“Seven years in the City” by Ron Clinton Smith

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Before beginning an acting career, the only thing I wanted to do was write. I rented a dark little hovel in the basement of a large yellow house on Winn Park for ninety dollars a month, an upscale, eclectic, colorful neighborhood near downtown Atlanta. Peachtree bordered one side, Piedmont Park the other. White-columned mansions mixed in with modern remodels, old-moneyed families with young professionals. My shower stall was so small you had to duck into it, and there was a tiny kitchenette next to the toilet. But it was all mine, I thought, until one night I heard rustling in the trash by my bed, was sure I was dreaming it, and bolted awake as paper and orange peels flew in the air.

I’d hear them gnawing every night, teeth-sawing, realizing there were fat rats sharing my hole in the wall, grandfathered in from generations. The white-haired owner, pretending surprise, installed poison and traps. I heard one slap shut in the middle of the night and found a rat the size of a cat smashed in it. There was a healthy tribe of them though, and all night they’d grind and work on a few feet away. I was waiting tables at a popular steak house built out of train cars, then up late reading, working on stories. The second I moved in a major construction project broke ground up on Peachtree called Colony Square, a twenty story building. I’d be trying to rest after getting in late and being gnawed awake by my rat pals, the whistle blew, cranes cranked up, and I was stuffing my ears with pillows, writhing around trying to get some sleep. One morning I heard pounding at my door, groggily cracked it, and there was a pamphlet from Jehovah’s Witnesses that said AWAKE!

I escaped my rat hovel after a year, scraping up enough for my girlfriend and I to travel in Europe, and when we came back I found a large efficiency one bath with a two person claw foot tub on the third floor of an old red brick off Piedmont. The landlady told me it was the same floor Margaret Mitchell lived on when she’d been struck and killed by a taxi cab on Peachtree in 1946. I wasn’t bothered by Margie’s company; she was a bit daunting at first, but comforting too in a colleague sort of way. I was charting my first novel, and late at night I’d feel a curious presence looming over my shoulder. But the old place had been there since the turn of the century, so no telling who was still hanging around.

It was a high-ceilinged room with tall windows looking out on white oaks with a nice view of houses across the street and rooftops and trees beyond. I had a large antique dining table I wrote on, listening to Debussy and gazing out into the green space. I’d disappear and forget about time, writing until I was hungry, pick up Chinese from Tong’s Kitchen, or run a few miles through Winn Park down the street.

Right after moving in I was deep in a story when there was a knock at the door and a young, curly-haired guy said, “Hey man, do you got any bread you can spare?” “Sure,” I said, pulling five pieces of whole wheat from a bag, handing it to him. “There you go,”I said, shutting the door. Later I remembered the baffled look on his face, how he’d gawked at the bread like it was some weird creature. He must’ve thought I was putting him on, but I just figured he wanted some real bread.

Nights soaking in my giant claw foot tub reading, I’d hear rummaging on the other side of the wall. Not banging, just a constant kind of shifting, thumping, at all hours, a few feet from where I sat. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would rearrange their apartment that much, constantly, weeks at a time. The landlady asked if I’d seen anything suspicious, had anything stolen. Someone had broken into apartments stealing furniture, TV’s, jewelry, stereos, paintings, while residents were at work. I hadn’t noticed anything, I said, except whomever shared a wall with me behind my bath sure seemed to shuffle stuff around a lot. She looked at me funny, and said there was nobody renting that apartment, it was used for storage. I shouldn’t have heard anybody there late at night. When the police opened the apartment with her, the squatting thief was lounging on a stolen love-seat in his underwear smoking Lucky Strikes, drinking a Red Stripe, watching someone else’s TV, piled up furniture and possessions from the robbed units all around him. He swore it was his apartment he’d rented from a guy named Jenkins, but he had an inventory sheet of items and how much he’d sell each piece for. He had no idea how all that junk had gotten there.

The young couple upstairs seemed to be fighting all the time. Unlike my squatter neighbor, they were loud, shouting, screaming, pounding on the ceiling. I’d hear people clomping up and down the stairs at all hours, and look out seeing them toting boxes and bags. There’d be lots of noise, like chests of drawers being pushed and dragged and turned over, followed by incessant yelling, accusatory, angry, wild explosions. The stream of traffic flowed on day and night, and then it sounded like a knockdown drag out up there, sometimes an actual woman screaming; then one of them would leave, slamming the door echoing into the stairway. One morning I was woken by what sounded like a lead box being flipped and rolled and turned over all the way across the floor, yelling and shouting, insane laughter, the loudest, craziest, banging noises I’d ever heard on any ceiling; like a refrigerator being pushed over, the door slam in the hallway, and heavy, pounding steps passing my door, the door opening and slammed downstairs, and I stumbled to the window gazing down at the concrete steps below. I saw the young guy wearing a stocking cap stop and turn on the steps, shooting a big fat fierce bird up at me, screaming “Fuck You!” I thought it was for me, it looked like it, but it was probably for his girlfriend, though it might as well have been for both of us. Either way, it was an unsettling way to wake up. A few weeks later they were dragged into blue, flashing police cars in the middle of the night for selling large quantities of marijuana. After that the place seemed unnaturally quiet for a while.

