Stolen Wallpaper

Words but a whisper, deafness a shout

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Location: Zeeland, Michigan, United States

Hi. I wish I had a job selling squirrels. They're so furry, and give you toothy grins. Unless they're rabid, in which case they will eat your face off and then find the rest of your family. That's not so good, I guess.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Indian Mounds Drive, Part 2

He knew that there were Indian mounds to the south of the road at some point, hence its name, but he was not sure where. His mother had told him that when she was a child, they were open to the public as a city park; children clambered around them, families picnicked at their base, and photos were taken, often comprising plastic headdresses and tomahawk-chop gestures. Around 1980, after years of demonstrations by the ragtag remainder of the local Native Americans, the city was brought around to the idea that a cemetery was perhaps not the most ideal spot for a playground; the parking lot and driveway were removed, the site was restored and re-consecrated in a solemn ceremony, and a high fence was erected. It encircled about a thousand acres (he'd walked the perimeter once), its razor-wired stolidity discouraging the idly curious and the actively malevolent alike.

(Now to do some research about the mounds....)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Indian Mounds Drive, Part 1

He drove. A few weeks ago. There was no snow on the ground, but there had been not too long ago; a false January thaw had made the world slovenly, the trees dead sticks, the grass a statewide smear of mud. He turned left from strip-mall hell, went under an overpass, and bam came the options. Immediately forward was a bridge over the Grand River, the only one for six miles either way, and a busy highway connecting two big hunks of suburb. To the left was the on-ramp, where all the other traffic was going. He went right, onto a little-noticed turnoff squeezed between the river and the freeway. There was a gate a few dozen feet up, just past a drive down to a tourist riverboat, but it was open today. He nosed his car forward, around a bend, and abruptly the land of urban sprawl fell away beneath the sullen old-growth trees. With the land no good for farming or building, these trees had survived only because no one wanted them.

Indian Mounds Drive twisted and turned along the river, no intersections for five miles, cut off from the world by the freeway and a network of swamps and bogs, dotted with nesting stands for migratory birds and super-low-yield oil wells, sucking on a teat long since depleted. Officially this road was part of the city's grandiloquent Millennium Park project now, though no signage was around to prove it. The old westbound lane was off limits to cars, reserved for bikes, but you could still sometimes overtake some Lycra-ed moron riding in the vehicular lane. He'd take them out if he thought society would let him. He wasn't sure when this road had been built, or why; there were no structures, no homes or businesses, anywhere along its route. It began and ended at freeway exits, and just the other side of the freeway was the old trunkline, so it was really kinda useless.

Unless you were poor and unscrupulous. For many years, the road had been used as an unsanctioned city dump. Cletus and Mildred would load the pickup with broken appliances, dirty diapers, and cubic tons of McDonald's wrappers, pick a spot along the soft mucky shoulder, and shove it all out the back end. Voila, no pesky trash fees. Once in a while the city would crack down, patrol the road better, get the orange jumpsuit crew out, and things would be better for a while, but then budgets would be cut and things would devolve again to a modern anthropology course splattered across the spongy soil. There were turnoffs here and there for Granddad to get out his fishing pole, but don't let him eat what he catches; the wastewater treatment plant just upstream had a little trouble containing stormwater, and it discharged with exasperating frequency, like an unfortunate bean-eating great-uncle.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Nobody Likes Sara Lee

His old job hadn't been much fun, but at least it had paid well. It was a refrigerated warehouse, working with lunch meats; it seemed he always needed new long johns in July, prompting disbelieving stares from clerks at JC Penney. He was part time there for ten years, always intending to go back and finish college, but something always got in the way: car trouble, trailer trouble, credit card debt, food. Then one day the company laid off two thirds of the shipping department, and he was shunted sideways into security. Wow, was he not suited for that job. It was run by an ex-Army sergeant, with a military-style mix of straight-arrowness and cutcornersness, and he could never work out which way each task was supposed to go. The guy took an instant dislike to him, riding him, expecting him to know every task that went with the job within days. The hurry-up-and-wait crushed his spirit; you were either riding the desk for hours or feebly responding to whooping alarms. After about three months, there was an incident. A departing employee was flagged for a lunchbox check, his supervisor apparently suspecting he might purloin a package of hot dogs or something. He joked to his partner that evening (the night shift worked in pairs) that some ham might have winged its way home in his pail at some point over the years. The very next morning, he walked in to face a row of grim expressions. They didn't even let him get his stuff out of his locker; they bagged it up and sent it to him in the mail. Two days later, his ten-year-anniversary gift, a Bulova watch, came in the mail too. He had been washed out. And then the dark time came. Well, the second one.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

It's A Living?

