Friday night, 99/Hill

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Friday night, 99/Hill, tearing the void, hit the lights at 40, spin left hot, passenger on a drive to zero, straddling the window, pounding the rooftop, leg to the door like you’re breaking a wild mustang but this here’s a ’95 Honda Civic; it needs persuasion to bust, so kiss the accelerator, make it groan, because the car’s gotta know what a car is for: trapping memories, building soundtracks, and here you are at 38, savage as always, impervious to age, your cologne a chem trail in the dark, streetlight fingers in thinning hair, and between the wind outside and muttering motor, your homie J.D., down since diapers, cranks “Mr. Brownstone,” Guns N Roses, aw yeah, from a joint deliverin’ sinew in a bottle, Appetite for Destruction, but this is a mix, a driving mix, and you know what’s next: “Black and Blue,” baby, Van Halen, SAMMY, and oh, yeah, your jam since ’88, when you were 10 and not 38, and if you ran into your 10-year-old self now, man, he’d couldn’t wait to fit your skin, think your thoughts, spin left hot on a Friday night, sparked-Owl casual, eyes shut, imagining open eyes on you, mouths agape in disbelief, holy cheet, zat Andy Louris, West Albany High School Class of ’95, man, he hasn’t changed at all, man, dude damn rattles with life, and mid-envy it hits ’em: you’re 38 and they’re 38, but they’re not 38 like you, they gave it up to settle, man, they thought they were smart but they were stupid, yo, too stupid to grasp that life is life is life and sometimes you holler to gas the heart, and it’s not like you didn’t try, anyway, but after two kids, seven old ladies, four waitresses and a Sears customer service rep who liked the way your stubble twinkled in neon, you were done, baby, through with even a half-hearted stab at normal, and besides, too many flavors in the fountain, right, like that Burger King kid — oh, God, 19, maybe 22, but oooh, those lips, those eyes and a smock so lucky, and one of these days your banter will meet just so, and damn, you’ll be over the counter, showing her new math, 38 to the nth power, because you’re a 38 that’s never been, and isn’t that funny how it works out, because you remember when your mom was 38, how she greeted it with hippie disbelief, that such a cataclysm should befall her, and all her friends and relatives threw a party with black balloons and condolence cards and it was all very ha-ha until they realized 38 wasn’t a stopping point, oh, no, no, noooo, you kept going: 50, 60 and then, like your mom, you run out of ages to be and that’s that, you know, 38 from the distance of your deathbed is a pleasant diversion while tubes feed your body and machines pump your blood and no one brings black balloons and you struggle to even speak lest your own elocution kill you, but, hey, stop it, no such memories while you’re hanging out a window at 40 mph, the envy of all, because you’re here now, 38 here now, and ain’t nobody ever been 38 like you, not even Old Ken, who you met when you were 19 with disposable income and a persistent thirst, and Ken had only one of those things but was enough of a humanitarian to swing Brother a taste for proper recompense: a half-hour of wasted time as he poured you every story he’d accumulated, about how he smoked dope with Bill Walton, hitch-hiked with Marcus Dupree, went camping with Randy Travis and roadied for Mark Slaughter (or was it the other way around, who cares), and back then you listened to Old Ken, wanting to believe him, wanting to believe you could stuff that much into your tiny pouch, but that was old you, young you, and once-future you knows better as a 38 never beheld by mankind, and oh, oh — this is the part of the movie, because your life is a movie, that everyone will talk about on Monday because they’ll recognize it as the most pivotal of points in a movie choked widdem: you’re hanging out the window and the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” tumbles from the stereo then gobbles the Dolby, Kim Deal’s howls pressing your spine as you offer bliss to the moon in virgin sacrifice and the audience is like, damn, this is the moment that encapsulates everything I love about this protagonist; look at that freedom, his trials but pebbles against armor, bring it, sky, bring it, God, bring it, fates, bring it, Donna, bring it, throw it, hit me with failure and your false expectations then watch me stand, defiant, alone, a 38 like none other who can still hold his drink and smoke, and come to think of it, they’re right: the law can’t whup you, the town can’t whup you, life can’t touch you, and it’s all just left turns into sad-eyed restaurants, anyway, the usual table, the usual waitress, the usual order, the usual sodden charm crawling up your throat, the usual desperate lunch break sounds and promises to call as you consult the bathroom mirror to straighten hair you keep long for strategy’s sake and ignore the hurt confusion staring hopelessly back, then you hit the road, 99/Hill on a Friday night, more 38 than ever before, tearing the void as the void grows close, passenger on a drive to zero.

