Better than Fresno

On the fourth day of his little self-imposed amble, Andrew realized he might be going the wrong way. The plains were mostly green, then brown, then green again, maybe even lilac or yellow on account of the occasional flower bed or field of corn stalk. The cartons of gasoline in his trunk were red, the old Volvo was blue, his shirt was green and the buttons a marbled white, his sneakers were grey and the variety of beer cans littering his trunk represented each and every one of those colors.

Following a childhood which most would characterize as regularly taxing but not excessively crushing or dysfunctional — divorced yet amicable parents, he was somewhat socially ostracized but not totally alienated, and not as much scarred by women as he felt prematurely discarded — he first took to drinking to more or less prove to himself he was 21. And even then, it was a weak excuse birthed mostly out of ennui, not unlike buying cigarettes on that same birthday out of a desire to just do it, not necessarily to smoke them. For that iteration of Andrew, drinking was barely a mechanism of age, much less of coping or defense.

And it affected Andrew differently than it did most people. For him, the effects of alcohol resembled more of what others usually felt on pot or LSD or mushrooms — the grass was greener, the trees taller, their leaves and branches a bit enlivened, and the doldrums of day-in, day-out existence a bit funnier, unique, and sometimes even profound. He was never sloppy or rambling, even when consuming in excess — perhaps the world’s first benign alcoholic.

But as time waged war on both his tolerance and that child-like bemusement he once felt, he began to inherit the qualities anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves alone in a dive bar at Tuesday’s last call knows all too well. However, it was not a case of a slippery slope or a spiraling downturn or even a surprise, this shift in outlook — it was rather oddly meta. He sensed his era of benign, wondrous alcoholism had come to an end, and seemingly made the conscious decision to transform into a bitter drunk at 23.

Last year, he dropped out of the community college where his foot was already halfway out the door, abandoned the slight touch of artistic talent he once thought he had, and cycled through a few menial jobs. Eventually, he dropped everything and decided to wander.

Which led him to where he was at this juncture: lost. Well, his dad might argue that he had been capital-L Lost for quite some time, and barring some sudden, first-time manic manifestation of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, he was always that way. But no, for all intents and purposes, he was not ill or crazy or Lost… maybe just directionally challenged and buzzed in the dead heat of a California summer.

Just exactly how he arrived upon Bakersfield as the place to end his journey, he was not quite sure. He was more concerned with getting there. The idea, at first, was to keep going north, and, after a while, the town would kind of just present itself, as real and apparent and ready for him as a gate or a window or a dive into a pool. But he was growing more and more convinced that wasn’t the case, and he was losing faith as he strayed farther and farther from the freeway.

He was fresh out of gas and money. In a definitive low point, he siphoned some gas from an unsuspecting Chevy pickup left behind a blue-shingled house yards back from the road, back wheels splayed out sideways, the left tire being flat, causing it to dip at a diagonal with the bumper almost slapping the ground, which, combined with the truck’s elongated, run-down bed suggested a stripper attempting to go home with more in tips than salary, but failing.

Why did he feel aroused? Was this how low he had sunk? Was it the inserting of the tube? The sucking on its end? The sudden gush of fluid? Was there a word for such a phenomenon? Was he a mechaphile? Even worse, was he a lonely mechaphile, dissociated from and disowned by all other mechaphiles? Was there a support group for this? A hotline?

Momentarily, as he tried to reconcile all these thoughts and their meanings, he even reached inside his jeans beside the yonic stripper-truck, but decided that no, even on this little boozy binge of his, some lines weren’t meant to be crossed. He got the gas and left with a distinctive tinge of self-loathing.

A sudden pang of hunger took him by surprise. With the gas problem solved, he parked on the side of a Johnnie’s convenience store, which seemed deserted except for its open sign. Andrew walked inside to find an older lady womanning the cash register, fixated on a copy of Reader’s Digest. She didn’t seem to be turning the pages and didn’t look up, even as the two-tone ring signaled Andrew’s entrance.

Deciding he was safe, he stuffed two 40 ouncers and a bag of chips into the pockets of his cargo pants and walked out. Reaching the Volvo parked around the corner, he inserted the key into the door and started to turn it when a hand grasped his shoulder.

She didn’t look upset, aggressive, or even the slightest bit fazed for that matter. She simply reached out her other palm. Looking into her milky blue eyes, Andrew said, “I had this stuff when I walked in.” But still, the palm. “Do I need to call my son over here?” she huffed. “Listen lady, I don’t know what you think is happening… but… alright, fine.” He handed it over. As she started walking away without a word, Andrew asked, “Can you tell me how to get to Bakersfield? Please?”

