There was a time when all the age old warnings of my forefamily took precedent. “You’ll rot yeh insides!” they’d say about the stuff. Gramps smoked off a pipe on the front porch for years. He’d sit in a wicker chair at the edge of the porch and angle it just so and sit in quiet contemplation and torch a quarter bag of tobacky in two hours, just set there watching the cars roll by and the clouds whirl on.
I used to sit on the cement front steps that led up to the porch, and I’d try to catch his attention. He was always rapt in his own silent reveries, but whenever I did manage to snake away his attention, he’d say, “You better’n hell do as I say ‘n never as I do, y’ hear?”
Just a little kid, I’d go off and play in the yard with my involved child fantasies, and think nothing of it. But years went on and I had my first drag in high school. Hell, I toked up for the first time in high school. Never cultivated much of a habit of either, but few things felt as nice in a small backwater town as picking up a single cigarillo from the Main Street convenient store and smoking ‘er lying across the hood of a car, watching them country stars.
Those were the first days. Fresh health, a bill of invincibility. Didn’t care much then, even considering every warning to the contrary. I hit college and then those lonely summer days hit when I was the only one in town. Soon enough I was smoking my own pipe on the back porch or in a chair with my bare feet settled in the grass, just thinking about the people I missed most.
Things are different now. Not much of an appetite for bud and typically much less for cigarettes, though every once in a long straight while I’ll stomach a fearsome hunger for one. And if the night conspires rightly, there I’ll stand, at the corner of Main and Howard, with a cigarette between my fingers, drizzling ash and wisping smoke into the inky night air, wondering what happened to the days that went by like minutes.
Listening to Tokyo Police Club in the big empty house makes me nostalgic for memories both real and imagined, the sheer potential energy of youth in an endless summer drive light into the dusty corners of my mind where dingier things had begun to take hold. Eyes closed, mind open.
I started to recognize a sadness in Anna. When we would finish, we would get dressed and share a cigarette on the balcony and look out over the city. Some days she would absentmindedly smoke more than her half of the cigarette, and I never minded, but that was when I started to see it. She was always looking for something. When I would sit there by her side in the cold winter nip, sometimes I would convince myself that maybe I could be what she was searching for, but other times my mind would drift to dark places and I’d get up first and grab a beer from the refrigerator. On those days I wondered if we ever really find what we’re looking for.
I hung up the phone and wanted to throw it into the dark of night. You didn’t understand, I thought. It’s so precious, and I’d give anything for another minute of you, but you didn’t feel the same.
I drudged up the steps to my cold room, and lay there on my back staring at the ceiling. What a badness in life, that we are made to suffer so much and for no purpose at all. What a good thing it is to forget that you are alive through love, because really you forget that you have an end.
I rolled over onto my side, and tried to remember what it felt like for you to be there, and fell asleep.
I pulled my cigarettes out of the breast pocket of my jacket and left the din of the reception for a silent smoke. The water’s edge was cool and the air was salty with the coastal spray. The lighter took three tries before producing a light. The first drag was release.
Exhaling, I looked back at the wedding reception. Little girls in sleeved dresses were running from suit and bow tie boys, as their parents crowd around the open bar. Somewhere in the crowd, a brunette with a short white dress and white flats is walking around thanking guests and family and friends and strangers for coming to celebrate with her.
”Honey, come say hello to the Doyles!” she shouts across the crowd. A tall, dark, and handome type bounds over to her and lifts her, spins her round, and sets her down with a kiss. They start talking, and they’re all smiles. The Doyles, our friends, everyone.
Me, I just smoke alone at the edge of the party thinking about all the reasons I shouldn’t have come. I flick my butt into the sand, and ready another cigarette, guarding from wind as I light. The first drag is melancholy. What reason was there to show up anyway?
I started searching the sand for larger stones, and threw them as far as I could into the inky blue water. My thoughts jumped around, and I thought of how I could leave without anyone noticing. I also wondered if Jacky (everyone calls him Jacky) really made as much as everyone says. No wonder they got hitched, I think.
