Sleepingfish infinite
Process News 1

chapters 1 & 2 of DEEP ELLUM by Brandon Hobson




I left Chicago and returned to Dallas when our mother overdosed. She’d tried it before, usually with pills, but this time they hospitalized her and put her on different medication. Before, whenever she wasn’t taking her meds, my stepfather Gene would find her wading in Skeleton Creek or harassing old man Skinner at the bait-and-tackle shop down the road from where they lived in the country. I was worried about her more this time, even though we’d been through it before.
I took a taxi from the airport to my sister’s place near downtown Dallas, in the Deep Ellum district, past the old buildings and neighborhoods with cars parked in yards, wood-framed houses with chipped paint. I was twenty-six. The city felt foreign to me even though I hadn’t been away that long. I told the driver to take his time driving.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
     My last night in Chicago my friend Santiago took me to a bar where I met a woman who told me that the lack of excess and chance is the beginning of failure. Don’t go home, she said. Don’t fly to a damp wasteland, emptiness, fields. There’s nothing down there anymore.
     “I mean there’s no hurry,” I told the driver.
     To pursue solitude requires a sort of minimal desire, or maybe no desire at all. This is how I see it. To find loneliness, to become your own saint. To desire solitude and be with my mother until I felt safe enough to leave again. In Chicago I lived in an apartment with four other people. I waited tables at a restaurant and worked a few days a week in a cafeteria. When my sister Meg called and told me about our mother’s suicide attempt, I had to leave.
     I was in Chicago almost a year. My girlfriend’s job transferred her there, so I went along. Six months later we weren’t getting along and she wanted me out of the apartment. So I got a job waiting tables at a restaurant and moved in with a couple of guys I worked with. I’d never gone to college and had worked shit jobs mostly, roofing and painting houses and waiting tables. My brother Basille said I was always running away, but there was nothing to run away from.
     I went to the apartment on Deep Ellum Alley, a room overlooking warehouses and buildings and the dirty street below. Meg had given me a key after she’d moved in over a year ago. The room was cold and dark. I was surprised the place was neat and clean, not filled with articles of clothing draped over chairs or all over the floor as I had expected. Her bed was made; it seemed she’d been away for a couple of days. There was a bird in a cage, a gray and yellow cockatiel. It fluttered its wings, cocked its head and looked at me. I put my bag down and opened the refrigerator. There was orange juice and bread, a six-pack of schwag beer. Meg had terrible taste in beer. No coffee. On the window ledge there was a patch of old snow, ash-light breaking in.
     I needed to go out for cigarettes. I found one of Meg’s coats in the closet and put it on over my hooded sweatshirt. Before I left Chicago I’d given my coat to a kid wearing a Bears T-shirt. He was handing out copies of his own music. “Psychedelic funk,” he told me. “You’ll like it.” I traded him the coat for one of his CDs. “Where you from?” he asked.
     “Me too,” he said.
     Meg’s coat fit me OK. I stopped to look at myself in her bathroom mirror. A bottom tooth near the back was sore. I opened my mouth, not knowing what I was looking for. There was a sharp pain in the gum—a cavity maybe, or something else. I looked through the medicine cabinet and found bottles of aspirin and Ibuprofen, heartburn tablets, allergy capsules, lotions, tubes, gels. I took four Ibuprofen and headed out.
     As evening fell, Crowdus Street was dark and a light snow was falling. Buildings looked small and crooked, deprived of sunlight. Structures in Chicago were proportioned and near exact— buildings of art. Here, there was no color anywhere. A grainy film, something out of an old photograph. A man in a long coat and a Dallas Cowboys stocking cap leaned forward and coughed, on the verge of sickness. Only his right hand was gloved. A few blocks away I found a 7-11. Behind the counter, the clerk was talking in Spanish on his cell phone and trying to write something down. An older couple with a miniature bull terrier on a leash was arguing about something. The woman looked at me as I knelt down to scratch the dog behind the ear. I bought a pack of Camels and left.
     The last time I was in Deep Ellum there were people all around, but the weather was better then. I made my way down the block, down Malcolm X Boulevard in the cold wind—the same block I had walked down a year earlier, before I left for Chicago. I could imagine myself walking like this for a long time. All around me was narrowness and shadows, brick buildings, the street. The air was heavy and dead. This was the function of Middle America cities in winter—rank smells, empty streets, narrow alleys and shadows. A woman standing in front of a sushi restaurant told me where the closest liquor store was. It wasn’t too far, a few blocks away. I crossed Main and walked down a dark street. The guy working the liquor store had a cat with him. The cat was silent, slinking around my legs. A man watching me whispered something to the woman with him. I picked up the cat and let it curl against my chest. The couple watched me but I ignored them. I bought a bottle of vodka and headed back to Meg’s place.
     She still wasn’t there. I unpacked in the bedroom, checked my cell phone, looked in all the dressers for pain pills, maybe some pot or even Ecstasy to chew up. I checked all the kitchen cabinets but found nothing. It was dark out. January, dead winter. I sat on the bed and watched a light snow. In the dim light of the streetlamps, the snow sifted down. In Chicago I could sit at the window forever and watch the snow.
     I tried to call our mother’s house. Two weeks earlier Meg had called and told me our mother had quit taking her meds. She was severely depressed, immobile, staying in bed all the time. Our stepfather Gene rarely returned my calls. We never got along, not even when I was a kid. He worked his whole life in a foundry, where he dragged giant buckets of hot white metal across an overhead track and poured the buckets into molds. Our mother told him he was lucky to be alive, breathing in all that aluminum and iron and asbestos. At some point he’d developed the shakes. Looking at him you’d think he was a meth-head, the way he twitched around all the time. For a while, just before I left for Chicago, my exgirlfriend and I lived six blocks from the factory where he worked, past the railyard, in the run-down, older district near downtown.
     I called our mother’s house and left a message: “It’s Gideon, I’m back in Dallas. I’m at Meg’s. I hope you’re feeling better. Give me a call.”
    In the kitchen I toasted some bagels. I ate standing, listening to the sound of pipes knocking. The sink was half full of used water. Everyone handles loneliness different. I didn’t handle things well. That’s what Meg always said. I opened the vodka and poured a glass, then sat at the window and watched the snow until I started feeling drunk. My tooth and gum were still sore and I was freezing. I put on Meg’s coat and fell asleep in a chair.


