Part One: Heaven Is Hell; Hell Is Heaven
“Mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes,
The dark wood of the place had soaked up more curses and beer and grease and cigarette smoke than a bar ought and survive. Beauregard’s was the only bar – the only legal one, at any rate – in our “small town in the Northeast Georgia Foothills, home of the Lumpkin County Indians and North Georgia College Saints.”
Indians and Saints indeed: we ran the Cherokee off at gunpoint during the Gold Rush of 1828 and thereafter the few Saints who arrived did so anonymously, quietly lest they be hung from the highest tree until dead, May God Have Mercy On Your Soul, for standing out from the crowd.
The sin of standing out – well, in Ancient Greece, the gods weren’t too keen when a person stood up full of hubris and broke The Limit, forgot the Divine Command: Know Thyself, the answer to which, in part, is always you are no god. No matter how good you are, you are not that good and rubbing shoulders with the gods in pride always brings on a horrible, well-deserved end. Very cathartic for the audience, a great purgation for the soul. But if Homer or Sophocles had decided to make you a star in one of their soon-to-be bestsellers or Broadway hits, on the other hand, well… let’s just say you’d better pack your bags for man’s long home and you wouldn’t be returning for a visit without the sacrifice of a hecatomb and the admixture of flour to a ditch.
That’s how it worked in Greece, but Dahlonega wasn’t Greece, was it? But the denizens: many of them had succeeded somehow in transcending The Limit and becoming like unto the gods, rulers of all they surveyed; democracy may have had something to do with this, that and their religion which encouraged them to identify themselves very strongly with God in that they could do no wrong God would not forgive and they could hold no opinion that God did not seemingly pre-approve. So to stand out from this bunch was tantamount to hubris and any other form of heresy and heterodoxy you could care to research. A real saint passing through our quiet rural paradise would have raised such Hell and questioned so many dogma that she would doubtless have found her weight bending a sturdy tree branch by noon of the same day. That or the same branch would have been a faggot to feed the fire as she was burned at the stake as a witch.
Via con dios, Esmerelda.
Such was the world surrounding Beauregard’s. It was my world and the world of all of the college students packed in the place for cheap pitchers’ night, and it was the world of all the locals there, young and old, nursing beers and watching tv and listening to the atomic jukebox of doom crank out Alman Brothers and Skynard and Hank, Jr. and I can’t remember what else. As they say, much of it is a blur. But it was a different world and a different bar for the locals than for the students – the students were, by and large, passing through. Only a few would be staying in Dahlonega, trapped by an addiction or two, a marriage that would implode in a few years or less, debts, a jail sentence; or they would die, heads sheared off in drunken auto accidents or blown off as they worked as night managers at some useless pizza joint, robbed while placing a couple of hundred bucks in someone else’s safe.
The rest, the locals, this was their world and one thing united them: they had no intention of standing up so high they got hammered back down like the proverbial nails. They had learned to crawl on their bellies, go out after dark, take only the dirt roads, the back roads, the ones the cops never rolled on. Their eyes were sly, their words calculated for effect, never reporting more than needed, always aimed at drawing out more from their interlocutors than they’d ever return. A local never trusted anyone, not entirely, because the experience of growing up in Dahlonega had shown them that in every boot was a knife and in every heart was the capacity to put that knife in your vitals when it might seem Necessary – and necessity might appear in a squabble over a can of beer, a lover, or less literally, when the cops caught your buddy with that bag of weed you just shared with him.
A local either sat high and knew they Fit In and Belonged With and Ran the town – and these were the greater and lesser gods of our Olympus – or a local was a denizen of the underworld. The college students were slumming, passing through on their ways to this or that Elysium.
And here I was, a local, born at the fringes of the underworld with relatives on either side of the border, a college student who, unlike the rest, had no idea he would ever escape the gravitational pull of Home, even if he flew off for a while. Why? Because I was full of pride, hubris. I thought I was better than some of the local gods, full of an 18 year-old’s enthusiasms for wine, women, song, art, and thought, and for the Larger World Outside this tiny fragment I’d been trained from birth to believe was The World. Which may not seem a bad thing to have figured out in your first year in college reading everything in sight and talking with people from The Great Beyond, but it ignores the fact that I was a local and deep in my heart there remained, and would always remain, the faith that our gods would somehow pull me back and drive me down and put me in that place the Fates had allotted me.
