A jittery man with long blonde hair and a tight leather jacket warns me about the desert. “When you go out there, don’t listen to anybody who dares you to walk into the desert,” he says, sending his half-smoked cigarette skittering across the dark parking lot where it sparks against a pick-up truck. He clamps a big hand on my shoulder, squeezing hard. “I’m serious, man. People do it all the time. They’ll challenge each other to walk ten miles into Death Valley without any supplies and then walk back. They wager money on it.”

I tell him I’ve never heard of such a thing and he stares beyond me, watching the late night traffic. “Yeah, you can make some good money on a bet like that,” he says, “but I lost a few good friends that way.” His eyes narrow and I can see the tension in his jaw, the cords in his neck. God knows what he’s remembering. I turn to go. “Don’t forget,” he calls, “if you’re out there and you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated!”

James A. Reeves – Enchanted Desert

From American Decay | 2015 | Download

Built from a blurry loop of ‘Enchanted Sea’ by The Counts (Sea Crest Records, 1964). This track appears on American Decay, a collection of loops and reverberations recorded between 2009 and 2014.

As our walking is admittedly nothing but a constantly-prevented falling,” wrote Arthur Schopenhaur, “so the life of our bodies is nothing but a constantly-prevented dying, an ever postponed death.” The prevention of dying occupies my mind these days, now that my father and I have moved from the bottom of the country to the top to wait for a lung. Reading philosophy is a comfort that keeps me busy with a highlighter during these long arctic nights when my thoughts wander into morbid terrain. I should probably skip Schopenhauer’s gloom yet his pessimism is magnetic and irresistibly quotable, particularly in this chaotic age of terror and screens. For starters, he convincingly argues that the world is evil (“For whence did Dante take the materials of his hell but from our actual world?”) and he goes on to explain that there is no such thing as pleasure, only the absence of pain. For a moment, this rings true while I stand in a salt-stained strip mall parking lot on a grey two-degree afternoon, struggling to remember who I am, where I am, and what I like to eat.

I’d like to be a little beacon of joy for my father, chipper and zen and awake at six in the morning eating a piece of fruit. Yet my lizard brain will not cooperate with my heart and I race through the day with caffeine nerves and tumbling thoughts, unable to sleep until the hour of the wolf. And despite the circumstances of our new Wisconsin life—a lung transplant, for god’s sake—I sneak the occasional cigarette, filling my lungs with blessed nicotine and ashen shame. After such a transgression, who am I to ever judge another? Everywhere I turn, we are at war with our better selves. The man throwing a tantrum into his telephone would be mortified to be seen behaving this way. A mother in the supermarket yanks her child despite knowing this is not the type of mom she wants to be. And look at all of the cars lined up at the Taco Bell drive-thru, mine included. Here is the opening scene of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, the ominous rumble as a disembodied voice asks, “Why does nature war with herself?”

According to Schopenhauer, struggle is all we have; happiness is a myth. To illustrate this point, he turns to the stories we tell ourselves. “Every epic and dramatic poem can only represent a struggle, an effort, a fight for happiness; never enduring and complete happiness itself. It conducts its heroes through a thousand dangers and difficulties to the goal; as soon as this is reached it hastens to let the curtain fall; for now there would remain nothing for it to do but to show that the glittering goal in which the hero expected to find happiness had only disappointed him, and that after its attainment he was no better off than before.” Thus he arrives at his famous hedgehog dilemma: “We are unhappy when alone, and unhappy in society: we are like hedgehogs clustering together for warmth, uncomfortable when too closely packed, and yet miserable when kept apart.”

After midnight, I drive west on Mineral Point Road until the city sprawl fades into darkness. The dashboard howls with the day’s news while I speed with the windows down and the heat on blast. As usual, the news is deranged. We suffer from a predatory economic system and a lunatic government, yet we are a muted nation, unable to resist the violence of our politicians, police, and corporations. In the rearview mirror, I notice my face is tanned a peculiar shade of need from years spent staring into a glowing screen, monitoring headlines and chatter. For what cause? Either the news leaves me feeling paralyzed and defanged, or it beckons me into a mean kind of voyeurism. We want to know why an actress’s face looks different than it did before. We watch celebrities crash their cars and set their houses on fire and overdose in their bathtubs so we can shake our heads and say such is the price of fame. Cue the references to entropy, the distracted citizenship, the fall of Rome, etc and suddenly Schopenhauer seems like the right philosopher for our times. “Life,” he writes, “swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and ennui.”

