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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.
“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?”
“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.