Austin is built on a series of criss-crossing fault lines, the intersections of which cause parts of the city to sag into what might be called “seeps” or “sucks” — places where the earth breathes in and out, sometimes seeping and sometimes sucking, heaving whole populations of students, legislators, construction workers, and cosmic travelers in and out of itself at regular seasonal intervals. The largest expulsion comes regularly at the beginning of the summer, when 45,000 students leave all at once, stuffing aluminum-tube armchairs and whole bedroom sets, souffle pans and art easels, textbooks and binders into the Longhorn disposal bins in the alleys, to be scavenged by dumpster divers who take the stuff home to be incorporated into low-income householdings or to peddle it to second-hand stores which can sell some of it back after the great pause of mid-summer, when the out-go stops and the in-flow begins and people start getting sucked back into town again. First the heave, then the suck, then the stew and steam swirling off so many bodies, as if the Great Goddess of Liberty perched on top of the state capital dome is a giant cook stirring up the juicy essences contained in the soupy Austin air along with the bats around her head, using her torch as a spoon.
And it is in late September after the incoming students and professors and travelers have begun to make my bookstore hours busy again that a wisp of a woman blows into the front door, stirred and emotional, while I am sorting books at the counter. My mood at the time is less than cordial, since I have been in Austin only a little over a year and haven’t gotten used to the somewhat swirling rhythms of the city, having sucked, so to speak instead of heaving at the first of the summer when all the city’s readers began dumping their books at the store, and me somehow at the bottom of the pile before I realized it was time to get out, and by the time I had extricated myself and tried to run out to the country, the foreign lands, Galveston or Disneyland, it was too late, my brain had already begun to boil in the sloughy heat, so that by the end of the summer I had spent many of my hours in the bookstore basement feeling like the burnt-out scum on the bottom of the Austin Pan of Life.
So this woman is smiling at me very widely and is wringing her hands and her eyes are wide behind her plastic frames, and she says, “Well, my name is Carolyn, and my angels have brought me here to see you today. Wow!” She shivers. “Can I give you a hug?”
Just a week before this, an ex-Marine lesbian stepped in back of the counter without warning and began to massage my neck while locking both of my arms with hers like a vise and exhorting my stiffness to snap under her pinching and pummeling. So this Carolyn now sees my hesitation at her suggestion of physical contact. “Oh!” she says, “I mean . . . well, I just feel that . . . well . . . do you know a woman in New Mexico named Andronica?”
“Oh yes, except that I knew her as Vicky Vandorf when she was still in Tyler.”
“Yes, well, I met her as I was traveling through the Southwest, and she told me to be sure and get in touch with you when I came to Austin.” She turns and looks around the room at the shelves of books, then turns to me again with an excited shrug. And she begins to tell me how she wants to go into a trance for me; in fact, she says, just looking at me, just standing in the middle of this bookstore not even looking at me but experiencing the total amount of vibes ricocheting off all the used books, almost makes her want to swoon into her trance state on the spot.
So. A trance medium. Now I do believe that Austin, maybe because of its unique breathing geography or because of its Goddess constantly stirring the stew, is one of the witch capitals of this continent, full of lesbians, practicing witches, goddess worshippers, feminists and entrepreneurs, burnt-out Berkeley street women showing up on Congress Avenue broke, drunk, and waving wild blonde hair a yard long, and wild girls coming in from the Baptist East-West Texas ranching families, declared defective socially because of too much love for sex and lust for drink and drugs. And some of them live in the city most of the year, but some of them, as I suspect of this little blonde woman, are restless spirits flying from the east to the west coast of America and only accidentally getting caught up in the Austin Suck for a week or a month or more, long enough to peddle some marijuana or to get laid by some macho/macha Austin poet or cowboy or garage mechanic, whoever might come along with a beard or certain string of pearls, and they wreak havoc with wives and previous lovers, and take jobs and leave them after the first paycheck, and hold workshops in Tarot divination and massage and altar-making. And at some point in their struggle to lift up again out of the city’s currents, many of them come into the bookstore, since it is downtown, looking for a way to use its space to their advantage, or to peddle their various services.
“So how much do you charge for one of these trance sessions?” I ask her.
And she staggers back and touches her fingers to her throat and opens up her eyes even wider and says, “Oh no, oh no, I don’t mean you PAY me, it’s for love for free for the Lord for the sake of Jesus, because I love to go into a trance, because of a healing. . . .” And she tells me all about the angels, etcetera, etcetera.
So OK. There is a little room nobody uses too much in the store, just a refrigerator in it to keep John-the-Boss’s Diet-Pepsis cold. It seems to me to be a place where angels might like to congregate, so I tell her she can go into a trance for me in that room when I get off work.
She rolls her eyes and wrings her hands together, alternately thanking me and Jesus. She goes off then, but that evening just when I am turning the key to the cashbox over to John, who is working the next shift, she comes in the door again. And the two of us go into the little room and shut the door so that the angels can talk as loud as they might want to without disturbing the customers browsing in literary classics on the other side of the wall.