Yet we cannot separate the philosophy from the man. He is a lovable crank who cannot stand the noise of the early 19th-century city, declaring that “the amount of noise which anyone can bear undisturbed stands in inverse proportion to his mental capacity.” Yet he was a troubled and tragic man. Believing that no family could have two geniuses, his mother pushed him down a flight of stairs. Perhaps this accounts for his awful attitude toward women (“When the laws gave women equal rights with men, they ought also to have endowed them with masculine intellects”) as well as his horrifying view of sex: Shame often accompanies our sexual impulses because we know we should not continue the misery of the human race. “He was absolutely alone, with not a single friend,” wrote Nietzsche. “And between one and none there lies an infinity.”

In The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant sketches a beautiful image of Schopenhauer that I recognize in my worst moments: “Missing success and fame, he turned within and gnawed at his own soul.” An acolyte of Spinoza’s transcendental optimism and Voltaire’s vigor, Durant deftly exposes pessimism as a lazy child’s game and restores my faith:

“There is, of course, a large element of egotism in pessimism: the world is not good enough for us, and we turn up our philosophic noses to it. Perhaps disgust with existence is a cover for a secret disgust with ourselves: we have botched and bungled our lives, and we cast the blame upon the “environment,” or the “world,” which have no tongues to utter a defense. The mature man accepts the natural limitations of life; he does not expect Providence to be prejudiced in his favor; he does not ask for loaded dice with which to play the game of life. He knows, with Carlyle, that there is no sense in vilifying the sun because it will not light our cigars. And perhaps, if we are clever enough to help it, the sun will do even that; and this vast neutral cosmos may turn out to be a pleasant place enough if we bring a little sunshine of our own to help it out. In truth the world is neither with us nor against us; it is but raw material in our hands, and can be heaven or hell according to what we are.”

The critic seeks the safety of the sidelines, particularly when the world gets difficult. This is tempting but it is not living. Tomorrow I will leave Schopenhauer behind, buy some fruit and maybe a pack of nicotine gum. I’ll stay away from the news and tackle Voltaire in the waiting room.

Sources and further reading: The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant; A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell; more Arthur Schopenhauer, esp. The World as Will and Representation, 1818.

Madison, Wisconsin. The William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital does big business during the day. Disoriented veterans from several wars crowd its labyrinthine halls, trailed by anxious wives and husbands. Doctors and nurses race along the edges like ghosts, a streak of white polyester clutching a cup of coffee and a clipboard. There are long queues for the cafeteria, the vending machine, the coffee stand, and the Patriot Shop, where you can buy a tax-free blender or flatscreen television. The place hums with the chatter and clang of a small city until five o’clock when everyone disappears, leaving only my father and me on the sixth floor where we sleep in a hospital room, waiting for the next day’s tests on his lungs.

78 percent of lung transplant patients survive the first year. About 63 percent of patients survive three years. A little over 50 percent survive five years. I cannot sleep with these statistics. I look over at my father in the next bed, curled on his side and quietly snoring. He looks like a little boy. He’s been so brave since his lungs began to fail, diligently hauling his oxygen machine while walking the dog, shopping for groceries, or fishing on the bayou. When I encouraged him to slow down, he told me that he might as well die if he’s going to spend his days sitting in a chair not doing anything.

After midnight, I give up on sleep. My footsteps and the occasional fritz of a fluorescent light are the only sounds as I wander the empty halls of the hospital. The address is 2500 Overlook Terrace and my thoughts cannot escape the Overlook Hotel, where my mind races through deserted corridors before an axe-swinging Jack Nicholson or something worse catches me. I ponder the signs on each stainless steel door. Amputee care. Diabetic foot management. Electroencephalography. Former prisoners of war advocate. Infusion clinic. Military sexual trauma. Radiology. Sleep study section. Cashier. Stars, eagles, flags, and grinning soldiers decorate the walls. Christ, we’ve fought so many wars.

There are two worlds. There’s the one with people worrying about traffic or a sour remark from a colleague or lover, a world of office hours and restaurants and treadmills and car maintenance and knowing the latest headlines and weather forecasts. Then there’s the world inside hospitals where people are at war with their bodies, monitoring oxygen levels and viral loads while counting pills and searching their doctors’ faces for clues. Walking these empty halls in suspended time, I finally understand the word limbo. When I return to our room, I am grateful to find my father still snoring and I begin to pray.

Carly Dee would always remember the moment she saw the man with the sawed-off shotgun. 9:04am on February 8, 1977. One of those dead blue Midwestern mornings when everything felt heavy and grim. Waiting for the crosswalk signal, she blew on her chapped hands and stomped her feet in the slush on the corner of Market and Pennsylvania. An electric ripple shot through the crowd. Screams and shouts: Oh god. He’s got a gun. Just calm down. Don’t do it.

