Sleepingfish net

[N/08.10.12] [ SUGAR by James Reich] + [N/08.10.13]

Sugar The cemetery broke through the skin of the desert and pushed a wave of death across the red dirt; a tiny bomb leaving a shrapnel of headstones and splintered crosses, laying waste to all but the toughest knots of cedars, all the way to the guttering hills. His father lay there now, fifty-seven, his liver brocaded with star-struck alcohol and constellations of cancer; his father who had taken him away from Cerrillos and his mother to Los Angeles. He imagined snow falling on Los Angeles, stiffening the skinheads under permafrost like a Chinese army; a woman’s dress under glass; a smooth, drowning funnel. It fell like sugar from a cowboy’s spoon.

His mother was a serene, demanding woman with snowy hands, whose fingers dripped into her shawl on chilly New Mexico evenings. Everyone called her Sugar. He remembered tiny brown figures shambling towards human sacrifice in the ziggurat of their kiva fireplace. The Indian figurines he had no more use for were decapitated on his ball courts, and melted in a maw of piñon and plastic fumes. Now, here he was, twenty-eight years old, back in Cerrillos, stirring his coffee, waiting to be collected and taken away again.

He sat in headlights of his own car. Snow fell and was beginning to bleach even the ghosts from the town. He sat beside the unpaved road with his cardboard cup and looked across the street to the boardwalk and Mary’s Bar and the vinyl banner that read Thank you to the Town and People of Cerrillos – Young Guns. The banner was twenty years old. It was the staging of that movie that, in 1988, had finally possessed his father’s imagination. At the funeral, some hours before, his mother recalled the last night that she had seen him.

“He came in dripping with sweat, carrying you, exhausted in his arms. You were only eight years old, and I was terribly afraid that you would be sunburnt. ‘Sugar,’ he said, ‘Sugar, me and Jett just saw Charlie Sheen!’ And I said ‘Who in Hell is he, and why does that mean that our boy has to be out in that bitch of a sun all day?’ Your father’s face turned to ash, because I don’t cuss, usually. Your father said: ‘Charlie Sheen is Martin Sheen’s son, and Martin Sheen was in Apocalypse Now and after I was in Vietnam and’ well, he just carried on about the Sheens, and about Hollywood and all of that gloss that used to give him fevers. In the shadows, inside the house, I could see your skin was turning red, and I got so furious that I tore up some of your father’s photographs, photographs of the desert that he was hoping to get a name from. Even though, he’d already privately decided that photography was over for him and that he wanted to work in movies, that was it. I had succumbed to a mortal transgression. We fought. He slept on the couch. You were in your room, next to ours. I didn’t even hear anything. Sleeping pills. The next day, you were gone. To Los Angeles.” As she said this, she pushed her heel down in to the adobe dirt that covered the coffin. His will had never changed, and it stated that he should be buried in Cerrillos, and he had assumed also that he would outlive his wife. “There he is now, under last night’s melting snow, an old alcoholic, shivering like a cat in a casket. Now we will conduct the wake, and you will serve people, and then you’ll clear up for me. Because your father is dead.” Her voice was that of a thousand gramophone cones.

In Los Angeles, Jett had grown up feeling as though he were inside someone or something else’s mind, a soft dark voice intoning like Jim Morrison: in the nervures of a chain link fence; in the mind of the Triassic beat-box; inside the skull of a horse head highway; in the pre-come of a weakened surfer; between the teeth of a dead stenographer; the refraction of chrome palm trees; the brown muttering of rails; the blooded forearms of sailor bars; denuded ashtrays of desire; tall children fall from blonde buildings; in the canyons of an ancient album; inside the mink that surrounds the needle; the glossy sand; the gnashing of the tagged abutments; smouldering billboards of dawn; crowded coffins of noon celluloid; tanning goggles melting in tar; the melanoma of Icarus; the Minotaur of asbestos; the masturbator in the love seat; the shrink in aspic; the giant octopus in the asphalt, screaming. His childhood was spent in the furnace of his father’s parties, on cigarette burnt couches, and in almost complete insomnia. The parties usually ended in The Doors and his father doing Martin Sheen martial arts in his Naugahyde den and collapsing to the wet carpet. At some point, Jett’s perceptions became fixed in mania.

His father wrote a thousand failed scripts, synopses and pitches, burned like a beatnik to his own ersatz flame. Despite living in California, Jett sometimes wondered if any child had ever eaten so few fruits and vegetables. It was party food, all of the time, and the unspoken promise of Young Guns. When Jett was sixteen, he tried to give his father an idea for a story. He had been on his only visit to Cerrillos and his mother, before returning to bury his father. He told his father about it:

1996. Drunken boys in the mouth of the goldmine; then the six of us climbed back into the pickup and weaved it back down to 14 and out of Cerrillos on 57. It was dark and we killed the lights as we hit 57 and drove beneath the moonlight. You ever play Road Sign Safari, Dad? No, son. Well, 57 is one hell of a road. Bottles of beer cocked beneath the stars. We are in flannel and baseball caps; virgins probably, but packing heat; four of us standing upright in the bed of the pickup, one driver, and the other riding with a flashlight searching ahead of us, spotting in the darkness. 57 winds around strangled teats of rock and it snarls like a wolf’s lips. It’s dangerous. Sometime, another truck has fallen from the precipice and we glimpse it, like a ruined shrine from a gunboat. This is Road Sign Safari. The loaded boys take turns. All along the roadside there is nothing but wasteland, occasional tires with whitewash, no trespassing, barbed wire, and nothing, no property to see, just the night and the spot of the flashlight, the dust thrown up and our targets. The boy with the flashlight picks out road signs in the dark – deer crossing, cattle crossing – and we shoot at them with shotguns and pistols from the bed. The engine roars. We give each other points for kills. Some shots can blast right through the metal, others rend and pock the edges in the moonlight. We toss our beer bottles to the side of the road and move onto the cans, screaming and laughing. My father wants to know what happens next. What else happens? He asks. I don’t know. I don’t remember. Then, it’s not much of a story, he tells me. I went to bed and grieved.

