Six Places I’ve Lived and the People I Knew There
I. October 2017. 419 North Pinckney Street, Madison, WI. A squat, three-story, rectangular building of brown brick among Victorian houses. Uniform from all angles, silent all day.
Sometimes, I think I’m the only person I know who can get drunk and actually enjoy it. Last night at my apartment, Cameron locked himself in the bathroom for an hour, screaming Dante, and Taylor hallucinated that I was her father in Baltimore and pissed herself. Crimson and I chain-smoked in the kitchen all night, and she must’ve gotten tired of me bumming Spirits from her after I ran out of Cowboy Killers, because around 2:30 a.m. she lit up alone in the bathroom and set off the smoke alarm, at which point I felt relieved to kick everyone out. Maybe this is my punishment for befriending the kind of people who think it’s cool to show up to a Halloween party dressed as a slutty version of Terry Gross, or maybe I’m an indecent person, too, and indecent people are simply drawn inexorably together by some as-yet-undiscovered law of social physics. Certainly, if the state of a person’s residence is indicative of that person’s state of mind, I’m in no position to bemoan the company I keep; the apartment is littered with beer cans and solo cups, and the cat shat on the floor in distress over the sheer chaos of it all. I’m lying in bed, tortured by thirst but too weak to journey to the sink. When I roll over onto my side, I can look out the window and see my therapist’s office, which is conveniently located in a mid-19th-century manse across the street and two doors down from me. As my eyes move over the house’s rich facade, I can easily visualize her office: the floral-patterned chair I whinge from, the diploma on the wall, and the calendar that exclusively features natural scenery from Kentucky, decidedly my least favorite of the lower forty-eight states. I wonder if, when she passes my building on her way to work, she looks at the front door and sees cat shit on my hardwood floors.
II. August 2016. 929 SE Tenino Street, Portland, OR. A row of five blue townhouses sits on a sleepy street, overrun with trees and power lines.
Demarcus Lawrence is a businessman, first and foremost. He works two jobs, one as a property inspector and one driving for Lyft, and runs a lawful weed-growing operation out of his garage. Additionally, he sells a little coke on the side, but only to friends, as he believes the assumption of risk that comes with selling to strangers outweighs the potential profits. He doesn’t drink, smoke, or snort and prefers his roommates to follow the same rules, although he made an exception for me because I offered to pay three month’s rent up front. Before he takes the money, though, he makes me show him my inner arms. After that, he examines my knuckles and asks about one of my scars. I tell him I got in a fight with a neighbor I had in Hawaii. “Filipino?” he asks. “Marshallese, actually.” He nods. “I knew a few back in Vegas. Those dudes don’t play.” We’ve got another roommate, Alex, who likes to get high and listen to Loveless in his room, much to Demarcus’ chagrin. “That’s the devil’s music, man,” he informs Alex. “Which devil is that?” I ask. “The one that looks like you,” he says. Sometimes, after a long night out, I’ll come home and find him in the garage, minding the plants. There’s a prayer rug in the corner, awkwardly situated between two boxes of unused hydroponics equipment. Demarcus is always adjusting it. “Does this look northeast to you?” he asks, anxiously comparing the orientation of the prayer rug to the Qibla app on his phone. Our conversations range from the broadly political (“her corrupt ass is gonna steal this election, same as she stole the primary”) to the moderately personal (“dude, you gotta stop texting Johanna”). For someone who doesn’t engage in premarital sex, Demarcus knows a surprising amount about women, and his words on the subject of newly-minted ex-girlfriends provide a much-needed touchstone of rationality each night before I stumble up the stairs to collapse onto the stretch of carpet formerly occupied by my air mattress, which, after a long and courageous battle with an air leak, has finally succumbed.
III. June 2016. 751 1st Infantry Division Road, Fort Knox, KY. Barrack E, a three-story rectangle with white vinyl siding and a gabled red roof. A lone wooden pole stands on the grass in front of the building, topped by three speakers from which Reveille and Retreat play each day at 6:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., respectively.
Private First Class Walterscheid has been in Holding Company for seventeen days now, and he still doesn’t know when he’s leaving. He spends each morning cleaning the latrines, limping around on his bum knee, and each afternoon sitting on his bunk, waiting, hoping for some dour staff NCO to burst through the bay doors and call his name. When that moment comes, he knows, he’ll finally be going to his new unit, but it still hasn’t, and his chain of command tells him nothing else about his status. Some soldiers spend an hour in Holding Company, some spend weeks, and there’s no way to tell which category you belong to until the fateful hour when your name is called. Walterscheid and his brother, a late-blooming Specialist who also has the misfortune of being detailed out to Knox, run a smuggling operation that brings large quantities of candy, Copenhagen chewing tobacco, and Fleischmann’s vodka into the barracks from the Px. They sell the contraband at enormously marked-up prices: five dollars per candy bar, twenty per can of dip, forty per mickey of vodka. This commercial enterprise has been enthusiastically embraced by the soldiers of Holding Company, injured, disaffected, and psychotically bored as they are, and the Brothers Walterscheid divide the considerable profits between themselves. Financial gains, however, don’t suffice to lift Walterscheid’s sunken spirits. He insists that he won’t re-up his enlistment when his term of service expires, still two and a half years off, although he concedes that, if he makes Sergeant by then, an Army career may be preferable to going back to El Paso to work in his father’s auto body shop. I’m waiting on orders, too—orders to send me back to Hawaii. Walt and I are buddies. We sit, and he listens diligently while I tell him stories of Billy the Kid, or Typhoid Mary, or paint vivid verbal images of Lanikai Beach. When I’m done, he smacks his lips and declares, “Babes galore!” He gives me vodka for free, which I drink at night in my bunk, knowing that the outside world knows nothing of me, lying in this windowless room, listening to everyone snoring. In the morning, a muscular, balding Sergeant First Class comes in and yells a name. Walterscheid turns to me, and in a voice as slow and saline as tar drying under the hot Texas sun, utters his now-famous words: “Varana, baby, I seen ’em come, I seen ’em go.” Laughter echoes throughout the bay. Walt and I look at each other, waiting.
