for Victor Cruz

For somebody who has spent so much time alone in his life, I have not lived alone that much. Having the right kind of roommate is almost as good as living alone, especially if you have different hours and would never think of cooking a meal together because you just throw your face down into the trough. Coming from a largish family, and parents who were cramped in apartments as kids, I subscribe to a theory of family life that allows for personal space, something I think is part of my problem, the basic problem of life being selfishness. But the years I lived together with myself I consider good years, so I will always love where I lived on Walker Avenue, in Greensboro, North Carolina, trying to cook myself some black bean soup and filling the whole place up with bean smoke after soaking them so long and thinking they were pretty. Eating American cheese sandwiches on the cheapest white bread toast I could find with mayonnaise and horseradish. At times, it felt like being in some Beatrix Potter book with people, completely out of my normal experience, yet burrowed down deeply in it.

*

I found the place after looking for an apartment for six hours. My philosophy major friend, also named Dave, drove me down from Pittsburgh via side trips to Virginia Beach, where we went to a bar that shared a dance floor with an arcade that was filled with smoke, bad synthesizer music, enlisted men and women from the navy, and thirteen-year-olds who shyly tiptoed out of their gate still holding wooden ski balls and then tiptoed back to roll for more tickets, and Raleigh, where we detected faint smells of Republican in bars near our hotel. Neither one of us had consciously ever seen a crepe myrtle. We thought the trees looked like pink, white and purple poodles, which they did.

I didn’t know too much about Dave. He was from Pittsburgh, too. He had a single mom and was from the suburbs, and he loved the neo-Thomists. He wanted to go get a PhD from the University of Toronto and talk about Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. He associated being thoughtful with being earthy. He had an early beard and wore a beret sometimes. He could have gotten away with even weirder hats. A year younger than me, he still told me what to buy at K-Mart for the apartment. “You will need this frying pan. And these, these bombs to kill whatever kind of insects will be in the apartment you will find.” He had some knowledge of the lay of the loner land. The place he helped me vet was tiny and cheap. Three hundred and thirty dollars a month, but it had a big bedroom, a small kitchen, a bathroom and a walk-in closet hallway to the bathroom. The bedroom had windows that went practically floor to ceiling, and the walls were painted green. The kitchen had linoleum, a round table, a fridge, a sink and a stove, and there was a tiny window over the sink. The best part was it had a screened-in porch about the size of a desk, with shelves on one side and a rackety screen door. The floor of the porch had that green plastic grass you sometimes would see under the meat in a supermarket trying to look fancy. This meat is from cows that ate fake grass. We looked at this porch, with its views of needle oaks and fig trees in an open space shared by the houses on two blocks, and thought, “Writing. Reading. Drinking coffee. Drinking beer.” The last thing he did before getting back in his car was help me set off the bug bombs, which we both watched fill up the empty apartment through the window in the kitchen door. Then he left. I don’t think I ever saw him again. We sent some letters back and forth, but I can never remember how to spell his last name, so have never been able to reconnect. I think it was pronounced Ah-key-oh, but is spelled with some odd combination of c’s and k’s and h’s, and when I try to do Google searches, all I get is kinds of sushi and towns in Finland. Old friend, if you read this, know that I tried.

*

The house was chunky, made of stones, in a neighborhood of wooden Victorian houses and a few old brick apartment buildings. At the end of the block, there was a Covenanter Presbyterian Church, and across from that, there was a parking lot lined with promiscuously growing rose bushes. There were a ton of them. Small red roses, red rosehips in winter and fall. Only once in my time there did I set foot in the lot. The night before he got the used car working and split town to head back to Oklahoma, my neighbor sat drunk and high there with a guy in a pinstripe suit with no socks, his ankles and wrists crisscrossed with spider-web tattoos. They called me over and offered me a beer. Last time I saw them. The guy who sold him the car came around a few months later and said the police found the Dodge outside of Tulsa. “Damned fool didn’t change the name on the title.”

