“Where do you go when there’s nowhere to go, and the death you might have died belongs to you no longer?”
—Joy Williams, “Breaking and Entering”
Thursday, 4:55. The class pours in, another Greenburg lecture set to commence.
Today, Greenburg’s got a trick up his sleeve.
He wants to mix things up a bit. After everyone’s seated he tells us to change seats. A little experiment in “altering perspectives,” he says. “Seeing things from a different angle, in a different light.”
Another one of his crazy exercises.
Even though there’s no assigned seating, after the first couples classes, everyone more or less fell into a set seating pattern which got carried on for ever class thereafter and which he’s now, apparently, trying to break us out of. Who knows why this is. Maybe because it’s a first year class and everyone is still stuck in old habits, have yet to throw off the old routines, the rigid structures deeply ingrained after the previous twelve, thirteen years of formal education. Maybe. Myself, I’m still enjoying the novelty of hunkering down in the back of class with a wad of Berry Burst Double-Bubble to chew on, pass the time, without Ms. Retzing, that ancient dishcloth of a teacher (“Old rumbled Retzing, none too fetching” went the oft-reprised playground chorus) who’d been put in charge of the music and health departments since the invention of the recorder or the female contraceptive, whatever came first, instructing me to dispose of my load before my chomping further disturbed another one of her endlessly fascinating expositions on the intimate workings of the female reproductive tract.
The class shuffles and re-shuffles again, table and chair legs squeaking along the tiled floor, and then there she is, seated next to me. No not Retzing, God rest her haggard soul, but Wendy Meadows. So far I’ve only admired her from afar, safely across the class, gapping out during heavy periods on those long curly locks that run down her neck, covering over some tattoo she has on the back of her neck. Some words, still not exactly sure what it says, and haven’t got up the gumption to go over and ask.
What can I say, that’s just not what I do. Not one of my talents. Some guys are all skills and chutzpah in that department. Not me. Not so much. But such deficiencies I try not to dwell on. My old man, if he was still around, he’d say it’s that line of deep-black brooding that makes a good man bitter, and a bitter man a damn waste. He said a lot of things I’m still digesting, my guts weakened by the heaps of unprocessed, unsorted, and unverified bulk. My old man. How thoughtless of him, leaving when he did. The fucking nerve. But what did he really know anyway? What had been holding back, keeping secret? Beats me. Must have been a good one. That’s what I tell myself. But then again, who knows. When it’s all on the line, who can we really trust to set us right? To my feckless eyes, truth and lies form the same outline.
I’ve got Wendy in my eye line, and she’s right there, looking back, smiling her smile that sets the world afire. Hold steady, steady. I can feel the blood drain from my face, as if I’m disappearing right in front of her. Going ghost. Turning translucent. The forever fade. If only. Except the gleam of awareness in her true blues says I’m all right there, in the flesh. The edges of her lips curl. Part.
I wait for the spontaneous charm to kick in, take over, free me from my own mass ineptitude, turn me into something better, but nothing’s coming. Time’s ticking. Something else my old man used to say. No one, he said, who ever uttered the words “no rush” ever said it and meant it, not in full knowledge. The bulk builds.
The word more a crude imitation of a relaxed, casual greeting: hanging there limply, as it were, with an expectation that instantly turns and eats itself, finding immediate rejection and spat out with final disgust.
The professor begins to address the class. Lecture underway. Next to me, vexed by my feeble one-note performance, Wendy’s reply is all but a short, swift breath, equal parts pity, amusement and utter unconcern. So much for cool under pressure, but at least this reminds me to take a breath before I really do keel over, and then we both turn to the front, note-taking pens at the ready.
The lecture is a short one, and for the second half of the class we’re instructed to group up for a brief discussion of some of points he touched on. Joy. Now usually this means grabbing others in closest proximity, a low-key gesture, a pointed look is all it takes, and we’re on our way. But because of the bit of musical chairs, my group, the usual guys, are all scattered about the class. I start looking over at Wendy, thinking maybe here’ll be my chance to shine, to show off some mad analytic skills, which is about the only time as of late I can seem to get the words to flow, to say what I mean—if indeed there’s any meaning in what I say. How did it get like this?
