by Jess Arndt
He moves. It’s like someone’s poking him. He moves again. The pillow is damp. He rotates, tender. Wet everywhere. One eye cakes open, pupil seizes en guard against the light—he’s alone.
En guard! He shouts again and falls back like a plank, could be deceased.
Both eyes open now. Ready for coins?
He blinks awhile. Same mean mattress (his), same mushrooming stain above him. The plaster is leaking. One drop of water rolls around his ear’s fleshy inner tubing. He listens to it drip drop drop. This water has a stalactite’s insistence. Imagine the caverns of my brain, he concocts, where a driblet is thickening, pear-shaped, lugubrious until finally it’s so heavy it must…!
A stalagmite catches it…!!
But a worse moment comes on its heels. An oven. Light cruises in freely. His heart bucks. Did we colonize the sun? If he was really thinking he would wonder about the leak and the sun—at odds. But he’s not. Can’t think with this spotlight on him. Plus there’s something he doesn’t want to know yet.
Oh but here it comes anyway like a 999 steam train.
Better if it came slower. In the Netherlands there’s record of a train pulled by a dog.
Nope it’s here. It flattens him. He’d like to never get up but the blankets crawl over him patchily and his whole body is roasting. He tips and teeters. One leg down. Feels like he’s standing straight on his ankle no foot.
Doesn’t she (landlady) have the pitiful class to lend him a rug?
The littlest things cause his brain to ejaculate with torment. He’s going to go demand a footpad. Plush. At the very least! He searches the room for his clothes. But nothing is easy. Did his dorm-mates mug those too?
He stares at the raw wall boards. The fir smell is choking him but he’s trying to picture a green forest. The foliage so nude and spongy. Slowly it occurs to him that there’s weight on his body. He’s wearing them—miner’s jeans. Canvas drop sleeve shirt. Boots even. All of them freshly bought but now they feel pasted on.
Well forget the basin. He’s too shaky to shave. He shoves his hands again and again in his back pockets, trying to turn them inside out. Nothing but sand.
He coaxes himself down the stairs like he’s 80. At the landing he lunges sideways, attaching himself to the rail where the molding, hip-height, meets the wall. The room is narrow, cigar-like, same color too.
I’m suffering, he says.
He wants a table by himself but it’s just Zoilites in rows and rows and rows. Finally he sees safety, a stool by the kitchen door that the landlady sometimes occupies, mean and rugless. He gets there. His knees bend. He catches the stool top with his butt bones. Now his teeth are chattering.
No big surprise. He drank his gums off! Breakfast smells like herring. Oily drifts boff the air.
Elbows on his thighs, plate in his lap, he glares at each Zoilite (if he can even separate them) with exactly the same measure of suspicion. He’s looking for the smoking gun, some beardo waving the stolen claim at his neighbor, some sphinx-like countenance or a bottle of ‘bou passing around before its usual appearance at noon.
But is it before noon? Who can tell?
The shadows bend in subterranean patterns and he swears in the corner someone’s hunched on a lamp, making it glow. Well fine, he slept all day. Wouldn’t you if you were poisoned, kidnapped, robbed?
There’s a constant buzz going around the dining hall but he can’t see a single mouth move. It’s like beetles munching wood, he thinks. He glares again at the mass. For once it’s easy not to talk.
Yes Pinkie? he says anyway. Testing his voice out.
But he doesn’t answer. Instead he looks down at the fish. It’s quivering in what he can only guess is pomade. He sucks up a bite and the greasy bone hairs dive at his tongue.
I’m done! He tosses his fork. He remembers with a lot of conviction—there’s a serape he wants to buy out there on the street.
He’s not sure but the sun has either set or it’s stuck behind a blob of fog. It’s all fog blobs here. If he was going to write something that’s what he would write. But who thinks of these things. He walks down Dupont St. taking big resolute steps. Suddenly his bones? Jelly.
Well that’s just a shiver?
Yeah fine, ok, it’s night, he says.
Who knows why but he’s driven to the serape vendor, the one he saw yesterday. Of course there are umpteen hundred of them. So why care which? This particular vendor wasn’t even so good…just a chubby guy from down north.
He doesn’t investigate the feeling. But he passes two or three peddlers laying their striped ponchos out before he settles into an ok pace. He knows there’s nothing special here. That the serape vendor picks his gear up from the warehouse just like the other guys and the warehouses are filled from the clippers, the ports, the farting burros, the ferocious drunk it took to get over the mountains and before that toddlers crawling over the yarns sucking cajeta god life’s boring! etc etc.
