Tom Layou lives in Alaska, where he is Lead Electrician for stage productions in Anchorage. Tom attended the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 2002 at eighteen and won the Best Nonfiction award. I first encountered him in a workshop at SBWC some years later where he read a short piece and I thought it was crime fiction. It wasn’t. I met him at SBWC in 2015 and one of our later whimsical Facebook exchanges culminated in a story published in Gold Man Review about the legendary herbs of Matanuska. So I knew Tom was a smart and talented guy, but had little empirical evidence. I think he really came through with this creative essay written over the summer specifically for Luna Review.
Flies On The Sill
by Tom Layou
I’ve never mainlined anything but if I did it would probably feel like Tang on a craving. Sugar releases dopamine. It’s why AA meetings have a candy bowl next to the shitty coffee. It’s why guys like me drink Tang.
Ross dropped heavily into a chair by the flyrail. The ropes rose and disappeared above us in a line that seemed to vanish into the eternity of backstage. He reached into his pack, heavy with tools, and pulled a small tub of Orange Glory out. Uncapping it, he started adding to the remaining third of a bottle he had mixed hours ago.
“How long you think ‘til we’re out of here?” Ross asked, wiping sweat from his mangled glasses between holes in his t-shirt.
I looked around the deceptively bare stage and ran the list in my head. “Two and a half, three hours.” We were on different crews but lighting was the holdup.
He made a sucking sound with his teeth and said, “Fuck.” He poured more neon sludge into the jagged blue and black rainbow of his methed-out mouth.
“Done thirty, man.” That is one guy who doesn’t give a shit about his teeth, I thought as he jingled the canister into his sack of wrenches and ratchets.
Load-out can be unpleasant. Everything that’s been put up, all the work, has to come down and all the details blown off the stage that night like a Buddhist sand mandala, so the next show can start. Maybe we’ve been there since the matinee, maybe since yesterday’s matinee. Maybe the five show weekend was preceded by a four day build. Or the five show weekend was preceded by a week of performances and a week long build. Wherever this track began, no matter how much you’ve been looking forward to the hours, there comes a magical three a.m. when all you want is out. Cut a few hours for meal breaks and a few for sleep, try to go to bed after a sixteen hour day slamming coffee and Red Bull. Be a normal human, just try. A lot of techs need four hours to come down from the gig.
Not anyone can do it, and that’s how companies wind up with Ross. If that three a.m barrier had become five a.m. and there was some spontaneous miserable task, a half-stripped bolt tucked at a preposterous angle that required tenacity and strength with just the right finesse, Ross was your man. He’d probably be drunk. He would be stoned. And he would get that shit done. Running occasional interference on the employer was a small price.
Coming back from lunch one afternoon I parked and grabbed a Tupper of leftovers as I got out of the car. Walking to the street I heard a noise somewhere between a frantic hum and a restrained yell, like someone in a dentist’s chair building up to an outburst. A disheveled man approached. His blood blushed through his skin and streams of tears glistened in the sunlight. It was like he was trying to give birth from his skull while strolling through Anchorage. I looked past him as I continued to the street, another downtown freak to ignore.
He put up his fists and looked at me, the international, “I want to fight you,” stance.
“I’ll pass,” I said, and kept walking.
He reiterated the stance.
“I’m good.” Like he was offering me a beer.
The bum leaned forward and charged.
I ran into traffic and he followed. Wrench on a safety line. Flashlight to blind him. My knife. I didn’t think of any of the tools I carried as he followed me around the back end of a car in the far lane. Reverting to seventh grade survival tactics I considered throwing my lunch at him. My girlfriend had made that lunch. She’d been in the army, at least she’d know how to fight the guy. He gave up before long and I left him on the street corner with my dignity.
Anchorage sucks without a vehicle. An hour interval between buses is standard, and that’s only for people who get off work by nine p.m., six on Sundays. No one who takes complaints in this town is interested in your opinion if you can’t buy a car. I can drive straight home knowing crew members will lose two hours walking home and back. Or I play free cab.
“Ohmychrist,” I said, staring above the windshield in exhaustion.
“Right?” Ross said.
