See, I had this vision in my head of a much cleaner life than this and every day that I walked through the dark hallway in our apartment to grab a Dew from the fridge, I, like, strained to see some daylight.
Problem was the direction our apartment faced: Not the sun. Problem was that we couldn’t afford the time to make the place decent. We worked, I’d estimate, sixty hours a week. Me at the Portland Meadows, selling brews and then driving around the city for a few hours, selling whatever the Don needed me to distribute. Lauranna on her feet all day at the Hot Clips. Bleaching out roots and dying manic-aggressive teenagers’ hair. All hunched over while some mean-eyed girl glares at my girl and Laurie talks about music to try to get the kid to ease up on her.
I get flamed thinking about it.
When the Raceway’s cracked tracks flooded out big time in mid-November last year, I was like, OK. My time is now.
My enterprise: A year-round scare-your-dick-off amusement park for all the twisted fucks in Vancouver and Portland. The powers that be closed the Raceway down to look into the flooding problems that have persisted on that land. Talk at the Meadows was about the floodlands eventually opening up to bidders. You know that some corporate bastard is just dying to plant another shopping mall out there. Oh yeah, with a nice gated community next to it. Everyone with money out here wants their own tiny pool and a fence around it.
“What do you think of that, man?” the high rollers would ask each other while reclining with cigars in the Meadows Clubhouse. “I’ve half a mind to grab it.”
Late one evening at the Meadows, I fell into talk about it with one of the high rollers when I walked through the Clubhouse and emptied out ashtrays. He scratched his balls and chewed on the stogie while I talked. Got myself hot in the chest while I talked up the idea.
“How long that Raceway land going to be closed, son?” he asked me.
“No one knows. Man, what wouldn’t I give for a chance at it.” I threw that hint in pretty loud and clear, I thought.
“You would, huh? You got half a mill?”
He threw back his head so far I could see up his nostrils as he laughed. Tears actually appeared in the corners of his eyes.
“What would you do with it?” he asked me when he was finished. “Just out of curiosity.”
I informed the man of my scheme, which included just a few of the following highlights:
• Haunted Witch Mountain. Cars that take the visitor up to a height of 90 feet and then through dark and twisted “forest paths” while a live band thrashes below the ride and the music is piped throughout the park.
• The Exorcism: Where the visitors are brought into a rotting farmhouse and are called upon, through live performances by a Farmer and a Farmer’s Wife, to exorcise the home of its demons.
• The Psych Ward: A ride that carries visitors through the terrifying rooms of a high-security psychiatric hospital where violent crazy folk have escaped from their enclosures.
• A Lover’s Lane ride, with a Not-So-Happy Ending.
The high roller shook his head once I finished telling him my list. “That’s twisted kid.”
“You know what you really should use? You seen that movie with Jack Nicholson? John Travolta? Where they drop a bunch of pig blood on that girl? That’d be whack.”
“I could try to think up something like that, I guess.”
He nodded out at the track, where the rain had started up again. “Everyone got to have hope.”
My drive home on the Five that night screamed hardcore ecstatic, playing the Anthrax tape that Laurie had given me for my birthday last June. When we moved in together after high school, Lauranna said that she didn’t care what dump we lived in as long as it was far removed from the western suburbs of Portland where we’d lived with her mother until Laurie turned 18. Our chosen dump of an apartment for the past few years situated us on East Burnside.
I ejected the tape and replaced it with Facelift, which Laurie hooked me up with in the fall after her weekly swing through Music Millennium—she was always finding me something rad there. I’d already smudged-up the case and ripped the tape’s liner notes. The chords were this cool bluesy blend of hair metal and rock. I was drinking a beer with Stan at the Mock Crest the other night and that we-die-young video was on. The lead guy kind of brought to mind the word that Laurie’s mom called me when I picked Laurie up for moving day, two years ago. Petulant, that was it. Delayed impact, bitch, because I had to go look it up in my grandpa’s dictionary later.
