Issue 011: This Feeling Could Unmake
Something That I Like
(So I Won't Feel It)
18 February 2012
“Because my love is strong
And my heart is weak after all”
“He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was. . . .”
for D. P.-L. and V. P.-L.;
your papa misses you both very much
• • •
I have a desk here in Austin, Texas. It used to be in Baltimore, Maryland. It has traveled great distances in order to continue performing its duty as a writing surface. I am grateful. I wouldn’t want any other desk, and I’m sure this desk wouldn’t want any other master.
And see: I have here on this very desk a list of things I have promised to talk about this week. Promised whom? Myself, I guess.
I shall hold up the note and read it, and then I will transcribe its contents for you here. That way no one will be confused as to what they’re getting themselves into.
Ah, yes. I am seeing now that it is written haphazardly and sloppily. I must have scribbled in the dark—and under the influence of alcohol, or perhaps with a mind and body that were heavily sleep-deprived. Anyway, here it is:
1. Village of Berries / Williamsburg
2. Janet George’s house (party)
3. Ayesha kissed me on the head as she said good-bye
4. Thai food with J. and A.
5. Deer Tick & Friends (excerpt)
6. Painting with Perri
7. Bus station
8. Moving to Texas
9. Living in this place + Alex’s presents
10. ‘Get off that bike’
That’s all I have written down. These aren’t chapters—they’re ideas. However, there will be chapters, just for fun. I will assign stories under titles arbitrarily.
Yes, and at the top of this list—this list of ideas—there is a picture of a cat, and in a little speech bubble he’s saying this: “Guys. I fucking killed someone and I need your help burying the body.” There is also a phone number with a Baltimore area code. I won’t put that here. God knows where that line leads.
I suspect I am to compose a whole Newsletter off these one-line descriptions of my life for the past month. That’s what I had in mind, I’m sure, when I clumsily jotted them down late one night, I can’t remember when.
I finally have a space of my own to write this thing. See, I’ve been cooped up in a car or living in someone else’s house or sleeping on a floor somewhere for the past two or three months, and I haven’t been able to concentrate. Now I can. I’m so happy about that.
This desk has traveled 1,500 miles in order for me to sit down at it tonight and write to you all. I’m happy you’re here. Hello! Let’s be happy for one another, and celebrate our existences through language transmitted through satellites and cables and wires.
• • •
“Do You Want A Barrel? I Will Make You A Barrel.”
I awoke on Christmas Day to a kitten licking my face. It was Lucy. She wanted me to wake up and love her. I said, “OK, Lucy.” I loved her. She loved me. We were both very happy I had woken up.
I knew there were old people in the house, which were Jason’s grandparents, so I made the adult decision to clothe myself in more than boxer-briefs. I stumbled downstairs with a head full of lead balls. I felt weird and disoriented. I had slept very little.
I turned the corner and entered the living room. Jason’s grandmother stood up and smiled. She pulled me close to her. “Merry Christmas, Ryan,” she said. “It’s so good to see you.” Jason’s grandfather shook my hand. Jason’s mother and father gave me a hug each.
The fire I had started the night before was still burning in the wood stove. Everything was warm and cheery. Everything was beautiful.
“Ryan—” said Jason, “you need to call your family. They’re upset that you’re late.”
And there it went: Gone were the feelings of mirth and happiness; out went the light in my heart. I had a family, I realized, and they were angry with me on Christmas.
I called my little sister. Her voice was husky and dark. Something bad had happened. “Where are you?” she said. “And what aren’t you here yet?”
“Mom said 10:30. It’s 10:07,” I said.
“She’s locked herself in her room,” she said, “and she’s very upset that you’re not here yet.”
“Merry Christmas, Kendall,” I said.
“I said ‘Merry Christmas’.”
“Just hurry home before she has a meltdown.”
• • •
I drove home. I was leisurely about it. I arrived just before 10:30, which meant I was on time, and not at all at fault for anything that any reasonable person could accuse me of. It was Christmas Day, I thought, and there didn’t exist a single reason to be angry at anyone at all.
My family was angry. “Why are you late?” and “Where have you been?” and “Why didn’t you pick up your phone?” were asked repeatedly by nearly every member of my family.
“I was told 10:30,” I said.
“Yes,” said my grandmother, “but you don’t actually show up at 10:30. You show up earlier.”
“What?” I said.
“It makes sense to me,” she said.
“That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever,” I said.
I wished I was back in bed with little Lucy. I would let her lick my face all day if she wanted to. I didn’t give a damn about opening presents and pretending to be normal.
• • •
My mother finally descended from her room around 11:00. She looked worn down. I hugged her and told her I loved her. She hugged me back. She said, “I love you, too.”
We opened presents. It was joyless. It had been done to death. Christmas, as far as I was concerned, could end forever on that day. What was the point any longer? It had become a room full of adults who were unhappy to be doing things together. It had become stale and sad.
I received a few books I had been asking for—and a new pair of Adidas Sambas, which I was very happy about. I’d been kicking around in the same Sambas for three years, and here they were, new as they could be: black and white and brown and beautiful. I put them on my feet and began reading One Man’s Meat by E. B. White. I felt OK again.
I made a cup of tea and talked to my mother’s boyfriend. He had given me $100 in airline credit, which is just about the best gift anyone could ever ask for. He knew, somewhere in his heart, that I was a dude who had places to be, and so he tailored my Christmas present accordingly.
“Thank you, Bob,” I said, “for giving me the present I like the most.”
“Yes,” he said, sipping a cup of coffee. “Yes, indeed.” Bob was a man of few words.
• • •
The morning became the afternoon, and that meant it was time to leave. My grandmother and I collected our things and packed them away in her car. We were headed West—out to the Village of Berries, where my two dear cousins are from time to time. They were there on this day because it was one of the few days of the year they were required to be there. They were fifty miles away, opening presents with little excitement—tired of the routine, tired of presents, tired of the whole damn charade—yet I knew in my heart, much as they knew in theirs, that the day would be worth it once our wheels rolled down the driveway as a sort of organic fanfare, announcing the arrival of dear friends. We would see each other and be happy. That was something. It certainly wasn’t nothing.
Yes, and we drove and drove—drove on highways that were empty of people, for people were at home with their families, snug and warm and happy. My grandmother and I left because we had to leave. We weren’t snug and warm and happy at all. I brought it up at a gas station outside of Winchester, Virginia.
“You know,” I said, “I just don’t like Christmas anymore.”
“Oh, me too,” she said. “What a waste of time. Your mother gets upset over Kendall, and Kendall gets upset over her, and it becomes a big damn mess. I’m done with it. I don’t look forward to it anymore.”
“I just want to see you and my mother and Kendall. I want us to just get along—to be happy around one another.”
“Boy,” she said, “if only. And here I was just thinking the same thing.” She smiled and rubbed my back. “You and I—we think alike. We’re good friends.”
“Yes,” I said, “we sure are.”
And on we drove. My grandmother periodically handed me apple slices and grapes without my asking. “I have to make sure you’re eating right,” she said. “I’m your grandmother, after all.”
• • •
We arrived at 2:00. We were greeted by two black labs—one of whom was energetic and crazy with happiness. The other was old and tired. He looked up at me with drooping red eyes. “Hi, Finn,” I said. I rubbed the top of his head and around his ears. Finn lay down on his bed and curled his tail around his enormous body. He was sad about Christmas, too.
My dear cousins, Ned and John, gathered around the front door and said “Hello” and “How are you?” and “Merry Christmas”. And so too did my aunt and uncle, who were happy to see us, and not at all inclined to yell and scream and complain. They were perfectly content to give hugs and offer food and drink and warmth. Like that morning at Jason’s, it reminded me of what Christmas could be like, if only my mother and little sister didn’t want to rip each other’s faces off.
• • •
The three of us—my dear cousins and I—we started a fire in the downstairs wood stove almost immediately. We’d done it since we were boys, and now as grizzled men we continued our fine tradition, albeit with little enthusiasm. Logs were brought in, newspaper was shredded and ignited . . . and three happy faces were lit up in yellow and orange, and warmed by the aftermath of our labor.
“What now?” I said. “What do we do now?”
No one offered any sort of response. We had twenty-four hours to kill before we set out for Williamsburg, deep down in Virginia. There we would surely sit by many more fires, and share many meals together. But for now we were stuck in the basement of my aunt and uncle’s house, tending to the fire with little else to do.
John strummed the guitar and sang. Ned stoked the coals and dashed about here and there online. I sat glumly on the couch. I was hungry. All the fluids in my body were boiling. We’d built the fire up too much, and had made our section of the house uninhabitable.
I stood up and opened the sliding door. Cold air flooded in, devouring the hot air.
“Thank God,” I said.
• • •
Midnight came. I had the keys to my grandmother’s car in my bag. I retrieved them and showed John. I told him my mind was wandering, and I was feeling antsy and weird and sad, and that the only thing that could possibly save me was a night drive. He told me he felt the very same way.
We got in the car and sped off in the direction of God-knows-where. Moonlight shone overhead and slipped through the trees, creating thin beams which spread upon the road before us. Dead leaves hung from dead trees. Everything was black and blue and sunken.
We drove to a forest not far from the house. I killed the engine. We talked about girls, and about missing girls, and about loving girls. We sang along to Deer Tick songs and felt pain in our chests when a lyric hit too close to home.
“I am the boy your mother wanted you to meet, but I am broken and torn with halos at my feet . . .”
“I just want a kiss, a kiss good-bye . . .”
“And you know that I’d wait an awful long time, but you gave up and shoved me aside . . .”
When the cold began to creep in, I turned the car on and asked John where we were headed next. “Go down this road right here,” he said pointing to a winding road to the left to us. It looked spooky as hell. I knew immediately that we had to drive down it.
• • •
We zipped down backroads in a car that didn’t belong to us—going too fast, talking quietly, whipping past dark greens and blues and purples while the heater kept our hands and noses from having to feel the bitter cold.
When we found ourselves on a straight and open road, John pointed to a hill up ahead. “Pull over there,” he said. I eased on the brakes and brought the car to a rest on a small slope just off the road.
John opened the door and stepped outside. He rubbed his hands together. He bent down to look at me, as I was still inside the car. “Cold as fuck,” he said.
I opened my own door and felt a rush of frosty wind soar through the car. I shivered and zipped up my coat. I put one foot outside, and then another. I stood up and closed the door, reluctantly leaving the womb behind.
• • •
Outside the sky was bathed in a translucent purple veil. Smoky gray swirls infected every cloud so that the surface of the sky was eerie and dark and carved out of coal. Everything under it looked sick and beautiful at the same time. In the distance I could make out the trees which lined the vast meadow before us, smeared in blackness.
I walked over to a white fence and stood by John, who was now puffing away at his sixth or seventh cigarette of the night. “Beautiful out here,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, “like the traces of a post-apocalyptic storm. These colors are practically supernatural.”