Work was, well, worky. It was a warehouse job, putting together loads of pet products for delivery, and it wasn't exactly high-paid, but it was a port in a storm. His immediate boss was a prick six years younger than him who blasted hip-hop music at top volume all night. Every day working there was another mile logged on the highway to hell. He had a small radio strapped to his forklift, but it was too puny to fight back against the massive wall-mounted boombox tuned to top 40. It was always a relief to gain the safe haven of his car and head home. Most people don't like their job, he mused, but are you supposed to dread it?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Get Off The Bus, Gus

He put on his work clothes (Dickies pants, T shirt and company-issue zip-up sweatshirt; they had a uniform service, which would be convenient, but he resisted; it felt like they'd then own him or something) and fed the cats. Locking the door, he stepped out into the watery sunshine. His yard was still filled with leaves, now matted down for the long haul after an unusually snowy December. Gotta get at that before the snow returns, he thought, knowing damn well he wouldn't.

He drove to work, getting stuck behind a school bus the last few miles. At least he wasn't stuck on the school bus, he mused. God, he had hated that bus ride as a kid. He'd been a pretty happy kid when they'd lived in town; those were the last years when parents had no problem with children making their own way to school. He'd walked with a bigger kid to kindergarten every day, then rode his bike the seven blocks for the next two years. He reveled in his freedom then. He would ride his bike to a friend's house after school sometimes, then call home to see if he could play there, presenting it to his mother as a fait accompli, thinking he was the cleverest lil' bastard in town. But then they'd moved out to the country: same school district, but different school. And the bus was brutal. Everyone seemed to hate him on sight. He got on near the end of an overloaded run, so kids were already often three to a seat, and the few remaining openings were not about to be ceded to the likes of him. He often had to sit on the floor, or try to take a seat and risk a punch in the face. He got beat up a lot in third and fourth grades. His little brother, three years younger, would take it upon himself to defend him, often successfully which was much worse. Their bus served a small Christian school as well as the public elementary; the Christian school enrolled students up to eighth grade, so the very front and the very back of the bus were ruled by great hulking bruisers and surly girls with helmet hair, all looking like they'd kill you for cigarettes. Every Christian school kid seemed to be a bully, even the smaller ones; he was sure, even now, that their teachers must have told them that only they were God's chosen people and everyone else was to be considered a personal punching bag. The ride home at night could take up to an hour sometimes, a long time to be spent sat upon. Yelling and complaining did no good, as the bus driver was nearly deaf and beyond caring what happened to little you anyway. That driver had a heart attack behind the wheel a few years after he moved on to middle school and rode a different bus. He had dropped off the last of his kids, turned around to head back to town, and turned all the way into a deep deep drainage ditch. It was an early lesson that life can suck, and then you might in fact die. Life is short, but who has the time or energy to possibly give it all the effort it deserves? Not I, french fry, he thought, as he pulled onto the side street that led to work, getting a last flip-off from the kid sitting in the bus's back seat.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Bang Yer Head

The harsh winter sun woke him. He'd never bothered to put the cardboard chunks back over the windows the last time they'd fallen off, gathering dust behind the dresser, masking tape still stuck to the wall. It was noonish; he could hear Terry Gross declaring it was "frrresh airrr" every couple of minutes. He had nothing pressing till work at four, so he lay still, slowly gathering his marbles.

