It’ll Break Your Heart

Al Billings

Jesus, what a hungry mouth. That’s what I remember about her, and greedy lips that threatened to suck my heart loose from its moorings. Possessing her, pulling her down onto my lap, lighting a joint and passing it to her. Nestling my head against her bare breasts, licking sweat beads from her nipples. Feeling her retain the smoke in her lungs, torturing herself with Aunt Jane’s fragrant promise and exhaling smoke through the sunlight and suspended dust particles flooding my apartment.

Both of us captives of a summer afternoon, dampened by a chimeric gulf breeze, a heartbreaking wind that lugged itself across the Houston ship channel and flung its oily stink through the tattered curtains framing my kitchen window. Raking my fingers through her fine blonde hair. Begging her for kisses playfully denied and then delivered with jarring precision.

She was a skinny blond cocktail waitress who’d kept returning my glances from the bandstand, all bouncing bangs, finely sculpted calves and a pair of those Fuck-Me shoes like Minnie Mouse used to wear, with pointy heels and straps that fastened over her ankles. Skipping between tables and flirting with the drunks at the bar. Watching her hoist a tray of drinks over her head and sliding through a clutter of red-fingernailed divorcees in tight jeans and fuzzy sweaters, horny high rollers licking the salt from the rims of their margarita glasses. Christ, a pussy auction in a sports bar on Westheimer, out past the Galleria, where thieves and judges drink from the same whiskey bottle. Chinese take-out. Hair salons and Western art galleries. One long blinking strip center from here to Dallas.

The early eighties boom was in full swing. Subtended by crumbling blocks of chili parlors and flop hotels, wild new skyscrapers shot skyward and gave each other the finger. A gigantic, polychromed Miro sculpture struggled for oxygen amidst the press of dull brown highrises. Butchers hauled slaughtered pigs across sunken, dirty streets in the remnants of old Chinatown. Cafes and bars glittered with a surface coat of cosmopolitan élan. Every club was filled to capacity with single women and men who tossed cocaine around like candy, attaché cases full of it, and it glistened from glass table tops in the back rooms of most of the clubs in town. But when you performed, audiences applauded, and bought you drinks. They weren’t like the children of the Dust Bowl that I played for on the Southern California country circuit, so I didn’t have to dodge any broken glass. And the music was very good. Houston was throwing a party, and I was invited. A skinny blond seemed like an appropriate acquisition.

Houston, a glittering shit-hole rooted in bayou mud and slaves’ bones, a postmodern hologram deep-fried in it’s own mythological fantasy. Those were the early Reagan years, and the entire city was for sale or trade. Its founders had more in common with Blackbeard than with Thomas Jefferson. It’s most reliable products were high-level corruption and homicide. It’s most apparent expression was contradiction: head downtown and try to locate Penzoil Place, Phillip Johnson’s magnificent creation, two complex glass towers veering skyward, forced apart by a clear, narrow shaft of gulf-blue sky, and now completely obscured by international-style monoliths bursting with vacant self-importance.

A year ago, I’d been working with a dreary country band in the lower Rio Grande Valley, and bored beyond tears by the low energy levels most of the local bands radiated. I’d come up to Houston for a few days to visit an old friend whose band had become very successful. I wanted some dazzle and a great, thumping city. The crisp, art deco facade of River Oaks shopping center, the zoo in Herman park, the art museums and the enthusiastic music audiences had excited me. After years of semi-rural living, I was ready for Houston’s shiny sophistication. I had outgrown San Bernardino, a once beautiful town that had failed to live up to its own mountainous landscape, and I’d had enough of the Southern California country scene, the long, monotonous drives between gigs, and the violent thugs clustered in honky tonks so dangerous that we sometimes kept a sawed-off shotgun in a canvas bag behind the drummer. There were phone calls from my friend and a chance to play in a band that produced fresh, exciting music. I owned a Fender Telecaster, a duffel bag full of clothes and a stack of divorce papers. I hopped a Continental Trailways bus and headed south. GTT, Gone To Texas.