And that place was not in Paris or Florence; it was not in Prague nor Barcelona or Madrid; it was not at Oxford; it would not be in New York, neither in Los Angeles; and not in Toronto or Tokyo or Athens, Greece. It was in Dahlonega, cleaning things for a living, as a janitor working for slave wages and with no time to write or draw or pray for deliverance or death. It would be in Dahlonega, maybe at the yarn mill, maybe in a chicken hatchery, maybe at a convenience store. It would be in Dahlonega in one of our local greedy god’s trailer park slums where I would sit alone in the dark and cold because I couldn’t afford to turn on the lights that month, exhausted, drinking beer after beer.
My eyes would become hard and shifty, I would speak less and less; I would trust none and allow my native paranoia to become a useful compass for social interaction; I would drive the back roads drunk at night awaiting the day they caught me and I did my prison time, earned my stripes, earned my seat up at the bar at Beauregard’s coldly regarding these stupid college students and their inane optimism or blind innocence. My life would be a thing of black envies and regrets and I would lose the capacity to imagine… anything, a better life, another direction, an escape.
I was an Outsider; I always had been and always would be an Outsider. And I was an Outsider with the tendency to stand up and stand out, the worse kind. The gods allow the underworld to exist so long as its miserable spirits skulk along and don’t cause too much trouble in the Cosmos – the rabble get shunted down there and eke out a bizarre or horrible or grotesque or outlaw existence, all Outsiders in one way or another. An underworld is a machine for the disposal and containment of the human sewage that doesn’t fit into The Master Plan, and so long as the sewage stays out of sight and doesn’t smell too badly, more drastic measures do not have to be resorted to. But when the sewage keeps clawing its way out and insisting on walking around with Proper Persons and asserting its worth – well, that’s another problem.
Beauregard’s was about as public a temple to Hades as Dahlonega would tolerate, but the underworld does have to have a fairly obvious gateway, an Avernus, a place with those words Dante saw, “Abandon all hope ye who enter herein.” Abandonment of real hope – that’s the underworld, that’s what the local gods engineered for them that seemed useless or it’s what was chosen by those who decided there was no point in even trying to play it straight – no percentage in it – or it’s what was handed to those born with some “defect” no one wanted to work with – no percentage in that, either.
So there we were, cheap pitcher night. It’s been 22 years ago now, so I don’t recall how much they were, a couple of dollars a pop; pretty much all you could drink for less than $10.00 unless you were hard core and far gone, in which case (as we didn’t have liquor back then) you went for the lovely house wine, a filthy black concoction wrenched from the abused carcasses of something that claimed to be grapes but was more likely some obscure botanical monstrosity brought out of a virus infested Louisiana swamp.
I liked wine, but the beer was more within the limits of my budgetary constraints. Sitting alone in a booth with my pitcher, I went about the scholarly pursuit of learning the Rabelaisian ways of the bottle, except with a pitcher full of beer (Pantagruel wouldn’t have cared either). I really hadn’t done much drinking up till then, but an obsessive reading of Lord Byron and Thomas Wolfe combined with this terrible conviction that, someday, no matter how high I climbed, I would be back to live in the underworld, convinced me that I needed to become a past master at this art, and quick. Besides, I was an Outsider and had hung in the company of young criminals my entire life (though an Outsider even amongst these Outsiders) and really couldn’t see much reason in restraining myself further from shutting my mind off with drink; my associates had done it for years – there must be something in it, and it seems to be one of those marks My Kind bear, so why refuse it? I thought.
