(An Unbearably Beautiful Girl features formatting not present in the movella edition. To read the same free text with original formatting, please visit thefoolish.jux.com/117469)
Too all my friends— For always correcting my grammar.
NOTE: The following is told in alternating passages labeled by narrator:
J: JACK EDGAR WRIGHT M: MAGGIE STANTON
J: LIES CALLED STORIES
When the astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission returned to Earth we kept them in lockdown at the Lunar-receiving Laboratory. Do you know why we did this? In case they’d caught Moon Diseases. Moon diseases. How much of a giant Fuck You handed down from the heavens would that have been? To spend a generations will and cold hard cash on a little ship built to laugh in the face of fate or nature or whatever you want to call it—only to have the looming hand of God slap us with a nasty case of Astro-Flu? Astro-AIDS? Astro-Cancer? Heavens that would have been a twist.
It’s impossible for a person to walk in a straight line. Without a point of reference at least—the moon or a mountain—it can’t be done. A man blindfolded in a field set loose on the night will wind in tighter and tighter circles until he bumps into a tree or wanders into a road. He can’t do it. We can’t do it. You can be as certain as you want that you’re heading due north, but that doesn’t change the fact that your brain is buzzing harder on one side the other, or that one leg is a little stronger, or that maybe you secretly want to walk in circles—because wherever you’re going is frankly a little scary. This is why I like gravity. You can shut your eyes or open them. You can have no idea where you are, or stare dead ahead at your childhood home. Gravity will take you in one incredibly straight line. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. These are things I know. The other day I went to the museum to look at the moths and butterflies mounted on Bristol board. If you tried to mount anything else you’d end up with an awful mess that would just get worse and worse. Not butterflies. You pose them, pin them, and sit back with a very unsettling smile. The point remains that those butterflies would never fall apart. They’d never decay or begin to reek. They would politely outlive us all—sort of. I walked around the museum with my hands awkwardly in my pockets waiting for someone to recognize me. It’d been maybe a month since someone had noticed; longer since they’d really cared, and even longer since I had openly welcomed it. Today I wanted someone to recognize me. I wanted someone to say hello. I wanted a time traveler to come lurking out from behind a sculpture—to tell me I was incredibly important and take me off on some remarkable adventure. We would foil an evil plot at some point during all of this, get laid, the usual. Instead I looked at butterflies pinned to Bristol board. Inachis io is the Latin name for the Peacock butterfly, which is odd. Its most identifying feature isn’t its remarkable resemblance to a peacock, but the wide eyed patterns on its wings—literally, a pattern designed to look like a pair of big, un-blinking eyes. Designed. That statement was more provocative then I meant it to be. Other animals don’t bother it because of these eyes on its back, they think it’s bigger than it is. Or at least that it has very big eyes. All the better to see you with my dear. Its name is a metaphor loaded into a metaphor—that must be a little disheartening. I walked around the museum for maybe an hour, got bored, and went down to the main level to sit at the small coffee/gift shop. There was a wall of pens with the name of the museum printed on the side in old looking font. I nursed my tea, staring at the pens with what I’m sure was an all too serious look on my face. There’s this story that in the sixties NASA realized that without gravity pens wouldn’t work in space. They spent years developing new technology, pressurized cartridges, smaller and smaller components, all in order to make a pen that could write in space—or upside down if you felt like it. They spent a small fortune to make the space pen. The Russians went and used pencils. That’s how the story goes. It’s a hell of a story. Unfortunately that’s really all it is. The fact is that the pen was developed by an independent manufacturer who sold it to NASA for a perfectly reasonable amount of money. Years later they auctioned it off to the Russians, the Chinese, and museum gift shops the world over. The fact is that pencils couldn’t be used in space because the graphite could break off and clog the instruments. None of this changes the fact that it’s still a good story. So I finished my tea, straightened out my jacket, and walked out the door of the gift shop. I didn’t buy a pen, but I thought about them all the way out of the building. The sun had set while I was inside. I’ve always found this an unnerving feeling. It’s as if wherever you’d just come from had somehow stolen the hours from you. Out of all the places though—a museum hoarding hours makes the most sense. Pebbled glass doors holding in a lifetimes worth of Sunday evening hours. Keeping all the paintings and sculptures fresh. I walked through Union Square when I saw a group of beautiful young women and decided I was going to return there at some point in the night. I hunted down a small bar a few blocks away where I bought myself two pints and a shot of whisky—I’m sure I looked lonelier than I felt so I drank quickly and left without saying anything to anyone. Union square has benches but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone sitting on them. The young women were gone. An old Korean couple and a bunch of dudes had replaced them. Everyone sits on the stairs a few feet away. I stood between the benches and the stairs with a confused look on my face, trying to make a decision that the more I thought about it held a greater and greater sense of weight. I sat down on the bench staring enviously at the stairs. The moon rose into the sky and the last little bit of sunlight crawling up over the horizon made its exit. It occurred to me that I was leaving the next day and should probably get home to pack. I’d end up falling asleep without touching my suitcase, but for a few minutes I felt proactive in anticipation of a bunch of work that would never get done. I sat on the bench thinking. I thought about butterflies and gravity. I thought about pens. I thought about telling lies and calling them stories.
There were limes caked in snow by the trash bin outside of the bar on Sunday morning. A few limes from a box thrown into the garbage had rolled out onto the ground. I nudged one with my foot. There were no marks on it. Not even any bruising really. This was a lime that had been flown god knows how far to be diced up and served as a chase for cheap tequila served to anonymous women and the men paying. I wasn’t sure if these limes had found themselves unfulfilled or if they’d avoided some sticky fate unbefitting their noble heritage of pies and soda flavoring. I picked up one of the limes and put it back in the cardboard box with its brothers and sister. Somehow this made me feel better—which somehow made me feel worse, as I’d no idea how shitty a mood I’d been in up until that little moment. I was picking up a coworker who lived above the dingy club I was parked behind. The fact that she could stand bad dance music cranked up too loud—drunken melodrama unfolding in real time right outside her window was nothing short of miraculous. She told me that she slept through it, which prompted me to wonder what I would do in that situation. I think I’d descend into insomnia. That kind of soap opera scribbled out in torn t-shirts and broken heals sounded all too enticing. Life with the color and the volume cranked up so fucking high you couldn’t even make out the image on the screen. I resolved to ask if she needed a roommate. Snow floated down a little heavier as she opened the door at the top of the winding metal staircase. I could picture the door creating a single snow angel wing on the walkway, quickly soiled by her sensible black sneakers as she walked through to get to the stairs. She hopped into the passengers seat with her bag on her lap. “Hi.” She said with shiny enthusiasm as she drew on her lips in the mirror. “Hey.” I shifted the car into gear. The tires clawed at the snow for a second before jerking forward. I cut back through the alley towards the main road.
J: STEEL WOOL
Spectacle is a handful of steel wool and a blowtorch. Just one of those little guys you use in the kitchen for flambéing food and a piece of steel wool no bigger than your fist. Puff up the wool so the air can get at the inside, and take the torch to it. If you want to know what I think the start of the universe looked like—it’s that.
M: BUZZ WORDS
When I graduated college I got a job working as a secretary at the office of a company that manufactured industrial lubricants. I would sit at my desk staring at this endless flow of paper. Every piece covered in business buzzwords. It started out mildly enough. The first one was paradigm shift—which wasn’t too bad. Then it was synergy. Diversity. Globalization. Green. Empowerment. Leverage. Organic growth. I started to keep a list on the back of an office wide memo telling us not to use the third floor bathroom. Co-opetition (I liked that one). Integrated. Boilerplate. Mindshare. When they fired me it wasn’t downsizing, it was rightsizing. When I asked my boyfriend at the time if I could move in with him it wasn’t an idea—it was an elevator pitch. They don’t need a buzzword for the word no. They’re perfectly capable of saying no. They’re quite good at it actually. So I got my own place. Small, loud, cluttered with boxes of things left behind by whoever had lived there before me. This smell of old paper hung in the air above everything—strangely everything but the bookshelf. The bookshelf smelled like smoke. I was hoping there might be an old barbeque that would keep the succession going with some strange and exciting new smell, but aside from a microwave, the kitchen was empty. The microwave smelt of popcorn. I got a new job working at a store on the street where all of the cool kids from my high school used to go, and I went to that job five days a week with a contempt for my coworkers that was so dark and thick you pour that shit on French toast. I went to this job every day for five years. I was working this job—standing behind the counter while two seventeen year old girls looked at jeans and talked about how their mutual friend blew some guy when I realized that I wasn’t a happy person. It felt like a revelation at first, but the more I thought about it the more obvious it seemed. Unpacking sweaters purchased in bulk from a commercial consignment depot I didn’t cry, but I kind of felt like I ought to. I was working that job when I decided I needed an enemy, because blaming myself was getting really tiresome. I was at that job when I wrote the letter.
