A Space for Writers of the World
excerpted from How to Write the Great
American (Tentacle Porn) Novel
“I will be releasing my newest collection of poetry, Pus: an Algorhythm. Get it? Rhythm?” Lila and I are having margaritas and tortillas chips at Casa Rosa’s and brainstorming lists of bad poetry titles, all completely made up of course.
“I thought the title was Bloody Discharge. What happened to that title?” I ask.
“Overstated, much?” Lila asks, then cracks up. “But seriously Harper, why even go there? It was all good when Sheryl Young was making bodily fluids a legitimate, necessary part of the Canon, or when Cynthia Sandoz was writing list poems about every conceivable strain of menstrual blood but really? To speak of it literally?”
These are the kinds of things I’d like to catalog on a sporadic blog hardly no one ever reads called UGH: Uncivilized, Grunting Heathen. It began as a genuine attempt to vocalize (or type) Indigenous concerns and Native poetry and literature but lately has devolved into pop culture, fashion runway shows and food. And rants. Lila suggested I give her a guest column to review books called Jane, you Ignorant Slut.
“Have you read Hemorrhage?” I ask, teasing.
“Is that by the same author who wrote Severe Head Trauma?”
“No, you’re thinking of Cervical Infectitus.” I say.
“Right, right, Cervical Infectitus, Treatments for your Puss. Lila had discovered a typo in a healthcare manual for a job taking care of disabled people. She had told me, “Pus was misspelled puss, do you think I should’ve informed the nurse, I mean lives could’ve been at stake.”
“Actually,” I said dipping a chip into the bowl of salsa in the space between us, “Hemorrhage isn’t a bad title. It almost sounds familiar, I bet if we looked it up on Amazon right now or the Academy of American Poetics we’d find it.” Neither of made a move to look it up though, just reached for another chip, another dip of salsa.
“My next book of poems will simply be called Yeast. Read into that however you wish.” I said.
“Mmmm, yummy, bread.” Lila says.
“It’s the food of life.” I say.
“Rhymes with breast, east, and west.” Lila says.
“That’s why Sylvia Plath died, she got baked.” I say.
“I can’t believe we’re eating and having this conversation at the same time.”
Lila and I are both in our mid-thirties, excuse me, late-thirties. The last time I casually mentioned I was in my mid-thirties, Lila took malevolent pleasure in pointing out that 38 and turning 39 in a month’s time was not mid but late, really, really late and that it was time I stepped off the train to Denial because Grandma wanted my seat.
Lila worked at the campus anthropology lab archiving different materials discovered or dug up by our regional area bone hounds—white dudes all, with ghoulish predilections –well, fetishes rather—for exhuming funereal objet d’art. She also worked closely with NAGPRA—Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act—and was a kind of watchdog or specialist in the department. Whenever area developers unearth remains, the materials are delivered to the lab and Lila sees to getting the remains back to the tribes. It could be psychically draining work, and many people who worked at the lab avowed to it being haunted.
Lila is the bone lady, I’m the poet lady. I’m working as an English and Composition adjunct for Pacific Tribal College, which admittedly I’m not very good at. My site manager told me when I started that the students could smell fear, and I thought at the time that what he said seemed provocative, as if the students are dogs or something, but later I started to understand it meant something different. I am a city girl, an urban skin, well, to be more specific I’m a suburban Indian, half Hunkpapa Sioux from my mother, and half Anglo, which translates to some of the students at the college as naugahyde. Or at least this is my own projection, either way, it makes me feel awkward, which is the fear part that my site manager was referring to. My husband Dallas had asked me. “So if you’re naugahyde, what’s that make them, genuine leather?” For a white guy he catches on pretty well. Lila teases me about teaching there sometimes. “You should pitch a reality show, Rez Wives of Nez Perce County.” And I have to agree with her, a lot of those girls are really pretty, and there’s always plenty of drama.