As promised: Stan “The Man” Tunn. He was my homie. Standard Tuning, Laurie called him when she was annoyed with how frequently I hung with him: only a couple nights a week, and Saturdays when we got high and played Mario World.
The nephew of the guy that owned the Raceway happened to be Stan’s number one client for pot and pills and kept Stan up to date on the situation. After the Raceway flooded out in November, we’d been bullshitting nonstop about what we’d do with the land over beers at Mock Crest.
I walked into our apartment, the dump, and Laurie was on the thrift-store couch. As per usual, her nose was wedged in The Last of the Mohicans. (She has a thing for the dude from that movie. She wanted me to grow my dreads back out so I would look more indigenous or something. A Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner-kind of Native American, would be my take on that, but it did no good to bring these observations out into the open.)
She glanced up from the book and gave me an once-over. I might have been a little wobbly in my path to topple down beside her on the flimsy couch.
Her feet were sinking into the couch’s decline; a board was missing below the cushions. I placed my hands around her arches and held them a moment, leaning forward to kiss her forehead. When I drew back, she was smiling at me.
Went like this: I approached her with pet names. Incomplete sentences. She rolled onto her back and put her hand inside her tight pants. She locked eyes with me and I saw without seeing the movement of her fingers. She pulled her fingers out and pressed them to my lips. I tasted a bitter milk. My mind went to black velvet.
We were noodles around each other when I finally asked her the real question, for real.
“It’s just an idea.”
“Well, we don’t have the money for that.”
“We will soon.” And then, despite my resolve to remain tight-lipped, I blow it and tell her about Frightland.
“I mean, when Frightland flies, I’ll have way more money than we’ll know what to do with.”
She kissed me and unwound her legs and arms.
“I’m totally excited, but just in case, let’s wait and see, OK, babe?”
I held on to her waist for a moment too long and she looked down at me with her arms fully stretched out, trying to lift her weight away.
She’d been patient with me, these years that were lost to the dead man. After my dad died, I stayed with her and Mrs. Gardner; I had nowhere to go and no idea of how to support myself.
Mrs. Gardner and Laurie knew about this kind of thing, as the Mr. Gardner of the house had disappeared himself two years before I’d met them.
The next day, before I went to the Meadows, I opened up our bedroom closet with its box of my things. I used to get these savings bonds from my grandma before she joined her husband and son in a graveyard near La Pine. I thought I might have not cashed one yet—I mean, I knew that I cashed them all like two years ago, but I thought, maybe I’ll find one that slipped to the bottom and got stuck in the bottom flaps of the box.
I found, instead, Settlers of Catan and a few starter decks of Magic: The Gathering, and the picture of Laurie and I at my Senior Prom. We’d looked so good together. At least, at the time, I’d thought we’d looked good together, but now I look at the black and white pic and I’m, like, no. Pictured here: Bobby Douglas, Jr.—so eager to please, his eyes might pop like water balloons . I looked like I needed Laurie’s hips like they were an old person’s walker.
I slammed the box shut and kicked it back into the closet. Empty.
You know the feeling that something is watching you? Your nerves strung so tight you’d scream if you felt the wind lick at your neck? While I waited by my car for Stan to arrive with the keys to the Raceway’s front gate, I got that feeling. I ducked back into my car and riffled through my glove compartment and finally found half a Marlboro to smoke while I waited by the cottonwoods.
I knew these trees, even in the dead of winter. When dad moved us to Danville in ’86 to start his treatment, it was in late May and the trees populated the air with their fluff. He cursed these trees for causing him to cough, he said. This dry crotch weed, he said. Never really understood what that expression meant.
The trees were scrubbed clean of this snow stuff in La Pine, where I lived for the first fifteen years of my life with my dad, and, on occasion, my biological mother. Biological mother: the carrier and incubator of my alien form.
(Why mention it? Who cares? They fucked and didn’t get rid of me once I was planted. Sure, I got kicked around a little and maybe saw some things she did to herself that scared me—just because I was so young—but it’s not like I ever ended up in an orphanage, or dead, or something. Depths were reached, was all.)
A shriveled little leaf dangled on one of these water-greedy trees.
