Theme from an Unfinished Novel: “mixtape (10/13/94)” (Track 4)


“Waiting on the first step
Show me where the key is kept
Point me down the right line because it’s time”

friday, june 10, 1994
11:49 p.m.

I’m staring at a shipwreck of ham and eggs, dried paths of syrup with patches of jam. The fork sits spent and useless. My Coke is almost gone. DenJen and Travis are engaged is some tired discourse about whether or not the Fonz was actually ever cool in a realistic (i.e., nontelevision) context. “I mean, can a concocted character ever be considered rebellious,” Jenny asked, “when he was created using the most surface stereotypes by middle-aged men on a nostalgia trip?”

We’ve just gotten back from Fanning’s, a bar across the Always Open’s parking lot. It’s what passes for a nightclub in Albany. Its black-clad bouncer is some 30-year-old steroid throbbing below for the underage ’tang, standing at the door’s lip to check IDs. Once inside, Fanning’s splits into two rooms: one for the country-inclined, the other for us rockers. Both areas offer three constantly occupied pool tables, darts, a long bar, and a deejay who can’t hear you and doesn’t have what you want to hear anyway. Liquids consumed: I had my beloved Guinness; Travis is a Bud man to his tiptoes, in an effort to keep it real. “I see all that microbrewed faggot shit, and it makes me sad,” he’d told me once. “It’s like people have forgotten their roots. They got no loyalty. They wanna move on up, like the Jeffersons of alcohol.” Dennis and Jenny are the Corona twins. They both tap the lemon down the neck ’til it plunges to the golden bottom, so they can share the experience of the sour and the sourer.

The alcohol is slowly wearing off; the hash marks of hot tar that scar my throat are slowly dissolving. Dennis derails the Fonz discussion by noting the sexual tension between Henry Winkler and Marion Ross, something we can all agree on. There’s a comfortable, friendly silence before Dennis sorta smirks in embarrassment and taps the side of his water glass.

“I want to make a toast,” he says.

“Oh?” I reply.

“What are we toasting?” Travis asks.

Dennis looks at Jenny. “Um, well,” he begins, shimmying in place until he looks official, like Nixon settling into a televised address. “I guess it’s more of a declaration than a toast, really. But it is a toastful occasion.”

Jenny pipes in. “Well, it’s not really a declaration, Dennis. I believe it’s traditionally called an announcement.”

Travis moves up. “Oooooh, this is gonna be good.”

“Yeah, an announcement,” Dennis says, correcting himself.

More silence eats up the room.

“Uh-huh?” I ask.

Dennis grins sheepishly and stuffs as much of his face into his sweater as possible. Jenny slips her hand into his as if to punctuate an upcoming sentence. Both Travis and I catch the subtle move, the exchange of adored shit-eating glances. We’d both discussed the certainty of this day, but we thought it was years down the road—like, when we’d all gotten our shit together. That sure as hell wasn’t gonna happen now.

“Oh, no,” I say.

“Oh, man,” copycat Travis says.

“Guys,” Dennis begins.

“Oh, man,” Travis says again.

“Jenny and I—we’ve been—”

“Oh, man,” Travis says for the third time in as many seconds.

“We’ve been dating for a long time—”

“Nooooooo!” Travis and I sing in unison, in mock incredulity.

“Come on, guys. This is a big thing for us.”

“Oh, monu-fucking-mental,” Travis agrees.

“Anyway,” Dennis continues (in deference, we allow), “Jenny and I—well, September’s gonna be our third year together. And I know this flies in the face of everything we all believe, but—”

Dennis stops, nervously twisting a Sweet’N Low, his tongue weighing the historic import of his words.

“We’re getting married.”

Even though we’re ready, the words stun us anyway. We let his proclamation drift in the smoky air, watch it backstroke, hope it vanishes like a whisper. It doesn’t. He keeps going.

“I proposed to her in the parking lot about 20 minutes ago. She said yes.”

Travis and I sit, mouths agape, a couple retards awaiting a Popsicle.

“I mean, you know, it’s silly to just date and date forever, y’know?” Dennis says. “Look, yeah, we realize that the idea of a wedding is silly—”

“Yes, it is,” Travis says. “We’ve talked about this before. Marriage is bullshit, right? It’s a fucking marketing scam by florists and churches. You don’t need a piece—”

“—of paper to tell you you’re in love,” Jenny finishes. “Yes, we know.”

