This is the little story that didn’t go away.
So: a way long time ago, circa 1979, when I was a student at the University of Texas, I was seeing a girl named Susan, who had a roommate whose name I forget, who had a boyfriend whose name I forget. The boyfriend was a volunteer with a wildlife rescue organization, and he took care of injured and orphaned birds—primarily raptors. He’d come in and out carrying these birds around—a red-tailed hawk, a golden eagle. One day he had the eagle sitting on a tether in the backyard, and the eagle killed an old lady’s cat that chose the wrong time to wander by. I was totally pissed off—said that I’d kill the eagle if it killed my cat.
That’s the origin of the story. Bad eagle kills good cat. I carried the idea around with me for years, and then when I was writing my MA thesis I pulled it out and tried to do something with it. The end result was the basic draft of “Wildlife Rehabilitation.”
Where I live in Texas the hills level out and rise into the plains and the sky opens up to swallow everything. In the fall and winter fronts blow through, cold dark clouds and wind rattling the brush and pushing birds down from the north—most notably, great numbers of hawks and eagles. When I was a young man, people hated those birds. It was not an uncommon thing to see dead eagles and hawks strung up on fenceposts along our roads, shot dead and left to rot, a warning to all other varmints. Crows and buzzards would drift by and pick at the carcasses, and most of the dead birds' feathers would float off into the brush, and finally, after a few months, by summertime, all you'd have left to see would be maybe a skeleton with one wing and a head, hanging there from a clawed foot like a grim vision of the future that awaits us all. It was something to see, all the dead birds hanging from fenceposts, but it's not so common anymore. In fact, it's not something I had seen in years, or even thought of, until my cat—his name was Festus—was killed by my neighbor’s golden eagle.
And no one liked it. My fellow writers in workshop were dissatisfied with the ending and with what they saw as the sentimentality the story as a whole, and my thesis director thought the ending was absolutely dreadful. He thought the story sucked too much to go into my thesis, and it didn’t. I kept working on it, though, adding more and more, making it increasingly complicated and dense—one version actually cracks 50 pages, and has fun and weird scenes of drugs and sex and arson and kidnapping. I came up with at least four different endings. And I didn’t like any of the changes.
But I still believed in the basic story—no kidding, I liked it! I thought there was something there!—and I submitted it to a few journals, and was rejected, and then I presented it at the Western Literature Association conference in 2007. Twister Marquiss of Southwestern American Literature was there, and he liked it a lot, and offered to publish it, and so about a year later it came out. Other people liked it, too. “Wildlife Rehabilitation” was later chosen as an honorable mention for the anthology Best of the West, edited by Seth Horton.
So, in the end, with a lot of help, this story found an audience….
Here is a story about being depressed and then having your life turn to shit….
I had only been working at my new job for seven weeks but I was already dreading going to work. Every day I grew increasingly depressed. It wasn’t the job itself that depressed me—I corrected billing statements, boring and repetitious and stupid billing statements, for a big law firm—but the woman I worked with, Debbie Peterson, who shared my office cubicle, and who seemed to be slowly, steadily, scarily, going mad.
Each morning’s elevator ride up to our office was stressful: sometimes Debbie would show up early to answer the phones until the receptionist arrived, and the doors would slide open and Debbie would be behind the reception desk grinning at the doors, at me, grinning happily but with cold blue glittering eyes. I hated that. I so much preferred to start my day calmly, to step off the elevator into an empty, quiet room.
And on my last day at work, I got what I wanted—got that much, at least….
The first time I read this in public, a woman in the audience asked, “So, did that really happen?”
I was an inexperienced performer then. I was surprised and thrown off by her question.
“What?” I asked. “No, not really.”
“Well, how really? Is that crazy woman based on somebody?”
“Uh…I’ve known a lot of crazy people.”
Some crazier than others, some crazy like this bat in the audience, right?
“But are any of them the inspiration for the woman in the story?”
