Nonfiction: Rim of the World

Lake Arrowhead photo by John Colby via Flickr.

This piece was written and performed for Serendipity Theater Collective's 2nd Story Reading Series, October 12, 2009

July 2003. I was rifling through my pockets, underneath the couch cushions, in dusty nooks and crannies and through my backpack looking for any spare, forgotten cash or change I could find. Hoping I'd find that hypothetical $20 bill that had been run through the laundry in the back-pocket of a pair of rarely-worn jeans and forgotten; that $20 bill which is never there no matter how much you try to will it into existence. My girlfriend Carrie had gone to visit family in Los Angeles for three days, and I was stir-crazy and alone in Crestline, a small mountain town in the Inland Empire of Southern California, with approximately $16 to my name.

I had moved to Crestline two months earlier to live with Carrie, who I had met when she was a college student in Santa Cruz, my hometown. Crestline was her hometown and she returned there after graduating to clear her head in a rural setting and focus on her art. For the following six months, we continued in a quasi-open long-distance relationship before I decided to follow her.

For an outsider to Crestline like me, there was nothing in town. I applied for any and all jobs I might be qualified for: everything from gas station employee to web designer, weed-puller to personal assistant. For a month I submitted resumes, to no response, until I received a call from Rim Lanes, the local bowling alley / cultural hub of the town. The manager gave me a chance. At first I was confined to desk duty, which involved spraying disinfectant into shoes for eight hours, but displaying certain core competencies, I was given a promotion: two shifts working in the bar.

Working in the bar in the bowling alley of a small mountain town is not quite the same as bartending. Duties include telling your coworkers that you can't give them free drinks and serving Harvey Wallbangers to septuagenarian bowlers who shuffle in an hour before league starts. Generally, bartending is a lucrative and glamorous gig (see Tom Cruise in Cocktail) but there was little lucrative or glamorous in serving old men vodka, liqueur and orange juice for 15 cent tips.

Opportunities to confirm my outsider status came daily, such as my refusal to laugh along with Eddie the ex-con cashier's work song, "grab that gun and watch the nigger run". Crestline was populated by two groups of people: the natives, who attended elementary through high school together, and hold on to prom night grudges for decades to come, and rich folks from L.A. who had moved to the country to raise their children in a safer, more rural environment. Sometimes the children of group two joined the first group.

Since I was a member of neither, friendship was rare. There was Linda, the bar manager, the sort of older lady who can get away with calling anyone "hon". There was Adam, the maintenance guy who spent the evenings in the back room fixing pin jams, sparking bowls and waiting for midnight, at which time he would hit the house lights, turn off the extended Britney Spears remixes and blast “Stairway to Heaven” over the house speakers while the geriatric drunks downed their evening's final Harvey Wallbangers. A mulleted lion of a man with a healthy suspicion of everyone and everything, Adam was usually an asshole, but could be a good time in short bursts: funny and really good at reading people. Most importantly, he seemed to like me.

But even to these coworkers, I must have been a cipher: quiet, reserved, and covetously private. What was there to talk about? That their rural community constantly offended my precious liberal sensibilities? That the woman I'd moved here to live with—who I had once hoped I would spend the rest of my life with—that she and I communicated only in short, awkward, clipped bursts of speech? That I suspected she'd been sleeping with an ex when she went off the mountain, and that I shared a bed with an ex the last time I went home to visit? Instead, I smiled uncomfortably, made vague small talk, and attempted to formulate a credible answer to the question that was always asked: "why did you move here?"

It was a question I had a hard time answering. I had moved to be with Carrie, with whom I was in love with, and to escape my hometown, where I'd drifted from one dead-end job to the next. Considering the quick deterioration of our relationship and my descent further down the economic ladder, I felt foolish offering either reason. Even if I were to answer truthfully, the followup question would be the one I dreaded: why do you stay?

Back to our house: 5pm on a Wednesday night, $16 to my name, and absolutely nothing to do and no one to call. I had a few days off from work, and instead of making music or working on a novel or any of the things I had supposedly moved to Crestline to do, I was going stir-crazy. And what do you do when you're isolated and lonely in Crestline? You do what everyone else in there does: you go drinking at Rim Lanes. I grabbed my wallet and my Walkman and set out for the bowling alley bar.

It took an hour to make it there, by which time I was hot and sweaty, parched and ready for discounted ice-cold cans of Budweiser. Linda was working; "can't get enough of this place" she said. "That's right," I smiled with genial defeat, "I'll have a Budweiser." It was a slow night, so she and I shot the shit. I told her about my home town, a small hippie college outpost near Silicon Valley. She told me about her never-ending home repairs and how she didn't know what to do with her son Eddie the ex-con white-power cashier.

9 o'clock rolled around, and I was out of cash, suitably drunk, and feeling inspired to return home and get to work on the twelve pack of Budweiser sitting in my fridge. I said my goodbyes, put on the headphones, and walked out the door, through the parking lot, only to hear someone calling my name. "Hey Paul!" It was Adam, the bowling alley repair guy, smoking a cigarette by the back door. "What're you doing?" he asked. "Oh, you know, Carrie's out of town, I've just been down here drinking." "You wanna smoke?" he asked. "Uh, I don't know, um...sure."

Now here's the thing about me: I can pack away an ungodly amount of liquor, and am no stranger to other intoxicants. The one thing that I absolutely cannot handle is pot. Paranoid is a polite euphemism to describe pot's effects on me: mild schizophrenia would be more appropriate description.

