“Owls in the Palms : The Uninspired Apartment : Notes from a Lost Decade (1)”: A Bad Survivalist Short Story by Reagan Wiles

Bad Survivalist: Reagan Wiles

Owls in the Palms : The Uninspired Apartment : Notes from a Lost Decade (1)

The police left my iPod behind on the hillside in front of Red Lobster with my red leather journal, seven dollars and the Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath, which I had bought only hours before; they put me in the squad car without incident. I did not resist. In fact, I was so cooperative that I forgot to mention my belongings. I don’t think I spoke. The detention center was way out in the county. It took forever to get there.

The doves sound different in South Carolina. But how I loved listening to “WTC, Book 2, Prelude No. 13”! (That and The Strokes.) To wander—free of obligations, responsibilities—with nothing to do but listen …. Horrible, sleeping against the wall behind WAFFLE HOUSE though. No more horrible than sleeping under the privet hedge in Boone, the hedge which is no longer there, systematically removed by the municipality to keep my likes from sheltering behind the blind of trees, the cut, where I drank, never sleeping, hearing all the while life going on; not for me the whole world going by outside the not-world of my dereliction. Sitting on the porch of the Community Center at night; washing my blisters with bottled water in the Porta Potty left after the Independence Day celebration; wrapping my toes with TP, their odor ammoniac, a lot like old Gorgonzola. Refusing Stephen’s advances after he plucked me from the street; and, though he smoked me up, next day taking advantage of his hospitality. Taking cash, pills and weed from the basket, along with his wallet and ID, drinking all his Jack and Coconut liqueur. Buying a half pint of Jager with his money at the ABC: telling Steve, another homeless poet, on the walk back to the city, Forget publishing if you’re white and healthy; these days you better be crazy and alcoholic, still I’m ineligible for food stamps. Negligible, Steve says. Huh? Says the institution, I am institutionalized, let the institution feed me!

The cuckoo sounds like Google says a barred owl, it confuses me. I thought they were monkeys in the palms in South Carolina, by the swamps. I left treatment early again, spent the night in jail, walked away from there the next day about eleven a.m. along country roads following a young, dreadlocked man who had a phone, the fifteen miles to town. I had lost my phone a month before on a previous relapse. What else was I to do but walk, I didn’t know anybody in Florence but the people at the treatment center? It took two days to walk it. The dreaddie gave me and a chick with light down on her legs and meth damaged teeth—who also got freed on her own recognizance—a Powerade. According to our need he gave.

Once I got to the sidewalks, which was over half the distance (I stopped twice for Coricidin and beer and Hard Raspberry Lemonade) to where my bags were hidden, I slept and shat beside a construction site with a Porta John in the lane, and a gas station the other way. I shook. I would have bought another forty regardless of my waking state. I sat there on a downed pine and drank and got set before walking the rest of the way. Most people paid me no mind, but I think the clerk who sold me the beer judged me, nonetheless.

Around happy hour, at a drainage pond behind ALDI, as I leaned against the bricks eating pita, dried hard salami and goat cheese, a red-shouldered hawk, heedless of specters, still an inhabitant of the Eocene, dropped from a blind (I had not seen the bird before it dropped) into the mallows.

Then I was on my way again, watching the horizon, a lot of space, mechanical reivers moving dirt on the waste mounds, clouds dispersing far out overhead of the movers and their machines; and again, I ate of my stores of bread and meat, surfeiting myself. 

At a Mexican restaurant, a little farther on, though I had only about a hundred dollars, I ordered a pitcher of margaritas and watched the other diners, fathers, daughters, sisters, sons. I watched them, the loveliest among them a proud father, contented as the day long, and at a table adjacent the youngest Daughter of a family of lovely ones, beautiful beyond measure, a family treasure—perhaps a little underappreciated, perhaps out of calculation the family, to force her mind into a mold—demure, intelligent, both reticent and bold. Not yet herself completely, but her sisters, despite their sophistication, could not compare. I wanted to sit there forever and stare at her. Lovely, delicate, shyly playful. Still a little puerile. But more everything, being actually herself, than most people are.

