Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales From a Bad Neighborhood (2 page)

BOOK: Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales From a Bad Neighborhood
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Suicidal Tendencies

friend Lary keeps offering to shoot me again, and not like the last time either. This time, he says, he’ll actually put some effort into aiming the gun—at my head, even—and probably not miss. “At the worst you’ll end up a vegetable, but it’s not like you’ll have to be aware of it.”

I’ve stopped bothering to remind him I don’t want to die. Sometimes I still get mad at him for shooting at me the first time. The bullet hit a brick and could have ricocheted into my throat or something, and I might have died horribly, flopping like an octopus in a private ocean of my blood. “You were breaking into my house,” Lary likes to point out. It’s just his reflex, he says, to start shooting when someone shatters his window. I can’t believe that to this day he tries to blame me for his broken window just because I tossed a rock through it.

He’s to blame, of course. If he had a doorbell like a normal person I wouldn’t have to throw stuff at his house to alert him to my presence. He claims he wasn’t really aiming at me anyway, because
if he had been, I’d be dead right now, and he would’ve had to bury me in the giant concrete bay he’s building along his property line so he can plant a wall of bamboo stalks to keep all the ice-cream colored houses next door out of sight.

He acts as if it would have been a
, a big, huge burden to have to dispose of my body. Does he not remember his own instructions to me in the event of his death? How I’m supposed to push his corpse out of a helicopter at a high altitude with his cat strapped to his chest? On top of that I have to aim for a suburban cul-de-sac because he wants to end up impaled on a swing set. One last fright for the neighborhood kids, he says. Plus, since he doesn’t even care if his cat outlives him, I’m supposed to strap her, scratching and hissing, to his dead chest. Now how’s
for a burden?

Our friends Daniel and Grant, on the other hand, refuse to let me be the executor of their living wills. They know I will never pull the plug, even if there is nothing left but their head in a fishbowl. They’re probably afraid I’ll go senile and beat them with their own feeding tubes until I tire out. Instead, they are each other’s informal executors, with explicit instructions to euthanatize the other when the need for adult diapers comes into play, which I think is excessive. “You might
the diapers,” I try to reason. “Jesus, don’t just
,” I plead, but they just laugh as if they’re looking forward to it.

It’s the burden of it all, I suppose. People have different thresholds for dealing with death, and some have none at all. I think it has to do with your heart, and whether you follow its wishes. I used to work in the copy office of a city magazine alongside three bitter old acid vats who treated me like an unwanted weight because they had to teach me the intricacies of an outdated system that they themselves made sure to keep complicated in order to postpone their own obsolescence. When they weren’t resenting me, they resented one another, and it killed me that I didn’t fit in. The one closest to my age was twice my age, a woman named Eugenia with bulbous, thyroid eyes and a limitless collection of those spangle earrings you buy at bad craft shows.

She’d been working there longer than the lives of a lot of rock stars, and when she left to start her own novelty toilet-paper company (you could order rolls emblazoned with pictures of your ex-boyfriend’s face or the like), she was heralded as if she were an escaped hostage and sent off with a fond farewell that consisted of copious drinking during lunch hour.

But the toilet-paper venture didn’t work out for her. She was back within months, broke both financially and spiritually. In her absence the editors had learned they didn’t need to replace her, so when she asked to return they fired me to make room. At the time I felt defeated, but I’ve since realized that Eugenia was simply returning to her lair like a sick elephant, because there is more than one way to die, and this was hers. My last image of Eugenia is watching her approach her old desk like it was the electric chair.

I try instead to remember her during her farewell celebration when, in a moment of booze-induced camaraderie, she told me how happy she was to leave the office because she feared she’d be trapped there forever like a corpse in a crypt. Then she brandished a company picture taken more than a decade earlier, when her hair fell long and thick in a braid down her back. The image was a far cry from the liver-spot-mottled, boozy-breath wretch who pinched the photo with her thumb and ring finger to better accommodate the lit cigarette habitually occupying her dried-out hoof. I truly hated her, and she truly hated me, but at that moment she was about to embark on an exploration, choosing to bear the burden of her aspiration rather than let it dissipate without a trace, and I have to respect her for that, because at that moment she was free, free to let the world literally wipe its ass on her dream.

Fear of Dreams

have to respect Eugenia for that, because one of my biggest fears is going broke. I mean
broke, like living-in-an-abandoned-truck-on-a-mattress-made-of-old-bathrobes broke. I just don’t know how well I’d fare, having to burn little piles of pet hair and shredded floor mats to keep warm, having to lick the inside of discarded sandwich wrappers to stay alive, having to scrape myself with rusty Brillo pads to abate the itch factor from various parasites. The prospect just looms there in my life, promising such discomfort.

