By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone — we find it with another.
— Thomas Merton
I met Dabber Jansen in 1979 on a trip to Arcata, California, to see my ex-girlfriend, who was his girlfriend at the time. He was at work driving a truck for Eureka Fisheries when I arrived, and my ex warned me before he got home that Dabber was a redneck. To my surprise, the “redneck” turned out to be a self-styled radical intellectual, like me. Dabber was thirty. I was twenty-three. He and I stayed up long after my ex had gone to bed, drank all the liquor in the house, and discussed Planck’s constant, The Marriage of Figaro, and the influence of Joseph Campbell on the work of John Steinbeck. Fattened on the milk of the beatnik revolution and disenchanted with science, law, organized religion, journalism, politics, and the military, we both viewed Art as the last noble pursuit. About four that morning, Dabber dragged out his manual Royal typewriter and inserted a piece of paper into the roller, and, along with a few pickled poems, a friendship was born.
After Dabber broke up with my ex and lost his job at Eureka Fisheries, he moved into a small trailer park next to a cow pasture and enrolled at Humboldt State University on the GI Bill. (He’d been in the Navy for six years.) There were about ten other trailers in the park and a few empty lots with naked cement pads. Cows grazed in sunlight filtered by the mighty redwoods, and the university sat above it all in the mist. Dabber’s salmon-pink trailer had porthole windows, a worn linoleum floor, and plaid covers on the beds. There were books everywhere, and on the fold-down kitchen table sat his typewriter, upon which he composed pornography for publication — mostly confessional letters purported to be by women.
In between traveling stints and jobs that never lasted, I visited Dabber and sometimes stayed for weeks at a time, hiding out and reading books and drinking his homemade hard cider beside that meadow. He was a fine host. We drank deeply in the evenings, debating and philosophizing and working on screenplays we never finished. We assumed that writing drunk freed us from conventional restraints, that liquor was some ethereal panacea you poured into your throat, and out your fingers came the music of the gods. We’d heard of many great writers who composed drunk, who fell into magnificent other-states and sometimes also fell from boats or bridges or balconies or in front of their students or down staircases before they passed with alarming alacrity into immortality.
Having taken most of the literature classes Humboldt State had to offer, and restless to get traction in the world of art, Dabber decided to transfer his credits to the University of California in San Diego and pursue a filmmaking degree. Like me, he had grown up in San Diego, so it was a pleasure for him to haul his trailer out of the foggy northern woods and into his sunny filmmaking future.
He set up camp in a crowded trailer park on Morena Boulevard not far from Interstate 5. I was living and working in San Diego at the time, still eyeing the mantle of the Great American Novel without making any noticeable strides in its direction. Dabber and I were the sort of unshaven stragglers you’d see jabbering animatedly at one another at the Del Mar racetrack, newspapers under our arms, jumbo cups of beer in our hands, and a flask of whiskey between us. We’d often see the celebrated wino poet Charles Bukowski, who also frequented the major Southern California tracks. He was always standing alone either up under the eaves or at one of the bars, or down by the benches on the west end. Bukowski was the kind of writer I thought I would be one day, an uncompromising iconoclast who needed at least two bottles of wine in him before his muse would speak. The dream of genius continued to elude me (after two bottles of wine I’d be staggering around the kitchen making a hamburger), but that only made me cling to it more tenaciously.
I felt assured of my potential greatness. I had bushels of brilliant ideas for novels and stories. I had notebooks filled with notes. My mind never ceased working. Words spoken to me were immediately transcribed across the top of my brain in ten-point type. I was, however, concerned about my inability to get the ball rolling. I nurtured a lazy fantasy that someone — a teacher, agent, wise man, magic sprite, eccentric uncle, or professional life coach — would somehow appear and show me the way. So instead of simply parking myself in front of a typewriter for three to four hours daily, I continued to seek counsel in science and psychology and the convoluted corridors of academia. When those failed, I moved on to religion, choosing my disciplines so poorly that on several occasions I looked around to find myself in a room with a voluble proselytizer representing a belief system such as Nichiren Shōshū, Scientology, or est. I briefly belonged to a cult whose name I can’t remember that was run by a mute, tyrannical survivalist who kept hitting his bulldog.
For a long time I believed in the capital-T Truth and thought that, once I’d laid my hands on it, I would find not only the source of my angst but the key to the mysterious Door of Action. I pored over ancient Asian sutras, fasted for days, meditated, abstained from vice, took vows of silence, and lived voluntarily among the poor — a series of gimmicks that left me standing pretty much where I had started.