There’s a desert named after me you know? When I was seven years old they pulled me from a twisted claw of metal and silicon dusted with Nevada sand. They named that desert after me. The one where I landed. You should know that. You should try to remember. It’ll come back around. How I got there isn’t particularly important—well it is, incredibly so. Just not for our purposes. If you focus in on the crux of this whole thing you get a giant picture with a tiny little part of it in focus. You never know until everything is over which part that was. However if I had to guess I’d say this might be it.
I stand and pace in these tight little circles whenever I talk on the phone. I don’t know why I do this, but I always have. I don’t have anything clever or witty to say about that. It was just kind of weighing on me. If anyone has an answer to why that is please let me know. I’m sure I’m fitting into some psychological profile I’ve never heard of and I’d like to put a name on it. I woke dry and flaky from the night prior. It occurred to me that I hadn’t eaten a real breakfast in weeks and I decided to dedicate a solid morning to putting together something heartier than cereal. It was a decision I immediately regretted when I realized I had only an egg in my fridge. One egg. I fried and ate the egg and went out for breakfast at a little place around the corner before heading right back up to the apartment. I felt ashamed. My birthday was approaching so I’d decided a few days prior that I was going to drive down the coast to L.A. to visit some friends from college, then hook back up to Santa Barbara to visit the publicist who worked out of there—I hadn’t seen him in a few years. When I was a little boy I wore one shirt pretty much every day. It was a cheap white cotton t-shirt four sizes to big from a gift shop at a theme park that closed down sixteen years ago. I went on a rollercoaster with my Aunt, and as the rollercoaster went through a loop the backpack with all of my stuff—tucked under the seat of my Aunt (evidently not far enough) rocketed up past our heads and down towards the earth. The park couldn’t find it, my jacket was inside it, and by the time we were ready to leave the sun had set. It was pretty cold. The park gave me a t-shirt to wear home. I thought of the look on my aunt’s face when they explained the situation to her, shattering the image I think we both had of the unshakable authority and control the little man sitting in front of us had over that park. I still had that t-shirt in my closet and had to resist the urge to put it on every time I dressed. It ended up in the suitcase nonetheless. I put a kettle of water on the stove while rummaging through the few shirts I wore throughout the week. I stood all too seriously in front of my bookshelf trying to decide what to take, collected the few toiletries I thought I might need, then made my way back down the hall. The kettle had started squealing dramatically in the other room. Green tea and black tea come from the same plant; they’re just treated differently. Black tea is fermented, which sucks out a whole list of vitamins and nutrients, whereas green tea is just dried. I drank a small pot of green tea, alternatively staring off into the middle distance and at the half packed suitcase on my bed. With a handful of socks and a disproportionately large handful of underwear it started to overflow. I retrieved my suit from the closet, folded it delicately, and shuffled around the socks and toiletries before placing it carefully on top. I didn’t need that suit, but I knew I would want it. I forced shut the latches on either side of the case and sat back with a satisfied sigh. One thing I can’t bear to do is waste food. I don’t keep much in the house so it’s rarely a problem. Knowing I wouldn’t be back for a while, and staring at what little food was left after the egg I suddenly faced a dilemma.
Once in a while I’d look over at the paper bag full of fruit and the half full carton of milk sitting on my dashboard and tell myself that I’m an idiot for buckling to habit. Then I’d eat a banana, take a sip of milk, and decide that I’m maybe not so bad. I drove south. The milk got warm.
My father was kind of an asshole. These are the kinds of things we know. I can’t give much hard proof, and it’s a bit of an incendiary statement, but I think I’ve put together enough eyewitness testimony over the years to know for certain that my Dad was a real dick. My image of him—the yearbook photo that crops up in my mind when I picture isn’t of us playing. It isn’t of us at some vacation spot. It’s of him sitting dead center in our living room staring hard at the television. It sounds a little petty I know. My dad cared more about what was happening outside than he did what was happening five feet away. That kind of jolted perspective on the world is okay if it’s yours—if it’s stable, but I’m sure growing up in that kind of environment would do a number on anyone. He grew up in front of a television, and like some small town he never escaped. My father used to tell me I was named after the character Audrey Hepburn played in Funny Face. It’s a movie about a shy librarian who’s discovered and becomes a model. I was eleven when I finally saw the movie, and I realized that Maggie wasn’t the name of Audrey Hepburn’s character at all. Maggie was the woman who ran the fashion magazine in the movie. When I was thirteen I found my dad’s high school yearbook and realized I was named after a girl named Maggie Brookheart, who was two grades below him. I think he took her to prom. I realized I was named after some girl my dad probably fucked in high school. My father wasn’t evil—he was just kind of a dick. I stood behind the counter shifting through a stack of receipts that the closing manager the night prior had failed to file away. I was half-heartedly talking with one of the young girls who proudly worked in the store. It had been years since I’d heard the phrase— “Penis envy” “Bullshit,” I replied. A couple of teenagers glanced over across the store at us. The term did sound remotely familiar. “It’s true.” “It’s true that he had a theory, doesn’t mean the theory’s true.” I was backpedaling. “It’s Freud.” She said. I looked at my coworker, trying hard not to laugh. Her name was Stephanie. She was nineteen, maybe twenty, and full of a kind of confidence I’m sure I outgrew at half that age. “Doesn’t make it true. I don’t want a penis.” “Sure, now you don’t. But you did.” I looked over at her from the far side of the counter where I was sorting a box of plucky old pins. The teens at the other side of the store were listening closely. She registered the look as a rare invitation to keep talking. “Every girl wants a penis because without a penis they can’t have sex with their mom.” I paused. “You believe that?” “It’s Freud.” “I know. Do you believe Freud?” “How much are these?” A boy had walked up to the counter with a pair of shoes. I took the shoes, turned them over, and handed them back to the boy. There was a yellow price tag stuck to the sole that he looked at uncomfortably. “Thanks,” he said, marching off. “I guess not.” Stephanie chimed in. “You guess you don’t believe him?” “I guess I don’t agree with him.” “Good.” I said. I appreciated the subtle distinction.
