Tulsa, Early January 1979
Harper stepped over the icy patch on the single step down from the peeling, whitewashed veranda porch, turned right into refrozen, crunchy wheat-colored dead grass and stopped at his van parked in the gravel driveway. Shit. Locked. He shoved the box against the side, held it with his hip while he fumbled with the frozen sliding door latch. She tried to reach around him to get the van door and he elbowed off. The door slid back and when he bent to set the box inside she leaned in, looked over his shoulder.
“Where’re all your cases, Harper?” She was freezing, holding her arms across her body. No cases meant he wasn’t staying.
“In Lando’s garage. Lando’s girlfriend’s garage, down in the city.”
“He better not get in another fight with her.” She smiled. She was trying.
“I thought about that.” His patience was too far gone for any of her commentary on the complexity of living the way she’d set him up. “I asked her not to connect us if she threw his shit in the yard again. You know, as a favor to the homeless.”
He set the not much bigger than a banker’s storage box full of crap on the floor where the middle seat never was, and the keyboards coffin lived. Pathetic. Fucking pathetic. The woodgrain alarm clock with the blown speaker, a couple of pairs of socks, the Avon cologne his mom gave him that he never wore, a small orange ceramic pistol-grip bong he didn’t want. A couple of no reason empty picture frames, his dresser top cookie tin full of single cufflinks and dead watches and mismatched collar stays and guy junk he rarely had a use for. A couple pairs of not too ratty paisley boxers. And the used twice Mr. Coffee that he’d asked for, that his mother had shipped to him in Houston as an early birthday present. It had arrived two days before he found out he had to pack a one bedroom apartment in his van and figure out where he was going to live in twenty-four hours. In Houston. On Halloween weekend. The day after his ex-girlfriend Becca had vanished back to Tulsa with the rent money and thrown it all at three month’s rent on a cheap, refurbed duplex next door to a friend and down the street from crackville.
“You’re not mad, are you, Harper? I just asked about your cases. I thought you might stay for a couple of days. You never brought the rest of your stuff up from Lando’s, so I didn’t know what –”
“Shut up, Becca. Just…Fuck me. Where my cases are is the wrong question. Where all the shit is that should be going where they usually are is the question.” He stared at the box surrounded by beige carpeted emptiness, dropped his head. “So this is Becca’s vision of ‘I’ll keep your stuff safe?’ Where are my Cobra loaded monitors? Where the fuck are my Vega bookshelfs? No shit, really, where’s my amp rack?”
“Archie came over right after you left the first time and took the blue case on wheels. It’s in his living room.” She shivered, looked at him like he should have a hug or a coat she could borrow but all he had on was a flannel shirt and jeans. And the small box of junk had left any remaining hugs out in the cold, just like her. “Tommy.” She stalled. “I gave the monitors, if you mean those big black speakers I guess, I gave them to Tommy. You know, um, he’s –”
“He’s the guy you fucked for the bong I didn’t need that you gave me for my birthday. I know who Bong Builder Tommy is.” He wondered if the fog from his breath was the weather or if he was on fire. He felt like he was. “How does that cretin end up with my monitors?”
“I don’t think he has them anymore. He traded them for…Something. You know…Something. I felt sorry him, and —”
“Sorry? He gets my monitors because you felt sorry for him? You fucked him for a bong last time, what’s that whiny little fuck got going on he gets seven-hundred dollars-worth of monitors I know he traded on down the road for some blow that’s already up both your noses?”
“I didn’t do it for the bong. Tommy has MS, okay, and he’s sick. And that’s why I felt sorry for him the first time, and he just gave me the bong after because he felt sorry for me because he knew you weren’t coming back and I was sad and I…And I gave it to you because…I don’t know…”
“Because it was my birthday? Because I drove back here from Little Rock in the middle of the night so we could figure something out for you because no shit I’m not coming back here to live. Because I got out of the van and the first thing Archie tells me is about you and fucking gap-tooth Ronnie.” He wanted to shove his finger right through her chest. “And then he told me what part of you got stuck between Ronnie’s front teeth in the back bedroom and about you screaming their house down. So, after a midnight run across Arkansas behind a gig I get ‘Oh, we can’t talk or fuck on your birthday because something happened down there and I’m numbed out on Percs. Sorry. Here’s a bong?’” He saw his hands in front of him like he was holding a giant basketball and wished they were shaking the shit out of her, maybe strangling her. “Aww shit, Becca. Jesus.” His hands turned into fists that landed on the top of the van before he turned back and they were face to face again, inches away.
