By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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On Monday mornings I modeled for the painters at an old cannery converted into art studios in Eureka, California. Laughable as it was for a thirty-two-year-old man to strike nude poses on a wooden platform, I preferred it to what I usually did for a living: short-order cooking or unloading trucks. I stood up there on this particular Monday in 1987 trying not to move for two hours, suffering muscle cramps and loss of circulation, and, as always, faintly worried about getting an erection but somehow even more uneasy about the possibility of strangers seeing me through the windows — as if a roomful of strangers weren’t ogling me already. Meanwhile down the hall my painter friend Jim Dalgee raved so violently that one of the artists suggested calling the police.
After I dressed and picked up my sixty dollars, I went down the hall and knocked on Jim’s door. The ranting stopped for a moment, and there was a clatter, followed by the door jerking open and Jim sticking his head out. He did not let many people into his studio, but he liked me because we had both wasted our youth, had gotten off to terribly late starts, held similarly outdated and sentimental views on art, and showed no signs of ever becoming successful. A short man in his late forties with a brushed-up shock of black hair like the crest of a blue jay, Jim wore his standard paint-spattered work shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. The room behind him was full of dense blue cigarette smoke that curled in the sunlight from the southern windows. He smelled strongly of turpentine and beer.
“Jim,” I said, “we could hear you shouting all the way down the hall.”
“Was I shouting?”
“Yes. At the top of your lungs.”
“Come in, man. I’ve got coffee.”
Jim’s eight-by-ten, brick-walled studio was furnished with a small fridge and a card table with a coffeepot and a boombox on it. Nine years earlier he had fled his previous life as an LA salesman and migrated six hundred miles north to Eureka to start over as a painter at the age of thirty-eight. Stacked against and hanging from every wall were hundreds of his acrylic paintings, all of which he refused to sell or show. Jim’s style was postimpressionism: Matisse, Pissarro, Cézanne. He admired foremost those who had started late, such as the stockbroker-salesman Paul Gauguin and the wretched lunatic Vincent van Gogh. Though I was not qualified to judge Jim’s work, I would’ve liked to own his Black Cattle against Orange Moon at Dusk or Portrait of Camille Benoit Desmoulin’s Head in a Basket.
Though I had quit drinking and doing drugs the year before, I allowed myself the occasional consolation of a few cigarettes with Jim in his studio. I also planned one day to write a story about a fictional Jim jumping from the window to his posthumous fame. I poured myself a cup of coffee while he raged at the people on the street below, calling them “philistines” and “slobs.” It was unusual to find him in such a state so early.
“Is everything all right?” I asked.
“The sleepwalkers!” he bellowed like an animal in pain.
“They’re going to call the police,” I said.
“They’ll only be doing me a favor!” he shouted, sweeping his arm across the room, as if to indicate all the canvases he’d stretched that morning, the color-blobbed cardboard boxes he used for palettes, and the rows upon rows of acrylic paints in plastic squeeze bottles along the floor.
There was no point in talking to him when he was this far gone. The shouting would soon run its course and be replaced by a desperate apprehension that he didn’t have long to live. I drank some coffee, shook a cigarette from Jim’s pack, and fell into one of two yellow velveteen swivel chairs, a smoldering pedestal ashtray between them, like a giant clam with indigestion.
“I’m going to buy an albacore today,” I said, applying a flame to the tip of my cigarette.
“The sycophants!” he snarled and then whirled from the window. “A what?”
“An albacore tuna, down on the docks. They’re only a buck a pound. Do you want one?”
“No, nah.” He waved in disdain and began to hunt for the cigarette he had just lit, his brow furrowed. “We need to get some more cigarettes.”
Around one that afternoon Tarn McVie rapped lightly on Jim’s door and stepped into the room. In his midtwenties, Tarn already had paintings in galleries across the country and routinely sold single works for sums that could’ve sustained me for an entire year. His gigantic oil canvases awed me, and one sticks in my mind to this day: an orange nude coming at you through the water, flash of white at the knee. In spite of his conventional training, European-museum background, postmodern leanings, and early success without apparent struggle, McVie was the sort of natural, congenial artist that Jim and I both longed to be. He was also one of the few painters who refused to sign the petition presently going around to remove Jim from the building.