Where was he?
In a second, Stan was parked next to me and striding out of the car. His short legs moved the swiftest of any of our buds during high school days of yore. Dude was actually a runner. He’d take off for an hour or so, what have you, anywhere around Yamhill County. Over the hills and far away.
He handed me a few psilocybins and a Dew. “As requested,” he said.
“No time like the present, bro.”
“Hey, don’t forget these,” I told him after I’d chewed for a second. I handed him some tall Pro-Line boots my dad had given me at the end of his life. I still had the same pair Dad had given me in middle school. They were too big back then, but I grew into them.
Stan unlocked the gate and in we went. In theory, we were there to take stock of the land for my scheme. When Stan had suggested bringing a baggie of mushrooms along as well, I said, Sure, why not, I can multitask. We walked and walked until we were at the western end of the floodlands. The sun—what we had of it this time of year—was burning out and the muddy water seemed to have a pink light churning it from inside.
In Bend, or even as far west as Lane County, my dad and I would spend an August day checking out rides and sharing sips from my dad’s flask on the top of the Ferris wheel. The Tilt-O-Whirl. The Viking Ship. The Bumper Cars. The Yo-Yo.
“Where would I put that Haunted Witch Mountain?”
Stan looked at me. “Oh, right. For the amusement park.”
“For Frightland,” I corrected. “That’s probably going to be the most popular ride.”
“Put it there,” Stan said, pointing. He laughed, but it sounded forced. “Man, I feel like we’re going to aggravate some shit. Trampling around down here.”
“You heard that story?”
“What story,” Stan said.
“A high roller at the Meadows told me about this, like, major flood. People were living here when the flood came and they drowned. All down here.”
Stan’s eyes got huge and he opened his mouth to say something. A loud foghorn sounded. Jesus Christ, how close to the river were we, anyway? Stan jumped, too, and then laughed at me. He yelled something to me that sounded like, “Artless!” (if that’s even a word).
I shook my head. No clue, pal.
“Barges!” he shouted more clearly. “Coming up the Willamette!”
A fog was drifting in and even though we hadn’t been out more than a few hours, we’d exhausted the daylight.
“Let’s get back to the car,” I said. I was pretty sure I could at least drive us across the freeway to park at the Meadows. We could catch a ride downtown from there and go find some music.
Slush-pop, squish-hop, swish-slop. We pulled ourselves through the mud as lethargically as those steel-carrying barges. We scared a blue heron up from the mud. Rather than skirting our floundering, though, the bird seemed to charge directly at us.
“GAH,” Stan said. He attempted to speed through the slosh, pin wheeling his arms downward until he caught himself in the water, jackknifed, with a flexibility that surprised me.
The bird glided down, fifty yards from us, first dipping its feet into the water and then settling on a bank.
After who-knows-how-long, we found our way into my car. I considered this venture of mine. More research was necessary, but how, I wondered out loud.
“Call the city.” Stan shrugged.
“There’s a whole list of people I should call, I think.”
“I gotta ask,” Stan said. “Assuming you get a chunk of money for this shit: How you going to get the water out of the track?”
“Drainage, dude. It’s just a drain problem.”
Stan nodded, clearly impressed. I’ve always been an ideas man.
On a simulcast day at the tracks in January, I lingered in the VIP room and paid extra attention to the big spenders’ ashtrays. The one who I’d spoken with the most—the guy with the perpetual cigar—waited in there. I grew a pair and addressed the man.
“I’ve looked into that ride with the pig blood that you were telling me about,” I said to him. “For the amusement park, remember?”
“Ah,” the dude said. “I’m sure you’ll have plenty of takers.”
“Yep, just getting the business plan worked out. Already on top of a loan, which is totally commonplace. That’s going to happen, like, sometime next week.”
The big spender sort of vibrated his head back and forth as I spoke. I wondered why and then he started laughing. My face took on a heat.
When you see a snake that might be poisonous, you put one foot behind the other and back the hell away, whether it be down or up the hillside. So I did.