One of the busiest arteries through town roared and wailed with traffic and sirens a hundred yards from my door. There were heavy exhaust fumes, especially in the hottest months, and you could feel the building shudder a little from buses and trucks. It was an upscale neighborhood, but there was always a fringe of hustlers, bums and druggies. There were free concerts by The Hampton Grease Band and The Allman Brothers in Piedmont Park a block from my door, spring art festivals. Bars, book stores and restaurants were a short drive away. I’d go days without leaving my apartment, writing feverishly into the night sometimes. Then watch people out the window, living vicariously through them. I watched a young couple across the street remodel their house, the woman showing pregnant, having a baby, the three of them coming and going, imagining their lives. They were my extended, secret family. I sensed their moods and mannerisms like I was boarding with them. It made living alone less lonely.

After my girlfriend and I broke up, I was in love or lust or infatuation most of the time. It was one long, bittersweet, orgiastic flirtation. Dreaming of the perfect woman, needing to be left alone at the same time. There was always this romantic dichotomy, painful and pleasurable, a kind of ecstatic state of being. I watched single women come and go, not wanting to mess up my solitude. I’d imagine being with them, the wonderful things we’d do together, say and talk about, how divine it would be, then keep on grinding. There were one night jaunts with girls I worked with in bars and restaurants, most not interested in anything long term. I’d get smitten, have my heart ripped out and handed to me, lick my wounds, realize I’d made up the whole thing, exaggerated the hell out of it anyway, mystifying some poor, unsuspecting girl into some shining angel; feel ridiculous, laughing at myself, and go right back to work.

I was obsessed with writing. Going at it with the same passion and athletic discipline I’d taken with football. If I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about it; working on it, meditating on it. There was nothing else I wanted to do. I was fed up with college after going to three of them– one on a football scholarship–since I couldn’t think, eat, sleep and dream writing twenty four hours a day. It wasn’t college that I didn’t like—in fact I missed the camaraderie of it– it was having to do anything other than writing. Most of the writers lighting fires in me were half-educated dropout freaks with the same mad, tunnel-minded compulsion I had—Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, even Salinger, who attended three colleges without a degree. Writing consumed them. I didn’t see the point of grinding through economics and chemistry, or any other classes for that matter, when all I wanted to do was write. I had a gut feeling forcing myself to get a degree would drain and sap the creative juices that made me the writer I wanted to be. Not only did you have to wait until you could write all the time, like getting permission, but I had a horror that deferring to a scholastic system would transform me into some corporate vanilla drone. Real artists, I felt, had something in their DNA that would shut out anything threatening their rawest work. Call it a curse, but every true artist had it.

My last day at Georgia State, where I was studying English, the white haired, snobbish PHD professor teaching the modern novel, was talking down to the class as usual, telling us how stupid we were, wasting half our time talking about how much his cat loved asparagus. It finally broke me. He’d been doing this same condescension for weeks. I was day dreaming about something I was writing while he went on about his cat, knowing in my bones this pedantic curmudgeon was a failed, frustrated writer himself, and thought, what the hell am I doing here? I know what I want to do. I’m not spending another second playing out this farce. I’m a goddamn fool if I keep sitting here. I got up, left the class, symbolically shoved my college books in a trash can on the way out, and never looked back.

It worried my poor family to death. They didn’t understand this peculiar, driving need and compulsion. As I’d dropped out of college to do it, they were sure there was something wrong with me, that I was really screwing up. Who did that? Dropped everything to write? There were constant phone calls, unannounced visits, prods and suggestions of other vocations, which only got on my nerves. If I’d had a newspaper or magazine job, it would’ve made more sense, but suddenly declaring myself a writer of poems, stories, novels, made it seem to them I’d lost my mind. My mother pushed me to get a law degree, because I’d always argued so well with her, I suppose; but arguing was not writing, and I argued with her plenty about that. It wasn’t their fault they didn’t understand this obsessive passion.

I hadn’t discovered acting yet; that would come later. Later too I realized how closely the two were aligned, related to and fed each other. Watching films and television, I had a hunch I could act, but was too consumed with writing to think about it. It was actors I was connecting with too. After reading Robert Redford’s interview in Playboy in 1976, I felt an uncanny kinship with him, an appreciation for the darker, crazier, wilder rebel in him, the tough things he’d gone through. I wrote him a long letter about a novel I was working on, asking for his assistance, hoping he’d be interested in making the movie after I wrote it. A week after I sent it, I cringed. He’s going to think you’re nuts, I thought, if he gets it. Several months later, when I’d half forgotten it, I get a very kind, well thought out letter from him, on All The President’s Men stationary, saying he respected my story, as well as the way I presented it, but that he was involved in too many projects to pursue it. He advised me to contact publishing houses, “as tedious as this might be,” he said, in hopes of getting an advance toward the book. I was floored by his response; busy as he was, he could’ve easily blown me off.

While my friends were finishing college, landing well paid jobs, marrying, having kids, buying houses, getting divorced, sliding into normal, cushioned, middle class lives, I was busting my ass in bars and restaurants, living alone in a one room efficiency, searching for my writer’s voice. In school we studied poems like “The Road Not Taken,” about how fine and noble it was not to go the sure, safe, conforming route, instead to strike out on your own and follow “a path with heart,” but I didn’t know anybody doing it. A few musician friends, but they had a band supporting them. I didn’t want a badge for it. There were times I’d stand gazing out my apartment window, wondering if I was making the right choice, thinking how much easier my friends had it going the normal route. Then I’d realize again, I could no more do what they were doing than they could do what I was doing. A regular job, a job just for money, would never work for me. Not doing what you loved, even if doing it was hard and didn’t pay well, was what turned people into alcoholics, drove them mad, led to some form of suicide. I believed in hard work—and there was nothing harder than writing. I had no glamorous illusions. If you’re going this radical path, I told myself, you can’t half ass do it. It’s all on you, and what you end up with will be all yours, for better or worse.