“Hello, men,” he said. “Hear the news?”
“What news?” Jim said, teeth clamped down on his cigarette, another burning in the colossal ashtray between us.
“What market?” I asked.
“Stock market. Dow Jones fell over five hundred points,” he said. “Highest point drop in history. There’s nothing on TV except talk about it. You can’t even watch General Hospital. Everyone says we’re headed for the next Great Depression.” His eyes sparkled as if we were all about to go on a field trip to paint tulips and the bus were waiting downstairs. “They’re already calling it ‘Black Monday.’ ”
I had never paid much attention to the Ferris-wheel vicissitudes of the New York Stock Exchange, but when $500 billion in stock value simply evaporates, when nearly 25 percent of the market ceases to exist, when the president of the United States preempts soap operas and game shows to urge everyone not to panic and numerous respected experts explain that the country has seen no comparable financial event since 1929, even the poor take heed. I had also been observing the wastrel, arrogant, and bellicose habits of my country for years, and my sensitive, aesthetic side tended toward portent and hyperbole. So I trusted the news media’s Henny Penny proclamations that our Day of Reckoning had finally come.
Heading down the alley away from the artists’ studios an hour later, I thought I would remember forever this day of ruin, October 19, 1987, the same way I remembered the assassination of John F. Kennedy. A man in a white shirt and blue tie staggered toward me with a dazed expression, and from the sky above I expected to see falling stockbrokers. I pictured myself on a freight train full of hobos. From every corner came the dire chatter of radios and TVs. Like all the gloomy broadcasters, I was convinced that the next Great Depression was upon us.
The fishing boats were in from their morning runs, and it now seemed imperative that I buy that albacore. Food would soon be in short supply, and there would be mobs in the streets, breaking windows and overturning cars.
The rheumy-eyed fisherman shrugged when I told him the news. “They can’t break you if you’re already broke,” he said.
My fish, cleaned and bled, weighed fourteen pounds, and because albacore spoils rapidly, it was frozen as hard as a chunk of iron. Incongruous as it might seem to walk away from a fishing boat with a frozen fish, you couldn’t beat the price, and albacore were much easier to cut into steaks this way. I carried it by the tail with a newspaper so it didn’t freeze my hand.
I lived downtown in an apartment complex that, for its Second Empire facade, transient tenantry, and despotic manager, I had dubbed the “Totalitarian Hotel.” The manager, Mrs. Vollstanger, was a gouty old Prussian and always wore pearls and thick, embroidered white sweaters. She met me at the top of the grand staircase, arms folded, chin trembling, and glowered down at my fish.
“It’s an albacore,” I explained.
“Yes,” she said. “I saw you coming.” Mrs. Vollstanger had a telescope in the window of her third-floor apartment and kept track of all the goings-on below. “I have an eviction notice for you to serve.”
I considered asking if she was aware of the stock-market plunge but thought better of it, since bad news seemed only to cheer her. “Who’s it for?”
“Hot Pants,” she said, meaning my common-wall neighbor, a young woman named Annabelle Taft.
It didn’t take Mrs. Vollstanger long to find derogatory nicknames for all her tenants. There was Moon Child and Clydesdale Maria and Porky Pete. I suppose behind my back I was Machine-Gun Typist.
“Annabelle?” I said. “Why?”
“I’m not running a brothel here,” she retorted, one of her fondest declarations, along with “I’m not running a crack house / animal shelter / home for unwed mothers here.”
“Just let me get this fish in the freezer, and I’ll be right up,” I said, resisting the urge to salute. “Would you like a couple of tuna steaks?”
“No, thank you,” she said.
My apartment was a single room with a set of high, arched, greenish windows, an electric stove, a fridge, a sink, and a very long entryway. Sometimes, when someone knocked, it took me so long to get to the door that my caller would be gone by the time I arrived. My place was full of moths whose origin I could not determine. They were the small, rolled-up type, like pencil shavings. I had liked them at first for their silence and the intricate designs on their delicate wings, but now, with their growing numbers and regular obtrusion into my books, blankets, and bathtub, I considered them a nuisance.