After an hour, I ordered an expensive plate of food: I ate none of it. I left it on the table when I left. I had not drunk even a quarter of the punch. What I was seeing was enough. Who I watched more, the father and sons or the princess amid her attendant sibling, there’s no way to tell. That father was drunk on love and respect for his athletic boys. It seemed they had come from a tournament, that everybody in the restaurant had, excepting me. I could not get enough of them—his competence, his charm, his confidence in their vitality! They, the plum of youth! She! but enough! enough. I left the food uneaten, the carafe full sweating. I sat in the parking lot at the foot of an arc light upon a curb, fucked up, and watched everyone leave the restaurant. Far from everything but feeling myself entire ….

I saw a cuckoo today, I thought of little baby Tuckoo and of that milch cow acoming down adown down the lane …. My disillusionment cannot compete, will never be complete. It is not an owl—and doves are not owl-faced monkeys—moaning in the palms in South Carolina. The doves are neither owls nor monkeys nor cows lowing. In Florence, the doves are twice the size of North Carolina doves. They’re the size of NC pigeons, what I’ve never heard anyone call rock doves; though that’s what they’re called in field guides, and which roost under overpasses and upon cornices in the old town. Rather than coo they grieve mournfully like monkeys’ sorrow overhead by the riverside. They burble in the palms; their voices bloom open like soft, small bombs that swaddle the heart with concussive sobs. They never laugh like monkeys or cry like owls sometimes do. But the same bassy notes drop and flower from their hidden griefs, close on, in the woods or woody copse beside the parking lots.

Between swamp and interchange, where a tarp is strung over a ridgepole, couches and torn upholstered chairs, old jeans and button shirts and fleeces litter the foot worn, sparse treed glade. Kevin lives there, but who knows how long? He says he’s forty-four today! He says he’s been doing this fucking shit twenty-eight years, living this way, smoking crack, panhandling. He can talk a parking lot out of sixty dollars in an hour on an average morning or afternoon. I saw him do it, he tried to teach me how; but I being craven, a young Indian woman backed me down. Kevin lambasted me for my ineptitude. It would not have helped to tell him about my degree. To show him my self-published volumes of poetry. To explain TM to him. It does not help to tell anyone these things. Nobody gives a fuck about shit like that out there. Or anywhere if truth be known. I had to get the hell out of town. After I had pilfered a Panera dumpster (while children and parents old and new starve, the dumpsters are full of food!), and presented to Kevin my spoils, he took of the loaves and threw them in the woods and cursed them for worthless. And I believed in his damnation then. But the mice ate well and were his friends, and he was kind to them. I knew if he did not kill me, I would kill him. I left him then and never returned. I have never seen anything more pointless and absurd than this good-hearted man digging his hole and filling it in ….

Through the fog came an alarm. I heard it all day and night being sleepless; I heard it for some thirty-six hours before I did something. It blared from afar over the field. Over the fence behind Walmart, behind which I drank wine and whatever, whenever. When I had nothing else to do, I decided to do something about it. Once I’d made up my mind, I searched until it came into view, a blinking beacon on a metal box at a new apartment complex with but few cars in the parking lot. It was dark out. I tore the strobing, red, plastic, gumdrop-shaped case from the siding of sheet metal, exposing the wires, and burned the wires in half. The volume and pitch subsided to about a hundredth what it had been, from something like an air-raid siren to a cell phone. Feeling heroic, having ridded the public of a nuisance, I inspected the doors of the establishment and found a stairwell open and another door off the well open and in the hall an apartment door ajar. Motherfucker, I was in! It was a miracle. They say God takes care of fools and children. God takes care of drunks too. I’m proof.

The apartment was brand new. An inspection checklist lay on the dust-free island in the kitchenette. The place was nice. Expensive. Clean. Smelled new. Smelled as new minted as a vinyl Halloween costume on the rack. Empty. Void of humanity. I stood in the dark and stared at the filigree that dextromethorphan was painting upon it, troubling my sense of location in the room, and smelt the newness and the alcohol in my nostrils and felt the air from the fans, which were on high speed. It was a marvel. But I was as absent of wonder as the wet, wadded wrapper of a plastic straw.

Gloriously, there was a bathtub. I could hear the shuffle and thump of habitation above. Notwithstanding, I drew a bath and lowered myself slowly into the hot water. It was very heaven. But I was scared the whole time I was there. Terrified really. When I was finished in the bath, I washed my underwear in the sink and wrung them as dry as I could and put them in a drawer to dry. I’d be back again, I knew. Then I got my sketchbook and felt-tipped pen and drew pictures of buttocks and vaginas and masturbated two or three times in a row until I was sore. Then I walked naked through the rooms and the moisture on my skin was cold upon my skin. When dry I lay down on the floor and rested a while, never sleeping. At dawn I left to get something to drink.