Ten minutes from my front door I could stroll through Winn Park where I jogged, a long, oval bowl with giant oak trees and park swings, up to Peachtree and the High Museum where the Atlanta Symphony was conducted by Robert Shaw. Norman Mailer came to show his surreal film, Maidstone, starring Rip Torn, and do a reading. I’d read enough of his stuff to know he was obsessed with Hemingway, wrote and talked about him and his suicide constantly. After showing his weird, disjointed film, in which Rip Torn turns on Mailer and attacks him at the end, Mailer strolled out, loaded and glassy-eyed, reading poems, whipping up feminist ire in the crowd. He’d been going at it lately with Germane Greer and Gloria Steinem in heated debates, baiting and taunting them.

I followed him out to the sidewalk where a crowd was in tow, someone asking about agents and publishers, everyone laughing at his response, and walking next to him, said, “In all sincerity, Mr. Mailer, please don’t ever blow your head off with a shotgun.” He stopped and looked hard at me. “What’d you say?” he said, glaring at me. I repeated it, with genuine concern. “What’s your name?” he said, for future reference, or just to see what name I’d give. When I told him, and he saw I wasn’t kidding, that I actually seemed to give a damn, sensed I wasn’t deranged, he said, “Aw, we don’t ever know what the future holds,” and kept striding along. Not only was it a bizarre thing to say to anybody, I knew I’d hit a nerve. Later I cringed, thinking about it, the way I had after sending that letter to Redford, but I believed in pure instincts, if the intention was good, and at the time felt like a prophet delivering a critical message to a literary father, even if it sounded insane. Like Hemingway, Mailer drew analogies between boxers and writers, as if writing and living were one long, grueling prize fight. It took more courage to stay in the ring, which Mailer did.

After a few years working at the swarming steak house, where booths were lined down train cars, and you had to literally run every night to keep up, I was having nightmares where my train car grew longer and fuller and turned into a corridor of ghoulish customers with arms waving out into aisles. You never caught up, but kept falling farther behind. I was burned out on the public. Nights when we broke a record for dinners served, the manager opened the bar, and the whole staff got raving drunk. Several times I wound up on top of the train cars howling at traffic on Piedmont Road. The place was overrun on weekends with two hour waits and drunken rednecks, occasional fights in the parking lot when customers tried running out on their checks. Nightmares of those train cars stretching longer and longer, with hundreds of ravenous customers waving like an octopus down aisles, got to be too much, and at the tender age of twenty-three I couldn’t stomach it anymore.

I took on a night watchman job at an exclusive country club north of town where the rich kids I’d grown up with played golf and socialized together. I wasn’t a hardcore nightguard with a uniform, I was mainly there for insurance purposes. There was a .38 in a drawer I could pull out if I needed it, but if anyone broke in I wasn’t expected to be a hero, and should just call the authorities. The dining room was huge, with floor to ceiling plate glass windows looking out over the golf course. The guy before me had seen his reflection in them one night, spooked, wheeled, and blown a few of them out. I would read all night on a sofa in the ladies lounge, have a sandwich in the kitchen upstairs, watch TV, do a quick walk through the place, at 6 A.M. turn off the security lights and drive home.

One night I sensed something, loaded the .38, and walked through the halls as usual, not seeing anything peculiar, except the parking lot security lights were already off. I closed up, went home, and got a call the next day from the club manager asking if anything strange had happened when I was on. No, not really, except I supposed the security lights had turned off early on a timer. Well, he said, the pro shop had been cleaned out that night, golf clubs, tennis racquets, pretty much everything of value, forty thousand dollars worth. We’re pretty sure it was an inside job, he said, but we’re not blaming you. Listen, I said, I know this might not look exactly good right now, but I don’t want to do this anymore.

In the heart of downtown Atlanta on North and Ponce was an ornate, red 1800’s house with a black wrought iron fence on a large lot with old slave’s quarters. A crazy restaurateur of French descent, Tim Boudreaux, opened a place called The Mansion. There was a huge gravel parking lot, a herd of goats in the yard, and the place had an old south appeal and chic. With the building boom going on in the seventies, it was unusual to have an old house sitting in the middle of it. The wild owner wore a beret, got drunk every night, and stalked around the place singing the French national anthem, yelling at everyone to “make me money!” which wasn’t happening. He had a small apartment office in the house where he brought prostitutes. There were all kinds of misfits working there; gay prima donnas, redneck managers, college art students, and a wonderfully mad and happy malcontent named Roger, who’d fought in Vietnam, and liked to antagonize everyone, push them to their limits and try to break them. He had a beard, looked a little like D.H. Lawrence, talked philosophy, and demeaned one couple in particular. Not wanting to see the public for a while, I was washing dishes, hoping to get some peace, but every fight and argument happened in the kitchen. Every time the couple came back in the kitchen Roger would terrorize them, saying they were non persons, they were like scurvy little mice farting around through their meaningless lives. Once he told the woman, Jean, he wanted to put this whole fat part of a gallon wine bottle up her ass, and a fight broke out, glass smashing, aprons and shirts ripping, a scrum with her boyfriend, waiters and managers wrestling, slipping and falling on the greased-wet kitchen floors. Now and then I’d take a break and escape to the parking lot to drink a beer with an artist friend who worked in the service bar. There were incessant police helicopters circling the city, which got on my nerves; Big Brother always hovering around. When they came over with spotlights glaring on us, we’d start dancing like a vaudeville act, then take off chasing each other down the parking lot, spotlights trailing us, loud speakers crackling. We’d run through the trees and out buildings into the kitchen to resume our madhouse jobs.

