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Monday, July 9, 2012

Travelin' Prayer

We lived on Church Street. There were five Baptist churches in our neighborhood, but only one house with a neon pink mailbox with an eagle's head mounted to the front. You had to pull on the beak to open it, but what got us in trouble with the postal service was that I kept parking too close to it.

“Now, I know y'all are new,” the mailman had said, his drawl dripping a falsified politeness, “but this mailbox needs to be un-ob-structed for me to make my delivery. Y'all having such an unusual mailbox is one thing, but you can't park in front of it, or you’ll get no mail from me. Y’all seem like a nice young couple, and I do hope you will continue to enjoy your new home.”

The mailman nodded and so did I. I stood on our lawn, clutching a fresh mortgage statement in one hand as he drove his three-cylinder mailtruck to the next house, the one with five feet of weeds and naked children on the porch, but a mailbox unobstructed by the wily notions of eagles for art's sake.

Slowly, but with a steady certainty, I was being rejected by the neighborhood, like a donated liver being attacked by a strong immune system. I didn't believe in omens before I moved to North Carolina, but every day I had spent there was a chapter out of the Bible, a page ripped right from God's To-Do List. Sure, the statue that had belonged to my dead grandmother had slipped from my hands and shattered in the street on the first day, but if I had a vision of everything else, I would have picked up the pieces, gotten right back in my car and returned home to Long Island.

First my dog was bit by a copperhead snake, then a plague of mosquitoes swelled up out creek behind the house and moved into the cellar. Then there was the mummified family of ravens in the fireplace, gassed to death by the original owner, unaffected by the airless, sunless passage of time in the masonry. Dead little birds frozen in time, a diorama of life in North Carolina.

Our neighbors were mostly churchgoing folks, good ole boys and their wives who liked to mention I was a long way from home when they saw my northern license plate. Our town was made up of drug addicts and retirees, gobbing up the lines at Walmart with wagons of Dr. Scholl's ointments, three-liter bottles of soda, and buckets of a regional condiment called R.O.'s Slaw, which was like a thousand island dressing with chunks of pure cholesterol floating in it. I would say ninety percent of the population of Gaston County suffered from either Type 2 diabetes or an addiction to meth, so there was no attractive middle ground as I browsed tabloids and Mentos, waiting for the cashier to call down the next available customer.

I hoped we would get Jessie. She was my favorite cashier at the Belmont Walmart, four hundred pounds of balding, pituitary sass packed behind a thick prescription that made her look like a turtle on acid in a public access show. Jessie treated you like a complete asshole no matter what you were buying or how businesslike your transaction should be. She hated everyone equally, which was a sentiment I could get behind.

“Do you think we'll get Jessie?” I asked Patrick, the person I was supposed to marry but now hated.

He shrugged his shoulders, already eating from a bag of chips in the cart.

Jessie scanned the cat food of the woman in front of us, and I thought about what my life had become. I was standing on line at a Walmart, wishing I would get the cashier most-likely to treat me with open hatred before I went home to watch the person I was living with eat a gallon of ice cream and fall asleep with the TV on. If I thought about it, it would kill me, this sensation of being buried, so I tried my best to stay optimistic. Maybe things would turn around. Maybe he would really quit drinking this time. Maybe I could forget about him cheating on me. Maybe life would right itself, like a beetle on its back, summoning the final reserve of strength it took to flip itself over.

Or, maybe I would start to lose my hair. Maybe I would gain a hundred pounds, get a job stocking antacids in the health and beauty aisle, and microwave my intelligence away under the blue light of the TV with someone I didn't like once I really got to know them.

The line moved slowly, and I picked up a copy of US Magazine. Between the pages of Who Wore It Best and photos of celebrity children named after vegetables and dead presidents, Billy Joel’s puggy eyes looked up at me. It was like running into a relative at the grocery store when you least expect it. For Long Islanders, Billy Joel is everyone’s creepy uncle and you are forever bumping into him, mostly at karaoke bars when some frat guy wants to impress his buddies with a tone-deaf memorization of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

I hated Billy Joel the way you’d hate a Taco Bell responsible for food poisoning you. His songs reminded me of feeling so sick inside that no apology could ever make it right. It might have started when my father died and adults would pat me on the head, thoughtlessly quoting, “Only the good die young.” Maybe it was when my sister got the cassingle for “River of Dreams” and played it on repeat in a rotation that included Mariah Carey’s “Hero,” Real McCoy’s “Another Night,” and Ini Kamoze’s “Hot Stepper.” It could be every wedding where they play “Just the Way You Are” and all the dads get touchy-feely on women who look like potatoes with sequins glued onto them. Mostly, I think it’s that I inherited my stepdad’s collection of hairmetal tapes before I had a chance to delve into the indigenous sounds of my people.

The line at Walmart crept slowly, and with morbid anthropological hatred, I read the article bearing his face. It was about the daughter he had with Christie Brinkley, who had recently tried to take her own life by eating eight holistic aspirin. She made a frantic call to 911, and later blogged that her brush with death had given her a new outlook on life. It seemed like an incredibly weak attempt at trying to take yourself out, especially for someone who is the child of millionaires. As a poor-person, I made a pact with my best friend to cash everything in when we turned thirty so that we could drive the Knight Rider car into the ocean. I felt that if Alexa Joel truly wanted to die, she could have at least bought the “Uptown Girl” car and crashed it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The article went on to mention that Billy Joel had tried to commit suicide in the early 70s by drinking a bottle of furniture polish when he realized his metal band wasn’t going anywhere. Two things about that article were shocking: 1) Billy Joel had a metal band, and 2) Billy Joel might not actually be as full of shit as I judgmentally came to believe he was. Suicide by furniture polish suggested both desperation and a willingness to let the last moments of your life end unpleasantly. Even if I committed suicide by stabbing myself in the chest, I would still probably do it with a mouthful of Ring-Dings to soften my glorious exit. When I thought about it, his early songs were awfully depressing. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” was about a breakup. “Captain Jack” mentions the trifecta of jerking off, picking your nose, and shooting heroin in your mother’s basement, and “Piano Man” was the ultimate ballad of broken dreams, always sung at last-call for a complete full circle of misery.

Maybe I hadn’t really given Billy Joel a chance. Maybe we were kindred souls, trying to make sense of the crazy world we’d been born to. Here we both were all these years, absorbing the sadness of our ancestral homeland and letting it soak into the songs we played for all the people not listening, hoping the next person might throw a dollar into the metaphorical tip jar.

I closed the magazine, feeling the fresh understanding of a resentment lifted. I looked at my surroundings: somebody was arguing with a manager over a coupon. My boyfriend was texting someone with a mouthful of Cool Ranch Doritos, and somewhere, beyond the concrete blue walls, there was the mortgage, the mailman, the endless procession of churchgoers on our street.

“Billy Joel knows pain,” I said to no one.

Jessie sighed loudly and scanned our first item.

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