When my name was called, sitting there at the VA hospital, I stood up, thanked the Jesus-loving Vietnam vet for his time and his service, and went with the attendant to examining room A, where I was met by the current resident, one Dr. Sam Haddad.
“As I live and breathe,” I said.
“Buzz,” he said.
We shook hands and then embraced badly, and then unclinched, embarrassed by our sudden display of mutual affection. We’d gone to college together in Gainesville and worked at the same shitty restaurant and suddenly there he is.
“Life!” I went. It was almost enough to make me believe in a Creator. Almost. “This is what I get for not keeping up with my college pals.”
“Buzz, you look good!” Dr. Haddad said. He clapped my shoulders, stood back and inspected me. “You want drugs?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I want drugs.”
So I got drugs.
Under the influence of prescription medication, I drove my shitty Saturn down to Sarasota Art & Frame and bought three dozen pre-stretched canvases, charcoal sticks and dry pigments, several red sable brushes and miniver brushes and a palette knife. I was officially almost completely broke. Hurray for me, proud plain brown paper sack!
I went back to my apartment and hauled all my stuff up the stairs in five trips.
I had a glass-topped coffee table and a dozen eggs in the refrigerator, which would be a start.
I numbered all the panels.
I sketched up each one on the kitchen countertop, standing. The sun came up and went down and came up again. I ate a little something. I slept for a few hours. I popped more pills.
I removed the glass top from the coffee table and set it across the stove and sink. It was shockingly stable. I tapped out my pigments—lead white, Naples yellow, true vermilion, cadmium, red chromium of oxide green, cobalt blue, burnt umber, raw umber.
I cracked an egg and moved the raw egg from one half shell to another over the sink, removing the white. I placed the yolk in my palm and continued to move it from one hand to another. I placed the yolk on a paper towel and rolled it along the paper towel. I set the paper towel on the glass table top, found a paring knife and made the tiniest slit in the yolk and poured the contents of the yolk out onto the glass table top. I threw the yolk membrane in the sink.
I mixed my pigments with the yolk and began to paint—tiny strokes with my tiniest brush. I wanted detail and this was the only way to get it.
I lost ten pounds that week.
In the end, what I had was a panorama of what I’d seen from the door, a mirage, feeling for the first time the hot breath of the desert when I got off the airplane in Saudi Arabia, everything the way I remembered experiencing it in my food-depleted mania, one panel at a time. And in each panel, I painted a portrait of someone I knew, some tiny, if they were off in the distance, and some very detailed and intimate, if they were up close. My sister Sissy was the soldier getting off the plane in front of me, turning her head and smiling back at me, the viewer. My grandfather was an old man NCO standing at the foot of the stairs. My grandmother was at a table. My father, oblivious, was about to be run over by a deuce-and-a-half. My mother was driving the deuce-and-a-half. The preacher from Pizza Hut was the chaplain praying for him off to the side. Sam Haddad was a lieutenant saluting a colonel, who was my brother Sparky. My uncle Ralph was sitting on a box of ammunition, eating a wedge of pan pizza from Pizza Hut. I threw in old friends—Albino was the sick call doctor—and some half-remembered acquaintances. In one corner, I had a platoon of airmen dressed in blue. But they weren’t airmen. They were letter carriers. This is what my brain convinced me that I was seeing when I stepped off that plane. It wasn’t that long ago. Or it was a million years ago. I can’t tell anymore.
I wrapped myself in an old blanket and snoozed on the couch for something like a day or two. In my final dream, I was lovable. I was an affable, normal guy. I had a wife in this dream who found me attractive because I was a good person, because she could see the decency inside me, and not because I was a tragic, artistic nutjob covered in paint who couldn’t stop mourning his dead sister no matter how hard he tried. In this dream, my impossible wife and I sat on the couch together and she put her head on my shoulder and I closed my eyes and felt her warm next to me, my arm around her shoulders. She asked, “What do you want to do tonight?” and I kissed the top of her head and replied, “This. Just this.” And I closed my eyes in the dream and awoke from the dream, my eyes open. I was alone and knew that alone is what I would be—always, from now on.
When all the panels dried, strewn about my apartment on chairs and tables and across my bed, I placed them in several boxes, upending them and dumping out all my collected comic books, and addressed the boxes to my old illustration instructor, who was now in charge of Pentagon graphics. I figured he’d know what to do with them.