Eventually I decided that Art alone was the best way to get to Truth — not to mention that as an artist you could attract women, set your own hours, be your own boss, drink too much, and be a total jerk if you wanted to. Also artists are often canonized and worshiped within their own lifetimes, whereas the saints always have to wait until after they’re dead.
With an answer of sorts now resolutely in hand, I still couldn’t summon the discipline to sit every morning at the typewriter and grind out something more than a letter to a friend. So I was happy to oblige when Dabber suggested we pack up his hand-painted 1964 Chevy Impala and try to track down one of the gods of our literary pantheon, Richard Brautigan. We were both star-struck by this Mythic Lonesome Otherworld Poet, whose sacred sadness seeped palpably from the pages of his books and whose muses were solitude and an ever-ready case of George Dickel sour mash.
It was the snowy autumn of 1984 when we formulated our plan to meet Brautigan at his ranch in Paradise Valley, Montana. We weren’t going to stay, just maybe shake his hand and tell him how much his work meant to us. (Trout Fishing in America was, in my youthful opinion, the most original novel ever written.) A few days before we were to leave, we heard on the radio that Brautigan’s body had been found. He’d ended his life with a .44 Magnum blast to the head. So if you want to catch a Mythic Lonesome Otherworld Poet while he’s still alive, map your route and leave right now.
For a graduate project Dabber directed a short film from a script of mine called Voyeur, about a woman pursued by a mysterious observer who turns out in the end to be nothing more than her own vanity. Dabber shot a loose interpretation of my treatment, which didn’t turn out as well as either of us had hoped. Nevertheless he was awarded his degree, along with the question that accompanies all art degrees: What now?
Our reply was: Not much. Oh, we could still talk. We could still paint pictures on the wind. But disciplined pursuit of a realistic goal wasn’t on the agenda.
One night, after drinking a bellyful of hooch and giving the usual lip service to the goddess Athena, we hatched a scheme to go to Mexico to make a movie. I would once again write the screenplay. Dabber would handle the rest. We weren’t sure what our movie would be about. Dabber wanted a road movie; I was thinking something more mystical. Carlos Castañeda was a fascinating chap, I pointed out. The rumor was he’d fabricated the “anthropology” books that had made him famous, but if this was the case, what good drugs the man must have had! Maybe we could get our hands on some of that peyote and tap into our own reservoirs of genius. Dabber proposed we marry the two ideas, travelogue and mysticism, and so we packed up the trailer with canned food, bundles of peso notes (the Mexican economy had recently crashed), fishing poles, a chamois to strain the water and rust from the Mexican gasoline, and loads of Playboys and lantern fuel for barter, and we set out across the border to make a run deep into the heart of Castañeda Country.
To avoid the blistering stretch of barren Sonoran Desert where most of Castañeda’s books are set, we aimed down the narrow Baja highway that threads back and forth between the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean. About midway down the peninsula we planned to catch the ferry to the Mexican mainland and maybe find some of that cactus fandango that had turned Castañeda into an animal and allowed him to fly, travel in time, separate himself from reality, and eventually write bestsellers and become a kooky recluse living in a big house in LA.
Dabber seemed the ideal traveling companion: wry, generous, easygoing, intelligent, and reliable; an old-fashioned anarchist in the nonviolent tradition of Tolstoy; and the possessor of the sort of indecipherably complex aesthetic principles one might have overheard at a painter’s studio in Montparnasse circa 1922. We had never taken an extended trip together, however, and we soon discovered that our traveling styles were incompatible. Dabber the ex-trucker liked to drive straight through to a destination, no messing around. I liked to linger and explore, to get to know places and speak with the locals and sit in their bars and admire the women. I preferred no schedule, whereas Dabber, no matter how much liquor he might have consumed the night before, was ready early each morning for the long haul to the next dot on the map.
One evening we were parked on a deserted Pacific beach when three sneering, drunken, foul-mouthed locals rolled up in an old green pickup. They made obscene gestures and said they wanted to fuck our girlfriends. Dabber, who spoke no Spanish, didn’t seem to realize we were in danger of being assaulted or robbed or worse. I persuaded the men in my crude Español that we didn’t have any girlfriends — or anything else worth their time — and finally the driver spit out the window, turned his truck around, and drove off down the empty beach. Afterward I berated Dabber for not at least going into the trailer for a knife while I’d had them distracted.