My room was sparsely furnished with items left by the previous tenants, who had vacated abruptly. There was a vinyl-covered recliner and a dining-room table, upon which sat my typewriter, and two chairs that went with the table. There was a television on a stand that I did not often use since it received only two channels, though occasionally I watched I Love Lucy — a program I had disliked as a child for all its yelling — and a PBS show hosted by theological psychologist John Bradshaw, who asserted that all my addiction problems could be traced back to my “wounded inner child.” (Maybe I was hurt by early exposure to episodes of I Love Lucy.)
There were four boxes of Paris Reviews that Jim had lent me, which I studied at night, especially the interviews with famous authors. Throughout the building the floors were covered with cheap carpet that, with all its gold, green, and red filigree, might’ve been called “gala,” but it was so thin that it wrinkled, and there was no padding underneath, so that if you didn’t have a mattress — I didn’t — you had to build up a nest of blankets on the floor. The heat was regulated by Mrs. Vollstanger, so it was always cold, and it was best not to sleep by the windows, which had bubbles trapped in their glass and made me feel as if I were a specimen in some intergalactic aquarium.
I set my fish across the sink and promptly began to divide it into two-inch crosscut planks with a handsaw I used only for this purpose. While I worked, I thought about the coming of the next Great Depression and wondered how America would fall apart: Slowly or quickly? From the coasts inward or the middle out? With great fanfare or in a puff of smoke? And in which direction would everyone run this time? I also wondered if it had been wise to quit my job and sell my car.
Sawing up a frozen albacore is not much different from sawing up a green tree trunk. I got about twelve steaks, which I wrapped and stacked in the freezer beside all the wild game that Mrs. Vollstanger had cleaned out of her recently deceased husband’s stand-up freezer and donated to me. A big-game hunter, he had labeled all his Cryovacked packages in permanent black marker: ELK, ELEPHANT, BLACK BEAR, ZEBRA, GAZELLE. So far I had been reluctant to try any of it for fear that Mrs. Vollstanger had actually killed, dressed, and Cryovacked her husband.
I also had a twenty-five-pound bag of pink beans, a twenty-five-pound bag of black-eyed peas, a twenty-five-pound bag of brown rice, ten pounds of white flour, four pounds of oats, and two pounds of buckwheat — a proper head start, I thought, on the anarchy and economic despair to come.
The door to Mrs. Vollstanger’s apartment was open, and before I could knock, she invited me in. Mrs. Vollstanger had a big, well-lit, orderly apartment on the southwest corner, with a panoramic view of the bay and the Samoa pulp mill. You could predict with fair accuracy what the weather would be like by which way the smoke blew from the mill. Usually it was blowing in from the ocean, which meant fog and rain, but today the smoke flowed north, indicating fair weather.
“You’ve heard that the market slipped?” she said, handing me the envelope with the eviction notice for Annabelle Taft inside.
“Everything will be fine. We have a good man in office,” she said, referring to then-President Ronald Reagan.
Mrs. Vollstanger rarely left the premises. Her groceries were delivered. She did not own a car. The tenants who curried her favor did her bidding, policed the unit, swept the lobby floors, ran errands, and maintained the laundry room. She spoke often in praise of the building’s owner and of her responsibilities to his property, which, judging by its low rents and the number of liberties she was allowed with tenants, I could only imagine was some sort of tax shelter. Mrs. Vollstanger had raised four children, but I never saw any of them, and, given the way she shook with rage without warning and preyed like a trapdoor spider on the weaknesses of those in her confidence, I didn’t wonder why.
From my own experience with tyrants, I had identified her tendencies early on and managed to stay in her good graces by paying my rent on time, keeping my distance, and doing her dirty work when called. Mrs. Vollstanger would’ve enjoyed serving the notices herself, I believe, but she had been attacked on one occasion and threatened on another, so the mission had been passed on to someone more expendable.
I doubted the legal soundness of most of these notices, which usually contained only thin basis for the eviction, such as suspected pets or, in the case of Annabelle, noise after 10 pm. But the job of a henchman is execution, not judgment, and I needed the money. Even when justified, I always felt bad about ousting people from their homes. I felt especially rotten in this case, since the market had just crashed and I was, for flimsy reasons, turning a young woman out on the street. I don’t think Annabelle was any more than nineteen. She worked at my favorite bakery (the chewy chocolate-macadamia-nut cookies had no rival), and I knew from my few conversations with her in the hall that this was the first time she had ever lived on her own.
