At the Epitome

by William Nesbitt

It was one of those times when it seems almost everyone around me was upset with me in some way.  You know the vibe; everybody stressed out with lips puckered up like an old lady’s asshole.  I was halfway through college and broke.  Mike came one night to get me from the playhouse/shack I was living in behind my grandparent’s house and took me to Tallahassee.

Mike and I ate at Denny’s, a favorite late-night stop on Tennessee (now closed).  Then, we go to the Tennessee Strip which is right across from Florida State University and is an area of restaurants and bars that is a mix of prep, frat/sorority, and total skid row with the drunk and homeless asking for change, sometimes aggressively. 

But at this point in time, there was one hip place and it had just opened a couple of months before—the Epitome, which has about half a dozen bars (at least) on one side as well as a piercing and tattoo parlor, sex shop, Greyhound bus station, city bus station, two pawnshops—one of which took a thumbprint even if you were pawning something only worth a dollar or two—and a self-professed beer barn on the other side with all manner of bum, ruffian, scalawag, ne’er do well, shill, outlier, outrider, and outlaw patrolling/hustling the street looking for whatever they can find, even if they don’t know what it is. 

Despite the rough company on the outside, the Epitome was the kind of place that you could always feel comfortable in on the inside, a sort of refuge. 

So Mike and I went to check this place out, or I guess he took me to check it out as he had been there before, and I loved it from the start.  Bin Bin was at or near the end of the counter the first time I went.  He was a muscular Asian with long black hair almost down to his waist and Chinese tattoos, the totem spirit of the Epitome.  The inside a cool-glowing jewel blued with light and smoke—“Om mani peme hum: the jewel is in the lotus.” And I brought other people here, sometimes went by myself, and since it was right across from the University, and I was going to a college with zip for a library, I could often do some research and then head back over to the Epitome.  (I always wondered if the “real” students could tell I didn’t go to FSU just by looking at me.  I assumed everyone was brilliant.  I was always anxious that someone on campus was going to stop me, question me, and discover that I didn’t go there, that I was an imposter.  Years later, I got a doctoral degree from there, taught there, delivered multiple conference papers there, and even chaired a conference panel there.)

The Epitome had no windows and had been carved under something else. So one side opened right into a downhill road (Raven Street), and the back side opened onto a parking lot backing up to the area known as French Town.  Sort of a bohemian bunker protecting us from the fallout outside.  Inside, it was everything.  A vegetarian restaurant with full smoking privileges.  It was one big room filled with sofas, tables, some chairs, and a few stools, all ragged, dirty, and possessing a well-worn comfort that comes from years and years, maybe decades, of slow and easy lounging.  Centuries of homeless Buddhas dirty and smiling.

The chairs and tables and sofas were in constantly shifting arrangements.  Each section a small neighborhood, a community, a state, a nation, a continent, a kingdom, an empire, a world, a galaxy.  Universe and Totality.  Mazes and alleys formed.  Each one with its own culture and population and language and customs and dress and culture, yet all united by that one great common denominator—Coffee and the desire or destiny to be different.    

The bathrooms were in another room with a sink on the outside stationed between two closets for toilets.  No designation or dualism or male or female, just first-come, first-served (more and more places do this now, but at the time this was much more of an “out there” idea, especially in the South).  The doors were mostly horizontal wooden slats with a length of cloth pinned on the inside and a hook and eye to keep the doors closed.  The graffiti rotated, evolved, painted over, and returned.  Some of the lines were even philosophical or inspirational, or at least mildly poetic.  Sometimes I’d go inside the bathroom just to read what was new on the walls.

Fairly close to the bathroom were bookshelves with books, many of them duds, but some good ones too.  Over the years, I exchanged, among many others, Tolkien, Eliot, Nabokov, and books on chess (one was Hypermodern Chess) with books of my own, mostly old sci-fi that my friend (and we would discover twenty years later, third-cousin) James had given me in exchange for his father burning my copy of The Satanic Bible.  During the peak, I took ten books a day to the Epitome.  I made it into an unofficial lending library, trading post, for myself at least.  Continue reading “At the Epitome”

Cloves

by William Nesbitt

I push against the dull, silver-steel door and walk straight to the register in a late-night convenience store in Valdosta, Georgia somewhere in 1997/’98/’99.  I know exactly what I want.

