S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In this column “Waiting for Nothing,” Park shares stories about birthdays and his relationship with Chantal.
I have to say the response to The Grass Is Greener, my latest illustrated memoir, has been remarkably positive. I knew things were headed in the right direction when a friend’s wife e-mailed me shortly after publication: “I had to hide your book from my husband,” she wrote. “Every time he read it he laughed so hard I thought he was going to stroke out.”
Sweet! I thought. My work here is done! Then I started getting the “thoughtful” inquiries, most of them from old lawyer buddies, and I’ve admittedly a bunch of those. Most creative types surround themselves with other artists. But me? I’ve never even met another cartoonist … I lawyered up instead; it was evident early on that I’d need some legal eagles in my corner. And these barrister buddies wanted to know things like: What’s the theme of The Grass Is Greener? Is it about Free Will vs. Determinism? Is there a “headed for the light” philosophy here, or just the survival story of a resilient, lucky loser? And by the way, where does a nihilist find contentment and satisfaction, anyway?
Really!? My memoirs are dark comedies because that’s what my life has been; all you need to know about me is I’m the guy who treated alcoholism as an opportunity. Oh thank God! I’m a drunk! Whew! How’s that gonna work out? How bright is that clown’s future? There’s your free will and determinism.
But the writing? It’s all about the humor. You read it. You laugh. It worked. I remember in the late seventies, when I was making my living as The World’s Fastest Typist, I had a short romance with an attorney. We were obviously ill suited (she was rabidly ambitious) but I thought things were going pretty well until, one night over dinner, she asked me what I wanted to do with my life.
Normally I’d mention the novel I’d spent the last ten years trying to write but that evening, for some reason, the truth squirted out.
“I want to make people laugh,” I said.
“What do you mean?” she asked. “On the side? As a hobby or something?”
“No, as a writer. I want readers to be going along, see something I wrote, and burst out laughing.”
“That’s all you’ve got?” she said. “That’s not funny.”
I never saw her again. Which was fine, of course, but she’d be amazed at how many times I’ve superimposed her face on those of readers when I ask, “Did you laugh?”
So High & Dry, my first illustrated memoir, was essentially a gag book. The Grass Is Greener, on the other hand, is memories I was more reluctant to share. They aren’t my finest moments; they are, instead, the consequences of my worst ones. What’s more the sheer implausibility of some of the tales concerned me. I’ve always empathized with readers who think I make this shit up, as I’ve felt that way myself occasionally. Take the chapter in The Grass Is Greener, for instance, on “The Interloper,” that stranger I found in my house sitting at my computer in my clothes reading my book on the screen.
“Weren’t you scared encountering a home invader?” my neighbors asked.
Fuck no … I was grateful: it meant the movie goes on.
I was down in Crescent City, California recently, looking for a place to move once my dog dies. A desperate place, frankly, a place where life is cheap so the rent’ll be cheaper. That sounded like what I knew of Crescent City, so when I got to town I stopped at a Denny’s for lunch. The place was packed: maybe two dozen Section 8 characters and me. We recognized each other immediately … gave the nod. I ordered a hamburger and fries and I’m maybe a third of the way through them when someone yells, “FIRE! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!”
The next thing you know the place has emptied out, like it’s a drill they do every day. Me? I noticed that none of those Section 8 characters paid their bills on the way out or even hung around afterwards to wait for the fire trucks. No, they were hoofing it up the street with their burgers still in their mouths. A couple of ’em even had salad bowls.
So I figured it was all a ruse and stuck around to finish my meal. It did get smoky in there—apparently a wino had thrown a cigarette in a barrel of grease or something—but as long as I covered my nose and mouth with a handkerchief while I chewed it was okay. Not optimum, mind you, but it was a Denny’s. By the time the fire trucks arrived I was finished. I left a twenty on the table, walked outside to smoke, fog, red lights and sirens. Thought, Shit, I could live here.
* * * * *
I turn 71 in April. Which doesn’t mean much, except to indicate I’m a survivor. So it got me thinking about birthdays and how many I could actually remember. There’s nothing before age 21, certainly, and that one only registers because it was the day Martin Luther King was killed (thoroughly dampening the evening’s festivities). 40 earmarked my move from the Bay Area to Boregon, and when I was 60 friends threw me a surprise party in Portland.
