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Salvation Is a Last-Minute Business, Boy…

“You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch, and I’ll show you the story of life. Those fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warring and a-tugging, one agin t’other.” – Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in “Night of the Hunter”

When I was seven or eight I used to get up in the middle of the night and sneak out to the living room and build a sofa fort. Flashlight in one hand, comic book in the other. Archie, probably. And this weird chewing gum was also part of the ritual; vanilla chewing gum, it always had to be vanilla gum. I don’t know why I can remember that. I can still taste the gum, and smell the cushions pressed close to my face. Thrilled to be alone.

When I was 19 or 20 I used to go in my room and secretly smoke cigarettes, Marlboro Lights, one after the other as I read novels–an alarming percentage were bad science fiction or Ayn Rand. Late at night, long into the night, I could read an entire book in one stretch. Eventually I got into “the classics,” including the Bible. I read the whole Bible. And War and Peace. That kind of sucked. Thought I was being clever; years later I discovered that my mom knew I was smoking the whole time. This means she probably wasn’t too fooled by all the times I came home drunk and yakked in the toilet either. Still, thrilled to be alone in the middle of the night.

A few years later, done with school, engaged to be married. The Novelist awakes. Chain-smoking at 3 AM with a pot of coffee, The Beatles’ White Album or Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited on the Sony Walkman, clattering on the old Mac SE until the sun came up. All night, every night. Thrilled to be alone and working.

Years later, divorced, unemployed, living by myself in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, not far from UN Plaza, replete with screams and moans echoing off the old grey walls and down damp streets, me on coffee and Vivarin and whatever other sort of thing I could get my hands on–one girlfriend was a virtual font of Adderal–staying awake not so much to work but not to face the reality of dreaming. Communicating with strangers. Skirting the edge of the Internet. Building cabals. Thrilled to be alone and free, in a literal sense.

More years go by. I’m in another city, halfway across the continent. Sleep is harder to fend off now. I pop these little white cross pills by the handful–you can buy them in any liquor store here, so surely they must be “safe”–and read. The entire Internet. Must collect data. I don’t have any of my own to offer anymore. Gave it all away, I was careless with it, nothing left in the tank. Now is the time for taking. Woman in the other room would rather see me gone, but I’ve got nowhere to go and nowhere to really get to. I’m here now, thrilled to be alone for a little while longer, before morning comes and burns hot, fresh shame across my forehead.

Few more years pass. Back in Los Angeles again, where it all started. I have a car and an iPod. No more pills, no more sleep. Drive all night, smoking endlessly, stopping for coffee when I need it, drive to the ocean, drive to the hills, drive through the darkness and into the lights. Think. Plan. Go. Thrilled to be alone and alive.

Now. Fit and working again. No drugs. Not even caffeine. Not tired anymore. Suddenly have a lot to say again. Could stay up forever, but she’s in the next room, and this always seems more important now. Turn out the lights, slide under the covers, trying not to wake her, because she’s a pain in the ass when she wakes up in the middle of the night. Close my eyes and watch the movies about sleep, feel her breathing calmly, lightly, next to me. Everything right where it’s supposed to be.


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