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The Last Status

Francis Metzger
I’ve finally opened a Facebook account. This will be my only status, for updates are unnecessary. I’m in a hospital bed having received the news that every measure to save me has failed. In an hour, I’ll be dead. I do not wish to be “commented,” “shared,” “liked,” or “friended.” The only person who matters — Eleanor, my wife — is just beyond this door, composing herself to say goodbye. All I want is to shout into the wilderness one last time.

In accordance with my request, this profile will be deactivated upon my death, its photos expunged, all evidence of my existence erased. I do not desire the vainglorious promise of Internet immortality. I do not seek the digital sympathy of anonymous followers. Know only that I was here, and then that I was not, as life simply intends.

Theme from an Unfinished Novel: “mixtape (10/13/94)” (Track 8)

TRACK 8:
ICE CUBE, “IT WAS A GOOD DAY”

“Today was like one of those fly dreams.”

friday, july 22, 1994
6:13 p.m.

’Nother summer night in the newsroom. The three’ll hang for a few hours before going our separate ways, perhaps a movie, maybe a party. We’re expecting a grand — and I use the word grand loosely — total of three phone calls, all of which’ll be taken care of before the sun faints around nine. Honestly, we could take the initiative right now and be on the streets in a half-hour, but fuck that. We need money. We’re more than willing to sacrifice a few useless hours priming the pump.

Gary and I usually arrive separately but around the same time, 5:30. We dip into the well of letters to the editor, transcribe them at a snail’s pace, and catch a few minutes of television before Chris comes through the side door. This is our cue to telephone the Hasty Freez across the street and order dinner to-go. (We highly recommend the fries, but for thrift’s sake, you’re better off buying a 44-oz. Pepsi [a 75-cent value] at the Stop-N-Go across the street on the building’s opposite side, because the Freez offers nothing larger than a 24.) We’ll make the short trip, sun our egos in the congenial beams of the female burger-peddlers, who all know us by name. Then we visit the Stop-N-Go and come back to the office to sit around, bullshit, and wire-troll, one ear perked for the faint ring of the receptionist’s telephone, which is separated from us by a thick wall and a closed, locked door. Of course, we seldom answer before 7:30. Until then, fuck it. None of us are keen to deal with irate subscribers ignored by their paperboys. Not our fault, not our responsibility.

Tonight’s topic is a variation on a familiar theme: This newspaper is a fucked-up dump run by clueless old jackasses who wouldn’t know shit if it was seven-feet tall and wore a nametag and fright wig. I do my usual routine about the paper’s lack of a proper entertainment section, primarily because I’m desperate to write film and music criticism and don’t want to be trapped forever in the mausoleum of prep sports. I’m dangling a bite-sized chunk of bacon cheeseburger over a thick patch of ketchup when Chris Sabjeck changes the subject.

“You know the thing that sucks the fuckin’ worst about this place?” he asks. “The lack of adequate femaleage.”

“Define adequate,” Gary replies through a wet nosh of fried potatoes, “because this place is like a Mennonite graveyard when it comes to women.”

“That’s exactly the problem,” Chris says. “They’re married or unmarried but they’ve been on staff for a hundred fuckin’ eons, hence, married to their work and to that bald froggy fuck in the editor’s chair they’re always trying to impress. Gotta make good for Daddy. Where are all the young, attractive, single reporters just looking for a nice night out? Because as much as I dig you guys, I gotta have something better to stare at than a couple Adam’s apples.”

“What about the interns?” I offer.