A voice startles me from my calm rock tossing. “Can I toss a few with you, Mick?”
My heart sinks to hear her voice. I turn and extend an open hand with a few stones. She smiles, and her small fingers graze my palm as she wraps them around a marble sized stone. She turns and gives a short flight to the pebble. She laughs, and I offer a chuckle. I discretely toss my cigarette on an impulse—I didn’t smoke back then, though it shouldn’t matter now.
”The wedding was nice,” I say as I throw another stone.
”Thank you. I was actually surprised you came.”
I thought, “Me too.” Instead, I said, “Oh, I wouldn’t have missed it.”
We were then consumed by the silence that overcomes former lovers thrown together in later days by circumstance, as happens in the social lives of overlapping friend groups, or in this case, a marriage within that overlapping friend group. To them, I was just the object of scorn in the end of a relationship that threatened to put a rift right down the middle of us all, before I bowed out. To her, I was now just a detail to be left out of stories that dated back to that summer two years back.
”Well, thanks for making it out. Take—yeah, take care of yourself.” I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing.
I start walking along the edge of the water, determined to avoid people on my way out—away. I lit a cigarette as I neared my car, and inhaled deeply. The first drag, was just smoke. I walked to my car, and drove the long highway back. I thought the whole way home that I was only a chapter in a story much bigger than my own.
Vision blurred, I stumble over door thresholds and into rooms more offensive to my condition than the last. “Can’t they see?” I ridiculously state aloud. What a grand fucking notion. The idea that all the people of the world will quiet down for some poor drunk who can’t even walk into a room without falling over.
Someone calls to me from another room and I pretend not to hear them so I can look busy pretending to be all caught up in the mysterious musings of a high hipster trying to unravel mysteries of the universe to me when all I can think of is finding another drink to replace the last.
The eyes affix, and I see straight ahead but really see in a kaleidoscope of sorts. All efforts to walk a straight line to a better place to lay down and think are wasted as I crash into a table and right myself and discover the situation is dire. I MUST find a spot to land or else this whole vessel is going to be wrecked. I fall into a low chair and watch as the beautiful idiots wander a tiny brick duplex looking for some holy fix or an ugly fuck only to forget the next morning.
Sick of drink and sick of people and sick of this disgusting race, I close my eyes only to realize the alcohol that has replaced the blood in my veins has been the main reason I’ve had any sleep during the last week. Now cutting myself off wont do a bit of good. I decide the only reasonable way to handle this is to go “pass out or bust” and I strain to pour myself a lonely shot, only for George and Daniel to decide shots with a real live hero of the night sounds like a tremendous idea.
My shot goodnight turns into three more and I feel that sick you only feel when cheap whiskey rains on an empty stomach already filled with cheap beer. SICK. The deep lower stomach hurt that won’t simply pass over the hours or the next day and the increasing blur that is so disruptive that I’d rather close my eyes than look into the harsh hodgepodge of colors and unholy lines that bend ad infinitum. If I could just fall asleep I would wake up seemingly five minutes later, when really it’s been hours, and I could leave behind the worst part of this process, but God has other plans for me. “Go forth and be a disgraceful display of what it is to oppose me. Fall from heaven and hit rock bottom and crawl and labor every inch of the way back into the reach of my divine light, and fall again because heaven has no place for you.” I lift the bottle and toast to the lowlifes that know this struggle. Black. It all goes black and the nothingness I had thought would be an escape from the people and the noise and the obligation just leads me deeper down the rabbit’s hole.
I walked the long dark river of sidewalk all the way back to Allen’s place. There wasn’t going to be a party tonight so I would have time to sort some things out and just relax. I liked the idea of having some time to myself, but I was still bent out of shape because of this whole business with my trip. My problem is not uncommon, however. Cleveland will do that to you in one way or another. Cities all have their own personalities and Cleveland is the jealous lover. With a dying community, a declining population, and no jobs, Cleveland was losing all she had left. She would not give up without a fight. There were always a million reasons to leave, but usually the one reason to stay succeeded in keeping you there. Now I had no reason to stay and no means of escape. Hell, at this point I would leave out of sheer spite, if I only knew how. I didn’t like knowing that I was losing, and I certainly wasn’t about to let the game end that way.
Why did I even need Jean? Adventures are always more fun with someone else along for the ride, but maybe going it alone could be just as good this time.
I bounced up the steps and let myself into the house. I walked slowly taking very deliberate steps into the darkness of the unlit living room. Once the lights were on I was more comfortable in the empty duplex. Over the next hour I pooled together all the money I could call up and had enough for a train ticket and enough booze or food for a week tops. Crinkled dollars and dirty coins littered the counter top and looked to me like freedom. Sure, it wasn’t enough to live comfortably where I was, but it was enough to get me out of Cleveland, into the East, and into my own adventure. For about fifty bucks I could take a train to Pittsburgh and see then if there would be a cheaper way reach D.C. or New York. I decided New York should and would be the tentative destination for this exodus of such epic proportions. Why not look for the real America in one of the great American cities? I did have friends in New York and could probably regroup there in the very least without having to find a job or anything. Things were looking up a little.
Savoring my small victory, I wandered into the kitchen to scavenge for food. The cabinets were empty save for a few cooking implements, several packages of Jell-o, and a half-empty bag of flour. The fridge wasn’t much better. I did find a few oranges and a takeout container with a bit of pasta that seemed edible. I slopped the pasta onto a plate and set it for a minute and a half in the microwave and began to peel two of the oranges. The first one is a clumsy struggle and takes most of my minute-thirty to fully peel. I let the pasta sit as I enjoy the sweet citrusy goodness of a cool orange. I throw the rind from the first orange into the waste basket tucked between the refrigerator and the kitchen counter and grab my rotini in red sauce. There’s a simple pleasure to be found in eating alone. Most people won’t do it. The best parts are the comfort in the quiet, the lack of any kind of pressure at all, and the ability to simply sit and stew in your own thoughts. The rotini was overdone before it sat in the fridge for however long and after a few bites I had no appetite for it.
I dumped the plate in the sink with the majority of the leftovers still on it, and retreated to the living room with my second orange. I plopped down onto the love seat and stretched out, legs sprawling over the end. Despite being hopelessly to tall for the love seat I find a relative comfort. I lean back and at full reach retrieve the TV remote from the end table and flick on the small television in the far corner of the room. The news is on and while I can’t stand to listen to these crooks, I let it roll and start to doze off.
The phone rings in the kitchen. The old phone clamors for attention, but I just let it ring into the night. You need to draw a line in the sand with things like this. If it’s really important, they’ll call more than twice. I was not about to part with my little bit of peace and quiet.
Sure enough, the damned thing keeps ringing so in a big harumph I groan across the floor to the kitchen. I grab the receiver from the wall phone and turn in place and lean against the wall. “Hello?”
A women on the other end answers “Uh, well, Al?” and I reply “Sorry, he’s not here, who is this? I can leave a message or something.”
She brusquely said “Just tell him Annie called, that should be fine. Thanks” and hung up before I could say another word. Who was this mysterious girl calling for Allen of all people? Nothing against Allen, I just never thought of him and women as being part of the same universe. He was very much the guy that had spent the better part of his life trying too hard to be successful with women, and had now accepted defeat. However, this Anne character confused the situation and piqued my interest.
I sat down with the second orange and my copy of Hesse’s Siddhartha and read in the dim glow of the lamp in the corner. I was enjoying the story greatly without realizing it was getting late. I was about ready to fall asleep when Allen finally returned. He stormed through the door in a tizzy and was banging around in the kitchen before I hardly had a chance to look up from my book. I folded the corner of the page I was on and got up to see what he had been up to.