Once we’d gotten properly under each other’s skin, we could fashion an argument from any subject. Congenial debates dissolved into contention. Dabber believed that the universe was an accident, that all matter and everything we knew had been “created” somehow in one mass explosion. Matter had been degrading since then and could not be replaced, and therefore the stock market would collapse and the world would soon end. This position had always amused me, but now I felt compelled to refute it and assert my own cosmology, citing regeneration and grace and the impossibility of an accident sustaining itself in aesthetic harmony for more than 4 billion years.
From there the discussion degenerated to our romantic prospects. One of Dabber’s goals, besides the miraculous materialization of a movie from our ideas and dreams, was some kind of sexual conquest, and in my unsympathetic (and unsolicited) opinion it was pitiful to presume you would have success with women in another country when you couldn’t get laid in your own. Due to the zigzagging, shoulderless, unfinished highway, the frequent unavailability of gasoline in stations placed eighty miles apart, and all the dead horses, abandoned dogs, and automobile wrecks along the way, we were lucky to make two hundred miles a day. At night we’d drink and disagree in the usually empty government-sponsored trailer parks where we camped every evening.
When we got to Santa Rosalía, the wait for the ferry to the mainland was four days. We had no timetable for our return to the States, so I thought we should submit to some R & R, hang out on the beach, and dally in the mercados and cantinas. I offered to hire us a boat for a day of sportfishing, but Dabber balked at paying what amounted to fifty dollars to fish. He wanted to scrap the Castañeda angle and push south along the Baja. So south we went.
By the time we’d reached the end of Mexican Federal Highway 1 at the southern tip of the peninsula, we were bitter and snapping at each other and had not produced a single credible movie idea. The whole business unraveled one afternoon, ostensibly over a liter of milk, and Dabber drove stubbornly home, hauling the trailer, while I stayed on in San José del Cabo, in a quirky little trailer park run by expats, where I had my chance to drink on the beach, practice my Spanish, and get to know the people, including a tennis pro who loved to give the OK sign and a friendly female physician from Reno, Nevada. I flew back to the States a week later.
Dabber and I didn’t see each other again for many years. I had found that constant travel suited me and also fit my idea of what a writer’s life should be. I moved about the U.S., working odd jobs and never living in one place for long. In the evenings I actually parked my lazy ass in front of a typewriter and began producing work, though nothing very good, as I was still looking for inspiration through intoxication. It wasn’t until I ended up alone in a motel room about to put an end to my suffering that I realized I was going about it all wrong. From that point I approached the page with a (mostly) clear head and gradually, over a period of years, began to make gains, even achieving some modest success.
Meanwhile I was making solo forays into Mexico. Quite to my surprise, I returned from one such trip with a Mexican wife, who bore me an even bigger surprise: a son. By then Dabber and I had mended our friendship. We corresponded often and saw each other every few years.
Now, in 2008, my wife, Cristina, our seven-year-old son, Tom, and I are on a two-week vacation in San Diego, and we’ve decided to take a day trip to visit Dabber in Vista, where he lives with his mom.
My wife and son are gaga over California. Tom ranks Disneyland second only to our local landfill back home in Nebraska for entertainment value, and though he is drawn to the ocean, the spectacular multi-million-dollar homes sliding down the dissolving seaside cliffs in northern San Diego County are what really ring his bell. My wife, who is originally from a provincial town in the middle of Mexico, likes the beaches, the endless shops (purses and shoes especially), the restaurants, and the great-paying jobs available for bilingual applicants. She thinks I should apply. (I earn an average of seven thousand dollars a year as a writer.)
Tom was red-flagged for autism in kindergarten and later cleared of the diagnosis by a specialist. His school psychologist gave us the option of labeling him with Asperger’s or a learning disability or attention-deficit disorder, all of which we rejected due to my dislike for pigeonholes and tags. Tom is finicky, hypersensitive, ritualistic, and asocial among kids his own age, and he rocks whenever he sits, but he is also a natural pianist and consistently wins praise for his watercolor and crayon renderings.
So far on this trip the thundering interstates of California have mesmerized Tom, as have the colossal curving bridges, the insane Indy 500 traffic, the drivers shaving and eating burritos and yapping on their phones as they hurtle pell-mell toward their destinations. He’s marveled at the stoplights with their left-turn arrows and the pedestrian crossings with their red-or-green hands instead of WALK and DON’T WALK, like we have back home. Most amazing of all to Tom are the many Mexicans. “I don’t like Mexicans,” he will tell anyone who happens to be listening, including my wife’s Mexican family. (Fortunately none of them speaks English.) Tom has remained a bigot even though I’ve told him he’s half Mexican and that 150 years ago, before the Mexican-American War, California belonged to Mexico, and all the Anglos who came here to settle had to agree to (a) become Mexican citizens, (b) submit to Catholicism, and (c) give up their slaves.
