The people you meet in the heart of America gather around the table in a North Austin bar. Nymphs and naiads are singing Billie Holiday, reposing catlike on benches, awnings, and railings in garish suits and evening gowns more sparkle than stitch.
Four bros from Rochester, NY, all bravado and boyish excitements like skinny, ink-ridden youg Trojans. Buffalo Bills fans — used to consistent disappointment; blessed are those who can taste the full raw, rich flavors of success without a palette cleanser.
The boisterous social worker who laughs off the weight of endless case files capping a sea of lost children, washed up on the beach like turtle hatchlings in reverse, dragging broken eggshell histories stuck to their feet. The manic pace of her speech–mind outpacing the tongue–belying the struggle; the natural kindness and fussy attention she pays to her cats: a world where love doesn’t need a court order.
The native brother of a different generation and geography, who understands what Springsteen means when he sings about the lunar landscape New Jersey of the soul. Caught in between convention and the coming age, navigating the ashes falling from phoenix wings — a professor whose love of his students shines through his own complications–teachers without borders.
Vaguely bemused by the earnestness of youth on display around him, racking beer bottles before a tight-lipped smile: he tells me of his revelation on a mountaintop somewhere in Switzerland, chasing Wordsworth’s ghost amid the convolutions of life’s crumbling walls. He speaks so sincerely, so beautifully of the moment his eyes opened to the night, half-drunk and needing to piss, how he was shaken to his core by stars over Bonn; the moon over Milan. To be of the air and stupefied into waking by God’s cold bucket of water.
Embraced by Gaia in a bathroom queue, a brown-skinned Madonna sparkling blue. She squeezes my hand tenderly and I blush like a child discovering the depths of porous skin.
The quiet middle school teacher-turned-slam-poet, who does not speak much but when she does, with conviction. Not desperate for space, understanding that it’s a blessing and a curse one must navigate with ethereal grace.
The Egyptian girl (also from Jersey) with the sleepy Malinche gaze who starts each sentence by mishearing what you say. She played the Magician in the performance, and reads Tarot on Tuesdays. She seems flustered by simple questions.
Rosemary sits beside me, offering the occasional puff from her vaporizer pen. Slowly, we get stoned while she decries timid natures with love in her voice, urges plain, honest speech and reveals herself a joyous braggart given to moments of vulnerable gratitude.
The two of us giggling loudly over racial tensions in a country afraid to look itself square in the face. Sharing asteroids between our two orbits: She the black, bisexual daughter of a military man; me, white bread boy from the swamps and pines, borne of hippie tree huggers.
“Why don’t white people have cool hand signals?” I say rhetorically.
“Y’all don’t get to have everything,” she answers.
I begin reciting a Katt Williams’ comedy set about Oscar Pistorius, stripped of his Olympic medal for being faster with no legs than any man with two, later to shoot his wife through a bathroom door for no particular reason.
“Poor little tink-tink,” she finishes the joke. “Ain’t that a bitch.”
“Do you think they’ll let him keep his legs in prison?” I wonder.
“Maybe they’ll give him little tacks instead,” Rosemary replies.
“Poor little tak-tak….” I muse. “Doesn’t have the same sympathetic ring.”
Rosemary snorts into riotous laughter, drawing eyes from across the patio–people annoyed with our impropriety, that we dare disturb the cynical night with our tactless humor.
“For the longest time, I didn’t think I had a hobby,” she reveals, suddenly somber. “You know what my hobby is? Meeting people, having conversations. It doesn’t matter who it is, what we talk about, just that we’re talking. Doesn’t matter if its intellectual or not. All conversations are important; it helps me see where I’m at, it helps me understand what we’re out here doing.”
Rosemary talks loud, talk over people, sounds her barbaric yawp into the rich, white illusion of affluence and culture like a freight train refusing to go gently into the quiet suburban night.
Inevitably, the conversation turns to death: “You know the only thing I miss about those who’ve gone is their laughter,” Rosemary says. “Laughter is my favorite part of people. The lectures and lessons, you can memorialize those, but the laughter….”
She pauses, and suddenly she looks small; the big voice settles into a sigh that catches the stiffening breeze and blows off ahead of storms on the horizon. She could be 32 or 300, as old as any mountain, a fossil from a time when humans spoke in courageous poetry.
“It’s harder with the laughter,” she says at last, a beautiful creature casting for friendship in a time of dinosaurs and reptile emotion. “You can only keep that around for so long.”
Leaving the bar, a man asks me if I’m part of the show.
“Which one?” I ask.
He gestures indeterminately at the courtyard beyond. “That play going on out here? Are you part of the show?”
I tell him I’m part of the big show, sure, and he smirks.
“Ah, yeah, well that’s a whole other show. This one here, that’s not an act, not even a stage direction, to the big show.”
I smile dumbly, not caring to respond. What needs to be said?
He smiles and turns back to the matter at hand. “Do you know if there will be a show tomorrow?”
No, I don’t, I tell him; I’m only passing through, gone tomorrow, I say. I’ve never been here before, I know nothing about a show.
“I wanted to be part of the show,” he tells me, shaking my hand. “I asked them if I could be in it, and they told me to come back to the next one. But they never said when.”
I should say something smart or pithy, perhaps, but the hour’s turning late and words have lost their luster amid the constellations of voices rattling my brain. So I shrug and say nothing; he laughs again and finds a frat boy’s shoulder to lean an arm against as they walk off into the night.
“See you in the show,” he calls back over his shoulder.
There are no voices in the deserted backyard where I sneak off to smoke one more ill-gotten cigarette. The booze has gone to my head; the voices continue to jostle their sabers against the bones in my ears. Overhead, the Texas sky glows a faint rose hue, slightly ominous. I’ve never seen a night so bright–some terrible change in the landscape of constellations (no black to be found) hidden in a thick white spider web soup.
Charise says the sky is always like that in Austin, some trick of the light. It all seems so impenetrable, layers of gauze tourniqueting we hapless creatures in its embrace. And I’m wondering if I can still hear their laughter, the dead and dying, through the cotton fabric. And I’m wondering if I’d even remember whose it was, if I could.