It rained, the only time all week it rained, poured down all day. That was the second or third time I came to the condo. The empty apartment was the sine qua non of vapidity. It felt like I felt inside inside the place. It was more hellish each time I came. At some point, I don’t remember which time, I brought my two bags to the flat, my clothes and shoes, sketch book and soap, which I’d hidden on day two in the crotch of a big cedar by a trail between Home Depot and Walmart. Dried brown branches covered with brittle needles scattered over the floor in the darkness when I set down the bags. I found them scattered about—the only trace, but an unmistakable one, of nature in the place, but for the dregs of my bath, the salty siftings of my bath.

Terrified every moment I should be discovered and charged with trespassing, I left off squatting in the complex on the morning of the third visit, my last day in Florence. A feeling of foreboding drove me out of the maisonette. That apartment was a worm hole to a worse place if there ever was one. It was the epitome of meaninglessness. Something kept saying get out now or this day you lose! Which thank God I heeded.

COVID-19 had become a source of public consternation sometime while I was outdoors, but being so solitary and alone by nature, by force of circumstance, by habit if not by choice—by the isolation of addiction—I had not heard about the virus. I had, however, wondered why Walmart was closing so early and why nobody stopped me at the door when it was so obvious that I was smuggling wine out in my waistband. I was so weak after a few days of drink and pills and no sleep, when I did not drink I could hardly stand. The boys at the treatment center, when I walked back there, told me about Coronavirus and the new prophylactic measures in place, social distancing and masks, handwashing, etc.

I will add a few lines here, apropos of nothing, to observe that many of the restaurants, stores and gas stations in Florence were always hot, the air conditioning turned off. I had never experienced an inconvenience like this in North Carolina. I have no explanation for my observation. Surely, there is some rational reason for the dearth of conditioned air in Florence, South Carolina. Being March, they must not have felt the heat as I did, who came from a higher elevation. In the High Country of North Carolina, March is still cold weather; so, to me it was hot in the south. Maybe that’s all there is to it, the discrepancy attributable to the acclimatization of the local population to heat; otherwise, I do not know what to make of the lack. To me, it was strangely humiliating. I felt pity—I felt pity—for the people there. Not that such luxuries should be compulsory anywhere, but why could they not have what I had always had, had become accustomed to? What was I missing? What am I missing now? I never mentioned it to anyone then. I do not know the cause of Florence’s stores being infernal hot. I must say, the people of Florence were generally more considerate, patient and tolerant than here, despite their paucity of refrigeration. Now it seems that it must have been an anomaly that I alone perceived, or perhaps projected onto the mercantile apparatus of Florence. To my knowledge no one else remarked the deficiency of forced air. As in the unmeaning apartment I felt meaningless, so in the poor, neglected interiors of shopping centers I felt spurned, devalued.

The images time out of mind of all my shiftlessness, almost a decade of it, a lifetime! Homeless some two thousand days, and then some … days that ring like church bells perpetually, the silent image of a phoebe lifting off the steeple of an Epicsopal sanctuary high on a hill over the old main street—recurring recurring recurring. (Such divine silence!) Each event wants its picture taken! Each wants to live forever, wants a record of its having been. Wants to make itself an irrevocable constituent in the play of matter, motion and fire. What I’ve written is nothing of it all. What next? I ask myself. They crowd to have their voices credited. It’s too much! They exclaim and shout, and that makes me want to dash away. I cannot stand and fight. I am not committed enough. But the noise they make, the cacophony, I hate. Fate is flight. Fate is a fight. Heaven is silent on this, as upon all other matters.

Day one I slept on the crest of a hill overlooking Horn in the West, the constellations of March fizzing in the skies overhead, my hands ensconced in socks, my face to the ground to protect my lips and my blearing eyes. This was in the Western mountains. The hospital lobby attendant cast me into outer dark, no loitering allowed; though the ER lobby was, but for my interlocutor, empty as a Sahara. (Why kick me out now, I’ll only be back?) I would be back within weeks for detox. And three more times. Then no more, I started going to jail instead. At the hospital, I had to sneak in to steal snatches of rest here and there, dodging what authority might round the corner at any moment. Always in the night, for daylight opened many doors. Sometimes an AA meeting at 6:45 a.m. at the Methodist church, I’d shed a stream of tears then go buy a bottle and get started again: Walmart. Publix. E-News. Earth Fare. Over and over on my dog trot around town. Sometimes I’d take the free bus to save time when I was too thirsty to walk it down. The university and the public libraries. Hard days and nights. Perhaps, no harder than any others’, barring the climate and my desire for liquor and pills, which never left me a minute of peace.

Birds everywhere! Birds are reason to rejoice if any terrestrial thing is. If any moving thing, any singing thing … being immortal, exempt from my catalogue of particulars …. Of things that die, birds are most beautiful, more beautiful even than fish, cats, spiders, beetles Equally, integrally beautiful. There’s no accounting for gustibus! Any living beast is marvelous, silhouetted against the trees, the sun or moon behind, a moving tableau suggesting permanence. The creeping vines, a spider on a thread, a tweaker with his searing hot pipe (clacking up a storm), surface tension on the motor oil-colored river running through the city, its dancing swirling lights and lapses, ebbs and rapids. Backward spinning, current takes the eyes with itself and leads them, melding with them, will not let them still when they’ve left off looking at its flowing; the eyes want to keep flowing with water wherever it may wander. In sympathy, these creatures also are our semblables, ourselves, our symbols. Friends, if one wishes them to be. And if capable, with the capacity to be one himself. And the temerity to level with them.

Where do we go from here? By “we” I mean I, of course. Where do he? Nobody know. To Walmart hundreds of times to get warm, gank pills and buy vanilla with food stamps (41% alcohol). To the library I have repaired to sit on my hands not to drink, to not think about the possibilities for hell on the street, to feel the nearness of life, of youth, of family, of health, our mass insanity to gather information, to escape into fantasy, believing knowledge is power because we were taught it in school by knowledgeable, powerless ones. I am addicted to stacks and shelves too!

To be sure, I went to jail. I read more there than anywhere, except perhaps in my high-backed puce chair in the old bedroom-studio at Dad’s and Mom’s, who never understood that art is life to me. That to die were nothing to one in pursuit of the burdens of self-realization—the Immortal Self, of course, I mean. Who never understood why I eschewed the privileges they afforded me, the opportunities to succeed. (Nor can I fully defend my defiance.) There, I painted masterpieces right off my nervous system, straight from music. There I watched every early Hitchcock movie. There I heard the rutting bellow of whitetail bucks in the sweet potato field in the belly of November. There I spilled gesso on the floor and did not bother to wipe it up. There I did the things that were important to me, immortal things, reading, writing, painting, listening, getting drunk on life and literature, painting, sculpture. There I fired a shotgun into the ceiling. While the passing world worshiped its progress. There I passed out and fell into my easel and woke the house on Thanksgiving morning, but early! I rolled on the floor moaning. I was fucked out of my gourd on Coricidin Cough and Cold. Earlier that evening I had watched I Served the King of England while in the living room they watched Slumdog Millionaire. I got stuck in a scene, something happened in my brain that I cannot retail. Every character became a symbol of some celestial hierarchy of being. Each an element, in his own right, of the order of metaphysical life. They performed a rite on TV, and I watched as a Mystic Participant. It will not be possible to elucidate the secret; to say more would be ridiculous. I am not above it. That was many years ago; after that, things got somewhat more difficult.

Reagan Wiles works on a little patch of ground between encroaching sub-divisions at the foothills of the Saura Mountains in Piedmont North Carolina. Encroachment is a regular theme; as well, the hope of transcending both internal and external limitations after the confusion of so-called Progress, wrought by technological and scientific Enlightenment. He has taught English in Japan, worked a decade at a Transcendental Meditation resort as cook and baker, and exhibited paintings here and there in North Carolina, Washington D.C., and the Midwest. He was homeless for a period in a kind and generous mountain city. He insists that drawing from life is formative, supporting his writing. The period of confinement he regards as a time of transition and restructuring of life. Nature has taken an important place, silence serving a happy part in subduing the desires of the heart to wander.

Image: fortune.com

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