Saturday, November 27, 2010

Summer Fun

“I want to go home, mommy. I thought this was a passion, but it’s not. Emotions are like thoughts. They come and go. They’re not me. I can play being in one, being one, but it’s not me, it’s just playing, and after a while it makes me sick. I don’t know what to do anymore, mommy.”
—Kathy Acker, “Kathy Goes to Haiti”

“If I write what I feel, it’s to reduce the fever of feeling. What I confess is unimportant, because everything is unimportant.”
—Fernando Pessoa, “Book of Disquiet”

Jack and Alice have just gotten off a plane and are walking down a long brightly lit hallway. Following the other passengers ahead of them, they take a right and go down a flight of stairs, where the luggage pickup area is located. At the bottom of the stairs they are met by a girl Alice knows. It is her best friend. They hug. Her best friend glances back at Jack and doesn’t say anything or acknowledge him in any way. They have never met. Jack doesn’t say anything and goes into the bathroom. He flushes the urinal and washes his hands, struggling with the motion-triggered faucet. He looks up at himself in the mirror. From the way he’s looking up from the sink, and probably also the sense of dislocation caused by the flight, his reflection appears menacing. He grins at himself. Jack hates everyone. Well, most everyone. At least has a feeling of always being against them. He doesn’t know why that is. A vague sort of feeling, unpronounced. That’s always been there. His default setting. He means nothing malicious by it. When he gets out of the bathroom he goes over to where the girls are standing.

“That was the greatest flight of my life. What they say about alcohol is true also for Demerol. One on the ground is two in the air.”

Alice laughs and looks over at Jack and with the laughter still in her voice, lulled only slightly by the drugs, causing it to shake and stutter, says, “Jack, this is Tina.”

“Nice to meet you.” He tries to smile naturally but it comes out all wrong. Like most things he attempts to do, say, believe in. They shake hands and say nothing else.

Out of the silence that follows, Alice says, “Well, we’re going to go out for a smoke.”

“What about the luggage?” says Jack.

“Oh, you know how these things are, they take forever to unload. Besides, it goes around in a loop.”

Jack doesn’t know what to say. Her logic wins out again. The girls and Jack separate. Jack walks over to the carousel where a group of people from the flight have gathered, waiting.

Two minutes later the conveyor belt starts up and shortly after that suitcases start appearing through the small hole in the wall. Jack’s and Alice’s luggage are almost the first pieces to come through. Jack pulls them down as they’re about to shuttle past and lines them up behind him. Then goes and gets a luggage cart and loads the suitcases onto that. He looks around for the girls. He doesn’t see them. He moves with the full luggage cart toward the front glass doors. He doesn’t see the girls outside. Jack doesn’t know what to do so he starts walking the length of the corridor, the check-in desks on his right, the rental departments on his left, until he gets to the next set of doors. He looks out the big glass doors. No girls. He stands around and observers all the people rushing around in different directions. Fuck this, he thinks, then starts back toward the first doors. Still no girls. A line of four, five businessmen, briefcases in hand, stroll through the sliding doors and pass by Jack as he goes through the doors.

Outside he looks to his right and then his left. There are people hanging around but none are Alice and her friend.

Then farther down to his left he notices a patio area with tables set up and spots Alice at one. He is about to gesture at her but they’re already getting up and walking toward him.

Jack stands with a hand on his shoulder and the other on the luggage cart, hopelessly self-conscious.

“You got them already. We were just coming back in. Is it still going?”

“Nope. All through. Game over.”

The girls are crossing the street toward the parking lot as Jack is speaking and he starts moving along behind them with the cart of luggage.

“I hope it all fits in her car.”

“Is that it,” says Jack, pointing straight ahead towards a black Civic.

“No, it’s that one.” Alice gestures at a red Prelude that is older and, from a distance, seems even smaller than the Civic.

Up close it is definitely smaller than the Civic. With a bit of manoeuvring and rearranging, they get the luggage loaded in the car and drive out of the parking lot, Alice in the front and Jack in the back, an arm resting on his suitcase in the seat next to him. They get onto the road that circles the outskirts of the city and drive with the traffic for a while and then turn right at an intersection, onto the highway. They drive faster and faster. The wind whistles through the open passenger window, whipping across Jack’s face in the back. It is late afternoon. Alice lights a cigarette, smokes it and passes it to her friend while they talk. Around them there is nothing but dry, cut fields and a dull cloud-filled sky. Jack looks around at it and is bored and goes to sleep leaning on the piece of luggage.

When he wakes up they are parked on a street with houses and trees and sidewalk on either side.

“Want to come in?” says Alice. “I’m just stopping in to pick up the key from my mom. She’s sick. She has swine flu.”

“Oh.”

The girls go on ahead. Jack stretches out and sighs and shakes himself back into life. He gets out of the car and walks toward the house. Inside, next to the door, a man is sitting topless at a computer. It is Alice’s mom’s boyfriend. He has a moustache and thinning hair. He is also sick.

“So your flight got in OK?”

“Yes.”

“Come back to join the good Christians?”

“That’s right,” Jack says. “Get away from those Heathens on the west coast.” There is a silence. Jack doesn’t know what is going on, what he is saying. He probably fucked up. It’s just like being in school. There is uneasy laughter. Jack looks down, looks at the door. They talk a bit more and he dismisses Jack. He goes into the kitchen. Alice’s mom and Tina are sitting around a table, while Alice paces around.

Alice’s mother is catching her up on what she’s missed since she’s been away. They are talking back and forth. Tina sits and looks at them and doesn’t say anything. Jack says hi to Alice’s mom and then walks over to the sink and pours a glass of water and stands there drinking the water and doesn’t say anything.

They say goodbye and get back in the car and drive away.

They are driving along a cliff road and to their right is a valley with lots of tall, thick evergreens stretching out far and wide. A river cuts through the middle of them.

“Remember this place?” says Jack.

“I sure do. This is where we spent that summer the first time you came back. In that house on Carter Street with little Gracie and Hank the dog.” She turns to her friend. “The house overlooked the valley and everyday we would go walk the dog down there.”

“A simpler time,” says Jack.

“Liar.” Alice turns to the backseat and smiles at Jack. They both laugh.

They take a few more turns and park outside a house where people are sitting outside. On the stoop an old woman is smoking. As they approach the house a girl opens the front door and a small child with only a diaper on comes scampering out.

“Elijah!”

Alice goes running over to him. Alice goes up the cement stairs and scoops up the child and swings him from side to side. She puts him down and hugs the girl. It’s her sister. Her sister’s boyfriend, Elijah’s dad, is sitting next to them. Alice’s sister sits down on the stoop beside him and Jack comes up and says hi to her and sits down. He looks at her and notices she looks different somehow. Lost weight, maybe, or…

“You look good,” says Jack. “You cut your hair.”

“Thanks. Yeah, I was going for something extreme.”

“I know all about that,” says Jack, rubbing a hand over his stubbly head.

“When did you do that?”

“This morning before we left. I was in the bathroom trying to smooth out the patches and Alice was banging on the door saying the shuttle was outside waiting for us. We thought they might leave without us. It was way exciting.”

“So how was it?” Alice’s sister is now addressing Alice.

“I loved it. I wish I could have stayed longer than ten days.”

Alice looks over at Elijah who is staring at her, elevated to eye level with her by the stairs. “But how could I stay away from you. Yeah, how could I.” He smiles and giggles, touching his hands to his head. He looks over at everyone and everything and smiles and giggles, his pale pudgy face full of innocence and joy. He starts down the stairs, backwards, and then starts running off down the sidewalk.

“Could you go after him?” Alice’s sister says to Alice.

Elijah cuts into the backyard, playing around near a hedge, and Alice goes over to him and together they play and run around. They come back over to the others. The child has a mischievous smile now, like he knows something the others don’t and is basking in his secret knowledge, flaunting it.

Alice’s sister invites them over later, once they’re unpacked and settled. Alice and Jack start to walk away, saying goodbye to everyone. They go back to the car. Tina sits in the driver’s seat, waiting. They get in and drive away. They drive out of the neighbourhood and cross a bridge, loop around a turn that slopes down and goes into a long straight strip of road, leading to the downtown. On their right are the train tracks that run under the bridge. To their left a succession of car dealerships line the street and hide the crumbling, faded buildings that lurk behind them. There is dust everywhere. At the set of the lights up ahead the road is blocked off and they have to turn left at the street before it.

“Goddamnit. Fucking parade,” says Tina. “How are we supposed to get across?”