I listened to the wind whistle through the trees, which rose up to meet me. My face went numb. I didn’t have a cylinder of fire pursed between my lips. I had only the blood in my own body. It failed to warm me.
• • •
John, sensing that I was cold, told me it was all right with him if we moved on. I was happy to get back inside the car. Once the doors were closed and the cigarettes were extinguished, I turned on the engine and let the car warm up. I beat my hands against my chest to stimulate circulation. It was a trick I had learned years earlier from having read “To Build a Fire”.
I put my foot on the accelerator and pressed down hard. The car rocketed down the lonely stretch of road, taking us with it. John leaned his seat back and stared ahead with half-shut eyes.
“You tired?” I said.
“A little,” he said. “Not too much.”
“Yeah. I just want to keep driving, but we have to get home. So much for Christmas, I guess.”
When the opportunity to turn around appeared, I made a small circle and headed in the direction we had just come from. I anticipated every bump and curve and straightaway. I delighted in the familiarity of it all. I wanted to keep driving and driving, hoping the sun would never come up—and at the same time I very much wanted to be in a bed, soothed and warm, drugged and lonely.
• • •
The fire was nearly dead by the time we came in through the basement door. The room had grown dark and frigid. John picked up his guitar. He lit a cigarette, inhaled, blew out a cloud of death and strummed a gentle melody. I wished Ned was still awake, wished he could be with us. But it was just the rat bastard and me, talking vaguely of loves long gone, and of abandonment and guilt and regret. There was little to say that hadn’t be said before.
“God damn it,” I said.
• • •
I crawled into bed just before four in the morning. Something resembling sorrow touched me from head to toe, and I found no peace under the layers of blankets that rested on top of me. There would be no relief in sleep. My dreams would be dark and hollow and full of faces I missed so much and so hard that it made my heart squirm in my chest.
John was subduing his own demons on the other side of the room. He too was flickering on and off, battling consciousness to avoid feeling pain, and yet resisting sleep and the nightmares that come with it.
As a matter of nightly routine, my own dreams consisted of six or seven compartmentalized horror stories of hearts stomped and tears shed. John’s, I wagered, were no different.
I lied to myself. My brain told me this: “Close your eyes, this won’t hurt a bit.”
And then I hurt.
• • •
That night I entered a dreamworld resembling Baltimore. It was gray and stale and dry. There were no cars on the road, no people on the sidewalks. No birds. No rats. It was only me, stranded in my least favorite place, wandering aimlessly through Mt. Royal, up and down St. Paul Street—and Charles and East Oliver, near Green Mount Cemetery. I got lonely. I walked to MICA, where I hoped to find the only other person I knew in Baltimore.
And then I found myself back in a day I had lived before—in late May of the same year. There she was, waiting for me outside the library. She stood by a bench with her arms folded, staring at the ground with faint blue eyes. Her hair was pulled back and she was wearing the same shirt she’d worn six years earlier, on the day she took a train up to visit me. We were meeting under very different circumstances. There would be hugs, no kisses—no “I love you” and “I want you”.
She stood alone, looking pale and fragile and air-thin, like a whisper or a breeze, too sensitive and wonderful and impossible to exist in such a harsh place. She belonged in Heaven.
I approached her with my hands in my pockets. She wouldn’t look at me.
“Madeleine,” I said. She didn’t answer. She continued to stare at the ground, at her shoes, at leaves blowing across the sidewalk.
And then she moved her head slowly, higher and higher, her eyes studying the way the light hit my skin. Finally she met my gaze. Her face was porcelain, faintly accented with pinks and reds from a night of crying and little else.
It was then I could look into her eyes, which were quivering pink orbs—bloodshot, hollow, impossibly sad.
Something I’d heard before looped in my head: “I’ve never seen eyes so hurt, the kind the scream my name . . .”
I wanted to reach out and touch her, but was afraid I would turn her to dust. I could only watch as she stood in the pale sunlight, achingly beautiful, unsure of what had happened to her world.
I turned and began to walk away. An intense numbing feeling stopped me. And then pain surged through my dream-body’s nervous system, which meant it was being destroyed. Soon the illusion would vanish, and with it the image of the girl who used to love me. I panicked and turned again to face her, but she was nowhere to be found. I looked up at the sky and opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Everything around me disappeared into a tunnel of screaming black nothing. I woke up.
• • •
In my waking life I was being summoned to rise by my dear grandmother. Only four hours had passed. She asked me to get dressed and come down to kitchen for breakfast. I felt exhausted and sad.
I put on the same clothes I’d worn the day before and rubbed my head with my right hand, which made my hair look even worse. I looked around the room. The light pouring in from the window hurt my eyes. I coughed. John’s bed was empty. He’d had already woken up and wandered off somewhere.
Downstairs there were croissants and bananas and apples and a carton of orange juice. I ate a cold croissant and put a banana in my back pocket. I stumbled outside without bothering to tie my shoelaces.
Ned and John were loading things into the car. The sun was boiling my eyes in my sockets. I put on a pair of sunglasses and began helping them put luggage in the trunk.
“Are you all right with driving?” said John.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, that’s fine.”
I pulled the banana out of my pocket and ate half of it in one bite—likely to the disgust of curious onlookers. I sat down in the car. I ate the other half. I put the key in the ignition and turned it until the engine fired up. It was a four-hour drive to Williamsburg. It was going to be a long four hours.
• • •
I spaced out for the first two and a half hours. Ned and Jack switched off playing music. We sat in traffic for a while, and then moved again. Then more traffic—more sitting. Finally we were clipping along at 75 mph as I attempted to keep up with my uncle and aunt and grandmother in the car in front of us.
My subconscious whispered into my mind’s ear: “You’re getting sad again.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re sad because nothing’s working,” said my subconscious.
“Yes,” I said.
“Hmm,” said my subconscious. “We just can’t get a break, huh?”
“No,” I said.
“Then how about I cut this wheel and ram us into a tree? Subconsciously, of course.”
“No,” I said. “I love my cousins.”
“Relax. I was only kidding. Come on. Anyway, so long.”
My eyes began to roll to the back of my head and my eyelids drooped and my body shook and my hands trembled. It was time for someone else to drive.
John took my place. I fell asleep instantly. I was taken from reality into an empty black space where nothing hurt.
“Finally,” I said.
• • •
It was cold when we arrived in Williamsburg. People were happy and all around us, walking down the sidewalks and in the street. There wasn’t a somber face to be found. The day after Christmas was just about the best day of the year, it seemed.
We pulled into the parking garage of the Williamsburg Lodge. We got out and carried the luggage up a flight of stairs and then took the elevator. Upstairs the buildings were brick with wood trim. Everything was quaint and simple and wonderful.
“Nice place,” I said.
“Yeah,” said John. “It’s all right.”
Our room wasn’t ready when we checked in, so we relaxed in my grandmother’s room, which was made entirely out of aged wood. We sat on funny chairs and sipped complimentary coffee and tea. I flipped through a hotel guide and discovered that they had a spa.
“We have to go to this,” I said to Ned and John, nearly shaking. “We have to fucking go to this.”
• • •
Later that night we dined at The King’s Arms, which was an upscale restaurant that only served colonial food. The dining room was lit by candlelight. I had something involving vegetables and pasta while those around me sucked down fistfuls of meat. I ordered a mint julep and had a glass of wine. I sipped a beer. Quickly I found myself giddy and stupid. I was intoxicated and better for it. Cares drifted away. Money was no longer an issue. Girls were unnecessary.
Yes, and I was pleasantly vacant during dessert. The eyes were buzzing and red, and the mouth was turned upward to form a ghoulish grin, and the hair was tossed and greasy and stuck to the temples.
I was sloppy and wiry and full of pasta and undercooked vegetables by the time the night’s entertainment crossed the dining room floor in full colonial garb. He asked us for song recommendations, and our table was the only one to offer up any sort of suggestion as to how the man should play his guitar and penny whistle.
“Green Sleeves,” said my uncle. He smirked and adjusted his glasses. He took a sip out of his wine glass.
“Yes, sir,” said the man with the guitar and the penny whistle. He played it beautifully.
Afterwards, my uncle handed him five dollars. “Great,” he said. “Just wonderful.”
• • •
We exited The King’s Arms with bulging guts. I myself was fostering a broken heart and something of a headache.
“That mint julep—” said my grandmother, “boy, it must have been something, all right.”
“Sure was,” I said. I hiccuped. I was drunk in the presence of my grandmother.
The air was frigid and hurtful. It numbed the tip of my nose. I zipped my jacket up and braved the cold as best I could. John and Ned spotted a fire on the road up ahead, so we meandered down the long dirt road in the direction of warmth.
In the distance I could make out mothers and fathers and little children. They were gathered around the fire, hands in front of their chests, absorbing whatever heat they could. The buildings surrounding them were twinkling with candlelight. In their glow I saw moths and little insects fluttering about. Everyone was looking to escape the cold.
I was the first to reach the fire. There was a small pit with several logs roasting inside. The pit was dug into the dirt road just outside a small tavern. I let the fire warm my chest and arms and legs, and then I turned around and let it heat the rest. I hiccuped again. I needed to be in a bed. I did my best to feign sobriety. I had very little success.
“I want to go back to our room,” I said to John. “I need to lie down.” The two of us began walking toward the Williamsburg Lodge. Ned soon followed.
I looked ahead at what appeared to be an enormous Christmas tree. It was at least a hundred yards in front of us. It was lit up by bulbs shaped like ice cream cones. They were the biggest Christmas lights I had ever seen. Something about it was wonderful and magical, which surprised even me. After years of being disillusioned by the whole thing—by Christmas—I was mesmerized by the spectacle across the lawn. I walked towards it feeling like I had no choice but to do just that.
Soon everyone was gathered around it. My grandmother was particularly impressed. She sidled up next to me and wrapped her arm around mine. “You’ll let an old woman lean on you, won’t you?” she said. She smiled. I could see her breath escape her mouth and dissipate into the bitter black night.
“Of course,” I said. “I don’t mind at all.”
“I always think back to that Christmas we spent in Europe,” she said. “I will always remember it as my favorite Christmas. Vienna is so beautiful at Christmas time, isn’t it? I don’t think I’ll ever see it again.”
“I don’t know if I will, either,” I said.
“Nonsense,” she said. “You will.”
The tree shined and shined. It lent its soft white glow on my grandmother’s face. She was wrapped up in a shaw and a scarf, but I noticed that she smiled again.
“I’m just so happy to be here,” she said. She patted me on the shoulder and rubbed my back.
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”
• • •
When we got back to the hotel room, John pulled out a box full of pipes and tobacco and so on. He invited me to walk around the grounds. He wanted to puff away at his pipe and talk about philosophy and women and sadness. I said, “OK.” I said, “Why the hell not?”
I washed my face in the sink and stared at myself in the mirror. I looked long gone. There were ten years of sadness behind my gaze, and my hair was sloppy and long, and my five-day beard had become a two-week beard. I smacked myself until I woke up a little, and opened my sore eyes wide. I was ready to smoke a pipe and talk about philosophy and women and sadness. “Let’s go,” I said to myself. I put on another layer and zipped my jacket up tight.