He was leaning against the counter with his face in his hands. I was looking into the kitchen from the living room and watched for a few minutes as he moved from leaning against the counter to loudly searching for something to eat. He produced a beer that I hadn’t found during my search and drank almost half of it in one go. He was still slamming cabinets open and shut as I walked into the kitchen slowly, having only just worked up the courage to confront him in his volatile state.
“Hey…uh, is everything alright bud?”
He reached for the can of beer and threw it with a full body heave through the sallow, dirty glass of the window over the sink. I could see now that he was crying, now with his face in his hands again. While I sympathized with whatever tragedy faced him, I honestly felt more embarrassed and uncomfortable than anything. The right thing to say escaped me, and I didn’t know what to do to defuse the situation.
He was losing it I thought to myself. Something out of his control was really giving him the business and he was feeling that total frustration that you couldn’t put to words if you tried. It didn’t matter what I said because he was still going to feel the same terrible way. I had been there and I knew it well. It’s the feeling that the normally indifferent particles of the universe had not only begun to move against you, but that they found some sick and all too genuine pleasure in your undoing. Everything no matter how insignificant instantly became another bit of proof that the world was conspiring against you. Fight as you like, but for whatever reason, you are still fucked in the end.
He looked up and we met eyes and we each quickly looked away. He turned and opened the fridge. Seeing that there was nothing of any sizable appeal in the refrigerator he slammed the door shut with a frustrated grunt. I could hear the mostly empty jars of pickles and pepperoncinis and such all crash against each other inside the box. He paced the floor of the kitchen with his face in his hands, and then ran his fingers through his bushy dirty-blonde hair and stretched back with a deep sigh. Everything was not alright, and he was slowly coming to terms with this.
“Al, here” I quietly offer. Hands still tangled up in his bush of hair, he turned my way and was caught quite off-balance when he struggled to catch the orange I tossed his way. He leaned back against the refrigerator and slid down until he was on the floor. Allen dug his fingers into the top of the orange and ripped the peel off in large pieces, often digging just too far and into the meat of the fruit. It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. I was squirming with discomfort in the loaded silence. I knew I should comfort him somehow but I just didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t leave him alone and go back to my spot on the too-small love seat in the living room and just fall asleep with my book like I had planned. I had to try something and although reliving tragedies often does more harm than good, I figured I should at least know what I was up against. “What happened tonight?” He cleared his throat, paused, deep in thought, and began to tell me how things had turned so horribly wrong.
Some nights when the rain rolls in along old Lake Erie and pitter patters against my windowsill, I like to turn out the lights and turn off the music and just lie in the middle of the floor. I set my wallet, keys, and glasses at my side, and just stare up into the ceiling. In the dark, it’s like looking into the void. Sometimes whole minutes pass as I listen to the sound of water plicking against the trees and ground. Usually, hours pass.
How strange it feels, as if with every drop, a little piece of my physical self is etched away. My body absolved and then simplified into my mind—my thoughts become clear and bright. Occasionally a car sputters along the wet asphalt, and even that becomes a part of the aesthetic. Soon, I’m very sure that I’m not really lying on the floor in my room at all, but existing in the space between the rain drops.
I find peace in the space between rain drops.
Sometimes when I reach a state of bliss in all this natural splendor of the soul, I wonder in my selfless frame of being, why man spends so much time suffering in all our born days, when bliss exists in the space between all the things we count on for comfort—in the void. But maybe it’s just our karma, that eons ago we were doomed to live out nightmare days in our bodies, not knowing that what we find with our minds and hearts sustain us more than any material things. Maybe lasting happiness is just what we find in these voids, what our souls remember
A distant grumble of thunder marks the departing of the storm, and the rain subsides. I sit up and look around. It feels as if I had been out in the rain itself, as though the water droplets had washed my soul clean.
Friedrich opened the door to his quarters. Before passing over the threshold, he sighed. “So, it’s you again.” He stepped through the door and draped his jacket over the back of a chair. He turned and faced the mirror as he slid a cigarette between his lips. As he began to light it, he mumbled, “what have you come to tell me this time?”