Well, first there was Mindy, and her decision, the week after graduation, while we were staying at her parents cabin on Diefenbaker, to end things after two-and-three-quarter years because, in her words, she wanted a year to “figure things out” before her future came calling. Right. Real original. I even had the ring and everything. But she said it, and she meant it. Then there was that thing over the summer. I’m still trying to figure out the meaning behind that one. And now here I am into my second year of post-high school studies with so far only one class failed (damned math!). And that’s all the explanation I’ve got. But who’s asking anyhow?
The seat next to me is empty, like the head of the dinner table when I was back home for Christmas, and I catch Wendy, having rounded up her books and things, making a B-line for the exit.
“What’s with her?” I say to the guy next to me, a sad-eyed fellow with soft, lumpy features and a swollen red goatee of acne.
“I heard her talkin’ with Greenburg before class. Something about an appointment she had to get to. I think. I don’t know.”
“Hope it’s nothing serious.” I watch her give a little wave to the professor on her way out the door, which he returns with a nod of acknowledgement without interrupting the set of directions he’s giving to a group at the front in his usual casual yet authoritative manner.
My neck snaps back around to him.
The discussion is off to a fantabulous start.
And so she’s gone, and another opportunity lost. Opportunity isn’t the right word, but thankfully neither is hopeless nor oblivion, and meanwhile life goes on between the two.
Myself, the pimply guy and a couple others are having our little discussion about one of the discussion questions printed out on the sheet in front of me, but I’m still on Wendy and my lack of extra-curricular female fraternizing and not contributing a lick. Then the professor decides, mercifully, to dismiss us early and all talk cuts off like a terminal patient’s life-support, and everyone’s picking up, clearing out, done for the day.
As I’m bent over putting my books away, others passing by me on their way out the door, I feel a slap on my shoulder, and look up to see one of my old group partners, Mike Rembolt. How I know Mike is we both share this class along with a compulsory Art History course. That was the ice breaker of sorts. “Hey there fellow, gee you look awfully familiar, aren’t you also in…” That started it, and he’s been prodding me to meet up for drinks with him ever since. And I’ve avoided it pretty good, until now.
“So listen. There’s this new place, just opened. It’s where the old burger joint used to be. You know, that fifties throwback place. I’m headed down there now. You should come.”
“I don’t know. I’m pretty loaded down. You know how it is.”
“Aw, come on. Last class of the day over. Time to relax. Chill out a bit.”
“Yeah, it’s an idea. But…”
So I accept, and we go.
The place is nearby, only a couple blocks from campus—hidden in the corner of a recently expanded strip mall—and real busy when we get there. It being the end of the workday, the loose tie crowd is out in force. He orders us a couple drinks to start. Something hard. I put my book bag down next to my stool. Two glasses of the queer, browny liquid, like mom’s molasses watered down with lemonade, with the same sort of sting, are plunked down on the bar.
“To fire-cooked steaks, fast cars, and sweet-loving ladies,” says my man Mike, holding up a glass. “Not necessarily in that order.”
Our glasses smash together and we both down our drinks.
I get up.
“Gotta hit the head.”
“Don’t think you can sneak out that easy. They’ll be another waiting for you when you get back,” my man shouts at me over the noise, and I register it with a thumbs-up as I drop in the door of the john.
When I get back the drink is there but my bag is gone. And so is my man.
I do a quick scan across the bar, side to side, and then over the whole establishment. The place is big, weird, and gaudy, and I don’t know my way around for anything. Mirrors arranged in every corner skew perspectives so, looking up, everything seems a million miles away. Here but over there. Get a few pints in you and stare up at it long enough, there’s a good chance of your face turning into a hamburger submerged in a double side order of greasy-tipped cigarettes. It's true. Up on one wall, images of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, presumably left over from the previous occupants, coolly watch over the proceedings, and the black-and-white floor tiles makes it so that it’s like you’re walking on a chessboard.
And making my way through the crowded, rowdy bar, manoeuvring between bodies like caught in a well-placed block, I feel like I’m the fucking pawn, though for what, whose game, I’m not sure.
Then I’m at the back of the bar with others milling around. A long, cavernous hallway stretches back into some ill-defined blackness, far off. The action around me makes it hard to gauge what we’ve got going on. But I don’t know where else Mike could be unless he left, and I start out, passing one door and another and another. A whole series of labyrinth-like rooms connect to this never-ending hallway. My path gets blocked by a couple fondling and flirting and generally carrying on in an altogether intimate manner.
