Archive for August, 2011

LOD are you out there?

Posted in Blog on August 2, 2011 by trevorgregg

I open my eyes, which is a mistake. The pain is manifold. The world’s grown impossibly bright in my brief absence. I shut them again but the damage is done.

I become aware of my brain meat. I feel it pressing against the back wall of my skull. My brain seems quite heavy, disproportionately dense for something so delicate. Perhaps I’m over-educated.

I try to lie still, but unpleasantness begets discomfort, and discomfort begets pain… I turn my head to the side, seeking a more comfortable resting position for my maladjusted brain. I feel its pinkish-grey mass flop as I turn over.

It slumps from one side of my head to the other like a specimen in a jar.

My right temple presses against the unyielding, granite-like surface of the pillow. What meager relief this new position affords quickly wears off, and the side of my skull soon seems just as hateful and uncompromising as the back. I turn to the left, with similar results. Whatever gory, gelatinous system that’s supported my brain in safety and comfort for all these years appears to have been critically damaged. My head’s shock absorbers, like so many good things in life, are only truly appreciated once they’re gone.

I become aware of Ellie getting ready for work, and though she’s probably trying to be quiet, it sounds like she’s hitting a pile of tubas with a rake. How can one girl digging through a closet make such a riot of noise?

The idea of moving or even moaning faintly in protest fills me with nauseous dread, however, so I hold myself impossibly still, and tolerant.

Time passes, an eternity of clamorous hanger-banging and the jet-engine roar of hair-drying. Maybe she is being deliberately loud. Maybe she hates me. Maybe she exults in my obvious suffering, in salting my wounds with her goddamn morning cacophony.

She must. There is no other explanation for such a racket.

Her shoes crack across the hardwood floor to the bedside.

“How are you feeling?”, she whispers. I make no move, no response. I trust my silence communicates everything. She leans over and touches my agonized forehead. “You smell like booze. Have fun this weekend.”, she says. I draw on deep reserves of self-discipline and force a meager eyes-closed smile.

Her deafening, gunshot steps boom out into the hall.

As I hear the door close, I roll slowly on to my side and puke weakly onto the pile of rumpled clothes next to the bed.

A few more minutes pass. I pray for death, for the solace of the grave. Release me oh lord. Smite me with an aneurysm or a meteor. My prayers go predictably unanswered. I get up and limp to the shower, wretched.

Standing under the cold stream of water, I decide once and for all that hell is a cheap whiskey hangover.

—————-

I find Peter and Chris playing Mario Kart in the front room. Chris is in last place and keeps steering his little mushroom-hatted driver off of cliffs.

“You’re terrible.”, Peter says.

“Fuck off.”, Chris shouts. He kicks viciously at the back of Peter’s chair.

Quint is watching, curled up in his Spiderman pajamas in front of the coffee table. Paul is playing with his phone and murmuring to himself, because he’s weird. They turn to look at me, and laugh. Though all visibly hungover, they’re nowhere near the human ruin that I am. My agony shows on my face, apparently, even behind my black sunglasses. I clutch at the door frame.

I’d like to think that I can drink harder than any of them, and on nights like last night I act like it, but the bitter truth is that the lightest of my friends, Paul, still outweighs me by 50 pounds, and there’s no featherweight division in drinking games.

“Heard you puking this morning.”, Quint says. I nod. “What’s for breakfast?”

We rarely get together in the six years since we graduated, so I am determined to spend as little time as possible this weekend crippled or couchbound. My body will just have to deal with it.

“Put your shoes on.”, I croak.

—————-

I watch them attack mounds of greasy eggs, seared potatoes, and various pork derivatives. Chris gnaws at a breakfast burrito the size of a cinderblock. Flecks of chorizo stick in his red beard.

Dear god, the smell, the putrid fried-meat stench of their diner breakfast… This is what a crematorium must smell like. I’ve taken two sips of my iced tea, and even that threatens to return up my throat, violent and rebellious.

“You want some?”

“How bout some toast?”

“Coffee?”