So I did not refuse it and two or three pitchers solo into this session I was doing fine – whatever horrid noise that was squealing from the jukebox sounded like the opening movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, stormy, powerful, full of import; all the girls looked interesting, beautiful, intelligent and a few began to seem interested in me; the locals on the barstools seemed safe, quaint relics of Our Appalachian Heritage; the ROTC cadets still looked like potential problems as I was a commuter student and had long hair and dressed outlandishly – but, By God, I was damn sure I could take care of four or five of them if they looked at me wrong.
All was right in the world.
In short, I was delusional, drunk, and sky high. It felt good. The bar was beautiful, the lights amazing – if you’ve never grasped the pure, divine beauty of light, I can find no words to grant you even a glimpse of this purely mystical experience. I even found myself watching the baseball game for awhile even though I utterly despise baseball; I began to think that this was actually kind of fun, watching these guys in uniforms hit a ball and run around a diamond. I began to discern what must be the true nuances of The National Pastime, though memory now fails me as to what they might have been.
The Genius descended upon me, my daimon, and in a flash I was inspired to say and do hundreds of things; I realized how much more I really knew than I thought I did, how much more talented than normal, and I was about to go do some of those things when he sat down. Not my Genius, but this guy named Bill.
He was a friend of a friend, a science major of some sort. He was older than us, in his thirties, at least, and had been in the Airforce before entering North Georgia. That, or he was still in the Airforce. 22 years later, I think he’s a Born Again of some variety. Isn’t everyone? Anyway, that night, he wasn’t Born Again, he was a hard drinking military man and he arrived at the bar already drunk. Even in my Outsider’s judgment, arriving at a small town bar already drunk is not a good sign. No, not at all. But there he was, suddenly sitting at my table and ordering another pitcher of beer.
“I’ll pay,” he mumbled affiably. “You go get us a pack of smokes.”
So I got up – the bathroom was next to the cigarette machine, and I had to go urinate anyway. Even with an 18 year-old’s bladder, this beerfest was requiring some trips now, and there was competition. While waiting, I plunked the quarters in, pulled the handle, and out fell a package of filterless Camels. Sounded right. I was (relatively) used to smoking cigars and pipes; cigarettes were newer to me, and I didn’t figure that the type or brand made much difference. Except in terms of status: if you could smoke filterless Camels, it was a damn good sign you didn’t care if you lived or died, and it was a damn good sign that you lined up with the Old People: tough, respected, hard – the Titans who had worked the earth here before the gods arrived and put them all in nursing homes.
After using the facilities and enjoying the weirdly misspelled graffiti, the crude pictures, the layers and layers of cross talk between college students and locals, neither of whom understood what the other was ever saying except on the crudest levels, I walked back to the table. Very consciously, I practiced walking steadily and straight, though dizzy. This, I reasoned, would be a useful skill for that day when the cops would catch me under the influence actually doing Something Illegal.
Bill, as I said, was a mumbler, but he was a talkative one, eager to spill out thousands of cubic feet of wisdom for me. As with the music, I am not at all sure what he said, but even at the time I was not sure. I do recall that. The air of the temple was thick with the incense of tobacco and with the prayers of the potentially damned. The latter came forth in the form of that form of “conversation” which can only be called futile because, in the end, it is only a dialogue between one’s self and one’s soul, and the soul isn’t listening.
What do I mean? Perhaps you have heard the sound yourself: one finds it especially in crowded places where scores of voices crash against one another like waves against waves in a stormy sea. Each voice is full of the conviction that it and it alone has become the vehicle of some special Word which must enter the world at all costs. By all means, this word must materialize in the form of sound, so the talkers speak, believing that others are in fact listening and will honor their soliloquies with praise and agreement, maybe even love and admiration.
But this is not the natural course of things, as what is being said is nothing more than the ranting of some drunken fool that goes unheard by the rest of the drunks since each of them is, simultaneously belching their own stories and comments, little of which has anything to do with what anyone else is saying or thinking. In Hades there is no community, no communion, no sharing, even with oneself. There is the din of a horde talking, talking, talking, over, past, beneath, beyond, at, but never with one another.