Fuck no, crazy! I thought with an exclamation point, but I answered with a mumble.
I handle some things better now—I hope….
A story about being trapped, and being mad about being trapped….
At Bluebonnet Lake they were still fishing. Shannon’s father and the girls had their lines in the filthy water, and Margie stood behind them. One of her hands was bandaged. Shannon stood by the concession stand watching them, for a long time. Strangers, she thought. She felt at the left front pocket of her shorts; the car keys were still there, and again for a moment she was tempted to turn and quietly go to the car and drive off—somewhere. Somewhere—not home, but anywhere. But then she realized there was no place, really, to go. Shannon walked back down to the pond and sat on a bench. No one saw her, noticed her: the twins, her father, Margie. It was a lonely world.
So here’s a little dystopian romance....
I walked up the parking lot to our car. I was trying hard not to feel trapped by everything, by life, but I did. I didn’t see how else I could feel. A cattle truck was parked across the road at a small gas station. A single steer in the back of the truck lowed over and over.
I said, “Tell me about it.”
Our car was fine, locked and safe. I looked at all of Gloria’s stuff filling the backseat. I looked at the cattle truck. There wasn’t anything to do but go back to the room.
For most of people, most of the time, options are obscured by emotions, and there really isn’t anything else to do but go back to the room to face whatever evil and unpleasant—or sometimes joyful and ecstatic!—fate is waiting.
Driving a cab is a hard way to make a living. You work ten to twelve hours a day, driving, driving, fighting traffic and the elements, and the people you pick up often treat you very poorly indeed—a few measly dollars spent on the fare can be enough to bring out the inner despot and tyrant in many normally polite and well-behaved individuals.
When I was working on my MA I was in a cw class and wrote a cab driving story about a driver whose life is bad and gets worse. It was supposed to be…tragic, I guess. It was supposed to be sad! But when I first read it aloud, people—laughed. My audience thought it was funny! And every time I’ve performed this story since then, people laugh. I'm not really sure I want to understand the response—but of course at any rate it’s beyond my control. Once you write or tell a story, it’s not yours anymore: it belongs to the reader, the listener.
At any rate, “Riff-Raff” is set in a hard world….
This is one of my favorite stories to perform—the narrative is pretty strong and the rising level of ridiculosity always seems to keep the audience hanging in there. “Guts :( ” [and my blogging platform can’t handle the strikethrough on GUTS or the little frowny-face that follows] is another story about a city in a time of change and dislocation. Wes Leonard is the humor columnist for the Austin newspaper, and he is assigned to go cover a chitlins cookoff. But he's tired of writing about colorful and folksy community events, and he doesn’t want to go—he’d rather spend the afternoon in a bar getting drunk.
...colorful and folksy was getting harder and harder to find: the city had changed, was changing. There were big-assed skyscrapers downtown now, and tech millionaires cruising around in Maserattis, and waves of immigrants from California and Mexico—and everywhere else on the planet, seemingly—had changed the texture of the town. Colorful and folksy, real colorful and folksy, was getting hard to find. Wes tried a few times to write about the new city he was seeing all around him—he wrote about the gentrification of the east side, about inappropriately huge mansions in old neighborhoods, about traffic and traffic and traffic, about air and water pollution, about the loss of friendly old bars and restaurants, and the snootiness of new bars and restaurants—he wrote columns about the new city, and nobody liked them. They were downers. They sounded like the carpings of a cranky old man. Nobody wanted to read that. People wanted colorful and folksy—at least from him, they wanted colorful and folksy. He went back to recycling old topics. In the end all it got him was a gig as the celebrity judge at the Greater Southwest Chitlins Cookoff and Jamboree.