“Well, then, what the fuck, dude?”

“Well, dude,” Dennis replies, “the fuck is that we have talked about it, and it’s just something we want to do, and…that’s it.”

“So is it, like, a traditional wedding, then?” I ask.

“Yes,” Jenny says. “But we’re not selling out or anything. It has nothing to do with selling out—”

“—or even growing up,” Dennis adds.

“Yes,” Jenny agrees. “There’s just something wonderful about the whole ceremonial aspect of it. It’s a celebration of who we are, and our friends…”

“Oh, Jesus,” Travis rolls his eyes. “Break out the John Denver and yank it till it spits.”

Jenny turns to her future husband and sighs, all grown-up-like. “See? I knew he’d be an asshole about this.”

“No, actually,” Travis counters, “I’m very happy for you. Seriously. Congratulations and all that. It’s just—”

“We know, man,” Dennis says. “We both know. Everyone at this table knows. But once you’re in that situation yourself, you might feel a little differently, is all.”

Jenny turns to me. “You’ve been pretty quiet, Pud Nuts. What do you think?”

I let a little smile curl across my face. “I think it’s great. Couldn’t happen to a better couple.”

“Yeah,” Travis says. “I mean, hey, you want a big wedding with frilly dipshit collars and muttonchops, and some fat chick with a mandolin going, ‘There is love, there is love,’ more power to you, I guess.”

‘There Is Love’?” Jenny asks, disgusted. “Come on, Travis. We’re not that lame.”

“Hey, they played it at my parents’ wedding,” a wounded Dennis offers.

“Well, your parents suck, Dennis,” Travis says. “They probably needed six bottles of wine and The Carpenters to make you.”

This time even Jenny laughs.

“Dude, that is so unfair,” Dennis calls over the shit-giving. “Attacking a man’s music is one thing, but his parents’ music? That’s a low blow.”

saturday, june 11, 1994
2:02 a.m.

Dennis and Jenny just went home together. They don’t live under the same roof, exactly. Jenny still officially lives with her parents out in Scio, roughly 20 minutes from this very spot, and Dennis has a studio apartment near Linn-Benton Community College here in town, but I don’t think Jenny’s been home for 24 consecutive hours since the Clinton inauguration. I definitely know she hasn’t slept in her own bed for a while. I could kinda see why they’d want to get married, if only to save on gas. Travis and I continue to stand in the parking lot, a couple fools in the dark.

“Let’s go to Taco Bell,” he suggests, finally.

“Taco Bell?” The very idea of more food is stomach-churning.

“There’s just something magical as fuck about cinnamon twists after a night like this,” he says.

I know why he wants to go. We’ve just heard that our two best friends are tying the knot, and Trav’s a sure thing with one of the Taco Bell night managers. So he’s either gonna sow those domestic pangs out of his system, or he’s gonna go tenderheart maudlin on her ass, inspired by the future DenJen betrothal. Meanwhile, I prepared my guts for the two burritos I was likely gonna send its way after two hours of lining my insides with Irish mud and eggs.

“You don’t have anywhere important to be, do ya?” Travis asks.

I shrug. “Let’s get some tacos,” I say, like Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs.

I watch Trav’s mouth as it tests the sound barrier. His lips stumble over every scattered thought as he deftly leaps from one subject to another. Then I marvel at how it all ties into his current preoccupation: Marriage. He’s alternately romantic and dismissive, maudlin and ecstatic.

“You know, I may not sound like it, but I’m really happy for them, you know? ’Cause you read all the shit about marriages these days, and it’s so fuckin’ awesome when people like Dennis and Jenny, you know, discover each other because it’s like, this is how it’s supposed to happen. You date for a while, you realize there’s, like, an acceptable level of love there, and you just go for it. I know we’ve jived their punk asses like a motherfucker in the wayback, but it’s true, man: They are—gag—soulmates. You know? The word sucks, right, but it’s like the only word that fits. And how often does anyone find a soulmate and actually, y’know, take a fucking chance? If you think about it, I would say about 75 percent of everyone who gets married is settling. I’ll probably settle. You’ll probably settle—”

Me?” I balk.

“Yeah, you. I mean, let’s face it, Pud Nuts, guys like you and me are not meant for love. Because you and me, we see through it. We don’t buy the hype. And because we don’t buy the hype, we attract a certain kind of woman, right? And the certain kind of woman we attract sure as hell don’t go for marriage, either, which leaves guys like us in kind of a pickle, right?”