Here is a trailer park Romeo trying to pry the Levis off his wrecked little Juliette; at the end of the evening, she will submit, not because of one word he has said, but because she is cold, alone, lonely, and for the night there will be the appearance that she is valuable to someone else – she tells herself his bed makes her valuable in fact, loved, precious, things she never found at home with a molester for a father or a screaming, cursing addict for a mother. She feels complete for that one night.
But the sun destroys appearances and she will begin to discover the need to return to Beauregard’s in search of that fleeting feeling of purpose – and, in the end, she will realize it was a lie, a lie she told herself to hide the reality of an inescapable Hell. Then she will stop speaking those meaningless words about “love” and “worth” even to herself and realize that all talk is just talk and all sex is just sex.
Maybe she will decide that even if she isn’t worth anything, her skills and body are: she finds she can get her car fixed with a blowjob; then she finds she makes enough to pay the rent in one or two nights prostituting herself. There’s enough time left over to turn more tricks – for what? Liquor, weed, coke, crank, smack. More meaningless words she doesn’t bother to make sense of. She is already dead, one of the living dead. So in the end she’s back there with all the aging Juliettes at Beauregards’ saying the words, pretending to listen, all in an attempt to pry the wallet out of some idiot trailer park Romeo’s Levis. The circle closes,
Words spoken in a place like Beaus’ are not words at all, but noises. Shades do nothing except moan, moan and aimlessly collide, pass through one another.
Bill’s words were even less than noise to me, my gaze wandering from scene to scene trying to make sense of what people were doing and saying – and decoding a scene here or there, I began feeling nauseous for the experience. All was no longer right with the world. I had entered into knowledge of something unholy. Instinctively, I turned my attention inward and began to chainsmoke the filterless Camels and smile a lot at my drinking buddy who kept buying pitcher after pitcher. We unceremoniously drained each in turn. My neck ached I had nodded so much trying to appear attentive, but by that point, all I cared about was becoming drunk enough to find some door out of the leaden darkness that was eating my soul.
I tossed back so many mugs I couldn’t taste the Camels, but I could tell they were very strong. Then the nicotine hit me. My ears began to ring, my head swam and the room became even more blurry. The smile I wore was painted on, pained, and I could no longer even make out whether Bill’s barely moving lips were accompanied by sounds or not. Pain suddenly smashed me in the eyes, in the temples; it was a horrific headache coming on and I had to get out. Sounds, noises, odors, scenes all ripping me to shreds, hammering me – there was nothing left to do but leave, and leave in a hurry.
So I got up without sating anything and began stumbling toward the door, pushing my way through the crowd, eyes slits both from pain and a sudden sensitivity to even dim light. A strong, wiry arm came over my shoulders and propelled me the rest of the way out the door into the night and parking lot where I took in a lung full of Spring air. It tasted clean, promised something I knew I would never find. Bill had decided to make himself of further assistance for some motive known only to himself, being drunker than I was by far. Yet, he was a veteran, an old servant of the bottle, while I was a novice both with excessive drink and strong cigarettes.
“Got to ya,” Bill mumbled, voice gravely and low.
“Yeah, I guess,” I whispered as he pushed me along and held me up; we headed across the street and back towards the college.
“You ever smoke Camels before?”
“Uh uh. No. I’ve got this… I don’t know. Feels like my head’s been bashed in with an ax handle or something.”
“Strong shit. Walk straight, man. Cops are comin’. See ‘em in the streetlight.”
“Oh fuck.” I was going to go to jail for public drunkeness. My slide down was progressing pretty damn fast, I marveled.
But somehow I managed to walk upright and follow the clip-clop rhythm of Bill’s spit polished military shoes on the sidewalk. A patrol car rolled by and we really probably looked more like two gay men than drunks, leaning against each other, ambling along in far too friendly a manner, Bill’s arm over my shoulder.
“They’re gone,” he said, laughing a little. I tried to laugh but didn’t see anything funny about the situation.
It took maybe 10 minutes to arrive at the college, or, rather, at the art building, the one I could go in and use the pay phone to call a ride. Bill shook my hand, muttered something about having a good time, and headed off at a brisk pace for some unknown destination, maybe his dorm room, maybe a party. Who knows? To be honest, I could have cared less as I dug in my pockets for change. What in the Hell had just happened? What was the point of all of that?
