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Beautiful Perfect Nothing

I don’t know why I’ll think of something like smoking cigarettes out of the blue. I’m sure it’s a muscle spasm or brain chemistry response to some unnoticed stimuli; the brain having been forever changed by the synaptic receptors that were built and then reinforced with puff after puff after puff. Those receptors once built, never really go away. They just patiently lay in the deep folds of cranial tissue struggling with a math problem they aren’t built for or trying to make sense of the color mauve. I’m sure I’ll never smoke again, but sometimes those dense yet bored receptors will fire the only cerebral activity they can with any competence – a memory.

I went to live with my grandmother in the 11th grade due to some drug trouble at home and school. I had been selling acid and doing much of it myself trying to break through all manner of “doors of perception.” Looking back, when you’re dropping two hits on a Wednesday night to enhance reruns of Battlestar Galactica you’re only, metaphorically speaking, cutting a hole through a screen door to jiggle the lock.

I was looking forward to the break from drugs in small town Texas where she lived. In my youthful naiveté I assumed small town country folk didn’t drink and do drugs. The population was only about 3,000 and it was in a dry county where even the acquisition of alcohol would have several more substantial hurdles than is normal for a 16-year-old. Of course, drug and alcohol use are just as prevalent in small towns as they are in big cities. It’s a human thing not dependent on the number of them gathered. I’m sure in even the most novel towns of one or two families someone is medicating themselves to brace against the magical, wonderful experience of life.

Her son, my uncle Joe lived there too. Joe had suffered from meningitis around four years of age and though the light of life wasn’t extinguished he was always just a little dimmer. He was a big man close to six foot three and heavily boned. His father, my grandmother’s second husband had been of Polish ancestry. He was a gentle giant though, kind and thoughtful. Whatever suffering he did he did in silence, understanding what was possible for a life yet unable to manifest any of it. He carried that sad understanding in his eyes and even if you knew nothing of him personally his eyes would reveal instantly his maudlin life’s arc. Simply put he looked like a prisoner and in a way he was imprisoned long ago by meningitis. He never left home, living his whole life with my grandmother. He was in his mid-thirties when I moved in. He would be dead at fifty-two.

Neither one of us could smoke in the house because my grandmother wouldn’t allow it. She had smoked as a young woman working for the phone company in Fort Worth but after her third husband died from cancer, she was a confirmed believer in the health issues of smoking. She had been married a total of three times and had six children, one of which she gave up for adoption. I never could understand that as a child hearing the family stories but now realize it was simply a punishment for coming home to the farm after her first husband had run off leaving her with three children. Her mother and father were hardened mean people; the type of people who could force a daughter to give away a child not as a matter of practicality or pragmatism but as a matter of spite. They had told her not to go to the big city, but she had done it anyway. They would scatter all the children for a bit, but my grandmother had pulled them all together and ran away again to Fort Worth working in the Lena Pope orphanage looking for her lost son.

On a sticky-hot Texas summer evening there isn’t much to do outside except to try and keep moving. Sitting still is a sure way to die from the heat, bugs or boredom. Joe and I would often get in his pickup after dark and drive to Dublin TX where at the time it was the only place in the world to buy a glass bottled Dr. Pepper made with real cane sugar. The bottling plant had been in business there since 1891. Some nights we would watch lightning from the cab of his ‘72 Chevy streaking horizontally across an endlessly wide Texas sky. Windows down, we had the ice-cold Dr. Peppers in our laps, smoking Marlboro red after Marlboro red, with Canned Heat singing “going up the country” on an old, even for that time, eight-track player. We said very little to each other for miles and miles. It was a simple passing of time. Happy wouldn’t describe it. Content either. I suppose nothing is what it was, beautiful perfect nothing.

Written by Eric Lee Short

I once read The First Circle and was so impressed by Solzhenitsyn that right there in the middle of the book I decided to be Russian. I should have known better from earlier attempts at being Oaxacan, a Brit, and even a Detroiter, but I can be stubborn and ironically faithful if the art is high enough, or something like that.

Read more of Eric’s work here

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