“Dude, what the fuck are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the pickle. The juxtaposition of being romantic little bastards too intelligent to buy the bullshit, so we’re attracted to like-minded women who also don’t buy the bullshit. And because none of us buy the bullshit, the bullshit don’t get bought. We won’t get married, but we’ll totally be in love, right? Therefore, henceworth, we’ll end up with women who like the idea of marriage—you know, stupid women—and they’ll have talons and pussies that look like pussies but are actually ironclad contracts that we sign with our dicks.”

“The pussy contract? Interesting concept.” I roll my eyes.

“It’s all part of settling. Everything’s part of settling. There’s also that group of women just desperate to fall in love, right? That kind falls into the ‘settling’ category too, because they’re robbing themselves of the chance to find someone later, you know, someone who’s not gonna boot the shit out of them every night, who’s not gonna blame them for every personal tragedy and holocaust, who’s not gonna spit out stupid and fucked-up and desperate kids. They’re subconsciously settling, predicting that hey, you know, this is the best I’m ever gonna do. And because he smiles at me or because she lets me see her naked without calling the cops, that’s the justification. That’s love.

“Like, I’m 23 years old, right? Right now I’m dealing with this fucking matrimonial plague, where all I do is go to weddings, dawg, all I do—maybe two, three trillion a month. Classmates, old girlfriends, relatives: everyone’s doing it. I don’t know what caused it. It’s like there’s this huge rush to the chapel. Is Armageddon coming? I don’t know. No one told me. Or maybe I didn’t read that issue of Entertainment Weekly where Jim Mullen dropped weddings on the Hot List. I mean, last month my cousin got married. She’s 18—”

“18?” Even I have to admit that sounds wee.

“See, you jumped on that already. Most rational people do. 18, man. You know, but don’t tell her she’s too young. Oh, no. Off comes your head. I tried to explain this to her a couple nights before the wedding. I know, bad timing on my part, but I thought it needed to be said, right? The elephant in the room and all that. Somebody needed to tell the bitch what was up. She’s known this guy for about six months, and when you’re 18, knowing anyone more than 48 hours is a commitment. Six months might as well be a lifetime. She was very proud of those six months too, whoopee, what a fuckin’ milestone. Congratulations, you’re an adult. Finally a bona fide woman.”

“What’s the guy like?” I ask, hoping to steer the conversation into a neutral corner.

“Well, the guy’s actually kind of cool. But I was like, ‘Good luck, dude.’ I wanted to take him aside and tell him he was walking dick-first through the Gates of Hell. Not that my cousin’s terrible or anything; she’s just a starstruck kid who wants the fucking matching dresses and the corsages and a church full of grinning assholes on Her Blessed Day like she’s had bouncing around her head all her goddamn life, thanks to fucking Barbie and Milton-Bradley and all that bullshit my mom’s sister’s been spitting into her subconscious since she fell out the birth canal. But, you know, he’s not the point here. I mean, really, truly, he’s kinda secondary, right? All she’s worried about is the grand illusion going according to plan; the groom is totally interchangeable. Maybe at one time it would’ve been the boy next door, the next, Kirk Cameron. The point is, what the fuck? You’re 18 years old! You know? You’re a blank slate. Your future’s unwritten. That’s supposed to be exciting, right? Why the fuck would you dump all that possibility for, you know, bleh? Because you’re a fucking pussy, that’s why. You’re a scared, knee-knockin’, piss-pantin’, chickenshit little pussy. If you go four seconds without a warm body in your arms, you curl into the fetal position and die. The real world is so scary you gotta reach for the crutch of Fantasy World #2, that easy sweep from high school, where you came home to your parents day in, day out, and there was this sense of normalcy and complacency, to coming home from work day in, day out, to the same person, and get a version of that normalcy you used to know. Don’t get me wrong, right: I understand not wanting to be alone, but to not give yourself a moment’s peace, not even a moment of individual thought without someone else interfering—that’s fucked up. Totally fucked up. At 18 you’ve got, like, a hundred years to figure shit out. You might as well just surrender your id, man—paint your unicorn posters with your fucking brains.