*

The landlady was named J. J. Sweeney. She was maybe in her fifties or sixties. When you are twenty-three, you can’t tell the difference very easily. She had one of those plunging pitch accents. I doubt she was from the City of Greensboro, probably from one of those small towns where the movie theater was by now (1993) turned into an antique consignment market where people could bring their most clunky yard-sale cabinets, and there is good barbecue on paper plates. And at the diner, I will take the baked chicken with the pinto beans, onions on top of those, and some greens. Maybe one 1940s pickup truck at the intersection near the two-town elementary school. Kid from there grows up, goes into marine biology, thinking they will make a movie about him. Goes to Cuba, thinks, “They told me there were old cars here. I don’t see them.” I would like to say that the first time I met the landlady she was on the roof pounding some new asphalt shingles into a spot where a branch fell through, saying, “Don’t need roofers. OR ex-husbands,” but that was another time. Maybe I was sitting there puzzling over the “Song of the Wandering Aengus” already. Like most landlords who deal with sensitive college students, she had a bad reputation. She didn’t want to see any chin studs or nose-rings or earplugs, and had stopped renting to college students. “I don’t always like the transformation,” she said. “Graduate students are more together.” The alternative kids in Greensboro had a different look than kids, say, down on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where it was impossible to retreat into a house with a backyard and watch fireflies, adult and aggressive energies always around. These were grungier and also milder types.

The property did not look like it had apartments. It did not even have a common mailbox area or multiple doorbells, but it was divided up into six units. If you came up the front path, there was a big stone porch. There were two larger units you could enter from the porch. Upstairs lived a young engineer named James Hadley. He had gone to Stanford and then Johns Hopkins, and he had gotten his first engineering job in Greensboro. At some point during his time there, he acquired a banjo. He had California habits. Owned a kayak and bicycled a lot. Taught me how to make pasta by dumping the boiled water on top of the spinach, and then tossing tofu into the noodles with a lot of fresh ground pepper. He was clean-living, affable and easily amused. On the bottom floor was a retired Illinois policeman, a towering bald man with grey chest hair. He had moved to North Carolina “after leaving the force” and gone into construction. He had the manners of a northerner, so I don’t think he was from Southern Illinois. I always assumed that he had busted many a longhair head with his club, and I could imagine a figure in sunglasses with a round helmet wrapped around his head, holding up a plexiglass shield while rocks rained down on him from a rooftop. He would have been a horrible sight up on horseback. In reality, he was a cop who probably had taken his retirement in his early forties. He usually made an appearance with his big belly out on the porch, and once I saw a skeletal African American prostitute say goodbye to him, or at least she was leaving. It was still the age of AIDS and crack, but I have no idea what people were really doing.

In the driveway, there was a carriage house, two one-floor studios. Old Paul, who was the de facto building superintendent, lived on the ground floor and cooked dinners on his hotplate. He was a lean old man with a lovely, soft, flat Greensboro accent, and he owned a lawnmower. Several times a week, he pulled it across all of the lawns on the block, and did this for free, I was surprised to learn. “I do it for exercise.” When he pulled the lawnmower, he did this bare-chested, wearing dress pants. Old Paul and I liked each other very much. Hearing that I was looking for work, he once drove me to a Big Lots to apply for a job, but he had not told me where we were going or why we were going there.

He had a dog that cried like no other dog I had ever heard. He told me she was thirty years old and part coyote. The old man had one eye, as he had been wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he moved to Baltimore and worked as a jazz pianist, he told me, and he had a job at the Calvert Whiskey company as a watchman that almost killed him. The whiskey, he told me, they kept in enormous vats, and there was a spigot at the bottom of each vat. Come time for his shift, there were little bowls placed under each tap to catch the dripping whiskey, but he could turn the tap and get himself a nice drink. He liked to take a sip at each bowl, and by 1955, he was a full-time alcoholic. His older brother lived in the upstairs apartment of the carriage house and had just gotten out of the army after doing his thirty years. He said, “You come here to Walker Avenue and dry out. Live simple.” So he did that. Never touched a drop again. “I would have stayed in the army, too, if it had not been for me losing my eye.” His brother lived on the top floor of the carriage house. He was dying, a thin, stooped man who could barely breathe. He smelled like butter cookies. His belly had swollen up the size of a six-month pregnancy, and he was close to ninety. He spoke in an indecipherable, high-pitched whisper that Paul could understand, the same as he understood his shepherd/collie/coyote-mix dog. His eyes were small and round. Paul once knocked on my door to help guide him down the rickety wooden steps through the alcove on the side of the house that led to the apartment on the side of the house.

