Wallace Went Home

Wallace Went Home

Picture Credits: Engin Akyurt

Anyhow, the real reason I brought Wallace up was she dropped out of school, fell off the face of the earth. I’d gotten the vibe she was extremely family-oriented, like unusually devoted, which I always thought was unusual for someone without any strong religious background. It wasn’t like she was Catholic or hard-core snake-taming Baptist or Calvinist or like some obscure David Koreshy-type sect or anything at all. I mean, she was an out-and-out agnostic like me. But family-oriented was just one side of her personality – and it wasn’t why she dropped out of school. That was on account of this old high school best friend who she assured me she’d never been involved with sexually. But I’m guessing sex probably would’ve ruined their friendship because she was head-over-heels devoted to this old childhood friend of hers in this purely childhood idolizing way, some loser named … well, I don’t remember his name, let’s call him Carl. It doesn’t matter. She basically dropped out of school for him – this loser guy, who was also a wannabe artist. She had some painting of his above her bed and she wouldn’t remove it even when I asked extra politely since the subject matter was none other than Carl himself in a weird constipated grimace. No, it wasn’t above her bed, it was on the side of her bed. It might not have been on the side of her bed either. It could have been on the wall across from her bed. Who knows? I remember waking up and seeing it countless times while I still wasn’t ready to get out of bed so I was too disoriented to remember exactly where it was. Even then, I hated that painting. And Wallace wouldn’t talk about the guy who did it at all. Whenever she mentioned him it was like he was part of the elite. She somehow managed to endow each word she said about this guy with like divine splendor, like he was Jesus the Messiah and not some loser high school dropout wannabe artist who was like downing his mother’s expired painkillers pretending to have a crisis in that clichéd troubled artist way that everyone’s pretty much lost interest in since the movie Basquiat came out in like 1995. That’s what I gleaned from the whole thing. Do I think Wallace should have gone? That was her decision. Her leaving, though devastating for me, was charitable I suppose. I think better of her now that I realize she went to help a friend. It doesn’t matter what I think of that friend or if that friend merited her attention or not: that’s irrelevant. The point is she put everything on hold and forgot about her own ambitions and goals – one of a handful of people in her town to go to college etc. etc. – and went to help this painter guy get a grip on himself and not fall into an even deeper despair where he might actually try doing harmful drugs. This painting I was talking about on the side of Wallace’s room was not extraordinary at all. Technically I don’t think it was even up to snuff with the knock-off Picassos they line up on Greene Street and Mercer. They can only manage to knock off the late work anyway when Picasso was basically like fuck it and would just paint some cheap looking commercialized purple-faced cubist woman with buck teeth in twenty minutes without changing a brushstroke and then sell it for like $40,000 to some poor sod who wouldn’t know the difference. No, this painting by this friend who Wallace treated as if he were Rembrandt van Rijn was just a third rate knock off of Munch’s Scream starring the artist himself, his distorted oval shaped head going all out of whack ala Munch and blending into this sinister background of forest and trees which Wallace said must have been another symptom of his killer imagination since where they’d grown up there were hardly any trees at all, just fields of dust plus the occasional cow colony. I’m not belittling her hometown. She could go back there and live if she wanted. I’m not particularly fond of cows. But that was her thing. The way she told it, she grew up in a trailer or a converted trailer in a neighborhood with mostly other trailers and her family was typically broke but hard working and devoted to each other. She didn’t have some weird grotesquely obese mother or some philandering father or some molester uncle or live-in relatives of any kind really, not that I know of. Her family was plain and kind of on the scrawny side from what she told me and she was scrawnier back then too, from what she remembered. Her dad was like some kind of adhesive salesman or something, not quite door to door salesman-type, more like an office-type salesman who sometimes had to drive their one rusty car around the state of Kansas to various potential clients. I’m foggy on all that. He was also a chronic insomniac and the parent who did all the cooking in the family – which isn’t so unusual, lots of fathers cook or are better at cooking than their wives. Anyhow, in addition to his culinary skills, Wallace’s dad played the steel guitar fairly well. Wallace didn’t remember how that old steel guitar ever made it into their trailer or who they got it from. Sometimes at night, this dad of hers would bake stuff to keep himself occupied since that was another of his quirks: he couldn’t stand being idle and he didn’t want to disturb anyone’s rest or give a Ronnie Milsap/Kenny Rogers soundtrack to anyone’s dreams by playing the steel guitar that late at night. And during the process of baking or something, he happened upon an old recipe in a hand-me-down cookbook he’d inherited from his mother, who yes thought