IV. November 2015. 1088 Bishop Street, Honolulu, HI. The Executive Centre, a 41-story skyscraper of sleek black glass rising above the hustle and bustle of downtown Honolulu. Every fifteen minutes, security guards conduct patrols around the ground-level premises.
Mike Kovacic figures the emphysema is going to kill him, so there’s no point in quitting smoking now. He still works part-time as a crossing guard, an important job in a city famous for its high rate of vehicle-involved pedestrian deaths, but mostly he sits in his apartment smoking and reading Dante or watching old spaghetti westerns. Some of our other neighbors have complained that the whole 34th floor smells like cigarettes, and the condo association keeps threatening to take action if he doesn’t stop smoking in his apartment, but Mike’s decided to call their bluff. After all, he reasons dryly, “They wouldn’t dare mistreat a veteran.” Like any fat, dying white guy worth his salt, Mike is great at bowling. Every Tuesday night, he takes Johanna and me to the lanes in Chinatown and buys us beer to drink while he proceeds to beat us by somewhere between 100 and 150 points. Johanna and I aren’t sure how, as a crossing guard, he acquired the wealth that allows him to own a spacious condo on the 34th floor of the Executive Centre, but we both agree that he wasn’t born into it. As autumn changelessly slides into winter, we lie in bed watching TLC, trying to pretend we can’t hear through the wall as Mike coughs up the last of his lungs.
V. January 2015. 1459 Pele Street, Honolulu, HI. Queen's Villa, a four-story, light-gray, concrete block of a building, raised on stilts, sandwiched between a halfway house and another apartment building. Few windows can be seen from the street, but the even rows of balconies that line either side of the building offer passers-by visual access to the tiny, cluttered apartments that lie within.
Johanna Xu loves to list. She has lists of books she wants to read, lists of outfits cross-referenced with their relative suitability throughout the week, lists of professors in order of lecturing ability and cuteness, lists of insecurities and fears, lists of lists by measure of priority, chronology, self-andragogy. She tells me I shouldn’t smoke—it’s on her secret list of things to change about me—but nonetheless stands out on the balcony with me at night, lighting my cigarettes and telling me tales of the exploits of her Chinese uncles in Toronto, which are significantly more captivating, she says, than the tales of the exploits of her white uncles in Winnipeg. She dislikes our neighbor, Kama, because he stares at her in the laundry room, but she deems the continuation of my friendship with him necessary, given his status as an influential local drug dealer and my status as the only white person living within a three-block radius. Sometimes, Kama will shout at us from the adjacent balcony to come over for dinner, and we will. I’ll bring a sixer of PBR to have with dinner, and Kama will look at me and say, “Crazy-kine guy, drinking all a time.” Kama lives with his family, and everyone smokes a little weed together before dinner, even Kama’s toothless grandmother, who speaks only Marshallese. The longer we live together, the longer Johanna’s secret list of things to change about me grows. She hides it in the pages of a copy of Atlas Shrugged, judging this to be a safe place given my aversion to the retrograde ideology contained within. Quit smoking, write more, drink less, be more considerate, enough with the plaid already. We’re standing out on the balcony, and she’s talking about Typhoid Mary’s peach ice cream, and I’m just listening, amazed by her brain. I pull out a Cowboy Killer, my second in a row, and gesture for a light. She sighs. “You really shouldn’t, you know.”
VI. October 2016. 33 South Hancock Street, Madison, WI. A narrow, three-story, yellow brick building with front-facing balconies supported by simple, white columns.
Bobby Wild’s brain is fried. Once, he was a clean, kindly, pot-smoking, Smash Bros.-playing architect-in-training, but now he has all but become a zombie, which is fitting, perhaps, given that Halloween is just around the corner. He came over to my new sublet last night, a singular old friend mixed in with a group of new friends whom I invited from work. We played Catan, danced to Dexy’s Midnight Runners, gloated over the latest scandal and the inevitability of our upcoming electoral victory. On the whole, my new work friends seem to be a droll, pleasantly volatile bunch. Bobby didn’t have much to say to anyone, although he continually offered me cigarettes, and I continually reminded him that I’ve quit and it’s for good this time. By the end of the night, he was just sitting in the corner, rocking back and forth. I could tell that he was on something strong, probably a whole lot of Xanax, so I told him to stay and sleep it off on the couch, and he numbly acquiesced. It’s morning now, and Bobby’s still asleep, face down, one arm hanging limply over the floor. The day reveals what evening gloom and impairment hid: track marks. After a while, he stirs, gets up to take a piss, and then comes back and sits down on the couch. He looks around at my apartment: the beer cans, the boxes waiting to be unpacked, the bowling shoes that Mike bought me before he shot himself in the head. “White walls, Miles,” he says. “White like hospital walls.” So, there’s Bobby on the couch, and here’s me, both of us doing our best to be decent people, I swear.
Miles Varana’s work has appeared in a variety of publications, including SOFTBLOW, After the Pause, Chicago Literati, Typehouse, and Crack the Spine. He has worked previously as a staff reader and managing editor at Hawai’i Pacific Review. Miles lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he tries his best to behave like a good millennial despite his abiding hatred of tapas.