His bed had been a gift from his parents' neighbors, fifteen years ago, when they'd gotten a Craft-Matic. He'd had it in his old bedroom there for eight years before he'd moved, and now another seven, and it had about had it. The mattress, which he'd bought when he got the trailer, had a shredded spot on one side and a large blood stain on the other. The bookcase headboard was encrusted with years of grime: Pledge buildup, pop can rings, peanut dust. The same paperback books had been there for a few years; the cassettes, about a year, but the CDs rotated frequently. There was a fairly new boombox, currently tuned to NPR; a desk lamp gotten at Lowe's last year with the $100 gift card from his parents, along with a knife, extension cords, a new doorknob for the bathroom, energy saving bulbs, and assorted other crap; and a brace made of heavy books and a binder holding the blanket tight against the wall behind the bed, blocking the light from a window, made completely pointless by the fallen cardboard across the room. The cats peed in the closet at some undocumented point in the recent past, so the bedroom door was closed; the room was toasty warm from the electric oil heater near the door. He couldn't afford to run the furnace much. There were two dressers, two bookcases and a chair, along with the bed, all crammed into this tiny space. He hated to throw anything out. One of the bookcases held nothing but old music magazines: Rolling Stone, Q, Mojo, Uncut, The Big Takeover. You never know, maybe someday he'd have money, and he'd want to look through them and pick up the albums he couldn't afford before. Ayeah. With no one around to say yea or nay, he scratched himself, good and long, exploring the sac for itches to satisfy, then rose to use the john and begin another blurry day. He swayed a little, the blood swooshing from the unaccustomed verticality, and hit his head on the wall. Hey, there's the thing that will make today special, he thought. I hit my head on the wall.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Home On The Mange

Thanks to the food, the three more Red Bulls, and frequent slaps in the face, he made it the 100 miles he had left to get home without incident. He turned into the trailer park driveway, maneuvered around the stupid new traffic island meant to aim people into the "new" side, and stopped to get his mail on the "old" side. The occupancy rate of the park was spotty; there would be several in a row that were settled in for the long haul, with extensive landscaping and permanently strung Christmas lights, and then there would be stretches of empty, oil-stained concrete pads. The park had mange.

He pulled up to his house and backed into the driveway. His place was a dump, but the only two big trees on his street were both in his yard, so that was something, maybe. The door to the shed was swinging in the breeze. He sighed. Damn latch. Someday someone is going to rob me, he thought. I'll come home and find the ancient lawn mower gone, or the broken hedge trimmer, or the random bar stool. On second thought, maybe not. ; He turned the key, stumbled in, dropped his duffel in the center of the living room (where the cats leapt onto it, determined to leave no surface uncoated by hair), stumbled down the hall and flopped on the bed, fully dressed. He felt and heard something give way underneath in the warped bedframe, but he was beyond caring at the moment. Deliver me unto the arms of oblivion, he mused, pausing just long enough to turn on the BBC, the British voices lulling him to sleep as they did every night.

Intelligence without ambition means you know exactly how stupid you are.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Devil's Starchy Fingers

The one good thing about taking this road was that it led through a town that still had an open Hot N' Now. Gawd, he loved Hot N' Now. It was a drive-through-only, bottom of the deck sort of fast food joint. An unusually large number of them were built very close to, if not in front of, trailer parks. The whole franchise in his part of Michigan had gone bust, leaving about twenty forlorn useless buildings, the letters on their sale signs falling off bit by bit through the attrition of wind.

Wendy's or Arby's had much better tasting sandwiches, of course. But have you ever tried eating them in a moving car? Sloppy, slippery, greasy buns and hands and fries dropped between the seat cushions and just a mess. Hot N' Now hamburgers were desiccated, puny lil' pucks of meat parked on a moisture-challenged bun with just little splorps of ketchup and mustard, and three inoffensive pickle slices. No mess, no fuss, very easy to eat with one hand while chewing up the miles. And they had the best fries on earth, bar none. Swear to God they still must have deep fried the suckers: the devil's starchy fingers, reaching into your heart to grab your lifelong allegiance. To top it off, they had these things called Cheeze Teazers: lumps of potato breaded, deep fried, with a molten cheddar center. Abandon hope ye dieters.

He got four burgers, two fries, a Teazers order and a large Dr. Pepper, then got right back on the highway, barely even four minutes after pulling off. Fat is cheap. He munched cheerfully, the cholesterol dissipating his default gloom for a precious little while. He hummed his personal theme song to himself:

I'm a dumb ass, oh
I'm a dumb ass, oh
Watch me do dumb shit
I never quit
I'm a dumb ass, oh
I'm a dumb ass, oh
Please kill me now
Dum ah dee dee dah, dum ah dee dee dah.....

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Notch

He knew if he logged any more freeway miles, it would go badly for him in his semi-somnolent state, so he got onto the two-lane highway, 223, still about 100 miles from home. There were more distractions, more things to look at, fewer minutes to spend in his head instead of on the road. In theory.