There he was, cast between twin ideas of himself as foxy twenty-first century flesh and bone, and callow nineteenth-century gunslinger’s ghost, between the lurid colliding grunge of Sunset, and the lonesome oily shit-kickers of Edna Ferber. Both were strictly for the tar pits. His father was in the ground with his myths, his mother demanding amidst the lace and plates of the wake, surrounded by strangers and party food, fondant icing, sponge cake, scotch and soda. “How can they bury an alcoholic and get drunk in the same hour?” he muttered, taking another can of cola, and shutting the refrigerator so that it shook, and so that people might notice his mood. Jett ate French fancies until his teeth ached. He did not know who the people at the wake were. It was a morbid sea of denim and turquoise bolo ties, slowly moving mouths and white moustaches. They began to drift, as actors will between takes. Everything that was being said had been said before, rehearsed by better people, for better people than his father, at better parties. One would examine a piece of porcelain and put it down again quietly. One would admire the mantel clock. One would go to the bathroom and wish he never had to return to the scene. Those that even remembered his father could not shed a tear. Sugar, his mother, stood in the middle of the room as these cowboys drove painfully around her, hats were removed. “Sugar, well, I’m…well, I’m sorry.” Finally, Jett could take no more.

“Mother?” She did not answer him.
“Sugar?” “Yes, Jett. What do you want?”
“I’m leaving now. I’m going to take some things with me.”
“What about-” One of her snowy hands tried to possess the entire scene in a small, desperate, demanding gesture.

“What about anything? I’m leaving.”

He filled his pockets with more party food, mashing it in his fists. Sugar and the other mourners watched him, aghast, as he pushed into and then out of his old bedroom. Jett shrugged across the room, bearing his small bundle of sometime teenage possessions. Just before he slammed the door behind him, he thought he heard someone say “Cocky Los Angelo bastard.” He resolved to drive the twelve hours straight to LA. He would go northeast on 57 to I-25, and then west on 40, down through the reservations, pueblos, Indian casinos and porn warehouses, beyond the mesas and the Sandia Mountains, through Albuquerque, out of New Mexico, and always westward to his home. He thought that he should never have come back.

It was dusk as Jett crossed the railroad tracks and turned his car on 57. He pulled some frosting and sponge cake out of his pocket and washed it down with cola as he drove. The tires spun on the loose surface of the road. He stared at the yellow and black signs as he passed them, putting bullets and shot through them in his mind. Tears foregathered in the glue of his eyes and would not fall. He was on a terrible road, between wires and the emptiness they kept at bay. He was desperate for some real food, but had only the sickly mass he had taken from the funeral party and the colas that rolled beside him on the passenger seat, next to the small bundle of his old possessions. He pressed his lips together to suppress a sob. His brain burned in the wasteland of 57 and his father’s death. There was something new in the road.

Before he reached I-25, he began to see construction signs. He saw makeshift access tracks and floodlights. Before one of the rises in the road, a construction worker emerged and held out a red stop sign on a pole. Jett stopped his car and waited. There was nothing else on the road. There were no other persons. Machinery lay abandoned and dormant. Lights were strung across the road, like a fairground. The worker stood motionless, leaning slightly on the sign. He was a Mexican, perhaps in his late forties. He wore a fluorescent waistcoat and a yellow hardhat. He also wore aviator sunglasses that he seemed to have forgotten to remove as the dusk fell. Jett could see his headlights and almost see his car reflected in the man’s glasses. He opened another cola and swallowed more sickly funereal cake. The icing set his jaw into one protracted scream of nerves, and a tacky effervescence rose into his brain tissue with tentacles of lightning and grief. Finally, a terrible blackness descended. He did not remember shooting the Mexican construction worker, nor the return drive along the grotesque darkness of the road, but he knew that both were twitching and dying behind him, filling the earth with sweet despair.

He sat in headlights of his own car. Snow fell and was beginning to bleach even the ghosts from the town. He sat beside the unpaved road with his cardboard cup and looked across the street to the boardwalk and Mary’s Bar and the vinyl banner that read Thank you to the Town and People of Cerrillos – Young Guns. The banner was twenty years old. It was the staging of that movie that, in 1988, had finally possessed his father’s imagination. At the funeral, some hours before, his mother recalled the last night that she had seen him. The police officer had given him a cup of coffee to stop him freezing.

James Reich is an English writer, and also guitarist/singer in the artrock band Venus Bogardus. He was bizarrely fictionalized as ‘Jude’ in the bestselling Julia & Julia Project and is not being played by Meryl Streep or Amy Adams in the forthcoming movie. His recent work with the band includes a collaborative album with David Ohle (Motorman) and a new album Tourist to be released in November 2008. He is working on a novel entitled I, Judas. Venus Bogardus will play at The Bowery Poetry Club, NYC, on Nov. 23rd.

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