I knocked and thought I heard a noise inside, but there was no response. I figured she had spied me through the peephole and decided not to answer. Then I looked left and saw Annabelle coming down the hall with two stacked baskets of laundry. She wore shorts, and her lean swimmer’s body was pale. Annabelle was from Montana, and by the drawings of surf and sun on the many letters that I saw posted downstairs for her friends and family back home, I’d deduced that she was proud of having landed on the mythological golden shore of California, even if it was cloudy, rainy, or foggy here in Eureka three hundred days out of the year.
I helped her with her baskets, then presented her with the envelope.
She squinted at it. “What is this?”
“It’s, ah, an eviction notice.”
“Why am I being evicted?”
“It’s written there at the bottom. Noise after ten. It’s in the lease. . . . You never bothered me,” I hastened to add. In fact, with no social life to speak of, I’d enjoyed the sounds of festivity that had come through her wall: giggling, clinking glasses, lovemaking. I knew it was the men who stayed overnight that had rankled Mrs. Vollstanger. My only complaint about Annabelle would’ve been that I was not one of the men.
She studied the paper without reading it, then shook it at me, her dark eyes so perplexed and hurt I felt like a villain in a Victorian novel. “Where am I supposed to go?”
“You have five days. There are a lot of vacancies downtown.”
“You’re a terrible person,” she said, blowing a strand of hair out of her face.
“It’s nothing personal. I’ll help you move. I’m sorry about all of this.”
“Get lost, and tell your —” Her voice broke, and she wiped at her eyes. “I thought you were nice.”
Well, I was at one time, I thought, but by then she had slammed the door.
I hiked back up to Mrs. Vollstanger’s and collected my fifteen-dollar fee. After Annabelle was gone, I would paint her apartment in exchange for a free month’s rent.
Normally in the evenings I worked on my great Rabelaisian satirical novel about greed and voluptuous social dependence in an allegorical lunatic asylum inhabited by evil clowns (which seemed even more appropriate now that we were all going down the tubes), but I was distracted by Annabelle’s distress, the dirtiness of the fifteen dollars in my pocket, and the fact that soon millions would be out of work and rioting in the streets.
I picked up a Paris Review and thumbed through it. All good art, according to my 1951 Greenwich Village Artist’s Code, came out of tumult, revolution, and hardship. The moths fluttered about as if I were some magnificent symbol of decay. Hungry, I rummaged in my freezer, brought out a chunk of black bear, stared at it for a minute, then unwrapped it and set it in a pan on low heat with onions. The sun set behind the buildings. The bear was tough and greasy, but I finished it, imagining that through some pantheistic hoodoo I might incorporate the bear’s spirit, at the same time pushing out of my mind the possibility that it was Mr. Vollstanger’s liver.
In the morning I rose cautiously from my nest of blankets and peeked out the window to note that the world had not visibly changed. The smoke from the mill was still scurrying north. I made coffee and oatmeal with apples and then walked four blocks to the headquarters of The North Coast View, where six months earlier I had answered an incredible ad that had read, “Writers Wanted,” and despite never having published a thing in my life, I’d been hired to write book reviews at twenty-five dollars apiece.
Two Irish-surnamed journalists in their late twenties owned and ran The North Coast View, a free, local, ad-heavy arts-and-culture monthly on newsprint that I had once heard referred to as an “innocuous street rag.” I strolled into their office. Though I think it had helped me win the job, they regarded my 1951 Greenwich Village Artist’s Code as quaint. Among writers the career path of quitting your job, selling your car, hustling like an old hooker with a toothache, and then eventually dying of syphilis or tuberculosis or shooting yourself in the stomach in a wheat field after you’d created a number of unrecognized masterpieces had been replaced by taking out a student loan and enrolling in the nearby university.
The joke was on them, however, for the Dark Ages were at hand, and only those who could ride the rails, roll their own cigarettes, and live on hand-sawn fish and black bear would survive.
“Are we still in business?” I asked point-blank as I came round the corner in my Goodwill Pendleton shirt, patched jeans, and wool watch cap.
“Until further notice” was the editor’s complacent reply.
“You’re not worried about the market crash?”
