S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Blue Yonder,” Park reflects on his friendship with Lonesome Louie Houston.
As I’ve aged I’ve made it a point to keep dead friends in mind. Particularly the single ones, because few mourn them otherwise. If you’re a couple you leave a mate behind, or the kids, or even the old framed photo on the mantlepiece. Plus you likely passed in the company of people you knew. As opposed to the landlord discovering you a month later. Or having your last glimpse be that of a caregiver stealing your pills.
I know there’s dead buddies I’d love to chat with now, not about where they’ve been so much (particularly the suicides, because that can’t be good), but things we did together. Because my fifty years of substance abuse has definitely left some blank spots. And since I wrote that Jud LeFay piece a couple weeks ago (“Basic Training”), I’ve been thinking how great it’d be to summon Lonesome Louie Houston back.
He’d still have the noose around his neck, I suppose, but in a sense he always did. When readers suggest I exaggerate my memories they always point to the Louie episodes first. Stuff like him being run over by a Greyhound bus, cinching his wife to the bed with barbed wire and covering her in ice, the shootout in the Chihuahua Bar, that impossible drive across the Mexican desert or—perhaps most far-fetched to many—crossing the Rio Grande River in a car.
I was there for all of it but was barely twenty-one at the time and drinking lethal quantities of alcohol, while Louie, for the most part, was cold stone sober. So I’d love to hear his version of events.
Like why he offered me a free place to live when we met at Delta Airlines. I was sleeping in the back seat of my Plymouth at the time, so wasn’t exactly picky, but I was a bit suspicious. Then I went to the apartment he’d lived in for two years and my fears were allayed immediately: not only had he never turned on the heat or electricity, but the furniture was still wrapped in its plastic sheeting. Obviously the guy was a squatter.
Which didn’t bother a kid who’d lived in a whorehouse, a firehouse, a bathhouse and a car since he left high school. Hell, my needs were so minimal they barely existed.
Though I did require electricity to keep my beers cold. Once Houston had it turned on I started thinking he might be paying rent after all. Then he dragged out the suicide sack (a dirty dozen of death implements) and the mood darkened considerably. I was troubled by his death wish, of course, but I was slowly learning—in the way bored people do—that the company of crazy, complicated characters was as good as it got for me. I needed my space as a young alkie, for instance, and Louie didn’t care what I did to myself as long as I did it quietly. So he’d sit in his room, staring at the walls, and I’d sit in mine, reading, writing, experimenting with drugs or (mostly) drinking. No radio, no television, no stereo … if our work hadn’t required a telephone there wouldn’t have been one of those around, either.
It was a pretty great setup from my perspective. Houston even ignored my fuckups at Delta, as if every nineteen-year-old went through a wino apprenticeship. I, in turn, didn’t ask him things like what he did in his room all day. I’d seen it and knew there was nothing in there but a bathroom, a carpet, a bed and an alarm clock. Sometimes here in Port Townsend, when I’ve spent a couple hours gazing idly out the window, I come around and marvel how long I’ve been away; then I remember Louie could be in that room of his for forty-eight hours straight. (I asked him once what he ate and he said he kept peanut butter in his nightstand.) That kind of asceticism amazed me. I even thought of us as peas in a pod, me working my alcoholism as avidly as he did his depression.
Plus his seclusion added an element of mystery to the day. When eleven p.m. rolled around, and it was time to go to work, would he appear … or had he offed himself in the meanwhile? There were plenty of quiet ways to kill yourself and I had no reason to believe Lonesome would warn me beforehand, much less preclude me in his plans.
It made driving with him pretty nerve wracking, the way he assessed oncoming drivers as crash candidates. (Though it didn’t worry me enough to fix the brakes on my old Plymouth: I ditched it on a side street the day I moved in.) This trepidation was one of the reasons—along with the chance to work during the day—that I left Delta for the Bank of America. I could hop a train to South City and between going out at night and general drunkenness I rarely saw Louie. It seemed to suit both of us.
As I’ve aged I’ve made it a point to keep dead friends in mind. Particularly the single ones, because few mourn them otherwise.
At least until that fateful morning when, black and blue from a cop beating and fresh from the drunk tank, I limped home to find him dressed as Pat Boone and wanting to party. Was this the best he could do for his last day on earth? After all those months, even years, of laying in dark rooms obsessing about it? Hell if I know: I thought about it later but I’ve as much luck guessing my dog’s motives as I ever did Louie’s.