I was trying to disappear into the sidewalk in front of the Greyhound Bus station at West Gray and Main, waiting for a ride, and avoiding the whores and cocaine dealers who surrounded the building. Even though it was early November, Houston was still saturated with the relentless gulf wind and sticky humidity that raises the local homicide rate every summer. Near a hissing steam grate, an Albert King tune blasted from a cabbie’s over-driven dashboard radio. Chattering jackhammers punctuated the squeal of bus brakes. A young black cocaine dealer leaned against a wall, taught, wary, flashing a smile that flicked open like a straight razor. An old black woman in a Greyhound uniform, carrying a broom and dustpan headed for the entrance. He called to her.

“How’s it goin’, mama?”

“How do you think it’s goin? My son’s in jail, my husband’s sick, and I can’t get ‘nough hours here to pay the godamned bills. I don’ know what to do.”

The dealer gave her a long, serious look, tugged at his ball cap, broke into a sly grin and said: ”Try harder.”

My friend was part of a very successful duo, a folk-rock flavored band with very deep roots. The duo had always suffered from some sort of personality conflict, and they broke up. We started a new band, a power trio built around his compositions. Unless you become very lucky and sign a contract with a major record label, you’re doomed to rattling around in the backs of squeaking vans for the rest of your life, living on fried food, little money, and stultifying late-night drives along highways as straight as a Mormon bishop’s wife. And if you hadn’t overdosed, and survived a head-on collision on some empty stretch of highway, when you left the road, you’d be the same as you always were, only older. And for me, I hadn’t yet realized that my own most powerfully creative urges had yet to come to fruition. More than an hour or two of live performance wasted on a roomful of garrulous drunks became an endurance contest for me, and the road gigs extended the torture. No matter how cleverly the songs were written or arranged, after a few months of repetition they all sounded the same to me. I was beginning to realize that I wasn’t cut out for the lifestyle, but it would take me a couple of years to admit it to myself.

We booked into a sports bar whose manager mistakenly assumed we’d perform an evening’s worth of featherweight ballads and Bob Seger tunes. But clad in thrift store cast-offs and self-important irony, we delivered a savage wall of roaring complexity that nearly blew stunned patrons off of their stools. By the end of the first show, we already knew we wouldn’t be coming back.

I watched the cocktail waitresses duck into the restroom and snort restorative lines of cocaine. Wasted looking women wearing vaguely athletic designer shorts and halter tops cut close to the ass and low at the neck. Slutty makeup, pallid skin and dangling cigarettes, like a group of lap-dancers who’d formed a basketball team. Everyone a little drunker now, and shrill. Broken glass, broken hearts. A couple of paunchy middle-aged drunks ogling her, licking their lips. She glanced back at me now and then, rolling her eyes with exaggerated boredom, showing me that she was only pretending to enjoy the work. I understood; I was pretending to be a musician.

She slid up to the bandstand with a cold beer and a soggy piece of paper with her phone number stuck to it. A whiff of bourbon loitering on her breath. A child’s flightiness that made me want to pull her down on my lap and ask her what she’d learned in school today. Nervous brown eyes flickering with tension, crow’s feet, dissipation, falling forward and down into herself, a faint whiff of angry self-destruction. Jeanie. Jeanie Louise, and I knew from the beginning that I’d never be able to hold on to her. I invited her over to my apartment.

“So tell me about yourself,” I said. I thought of myself as a good listener.

“I’m just a Southern girl. My father’s an Air Force major. We moved here from San Antonio a few years ago.”

She sounded a little bored, and remote, as though she’d been made to recite lines in a grade school class once too often. Tell the nice man how old you are, Jeanie.

I wondered how many other guys had her phone number.

“What do you like to do?”

“I like to take Quaaludes and fuck.”

I wasn’t prepared for her raw response. While the Houston music scene provided endless sexual opportunities for musicians, I’d never been good at delivering sex on demand, and in fact, devoid of some level of true intimacy, I could be a downright failure. But I pressed forward, hoping that at some point I could push aside my insecurities and deliver what she wanted.

“What else do you like to do, Jeanie?”