John was sitting on the bed when I walked into the room. He was packing two pipes full of black tobacco. “Ready?” he said. I nodded. We left out the side door. He closed it behind us, shutting out the light and warmth and the two of us reentered the wintery nothing we had been so happy to escape only thirty minutes before.
John handed me a packed pipe. I placed it between my lips and smelled the tobacco. “It’s strong stuff,” he said. “Maybe stronger than you should be smoking.”
“That’s all right,” I said. He lit a match and held it up to the tobacco in my pipe. I inhaled until flames and smoke appeared. I let out a cloud of gray air and puffed some more. “Make sure you get a really hot cherry,” he said, “and then let it sink down to the middle. That’ll keep it lit.” I vaguely understood what he meant.
He lit his own pipe and smoked it like a pro. I had to be relit several times until I got the hang of it. The smoke felt strange in my throat. It floated and then stayed there until I let it escape from me.
We walked around the hotel grounds, up and down the walkways and in between all the buildings. Everyone who passed us seemed annoyed that we were smoking.
John had an expression on his face which I envied. It said this: “I don’t give a fuck.”
• • •
I drunkenly took a bath when we got back to the room. My face was hot with alcohol. I filled the bathtub to the brim and hopped in. I daydreamed about my furry little boys, and wondered what they were doing. I prayed in my heart that one day I would see them again.
Yes, and I stayed until the water turned lukewarm. I shivered and dreamed and dreamed. When it was time to get out, I did so reluctantly. I wrapped myself in a white towel and sat down on the floor. I stared at the wall with dead eyes. I let memories and illusions play out on the white space before me.
When I was done slobbering on myself, and crying like a child, I stepped out into the room. Ned and John were asleep. I crawled under the blankets and joined them in dreamland.
• • •
I was awoken the next morning at an hour which seemed unreasonable to me. It was ten a.m. My aunt and uncle knocked on the hotel door and beckoned us to join them for breakfast. They left, telling us to meet them in the lobby in fifteen minutes.
Ned opened the side door and reported that it was cold outside. I rolled over. I felt like I never wanted to wake up. John was wide awake. He was beside me. We’d slept in the same bed.
He coughed and swore. He put on a little knit hat and buttoned up a flannel shirt, feeling perhaps a little sad, a little hollow. He knew, just as well as I did, that there was nothing outside our room that could make “it” go away. “It”, of course, was the pain of abandonment—of mental anguish.
“I need a vacation from this vacation,” said John.
• • •
We spent the day wandering around Williamsburg. We saw how silver was wrought into spoons and forks and kettles, and how shoes were assembled, and how blacksmithing was done, and how newspapers were printed two-hundred years ago. Each shop was warmed by an enormous fireplace, with small logs piled up just beside it or stacked neatly outside. The tradesmen and tradeswomen were adorned in traditional colonial garb. They spoke of older times, and cracked wise at their employment in trades which were no longer valued by the world, and of their anachronistic existences. It was a splendid day to be alive—to see it all happen.
The most exciting trade—and I mean this with no sarcasm—was the creation of barrels. The cooper, or barrel maker, was a fine gentleman: a rotund and jolly and amiable one. He sat alone in his workshop, carving wood and bending steel hoops and talking to everyone who had any questions to ask about how exactly a barrel was made. He was the best tradesmen we’d met all day (which was a toss up between him and the silversmith).
A daring older gentlemen in the front row was the first to speak up: “How exactly are barrels made?”
“Like this,” said the cooper. “Just like this.” He used a U-shaped carving tool to gut a chunk out of a rectangular slab of wood.
“Are they watertight?” asked a woman in the back.
“Sure are,” said the cooper.
“Naturally? Or do you have to apply some sort of lacquer?”
“Naturally, ma’am,” said the cooper.
“Oh my,” said the woman.
“Yes,” said another man, “and do you bend the rings yourself?”
“Sure do,” said the cooper. “That’s the easiest part.”
“Why’s that?” said the man.
“Because the metal is easy to bend,” said the cooper.
“And do you have the blacksmith create the rings, or . . . ?”
“No sir,” said the cooper. “They are not made in Williamsburg.”
“Where are they made, then?” said the man.
“Somewhere else,” said the cooper.
• • •
We visited the gardens of rich dead Englishmen, and the simple offices of a local governments long since disbanded. When we were outside on the main stretch, I noticed something tremendous: In every part of Williamsburg there were families milling about with smiling faces. Mothers and fathers and boys and girls strolled the dirt and cobblestone roads with a slight hop to their gait—excited at the possibility of seeing a townsperson in colonial dress, or a horse—all of them bundled up to ward off the cool December air.
I myself was as happy as I ever get, and not at all bundled up enough to do anything but warm the outermost layer of my skin, which even then was in dire need of a second of third layer, or a hot beverage to course through the veins just below the surface. I escorted my grandmother around, taking her this way and that way until she was satisfied with having seen everything that was to see. Williamsburg is awfully small.
Yes, and we stopped for lunch at a local eatery, all of us famished. There was no amount of food that could fully satisfy us. I had an enormous pecan salad topped with goat cheese and blueberry vinaigrette. I also shared some of Ned’s french fries, as he was feeling awfully generous on that particular day. I sipped tea and real root beer—and gulped down entire glasses of water before refilling and having another go. John was brave. He downed an entree that at first I believed to be too rich for one human being to consume in one sitting. It was some sort of pasta monstrosity—covered in cheese and dashed with ground bacon. When he spooned the last bite, I felt a little proud of him. I wanted to shake his hand. Instead I silently poked at a mound of goat cheese.
Once lunch was finished, and the bill was taken care of, and our stomachs were modestly filled, and our moods sharpened and our energy replenished: we visited a peanut store and a pewter shop. Both were as interesting as they could possibly be, given their wares were so simple.
At the peanut store, John bought a large sack full of dry-roasted peanuts. My grandmother found pickled watermelon rinds, and for whatever reason decided that she had to have them. Ned and I were content to leave the purchases to everyone else, and instead ate chocolate-covered almonds and cashews. It was free and better than anything else we could have possibly been doing.
A small elderly woman approached me from behind. She tugged at the sleeve of my jacket and asked that I turn around. It was my grandmother. She was holding up a jar full of watermelon rinds packed in a dark translucent slime. She shook the jar once and smiled. “These are going to be a hit at the senior center,” said my grandmother.
• • •
I could tell you about the brass quintet that played all of one and a half Christmas songs for us before the fire alarm went off, forcing us to evacuate the building. I could tell of the very museum we evacuated, and how I fell asleep in a chair next to maps that were two-hundred years old, and how I nearly tripped into a display box housing muskets and blunderbusses that were just as old. Or maybe you’d like to hear of the rain and the wind that herded us under a large oak tree.
But I sure as hell don’t feel like writing about any of that. It happened, though, if that means anything.
So there’s that.
• • •
The three of us—Ned, John and I—we spent the evening watching a six-hour marathon of some sort of television program that focused on buying storage units and selling the contents for stupid amounts of money. At first we watched with indignation (“This is so stupid!”), then with amazement (“How the fuck was there a jet ski in there?”), and finally with love (“I love this show”). During commercials, I would brew tea of coffee for everyone, as we had been hoarding it and getting refills every time the maid cleaned our room.
At some point John and I left for the spa. I was excited to utilize its many features. As it turns out, most of the unusual and tantalizing features were for paying customers only, and so I never did get to discover what exactly an “experimental shower” is.
Still, John and I had a really eventful and productive dip in the hot tub. In between children splashing wildly, we were able to utter complete paragraphs to one another about the future of VIII Nothing Publishing. John told me he was working on getting a grant from his university, and that there would be travel and hard work ahead. I told him it was God damn worth it.
I tried to swim in the pool, but there were too many children in there. They were noisy and rude. I got out. I stepped back into the hot tub and let myself melt into nothing. John felt like speaking with nothing.
This is what he said: “Ryan—” he said, “let’s get the fuck out of here.”
I stood up and walked over to a plastic chair where my corduroy pants and rivet belt were hanging like a flag. I dried myself off and put my clothes on. I felt weird and awkward just then. I wanted to be somewhere else, but had no place to go, so I followed John out of the pool area and into the gym.
As we walked past the treadmills, a young woman stepped out of the yoga room and sized us up. She looked at me, then at John, then back at me. She winked and said, “Ow!” She smiled. I didn’t do anything in return.
“Did you see that?” I said to John while crossing the parking lot.
“Some girl winked at us.”
“Can you blame her?” said John.
• • •
I fell asleep when we got back to the room, my hair still wet from the hot tub. I went into a sort of fever dream. It was terrifying. It was the sort of nightmare one seeks psychotherapy for. In it, I communicated with dead friends, and told them I wished they were still alive.
“Sorry,” said Chris Economy, “but that’s just not going to happen. It can’t.”
“Yeah,” said Katie Beach. “Sorry.”
“It was nice seeing you, anyway,” I said.
And then there was the color green, and the feeling of warmth. My dead friends had disappeared, leaving me alone. Everything was wavering like shiny ribbon. I walked through endless spaces in search of a way out, never to find one. I stopped and felt a sensation in my stomach. I placed my hand on it and felt around. When I held my hand up to my face, it was covered in blood. I coughed.
I could make out the smell of coffee somewhere in the distance. It was John—back in the real world. He was brewing a cup at the foot of the bed. I snapped out of my dream and sat up straight in bed. The nightmare vanished behind my eyes.
I said “Oh” and “fuck” and stood up and walked to the bathroom. I splashed cold water on my face and oriented myself. I smiled and mouthed “Welcome back, you crazy fucker” to my reflection. I figured it was best I hadn’t taken an experimental shower.
• • •
We had breakfast and drank hot apple cider and all that. We cleared out our room and packed everything up in two cars. John and I agreed to meet each other at my grandmother’s house later that day, as we intended to drive in the direction of Richmond—to the row home of master portrait artist Janet George. There we would discuss our website, and our plans for starting a publishing company. That and we missed Wylie, who was a little gray and white cat that lived in Janet’s house. We were most excited about that part.
John echoed the same sentiment from the day before: “I need a vacation from this vacation.” I myself had had a splendid time in Williamsburg, and was sad to leave. I lamented the fact that it would be the last time I would see my family, as there remained only a handful of days before I would set off towards the Lone Star State with Jason.
But God damn if didn’t want to see Wylie the cat, too.
• • •
My grandmother and I drove for several hours. She told me about the war, and about how she went without food for weeks on end, and how the Nazis killed her father and so on. I had heard the stories before, but still I found them mesmerizing and incredible and depressing.
“When my time comes—when I go off to some other place, well, I’ll have graduated life with a Doctorate, I tell you,” said my grandmother. It was one of her favorite things to say. What she meant was that she was no spring chicken, and that the world had been cruel to her, and that she wanted some sort of recognition for the miserable years that she had put up with, even though she was the most blameless person I had ever known.