Carolyn sits in one of the chairs, crosses her legs underneath her, and closes her eyes. Little shivers start running up and down her arms and spine, little jerks and starts, and she begins sighing and going “ooooh, ooooh, ooh . . .” holding her hands palms up, still smiling big and happy, while I am sitting opposite her in another chair trying to get comfortable. Then she starts talking.
I don’t know if it is an angel talking. She says her name is Ruth. She has the blonde woman’s voice but she doesn’t use adverbs or adjectives very well. I figure it might be Ruth in the Bible and try to remember if Ruth was the daughter-in-law of Naomi or vice-versa, although I do remember they both were women who had to support themselves gleaning in the fields of rich men, wasn’t that the story? Then Ruth stops talking and the room is quiet. The blonde woman opens her eyes and looks at me. I am crying.
I think Ruth has just told me to quit my job. She has said that I should be writing my own stories instead of selling schlock for four dollars an hour. Why’s a brilliant woman such as yourself wasting away in a Slumpful of paperbacks? She didn’t exactly put it in so many words, but I got the message.
Carolyn hugs me on her way out the door and tells me that Jesus loves me, as do Ruth and the other angels. That evening I write my letter of resignation to John-the-Boss.
“Are you sure the angels told you to quit your job?” Chuck asks me, always the skeptic.
“Yes,” I tell him, “I AM SURE.”
Chuck is afraid that I will stay at home, like women are sometimes prone to do, and live off him, that I will ask him to pay my share of the rent, that I will steal dollar bills out of his pants in order to buy cereal and milk for my kids in the morning, that he will always have to pay for tickets to the movies when we go out, that I will get to stay in bed all day and write stories while he goes out and busts his ass working because the angels have given me permission to glean in the rich men’s fields. He reminds me, in so many words, that he is not a rich man. He is lying in the middle of the foam pad on the floor we call a bed. He is looking out over his glasses, alternately reading Adam Smith on how to make money and writing a poem on the back inside cover. I crouch down by him and put my hands on his beard and my nose on his nose.
“Honey,” I tell him, “I know you are worried that I am going to ask you to start supporting me. But you shouldn’t worry.” I pat his beard. I look straight into his eyes.
(I might borrow a little money. Later on, in a few weeks, after the rejection slips start flurrying in, after I have sent the stories out and they’ve come back, and I’m sitting at home living on quarters I find while rearranging the clothes washer and dryer in the laundry room.)
He says he’s not worried. He knows I’m not like other women. Like his ex-wife. Or like all of his friends’ girlfriends. Or like the young girls in his freshman composition classes looking for some Walking Money to take them out on the town for the rest of their lives.
I kiss his nose. He kisses my mouth.
Fall is falling above our heads outside the bedroom window.
I walk out the door into flashing flowers. The sun isn’t too hot anymore, the heat of it now fallen into the grass and flowers on the freeway access roads where I begin to walk skip hum sing poeticize across Austin to the squirrels and to myself without the weight of employment. Trees like embers, leaves flurrying sparks and wind coming in through the downtown buildings, and I’m strolling up and down Sixth Street picking weeds out of the parkways and chewing the stems of grass for natural sugar, higher than fine Turkish hashish and lighter than mushroom spores from it being fall in Austin and me not having employment of any kind except my own work — which is being a poet, i.e. singing, dancing, reciting, making up and telling stories, and generally enjoying life.
Now I wouldn’t have really believed that being a poet was really my work if the angel Ruth hadn’t told me herself, but after the little blonde Carolyn went into that trance and Ruth was so firm with me about what great poetic genius I was and how it was just a lowdown shame that I had to work for a living like everybody else, then I began to believe that being a poet was my calling.
So Brook-my-daughter comes home from school, and I’ve just finished hiking about eight miles across town, picking up acorns the squirrels left behind to take them home to see if I can cook them up — leach out the tannic acid like the Tonkawa women used to do and grind them up into acorn meal. I think I will try to make some acorn cookies or some acorn fudge — it seems like good work for a fall afternoon. But when I put my arm around Brook-my-daughter’s shoulder, a lie comes out of my mouth. “You can tell your friends,” I say, “when they ask you what your mother does for a living, that she is a Free-Lance Writer.” I don’t tell her poet. I don’t tell her poet because poets don’t make money. And people who don’t make money don’t get their rent paid. “I am cooking up these acorns like this,” I continue to lie bald-facedly to this daughter, “because I am writing a book about food for psychic development, and this is my research.” I show her the handful of acorns that have not yet begun to boil in a pan on the stove. The water is rapidly turning brown and there is a peculiar scorched odor that has begun to fill the kitchen.