They threaten me generously with forkfuls of fried things, waving them at me, goading me. I shake my head. “I think I’ll meet you guys back at the apartment.” I say, standing on shaking legs, my determination to hang tough overruled by my pathetic constitution. Leaving the house may have been a bit ambitious.

Outside, a brunette in a business skirt watches me scornfully as I cling to a parking meter and spit a dribble of bile into the Polk street gutter.

I give her a disgusting, acidic smile and she hurries off to work.

Our vacation is off to a good start.

———-

They ripped out the best bar, of course. San Luis’ descent into chain-store despair is so predictable, so trite that we barely even comment on it. This is America. We pave the plains, kill off the bison and the indians, and tear down all the good bars and replace them with Pottery Barns. Obviously a motherfucking Pottery Barn was necessary. Now McCarthy’s is just a hazy memory, and we can hardly find the energy to mourn. SLO’s just another small town devoured by the galactic corporate amoeba, that insatiable invincible spacebeast that eats history and beauty and shits Targets.

“Remember when that old dude, the bouncer, got knifed?” Chris asks. We’re sitting in front of a chain coffee shop in the contrived faux-European alley thing they’ve built on the once-hallowed ground.

“Yep. Three stab wounds. 82 years old. He was back at work in 2 weeks.”

“I forgot about that guy. What a champion.”

“He was more than a champion,” I shout, “he was an institution. A living, breathing monument.” He didn’t know us, but we knew him.

Who knows where he is now. Probably dead in some pauper’s grave out in Nipomo. The last and greatest king barfly of the Central Coast.

Three overweight women in matching peach blouses come out of the store across from us, cackling into their phones and talking at each other. I always wondered who spent money in these awful places, what kind of simple scum buy enough fucking lamps or whatever to keep Pottery Barn, Pier 1 and their ilk profitable. It’s fat chicks in peach blouses. I resist a powerful, caged-monkey urge to shit in my hand and fling it at them.

“Fucking Pottery Barn.”

We’re outraged for about twenty minutes and yell at each other and passersby about the Death of the SLO Soul before we’re rousted by a security guard. We walk back to the car.

Chris sticks his ass out the window and moons the brand new Apple Store as we drive by, frightening the locals.

It’s strange to be back.

————-

We stay at the Embassy Suites on Madonna, just off the freeway at the edge of town. Across the street is a manure-smelling spinach field. Most of the other guests are families, people with three or four young children doing whatever it is you do when you have three or four young children. There are a few obvious college scouters, parents with 18-year-old kids in town to look at the school. The kids are awkward and impatient, and walk a few steps ahead or behind their parents.

We’re definitely the only group of five late-twenties men, and the other guests shrink from us in fear and give us strange looks.

We’ve come back, I want to say. We ruled this town like lords, once upon a time, and now we’ve returned to remember the dream. We were young and proud.

Paul fiddles with the elevator buttons as we ride up to our room. Quint and Peter argue about where we’ll have dinner, which staple college restaurant we’ll revisit. I lean against the wall and think about how old we all are.

The door opens and a mom with her toddler daughter step in to the elevator. I try to smile at them but she turns away, unwilling to make eye contact.

We get off at the top floor.

————-

Frog and Peach serves hard liquor, now. It was beer-only in our day, an oasis of cool in the strip of collared-shirt bro bars. The live band still sucks, though, so at least not everything’s changed. A talented band playing the Frog would be quite literally the end of an era.

“Split up.” I say, shooing Peter and Paul away. “Three of us is enough of a sausagefest, all five of us standing together is a damn fortress.”

Chris and I walk out back by the creek. There’s a bouncer out here smoking and talking to a middle-aged Asian woman. Chris and I smile at a couple of girls across the table, but the stink of long-term relationship hangs on us like a fog and they turn away.

“They see your wedding ring.” I say, flicking beer foam at Chris.

“They see the leash marks around your whooped-ass neck.” he says, glaring at me.

Not that it matters. We both know our skirt-chasing days are behind us, but obviously it’d be gratifying to know we were still at least approachable, that we aren’t so old and pathetic that we should be shot and turned into glue and dogfood.