In the far corner of the room stood a dark, hunched figure. It did not turn to face Friedrich. It loomed in an odd presence, fixated on a point immediately before it, but Friedrich felt its concentration upon him. The light in the room seemed to vacuum toward his guest, seeming to dissipate in the void around it.
“These visits are far from normal, Friedrich. No one has ever treated them so nonchalantly.”
“Should they be treated as atypical, then? Six times before you’ve whispered poison in my ear and here I remain. If perhaps I had something to fear beyond the thoughts themselves, perhaps I would regard your nightly visits as more than just that.”
“Heed my word, Friedrich. Consider now, that beyond what I have told you of man’s promise in the arts, know now that only true art will awaken the soul, and that awakening the soul will set it on a path to self destruction. In the end, the art will claim the artist.”
Friedrich took a drag from his cigarette. He began stroking his moustache as he thought on this. “What then, if the artist were to produce empty art? What is the opposite of good art?”
“To create such art is to invoke the Apollinian, the plastic arts. In doing so, one lives forever, but in a life free of weight and substance.”
“Is it then more noble to embrace good art, even if you are to be destroyed by it?”
“There is nothing noble in life. There is only life, if that.”
“If there’s no noble or ignoble, then what does it matter?”
There was no response, but Friedrich understood.
Friedrich watched the form standing in the corner. The first night it had visited, it had said only the words “over man”. He had immediately left the house and pondered this vision at length. He wondered what the significance of the “over man” must be. He worried about the vision, but something had inspired in his heart a hunger to understand the words.
Now he fretted over the form. What is this? Has it really come to this? He said, “Why are you telling me such things?”
“Oh, Friedrich. Do you not understand?”
“I believe I do, but I don’t understand why but for some malevolence you would have transmitted this last message.”
“To think you would be any different from the other thinkers is vanity, Friedrich. It’s not art proper, it’s your art, it’s any art.”
Friedrich felt a chill down his spine. He turned away from the form, and as soon as he did, he felt as if he couldn’t move or breathe. He felt as if ice cold razors were digging into the flesh around his ears and his eyes felt ablaze.
“Friedrich, this is the last revelation. You are not invulnerable to its truth. The deeper you follow your art, the deeper you retreat from reality. You will reach a point where your thoughts will destroy you.”
He fell to his knees and began to hyperventilate. His heart raced as he looked around the room. The figure was no longer in the corner. Friedrich sprang to his feet and upended the book cases and overturned his desk. Tears welled in Friedrich’s eyes as he brought his face down into his hands.
“It already has, and it always will.”
In the red light of the setting sun, Anton could finally make out the formidable summit of Mt. Hayawatha. The Jagged crags leading toward the peak of imposing Hayawatha had seemed much smoother from far away. Beads of sweat streamed down Anton’s brow. He had climbed a long way for a man his age. Perhaps years ago he would have made the climb in the span of several hours instead of an entire day and now the night. Hell, it’ll be too dark to see in a few minutes anyway, he thought.
Anton shifted his weight to slip free of his pack’s straps. The large blue backpack fell in a galumph to the ground and came to rest against a small cairn. He removed his cap and scratched his balding head. The evening breeze rustled the underbrush that lined the trail, creating a soft wooshing sound that reminded Anton of his childhood, climbing the mountain with his father. It also reminded him of when he would climb with his own son. You can always count on nature to tell you when to stop, always a last whisper, he thought. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve and began preparing to stop for the night.
The ground leveled out well enough beside the trail and there was ample room for Anton to pitch his tent. The battered old tent was lashed to the pack. He loosened the cords binding the tent to the bag, and then got right to work. He slipped the poles free from the tent bag and laid them out on the dirt. Oh dear, where on Earth is my third pole? he thought. He was growing forgetful in his age. The third pole would normally be added last and would raise the fly. The fly would have done a lot to protect him from the wind and cold. He cursed his forgetfulness as he slid the poles through the proper loops and erected the shelter.
He hammered the stakes at the corners of the tent, securing it in place. The exertion made Anton sweat even more than the climb had, and now he was starting to chill in the cold approaching night. Open fires were not allowed at this altitude, not that he had the material to keep one going. Still, it felt like a setback. Anton inspected the tent, and seeing it in a relatively satisfactory condition, sans fly, he nodded in approval. The wind was picking up and the temperature began to drop off quickly. He went and retrieved his pack from against the cairn. He lifted the pack with a groan and hunkered into the tent. He sat inside and opened the bag. An old yellow raincoat rest in the bottom, which he fished out hoping it would help conserve body heat.
Pops would have never let me stop before the summit except for a quick breather or drink of water, the old man thought. No, Pops was always clear that the summit was the only part of the mountain worth being on. I wonder if that’s true?
Anton zipped shut the tent flap. He kneeled with his hands cupped, and he said a little prayer for fair weather till he was safe and home. The wind swept right through the mesh vent at the top of the tent. The whistle of the wind stung like a bitter insult. Anton was becoming increasingly unsettled. Never before had Anton attempted to make this climb so late in the season. In years past, he would sleep atop his bedroll with his arms crossed behind his head and he’d look up at the stars, laying there comfortably in his jeans and checked shirt.
Oh, how he had wanted to reach the summit one last time. Never had he dreamed that his jet black hair would gray and begin to disappear, or that he would need to break so often to catch his breath on the climb. As his teeth began to chatter, he thought that old age must be the soul’s retreat inward before the end. Heck, the doctors had told him that his body would be the final betrayer as disease and frailty usurped vigor and youth, but surely it was the soul who was the culprit. The soul, seeking relief and shelter from harm, just sought the safest place to hide before it was snuffed out like a candle in the wind. Anton’s loving wife had simply smiled and offered to prepare food for his trip, since she knew Anton’s love for Hayawatha.
Not much mattered now but that this may be his last run at Mt. Hayawatha, and that the old fool might never again see the summit. If the winds were picking up like this, he knew that snows were on the way. He shivered, and covered himself with his gear to fend off the cold. Anton’s teeth chattered relentlessly. He shivered to his very bones.
Something snapped for Anton.
Once more, he thought. Off to my last once more.
He struggled to muster energy back into his weary bones, shuffling his gear off and groping in the dark for the tent flap zipper. As the flap slipped open an arctic blast of wind shook the tent. Anton lumbered to his feet and then kneeled to retrieve what he hoped to be his ace in the hole for the ascent. His two collapsible ski poles, one with an ice pick head for emergency situations, would be his advantage on the ascent.
Without breaking down the campsite, Anton began trudging along the trail. It only took a few steps to feel the trail become increasingly uneven and laden with loose rocks. His sweat was icy on his brow. Several times did he falter for lack of vision, but did not cease in his determined climb. Without the weight of the gear and with the aid of his poles, he felt a new reserve of energy welling to the surface. Still, the path was rapidly steepening, and it would beging to wind all the way around the opposite face of the peak. He had to walk stooped over to keep eyes on the trail. The incline was getting the best of him.
Anton stumbled to his knees as a rock slipped free beneath his feet. How much longer could he follow this treacherous path? He rose to his feet and thought to himself, Old Hayawatha, we both know that you will still remain when the sun rises, but I will not be so fortunate and will not wait here for fate.
Old Anton dropped his pickless pole and turned toward the steep rock-speckled slope that led directly to the summit. To hell with your treacherous paths, Hayawatha, I will not stretch this out, he thought. Refusing the long but comparatively forgiving path around, he began reaching for handholds in the stone. He would find a place for his hands, and then raise his feet, probing for stones that could support his weight as he reached higher and higher. The wind howled along as he climbed. Snowflakes began to fall and stick to his clothes and moustache. Hunger for the summit consumed Anton. His breath was heavy as he fought his way up the side of this peak, this final peak. In the dark, he could only barely make out the subtle change in the shades of black that signaled and impending end to his climb. A ledge. The ledge. The ledge that old Anton had not even known he had spent the entirety of his life moving toward.