“He felt sorry for you? Why? Because he couldn’t believe you were stupid enough to drop a pity fuck on a seriously wrong line of shit from a guy with a dick, according to you, that was like a rubber fishing worm? For a second time? And MS? Come on. That’s for Master Shitweaver. He’s not sick, he sniffs paint stripper and bong glue all day. You didn’t see that coming? He asked you about my gear, Bec, he didn’t ask you to come back over because he felt sorry for you. And you couldn’t tell me ‘Oh, maybe Tommy has his eye on your shit and he’s trying to work his way through my pussy to get to it? Goddammit, Becca. So they’re gone. Gone, gone. Seven, eight-hundred bucks. Gone.” He flashed his fingers open, opened his hands to the giant basketball again, leaned into her face. “Fucking poof, Becca. Vapor.” He backed off, put his hands in his jean’s pockets to control them. “My Vega bookshelfs?”
She leaned into him, full front, and he backed up more. “I gave them to Rick, B.D.’s brother? Because he wanted to play guitar in the house with the baby, but that big green amp he has set them on fire and that set off the sprinklers and the fire alarm. And then the firemen took what was left outside with them.”
“Rick and a fucking rock take an I.Q. test together and they score a minus two between them. Those were studio monitors, Bec, not guitar cabs. You know better. You didn’t spot that one, either?” He put his arms around her, loosely, felt her shaking. “Is this whole town in some sort of stoned-stupid time warp or is it just around these two houses and anybody who gets near them?” She was probably close to hypothermia. Thirty-one degrees in some new guy’s baggy cutoffs he’d never seen and a yellow tank top. No bra, probably no panties.
“Go inside, Bec. Get warm. Ask Archie for a loan, or find somebody who likes what you’re giving away enough to pay the rent on the first. I can’t help you this time. If you’d watched my gear we could have worked out another month until you got something going on. You could have fucked Tulsa down and moved on to Broken Arrow for all I care and we’d be square. But that didn’t happen. I already picked up three months here I didn’t want off the one month you pocketed in Houston. That routine left me in the slush in Pasadena on New Year’s with a dead van and no options, and now I’m the homeless dude on the couch again. You’re gone, all the real shit I left with you is gone…So am I.”
“I told you Archie has your blue case next door.”
“I’ll go roll that when you go inside or freeze to death standing here.” He dropped his arms, gave her a light shoulder spin back towards the duplex.
She shook him off and turned back. “Is that it? ‘Done’ and that’s it?”
“Becca, before we took off the first time you said, “Done is done. Now is now” There it is. George Riner told me the day I met you not to get caught up with you to the point of getting hurt ‘cause sooner or later you’d get bored for fifteen minutes and be history and off sport fucking again. We had a no strings deal, Becca. We split it and dealt with it. I figured sooner or later you’d fuck me over with someone else and split. But I never saw you fucking me this hard.”
“You’re going to say all that shit about me fucking everybody after I pulled your ‘I’m Harper, and I’m bummed out, so I’m just here to fuck ‘em and forget ‘em’ ass out of here in my car? And I took our money, not just yours, to rent this place so we could get out of that humid hell hole and away from all those crazy, queer, plastic bitches I worked with and back to people we know. You can fuck yourself and your money sermon on that one because I was tired of it. Tired of you and all your too cool, leave me at home alone while you played bullshit. Maybe I gave your shit away, or maybe I sold it, and I did stick it up my nose, but you left it here like you left me. Just another case full of your shit. And now that’s it? That’s all you have to say to me, after two years, ‘I’m done. Go in the house Becca, warm up so you can fuck somebody for your rent?”
He wanted to correct her down to the actual year and five months it had been, and back to people she knew, watched her shiver and try to glare through whatever she was feeling and decided against it.
“‘Thanks, Becca.’ How about that?”
“Thanks? That’s shitty. What for?”
“Thanks for not being, or knowing, a coffee drinker. Wherever I finally end up, I’ll have good coffee and a new waterbed. Because when you went bitch and stuck a fork in the old one? Wiggins got me a new one, in the box, under warranty. I may not be able to piss off the neighbors without my monitors, but I’ll get a good night’s sleep and wake up to a decent cup of coffee. So, ‘Thanks, Becca.’ If I’m ever off somebody’s couch long enough to use either one I’ll be sure and blow a kiss in the direction of your ass.”
“Well, you can forget the direction of my ass now, Harper. Today. ‘I’m Done. Go fuck somebody.’ You sorry asshole. I hope you wake up alone, freezing your horny ass off on your fucking blob of Jell-O bed, by yourself, for-EVER!”