“Oh, art! I love art. Picasso, Matisse, all those guys. And I read sometimes, real books, not romance novels.” Her voice picked up, and now she sounded a bit more engaged.

“But my boyfriend dumped me last week, and all I want to do right now is drink and take Quaaludes. He plays piano in a band in Galveston. We had a little house, and I planted flowers all around it. But then he got tired of me and threw me out. You’ll get tired of me, too.”

“Yeah? How could that be?’

“You’ll see.”

“Well, I doubt it. Maybe you should ease up on the booze. Do you live at home with your parents now?”

“Sure. I’m spoiled. I don’t even have to work if I don’t want to. I’m still my daddy’s little girl.”

I rented a garage apartment on Sul Ross Street in the Montrose district, a shabby, gentrified, Mayberry duct-taped to the edge of downtown Houston. Antique stores, restaurants and gay bars. A jumble of nondescript architecture sprinkled along parallel roads that converged, changed names and dead-ended into mossy freeway abutments. My apartment listed so acutely that I could set a golf ball down on the living room floor and watch it roll into the bathroom. The whole structure was slowly settling into unstable muck just a few feet above sea level. Roof lines dancing a drunken jig. Mosquitoes and Malathion. Sidewalks cracked and buckling over tree roots the diameter of telephone poles. In anticipation of Jeanie’s first visit, I washed the dishes and swept the kitchen floor.

She arrived a few hours later in a muddy silver Camaro filled with dirty clothes and crumpled cigarette packets. We drank a few beers, and I showed her some collages I’d made. We went over to the fine arts museum. She made me drive her car and light her cigarettes. I could see that she was right about her daddy. On the way over, she lit a joint and passed it to me.

“You probably think I’m a dumb bitch because I work in that bar.”

I’d been thinking just that, but now I wasn’t so sure, and I realized that she might be smarter and more interesting than I’d guessed.

“No, no, I don’t think you’re dumb. How do you know about Picasso?”

“I want you to know that I have a degree from a very good private art school in New Hampshire. My father sent me there. It was expensive, but he’ll buy me whatever I want. I’m special.”

“I certainly don’t think you’re dumb.”

“Well, I’m telling you anyway. Guys always think I’m dumb.”

At the museum, she pulled a pair of oversized glasses out of her purse and transformed herself into a serious, engaging woman filled with insightful comments about the work displayed around her. She was showing me that she did in fact possess an intellect. Later, we sat in an outdoor cafe and drank beer. I took a closer look at her, and I noticed the crow’s feet beside her eyes, her pale skin revealing the dissipation that was slowly eroding her taut and fragile beauty, and as I stroked her hand, I felt a rough bump on her wrist and saw that, at some point, she’d tried to slash her wrists and given up before she could complete the task.

I’d been hiding out in the Rothko Chapel whenever I could get away from the music scene, seeking something tangible and absolute within the luminous magnetism of his monumental paintings, sitting patiently, waiting for a door to swing open. Expecting a lightning bolt of spiritual self-examination to strike me. But even though I couldn’t penetrate the opaque mysteries hanging before me, I sensed that they contained a challenge that reduced our music to sing-song doggerel and narcissistic posturing.

Jeanie probably knew that I was merely pretending to be curious until I got her clothes off, and honestly, I was, but I was in no condition to deliver. Guilty over a failed marriage, desperate for real intimacy, and so constantly shit-faced drunk that my skin reeked of beer even on the rare days when I refrained from drinking, I still yearned to possess this enticing symbol sitting across from me. I wanted what was very bad for me. After watching her chug several beers, I could see tiny tombstones in her chocolate eyes. Jeanie needed to kiss the puff adder’s head, and I wanted to be there with her. She pulled a small vial from her purse, opened it, and quickly swallowed two Quaaludes. Now, I was hoarse with anticipation, because Quaaludes and whiskey can turn a nun into a groveling slut. By the time we got back to my apartment, she was thick-voiced and woozy.

You always know when something’s going to work out with a woman. Jeanie had said “Yes” when she handed me that first beer back at the bar. I was already dreaming about kissing the creamy skin on her neck and running my tongue along the thighs that she didn’t do much to conceal under her short dress.