“Pack of Djarum Splashes.” 

“$4.25.”

I light a clove.  Its fragrance fills the air with the erotic smell of someplace else, distant, earths away from here, someplace where birds with long multi-colored tail feathers sing their songs and rushing rivers sweep clean beneath the smooth arches of ancient trees; a place where you put your ear to the earth and hear the pulse, the tides of underground seas with waves that never break filled with krakens making love; a place where the stars form infinite, spiraling stairways; a place where the night is made from the purple and red fruit of strange dreams rooted in exotic soils that alone could grow anything, sustain you, give you unending visions, make you immortal.  A map of fire and smoke.  Thunder riding lightning.  Night rain in the high mountains.  

I am a new element. 

——

William Nesbitt has published articles, reviews, creative work, and interviews in various scholarly journals, newspapers, and websites.  His books include Forsaken: The Making and Aftermath of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four.

That Was Lana

by William Nesbitt

So Lana was born in the year of the red dragon, and I was born in the year of the green tiger.  The ancient texts say that whenever the dragon and the tiger meet, there is sure to be conflict.  I knew her in high school in Thomasville, Georgia in the early ’90s, though we never spoke to one another.  We both ended up at the same small college (also in Thomasville) and then we started hanging out around fall of 1995.

She didn’t have a car so if we drove anywhere, I’d pick her up at her place.  First, she lived in a dorm at Pear Tree Park downtown, which was a combination dorm/retirement home (we used to joke about how she’d never have to move).  Later, she lived into a former dentist’s office. 

We’d write poems together, like two old poets.  A line, an image, or a question as a trigger, and then we’d work from there, writing from a “first thought, best thought” state of mind in the truth of the moment.  Each anxious to see what the other has written and to respond, or passing the page and suddenly thinking of something to say, hand sweaty and ready for the page.  Or forgetting and then coming up with something better, or suddenly remembering ten minutes later and working it in down the page.  This could go on for hours. 

We wrote many.  She almost always kept the originals and said she would make copies of them for me but never did.  Even years later after talking with her on the phone and via e-mail, after finding her through her brother on Facebook, she gave me lame excuses about why she couldn’t make copies of them and finally told me she lost them.  It is written that the dragon loves pearls so much, it tries to capture the moon.  

I have two of them.

The writing then doesn’t always hold up now, so it’s more the sentimental aspect that makes them significant.  Still, I loved writing them, am proud of them as proof of the time and for what they were then, and they are all that remain of us.  Holy scripture, sacred text for an extinct mystery religion of two.  The first one was, for a long time, the only one I thought I had, but I discovered another one in the same binder.  Lana always wrote her parts in all upper-case.

I made a copy of one for her, which she read at the Epitome (a coffeehouse in Tallahassee, Florida that we often drove to) with someone else.  She did it, told me about it, and then asked me if I minded.  I said no.  But this was a lie.  Had I known she would do that, I wouldn’t have given her a copy.  We should have read it together or not at all.  It felt like a betrayal.  My own jealousy and pride in our coffee poems.  But those are my words, too, and something we made together.  No matter how they read/sound to anyone else.  Any kindness from the muse, no matter how slight is a gift. 

From Dr. Haydel and, later, Dr. Clough (both taught English at Thomas College) I found out about a book of Chinese divination around 3,000 years old, and after I secured a copy (in Atlanta at a Barnes & Noble on Peachtree) finally, I often brought it with me (I still have stamp cards from the Epitome stuck in there).  One of the great Eastern classics.  I showed Lana how to use it and made an easy reference chart for each of us (I think she may have scored a cheap/free copy of the I Ching at the library where she worked).  A year or two later, I performed a reading for Lana right before her marriage to Stacy (I wrote their vows).  It—the reading, not the marriage as it would end up in a breakup—was filled with fecund imagery.  Hexagram of plants and freshness (the present).  The positive aspect of Generation.  There was an undertone, a slight suggestion of separation in the second hexagram (the future).  I kept that to myself.  I didn’t understand it then.  I do now.  That was Lana.

I’ve never come across either of those hexagrams again.