If Lila and me were conjoined twins in the circus sideshow our act would be called Harper and Liza the Incredible Bone Poet(s) performing feats of never before seen in captivity misadventures of stupefying proportions. But I’d mostly be riding Lila’s coattails, because she’s truly the fabulous one between us, while I’m like the wind beneath her wings, which Lila says sounds like a feminine hygiene product. Lila drives around in a souped up, lowrider, 1970 Chevy Impala with crazy Mariachi music blasting from the speakers. She has sugar skulls tattooed on her arms and swing dances in her off time, among other things. She keeps those freaky hairless sphincter, I mean, Sphinx cats, some black Pugs and every year on your birthday will buy you a cake specially decorated from the grocery store bakery that says Happy Birthday Skank , or some variation of Skank, one year it was Slut, another Droopy Boobs. Lila’s a chubby chaser too, despite being so tiny herself—I’ve wondered if she buys her jeans in the children’s section for instance—for some reason she has a thing for those big teddy bear guys, Mexican or Native preferably. “Guys whose asses you could park a car in the shadow of.” She says quoting from Thelma and Louise, a movie which Lila says would have made a lot more sense if Thelma and Louise were Native. Of course I reminded her that Natives are notorious for not having asses, and we had a good cackle over that. That’s what we do, cackle. Loudly, like grackles. A murder of them.
The reason I’m having dinner with Lila aka Bone Girl, is to unload about the recent death of Jimmy Henry—whose name if inverted would be Henry Jimmy, or Henry James depending how familiar you felt with him. (Did they call grown men “Jimmy” in the age of Henry James?) Jimmy’s death came not so much as a shock—he did hit the pipe (meth) and drank excessively—but his death was more of a shock in the general sense, that I mourned him, mourned his kind, and in the specific sense that I mourned he was not as celebrated as he deserved to be, either as a writer, actor/comedian or simply by virtue of his personality. That is to say his potential had gone unrealized, untapped for the masses, with the exception of the people fortunate enough to be in his orbit, who were brought into his confidence. Literally. Jimmy had a streak of confidence man in him. Maybe. I don’t know. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Let me explain.
In another life and galaxy far, far away, I used to live in a seaside university town a day’s drive west from the Inland Northwest where I live now, in an area called Bellingham, or as it was affectionately referred, “The Ham.” The Inland Northwest, where I live now is called the Palouse, and if you wanted to, I suppose you could call it just “The Louse.” Or to be more specific, you could call it by the town Moscow, or “The Cow.” It’s like a children’s book: The Ham, the Louse and the Cow. I met Jimmy at an independent film festival in L.A. He played a coffee house poet in a film, Beat Angel, about Jack Kerouac magically resurrected from the dead—Kerouac’s spirit was transubstantiated into the body of a hobo bumming for spare change at the coffee house; it wasn’t a zombie movie or anything like that, it was actually a very interesting film. The filmmaker was from “The Ham” as were many of the actors and crew. My role in the film was merely as groupie, meaning I had no involvement with the film whatsoever except for falling under the charms of the actor playing Kerouac. But then I met Jimmy and latched onto him instead, or he latched onto me—or maybe cleaved is a better word…either way, there was attachment involved. He barged into my hotel room one night on the pretense of making my acquaintance, and excitedly jumped from topic to topic touching all of my books and personal things, asking me a hundred questions, practically pacing from room to room, even checking out the bathroom, “nice robe, I could sell these!” before dashing out the door. That was his style. Hyper-mania. Later that night I found myself in the backseat of a large luxury sedan being driven around L.A. with an entourage, stopping at various places here and there, different bars and clubs. One person in our entourage happened to be the son of Neal Cassady; he said I resembled Jerry’s old lady—Jerry Garcia—who everyone called Mountain Girl. He took me on the dance floor at one of the clubs and we danced to an 80s rock cover band. It was far removed from The Merry Pranksters and The Electric Kool-Aid Test but it was pretty epic in my book. Our host drove us past Ray Romano’s and what used to be Bob Hope’s house. One of my first golden memories of Jimmy was when he introduced himself to this one group of people smoking outside one of the clubs—“How ya doing, I’m Jimmy Henry, I’m a janitor at Hollywood High, I live in my parent’s basement and I collect gay bondage porn.” He had bits for every occasion. One night in order to raise money to treat Kay and I to drinks he skurried outside the restaurant and started barking to passersby on the street for donations, performing his poetry, attracting small hoards. After twenty minutes he had around $40 and bought me and Kay drinks and a plate of nachos.
