss beckons, and he is summoned home, to at least give the obligation a solid, earnest attempt, despite the conditions. 

All the while, the rest of the house sleeps. We know we can be quiet enough, so as not to disturb Steve and his girlfriend from their sleep schedule. A swift effort is made to relocate and repack all of our perishable belongings – plus a few bottled beers, just in case the stores remain closed for the day – before hitting the road. But, one similarly aloof effort is given on the door, only to discover how the stark, unnatural contrast in conditions – internal moisture and frigid external temperatures – have sealed the sliding glass door shut. 

Are we stuck here? Josh and I laugh, looking at one another with large eyes and addled expressions. Surely, if I am to attempt, and fail to open the door, instead cracking it down its center, that my five-years of friendship with Steve might come to a sudden halt. When he swoops into the room, some fifteen minutes later, Steve snickers at the thought, but fails to disagree.

Trekking downhill, as the sun seeps its way out of the clouds, and splits over the town, things don’t seem so bad. Our feet feel lighter and, despite the constant struggle to find solid ground, the roads are nearly entirely void of traffic – foot, or the like. We see remnants from the night before: stacks of cars, spun in odd directions across the road, and snuggled up to snowbanks that have now become ice blocks, as well as empty beer cans and tattered rolls of yellow caution tape.

Is this a vacated crime scene, or a simple call for help that went unanswered?

Many looks are sent our way – even a few earnest inquires – especially over our heavy, brown grocery bags, as we descend from the direction of the nearest store. One grizzled fellow even appears ready to fight, and his truculence lingers long after he staggers off in the opposite direction, visibly disappointed to learn that our goods only came from the night before. Apocalyptic, almost, in ways, how the world around us feels empty, stripped down, and sundered by the elements. Elements which, no less, bare no resemblance to what is to be expected on any given day of the year, in the sunny city of Austin, TX.

We fail, moreover, to consider what this what will do to the foliage: each of those palm trees which sway with the wind now seem stale as they stand, slathered in snow, showing especially stark against the sky blue aperture overtaking the town. Josh elects that we take the long way home, for it is assumed that the foot traffic will be sparse, and scenery lush. Along the river banks, steam flows fluidly, gradually rising to uncover the small tropes of turtles taking a breath before dipping themselves back into the icy ballad, which would otherwise be brimming with canoes and kayaks. Birds swoop and skim the surface, and for a few fleeting moments it feels as if humans were not meant for this terroir, after all.

Returning to the apartment, Josh and I graze over our groceries: it is enough, for now. Yet, gradually reinforced is the chilling notion that acquiring said goods was a mere stroke of dumb, intoxicated luck. Luck which, no less, feels to be waning with each hour that passes, the people on the news predicting more precipitation for the days to come.

Spleen Sandwiches

“‘K Billy’s super sounds of the 70’s weekend just keeps on comin’ with this little diddy…’”

A familiar tune blares from the rectangular record player which sits atop a massive collection of vinyl in Lorenzo’s living room. His keen sense of American style and flare is steeped in the mounting references to pop culture; he has a real appreciation for our classics. For Philipp and I it feels like home, as the sound of stale hash being ground into rigid paper and the sensation of cheap beer foam meeting the lips are mere reminders of our better days; all of this is a retribution for a broken line of communication, though none of it seems entirely necessary. Relieved, we are, to simply recline on the leather sofa and hold a full conversation in English, with he and his mate, Edoardo. Their interest in our intent of travel, however, quickly shifts toward explaining the significance of the island, and how the rest of Italy pales in comparison. 

Sicily’s original flag, predating the Italian occupation of 1861, hangs sideways from the largest wall in the room, and these two young men contextualize its placement with the specifics of the island’s deceivingly long struggle for independence. To them, 1861 was the last year that the island was truly free. But to Lorenzo, being Sicilian is vastly different from being Italian, so they are always free. 

“This is Sicily, this is not Italy,” he affirms, to which Edoardo nods. Edoardo is of Roman descent, but Lorenzo says they are able to get along anyway. As Lorenzo paces the room, the glint in his eye is strong in its thirst for venture; an iconoclast at heart, it seems only appropriate that his infatuation with American freewill remains well at hand. 

“So, what should we do tonight?” asks Philipp. “We’re hungry. What is unique to Palermo?”

“Spleen.”

Edoardo, nodding again in agreement, adds enthusiastically, “Ah, yes, the spleen sandwiches.”

Repeating his answer with a grimace, Philipp and I turn to one another.

“Yes, that is our peasant food. It is, eh, part of Palermo, our history,” Lorenzo says. “I will text you the name of where they are best.”