We sat in my dying Saturn, absorbing the hit of upholstered seating after sign out.
“Fuck all this shit.” My car jolted as the automatic transmission shifted hard into gear.
“Hey, man, if I threw you a couple bucks, you think you could smoke me a bowl?”
Trading weed I bought in exchange for money always seemed a backward step to me. “Man, I don’t like getting high with people on paper, I told you that.” It’s a stupid rule, if violating parole serves as no dissuasion, some asshole who obviously gets high all the time isn’t going to.
“I know. I just, I pee clean in like three days, I don’t know what it is.”
Like a lot of people who need clean pee for a job, probation, or parole, Ross claimed to have a unique metabolism. Like a lot of addicts, these people are full of shit. There are a hundred things you can do to screw with a urine test but nobody naturally pees clean after three days. I smoked every day I wasn’t studying for my whiz quiz the times I was on probation.
“How much of all that bullshit do you have left?”
“I dunno, man. It’s supposed to be over in a couple months but I still gotta take all the classes to finish. They’re always during work and it costs money to take them.”
“I still can’t find a place, no one wants to rent to a felon. I can’t get a job with a better schedule because nobody wants to hire you. I can’t pay for anything anyway ‘cause you’re not allowed to make any money in there. I mean, you can work, but it’s for like thirty cents an hour.”
“Just to make sure you’re still totally fucked when you get out.”
Ross had been in “a little fender bender,” while under the influence and in possession of mushrooms. I don’t remember if he said he’d eaten a half ounce, or two ounces. When someone says they like to drink a half gallon of vodka every day, anything seems plausible. At one half ounce, I might be able to identify my car keys, but would have difficulty walking to my vehicle. I’d probably spend thirty minutes watching my own knee flex and drop my keys under the porch. This monster had been operating a vehicle when his life took a legal detour.
“Up here on the left,” he said. I pulled off and parked in the dim light of a rundown apartment building. Ross got out and opened the back door for his bag. “Thanks for the lift, bro.” A fist bump, the miniaturized modern abrazo, and he shut both doors.
I waited a few seconds for him to go inside and loaded a bowl in the parking lot of the halfway house.
“We ready to do this?” Max asked while I clamped lights down on a suspended pipe running the length of the stage.
“Je-sus.” I smiled. “Let me finish up the dressing.”
“All right, all right, no rush.” Max pushed down on the pipe, muscles and a beer gut stuffed in a faded pink t-shirt.
“So that’s why you’re rushing me?”
Jasper chuckled and leaned into one of the eighty ropes along the wall. When the lights were ready Ben was going to release a lever, unlocking the rope and releasing weight that would carry the lights into the air.
It was dead of winter and a technician from a show based out of Cleveland or Phoenix or Saint Louis had returned the half block from the coffee shop. He entered the yellow of the work lights on stage.
“What’s up?” Max asked.
“There’s…there were all these homeless people fighting, like six of them, all up and down the street. But they were hitting each other like they were in slow motion, and then, all about the same time, they just started falling over. There’s like ambulances out there now, and they’re just working their arms and legs in the air like bugs dying.”
Things To See In Downtown Anchorage:
A look shot between us, and Max said, “Spice.”
“What the fuck is that?” the visiting tech said.
A moose eating the bark of a mountain ash.
Jasper rubbed his neck with his free hand, palming a tattoo. “Fake weed.”
A raven stealing French fries.
“A lot of convicts like it because it won’t show up on pee tests.” I wrapped tape around the pipe. “Homeless people like it because it’s cheap. They can get it for like two bucks at head shops and smoke stores.”
A half dozen street people devolving from a brawl to a collective mid-winter nap in the slush.
“It’s a quarter the price of weed and up to 200 times as effective,” I said.
“What the hell is in it?”
“Shit, who knows?” Max said. “They make it in labs in China and shit, switch up the molecules every month to stay ahead of laws. The list of chemicals that go into it is just a jumble of letters, dashes and numbers. Spray it on whatever kind of plants, tea leaves, fuckin’ lawn trimmings probably.”
