Life on the Plains

Life on the plains can be very dull. You stare at the nothing sky, the nothing horizon, the nothing wind blowing in your face, and you wonder if anything can ever happen. You cannot imagine paradise because you were born into a wasteland. The land has been skinned like the exterminated bison left to rot, and you are but a black, noisome fly on its carcass. No one feels boredom staring at an ocean, and that is what you can’t see or even conceive—a sea of prairie grass stretching forever, golden waves of it crashing on the rolling hills. All you feel is an emptiness underneath the emptiness, like the ocean has been boiled away by the sun.

I guess you could call that depression. My parents divorced when I was twenty. I was glad not to be living in the house anymore. I did not have to endure the screaming and the wailing of my mother or the barrage of my father’s obscenities and violence. My mother notified me by telephone. I felt a switch turned off within me where I stopped caring. I had never attended a church service. Neither of my parents had any friends. Now they were dissolving their legal union. What did I have to believe in? I had no socialization or network of support. College seemed like an absurdity. I was studying biology, life in other words, when I had no life. All I had was the library and the words of dead or nearly dead writers. I can remember sitting in a rotunda class which seated hundreds of eager young students like a sports stadium except no one was cheering. The psychology professor, whose features were hazy without my glasses, lectured through a microphone about B.F. Skinner. I had her tuned out, laughing aloud as I read Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. He mentions my hometown derisively on page 7.

“Well, the fuzz has my spoon and dropper, and I know they are coming in on my frequency led by this blind pigeon known as Willy the Disc.  Willy has a round, disk mouth lined with sensitive, erectile black hairs.  He is blind from shooting in the eyeball, his nose and palate eaten away sniffing H, his body a mass of scar tissue hard and dry as wood.  He can only eat the shit now with that mouth, sometimes sways out on a long tube of ectoplasm, feeling for the silent frequency of junk.  He follows my trail all over the city into rooms I move out already, and the fuzz walks in some newlyweds from Sioux Falls.”

Well, I wasn’t going to become a junkie or a sex criminal but becoming a writer did make a lot of sense.  At least it justified my spending so much time alone in my room.  I stopped attending classes.  I was on my own program.  I dropped out.

I started writing bad science fiction stories and submitting them to rather obscure magazines.  There was a problem of money.  I took a temp job at a scoreboard factory over the holidays.  The scoreboards were the size of boxcars and were composed of what they called “glow cubes.”  These little squares–one side black and the other fluorescent yellow–worked together like pixels to form pictures or numbers or words, whatever was programmed into the machine.  At the time, this was a marvel of engineering.  The glitch was the scoreboards were too loud for the sensitive ears of the golfers on the PGA tour.  Old golfers never die, you know, they just putt, putt away.  Anyway, every cube had a pair of little rubber doughnuts called “bumpers.”  The workers were tasked with removing the old bumpers with a needle nose pliers and replacing them with fatter ones that would be much quieter.  The population of seasonal help dropped in half after the first week.  It is amazing what the capitalist system values–what people will pay you to do and what you are willing to do for money.  It was a reason to do drugs or stay in school.  This is how we waste away our youth–a concrete floor littered with thousands of little rubber doughnuts like fallen pubic hairs to be swept into piles and discarded by a janitor with a push broom.

A select few of us, we were told, would be selected for permanent work.  The boredom was excruciating but I withstood it, landing a job as a circuit board fabricator.  I actually found this work interesting although I worried about my long-term health being around so many noxious chemicals.  I was trained by a ruddy behemoth of a man named Butch.  He was proportioned like an all-star wrestler with thick, nerdy glasses and red, white & blue sweatbands.  He was practically busting out of his polyester uniform with his sleeves rolled up and thighs like big watermelons.  We worked together in the electroplating room.  I was kind of scared of him because of his size and these outbursts–a combination of a sneeze and a scream that he made periodically, kind of like a Tourette stutter.  I asked some of the female workers about him.  They all said he was harmless and lived with his mother.  Wouldn’t hurt a fly, they said.  Sounded like a serial killer in waiting to me, but I got used to him.  Eventually, I got the job down well enough where he migrated to some other department, leaving me to myself.  There were all these vats of acids that you soaked the boards in like a chemistry experiment.  The boards were screwed onto racks and they ended up in this churning bath with copper ingots in sacks, then after that they were plated in lead.  I can’t exactly remember the process and it would be pretty boring to explain.  I tromped around in high rubber boots, rubber gloves, an apron, and a face shield.  I suppose this sounds horrible but I got organized in how I did it so I was on break twenty minutes out of every hour.  That gave me plenty of time to read my Robert Heinlein and Philip K, Dick novels.  Sometimes I’d smoke outside and stare at the pigeons milling around a neighboring grain elevator while the boards cooked.

I started work quite early in the morning while it was still dark and would fall asleep in the armchair after dinner watching the nightly news or gameshows. I think my roommates were jealous of my happiness. It was a good life without all the pressures of tests. I did a lot of hunting on my days off. I remember those times with nostalgia, but the peace didn’t last. It never does. One evening a ferocious thunderstorm blew in unexpectedly. I could see shingles flying through the air from the sanctuary of my garden-level apartment. After it was over I went outside to check on things. The sun was out and the birds were chirping madly as they always do after it rains, but the destruction was unbelievable. The roof of the neighboring three-story building had been sheared off with thick chunks of it atop squashed parked cars. My roommate’s girlfriend lived in the apartment that had been destroyed. After a couple days, they told us it was safe to go in to get stuff so I helped move her out. That was a surreal experience—the TV and couch sitting there all fine—even magazines fanned neatly on the coffee table–and you looked up to see naked, blue sky. Initially, we were told our building was ok, just a bit of roof damage on one corner that could be easily repaired. But then more rain came and we suddenly had an inch of water on the carpet. I remember watching Apocalypse Now for the first time in my hip waders. What a trip! I was lucky not to be electrocuted. The property manager put us up in a hotel. I had the room to myself because my two roommates stayed with their girlfriends. It was great. I wrote my stories and enjoyed free cable. I even had room service. I’d leave a note on the desk not to touch my work. When the lease ran out I relocated to Minnesota to continue my education. A private detective called soon after I moved, asking who said I could stay in the room because the insurance company didn’t want to foot the bill. I just gave him the name of the landlord. “We’re not going after you,” he said. I hung up the phone feeling like I had gotten away with something and never heard any more about it. I’m sure Butch is still out there somewhere sneezing and swearing, but his mother is probably dead by now.

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