“You know Dille has three kids?”

“The fuck?” I say, shocked.

“Three kids.”

I remember Dille as a short guy with a military haircut. I remember him and his roommate, Dustin, spending an hour primping their 1/3 inch long hair and ironing their t-shirts before going out. They were good kids, despite their weird vanity.

I remember Dille running around the floor of our dorm, naked, being chased by Brian. Both were armed with spearguns, though I can’t remember why, or where the hell they got spearguns. As far as I know, none of us ever went or have ever been spearfishing.

Nobody was hurt that night, miraculously… But meetings were held, people were written up, and there was much displeasure from the Powers that Be after one of the couches in the lounge ended up with a three-foot aluminum spear shot through it. It was a shitty couch anyway.

Now Dille’s got three kids, and presumably the house, wife, and minivan to match.

“That’s a shame. You remember… where the hell did they get those spearguns?”

Chris just starts laughing.

“Oh man I remember that…”

A girl walks by, cute but short.

“Hey.” I say.

“Hey,” she says back, glancing at us and walking by into the bar. She disappears into the neon glow behind the swinging doors.

“Still got it.” I say. Chris highfives me and we click our glasses together.

“She wanted you.”

“Yep.” I say, leaning back against the warped wooden fence.

——————

Later, after many drinks, we’re out back at a bar called Black Sheep. The exterior patio is sheltered by a trellis completely overgrown with ivy. Dim and damp, it’s like a cave with barstools.

Paul, glassy-eyed and rowdier than normal, is yelling at us.

“That’s not my fucking address.”

“Yes it is.” Chris says, laughing over his beer. Chris has known Paul since they were ten, and he’s shooting Paul’s feeble attempts to feed me disinformation full of holes.

Slowly, painstakingly, I’m entering the sum total of Paul’s information and history into CatholicSingles.com. No easy task given the amount of shots we’ve had and the small screen size of my smartphone. It’s for your own good, we tell him. Signing him up for Catholic Singles rather than, say, a ‘real’ or ‘popular’ internet dating website will both appease his staunch British Catholic mom and hopefully protect him from fake Russian wives trolling for his credit card info.

I love Paul to death, but he is exactly the kind of person who would accidentally send his life savings to a fake Russian chick on the internet. And none of us want that.

Paul finishes his beer and makes a swipe for my phone. Nimble and paranoid, I avoid it with ease. Back the fuck up son, I say. We do this because we love you. Come at me again and I’ll post you on Craigslist instead.

I continue feeding Paul Shandi, heart and soul, into the Catholic Singles Fully Automatic Internet Robot Love Machine. Quint starts hissing at some girls that walk by.

“Silence! I must have total concentration. This is delicate work.” I say. “Paul, you are a many-faceted jewel of a man, a true and genuine human being amongst us low beasts. I must explain, no, I must CAPTURE you in such a way that catholic bitches on the internet love and lust for you. Now stop fucking resisting and help me fill out this form. What is your favorite color?”

“Black.”

“Blue.” Chris says, talking over Paul. Chris knows more about Paul than Paul does.

“Blue it is.”

“Would you describe your physical proportion as ‘Athletic’, ‘Generous’, or ‘Trim’?”

“Fuck off.”

“The fuck does ‘Generous’ mean?”

“Generous means fat.”

“Do you like cats?”

“No.”

“No, he doesn’t. That is correct.” Chris says, factchecking.

“Chris – you me and the internet, we’re going to find Paul a soulmate tonight. I can feel it. Love is in the air.”

We take about fifty pictures of Paul, ninety percent of which have him either flipping us off or blocking the camera with a palm like some harassed celebrity ducking the paparazzi.

Eventually Quint gets one of him, surprised, coming out of a bathroom stall. He looks a little drunk and a little cross-eyed but it’s better than him giving us the finger. We post his profile and wait for the matches to be made.

——————

We wander the streets after the bars close, checking my phone every minute or two for any contact from any Catholic Singles. Paul seems anxious for word, any word, but as his day-to-day level of anxiety is painfully high, perhaps hes not in fact any more anxious than normal. I tell him to buck up.