J: CARVING MONUMENTS
I’m not the first person to have this thought, but I’m going to go ahead and have it anyway. I sat down at the plastic booth of a Chinese restaurant along the highway, maybe five hours out of the city. I faced the greasy aluminum counter I’d ordered from in the large room that was empty save the couple that ran it and myself. The husband and wife shuffled around. They weaved through the kitchen, the counter and the vague partition dividing it. I couldn’t understand a word they said yet could clearly see the fault line in their relationship emerge as their son stumbled sullenly out from the back. I could hear a videogame pause screen from the other room, muffled as they hushed what would otherwise be a conversation at full volume. I suddenly felt bad for intruding. Without watching too intensely I wondered how many other people had sat in this chair. How many had watched this tiny little human drama unfold without the courtesy of subtitles? I was sure I couldn’t have been the first. My chopsticks scrambled around my dish of fried beef and reheated brown rice. Dust kicked up outside the window as a bus pulled up beside the restaurant. A stream of people stumbled from the bus, bloodshot eyes and stale faces that suggested that they’d been driving for quite some time. I stared intently out the window as I watched them funnel in with their luggage and their tired expressions. A middle-aged couple asks me if the rest of the booth is taken. They made a joke about “limited real estate.” I laughed and shook my head with a pleasant enough smile as I gestured for them to sit. They looked around politely. We made small talk before I asked if they planned on getting any food. “No, we’re not hungry. We brought sandwiches.” A young woman approached with a tray of food as the wife—a bitter looking woman whose shiny, sunny demeanor in no way matched her coarse looking face said this. As often happens in these situations, my brain shut off. For a flicker of a moment, my inner-monologue reverted to the slack jawed 12 year old southern boy that occupied my head, whispering a childlike—golly, she’s real perdy. She asked if she could sit. She introduced herself as Amy. “Jack.” She told me that the bus went from Calgary, a city in Canada, down to Arizona, but that she was getting off in L.A. to visit family. Confidently, betraying every instinct in my head I told her I was heading there too. “Maybe I’ll see you there.” She said non-committedly. “Maybe.” I said back. I took a bite of my ginger beef, pausing as the thin, wiry meat dissolved in my mouth. We made small talk. I said something she insisted was interesting which I thought to myself wasn’t really. Her insistence otherwise might be a good sign. We discussed the bus, and the three told me of a strange man sitting at the back of the bus who had been pacing up and down the walkway at the behest of the driver. He would begin to walk, the driver would ask him to sit, and within an hour or so he would attempt to do so again. The older woman told me that the man made her nervous. I asked if the man was in the restaurant now. The three cautiously looked around the room before concluding to their satisfaction that he was not. I told them that I was going to leave and the young woman wrote down her number on a napkin, telling me to call her when I got to L.A. This seemed to please the old couple endlessly. I sat in the driver’s seat of the car trying to decide how much further I should go. The sun was almost setting and I decided to stop at the next hotel I found. I drove for another hour before running into one—a tiny little thing nestled next to a gas station. The room was plain and inoffensive. The paintings on the walls were polite and straight to the point. I sat on the end of the bed with my bags on the bed to the right of me. On the television was an evening news cast about increased attendance at Disney land. For a split second they showed archival footage of the magic kingdom being built—and it occurred to me— Someone had to build Disney Land. The thought snuck quietly into my head latching on desperately. In an instant I was flooded with images of the magic castle covered in scaffolds—half built and waiting for children and their tired parents soaked in sweat. In an instant I realized that everything had to be built. The Empire State Building. The Statue of Liberty. Mount Rushmore. Someone had to build spectacle, and for some strange reason as I sat on the end of my bed in the small, unassuming hotel room along the side of the highway—this upset me. I wondered what had become of the men who built monuments, and more and more their nondescript faces burned heavier and heavier into my head. I changed the channel.
M: NOTHING TOO SERIOUS
I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a relationship that ended clean. Hell, I don’t know if I’ve ever even heard of one. On paper, there’s no way it’s never happened—I’m sure there have been relationships with tidy, cauterized cuts. This is purely theoretical as far as I’m concerned. I thought, hoped, that I was the exception that proved the rule. Problem is I’m far too good at following rules. The boyfriend who cut me loose walked into the store at noon on a Wednesday. I realized this must have been how he’d chosen to spend his lunch break, and while I didn’t know exactly what that meant to me—I knew it meant something. He didn’t pretend to act surprised to see me, didn’t act any way really. He just said hello. “Hello.” I said back, awkwardly shuffling behind the counter. I was sucking in my cheeks, pushing out my chest trying to look composed and maybe even hot. I cursed the me-of-four-hours-ago for failing to put more thought into what I’d worn that day. Fucking t-shirt and jeans. “How have you been?” “Good, you?” “Good, good.” The conversation continued on like this for a while, stale and uninteresting, before he finally saddled up and asked what he’d come to ask. “Listen, I’ve only got a few minutes here, but do you want to maybe get a cup of coffee sometime? There are some things I’d like to talk to you about—” he quickly qualified that it was nothing too serious. I said yes. He said hello to the one coworker who he’d met before who politely responded in kind yet remained uncannily focused on folding a pile of sweatshirts at the other end of the store. He said bye, I said bye, and he left. I exhaled. My coworkers huddled around me like they’d just pulled me from the wreckage of a derailed train. I stared off as they spouted off theories as to what his return meant. One of my male coworkers said that maybe he was pregnant. We all laughed but when I looked back at the soft, anxious, dry timber of his voice I got a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. I knew my luck and somehow he’d be the one to manage pulling it off. My pregnant ex-boyfriend.
You know that feeling when you see something in a different light? Everyday when I opened the door to my little apartment I prayed for one of those moments to grab me by my shoulders and shake me violently screaming, “now this is the life!” Not today. It was still the same small, cramped little thing. Still wedged between a Korean beauty salon and a breakfast restaurant. I threw my things down on the sofa, turned on the coffee maker, and sat down slowly on my sofa. The pretty blonde newscaster reported on a man who’d killed another passenger on a bus from Canada down to California. The others had been sleeping. The wheels on the bus went round and round. He’d been anxious and then deadly still with the kind of snap transition that sang mental instability. There weren’t many details beyond that. They described the whole morbid thing as “still developing,” as if to suggest it was still going on—as if to suggest he was still on the bus, pacing up and down the aisle with the knife still in his hand. If I’d read closer I’d have known that was exactly the case. J: FOG HORN Sometimes I use the word funny, and I use it incorrectly. For example—it’s funny to think to consider how different my life might be if that hotel hadn’t had a pool. See funny isn’t really the right word. Better maybe, worse possibly, but different—undeniably. If that hotel hadn’t had a pool I’d have been sitting in my room completely unaware of the drama outside. If there hadn’t been a pool everything that happened would have just been a startling story for the morning after. On the flipside if there hadn’t been a pool I wouldn’t have been able to go swimming earlier in the night, and fuck if I don’t love a good swim. I sat down on a pool chair—legs draped over the side as I angled myself so the faint light of the adjacent balcony lit the pages of the book I was reading. It was a book I found myself not really caring about, not really even caring whether I finished it—I was reading for the sake of reading. Reading because damn it it’s there. I get the feeling a lot of books are like that. Hotel pools are curious places. A pool at a roadside hotel at 2:00 AM is down right strange. It’s deftly quiet, weirdly calm, and yet almost frantic as the light from the surface of the water jumps around like a severed power cable. I could hear the sound of cars in the distance, and the hum—like a muted foghorn, deep and rubbery—of the hotels heating system buzzing behind me. It’s hard to see shapes moving in those kinds of conditions, but caught in between the shadows lurking around the walls of the complex I saw a small figure shifting about on the upper balcony. I dropped the book onto my lap staring hard at the upper walkway—trying to make out what was there. It started to move slowly away from one of the rooms. The door was slightly ajar and a touch of flickering television light leaked through the gap. It was a little girl. She looked around, and I realized she was unaware of my presence. The single man sitting by the pool at 2 in the morning staring all too intensely at the child walking around by herself. She slowly wandered down the stairs as I tried to glance down at my book now and again. Then she stopped—dead in the middle of the staircase—looking around with this quiet look of fear and confusion on her face. The lawn chair creaked and wobbled as I tried to lean forward slightly. “Hello?” I asked her in my friendliest I’m not a villain voice. Her wide doe eyes shot over to me with a startling amount of focus. “Are you alright there?” She didn’t say a word. I looked around anxiously as I prayed for the hotel owner to come around a corner or her mother to stumble out of the room. “Shouldn’t you go back to your room?” I asked finally. She shook her head staring down at the pool. I looked around again, “why not?” I asked her—genuinely curious if only to try to end the conversation. The little girl began to cry. I stood up but didn’t move from my spot by the chair. “Fuck,” I muttered to myself. “Why not?” More crying. “Alright come on now.” I said gently, slowly walking towards her. As I got closer I could see her cheeks were stained in tears—all shiny and backlit by the balcony light. “Come on.” I passed by her in the stairs. My eyes were on the crack in the door of the room she’d come from. There was a sitcom or a late night talk show maybe playing on the TV. I could hear the laugh track. I stood uncomfortably by the door for a minute looking back at the staircase where the little girl was still standing. She was looking up at me now. “Hello?” No response from the room. “I’ve got a little girl out here. I think she came from this room.” Nothing. I leaned in through the doorway. I pushed the heavy aluminum door out of my way. The only light beside the faint orange glow of the television came from the bathroom. “Anyone?” Nothing. Slowly—glancing back one last time at the little girl staring up at me from the staircase—I walked into the room. The carpet was different in this one. It was softer with a wider knit. I brushed it with the toe of my shoe wondering why they’d only renovated half the hotel. I was thinking about the carpet, moving ever so slowly when I crossed the threshold of the bathroom. This is where I found the dead man sitting on the toilet.