After returning to “The Ham” I caught up with Jimmy, who as it turned out, owned and operated a large used clothing store (a store that never broke even at the end of each month), The Blue Moon, in the old part of downtown Bellingham, just around the corner from everyone’s favorite coffee house, Stuart’s. One afternoon while sitting in the upstairs balcony at Stuarts, I looked over to see, to my astonishment, a rather large section of the wall being removed from the inside, then noisily falling to the floor beneath it; next, a tall man in polyester plaid pants crawled through the hole and stepped casually into the coffee shop. He brushed himself off in a resolute kind of way before turning back to the wall section, hoisting it up and securing it back into the wall as if it was a piece of a life-sized jigsaw puzzle. It was like seeing Alice—or the Mad Hatter, more likely—crawling out of the rabbit hole. It was Jimmy. He had his own secret entrance from his apartment above Blue Moon into the balcony of Stuarts. When he noticed me sitting at the table across from the crawl space, my jaw hanging open and drool probably pooling onto my chin, he held his finger to his lips just like Christopher Walken did in that movie about a sociopathic tractor stealer (grand theft tractor?) who murdered Sean Penn’s spunky girlfriend. I was enthralled. But I didn’t think of Jimmy so much as a boyfriend, more like a fun hobby, a distraction; Kay suggested he was a kind of pet, but one that you wouldn’t have to walk, and besides I already had a boyfriend—well, he was on his way out, literally, he bought a house and was in the process of moving out. His new house was intended only for a single serving because he never asked me if I might want to share it with him. I didn’t, but still, he could have asked. Jimmy provided the perfect dose of distraction, not that I was torn up about my boyfriend leaving, although to be fair I might have experienced a skoosh bit of melancholia as a result, I’d been with him for eight years, he was the first Native guy I’d been with, and who’d seen me through a lot, but the relationship had reached its expiration date and at that point I was more relieved, if that is even an accurate word to describe my feeling, than I was sad about it. This was circa BD, Before Dallas, of course. I didn’t consider Jimmy to be actual boyfriend material, more something akin to writing material, and of course entertainment, I mean, the guy was funny! He played the Irish/Catholic/alcoholic/tragic/character to the hilt. He wrote and performed poems about his rough and tumble childhood on the streets of the Bronx from book titles like Women are from Venus, Men are from Bars and It Takes a Whole Mall to Raise a Child. In Bellingham, he was a minor celebrity.
“You’re like Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City.” My friend Kay said one night when we were talking on the phone. “Only, you’re more like Sex and the City Indian. Is that what The Jimmy Report is leading to?” She asked.
I laughed. “Something like that.”
“Maybe you should start a blog or something. You could record all of your sexual escapades.” Kay said.
“Oh, yeah, there’s just SO many!” I said sarcastically.
“You could start your own column in Notes From Native Country.”
“Right, my mother would love that.”
“Hey, cut her some slack, she probably would!” And we both started laughing in that sort of way where you’re laughing so hard that no sound comes out, and what you’re laughing about isn’t even that funny. Soundless laughter, the closest thing to an orgasm I can think of.
I took notes after every encounter, logged my interactions with Jimmy into my journal and wrote them out and emailed them to Kay, who always asked about my latest installments. I called this record of notes The Jimmy Report. In the beginning I referred to Jimmy as the subject and myself as the reporter, and I stuck to simple reportage. It couldn’t be considered actual stalking because I didn’t lurk around his residence late at night—well, maybe only once or twice—and I didn’t invade his privacy, like go through his trash or break into his place (he lived above the store in a room the size of an airplane hanger) but a person could make a case for stalking I guess, but really, it was just a hobby. A harmless hobby. In those days, Kay was my best friend and partner in crime and we did our share of drive-bys and harmless investigations of other unsuspecting subjects. We considered it our contribution to humanity, the study of human behavior—aside from our other contribution to humanity, our sparkly personalities. Either that or we were practicing for a career in private investigation. Private Dicks or Private Vages. The truth is, it amused us to no end. I don’t expect anyone to really understand and that’s alright if they don’t. We were adult children playing FBI surveillance, and my reports were like dossiers maintained on operatives or persons of interest. Completely silly, for amusement’s sake.
