The Odyssey [Personal Essay], David R. Cravens

The Odyssey

 

Speak, memory—
of the cunning hero – the wanderer
blown off course so many times…

 

     It was a cold morning in December 2015 when I’d taken a day off teaching to work up in St. Louis. I needed immediate cash to keep my electricity from getting shut off, and my temp company, Labor Finders, sent me to Precision Office Furniture Installation on Union Boulevard. Anyway, I ended up unloading trucks for nine hours with a guy just back from Afghanistan who kept talking about cadaver disposal (apparently pigs don’t like bone marrow and can’t digest teeth, and the best place to stash a body is in a freshly-refilled grave in a cemetery). There were two other people helping us – a guy who looked like the bald DEA agent from Breaking Bad, and a girl that was missing all of her upper front teeth and who kept asking me what I thought about the new Obama Administration checkpoints up north where they’d been shooting people on sight. She’d read about them on facebook.

     I’d already worked two prior shifts, one at Bay Insulation, and the other again for Precision, cleaning out a huge office at Westport Plaza, so I was beat before I even started the shift. One way or another though we made it through, but at the end of the day my truck wouldn’t start. The battery-light had been flickering on and off for a week or two but I hadn’t given it much thought. The girl with the missing teeth gave me a jump, and I made it out onto I-70 East before the radio quit and the engine started sputtering. I took the first available exit, right into the hood.

     I could only go about 20MPH at that point, and I was looking for a place to pull into. Almost immediately I had two teenage pricks in a car right behind me. “Drive a little slower you dumb mutherfucker,” one of them leaned out his window and shouted. I waved them by, and they passed right as my engine stopped. I was just able to get the truck pulled over to the side of the road.

     I’d gotten a ticket two days prior for not having any insurance, and I didn’t want to abandon my truck there. I was across from an upholstery shop, so I got out and walked over. The door was locked and there were bars on the windows. I pressed the buzzer until an older man came to the door. I told him what had happened and that I had cables if he’d give me a jump. He came out and pulled his truck around to face mine. I connected the cables for a minute or two but my battery wouldn’t hold a charge.

     “You’s gonna gets towed fo sho if you leave this truck on up in here.”

     “I know,” I said. “And I can’t afford that. Can you help me push it across the street and into that parking lot?”

     I barely got it into neutral by fighting with the overdrive button on the shifter. Evidently the transmission control even shuts down when the battery’s dead. The truck was facing uphill and we couldn’t get it to budge.

     “Is there anyone in the shop that can help?” I asked.

     “No. They’s only Melvin, and he gots a bad back. He cain’t push nuttin.”

     “Okay, listen. If we could just get enough charge in it to get it across the street, I’ll figure something out.”

     We put the cables back on for ten minutes and let his vehicle idle. My truck started when he took them off, and I was able to get it into the parking lot before it died. The man pulled in next to me and parked. He got out of his truck.

     “Is this a decent neighborhood?” I asked. “If I end up having to spend the night in my truck will I be alright?”

     He looked at me like I was crazy.

     “Okay,” I said. “Is there an AutoZone anywhere near here?”

     “You’s gots to go on down Salisbury here, to the second light. Then take a right and walk two more blocks.”

     “Okay,” I said. “I really appreciate the help.”

     He went back in the shop, and I disconnected the battery and started huffing it down the street. I turned where he’d told me to. When I made it two blocks, there was no AutoZone.

     A teenager was riding his bike toward me.

     “Hey man,” I said. “Is there an AutoZone around here?”

     “Awe hell,” he said. “That’s way the hell on up ’ere. You isn’t gonna make it wi’dat heavy muthafucker.”

     I turned around and walked back down the hill to the corner where I’d passed a small tire shop. I went in.

     “Do you have a battery charger?” I asked.

     “No. We don’t have nothin like that.”

     “Well, what would you charge me to install an alternator if I brought one in?”

     “On what?”

     “A ’97 Toyota Tacoma.”

     “They’s all kinda shit I’d have to take off to get to that. It’d be at least seventy-five dolla.”

     Bullshit, I thought. You have to unscrew one bolt and a nut and unplug a few wires. “Alright,” I said. “I need to get up to AutoZone, and I really don’t want to carry this thing all the way up there.”

     “You gots any gas money?”

     “I have a few bucks.”

     He turned to his friend who was sitting by the window thumbing through a magazine.

     “Scoots, you wants’ta make a few dollas?”

     Scoots looked up from his magazine. “Naw,” he said, and glared at me like I was a booger he couldn’t get off of the end of his finger. “I don’t want no part a that.”