I tell her this lie because I am telling myself this lie. I know that I’ve got to make this fall, these walks, these live oaks with their lightning branches and their little lightning babies bubbling in the pot on the back burner into work of some kind, even though I know when I’m lying to her and to Chuck and to myself and to some man in New York I promise a manuscript on food for psychic development that THE ACORNS IN THE POT ARE ONLY POETRY SHEER POETRY POETRY FOR POETRY WALKING THROUGH AUSTIN AND PICKING UP ACORNS WILL NOT MAKE A DIME. . . .
And the wind of poetry dies down for a minute, and I see myself just for that minute outside of myself — a woman thrown like a leaf against the newsstand, struck with the sudden weightlessness of UNEMPLOYMENT. . . .
But pretty soon I don’t have any money. And at first I don’t worry about it too much. I mean after all Ruth the angel said that I didn’t have to make money like ordinary people have to, so I figured that somehow this money would just be kind of magically generated. Money would fall from space. My needs would be taken care of. Consider the lilies of the field and so forth and so forth. So I tell Chuck that I’m writing all these free-lance articles for all these magazines and that way I’m going to make some money. But I figure, since Ruth was so supportive, that the time has come here when I am a well enough established writer that I can write free-lance articles in the style that seems most comfortable to me. So when my friends ask me what I’m working on, I say, “Well, I’m writing what I want to write about and I’m writing in the style that is ME.”
Now an interview or an essay or an article written in the form of a poem, coming out in long loops and chains of images seems like a good idea to me — I would certainly read such a poem myself, and there is too much fall in the air anyway, and my head is like dandelion froth, and the words are coming in storms, like the creeks that I walk, and the ideas are tumbling around like the stones on the creek bottoms, so when I come home I scribble it down, I ramble on for pages in a red velvet book Chuck gave me to write in. And I write and drink tea and eat toast with honey and when it rains I spend some time walking in it.
No money comes.
Jack-my-roommate pays me some money for babysitting his baby.
Chuck pays me some money for typing a story for him.
I sell a file cabinet.
Still the wildflowers keep spraying orange flames and the poetry continues to come. One day I find myself reeling down the downtown sidewalks through the bustling secretaries and the executives-on-lunch-breaks, and I have eaten a little bit of mushroom, and the mushroom in my blood is recalling the flight of mushroom spores in the wind to me flown for hundreds of miles and full of voices and animal noises and the talk of birds, and my arms and legs are loose and the poetry comes out of my mouth talking to the buildings the architects who built them the spirits that lurk in them the faces in their windows the corpses buried in their concrete the living dead pacing their hallways the grin of the skull on the dollar the stinking ink, and the poetry rushes and ricochets and I don’t care if the people on the sidewalk stare peculiarly, I’m just one of the street folks of Austin myself, one of the growing number of unemployed, and I realize suddenly that I HAVE GOT TO GET A JOB! I HAVE GOT TO GET A JOB!
The roar of the poetry is coming through my blood like a living tornado and I am fumbling for a quarter in my bag, I am standing in the middle of the sidewalk and the poetry is howling but I dig around in the lint and peanut shells and pennies lining the bag’s bottom until my fingers grab the right shape and I bring it out like a key like a treasure coin like the way to my future, and I hurl myself against the first newsstand I see and put the quarter in the slot and dig out a paper and open it up on top of the stand to the classified ads.
And the wind of poetry dies down for a minute, and I see myself just for that minute outside of myself — a woman thrown like a leaf against the newsstand, struck with the sudden weightlessness of UNEMPLOYMENT — that which was light becoming heavy again, that which seemed heavy now lighter from a distance, and so on and so on. And in that little calm moment a realization comes to me: that I can at least wait until I get home to read the want ads, that a woman as desperate as I look — clutching the newspaper and squinting at the fine print while the wind is beginning to whip the pages up and down again and whip my skirts around my legs and my hair up into the air and reading ads aloud and muttering names and addresses and salary figures — does not belong out on the streets. She is a vagrant. She is definitely not working for a living.
But when I get home, it is the night of the winter solstice and there is a job to do. Instead of reading the newspaper, I light the candles on the table. I roll up marijuana. I set out oranges. At midnight I begin to make some braids of whole-wheat bread. There are some children in the house and they help me make it. We pound the dough and pull it from one of us to the other. We pat it and stroke it, knead it and pummel it. We cover it up and it rises higher than any bread that I have ever been connected with! “Listen, kids,” I say, “We are going to stay up and eat this bread, and then we are going to watch the sun come up on the first day of winter.”
And we do eat the bread when it’s finished, about three o’clock in the morning, and it is wonderful bread, it is the lightest most high-rising bread I have ever laid a tongue on and everyone agrees that it is true, the best bread for everyone. But after the bread we fall one after the other into our beds, so that no one is awake when the black sun of the first winter morning comes up, and by the time I wake up the earth has already turned itself inside out like a sock, and I walk into the winter day looking down into the darkling sky instead of up without even knowing it, without realizing yet the sudden change, except that the air has become an underground pool and the sun a pale yellow fish gliding on its surface with its mouth open or an angel with blonde hair and filmy fins. . . .