Placing a quarter in the phone, I leaned against the wall, feeling the mercifully cool surface with my forehead, shutting my eyes against the dazzling, horrible light that pierced my eyes and felt like hot needles jammed into my brain.
Who am I calling? I wondered. Who, indeed. The list was not a long one to choose from, with few appealing alternatives. Slowly, hands shaking, I punched in a number, a number that came easily to mind, like bad habits always do – it was my old girlfriend’s.
We were still friendly, but the situation was a bizarre one. She was older than I was by three years, had family problems – dead father, severely alcoholic mother, dangerous addict for an older brother. I had helped her take care of her mother for two years, part of which time I was in high school; in return, almost to kill the pain of the situation and the feelings of desperation, my girlfriend and I had almost constant sex. But there was a lesson to be learned in it for me: I realized I didn’t love her, I had only enjoyed the sex. And then, I didn’t even enjoy that. I was putting up with her dangerous, sometimes violent, always unpredictable relatives solely to explore the world of the female body only to wish I’d never started up that road.
But I had not left her immediately on realizing this and becoming uncomfortable with the situation. I was nowhere near man enough for that sort of honesty; no, months went by with me saying empty, saccharine “I love yous” with a live coal in my guts, the taste of bile in my mouth after I kissed her or touched her. Sex became a mechanical, disturbing thing. Just to touch her was like laying hands on a corpse, to put my tongue into her like burying my face in maggots. Already at age 18 I was trapped in something that was like being forced into a coffin with a rotting body, the lid slowly being nailed shut, my life sentenced forever to the Underworld of hopelessness. It was part of my realization that I would never escape Dahlonega, that I would always be stuck there, going nowhere.
A terrible thing happened, a terrible, unplanned, insane thing that I did not want at all or go out looking for, a very human and normal thing: I fell in love with my girlfriend’s best friend.
We were around her every day, nearly. She lived maybe 50 yards away, was very independent being 22. We went out with her to eat, we watched television with her, we all talked a lot, laughed, went for drives. She was beautiful, a brunette with short, well-cared for hair; her body was very curvy. The color of her eyes was that of very dark chocolate, her skin pale and soft. She smiled and laughed freely – whatever miseries she might have carried around in her heart were hidden, unshared.
I started noticing her looking at me once in a while and it frightened me, embarrassed me. After all of the things I had done with the body of a woman, all of the things I had seen and tasted and touched, I normally felt clad in iron around women. What was there I did not know? What hadn’t I experienced? The touch of a woman was a pressure sent from a million miles away; it meant nothing. There were women at school who did touch me on the arm or face, who smiled and who liked me, but from within my coffin, it was pointless. Yet suddenly, I realized that it was not someone’s touch that had seized me, but only her quick, dark glances, her subtle half-smiles. Blood rushed to my head, my heart skipped, my breath came faster, my mouth watered around her. It was almost as if I had been brought back above ground in those brief moments, those all too brief moments that left me confused and saddened.
Her name was Kara. Several years before I met her she’d become interested in fitness, aerobics, and she started inviting us over to exercise with her. I found it difficult to do this as she wore skin-tight exercise clothing, so her body was impossible not to notice; and it was also difficult because my girlfriend was always right there. I spent a great deal of time learning the patterns of her living room carpet to keep from looking at her.
My girlfriend, Barb, fancied herself extremely liberal sexually and openly expressed her lack of jealousy concerning me, her openness to “new things” such as partners on the side – which disturbed me further, as I was not so inclined. Even though I did not love her, I was “with” her in what seemed a common law marriage situation, and so long as that arrangement was in force, I very legalistically had no intentions of “cheating.”
Then the day came when, after aerobics, while we were joking around, Kara was bragging about what good shape she was in, which I laughed at, though hardly seriously.
“I’m in better shape than you, buddy boy.” There was playful menace in her thick Virginia accent.
“Yeah, sure you are. Big talk.”