I sat in the small hotel diner while we waited for an ambulance to show up. The owner was a tiny little man—north of sixty and frail beyond all belief. I was hesitant to tell him what’d happened for risk of double the nights kill count, but he seemed strangely calm about the whole thing. He shook his head sternly, as if begrudging fate for dropping another one in his lap. I suddenly realized that this little man had probably seen more life and death in this place than I could ever hope to imagine. I went behind the counter and poured some cola in what I’m sure was supposed to be a pint glass, and topped it off with a scoop of ice cream. The little girl sat quietly in the booth opposite me sipping on the float while I stared desperately down at the highway. Sirens, all I wanted were some sirens. “How you doing there?” I asked her. She looked up at me with an expression that read quite simple—how do you fucking think? It was the first real interaction between the two of us. “I’m sorry about your dad.” She sipped at the float, saying nothing. Awkwardly—for lack of anything better to do—I returned to the counter to make myself a float with this perpetually uncomfortable expression on my face. I turned back and took a sip as I leaned against the counter with both hands clutching the cold mug. The ice cream tasted a little off, but I wrote it off as my own fried nerves. I couldn’t get the thought that I’d poisoned the recently orphaned little girl with fouled dairy products out of my head. I downed mine in a few quick gulps and placed the glass down on the counter. It tasted fine. Through the diner windows I could see the owner scurry around on the second floor walkway. “My dad’s gone too.” I said frankly, “Since I was about your age.” I was trying to coax out something, anything. Her vacant stare was grinding at me. The little girl stared hard at the opposite wall—occasionally leaning forward towards the table to take another sip. “Do you know who I am?” I asked quietly. She looked up slightly from the table trying to place my face. “Do you recognize me?” The hotel owner walked in—the faint stain of raindrops on his shoulders. He exhaled and looked at the little girl, and then back at me. “The ambulance is here. They’re looking at the father. There are cops here too—for the girl.” I nodded. I said goodbye to the little girl as the owner escorted her out. I answered the police officers questions about what had happened and returned to my room. It was nearly four in the morning. I fell down on the bed and passed out with the taste of float in my mouth. My book was down by the pool.
M: GHETTO ASS PLASTIC
This is the story of the night I met the third most interesting person I’ve ever met.
Something interesting happens when you work with young people. It’s a kind of renaissance. You’re suddenly invited to parties and strange keggers. If they’re young enough—out in the woods or on beaches if you lived somewhere cool. Normally doing nothing sounded more appealing, but this week hadn’t been normal. This fucking week. I recognized the clearing before we crossed through the thin wall of trees. Light from a small bonfire shone like little glowing freckles through the pines. I’d been here back in high school. Eight years and not a whole lot had changed. There was an iron grill for barbequing that had been built up on into the fire; fractured twigs stacked against it like a burning tee pee or a formal invitation to a forest fire. The girls I’d come with fractured off as the crowd merged into ours. I was the oldest one in the pack. I was Five years older than the oldest one. She was twenty one. I felt like an abandoned building caked in sawdust. I felt old. Not much dust kicked up as I kicked at the frozen dirt with my shoe. For a second I considered leaving without saying a word. The path back up to the road was long but seemed more and more appealing the harder I looked at the crowd. These were the kids I avoided in high school—the kids from other schools. Schools that fought and cared about their football team. Schools with metal detectors in the doorways and random locker checks. “What are you doing?” Tom shouted at me. Tom was a college student who worked part time at the store. He was a bit of an apparition. He worked every couple weeks if only to remind us he existed in some form or another. He was talking with a group of people—some strangers and Stephanie. I waved—walking quickly towards them. Two of them had super market bags filled with beer hanging at their sides. The funny thing was that they were from different super markets. That’s a coincidence you see exponentially less the later in life you get. A man sidled into the group. A little nook formed around him as he settled in—glancing down at his beer then back up at everyone. Tom shook his hand. “Have you guys met Vincent?” The fucked up thing is—that name put him in the top ten. He was Taiwanese with a long, soft face and thick curly black hair. I shook his hand. Vincent didn’t say another word. He looked about nineteen, twenty at most, but he had those old aggressive eyes that fit best on a quiet face. His jacket was very shiny. Standing by the fire fifteen minutes later Tom told me what Vincent did for a living. “He makes deliveries for drug dealers.” I looked over my shoulder at this unassuming young man, nodding in silence, genuinely engaged with a young woman wobbling a few feet away. “No shit?” “Serious stuff. I ran into him on the train a month ago. He had this ghetto ass plastic and metal briefcase in his hand. It was weird.” “That guy runs drugs?” “I think money, but yeah, probably.” I finished off the beer I was nursing and whipped the bottle at the fire. Tom looked at me with a skewed expression on his face. “Where did that come from?” “Mind?” I asked. He chuckled and nodded as he passed me another bottle from his backpack. I twisted the cap off the cheap beer—it tasted like copper. I was getting a little bit of a buzz. A single sustained note playing in my head as I looked around at the thickening crowd.
J: THE KETTLE
I’m lost. Every morning I can remember I remember waking up utterly lost. It’s never panic—just fifteen seconds or so of quiet confusion as I try to figure out where I am. Even in my own bed, sometimes more. I looked around the room—tracing over the cheap wooden bookshelf and the television sitting on it. I clued in staring at a painting of a horse hung crookedly beside the window. I wonder how long it would be if you added all of those fifteen second chunks onto one lump? How much of my life had been spent just figuring out where I was? I’d been waking up for twenty-seven years. Twenty or so seconds every day That’s damn near two days spent utterly lost in the world. Almost two days spent helpless—a notch above infancy. I vowed never to do the math on anything again. Years earlier someone had told me how much of an average persons life is spent shitting and it damn near killed me. I drove through a three-hour stretch of radio static and the faint buzz of a local talk radio station from some town miles away. The radio DJ prattled on about a harvest festival and the great turnout that everyone was expecting. He really sold that fucking thing. I turned off the radio as the hills got rockier and the dirt lighter. San Fernando loomed up ahead and I always pulled off on the wrong freeway when it split. I jerked right at the last second and veered down towards the valley. I looked to my left and watched as a young woman driving violently down the road applied her lipstick in the rearview mirror. She paused only to shout along with the music in her car. I sped up to get past her. Hills turned into houses that faded away into more hills— And again into houses. I pulled deeper and deeper into the wrinkled cellophane wrapper of LA. I smiled at the shiny dust soaked wonder of the whole thing. And damn if it didn’t smile right back. I was staying with a friend from my brief stint at university who lived just south of the bad neighborhood, and just north of the rich one. He’d set up camp in a house that would have been new in the sixties. Now—like so many—it was roguish and folksy with a fresh face of paint and a drenching of clutter—at least the last time I’d seen it. I pulled up jerkily in front of the house. It was the only real landmark I could have any hope of finding without several panicked phone calls and a guilty visit to a convenience store for help. The door swung open and Charlie burst out. He hugged me. I felt uncomfortable. We laughed as he pulled away with a sharp pat on the arm. Over his shoulder I could see a quiet looking woman sitting in a chair against the far wall. “Come in man.” The door swung shut behind me. Charlie took my bag out of my hand. The weight of it jerked him down as he stumbled towards the kitchen table. “How are you?” “I’m good. You?” There was a kettle on the oven hissing quietly. I gave the woman at the table a small wave and a smile. “Have you met Jill?” “Can’t say I have.” I quickly crossed the room to shake her hand. Her skin was soft—I felt instantly guilty for thinking that. I reflected on my own guilt—trying to figure out where it came from if not parents or religion—as the kettle boiled louder and louder. Charlie gestured for me to sit down at the kitchen table. “We’ve been together for…” he trailed off. We both knew damn well that he knew the answer. Jill’s eyes flickered as she tuned in. “A year and a half now?” he turned back to me, nodding enthusiastically. “A year and a half now. Are you seeing anyone?” I smiled and shook my head. There were boxes of tea on the counter I couldn’t help focusing on. I wondered if someone was going to get the damn thing off the stove so we could have a cup. “Single right now.” “How are the guys?” “Haven’t seen the guys in a bit—I’m sure the guys are good.” I wondered if anyone lumped me into an umbrella label like that or if I warranted a name. Jill approached the stove. My ears perked up. “Real good.” “Do you want a cup?” Jill asked me. She glanced over as she poured a cup for herself. Steam rose lazily over her shoulder. “That’d be great thanks. Is that Jasmine?” It was. “It is.” “Do you mind?” “Not at all.” Jill went about throwing a bag in the small hand painted floral mug. I was content. “What are you doing now?” Charlie asked me. “This and that. You still—” I realized in that desperate instant that I’d forgotten what Charlie did for a living. I had the cup halfway up to my mouth when I started the sentence. I interrupted myself while I stumbled over what I remembered about him in a desperate attempt to remember. Foggy transcripts of college conversations buzzed through my head. I remember eating in the south quad in an old brick building he had classes in. It was the business building— I lowered the cup. “—In banking?” I’m sure if you rewound the tape you’d hear a little upward inflection as I said it. It was as much a question as anything. “Mhmm, Mhmm.” He said with that same soft smile. Fucking nailed it. I celebrated with another sip. We talked for some time. It was mostly about Charlie, but the topic wandered occasionally back to college, and briefly to how he and Jill met. She was thoroughly distracting sitting next to him. She would pipe with a word here and there. Nothing more than a casual comment every minute or two. She knew who I was. I’m sure they’d had that conversation the moment he’d told her I was coming. It was the one where he asked if she remembered him mentioning his friend Jack from college. She would ask him if he meant that Jack. He would then ask her with a playful smile if she would mind me staying for a few days. In an instant I’d tumbled from cultural symbol, to delightful hypothetical, to a tangible person sitting opposite her. I wondered how I compared to the pictures she’d seen of me? I was older—a little grizzled for my age. It wasn’t hard to tell even now I wasn’t destined to age particularly well. The photos people had seen of my father could tell you that. But I had a nice enough face. I was slim and handsome enough—a genetic tradeoff for a tall brow and not much in the way of a manly build. The problem was that I was real. To women like her—the fairer half of young, successful coastal couple—I wasn’t supposed to exist, at least not in her house. Maybe I could pass her on the street or a boardwalk somewhere, but not here. Maybe one of her single friends met me in a bar. Maybe one of them even slept with me. I felt like I owed her an apology. I wasn’t god, and I wasn’t bleeding— I was just a guy sitting at her kitchen table who really had to take a piss.