She smiled. She patted me on the back. “I’m just glad I have my family,” she said. “Thank God for my grandsons and granddaughter. I don’t know where I’d be without you.”
With her free hand she turned the volume knob on the radio. Mozart flowed out of the speakers. It was sweet and light and magical.
“Mmm,” said my grandmother. “I just love Mozart.”
• • •
We arrived at the end of a long afternoon. The sun was setting, and the western sky was blood red and streaked with cold light. The clouds were dim and somber. It would be another two hours until John arrived to pick me up. Then we would depart for Richmond, listening to rock and roll as loud as we could manage. John would smoke like a chimney, and we’d talk about how good it felt to be alive just then, and speak of sorrows now familiar to use both, and console each other with music and laughter and abbreviated silences.
Until then, I passed the time with a tin full of Christmas cookies and a glass of peach tea. I listened to my grandmother hum along to invisible melodies as she moved about the kitchen, and wondered aloud if I could ever be as happy as I wanted to be.
“You will, Ryan,” she said.
• • •
“A Sad Man’s Slumber”
John arrived when the sky was dark and the wind was cold. We would use the headlights and heater to ward off both. My grandmother attempted to rid her house of fruit and sweets and the Christmas cookies I was too full to finish, and so she collected everything into a plastic bag and sent us on our way. John had already packed the car with provisions for the long trip ahead, but we happily accepted what we were given and hit the highway as soon as we could. After a few mishaps and bad directions on my part, we were well on our way, rocketing down Interstate 95 while listening to dead rock stars sing about how hard it is to survive on this stupid godforsaken planet.
For the majority of the trip, John’s window was cracked, a cigarette dangling between his index and middle finger as he piloted the vehicle with one hand. The heat was blasting, which quickly chomped at the icy air zipping in through the window, and which kept the cabin temperature at a near perfect mix of warm and cold. We swapped off playing songs, singing along even if we didn’t know the words, and feeling that familiar bond of brotherhood that floats always just on the surface of our time spent together.
We drove for nearly ninety miles or so. The city could be seen on the horizon, lit up as though it were on fire, and it may as well have been. We took the offramp, which fed into the Broad Street, and it was there we raced in the direction of Janet George’s house.
John stopped for gas near the local Kroger, where a homeless man approached the car with pleading hands. He was mostly unintelligible, but John, sensing that the man meant no harm, offered up the only currency he had, which was a single cigarette. The man put it in his mouth, and John lit it for him. He waved good-bye and disappeared into darkness.
After that, it was only a matter of turning down Strawberry Street, and then onto Grace.
“Such lovely street names,” I said to John. He nodded and sparked another tube of tobacco.
• • •
It was bitter cold out when we left the warmth of the car. I buttoned my pea coat and thrusted my hands into my pockets. John grabbed his bag and locked the car. We approached Janet’s front door feeling awake and alive.
I knocked. A few seconds later I could make out the faint sound of footsteps coming down the long hallway which lead to the front door. The door swung open. There stood Janet George, looking pretty as always. She said something about the cats, and to not let them run out the house. The door was soon shut, and hugs were exchanged.
We set our things in the living room and played with Wylie. He had grown since I had last seen him, and was now a lanky teenager with big ridiculous ears. His little pink nose wiggled around as he sniffed our bags, curious as to where we’d been. I scooped him up into my arms and rubbed his stomach.
It was quickly decided that we should purchase some sort of alcohol in order to speed up the process of feeling wonderful around one another. Alcohol, the damn stuff—it has a way of lubricating the invisible stuff inside us. It makes laughter come easier, and kisses come sooner, and tears just a lonely shower away.
I was the only one amongst us with the power to purchase bottled ethanol, and so like a real sport, I did. Money was collected, and John whisked us away in his car. We ended up at the Kroger right off Broad Street, about where we’d met our homeless friend only a half hour prior.
I walked inside while John and Janet followed far behind, so as to avoid arousing suspicion regarding the terrible crime I was about to commit. We soon forgot protocol entirely, and everyone ended up in the beer aisle. I was fully prepared to purchase a twelve-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon, which is an all around mediocre beer by anyone’s standards. I told John and Janet what I tell everyone when they ask me what kind of beer I like: “The shittier the better.”
“Just get Pabst,” said Janet.
John pointed to a colorful case of beer. “I want this one,” he said. It was something expensive and hoppy. I picked it and the case of Pabst up and walked towards the register, leaving my friends behind, for I was doing the work of a villain and a lawbreaker.
• • •
We were cracking open beer cans and petting cats as soon as we were back at Janet’s house. Her roommate, Courtney, was making brownies with another girl in the kitchen. She was singing and dancing all over the place. She had on velvety maroon pants, and so it made everything about the situation that much better.
Janet heated up some vegetarian chili and served it to John and me. It was quickly devoured. I downed a beer, and then another, and was well on my way to becoming roaring drunk so as to avoid the embarrassment of being a human being. I picked Wylie up with my free hand and slung him over my shoulder. He seemed relatively happy to be a cat.
Soon we were gathered around a small wooden table in the living room. Janet and John and I were seated on a long plushy couch near the windows, and Courtney and her friend were opposite of us. Everyone was happy and red-faced. We played a few card games to speed up the process of becoming even more red-faced. I had always avoided card games—and really, games in general—and so it was a new experience for me. Do this and then you drink. Don’t do this and then you drink. If you have these cards, you drink. If you don’t, well, you should drink anyway. It was a peculiar thing to be a part of.
One such game that I find myself now fond of was called “Drink While You Think”. The rules were elementary and self-evident: one simply had to consume alcohol while pondering the names of famous individuals whose first name alphabetically followed the previous drinker’s name. Which is to say, when the person before me said, “Uma Thurman,” I followed with an old friend I’ve never met, being “Vincent van Gogh”. Because of the two V’s, the turn shifted back to the person before me—such were the rules of the game. Caught off guard, this person ended up drinking a lot more than they would have otherwise. And this is how it came to be that everyone ended up being psychotically and stupidly and hopelessly drunk within a very short amount of time.
All the while we laughed and looked upon one another with curious-happy eyes. We ate brownies which were at first too hot, and sipped beer, and carried on like young people will until someone made mention of “going outdoors”—and after that there was no turning back, for we had to venture outside.
Courtney lead us out the front door, beer in hand, and down Grace Street. The five of us went jaunting along the frozen sidewalks, content to go wherever it was we were going. Janet and Courtney knew precisely where that was, but kept it a secret in hopes of surprising John and me. When we’d make inquiries, we were silenced with little smiles, and promises of something wonderful just ahead.
“It’s just a little further . . .” and “Come this way, and hurry . . .” and “You’re really going to love this . . .” were all said rather cryptically, and smiles were exchanged between the two girls, and my curiosity bubbled over and I wished very much to be a part of the big reveal. I kept my beer in my coat and took sips when we were covered in darkness, either by some lonesome building or row of bare winter trees, where only thin strips of moonlight shone through, creating sinister lines on the sidewalk which resembled spider legs.
Finally we found ourselves gathered around an antique car, restored to the day it was born, pale as a cloud and garnished along the tires in long elastic wires embedded with twinkling Christmas lights. The roof was wreathed with silvery garland and oversized plastic candy canes and a purple flamingo topped with a little Santa cap. Everything was splendidly gaudy. In the driver’s seat of the car was a life-size mannequin of Father Christmas himself, outfitted in traditional red suit, his vacant eyes surveying the statue of Robert E. Lee on horseback across the way.
“Maybe we built it up too much,” said Courtney.
“Yeah,” said Janet. “I guess maybe it’s not that great.”
“You’re both wrong,” I said. “This is a sight to see, all right.” And it was. You had to be crazy not to find a little joy in something so stupidly colorful—so thoughtfully bizarre.
• • •
We must have walked back to the house, because that’s where we ended up. Time began to blur together, and a wonderful feeling of serenity blossomed inside my chest. I was comforted by the chemicals in my body, and by the feeling of being wanted somewhere, wherever that happened to be—which on this night was Richmond. A deck of cards was shuffled and shuffled again—and I was given a hand and told to pair one card with another, and this and that, or something or another, and so I did as I was told. The end result was that I had another beer, it being my sixth or seventh, and I announced to my friends that I had drunk enough, and that I had reached a point where the fluids in my body would do just fine, and that no more was necessary in order for me to coexist with such authentically beautiful human beings. At least I thought as much in my reeling brain.
I lurched into the kitchen and poured myself a cup of water, as is my custom (I am not built for hangovers), and downed it in one gulp. I had another. John joined me a moment later. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind accompanying him on the deck where he intended to cave to his bad habit, and of course I agreed and took my cup with me. It wasn’t long before the glow of tobacco was all that lit our faces, and beyond the windows I could make out the camaraderie of friends I wished to return to in the time it took for a cigarette to burn.
John glared out at the skyline before us—far into the distant neon, his lungs becoming blacker and more ragged with each puff of smoke. I was familiar with his expression and far away silence. It was the look of thoughtfulness and deep sorrow. Before I could comfort him with the only words I had in me, he motioned for me to get close to him. “Come here,” he said. He hugged me. I patted him on the back and we both resumed the empty trance we were in seconds prior, gazing out in the vast emptiness of the coal-black sky.
Janet joined us mid-cigarette, and sat down on a leather chair near a little table. We talked to her about our plans to publish all the writing we’d done in the last year, and of realizing our lofty, stupid dream to save literature. We told her we were setting ourselves up to fail, and that we looked forward to going down in flames—principled, full of heart, not afraid to die.
“Sounds good,” said Janet George.
• • •
When we were back inside, I called Ayesha and told her I was in Richmond. She told me she’d had a hard night, and that no one loved her, and that she needed badly to be in the presence of nonjudgmental saints. I told her I would be pleased if she would show up, and that there would be healing and acceptance—and alcohol. She said, “Be there in twenty minutes.”
It wasn’t ten minutes before I received a message bidding me to come unlock the door. I walked down the long hallway which would lead me to Ayesha, little baby Wylie slung over my shoulder. I swung the door open and a wave of cold air flooded into the house. Ayesha stood next to her bicycle, clothed entirely in black. “Hey,” she said. I led her into the house, and she set her bicycle down in the hallway and followed me into the room where friends were gathered and where the lights were warm and yellow.
I introduced Ayesha, and everyone said, “Hello!” and “Hey!” and “Nice to meet you!” Ayesha produced a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20. It was a rich, tropical red color. It looked like childlike and magical. She took a swig and sat down on the couch next to me. John picked up the bottle and, without asking, took a commanding gulp. No one flinched, and in fact we found ourselves respecting him more afterwards. “This is my cousin,” I said to Ayesha.
“Oh, so you’re John Blacksher?” she said.
“That’s me,” said John.