With that, she was on me, sweeping her leg around behind my knees and using her weight to throw me down on the floor; I was shocked, unsure what to do. Where do I put my hands? She was on top of me and I looked over her shoulder to see what Barb was doing. She was sitting on the couch smiling serenely, completely fine with the situation, it seemed. I allowed Kara to pin my hands over my head with her own hands, having no idea what to do with them anyway.
Her face was inches from mine, eyes narrow, filled with something far beyond the level of casual interest she’d usually shown when looking at me. This look was different: fiery, hungry. She smiled broadly, no mysterious half-smile now. I could feel her breath, hot and enticing, and I could feel her breasts pressed into my chest, her hip bone against my penis which responded by immediately coming to life. Panic shot through me along with the more pleasurable sensations; I was wearing a very thin pair of cheap warm-up pants – nothing that was going to hide a hard-on.
“What are you going to do about it? Hmm?” she teased.
What I did was suddenly roll over on top of her, being far stronger than she was, though I had no intention of really “proving it.” Totally confused, my eyes went wide and my eyebrows lowered in part with a question – Is this what I think it is? – and with a warning – Don’t you see Barb over there on the couch watching this? I loosely held her wrists in my hands and then realized I’d wound up dead between her legs as if we were in the Missionary Position. She giggled, eyes even more mischievous, voice husky as she began to squirm gratuitously, thrusting her pelvis against mine and wrapping those curvy, strong thighs around my waist while digging her heels into the backs of my knees.
I put more of my weight on my knees, trying not to mash her wrists when her arms broke free; she grabbed my wrists and pulled them straight down by my sides and rolled over, taking me with her so that I wound up on the bottom again. Taking advantage of my confusion, she bounced up and sat her figure-eight bottom directly atop my penis, which was now past being fully hard. She used her legs to pin my hands by my sides and grabbed my hair in her hands – not to pull it, but to caress it in her palms, it seemed; she leaned way over and dug her elbows into my chest. She giggled more loudly, feeling my erection – made all the worse by her weight and by the fact I could feel her inner thighs against the backs of my hands.
“Like I said, what are you going to do about it?” The double meaning was obvious to both of us. As for Barb, I could have cared less what she thought by this point. I knew damn well what I’d have liked “to do about it,” but since this was a new situation for me, I was in utter confusion as to what I was being asked for, if anything. I just smiled sheepishly; I’d never been jumped by any woman before, much less a beautiful one, one the very sight of whom set my heart pounding. And in front of a girlfriend I didn’t love, to boot.
She brought her face very close to mine… and then jumped off and up, leaving me to very quickly roll to the side in an effort to hide the embarrassing tent my pants were making over my crotch. I sat up with my knees pulled against my chest as she looked at me, bemused, eyes innocent, but the mouth bearing that not-so-innocent half smile I’d seen many times now. Kara and Barb began to talk as if nothing whatsoever had happened until I recovered, and then we left as usual.
That night I had amazing dreams of Kara, a wet dream at the age of 18, the first I’d ever had in my life. I’d have several more with her as star, the only such experiences I ever had.
After that, every time we went over to “exercise,” these wrestling matches were the way we ended each evening, Kara becoming more provocative with her body each time, allowing my hands, out of sight to Barb, to briefly touch or hold various parts of her: neck, breasts, belly, hips, thighs, calves; she would scissor my leg between hers and grind her crotch against my thigh. And always she giggled and laughed as my body responded as a young man’s ought. That, and at the light of desire shining in my own eyes, begging for something more, that “something more” which never arrived.
I loved Kara. I wanted to drown in her, come back alive and drown again ten thousand times. I wanted to go away with her to other places, anywhere, somewhere beyond Dahlonega, somewhere I could leave my girlfriend and my history, the mess of my relatives’ lives, behind and start fresh, my heart devoted to someone that beautiful, someone that enjoyable just to be with. I dreamed of her and my heart skipped beats whenever I saw her. Kara filled me with hope and made me forget for a few hours at a time where I was, who I was, who I would always be, one of the damned.
Richard Van Ingram
Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved