There’s this paint huffer named Caldwell who lives in an empty shack in that crap neighborhood behind the mall. Fucking Jimmy likes to visit him and ask him questions like he’s an oracle. That’s another thing about Jimmy—his tendency to romanticize garbageheads like Caldwell. He’s sure they’re the pure ones, that they know shit the rest of us don’t know. Caldwell knows how to get high on acetone paint and that’s something I don’t know how to do, but that’s as far as his special knowledge goes, if you ask me.
I made Jimmy promise we’d never huff paint and he agreed. You’d have to be completely wacked.
“Never,” I said.
“Right-o,” he said.
Last time we visited him, Caldwell was sitting in the dark in that abandoned house with a pile of his own poo about a foot away from him and the paper label from the spray paint can stuck to his chest. Upside down. Krylon Gold Metallic. And it’s so crazy hanging out with Caldwell that the fact that the label is upside down becomes the thing I shake my head over. Like in sci-fi movies where you call bullshit on a character eating a fresh apple in his space pod, meanwhile the premise involving mind-reading aliens, time warps, and sentient, resentful planets is all cool with you.
Caldwell’s just one of Jimmy’s pet losers. There’s also this Vietnam vet who hangs out on the bench in front of the library. He has this riff about how Revelations is talking about the suburbs, the suburbs, man, how the suburbs are the end of it all, people in boxes, mass conformity, and maybe he’s right, but I don’t think you have to be Mr. Observant to come up with that. Just listen to Something Else by the Kinks. They hit it square on the head a long time ago with no biblical shenanigans and they used IRONY. Neighborhoods! Man, the Kinks know from neighborhoods. “Waterloo Sunset”? “Afternoon Tea”? “Situation Vacant”? They know.
I found a CD of Something Else at a garage sale and I was drawn to the title. Something Else. Like, there’s all the usual stuff over there and then here’s us, over here. The Kinks—we’re something else. Me, I’m like that, too, something else, and the CD was 75 cents, and the lettering was kind of green and black and psychedelic, so what the hell? I bought it. That’s one good thing I forgot to mention about Caldwell the Idiot—he’s got a pretty decent old boom box in that derelict house that he plays by running an extension cord to the car wash next door. Not all the time, but when the manager’s not on duty. I grew up listening to country music and whatever’s on the radio, that sort of high-note, autotuned babybaby stuff, so I never heard anything like the Kinks. It’s what I guess people mean by rock and roll. Like, in the pure sense, like as an actual specific kind of music and not just something you say, like, “That rocks!” when you see a cool clip on YouTube or whatever. And I like it. I like rock and roll. It’s smart, unlike Jimmy and Caldwell, and it’s got attitude, but it’s also got heart.
So I figure if I’m going to be hanging out in this sty, I may as well have some good tunes, so I bring Something Else and I start to play it. The first song, “David Watts,” has me thinking, yeah, David Watts sounds like a tool, one of those captain-of-the-football-team douchebags like Jimmy says he used to be before, but, here’s the thing, David Watts actually sounds less pathetic than the narrator of that song, who just wants to be like him and can’t. And then what’s cool and what makes me use the word IRONY, which is an awesome word, is that you can tell the Kinks know their narrator is a loser, even though they’re singing in his voice. Like, how do they make it so I can I tell? They just do. It’s got layers, man. THAT’s rad, but I know better than to try to bring any of it to the attention to Jimmy or Caldwell.
I’ve found a window ledge that’s open and lets fresh air in that smells like soap and car wax from the car wash next door, which can be kind of a nice smell. The ledge is less gross than the rest of the place, so that’s where I sit. White paint chips that are probably lead paint get all over the butt of my jeans, but it’s nicey-nice compared to what’s on the floor—spray paint empties, fast food empties, an ashtray packed like a mass grave, and poo. Human excrement, yeah. Jimmy and Caldwell are crouched there, going back and forth like they’re princes of industry negotiating big deals instead of a couple of drug addicts in Lawton, Oklahoma, settling on a price for some shitty-looking weed.
“Share it with him,” I tell Jimmy, reaching over and toeing his skinny back with my cowboy boots. “Share it with him and he’ll let you pay whatever.”
Jimmy looks over his shoulder at me and nods and gives me a sweet smile for a second. Dammit, that’s the thing. Just when I think it’s all badness forever. Fucking Jimmy—I love the guy. We met in a treatment center a few months ago.
So of course Caldwell gets high with us even though weed is like water to him compared to huffing paint, which he goes on and on about. High for four hours! Intense psychedelics! Then he clues in to the music. The CD is playing “No Return,” which is a really sad song. Ray Davies sings, If I could see just how lonely my life would be if you passed me by. That line is how I feel about Jimmy, which I tell myself is why I keep going on this crazy journey we’re on. Voyage to the underworld, he says. Drug tourists, he says. We’ll jump out just in time! But I don’t know if it’s going to be that easy. Look at poor Caldwell. I wonder who he used to be? I can’t imagine. The song is saying, “And there is no return.”
“Sure there is,” Jimmy says. He’s such an optimist, is Jimmy.
“Bossa nova,” Caldwell says from somewhere deep in his chest. Caldwell looks like a skeleton in filthy jeans and a T-shirt that says “Great Plains Coliseum STAFF” on it. He’s got wispy blond hair like a giant, scary baby, and blue eyes that water all the time. He’s barefooted this visit because he sold his shoes for some all-weather deck paint that he huffed already as we can see by the redwood color that’s all over his mouth and nose, with spray going up practically to his eyes. “That’s a cool bossa nova,” he says, pointing at the boom box.
“Boss of what?” I say.
“That kind of beat,” he says, bobbing his head. “That’s what you call it.”
His face crinkles around his eyes and the rust-colored spatters from the deck paint crack like the surface of an icy pond.
I’m sort of amazed. “Do you know about music, Caldwell?”
Caldwell nods. He points at his shirt. “I was a roadie for twenty years,” he says.
“A roadie? Did you ever meet any famous people?”
“Nope,” Caldwell says. “I set up the drum sets.”
Then Jimmy says, “Hey, wait a minute, we got you something,” and runs out to my car. He comes back with a can of silver spray paint.
“What are you doing?” I say, standing up from the window ledge. “Where did you get that?”
“Let’s let the pro show us how it’s done,” he says. He’s giving me a smile, but it’s not sweet. Fucking Jimmy.
“Not me,” I say. “No way.”
So I turn around and stick one leg out the window and squeeze my body out so I’m straddling the windowsill with my head and shoulders outside. The Kinks are singing “Situation Vacant.”
Then he had to leave the apartment / And sought a less plush residence. Tell me about it.
I smell the paint and my lungs burn. Over at the car wash, I watch a big-bellied guy wearing a John Deere ball cap pull in with his brand-new, white F-150 and get out to vacuum it. Dashboard cross, hunting rack, head lamps—everything on the car looks like money to me, something you could steal and sell. He’s bought one of those sprays that gives you a new car smell and I lean out far enough to get away from the spray paint smell and I smell it, the illusion of newness. I imagine his driveway and the house he lives in, just like all the other houses on his block. What a loser, I think.
Behind me, Jimmy’s doing it, he’s huffing. Then he’s high, whooping and hollering, and he comes over to me and hugs me around the hips and pulls me through the window. I turn and look at him, and there’s his sweet smile, but it’s covered in silver now, silver all around his mouth and nose and the Kinks are playing “Death of a Clown” and that’s what Jimmy looks like—a clown, or a spaceman, somebody’s child, my love, a dead man, or something—what is it? Something else.