He reached up and managed to pull himself to the last viable rock he could make out in the steep face. The be-picked ski pole, still hanging at his side by a loop around his wrist, seemed his last hope. He had to support his weight with one hand as he carefully flipped the pole, grasping it from the other end so that he might use the pick. Anton reached with all his might, struggling to reach the pick end over the ledge. He stood on tipped toes and tried to sneak the toothed edge of the pole just a bit higher.
With a surge of momentum, beginning first at his toes, bouncing upward free of his footholds, and then continuing through his left arm pulling up on his handhold, and finally reaching with all his collect strength. The saw-toothed edge caught the rock and screeched in place, even as the aluminum ski pole began to bend at the middle. He could hear the aluminum creaking and scraping against the rock, and grabbed at the ledge in a panic. His first reach slipped loose. The pole began to bend near to the breaking point. He did not look, but was acutely aware of the rupturing metal. It hung at an angle, waiting for movement to sever piece from piece.
Anton reached up with what he knew was his last chance, and was able to pull his weight high enough to reach the ledge. He let go of the pole and pulled himself over and onto the summit. He looked around as he panted. He had been here before. He had been here with his father many times before his father had passed away. He had been here many times with his own son before he too had passed away. Now, he was there alone, with no one to bequeath the wisdom of the mountain to. Things and people and ideas and come and gone throughout his long life, and some had brought him joy, or at other times sorrow. He thought now as the snow began to fall more steadily like a blanket across all, that the mountain had always watched over him, that they had fought like brothers his whole life, and the Mt. Hayawatha had always fanned the flames of his spirit even at its dimmest light.
Anton did not think about goodbyes, or what he’d leave to whom, or anything like that. He simply thought how much better it was to have burned brightly one last time. Anton looked upward into the snow, and a last swath of stars, peaking through a break in the clouds, brought a smile to his face as he closed his eyes and felt warm.
I remember all those nights I spent at the house. In fact, I specifically remember the nights I didn’t go. Specifically the time Kevin and Bryan left without me to celebrate Will’s birthday, and it wasn’t until months later that I became hopelessly entangled with this group. I read my pessimist’s poem, “Cultural Doldrums” at an event on the basement stage of the artists’ house. Will fell in love with it, and I knew we were going to become fast friends. We all drank poorman’s beer and it was okay, except the second night, I couldn’t help from getting a jug of burgundy to share with the gang. Tim played guitar, and we jammed to everything we could remember the lyrics to. Everything followed a cool rhythm and camaraderie reserved for foxholes and forgotten crossroads bars.
However, it wasn’t long before the mood soured and sinister underpinnings developed. I went to the kitchen for another beer, and became sidetracked. I was studying the shelf that dominated the entire far wall, swollen with records. I remember thinking to myself that surely all of music is contained right here. By the time I began to feel a bit silly and cut off, I wandered back to the deck where the gang had all gathered. A scene had developed and Will was spilling his drink all over himself and whosoever failed to maintain a wide berth. Tim was sitting at the head of the table, leaning to his armrest with his forehead stooped against his hand. The others at the table busied themselves texting.
”Why won’t you say it? You won’t say it, will ya?” slurred Will. He seemed to punctuate his sentences with stumbles. He reeled backward into the railing of the deck. “I love you. Best friends say it to each other.”
Snapping upright and at attention, Tim said in a half yell, “My best friend is three-hundred miles away, and no, I’m not going to say it.”
Will was visibly anguished. With an exaggerated windup, he hurled his half full glass into the dark of night, somewhere beyond the limits of the yard, and it landed with a sickening shatter that wholly symbolized what had just happened. The gang, including Tim sat in a stunned silence as Will retreated into the house. I didn’t understand the context of what had occurred, but I felt like someone should follow him, if only just to be sure he didn’t do anything drastic.
I was relieved when I found him struggling to light a cigarette on the front stoop. I came near to him, and offered my lighter.