We return after having consumed enough spleen for one to want in a lifetime, and both Philipp and I are reminded in our sleep of the feeble-minded mistake to indulge without something so stiff as a beer to wash down the rubbery chits of greased meat. 

Giardini Naxos

Soon it is apparent why this dot on the radar is revered by the French, Dutch, and Germans as an ideal slice of the slow life. Its sea is laden with cascading colors of sapphire blue and white ivory, each embedded in the rhythm of the tide; its knockout moons hold strong as guiding forces of the rotational tilt, as if it all began and ended here. Yet, no greater force is the contemplation that occurs at the skirts of a cosmic wonder such as Mt. Etna, where the discards of cataclysm pit questions of life against death. This is where man comes to quantify small decisions and conquer his ghosts; a realm of complete isolation seeming all but romantic with the right view.

On to Mondello

Hiccuping down the spiraling street walls of Mount Pellegrino, aided by half-toned headlights and the intense focus of Lorenzo, our small vehicle dodges and weaves through a mess of low-swung brush and eroded manholes with a seeming grace.

“The mountain, it is falling down,” he says, with a grin. “It is fucking dangerous. They have closed the road because it is falling.”

“Closed?” Philipp retorts, in a rip of laughter; for, this stolen right of passage into the depths of a decrepit maze epitomizes his idea of a cheap thrill.

“Yes, it has been falling for some time now,” Lorenzo replies. “The mountain, its history, it speaks if you listen.”

Steadily the air around us envelops the car into a veil of night, and challenged are the dim, exhausted headlights at each tight corner. Branches overhead tickle the open window of our rooftop, and yet there is stillness on the road; our vessel feels isolated in its wholeness, as if the moment were being preserved for us, and us alone. Upon reaching the grounding lights of a colorful cityscape, Mondello – bold in all of its revelry – there is a sense of relief, but on its trail is the subtlety of remorse.

A Snapshot of Naples

Unescapable, still, is the wrath of foddered consumables as the disconnect is made from Milan and our journey begun to Naples – a city where gold links, silver chains, crowned hats and premiere purse labels clutter every portable table top, ultimately toeing the line of intrusive as we waltz over the city’s unleveled streets of broken brick. Is this not the throw-away culture we longed to escape by vaulting across the Atlantic? An ode to their way of life, rather, this inherently serpentine servitude to sell, sell, sell, is exhaustive in its unrelenting draw of the senses and, in turn, combats the natural beauty of a city that once housed one of the great Kingdoms of the world. Napoli, in no short order, has a way of closing itself in on you; be it the narrow alleyways in between massive brick installments, or the everlasting strip of commercial goods and the bevy of bakeries and banks for one’s moral and material deposits; yet, the greatest thrill comes in watching the parade of cars storm the dotted lanes that serve as the main arteries to the city. On these streets, scooters reign supreme: slithering elusively, they’re commandeered by small children, rambunctious teenagers, and bearded men who take successive, sharp turns at 90 degree angles, against and then with the flow of traffic, just to shave off a few seconds of their commute. A steady Vaffanculo! echoes down alleyways.

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Book Teaser

Something is calling him. It’s no longer the urge to assimilate himself in a burgeoning city. It’s no longer the compulsion to tag along for a good time. It is, rather, how he chooses to engage himself with both the outside world and his fellow man. Calvin may feel alone in how he internalizes all of the disparity before him, or how he handles the hate going on in other homes, but he is just like everyone else. His fate, however, is quite unlike that of others, but only because he is able to see it coming.

 

THE HEAD OF HEIGHTS

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Conversations over Coffee

“Now, are we talking active, or latent?” asks one of the retirees a few seats down from me. He’s one of the few who frequent this place at a certain hour, seemingly everyday. Together they talk politics, the Chinese, and the land-value of what was leftover from the Native Americans. Having just wrapped up comparing their Tuesday crosswords, these old men now appear ready to tackle White Supremacy with everything they have.

This is why I come back. Well, that and the espresso that is dark, viscous, and reminiscent of that which is served over the counter in Italy: like cough medicine, and also without a smile.

How many things come full circle, for this time last year I was winding down from a month-long sabbatical overseas, in where I was given a slice of life that is lived well-beyond, but also contently far behind, our modern-day life in America. Conversely, it is there that I also presume the same silver-haired men in carefully arranged outfits to be having similar conversations over coffee.

When the chairman of their committee drops in, the tailored-suit and otter-cap fitting snug to his frame, an anecdote sticks out, causing me to lend a careful ear. He’s going on about the local university, how it’s going broke, but also how the other, just like it, is firmly bankrupt.

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