Bless This Mess

In the fall of 1991, I moved into my new place in DeKalb,
Illinois. I lived alone on the second floor of an old blue house,
out by the railroad yards and the water tower, on the edge of
town.

I was working at a place called Creative Calligraphy, an
operation that manufactured those ‘country craft’-type gewgaws.
Their best-selling items were framed calligraphic prints of sayings
like ‘A House Is Not a Home Without a Meow’ and ‘Bless This Mess.’
I worked in the warehouse, unloading trucks, assembling frames, and
running a machine that cleaned the glass used to make the framed
pictures. It was maddening, repetitive work. To keep our sanity we
blasted rock music over the incessant blare of the machine and
‘sang’ along at the top of our lungs. Van Halen I, the first
Traveling Wilburys album, News of the World by Queen.

I liked the people I worked with. There was Gary Whitehair, a
crazy brilliant writer/madman who hoped someday to complete his
great novel Brain Fever; Josh, the owner’s son who
overcame that stigma to become ‘one of the guys’; Al, a
gentle-spirited and quiet-spoken former National Guardsman; Ed, the
hard-drinking, always-smiling bodybuilder; Joe G., who got laid off
from his job making screwdrivers across the street and brought to
the warehouse his love of Bart Simpson and hair metal; Billy Bob,
the country boy who loved his girlfriend and his flatbed pickup;
and Jim Mack, the psychedelic local guitar hero and general
lunatic. We were a sorry bunch of suckers, a ragtag band of misfits
and losers, but I think we knew from the start that we were all
brothers, connected by the madness of our mind-numbing manual
labor, by the dead ends we all woke up each morning looking down.
We ate toaster pastries all day long and debated our sorry lives,
this sorry world.

So I worked this crazy job and tried to get by. I was making my
comics at night and on weekends, trying to figure out my life.

I’d come home from work, park in the alley, and come up the back
stairs to my apartment. The apartment was huge and cheap, windows
everywhere and wide-open dusty floors.

Cooking dinner meant opening a can of refried beans onto a
tortilla and microwaving them one after the other. I put
preshredded cheddar cheese on them and, when I was fancy, some
lettuce. I ate them with tortilla chips and generic cola. They were
damned good.

Once a week I’d pull out the little old nine-inch TV my parents
had given me, balance it on a chair, and watch Roseanne in
grainy black and white. When it was over I’d unplug it and put it
back in the closet. I was in a weird state of mind. I’d listen to
records by Brasil ’66 or the Tijuana Brass and draw comics all
evening. The comics just came out of me. I’d stack them up, and
when I had enough pages I’d go down to the copy shop and put out a
new issue of King-Cat.

At 11 each night I’d go to bed on an old springy mattress.
Outside, the night sky went past, full of stars, the moon, luminous
clouds. The world was a magical place.

I’d work all week, and on Fridays it was like letting out a
long-held-in breath. Sometimes I’d drive in to Chicago to see
friends or hang out with my girlfriend, but increasingly I just
stayed at home. I enjoyed my solitude and the quiet apartment. I
enjoyed making comics.

On Saturday mornings, I’d go downtown to the Salvation Army and
look for new Tijuana Brass albums, or Captain and Tennille. There
was no shortage of these things. I’d buy strange objects for a
dollar and bring them home. Life was good.

On fall evenings, I’d wander through my neighborhood: the weird
little houses, the church, children’s bikes knocked over on front
lawns, pickup trucks on gravel driveways. Who were these people —
my neighbors? Above me the sky rolled mysterious, the Midwestern
sky in fall. The world crackled with energy, and the energy was in
me. The energy and the world and I were one.

Sometimes after work we’d go down to the Twin Tavern and drink
beer, order onion rings, and wait for our sausage sandwiches. Men
in flannel jackets and baseball caps sat at the darkened counter, a
silent TV set flickering in the corner, unwatched. This was like a
dream come true. We’d laugh and eat and step outside into the
nighttime air, say so long with our bellies full of beer and good
food, the moonlight shining bright through cold backlit white
clouds.

The Twin Tavern had pinwheels in the urinals that spun when you
peed on them. It just didn’t get better than that.

Still, I wasn’t totally satisfied. I thought I could be more
free. My job made me increasingly numb — I could laugh about it,
but inside I knew it wasn’t for me. What I wanted was to feel each
day, to really live each day. It was an abstract concept in my
head, but it was pulling me along toward something.

I remember waking up one workday morning and just wishing
somehow that the day could be over. And I thought how sad that was
— to just want your life to go away. I didn’t wanna live like
that. I wanted to wake up each day and feel glad I was alive. And
for the first time that didn’t seem like too much to ask for.

My old friend Donal had moved to Denver a few months earlier,
and he entreated me with tales of blue skies and mind-blowingly
cheap rent. I was ready to go. I made plans to leave for Denver in
June.

Before I left, I threw a big party at my apartment — for
friends and near-friends, all the people I had grown to know and
love. I threw a party for six years in DeKalb, that blank, lovely
little Midwestern college town; for the bars and bands, the
girlfriends, the train tracks, the old brick buildings, and the
river. I threw a party for the town I entered as a confused and
frightened, excited little kid, and from which I emerged, six years
later, full of possibility and hope. I was not yet an adult, but I
knew I wasn’t a child anymore.

So everyone came to my party. We drank sickeningly sweet
alcoholic concoctions I had invented myself. John R. showed movies
on a sheet hung in the doorway. I filled one room with Mylar clouds
suspended from the ceiling. I got very drunk.

At 3 a.m. only a few guests remained. I was standing in the
doorway waving good-bye to people when I saw my estranged friend
Fred. We hadn’t really spoken in a couple of years and we didn’t
speak a word this time either, but just automatically fell into
each other’s arms and started sobbing.

We cried and shook, holding on for dear life, for love. I
remember his leather jacket, heavy and wet with my tears running
down. I was leaving DeKalb. I was leaving my home.

John Porcellino, a California-based cartoonist, began
independently publishing
King-Cat Comics and Stories in
1989. This story was reprinted from
King-Cat #65 (Nov.
2005). Subscriptions: $12 (4 issues) from Box 170535, San
Francisco, CA 94117;
www.king-cat.net.

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