————already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place
I slide into the corner booth at the Ox; I grab a menu and sigh and speak: “Nearly get whiplash entering this place from the light to dark.”
“Yeah. Stupid heat.” A voice from across the booth. A waitress takes drinks. She leaves.
I speak again: “What? No Jamie? Again? What’s going on?”
“What? Is he bartending again?”
“Yeah.” A voice next to me.
I fidget with the menu. “Well. I know what I want—fish n’ chips.”
The question is sarcastic. I sigh again for a moment. Visions of Jesus Green teeming with speckles of white, and lazy lads lingering along, around, in the Cam. Visions of King’s Chapel, the giant horse chestnut, and the buzz–buzz hum of summer tourists and bikes. The bells of Great St. Mary’s floating through the buzzing and the boughs of the Chestnut to the nearby market square, weaving melodiously like some spirit entering a body.
Sometimes it comes in fits and lingers—when the dumpsters smell like humans and humans like dumpsters, after Sunday’s seventh siren and another body in the gutter, after the day’s hundredth domestic dispute, when the sun stings and the oven-wind burns face, when the grackle’s crackle creaks against thin air, when the hookers hover like the dead at bus stops, when one wonders if this town is one long strip mall or one long strip club, when the drugs have snuffed out the last light of life, and the sweet urine-scented smell of pot slowly rises fog-like from the wash, choking us like an airy noose.
Sometimes, when the tan streak of day thins into black, there rests a stillness in the air. I walk. The air still stings, but the wind calms, and its airy blackness cools, slightly. Though the town’s hot, sweaty, sewage-smell lingers, the gutters seem nearly clean. The shattered car-window remains, which having gleamed and glared against the sun, shiny along pavement, now shimmer against a weak street lamp or two. The shards look less menacing against darker concrete, like the few stars fighting for space above.
I turn left so to leave people. I pass a car and listen to a man shove expletives at his girl. It’s routine, and I sigh—What is wrong with us? Is everyone that lives here some castaway from happier times? It’s as if we’ve landed in this town shipwrecked and on edge. Mad Robinson Crusoes. It’s as if we’ve ended up here for some fault, purging our sins, trying to leave, disabled, unable.
Spencer is always dangerous, but its worth taking the chance. A car rests impatiently as I cross. A few children play on cooling concrete—it’s all one long, greying slab, this town—while their mother watches from a front door balcony. I smile sadly and consider their futures, chances, prospects, hopes. I say a prayer of gratitude. A few other families sit out in their front lawns. Patches of fake green offer relief from the town’s heat and color. Across the way, a few palms rise feebly, and the moon and clouds look distant and mysterious behind them.
I used to walk by a school when I lived in Kansas. The large field nearby offered an uncanny feel at night—a deep solitude and silence surrounded by trees and homes. My walk this evening takes me by a school. The yard in is fenced off—it’s all one long gate, this town—to keep out the untouchables. Along the southern border, several white signs are posted facing inward on the fence, about a foot apart. I can only think this a waste of government spending, as the children cannot read. And those who can surely have no need to read the same thing multiple times over. Then, I consider where I am. Suddenly, it makes sense.
I hear a siren. I lose count these days. If one stood on the corner of Maryland and Flamingo and listened for twenty-four hours, he would hear no less than twenty-four sirens—What is wrong with us? Are we all lighting ourselves on fire? Then, I remember the drugs, the homeless, the drunks, the gates, the murders, the thefts, the gangs, the strippers, the hookers, the suicides, the rapes, the broken homes, the dead-beat fathers, the illiterate, CCSD, Las Vegas Boulevard, and the man just now yelling at his girl. Suddenly, it makes sense.
A bat screeches above me in circles, aimless circles. Some kids or a family play on the playground inside the fence—How did they…? I leave it. The road ahead descends and ends in an apartment complex, and lights flicker against homes like tens of Tinker Bells. There’s a “No Trespassing” sign—it’s one long “No Trespassing” sign, this town—and I turn left. I think about visiting another school nearby, which houses goats, but I’m weary of walking and ready for home—home? To the Orange Tabby, anyways.
I leave the school, cross the street, hug the retirement homes, circling back. It’s slightly more pleasant. In a large parking lot a man blares his car radio—it’s one long subwoofer, this town. I pass, and then peace, then—bam! A car screeches, and at my feet a full water bottle tumbles and rolls innocently by. It had collided with the gate to my right, rolling into the gutter, where it likely rests still.
I’ve heard of bike commuters in this town having trash thrown at them. But the litterers are most likely just poor shots. Surely, they aim for the gutter—it’s all one long gutter, this town—as that’s where everything else eventually ends up. They are, in any case, poor shots with their cars. There are stretches of neighborhood walls in this town, on the busier roads, that are tanned in multiple hues of ugly off-brown, different tans due to the cars ramming into them. So the broken walls are plastered up like the broken cars, with various mismatching colors and shades. I imagine most people here are either perpetually high or drunk—it’s own long bar, this town—or angry at walls in general.
These thoughts crash through my head as I pass something that looks like Richard III’s spine sprawled on the lawn—a red, mangled fence, slammed into by a drunk the night before.
Sometimes I look at stars and wonder if anyone else sees them too, in happier places. I wonder then we’re not so far from each other after all. I look at the horned, pale moon peaking over purple clouds and wonder if I haven’t become mad like my neighbors, if I haven’t—
O, Cephas, where art thou?
Why hast thou forsaken me?
Has thou found Rocky this eve?
O, Vegas, why are you still here?
Have you not heard?
The bars and clubs are closed,
The strippers are stripped,
The hookers are hooked,
The gamblers are gamboling,
And it’s time—time to go home.
Sometimes, I look to the West, to Mt. Charleston—whence cometh my help? Sometimes, after my eyes adjust, I sit in our corner booth at the Ox. I look at a picture on the wall. Two mallards meekly float on a lake—the ripples ripple in rinds—somewhere deep in the Minnesota wild. I remember—memory floods me—distant lakes and rivers and plain, stillness, peace.
Photo: “Kensington Church Walk”
Oil on board, 1939