“Excuse me. Excuse me.”
No dice. Nothing will break their erotic embrace. I’m wishing I had brought my drink with me form the bar, if only to put out their fire. Fight fire with fire, that is.
Instead, on a whim, for lack of anything else, I grab the nearest doorknob, twist, swing it open.
The pungent scent of lust and stale sweat fills the small room. Movement draws my eye. In one corner two bodies are plunging for each other’s love jewels. As naked as the cracked cement walls, the man and woman flail and jerk on the ragged bed in a violent display of want and release. The draft coming in behind me through the doorframe brings the man out of it, pausing momentarily the battle of the flesh underway to turn to me.
“Hey, buddy! You mind!”
The woman under him covers her mouth with a free hand, giggling like a schoolgirl who’s just been passed a dirty note as I close the door. Following that comes “What you laughing at?” from the man, and the door is shut. More people fill the hall, what suddenly occurs to me, as I look around at them in the dim hall light, are all couple in various stages of making it, have conglomerated, clustered around the hallway, as I weave around them and duck into another room.
This time I slam the door behind me, back leaning against it, and close my eyes. In a second, I feel a pair of hands grasping my arms, cinching on tightly with the cold embrace of a crab, shaking them with great urgency. I open my eyes, and am met with the reflection of a gaunt face bordering on the skeletal, wild-eyed, alert, blinking madly like the wings of a housefly.
“Oh man. Oh man, oh man. You gotta help me, man. You just gotta. I doing know what happened. I mean, I do, but, shit, it happened so fast. She said she liked it rough. Said it was what got her off.”
He lets go of me, arms drop, dangle beside him helplessly as he steps aside.
“Oh, man, would you look at her,” he says running a worried hand through a few wisps of hair. “Jesus, just look at her!”
The naked body lays spread across the bed, the head falling over the side, hanging unnaturally, a pale icy blue, staring up at the ceiling, the features frozen in an expression approaching vengeful satisfaction, the eyes bold and determined, inching out of their sockets as if reaching for something they’ll never get to. Or maybe they already did. A purple necklace of bruises wraps around the awkwardly distended throat.
“Goddamn it all. That stupid fucking cunt! It’s all her own fault. We had a safe word! A fucking safe word! She was supposed to say ‘alligator’ if things got to be too much. Alligator! Goddamn bitch!” His weak, shrinking frame trembles in a sore fit of contempt and indignation. He drops to his knees and starts visibly weeping. Like a motherless child, it all comes pouring out, freely, without sense or direction. His words, barely audible, stifled as they are by the tears and sobbing, waver in a high-pitched wail. “Goddamn bitch.”
I look at him on the ground and then at her and then at him. Impossible. I beat it out of there.
I continue down the hallway, which has now extended way past the goings on of the bar into somewhere else entirely. Where, I don’t know. Beyond the atmosphere of jolly frivolity, and into someplace wholly different, unrelated, disconnected, and bleak. My pace quickened, moving faster and faster, almost breaking into a gallop, the dark emptiness ahead becomes a more and more welcoming sight. Then I’m brought to a dead stop, running smack into something, someone. And all at once a pressure comes down hard on my foot, the shock of impact launching me to one side, connecting with the wall with the same hard, unforgiving impact. Momentarily dazed, I collect myself and push off the wall in a quick, pitching motion, which is followed instantly by a pinch, more than a pinch—a stab—on my right side. I struggle to come loose, stunned as I am by the pain—which I don’t feel so much as anticipate like an oncoming swarm of killer bees—shaking my arm frantically, but my jacket is snagged on something, holding me up. I make one all-out gesture, like I’m delivering a right-hook, and then there’s a rip. Only I can’t make out what exactly it is, what caused it—a loose nail, an unfortunately placed rail, who knows. It’s dark, so dark. But I’m freed, and without looking back, push on.
Then it ends. I come up against something that’s again blocking my path. A steel door. An exit. A sense of either great relief or great loss overcomes me as I punch down on the metal handle and step outside.
Past the doorway light, all is dark, as dark as the hallway was. Early December darkness. Under the red buzzing EXIT sign, I look down and discover my left boot is gone, had come off at some point, and, along with my backpack, got left inside. I try the door I just came out of but it’s locked.