“After you and all this shit that’s gone down right here? I’d call that a gift.” He watched her shivering self-hug take its long-legged stride back into the little yellow 1920’s duplex and slam the door.
He walked next door, wrestled his amp rack down the steps, rolled it across more crusty dead grass and into the van. Becca’s best friend’s husband had seen the “if it pees standing up fuck it and give it presents” train wreck coming and salvaged the most expensive part of Harper’s live rig for him. That had been a cool gesture. But all the rest of them next door…The ones playing pool or on the couch hitting the big bong. The ones in the kitchen debating the way a bag of weed looked as opposed to what the scale said, laughing at each other’s choices of records to play. They hardly looked at him. All of them, they’d been part of the crowd to have seen this shit coming before it got off the ground, and none of them had said a word to him. Maybe they saw him as the big city guy again. Maybe it was out of some hope they had for her that had kept them silent. He’d stepped into their world, briefly, through her, and now he was out again. So, it was hope for her, not hate for him. It had to be. He’d have to believe that because it was the only humane way for him to leave it.
Harper looked over the little yellow duplex while he rubbed his hands together and waited for the van’s heater to come back to life. It was cute. Girly, if a house could be that way. The woman who owned it had done some work when she heard who was moving in. She’d updated the kitchen with a new fridge, put down new vinyl, cleaned up the bathroom. She’d even put lacy curtains in the windows. He could see Bec liking it for what it was, not because of where it was. Could see her making fried egg sandwiches for every guy who stood in her kitchen in his underwear. Becca’s kitchen. The one place in her world where free range man business wasn’t allowed.
Man. Godammit. He hadn’t wanted to be an asshole. He’d expected to load his gear, maybe buy her dinner, drive over and pay her cheap rent for another month so she could get her shit headed for together. She was a nice girl when proximity to staying stoned and guys who would keep her that way for a piece of her weren’t in the mix. She deserved whatever it was going to take to make her happy because she had been right about one thing. She had helped get him gone the first time and had played it straight with him until she broke. As fucked up as it looked from the outside, he was still way better off than he had been.
He looked up, watched the smoke curl from her chimney for a few, knew she was sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace. The van heater finally kicked in, he took a deep breath and tried to let it all go. Seeing the smoke from her fireplace, feeling the heat in the van. He felt a little better for both of them because that was all he could do.
There wasn’t a damn thing he could do about her getting played like a hand crank Mousegetar that had gotten them both ripped off. By a weasely, greasy haired, coke snorting, glue sniffing antique refinishing, bong building half-assed wannabe slick who knew Harper wasn’t going to be there to stop it or do shit about it once it was done. Gone. No trail, never happened, just gone. The little fuck was sniffing bong building glue, banging his old girlfriend, stealing his gear and thumbing his nose at him while he stood in the slush in Pasadena. Happy New Year. He checked the mirror, put the van in reverse, wished life had a gear like that sometimes.
The rusty silver Chevy Luv pickup that slid into the curb as he was pulling away looked like the rent showing up. Or a fried egg sandwich. Either way, she’d be warm and distracted soon enough. Harper grinned, hoped for her sake the guy had grown up knowing a dentist.
He pulled into a U-Totem by the freeway for gas and a travel Pepsi where he chunked the cologne, the woodgrain alarm clock and the pistol grip bong in the big can between the pumps, and adjusted the paisley underwear to keep the coffee pot from rattling. He climbed back into the driver’s seat, sat with his face in his hands, listened to the muffled sounds of life going on around him, and waited for the pump to signal it was done. It was starting to snow again. Like it meant it this time. Damn. He hoped it was blowing in from the north. Almost two hours south to Lando’s place and another night on the floor in a nylon sleeping bag that made him sweat, and then freeze, and sweat again. The homeless Okie freeze and thaw cycle. He rubbed his eyes a few times, pulled down on his cheeks to open them wide, looked at his distorted face in the rearview and scared a couple of high school girls in plaid skirts standing in front of the store who had been checking him out through the windshield.
“Now what? Huh? It just keeps getting crazier, doesn’t it? Crazier by the fucking day.” He let his face go, gave it a few seconds to normalize. “What’s next, huh Harp? Where you gonna go now, bud? Huh?”
He unhooked from the pump, turned the key and let the van roll up in front of the store. He winked at the high schoolers on his way in to buy his Pepsi. They were gone when he came back out. He flipped the switch, knocked the snow back with the wipers, checked himself in the rearview again, lingered for a moment.
“So…Mirror mirror on the glass, tell me. What the hell does start over look like this time?”