As cars rocket past us doing ninety, I glance over at Cristina and recollect all the long nights I’ve spent in cramped rooms with nothing to hold but a paper dream. Until I met her, I had rejected the idea that I officially belonged to the human race. I was a different breed: the artist. I had to be independent and unsettled and unnerved and exposed to as much danger and misery as possible. Good writers bleed, I believed, and not just metaphorically or when it’s convenient for them.
Once Cristina got that ring on my finger, she laid down the law: no more smoking, carousing, and being a mopey old hobo who didn’t care if he died. A Catholic, she knew the rules of family, community, and sanity. No amount of money, talent, or fame was going to save me from despair, she said. Neither was there any law in her book against artists marrying, having a family, joining the human race, and being responsible adults. I began to reconsider my beloved Jack Kerouac, who was so steadfast in his adolescent stands against society and conformity that he had no choice but to die young and unhappy. Wouldn’t it have been better if he had put down the bottle before it was too late and begun to write about his new sober, reflective life?
Dabber and his ninety-year-old mother, Ellen, live about six miles inland from Oceanside, California, at the top of a knoll at the end of a private lane. Tall and crinkly eyed and slow of gait, Dabber comes out to greet us as we pull into his driveway. He is sixty now, with preternaturally lit blue eyes and no hair left on his head. After a divorce and the death of his father, he returned to this house where he was raised to take care of his mom. He never made another film after Voyeur, but he satisfies his creative urges by painting, making ceramic tiles, brewing beer, and devising complex thoroughbred-handicapping schemes.
By Dabber’s own admission he is a failed artist, a failed husband, and a long-distance father to his son, who he says “turned out pretty well by default.” Uncle Dabber, as Tom knows him, also describes himself as a failed alcoholic who always fell asleep before the party started.
Dabber makes me a martini, almonds in the olives, spirits carefully measured. (One time he bought new martini glasses and kept pouring drinks from the frozen blue Sapphire bottle until we got so shellacked I couldn’t remember how we’d made it to the restaurant or that I’d proposed to the waitress. We discovered later that the new martini glasses held twice as much as normal.) Even devout dreamers learn through age and experience that inebriation is the consequence and not the cause of artistic talent. You cannot drink yourself to greatness, but many greats drink themselves into the grave. I have come to believe that true genius is a kind of character defect, a mental illness marked by nervousness, delusion, self-infatuation, social immaturity, and chronic pain — what Brautigan likened to “steel spider webs” in his mind. The only relief comes from creating, becoming intoxicated, or sticking your head in an oven and turning on the gas.
This is the coldest summer in San Diego in seventy-seven years. Even inland, where it’s routinely a hundred degrees in July, the five of us huddle in the pale sun at the backyard picnic table, resisting the sensible solution of warmer attire. My wife, who thought highly of Boone’s Farm when she first arrived in the States but now prefers a dark, dry red, sips modestly from her glass of Chariot Gypsy ($4.99 a bottle). Dabber would never spend more than five dollars on a bottle of wine lest his mother, a child of the Depression, reprimand him.
Ellen Jansen is ninety, thin and sharp-tongued, especially with Dabber, whom she routinely blasts as if she were a Luftwaffe pilot strafing a French village. Ellen has confided to me on two separate occasions how disappointed she is that, with so many gifts and opportunities, her only child has ended up as no more than her caretaker. Dabber handles her criticisms with wounded aplomb, bent like a French peasant by the daily attacks. An amateur day trader who’s been without official employment for the last fifteen years, he is still waiting for the stock market to collapse and invests accordingly. He insists that one day we will wake up and there will be no government, and no one will miss it. This sort of talk infuriates Ellen, who has seen America at its apex and knows damn well we could get back there if we wanted to. I would tell her that all great civilizations blossom, exhaust themselves in war, and go to seed, regardless of the will of their citizens, and that whether or not the U.S. topples into the dust forever or rises again like Byzantium to become the new America for a thousand years, we should be grateful that we were lucky enough to witness a true Golden Age. But I don’t want to raise her ire.