Without realizing it, I had crept out of the Clubhouse and into the paddock where the horses were waiting for the suckers and spenders to appraise them. I leaned my head on one of the concrete pillars in the paddock and watched the limp lay of those horses’ tails.
That night, after Laurie fell asleep, I stared at the ceiling and I thought about my percentages.
The Don let me keep five bucks from every eighth I sold and gave me as much free shake as I wanted. Spliffs had been more my scene of late, anyway, so that was no big deal. I sold to guys in Concessions at the Meadows and some of the hands in the paddock. I sold to dudes I talk to in line at the Fred Meyer, to the kids outside 7-11 on Burnside who begged me to hook them up, and to the bartender at Roosters, just around the corner from our dump. This netted me about $80 extra per week because I weighed out a generous eighth for my friends. I made enough to pay bills, barely, but not even close to enough for Frightland.
You never can get close.
I dreamed of Lauranna and I walking hand in hand on Burnside on a sunny day. A nice burgundy sedan pulled up next to us and we exchanged smiles with the man. That old country song named after her was playing in the car and I teased her by singing it. Laurie seemed to know the driver and got into the car with him. They were gone before the smile left my face. The cars whooshed past, turning into screaming buzzards with beaks for stabbing into the weakest parts of me.
The following weekend after we had shrooms at the Racetrack, I walked into a bank on Hawthorne to look for some financial information. I mean, I wasn’t expecting the bank to hand me the money on the spot, but they didn’t even let me fill out a form; they just handed me this pamphlet, Starting a Business? A Guide, before I was kicked outside again in the rain.
The percentages fell short, but Laurie was most definitely right in saying that I might as well keep distributing. Something else about the distribution gig that freaked me out. Going to the Don’s house in Vancouver, for one, was super creepy, in an I-might-die-tonight kind of way. I needed a greater distance from him.
I got back to the apartment a little after dinnertime. I’d been driving around Portland all afternoon filling out applications for warehouse jobs and listening to Master of Puppets. The album came out my freshman year of high school. I would listen to it on my Walkman on the forty-minute bus ride from our trailer out north of La Pine to the high school in town. Then, when my dad moved us into the Willamette Valley and I started at a new high school in Danville, I listened to the shredding all through my lunch break.
Twenty-one, only son, but he served us well. Back to the front. I drove and listened to Kirk Hammett thrash out. I said to myself: I won’t. I seriously won’t.
But when I walked into our apartment, there were like five people there. Laurie was sprawled on the living room couch shouting to her girlfriends over a blaring stereo with a bottle of wine hugged between her tight black pants. And guess who else was there?
Well, it was the Don and Standard Tuning. The guys put down their drinks and approached me. Shit. I’d missed today’s pick-up of weed and drop-off of cash from the previous week. Jake’s beady eyes seemed to observe my every doubt.
“Sorry, Jake, I got caught up today,” I told him. “Ha. Ha.”
The Don took a step closer. He was smiling.
Stan hit the Don on the back. “That’s cool, isn’t it, Jake? Bobby’s got it under control.” Stan kept his hand on the Don’s back until his attention shifted to the girls on my couch.
I turned the stereo down. “Just a little, babe,” I said to Laurie.
“Oh, come on, Bobby,” she said. “Chill.”
The Don took off with all the weed he’d given me to sell, plus a hundred bucks for being a poor communicator about the transactions. Let it all go, I told myself, regarding this unfortunate money loss, when Stan told me that he’d been unsurprised by the news that the Raceway would not be selling their land.
“I guess they got a big backer finally and they’ll be back in business in, like, time for summer,” he told me. “Looking pretty grim, B.”
“Brutal. It’s just fucking brutal,” I told him.
“Stop, Bobby,” Laurie said to me in sweet slur.
The veins in my neck were throbbing. Super-fast changes gave me the vertigo: One minute we were inside the dank apartment and then the next we were sitting on the front steps. Laurie lit a cigarette and handed it to me with a mark from her red lips rubbed to the filter. “You OK?” she asked me. She rubbed my back and looked off at the hills as if counting their worth, too.