We sat at my creaky wooden table covered with beer cans and ashtrays. I lit a joint and passed it to her. Once we were afloat, I pulled her down on my lap, gently combed my hands through her hair, ran the tip of my finger over her lips, and let her suck it. When I kissed her, she kissed back, hard and nasty. I licked her neck, whispered horny promises in her ear and slipped her dress over her head.

Jeanie was wobbly with beer and tranquilizers, a fragile and irresistible Humpty Dumpty. She stood up, unhooked her bra and fell forward against the wooden table, leaning on her elbows with her back towards me. Her hair quivered slowly in the sticky, tropical breeze, and her sculpted thighs bulged from the push of her high heels. I wet two fingers, pulled her pale blue panties aside and then slid them into her. She rocked against them gently, for a long, long time, trying to ride a rhythm only she could find, slowing, speeding up, searching, losing it again. Gently stroking her legs, I kissed the pale, alabaster skin on the back of her neck. She was sinking now, nearly comatose from the Quaaludes, falling forward on the table and passing out. I picked her up, laid her on the bed and sat quietly in the darkness that surrounded me, relieved that I didn’t have to deliver.

“You don’t have to be nice; you can have whatever you want.”

“I want you to watch me do something. He wouldn’t ever let me do it.”

“Who?”

“Aaron, my boyfriend.”

“What do you wanna do?”

“I can’t say it. I just want you to watch.”

“Whatever you need, sweetie.”

She popped two more Quaaludes into her mouth and washed them down with a slug of whiskey. Then she dropped her head back onto the bed, closed her eyes and waited for the capsules to take effect. I could feel her sliding away from me, drifting, clawing around for some private space only she could recognize. I could hear the old Greek woman next door sweeping her patio, shuffling around her patio in her husband’s oversized shoes. Jeanie moaned a little, and seemed close to sleep. I had a nasty little angel all to myself, and I couldn’t stop looking at her closely shorn blonde hair, her milky skin, the way her lips parted slightly over her selfish overbite. She ran her hands down the insides of her skinny legs, fluttering her fingers close to the elastic band of her blue panties, sliding in, and then stopping.

“I’ve always needed to do this to cum. Will you touch the insides of my thighs?”

“Sure. Like This?”

“Yes.”

Now her hands yanked at her panties. She sucked on her right index finger and slipped it between her legs, wide apart now, and she started to stroke herself harder, increasing the circular rhythm and breathing in shallow rasps.

“Is it good?”

“Yeah, it feels really good. Do you hate me?”

“No, no. I like it.”

“I always have to do it this way.”

One afternoon, she climbed into her car and drove away, promising to return later that day, but she disappeared. Even though I didn’t much care if I ever saw her again, I phoned her repeatedly, convinced that I could somehow re-ignite her passion, if only to demonstrate that I could deliver, a last vain attempt to salvage my self-regard. Various sisters would answer the phone and try to convince me that I was much better off without Jeanie in my life. I never heard from her again. Presently, it no longer mattered to me, just another failed romantic conquest buried under a heap of beer bottles.

The late photographer Frank Martin used to pole a pirogue along Buffalo Bayou and poke through the slime, carefully photographing the beer cans and the roiling, sulfurous cloud of carcinogens that bubbled atop Houston’s horizon. Frank caught the occasional bloated corpse, disintegrating at the joints where turtles had feasted on the soft tissue tenderized by the corrosive afternoon heat. A few blocks away, under the chin of Houston’s glistening skyline, Howard Hughes’ fingernails unfurled in yellowed coils and scratched at the walls of his rotting coffin. Close by, an angry pimp had tossed his whore’s two-year-old boy into Live Oak Bayou, weighing it down with car batteries to help it sink. It’s no wonder that Frank produced black-and-white prints so pushed and distressed that the Cotton Exchange looked like the Reichstag engulfed in flames. Tilting his head, and rubbing the belly hair under his t-shirt, he’d beamed slyly, pushed the photos under my nose, and asked “Whatcha think about this?”

November 13, 2011 4:36 pm

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