Ayesha stood up and took another sip of the concoction she’d brought with her. “You won’t fucking believe my night,” she said. And then she told us just why that was.
• • •
Eventually I walked Ayesha to the front of the house. She said she was going to go eat some pizza. I asked her what she’d done to herself, as she looked slightly different since the last time I had seen her.
“What do you mean?” she said.
“When did you get so beautiful? My God, Ayesha,” I said. I put my hand on the shoulder of my old friend. “You’re a real knockout.”
“Thank you, Ryan,” she said. Seated on her bicycle, she kissed me on the head and sped off down Grace Street. I watched my breath for a little while and then returned to the house, where I intended to pass out on someone else’s bed.
• • •
Time flew the hell by. It was nearly two in the morning by the time three young men showed up to cause utter chaos in our quaint living room setting. Of these young bucks, one was Courtney’s boyfriend. He was a real piece of work. His eyes were dull and dead, his hair long, and his aspirations did not sail above recreational marijuana use and the utterance of unintelligible babble. The stooges with him were, at least in my eyes, violent and dumb. They threw things around the room, drank all the beer, and generally acted like the horses asses they are for longer than should have been permitted.
I was fed up with stupidity and carelessness, so I excused myself and found a quiet place to curl up and die for a little while. I locked the door so as to avoid nighttime visitors, and rested my spinning head on a pillow which smelled like lavender and baby powder.
The lights went out in my head, and everything vanished as soon as my eyes were shut. I was a happy man—irritated, but happy.
• • •
At some point in the night, I was awoken by a rude noise which came from the room’s second door. I had neglected to remember the second door. It was attached to the bathroom near the kitchen, and accessible by a folding white door. It was unlocked. In fact the mechanism to lock it had been broken off, and so I was left exposed to the wastrels who had come to ruin everything.
But it was Courtney who approached the bed. She knelt down beside me and felt around for human life, at which point she discovered my legs. “Oh my God!” she said. “I think there’s a person in here.”
“Yes,” I said. “Hello! It is just me. I was sleeping, but now I’m awake.”
“How are you?”
“Oh, just fine.”
“Yeah. Well, good-night.” She vanished.
• • •
I wake up and stretch my hind legs and my paws and yawn. My mouth is open, and my sharp little teeth are extended towards the ceiling. I look ferocious, but I would never in my life bite anyone—unless we’re talking about my brother, whom I will playfully nip at when he won’t leave me alone, which is often.
I hop up on the bed. I have a little difficulty with the jump on account of my slight obesity. I brush off my shame and carefully approach the slumbering human before me.
“Mother—” I say in my own language, “Mother, wake up.” I paw at her face with my little gray hand. She stirs and rolls over. She doesn’t want to wake up just yet, but I’m very hungry; I must wake her up.
“Mother!” I say. “For God’s sake, feed us!”
Now her eyes are partially open, and she says one of the few words in her language that I am able to comprehend, which begins with my name: “Dante, no! I have to sleep a little longer.”
I jump off the bed pad over to my brother, who is curled up on a blue blanket that reminds him of our birth mother. He is twitching, and his eyes are half-open. He is making little noises which warn of the discomfort in his brain. What is he dreaming about?
“Virgil!” I say. “You contemptible oaf! Wake up!”
“What, what?” says Virgil. “What do you want?”
“We must wake Mother—” I say, “for I am famished, as I imagine you are as well.”
“I ain’t hungry,” says Virgil. “And anyway, why should I help you? You never want to play with me.”
“Hmph!” I say. I point my tail towards the ceiling, and lift my head in a haughty gesture of superiority. I blink twice and clamber back up the bed. Again, it is an arduous task—and here I shall make a mental note that I endeavor to lose weight in the immediate future.
“Mother!” I shout. “I must be fed! I have a condition, you see, and it requires that I am to eat at regular intervals. So please, for my health, I implore you to reassess your priorities and feed your poor son. For the sake of clarity, I will make mention that I am of course referring to myself.”
“Dante, no,” says Mother. “I have school today—I need all the sleep I can get.”
Once again I find myself on the hardwood floors of this accursed place—of this new home I am expected to call my own. My mind wanders where it often does, and I think of my dear father.
Alas! Where are you? At last mention, I was told you were 3,200 miles away, in the fair city of San Francisco. And now you are gone. Mother took us in the night—took us away in a cage. She brought our climbing tree—the carpeted monstrosity, if you’ll remember—and along with it all the cans of food you purchased on the last day we ever saw you, and the cat nip and the little bag of toys we love so dearly.
Father! How I long to see your face again. How I think of you fondly, and await the day when we are reunited. I have so much to tell you, and wish to hear of your many adventures.
What have you done to Mother? Why is it she is keeping us from you? Virgil and I—we love you, we truly do. It was not my decision to flee our home. Were I a bird, I would fly to you, I swear it. But I am a cat, and as you may be well aware, we are flightless creatures.
Yes, and she cried, Mother did, when she wrote you that long, long letter. She told us, “We have to go away for a while,” and “I don’t know when you’ll see your father again.”
Isn’t there something you can do to mend your relationship with her? Have you tried writing her? I am hungry. I know if you were here right now, you would gladly feed me. You would hold me and nuzzle me and tell me how important I am to you. You would say, “I love you, Dante,” and “I’ll never leave you, Dante.” You would rub my belly and scratch me behind the ears—and comb and pet me. You would open yourself up and allow every ounce of love and affection to pour out, so that I may be the beneficiary of your infinite adoration.
I would even let you trim the hair just below my tail. I am sorry that in the past I ran away when you tried to do it. I realize now that you did this so that I wouldn’t have any more litter box accidents. It was embarrassing; I was ashamed. I’m sorry, Father.
Are these tears?
Now I’m walking over to a sketchpad that Mother has left open. I pick up a felt-tip pen with both paws—I’ve been practicing—and with a bit of a struggle I manage to remove the cap with my mouth. I am scribbling something down on paper with the hope in my little heart that Mother reads it with consideration for my happiness.
It’s sloppy, and I am by no means fluent in the English language, but I manage to scrawl this out in wobbly letters:
“I miss Ryan.”
• • •
“I was feeling a little sick and I wanted to be alone.”
I awoke in the early morning and found John sleeping soundly at my side. He was wearing all his clothes, and was snoring like a real bastard.
“Wake up,” I said.
“Huh—what?” said John.
“I’m really hungry.”
“Um, yeah, me too.”
I stood up and shook my head and ran my hands through my matted hair and slapped my face gently. My vast consumption of water the night before had afforded me a hangover-free day, and so I strolled into the hallway and then the living room with a clear head and wide eyes and fully functional brain.
The living room was post-apocalyptic. I almost couldn’t believe the destruction I was witnessing. Half-drunk beer cans were strewn about, and the the entire deck of cards had been thrown around carelessly, some of them sticking to the floor, caked with muddy footprints. And the couches were in odd positions, and there were pieces of brownie here and there, and someone’s laptop was still open and blaring some atrocity that I vaguely recognized as music. I felt deflated and miserable. The most tragic part was that there was no place to sit.
I rummaged around the kitchen and found a trash bag. I returned to the living room and threw away anything that was made of aluminum or had been baked in the oven the night before. I even threw away Ayesha’s empty Mad Dog 20/20 bottle, which had rolled under the couch. The cards were collected into their little box, and the floor was swept, and the couches were moved back to their usual positions. Everything was soon right again.
John walked into the living room and stretched his arms. “Yeah,” he said, “those guys from last night did this. The fat one was just knocking shit over left and right.”
“What a bunch of assholes,” I said.
“To put it lightly,” said John.
• • •
Soon we were outside, walking up Strawberry Street. We were on our way to Ayesha’s house. Ayesha insisted she was still in bed, and thus not properly dressed for venturing outside, and that she would need time for a shower and so on. That didn’t faze us one bit. And so we went anyway.
When we arrived on her street, I quickly scanned the addresses on the sides of the row homes and found hers. A black cat was in the window. “That’s Pickle,” I said. “That’s her cat.”
“If you say so, man,” said John.
“Pickle!” I said. I meowed, hoping he would answer me. The cat stared at me with hollow eyes, completely unaffected and bored with my presence. He jumped off the windowsill and disappeared into the apartment.
“God damn it,” I said. And so I called for my old friend instead: “Ayesha! We’re outside! Come let us in!” This went on for ten minutes. Nothing happened.
Finally I called her on the phone. “We’re out front, and Pickle just scampered off without saying a word to me, and I don’t know how much louder I can be about saying your name.”
“My apartment is in the back,” she said. “That’s not my apartment at all.”
“Oh. Then whose was it?”
“How the fuck should I know?”
• • •
Eventually we were let in. John put out his cigarette and followed Ayesha and me down the hallway leading to a small staircase. Ayesha pointed to a white door. “That guy is crazy,” she said. “He’s a hoarder, or something.”
John and I said, “Ah!” and “Oh!” and continued up the stairs.
Ayesha’s apartment was cozy and lived-in. It was practically a studio—a small kitchen, a bathroom and something of a living room were within arms length as soon as we walked in. I could make out a small room off the kitchen. “That’s my bedroom,” she said. I walked in. It was just wide enough to fit a mattress. Her sheets had a whole galaxy or stars on them. I hopped on the bed.
“My God!” I said. “What a nice place this is.”
“It’s all right,” said Ayesha.
“And there’s the real Pickle,” I said. I stood up and walked over to the little black cat standing near the oven. I scratched him on his little cat head and meowed at him. Pickle, like most cats, was unfazed by the fact that I could speak conversational Cat. He did what I can best describe as a shrug and padded off into the bedroom.
It was soon decided that we had to consume as much Thai food as possible. John in particular was eager to put food in his stomach, on account of the massive headache that was giving him grief. He said something about never being able to avoid hangovers, and Ayesha said she felt a little twisted up, and I told everyone I felt perfectly fine.
“Hungry as hell, though,” I said.
We left Pickle to take his afternoon nap, and locked the door behind us.
• • •
Ayesha drove rather erratically to West Cary Street, where I recognized a Thai restaurant I had eaten at before. It was called Thai Diner Too, which made absolutely no sense to me. I told John and Ayesha that I had once had a VIII Nothing business meeting there with Jason and Janet George. “She was very sarcastic with me—Janet was. I knew right then that I liked her a whole lot.”
“I’ll bet Jason was a shithead the whole time,” said John.
“Man, that’s exactly what he was.”
• • •
After some trouble parallel parking, we started walking down West Cary Street with empty stomachs. Thai Diner Too was a short walk away, and easily identifiable from the street, for it was purple and red and exotic. The sidewalks were crowded with families and teenagers and weirdos and losers and jerks. It was an unseasonably warm December day, and so the whole world was taking advantage of Mother Nature’s bipolar tendency.
Once inside, we were seated immediately by a young woman. She put us in the back of the restaurant, away from everyone else. We sat near a big plate glass window—one of only two in the whole restaurant—and so we enjoyed a fine view of the sun, and felt its warmth on our faces and necks and hands.
Ayesha and John ordered something that I warned was unreasonably spicy.
“The last time I was here,” I said, “I overheard one of the waitresses say that the spiciest dish they offer is often disliked by people who love spicy food.”
“No, I love my food really spicy,” said Ayesha. John seemed to agree.
I ordered the pad thai, and asked that it be spiced at “3″, which was somewhere in between medium and mild. Ayesha and John did not heed my warnings, and ordered their noodles to be seasoned with the devil’s blood, which was somewhere around “8″ or “9″.
In the meanwhile we discussed the holocaust that was Janet George’s living room, and the three cackling jerkoffs that had perpetrated the whole damn mess. “One of them said they knew you,” said John. “Guy named Dan. He had glasses and short brown hair. He was all right.”
“Oh, I know him,” said Ayesha. “Was he with a big fat guy named Milk?”
“Yeah. Fatass was the worst of the three.”
“That guy is a total psychopath. All three of them are dumb as hell.”
Soon our food was delivered, and the three of us quickly shoveled heaping forkfuls of noodles into our mouths. It didn’t take long for Ayesha and John to realize that their food was almost inedible—spicy to the point of scorching their tongues.
“Fuck, this is spicy,” said Ayesha.
“Can’t even really eat it,” said John.
I finished my pad thai without any problems. I ate the whole thing. As it turns out, “3″ was the magic number.
• • •
After lunch, John and I milled around an independent bookstore while Ayesha split off to buy ice cream. Inside we once again discussed the possibility of starting our own dinky publishing company. I would pick up a book and talk about how shitty it was, and then pick up another book and extol its virtues. Of course there were a lot of books I hadn’t read, and many of them bewildered me. I’d fallen out of touch.
“Is this what people read now?” I said.
“I guess so,” said John, flipping over novels and reading their backs. He looked vaguely heartbroken at the state of modern literature.
“Shit, man,” I said. “What a joke.”
“We sound like old men.”
• • •
Ayesha dropped us off at Janet George’s house sometime in the mid afternoon. I stood on the stairs leading up to the house and waited for our next move. John lit a cigarette and went into a mental state where I could not follow.
“I’ve got a friend,” he said, letting smoke escape his mouth, “somewhere downtown.”
“The guy with the French name?”
“Yeah, Thibaud. Great guy.”
“Now, he’s the photographer, right?”
“Yeah.” He blew a puff of dark smoke into the sky.
John motioned for me to follow, and we walked to the end of the block and got in his car. We drove for miles and miles. The sky was washed out in a yellow and gray with the occasion dollop of sunshine found here and there on the road before us. We crossed over a massive bridge leading into the dirtier part of Richmond. John pointed to a row of trees off in the distance. He told me it was Bell Island, and said it was a remote patch of land connected by some sort of rope bridge. He said he’d been over there once with a guy he knew, a long time ago.
Soon we were in an industrial district. There were empty factories and desolate streets where no human beings could be found. We parked in a barren lot and walk across the street where we found a featureless white warehouse that had been presumably repurposed as a place for people to live.
John flipped open his phone pressed a few keys. “Thibaud?” said John. “Yeah, we’re right outside. What? It’s a white build—oh. Oh. OK. We’re not at your house at all.”
John stepped out into the street and we began walking right down the middle of it with no fear of being run over. This was an unloved part of Richmond.
In the distance I could make out a large man in dark clothing. He was standing near a tall brick structure. He had a phone held up to his head. It was Thibaud Guerin-Williams. He waved.
John and Thibaud talked about a lot of people I’d never met, remembered a lot of memories I had no recollection of, and spoke of lives I had never lived. I stood silently and waited for a reason to feel relevant.
Thibaud lead us inside his apartment complex, which had at one time served the city of Richmond as a trolley station. His home was magnificent; it had tremendously high ceilings, and everything was made of concrete and ribbed sheet metal. The windows overlooking the parking lot were easily twelve feet high. Up a winding staircase was an enormous loft.
“My God,” I said. “You live here?”
“Yeah,” said Thibaud. “It’s an all right place.”
• • •
We spent a lot of time talking in the living room. John picked up Thibaud’s Fender Mustang and complimented the red woodgrain finish. Thibaud nodded and said it was “a decent guitar”. He seemed thoroughly bored with all of the things that we found so amazing about his life, which lead me to believe that he was a total badass.
John opened his laptop and showed him VIII Nothing. He explained the premise, and talked about how beautiful everything looked when it was in black and white. Thibaud agreed to submit some photographs and brief accompanying poems. We thought that sounded neat as hell.
“Speaking of photography—” said Thibaud. He pulled out a magazine and flipped through it. “See, look at this shit. People love it, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why.” He then showed us semi-famous photographers online that he thought to be total shit. Most of what he showed us was painfully mediocre. Some of it was downright offensively terrible.
“People have bad taste,” I said. “Generally speaking, people don’t know what they like or why they even like it in the first place. That’s why we love our website so much.” I motioned to John. “No one will ever think we’re geniuses. There’s something wonderful about that.”
“I guess so,” said Thibaud.
Outside John and Thibaud started smoking. Thibaud had bummed a cigarette from John. The two of them puffed away for what seemed like a very long time. I stood vacantly towards the side and offered nothing in the way of conversation. I simply nodded or said, “Yes” or “Uh huh” or “You bet” at all the right times. I was ready to leave Richmond.
• • •
Later that evening we said good-bye to Janet and Courtney. I hugged them both. They thanked me for having cleaned up the living room and for coming to visit them and so on. John gave Janet a long, deep hug—a hug that is shared between those who have shared childhood together. “I’ll be back soon,” he said. He nodded and turned away. I followed.
We were on the highway within minutes, heat blasting and the windows cracked to let the smell of burning tobacco slip through and vanish into the sky. I was half-sick and drowsy, feeling drugged. I soon let sleep rest upon my head like a bag of sand, and left John to drive alone.
I awoke just outside of Manassas. John roused me from unsettling dreams—dreams I had dipped in and out of with the jostling of the car on rough patches of road. “We’re here,” he said finally, pulling into our grandmother’s condominium development.
He came inside for a few minutes at my request. We stood by our grandmother’s side as she sat up in bed with the news on. She told us she loved us dearly, and to visit her whenever we had a chance. John hugged her and started for the door. I followed him to the kitchen, where he gave his last hug of the night, of which I was the recipient. He laughed and called me “brother”, and said he’d be in Texas sooner than later. He opened the front door and closed it behind him, slipping out into the edge of December and ready to scream his lungs out on the long ride home.
• • •
“Where It Hurts”
That night I drove for seventy miles up interstate 95, headed north—headed to the doom-metropolis of Baltimore. It had been nearly three months since I had been there. I knew very well the emotions which would rise to the surface—knew that my heart would be twisted and beaten against the wall, and that my eyes would darken and fill with the tears of many lonely nights and a pain that refused to dissolve itself from my conscious mind. A three-syllable name belonging to a faint glimmer of a person I had once known was on my lips, daring me to utter it, mocking me with ill intent.
She had moved—or so she had told my father in November—and so I did not know where she and my boys now called home. Yet I prowled vacant and miserable streets with the fear that I might detect their presence, or make out the flash of a ghost-pale face belonging to her, and my world would melt into an amorphous gray lump, ready for the fire. The thought of seeing her made my heart squirm, and I held my chest and breathed heavily, feeling sick with pain. “Where are you?” I thought. “Why won’t you look at me?”
I rolled onto East Oliver Street with an aching head. The streets were rain-slicked and black and glistening. Garbage was everywhere. A lone man turned past the rainbow-colored bridge, strumming a guitar clumsily. He was singing some awful tune with a voice that was ragged and melancholy.
I parked in the back of the lot and stood before the hulking soulless block of bricks that was my home, spying the two windows belonging to my living room and bedroom. The blinds were drawn and behind them was only darkness. The sun hadn’t shone through since October.
There it was: the dead dream I had erected for myself nearly a year before—the last remnant of a life I had so very much wanted to live. I had stayed in that wretched city for the sake of a girl who loved me very deeply—had remained dutifully despite the chaos in my mind and the sickness that lay dormant in my heart. The sore had festered, and the sickness grew, and I had become weak and spineless. It was all over now.
“You are going where I cannot,” had said the note. I retraced the words in my mind and caught myself feeling mindless and desperately sad.
I had signed it, “Love always”—and now I stood alone in a tired square of the world with nothing but my trembling hands and blood-stained eyes. She was gone, and all that remained was my stupid empty apartment.
• • •
“The Year 2012 or,
Deer Tick & Friends at the Brooklyn Bowl”
Something of an excerpt:
I awoke the next morning feeling rotten. I had a bus ticket in my coat pocket, which would take me to New York City. From there I would take the subway to Brooklyn.
Deer Tick was in Brooklyn—with Virgin Forest and Dead Confederate and J Roddy Walston and the Business.
Yes, and I got on that bus, and I rode it all the way to New York City, and I saw Deer Tick & Friends live at the Brooklyn Bowl, which was a cross between a bowling alley and a bar and a restaurant and a venue for live music.
And I kissed a lot of rock stars, and hugged a lot of strangers, and drank delicious brown ale that had come recommended to me by the head bartender. Without hyperbole, I can say that it was the best day of my entire life.
I was lead singer John McCauley’s New Year’s kiss. He swirled his tongue around the inside of my mouth. It was the very first thing to happen to me as the clock struck twelve, and the year 2012 began.
Later he approached me as I was sitting down on a leather couch with a beer in my hand, and pointed to me and remarked to those around us, “This is the guy who kissed me at midnight. That was pretty funny.”
[But I shall resist the urge to tell the whole story, for it is Chapter VIII—the final chapter, that is—of this long, long book I'm writing about a particularly dark six months of my dumb old life. It is called Injury & Aftermath, of which three chapters have already been published. Seek them out! The rest is coming, so do not despair.]
I left Brooklyn at seven a.m. the next morning, and was ferried back to Baltimore feeling more alive than I had ever felt before. This sensation would quickly deaden as we left the highway some three hours later, and reentered the city that I despise so very much.
• • •
I spent the next two days sitting alone in my apartment. I slept until two or three in the afternoon, and was terrified at the thought of looking out my window. What if she was walking down the street? I kept my blinds down and locked in a position that did not allow any sunlight in—as if there existed sunlight in the first place.
My apartment was musky and stale. There was still a whole mess of alcohol in the refrigerator, but I had no desire to get drunk. I opened the cider bottles over the sink and let them flow down the drain. I was over hard cider, anyway.
And so I took many hot baths, and read many fine books. I sat dumbly on my bed and daydreamed about Austin, though I would have been content to be anywhere other than Baltimore.
When I got sad, I’d take another bath, remembering the famous line from The Bell Jar: “There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.”
