Shelf Life

EXCERPT — Mule: A Novel of Moving Weight

Chau Tu Oct 3, 2011

The following is an excerpt from “Mule : A Novel of Moving Weight” by Tony D’Souza. Copyright © 2011 by Tony D’Souza. Excerpt reproduced with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. Listen to an interview with D’Souza here.

Chapter 1


By the middle of 2006, years of hard work were paying off for me. I’d made the leap from writing for local rags to selling feature articles to the national magazines. I’d landed myself in the pages of Esquire. I’d even been published in the mighty New Yorker. Travel had come to me, attention, publicity, parties, all of it. At thirty, I was suddenly making and spending money in a way I never had. Wild and lusty Austin, my adopted hometown, was the perfect place for the mood I was in; the arrogance of my new success was a giant that followed me through the nightlife everywhere. And why shouldn’t it? I was a normal guy enjoying what I’d earned. When Playboy ran my byline on a story about the backstage scene at City Limits, a Chamber of Commerce rep started giving me VIP passes to all the big events. Soon after, at a private rooftop party at the Belmont on 6th, I found myself at the end of the bar, drunk, well dressed, grinning. It was late October, the weather was mild, the stars were out, and at long last I was somebody.
Standing before me was a beautiful girl.

“What’s your name?” I asked her.

“Kate,” she said.

“Here with anybody?”

“Not yet.”

I snatched her arm, claiming my prize.

First it was sex everywhere, in the dressing rooms at her store, in my truck outside the bars. But by just a few weeks later, it was becoming something else.

“Can I ask you something real, James?” Kate said to me in bed one night. “How many people have you slept with?”

I laughed in the dark. I told her, “Don’t you know you’re the only one?” She elbowed me in the ribs. She laughed, too, and said, “Don’t lie to me. Nothing will ever matter as long as you don’t lie.”

We lived in that dream, breathing it, eating it. After more than a decade working in department stores, Kate had just been promoted to general manager of the downtown Metropolitan Apparel. She was twenty-seven, pulling in double anything she ever made in retail, feeling as big about things as I was. We were always together in the restaurants and clubs, celebrating our success like an endless coronation. All the loud people around us were doing the same thing.

One night, everyone else in the world asleep, I lit a cigarette beside her on the couch on her porch while she smoked a joint. I said quietly, “Kate? What’s really going on with us?”

She said, “Do you mean, When is this going to end?”

“It’s always ended for me,” I nodded and told her.

She said, “Don’t you know I’m scared, too?”

Should we be cautious? But the future felt enormous, everything possible, and carelessness took control. Shopping at Whole Foods a few days before Christmas, Kate caught a whiff of the salmon in the seafood section, ran outside, and vomited.

We rang in New Year’s 2007 leafing through baby books in Kate’s bed, because I’d given up my apartment to move in with her and we were pregnant. We were nervous, happy, and soon we had the first sonogram pictures taped to the bathroom mirror. In the pictures, the fetus was a tadpole attached to the yolk sac. We nicknamed the baby Peanut.

Six weeks later, we’d lost our jobs, and both of our careers were gone. We never considered not keeping our child.

The end of our life in Austin is the same story almost everyone in the country can tell now. Metropolitan terminated Kate for “inability to manage employees effectively,” right after she told them she was pregnant, even though she’d never been written up for ineffective management, or anything else. She came home in tears. Of course they didn’t want a pregnant girl running their trendy store. Of course they wanted to cut her inflated housing-bubble salary — her sales associates let her know she’d been replaced for less than a third her pay.

We immediately filed a discrimination case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which Metro contested, and then the EEOC informed us that although our case had merit, there weren’t the resources to pursue it. We didn’t have the money to risk taking on the corporation on our own. Kate’s COBRA coverage began a steady destruction of our slim savings. I sold my beloved Ranger for next to nothing on Craigslist to pay for engine repairs on Kate’s twelve-year-old Forester. Kate had been fired; she had to be on the phone day after day with the Texas Workforce Commission, explaining what had actually happened, begging for unemployment benefits. But before we could celebrate the commission’s letter finally granting them to her, every editor I’d ever worked with let me know that not only was there no work for me now, there wouldn’t be anytime soon: subscriptions and ad revenues were way down, and they were having to lay off their in-house people. I’d always loved freelancing for the guts and freedom of it. Now I was paying the dues of that freedom. I didn’t even qualify to apply for unemployment.

I continued pitching story ideas everywhere, but the rejections came in like an endless wave. I sent my résumé to every print outlet I could think of, and didn’t hear back from any of them. Then I tried for anything I thought would offer a livable wage–substitute teaching, marketing, paralegal–and never got called from any of those either. Even the temp agencies said they didn’t have anything right now for someone with my qualifications. I kept asking myself, How could this have happened to me, with the byline I’ve worked so hard to build? Kate and I would rub each other’s shoulders in the night, saying to each other on the verge of panic, “Everything will be fine if we just keep trying.”