A middle-aged man shuffled toward her like a drunk, all arms and shoulders with his head hung low, keeping track of his feet. His untucked dress shirt flapped in the winter breeze. He looked like a good Republican, someone who might file your tax return or issue a permit. He looked like Gerald Ford. Then she saw the wire across his throat and the tears in his eyes, as if somebody was strangling him with a clothes hanger. The wire led to the barrel of a gun jammed against the back of the man’s neck, and Carly Dee knew it was a sawed-off shotgun even though she’d never seen one before.

The man with the gun frightened her. Crisp Elvis sideburns and two-day stubble, a stocky build and gnarled fingers like he worked with machines. Maybe he did. After all, he’d rigged up something special with that shotgun and the wire running to the trigger. “You mess with me and a bullet goes right in this guy’s head!” he screamed. He called it his “dead man’s line,” he said as he frog-marched his hostage forward. That’s when Carly Dee got a look at his eyes, dark wet eyes that looked scared like a rabbit. Cops swarmed the sidewalk and pushed everybody out of the way. “Back up!” they ordered. “Give them some room.” As if the kidnapper and victim were putting on a show.

She went home and watched it on television. Everybody did. Tony Kiritsis hijacked a police car and took Richard Hall to his apartment on the far west side, out near the airport. He held Hall captive for three days. Sixty-three hours to be exact. The television and radio kept close track of the time, as if each additional hour marked some kind of achievement, a new record for modern life. Kiritsis did radio interviews via telephone. Turned out that Hall was a mortgage broker and Kiritsis thought he was being ripped off. He had also fallen behind on his mortgage payments. “People in other countries take hostages for political reasons,” said Carly Dee’s father. “Americans do it for real estate.”

Carly Dee sat in front of the television, watching the reporters camped outside Kiritsis’s apartment building, pointing their cameras and microphones at neighbors who shook their heads and said they didn’t understand it, that Kiritsis was “always so helpful and kind, a hard worker, and a strict law-and-order sort of man.” Everybody looked happy to be on TV. She watched the round the clock coverage and fell asleep wanting more. What did the two men talk about? What did they eat?

Two days later, Kiritsis called a press conference on the steps of his apartment building. The press was already there. With red scars around his neck and the business end of the sawed-off pressed against his skull, Hall read a statement apologizing for the behavior of Meridian Mortgage Company. He mumbled and nearly wept. Kiritsis snatched his script away and began reading a list of demands that veered into the troubled and profane. His voice got scratchy and loud and his body began to shake. Fearing that Kiritsis might murder Hall on live TV, the networks cut the feed. And in her living room, Carly Dee was horrified at the momentary flicker of disappointment that she would not be able to watch it.

Kiritsis released Hall and fired a shot into the air. He pled insanity and was institutionalized until 1988 because he refused to submit to a psychological evaluation. He died in 2005 at the age of seventy-two. Hall never spoke about that day.

Anthony G. Kiritsis. Look him up some time. “Tony Kiritsis was an American kidnapper,” say the encyclopedias and obituaries. This is his legacy. But Carly Dee knows there’s more to the story. The only reason he did what he did was because he knew she would watch.

In 1927, Isadora Duncan said “Let them come forth with great strides, leaps and bounds, with lifted forehead and far-spread arms, to dance.” They say she invented modern dance. She did not survive America.

Instead of wearing ballet slippers, Duncan danced barefoot and wrapped herself in scarves. She believed all movement originated from the solar plexus, and her explosive gestures scandalized crowds, as did her politics, which were inspired by Plato’s The Republic and the theory of evolution. These were the Red Scare days when being a Darwinist was a controversial thing, let alone being an atheist bisexual feminist Marxist. She was banned in Boston after removing her red sash while dancing. “This is red and so am I!” she shouted to the audience, baring her breasts. Life became difficult for Duncan after that. In Washington DC, a group of evangelists demanded that she be deported. Newspapers ran headlines calling her a Bolshevik. Several cities cancelled her shows.

In 1922, Duncan performed in Indianapolis. “Isadora ain’t foolin’ me any,” mayor Lew Shank told the press before she arrived. “She talks about art. Huh! I’ve seen a lot of these twisters and I know as much about art as any man in America, but I never went to see these nude dancers for art’s sake. No, sir, I’ll bet that ninety percent of men who go to see these so-called classical dancers just say they think it’s artistic to fool their wives. No, sir, these nude dancers don’t get by me. If she goes pulling off her clothes and throwin’ them in the air, as she is said to have done in Boston, there’s going to be somebody getting a ride in the wagon.”

Shank ordered several policemen to stand near the stage and monitor her performance. They had instructions to arrest her if she did anything remotely obscene. She did not. Her performance later that evening, however, is a different story. A drunken party at her hotel echoed through the night, culminating in a frightening crash early in the morning when she threw a piano over her balcony. Some say the piano was dropped on a dare. Others say Duncan threw a tantrum and threatened to give up music. Others say no piano was thrown at all, that the police made this up as an excuse to run her out of town. Either way, she was told to never return to Indianapolis.

