The following is the first part in a seven-part essay about two disastrous years in the author’s life. We will be posting a new installment every Monday. In this chapter, the author moves in with his aunt in Berkeley, California.
I work with kids at an elementary school: I help out at lunch and recess, making sure the kids don’t kill each other. This first grader sometimes approaches me grinning and says, “You hap to wun me!” as if he has some contract he’s waving in my face. “You’re the monster!” he says. I bare my teeth and raise my hands above my head so they become looming monster hands, and the kid’s eyes light up, and he takes off across the field. The trick is to run about as fast as you can until you start beating him, then you fall back a little to let him win. By the time the kindergarten-and-first-grade group goes inside, I feel like Springsteen after a seven-hour concert. I’m not an athletic guy—one lap around the playground and my head is swimming, not to mention the pain in my left leg that also acts up when it’s about to rain. I’m twenty-six years old. That stiffness in my leg is something the physical therapists told me there was no real way to work on.
When I first moved to California from Virginia to join a graduate creative-writing program, I lived at my aunt Sarah’s house in Berkeley. She charged me $200 a month. Berkeley is a great place where people with no actual mental illness consciously adopt schizophrenia as a lifestyle. This way they have the advantage of being able to yell at people in public and ignore basic hygiene standards without ever having the kind of real affliction they’d be unable to control—they can quit anytime they want. I highly recommend moving to Berkeley if you enjoy getting yelled at every day by people who look like how Gary Larson draws God. People who, at least ostensibly, spent much of their lives fighting for social justice, but who are now comfortable, and devote the same kind of passion and anger they once reserved for, say, stopping the Vietnam war to challenging the price of salmon at the grocery store.
But the school, Malcolm X Elementary, where aunt Sarah is assistant principal, is beautiful. In her art classroom, eighteen little buddies watercolor at four tables, and the walls are lined with different gourds, several globes, a painting of prehistoric fish, two sombreros stacked on top of one another, and a first-grader-sized papier-mâché representation of a kabuki character. A sign reads, “Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be an Artist.” Through one window, it looks like clouds are gathering, and through another there is only sunlight.
“The trick,” she says, “is finding something school-appropriate. Like when we do M.C. Escher, some kid always finds the weenie on the devil in the corner, I mean, jeez Louise…” She’s very thin and wears loose-fitting, casual clothes—a Malcolm X hoodie, paint-spattered black pants, and pink-and-black Vans. She has the same isosceles nose as my father and I, and a chin that juts when she emphasizes words like “appropriate.”
Sarah was active in the punk-rock scene in San Francisco in the ’70s, and she bought me Murder Ballads by Nick Cave for my birthday one year in high school. Because of her job, her general attitude toward life, and her house, which is adorned with tribal masks and kachina dolls and has a backyard full of avocado trees and chickens, I think of her as someone admirably adept at joining a punk-rock aesthetic with a practical adulthood.
Much of the work of being an assistant principal, and more generally much of the work of being Sarah Waggoner, is getting other people to volunteer for things. Not so she will have less work to do—she appears to always have the maximum amount of work possible to do—but simply so all the work surrounding her life can be done. In here it’s the same, institutionalized. Preparing for an assignment on caricatures (ca-ric-atures, she pronounces it, unlike I’ve ever heard), she gets me to help. She has photos of John James Audobon, Andy Warhol, and Georgia O’Keefe, and I, in my wonky cartoony style, am to draw them large and simple, for examples. Audobon is easy because he looks like a crazy man in the picture, with wild eyes. Warhol’s features are distinctive: the yellow mess of hair, the big glasses. I have the most trouble with Georgia O’Keefe. Every way I draw her she merely looks stern, weathered. I can’t tell if there’s too much dark value in my drawing or too little.
Shortly after I move in with Sarah, her twenty-year-old son, my cousin Dante, moves back home to start chemotherapy again. He’s skinny from the treatment, but handsome, with high cheekbones, soulful hazel eyes, and bright teeth he flashes cockily whenever he antagonizes his mother or quotes Lil Wayne. We start watching Game of Thrones together after he pitches it to me like this: “You gotta see this show, dog. This bitch? Has dragons.” He loves to play basketball. He leaves his socks on the kitchen island and drops the newspaper on the floor after glancing at the sports pages.
“Dante, how was your twentieth birthday?” my sister Hope asks at one point.
“I’m just glad to be alive, man.”
“Wow, that’s really touching to hear you say.”
“No, I mean I partied so hard that I’m lucky to be alive.”
On Sarah’s birthday, we go out for tapas in the city: me, Dante, Hope, and Dante’s sister Theo, who is visiting from New York. Sarah says it was one of her best birthdays yet. Standing among the kachinas and tribal masks in the dining room, she says, “I love you guys!” Which I’m not sure I’ve ever heard from her before. I say, “We love you, too” in a way that sounds unintentionally grudging, but she doesn’t hear me anyway because she’s whispering to Dante’s new dog, Chance, an adorable young brindle mutt: “But not as much as I love you!”
“Did you just say you loved the dog more than us?” Dante says.
“Yeah, that’s what I said! Some people are listening. It’s like with the kids in art class, you just talk, and some of them hear you over themselves, and some of them don’t.”
Dante crashes Sarah’s car on his way to class one day. He’s fine, but the car is totaled. Every other conversation he has with me around this time goes like this: “Hey man, what are you doing later? Oh, word, you think you’ll drive there? Is it chill if I use your car tonight? Thanks, man.” Which means he talks to me twice as often. He takes my car without asking one day and drives out to the country with his boys to pick up pot-growing equipment and shoot off guns. I drive around with a box of bullets in my car for a week without realizing it.
Meanwhile, the dog is just tearing everything up. He eats a whole pie left on the counter. He howls his brain out at the cat on the other side of the glass door every morning at seven and Sarah tries to stop him by screaming at him.
“I told you about my near-death experience, right?” Sarah asks me one night over pinot grigio and pork chops. “Back when I was living in Woodstock, in my early twenties, doing nothing with my life, basically babysitting these guys from Harvey Brooks and the Fabulous Rhinestones, I got into a car accident. I remember it was dark and before I came to, I made this choice. Something asked me if I wanted to keep living or not, and I said, ‘Okay, I think I’ve still got more work to do.’ It was just like that: an option. There was something good and warm on the other side, and I didn’t want it. I told Dante this story when he was in the hospital, about how it’s good on the other side but you have to make a choice.”
One day she asks me to move my car from the driveway so Dante can take the trash out from the backyard. It’s raining. This one receptacle, the gray one for actual landfill trash, is not budging for some reason, something wrong with the wheel, and Sarah comes out to help him. She in her black hoodie, he in gym shorts, both fairly skeletal, pushing through the merciless rain with all their mutual strength, pushing this resolute object together, this big unthinking gray thing everyone has to have, and I feel like I’d like to go back and work on those caricatures, ca-ric-atures, some more, try and get them right this time.