Every night a crowd of male employees working across the street at the Horne Desk Company came over, lined the upstairs bar, and got drunk talking about work while kissing the boss’s ass. Sitting next to the old guy you could see them really smooching it. I’d be playing a few games of chess with the bartender, listening to way too serious talks about desk styles, models, accounts and distribution orders. You would’ve thought the fate of the country was at stake in the noble pursuit of desk peddling. Once I heard one talking about “the upper echelons of the company,” and pictured squadrons of sycophant sales people behind business desks floating across the skies in formation.

At night I’d retreat to my apartment studio, fill my claw foot tub to the brim, and float in it reading Faulkner and Fitzgerald. Listening to music and the plaintive sounds of the night, voices trailing off, imagining other people’s erotic, illustrious lives.

Living on this shelf in the city, I started to dream about green open spaces. Sirens and horns on Piedmont were affecting my nerves; buses and trucks shaking the building, choppers droning overhead. I started to feel closed in and claustrophobic with the heat and fumes, people and noise. I had a single box fan that spun hypnotically in the window twenty-four hours a day like a locked airplane propeller. I would’ve felt too bottled up with a window air conditioner grinding on, refrigerating the place. I liked being near the heart of the city, or thought I did, but was starting to feel caged. I pictured stepping out the back door to a green field surrounded by trees. I smelled fresh air, grass between my toes, no one was on top of or around me.

I’d had my fill of the madhouse Mansion and its dysfunctional inhabitants. A friend told me about a jazz club across the park where an eccentric musician called the Colonel was doing off the wall standup. The night I stumbled into the place changed my life. I’d met the Colonel ten years earlier, when we were teenagers, and after a meteoric success with his wired, legendary band, The Hampton Grease Band, and major life changes in Saturn Return, he’d become Colonel Crawford Boyd, Ret., at 28, trying to regain his sanity with the most bizarre comedy on the planet he called The Theater of Embarrassment. Within weeks I was managing the bar, the Colonel and I were hanging out, and I was doing comedy with him and by myself, something I’d never thought about doing. I’d been living like a monk, under a rock, and suddenly I was managing a jazz club, making people laugh, feeling like some human rocket ready to take off. There was nothing like seeing cackling faces grinning up at you, the whole place fixed on you as you sacrificed a few minutes of unrestrained, wild-headed abandonment, basically going nuts on stage.

A waitress named Ebbie was sitting at the bar after work with a Christmas canister; I opened it, seeing what looked like date balls, popping one in my mouth. It had a bland, earthy taste, and when I asked what they were, she said, “Did you eat one of those? Those are hash oil balls. You won’t believe where you are in thirty minutes.” By the time I got home it kicked in. I was rolling around on my bed and floor, laughing hysterically. I’d never laughed so hard in my life, for hours and hours, at everything and nothing. Which was pretty much where I was now. I was just flying. Whatever else was wrong, or hard, or however much I was struggling as a writer, I’d found a door into performing, an antidote for just about any misery. It was laughter. It always was, from then on. Every night we went on stage and did something bizarre and harmlessly insane we’d never done before. When we came off, when I was around the crazy Colonel, I was still laughing, laughing till I cried. Nothing on earth was so serious you couldn’t laugh at the same time, because even the stupidest, vilest, most horrible shit was also funny for its pure absurdity. You laughed at things that weren’t funny to stay sane.

You could not be unhappy around the Colonel. He could drive you nuts, test your own sanity, but you were laughing at the same time. I was going with Ebbie now, the three of us hanging everywhere together. She was like a mothering sister to him, he and I were as much like brothers as you can be without being blood related. Everywhere we went someone asked if we were brothers. It got to be ridiculous, but we knew it was essentially true anyway. At Chinese Garden on Highland a waitress asked if we were brothers, and when we said we weren’t, she got irritated and told us we were, to stop lying. We were brothers, she could tell, and she was getting so aggravated, causing a scene, we admitted it: okay, we’re brothers. I knew it, she said. Silly boys, you can’t fool me.

The jazz club was the hippest job I ever had, and not like a job at all half the time, though I worked long nights there. It was more of a scene and like home where a party went on every night and you were the host, getting paid for it. The best jazz bands were coming in, drawing alluring women, visiting celebrities, and the oddest characters in the city. It was a writer’s paradise, and every night the Colonel or I or both of us would take the stage at 2 A.M. and more or less lose our minds. It was a comic’s playground where you could test material, taking it out as far as you wanted. Then we’d grab breakfast, laugh some more, come in the next day and do it again.

One winter night he called from his room in a friend’s house across the park, and said, “Ron, I just found a snake in my bed! A snake in my bed, what does that mean? What do you think that means? A fucking snake in my bed?” I was trying to calm him, telling him animals searched for warm places in winter, it didn’t mean anything, don’t worry about it. “But it has to mean something; a snake in my bed? What the hell’s a snake doing in my bed? A snake in my bed! Ha ha!” I don’t know, I said. What do you think it means? It doesn’t have to mean anything, does it?“ Oh my God,” he said, in a chuckling, crazed, hushed voice. What is it? I said. “A blanket just flew by the window.” He began to cackle hysterically. “There was a snake in my bed, and now a blanket just flew by the window. Oh my God. I’m on the third floor.”