Jasper made a cursory check of the rope, looking up all hundred feet of it. “It’s real tricky because different brands use different concentrations of chemicals. Even in the same bag people get something different from hit to hit. A dose can be the size of a match head but people sprinkle it on just like it’s weed.”
Max said, “They started making it illegal here but people just get it online. Now we’ve got a guy up in the Matanuska Valley mixing it in a wheelbarrow with a shovel. Stirs it up, but the formaldehyde settles to the bottom. Boils their brains and they die. People don’t know what the fuck they’re getting.”
I broke off the tape with a yank. “All right, Senhor Jasperberg, may we fly this out, please?”
It was nineteenth century France and Ross flung an electric cable around a mobile hodge-podge of old furniture that would barricade the standoff scene in Les Miserables. “Hey, man, you think you can give me a ride home?”
“Yeah, all right.”
“Thing is,” Ross coiled the cable, his crazy half-assed ponytail bobbing as he spoke, “I was kinda wantin’ to go to the cast party.”
“Pff…” I looked up into the fly tower, the magical space above the stage where scenery and lights disappear.
“Just for a little bit,” Ross said, “Get som’in to eat.”
“Yeah, we can go for a little.”
As an intern I had been the first tech to cast parties, to sop up free beer and chat up the talent. Ross wanted their leftover hors d’oeuvres, sometimes a stagehand’s finest meal of the week.
On the way out of the security entrance Ross said, “Hey, can we stop by your car on the way? I don’t want to take my tools in there.”
By on the way he meant walk four or five blocks. “All right.” The party was across the street.
“You wanna put your bag in the trunk?”
“Nah, up front’s fine.” I unlocked the doors with my key fob and he sat in the passenger seat as he lowered his heavy backpack onto the floorboard. “You mind if I roll a spice joint?”
Of course. “Do your thing.” I popped the driver’s side and took a seat to wait. He pulled out the usual rolly tobacco and papers, along with an extra foil pouch, about two inches square. The car filled with a sweet, heavy smell. No small talk. “Well fuck,” I said, pulling my pipe and weed out of the center console, “Guess I’m gonna have a toke or two.”
“All right.” He watched me load the bowl out of the corner of his eye. “You mind if I have a hit of that?”
Motherfucker. “Sure.” You engineered this whole scenario to get me in the parking lot where you could weed rape me.
Ross demanded to have his urine tested before he got sent back to prison but he had played hooky too long after being selected for a random pee test. He knew he needed money to spend in the prison commissary and kept coming to work instead. That’s where Ross was arrested. The entertainment industry doesn’t give a shit about drug charges if you can stand upright on that particular day and we got him back eight months later.
Like a lot of people fresh out of prison he was on point. He showed up in the mornings with penitent enthusiasm, ready to play the game. For a while. “You got ten bucks I can borrow?”
“Why don’t you hit up Paul?” Company loyalty is preferred anywhere but with Alaska’s spotty tech work it’s basically a joke. “That’s why you work for Paul, so you can borrow money.”
He explained the ethic but odds are he already had. Minutes later Ross met me on the other side of the stage. “So, you think you can do that, or…?”
I went back to stage left.
“He asked you, too?” Atley said.
I was sitting in the theater doing paperwork when Ross walked on stage and approached Meredith, the technical director. He had been working down the hall. Ross looked like he hadn’t showered in a while but that could have been all the sweat.
“I brought you this…” His voice trailed off.
Meredith looked at Ross expectantly, appraising.
“Sharpie,” Ross finished.
“OK.” There are things that need to be kept track of. The wrench for changing wheels on a disc grinder. A nicopress. We have Sharpies. Meredith stood in front of Ross for a handful of seconds, smelling him. “And you are bringing me this because?”
Meredith waited, Ross still holding the Sharpie out to her.
When there are ten thousand things swirling in my acid-stirred brain and I can’t say a single one of them, that was the flavor of the wait.
As the work day proceeded, we asked Gwen to speak with Ross. If you’re going to deny being wasted, drool has no place in the conversation.
“I just can’t believe he lied to me like that!” Gwen’s other work was as a substance abuse liaison with the police department. It was her job to see when someone was fucked up. The rest of us came by the information more casually, and Ross wasn’t fooling anyone. We all knew he had to pee clean. We all knew it was Spice.