Andrew thought about the woman from Johnnie’s a great deal as he continued forward, getting back on course. He was left with a hangover and no cure. The whole Kerouacian allure was dissipating. This was no longer a journey, and that self-schadenfreudian romanticism in drunkenly traversing all the way to Bakersfield was gone.

But why did he do it? The gunshot, the blood, the .38 in his hand and the bewildered look on his face… why didn’t Mom call? It was either follow his lead or become the subject of his own didactic cautionary tale: living alone, drinking alone, and dying alone.

The woman from Johnnie’s told him where to go, both literally and figuratively — not only did he know how to get to Bakersfield, he was refueled with enough shame and self-loathing to last him the whole ride. But she had also accepted his apology. What was he supposed to do with that? It flew in the face of the whole theory that no one would notice or care if he was gone. Here was this liquor store cashier giving directions to a shoplifter. He decided to keep going and give it a whirl, figuring he had already come too far.

Bakersfield is a funny place. In reality, it doesn’t really live up to it’s drab reputation; it more seems like a city that was once-bustling and is now deflated, yet still not quite out of air. It’s filled with deserted oil fields and pumps that seem a bit apocalyptic, but one wonders if it would feel even more apocalyptic without them. There are Wal-Marts, movie theatres, hotels… and that’s about it, but, to its residents, these accommodations are sufficiently metropolitan. These citizens have an observable conservative apathy, as if they collectively don’t view themselves as important enough to have major opinions on things other than politics, but believe they are owed respect for staying in their lane. A certain pride over the city knowing its place, and operating well within it, hangs in the air. The sign at the city limit might as well say, “Bakersfield: Better Than Fresno.”   

So, when Andrew arrived on a sultry, early-August afternoon, he was a bit disappointed. Through the years, he’d heard jokes from Angelenos about Bakersfield this, Bakersfield that — “it’s like if a whole city was the color beige,” “the only thing slower than L.A’s traffic is Bakersfield… in general,” “when the Bible talks about purgatory, I imagine Bakersfield,” “Bakersfield is like one big minor league baseball stadium” — but, to him, it honestly didn’t seem all that bad. In fact, Bakersfield seemed to personify him more than anything. Other than its status as the butt end of many jokes, those who didn’t feel the need to belittle the place probably didn’t think anything much of it at all.

For a couple hours, Andrew almost felt weirdly at home, as if this city was somehow a kindred spirit. But that feeling dissipated fairly quickly when he realized that, just like home, he was empirically and imperially alone here, liable to disappear at any second without leaving the faintest hint he was ever there.

Andrew wanted to drink again but couldn’t bring himself to shoplift. Driving around, craving, he spotted a truck stop-type burger joint and pulled inside. He was broke, he was in Bakersfield, he needed to get drunk, and he decided that unless something good happened in this joint, he was going to go through with the whole thing he came here for in the first place.

Parking between one of those obscene 12-wheelers and an oddly new, out of place, charcoal F-150, he let the engine idle for a few minutes, reclining his seat into a bed as hot air blasted out of the vents. He already smelled like a goat, but at that moment he was dry and wanted to really create the sweat-stained appearance of desperation.

He walked inside to find two older men sitting on opposite ends of the bar. One was clean and somewhat slim, wearing a Canadian tuxedo with a bold navy top and faded bottoms. The other was unkempt, his beard and hair tangled, and his formerly tan Carhartt jacket now looking more of a fecal brown. He took a seat in the middle between the two of them, leaning more towards the side of the one less clean.

Andrew ordered a beer, drank it, ordered another, drank it and waited. He noticed the uncommitted brown of the bar’s wood as it gave way in parts to more of a beige, the ripped red upholstery of the leather stools, and the translucent haze of the bottles of spirits standing against the wall. It didn’t seem as if the bartender or the other two patrons even noticed his presence.

After about half an hour, he got up to leave, wholly prepared to ignore the bartender hollering for payment as he would get into the Volvo and drive straight into a tree. He felt a twisted sense of peaceful accomplishment over the decision — he was finally going to get what he came for. No fear, but, in all honesty, he wondered if it would do the job.

He walked out of the place without so much as a word from the bartender or the other two fellows. Opening the door, he sat down, turned the ignition and didn’t bother to touch the seatbelt. Before he could pull out, there was a tap on his window.

“Hey buddy,” the man in the Carhartt jacket said. “Looked like you were having a rough go of it. I covered your drink.”

Andrew thanked him. Then, he put on his seatbelt and headed back towards the highway.

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