Perhaps this is a good time to mention that Mayor Shank was a former clog dancer and vaudeville performer who rose to fame when he dressed up as a little girl in a golden wig, climbing a ladder to heaven. Indianapolis elected him twice.

The FBI followed Duncan. Crowds booed her, yet they flocked to her shows. The American government revoked her citizenship and she fled to Europe where she made drunken scenes in Left Bank cafés, attracting the wrong sort of attention and on one occasion affording Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald the opportunity to steal a nice pair of salt and pepper shakers. Duncan’s life was tragic: Her two children drowned in a car that plunged into the Seine river. She married a young poet who committed suicide. Another child lived only a few hours and was never named. On September 14, 1927, Duncan was driving through the south of France when her red scarf got tangled in the rear hubcap of her convertible. She died instantly. Upon hearing the news of Duncan’s death, Gertrude Stein said “Affectations can be dangerous.”

This piece appears in The Manufactured History of Indianapolis, a collection of semi-fictions published by We Are City in 2013.

The Veridian Fingertip Oximeter is a small plastic widget that monitors your blood oxygen level. You can buy one for forty dollars at Radio Shack. Anything between 95 and 100 is healthy. A reading below 90 indicates hypoxemia, an abnormally low level of oxygen that can damage organs over time. A number below 80 indicates possible suffocation of the heart and brain. I became familiar with these dark numbers two years ago when my father’s lungs began to fail and we sat at the kitchen table together, monitoring his blood in the days when he began wearing an oxygen tank. In a few days we will travel to a hospital in Wisconsin, where the Department of Veterans Affairs has approved him for the first stages of a lung transplant.

I recently spent five nights twisting on a damp mattress with a fever of a hundred-five, watching the ceiling fan spin like a chopper, imagining myself waiting for reinforcements on some godforsaken jungle isle while my memories merged with scenes of Martin Sheen in Saigon. Each day my breath grew shallower and my dreams turned rubbery and strange. Complicated dreams about whether a mental breakdown occurs gradually or slowly. This debate took place in the ruins of an old university where I was forced to played chess with pieces of tandoori meat. A loudspeaker warned me that this is “a game from which one cannot withdraw without suicide,” borrowing Alan Watts’s description of life. Yet the prospect of interacting with the American healthcare system frightened me more than any fever dream. Seeking help would result in paperwork, claim denials, and, worst of all, witnessing the most horrible kind of greed by dealing with those who profit from another’s pain. I drank more juice and waited. My fever did not break, breathing became painful, and I did not sleep for three days. When I finally surrendered, the doctor at the clinic took one look at me and responded triage-style. A dozen hands shot me with needles and stuck a plastic tube down my throat before hustling me into an ambulance. The medics strapped me to an oxygen tank, the same make and model that my father uses. Call it a Twilight Zone twist, a hard lesson in empathy for my father’s failing lungs. While the ambulance scanner squawked, I stared out the smudgy back window at the grey January interstate, wondering how I managed to catch such a severe case of pneumonia.

Pneumonia. It sounds old-fashioned, like consumption, rickets, or dropsy. Pneumonia is the disease of forgotten aunts living in damp attics, of street grate drunks and tragic poets, of grizzled men trying to prove something at sea. I am not interesting enough for this illness.

The emergency room doctors wired my arms and face with tubes, then they stored me in a small room while they discussed what to do with me. Pneumonia means unwillingly watching hours of CNN while waiting for the next needle or test result. I stared vacantly at rotating graphics of bombings, celebrities, and slaughters. The world was in crisis, filled with relentless emergencies. Illness finds each of us sooner or later, and for me it happened on a dreary Wednesday afternoon when my oxygen levels dropped into the seventies and the doctors said my pneumonia was double-barreled, crystallized, and fluid. “Close call. If you waited another day before coming here, you’d be in serious trouble. That’s why your body wouldn’t let you sleep. Probably wouldn’t have woken up.” Several doctors seemed to enjoy pointing this out to me.

When the body rebels, the mind realizes it’s been preoccupied with the wrong things. To think I was worrying about money when I should have been celebrating the ability to take a deep breath.

In 1926 Virginia Woolf wrote an essay called On Being Ill. “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light,” she wrote, “it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia, lyrics to toothache.” Woolf blamed the limitations of language: “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way. The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.”

Perhaps illness exists beyond language or thought because it is such a frightening and visceral ordeal. Much like death, depression, and enlightenment, illness is only experienced alone. My father wanted to visit me in the hospital but I begged him to stay away. When he arrived with our chess board, I shooed him out of the room. The prospect of giving him pneumonia a week before the preliminaries for his lung transplant was more than I could stand.