In December the jazz club closed, for absurd reasons I won’t go into here, and we were distraught and back on the street. It was like we’d been kicked out of our home. The Colonel, who knew virtually everyone in the music business, wanted Ebbie and I to go to New York with him to catch the city’s buzz, hear music, eat at some favorite great restaurants. A famed jazz guitarist who had a loft in Manhattan was on tour and letting the Colonel stay there. We took off in Ebbie’s Opel Cadet that was the best car we had, already putting out heavy fumes. We made it into the city, went on a wild spree, laughed our asses off, heard groups like Don Cherry, Oregon and Leon Thomas, ate at Victor’s Cuban Café and other fine restaurants, and played and cut up a lot, catching the city’s Christmas energy for a week before heading home.

It was fifteen degrees, wind blowing, when we headed down the New Jersey Turnpike, fumes in the car so heavy we kept having to stop and stumble out on the side of the road to keep from passing out. It was like a lethal drug, the blue, floating CO 2 inside the car choking us to death. There was no way we’d make it home like this. I came up with the brilliant idea of making breathing tubes out of tall grocery store posters, four feet long, wrapped with rubber bands. We actually drove home breathing through these things sticking out the windows, looking absolutely nuts. Everyone on the road stared at us as the car lost power. We did everything we could not to laugh, because laughing we’d get smoke in our lungs. But we did nothing but laugh anyway, looking at each other, made it into a hysterical road game, taking three giddy days to get back to Atlanta. I wrote about it in bizarre and agonizingly hilarious detail in another story called New York With The Invisible Whip. The whole trip was glowing and ecstatic madness, especially the breathing tube parts, funnier than I can describe here.

When we got home from this rare high, we didn’t have jobs and it was dead of winter, and we were grieving losing our club. We were scrambling to find other work like it, which didn’t exist. I worked in a straight restaurant bar in Buckhead, serving old people dry martinis in the afternoon, and thought I’d lose my mind. I bounced to the other extreme, bartending in a smoke-filled rock and roll bar in Virginia Highland where the B-52’s played the week before playing Mick Jagger’s birthday party in New York. I was doing standup there one night, using a hard women’s manikin leg as a prop, substitute for the Colonel’s inflatable one, playing it like a guitar. I had a rubber hand, which I pretended had a life of its own, choking me, stuffed it in my mouth, turned red as a beet as if I were passing out, did a complete deadfall off the stage on top of the manikin leg, and broke three ribs. For weeks every time I breathed it felt like I was being stabbed. Sex was a comical mixture of pleasure and torture.

After a year, Ebbie and I were on and off, arguing over silly stuff. She was driving me crazy questioning where I was, who I was with, who I talked to, and I broke it off with her. I had a Volkwagen bug I’d paid $600 for, I could tear the hell out of without worrying about too much. I was at my writing table working that night, listening to Wayne Shorter, my eternal window fan purring, when I heard what I knew was my bug starting up on the street. I ran to the window, could only see the top of the car, not into it, but watched whoever was in it back up and take off toward Piedmont Avenue.

I couldn’t believe it. Why that car? I felt like I was tripping. As beat up and old and rough as it was, it was a part of me, and someone had just stolen it right under my nose. The police were nonchalant, bored sounding even, saying they’d keep an eye out but not to get my hopes up. “They’re probably headed down Piedmont right now! You can catch them! Put out an APB or something, you can catch them!” We’ll let you know, they said. I was frantic, emotional about Ebbie already—it’d been hours since we’d broken up–and because of it I was sure she’d stolen it, or had someone steal it.

I called the Colonel and told him I thought she’d stolen it, and he started cackling. “Are you out of your mind?” he said. “You’re crazier than I am. She didn’t steal your goddamn car, come on. Ebbie? Why would she do that? Ha ha ha! You’re nuts! You broke up, so she came over and stole your car? That’s fantastic! That’s the best goddamn thing I’ve ever heard!”

In the jazz club I’d made good money with salary and tips, buying dozens of books from a discount catalogue cheap. It was a thrill to get boxes of books in the mail and fill up book cases with them. I had collections of great writers, but these were odd markdowns I’d probably never read anyway. I’d been soaring up and up and up, feeling a blissful invincibility. I was indestructible and bullet proof. I’d found my voice as a writer—I could feel it now in everything I put on paper–but that winter something else came over me. An earthquake shift in consciousness, a change in awareness, the kind that’s emotionally jarring. I was a writer, but where was I going with it? What did I want to say? Were there moral boundaries? What was writing without a rudder, a core, some kind of soul to it? Suddenly big questions washed over me like a dark cloud or shadow, changing my perspective on everything.

I’d been raised in church, had strong faith and never doubted it. Now, out of the blue, it was questioning me. Coming across a book about end times, I suddenly felt a part of me was ending. I was not the same person. For weeks I read Revelations in the Bible, reading what the end times book said about it, having nightmares and hallucinatory daydreams, rarely leaving my apartment. The world suddenly seemed like a dysfunctional place, a disaster that couldn’t keep going.