it was odd that her son should be so keen on cooking and baking, but gave him the cookbook anyway because her dad’s sister (Wallace’s aunt – that is) was a total boozehound and had zero interest in cooking or their mother or anything having to do with the state of Kansas which she hightailed from just as soon as she could. Wallace’s dad found this recipe for a kind of dough that when refrigerated became like the world’s best play-doh, retaining just enough stickiness and moisture that it could be handled and squished into balls or whatever objects you preferred – animals too – for an entire day in the high heat of a Kansas August and still clump together with about the consistency of spongy cookie dough but without any oily residue on your hands. It was the perfect play-doh. At first, he made it for his daughters, Wallace being the second youngest. Then he started experimenting with various nontoxic scents such as orange and lemon and strawberry and these were even better. Pretty soon, he was handing them out to kids at the almost mandatory Sunday school which he sent all his girls to just for form’s sake and to appease the rednecks but not because he or any of his family believed any of it. And he started making the rounds, delivering his stock to the local stores and pretty soon the demand was such he had to order plastic jars by the boxload and he was shipping them all over the place using this little 1980s style mail machine and carting all the boxes off himself in his beat-up car. It got so he could quit his regular job and then Wallace’s mom quit her job too and they brought the boozehound aunt on board and they were working 17-hour-days making the stuff and putting it in the refrigerator since that was a necessary step in the process: it had to be refrigerated at a very precise 40 degrees or something for I think overnight or it would crumble and dry out the same as regular play-doh. So anyway, they became like the town’s industry barons. By the time Wallace was in junior high school, they’d moved out of their trailer and into a new pretty large house on a corner off the town square where like the two trees in the entire town were located and Wallace and all her sisters got their own bedrooms and a shared bathroom and around that time she started discovering a whole new taste palette in terms of food, stuff she’d never even heard of before which some man in white pants and a paper cap would deliver to their actual door: orange roughy, filet mignons, skirt steaks, ice creams with real fruit. And about two years later, as a result of this expanded menu, Wallace noticed her ass had gotten larger. She told me, in one of the only times she ever joked about anything, that the name of her town was Flat Ass on account of everyone being so scrawny and underfed. So, naturally, when she discovered her burgeoning buttocks she was not a little bit ashamed of this visible status symbol, a lipid and/or adipose equivalent of a Rolex or a Tiffany’s brand bracelet – which she never went in for, jewelry and that kind of thing, even when she could afford it, maintaining some small-town aversion for anything pompous or showy. In one of the stupidest moves of all time, Wallace’s dad sold the rights to his play-doh, which he’d named Smellie-GOO with a smiley face on the second O, to some big conglomerate for straight out $1 million dollars, because to him, one million was the pinnacle of success, and what after paying for the house, and the new car, and a swimming pool, and a rototiller for the grass lawn which was nearly impossible to maintain anyway because of the overpopulating meerkat-like prairie dogs who would just line up and stare at you until you fired a bee bee gun at them (another expense, for the one boy in Wallace’s family, a younger brother: Mick), and the sprinkler system, and a private college education for Wallace’s older sister who got into some elite New England school, after absorbing all these expenses plus minor day-to-day costs of living and skyrocketing gas prices etc. Wallace’s dad had pretty much whittled his million down to a nub which wouldn’t keep through another winter. It’s the same story throughout so many small towns: he had to rejoin that adhesive company he went around hawking for back in the day, only now out of a lingering town respect for the creator of Smellie-GOO, Wallace’s dad gets the title of consultant, and even though he gets paid less (when accounting for inflation) than he did ten years ago, he’s also doing less work, since he doesn’t have to drive anymore (he sold the car back anyway) and only very rarely flies to Wichita which is like the real nexus of the adhesive operation. So, anyway, that’s what Wallace had to come home to: a deadbeat friend and a dad who’s made the whole circuit from rags to riches back to rags. And to cap it all off Smellie-GOO filed Chapter 11 – they’re ancient history. But as far as Wallace is concerned, the heartbreak’s over. I don’t think I’d even recognize her. I just hope she made it out OK.

Will Clattenburg’s writing has appeared or is soon to appear in The Esthetic Apostle, Digging through the Fat, Platform Review, The Raw Art Review, Garfield Lake Review, and Typishly. He has a Masters in TESOL and has taught ESL and elementary education in the public school system in Brooklyn, NY and Albuquerque, NM. In 2015, he earned an MFA from New Mexico State University where he was the recipient of a Frank Waters Fiction Lectureship. He lives in Albuquerque with his wife and children.

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