Ross got into treatment voluntarily after that but he had a lot of making up to do, and Meredith severely restricted the work he could take with us. He was relegated to scrounging gigs from everyone else in town, mostly Paul at Trapp Productions, who seems to regard hit-or-miss functionality as a credential. I came in for one of the small shows Ross could still work.
Jasper, a cloud of tattoos. “Has anybody seen him?”
Katie was the employer for that show. She said brightly, “I haven’t seen him yet, but I looked in the crew room. His stuff was all over and the lights were down, so, he’s here somewhere.”
It was a simple load-out and forty-five minutes later we were finishing up.
“There he is!” Katie called out. She has a line that is not to be crossed, but she will play along with a lot of bullshit.
Ross was smiling with a shruggy “I don’t know how that happened,” walk.
“We were starting to wonder about you,” Jasper said in a reserved but jovial tone.
“We saw all your stuff was downstairs with the lights off,” Katie said. “So we just figured you were taking a nap somewhere.”
Ross said, “Oh, I didn’t nap, I–”
“Maybe you should have,” I said.
Ross shot me a look over his shoulder and mumbled his hundredth excuse for the week.
Another few months, another midnight, Jasper and I were walking to my car. Two middle-aged men stood tenuously upright by the curb in front of the bus depot. Coming from the other direction a pair of nicely dressed ladies were on their way to finish up Saturday night. The men sputtered half-conceived catcalls as the women approached.
The ladies passed between the inebriates and the locked doors of the depot. The taller man found articulation and stumbled toward them, erupting, “So sex-y!” He had broken it into two words to double down on creep. They wanted someone to call them sexy, but it wasn’t any of us. I caught the ladies’ looks as they walked away. One was straight anger, the other a more confused outrage with strong overtones of violation.
Their night’s best chance at sex evaporating, the men turned to Jasper and I. Ben had dropped his hands to his sides at the same time I dipped my thumb against the clip knife in my pocket.
“Hey, one of you guys got a cigarette?”
“Don’t smoke,” Jasper replied. About a half block away, Jasper said, “Those guys didn’t want a cigarette.”
“That’s how people want you when they rob you.”
“Your hands busy?”
Jasper nodded. “If we’d stopped, we’d have been in a fight.”
I loaded a bowl while the two of us decompressed in the car. “You heard anything about Ross lately?”
“He was working for Trapp a lot but he burned that bridge too.”
“You gotta be fucking kidding me.”
“Lates, no-shows, and when he was there he was just a disaster. Went back down south to his girlfriend and kids. Don’t think he ever finished with his legal shit.”
I had sniffed my first line of morphine off one of Trapp’s road boxes, before the real gangsters OD’d or relocated to the wilderness. Addicts, felons, slingers and thieves, the crew is still known as the Lost Boys, but Ross couldn’t hack it in Neverland anymore.
It’s difficult to garner a community of people who understand substance abuse outside the chanting church rooms of a program. The group stays small and the odds aren’t good. Your hopes are bundled together and it hurts when people backslide. To hear that bell toll is a frightening reminder.
Q & A
Luna Review: When did you start writing seriously?
Tom Layou: Sometime in June? I took myself seriously as a teen and at the time that was good enough. I got lazy and had too much faith in my memory, then I drank and started taking hard drugs. I stopped talking about being a writer as much. I began trying again in 2013 and with more sincerity in 2014, around a year after I quit drinking. I started developing a discipline of often perfunctory daily journal entries. I’ve only recently started to work with having structure.
Luna Review: Do you remember the first book that blew your mind?
Tom Layou: I think the first one that gave me trippy shit to think about was Sphere by Michael Chrichton. When I was eleven I bought the Grapes of Wrath because references and spoofs on shows like The Simpsons and Animaniacs made me curious about titles that floated around American culture. Steinbeck screwed with my head because I sort of equated being a respected and established author to being part of the Establishment.
LR: Steinbeck actually received a lot of hate for what he said in his books. Only after he died did he become revered, widely accepted, and canonical.