The old buildings become more visible as they drive into the center of town. They pass through a series of lights and at each look for a chance to turn right but all the streets are blocked off. They drive up a hill and down a narrow street with trees growing over and behind them old-style homes. Porches, brick and hardwood. They get to the top of the hill and are finally able to take a right turn at the Burger King and cross Main Street and drive into a parking lot past the local Civic Centre. The Civic Centre is shaped like a giant half-pipe and is surrounded by a line-up of classic cars and horses ridden by men with red fezzes.

They turn out at the other end of the parking lot and start back downhill so that they’ve driven in a J with an elongated hook and then turn at the next intersection, drive past the high school Alice and Jack attended and park in the driveway at the house on the corner. They unload the luggage from the car and haul it inside.

Through the first set of doors is a hallway and at the end of it is two doors, one straight ahead, leading into the backyard, and the other, on the right, into the house.

Alice tells Jack he can put his stuff in the basement and he goes down a narrow set of stairs with green carpeting and short steps. He almost trips over himself with the heavy luggage and at the bottom drops the luggage and looks around at the place he’ll be staying while in town. The walls are all wood paneling, divided into compartments for bathroom, bedroom and laundry. There is an old patterned couch in the middle of the room and piles of clothes and towels, in bags and out in the open, strewn about everywhere. There is also a child’s kitchen set and a few pieces of furniture, end tables and a coffee table, scattered about, in no particular arrangement.

Jack walks into the back bedroom. The ceiling is so low it almost touches his head and a couple of the florescent lights flicker and hum nervously like in a morgue. On the ground in the room is a lamp that’s not plugged in, surrounded by an empty cigarette pack, candy bar wrappers and some pens without ink. In one corner of the room is a piece of furniture that is completely empty accept for the four, five empty bottles of hard liquor on top and a worn copy of Playboy sitting on a shelf. An empty box that once held a hi-def flatscreen TV takes up most of the space in the center of the room.

Jack observes the area without registering a reaction.

He sniffs, scratches the side of his nose. There is a stale, sour smell in the air. Of rotting wood. Jack looks around and, at the far end, near the stairway, notices a couple stains on the walls. He goes back upstairs.

In the kitchen Alice is telling her friend stories from her trip and showing her pictures she’d taken.

“And Hogan was such a good dog. I wanted to take him back with me so bad. But I don’t think Jack’s landlord would have approved though.”

Jack pours a water and sits on the kitchen counter and listens to them talk without saying anything and then gets down and walks across the house into the front porch. He stands looking out the window, then sits down still looking out the window. Out the window, across the street, is the back of their old high school, with smoker’s alley straight across from the door. Jack has only a few memories from going there because he dropped out after a year-and-a-half because he had a nervous breakdown, though he didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. He didn’t know what was going on. Still doesn’t.

Live and learn. What a bunch of clich├ęd bullshit, Jack thinks.

For most of that year-and-a-half Jack smoked a lot of pot and doesn’t remember much from it now. He remembers he stopped after the first year and that’s when the problems started. Jack’s memory is mostly blackness after that, broken, jagged, impressionistic. When Jack started going back to school again, after a year or more, they put him in a class with a bunch of girls who either were pregnant or had been pregnant and had had their kids. Jack hadn’t been pregnant. But he was stupid and confused and searching for something.

It was around that time he started hanging around with Alice again. They had gone to the same elementary school together but only knew each other through other people. Then when he started going back to school he was reintroduced to her through Jack’s only other friend he stayed in contact with. They started hanging out a lot together, the three of them, then just the two of them, and that’s when Jack’s friend got jealous and he and Jack stopped being friends. Alice and Jack stayed friends. It was a fair trade off.

It was eight years later and Jack and Alice had just spent two weeks together just the two of them for the first time since that time. Life is cyclical, running on a continuous loop that seems to be moving only and always forward because of the illusion of time, of work weeks and weekends, waking and dreaming, meals and movie release dates. Parents and children. Birth and death.

Jack goes back into the house and finds Alice moving around unpacking things. Her friend has left.

“What’s the plan for tonight?” Jack says. He doesn’t really care but needs something to say.

“I just got a text from your sister. She’s coming over after she gets off work.”

“OK.”

Jack goes back to the porch and reads a book. Alice joins him. She has a book with her also. She sits down, opens the book and reads the first sentence when, suddenly, there’s a knock at the door.

“Who the fuck is this?” Jack says as he walks back into the kitchen to meet her, the words falling effortlessly, automatically from his mouth. He doesn’t know what he’s saying. Jack’s sister works at the Chillers’ bar. He feels bad when he sees the bottle of whiskey she brought for him. Jack loves his sister but she can be a real cold bitch sometimes. They haven’t seen each other since last Christmas and right now things are good between them. Another clean slate. They make up drinks and go sit in the porch.

Jack notices his sister has lost weight. She is very tan and has straight dark hair down past her shoulders.

Alice tells Jack’s sister stories from her trip. She talks about how it was “just what she needed” and how she feels “rejuvenated.” Jack shows her pictures of people she might remember who had either lived here or had visited.

“Neal looks different.”

“He got older. It happens.”

“Maybe. But it’s more than that.”

“Probably.”

“Oh, so this guy came in the other night. You might remember him. He was asking about you. He said he knew you. J.J. Hofner.”

“I remember. I went to school with him.”

“I wrote his number down somewhere. He was pretty out of it. He had a chipped tooth. Looking around, not focusing on anything, all like in a daze.”

“He was always kind of a weird guy. Fun guy. But weird. Last I heard he was way into the heavy stuff. Crystal Meth and all that.”

“Him and a bunch of guys we knew,” says Alice, “like Richard Fardo, Ben Kundie, on and on. They’re all fucked now. And J.J. most of all. I heard that at a party a girl had passed out and they busted in on him jerking off with a hand down her pants. Yep, J.J.’s fucked. He’s going to wind up a fucking pedophile.”

They all three of them have a drink.

It’s gone dark outside. They talk for a while. Then someone else is at the door. Its Jack’s other sister. She comes in and gives Jack a hug. He offers to get her a drink but she declines. The next day she is writing her next to last final and graduating from high school after that. She is not sure what she is going to do after that. She dances, works part-time at a spa. Jack recommends to her that she go to university but is careful not to push it on her since he didn’t start going to university until a few years after he graduated. She can figure it out for herself. Like he did. Though, thinking back on it, he was never sure what happened that made him decide to go back. Secondary education is fucked. But so is everything else.

Jack’s younger sister goes to put on her grad dress she brought along with her and comes back and shows it off for the girls. It is a purple-gray color that frills out around the chest and shoulders. It is medium-short in the front and medium long in the back. Jack takes up his drink and observes his life happening in front of him. He thinks everything is all right.

Everyone accept for Jack’s younger sister has another drink and then his sister leaves to meet a friend whose birthday it is to have more drinks with.

Jack has only had two drinks but is already quite drunk. This always happens when he drinks after flying. He likes it. It is a dizzy drunk. He drinks a tall glass of water and pours another glass of whiskey and coke. He goes back to the patio and sits across from Alice. Alice is texting. Jack has a sip of his drink. She looks up.

“Do you know Steve Guy?”

“No.”

“Oh. Well I just got a text from Don. There’s a bunch of people over at his place. I thought we could go over there. They’re all musicians and so maybe we could have a few drinks and then you guys could get something going. If you want to go?”

Jack says OK. There’s really nothing else for him to say. Alice goes and gets ready. Jack finishes his drink.

They’re walking away from Alice’s down a dark street. They pass a couple ballparks and then cross a set of train tracks into East End. Jack looks over at Alice. He feels like he’s in a movie or something. Like something’s about to happen but he’s not sure what.

“You didn’t bring anything to drink you.”

“I’m good,” says Jack. Jack thinks that that was a strange thing to say but so was what she said maybe.

They turn down a block into a neighbourhood. Across the street, on the corner, a guy holding a bottle in either hand in talking and motioning to a girl. Jack watches them but doesn’t say anything and follows Alice across the street to a house with a bunch of cars parked in front of it. They walk up the path toward the door. Loud heavy metal is coming out of the open window. It’s the Iron Maiden song “Cannot Play with Madness” and the guys inside are singing along to the chorus all out of key and out of time. Alice knocks on the door and then enters. Jack follows behind her. In the room to their left six, seven guys and one girl are sitting around a coffee table. The coffee table is covered in empties. Everyone is crammed onto two couches and one guy sits apart from them on a chair yelling and singing loudest of all. A couple people look over at the new people but nobody says anything. Alice and Jack stand there. Jack leans against the door frame and looks around the room. On one wall is a Pulp Fiction flag, on another is a poster of Dimebag Darrell. Underneath the poster is a small bookshelf filled with back issues of Guitar World. Hanging from the ceiling is a plastic copy of a Zack Wylde custom bullseye guitar and next to that, positioned in a wall mount is a Jackson flying-V. The room is darkly lit with colored bulbs and the glow from the menu screen of a Pantera DVD on the television. Jack thinks to himself that this would be the coolest room ever if he was still seventeen.