In sleep I was passing crowds of people in a train station, looking for someone to help me find the train I was supposed to be on. A tall Asian girl in pigtails was staring at me. She was naked, wearing only black boots, but nobody noticed her except me. She was laughing. When I tried to move closer to her I kept getting lost in the shuffle of people. Someone pulled on my shirt but I didn’t bother turning around. The Asian girl was there and then she wasn’t.
     I woke to someone knocking on the door. Through the peephole I saw a guy in a hoodie blowing in his hands. With the chain locked I cracked the door just enough to peek out. He looked surprised to see me.
     “Oh hey,” he said. “I was looking for Meg.”
     “My sister?”
     “Is she here?”
     “Sorry. I haven’t seen her yet.”
     He blew on his hands. Pulled the hood down of his sweatshirt, revealing a tangle of long hair. I looked past him to see if he was alone.
     “I’m Charlie,” he said. “A friend of Meg’s. Can I come in for a second?”
     “Okay,” I said. “But just you.” I unlocked the chain and let him in. He held out his hand for me to shake. He was older than me and had a scab on his bottom lip. It was cherry-dark and looked sore.
     “Meg mentioned you,” he said. “She said you were sick or something?”
     “You were depressed and living somewhere.”
     “Maybe she meant our mom.”
     “Right,” he said, looking around the room. “Do you care if I make coffee?”
      I sat in the chair by the window. Outside it was morning, cloudy and cold, snow on the ground. There were noises from the street, men unloading a truck. Charlie asked if I wanted any. I told him no.
     “Funny thing,” he said. “Meg always hides her coffee under the sink. She thinks nobody can find it. She told me a story about you once, how you got caught stealing a jar of sweet relish from the grocery store. You were a kid. You told the store manager to go fuck himself.”
     “That was our brother, Basille.”
     “Right,” he said. “The one with the birthmark.”
      I turned and looked at him, then back out the window. Basille didn’t have a birthmark. Charlie was opening and closing cabinets and drawers, and I worried he was up to something. Dishes and pans rattled as he rummaged. He said something about being in west Texas, but I zoned out and thought about my mother. I hoped she would call soon.
     “Meg wasn’t here last night?” Charlie asked.
     “All right. You care if I use the bathroom?”
     “Go ahead.” I heard him shut the door and turn on the faucet. He wasn’t in there long. He came back into the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee. He sat across from me and we both looked out the window. After a moment he was standing again. “Can you tell Meg to call me when she gets here,” he said. “She won’t mind if I borrow this mug, OK? That girl—probably somewhere shooting something between her toes. Thanks for the coffee, brother.”
      He left, closing the door behind him. I stayed in the chair and looked out the window until I saw him emerge below onto the street. He put his hood up and crossed Crowdus. There was someone else across the street. He stopped and talked to the guy and they walked away together.


Process News

Brandon Hobson's work has appeared in NOON, New York Tyrant, The Believer, The Paris Review Daily, Post Road, Sleepingfish and elsewhere. These are the first two chapters of his novel, DEEP ELLUM, which is just out from Calamari.


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