But here’s something funny about fears: They morph. Like last year when I happened across a documentary on that twenty-three-year-old porn star named Savannah, who shot her own head off because she cut her face in a car wreck and thought her career was over. A life like hers would be worse than being broke, not because she was a porn star, which is bad enough (I can’t think of a harder job than having sex,
all day
, with a succession of penises the size of
sewage pipes), but because a team of documentary filmmakers chronicled her entire cocaine-addicted flea-fleck of a life and didn’t come up with a single redeeming moment in it. Not one, just a succession of cockwagging heavy-metal musicians and dickless video directors who had used her like a toilet seat and later talked about how “vulnerable” she was. Even her own mother had only this to say: “I guess she made a good adult-film star.”

So now that’s my biggest fear: to be unredeemed because I spent most of my life whoring away my quality time. Like I’ve always worked a plethora of pointless part-time jobs for money because I’m used to thinking that if it were up to my writing income alone, I’d be living in a house that I built myself out of four sticks and a stained tablecloth. Because writing is not what I do for money. Writing is what I do because I’m cursed and can’t help it. There are other things I do for money.

Like the time I was a copy editor for that city magazine. My job was to pasteurize the creativity out of every article that came across my desk so they’d all sound the same by the time they went to print. I was fired because, among other things, the concentration level of my coworkers was lowered by my loud laughter. Then I worked as a managing editor at an art publication, which wouldn’t have been so bad if my boss hadn’t been such a volcanic bitch. She funded the magazine with her father’s money and her own savings culled from her former job selling piece-of-crap Peter Max lithographs out of, I think, the trunk of her car. She used to answer her own phone with three different accents so callers would think they were being threaded through a bevy of receptionists. After six months she fired me because she stopped by the office at ten o’clock one Sunday night and saw that I wasn’t there.

After that I applied for, and was offered, a job as a skycap at the San Diego airport. I regret turning it down. But it’s not the money I miss (skycaps make a ton), I regret my pride. I didn’t want to encounter past enemies or old flames at the airport on their way somewhere exciting, while I, in my belted uniform, lugged their
bags. I wish I weren’t so proud. It would make life a lot easier. I could just work my blue-collar job and not long for something better. I could look at the sky and just see the stars, not be begging the heavens for a break.

But as I said before, I am cursed. It runs in the family. My father used to come home drunk and blather to my mother about making it big. “I can do it,” he’d slur. He was gonna open a hot dog joint called the Frank ’n’ Stein, or he was gonna patent the world’s most wondrous key chain design, or he was gonna write a bestseller about being a used-car salesman. “I can,” he’d mumble before passing out in his cigarette-burned La-Z-Boy. “I know,” my mother would answer, and in the morning she’d head to work and he’d nurse his hangover.

I still wonder what that taught me, other than to feel oddly ashamed that I want to be better than I am, that I want to stop being suffocated by my safety nets and finally reach for what I’ve dreamed about. I want to stop fearing there’s some kind of cosmic Carol Merrill about to show me I traded everything for what’s behind curtain number 3, and when the curtain opens years from now, there I’ll be—a failed drunk in a La-Z-Boy lamenting about how I could’ve become a skycap. God, that’s scary, but if that’s what the future holds—me in a La-Z-Boy—then I hope I’m sitting there content with having tried. I just want to have tried. What’s worse, after all, a dream that never comes true or never admitting you dream at all?

Everybody’s Mother

I was a kid, I thought everybody’s mother made bombs. I thought everybody’s mother left in the morning before the rest of the house was awake, then came home at night with a government badge clipped to their lapel with “Top Security Clearance” printed above their picture. I thought everybody’s mother walked through the door when the day was done, collapsed on a Herculon-upholstered recliner, and smoked Salem menthols with her wig askew while her kids melted down an entire stick of butter to pour over the popcorn they made themselves for dinner. I was nine when I realized my mother was literally the only one like her.

But I didn’t brag about it or anything, even though her job would have carried some major weight on the playground. “My mother has probably killed
of people,” I could have boasted, though it probably wouldn’t have been true, because the only thing I remember my mother saying about the weapons she
made was how poorly they performed at the missile-testing site, but it’s not like anyone could have proven me wrong. Plus, even a bad weapon—especially a bad bomb—can wreak a lot of havoc.