”Thanks” he said, accepting the lighter without so much as a sideways glance. He stood on steadier legs now. The collar of his peacoat was pulled up to shield from the cold of the late autumn night. His eyes were red and wet with tears when he did turn to face me to return the lighter. He took a long drag, exhaled between pursed lips, then through both nostrils.
”What’s wrong? What was that?” I said.
”It’s nothing.” Will said flatly. He flicked the nearly complete cigarette, its soft cherry glow tumbling end over end into the blue dark of the night, and he disappeared back inside, this time to his room. The whole scene was over as quickly as it began, and at this point, I forgot all about the gang and flat left. I had only just met these interesting people and reveried for a few nights and now mysterious currents were sending us all toward some final, weird entropy.
I wandered into the night and took off toward anywhere, and ruminated for a long while on “It’s nothing.”
A slow bum-bum-gallum thumps out of a double bass played by a sixty-something jazzman that comes to Amelio’s Bar Thursdays to earn junk money. A strand of rope lights frame the terraced bar, with bottle after bottle seeming to cascade from the wall. Some of the bottles are fading with a layer of dust. One of these bottles is a thirty year single malt that stands alone on it’s own small shelf set a foot above the other top shelf liquors. We live in a town with nothing worth celebrating, so I look to the other end of the bar, a few shelves down, to my usual.
It’s not only my usual, but it’s mine. A bottle of Pernod sits against the far wall with the label turned toward the brick. Nobody really comes to a bar like this for the anise flavored spirit—in the last hour, nothing but heavy beer and cheap whisky. I don’t make a production of it like people say you’re supposed to. They would have a sugar cube on a special perforate spoon span a special Pontarlier glass, over which you’d drip ice cold water from a fine crystal fountain. The cold water would shrink the sugar cube into nothing as it falls into the absinthe verte, that emerald spirit, and what a strange thing this ritual of la louche produces: the first drop results in a plunging swirl and twist of white green cloud into the glass, and each successive drip of cold sugar creates a more nebulous and brilliantly colored drink. It comes out to almost four parts of water to one part of absinthe, which is really what you need—the drink is often well in excess of sixty percent alcohol by volume, this one at sixty-eight, a whole 138 proof. The rich anise flavor of the spirit is like licorice to the rest.
I do not drink it correctly. I take a tumbler glass, one ice cube, and one part water, with no sugar. It’s a more nuanced taste, that only comes from a wealthy man’s desires with a humble man’s way of carrying one’s self. Small sips, tiny kisses for the green fairy, though I don’t believe in any of that hallucination talk.
The jazzman breaks to come get a drink from the bar. His mammoth double bass rests against the wall in the corner by his stool. He slaps his hand on the bar with a “Hey man! How about a beer over here—I’m thirsty!” The bartender, a thick bearded man who could have been a coal miner or a lumber jack or whatever really pours the cheapest beer on draught and slides it contemptuously down the bar without hardly looking, and the head sloshes over the rim of the glass. “Damn, that’s no way to be man!”
He sits down next to me, though I’m staring at the last bit of my ice cube as it dissolves into the drink.
”The hell is that man? What is that?” he says, pointing at my drink.
”You mean this? Oh, it’s Pernod and water and an ice cube. It’s a good drink.”
He swills his beer, and looks closer, and says “Ain’t never heard of no Purrrr-no man, never heard of it. You mind?”
I slide it his way, and he takes a big gulp, almost half the glass. His reaction is immediate, and without the sugar, it’s easy to know why. Just a blass of high power alcohol and black licorice flavor.
”Damn man! I’ll drink this skunky ass beer this beat bastard serves me and you can keep your dirty rubbing alcohol.”
Whatever, I think. I’m going to go home and write for a little bit, and then go for a long walk. People think you need a clear head to enjoy a walk or to write well, but I think you need an ever-so-thin veil to shield you from reality, because reality only clouds the real truth to life.
He starts playing again. I set a few dollars on the counter for the barkeep’s kindness, and I depart. I think tonight I’ll walk a few blocks, take in the images, and then write about a land I’ve never known.