“Oh, yeah,” Chris snorts. “The interns. Here’s a free education, junior: You don’t want that hassle. Both of us been down that road. Believe it.”

“What’s wrong with the interns?” I ask. “They seem nice — ”

“Of course they seem nice,” Gary says. “They are. But then they do a not-so-nice thing: They leave your ass.”

“Tell ’im about Sheryl Hargrove,” Chris says.

“Who’s that?”

“Well,” Gary says, “it’s not really a story about Sheryl Hargrove but about how fuckin’ nasty this company’s internship program is, OK?”

“OK.”

“Sheryl Hargrove was an intern here about, what, ’89?”

“Summer of ’89,” Chris confirms.

“For the summer, like every intern every year, right. Most beautiful girl I’ve ever laid my eyes on, smartest girl I’ve ever met in my life. First day we met — instant chemistry. It was one of those River Rhythms shows in the park. I don’t remember who was playing, but that’s not important, right. Anyway, me and Chris got a blanket out, a couple coolers, a few brews — sitting pretty, enjoying a warm night, good music. Sheryl shows up. Says, ‘Hey, don’t I see you guys around the newsroom? Just thought I’d stop by and say, “Hey.” ’” Whatever.”

Chris butts in. “No, if you remember, she was asking about your Roger Clemens column.”

“Oh, that’s right. She read this thing I did about meeting Roger Clemens. It ran a couple days before. I didn’t think anything of it. But yeah, she did say something about that column, I remember now. Anyway, we get to talking, and we had a lot of things in common: same age, same points of reference — ”

“Man, you’re lucky I was, like, 14 pounds overweight that summer. Because I woulda been buff as fuck,” Chris says.

“I can’t believe you’re still harping on that,” Gary snorts. “It wouldn’t have mattered if you had washboard abs and were all oiled and naked and shit — ”

“Dude, if I were oiled and naked that day, it would’ve mattered. Believe me.”

“Yeah, you woulda been arrested,” I interject.

“Hey, last time I checked, having the biggest cock for 70 miles ain’t no crime, which, I might add, just happens to be its exact length.”

“Anyway,” Gary continues.

“You know I’m just flicking you shit, right?” Chris asks. “Seriously. You guys were great together.”

“Well, thanks. I appreciate that, five years after the fact,” Gary says. “Anyway…where was I?”

“I was naked and dicked up like a motherfucker,” Chris zings.

“Anyway, the point is, Pud Nuts, what I’m trying to get at, is this: TeddCities, in its infinite corporate wisdom, developed this internship program for one specific purpose: Fucking with the male race, specifically townies like us at these podunk little shit rags out in oblivion. Think about it for a second. It’s totally devious. Nubile young things get sent to four newspapers in one year for a ‘learning experience.’ Wink-wink. Three months, just long enough to establish friendships, relationships, roots — then, just when you think, Hey, I’m actually happy, they’re off again, zoop, down the chute, bye-bye. New faces, new adventures. And you’re stuck back wherever you are, going, ‘Dude, what the fuck?’ Unless they get a job offer and stick around, which they never do, right? And can you blame ’em? Man, if someone loosened the shackles that’d been growing around my ankles since birth and said, ‘Hey, the world is yours,’ I’d be fuckin’ gone. One year to fuck around? A trip across the country? Shit, yeah.

“The point of many points is: Nothing good’s gonna come of it. OK? The program’s just too perfect. A psychological mind-fuck nobody can crack. It’s like in the Old West, y’know, when the wagon train of women pulls into town, knickers shooting out the stagecoach windows. You think, Somewhere in there is my soulmate. Actually, you just wind up getting punched in the mouth with gonorrhea. Officially, the whole thing about the internship program is to educate budding journalists on the job. Send them to backwater towns to cut their teeth. That’s what all the fine print says. The unofficial objective is to leave jerks like us stuck at these little papers so heartbroken we never want to go anywhere else, because all we’ve got going for us is hope. No turnover.

“Sheryl fucking Hargrove, dog. Did you know I didn’t wanna get out of bed for six months after that shit? Sure, we were, like, ‘Oh, I’ll write you.’ And we did, for a while. A lot of addresses: Belleville, Illinois; Clear Lake, Iowa; New York, New York. The letters got shorter and shorter and fewer and fewer. Finally, they just stopped.

“Then about two years ago I get this wedding invitation in the mail, along with a very short note. Handwritten, one page, about the size of a baby’s face. She’d met this ‘really nice guy.’ Her editor, for Chrissakes; dude’s, like, twice her age. And they were oh, so happy, and she hoped I was happy for her, and was she doing the right thing, and…eesh. She wanted me to come. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. And I couldn’t tell her why, because it’s stupid to still feel that way after all that time. Anyway, it was all just as well, because I got that invitation two days before the wedding. Can you believe that? I was, like, a last-minute invite, like I just suddenly popped into her head. Hey, remember me? The guy you said you loved?

“Tell me this: How is that people can just forget you so easily? You know? You can spend every minute of the day with someone, tell her things you’ve never told anyone, make promises about how it’s never gonna change, ever, ever, ever. But it’s all horseshit between bedsheets, man. Because somewhere down the line, you wind up a meaningless afterthought. You’re not even a person anymore. Just a pleasant little memory to pass the time while she’s doing the fucking dishes.”

9:02 p.m.

Chris and Gary just stepped out the door, the names of lost girls attached to their dialogue like TP to tennis shoes. They have a date with a fresh pitcher of ice-draft medicine down at the First Round, which they’ll quaff between even more stories. See, right after Gary recovered from talking about Sheryl, they went into long, wistful volleys about all the other interns they’d pursued, captured, and been forced by company mandate to return to the sea. There was Sheryl Hargrove, Amy Mendoza, Justine Dickerson, Darcy Donnen, and Stacey Stevens from USC. (I remembered Stacey and her Benneton sweaters and her corkscrew sorority locks. She neatly deflected the nine dozen marriage proposals fired from every bachelor pad in the whole besotted county.) Finally, the roll call was cut off by a closing door, and I was alone at last.

There’s something cool about a newspaper office when no one’s around. Usually it’s so anxious with activity that when it finally gets its space to itself, you can feel the whole building sigh and slump into at-ease. The air conditioning hums sweetly at timed intervals. The main computer terminal exchanges excited chatter with itself, sputtering unread wire stories down unseen links into every hard drive. The composing room hisses during the day with the sounds of precision slicing and hurried human implorations for news pages over the violent rhythm of the press. But at night it is dead, with only tiny scraps of paper, melted balls of glue, and X-Acto knives (our managing editor calls them “exactamundo blades”) awaiting duty.

Sometimes I go wandering. I hang out by the silent printing press or try to balance myself on my stomach atop the paper rolls in storage. I think about the future, which always seems more promising than the now. I further elaborate on my eternal interview with Charlie Rose, who decides I’m worth exploring for the entire hour. I refuel my imagination in the break room, another clue to the newspaper’s hectic pace with its salt-pocked tables and issues laying exactly as they did when their readers stopped and leapt back to work. A chalkboard outlines advertising revenue for the quarter and compares it to last year’s position. I guess we’re doing OK.

What I really want to do, though, is get on the phone. And I think I’ve been on every phone in every room I’ve thus far visited. Strangely, nowhere seems private enough, even though I’m the only one here. I want 40 layers of plaster between me and any intrusion, whether it be man, mineral, or vegetable. Maybe if I went back to the printing area. But then there’s nowhere to sit except atop the inky-footprint steps leading up to the press’ top level. There are no secrets in the break room, since any conversation can sneak down a hall and be heard by anyone passing through to take a leak.

Eventually I find the perfect phone on the other side of the building, in the assembly area where workers fold newspapers every morning and hitch ’em up for the trucks. I walk up a flight of stairs built of thick, exposed wood and find myself in the morgue, where every past issue dating back to the early 1900s is bound between green and black hardcover. I take a seat at an empty desk with a phone. My index finger hovers ever so hesitantly above the “9” that will grant me an outside line. A scrawled number sits in black ink on a torn scrap of paper. It stares blankly back at me as a reminder that I already know this number by heart, but maybe, hopefully, I’ll forget it mid-dial and be forced to check it again. Myriad doubts crowd my mind, but I resolutely split them down the center and, with some dramatic trepidation, punch the six digits.