The end times book painted an imminent end of the world with all prophecies falling into place in the next few years: governments collapsing, plagues, wars, the Beast, the Antichrist rising. I felt like I was living in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. It was as if I was watching the end of the world right now. Looking around in 1978, it wasn’t hard to imagine it. We were polluting and poisoning the earth, the world was being paved over, there were constant wars, people were doing horrific things to each other, especially in “The Holy Land.” Greed was strangling mankind. Who believed things weren’t devolving into chaos?

Ebbie had converted me to a vegetarian, and I was studying advanced stages of that. I found a radical health book called Survival Into The 21st Century that got into the coming apocalypse, preaching purifying your diet, “cleansing” your body. The book took you from eating kosher foods, to vegetarian, to eating raw vegetables, to fruitarian, to liquidarian, and finally becoming a “breathatarian,” living off of distilled water with a few drops of lemon and prayer. Supposedly Mother Teresa did this for periods of time. Supposedly, if you were “cleansed” enough you didn’t need food, you could rise above that shameful curse of killing and eating things. Fat chance of that. I wrote a joke poem:“Don’t turn into Carrion, become a Breathatarian.” This guy talked about meditating and “eating colors.” I was doing yoga, juice fasting, going from my football playing weight of 235 pounds to 175. I bought organic food from health food stores, local honey, but didn’t think it peculiar I was flat out guzzling honey from the jar, as if the more I drank the healthier I’d get.

I was “shedding my skin,” cleansing like mad. Freaking out over the end of the world, amazed how people could just walk around as if everything was hunky dory with this certain apocalypse coming. Everyone seemed oblivious but me, as if I was living in a separate reality. I holed up in my apartment for weeks, months, reading, praying, the idea of going to a bar sickening me.

Ebbie and I weren’t together, but we’d worked together some in the rock and roll bar. She called to see if I was okay, wondering why she didn’t see me out. I told her what I was feeling, that I didn’t want to be around all those drunk bar people, smoke and noise. She reminded me that even Jesus hadn’t separated himself from all that, he’d spent time with the worse of humanity. I reminded her that I wasn’t Jesus. I talked to the Colonel about it, who surprised me by not telling me I was off my rocker. Yeah man, I’ve got to get it together too, he said. Survival Into The 21st Century guy said to get out of the city, go to the country and join or start a commune, become self sufficient. All the end of the world freaks acted like it was happening next week, next year at the latest. There was no doubt about it, all the signs were there. Prepare! Get ready! Cleanse and Prepare!

One night I started angrily slinging my cheap books off the shelves into the trash. They suddenly represented everything empty, phony, shallow and temporary to me. I was depressed and distraught and wondered what was wrong with me. I realized as I fasted and meditated, I’d had this naive view of life, of my life, and that I was getting hit in the face with things that really mattered. It was shaking me to my roots, redefining me with what was consequential. I’d had a kind of “anything goes” attitude, everything was hilarious and absurd, nothing really mattered. But things did matter. They mattered a lot. And after you knew what they were, you’d know those things from then on. It wasn’t that I hadn’t known anything, I just hadn’t known enough, and was disgusted with my former state of not knowing.

Comedy was okay, but I wasn’t in a comical mood; I still wanted to write, but I had to believe in what I was writing on an intentional level, otherwise I was just randomly slinging shit out there, some of it harmful. The written word carried karmic weight. The pen was mightier than the sword was no joke, especially when it came to what was written in your soul. The power of life and death was in the tongue.

I wouldn’t write anything I couldn’t stand behind, believe in, feel clean about, that would drag down the human spirit. I couldn’t live with misleading, toxic ideas that would lead people astray. It had to somehow add to the redemption of the world, not the other way around. It could be harsh, tragic, dramatic, a mirror of life and reality, but not espousing hate, darkness, evil. It had to separate evil from good. I’d already found my voice as a writer; now I’d found my conscience.

I began to realize that at some point all these prophecies in Revelations would come true, one way or another. But in the meantime you had to live a linear existence. It may be next week when the world crumbled, a thousand years from now, but I didn’t have to drag myself through hell right now for the sins and stupidities of the world. It was hard enough just paying the rent. It wasn’t the end of the physical world I needed to worry about, it was the spiritual beginning my own. What I’d just gone through was an overlay, a layer of wisdom I’d carry with me for the rest of my life, but not something to obsess over.

The house I saw myself in, with the long green field behind it, I was going there at will now; I lived there half the time. If I could see and feel this place so vividly, maybe I could live there in my head instead of having to go there at all. “The mind is its own place,” Milton said, “And in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” But no, I still needed that place. This cramped apartment was getting to me.

I was sitting there one spring day wondering why I was so weak. I’d been “cleansing” like mad, it couldn’t be from lack of that. Every time I’d get low I’d guzzle more honey. I realized that couldn’t be good. I’d gotten to the point I was eating raw squash, carrots, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, raw everything, thinking you could magically override the need for protein if you cleansed your body and spirit enough, on the way to becoming a “breathatarian.” The radical Survival Into The 21st Century guy had guilted me even about eating vegetables; fruit was the only karma-free food, he said: only fruit dropped to the ground when ripe so you didn’t have to tear it off. All the sudden I wondered what would happen if I went to Happy Herman’s Deli, bought one of their fat, juicy, rotisserie chickens, and ate the whole damn fat-slathered bird in one sitting. How would that feel?