The guy in the chair, who Jack takes to be Steve Guy, finally looks over at the newly-arrived guests. He is sweating heavily and smiling and holding a beer near his face.

“Hey Alice. And who’s this other guy?”

“This is Jack.”

Steve waves at Jack. A few others look over.

Jack waves back at them like an idiot as they make their silent judgements.

Steve starts to say something looks away trails off chuckles something to himself then takes a drink of his beer.

Alice and Jack continue to stand there. Alice turns back to Jack and says something about it being muggy in there and makes a start toward the door. Jack follows her outside. He sits down beside her on the steps.

“Well they sure seem like a friendly bunch.”

“I didn’t know who any of those other people there besides Steve. Don was supposed to be here. He texted me that he went to pick up beer and would be right back. We’ll wait here until he gets back and then see what’s going on.”

“OK.”

The Iron Maiden continues to blare out the window. On the sidewalk a house or two over the guy and girl are still having it out. The guy starts toward the house with the girl slowly coming up behind him. Jack is able to make him out as they approach the light of the doorstep. He has tattoos running up his neck, with a shaved head and scruffy, dark, unshaven face. He is wearing a BLS t-shirt the same as Jack owns. Alice and Jack are blocking his way to the house. Jack gets up and lets him by. The guy doesn’t say anything to either of them. The girl follows. She is wearing a black-and-white checkered dress and has dark hair, dark features. She walks past them with her head hung. As soon as they pass into the house Alice stands up and walks down the steps and starts across the street without saying anything. Jack follows her.

They walk back to Alice’s.

Back at her house Alice starts making up food from out of the freezer. She asks Jack if he’s going to have another drink. Jack is only a little drunk. He decides to have another drink.

“I’m going to start drinking again. Right after I eat. I haven’t eaten all day.”

Jack sits down in a chair with his drink. He watches Alice move back and forth while making up food. He takes a sip of his drink. It doesn’t take him long to start feeling drunk again. He watches Alice. He likes looking at Alice. He likes what she’s wearing. She’s wearing a tight pair of jeans, stylishly frayed and tattered, a tight, dirty white tank top and a matching cap. She gets up on the counter to reach something in one of the upper cupboards. She is bent slightly forward and her ass is eye level with Jack. Then she gets down and goes over to the stove that’s next to Jack to turn on a burner and puts on a pot. Jack wants to tell her he thinks she looks gorgeous. She gets some sticks of spaghetti and breaks them up into the pot and puts a cover on it. He is about to tell her but then doesn’t. What’s the point, he thinks. It’s not going to lead to anything. It can’t. But that doesn’t change how I feel. There’s nothing wrong with saying how you feel. Alice puts a Tupperware container of frozen meat in the microwave and punches some numbers. This is fucked, thinks Jack. Jack sips his drink.

The pot with the spaghetti starts to boil over. Jack gets up and turns down the heat. He is confused because the numbers for the burner level are reversed. The spaghetti stops boiling.

When the food is ready they go into the patio. Alice eats hungrily.

“This is the first time I’ve eaten since that bagel at the Vancouver Airport,” she says between mouthfuls.

She puts the plate down. She says, “There, I am totally full.” She picks the plate back up, eats what’s left.

“I think I’m going to clean up and go to bed soon. I’ve got to be up early for when Dennis brings Gracie over.”

Jack looks down at his drink. He’d lost interest in it anyway.

They take the plates and glasses from earlier back into the kitchen. Alice turns on the tap to fill the sink.

“I think I’m going to go figure out this bed situation,” Jack says.

“OK. That couch down there is a pullout. So you can use that.”

Downstairs, Jack plays with the couch. He sees how the bottom section, the part you sit on, lifts up, but can’t figure out how to flatten the back out into a bed. Fuckit, he says. He decides to make due with it as is. The couch is very small and doesn’t have cushions or armrests. It’s hard. It’s like a box. A rectangular box. He moves one of the end tables over beside it. He goes and gets the lamp from the bedroom and puts it on the end table and plugs it in. He grabs a couple pillows and a thin blanket off one of the laundry piles and throws it on the couch. He takes off his t-shirt, tries to position himself in a semi-comfortable way on the couch. He picks up his book and reads.

Upstairs Alice is still getting things unpacked. There is a knock at the door and Don comes in. Don and Alice had dated over the winter. Don apologizes for the lame scene over at Steve’s. He tells her about a party that weekend that they should check out, her and Jack, that won’t be so lame, have people they know there, good music, drink. Alice invites him in. She puts Sigur Ros on the stereo. They hang out in the kitchen. Alice tells Don stories from her trip. They hang out and talk for a couple hours.

In the basement, after reading for a while Jack went to sleep but was woken up by the talking and the bass from the music. He wakes up disoriented and groggy. Jack lies there with the noise swirling around in his head like in an echo chamber.

He lies there for a while then gets up and goes to the bathroom and gets a glass of water and goes back to the couch. He snacks on something he brought in his backpack and drinks the water and tries to go back to sleep. He stares at the light from the streetlamp coming in the two small windows near the ceiling. He turns and adjusts himself but the small couch limits his movements. Then when he hears Don leave he gets up, wrapped in his thin blanket, and goes upstairs. Alice is in the bathroom getting ready for bed. The door is open.

“There anywhere else I can sleep?”

“Sure. You can go sleep in Grace’s room.”

Her bedroom is to his immediate right and without saying anything he goes and flops down on the bed, bashing his head on of the toys arranged on the pillow. He ignores it.

“Was something wrong with the couch?” Alice says from the bathroom.

“Yes. No. I don’t know. It was a combination of things.”

“Just so you know, she’s going to be here at eight so there’s going to be a four year old running in and out of there.

Jack grunts and raises himself off the bed, still wrapped in the blanket. He shuffles in the porch and closes the doors behind him. He looks over the different options. He decides on the lounge chair at the far end. He stretches out on it, positions the two small soft pillows under his head and falls asleep.
Noon the next day and Jack is slumped on the curb next to Alice’s driveway reading a book. He’s waiting for Alice to get back with her mom’s car. She had gotten a ride with Grace’s dad.

“I’m just going to grab a shower and then I’ll be ready to go after that,” he’d said to Alice as she walked out the door.

The sun is high in the sky and burning down Jack’s neck. The heat is so thick it’s almost visible, like a paste or pie filling. A few kids walk past on their way to afternoon classes. A yellow jeep SUV pulls up to the curb close to Jack. He keeps reading.

One o’clock rolls around and finally Alice pulls into the driveway. Jack gets up and walks towards the car, but when he goes to open the passenger door to get in Alice turns off the engine, gets out and starts walking towards the house.

“I thought we were going as soon as you got back?” says Jack, still standing beside the car.

“I have to get ready first. I can’t go anywhere like this,” she shouts back before disappearing into the house.

“We’re just getting groceries, I thought,” says Jack, but there’s no one around to hear it. Only the sound of the passing traffic.

“I’ll be waiting out back when you’re ready to go,” Jack calls into the house and steps out onto the little back patio.

The small, well-shaded yard is bunched in by a tall, dark bush. Off the deck, to the left, is a small shed and scattered on the lawn is a hose and a red plastic kiddie pool. Jack takes a seat and passes the time reading a little and staring at nothing. At a quarter to two he gives up and goes to check her progress. Next to the door is a pair of sandals that Jack notices weren’t there before and he can hear voices coming from inside. He can make out Tina’s voice. Jack walks down the hallway and out the side door.

He walks around the side of the house and crosses the street, still with his book in his hand—by some Southern writer or other, writing vaguely autobiographical tales of booze and women and loneliness. That is, life’s bitter essentials.

He walks past the school, crosses the street at the four-way, past the dirty apartments and keeps going in the direction of Main Street. He’s not sure where he’s going, but he’s hungry, he knows that. He passes the red brick Pizza Hut and starts walking up Main. The traffic whooshes past as he climbs and climbs, out of the downtown. At the top of the hill he stops at the lights, next to the fire station. He stands on the edge of the curb, and sways back and forth, surrounded by all that motorized metal coming at him from all directions. If he concentrates on it all for too long he fears it could cause him vertigo or something, so instead and stands there and blocks it all out, all incoming stimulus, as a counter measure. But then when the lights change and he starts to cross there they all are on either side of him growling and panting, twitching with anticipation for the light to change. He crosses as quick and calmly as he can and then darts across another street without waiting for a cross signal, walking straight up to the entrance of a convenient store. He goes in.

The store is cold. It is a fairly new store. Sleek. Jack has never been in it before, he doesn’t think. Maybe one night last Christmas when he was drunk, he can’t be certain. He is greeted by a cardboard display of a generically attractive blond woman in a bikini urging him with her bland sexuality to buy some brand of energy drink. Past her, a series of little display booths are setup seemingly at random all over the store, forming a kind of obstacle course, only that you’re meant to be drawn towards the objects not away from them.

At the far side of the store is a sandwich station. Jack goes over, waits in line and orders a turkey and ham sandwich. The young Indian guy working behind the counter asks him if he would like extra turkey and/or ham. “Just what you’re giving me,” says Jack. Then he asks if he would like extra cheese. “No thanks,” says Jack. Waiting in line to pay, the guy working the till is all smiles and professional courtesy to the customer ahead of Jack. “And you have yourself a great day,” he enunciates perfectly to him, beaming. Then as the customer walks away and Jack steps up to pay the guy working the till, a guy around thirty bland handsomeness of a car dealer or chartered accountant, goes to the back area where Jack can hear him say, “What an asshole.” Jack smiles at the Indian guy as he pays him with Interact. And when he says, “Have a nice day,” Jack mumbles to him, “Yeah, right” and walks to the other side of the store, where, by the window, there are tables and chairs and a counter.

He eats hungrily, to the point of momentarily getting a segment of cucumber or tomato stuck in his throat that has to be worked down with gulps of water from a paper cup. Jack finishes, throws out the wrapper and starts for the door. He doubles back and grabs a couple nut bars off the shelf of a nearby booth, pays for them, and then leaves.

He walks back downtown, passing a Presbyterian church, a Blockbuster and a Tim Hortons along the way. Where to? It’s still early in the afternoon. He has the whole day ahead of him. He thinks about going back to Alice’s to see where she’s at in her getting ready. But there’s something that keeps him walking downtown, something about the novelty about being back in town. Like he’s the outsider, observing everything going on, at a distance, without being a part of it. Present but not. Uncommitted. So Jack keeps walking. But where to?

He’s standing at the lights on the corner by the 7Eleven. Across the street to his left will take him back to Alice’s but instead he goes right, down the block. He cuts up the street, across from the other high school, the one his sisters attended, and then turns right again at the Post Office. Across the street is Lesley’s house. It is almost right next door to the Tim Hortons. He had met Lesley the summer before. Although they had briefly gone to the same high school, they had never met before. Lesley had been a couple grades lower than Jack, but the years have a way of bringing people together. They met at a local music & arts festival where Lesley was selling some of her paintings. After the music and drinking that followed, Jack ended up trailing her back to her house that night like a lost puppy. They sat up in her studio drinking wine and eating nuts and salad. Jack was so nervous he took too big a bite of salad without chewing thoroughly enough and started choking. He was sitting there unable to swallow and she was asking him if everything was OK. “Fine, fine,” Jack tried to say but the words came out as a whisper. He brought her a glass of water but when he drank from it the water just sat in his throat and he went into the bathroom and let it spill out. He started heaving, eventually bringing the obstruction up. He looked in the sink where an unchewed hunk of cucumber, covered in a slimy translucent film, sat next to the drain. Jack had a wheeze in his breath the rest of the night and the next day, which he spent entirely with Lesley.

They had been in sporadic contact, entirely online, since he last saw her at Christmas and hadn’t told her of his coming back. This’ll surprise her, Jack thinks. Being away for six months and then suddenly showing up at her door. It’ll be romantic, or something. He crosses the street. He walks up to her house and goes up the stone steps into the porch. Jack is excited. He is acting spontaneously. His anticipation to see the look on her face helps to minimize the intense, almost overwhelming anxiety he feels as he knock on the door.

He looks around the porch as he waits. A few open cans of open paint are set out giving the area that tart chemical smell. A moment later her mom answers the door. She is a frumpy woman and is wearing a long brown shirt that has a stain on it. Her brown hair is messed like she was still in the getting out of bed stage of her day.

“Hi, is Lesley home?”

“No, no she’s out for coffee.”

“Did she say what time she’ll be back?”

“No. But it should be soon. She’s leaving for Graniteville at four and still needs to pack.”

Jack smiles with a look of concern that approximates hers.

“Well, when you see her, could you mention I stopped by.” Jack takes off his sunglasses. “It’s me, Jack. I just got back in town yesterday.”

“Oh.”

Having been so long since they were last together, Jack isn’t really sure where he stands with her. He doesn’t know if she heard about Alice’s coming out to visit him, and if she does, if she even cares. This might be why he’s got it in his head that she might be pissed at him, though he has no real evidence. The only thing he has to go on is a long rambling email he sent her, about a month ago, that never got a reply. But then again Jack always gets nervous when his emails or messages or comments get no response from the other party. “I finally did it,” he thinks, “I stepped over the line; I freaked them out good this time. They’ve finally found me out; no matter how I try to hide it, those naked words on the screen, spewed out of my fuzz-addled brain, show, beyond a doubt, just how insane I really am. Now they know. Fuck.” So now he tries to read into her mom’s reactions, gestures, tone of voice, anything, anything at all that would give him a clue as to Lesley’s current feelings about him, this insane person standing here on her porch. For a minute he thinks he picks up on something, an agitation, some negative vibe, but then realizes it is only her wanting to finish with him so she can close the door and be left alone that is not being well concealed. Jack is not insane, in her eyes, only a vacuum cleaner salesman, a Jehovah’s Witness.

“Maybe I’ll just give her a call. I think I still remember the number.”

She looks at him blankly, nervously. It’s the complete opposite of an interrogation. The door starts to shut slowly. Only her head is sticking out now. They both look at each other, saying nothing. Jack can’t think of anything more to add. He turns to leave.

“OK. Thanks. Bye.”

She shuts the door.

Jack puts his sunglasses back on, walks out of the half-painted porch and down the stairs.

The afternoon heat is at its peak as Jack walks down Main Street. He looks around at the same old buildings, the same old streets. Nothing’s changed. What am I doing here? he thinks vaguely. His lazy stroll picks up, turns into a brisk walk. He has the sudden need to see a familiar face. He decides that he must find Lesley. Her mom said she was leaving at four for the weekend. That gives him just over an hour to find her. He needs to see her before she leaves. He takes a long look in at the window of the coffee shops along the way, peering in trying to make out the faces through the reflected glare. No Lesley. He turns down High Street and stops at the building next to the bakery. It’s a fitness center but above it is where Frank lives. He tries the door to Frank’s side of the building but it’s locked. Taped to the window on the door is a homemade poster promoting an “experimental” music show scheduled for the next week.

Jack walks back down Main Street and stop at the last coffee shop on the block, Bean There. The tint of the glass is too dark to see inside very well so he goes inside. He looks around. No Lesley. Jack decides to get a coffee while he’s there. He orders, pays, and goes out a side door to an outdoor sitting area. He sits at an empty picnic table. He reads a couple pages of his book while waiting for the coffee to cool.

A couple guys come out the door with iced lattes and sit at a table next to Jack. They’re a couple of burly guys, dressed almost identical in sandals, navy blue shorts and polo shirts, and one of the guys starts talking to the other about his business. His voice increases as he gets going on whatever it is he’s talking about and Jack has to put his book down. It has something to do with recreational services or something, Jack can’t really tell. He’s trying not to pay attention but, regardless, feels like he’s stepped into a business meeting or “power lunch” where one guy comes in with his rehearsed spiel that he’s already given to a bunch of potential clients and investors and interested parties a hundred times before. Jack hears this thing all the time on campus when upper level students start talking about their plans for how they’re going to use their degree once graduated, elaborating at length, with all the little details and specifics, always in that composed confident tone, as if their futures are set and uncertainty has been banished to the wolves. It’s at times like these when they’re in their element. When their existence is brought into focus with needle-point precision, worry, fear, doubt and all the rest be damned. Hearing talk like this, of career aspirations and ambitions, Jack has a hard time relating it to his own university experience, which so far, after three years, has meant a lot of trips back-and-forth between his apartment and campus, uncomfortable classroom encounters and semester long bouts of insomnia. He still isn’t entirely sure how to write a proper essay.