M: FAVOR AND LOVE
It was a Tuesday when I received a phone call telling me that my father had died. He’d had a heart attack while riding the bus. My father hadn’t gone quietly into the night—he’d fallen all the way down while a crowd of people screamed and gasped around him. Panic for a goodnight. It had been a year and a half since we’d spoken and if I had another day with him I still had no clue what we would talk about. His funeral was sparsely attended—not tragically so, just enough that you wondered if a few people hadn’t ignored their invitations. The pastor talked about redemption and the love of good people. It rained. This is how I ended up back at my childhood home just outside the city limits. It watched as I rounded the corner in my beat up high school car. I parked on the spot where I used to carve chalk into the pavement while my father watched the news inside. Remarkably little had changed in the cramped little bungalow. I wondered if my father knew how much I hated the living room that greeted me as I walked in. His chair—caked in the powdery mush of a hundred fumbled potato chips—seemed to wink at me as I brushed past it. This was the room that killed my dad. It let him settle. It let him calmly soak into it as the television murmured along and his arteries clogged under the weight of his own apathy. It was imprisonment born of convenience. I packed boxes in the living room, staring at the spot where he used to sit. His little throne hadn’t shifted. The carpet under the wooden legs was worn down to a matted film that clutched to the chair as I pried it up. The empty spot felt warm in the absence of the chair. A lifetime of sloth and silence echoing back through time. I wondered how long it would last.
I remember as a little girl, the day the television gave my father another son—gave me a brother. I used to try to sit next to him—before I burned out on his utter apathy at my presence. There was a story that caught his imagination. It caught the whole countries imagination, but it really truly wrestled his to the ground with what felt at the time like malice. The news sang the praises of this boy. He was a year older than me, maybe seven or so. I didn’t entirely understand at the time why they cared so much about this boy. I didn’t understand why my father cried as he watched the footage of this boy being carried from a large pile of metal and dust in the desert, or why people cheered when the shaky camera focused in on his face. I didn’t understand. My father would never meet that boy. My father cared so much about the boy they found in the desert that I sometimes wondered if he’d stopped caring about me. That’s a difficult thought for a kid to have. I’ve been told that it’s a manifestation of the love a child feels for their parent, and the staggering insecurity that love can breed. As an adult I would know for sure that it was true. I would slowly come to understand how that boy had come to be in that desert, and more importantly why people cared. He was just a little boy, just as I was a little girl. He was a little boy that sucked attention from strangers while others went without. He rolled around in their favor and love, oblivious to just how precious what he had was. That boy. That goddam boy.
J: FAMOUS PAINTER
The wife—Jill—stood in the bathroom wiping off her makeup. She didn’t know it, but I could see her through the mirror at the end of the hallway bouncing her image down into the living room. I sat on the sofa trying to sleep. I felt menacing sitting there lit only by cars passing on the other side of their wide windows. Charlie was down the hall sleeping, his wife getting ready to join him, and here I was laying down on the off chance she caught my reflection. The light at the end of the hallway turned off. I pulled up the thin blanket. Footsteps grew louder. My pulse started crashing in my head as a lamp switched on. “Sorry.” She said pleasantly as she bolted through the room into the kitchen. “Just getting a drink.” “No harm.” I lay there silently as she rustled around behind me. I hadn’t said much more than a dozen words to her the whole night. “What does sone drink at midnight?” “Juice.” “Juice?” She chuckled. “Apple.” “Well you show restraint.” I sat up on the sofa. “What do you drink?” I realized this was the most she’d said in the four or so hours I’d been there. Charlie consumed dialogue in every scene, the perfect foil for a person like her. “Tea.” “At midnight?” “Right.” I tried to crack my knuckles. Only a few took. “Rye.” Every word I said chipped away or layered Spackle on the sparkly image she had of me. In either case I was renovating something longstanding and unshaking but rarely acknowledged—touching up some obscure painting by some famous painter. “How did you and Charlie meet?” “He’ll tell you we met through a mutual friend.” “And what would you tell me?” “That we share mutual friends—but that we figured that out after meeting at a bar.” I laughed. “Meeting?” She looked over with a look suggesting I stop asking. It was a large request. We settled into silence as she leaned against the table sipping quietly. “I feel bad.” Jill said. “Why is that?” She spoke a little softer “Because you just spent all evening practically interviewing Charlie. He does that.” “People over compensate—don’t like to ask me questions.” “No I can’t imagine they would.” “The funny thing is—everyone assumes I’m tired of talking, so they never let me. I’m the prettiest girl in the bar that everyone is afraid to hit on.” “Modest too.” Another round of silence. I felt suddenly awake—the blanket felt silly. A car passed behind me lighting up the whole room with a roar. “So.” She took a drink. “So what?” she asked. “What do you want to know?” Jill tapped her fingers on the table next to her. “What’s the first question people ask you?” My forehead involuntarily furrowed. “Is that the question?” “Still trying to decide.” I thought about it for a moment. “I don’t remember what they used to ask me, when I was a kid.” “And now?” “They ask me if I remember what it was like before the crash.” “Do you?” “Is that the question?” “Sure.” She’d finished her cup of juice. I stared—trying to figure out what, if anything, this conversation meant to her. I wanted it to mean something. “More vividly than anything since.” She smiled when I said this. It made me very happy. “Do you remember the desert?” I did. “Yeah. Yeah I do.”
