Slab City, California: The Last Free Place on Earth
For five years, New York clawed at my nostrils, riding on the scent of J’adore by Dior and bready street vendor pretzels. Two-story tall commercials leaped off the buildings in Times Square, suicide beams of pure commercialism, splattering the ground with eternal mid-afternoon glare.
I thought I was safe, happy. Laughed at the craziness while dog-paddling above it. Not pulled under. But the city found a direct way in. Planted a bug on my brainstem, neat little knot of cells.
Jamie’s a jeans model: on the subways her abs watched me, denim tugged low. The navel stared reprobation at the rental car keys in my pocket. Three states ago those ads dropped away. Platitudes chased on until the last road sign. God never gives us more than we can bear. Condolences.
I was supposed to be a journalist; my wife, a photographer. Now she practices barely wearing denim and I craft odes to emotions, bite-sized and sanitized for the greeting card-buying masses. We’re young. We said the jobs were temporary. The whole world’s gotten temporary now.
In Slab City, time grinds to a halt. PBR cans and Poland Spring bottles overflow rusted metal trash bins. A bike carcass lies on the baked earth, splintered spoke pointing into space: Frozen Hour Hand Seeks Loving Clock. All day, I stare at my neighbor, Rodney Dustbird’s, RV. White slat siding with an incongruous icing pink trim. Ankle-tall rocks fence off a yard of pebbled dirt.
Several yards away, Lisa in cut-off jeans shorts and sagging tie-dye tee. Perches on a faded couch, the world is her living room. Licks her bottom lip and rolls a cigarette. On the shrub tree, a torn American flag commits suicide by hanging. Even the air has nowhere to be. When I’m near you, even air forgets to breathe… No, too odd by half, too clever by a third. Hallmark would never buy it.
My wife’s eyes and navel stared pityingly. I knew it was bad when my parents drank in my conversation as if trying to memorize the tip-tap cadence of my voice. Bad enough dying, but watching yourself die was unstomachable. Had to get out.
At dusk, Christmas lights flip on outside Dustbird’s. He offers me a lift on his motorbike, his gray beard stirs in the wind. At the open-air stage, the same acoustic guitars as last week. I hiss open a beer.
My biggest fear is that after the wake, they will send Jamie condolences cards I had written. Our hearts are with you in your time of grief. Easy, banged out in minutes. There are no words to say how sorry I am; I was proud of that one. There are no words. I had no idea.
A gray-haired woman in a sundress croons into the night. A Vietnam vet strums backup. I watch stars I haven’t seen in five years. I hope Dustbird finds my body when it happens. I hope the crooning woman calls Jamie, her husky voice rattling down the line with condolences that are mostly true, and not the least bit crafted.