“Of course,” I said.
Of course the streets were slick with oil. Of course we were an impossible distance from those bright bungalows on the side of Mount Tabor. The mountains were far and the dead man’s bones in Central Oregon were farther still.
She and I have done this for so long. Even our passage of four years makes my head spin. But the vertigo I felt outside the apartment would never match what I felt when everyone left our dump that night and she sat down with me on the couch. I reached for the pipe and she decided to hit me with it, with the news, that is.
“Don’t be mad, Bobby. I just found out today and I needed to blow off a little steam.”
I shook my head at her. I just wanted to go lie down in the dark. “It’s fine, babe.”
“Remember what we were talking about the other week? When you asked me about. . .”
I jumped off the couch and ran into the bedroom, slamming the door behind me.
“Really fucking mature,” she shouted.
My dead man’s bones have decomposed. Jake Don was soon to join him.
The full story was that Jake pissed off the wrong muscle; the Don’s heavy silences and meager cuts to his distributors torched these three dudes, ones even younger than me. They jumped the Don while he was walking into his girlfriend’s apartment in Vancouver and, the evening news reported, bludgeoned him to death. I was months from dealing with the Don when we saw his face on the evening news. We were still living in cockroach ally. With the money we were now saving on booze (which was, come to think of it, a lot), Laurie had bought a few mirrors to hang up in the corners. The mildew smell was gone along with the winter.
“I didn’t even know he had a girlfriend!” Laurie said.
“Not anymore,” I pointed out.
Metallica had a line right for this sentiment on MoP, I recalled.
Laurie and I had worked things out after not speaking to each other for a whole day after she told me about the baby. “I wasn’t myself,” I told her. I promised to be better from now on. I would stay with her and she would stay with me, plain and simple for us two just as it always would be.
You know that story about a mental institution guy with a hook for a hand? The one that intrudes into another couple’s lovemaking?
On the last night of the winter season at the Meadows, Laurie bussed out and met me. She laughed at how serious I was at work and teased me by saying dirty things just quietly enough for customers to not overhear while I served her Cherry Pepsi for free. No one ever gets that she’s the weird one, muttering new spells to me even with the kid inside her. She won’t ever wait.
In dark cars on lover’s lanes, the only certainty is that deranged, bloodlustful killers are watching you in the shadows. Your having to have her is on a pathway to the ones who would take you from your baby.
Keep your eyes on the shadows, baby boy.
Foghorns were sounding, our blood was drumming. Her fingers were crawling up my thigh.
I’m outside in the dirt yard with dad offering me drags off his Marlboro. That was a coyote, he said. No, I shook my head, which, in the night, he couldn’t see. That was no common animal, dad. I think I thought it was a dire wolf; just bones and its howl remained until it grabbed some living thing to tear apart.
In the High Desert, you could trick yourself into knowing how to foresee violence—avoid the woods where his switches were found and camp outside the frosted-over trailer when things got too loud inside it. Here in Portland, the strongest forces wet rains. I couldn’t predict that shit. The foghorns didn’t scare birds, but the clang of a freight train did and a heron screamed at itself from the drainage ditch near our parked car. Laurie pushed her nails in and moved closer. You knew that this act was as common as the coyote, but damn, wasn’t it remarkable?
Blood sounds on the roof.
Laurie disappeared into a 7-11 to get us some smokes.
I noticed things after she disappeared. Things like the street’s corners.
What disgraces had been felt there? What humiliation had been someone
else’s, enormous and gnarly? In that moment, I heard it all happening here
and at the same time on every corner of this city.
Maybe that’s why it rains so much here: we’re a city crying for what never had a chance.
My father was disappeared four years ago and my mother never existed except in her biological form. I am their realization. I am a megafauna.
I am down Lombard, loping along and drooling in the gutter. Through my weathered skin, you saw how my heart pulsed when Laurie reappeared, a tight black twist of all these elements.
Her added weight as she entered the car made me ask this question alongside all the others: What mercy might occur in Frightland while I wait for the hook to catch?