Still, in a strange place, half-drunk and with nothing to do, smoking some weed with Adam in the bowling alley basement seemed more sociable than returning to an empty house and drinking alone. Carrie was always telling me that if I just made an effort to socialize more, I wouldn't feel so isolated, so here I was, Carrie, making an effort to socialize, against my better instincts.

Adam guided me through the back of the bowling alley, past the potentially arm-thrashing pinsetting machines that looked as if they'd been teleported from some Dickensian tale about limbless factory workers. We made our way to his supplies room, where a rickety card table displayed a pack of Marlboros and a very small bong. He handed it to me as I tried to remember how to use one. I took three deep inhales while talking with Adam about his girlfriend and her goddamned kid.

After somewhere between 15 and 45 minutes (time was becoming increasingly relative,) it occurred to me that I had to walk back to our house, in pitch black with a rapidly-deteriorating sense of how to get home. Did we live on the second street up the hill? The third? The fourth?

"I gotta go," I finally sputtered out. I grabbed my Walkman and left the supplies room, walking out past the grinding pinsetting machines. My journey appeared promising at first: hey, that corner looks familiar! There's only one street to go! Or is that two? I made my way to the third street, looked down it, pitch dark except for occasional porch lights breaking the dimness, each separated by roughly a half-acre of land. There are no street-lights in small mountain towns like this, no gleaming skyscrapers reassuring you with their presence. Even though I was surrounded by SUV's and garden gnomes and country cottages, in this darkness they were all but invisible, and I was gripped by a primitive fear of the dark.

I peered down the void that was our suspected street—This is it, I thought. As I walked ahead, brisk steps settled into a defeated trudge. Our house wasn't there. I walked the length of the street—about a mile and a half—until I reached the highway that circled the rim of the mountain. I turned back, retracing my steps, and took the next street. It was then that the weed started hitting me full force.

I'm never going to find my way home. Before I make it home, I'm gonna across either a bear, a redneck, or a cop. Visions of Killer Bob from Twin Peaks started drifting through my brain and the phrase “the owls are not what they seem” played on a loop. No one to call, and how was I going to call someone anyway? I certainly wasn't going to knock on a stranger's door, reeking of beer and pot—that was a tactic likely to get a bullet lodged in my head. I was freaking out, man, but I had to keep walking, and hope that I stumble across our front porch before a bear or a member of Crestline's finest.

Wrapped up in these thoughts, I found myself at the highway again. It was then that I came up with a new tactic: I would try to find our street from the other direction. I took a left and walked up the highway, listening for cars so I could leap in the ditch should one come. From the distance, I could hear a vehicle approaching, careening around the curves of the road—when it's that quiet, and you're that spooked, you can hear a drunken driver. Around the next corner there was a small turnout to hide in until the vehicle made its way past.

I stood there, and waited. How I would explain myself to a random cop who might drive by and wonder why I was standing in a turnout of a highway at 11 o'clock on a Wednesday night? He wouldn't be impressed by any explanation coming from some drunk, stoned guy in his mid-20s. The vehicle swerved around the corner; it was a jeep, and its driver stared at me as he veered by. Moments later, the skidding of tires as the jeep made a U-turn. It pulled up into the turnout, creating a physical barrier between me and the road.

Out stumbled the most stereotypical bearded hillbilly you could ever imagine—big ole' redneck beard and overalls: a middle-aged hick with wide-open, lifeless eyes, with a bottle of god-knows-what in his hand. "Whatcha doin'?" he boomed, lurching towards me with a methodical shuffle reminiscent of a movie zombie. I had no idea how to respond. He asked again. "Whatcha doin'?" this time with more menace in his voice. I wasn't sure what it signified, if he was looking for a drinking partner, a fight, or sex.

He was coming closer, I was balling my fists up in the pockets of my hoodie. He was a couple hundred pounds heavier than me, and the closest I had ever been to fighting was when my entire 9th grade gym class pantsed me, picked me up and threw me in the pool. Still, to my advantage, he was even more fucked up than me.

Faced with a bear of a man lurching towards me, I returned to lucidity. I stood my ground. I barked, "WHAT?" "WHAT DO YOU WANT?" "GO AWAY." I let loose on him, unleashing years of self-loathing over the life choices had led me to this very moment, drunk, stoned and lost in the dark in a place I was not meant to be. It clearly took him by surprise. He staggered back, reared his head up like a horse, probably trying to regain his balance. I barked "GO AWAY" once more and he gave me one of those looks, those looks that say "if I were only a bit more sober," and stumbled back to his car. He screeched out of the turnout, pulling in reverse, and sped away.

I walked briskly up the highway. I could hear his Jeep driving around the rim of the mountain, the only sound in the night, growing fainter as I walked faster, until I was sprinting toward the first street I'd turned on. From the opposite end, I realized this was our street after all, I'd missed our house the first time. I could still hear the Jeep, but at some point, its sound had stopped fading and was growing louder. I jogged back to our home, bolted up the stairs to our front door, opened the door as the keys in my hand shook, and headed directly for the fridge to grab a beer.

When Carrie returned from L.A. the next day, I told her nothing about my misadventures—any conversation topic was only an invitation to uncomfortably dance around what we both intuitively knew, but I had only just realized: Crestline was a place I could briefly hide out in, but never call a home. A few weeks later we packed up her car and left the mountain, escaping a forest fire that would nearly burn our house to the ground. We drove to Santa Cruz to stay with friends. When the evacuation ended, she returned to Crestline. I did not.