Scrawny gray rabbits lope about in the shade of an acre of citrus and pepper trees. Coyotes are coming into the bankrupt cities of California now, Dabber says. He’s right. I think I’ve seen them in broad daylight, walking on their hind legs, wearing transparent green visors, and waiting patiently in line at the ATMs. A coyote was staring into Dabber’s bedroom window the other night, he tells us — the same night he saw the UFO. It was nothing more than a sighting, he admits, unable to conceal his disappointment: no epiphany, no anal probes, no waking up naked in Texas.
We talk about the miles of boarded-up north-county homes sliding down the beachfront cliffs (California literally falling into the ocean) and the voters’ recent rejection of a referendum to offer the homeowners support of any kind. We talk about Swami Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship, just down the hill from where my parents live, and lament that after all our years of earnest philosophical exploration and reading Thus Spake Zarathustra and the Tao Te Ching, we remain unenlightened. We talk about the undocumented Mexicans Dabber used to hire but doesn’t anymore, out of respect for the high number of unemployed U.S. citizens. There is so little work in California now that Mexican immigrants are returning to their homeland in droves.
“And that’s a good thing,” Ellen says. Tom nods in full agreement.
I would tell Ellen that if we would let these eager young men and women work openly at jobs that most of us won’t take anyway, like picking crops, butchering cows and pigs, and roofing houses, we could refill the Social Security coffers in five years. But, again, I don’t want to raise her ire.
“The economy is so bad,” Dabber says, “I can’t even afford cross-packed Norwegian sardines —”
Before he can finish, Ellen blasts him for wanting to spend three dollars on a can of fish.
Dabber fires back: “I said nothing about buying Norwegian sardines. I said that I can’t buy them.”
“This place is boring,” Tom declares. Boring is his new favorite word. Everything is boring these days: books are boring, sports are boring, Norwegian sardines and bickering adults are boring.
“Well, let’s go find something to do,” his mother says.
They wander around the property, scuffing up clouds of dust. Water rationing has created a dead-lawn motif throughout Southern California. Along with the numerous bank-foreclosure notices tacked onto FOR SALE signs, it makes for a bleak landscape. Tom inspects the two old pickup trucks parked under the pepper trees and peers into the windows of the trailer that Dabber and I trundled through Mexico in so long ago.
After exploring the Jansens’ modest, oddly laid out house, my son returns wide-eyed, claiming to have seen a ghost, which is unlike him. I ask for details, and he describes a dark man with “skinny” eyes and a frown. Another ghost, a “foggy” woman, was standing behind him. Without missing a beat, Ellen says it was the former owner, who built the house in the fifties and died of a heart attack before he could finish it. She doesn’t know who the woman was.
“Probably the one who gave him the heart attack,” says Dabber.
Cristina attempts to teach Tom to say, “They were ghosts,” in Spanish: “Eran fantasmas.”
She has been trying for the last two years to raise Tom to be bilingual, but his bigotry prevents it. “I don’t want to be a Mexican,” he’ll say, arms folded. “I am an American, and I only speak English.”
Cristina admits it was a mistake not to teach Tom Spanish in his first five years, when he could have absorbed the language without resistance. But she spoke no English when she first came to America, and she feared that if we stuck to Spanish at home, Tom would be speaking better English than she did by the time he was four. She also believes privately (as the television communicates daily) that to be a Mexican in America is to be a second-class citizen. Her shame about being Mexican has been compounded by the indelicate remarks of a few yahoos back home. The boy has picked up on all of this.
“No,” Tom replies with several consternated glances over his shoulder. “They were ghosts.”
To ease his vexation, Ellen breaks out a game of tiddlywinks that uses taut-legged plastic frogs instead of disks. Cristina, with her strong but delicate hands (she was a dentist in Mexico), is skilled at this game, launching her blue frogs in marvelous arcs into the cup. Tom, with the yellow frogs, seems appeased. Ellen takes the green frogs and looks to be having fun, gushing lovingly over both Cristina and Tom. While the three tiddle and wink at the picnic table, Dabber pours himself and me another martini and offers to show me the painting he recently finished, which he believes was responsible for the death of a young man named William.
Dabber’s crowded bedroom has a TV, two simultaneously running computers upon which he ciphers his apocalyptic investment schemes (“Market’s going down to six thousand this week,” he somberly advised me earlier), and a window from which you can see the ocean on a clear day. His two bookcases are filled with DVDs (nothing after 1979) and his unchanging literary canon.
Dabber’s paintings are in an expressionist-primitive style, usually with mountain and horse-racing motifs. The painting that purportedly killed William has rhinestones and tiny dice stuck in the paint. There is a Mexican graveyard in the corner with a single white flower. Dabber told the kid, the twenty-year-old grandson of a friend of his mother’s, to touch the flower, and a week later the boy went joy riding in a stolen car and died in a wreck.