Another man comes over and stops the guy in the middle of this and asks him if that’s his SUV parked out front. When he tells him it is he replies that the meter has expired.

“Well, shoot, we were only going to be a couple more minutes, hang on a sec, Ted, let me…”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” the man says, “I took care of it. I bought you some time.”

The guy, who was starting to get out of his seat, sits back down and thanks the man. He turns back to the other guy. “So, I was saying, it’s all about finding the right group of people who understand your needs as a…”

Jack downs the rest of his cooling coffee, picks up, and puts boots to concrete.

But he’s run out of coffee shops. And out of Main Street for that matter. Time is ticking. He needs to contact Lesley. He needs a phone. He doesn’t have a phone but knows someone close by who does.

His sister lives on the South side of town, across the Sakami River. He fancies the idea of “popping in to see her,” the novelty, just like the town itself in this early returning stage. Jack walks along the sidewalk off the One Way that juts out and curves up a slight hill. Before the hill starts to ascend Jack stops at the bridge to look at the blue-green water. He looks past it, up the bank, where a train of about fifteen, twenty cars is stopped on the tracks. Beyond them the old ugly buildings of the downtown puncture the clear faded sky like a line-up of dirty syringes.

When he gets to his sister’s house the doors are all locked and there’s no one home. So much for that, Jack thinks, and starts back across the river. By now it’s well past three. He passes an old man under the bridge that supports the train tracks and nods at him. The old man looks at Jack. His wide eyes and open hanging mouth give his wrinkled, leathery face the expression of possessing something akin to pure, abject terror. But at what exactly? Jack thinks. The noise from the flock of pigeons nesting in the overhead girders can be heard all around him: a cluster of hooing that echoes out in grim cadence; the amplified violence of a dozen wings flapping at once. Jack walks along. The coolness of the shade, in contrast to the sterile heat, wraps around his skin and locks into his veins.

Back out in the sun, Jack backtracks down Main Street and winds up back at Frank’s door, between the bakery and the fitness centre. This time the door is unlocked and he takes the stairs up to Frank’s loft. He knocks on the door and a familiar voice calls out, “Come on in.”

Frank meets Jack in the kitchen. They greet each other, shake hands.

“Hey man. You’re back. How long you in town for.”

“I’m not sure yet. A couple weeks, a month. We’ll see. I’m staying at Alice’s in the meantime.”

Frank is 65 and made of iron and tar. Jack met Frank through Alice and Bobby a few years back, when he still lived in town and Frank was living in a small apartment on the same street four, five blocks down. They would go over at night when there was nothing going on or after the bars had bummed them out and they would listen to Frank, always puffing on an endless rolled cigarette, read from his poetry, which was all from memory, and tell stories from his years of wandering from one coast to the other and even traveling to places way down south. When he would give readings like this to the small group that had assembled, his voice, which ordinarily was gravelly and deep from decades and decades of cigarettes and bourbon, filled with a wonder that was part show and part communion with some other presence that had joined them there in the room. These readings, at there best, when he really got into them and was almost taken over, became hypnotic, calming affairs. That was one of the reasons Jack kept coming back. That—and he was also a great pot connection when Jack was still into that.

“So. Can I use your phone?”

“Go ahead.”

Jack sits done on the padded bench by the window punches in a number on the phone on the counter, next to the wall.

It rings and rings. The voicemail cuts in. Jack leaves a message and hangs up.

“Have you heard from Lesley?” he asks Frank.

“Yeah. Matter of fact, she’s supposed to be coming over any time to pick up a couple tables for the weekend.”

There is the sound of footsteps on the stairs.

“That must be her now.”

The door opens. There’s a voice that greets Frank and then Lesley appears from behind the open door.

“Hey Jack,” she says, sliding around the door and past the counter to give him a hug.

And just like that he had what he wanted, Lesley there standing before him, and the vague fear that had occupied the back of his mind was coming true: He couldn’t think of what to say to her.

She glances at the book he brought that’s sitting on the counter.

“I tried reading that book you gave me. Didn’t make it very far.”

“Don’t worry about it. A lot of English majors I know still haven’t got through it. I haven’t got through it.”

At Christmas Jack gave Lesley a box of books for a new bookshelf she got. One of them was an old translation of “War and Peace.” He made a deal with her that if she finished it by the next time he saw her he would give her something or do something for her or take her out somewhere. He can’t remember want the deal was exactly, and now he’s off the hook.

Frank leads her into the next room where the tables are. Jack follows them.

“These should work good,” she was saying, inspecting the foldable tables.

“You need a hand with those?” says Jack.

“No, that’s OK. I got Wally to help. He’s parking the van. He should be up in a sec.”

Jack is sitting on an old couch. Lisa sits down beside him. The sound she makes as she flops down indicates that it was well-earned.

“Long day.”

“Yeah. Been running around all morning, and the afternoon had to finalize the van rental. That turned out to be a lot more work than I was expecting. But that’s all taken care of and now there’s just some packing to be done. And then we’re off.”

“Busy girl.”

“Yeah, but it’s good. It’s a good opportunity to get some of my stuff out there, outside of this old bastard town.”

“Yeah.”

“How long are you back for.”

“A while. Until they kick me out.”

“OK. One of those deals.”

“I don’t know. A month maybe. I just finished up some classes. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m glad I got to see you before you left.”

“I got your email you sent a while back. I didn’t respond because never know how to reply to those things.”

“That’s OK. Most don’t.”

Frank comes back in from the kitchen.

“I should have a joint here.”

Neither Lisa nor Jack mentions his staying with Alice. They go into the kitchen and Frank lights up a joint. They pass the joint around. In the middle of this a guy comes in. Jack has never met him. His thin hair is pulled back into a ponytail and he has a long thick goatee and long thick sideburns. Probably to make up for the lack on top, Jack thinks. Lesley introduces them.

“Jack, this is Wally. Wally, Jack.”

“Well, this is always an apt way of meeting someone.”

Jack takes a hit off the joint and passes it to Wally. He breathes out the smoke. “Yeah.”

Before Wally takes the joint he puts a couple paper bags down on the counter. He has a toke from the joint and says, “I got all the essentials for the trip right here.” He passes the joint to Frank and starts going through the bags, pulling out cases of brownies, cinnamon buns, chocolate chip muffins and other decadent treats.

“I’m not sure I’m going to be able to eat all that,” says Lesley.

“Suit yourself,” says Wally, picking out a brownie from one of the plastic trays and shoving it in his mouth. He finishes it in two bites.

Some time after the joint is finished Lesley says, “We better be a moseying.”

Jack offers to help her move stuff outside, forgetting he already offered.

“I think we can manage.”

Lesley and Wally leave with the bags of treats and the tables and it is just Frank and Jack again.

“I got something else we can smoke,” he says, pulling a tray off a shelf and placing it on the counter like a waiter in a restaurant presenting the main course.

On the tray there is tobacco, rolling papers, little glass jars, a roach clip, and other paraphernalia. Frank opens a tin containing a brown chunk about eraser size. He brakes off a small portion and drops it in a glass pipe, passes it to Jack.

They smoke the hash and then Frank tells Jack he should get going. “I got some people coming over to do a bit of business. They wouldn’t like it much if I had someone else here when they get here.”

“I gotcha, I gotcha,” says Jack, about ready to be leaving anyway but unable to take the required step. They shake hands and Jack is down the stairs and out the door.

He wanders down to the park. The early evening sun cuts through a row of trees as dusk approaches. Jack leans up against a tree and reads from the book he’s been caring around. He takes out the nut bar out of his pocket and eats it. Then he lies down in the grass and stares up at the cloudless sky. At the time Alice came out to visit Jack was finishing up a summer English class. The focus was on Eastern religion. A lot of the books Jack read talked about things like how to live an “authentic” life, based around “goodness” and ridding oneself of earthly “illusions” and seeing life “purely,” and learning to appreciate the sad, tragic beauty of human existence on this planet. One of the ways to do this, to live an authentic life that promotes goodness and honest understanding, is to mediate on the emptiness of the world, on the impermanence of all life. Jack stares up at the sky and tries to do nothing. He lies there and tries not to think about anything, his life, the people he knows, his insecurities, his prideful ambitions. To focus just on the naked sky above. But it is impossible. There is always something going on. Scouting out the next thing, weighing possible scenarios, possible futures to be lived. It is no use. And what about Alice? The question comes to him in a flash. He had left only meaning to get some lunch and now here it was after six. Maybe we can go out for supper, Jack thinks. Yes, that’s it, he’ll make it up to her by getting her supper. But make what up to her? All he did was not tell her where he was going, she was the one who got preoccupied with other things, other people. She can’t expect him to wait around all day. Can she? Waiting around for her had been something he had got used to as long as he’s known her, and he rarely if ever voiced complaint. A precedent had been set. What were the rules, the codes and procedures he should follow in such situations? In school he heard something about how if a teacher didn’t show up fifteen minutes after the bell rang for class the students were allowed to leave. Or was it twenty? He was thinking this and then became aware of the level of thinking he had reached and realized he was a long way from the kind of clear-minded do-nothing thinking he was shooting for. Well fuckit, he thinks, as he stands up and begins walking across the park and down a stone stairway, passing the amphitheatre on one side and the small waterfall on the other that runs into a stream circling the whole of the park. Up another stone stairway he goes and is back out on the street heading towards Alice’s house.