I picked one up, came home and devoured the whole thing, and felt wonderful. Not sad or sick or guilty. I felt my body’s cells absorbing it, a surge of strength and mental clarity coming over me I hadn’t felt in a year. Here was a revelation. Cleansing? Yes! Ha ha ha! I’d been starving myself. I’d been guzzling honey because my sugar level was so low; I wasn’t eating anything to convert to sugar.

To hell with this fanatical stuff, I thought. For God sakes, let’s live. Let’s go hear some music, have a few beers, laugh and lighten up and be a flawed, karma-ridden, meat eating, living and dying human being again. Fuck cleansing. Fuck the end of the world. Like Brando said in The Last Tango, “As soon as it ends it starts again.” I was ready to begin again.

My best remedy for not worrying about the miserable state of the world was being in love, my favorite drug. I didn’t care if the world blew up when I was moonstruck over a girl– I could die happily in that euphoric state. I missed Ebbie and wondered what she was up to. I called her and she was seeing someone. I told her I wanted to see her again. Well, that wasn’t happening, because she was going with this guy. Oh come on, I said, he was just a guy, we were special, let’s get back together. She laughed and scoffed at me and we joked around like old times, and I told her I’d get her back, wait and see.

Then I did something you should never do unless you’re absolutely sure about it and why. The old adage: be careful what you ask for. I sat and concentrated for hours, with every fiber of my being, into permeating her heart and consciousness, making her think about me. I traveled to her with my thoughts as if beaming myself to her. I’d gotten my will back, and made it impossible for her not to think about me. I focused myself into her so strong, with such purity of purpose, after a week she called and said, “I was just sitting here, and it was as if you materialized in the room. It was so strange. Are you doing something? You’re doing this, aren’t you?” Yes, I told her, because we’re supposed to be together, and I’m not stopping until we are again.

It was a matter of weeks before she was explaining to her other boyfriend why she had to go back to me. And of course it didn’t last when we got back together; later I realized it was just unfinished business. It was a bit like playing a role in a film about a relationship we’d had before. We had some fun that summer, but we were just spending time together. We were too different in too many ways and wanted different things. At least I’d played it all the way out to be sure. I saw my fruitless compulsion clearly concluded early one morning when I went to her house and found another man’s car in her driveway.

I was deliciously heartbroken for exactly two weeks. I figured I deserved it though. And then I was ecstatic. Once again I’d overblown, concocted, imagined a love I couldn’t live without for the chemical delirium of it. It was a good segue out of all that “cleansing” though, and helped me put the end of the world on ice.

I was celebrating with two couples on a Saturday night, drinking beer, smoking pot, Ingesting some grey, unidentifiable powder called “MDA,” but no telling what was in it. We were laughing and happy, listening to rock music, playing guitars, dancing and enjoying a blissful, painless dream together. I felt so damn good; I’m not sure I’d ever felt so good before. I must’ve started blacking out, or my mind was so altered things were not falling into sequential or continuous sense. Suddenly I was alone in the kitchen and everyone was gone or asleep, and I saw the dawn outside. I found a scrap of paper and scribbled a cryptic note about the fun we’d had, my friends later told me was complete gibberish–something a chicken would’ve literally scratched.

I floated out into the warm Sunday morning, got into my Delta 88, and started to drive. The next thing I remember I’m in a space ship. I wasn’t really sure how I’d gotten there. I hear the quiet wind, and it’s as if someone else is piloting this thing. I’m automatically doing it, or some part of my detached brain is, but I suddenly realize I’m too impaired to be doing it, and don’t know where I am or where I’m going. I make out friendly, familiar blue interstate signs as I cross a bridge, but my vision’s so blurred they could’ve been under water. I can’t make out the number or direction; then my front left corner panel blows off with a bang, a dangling piece of it flying and flapping in the wind, tapping against my car. What the hell was that? I think. Don’t tell me I’ve hit something, or someone—what? Another car?–maybe it was a post or wall. Regardless, I’m seriously worried, scared. I’ve got to get home safely, but I’m blind, really not in control here. I’m aware enough to know I’m dangerously fucked up.

After crossing back and forth over this bridge, craning to make out signs, I smash into a car with two older women in it. I see them get out, walking around their car looking at it, see they’re okay, back up, and start down the road to find a phone. I’m too drugged and inebriated to deal with this. I’ll find a phone, call my brother to pick me up, they’ll have my tag anyway, and I’ll deal with this when I’m sober. But my car is making a god awful, screeching sound, a fender or something scraping the front wheel, one of the most horrific, grating, maddening rackets you’ve ever heard. I do a slow U turn, come back past the two nice looking, grey haired women, probably on their way to church, floating past them slowly, me looking like I’m just going for a leisurely Sunday drive, them staring at me with appropriate bewilderment and certainty that I’m out of my mind. Across the bridge I come to a house on the right and pull in the drive. I get out and stand looking down the road several hundred yards where the women stand watching me, still not completely sure this isn’t a dream. I’m hoping it is; but I’ve got a stunned, sickening feeling it isn’t. It’s a drug induced nightmare.

I walk to the front door of the house and knock. No one comes to the door, and I keep lightly knocking. I hear a car engine pull in behind mine, and keep knocking. I look back, see the Sheriff’s car, his arm out the window, turn around and continue knocking nonchalantly, as if the Sheriff pulling into the drive has nothing to do with me I hear a low, gruff, older man’s voice call from the car, “Hey son, come over here.” I turn around and walk to him, as if curious about what he wants. “Why’d you leave the scene?” he says. “I was looking for a phone to call for help.”