A Greek word for the inflammation of the lung, Hippocrates described pneumonia as “the illness named by the ancients.” Pneumonia has been called “the captain of death” as well as “the old man’s friend” because it can deliver a swift and relatively peaceful death in place of a long and painful illness. For me, pneumonia was a preview reel, projecting grim scenes of an old age spent fighting for breath while I sat with my eyes closed on the cold linoleum floor, unable to stop coughing after an exhausting pilgrimage to the bathroom fifteen feet down the hall. The nurses urged me to use the pee container but I refused, suspicious that giving up this last shred of dignity might worsen my condition. I also rejected the hospital’s rubbery socks that prevent blood clots, nor would I trade my t-shirt and pajama pants for a floral gown. Perhaps it was the fever talking, but I became convinced that peeing while lying in bed and wearing hospital attire might lead to death.

I entered this year filled with resolve, determined to maintain a tight grip on my daily routine, to finally put my novel in the mail and see if I could make some money at writing. Instead, I ran headfirst into the mocking world of cliché: If you want to hear god laugh, tell him your plans. At least you have your health. I ruminated over unwritten pages, untaught classes, and the mounting crush of email and paperwork. I worried about the impending hospital bill and the inevitable fight with Blue Cross Blue Shield. Then I thought a terrible thing: Why me? The universe answered by slapping me hard across the back of my brains: Why not you? That I am writing this down today means only that I am incredibly lucky, for there’s that other cliché about every breath ending one of two ways. Life is little more than the spin of some lunatic roulette wheel, the landing of the ball determined by subatomic clicks and unseen angles.

But what am I supposed to do in the hospital? With their feeble colors, ghastly lights, and dispassionate linoleum, hospitals are not designed to remind people that life is worth living. I read fiction and autobiographies and watched crime dramas but soon all plots begin to look the same, e.g. a person wants to go home and go to bed but things stand in his way. I slept for a few minutes at a stretch, suffering more dreams before my fever broke: 1) a murderer who strikes by creating traffic jams in front of ambulances; 2) being told that I contracted a rare disease and now no matter where I walk it will take one hour and seventy minutes.

Waking from a nap, a stern woman in a black pantsuit sat in a chair near my bed. “Are you awake, Mr. Reeves? I am the hospital chaplain.” She asked about the condition of my spirit. I asked if these were my last rites. She smiled. “I’m simply checking to see if I can assist with your spiritual needs.” I told her my spirit was happy, joyous, and free. She wanted details about my religion. “I read.” I ignored the rest of her questions until went away, then I wondered why I wanted her to leave so quickly, why her presence offended me. Why the idea of god scares me. I stared into the fluorescent lights and counted the tiles in the drop ceiling until sleep returned.

The hospital kept me for six days and sixty nights. On the third day I made peace with death. I’ve watched death claim people I love and I know it’s a bland and ugly thing, but I’d nonetheless imagined my own death as a detached and magical event like an award-winning movie scene — but no, death easily could have found me alone in an antiseptic room on the third floor of an aging hospital while Wolf Blitzer droned about terror from somewhere down the hall. Illness is clarifying. Woolf again: “We cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up — to look, for example, at the sky.” If my lungs fully recover, I expect I’ll lose some of this clarity, so I write this sentence again and again as a reminder: Nothing feels quite so humbling or graceful as walking out of a hospital. I am thrilled to be back in the world. It’s a grand place, even if it takes a little longer to walk through it these days.

The Veridian Fingertip Oximeter has become a small obsession. I check it while I walk around the house or climb the steps to my classroom. I’m hovering just below 90 this week and the doctors say it will take a few weeks or months before I’m back to normal.

Here is my father in the morning, after installing his hearing aids, contacts, teeth, and oxygen tank: “Now I can hear people. I can see people. I can bite people. I can breathe. I am bionically restored. Let’s go.” As we prepared for our trip to Wisconsin and into unfamiliar terrain, I realized that my father speaks the appropriate language for illness: black humor, that beautiful combination of acceptance and defiance.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Love Destroys Time is a public art installation in an abandoned apartment complex that was part of Exhibit Be, the largest collection of street art in the American South. Candy Chang and I developed a cinematic fable about lost love through a combination of collage and a six-part short story that wraps along the facade and interior walls of apartment 104.

Part One

You’ve seen her before. She’s the old woman with her eyes closed on the bus, the one who sits alone on a bench for hours. At night she listens to the freeway traffic and exhausted air conditioners that sound like the sea. She tunes in to the city’s static like an old radio show, scanning through its celebrations and catastrophes, its romances and jive. She hears people tell each other to go to hell. A man says they found Atlantis. (It’s somewhere under Spain.) She listens to a woman pray for her family and another pray for money. Sometimes voices whisper in the dark, admitting they are frightened, that they do not know how to live in this world. She’s heard it all before but she keeps listening because she does not hear him, the man she left behind so many years ago. If he is in town she will hear him. He always made a great big noise. Every night she returns to this abandoned apartment and waits. If you step inside this room, you will understand.