The Jimmy Report:
Jimmy returns phone calls. He’s called me three times now. Which is promising. He can’t be all flake if he returns calls, right? Although he does keep talking about lighting out for the territories with just a knapsack, pad and pen. This preoccupation with being homeless is disconcerting, I’ve never had a homeless boyfriend before. How does one work out this type of relationship? When I sleep over, do you think he’ll hog the sleeping bag? Let me lie down closest to the fire? Share his mittens? Protect me from stray dogs? Can this relationship last? What would we discuss in couple’s counseling? “It really irks me when he calls collect from St. Louis because he fell asleep on the Great Northern again?”
Perhaps the situation could be improved if he got arrested for something petty like vagrancy or shoplifting? That way I could visit him in jail. At least with a prison boyfriend you know where they’re sleeping every night. According to you Kay, his homeless idealization is just an image he wants to project, a gimmick, like bow ties or shaving your head; an eccentric quirk to convey one’s devotion to an alternative counter-culture, like that Oregon environmental activist, Butterfly something, who lived in a tree for 3 years. I once saw a model runway show where the models looked like indigents down on their luck. They were wearing outer garments designed out of dirty, crusty-looking sleeping bags. It reminded me of Heroin Chic. Is that how Jimmy interprets homelessness? Hobo cache and Street chic? Just how far is someone willing to go in order to flip the bird to the establishment? I’d say that homelessness is a pretty radical statement, but I wonder if it’s possible to stay sober and homeless? If Jimmy has only experienced street living in an intoxicated state—which of course is most of the reason he was living in the street—then surely homelessness while sober can’t be very much fun. There are things such as the elements to be considered which a green bottle of Thunderbird can pretty much just gloss right over. I wonder if Jimmy romanticizes Nick Nolte in Down and Out in Beverly Hills? Is there a homeless role model? A homeless icon? A bum’s bum? I hardly think that Charlie Chaplin was truly invested in The Life, he just played a homeless guy, right? What would this having a homeless boyfriend be like? Would I cherish those special nights with my guy loitering at the shipping docks, enjoying Slim Jims and bottles of Ripple? How bad could it be? I could take sponge baths at the Texaco station bathroom as well as the rest of them. Pork and Beans heated in the can over a barrel fire, who doesn’t like Van de Camps? I mean what’s not to like about that? Who doesn’t like picnics? Not me, I love picnics! And think of the male to female ratio! Why, I’d be literally surrounded by love-starved men, and I’m thinking even on a bad day, I’d be looking pretty darn fetching to the likes of them!
Lila finishes with her carne asada and peppers and the waiter comes by to take our plates. We consider ordering another drink but decide not to. As the waiter turns to head back to the kitchen we both watch his butt while he walks away. Lila says, “I dated a homeless guy before.” I cough into my napkin. “He lived under a bridge, no wait, it was a storage unit. Yeah, he lived in a storage unit. Cheap rent.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I say.
“Of course I’m kidding! You think I’m some kind of weirdo like you who’d date a hobo! A tramp!”
“We weren’t dating! And even if we were, he was a cute tramp, very talented.” I say “But that’s not even the whole story.”
“Clearly. What happened? How’d he die?”
“Near as I can guess, hard living.” I said.
“You said meth before, was it an overdose?”
“The newspaper story didn’t say. He’d been in Minnesota for a number of years. I wonder how people like William S. Burroughs lived to be so old, he took so many drugs and probably drank like a fish.”
“Well constituted?” Lila said.
“One supposes.” I said.