It was probably bad juju to pick this road, though. Ten years earlier, while he was in the process of washing out of college, he often just got in his car and drove, for miles and miles, for two or three day trips out and back to his college town, charging all the gas to his credit card, sowing the seeds for current bankruptcy. On this spot right......wait for it.....look for the, someone turned left into him while he was tootling about 60. T-boned him but good, wrapped his car around him. No feeling in the world like an accident. Time stretches, elongates, becomes viscous with false possibility as you watch events unfold with a clinical detachment, then TWANG reality snaps back into place and there's metal grinding on metal and air whooshing and the acrid smell of burned oil and a horn going insane with urgent concern. He walked away with a few minor abrasions to legs and arms, and a notch in his left ear. He was strangely resistant to drugs of any kind, so he remembered they had to numb the ear three times before they could get it stitched up. The car was totaled. His scholarship was revoked two months later. The end of the road. But tonight....he rolled on past, and the world shrugged. Big deal, kid, things are tough all over.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Guided By Voices

Thank God, they just played "Radar Love," which meant he could stave off wheelsleep with retreat into the Big Band Fantasy, the elaborate alternate universe he'd been constructing for himself since he was about eleven. It had evolved greatly over the years, but twenty years later, it still existed in his head (when he was a kid, he'd written it all down, but it was found and caused acute embarrassment for months). He was in a band. The band was called Zeeland, after his hometown, like Chicago or Boston. The other members were his childhood friends, none of whom he'd spoken to in over twenty years. He'd aged them all 22 years, to put the release of their first album in 1971, making them all 19 or 20 at the time. Certain songs he liked, especially one hit wonders, were shoehorned into the band's recorded history, like "96 Tears," "Vehicle," "Jackie Blue," and "Radar Love". He had himself join after the first album, which was solid but rockish and plodding, and explode all over their second with his fecund songwriting genius. He couldn't play anything with strings, but he could fake it on just about anything else, and he was a wizard on the keys. They broke up in 1977, to pursue business and personal interests, got back together from '82 to '85, and then came together again in '02. There were eight members, seven of whom sang and all of whom wrote, almost more of a writing collective than a band. They were the most successful American band in history. Oh, and during their second hiatus, he joined the Beatles, but that's another story. Their record label was Apple, the Beatles' label; Zeeland took it over after the Beatles failed with it, moved it to Michigan, and made it the biggest indie label around. Did I mention that Apple computers were made by this same company? So, everyone is really really rich and famous and successful and oh my God I'm driving in a dented car through the rain back to my trailer kill me now.

He exited, paid the toll, stopped for gas and two Red Bulls, and pressed on, trying to ignore his shaking hands.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Stolen Wallpaper

Bastids. Yella bastids.

He was driving and dreaming again, a pair of activities not usually recommended to run concurrently. See saw, mother in law. Toledo 83 miles. Buckeye Budget Motor Lodge. Kar's Party Trail Mix. Droop droop drooooooop SNAP. Slight small swerve back into the correct lane, the caffeine losing its effect as he adapts, Borg-like.

They were breaking in at night and stealing the wallpaper off his walls, bit by bit, probably chuckling evilly while wielding the steamer. Each morning he woke up to find another section gone off the wall; at this rate it would all be gone in a week. Bare walls, empty nail holes, mysterious stains, all that remained. He would avenge his naked walls. Oh, they were all gonna pay.

Here come old Flat Top. Rip It Citrus X. Cabela's Sporting Goods. Denny's. RRRRRumble strips, mid-course correction.

I bet the cats ate all their damn food again. Well, Floyd, anyway. Myrtle can rarely be caught in the act of doing anything so gauche as eating. Or purring. Or coming when called. They're like little furry siblings, they hate you, they loathe you, you disgust them, they want to be as close to you as possible.

They're burning the space heater, taking the batteries out of the clocks, eating all the cheese, and taking the wallpaper out section by section, thinking I don't notice. Oh, I see. I see all. I know all. I'll get the bastids.

He lived in a trailer. 1972 Champion, the name brand right out on the front of the house. Cost less than his car. And the interior? Dark wood paneling, painted off-white when he moved in. There was no wallpaper, and there never had been. The dreams were the beginning of the end of the beginning of it all going kerfluey.