An obvious choice for music here is “My City Was Gone,” by the Pretenders. Though perhaps it’s too obvious. And over the years the song has been co-opted and appropriated for evil purposes. Also it’s about Ohio. How about:
My first visit to Austin was in August, 1978. I was coming down from Minnesota on I-35, and after I crossed the Red River, I veered off and hit US 281 at Jacksboro and headed on south. When I got past Johnson City I struck east on US 90, and came into Austin in the late afternoon, and just past the Y in Oak Hill I fumbled around looking for a radio station and found KLBJ-FM—ha! I KLBJ! That was pretty funny, I thought, and I had much to learn about Austin and Lyndon Johnson—and then Genya Ravan and Lou Reed came surging out of the speakers, brassy and sexy and exciting. It's not the kind of song that that most people might think of when they're considering Austin, but for me it capured a moment. A new place! New possibilities!
What was I doing in Texas? Exploring. Seeing what was there. There was a lot to see—something new every day. A lot to explore. Four years later, The Clash came to Austin for a pair of concerts and filmed a video for “Rock the Casbah.”
The RF4Cs at 2:34 figure in a story we’ll come to later, “The Speed of Sound.” At 3:08 you can see—me—off to the side of the screen. I was trying to stay out of the camera range, and of course now I wish I’d been up front jumping around. At 2:04, you can see the characters running west on Sixth Street toward the Alamo Hotel, a place that figures in my novel, That Demon Life, and whose bar, the Alamo Lounge, was no doubt a favorite hangout of Wes Leonard. But that’s all in the past. “GUTS :( ” is a story that takes place in the present, and it's Wes’s doom is to live unhappily in that present while writing about traces of the golden past.
I like to think there’s a soundtrack to my work—songs that are playing somewhere in my head as I write and are inferred in the text—and what I’m going to try to do over the next few weeks is post some possible soundtracks to my writing, music for further listening. I’ll begin with my story collection, Long Time Ago Good, and then move along into That Demon Life.
“Brindled Pit Bull”
Long Time Ago Good is a collection of stories set mostly in Austin, a city I lived in for 25 or so years, stories written as a way to help me understand where I was and why I was there. “Brindled Pit Bull” is the opening story in the collection, and what’s it about? Loss and awakening, I suppose. Marla is a high-tech worker in Austin who gets laid off her job. She begins thinking that the Austin she lives in is perhaps not what she thought it was….
Later, going home in the free cabs, taking long trips to their homes in the far Southwest or far Northwest sides of town, everyone would be laughing and making calls on their cell phones, gossiping about work, telling each other how wonderful Austin was, with restaurants and Sixth Street and music and all the cool people at work, but how weird and crude and out of it the rest of Texas was—Texas they had seen only from car windows as they drove in from San Diego or wherever, or gazed down on from a mile up in the air as they flew in from Seattle or Boston—and the cab would speed by neighborhoods where the locals lived, the ones they saw on the TV news for winning chili cook-offs, or going on killing sprees, or getting in car wrecks, all those would-be cowboys sitting in the night in their camped little houses drinking beer and cleaning their guns and admiring their Confederate flags while their girlfriends snorted crank and their kids rolled around squalling in dirty diapers—a whole class of left-behind losers that no one would ever take seriously. The cab driver if he was cool would laugh along with them, knowing he was getting a good fare and a good tip, and it had all been such childlike, endless fun, one long party, it was never going to stop, the jobs would get better and better, and pay more and more and more—but, no, now it had ended. It had stopped.
The story is also about desire and recognition, about someone who finally breaks through to see the world truly—though, since Marla is a very flawed person, her honest vision of the world might very well be incorrect.
So, for listening: “Everything is Broken,” a Bob Dylan song performed by R. L. Burnside.
Also a bonus track: “She’s Got” by True Believers. The Troobs were my favorite Austin band of all time, and you might want to imagine their music running through both my Austin books—because it is—the sound of Austin as it exists in my imagination, the city I knew and know….
The sound is really bad on this video, but I think the power of the band still comes through. I’ll probably be posting more of their work as the soundtrack project rumbles along. In the meantime you’ll probably want to track down their album….
Hard Road, by True Believers