“We’re not listed on the Dow Jones Industrial, last time I checked.”
It was disconcerting to see everyone — Jim, Tarn McVie, Mrs. Vollstanger, the albacore fisherman, my two editors — take so mildly the greatest single-day point decline in Wall Street history.
“I’ll get a book,” I said.
“Take all you want.”
In the back were hundreds of books publishers had sent hoping for reviews, the mass of them the sort of dreck that encouraged me about my own prospects of one day getting my novel published.
I selected a book about a group of oppressed women workers who cracked walnuts with their fists after their hammers had been taken away from them (at which point I personally would have quit cracking walnuts and headed home). As I strolled back to my apartment, the headlines in the newsstands trumpeted ominous declarations — “Bedlam on Wall Street” — though it was reassuring to see that they were still organized enough to turn a profit on calamity. I also noticed that the bakery I liked so much — the one where Annabelle Taft worked and which I would therefore have to avoid from now on — was busier than usual. Since Eureka was so far from the financial centers, I thought, the crash simply had not caught up to us yet, or it had somehow stimulated appetites for krapfen pastries and chewy chocolate-macadamia-nut cookies.
When I got home, I read the book about women cracking walnuts without hammers, took notes, drank so much cinnamon tea I fogged the windows, got the hiccups, had a sneezing fit so violent I felt like Hitler at the rostrum, passed back and forth through the clouds of moths, longed for a chewy chocolate-macadamia-nut cookie, and found that zebra, no matter how it is prepared, is best left on the zebra. My room grew dark, and, lit only by the streetlight, I lay in my nest of blankets and listened to the soft moaning of Annabelle Taft next door.
Annabelle moved out three days later with the help of a dozen friends in army jackets, ripped jeans, and fingerless gloves, who scowled and sniffed at me in the hall whenever possible. She did not collect her security deposit or clean her apartment. She left behind a nasty note, a broken umbrella, a tube of green lipstick, a one-piece bathing suit emblazoned “Bozeman Barracudas” (still wet in the bathtub), and a trash can full of North Coast Views.
Annabelle’s apartment looked out over the rooftop, and I remembered how cute she’d been lying out there on her towel, trying to get a tan on rare and usually cool days of sun. I confess that “cute” does not accurately describe the many ways I had thought about her, none of which, because of my overdiscipline and fear of intimacy, would ever amount to more than a fantasy. I also recalled how much fun it had been to talk to her about her California adventure, which brought to mind my first time out on my own: the exhilaration of shopping for groceries, acquiring furniture, preparing your own meals, having friends over, and staying up as late as you liked.
Normally I painted an apartment the size of Annabelle’s in about four hours. The color, without exception, was oyster white, no trim. The apartments were painted so often that usually only one coat was needed. While I painted and moved my ladder about, I thought about women cracking walnuts with their fists and America coming down. I also thought about God, whom I had never believed in before, but now that I was trying to create flesh-and-blood characters so that my reader would feel something when I killed them off, I had begun to imagine that a higher being might have been doing this very thing on a much larger scale all along.
When I was done, I cleaned my brushes and rollers and put away the ladder, paint, and dropcloths. Tomorrow I would give Annabelle’s keys back to Mrs. Vollstanger and get my receipt for one month’s rent. I returned to my room and stood in the darkness for a while, looking out at the lights of ships on the bay. And I caught myself listening for the voice of Annabelle.
The next morning Jim was standing down the hall beside the open door of 214, an apartment I had painted six days before that had belonged to a woman who’d been evicted for having cats. Jim’s wife, Hye, a school secretary, stood next to him, looking like someone who spent all her waking hours defusing bombs.
Jim called my name and strode over with a smile to shake my hand. He had a tremendous handshake, his forearm bulging.
“Howdy, neighbor,” he said. “Guess you heard they voted me out.” He explained that, without his studio, he needed an apartment with better light so he could paint at home. This place had great light, he said. “And it’s half the price of our place down on the waterfront. Hye likes it too,” he added.
Hye was gone. The door downstairs was propped open, and she came trudging back up the steps with a boxful of books. In the dozens of times I had seen Hye with Jim, she had spoken a total of six words to me — cultural diffidence, I thought (she was Korean), or, more likely, she associated me with her husband’s self-destruction.