Other than that all I have is my 28th birthday, which was still another surprise party. It took place at the Boulevard house in Olympia, Washington, where (as I chronicled in The Grass Is Greener) I lived with a group of misfits in the Spring and Summer of 1974. I was coming off a long casino stint and before that five months bucking hay bales, so I was content to hang around doing alcohol and drugs. I remember the night of the surprise party because: (1) I was surprised and (2) my ex-girlfriend Chantal was there.
We’d broken up a few days before and I heard she was headed to California. That was good; it made it unlikely she’d return. I’d met her hitchhiking through Olympia and we’d been together for six weeks afterwards. My existential French bitch with her fifths of Johnny Walker Red. (No mixer for that girl, she had guts of iron.) We only lasted as long as we did because she rarely spoke. She could sit in silence all day long, puffing her Gauloises and sipping whiskey. There was a certain Gallic magnificence to it, really, except I was on the other side of the room, doing the same thing with Gallo wine and Camels. There was no question we brought out the worst in each other and, when Chantal finally did speak, her words offered scant relief.
I remember my roomies and I sitting around the television one midnight, for instance, when Chantal flung open the study door.
“My God!” she exclaimed, pointing at each of us with her Johnny bottle. “Look at what ugly American drug addicts you are! Useless, useless, useless slugs! It’s a miracle you know how to breathe!”
Then she was gone, slamming the door behind her. I think we were watching a replay of our ex-roommate Rick’s soccer game, and it was halftime before Nearly Normal Jimmy turned to me.
“Say,” he said. “Was Chantal in here earlier?”
I certainly couldn’t complain about the sex. It was nasty, gritty and erotic, with her gasping guttural French in my ear throughout (probably about what a loser I was). We only split because I was young, stupid and alcoholic and didn’t realize what I had. I still imagined a normal woman in my future, one who didn’t slurp whiskey, speak in shrugs and throw my writing out the window. Instead I’d meet those women later and wish they had more of Chantal in them.
For the moment, though, on the night of my 28th birthday, I hadn’t seen her in days and didn’t feature doing so again. (She’d told me ours was the longest and best relationship she’d ever had, which only made me feel worse for her.) Then Moochie O’Leary took me out for birthday dinner and when we returned to the Boulevard house my friends had hung up decorations and bought a keg. They cheered as I walked through the door and it was perfect: Moochie had timed our arrival to coincide with the first rush of Windowpane acid. I went straight to the keg and was having a decent night when Jeff and Lizzie arrived with Chantal. Apparently she was staying with them before heading south.
We exchanged a few pleasantries but small talk was difficult with Chantal in any circumstances, much less those. We separated and a couple hours passed before Moochie pulled me aside.
“Wilson,” he said, weaving slightly, “I’ve something to show you.”
What was my buddy up to now? I followed him through the house to the backyard. We lived in a place that was so old it still had a storm cellar. The door had rotted away over the years and now, it appeared, someone had fallen through it. Only a leg and foot stuck up from the shards.
“So?” said Moochie. “Think the guy’s dead?”
“I don’t know. Those concrete steps are pretty hard.”
“What about the foot? Do you recognize it?”
“You know, Mooch … it could be Chantal’s. That might be her down there.”
I walked over, leaned against the doorframe. “Hey Chantal!” I called. “Is that you?”
“Oui,” she sighed. Her voice echoed up from the darkness, followed by a gulping noise. It seemed she’d fallen through the door without spilling a drop of Johnny. What a pro, I thought. What an alkie queen.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “Anything broken or bleeding?”
“No. Just a concussion, I think.”
“Want me to pull you up?”
“Oh no. This is better than the party.”
I shook my head as Moochie and I walked back up the steps to the porch.
“What the hell,” he said. “She likes it dark anyway, right?”
“Absolutely,” I replied. Then Chantal called out to me.
“Yeah?” I said.
And still I wonder, Is she the one who got away?