I’d dunk my head under the water and stay there until there was nothing left inside of me—until all the little bubbles had escaped from my nose and mouth, and I was only an empty, stagnant thing lying there at the bottom of the tub. And then I’d reluctantly come up for air when my head started to hurt, suck in a lungful and retreat back into my hiding place until the water went from hot to cold.
• • •
Perri Weldy called me on the morning of the third. She said she was leaving Philadelphia, and that she would be in Baltimore within two hours. She would pass through Pennsylvania and then Delaware, and finally she would enter Maryland, which I warned her was a despicable geographic location of ill repute. That didn’t bother Perri one bit. She said she looked forward to it.
Yes, and Perri was coming to town to do two things: 1) to see her good friend, now that we were good friends and 2) paint my apartment white. We would erase any memory of my existence there. I told her it would be easy. I said, listen: “I’m going to get some of that extra-thick primer—the kind you use when you want to get rid of dark colors. And then it’ll all go away, and everything will be white again.”
I bought the paint and the paint brushes and the rollers—and the plastic tarp and the pan and so on. I brought it all back to my apartment and waited for Perri to tell me it was time to drive to the horribly depressing bus station way the hell on the other side of the city, near the docks and the warehouses.
“We’re pulling into the city,” she said. It was around ten in the morning. I put on some pants, since I had taken them off, and hopped in my car. I took me a long time to get there on account of my incompetence. I took the wrong streets and ended up in the wrong part of Baltimore. Meanwhile Perri waited in a plastic chair, alone, maybe a little scared of the mouth-breathing hoodlums that seem to always be waiting around in Greyhound stations.
After twenty or so minutes of leaving a small, fragile white girl alone at the bus station, I finally arrived to take Perri away in the safety of my Jeep Cherokee. She seemed happy to see me—or did a very good job pretending she was, anyway. She playfully scolded me for being late, and I apologized authentically, and then I pointed at various locations around Baltimore and talked about how grimy and appalling and horrible everything was. “I don’t know, I think it’s nice,” said Perri.
“Yeah, well, after five years of this, I don’t think it’s so nice anymore,” I said.
• • •
We didn’t start painting for a long while. We dined at Aloha Sushi in Mt. Vernon—after walking six or seven blocks in the freezing cold. I ordered four different maki rolls, and Perri just ordered the avocado roll. “I told you it’s the only kind of sushi I like,” she said.
“No judgment, man,” I said.
Later she ordered edamame, which was over-salted. It was a crying shame. We ate as much as we could while Perri told me about the men who had loved her. I told her that someone once loved me very much, too. I told her I missed that person very much.
We boxed up the salty edamame and walked back to my apartment to not paint. We talked and made tea and watched Baltimore from my living room window. It was inhospitable outside, and we were happy to be through with it. There would be no reason to leave the house again for at least twenty-four hours.
• • •
Jason arrived later that night. He was in good spirits, and eager to paint—which was terrific because I felt like steamrolled dog shit, and didn’t want to paint at all. He and Perri made quick work out of one of my living room walls, turning them from red to white again. I spent most of my time packing up everything I owned into apple boxes. It made be bitter and sad. Leaving Baltimore was as much a triumph as it was a reminder of my shame, of my failed experiment at happiness. It was my little dead dream.
Yes, and we painted until we just couldn’t stand painting anymore, and until I got so sad I couldn’t do anything but sit in a bed with my two good friends and watch Peter Pan, God love it, trying desperately to abandon all the rotten feelings swirling around inside of me like a sick tornado.
By one a.m. everyone was asleep. I swallowed a melatonin without water and lay down between Jason and Perri. My bed was large, and could accommodate all of us comfortably. It was nice to be in the middle. It meant I didn’t have to ever feel alone. I was thinking about how much I like oatmeal when the power in my body shut down, and I evacuated consciousness in the blink of an eye.
• • •
“Sit with me.”
“This isn’t real.”
“I am real.”
“I know you’re real, somewhere, but this isn’t real.”
“What if I said it was?”
“I can’t trust you. I made you! You’re in my brain.”
“Do you want to walk them?”
“Well, of course I do, but they’re not real either.”
“Why don’t you just pretend?”
“Because that’s incredibly sad. That’s sadder than anything I know.”
“Sit with me.”
“It doesn’t have to.”
“It is. Good-bye.”
• • •
“Trust Me, Son”
My father came to town on the fourth. He hated Baltimore, but he was there to help me pack my things up in the back of his truck so that we could both leave the city forever.
The sky was stupid and gray and sad when he arrived. He told me he’d kept his loaded gun in his hand while he drove down Charles Street, because he didn’t trust anyone not to kill him. “They’ve got nothing to lose, son,” he said. “And if they tried to touch me, I’d come out shooting.”
I introduced him to Perri, whom he liked immediately. He said she was sweet and upbeat and unfailingly nice. I told him he was right.
We spent the next eight hours hauling loaded boxes down a flight of stairs and out the side door of my apartment complex. It was miserable labor. We would take a few boxes down, and then come back up and feel pretty bad about how much was left over. I ended up disassembling nearly everything I owned, which was a real pain. When the truck started to show signs of being full, my father made his worried face. “There’s no way you’re going to fit all of this,” he said. “Ain’t no way, man.”
I told him I planned to pack my Jeep to the brim, and that I would make two trips to Virginia if I had to—to leave what I didn’t really need at my mother’s house.
He gave me an uneasy look. “No way all of it’s going to fit,” he said. He walked over to a window overlooking the parking lot and nearly hit the ceiling. “They’re towing my car! Ryan! Go stop them!”
I ran out the door and down a long hallway, and then down a flight of stairs. “Stop!” I said. “There’s a note on the window!”
The tow truck driver looked up from his clipboard without any emotion whatsoever. “Still can’t pack here,” he said. “No parking sticker.”
“Yes, I realize that, but I’m moving, so we had to park in the lot. There’s a note, see—” I walked over to the truck and plucked a piece of paper from the windshield wiper. “It says, ‘I’m helping my son move. I’m upstairs bringing furniture down. If you need to contact me, call me on my mobile phone at 703 . . .”
“Let me explain something to you,” he said. “If you don’t have a sticker, you can’t park here.”
“Let me explain something to you,” said my father, coming out the side of the building. “I left a note. We have permission to be here. I said I’m helping my son move.”
“Then you should have parked over there—” he said, pointing to a side street that was a football field’s length away, “and everything would have been all right.”
“You expect me to carry furniture all the way over there?”
“Sir, I don’t make the rules.”
“Can’t you just drop my truck off the lift?”
“You have two options,” he said. “First option: I take your truck down to the station, and you pay us $375 to release it. Second option,” he said, holding up his fingers in a peace sign, “You pay me $150 right now, and I drop the truck.”
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” said my father.
“Listen, listen: there’s nothing I can do.”
“Yes, there is. You could just drop the truck and give me a break. We were upstairs bringing furniture down, for crying out loud.” The tow truck driver was unfazed. He stood there with a dumb look on his face, his eyes half-closed.
My father swore and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. He flipped through a few one hundred dollar bills, which were for the trip down to Texas. “You’re eating into my gas money, man. I only have hundreds—no change.”
“I’ll take $100 then,” he said, smiling, like he was doing us a favor.
My father jerked a bill out of his wallet and slapped it down on the driver’s clipboard. The driver returned to his lift controls and lowered the truck.
“It’s theft, Ryan,” said my father, looking glum. “That’s all it is—it’s theft.”
• • •
Eventually the truck was packed sky-high. My mattress was the final thing to go on. It was sheathed in plastic to protect it and everything else from the rain. My father hugged me and said he was leaving. We both glanced up at my bedroom window. Perri was inside painting, much as she had been for the last three hours. We saw her stand up on a chair to get to a corner of the wall, and then step back down to put more paint on her brush. “She’s a sweet girl,” said my father. “She’s done a lot for you.”
“I know. My God, she really has,” I said.
“All right, son, I’m leaving. I’ll see you in a few days.”
“You’re making the right decision. I’ll be able to sleep so much better at night knowing you’re not here.” He pointed indiscriminately behind us, for anything he could have pointed out would have been convincing enough that the city I had called home for the last five years was a complete shithole.
“Trust me, son.” He smiled. I watched him drive off in the rain.
I walked back upstairs and announced to Perri that there was nothing left to do, and that we could go to sleep if we wanted. She had finished painting the entire bedroom, and was stepping out of it as I spoke, just as chipper as she’d been hours prior.
I had disassembled my bed and had placed it in the back of my father’s truck, which was presently barreling south on Interstate 95, and so we had no choice but to sleep on the floor.
I of course swallowed a melatonin to send me off to sleep. I didn’t want any idle thoughts to occur just before bed, didn’t want to think about the things I always think about—the ones that make me so very sad.
“Good-night, Perri,” I said.
“Good-night, Ryan,” she said.
• • •
“I’ll See You In Philadelphia”
I drove Perri to the bus station not long after we woke up. I stepped out of my car, walked around to the passenger side, and hugged her. I said, “Thanks for everything.” I said, “Good-bye.” I told her to come visit me in Texas, if she could.
“I’ll try!” she said. She disappeared.
I went home and knelt on the floor in the middle of everything I owned. I was weary already. “God damn it,” I said. “Man.”
After some final packing, I loaded up everything I could into my Jeep—to the point where there was only room for me to sit down and drive. I couldn’t see out of the right window, or behind me, or use any of the mirrors except the side-view mirror connected to my door. I drove on the interstate for an hour and a half. I unloaded everything at my mother’s house, drove back to Baltimore, packed the rest up, and drove all the way back again.
It was hell.
• • •
“Highway Holocaust or, The Man From Tennessee:
A Play In Three Acts”
“Nil desperandum; nil igitur est mors ad nos.”
• • •
(The curtain rises on HAL and RYAN, who are busily tying down furniture to the back of a truck using ratchet straps. They do not know how to properly use ratchet straps, and are having some difficulty. Soon they will depart for Texas with JASON, who is at home doing nothing.)
HAL (grunting): Shit. I can’t figure this out. Ryan, you do it.
(RYAN approaches his father, sighing. He’d had a rough night and morning. He slept alone in an empty apartment and had to wake up early in order to haul a bunch of bullshit down to Virginia.)
RYAN: Here, let me see it. (Struggling with the ratchet strap) I hate these fucking things. But here, I think I got it.
(RYAN hands the ratchet strap back to his father and begins crying.)
RYAN: I hate my life! Alas—where are my cats? Why can’t I find something else to be sad about?
HAL: Son, you’re going to get those cats back. You just have to be patient. Or you could complain about it over and over in “The Starsailor Newsletter”. Your choice.
RYAN (wiping away tears): I think I’ll do the latter.
HAL: OK. Let’s go get that friend of yours. I’m sure he hasn’t even packed yet.
• • •
(Meanwhile, JASON is at home sucking his thumb and begging his parents to help him change his underwear.)
JASON (quivering lips): B-b-b-but I need help.
(JASON frowns, pulls up his pants and walks into his brother EDDIE’S room. EDDIE is sitting on his bed. There is a plump guinea pig on his stomach. He is scratching it on its back.)