They keep asking where I’d come from, why my eyes were so dilated, what had I been taking? Did I hit another car back there somewhere? Strangely, I never hear another word about that car. I keep telling them I’d had a whole lot of beer, so much I can’t remember the bar I was at either, to protect my friends and not reveal any other substances mixed with it. I sit in the squad car being the captive Sunday morning spectacle for travesty sightseers.

My lawyer, repairs to the woman’s car, and the DUI, cost several thousand dollars. Today they would’ve cost ten times that, my license, and who knows what else. But it was a clear enough wake-up call– I didn’t need another one. Driving into oncoming traffic today, I still cringe at the thought of meeting myself coming the other way that morning, and pray I never do. “You play, you pay,” the Colonel scolded me. “You’ve just hit Saturn Return, son,” he chuckled. Saturn being the planet of fears and restrictions, returning to the place it was when you were born twenty-eight years ago. “Straighten up, get your shit together, or it kills you. You’re damn lucky to be alive.”

Ebbie called to see if I was all right. She felt partially responsible, but I told her she had nothing to do with it, which wasn’t altogether true. I was celebrating when it happened, but if not for her I wouldn’t have been celebrating so riotously hard.

The Colonel asked if I wanted a new place to live. A masseuse friend needed a roommate for his rental house while he worked in the Bahamas half the year. The house sounded too good to be true. The Colonel exaggerated everything, but had a gift too for discovering the best musicians, food, and special places.

I drove north on Roswell Road to the last driveway on the left before you crossed the Chattahoochee River. As you were about to go over the bridge, you didn’t have time to look back to see the mid century ranch house set behind a brick roundabout and giant oaks. It was late October and burnt-orange leaves floated along the riverbank.

I got out in a daze, following the stone walkway past the screen porch into a long field-like backyard. Cottonwoods leaned in tandem down the river. The walkway led down to a small boat house, dock, an old boat slip. I stood in a trance looking into the long green expanse ending a hundred yards back in dense woods, no other houses in sight on this side of the river. The drive ran to the left of the house, winding uphill into thick woods where the old retired couple lived who owned the twenty-two acres. It’d been an iconic party house in the sixties when the band The Box Tops lived there, hundreds of people just showing up like at Gatsby’s parties.

It was the place I’d escaped to in my head. Laying in my cramped apartment with people yelling, haranguing, hammering on all sides of me. Breathing city fumes, listening to helicopters circling and sirens all night. This was the place I’d visualized and the river was thrown in with it. The house was rustic, modern and old, three small bedrooms, a large bath, a great high-ceilinged room with a massive stone fireplace which gave off onto the screen porch with a double lover’s swing. It was a virtual writer’s resort. “Are you kidding?” I asked the Colonel. “It’s yours if you want it,” he said. “Victor won’t be there most of the time, split the rent and you’ll have the place to yourself in a few weeks.”

In a matter of days I’d moved my writing table, a few pieces of furniture, my bookcases and books. My last night in the apartment I lay dreaming about the river house, almost afraid it would vanish and I’d still be living here forever, when I heard gunshots outside.  I ran to the window and heard frantic screams from a man up the street, his voice cracking, and looking through the trees saw a small black man sprinting diagonally down the street away from the voice. The man turned in the middle of the street and fired a pistol back up and toward the voice, which came from a second floor window. It was like something in a movie or dream, a living painting by Chirico. I saw flashes from the gun with three shots, the other man’s voice going silent. The small black man turned and ran down the sidewalk, his boots clacking under my window toward Piedmont Avenue.

Nothing like that had happened in seven years I’d lived there. So it happens the last night I’m here, I thought. I had to laugh. It was perfect. It was like a bon voyage send off, the spirits saying, “You’ve done your time in the city, now get the hell out.”

The kitchen in the river house was bi-level, and you could look up and down the river watching boats pass by, body-less heads floating through the fog. My typewriter on the writing table, I could write looking back into the green field, watching the orange sunset on the water and through the turning trees. Apartment lights blinked up on the hill on the other side where hundreds of people lived. I felt a twinge of guilt I had this side of the river to myself, but after years in the city living between four walls, I relished it.

The Colonel was a nomad in those days, crashing on different friends’ couches every night. His bronze Montego made a familiar, signature squeak when he bounced into the yard. I was always glad to hear that peculiar creak announcing him. He was a one man traveling medicine show, cracking me up constantly, making the worst situations bearable, everything else just hilarious as hell. You have to go crazy to stay sane, he’d say.

Every seven years there’s another cycle, they say; I’d somehow survived this one. Without real, imagined, or manufactured love, and laughing till I cried, I never would’ve made It a day. A few years later I was acting in theater, which led to film and television. But writing was my first love, and those seven years in the city gave me plenty to write about.

At four in the morning blue police lights would appear on the bridge, filling up the porch and great room with soft blue flashing light as a house crept slowly across the river. You could hear faint voices of the movers, the flatbed trailer wheels screeching and creaking, and watch from the screen porch as someone’s old home became someone’s new one, crawling north slowly away from the city.

 

In 2012 Ron Clinton Smith published the literary thriller “Creature Storms”. He also published “A Pilgrimage To Dennis Hopper” in River Teeth Journal of Narrative Nonfiction, which was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He also has work in Upstreet, Zoetic Press, Two Bridges Review, and Soft Cartel.

He is also a film actor who has appeared in “We Are Marshall”, “The Mist”, “True Detective”, “Hidden Figures”, and “Boy Erased”.

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