New Orleans

Part Two

Every afternoon she makes the two-hour trek to this room where she fell in love, and that’s where you’ve probably seen her, the old woman with silver hair waiting for Bus 162 or shuffling along General DeGaulle before she veers across an overgrown lawn and picks her way along the fence, feeling for the passage that will bring her home. Most people avoid her but sometimes a passerby will notice the peculiar card in her hand with its backside depicting the bottom of the earth and they’ll ask her to tell their fortune, but she stares through them until they move along. They do not understand that she is blind.

She used to be a rock ’n roller, back when music still had the potential to frighten people, to conjure images of wild youth, teenagers necking at the drive-in and drinking liquor out of fruit jars. A lot of people wanted to talk to her in those days because she had a glorious voice that sang about gravity and Jupiter in an age when most people wanted to rock around the clock and twist the night away. She was poised to be a new kind of star. Then she went and fell in love.

New Orleans

Part Three

One afternoon she noticed her neighbor poring over a book of beautiful maps called The Cosmographical Atlas of the Orbis Terrarum. She asked if she could join him and the big man beamed. “I’d like to go here one day,” he said, pointing at Elephant Island. “It’s down where the world’s weather begins and it’s so dangerous and beautiful that sailors renamed it ‘Hell-of-an-Island.’” She said she’d like to write a song about that island. He was a grand man, the size of three or four people and when he laughed, the world laughed with him, a white-bearded Buddha in blue jeans laughing at the universe. You’ve probably never heard such a fine laugh because despite his jolly disposition, he never cared much for people, preferring his dreams of the sea. Yet when this woman with wild hair joined him to leaf through navigation charts of the Antarctic ocean, he lit up and laughed all the time.

They spent long nights on a rug in this room, surrounded by books. They learned about the fall of Rome, the lunar sea of tranquility, traffic psychology, the importance of ladybugs, and dyschronometria, a disorder that leaves a person unable to comprehend the passage of time. While he studied the seas and the cosmos, she turned her attention to other stars, fascinated by neon and noir, by sirens and bombshells. She loved him for many reasons but best of all because he made her feel understood.

New Orleans

Part Four

But there was always that other thing, the way she believed she ought to be famous because everyone in her life told her so, from her friends to the people on television to the voices in her head at night. Be ambitious. Make something of yourself. Get ahead. Be a star. She waited for him to get ambitious too, but he only looked up from his navigational charts and smiled. She remembered him as soft and slow, like he was digging in for something, conserving his energy and getting prepared.

One morning a suitcase sat by the door. She told him that she wanted to be a star. He smiled and said the real stars were better, that they could watch them shine on Elephant island. She told him that she wanted to be remembered. He kissed her. and said, “I’ll remember you.” She said she had to go. He fell to his knees and dropped his head in her hands. “If you leave, I’ll go to sea.”

New Orleans

Part Five

She left to try her luck and she was very lucky and he was so damned proud but he could not move, his eyes forever tracing the space near the door where he saw her for the last time. He tried to let her go but this room would not let him and so he went to sea. One morning he caught a glimpse of himself in the Antarctic ocean and he realized he had become an old man. His tears clouded the silhouette of Elephant Island on the horizon. They were big tears because he was a big man, and they smeared his maps, melting the latitude lines and depth markers that had brought him to the bottom of the earth. He could not step on that island without her. He pointed his boat towards the Gulf of Mexico and when he arrived, he discovered their home had been sacrificed for progress. He pulled a pen from the pocket of his coat and dashed off a quick note on the backside of the tear-soaked map of Elephant Island before taping it to the wall. Now he floats along the bayou, setting traps for crabs and gazing into the stars, sometimes wondering if he should come back to this room, just in case.

Part Six

She appeared on the April 1974 cover of Rolling Stone after years of dutiful service as a Supreme and a Shirelle, a Blossom, a Gypsie, and a Marvelette. She enjoyed stadium tours, tabloid romances, and a hit single called ‘Hell of an Island’, although none of it felt real because he was not with her. She needed him as a witness. She continued climbing out of limousines and giving her signature wave to the crowd, and they loved her until they didn’t anymore. She took a Greyhound back to New Orleans and when she stepped out of the station, she knew he was not there. The city felt sharper, the air thinner somehow.

She reached this room as the sky downshifted from gold to purple and her heart dropped when she saw her home’s crumbling walls and busted windows, the empty doorway that gaped like a wound. She stepped inside but he was not here. Taped to the wall she saw a little map of Elephant Island. On the back it said, I was hoping you would be here. She sat until midnight but he did not appear. She returned every evening for years, even after her vision began to fail. Call it penance, call it hope, but next time you see her, ask how she’s doing and listen carefully to what she has to say.