One ring. Good sign. I didn’t miss any of the numbers.

Two rings. Hey, I’m in deep now.

Three rings. Well, at least I had the nuts to try, right? I kick my tootsies like a little kid about to get free ice cream.

Four rings. I’m feeling relieved because, really, what business do I have calling her?

Fi—

Hello?

Startled, I sit up.

“Uh. Hi.”

Hello?

“Zis Deanne?”

Yes.

“Um, hey. It’s Eric.”

Hey! What’s up, Pud Nuts?

“Hey, look, I’m sorry for calling so late.”

Late? Aw, hell, Eric, it’s only, what, 9:30? I’m just sittin’ here watchin’ some movies.

“Oh. Cool.”

So, what’s up?

“Um. Well, nothing, really. Work. You know.”

You guys work on a Friday night? Harsh.

“Oh, it’s nothing. Just a few things. Stray things. Not, like, big, important stuff.”

Oh, I know all about that big, important stuff. Did I tell you about my expose this week?

“Big scoop?”

Biggest in my whole career. I thought the Timber Carnival was the be-all of this town, but I was so very, very wrong. I wasn’t sure my heart could take much more excitement. Then Grant assigned me the break that could put me on a very little map.

“What, pray tell, is that?”

Are you ready? Are you sittin’ down?

I look around and reply in the affirmative.

Lawn care.

“Lawn care?”

You heard me. Lawn care. Can you believe it? Listen to this. I mean, I’ve got [rustling of paper], listen to this, are you listening, I got 19 pages of notes on lawn maintenance. Dang, I can’t even read this, I was writin’ so fast. I think this says, “snail death,” or maybe “small dish” — I don’t know. I’ll have to check the tape.

“There’s a tape?”

Of course there’s a tape. There’s a tape and 19 pages of notes, and there’s gonna be a follow-up phone call on Monday to some landscaper in Sweet Home named — what is his name — Darren Tweller, about using tree bark and mulch as decorative elements. I don’t think we should be talkin’ on the phone about this; I don’t want any of y’all’s rival papers to pick up this story before we get a chance to blow the whole thing wide open.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. Everybody knows about the power of mulch.”

Aw, man. Why’d you have to go and tell me that?

“I’m sorry.”

I thought I had my fingers on the pulse of a revolution.

“We know everything about lawns by now.”

There’s gotta be somethin’ new, though. I wanna come across somethin’ no one’s ever known about lawn care. Somethin’ the president of lawn care don’t want you to find out. Somethin’ sexy. Like this: I hear them little lawn figures are makin’ a comeback, like the one of the woman in the summer dress bent over the tulips with her bloomers showin’?

“Hey, sex sells.”

You know it.

“Yeah.”

I doodle an infinite Figure-8 on the desk with my fingernails.

So, don’t you have a hot date or somethin’?

“Nah. Not tonight. This is my day of rest. What about you?”

Not in the mood tonight. Sometimes I enjoy the peace and quiet, you know what I mean? Sit down with a good movie, good book — just be by myself.

“With your lawn care notes.”

With my lawn care notes.

Now I’m extravagantly doodling my name.

“But, yeah, seriously, I know what you mean. I like the peace and quiet too. Like now. Have you ever been in this place when there’s no one around?”

No, I’m usually too busy running screaming out of it.

“It’s actually kinda cool. Feels like everything’s all right. Like nothing’s goin’ on. No good news, no bad news. Just life.”

We won’t know ’til tomorrow.

“Yeah, but there’s something comforting about now.”

Except for the fact I’m trying to —

“Hey,” I say, “I just wanted to tell you it was really fun hangin’ out.”

Really? I had fun too. We should do it again sometime.

“Yeah.”

I have now written my name about 17 times.

What are you doing next Friday?

“Next Friday? I dunno.”