Small clumps of Poly kids drift by on the clean sidewalks, laughing to each other. The girls stumble in their gilded heels, shrieking, while the boys shove each other amicably into parked cars and signs. I marvel at how young they all are. Like drunk children. Did we ever look like that?

Some ancient instinct, some Pavlovian discipline draws us collectively away from downtown to the corner of an alley we once knew so well. We find ourselves standing in front of a high-end Greek restaurant, all white tablecloths and wine racks. Murals of olive trees and dramatic Mediterranean cliffs adorn the walls.

Peter stops mid sentence.

“…what?”

We stare into the plate-glass windows.

“Where’s… Where’s TA’s?”

Quint runs to the corner to check the street signs, and for a brief, brittle moment we’re shouting at each other. This is not the right spot. It can’t be.

But it is.

Our frail disbelief and confusion splinters. We are here. We are not lost.

I press my face to the glass, peering into the gloomy innards of Greek place. The floor plan is different, the aesthetic, the tables, everything, but the approximate dimensions seem right.

“Fuck.”

My hands leave long streaks on the windows as I slump down to the sidewalk. Chris lets out a piercing, animal howl, his sense of loss too powerful for words. The dream is dead.

Tio Alberto’s is no more.

———————

We duck into an all-night Belgian fry spot. Quint rips his tan corduroy jacket off and tosses it under a table. He stands in line, nonchalant, and pretends to read the menu. Outside, with a screech and a siren blast, a cop car hops up onto the curb. The cop, a white, moustached caricature of the small-town conservative policeman, shines his piercing spotlight in through the windows at us.

He’s looking, presumably, for the guy in the corduroy jacket who was just pissing in the alley in front of his squadcar.

To a city resident, the idea of actually being pursued by a cop for public urination is laughable. Perhaps pissing in the street is illegal in SF, but like jaywalking and drug use, it’s so pedestrian, so ubiquitous that the police don’t even pretend to enforce the law.

Unless you actually pissed on a cop, they’d never give you a second glance.

The brilliant, awful glare of the spotlight passes over me, and I shade my eyes. Fucking SLOPD. Some things never change.

Too lazy to actually get out of his car, he drives away a few minutes later, and Quint puts his too-easily-identifiable jacket back on. I try to make a joke. Nobody laughs. Even flight from the fuzz can’t lift our spirits.

Paul and Chris eat a basket of shitty fries in total silence.

I talk to the girl behind the counter.

“So… Belgian fries? This is the new all-night food downtown?”

She smiles and nods. This must be her first night on the job, judging by her positive attitude, her fresh-faced and kindly customer service. Soon enough she’ll learn the harsh realities of the shrieking barnyard clusterfuck that is closing time at the SLO bar scene. It’s only a matter of time before she’s hit with a flying pint glass or groped by some drunk football player. The puking and the punching and the base ugliness of state-school humanity she’ll witness for $6.25 an hour will haunt her dreams, I guarantee. I want to give her a hug and tell her to quit right now.

“Yep.”

“There used to be a place called TA’s on Garden. Heard of it?”

“No, sorry.”

“Oh, sweetie you’re pouring salt on an open wound.”

The restaurant’s empty except for my friends, the cashier girl and the Vietnamese cook lurking in the back. She looks at me with genuine concern.

“What do you mean?”

I shake my head.

“You’re a good kid.” I tell her. “You’re young. We were young too, once.”

“You aren’t that old. Thirty?” I glare at her.

“Twenty-nine, thanks. Now listen. There was this place, TA’s. It was a strange and unpredictable place, prone to unexplained closures. A family of Nicaraguan evangelicals ran it, real serious religious-types. No drinking no dancing, that sort of thing. They’d up and leave for weeks at a time to go to some crazy-ass tent revival out in the valley. The food aspired to mediocrity, at the best of times. Often it was just bad. Soggy nachos and too many onions in the burritos.”

“Doesn’t sound so great.”