M: A LETTER
I would return to the house of my father to clean out spaces that got smaller and smaller as I hacked away at them. My personal life became an after thought. I went to work, ate, slept and repeated accordingly. There were two people in the store flipping through a rack of sweaters on the wall adjacent to the counter. No one at work needed to know about my father. Naturally they all did. They left me alone at the counter most of the time. I get why. Standing next to someone perpetually staring off into middle nothing must get tiresome. Most days I’d go straight from work to the old house then home. Others I’d bounce between the first two until I felt like I was rattling apart like an old ship. It’d didn’t take long before the routine of it all became intolerable. Life reduced to a matter of duty—none of it to yourself. When you walk into a room you’ve known your whole life you make an agreement with that room not to reveal its secrets, as long as it doesn’t reveal yours. I sat cross-legged on the floor of the empty room. Somehow it felt warmer now that all the furniture was gone. There were stacks of old papers in front of me. I’d found an old box in the back of his closet full of old newspaper clipping and letters—invitations to parties he never went to. I hope that there was a time when my father dreamt of being perfect—of being everything to everyone. There was a time when he dreamt of being the perfect man. If there was, it means there was a time when he gave up. I flipped over another folder, tossing it to the side as the last one of the box smiled up at me from the scratched hard wood. I opened the folder to a stack of old newspaper clippings and photographs. Frayed edges clutched at a single scrap as I picked it up hesitantly. It was a cut out of an iconic image from a newspaper that was long out of print. The desert. Hello old friend. His hair was disheveled, tossed violently to the side as blood caked to his skin pawed violently at it. There was a man—classically handsome—carrying the little boy in his arms. He was shouting at someone off camera. Behind the pair, smoke plumed up into the sunset. Sand kicked up around them as someone just out of frame rushed in with a blanket. The boy was crying. Not like a child though—like a man. He was crying with an angry roar—screaming up at the sky he’d just fallen out of. The only part of that expression that betrayed his feelings was his eyes. There was no mistaking these tightly clenched eyes as those of someone in the throes of a great loss. I stared at that image of the boy being carried from the wreckage of a ship in the desert and I wondered what other people felt when they saw this image. Did they see some bittersweet image of mans greatest accomplishment? How alone was I in my jealousy? Here I was, staring at him again—wondering why my father cared so god damn much about this child when there was one a few feet away. Stabbing someone through the heart is easy. Just missing however, so they come crawling back, is quite a feat. I looked at that picture for probably an hour before looking up the boy’s name. There was an address to a publicist where people could send letters and inquiries. I wrote it down on the back of my arm and sat back down on the floor with a pen and a piece of paper from the pieces I’d planned on throwing out. And I wrote. I wrote that boy—that man now—a letter unraveling all the little things that happened in my head when I closed my eyes and thought of him. He’d know that he was the focus of all my fathers’ love—the ship that a lighthouse shone on while another crashed into the shore five feet away. He’d know that I hated him—God so damn much. I wrote and I wrote until the page was overflowing with tight, cramped letters. Then I turned it over and wrote more. My world became crystal and simple. He was the lens that everything was refracted through and I was finally putting the whole mess in focus. He must get a lot of letters. How many were like this? I had never really sent someone a letter before. Not far from the house was a post office I remember passing by to get to school. I bought stamps and an envelope and neatly folded the letter inside. I wrote down the address—now smudged but still legible on my arm—as I stood up against the counter looking at the envelope. There is something honest; tender even about telling someone you hate them. It’s like an exhale.
It was the second day of dry, dusty heat beating down on me wherever I went. I pulled out of Charlie’s driveway into the dense suburbs heading towards the city center. I thought about this kind of weather during winter and about the Midwest salted with snow. Victims of a real good old-fashioned climate. When you visit a city, don’t stay with your best friend—the one who knows the wild-ass thing you did in college because he was there. Stay with the second best friend—the Charlie. These are things I know. It’s worth mentioning that sometimes—most of the time maybe—I’m dead wrong about the things I think I know. Today I was visiting Willy. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a man walking his dog. The dog shit right on the sidewalk and the man kept walking. As I pulled around the corner I saw him glance over his should at it in the distance. It would haunt him—just for a second and ever so faintly. Ghost poop.
I stood on Willy’s doorstep mashing my thumb into the buzzer for a few minutes before catching the sound of a sprinkler in the backyard. Leaning back awkwardly I double-checked the address of the run down old bungalow before pacing around the side of the building. Like a caricature of himself he stood under the hard sun in his underwear watering the lawn. He was not a bronzed LA god but a zany uncle well before his time. He scratched his ass and I laughed. Willy turned casually. “Jack!” With a gentle smile he dropped the hose. He took a drag of his cigarette as he crossed the lawn in a few strides. “How goes it man?” We shook hands vigorously. “Good. Got in last night.” The liquor was fewer than a few feat from the door as I walked in. Willy had narrowed his life down to pure reward, and it seemed this was no more than a few things—scotch among them. We sat in adjacent chairs staring out the window as we drank cheap liquor poured out of an expensive old decanter. It was far and away the nicest thing in the room. “Who you staying with?” “Charlie and his girl Jill.” Willy grimaced. “I know.” “Why don’t you stay here?” I neglected to tell him my theory. “Ah, he offered, I felt rude.” “Well, you’re welcome.” The scotch bit hard and I held back a slight grimace as I weighed the pros and cons of drilling through my glass, and the odds he’d insist on refilling it. “She’s a pretty thing isn’t she?” I nodded emphatically. “I feel guilty all the time.” He laughed. “What are you doing now?” He asked. I tried to jump back to my talk with Charlie. I was sure that was the exact way he’d phrased the question. “Nothing really.” He smiled and sipped at his glass. “Lucky prick.” Willy stood as he finished his glass. He’d offer a refill. “Does that get boring?” Will had the act of pulling your arm behind your back and shoving you up against your deepest faults down to a fine art. I laughed like people asked me that all of the time. “No it doesn’t” Yes it did. Our relationship wasn’t one defined by plans—well conceived or otherwise. We drove into the heart of the city. His car was a run out old American so we took mine. It flattered in comparison—mostly because it didn’t rattle and buzz if someone so much as glanced at it. We sat at a nice enough restaurant picking at a plate of chips and salsa until his order came. Mine never did. “Do you still work at the vets office?” “No.” He picked at the flaky tar of burnt cheese lining his plate. “Finally bailed?” He laughed. “Something like that. But I am glad to be out of that place.” “You make it sound like ‘Nam.” “A bit less napalm but basically.” I laughed. “Where are you working then?” His head dropped and shifted the plate in front of him to the side. “Doing what you’re doing I guess.” “I’m not doing anything Willy.” He picked up his beer, gesturing vaguely at me. “Well there you go.” He shifted slightly in his seat, scratching at the underside of his arm through the rolled up cuff of his shirt. The dirty white cotton shifted up slightly as he scratched. And just like that my day was ruined. Like faint little crater burrowed in his skin, I could see the edge of a few black little scabs clustered around the single thick blue vein on his arm. I exhaled sharply, thinking simply to myself— Well fuck. It’s funny how quickly your day can turn to shit—and there I go misusing that word again.
I sat in my car just outside the house. I stared at the street leading back to the highway. The last of the boxes sat in the trunk of the car smelling of old carpet and cigarettes. It was a deeply familiar smell. I’d found a buyer for the house a few days before—someone who didn’t mind the smell or the history of the place. Someone who I’d never meet was going to move in in a few months and shuffle around the static pieces of my childhood until they were unrecognizable. Bedrooms would be used as offices; the television would be put against the window and not the wall. The little patch of carpet worn down to fine fibers would be torn out and replaced by a perfectly reasonable hardwood laminate. Good for them. I shifted the car into gear and pulled away—trying to tell myself I wasn’t giving it a second thought. This of course, was bullshit.
J: HOW THE HUMAN BODY WORKS
I drove through downtown L.A. trying to ignore a thousand things at once—chief among them the track marks on my friends arm. I told him about the little girl in the hotel and the dead father, and the woman at the truck stop restaurant who I thought might be down. I told him about ginger beef and I pointed out a prostitute yelling at police officer as we passed them by. It doesn’t matter how interesting your life is—when there’s an elephant screaming that loudly in the room, you can only go so long before you turn your head and ask exactly what the fuck is up. I didn’t know what those marks meant he was doing—didn’t really know what drugs you can do with a needle. Immunizations never really fazed me, yet the idea of a syringe with some dirty brown boiling water made my spine tense and my wrists shiver. Probably heroin. For the purposes of planning, I decided it was heroin. Willy knew of a party that night that he said we should go to. I’d agreed before catching the connect the dots drawn out on his arm. We sat in the parking lot of a fast food joint eating quietly as we pissed the day away waiting for the night to come.
There was a woman in a short skirt and a stained white tank top vomiting on the front steps. This was a party. Now that’s not a comment on a quality or content—its just fact. It wasn’t a soiree or a shindig. It wasn’t a get together or a gathering. It was a party, and in that moment as we strolled up the steps with a twelve pack—I decided that I might not be ready to party as hearty as this place had in mind. I sat on a couch next to Willy trying to maintain my place in a very uncomfortable conversation while keeping my eye on him. It was staggering how quickly the dynamic of our friendship had changed. I missed Charlie and Jill with their polite one-sided conversation and their convenient selection of teas. There was a pinball machine in the basement we sat in. A couple made out against the side of it while a drunken man wailed violently on the buttons. He pulled on the spring-loaded nob and stumbled back into a table as it sprung back. The ball bounced around the machine for a minute before falling into one of the fifteen point holes. Good for him. Willy was hitting on a young woman with a vacant look on her face and what I’m guessing wasn’t her first beer of the night. She hiccupped, confirming my suspicions.
