Interrupting my journal-in-Germany series today with an excerpt from my new, to-be written memoir “Life Before Fabric Softener.” It starts on the 20-year anniversary of my first extended stay in Europe, in the south of France.
That December was dry and most mornings I walked to work. The walk was downhill and mostly nice until you got to Pioneer Square, a stretch that narrows along an off-ramp frequented by tramps and hoodlums and their waste. I’d bus home, sit in my apartment, think about what’s next. I’d given notice at work and bought a one-way ticket back east. In just five years my mom had remarried an Englishman, bought a house in Pennsylvania, a condo in the south of France, and now they were buying another place one village over. Mom hinted I could come house-sit.
John wasn’t rich necessarily but enjoyed that lifestyle, and who wouldn’t. He was an artist/hippy at heart but a good businessman too, had an eye for collectibles, started a company with his now ex-wife, and enjoyed royalties from his record sales, TV shows, and patents. I didn’t know it at the time, but he’d won a lawsuit from a doctor who partially paralyzed him after an auto accident trying to repair his neck. John used the money to buy acoustic guitars on eBay and property in Europe.
It was two years since I started working for Starbucks. In that time, I’d opened a two-story café on Philadelphia’s South Street, moved to Seattle to run another café, then transferred to corporate as a secretary/coordinator. They hinted I could move into a new position (“roll-out specialist”) but I declined, fearing corporate success would change me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I just wanted to write. But I didn’t have anything to write about so I thought moving to Europe would help.
One of my college writing professors Joe Schall taught me sometimes it’s better to leave things out. Like, if you’re going to write about a crazy night on the golf course where you and your friends discover that trees are actually living things, try leaving the part out about taking acid, it might be more interesting. He looked at me when he made his point.
I thought I was pretty responsible, enough to watch over my mom and John’s house. They were doing this back and forth thing where they’d live for three months in one place, then pack up for the other.
The plan was for me to stay at the Pennsylvania house while they were in France, then live with them for a few weeks when they got back, and go over myself at the beginning of May. There were no real plans after that.
I’d just have to get some temp work in Pennsylvania for spending money—there wouldn’t be much in the way of expenses. I didn’t know how to cook and wasn’t much of a drinker then, just liked cigars. Once mom and John moved back to France I could join them for dinner every night by walking over the hill from my village to theirs.
Before I left Seattle, I met a girl at the bar who had a boyfriend in the Rainbow Family (cult), and somehow it came up he could sell me some acid so I gave him my address and one day they turned up at my door.
My place had been burgled over the summer and the cops said the problem was the shrubs, so we had those cut down and now you could see right through, which I didn’t like. It wasn’t “Capitol Hill” per se, more the Central District, a somewhat sketchy interzone they kept saying would gentrify one day but never did.
The Rainbow guy was tall, had recently shaved his head, changed his name. I never trafficked drugs across state lines but thought it would be safe smuggling them in a book, was shipping most of my things back east via train, or however they transport items at Book Rate. I put the sheet in a Webster’s dictionary we still keep in our garage, probably the biggest dictionary you’ve ever seen, that strives to include like every word ever. I put the acid in the middle of the book on page no. 666, with the J’s.
That Christmas it was just the three of us, plus a dog my mom and John rescued named Emmet who’d been badly abused, was nearly dead on the side of the road when they found him. His face was so deformed we called him Screwface, after the Dick Tracy character. Emmet would get seizures triggered by domestic unrest, and John and my mom were stressed out about having to leave, so Emmet would go down on his side kicking and shrieking and you’d have to give him a shot in the ass right away or he’d die. I wasn’t sure I was cut out for it. I couldn’t even grow a beard. Emmet went missing the first weekend after they left, disappeared in the woods through the snow, didn’t leave any tracks even, almost spirit-like. I climbed down the ravine to the creek thinking I’d find his body but slipped and smashed my glasses on the rocks and had a job interview the next day, had to borrow a pair of glasses from a friend that were almost the same prescription as mine but not really.
The job interview was for a library working nights at the local college where I fantasized about meeting a girl now that I was older and writerly, had lived on the west coast, would soon be leaving for Europe.
But they didn’t go for it and mailed me a rejection letter instead, typed, with the college logo on the masthead wishing me luck. I wrote a poem on the back of it and saved the letter, kept a pile of typed things on the table by my typewriter.
Personal computers and word processors were starting to pop up but I didn’t like the look of them, it wasn’t as substantial as something you could hold, the satisfaction of unrolling a sheet of paper I’d typed stroke by stroke, the look of it piling up beside me—an affirmation of who I was, or who I imagined I’d be.