We were among the first to get hit by the downturn, didn’t even know there was one yet. We felt alone, ashamed, humiliated. We avoided all our working friends, knew they didn’t want to hear our embarrassing sob story. Once Kate’s $370-per-week unemployment payments started coming in and we saw that we could just scrape by on them if we squeezed out every penny, we breathed a little, tried to make the best of it. We told each other we were lucky that Kate didn’t have to work while she was pregnant, that something in my field would turn up soon. With nothing else to do but pray for a callback, we swam in the pool of our complex in the middle of the day, and in the evenings we drove across town to hang out with Mason.

Kate had met Mason through a girl at Metro when she was new in town and looking for a weed hookup. Mason was a longhaired born-over-here Korean kid with a thick Gulf Coast accent. The only thing really Asian about him was a samurai sword on his wall he’d purchased off TV. He pushed cell phones at Sprint for his day job, sold pot on the side to make ends meet. His wife, Emma, was a waitress at Kerbey Lane, and together they had a two-year-old daughter named Bayleigh.

Mason and Emma were evacuees from Biloxi, had lost their house in Katrina, were still waiting for an insurance settlement eighteen months later. Unlike the people we usually spent time with, Mason and Emma never tried to pretend to be upbeat. They told stories about the hellhole the city had put them in when they’d first been relocated from the FEMA trailers, how the door of that apartment had been kicked in three times while they’d been sleeping, how they’d bought their own television over and over again from the pawnshop every time it was stolen.

But Bayleigh made them happy. She had pigtails, was always bouncing around the room and saying, “Watch me jump, Mom! Watch me jump, Dad!” like everything in the world was just fine. Kate and I would go over at her bedtime, and she would say, “Watch me jump, guys!” to us, too. Then Emma would tuck her into bed, come back out, and tie on her apron for work. She’d narrow her eyes at Mason from the door and tell him, “Try not to pass out, in case she needs you.” He’d shout back, “You think I’d ever pass out on my own kid?”

None of us were in the mood to say much, so we didn’t. Mason and Kate would smoke a blunt. I’d drink beer. We’d kill the evening together staring at the TV. Kate had the kind of morning sickness that went on all day. The weed calmed her stomach enough so she could keep down food; Mason knew our situation, didn’t charge us anything. Kate had printed out a study done on Jamaican women that said pot had no effect on their babies. Still, sometimes when we’d drive home, she’d whisper to herself, “What if I’m hurting my child?” I didn’t like that she was getting high, told her so, but felt as helpless about it as everything else. It was only once a day; she promised to quit soon. How could I begrudge her what she needed to cope with all the shitty things that were happening?

When Mason was stoned, his eyes would get really narrow, he’d grind his teeth, smack his hand on his knee, and shout out of the blue, “Man, we’re never going to recover from the fucking hurricane.” Then he’d notice we were there and his voice would soften. “I’m sorry, you guys, I know what you’re going through. You have each other. Everything is going to be okay.”

With no calls for interviews, and no options left except menial labor and minimum wage, I became depressed, stopped shaving. Then I noticed my beard was falling out. I saw it in the bathroom mirror the first time, small bare patches under my chin like crop circles in a field. I looked it up on the Internet: alopecia areata barbae. There was no known treatment or cure; it was caused by stress. Kate noticed it one day when we were showering, and to lighten the mood she called me Captain Patchy. The Internet said that sometimes the lost hair would grow back quickly, but in other cases it never did.
Kate would usually fall asleep on Mason’s couch after they’d finished their blunt, her hands on her belly, her long black hair splayed across her cheek. She seemed so tragically beautiful to me at those times, like a weary woman in a Rembrandt painting. When she was sleeping, Mason and I would go outside to smoke cigarettes on his balcony. His apartment was one in a stack, the view from the balcony of only the parking lot below. That life could be this terrifying was something I’d never imagined, and I’d worry my beard patches, say as much to him. Mason would tell me, “I know what you mean. And to ask us to bring our kids in on top of it? Who makes this shit up?”

When our lease ran out in May, we gave up on Austin, used our security deposit and the last of our savings to move. Mason came over to help us pack our U-Haul. It didn’t take long, because we didn’t have much and the rest of it we were leaving behind. Then we sat on boxes in our emptied living room and ate a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken together. Mason and Kate smoked a blunt. Mason said at last, “You guys have become such good friends, if you ever need anything, please just ask. We’re all we’re ever going to have in this life, you know? Each other and our kids and that’s it.”

My mother had told us to come to Florida, that we could stay in her spare bedroom until we figured things out. But Kate wanted to have the baby where she was from in Northern California, where she said we could get by on almost nothing. She told me again on our drive across the Great Southwest that her part of California was like no other part of the state. That there were mountains and trees were everywhere. That the snow sometimes fell six feet deep in the winter. That the border of Oregon was only an hour away and there were lions and bears in the woods. “And the people,” she said, her hair tied back in a blue bandana like she’d started wearing it, “are a mountain people. They’re rough and hard, and there’s a part of me that’s like that, too.”