His brother was going to the hospital to die. Inadvertently, but perhaps curious on some level, I remember my hand grazed his belly as I helped settle him into the car. It felt like an unripe cantaloupe under his shirt. Paul’s dog died somewhere in there, too. I remember he told me with tears in his eyes. “Well, I am sad. But he couldn’t do anything without me.” We may have had the same conversation twice. You can live a long life on canned soup, unlikely though that may be. Rather prominently displayed on his shelf was a large box of Trojan condoms. He gestured to them. “Unlike some people, I keep these around, but I don’t bring prostitutes back here.”

To get to the back of the house apartments, you stepped up past the garbage cans onto some wooden steps under a roof connecting the main house with the carriage house. There was a door there, and an apartment with two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. When I moved there, Richard was living in this stony cave. Then there were two outdoor staircases, and also a short step down into the backyard where there was an enormous fig tree that, given the climate, did not need to be wrapped up in the winter. The shorter stairs led to the second floor of the carriage house. Then there was a long one, the wood eaten away so you could not step on some steps leading to my tree house.

*

After Paul interviewed me in a few ways a few times, the next one in the house I got to know was Richard. Richard was a big guy, over six feet tall, with thick dark red hair and a big mustache the same color. He looked like Rusty Jones. In humid August, he liked to keep his shirt off outside too. He looked strong but fat in an unforced kind of no-weightlifting way. On Friday nights, he put a big black flat looking cowboy hat on, a Stevie Ray Vaughn deal, cowboy boots, a vest, and a sort of flowing white cowboy shirt. He had never been outside of North Carolina, except a few times, to Tennessee. I thought maybe this cowboy outfit business was a definite look around Greensboro—hell, there is a W in C&W music—but even so, ignorant as I was, I appreciated his impulse towards self-invention and artistry.

“Where you going, Richard?”

“I’m going to yokie-yokie.”

“What?”

“You know, karaoke.”

*

Another time, when I was up in my tree house, he stuck his head around the corner. “I’m with a lady in there. If another lady comes around, tell her you haven’t seen me. She might have a gun.” Sure enough, about an hour later there was a woman who looked past fifty standing there.

“Where’s Richard?”

“I haven’t seen him.”

“You tell him I was around.” Then she left, angry. Must not have been too angry, because she came around months later, and they laughed and joked, and then she left.

Richard once brought me my mail. I had a letter from my friend Jeff in Israel. “You got a letter from Ireland, David.” He couldn’t read, as I found out when he had me read some sort of summons. “I can’t read, David.” He never asked me to read anything else, and I never saw anything in the mailbox. We didn’t have utilities except for phones if we wanted them, but he didn’t have a phone. He occasionally asked to use my phone so he could make booty calls, calling up three women in a row to ask for a date to go to karaoke—yokie-yokie—and beginning each call by crooning the first few lines of a song. “Cr——aaaa-zzzy. Craaazy for being in love. Who? This is Richard.”

“This is Rich-ard.”

“This is Rich-aaaard. You remember me.”

*

Once he made me come down and eat some Hamburger Helper. “I made you dinner.” Another time it was scrambled eggs with a side of pineapple turnover cake he had made, both with some old eggs with bits of shell in them, which made me go upstairs and suddenly puke as if my stomach had suddenly become infested, sad to say, with elvers. He sure was sweet to make them, though. This did make me sad because he was having a hard time making the rent, which was not much. “No light in that damn place,” the landlady said. “I can’t charge much. And I get this Richard.” She had one of those amused hard faces where meanness and niceness are freely at play.