I toted the heavy boxes downstairs to my sad little Saturn. The willowy letter carrier was down there, filling our aluminum letter boxes with enveloped joy. Head sick from all that painting, and the aerosol fixatif I’d used to seal the canvases, I strutted over and demanded my mail. In my experience, it’s not what’s on the inside that counts—it’s what’s on the outside. It’s small talk and frippery and clothes and ripped abs. I’m none of that. I’m all on the inside, stuffed into this plain brown paper sack. “Two-zero-five, please,” I said, sticking out my paint-encrusted hand. Lead white mixed with egg yolk. Lethal!
“You smell like a dead skunk,” the letter carrier said in a cute little drawl. She handed me my mail.
“Thank you,” I said. “Bill, bill, bill, bill. And me unemployed. How about a date?”
“No,” she said. She raised up a hand to her mouth, I thought at first to pinch her nose, but it turned out she was shielding me from her smile.
“I’ll ask again some other time,” I said. “When I don’t smell like a dead skunk.”
“Looking forward to that,” she said, and continued on. Short shorts.
I’m convinced that I’m not good at this. Life, I mean.
After mailing my artwork, I went home and showered the skunk off me. I lay on my bed, my hands under my head and drifted to sleep and dreamt that my grandparents were still alive. I dreamt that Sissy was still alive, and not long dead. I dreamt that I was not grown up, that I was not 36. I awoke, disoriented. The sun was still up, burning.
I got up and turned on the TV, clicked around the channels.
The TV flickered on and off, which was a bad sign. It was the hottest day of the year, and I was watching the day’s atrocities on the six o’clock news. The A/C was making those on/off clunk noises, too. Finally, the electricity went off.
I stood up inside my apartment.
I didn’t open a window just yet. I waited. And waited.
Light was growing scarce outside. Up and down my street, people were wandering out of their apartments, staring off into space. Cars turned on their lights, but there were no streetlights. I scooted a chair up to the window to watch. The last bit of cold air turned stuffy, so I cracked the windows a bit. The air blowing in was steamy, like a gym shower. Someone had left a sack of oranges in the hallway to rot and the stink was blowing in under my door. Even though the TV was off, I could hear a high-pitched squeal coming out of the cable box on top of it. Signals were squirming through. It was too much.
Down the street, out of my range of sight, I heard cars squealing and crashing, and ambulances blaring, and people screaming at each other. Across the street from me was a rest home for the elderly. Every evening, without fail, the oldsters sat in their parlor to watch the sunset and the television. I watched them watching me now. I saw their candles flickering while the flashes of headlights raced across their building.
The power still wasn’t on at nine, so I went to bed. Sweat drizzled down my back. People from my building were outside now, driving in circles around streets, blasting their music. Some mariachi came by, then rap, then heavy metal. I scratched at my scalp, running my fingers furiously through my hair. It itched like I hadn’t taken a shower in a week. An hour later, two hours later, still no power. I sat up in bed. “Sadists!” I shouted.
“Give it to ‘em, buddy!” a neighbor shouted back, laughing.
The music in the street died out. I thought I heard gunshots, but it was probably leftover explosives from the 4th.
A bird landed on my windowsill, eyeballed me. “Coo, coo?” it went.
I waved my arms. It fluttered away.
I felt a hair curling out from inside my nose. It was tickling my nose tip, but I tried to ignore it. I was unsuccessful. Now the apartment was pitch-black, but the nose hair was irritating beyond belief. It was the final indignity.
I don’t believe in planning for emergencies. It takes all the fun out of them, I think. So I don’t own a flashlight. I have my apartment memorized, and—being the type of human being that I am—I often walk around it in the middle of the night without turning on any lights, so I decided to go to the kitchen and find my scissors, and clip out the offending hair. I got up out of the sofa bed, walked out of my living room and into the kitchen without disturbing a single object. I reached across the kitchen counter to where I thought I’d left the scissors and violently yanked the glass table top that I’d been using as a palette onto the kitchen floor, where it broke into several pieces.
I slowly backed out of the kitchen without stepping on a single shard of glass. I walked over to my closet and took out my vacuum cleaner and used it to block access to the kitchen in case I decided to get up in the middle of the night and wander around.
I fell asleep with the hair tickling my nose tip.
In the morning the A/C was on, along with my television. My scissors were on top of the TV. I picked up the shards and vacuumed up the tiny glass bits. There was a representative from the power company on the TV. He was going on about how it was really the consumers’ fault that rolling blackouts had to occur.
Kids across the street from my apartment building were playing in the old person’s home parking lot, chanting, “Block that kick! Block that kick! Block that kick!”
I remember my sister and smile.
I stand there in my empty apartment.
I’m very old, all of a sudden. I’m 36 and counting, waiting for the beginning of the end of my life.