Mike Nagel

There Is No Standing Up Straight

My stomach had been hurting for two days. A slice of pizza I couldn’t pass. I was worried that an organ had burst. I asked my wife where my appendix was again. I fell asleep on the couch and when I woke up the pain was gone but still no luck taking a shit. I looked at myself sideways in the bathroom mirror. Outlined the shape of my bloating stomach like I’d seen pregnant women do in TV commercials for I can’t remember what. My top half the shape of an S. I told myself to stand up straight and I stood up straight but then I slouched back down again because it’s impossible to force yourself to stand up straight for very long.

By Saturday night I had been sitting on my couch for two days. Not out of pain but out of boredom. Torpor. I finished season 3 of House of Cards and Emmanuel Carrère’s Liminov. My legs fell off. I felt a burning in my chest. Sorry, my legs fell asleep. (I wanted to tell you they fell off — does that mean something to you?) I stood up and stretched out and felt some of my bones snap into place and the pizza-slice-turned-rock settle deeper into my stomach.

I thought that since I wasn’t doing anything I might as well take the train downtown to see what Dallas looked like after dark. It had been a while since I’d seen Dallas after dark. I poured some whisky into a flask and found the pack of cigarettes we hide on top of the cupboards. J and I hide the cigarettes even though we’re the only ones who live here. I put a battery in my camera.

At the DART station a girl apologized for blowing smoke in my face. I lit a cigarette to prove it didn’t bother me. She said she was surprised I smoked. I looked too hippy to smoke. I said hippies smoke. She said not cigarettes. She asked how old I was and I said twenty-eight. She said I looked younger than twenty-eight. I asked her how old she was and she said thirty. I said she looked younger than thirty. I said girls want to look younger than they are and guys want to look older. She said maybe that was true.

It was hot. Probably ninety-two degrees.
She said she and her fiancé had just broken up. She kept doing bad things. Her driver’s license was suspended. Now she was back in Dallas living with her grandma working for her stepfather’s real estate company. She had a tattoo of a star on her left wrist.
The truth is, she said, I’m an artist.

I got off the train at Pearl Station and walked to Main Street which is the only place anything happens at night. All the clubs that are dark during the day light up at night. The inverse of the city as I know it. I’d thought these buildings were abandoned but they’re just on the flip shift. I got out my camera and took a few pictures but felt gross because taking pictures is gross so I stuffed my camera down deep in my bag and didn’t take it out again all night. I thought about throwing it away.

During the day people walk through downtown alone or maybe with a co-worker but at night they walk through downtown in herds of equal parts guys and girls. The girls wear dresses that are too short and that they constantly have to tug down. The guys wear suits but not ties and spin their car keys around their index fingers. I stepped into an alley and drank some whisky. You could say I was on a kind of Zapoi, a drunken Russian walkabout that I learned about from Emmanuel Carrère’s Liminov. In a real Zapoi you spend days drunk and when you wake up you probably don’t know where you are. I am still under the belief (a belief I don’t actually believe in but that I still choose to believe) that truth is more accessible through inebriation.

I walked past all the bars and clubs and found a courtyard at the foot of the skyscraper that’s outlined in neon green. The neon was changing colors. Green to blue to pink to white to green again. The past few years all the buildings downtown have been changing their lights to multicolored lights. It started with the Omni hotel and now all of downtown Dallas glows like late night television.

I lit a cigarette and thought about an illustration my Sunday school teachers used to explain good and evil. They would close the blinds and turn out the lights and we would sit in the dark for a while and then they would strike a match. See how the darkness runs away?, they would say. See how the darkness is powerless? Which also reminds me of a Bukowski poem. A poem I only know from a Levi’s commercial. There is light somewhere/it may not be much light/but it beats the darkness. I thought about that while I lit a cigarette and a man sat down on the opposite side of the courtyard and started shouting things I couldn’t understand.

And the thing I was thinking about re: darkness and light is that the metaphor still felt true but most of the things I thought of as darkness and light had changed. In most cases flip flopped. A few years ago my moral compass started spinning. I think I am passing to the opposite side of something.

I drank more whisky. Zapoi! Across the courtyard the man was still yelling and the only word I could hear was diarrhea. He stood up and walked around and rolled on the ground. Diarrhea! Diarrhea! I watched him while I smoked. The tip of the cigarette glowed and dimmed. Darkness and light. Something dislodged inside my stomach. If the man had walked over to me I would have looked him in the eyes.

Mike Nagel’s essays have been published by The Awl, Apt, Curbside Splendor, Switchback, The Crab Creek Review and elsewhere. He and his wife live in Dallas.

Twitter: @misternagel