All this time he doesn’t think about the claim once.
He doesn’t think about Valapai either. It’s been snipped from him. Or maybe, like an umbilical cord—someone left it hanging until it dries and falls off.
Don’t even go there, this guy was never a baby or even a kid. What was he even doing in Valapai? Who knows. Completely not the point. The happiest he’s been was at the party with the saltpeter miners. That’s it.
Out here he almost can’t believe the noise. Frisco’s blabbing her mouth! It’s full dark and nippy and lanterns and coal fires brew up everywhere. He’s counting the streets now, he’s sure he’s about to turn down the right one.
A strange thing is forming in his mind. He wouldn’t call it a thought.
I don’t know, he says.
He pauses at a beer hall.
Well maybe just one?
He actually pushes his tongue out and dampens his lips. C’mon they’re dry. The pinchers that have been grinding down on his head all day find their meat just above his cold strawberry red ears. He’s heard about the north Pacific—all gluey seas and its giant man-sized crabs.
He swallows. Now he’s sure a smooth sac has enveloped his insides and holds the inner grid of his body separate from his skin. The skin is the same as always. But what’s in the sac has been monkeyed with, punched around. Little sparks and dislocations flare up any place the sac and skin touch. Am I just stargazing? he wonders. But it doesn’t feel good.
He’s going uphill now, he hates climbing, the beer hall is right there—he could always give up. But way off ahead: he does see one lamp blowing back and forth in its own closet wind.
Omphalos! he says.
It's one of those words he likes on sound alone, no idea what it means.
The lamplight seems to lather up the street. He speeds ahead, even sweats a little. Sure enough there’s the serape vendor. A stupid looking guy but he’s certain now—he’s the one! It’s a strange place for a vendor though. I.e. over in this corner of things, up a steepening hill. When he looks back down the city seems far off, abstracted. Peculiar thing about walking.
It’s probably got to do with this shitty hangover! he says out loud.
He’s convinced the serape vendor can’t hear anything because he’s an idiot and the wind is blowing. His cart is tilting sideways on the muddy ground and the vendor has placed a large rock in front of each downhill wheel. Pinkie shakes his head. Such a dumb place for a cart.
He’s not doubting himself but he’d like to grab the serape and get off of this vacant incline. He notices trees now in a clump. The street just peters out. Can you believe it? They haven’t even built this part of the city yet. But now he’s here. No talking—just a lamp and a cart. He’s intent. He paws through the ponchos—can barely see them. Color at night? In Frisco they do everything crazy, he thinks. Each one he pulls out looks just like the others. He’s tossing them to the ground, the bank of damp wool grows.
The vendor doesn’t budge, just watches. He isn’t chubby after all. He’s just wearing many serapes on top of each other. In fact his face is lean. But now there’s nothing left, Pinkie’s hands hit the bottom. Don’t ask him to describe the serape he’s looking for either, he’d have known it if he’d seen it. He pauses. The lost claim and now this. He’s going to insist that the vendor undress. After all, he’ll have chosen the best one to wear himself.
They stand there, he and the lean-faced serape vendor, the stripped cart between them.
I’m suffering, Pinkie says loudly.
I’m suffering man, he says again.
He keeps saying it and saying it and saying it.
I wrote a book about the 1849 Gold Rush in San Francisco and when I was done I realized it was all wrong—I’d been writing like I was trying to convince the reader what “it” (as I imagined it) was like or why I thought it was so wild and brazen—such “punk” times. I wanted everyone to say: wow how crazy! while they were reading, which was what I felt. But you can’t write like that and the whole concept got so heavy that I was dragging it around. I was heartbroken and completely stumped. Finally I put the book away and did other stuff. But the time period was still worming away inside me, something about it was always poking out. For fun I wrote a new story—totally off the cuff—about a guy who just happened to arrive at the Gold Rush but this time nothing was good—he was stuck in the wrong boardinghouse, embarrassed by his companions—outraged by all of it. The writing started to get fun again. In this new story, the guy got drunk, got taken advantage of or at least imagined that he did because he refuses to take any kind of personal responsibility for anything and suddenly—oh great—now I was writing about myself! For the first time in my writing life, I understood what fiction can do. Then I wrote another chapter, where the same guy goes looking for a serape. Who knows why? This is that chapter.
Jess Arndt is a fiction writer and co-editor of New Herring Press in Brooklyn. After writing this she spent 10 days in Mexico City looking for a serape. No luck.