     Well fuck you too, I thought.

     “You can take the Metro,” said the original no-battery-charger-having mechanic.

     “What’s that?”

     “The bus. They’s a bus-stop right there.” He pointed to a sign by the corner.

     “Okay,” I said. “You got change for a five?”

     Neither of them had change.

     “Will they give me change?”

     “No. You gots to have exact change.”

     “Well I guess I’m fucked then.”

     “Hold on,” he said and went into the back. After a minute or two he came back out with five ones.

     Twenty minutes later a bus pulled over and picked me up.

     “How much?” I asked.

     “Three dollars,” said a female bus-driver. “You need a transfer?”

     “What’s that?” I asked.

     “You comin back?”

     “Yes.”

     “Well okay then.” She handed me a transfer slip after I’d fed three dollars into the machine.

     After a few minutes I saw an AutoZone on the horizon, and I asked her to pull over and drop me off. I got out and walked over. It was like an AutoZone/block-party in the middle of Kigali during the Rwandan genocide (had it been freezing in Rwanda). Cars were torn apart all over the parking lot, people were screaming at each other, a good half of them were already drunk, and rap-music was blaring from every functioning car stereo. I went in and set the battery up on the counter.

     “Hey man,” I said to an employee. I bought this battery at an AutoZone not too long ago, and it’s not working. Can you check the charge on it?”

     He hooked it up to a meter. “It’s at two percent,” he said.

     “Can you check the warranty?”

     He looked me up in the system after he’d asked me my name. “Warranty ran out in October,” he said.

     “Lovely. Can you charge it up for me and see if it will hold? I’m in a real pickle here.”

     “Sure can, but it’ll take at least an hour.”

     “That’s fine. Thanks.”

     I had two dollars left, and an uncashed check from the prior days’ work. So I walked across the street to a busy liquor store and asked an Arabic-looking clerk behind bulletproof glass if he’d cash my check.

     “No.”

     “Okay. Thanks anyway.”

     I walked through the store and got a Vess out of the cooler. Then I went back up to the front, paid for it, and walked back out into the parking lot.

     “Whud-up, big boy?” an old man said to me. “You Biggie Muthafuckin Smalls, you is.” – laughing and holding his belly now – “Yo, you is!” He bent over and stomped his feet in hilarity.

     I walked back across the street and sat down in front of the AutoZone to drink my soda. It was 5:45PM and dark. I pulled my phone out and called Ashleigh at the office.

     “Hello, Mr Cravens,” she said when she picked up the phone. “Are you going to make it in to pick up your check?”

     “Doesn’t look like it.”

     “You want me to put it in an envelope and tape it to the door?”

     “Yeah, if you don’t mind. I’ll get it this evening.”

     I figured this would give me even more incentive to figure out how to get out of there.

     I hung up.

     “Yo man, you cain’t jus be sittin out here like dat,” some guy said to me. “They call the polease on you.”

     I waved him off as politely as I could. “I’m good man. It’s all good,” I said, and sipped my soda. They all thought I was a panhandler. That’s why they weren’t really hassling me. I was filthy. I had a ragged beard. I was also thinking about how lucky I was to look like a bum because bums are generally invisible. I was thinking about Ferguson too. It was only about ten miles up the road. And I also kept thinking about a guy I knew whose younger brother was walking down the street minding his own business near the Delmar Loop when some gangster wannabes came out of nowhere. One of them punched him in the face, breaking out a tooth.

     “That’s for Michael Brown, bitch,” one of them screamed as they ran off.

     The guy who told me they’d call the police in regard to my vagrancy was talking to another dude who was bragging about getting into an accident while he’d been getting a blow-job. His headlight was hanging off, but it was still working. They were laughing and trying to tape it back on. The blow-job bandit made it a point to stop and tell every female that walked into the store that, “Yo, shorty, you is fine-as-fuck,” bending over and augmenting his enthusiasm with the same variety of hand-gestures as the comedian from across the street had used. “Mmmm Mmm Mmmm.”

     I went back in after my hour was up. The battery was at 100% and holding charge.

     “How far you think this will take me with no alternator?” I asked the clerk.

     “Where you headin?”

     “Arnold.”

     “You ain’t gonna make it.”

     “I’m going to try.”

     He smiled.

     I went back out to the bus-stop with my battery and waited for another thirty minutes with an old lady who kept drinking from a plastic pint of vodka she had stashed in her purse. It was getting cold, and I had to take a leak.  I was getting ready to walk over into the bushes when the bus pulled up. I boarded and handed the driver my transfer ticket before sitting down in the front and sliding my battery under  the seat. After we’d gone several blocks I told her to let me off at the corner of Salisbury.