At one point, the old cop hired him for his crew, but he only lasted a week. “I caught that dumbass smoking pot while making concrete. You have to watch these redneck potheads on a site. Get somebody killed or maimed. Cause a whole lot of stuff to go wrong. And it’s not the first time I hired him either. Sure, I want to help the guy.”

*

Richard freely volunteered a slightly different version of the story.

“He gave me the job because maybe he thinks I can bring him some girls up there once.”

“Oh shit. That was pretty nice of you.”

“Yeah. He pays for plenty of girls.”

*

All of these incidents seem mixed up in my mind with the sensibility of the guy who lived around the corner from me, on Carr Street, Jim Clark, or as he was once known, the Reverend James Lester Clark, the editor of The Greensboro Review, and the man who convinced me and many other graduate students to come to Greensboro to study with Fred Chappell, Alan Shapiro, Stuart Dischell and others over the years. Jim had moved to Greensboro in the sixties as a minister whose politics had been radicalized, he said, by seeing the dirty work of the Florida prison system. For years he had edited an independent newspaper, and then sort of drifted into creative writing. His precise history was hard to discern because he had the habit of trying out the plots of short stories on unsuspecting graduate students. Among other things, he had convinced me that as a child in Miami, he had been struck by a Cadillac and placed in the lap of no less a figure than pre-Revolutionary Fidel Castro, who, attempting to raise money for the Cuban cause from some of the wealthier Cuban residents of Miami, Florida, was struck with tender mercy and tears by the poor spritely blond youth with skinned knees “who could have been my own little Fidelito.” He also told me he had rescued a very short, alcoholic short story writer, known to us both, from a pandemonium he caused by mistaking for real a showroom layout of a bathroom in the middle of the local Sears department store. “Everywhere people were yelling, and walking by with open mouths, and finally I found him with his trousers rolled down around his ankles, just sitting there.” Other stories seem more plausible now than they did at the time. He was the only person around who seemed to remember when the Klan shot up a rally in 1979, the day the Iranians took the embassy, and he claimed that when he had gone as a crusading journalist to do a story about some Klan guys who eventually got charged, they teased him by showing him a bullseye with his own photo taped up in the middle of it with a hole in his forehead. As elsewhere, people in Greensboro remembered plenty of things they did not talk about but acted upon and which acted upon them.

*

Other nights, Jim and I drank George Dickel with generic cola and talked about Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, whom he revered, though he rarely spoke of religion, though naturally when he taught American Literature, for which I once served as his teaching assistant, he was very colorful about Puritan writers and could make Jonathan Edwards and Edward Taylor come alive with short, typifying images, effortlessly and unobtrusively flexing his Duke Divinity School theological muscles. The protagonists and settings of Hawthorne stories, which he loved, were not too different from the various characters and places he pointed out on Tate Street and Spring Garden. “Those are the bushes I was sitting in when Electro and I were both crying about our mommies dying, and a cop came along and clubbed me, and all we were doing was crying.” Electro was a well-known blues guitarist and street character from the days when Tate Street was known as “the Haight-Ashbury of Greensboro.” Or, when a particularly menacing overweight fellow who used to stride and glower around while wearing, of all things, a propeller beanie passed on the opposite side of the street. “I call that guy the buffoon because he wears that hat and once threatened my boy.” He was a cashier at the off-campus book store that sold discount text books. Sometimes Eric, an African American homeless man with high cheekbones like an El Greco, would skip by in overalls, or he would stumble by in a trench coat, or he would march by in a tee shirt and then march by again, a man of many intense moods. “You ever talk to Eric, David? He is a really weird religious person, but nice. I said hello to him last week, and he quoted me a kind of long passage from Ezekiel. If you ever can’t fall asleep, just read yourself a begat chart.” The only time I saw Jim act in a ministerial way was when he married two students whose marriage was doomed and druggie. He donned a broad black hat, black jacket, black pants, and a white shirt so that his wife Danielle said, “He looks just like a cardboard canister of Quaker Oats, only he has that long grey beard.” He performed the ceremony in a mournful and tender way, in a field behind a house, as if he already knew the outcome. Sometimes, he walked funny because he would buy used shoes. Once he told me to be careful buying used shoes because he once had a pair that started to smell like cat piss in the middle of a meeting with a dean. On everybody else, he spent freely, with his inexhaustible modesty and humor. And he cooked for any student who walked by, too. “Dave, how do you feel about roast pork and mojo sauce?” I would walk by his house a lot, so much so that I feared I was being a mooch, and so kept away one weekend.