When he gets inside Alice is moving back and forth between the kitchen and the bathroom. Her makeup is done up and she is wearing a black dinner dress. Jack leans against the counter, takes the earbuds from his iPod out, places them on the counter.

“Hey,” says Jack.

“Hey,” says Alice, coming back into the kitchen, her head down, not looking up at him.

“Sorry for disappearing,” says Jack.

“I was wondering what happened to you.”

“What can I say? I’d been waiting awhile got hungry. The fridge doesn’t exactly have much to offer.”

“That’s why I thought we were going to go do something about that.”

“Yeah, I thought so too, but then I saw your friend over...”

“Oh, Tina. She just popped in. Under her own volition.”

“I see. Well, I wasn’t sure what was going on, so I split.”

“I noticed. I wondered where you got to.”

Jack starts to tell Alice everything that he did when he was out. She isn’t really paying attention, preoccupied with what she was getting ready for when Jack came in. She keeps bouncing around from room to room and Jack sort of half-follows her, trails her, as he talks. He gets to the part in the park and isn’t sure how to explain it to her but it doesn’t matter because she’s already halfway out the door.

“I’m going out for supper,” she calls back, as if this explains everything.

“OK,” says Jack, conciliatorily as the door closes behind her.

“Guess she was a step or two ahead of me,” says Jack, looking around the kitchen uncertainly while scratching a spot behind his ear. He goes over to the fridge, opens it. Besides salad dressing and a few other condiments in the door compartment, the only other thing in sight is an open container of condensed soup broth and a container of yogurt, expiration unknown.

Jack doesn’t want to find out. For something for supper Jack walks over to the 7Eleven and gets a bottle of strawberry and kiwi juice, a coke zero and a barbecued chicken pita. He walks back to the apartment.

On the way he sees what he thinks to be his sister’s car, a black Honda Civic, stopped at the lights. Because of where he’s standing in relation to the sun’s reflection he can’t see into the car to see who’s driving but he waves anyway, a kind of tentative gesture. The lights change and the car drives ahead of him and turns into a parking lot. Approaching the car he can see that it is in fact his sister and gets in passenger side.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting supper. You?”

“Nothing. What’s Alice doing?”

“I don’t know. Went out. For supper. With someone. Didn’t really say.”

“Oh. It’s probably Lyle.”

“Lyle, right. I’ve heard about him.”

“Have you two met?”

“Nope. All’s I know is what I’ve heard.”

“And what’s that.”

“Let me think. This point, just his name, I guess.”

“That’s not much.”

“No. An abstraction, really. He’s whatever I want to make of him.”

“He used to be her boss when she worked at the dealership.”

“Oh, that’s right. I knew that. But that’s it. That’s it. Have you talked to her?”

“She texted me this afternoon. Wondering where you were.”

Jack explained what had happened, his waiting for Alice, Tina coming over and his deciding to leave.

“That’s a little different than what she told me.”

“Well, what can I tell you? That’s what happened.”

“She told me she hopped in the shower and when she got out you were gone.”

“Hmm. Fancy that.”

While they were talking, his sister started driving, first pulling out of the parking lot and then, unsure of where he was headed, took a roundabout way to Alice’s, climbing the hill up Main, turning down a side street that led back down. They were now parked on the street next to Alice’s house.

“So what are you doing now?”

“I don’t know. It would seem I have the house for the night. In which case, there’s only one thing to do.”

“Oh, yeah. What’s that?”

“Throw a big-ass slammin kegger.”

“Damn. And I have to work.”

“Great, you can supply the keg.”

“Right.”

Jack’s sister gives Jack an incredulous look as he opens the door and starts to get out.

“Right,” says Jack, resigned. And tapping the hood of the car he says, “Have a good one” and closes the door with a toss of his hand. He watches her drive away and then goes in the house.
It’s Saturday night. Jack is pacing around the house. He is alone. He has been alone all day. Alice stopped in briefly in the afternoon but only to pick up some things and then she left. Jack was lying on her bed when she got home and didn’t get up, only looked up at her from his book. They said hi to each other and she was quickly out the door.

Jack spent the rest of the day reading on the bed, trying to read, that is, but mostly thinking of Alice. He didn’t want to but he couldn’t help it. He thought about Alice out with her boyfriend. He thought of the fun they were having together. He thought about how much he was thinking of her and how little she was probably thinking about him relation. This is the worst kind of loneliness. Other than this Jack enjoys having the house to himself. Jack is full of shit. Jack is anxious for something. Jack decides to go out.

The sky is a dull gray, the fading sun shining weakly like a half-lit bulb. The air is warm and cold at the same time. Jack cuts through the park behind Alice’s, past the Casino, heading toward Frank’s. Across the street from Jack, the building next to Frank’s, is the Bus Depot. A blond girl leans against the side of the building, facing the street. She is smoking a cigarette. Jack crosses the road ahead of her, thinking of her watching him, and tries the door to Frank’s. It’s open and he goes upstairs.

“Who’s there?” Frank calls from the living room. Jack walks in. Frank is lying out on the couch, half-asleep from a nap. The television is on. Jack watches it for a minute, through the static. It is “The Fifth Element.” Jack feels uncomfortable standing there, having woken Frank. He asks Frank if there’s anything going on tonight.

“Maybe later on,” says Frank. “Some guys are supposed to be coming over.”

“The Nerve Ending guys?”

“No. Harry, Leo, and Shawn, maybe.”

“In that case maybe I’ll check back later.”

“OK. Do that.”

Jack starts to leave. At the door he turns around.

“Do you have Lea’s number?” he says to Frank, back in the living room. “I’ve meant to call her since I’ve been back but haven’t had her number.”

Frank gives him the number. Jack asks to use Frank’s phone. Jack goes into the kitchen and dials but gets a busy signal. He goes back to the living room. He is unsure of what to do next. He says goodbye and leaves.

Out on the street, Jack walks by the Bus Depot where the blond girl is still hanging out smoking. I should say something, Jack thinks. Jack walks past her without looking in her direction. I suck, thinks Jack. I need to be put down. Put out of my misery.

He turns down the street between the Bus Depot and The Pub and keeps going. He walks through a parking lot and then turns up Main Street. He keeps walking and ends up back at Alice’s house.

Jack stands in the dark, empty house. Now what? Jack picks up the phone and tries Lea again. This time it rings until the voicemail cuts in. On the spot, Jack leaves a message that goes through about three, four different tones of voice and ends with a self-deprecating remark. He hangs up. So much for that, he thinks. He throws the phone down on the bed and picks up a guitar. He plays a couple Radiohead songs and noodles around with some other stuff and then puts it down. He looks at the clock. It’s after ten. Lea hasn’t called back. He figures she is out or busy and decides to just stay in for the night. Jack is such a fucking loser. He puts on music. He doesn’t feel as anxious now as he did. He lies down on the bed. He’s not thinking of much of anything now. He picks up a book and reads. He reads two, three pages and then there’s a knock at the door. Jack looks up at the door but doesn’t move. Must be Alice and her boyfriend, he thinks. He doesn’t want to get up and answer it. There’s another knock. Jack doesn’t know what else to do so he gets up and answers it.

It’s not Alice. At the door is Lea and behind her a guy he doesn’t recognize. They are standing in the doorway holding beers.

When Jack fails to react, Lea reaches out and hugs him and they stand there in the dark until Jack invites them in and turns on a light. In the florescent glow of the kitchen Jack looks at the guy with Lea and realizes he knows him. They weren’t really friends but they knew and hung out with the same people in high school. He hasn’t seen him in four, five years. His name is Jay Bryan. He is dark and skinny. He has frizzy dark hair and mad gleaming eyes buried in deep worn sockets. Ragged-ass, Jack thinks.