Artwork by Candy Chang, story by James A. Reeves. Part of Exhibit Be, the largest street art exhibit in the American South. The DeGaulle Manor housing complex was built in 1967 with 350 units under the Housing Authority of New Orleans before being sold in 2000. These apartments have passed through many hands and names before being shuttered in 2006. Hopefully they will become homes again. In the meantime, visit Exhibit Be and check out this magnificent space with eye-popping artwork from a dozen New Orleans artists.

Two Guns, Arizona

The shattered wall of a bathroom stall says Stop Making Excuses in baby blue paint. Beer bottles are scattered everywhere, their labels bleached by the desert sun. Skateboard fragments and condom wrappers, little amber vials and empty dime baggies. There’s a drawing of Bruce Lee’s head attached to the body of a zebra. The names and dates of young lovers are everywhere. Jay + Jessica, 2009. Alex + Jodi, 2010. Are they still together? A woman’s crudely drawn legs fills the bottom of the empty swimming pool, weeds spilling out of the grates. A hot pink scrawl says Fucking is Freedom. Around the corner in purple bubble letters: Love Wins.

Welcome to Two Guns, Arizona. You’ll find it near mile marker 230 on present-day Interstate 40, the highway that wiped out a big chunk of Route 66 in the early 1960s, strangling countless towns along America’s Main Street that were not blessed with an exit ramp. The government briefly explored the possibility of using an atomic bomb to expedite the building of the interstate, which would have killed even more small towns.

Two Guns was always a dark stop along the road, ever since Earl and Lousie Cundiff purchased these thirty-two acres for $1000 in 1922. They named the area “Canyon Lodge” and built a house, restaurant, and gas station along the ridge. Business was good and it got even better four years later when the National Trail Highway was rechristened as Route 66. Traffic hummed through the Cundiffs’ gas station and they leased the land to Henry ‘Two Gun’ Miller, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who called himself ‘Chief Crazy Thunder’ for reasons he kept to himself. A man who loved a good fistfight, Miller promptly changed the outpost’s name to “Two Guns” and built a zoo for his mountain lions, installed a swimming pool, and opened a curio shop that sold fragments of what he claimed were Apache skulls. A few months later, Henry Miller and Earl Cundiff argued about the terms of the lease. Henry shot Earl dead.

In addition to mountain lions, Henry’s zoo housed cougars, snakes, Gila monsters, porcupines, panthers, bobcats, and several rare birds. Two Guns passed from owner to owner over the years, nobody holding onto it for long. Some said the property was cursed. One owner was committed to an insane asylum. Another fled into the night, running from the law.

Two Guns, Arizona

Chaos is your new lady, says the graffiti inside the old restaurant. Written across the door: Big Fat Fake Boobs Are Human Visual Marketing. Also: Fuck Your Car. Nearly every inch of Two Guns is covered in spray-paint, much of it giving off an exhausted Dada vibe for the digital age. In the old garage: Fashion Pixels are Made with Botox. Bongs made from soda bottles and wrinkled porn magazines fill the corners. These vandalized towns are the bloodshot eyes of America. Near the old lion cage, a tidy and compact cursive script says You did this to us. This is America muttering to itself late at night in the kitchen before stumbling off to bed.

Places like Two Guns feel like prophecy, a glimpse of how the world might look if civilization ever came undone. You look around and wonder what happened here, how it got to be like this.

Two Guns, Arizona

In 1878, forty Apaches were captured by the Navajo and burned alive. The “death cave” was eventually rebranded as a family-friendly “mystery cave” where trinkets and soft drinks were sold to tourists. Then Henry murdered Earl, setting the stage for a century of fistfights, land grabs, breakdowns, and lawsuits. A treasure hunter disappeared and his bones were dug up by a coyote, a bullet hole in his skull. Fires and explosions burned buildings down to the dirt. For a few years, a caretaker lived on the property to shoo away trespassers, but he vanished in 2008, leaving behind only his crumpled trailer. Then a Christian motorcycle club used the old service station as a clubhouse. A wooden cross still hangs above the door and motorcycle magazines and tools are stacked neatly on the shelves. Near the swimming pool and crumbling restaurant, teenagers continue to get drunk on cheap wine, dreaming of love and anarchy among the ruins. Watch out for me is written on the floor. Near the swimming pool, somebody spray-painted the Golden Rule.

Two Guns, Arizona

Two Guns is a story of American violence and muscle, a meditation on this country’s peculiar mixture of optimism and neglect. Clichés are illustrated in concrete, wood, and paint: Nothing lasts forever. Memory is short. Life is unfair. And there’s a brand new casino just down the road with air conditioning and an all-you-can-eat buffet. 