     “Oh honey, thats is way back there behind us.”

     “No way,” I said. “It’s just a few more blocks up ahead.”

     The vodka-lady chimed in: “No, no. You goin the wrong damn way. Hell, that way back yonda. You gonna have to get off and waits for anotha bus.”

     I guess I’d gotten turned around and taken the bus going in the opposite direction. “Well fuck,” I said. “Will we eventually end up back there?” I asked the driver.

     “Yeah, but it gonna be another hour.”

     I figured I’d rather be on a warm bus than out in the cold waiting who-knows-how-long for a bus going in the opposite direction.  After about fifteen minutes, either someone on the bus dropped a load in their pants, or someone boarded who’d already crapped themselves.

     Someone in the back yelled: “Somebody shit they muthafuckin pants.”

     Everyone started bellyaching. Finger-pointing commenced, and several people were blamed: an old lady with a walker, an old man sitting just across from me wearing an archaic pair of Nikes, and a middle-aged woman with garish red lipstick. The bus-driver opened the door and drove with it that way for the next ten minutes. I was still up front, getting pummeled with ice-cold air.

     I really had to pee.

     I made it back to Salisbury around 8:30PM. I thought for sure it would be the wrong street, and I’d be lost all night lugging a battery around. Why not have two Salisburys in St. Louis, just to throw an even bigger wrench in things?

     But I recognized the tire shop.

     I’d been sitting there on the bus thinking back to a late night in the early ’90s when I’d driven up to East St. Louis just to see if it was as bad as everyone said it was. I’d gotten lost. I let someone talk their way into my truck to help me with directions. He told me to pull over. I did.  A girl jumped in on his lap. We were driving around in the dark in circles. Every window of every house was boarded up, post-apocalyptic.

     My tire went flat.

     They knew it was flat.

     Things started feeling ugly.

     I reached behind my seat to check for a kitchen-knife I’d stashed there. The guy asked me what I was looking for and grabbed my arm. I panicked and hit the brakes, leaned over both of them, threw open the passenger-side door, swung back around, and with two or three adrenaline fueled kicks I knocked them both out onto the pavement, but not before the girl managed to reach up and snatch my radar-detector off the dashboard. I tore out of there with the door wide open, and by the time I’d managed to find my way back to the interstate, and to a truck-stop safe and light-enough for me to change the tire, it had been ripped into smoking ribbons.

     Not too many years after that, I’d just left the White Horse Bar on Alameda in Denver. Why was I in the White Horse? Because my dad had told me it was an Indian bar, and that I’d get my throat cut if I ever went in there. So I had to find out if it was as bad as he said it was. It wasn’t. I had a good time drinking and shooting pool with two Apaches, a brother and sister.

     Anyway, I was driving down Colfax Avenue after I’d left the bar when a car full of guys started screaming at me. I didn’t know why. Maybe I’d cut them off. Who knows? It was summer and I had the windows down, so I stuck my hand out and gave them the finger. They were right alongside me. “Fuck off,” I yelled.

     We went back-and-forth screaming at each other for a bit.

     Colfax eventually runs out onto I-70 East, and that’s where I ended up – out on the plains with no inhabited exit ramps in sight – and a car behind me containing four dudes wanting desperately to spill my blood. My gas gauge was buried on E by that point, so I decided to pull over onto the shoulder thinking they’d pull in behind me and all jump out of the car. When they did, I’d take off again, getting a lead on them and giving myself time to whip down into the median and back up onto I-70 West, real Duke Boy shit.

     The first half went as planned – they all piled out of the car when I pulled over. The second half didn’t – my truck was an old three-speed stick, and I got the gears jammed. By the time I got it into first, one of them was in the bed of the truck. I took off down the highway and got up to about 80MPH. I was trying to put some distance between me and the three guys left in the car so that I could have time to offload my passenger. He was beating on the backglass with his fists.  Then he stood up and started pounding the glass with my spare tire. How the glass didn’t break I’ve no idea, but I knew it couldn’t last.

     I watched him in the rearview mirror and waited until he had the tire reared back and ready to hit the glass again. I figured this would be the point where he’d be the most unsteady. I slammed on the breaks as soon as he was positioned correctly in the hope that he would be hurled out onto the highway, and it almost worked. Unfortunately, he lost his balance prematurely and fell, crashing sideways into the tailgate.

     I took off again.

     He wised up and stayed on his knees this time, but for whatever reason he threw the tire out onto the highway.