And this, our friendship, was one of her phases, I sometimes think.  When we first really started being friends in college, she wore creased jeans and a blazer with some politically conservative button/pin on it, short haircut, and leather dress shoes, button down the front shirts tucked in, preppy conservative.  During the peak of our friendship, she grew her hair out past her shoulders, wore old t-shirts, faded jeans with holes, a wallet chain, and read, wrote, talked, and lived more poetry and less conservative politics.  This was when she talked about getting into English (what Lourena, her girlfriend, and I were studying) as opposed to becoming a lawyer.  But in the next phase, she had dropped out of college one course short of an Associates, and her life became country music, beer drinking in parking lots, and no coffee or walks on the edge of the city limits.  The philosophy has passed.  The poetry was over.  I didn’t know who she was in this phase. 

Almost ten years would go by before I had any contact with her again.  When I tracked her down years later in 2009, she had adopted a Louisiana accent, gotten into cars, and the politics got even more conservative.  Over the phone, she got into long, bitter, racist rants, so I started limiting communication to sporadic emails.  Maybe that’s who she always was.  I don’t know.       

The last time Lana and I spoke face-to-face was in the Epitome, early December 1999, after I’d been in Tallahassee about five months or so.  She just happened to walk in one afternoon.  She had driven up from Thomasville in Stacy’s truck.  “My truck,” she called it now. 

That day things were nasty from the start.  I came in with my girlfriend Marilyn, ran into Lana, and she was just rude to us for reasons I have never known (I suspect, my then-recent ex said, something to poison the relationship).  But obviously there was a problem.  I didn’t want to get nasty in return.  Not in that place in that time.  I respected our friendship more than that.  I took the high ground, cut it short, politely excused us, and we left.  I never saw her again.  

Two lines she wrote from one of the writings I saved sum it up:

GOOD OR BAD,
EITHER WAY, I LIVE IN A DREAM, YOU WAKE, I DISAPPEAR.

A couple of years later, to try to come to terms with it, figure out where we were, where we had been, I tried to write a final summary partially based on a get together in late March of 1999 in Thomasville for Stacy’s birthday.     

I had a dream of you some nights ago, of that spring night caught in the open boat of the sky.  I remember that evening.  We got drunk on the usual Jägermeister.  Its chilled black bitterness, taken in precise, timed shots at your house, where we talked in the kitchen.  Rich, moist air coming through the open windows.  How we talked with a beginning, swirling buzz about all the sacred things.  We talked in splashes, roots, sails, all the lines connecting about light raining, twisting down under the trees at Millpond, flashes of tumbling I Ching copper coins—a flashing school of koi.  Our favorite coffeehouse, books, the local magazine, The Underground, Dead Can Dance, tenth-grade French class.  The rushing tide of twilight.  The deepening pulse, the humming fragments.

Then, we stumbled outside to the front porch.  In the glorious haze, the porch lights made a jade halo around your head.  The lights filled the porch like water; our mouths made ripples when they moved.  What it was we treaded in that deepening pond I can only now call love or something like it.

When you went back to the surface to answer another voice, I knew we were drowning. 

I could not trace it then—my eyes splitting the stars in two (it is in these spaces that I am writing)—but I knew something had changed and I was just realizing it.

So I sat anchored on the deck of your porch, enjoying one of the best drunks of my life,

watching swaying pines beating loose time and hickory trees working their fingers through the wind, moon and great clouds, drifting reefs white as the bellies of trout, washing through rolling alleys of wasted indigo sky. 

My fingers stretching across the gray, flaking paint of the porch as I sat on stone steps listening to still pink azaleas swelled and dripping with fresh, cool rain, hundreds of tiny bulbs that shine like white wine, and magnolia petals, freshly-fallen shards of polished moon, sprinkling the glowing ground.

That was years ago. 

Last night, I passed slowly by the closed Epitome, its dry stone eye winking at me, came

home through blank and empty streets, clean as oblivion, and drank down the smooth edges of a liquid night, pinned down beneath the whispering burn of silver-blue stars, thinking of you with the lights turned off, new moon swimming in the sky.  No rain.  It is hard to breathe out of water.

I woke up this morning and found a singed feather shipwrecked against my pillow, my door closed, the faint taste of dried liquor hooked on my lips.

——

William Nesbitt has published articles, reviews, creative work, and interviews in various scholarly journals, newspapers, and websites.  His books include Forsaken: The Making and Aftermath of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four.