I stood by the door of a bathroom while Willy puked on the other side. Barely an hour in and a scowl and a film faded in over his eyes. I glanced back at him a few times before he finally deadheaded it towards the stairs. And there I stood with my arms crossed and a faint muster of shouting telling me to go away on the other side. A young girl walked up towards the bathroom. She placed her hands on her hips and cocked her eyebrow. “How long’s your friend been in there?” “If you know he’s my friend then you saw him go in.” She paused. I managed to coax a slim little smile out of her. She was pretty and short. “How long till he’s out?” “You’ll have to ask him.” “Who do you know here?” “Willy. You ask a lot of questions.” “Who’s Willy?” I gestured at the door. “Ah.” She said with a halfhearted nod, the cheer of the apathetic coastal city liberal arts student. “I think there’s another bathroom downstairs.” There was. Willy had rushed past it utterly unaware as he sprinted up his second flight of stairs. There was a terrifying enthusiastic looking girl dancing on a table down the hall. I could see her as the door swung open and shut and then open again like an old western saloon. I didn’t know people had those kinds of doors in their homes. “Do you know who owns this place?” The girl asked as she rummaged through her purse looking for a cigarette. “No, but they have lovely taste in doors.” “Hmm?” “Nothing.” I banged on the door with the back of my fist again. “It’s time to go bud.” Radio silence. An awkward nod. “Who are you here with then?” I asked her. “Some friends. They’re outside.” “Do your friends know the owner?” “No, but theirs do.” For some reason I found this funny. It was hard not to chuckle just a little as a boy carrying a wine bottle with a swizzle straw strolled cavalierly past us. “You drinking?” She asked. “A little. You?” “No, MDMA and a little nitrate.” I nodded. All the junior pharmacologists with their body of knowledge I’d never have or need. I wondered what things looked like to her. “You’re older aren’t you?” “Twenty seven.” “Not so old then.” “Nope.” “I’m Lucy.” “Jack.” “Where do I know you from?” “How old are you?” “Twenty two.” “My names Jack Wright.” Her brow furrowed harshly as she tried to place it. She was scribbling lines between my face and my name without any success. Poor little thing. “You’re someone.” She nodded as she took a drag on her cigarette—pointing at me with it. I smiled. I could hear Willy banging around on the other side of the door. “Jesus,” I muttered under my breath, “It’s time to go man.” I said a little louder this time. I turned back to her. “Sort of.” “No you are. Why do I know you?” This girl with her doe eyes and her wobbly knees and her half burnt cigarette with an impossibly long tip of ash stared at me harder than I’d been stared at in a while. It was hard not to smile at her. “You might have been too young to remember—” “I’m only five years younger than you.” She interrupted with a smirk. “True.” I thought about it for a moment. Suddenly getting Willy out of that bathroom seemed less and less important. “Ares IX?” There it was. He face slipped a little to the side, her eyes still firmly on me. She pointed up with the two fingers holding the cigarette. I didn’t want to point out that she was pointing at the ceiling and not the sky. “That’s the one.” She nodded. “That was you?” I laughed to myself. “Well I’m not the one who crashed it. I was seven.” “You were the little boy in the pictures.” “Yeah.” She hesitated. “Jack Wright?” “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” We smiled at each other. The door thumped into my back. Willy slide awkwardly out into the hall wedged tightly between Lucy and myself. “I can leave now.” He said with a slurry groan. I scowled at him and turned back to the girl. “Well the bathroom is free.” “You’re going?” “I think that’d be best.” We smiled again and I hooked my arm over Willy’s shoulder as he jerked towards the door. “It was nice meeting you.” I marched off. “Hey?” I turned back to the girl. Willy slouched forward almost to the floor. The girl asked for my phone number with a timid murmur that betrayed the apathetic scowl she’d otherwise perfected. She said she’d call me. I said I hoped she did.
Willy and I sat in the front seat of my car waiting for the last of the liquor to flush itself through my system. I’m sure that’s not how the human body works—but the inconvenience of twenty minutes next to the drunken mess of my normally charming friend felt like penance enough. His head rolled back and forth in the seat. I stared hard at him as he arched back, glancing up at the roof of the car. “We can go back for that girl.” “No we can’t.” “I’m fine man, I—” “Willy.” I interrupted him aggressively midsentence. He stumbled over his own words, glancing cautiously at me. It was hard to make his name sound menacing. Willy. Just sounds goofy. “Do you want to explain your arm?” His eyes suddenly focused on the road in front of us. “My arm is fine.” “Yeah?” he nodded, I did too. “We’ve got time.” He glanced over at me and down at the keys. “Plenty.”
If you look at a mountain forest after an avalanche you see something interesting happen. The trees aren’t just broken down. They’re stripped of bark down to bare wood—torn off at the base. It looks like a bomb gone off, like an explosion at the heart of them. You get enough snow and it looks like a fire.
M: TALL STACK
It’s a bittersweet little moment when you realize you’ve gone twenty minutes without thinking about the tragedy in your life—when you feel life lurching up behind you to resume itself in the wake of some trauma. I started thinking about other people, other things. I got phone calls—a few from the ex. Once every few days he’d reach out and I’d politely keep my hands in my pockets. I slept in my own bed, sat on my own couch. I watched news coverage of the forest fires politely calming me, telling me the whole thing would be more than fine as it marched closer and closer. I made my own food rather than scrounging through the left overs in my fathers kitchen. The term leftover took on a whole knew meaning in that context. I chuckled for the first time when I thought of that. It didn’t descend into full-blown laughter like it’s supposed to—like movies taught me you’re supposed to do when you realize that everything is going to be okay, or we’re fucked. Here I was, somewhere in-between. It was a Wednesday when I decided that I needed to clean my apartment. It seems counter intuitive—I know. Witnessing someone survived by a bitter daughter and roomful of shit really puts the clutter into context. So I swept. There were boxes against the southern wall of my closet full of old plates I hadn’t unpacked since moving in. I tore the tape off—bringing with it an oblong scrap of cardboard. The box jangled as I opened it, full of tiny chunks of ceramic pilled up against a single plate. I pulled out the one surviving dish and stared hard at it for a moment. The bottom half was all scratched by the scraps holding it up. Damn movers. My bookshelf was covered in books I hadn’t read. Mystery novels and pop fiction crime thrillers aunts and uncles had bought me over a lifetime of birthdays. It was a wall full of polite gestures—four hundred page greeting cards. So I began dumping them into the empty space in my box of broken plates. There were only a few left when I finished. I collected the last couple and pressed them into a tidy little row on the top shelf. A lot of empty real estate left over. I took one of the ones I hadn’t read yet at random and placed it ceremoniously on the coffee table to read. This was the beginning of the purge.
I woke up slowly in the middle of the night. Like floating to the surface of a children’s wading pool. Some time during my childhood I’d realized the only way to fall back to sleep was to stop trying—sometimes dramatically so. I sat on the end of my bed pulling on an old pair of the ex’s jeans and a sweater. I sat downstairs at the counter of the breakfast restaurant inexplicably open at three in the morning with my box of old books and broken plates, afraid to venture into the alley to find a dumpster for them. A woman in her early sixties emerged from the back rubbing her eyes. “Heavens.” She said softly. A smile slowly inched its way onto her face. “What can I do for you?” “Do you guys still serve food?” “Depends on what you want.” Her voice was warm and deep for a woman of her size. “I’m not picky.” “The cooks gone. We mostly serve coffee at this hour—but I can whip up some eggs?” She nodded, “And there are some pancakes in the fridge from earlier I could heat up.” “The pancakes would be amazing.” She smiled that warm smile heading for the back. Every time she moved the shadows from the light in the back wobbled on the wall behind me. “You live next door?” She announced from the back. “I do.” “Can’t sleep?” “I was for a bit—” A beep from the industrial microwave rang out and she almost immediately emerged from the back with an unjustifiably tall stack of pancakes. “But I woke up—I don’t quite need that many.” She waved me off, placing the short little bottle of syrup next to the plate. The bottle looked strikingly like her—round and squat. “Eat until you’re full.” I stabbed at the microwaved pancakes with my fork until they were torn apart into manageable pieces. They tasted good in the way that reheated food does. An imitation—a photo of a painting. The television showed footage of a forest fire in the mountains south of town. It was strange to see a fire burning against the backdrop of snow-crested mountains. It didn’t care—it was a force in and of itself and unstoppable until it hit that special immovable something. Snow started falling slowly outside. The syrup was warm.