No doubt we are in the presence of True Art, I admit, for such an achievement, like witchcraft, calls for sacrifice and suffering. Art nearly killed me on many occasions, I say, and I am sorry that it chose to take a friend of his mom’s. I tip my glass to my lips, but no liquid comes, so I eat the two olives stuffed with almonds.
Dabber is pleased with my assessment. He says the painting reminds him of the Brautigan story about the graveyard of the poor, where the epitaphs read, “Had His Ass Shot Off in a Honky-Tonk,” and so forth. He intends to print William’s name in small letters by the flower he touched. Dabber then touches the flower himself in an affectionate way and invites me to touch it, too.
On a card table is the old Royal typewriter upon which we never wrote anything worth a hoot, a piece of paper rolled up into it. For the past twenty years Dabber has been incubating a novel about his truck-driving experiences. I know it will be good, if he ever finishes it.
The other three are still playing frogglywinks when we return, and it’s so cold outside at 4 PM that Dabber finally rounds up flannel shirts and sweaters for everyone. He refills my glass, lights the gas barbecue, pours briquettes onto the flames, and drags out a beautiful slab of marinated salmon.
“Yuck,” Tom says, warming his hands over the fire. “What is that?”
“It’s your dinner, junior,” I say, “and you should be grateful that Uncle Dabber has gone to all this trouble.”
“I don’t want it,” Tom says.
“You know, Tom,” I say, “sometimes you act like a seven-year-old child.”
“I am a seven-year-old child,” he replies, delighted.
Dabber checks the fire and then sets up a croquet game with three goal stakes, one a ceramic statue of a tonsured man dressed like a friar. I don’t know whom the figure represents, but he seems annoyed by a bird on his arm. “Father Junípero Serra admonishing a bird,” I announce: “ ‘You crap on my bald head one more time, buddy, and it’s a potpie for you.’ ”
Dabber laughs. “It’s Saint Francis of Assisi,” he says. “Patron saint of animals.”
The actual Father Junípero established the first Spanish missions in California and caned his subjects, the Indians; that’s all I recall about him. I remember more about the leper-hugging Francis, whom I studied on my aborted path to illumination.
Three short, dark, mustached men in wide-tooled leather belts and cowboy boots and white straw hats emerge at the top of the hill and saunter down the lane to the fence. Dabber goes over, but he speaks no Spanish, and they speak no English, so my wife translates. They are from Chiapas, she explains. They are looking for work: landscaping, home repair, welding. They will do anything.
“Sorry, no work,” Dabber says. “You’re too late. California is finished. Try Oregon.” He points north. “Oregano,” he says.
They smile, bow their heads, and turn back up the road. Cristina, sipping from her glass of Chariot Gypsy, watches them go. My son glares after them.
Dabber drapes the salmon filets over the fire, sending up the lazy, luscious scent of roasting fish flesh. Tom will not eat the salmon, he insists, or any of the other fine dishes Uncle Dabber has prepared.
“Do you want a hot dog, Tom?” I ask.
“I only want hot dogs from my real home,” he says.
So I boil a hot dog in water seasoned with onions and garlic and a capful of cider vinegar, as it would be prepared in his “real” home. It passes muster.
Our table is set: salmon, roasted corn, grilled pasillas, romaine salad with garden tomatoes. Under duress, my picky son nibbles at an ear of corn.
When Dabber appears again with the bottle of gin, I realize I’ve had too much and wave him off. Saint Francis has a yellow croquet ball perched between his ceramic feet. I recall that he was a rake before he converted, and in his early days he sought to become a martyr. I was a rake for much longer than Saint Francis, and I sought to become a martyr, too. But that is where the similarities between us end. My goal was not sanctity or the betterment of humankind but the adulation and vindication of fame — which, I now know, would have brought me little but torment and sorrow.
I look down the table at my son, working on his third hot dog, and hope he will not be like me. If he chases after Art, I’ll show him pictures of Hemingway sitting drunk with broken eyeglasses in his bathtub and Brautigan’s corpse being eaten by maggots on his couch. I’ll tell him what it took me thirty years to discover: that great artists more often than not lead lives that are shabby, bizarre, dissolute, and self-destructive. So if you want to be a teacher, Tom, or to sell insurance, or to fly around the country setting up grocery stores, that’ll be all right with me. I like having you around. You and your mother are the sole reason I am alive today.