EDDIE: What the fuck do you want? Aren’t you supposed to be—oh, I don’t know—moving to Texas?
JASON (sucking his thumb): Will you help Jayjay change his underwear?
EDDIE (without a trace of emotion on his face): Get the fuck out of here, asshole.
• • •
(HAL and RYAN, having hitched the Jeep Cherokee to the back of the truck, arrive at JASON’S house to start the long journey to Texas. HAL is hungry as a bear, and won’t let anyone forget it. RYAN is miserable and lonely and feels like the whole world is out to get him.)
HAL (approaching the house): Ryan Butler! How are you?
RYAN BUTLER (extending his arm for a handshake): Oh, hey, Mr. L. It’s nice to see you again. Jason isn’t ready yet. Last I heard, he was pissing all over himself.
HAL (not surprised): Because of Texas, or . . . ?
RYAN BUTLER: Oh, I don’t know. I just showed up, and his mom said, “Jason ain’t comin’ down. He’s pissin’ all over himself.”
HAL: I’m hungry, so that boy better hurry up.
(Suddenly JASON comes flying out the house with his pants unzipped. He’s stopped crying, but he looks like he could start again at any second. His face is red as hell. HAL looks down and notices that JASON’S shoes are on the wrong feet, and he’s wearing his mother’s nightgown.)
HAL (shaking his head): For fuck’s sake, Jason.
• • •
(The three men have hit the highway and are clipping along at a steady pace. HAL and RYAN are driving ahead with the Jeep being towed. JASON is following close behind with his motorcycle attached to the back of his car. He has since sobered up and returned to reality after HAL punched him in the face at a gas station two hours before. HAL and RYAN are able to communicate with JASON using a two-way radio.)
HAL (talking into the radio): Jason! Come in, Jason. Over.
JASON (scratchy on account of the radio quality): Yeah, Hal?
HAL: I want you to call me ‘Ranger Hal’ from now on. Got that? Over.
RANGER HAL: You heard me, dipshit. I’m Ranger Hal from now on.
JASON: What’s my new name?
RYAN (taking the radio from HAL): You’re Dusty Jones—or Dusty J. for short.
JASON: Roger. I like that nickname. I think that—oh, shit. Shit! Hal, the motorcycle is tilting hard.
RANGER HAL: What do you want me to do about it?
JASON (on the verge of tears): Dude, fuck! This thing is going to start scraping on the highway! Pull over! Pull over!
RANGER HAL (turning off the radio): We’re not stopping. I’m hungry. That piece of shit can fix his own motorcycle. Or he can let it fall off and cause a huge accident for all I care.
RYAN: I love you, Dad. You’re the best.
RANGER DAD (smiling warmly): I love you too, son.
(JASON’S car explodes in a ball of fire. HAL laughs, kills a Budweiser and presses down on the accelerator.)
• • •
(The three arrive in Tennessee late that night. JASON has minor wounds, but survived the crash. His car, motorcycle and all of his worldly possessions are nothing but burnt scraps sitting on the side of a highway somewhere in Virginia. He is surprisingly upbeat, all things considered. HAL and RYAN attempt to swing the truck around in order to park in the front yard of HAL’S house, but have some difficulty due to the Jeep Cherokee taking up so much space in the back.)
HAL: I can’t see that well, Ryan—do I have enough room to turn around?
RYAN: Uh, I think so. I don’t know, Dad. I’m really tired.
HAL: Well, we can sleep in a bit . . . erp, uh, hang on—
(HAL cuts the wheel and puts the truck in reverse. He begins backing up, but a horrible cracking noise quickly alerts him that he’s done something wrong. Still, he continues to back up.)
RYAN: Dad, I think you should stop moving.
HAL: It’s fine, Ryan. It’s—
(JASON approaches the side of the truck, flailing his arms in the air and screaming.)
JASON: Ranger Hal! Ranger Hal! Stop! The fucking Jeep just slipped off the hitch, and now it’s all screwed up!
RYAN: Aw, man. What?
(RYAN steps out of the truck and walks around back to examine the damage. The front-right tire is horribly mangled, and the Jeep is just barely hanging on to the hitch by a chain, which is wrapped around the axle. It is clear that no one is going to get any God damn sleep that night.)
HAL (furious): Jason, why didn’t you say anything?
JASON: B-but I did, Ranger Hal. I came up to the truck to tell you guys.
HAL (turning to face RYAN, whispering): You have the worst friends.
• • •
(JASON and RYAN are standing in HAL’S basement, waiting for the artificial fireplace to warm them.)
JASON (yawning): I’m really tired. I think I’m going to get some sleep.
RYAN: Will you sleep in the basement with me? I don’t want to be all alone.
JASON: No, dude, I want to sleep in a bed tonight. There’s only a couch down here.
RYAN: I think a real friend would forgo sleeping in a bed in order to keep his friend company.
JASON (walking towards the stairs with his back turned): Then I guess I’m a shitty friend.
• • •
(After another day of driving, the truck pulls into a rundown motel in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Everyone agrees it’s the worst name a city could possibly have. As they step inside the lobby, they are greeted by a friendly HOTEL STAFF member, who has HAL sign a stack of papers promising he won’t steal the television or kill anyone. HAL is suspicious about the last part.)
HAL (with a wry look on his face): You honestly mean to tell me that I can’t defend myself in a hotel room that I’m paying for?
HOTEL STAFF: Sir, I don’t make the rules. Please, we’re all very tired—why don’t you just sign the forms?
HAL (unholstering a Glock .45 pistol loaded with hollow-point rounds): What did you just say to me?
HOTEL STAFF (glancing at the telephone): Uh, sir, please—uh.
HAL (now aiming the gun at the man’s head): I’m not signing that form.
HOTEL STAFF (shaking): Uh! Uh! O-OK! Just take the keys! For God’s sake, don’t shoot!
HAL (holstering the gun): And we want free breakfast.
HOTEL STAFF (confused): But sir, we offer a free continental breakfast to every guest.
HAL (unflinchingly, gritting his teeth): I don’t want anyone else to get breakfast.
(JASON approaches the counter, unaware of the events that have just transpired.)
JASON: Excuse me, is there any way we could have extra blankets in our room? I get cold at night.
(The HOTEL STAFF reaches for a bundle of blankets from beneath the front desk, but HAL misinterprets his movements as a threat to his safety. He whips his gun out and points it at the man’s head, firing one shot. The HOTEL STAFF collapses to the floor and begins convulsing.)
HAL: Look what you did, Jason.
• • •
(The truck pulls up to a shabby house off Guadalupe Street. The paint is chipping and the grass hasn’t been mowed in weeks, and everything about the property looks rundown and unloved.)
RYAN: Home sweet home!
JASON: This place is pretty cool.
HAL: We drove 1,500 miles for this? I nearly wrecked during that rainstorm outside of Dallas. You boys are crazy.
RYAN: I like this place, Dad.
JASON: Yeah, Ranger Hal, this is a nice place.
HAL (twisting his lips): Well, all right—yeah. It’s got its charms. But it would go up smoke in seconds if Jason here lit something on fire.
JASON: I would never do that.
RYAN: Yeah, Dad, Jason would never start a fire in the house.
HAL (putting a hand on RYAN’S shoulder): Son, I know a dumbass when I see one.
RYAN: I’m so happy to be in Texas. What a wonderful day!
JASON: Me too, man. I’m glad we did this. I love you.
RYAN (staring at the ground): Yeeeaaaaaahhhh.
(JASON attempts to hug RYAN, but he refuses.)
RYAN (whispering): Man, stop. My dad will think something is up.
JASON (leaning in close): Do you think someone could ever love me?
HAL (overhearing JASON’S loud voice): I’ll be the one to answer that: No.
(The trio laughs heartily.)
• • •
“Well, Here We Are, Damn It, And Things Are Different Now”
I have lived in Austin for just over a month. It has been a wonderful month, more or less. I have wiled away my time working on this very Newsletter, and have been applying for jobs and drinking with friends and by myself, and spending my nights with this lovely human being I know. Everything is all right. That’s all I ask for, anyway—”all right”. It is not just sufficient, it is preferred.
One of the first things to happen: Alex, dear Alex, my friend and brother on the West Coast—well, he sent me two Christmas presents. The first was OK Computer by Radiohead, on vinyl. The second was Halcyon Digest by Deerhunter, also on vinyl. If you know anything about me, you know that I love Halcyon Digest. It is a fine album, the best of 2010, no doubt, and perhaps of “all-time” (though such awards are so lacking to me, because really, who cares?).
I have promised him I will obtain a record player in the near future. Then I will write him a long email, in which I may even review these two albums. It’s all very exciting.
• • •
Have I left you feeling strange? This was a strange Newsletter. It has the honor of being the longest one yet (by about ten thousand words), and the only one to include not one, not two, but three dream sequences. And I crammed a “play” (term used lightly) in here. If anyone out there ever has the desire to produce this play for the stage, please get in touch with me. I would be happy to share my notes. (Hah!)
It has taken me nearly two whole months to write this thing. Some days I worked on it diligently for hours and hours, and other days I typed in a single sentence and felt discouraged, not wanting to add anymore. But here it is! It’s here!
• • •
Do you know what someone said to me the other day? They said (or shouted, rather), from atop a six-story building, as I was biking innocently down the street: “HEY.” It was a young man in his early 20s.
“Yes?” I said, looking up.
“You need to get off that bike,” he said, ”and you need to start drinking.” He held up a beer and chugged half of it right then and there, proving that he was a man who walked the walk.
“I sure will,” I said. I waved.
I turned to an old man sitting on a bench near a bus stop. He looked at me curiously, having overhead our conversation. I shrugged. “God damn it,” I said, “you’ve got to be kind.” I peddled off.
Welcome to Austin.
• • •
Do I miss Virginia? A little, yeah.
I certainly don’t miss Maryland at all. I was scorned and turned away from that place. I will pretend, however, that it was I who left Maryland freely. That will certainly make me feel better about my decision to move here.
I have this life right here, and I’m not really sure what to do about it. I try. Sure enough, I try. But I can’t be in Virginia, or Maryland, for that matter, and I don’t know when I’m coming back again. I shall remain here until I’m not supposed to here anymore.
I should go. It’s raining and I’m start to feeling rotten for having stayed in all day. What could I possibly do in the rain? Drive around in it, by God. I think I’ll do that now.
And I realize now, as I end this—and I am ending this—that this feeling of wistfulness, of longing, of holding on to the person I used to be, now turned a ghost . . . it could unmake something that I like. And I mean a lot of things that I like. This place, these people, these feelings. I have felt this for too long, since I was a young child, and now its infringement on my life is something of an invasion. It is a tumor. This feeling could unmake my whole world. It’s got to stop. So I won’t feel it.
So I say: “Good-night.” I say, “So long for now.” I will visit you again soon. Sleep, sleep. Coo, coo.