The next Monday, I ran into him on the street, and he said, “Where were you? You better come by tomorrow. I’m making spaghetti with Bolognese sauce.” Sometimes I would drive to the Food Lion with him in late afternoon, as he knew that was when they put the half-off stickers on the steaks.

*

For so many of us who passed through or stayed in town, Jim was like a father who could also be our mother. When Fred Chappell won the T. S. Eliot Award, he said, “I owe as much to Jim Clark as to my mother.” Naturally, when I got jumped by a gang of guys and blackjacked on the street one winter night, it was about twenty feet from Jim’s front porch, across the alley alongside the Primitive Baptist Church. Jim jumped out of the house with an ancient baseball bat the color of tea as the group ran away, called the cops, sat with me and held an icepack to my head at the kitchen table with Danielle, his daughter Josie peering into the kitchen in her footsie pajamas, until four in the morning and then, pronouncing me concussion-free, poured me a drink and set me up with a pillow on the couch, where I fell asleep watching Dragnet and commercials for a local mega-flea market that featured an actor in a gigantic flea suit, which made deep sense to me as I was bugging out. I was never able to write poems about Greensboro that I felt lasted, but when Jim died last year, I wrote this, which I include at the risk of sounding like an essay by Alice Walker or Raymond Carver or something:

Jim Clark’s Bardo Party with Greensboro People Of course, wading pools pop up everywhere, and people feel welcome to bring kids for a good time and some strange stuff. The radio on Grievous Angel 105.2, the station that plays Graham Parson’s funeral pyre and the gears in a Hank Williams limo sputter, with I think that is Carole King on one station buzzing and Rosemary Clooney on another, and Paul Harvey sounds touchy. Jim has a new house, sort of split-level ranch but the top floor slightly askew, rakish, modern. The mud room turns out to be a doorway in a campus building about to be torn down, McIver. Once we get there, Jim does what he always did. He shows us the ropes of this particularly Bardo party, alcove with open- backed fireplace to warm us both inside and out. Tenses wobble. There were a lot of parties then, with Weber kettles, and sometimes just a grate thrown over a metal can loaded with old tarry bits of railroad ties and broken office furniture. In the corridor a couple of realtors or ladies from a church stand disapprovingly, sniff a phantom fart. They don’t like anything that stays fire-lit or the catfish nailed to the telephone poles. At one round table there are guys arm-wrestling. Shouts of “not yet” fill the air. Onesie toddlers in high furry hats fill corners. Piñatas bend open. When the prayer bells ring, the beer truck guys set the keg down and take to their prayer mats while the procession of former students, the horror and sci-fi nerds, the edgy tough guys, unforeseen genii, green oysters in bushels, pass through from one hallway and some derelicts come from another and pass in circles. Danielle pours another cup of coffee because it is ten a.m. and the foxgloves are full of bees. Jim leans over in his seat, plucks a garter snake up from down there and tosses it over his shoulder. “I feel like St. Patrick, Dave.”

See what I mean. Terrible. Jim didn’t listen to music like that. It’s hard to write poetry about such a time and such a place. Maybe the whole retrospective approach to anything is just doomed.

Meanwhile, back on Walker Avenue, it was still my first January there, and I was, as usual, working on some poems, and getting ready to maybe get some beers, when Richard was at the door. Richard still lived downstairs, and Young Paul had not moved in. “Hey, Bubba, me and my new friend have some beer. I found him, and he’s going to live here, too.”

That was Young Paul.