“And two nights before the wedding, I’m driving her to—well, fuck, I don’t remember. All that’s important is that we’re in the car alone, me and her. Oh, it was Dairy Queen. She wanted a peanut buster dillywhoo or whatever, a bunch of fuckin’ milkshakes for her goofy-ass bridesmaids. Definite sign of maturity when you’re sucking frozen milk from Dennis the Menace’s head. But, you know, we’re talking, and she’s blathering about the cosmic importance of this and the cosmic relevance of that, and how she was so lucky to have met Jered at this pivotal crossroad in life, pulling all this talk-show crap from Oprah knows where and spitting it out like she’s fucking Socrates with a schoolboy crush. And she goes, ‘Honestly, Trav, do you think it’s forever?’ and I lay her Cassius-flat, man. No, I don’t think it’s forever. I’m gonna be the only one in our fucked-up Brady Bunch to give you the score: What you are experiencing is the flutter and nothing more. It’s the only thing in the world you’ve ever wanted, and you’ll accept whatever nanosecond your mind deludes the rest of you into assuming is eternal. If it were eternal, that shit would kill you. It’d flood your synapses like caramel-covered crack and stop your heart cold.

“Get this, dude: She laughs. She actually laughs at me. Pats me like I’m fucking Lassie. She paaaaats me on the shoulder and goes, get this: ‘Someday, Travis, you’ll find true love, and you’ll understand.’ Fuck you! I taught this bitch how to tie her shoes, OK? I don’t need advice from her. Everything she said was a contradiction of everything I believe as a person. ‘You’ll find true love and understand.’ See, the funny thing is, true love isn’t meant to be understood. Love itself isn’t mean to be understood. Why did a stone fox like Jenny end up with a shitheel like Dennis? Who knows? But it happened, and it was beautiful.”

“Well, it evolved.”

“Yes! Thank you! It evolved. And do we understand evolution? Do we understand why some turd of a protozoa oozed out of the ocean and decided, ‘Hey, I need fingers’? And how did anyone come up with five fingers for each hand, five toes for each foot? What were the other options? Anyway, Jenny ended up with Dennis because that’s the way it went down. The two of us could analyze everything we know about them and still come up short, you know, tie this event to that event, or remember this, because it probably led to this, then this, then a chain reaction, and, finally, this. It’s something that none of us were conscious of. You know? I don’t think Jenny sits around with her friends and goes, ‘Whoa, man, I totally met Dennis at a crucial moment.’ All that pedestrian analogy shit is stretched justification for a relationship that was calculated and planned from the beginning by some cunning motherfucker, usually a woman.”

Silence. At last. Then:

“Hey,” Travis asks in a low voice. “Do you think Natalie would marry me?”

I knew it. I knew it. The Taco Bell trip had an ulterior motive. A mumbled proposal to a disembodied and possibly confused voice in the gushy heat of the moment.

“I don’t know, man,” I sigh, massaging the exasperation from my forehead.

“I think she would,” Travis nods. “It’s about time I settled down, don’tcha think? I know what you’re thinking, but come on: 23 is not 18. I’m not gonna be young forever, right? My dad was 22. It’s pretty fucked up to be older than your own dad before you get married. And Natalie’s great, right? She’s nice, she’s smart, she’s pretty. Got a great job. She’s a manager at 19. Good future there. I see a good future. I think she’s the one. It’s time I settled down, Pud Nuts. I’m tired of being a fucking kid. And for once, I’d like to show my cousin how it’s really done. You know? You got married for the wrong reasons, and now your life is gonna blow ass. But maybe if you follow my example, you’ll look for the signs, and then you’ll understand. Fucking brat.”

“Hey, man, whatever,” I advise. “I support you.”

He turns to me from the driver’s seat and a genuinely brotherly smile spreads across his lips. “Thanks, man.” Then, inspiration: “Hey, what about you, man? Wouldn’t it be fuckin’ cool if we all got married this year?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I confess. “I don’t really got nobody. Couldn’t pull it off in time.”


So far Travis Greerman must seem like a dick, but he’s actually a pretty nice guy with a few exasperating flaws, the most prominent being his constant jawing. But of all my friends still in town, he’s the one I’ve known the longest. We met for the first time at Memorial Middle School, probably around spring 1984. I was in the sixth grade, he was in the seventh. We had an intramural film class together. I don’t remember anything about it, other than he was there. We became friends somehow through osmosis; we’d nod at one another in the halls all through school but didn’t really hang until my first year at Linn-Benton, when we had English Lit. It all comes back to English Lit.