They’re all standing in the kitchen with the music playing in the next room. It is a weird psych-folk album. Jack was not expecting guests. He invites them into the front porch. They go ahead while he makes up a drink. He goes into the porch.

“How long are you back for?”

“I don’t know. As long as it takes, I guess.”

“As long as it takes to what?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where’s Alice?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her all day. I mean, I saw here for like a minute, but she didn’t say what she was doing.”

“I see.”

“Yeah.”

Jack feels like he’s coming off more bitter than he means to and wonders if Lea picks up on it. He doesn’t mean for it to come out that way but most of the time he just opens his mouth and though he might know what he’s going to say he’s often surprised by the tone his words take, like he has no control over it, and the meaning of what he’s saying suddenly takes on a different significance, altered in some way from what he intended. He tries to shift back to a lighter, looser conversation style. Meanwhile, as Jack tries to get on an even conversational footing with Lea, Jay Bryan is sitting on the lounge chair across from them smoking a cigarette. He is just back from the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee and basking in the afterglow.

“Craziest fucking party ever. Five days. The first day there wasn’t even any music and it was craziest of all. Everyone just getting in. People drinking their faces off. We didn’t bring in anything with us of course. Cause of customs. But it didn’t matter. There were drugs aplenty. And cheap. Only spent five, seven dollars American, total. Got sold some bum acid, but no biggie. Also got some really good shit. Fuck you up good. Met so many new people. Everyone getting fucked up. Walking around. Hey, what’s up! Lots of hook-ups. I can get you a half ounce for $130.”

Lea pulls out a pipe and packs a bowl. She takes a hit and passes it to Jack. They smoke and drink and talk.

Lea and Jay Bryan finish their beers.

“Lets get out of here,” says Jay Bryan. “It’s too confining in here. I need to be outside.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“We could go to Frank’s,” says Jack.

“No, not Frank’s,” says Jay Bryan.

“I don’t want to go Frank’s.”

“What is there to do around here?” says Jay Bryan.

“There’s nothing.”

“Same thing as anywhere else,” says Jack.

“Let’s go to Graham’s,” says Jay Bryan. “Graham’ll know what’s going on. Graham’s is where it’s at.”

Lea and Jack silently agree. They drive to Graham’s in Lea’s car.

They park in an open backyard and go in the backdoor. No one is around. The inside of the house is completely stripped bare. Exposed beams, torn up floors.

“He’s in the middle of renovating.”

“You don’t say.”

Jay Bryan goes upstairs to look for Graham. Lea starts putting beers in the fridge from a case they brought in.

Jay Bryan comes back downstairs.

“Graham’s out. He’s been working all day. Let’s try Lou’s.”

“Oh that’s great,” says Lea, and starts taking the beers out of the fridge and putting them back in the case.

They drive to Lou’s. In the backseat Jack takes a nip off of a bottle of whiskey he brought. Some kind of funk music plays on the stereo. The combination of the music, whiskey and fresh air from the open window make Jack feel good. He picks up a stick from the floor and sticks it out the window and waves it around. For no other reason than it felt like the thing to do.

They get to Lou’s. They stroll into the backyard. No one is around. They sit down on a wooden bench that is actually an old pew from a church. Lea and Jack mimic the funk song from the car. They are having a good time. Jay Bryan gets mad.

“Hey, don’t be making fun of my funk.”

“I wasn’t,” says Jack. “Who was it?”

“Fucking Parliament, man.”

“I love Parliament. No, I do. George Clinton is the king of funk. Bootsy Collins. All that stuff he did with Bill Laswell. It’s great shit.” Jack tries to think of other ways to convey his knowledge and respect for all things ‘70s funk, but that’s all he can think to say. He tries to think of something else but decides all attempts are futile, like arguing with a piece of furniture.

Jack goes quiet. Jay Bryan spills his beer on the pew. Lea is sitting next to him and gets up and moves to a chair next to Jack. The foamy liquid slowly snakes down the back part of the seat.

“Relax, it won’t hurt you,” says Jay Bryan. “At Bonarroo you were completely filthy for five days straight. Today I showered and had clean clothes. Getting a little beer like that on me would be no big deal. You need to toughen up.”

Jay Bryan goes in the house. When he comes back out he has a Bonarroo t-shirt with all the bands listed on it. Jack reads over some of the names.

“That’s a lot of bands.” He names off a few of them. “I would be happy to see any of them on their own.”

“I would have gone just for Nine Inch Nails,” Lea says. “Apparently Trent said this will be their last tour and then they’re breaking up.”

“Damn. Well then again he is Nine Inch Nails. Can’t exactly break-up with himself.”

“Trent, I’m afraid we’re kicking you out of the band.”

“Sorry but the band has just gotten so much bigger than you. We have to move on. You were holding us back.”

“But I write and produce all the music.”

“We didn’t say it was an easy decision.”

“Fuck you guys.”

Just then it starts to rain.

“So much for being outdoors,” says Jack.

“We can go in my shack,” says Jay Bryan.

They all go over to a small building next to Lou’s house. Jack and Lea stand close to the wall while they wait for Jay Bryan to unlock it. Jack holds his unzipped hoodie over Lea. Lea crouches down to get under it.

“Ah, toughen up,” says Jay Bryan. He unlocks the door and they go inside.

The shack is done up like a very nice shed or basement. Next to the door an air mattress is propped up against a wall. There are three, four soft chairs and a coffee table. A TV sits on a bench in a far corner and next to it is a fireplace.

“This is where Lou’s letting me crash.”

“Nice.”

“Let’s have a fire,” says Lea.

“We can. But that would require me finding something to burn.”

“We can burn this here coffee table,” says Jack tapping on it. “It’s not like its oak or anything.”

“Yeah, we can start with the legs.”

“How ‘bout I put one of you in there,” says Jay Bryan.

“Wow. That’s quite a jump from a coffee table to human flesh.”

“That’s how Jay Bryan disposes of his victims bodies,” Jack says.

“Don’t pay attention to what I’m saying. Stuff just comes out sometimes.”

“We should make up a sign that says JAY BRYAN’S CREMATORIUM and put it above the fireplace.”

“Hey man, that was uncalled for.”

“It was just a joke,” says Jack.

“No man, that wasn’t cool. You don’t need to talk like that.”

“You’re the one who brought it up.”

“Yeah, but you don’t need to keep it going. Just drop it, ‘kay.”

Jack looks over to where Lea was sitting but she’s gone to the bathroom somewhere inside the house. Jack doesn’t say anything else. He takes a sip of his whiskey. People are fucked.

Lea comes back. Jack is glad to see Lea. He wishes he knew how to show her this but knows it would all come out wrong anyway. There was a time when Jack thought he was in love with Lea, but that was a long time ago, a few relationships removed, and before he spent these last two weeks with Alice. He still likes Lea but feels foolish for getting such funny ideas in his head about her, without knowing better. He should know better. Lust and love are the twin sisters that guard the gates of all our burning fate. The flames eat and devour and all is ashes in the mouth. Everything is fucked.

Lea is looking over a booklet from Bonarroo that was on the table. Among other things, it mentions all the activities available over the course of the festival. There is something on burlesque dancing that Lea becomes interested in. They talk about burlesque dancing. Jack’s knowledge of burlesque extends as far as the work of Dita Von Teese. Lea mentions some classes she’s taken and the work that goes into it, all the small details, movements, gestures that must be developed and honed and worked into the full presentation. Jack follows that with an argument comparing strippers and burlesque dancers and how the latter is more subtle and refined and therefore more artistic than the former. Even as he’s saying all this, Jack knows its bullshit because his experience with both groups is limited and biased and requires him leaving out certain facts and information and is therefore built on a false argument. Sometimes Jack wonders why he even bothers to open his mouth. Jack thinks the same thing when he gets into a discussion about globalization, Americanized brainwashing, the failure of ever major political movement, and the depletion of natural resources resulting in our eventual need to move back to locally produced goods. Once he gets going throwing out his prepared points and observations he can’t seem to stop himself.

Lou is at the door.

“Hey Jack, are you back for the summer.”

“I guess so. Yes. We’ll see how it goes.”

“Well, great. It’s good to see you. Pete’s here. We just got back from the fair. One of the operator’s was messing around with the Gravitron, running it at double speed, and Molly got sick. She’s not feeling well. They’re going to get going soon.”