My mother was always careful to clarify that she didn’t make nuclear bombs, rather she designed conventional defense bombs, trying to drill home the notion that if people were killed with one of her bombs, it was because they deserved it. She never said those very words, but I got the idea it was important to her that people not view her as a
missile scientist, but rather as a passive one, a just-a-Joe-with-a-job-to-do kind of missile scientist.

She was happiest when she was working on rockets, probably because rockets usually don’t kill people unless by accident. When we moved to Melbourne Beach, Florida, when I was nine, it was so she could work on the last
moon launch. My father was employed then, selling trailers, and our other family car was a massive motor home called the “Amigo.” On the night of the last launch, we drove it to the beach and parked there, waiting with the rest of the citizens in what appeared to be a townwide tailgate party.

The rocket was supposed to take off in the late afternoon, but didn’t until nearly midnight. My mother was not at all surprised. At that time, my older brother, a budding tennis prodigy, had been left behind in California to live with another family in an attempt on my parents’ part to provide him a sense of continuity as he finished high school and, hopefully, earned a full college scholarship. My two sisters and I had yet to show any such promise, and that night we were sleeping in the motor home when my father finally rousted us to view the launch. Until then my parents had been sitting in lawn chairs on the shore the whole time, drinking cans of Budweiser with our neighbors. “This is a historic occasion, aren’t you excited?” a lady asked me, her hooch breath just about cremating my corneas. I recognized her as someone else’s mother, a neighbor who once knocked on our door to complain about my habit of decorating the pointy cactus-like plant in her front yard with wads of used chewing gum. But tonight all was forgiven in this booze-induced benevolence.

Drunk parents were no novelty to me, and so it wasn’t enough to keep me awake. My father did though. “Goddammit!” he hollered. “This is an important goddamn moment and I’ll be goddamned if you worthless goddamn ungrateful brats sleep through it!” Then he flicked each of us in the head with his middle finger, which was heavy as lead, so the effect was like getting hit in the skull with a roll of quarters.

I stared sullenly at the dark horizon. The crowd quieted, and soon a flame flickered far off in the darkness, and from that another flame broke free and rose into the sky like a falling star in reverse, then it disappeared behind clouds. The spectacle lasted perhaps thirty seconds and then it was over, signifying the end of my mother’s foray into designing instruments of discovery rather than destruction. Soon she would have to return to making bombs. That night, however, the crowd around me was still gasping with wonder when I asked to go back to sleep.

My father, angered by his children’s lack of awe, ordered everyone back into the cavernous motor home, threw the lawn chairs in after us, and popped another Budweiser before getting behind the wheel. On the way home, I dozed in the back as the Amigo lurched unsteadily along at high speed. I remember thinking we would be fine if we crashed, because this was a very big motor home, much bigger than the other vehicles on the road. Nothing we hit could hurt us, not even a house. Yes, we were fine. It was everyone else who was in danger.

I suppose it was an expected mind-set for a child whose mother made bombs, but I’m almost ashamed to admit how long I used that kind of reasoning in my life.

As we lurched along, my mother did not seem to mind being lost—not that time anyway. I remember seeing my parents, two lone figures each in a big bucket seat, separated by a massive Naugahyde console. My father must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. “Where
I?” he muttered to himself as my mother sat oblivious beside him.

Years later, it would be the other way around: One morning, as he lay oblivious in bed, she stood in the bathroom and looked in the mirror, searching for a trace of the woman she had once been. When she was younger, she had wanted to be a beautician but had become a weapons designer instead. She was woefully bad at cosmetology—when she used to practice on my sisters and me, we would always end up looking like open-casket cadavers in a group funeral—whereas she excelled at math, which was hard for her to admit. When it fell to her to earn a living once my father’s aversion to employment became obvious, she reluctantly relied on her un–hoped for talent and went to work for IBM, falling into the job like other mothers fall into cashiering at coffee shops. From there she learned to build computers and then to build bombs for the government.

My mother had been designing missiles for a few decades until that morning when she awoke and could no longer recognize herself. She had started out so long ago with the simple dream of making people beautiful, and here she was, making bombs instead. We were living back in California then, though we moved so often it’s hard to keep track of which house it was. I do remember the lone figure of my father, asleep in their king-sized bed, blind to the lone figure of my forty-six-year-old mother crying in the bathroom over their double vanity. “Where did I go?” she sobbed, her hand flat against the glass. “Where
I?” Watching her, I wanted to tell her I could see her just fine, but even then I knew that was not the answer she needed.

BOOK: Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales From a Bad Neighborhood
7.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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