TL: Steinbeck told me power often treats good people wrong. He told me what to expect in the face of authority, whether it’s government, finance, law enforcement, or employment. He told me how we should be to our loved ones, and the people we’ve never met. I wonder what other person I would be if I had bought anything else?
LR: Did you take writing courses or have that one special teacher?
TL: In 2014 I took a class from a former professor at the University of Alaska. Peter Porco provided me the invaluable advice I needed to get out of a mire of indecision, “Just get it on the page.”
My eleventh grade English teacher, Lin Hinderman got me going. She changed my idea of what someone might consider worth writing about by assigning Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The sexiest part of the whole text is about moths and the book immediately invites the conversation,
“Fuck you, it’s pretty.”
Hinderman’s class included a memoir project to be created in monthly installments. There were virtually no requirements other than a piece be something true from a student’s life. I holed up with my computer and wrote forty pages the first month. By the end of junior year, school work had become less of a priority but I had what looked and felt like a book. I had already been interested in writing by then, but from that class I decided I wanted more than a hobby.
LR: Why do you write memoir as opposed to horror, crime fiction or literary fiction?
TL: I shit you not it was The Wonder Years. Watching the story of another kid’s life while hearing a later version of himself ruminating over poignant and formative moments took away some of the sense that I wouldn’t really be alive until I was an adult. It gave me a clear idea what I was experiencing was an integral part of someone’s life, one people think about later, and carry with them. I went into experiences believing I would become retrospective about them, and placed more value on them because of it.
LR: Hmmm… Who are some writers that expanded your consciousness (or broke your heart)?
TL: I realized recently I don’t read enough memoir or personal essays. I have been reading David Sedaris for years, though. I could read him when I was wasted and I could read him when I was crawling out of my skin. The fact of his humor can’t be questioned but I most admire Sedaris’s ability for brutal and cutting ironic self-awareness, often without much time fermenting.
I finally read Capote’s In Cold Blood. I couldn’t get over the way that in a book whose broad strokes are known well enough, Capote explicitly states within three pages four shotgun blasts end six lives, then spends another three hundred and forty pages delectably teasing out how it happens and why we should care in ways that might not have been expected.
Mary Karr is my Jesus. I like her conversational, frank voice. I like her tough approach to darkness and how much humor she makes in it. She can portray a day when she was six years old in a full, detailed narrative when I’d be lucky to remember a shirt or a restaurant to go with a moment being discussed. She demonstrates an approach to be noted and valued.
Kurt Vonnegut, who, with more humor and a lot of abstraction, dealt with similar themes to what I found compelling in Steinbeck. After that I allowed Jack Kerouac to ruin my life and then I got into Faulkner. The confusion of Faulkner’s immersing, overwhelming style left me to experience the story happening without regard for where it fit in the plot, whose thoughts I was reading, or what was actually going on. I respect Chuck Palahniuk’s boldness. Rather than hiding like a freak he has the balls write it.
If we want to talk about an author who absolutely broke my heart, that is a conversation about Jose Saramago.
LR: Do you have any writing rituals to impart to other writers?
TL: Getting up around eight a.m., making coffee, looking at where I left off, then putting the new things down and finessing old details until I have a new page or so and can live my day guilt free. Sometimes I get home between midnight and two a.m. for weeks. When I have to I squeeze out my quota between meal breaks, preshow, intermission, between cues, or cooling down a spot light after a show. When my a.m. writing is on the wrong end, I take a shower, eat, and make a cup of tea. A drink in reach became comfort for me a long time ago. In more practical terms it keeps me seated longer instead of grazing the pantry.
LR: What’s next for Tom Layou? Projects, dreams? A collection of essays, a manifesto?
TL: The next project I want to complete is a collection of haiku. The hope had been to commission illustrations for some of them and try to market it, but I’ve had little luck with artists and I last counted around eighty that seem worth showing. I may self-publish a collection of 100 or so just to have something to pass around.
LR: Okay, and then perhaps a collection of essays.
TL: As far as a dream. I want to write memoir and I have my impractical streak. I ask out pretty ladies and ride my longboard on hills I shouldn’t.