Jim took a deep breath. “I’ve quit drinking.”
Hye passed us, head down, as if we were strangers. I wondered how many times she’d heard Jim say this.
“Great news, Jim,” I said. “Do you need any help moving?”
“Got most everything up,” he said. “Now I need to lay some tarps. Come by later and check out my new studio.”
“I’ll bring you a pound of black-eyed peas for luck,” I said.
Mrs. Vollstanger leaned over the rail above, pearls dangling, and smiled down at us in that chilly, maternal way of hers. “Do you have everything you need, Jim?” she asked sweetly.
On afternoons when the weather was tolerable, I liked to hang out in the park across the street from my apartment among the winos, unemployed lumberjacks, and a bearded man who sat cross-legged by the statue and offered to let you touch the “real Jesus” for only a quarter. Mrs. Vollstanger would be up there on the third floor doing telescope surveillance, and a few windows over and down Jim would be crouched before his easel, wool beret dipped over one eye, furiously trying to catch up on lost time.
I was trying to catch up on lost time too. My brain, floating in its amniotic chamber of inebriation for all those years, had gone to sludge. It was an effort to perceive things as they actually were and harder yet to render them clearly, which likely was the reason I clung to ready-made theories of art instead of developing my own. Following the example of my painter friends, I made daily “sketches” in my notebook: descriptions of my surroundings and the people as they passed, trying to retrain my eye in the hope that one day I would find my way to the book reviewers’ pile, preferably in hardcover.
One afternoon the broad-shouldered Annabelle came along and sat down just a few feet from me. She wore pin-striped pants, knee-high rubber boots, and a windbreaker. A white band on her wrist read, “Love is time.” She opened her notebook and began to write.
Before I’d handed Annabelle her eviction notice, I had seen her outside the building no more than seven or eight times, but now I ran into her everywhere: in the galleries (where I could too often be found depicted in various unflattering attitudes), at the library and the co-op, coming out of that restaurant that sold spinach pies, or gabbing in the coffee shop with her friends. At each encounter, if she did not ignore me altogether, she pretended to have stumbled upon some large species of cockroach. It pickled my stomach to be so loathed (for I didn’t need an artist’s vision to see my role as a jerk in all of this), and it made me want to quit serving evictions, even if that meant the end of my free rent at the Totalitarian Hotel. Apology seemed a thin gesture, and so I fantasized about asking her out instead: I’d walk her through my situation so that she could understand the sacrifices one had to make for art, and then maybe we’d go to her place afterward, where a pastel nude of me with darts in my ass would hang from her wall.
“Hey, how are you?” I called out.
“Busy,” she replied, nose in her book.
“Writing a letter?”
“I have your bathing suit and green lipstick.”
“You can keep them,” she said.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with them,” I replied with a chuckle that stuck in my throat.
“I have a suggestion,” she said, ripping the page from her notebook, tearing it to bits, and stalking away.
© John Oliver Hodges
The stock market sputtered and bumped along. Black Monday merged into Black November and on without chromatic variation into December. The financial experts, like a pack of gloomy cheerleaders, kept up the rah-rah of the apocalypse even as the fishing boats continued sailing in and out, the bakery kept baking, new books and fresh newspapers kept arriving, and the street sweepers moved up and down the pavement undeterred by the mist and rain.
One night while typing, the windows sweating with the humidity of my inspiration, my cinnamon tea, and a pot of simmering pink beans and elephant, I heard Jim railing at the philistines below. I hurried over and knocked on his door. Hye let me in as if I were a country doctor making a midnight call.
Jim staggered from the open window, arms outstretched, cigarette in one hand and can of beer in the other. “I’m back, my boy!” he cried.
There were moths in the apartment, a situation I thought endemic to the building (since they were the exact same moths as mine) or possibly an affliction of artists who’d started too late.
“Jim,” I said, “you can’t shout. Mrs. Vollstanger will evict you.”
“The rentier!” he shouted gallantly, waving an arm through a squadron of eye-winged moths. “The harridan! Have a drink, old friend. Hye, get him a drink. Come look at my painting. Come look at what I’ve done.”