J: QUIET AND WARM
I drove cautiously through the suburbs towards Willy’s house. Sidewalks blurred along beside me. Square after square of suburban mom running track rushed along in a single grey line. It was painfully quiet in the car—it had been for a few minutes. Willy rustled in his seat as we took a corner. “Stop looking at me like that.” He muttered. I gave him a dirty look. My eyes had been heavy on the road since I finally buckled and left the party. “I’m not.” “I can tell.” He wasn’t making any sense. “So what is it you’re doing?” “What?” “Your arm—what are you doing?” Nothing. “What are you god damn doing?” He shuffled silently in his seat towards the window. I started breathing harder and harder as we emerged into the wrong cul-de -ac. I wasn’t paying any attention anymore. Out of the corner of my eye I caught him slowly turning towards me. Everything thrashed violently forward as I slammed on the breaks. “Listen you shit—” “Whoa.” He muttered as if I’d thrown on the lights in a pitch-black room. He raised his hand to guard his face or bat away at something that wasn’t there. “You’ve lost your job, you look like hell—” “Stop it.” “What are you fucking doing?” “Nothing man.” “Heroine?” “No.” I didn’t know anything else. The tempo was too high to pull back. “Willy!” There it was again. It just sounded goofy. He didn’t look at me when he spoke this time. In the end I’d gotten it out of him. “Coke.” “Coke?” The front blinds of the house in front of us were briskly shut. “Who the hell injects coke?” “It’s faster.” “In a rush are we? Jesus.” A few seconds passed before a bit of guilt eased in. It’s hard to empathize in moments like that. The anger was easing off. I didn’t want it too—but before I could stop it, he seemed human again. “Sorry.” “I get it.” “For how long?” “I did a bit back in college.” I hadn’t recalled that. “Guess it picked up in the last while.” I shifted the car into reverse and pulled back onto the road. The first signs of sunlight were slowly edging over the horizon. It was quiet and warm.
We pulled up in front of his house as his neighbor stepped out onto their front steps. I leaned over the passenger seat door as he tried awkwardly to pull himself out. The neighbor watched as he sat down in his own car. Once his door was shut he simply sat and stared as I pulled my friend through his own front door. I glanced over my shoulder at the neighbor—we locked eyes for a flicker of a second before I shut the door behind me.
To call me unequipped to deal with drugs on the level of a serious problem might very well be an understatement. I wasn’t naïve—I knew enough about Cocaine to know it wasn’t an ideal. It wasn’t heroine but sure as shit wasn’t ideal. If he were a weekend user—a recreational once in a blue moon kind of guy—I’d have let it go. You catch someone doing a bump at a club once and you don’t necessarily lose your shit. This was something else entirely. I was able to get Willy into his bed without too much trouble. The sun was now halfway over the horizon. It laughed at me as I wobbled in the doorway between the hall and his room trying to figure out what to do. You don’t have to be stone sober to realize showing up at someone like Charlie’s house at this time and in this state wasn’t a stunning idea. I decided to stay. His house was as quiet as the suburb surrounding it. It was an extension—an infected blister on the body of a quiet little burb. I sat down on a lounge chair in his living room surveying the damage. Shocking to consider I hadn’t seen signs the first round through. I fell asleep as the light shining through the window slowly lapped over my face. I wondered why I felt like this, all of this, was somehow my responsibility. Go ahead, co-opt the whole worlds pain, and see where that gets you. It was quiet and warm.
It was silly, but I stood on the edge of the alley for a few minutes before finally marching into the dimly lit off road to dump off the box of books and plates in a dumpster. It made a vicious crunching sound as I tossed it in before running back out onto the street. I went back up to the apartment and threw a pot on the stove—filling it with the last little bit of milk out of the carton. A few minutes and it started to rock around in the pot as thick shite smoke trailed off it. I stood right in front staring at it as it toppled around closer and closer to the edge. I needed a change. I walked over to the cupboard to grab a cup. Fuck I needed a change. I was perpetually at a loss for words—even in the middle of a conversation I found myself without any stake in the world around me. I needed change, because frankly something wasn’t working. My old friends had moved away to the coasts or to far away cities. I found the ones that stayed boring and had drifted away from them slowly over time. I was without family or a significant relationship. I swore for a moment I could smell a touch of smoke blowing in the wind from the mountain fires. I figured it was just a bonfire in a park somewhere. I needed a change. The milk was hot and comforting. It had stained the pot with a thick film that I knew from experience was hard to get off. I ignored it as I returned to my room—quickly jumping under the covers with the cup of milk in hand. Lying there I decided that my change was going to start the next day. I’d begin with a change in geography. I figured the rest would follow.
When the pioneers set sail for the new world, they knew they might never come home. There’s something intriguing to me about that idea of investing your life in the name of hope and promise. There’s something noble and stupid about it. Noble for what you might accomplish looking for something you don’t know you’ll find—stupid considering the odds against you. When the government announced the Ares IX mission, the whole world cocked its eyebrow skeptically. They compared the astronauts to pioneers who knew they might never come home. I always loved this comparison. It draws a pretty obvious parallel between spaceships and boats. I’ve always loved boats. So they launched their little men into space on a dead straight route for a planet we’d never stepped foot on. Little men with the knowledge that almost all of them might never come home. Using a decent transfer orbit you could knock the trip out in under a year. The issue wasn’t time. It was fuel. So the men landed on the little planet and set up camp. They made little rocky buildings out of strange new materials. They conducted their science and their business and they built themselves a home. They proceeded according to protocol looking for the raw materials needed to create fuel for a return flight. Slowly over time they received supplies and they built. The pioneers lived their lives in their strange new land. Funny thing happens when you put men and women together with the promise of never returning them home. They love. So a few loved each other, and a couple more loved each other, and before you knew it—in that hot bed of loving pioneer astronauts, well, one of them took. A little boy was born. A little boy with week bones and a long frame, and a genetic disposition to low muscle mass and a tall brow grew up on this strange new planet staring back at the earth that confused and scared him. He spent the first six years or so on the calm and quiet planet with his mother and his father and his extended family—watching footage of a big blue world with more people than he could possibly comprehend. One day, they told the boy (now six or so) that they’d finished their big project. He asked what that meant. They said it meant that they had fuel for the ship—just enough to send some folk back to Earth. “Who’s going?” he asked with a smile. “You are bud.” So they packed the boy (whose name was Jack) and his father (whose name was Richard), but not the mother (she’d gotten sick and wasn’t around any more), and the father’s friend—into the ship, and sent them off. And for a whole year the little boy and his father tumbled through the sky towards the big blue planet. One day the dad said, “That’s the moon.” And the boy knew exactly what that meant—that they were close. Slowly it inched over a non-existent horizon into view. The boy danced around the tiny little room and the father cried with a big smile on his face. The boy had never seen that before. The blue planet got closer and closer and the ship seemed to move faster and faster. And suddenly the father seemed nervous, and his friend seemed angry, and the boy seemed afraid. The ship got very loud and started shaking very angrily. The fathers friend cracked his head on the panel of buttons as the ship thrashed from side to side. The boy was crying—the father staring hard at his buttons and his displays. The ground came rushing into view. The boy was sad—it wasn’t blue or even green. It looked like his home—the other planet. It was a desert. So the boy and the father crashed into the desert and when the boy woke up his dad wasn’t moving anymore. He was very still. The little boy cried. The black metal sky tore off and a man reached in, pulling the boy out. The boy had never seen the sky before without anything in the way—without glass or plastic. It scared him. So the little boy cried and the man marched in and a sea of people rushed to the ship to find the boys father hadn’t made it home after all. The little boy named jack was on the news that night and for weeks and months after. The whole country knew his name—the first human born on the scary red planet that they called Mars but the boy called home. The first Martian was a little boy. A little boy named Jack Wright.
END OF PART ONE.