Lila used to run with a guy…run with, makes it sound as if she’s a wolf, who did heroin, a guy in med school, and as to the reasons she used to hang out with the guy, it was nothing that a twelve step program couldn’t try and solve. Although it was pretty obvious, in much the same way as my chasing after eccentrics like Jimmy—and hanging in there with the emotionally unavailable like my husband Dallas, was pretty obvious, and I could spin an amusing explanation like I was hunting for writing material, but I fear the truth lay mostly in the fact that my pursuit of the un-loveable and unavailable—alcoholics, married guys—stemmed from the failure to love myself. And because I grew up among adults who punished each other more often than they loved each other, because punishing, withholding praise and encouragement, holding conditions over each other, blaming and accusing, was the default mode of their interactions; punitive treatment was privileged over praise. Lila knows this also, and her old pal who used to shoot up? He’s in recovery now apparently. They’d been friends for years, drinking and smoke buddies, sometimes fuck buddies, but when Denny started shooting up Lila phased him out. “I remember so clearly the night I stopped seeing him, the night I realized that he was a lost cause.” Lila had told me. “I was hanging out at his place, much like I always did, and he buzzed this woman up to his apartment. Next thing I know the two of them are cooking up powder, the works, their spoons and syringes and rubber tie thingies, then they’re shooting each other up and you could almost feel the room tip sideways like a carnival fun house, they were so blasted, I must have had a contact high. And during all of this I’m just sitting there, kind of fascinated, but also kind of dumbfounded, taking in the scene like it’s a social experiment, and then this woman—I forget her name—stands up, unbuttons her pants and slips them off, like it’s the most normal thing in the world to remove your pants in front of a perfect stranger, and then I realize something else is off kilter when I notice she is wearing a prosthetic leg attached midway up her thigh. Then she unhooks some levers and snaps—I don’t know what I’m looking at—and suddenly, there it is, her leg propped up next to the bed like a pair of slippers—Dennis lived in a studio apartment and his bed was a box spring and mattress splayed out in the middle of the room. The woman, clad in her underwear and t-shirt, hops on her one leg onto the bed and climbs under the blankets. At which point Dennis, who by the way had a tattoo of Dennis the Menace on his upper arm, removes his clothes and also climbs into bed. They’re both so narcotized they don’t even notice I’m in the room. I left and I didn’t go back.”
The last time I saw Jimmy was just before he’d lost his business and decided to ride a bicycle across America, finally settling in Minnesota. He wanted to say goodbye to me and he also wanted to reveal the truth of his situation. He’d said that he respected me enough to tell me the truth. And he also said that I was a good friend and that he loved me. We were sitting in his upstairs apartment, the one big as a airplane hanger above his store. The truth he wanted to reveal to me was that he had a meth habit which explained so much of course. Which explained everything in fact. And just as Lila had witnessed Dennis the med student in the midst of his descent down the rabbit hole, I stood watch over my hilarious and wonderful friend Jimmy, as he fired up a butane lighter, heated his glass pipe and drew in its peculiar and slow devastation. The wild and terrible smoke swirled in the air around us and I imagined the smoke as venomous tentacles, a rapture of hooks, an ecstasy of knives.
My detachment took hold then, odd as it sounds to put it in that way, Jimmy made that possible. And I must emphasize it wasn’t romantic attachment, except in a quixotic sense, perhaps that is stronger than romantic love, stronger in its purity, its selflessness, its idealism, not that romantic love is absent of such things. But in this brotherly love exists its evil twin: a desperate and mostly hopeless desire to provide salvation.
Lila motioned for the check and when the waiter in the tight pants brought it to the table we customarily played tug-of-war with it. This time I let her win. “I’m sorry your friend died.” Lila said. And she meant it—she’d lost people before too. There’s no wise crack in the world suitable enough to follow the news of someone’s death. No chaser. So we just polished off our margaritas instead.
Tiffany Midge is the recipient of the Kenyon Review Earthworks Prize for Indigenous Poetry for “The Woman Who Married a Bear” (forthcoming) and the Diane Decorah Memorial Poetry Award for “Outlaws, Renegades and Saints; Diary of a Mixed-up Halfbreed” (Greenfield Review Press). Her work has appeared in North American Review, The Raven Chronicles, Florida Review, South Dakota Review, Shenandoah, Yellow Medicine Review and the online journals No Tell Motel and Drunken Boat. An enrolled Standing Rock Sioux, she holds an MFA from University of Idaho and divides her time between Moscow, Idaho (Nez Perce country) and Seattle. Tiffany is a professional redsplainer who aspires to be Poet Laureate but will settle for Poet-Want-Fries-With-That. She blogs at http://tourquoise.livejournal.com/ and opines at https://twitter.com/TiffanyMidge