Where she took me was Dunsmuir, a tiny mountain town in a rugged canyon that once thrived on the railroad and logging. Her parents had found a place for us there, a rundown cedar-shingled one-bedroom cabin on the Upper Sacramento River that a guy they knew owned. When we pulled up to it, I expected a frontier family to come out onto the porch and stare at us like, “What do you people think you’re doing here?” The cabin was off the road in a stand of cedars; the rent was $375 a month, water and a two-burner Coleman included; there was no electricity; we’d have to buy wood for the stove to heat the place in winter.

I put on a brave face about it, still couldn’t believe all of this was happening. Kate’s scrawny father had been an itinerant timber faller, her tough mother had driven a forklift in the McCloud sawmill before it had closed. When I met them for the first time, I could see they were worn-out drunks. They were supposed to help us move in, but they sat on the porch and drank can after can of Coors. Kate didn’t have much to say to them as we carried in our things, so I didn’t either. I could tell right away we hadn’t come here because of them.

The air was crisp and clean; everywhere were lakes and streams, everywhere high forested ridges. The water that flowed down from there fed the great agriculture fields of California. Kate took me driving through the timber up old logging roads to look at the snow-covered height of Mount Shasta. “People dream of the mountain,” Kate told me one evening as we sat on a blanket in a field of lupine, six thousand feet up. “The Indians did. Some of the Gold Rush miners did, too. Then in the sixties it started calling the hippies, a white mountain every night in their dreams. They rode the rails, came in beat-up cars, raised their families in camps in the woods. Now it calls the odds and ends. People show up with just the clothes on their backs. Somehow they make their way here and never leave again.”

“So why did you leave, Kate?”

She thought about it. She said, “I guess I wanted other things out of life then, James. A mountain just didn’t seem like enough to me at the time.”

A few weeks after we moved in, Kate’s mother came by one evening with a pot of pork and beans, sat for a while and rubbed Kate’s belly, and then asked Kate for money. I was lying on the bed in the backroom to give them some time together; of course I was also listening in on what they had to say. What her mother said was “If you have any spare change, you know we could use it. You must have saved something out there in the world. Isn’t that why you went there? God knows this cabin isn’t spendy.”

First Kate said, “Don’t you know that’s why we’re living in it?” Then she said, “Is it going to be the same old shit after all this time?”

Later, when Kate came to bed, she took my hand to feel the baby. There it was like always, kick kick kick.

“A boy or a girl this time?” she asked.

“A boy this time,” I said.

“You still want to name him Evan?”

“My old man would have liked that.”

We were quiet in the evening’s cool, the cabin quiet around us. At last I said to Kate, “Did she really ask you for money?”

“It was only a matter of time.”

“Don’t they think about us and the baby at all?”

“They know the baby will survive on my milk.”

There wasn’t any work up there to look for, so I didn’t. Discussions about what we were going to do next we put off for now. We were getting by on the little we had, growing closer together. Sometimes it felt like nothing was wrong.

That long summer in the mountains, I’d never seen anything so lovely as my pregnant Kate. Inch by inch her belly grew, and with it our baby inside her. She spent more time in the mornings brushing her hair because the hormones had made it thicker. She headed out early for walks, coming home with her bandana full of wild blackberries she’d gathered from the bushes by the tracks. “Do you think you could live here forever, James?” she asked me one afternoon.

I’d caught two rainbow trout from the river, was gutting them in the sink. I’d spent a little extra money on a couple cheap poles; all I ever did anymore was fish. “Live here forever? Maybe if there was any work. The air’s clean. It’s safe. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.”

“But in a place like this, it would be just you and me. No big distractions and not a ton of friends. Just you and me and the kid. Would that be enough for you?”

The trout were fat and fleshy, and had appeared on my line like miracles. That I’d reeled them in for our dinner had made me glad all day. Outside the window, the Steller’s Jays were blue dashes in the boughs of our cedars. I said to her, “What did all of that mean anyway? If we could pay for it, I’d live anywhere in the world with just you.”

Mason called at the end of August: he and Emma were fighting. Of course they would work it out, but could he come and see us for a while? Kate called up someone she knew from high school, a guy named Darren, who she knew could hook her up with some weed. I worried about the cost, but she said she wasn’t going to ask him for much, probably wouldn’t even have to pay for it. It was the least she could do for Mason, she told me, after everything he did for us before we left Austin.

When I came back the three and a half hours from the Sacramento airport with Mason in the car, still reeling in my head from the busy city, Kate had a neat blunt rolled for him and they got stoned on the porch right away. All the two of them did, as they smoked under our tall trees, was laugh like a pair of old hyenas. When I asked them what they were laughing about, Mason grinned at me and said, “Poor James doesn’t even know. It’s because this kush is so fucking good.”

“Look at you now,” he said to me, “a mountain man and all. In a motherfucking flannel jacket just like a goddamn lumberjack.”

I crossed my arms where I stood in the yard and beamed at him.

“How much do you pay for an eighth of this?” Mason asked Kate. Kate batted her eyes at him and said, “Man, don’t you know I grew up out here? I get this shit for free.”

He said, “You have any idea the money I could make with a pound of this in Austin?”

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