“Oh but it was. When it was open at all, it was open til five or six in the morning. When all the other lights went out, when your wild and hellish night was just hitting its lowest point, when you were crossing that treacherous strait between drunk and hungover, you came to TA’s. Your buddies were there, waiting in the absurdly long line. That girl from your kinesiology class you’d been ogling for six weeks, she was there, and she said hi when you walked in. Your neighbors from two houses down, who you don’t really know, they’d already have a table and when they saw there was no place to sit, they’d ask you to come join them and you’d become lifelong friends, almost brothers. On any given Friday, more doomed relationships and regrettable plans were born in tiny Tio Alberto’s than in the rest of San Luis Obispo county combined.”

“Wow.” she says.

“And now here we are, six years later, and a young lady like you will never know the wonders of its hallowed halls. You’re stuck eating piece of shit Belgian fries with gourmet ketchup. No offense but what kind of drunk food is this? Fries? Those burritos saved lives. Many’s the alum who was brought back from the edge of alcohol poisoning by those nachos.”

“The fries aren’t very good. I know. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault. You just work here. And I’m just drunk and sentimental. This whole fucking town is a pale and depressing approximation of what it used to be.” I shake my head. She refills my soda. “Anyway. What’s your name?”

“Lara.”

“Lara, you stay safe and don’t talk to strangers. Get on the day shift.”

She laughs. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t understand, and wouldn’t care if she did, any more than I cared about what other people said when I was 19.

“Have a good night.”

I step to the door, then turn around.

“Listen, Lara, are you a single Catholic by chance?”

Paul shoves me rudely into the street before I can finish, and we stumble away from crappy restaurant. We look for the car and wait for the sun to rise.

———-

The flowers are blooming at Gus’s. Trumpet vines and other creeping ivy-like plants I don’t recognize line the side of the building. I watch the Establishment across the street, but nobody comes in or out. Even if they did, I wouldn’t know them. I’m sure all the stabbies are new stabbies.

Cars pass slowly and my eyes hurt from the bright midmorning sun.

This guy, El Tony (pronounced El Tonay) used to live in the boxy white building across the block. We’d see him riding his weird gas-powered bike around. He was a CPE, like me, and used to brag about all the super awesome computer equipment he’d steal while working as a cashier at Staples. He universally loathed, and talked constantly in every programming class we had. He also dated the ugliest girl any of us had ever seen. She looked like Swamp Thing.

I wonder what happened to that fucking guy?

I sit in one of the green plastic chairs and wait for the girl to come out through the swinging screen door with my sandwich. Peter and Quint are playing cards and talking about the places we used to live.

Up the hill from here, one Halloween, Quint pushed me off an embankment in a shopping cart. He thought he’d killed me, broken my neck, but I was fine other than scrapes and bruises.

I have no memory of the event, but he swears it happened.

A few blocks from Gus’s, if you turn left on Laurel, you can drive up the hill and find Peter’s old place. We made potato guns there, with PVC pipe we bought at Home Depot. They were dangerous, fickle contraptions to say the least. Peter shot one next to my ear and I went deaf for a week. Chris shot a wadded-up sponge out of his at Paul, and even with such soft ordnance it left a welt the size of a grapefruit on his chest. Brian, ever the one to take things too far, shot a yam through their metal shed.

In the three weeks we played with those homemade cannons, we went through fifty cans of Aquanet and had the cops called on us no less than eight times. There was a rest home a block away, and the skittish old people cooped up in their rooms watching 20/20 thought every loud noise was the first shot in a city-wide gangfight, or some kind of minority uprising. The townies were not known for their benevolent attitude towards the college kids. The cops never figured out it was us, though I can only imagine what they’d have said when they saw our three-foot long thirty pound plastic bazookas strewn about the house. Probably would have arrested us as terrorists.

I remember Chris firing his off the back deck once, and the barrel jammed. The explosion blew the back of the cannon off and burned away his eyebrows.

The girl calls my name and brings my sandwich over when I raise my hand. It’s early and the lunch crowd hasn’t arrived. I drink my beer and watch the cars pass.

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