Two Guns might be one of the most honest and spiritualized places in the nation, a profane patch of shelter where you can watch the clouds cast shadows across the yellow land. And it’s absolutely quiet here, save for the rumble of a distant truck.

See also: Operation Plowshare; Two Guns by Gladwell Richardson; Arizona Legends; Twin Arrows Casino & Resort. For more snapshots of decaying Americana, buy my first book, The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir (W.W. Norton, 2011).

And here’s a reverb-heavy mix dedicated to America’s ghost towns:

A dusty ballad plays in a grand old ballroom filled with tailored men and elaborate hairdos. The singer’s baritone drifts from the dashboard of a Cadillac Fleetwood idling in the starlit desert. The rolling drums bleed through the static of an all-night pancake house. These echoes of an old single from 1961 wash over one another until we’re left with nothing but the ghostly outline of a nostalgic age in which we have not lived.

Reverberated Crying

From American Decay | 2015 | Download

Original song performed by Roy Orbison in 1962. This track appears on American Decay, a collection of loops and reverberations recorded between 2009 and 2014.

Fifty minutes of crackle and drift inspired by a recurring dream of sliver drones floating through empty streets searching for perps. A dusty Roy Orbison ballad plays from an old radio in an alley but the machines can’t find it. The title of this mixtape comes from something I saw spray-painted among the American ruins of Two Guns, a ghost town along old Route 66. These songs are dedicated to places like that.

  1. Roy Orbison – Crying (Big American Mix)
  2. J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers – Last Kiss
  3. Cowboy Junkies – Sweet Jane
  4. Jurgen Paape – Pray
  5. Suicide – Cheree
  6. Oliver Blank – We Were Walking in the Rain
  7. The Ronettes – When I Saw You
  8. Brian Eno – Here Come the Warm Jets
  9. Sonic Youth – Superstar
  10. Ricky Nelson – Lonesome Town
  11. Autechre – Bronchusevenmx24
  12. The Righteous Brothers – I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons)
  13. Aphex Twin – Rhubarb
  14. Tim Hecker – The Piano Drop
  15. Elvis Presley – Tomorrow Night

Chaos Is Your New Lady

Vintage ambient | 48 Minutes | Download

Whenever I get into the car around sunset, I want to keep pushing west into the Mojave desert. All that blank spiritualized space dotted with motels that advertise color television and diners with fritzy neon signs that you can hear.

  1. AM Radio Scan #12
  2. The Counts – Enchanted Sea
  3. Dale Hawkins – Everglades
  4. Wanda Jackson – Funnel of Love
  5. The Saxons – Camel Walk
  6. AM Radio Scan #18
  7. The Centurions – Bullwinkle Part II
  8. The Doors – Riders on the Storm
  9. Balmorhea – Night Squall
  10. P.G. Six – Letter
  11. America – Ventura Highway
  12. Van Morrison – It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
  13. Eleventh Hours
  14. Tom Waits – Jockey Full of Bourbon
  15. Lee Hazlewood – The Night Before
  16. Mojave 3 – My Life in Art
  17. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – East Hastings
  18. Radio Scan #13

Somewhere in Nevada

Tied together by their laces, the shoes are flung at wires or branches until they catch and hang. Very few people have seen these shoes actually thrown and of the twenty-eight witnesses who have been surveyed, their reports vary as to the average number of attempts before the shoes find their mark, ranging from three to fifteen. This practice is more frequent in urban areas, although this may simply be a function of population density rather than any fundamental difference between the psyche of the city and the country. The style of shoes and their arrangement, however, are worth noting. Lone sneakers are common in the city, but when shoes appear in rural areas the formations are much more elaborate. In the Mojave desert, work boots are clustered in dead Joshua trees. In Oklahoma, black army boots hang from irrigation pipes over neglected crops.

Some say that a pair of tennis shoes draped over a telephone line indicates a place to buy drugs. Often referred to as ‘crack tennies’, they serve as a storefront shingle for the local crackhouse. They may also mark a shooting gallery where heroin is used, a reminder that once you get hooked you can never walk away. These theories, however, do not explain the shoes that hang on remote county roads or beneath the highway overpasses where even drug dealers won’t go.

Many of these shoes once belonged to children. Seeing a toddler’s shoes dangling over a bottle-strewn alley or swinging from a lonely tree bothers the soul, calling to mind Hemingway’s famous six word short story: For sale: Baby shoes, never worn. Some say these abandoned shoes memorialize a site where a child was murdered or possibly a gangland killing. Others believe they mark the sighting of a ghost. More levelheaded folks chalk them to up to run-of-the-mill bullying in which a kid steals another kid’s shoes and tosses them beyond his reach.

If any of these theories are true, there are an awful lot of victims, ghosts, and bullies in the USA.

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