Pete and Molly are engaged. They are getting married later in the summer, in August sometime. Pete stops in and says hi to Jack. They make tentative plans to hang out and he leaves. Lou gets a drink and joins them in the shack. Lou is a lot older than Lea, Jack and Jay Bryan. He is in his fifties. He has a full head of poofy white hair, a big belly and talks in a high, strong, amused voice. He used to manage the band Jack was in with Pete and a couple other guys. The band broke up before Jack moved away.

The four of them hang out and Lou puts on a video recording he made.

“Have you heard of Phil Lincoln?” Lou is talking to Jack.

“No.”

“He plays with this group that does a bunch of songs from the K-Tel period, forgotten sixties-seventies songs.”

Lou plays the video. They sit and watch the video. The band is playing at some kind of convention hall to fifteen, twenty people. The songs are tight and well-rehearsed and the lead singer, a big burly guy in his forties all dressed in black, gets into the performance with gestures, dance steps, handclaps. Lea, Jack and Jay Bryan watch the video and laugh at spots and look at each other but don’t really say anything.

“These guys need to go down to Vegas,” says Lou. “They could make fifty grand in a month. Play to five hundred people every night. It would go over real well. People eat this stuff up down there.”

“They could open for Celine Dion.” Jack looks over at Lea. Everything he says from this point on is for Lea’s amusement or his peril.

They keep watching the video.

“How much longer is this?” says Jay Bryan.

“Ten more minutes,” says Lou.

Ten minutes later the video is still playing and Jay Bryan gets up and fiddles with the buttons on the television. The channel flicks over to PBS.

“Jay Bryan, what are you doing?”

“He wants to watch TV,” says Jack.

Jay Bryan turns to them.

“I DON’T WATCH TV!”

Jay Bryan sits back down and Lou gets up and turns the video back on. The band’s set ends and the video switches over to a scene from the rodeo from earlier in the night. They watch that for awhile and then it switches to a guy performing a one-man-band outside the grounds. He plays an acoustic guitar and harmonica and has a bass drum and high-hat on his back that he plays with his feet. He’s doing a version of “Wild Thing.” When it’s over he does “TNT” by AC/DC but the video cuts out in the middle. From there it switches over to video of Pete and Molly walking through the fair grounds.

Jack gets up and goes into the house to find a bathroom.

When he comes back outside he runs into Lea. They are trying to figure out what to do next.

“We could catch a last call somewhere. I don’t know.”

They go back into the shack with Lou and Jay Bryan.

The video has been turned off and Lou is playing a CD of himself and a friend of his on guitar. Blues folk, done with guitar, voice and flute.

“So what were you doing out west? asks Lou. “Still going to school.”

“Yeah. One more year to go, I guess. Then, I don’t know.”

“What will you have after that?”

“English B.A.”

“That’s alright. How many books you figure you read in a week, two three?”

“Sure. At least. When the semester’s going. That’s all I do.”

“Who’s your favourite author?”

“I don’t know. Hemingway, I guess. I don't know.”

“Oh yeah. Hemingway. Great writer. Shit person. All that bullfighting, shotguns and booze. That’s what did it to him, made him who he was.”

“And probably the five marriages also.”

Lou nods at Jack, smiles and sips his beer.

“One for ever decade he wrote.”

“That guy was no surrender. Him and his bullfighting. And look where it got him in the end, staring down the barrel of a shotgun.”

“Everything was life and death with him.”

“It was all their in his books. That’s what I like about writing over any other art form. You get to go right into their heads. It’s all laid bare in their books. Nothing for them to hide behind.”

“Sometimes,” says Jack.

Jack has his own theory but choices not to share it. It’s starting to feel too much like a discussion from one of his English classes where people start in on trying to psychoanalyze a certain writer, provide a profile and an easy motive for why they wrote like they did and connects nicely with how they lived and died. Problem solved. It’s all bullshit anyway, Jack thinks. He drinks whiskey and smiles in a kind of pained expression and crosses and re-crosses his legs.

It’s almost two. They listen to a few more songs and then Jack suggests they go somewhere, find a last call or something. He doesn’t care really what.

Jack, Lea and Jay Bryan get up to leave.

As they’re walking out to the car, Lou asks Jack if he’s heard of Denis Johnson.

“Sure I have. ‘Jesus’ Son.’ ‘Angels.’ Other books.”

Lou tells Jack that about he knows Denis Johnson, how they’ve hung out together. He tells Jack that it was he, Lou, who gave him, Denis Johnson, the idea for the biblical image of the tree in his National Book Award-winning novel “Tree of Smoke.”

“He’s a hard guy to track down. He has to move around a lot because of the cult of crazies he attracts. His bio says Virginia but he’s all over.”

“I heard he teaches in Texas,” says Jack.

“I’m trying to get him to come up for the Festival of Books next year.”

"Right," Jack says.

"Bullshit," thinks Jack.

Jack wants to stay and talk more about Denis Johnson with Lou, but Lea and Jay Bryan are already in the car. He shakes hands with Lou.

“Don’t be a stranger,” says Lou.

Jack, Lea and Jay Bryan are driving around downtown. They aren’t sure where to go. Jack suggests The Pub for last call and they drive over there but the doors are locked.

“They lock them at twelve,” says Lea.

“Probably to keep out the crazies,” says Jay Bryan.

“Like us,” says Jack.

There are no other bars to go to. The only other bar is The Park across the street. There used to be two, three others on Roxy Street but they were bought out, torn down, and turned into parking lots. They were the same bars that the bootleggers coming in from Chicago and other places on the trains in the twenties and thirties used to drink and stay at in the hotel rooms upstairs. They had a history. Now they are nothing.

They turn off Main Street. Lea is driving with loose abandon, taking sharp turns without signalling and accelerating to excessive speeds down short streets.

Finally she parks in front of an old two-story house.

Past the porch area is a stairway that leads into a hallway and to the right there is a kitchen and the left a living room. Straight ahead are doors to the closet and bedroom but they’re both closed. They go in the living room. Jack has never been in Lea’s place. Lea moves a lot. She has been in this house for over a year.

There are two couches in the living room, a red and a black one. Jay Bryan flops down in the red and Lea the black one. Jack sits on a soft chair next to Lea. In the center of the room is a coffee table with a laptop on it. The base is made out of brass and Lea tells Jack the design is of a pineapple tree with the leaves acting as support for the glass top. In the middle is what looks like a many-eyed ball.

“It looks like the apocalypse alien from “Watchmen,” says Jack.

“It’s a pineapple,” says Lea.

“I didn’t know pineapples were housed in leaves like that.”

“They’re not. But just go with it.”

Lea puts on music from her laptop and they smoke a bowl of Jay Bryan’s pot that Jay Bryan has Jack pack. Jack takes out two small buds, intending to pack both. Instead he only packs one and puts on the other one down on the coffee table.

To Jack’s right there are two big curtained windows and between them a fireplace. On the mantelpiece there is a stack of books, including a biography of Timothy Leary.

“Did you read those books that I sent you?”

“I read one of them,” says Lea, “haven’t had a chance to get through the other.”

Jack goes over to the fireplace and pulls out a book by Kid Koala. He sits back down and flips through it. He examines a couple of pictures and puts the book down on the coffee table.

Lea turns on a lamp.

They sit and talk and then Jay Bryan stretches out and goes to sleep. Lea gets up, throws a plaid blanket over him.

She sits back down and her and Jack continue talking. Jack remembers when he first met Lea. It was at The Pub, two summers ago. She was goofy and hyper back then and Jack liked that. Now she seems calmer and sadder somehow.

Jay Bryan starts to snore loudly. They ignore it at first then, fed up, Lea goes over and smothers Jay Bryan’s face with a pillow. The snoring temporarily stops until she lets up and then it starts again. She leaves the pillow on his face and it somewhat muffles the sound.

She sits back down on the couch. Jack makes a comment about a wooden shelving unit next to her that she tells him she got cheap somewhere and is really great she just needs to paint it. A little while later they go into the kitchen and make food and come back to the living room to eat. When they're down Lea takes the plates back and goes into the closest and gets blankets. She gives one to Jack. There is no formal announcement that he is staying over. They curl up, each on their separate spots, across from each other, and talk and then only mumble and then they’re asleep.

When Jack wakes up Lea and Jay Bryan are both still sleeping. He gets up and sees on the clock in the kitchen that it is after four. He walks quietly down the stairs and through the porch. Outside the sky is lightening but overcast. The streets are quiet and deserted. He walks back downtown toward Alice’s. Just before he reaches her block it starts to lightly rain and then is coming down harder once he’s at her door. He goes inside, undresses, and gets in her bed and falls back asleep.