*

That night, he wore a brown corduroy jacket and a black cowboy hat. Like knows like. Young Paul was in his forties, clean-shaven and bright-eyed. “We are going to be neighbors.” As sometimes happens with people you actually will come to care about, he annoyed me right away. “Where you from? Richard says NEW York or PITTSburgh. I am from OKLAhoma.”

“Bubba, we got some beers downstairs,” Richard said. But I was going out.

*

One morning, a few days later, I saw the new Paul standing across the street at a bus stop. The bus came by perhaps twice a day, and he was the only person I ever saw standing there. Walker was not a busy street, but it egressed onto a road that led to an overpass. He did not have his cowboy hat on, but he wore the same jacket and a tie. He was carrying a clipboard. “New job! And I just moved here. Working at a storage facility as a supervisor. We also rent forklifts. Not bad.”

The winter fastened down on the city, with ice storms for a week or so. Spring began to arrive in February. Over the course of the winter, I began to hear the fragments of Paul’s story, which was awful. Wife run off the road by a truck in the middle of the night in Texas, and she was a good driver. Home lost. Despair. He was a weepy drunk. “She was a good driver.” He would come by when I had friends over, increasingly maniacal, sometimes with a black eye or saying, “My back is all tore up from that gravel those guys and then the cop threw me on.” But come Monday, he would be back at the bus stop, in his jacket and tie, holding his clipboard, waiting for the bus. As he stood there, the long-haired cat that lived in the house on the corner rubbed against his leg. “This cat is my little friend,” he would call to me as I walked out to my job.

*

Richard was troubled. “Paul is going to jail. He got in a fight with the police up outside the strip club. That’s how his back got all tore up. Keep away from him, Bubba. He’s trouble. He showed me the piece of paper. He has a court date.”

A few hours later, Paul was at my door. “I am surmising that Richard told you about my legal troubles. I just want you to know that, yes, I have a court date, but my lawyer is getting me a continuance, and it is going to be okay.”

I had no idea why I was getting these reports. “Okay, Paul.” After that, our dealings were very proper. He didn’t want me to get the wrong idea about him.

“I am not the person you think I am. You know what I mean. The feeling bad and tragic and getting sloppy. You will see when you meet my mother. She will be coming though here next month. She has an RV. Old Paul says she can use the driveway.”

I had a job in the academic advising office, and my job was to make sure all the advisors had the academic folders for the students they advised. I also did a lot of Xeroxing and worked the paper-folding machine and changed the toner and ink on the copier. One day, I tweaked my neck somehow, pulling a ream of colored paper down off a shelf with my left hand. I didn’t think it was too bad until that night when I tried to shoot pool and every time I pulled the cue back my left hand began to violently spasm in a way that caused me to shoot the cue ball off the table and onto the one next to it at Witherspoon’s Pool Hall. It was a holiday weekend coming up, and I hoped to get a second date, the first one entirely ruined, so I went to the infirmary and was given muscle relaxants.

*

Passing into the alcove, I told the younger Paul of the diagnosis and treatment. “You mind yourself if you go drinking while taking those muscle relaxants.” And then when I went out for a beer, he walked with me. All the pear trees—which smell like sweat socks—were out. Springtime in Greensboro is quite florid. He didn’t drink but followed me from bar to bar until finally I had to go home and pretend to be going in to shake him. “It’s a rough world out there, David. You have to watch out for people.” It was a sort of spooky thing to say. After he disappeared, his apartment was vacant for a few weeks. Then another writing student, Victor, moved in. Victor was like me in a lot of ways. His college roommates from New Jersey visited once, and they told me that when he lived with them, they set up a little studio for him in a closet. I had once spent an entire year of college in the Bronx living in a yurt set up in the middle of a three-person dormitory room. My friend Victor tells me he feels bad about a lot of stuff from those years.

DAVID BLAIR was born in 1970. He grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has degrees from Fordham University and the creative writing program at UNC Greensboro. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Fence, The Greensboro Review, The Harvard Review, Ploughshares, Verse, and been featured in the anthologies Zoland Poetry and The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He is an associate professor at The New England Institute of Art in Brookline, Massachusetts. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with his wife Sabrina and daughter Astrid.