April 1, 2002
The I-10 west across the mesquite-webbed desolation of west Texas is such a
brutal drive it makes even El Paso a welcome sight. The exhaustion that
overtakes as you enter the city after the long drive is soothed, a bit, by
the knowledge that Las Cruces is within a few hours reach, that even though
you’ll wake up filmed by the dust, oil-smoke and poverty of El Paso, by
mid-morning you’ll be sitting at a plastic table outside a bar in Mesilla
drinking a can of Dos Equis, a lime wedge shoved in, a pinch of salt. The
desert of New Mexico didn't depress me the way the desert of Texas did, for
reasons I never figured out. I still loved west Texas, though, for what it
was--it energized me with motion, the need to press on, find water, trees,
life. I looked at the cows standing isolated and wind-blown, drowning in a
sea of mesquite, and I felt sorry for them. When they first brought cattle
to Texas, they killed all the prairie dogs so the cattle wouldn't drop a
foot down into a burrow, topple over and bust a leg. But turns out the
prairie dogs controlled the mesquite, and without the prairie dogs the
bushes’ low dense snarl overtook the landscape. Watching the cattle slowly
zig-zag their way through the webbed umber-colored ground was like watching
giants navigate a poorly designed garden maze.
I stopped shaking about four hours after leaving Austin, that was a relief.
I had been forced to stay around 60 because I was afraid if the shakes got
really bad I would jerk myself off the road. Especially driving an
unfamiliar car, although it was holding up rather well so far. Something had
fallen out from beneath outside Johnson City, and when I started the car
after stopping to take a piss in Fort Stockton, white smoke had plumed out
from under the hood. But the smoke went away, and whatever had fallen out
didn't seem to be vital -- I admit to being a terrible car owner -- and so I
I occupied myself in the radio-less, cramped Escort by talking to Felicia
and trying to find a name for the car.
"You don't like Humphrey, pick something else."
I didn't say I didn't like it, she was saying. Name it that if you want.
"Isaac?" I was going up in the alphabet.
Isaac is fine, too. Christ, just pick something, I’m bored.
I accepted the fact that my cat was bickering with me in my head calmly,
chalked it up to the heat and the hangover. I was trying to burn out the
booze a little on the trip, try to regain a few more hours of the day, try
to stay focused. I wasn't sure if it was the hangover onset or an anxiety
attack or both that jerked me to my feet after waiting in the Austin station
for a seven-hour-late train, that made me leave Felicia and my bags under
the half-watching eye of a severe olive-faced woman and walk across the
bridge to a small used car lot that catered to the lower-class mostly
Hispanic workers in the neighborhood -- "Got a job? Get a car" read the banner
out front, in English and Spanish. It was a fake name on the title, but the
cash I gave the guy was real enough.
I hit El Paso at four-thirty in the morning and crashed at a Super 8, where
I woke up the franchise owner, an Indian named Dinesh Far whose mouth was
stuck in a perpetual yawn the entire time, and I having made it from Austin
at the respectable-under-the-circumstances time of eight and a half hours. I
slept until checkout at 11 and hit the road, stopping in Las Cruces for a
chile relleno and a couple of tamales bought from a roadside taqueria, then
onward. I told myself I'd sleep by the roadside if I needed to, but so far a
few carefully spaced fist-sniffers had kept me going, although it left my
brain scattered in a hundred different directions. I kept feeling like I was
perpetually trying to constrain my thoughts to the task of driving, but
sleep would have been impossible. the second-day hangover had left my throat
burnt and barren despite the gallons of water I drank, and a haze of nausea
hung over the air, over everything I did.
It was a miserable day, but it did the trick. I woke the next morning a bit
cocaine-gritty, but clear of the immediate grips of alcohol, which has a
pull that leaves all drugs save heroin and nicotine envious of its addictive
power. It's good to step away from the bottle's embrace sometimes, just to
catch your breath--you know you’ll be back, but it's good to be able to take
a piss that doesn't smell like whiskey, to enjoy the sight of the sun in the
morning, to not have the headaches and fatigue you’re always chasing or
I was feeling so good that by the time I hit Mesa, California and rode into
those deep valleys studded with silent white wind turbines like giant broken
pinwheels, like markers of the dead, that I decided to find a pay phone and
call Aaron. I had promised to check in from time to time, and even though I
knew I couldn't tell him about finding Dave over the phone, I wanted his
advice, and I believe that something in his voice would calm me down, would
help me see the next step.
He wasn't there, hadn't been there for several days. "Do you have any idea
where -- ?" None. Some girl, sounded my age but could’ve been anything. "Or
when -- ?" Nothing. Her tobacco-stained voice was aching for a hit -- Aaron had
probably gone somewhere -- anywhere -- to score, something he usually did every
two or three months. Sometimes he was gone for a week, sometimes an hour. I
never asked; he never offered. I didn't want to know where; he didn't want
It disappointed me not to talk to him, but I told myself I'd call from LA. I
desperately wanted a drink but instead smoked a joint and drank a Coke in a
highway rest stop and when I was good and stoned I got out and called an old
friend of mine in San Francisco. I got hold of her, told her I'd be there
sometime the next day, was going to drive up 101, ocean-gaze. She said I
could stay there, on the house's couch, and I got directions and we hung up.
I walked back to the car excited and nervous. Laura was hard as nails,
beautiful and whip-smart, with a tongue that could decapitate and thighs
that could shatter your hips. I was glad to have her as a friend; what was
still hard was putting in perspective the time, right after I'd moved to the
East Coast, during which she'd been my wife.
"Come on," I said to Felicia back in the car. "Let's go see mommy."
(end of Part 8)
On to Part 9