But tonight we join the slow procession idling in the Taco Bell drive-through. We’re three car lengths behind the intercom, an excruciating wait of roughly 15 minutes. At this time of night (day) everyone’s ordering in bulk from complicated lists assembled in haste by some sober fool recruited for the run. I’ve been in that position myself, so I sympathize with the poor bastards in front of me deciphering their own chicken-scratch from a paper scrap a half-mile long, turning every food item into an expression of uncertainty: “Um, four quesadillas? Extra sour cream? Nine bean burritos? No onions on five? Twelve Diet Pepsis? A Sprite?” (There is a fringe benefit, of course: People rarely ask for their change.)

Travis taps his index finger against the protective rubber coiled ’round the steering wheel. “I can’t believe it,” he says. “I can’t believe I’m, like, three cars behind the rest of my life, you know?”

“I know.”

“Something I’m doing right now will change everything for me. All I gotta do is hit that speaker and say, ‘Natalie, let’s get married.’ She’ll either say yes or no, but either way, it’s…It could very well start here, man.”

“At Taco Bell.”

“At Taco Bell.”


“I could tell my kids, y’know, if I hadn’t been hungry, they might not be here, or some shit.”

“Get all weepy whenever somebody says, ‘Run for the border.’”

“I mean, we coulda stayed back and got pancakes or something instead. The idea might’ve never occurred to me. We coulda spent the rest of the night just shooting the shit with Doreeen or something. Or, think about this: I order a taco, Natalie says, ‘No.’ But, maybe I order a taco salad, and she says, ‘Yes.’ Could you imagine how fucked-up that would be? That your fate is determined by what you buy at the fucking drive-through?”

“Stranger things have happened.”

“But all that seemingly innocuous shit is tied together, though, isn’t it? Like, one thing causes another, right? What if I order the wrong thing?”

“Well,” I offer, “whatever you order is the right thing, actually, because that’s what’s meant to be.”

“Meant to be. Yeah. I guess so.”

The intercom sidles up to Travis’ side, its multi-paneled menu bursting with color. The speaker crisply crackles to life with the most unenthusiastic teenaged voice to ever mutter a string of words into oblivion: Thinkewferchoosintacobellthisesjeffreyhowmayulpyou?

“Jeffrey?” Travis asks. “Hey, man. Is Natalie around?”


“Yeah, man. She’s got a shift tonight, right?”



A professional female voice, unsuspecting, interrupts.

This is Natalie. How may I help you?


The voice changes, all formalities vanished.

Oh, Jesus. Travis, is that you?

“Yeah, baby, it’s me. Um, I’m sitting in my car all hungry and shit? But I’m not here for rellenos, baby, if you know what I mean.”

Travis, are you drunk?

“Absolutely not. I just need my taquito polished.”

Travis, you know this is our busy time. We’ve got cars backed up behind you. Are you gonna order anything or not?

“Hey, Pud Nuts says hello.”

Hey, Eric.

“Hey, Natalie,” I wave at the speaker. “Travis is a little drunk.”

“Yes, and Eric’s a fuckin’ lying slut, Natalie. I just wanted you to know that.”

Travis, can you call me later or something? I get off at—

“No!” Travis barks. “I can’t call you later. This is something that cannot wait. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I’ve got to get it off my chest, if you don’t mind.”

“Natalie, he wants to know if you’ve still got those Jurassic Park cups,” I lob, earning a face-shove from my traveling companion who dismisses me with a brow-furrow and a hearty “Jesus, immature. Dickhead.”

He turns his focus back to the speaker, addressing it solemnly, lovingly.

“Natalie, I’ve been thinking, baby. We’ve know each other for a while, right?”


“Well, I don’t know. Will you marry me?”







“I think she’s thinking.”

“Maybe she dropped dead.”







“Um, hello? Gas?”







Travis explains it all to me on the triumphant drive back to my place. How he’d never really tasted a taco before this night, each morsel of beef dampened with the caressing honey tang of the house sauce. When you’re in love, everything seems more vibrant. The air is crisper. Your senses are heightened. Music speaks to you in new ways. You’re more alert, articulate—dare I say, loquacious? “It’s because when you find someone to share life with, it’s, like, two lives, right, amplified to a point beyond normal comprehension—I can’t explain it. I can’t do it justice.” Travis is babbling. “You’ll have to discover it for yourself.”

Actually, I guess Travis Greerman is kind of a dick, but he’s a fun guy to share a taco with.

(Read “Track 1” here.)


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