     We were nearing 90MPH when the lunatic started climbing through the passenger-side window. He must have been coked out of his goddamned mind, and I knew that we were both dead if he got hold of me at that speed. I looked up into the rearview again and saw that I was far enough ahead of his friends to have a minute or two to figure something out.

     I slammed on the brakes when he was about halfway into the cab, and the truck came screaming sideways to a stop in the middle of the empty interstate. I was on pure fight-or-flight autopilot. I knocked it into neutral and flung my door open, grabbed him by the hair and under one arm, and hauled him headfirst out the driver-side door and onto the pavement where I stomped him near unconscious.

     I’d been in a lot of fights, and I’ve been in a handful since, and after you’ve been in a few, you come to understand that – with rare exception – it’s only in movies that someone can fight more than one person with any real chance of winning.

     I was in trouble if his friends caught up.

     So I jumped back in before they got too close and drove just far enough to find a good spot to barrel down through the median and hammer it back west toward the city. As I passed in the other direction, I saw that my buddy was back up and staggering around when his friends pulled up to collect him. That was the last I saw of them.

     Point being – I’ve come to expect certain types of situations to develop into near mythological disasters. So at the least I figured I’d be held up, or I’d make it to the parking lot just to find that my truck had been towed. Or if it was still there, it wouldn’t start, and then, even if I didn’t get shot, I’d freeze to death in it with no heater or blanket.

     I carried the battery up the hill after taking an explosive piss in the parking lot of the tire shop.

     My truck was still there, and I wired it up. The engine started and I got back out onto the highway and made it to Arnold and got my check. The lady at the gas-station down the way cashed it for me.

     I hadn’t eaten since 5:00AM, so I bought chips and a sandwich. I also stopped at another AutoZone. The 21 miles had cost me 55% of my battery. They juiced it up again.

     I got back on the highway.

     At 46 miles my lights began to dim near Park Hills. A few minutes later I was in my driveway where my truck died at 10:30PM. I fell in bed without a bath, asking myself the kind of questions a person asks after this type of fiasco.

     Why do I work these jobs and live paycheck-to-paycheck? I guess because teaching full-time wouldn’t allow me the schedule I need to read and think and write, not the way I want to. I’d just finished a thirty-page poem called blàr anam that took two years of research and writing. Will I ever make a dime from it? Likely not. Do I care? Not really. It was an end in itself, and to quote James Dickey, “I don’t want etched into my tombstone: Here lies the guy that graded one million freshman comps.” And besides, these people at the bathos of society are more interesting than most of the students or faculty I work with.

     A girl that I’d grown up with once told me something I’ve never forgotten ‒ or been fully able to comprehend. She said, “All I want out of life is a cubical.”

     “Excuse me?” I replied.

     “A cubical, just a small cubical in an office where I can go every day, sit down and do my work, be financially stable, and go home at five o’clock.”

     “That’s not a life.”

     “It’s safe,” she said ‒ “and comfortable.”

     I’ve also either been born with (or inadvertently developed) some sort of innerbohemian voice that’s always telling me life could end at any moment – and money’s never meant much to me anyway. Spending our lives on a hedonic treadmill, I see no reason to waste more time than necessary on monotonous drudgery just to pay off a pile of cheap drywall and flimsy lumber that you could throw a baseball over the top of, or to afford the succession of overpriced automobiles that depreciate some 11% as soon as they’re driven off the lot.

     I’m forty-five as I write this, and have no idea what stocks or bonds are, and no desire to find out. Friends talk about their portfolios but none of them have ever told me how these investments will keep them from getting sealed into a box that cost more than any car I’ve ever bought. Few of them understand why I think the way I do, but I see no reason to apologize for not fitting into a world I had no hand in creating. What’s the point in accumulating income you won’t be able to spend? I’ve no wife, no kids.

     A buddy had dropped by my apartment over Thanksgiving, just a few weeks prior to my battery debacle. He’d gone to a police academy back in ’96 when I was moving up to Columbia to study philosophy. He’s established, and he’s good at what he does. He has a son and a mortgage and a stable life with a comfortable retirement ahead of him ‒ everything I’ve always dreamed about but haven’t been willing to perform the requisites for. “You don’t know how many times I’ve wanted to trade lives with you,” he said.

     “For fuck’s sake why?” I asked.

     “Because you never sold out.”

     Well, maybe. I’m not sure. Perhaps I have in my own right – but life’s going to be a struggle nonetheless, and I guess I’ll get by till I don’t. We’re all of us on borrowed time.

 

__________________
David R. Cravens

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