Then he has his pelvis popped by that bus, I figure he’s dead and gone, and fourteen months later he shows up with a wife in tow. It’s hard to describe how profoundly shocking that was. Particularly when he’s not offering free rent this time, but unlimited funds to write. It was as unlikely as a rich girl wanting me. Better even, because again … Louie didn’t care if I drank.
It convinced me there was something to my Existential Alkie approach after all. I happily blew the first two thousand he sent me and was prepared to squander more when he insisted I move to Texas. I hesitated at first but that was just pro forma: I can think of few times in my life when a proposal seemed too strange to pursue. (One of the pluses of living the way I have is that, whenever I ask myself, What have I got to lose? I only have to glance around for an answer.)
It didn’t matter where I woke up then and it hardly does now. In the meanwhile I had little problem spending Louie’s inheritance. On those rare occasions when I felt a tug of conscience I’d tell myself he actually cared about my writing, or that I was doing him a favor because he was a death dog and couldn’t take it with him, anyway.
Or as I used to say to my father, when he’d apologize for losing the family business: “It’s the best thing you ever did for me, Dad, because I’m a trust fund kind of guy.”
Free money? Something for nothing? It’s why pot growing fit me like a glove. You don’t know anything about life until you’ve had a job, after which you’ve learned your lesson and it’s time to move on.
Plus with the resurrected Louie around I was employed: I was a writer. Admittedly I hadn’t produced anything yet, and the novel I was always talking about was just an unformed, alcoholic Western in my head, but I was sure I’d think of something when the time came.
So I fly to San Angelo, end up living in the same studio as he and his wife and every morning, when I wake at dawn, there’s a tub of Pearl Beer on ice next to me. At seventy-one I still don’t know what to think about that. It certainly didn’t help the novel much. I’d have two or three bottles for breakfast, type for a couple hours while I had a few more (calling it “writing” would be a stretch), then wander the streets of San Angelo, pursuing mischief with my twenty-dollar-a-day stipend. That was a lot of bar whiskey in 1968 and so I was, once again, living the alkie dream.
At least until Houston’s family intervened, threatening to commit him to the same mental ward he’d been in before. (“A nut house in Texas, High” he told me. “Just think about that.”) Did his association with me contribute to the threat? Well, it did better than that, actually: it brought his extreme depression to the fore, let everyone stop pretending (or hoping) that there was mania up ahead. That’s how I sold Lonesome on the trip to Mexico, i.e. he was a goner anyway, so why not go out with a bang?
Which meant, of course, that we had the ride of our lives. I’m glad I wrote adventures like that down at the time, because it’s not just how dim those memories are now, but how improbable. If I had Louie here in front of me I’d give his rope a good tug, ask him if he appreciated what a remarkable character he was.
Or maybe that noose would answer the question for me. I know I’d share my favorite memory of him. We drove straight from San Angelo to Ciudad Juarez that Spring of 1968. Hit a dive bar and were immediately hustled by two whores. Mine was Angela, a 30-year-old with no teeth, and Louie’s a shrewish Indian named Maria. After a few drinks she and Houston disappeared. I was content to sit and drink but Angela wanted to earn her pay and—given her toothless credentials—we settled on a back alley blow job. Afterwards I wandered out to the sidewalk and realized that: (a) I had no idea where Louie was, and (b) I was drunk and broke in a hellish Mexican border town. I leaned against a wall, lit a cigarette to ponder the possibilities.
I didn’t have long to wait. There was a sudden, loud commotion up the street and I turned to see Louie, hand in hand with Maria, running towards me. Behind them was a fat, sweaty chef waving a meat cleaver. (It seems Louie had taken one bite of his Burrito Supremo and thrown it in his face.)
It was a scene straight from a Hope/Crosby “Road” movie.
“Hey Louie!” I yelled.
He looked over, spotted me as he and Maria wove in and out of revelers. Reached into his pocket and, without breaking stride, threw me a wad of money and a room key.
“The Matador Hotel!” he yelled. Then they were past me with the Mexican chef only yards behind.
I thought about tripping him, but was too busy scooping up pesos.