I come down on it with all my weight, pounding my shoulder into it, then a couple times with the side of my fist.
“My fucking boot, asshole! I need my fucking boot!”
I rest against the door, and feeling a stinging breeze cut through my exposed side, move a hand over the tear in my jacket, and pulling it out, watch droplets of blood, thick and warm, ooze from my palm to the ground.
Shoeless and bloody, I take a few tentative steps out into the dark night, snow crumpling under my bare feet.
I stop, cold and uncertain. There’s a rattling coming from somewhere ahead of me, and then the sound of footsteps approaching. Nothing, anything or anyone, I can see in front of me. A grim odour seizes my senses. I feel a presence more than see any. Whoever or whatever it is crosses my path, drops something in the snow, and shuffles off, the crunch-crunch trailing into a fade until the only sound is the whistle of the wind. I move in closer to inspect. On the ground, a pair of shoes, wooden and with straps, in a Japanese style.
“Thank you,” I call out to the mysterious delivery man but only the wind answers.
Not my missing boot but I’m not exactly in a bartering position. I try them on. They fit snugly, my heal spilling out, bare and braced, over the back, but I manage to get them on my feet and start off into the snowy night. Slow and cautious, I turn up an alley as narrow and dark and long as the hallway, expect that there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. Coming out onto the street the lights flash all around, from high up above, like wondrous glowing honeycombs. The comfort of the light quickly gives way to the dread of the unfamiliar surroundings. Where I am? The back area of the bar having ran back so far it must have come out on a completely different area of town, far off from where we entered. So I think. But my reason I left behind some time ago. Panic grips my bones like a new skin; that and the coldness.
My attempt at a run through the freshly snowed over streets ends in my taking in a mouthful of the stuff. Damn ill-fitting shoes. I rise with weary resolve. A red blotch in the packed snow made by my outline marks my path and my defeat. So weak and cold now I can’t hardly feel anything, and then less than that, and just as the soft creeping numb feeling starts to take hold I hear music. Far away and muffled, soft and gentle, indistinct and cryptic, like the music you hear in dreams after falling asleep with the stereo on, and all I can think to myself is: I didn’t know death had a soundtrack. Then I recognize the sounds. “Nightmare,” an old-timey Artie Shaw song, made new in this confusion. I look around, searching out the sound. And there parked on the street a block-and-a-half up, a camping trailer sits humming its song to the night. I go over to it, the bleary blast of the music growing louder and louder as I approach. I rap on the door, and when nobody answers I open it and go inside.
The music explodes in my face, the light so bright it takes my eyes a moment to adjust. They come into focus but nothing is set in place. The old furniture is all cloaked in a messy layer of cobwebs, the whole trailer is—entangling and sticking to me as I move in the direction of the stereo on the other side, arms swinging wildly to beat them off.
The stereo is set up high on a shelf and I have to climb up a step ladder to reach it. I brush back the cobwebs, scanning the buttons and dials. I hit the button marked OPEN and a disc pops out.
Still the music keeps playing.
I take the disc out and put it in my pocket. I hit it again and another disc is released.
The music keeps right on playing.
I do this again and again, each time another disc snapping out, which I promptly remove and deposit in my pockets until they are filled with all these discs.
And the music continues to play.
The same Artie Shaw song, over and over, his voice so raw and emotive and true it’s like he’s back from the beyond and right there in the room.
I jump off the ladder, clear away more of the cobwebs and exit the trailer.
On the street again, and I’m off in whatever direction my feet care to take me. Peeling off more invisible cobwebs I round a corner and then another corner and then there’s my school. I let of a deep frosty breath. Back on firm ground. Then I notice there’s some movement over by one of the entrances. I zero in. Hanging out on one of the benches, a couple guys, three guys, yap it up, a paper bag bottle being shared between them.
They see me limp past, trudging along in my pathetic excuse for winter footwear, hand on my side, holding me together, while the clattering discs fall out of my over-stuffed pockets, spilling out around me to form, along with the dripping blood, a path from the trailer. They fall silent and then one of them shouts over to me, “Hey buddy, you look like shit. Where the fuck you just come from?”
Not breaking stride, I say to them, my voice pained but direct, “Took a wrong turn.”