“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.”
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?”
“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.
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 clichéd 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.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.