In the coming days Jim painted with his door open, jazz and cigarette smoke pouring into the hallway. Around four every afternoon, just before Hye got home from work, he’d knock off and make his sacred trek to the liquor store. In the evenings, well oiled, he’d come to visit me, bringing a paper sack full of beer, old Esquire magazines, Henry Miller novels, and perhaps half a buttered baguette from the bakery or a plate of creamed cauliflower that Hye had made. We’d laugh about the moths, which I’d discovered had hatched from my weevil-infested bag of black-eyed peas, since discarded. He’d show me his latest painting, and I’d read him passages from my evil-clown novel, to which he’d listen intently, all the while nodding and huffing and afterward announcing without fail how much he admired the rhythm.
At night, whenever Jim began to rave, I’d tense for the eviction summons of Mrs. Vollstanger, then go over and tell him to keep it down. Twice I overheard him and Hye arguing. Hye did most of the talking: Did Jim realize that he was spending more on paints, canvases, cigarettes, and booze than she was making? They no longer had enough to put a down payment on a house. He denied fiercely her charge that art for him was nothing more than an excuse to drink. Why, then, she wanted to know, did he not try to sell his paintings or at least show them in the local galleries?
“Because I can’t sell things anymore,” he said. “God damn it, Hye, no one is going to remember a salesman.”
Hye began to cry.
“The market will come back, babe,” he told her. “And when it does, we’ll buy a house. The one you like in Trinidad with all the redwood trees in the backyard.”
Each day I waited for America to snap from its strings and fall on its face like a broken marionette, but by January not only had the stock market recovered, it had begun to make gains. Many who, like Jim and Hye, had not sold off their investments were better off financially than before the soon-to-be-forgotten crash. The experts, reversing themselves like a school of parrotfish, predicted that the Dow might soar as high as four thousand points by the end of the year. Black Monday had had no real effect on anything but my imagination.
It rained most of January, and I slaved over my book about evil clowns. Each day, as its shortcomings became more evident, I approached the typewriter with less enthusiasm. Finally I sat on the floor and read my satirical harlequin folly front to back as if it were someone else’s work. It was the sort of effort I would’ve panned as a reviewer: “With its too-easy targets, total absence of sympathetic characters, and overall lack of message, I see little reason to bother with such a cynical assessment of American society. It is perhaps harsh but also fair to say that, at an age when most novelists are producing their best work, this one is many years away from offering anything of value to a reader, much less revealing himself outside of posing naked on a wooden platform.”
I banded and boxed the manuscript, lethargically paced the room, chuckled feebly to myself a few times, and thought about getting drunk. Finally I went to bed and slept for three days, getting up now and again for a slice of bloody red elk or a glass of water or to listen for Jim raging down the hall or Mrs. Vollstanger’s unmistakable Gestapo knock on my door. I slept roughly, like a tree with all its bark burned off or a man buried in wet sand, but the dreams at least were good. In one I could paint with my mind, and in another everyone had a u in their last name.
When at last I got up to face the world again, the room was full of sunlight, and I had a strong craving for chewy chocolate-macadamia-nut cookies.
“You’re the writer, aren’t you?” asked the young woman behind the glass case at the bakery.
“How did you know?” I asked.
“We used to listen to you type. You know Annabelle moved back to Montana. She really loved your book reviews.” Her hand dropped to her hip. “She’s going to be an author someday too. You should write her.”
Later that evening Jim stopped by and drove me nine miles north into the redwood forest to the rustic cabin he and Hye had just bought in Trinidad, a town with a population of only a few hundred. We stood on the balcony in the cool shadows of the massive trees. “Do you believe it?” he said. “Look at the light! Smell the air! You can hear the ocean!”
Two days later Mrs. Vollstanger lost her temper with me because I’d moved an electric stove to the wrong side of a room. We argued. I said some regrettable things, all of them true, and was relieved that my days at the Totalitarian Hotel were finally over. More depressed and confused than I would admit, I packed what I could carry, leaving behind my security deposit, a clean room, a succinct note, and a freezer full of wild meat.
I sneaked down the grand staircase and walked to the bus depot a few blocks away. There were only three other passengers on the bus, so I racked my bags and nestled in with two seats to myself. Before I dozed off somewhere around Petaluma, I watched the darkness roll past the windows and wondered how long I would have to go on knowing nothing about art, or women, or my country.