Well, maybe we could do somethin’.

“OK. Cool. Sure. Yeah, we’ll hang out, get a couple beers, maybe catch a movie.”

Oh, so you’re askin’ me out on a date?

“No! No, of course it’s not a date. You know, we’ll just hang out.”

Heh heh.

“What’s so funny?”

You.

“What’s so funny about me?”

Oh, no, no, no, God, no, it’s not a date! HISSSSSSSSS!

“Well…”

You act like a, like a datin’ vampire or something.

“Dating vampire. I like that.”

Anyway, you figure out somethin’ not-date-y for us to do and give me a call.

“OK. I will.”

See ya then, Pud Nuts.

“Sounds good.”

Don’t forget to have me back before daylight, or remind me to bring a shovel and a bucket.

“Hey, that could be the story you’ve been waitin’ for.”

Nah. I’ve taken buckets and shovels out with guys before.

“You’re good. You’re vicious, but you’re good.”

I know. See ya.

“Bye.”

Bye.

I bask in the dial tone, the new sound of heaven.

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Track 4

Track 6

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

TRACK 4:
PINK FLOYD, “WOTS…UH THE DEAL”

“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.”

“Yeah.”

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.”

“Wow.”

“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?”

Nadli?

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

Yusheslike…

“Natalie?”

A professional female voice, unsuspecting, interrupts.

This is Natalie. How may I help you?

“NAAAAAAAAAAAAATALLLIEEEEEEE!” Travis growls.

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?”

Yeah?

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

Ummmmm…

Silence.

Silence.

Silence.

Silence.

“What?”

“I think she’s thinking.”

“Maybe she dropped dead.”

Silence.

Silence.

Silence.

Silence.

Silence.

Silence.

“Um, hello? Gas?”

Honk!

Silence.

Rustle.

Giggle.

Whispers.

Sure?

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.)

Theme from an Unfinished Novel: “mixtape, 10/13/94”

TRACK 1:
THE FIXX, “SECRET SEPARATION”

“I’ll bear one precious scar that only you will know.”

wednesday, october 12, 1994
12:23 a.m.

Hm. Lemme try to set the scene: generous two-window booth snuggled against the northeasternmost corner of the T&R Restaurant, Albany, Oregon, population: lost. My own little naugahyde fiefdom, where I people-watch in silence. Noticing. Observing. Calculating. Contemplating. Eventually judging. At the moment it’s just me and my Dr. Pepper, which I quaff in place of coffee since I can’t stand the shit, which makes me a virtual outcast in my own generation. When I’m not scarring this journal with nonsense, I’m fiddling with one of the many sugar packets at my disposal, creasing them down the middle until, exhausted, they open sadly in my fingers. I then discard the carcass for a fresh victim. About four fingertips from that is the aforementioned opened journal; its spartan lines and white expanse mock me. But we’ll see who the fuckin’ man is shortly. About an hour from now I’ll return it to the backpack resting at my feet, when my crowd starts trickling in.

Well, when I say “my crowd,” what I mean is a slew of people you’ll never personally meet. You won’t experience them in what Garth Algar called the Now; they’ll be echoes, imprints on an empty beach. These are my buddies outside the workplace, and this has pretty much been our regular shit-shooting forum every night for the last three years, ever since that initial study group in Professor Seaver’s Introduction to English Lit. There were seven of us originally, all with a shared jones for obnoxious nocturnalism and heavy-when-you’re-18 pseudophilosophical discourse. It all started in earnest, of course, but you can only discuss the purple prose of an old bore like Wordsworth for so long. Pretty soon the poetry and flop-sweat metaphors gave way to more spirited topics, like sex, politics, music, film, and bagging on everyone without the good fortune of being us.

Now we’re down to four. Life happened to the rest. Turned out Barry was serious about growing up; he got his associates and moved on to Kent State hoping to eventually write a book about the aftermath of campus unrest 20 years later, but don’t quote me on that — we haven’t heard Peep 1 in a while. Kendra settled (no pun intended) with her dramarama high school boyfriend (gauche), and they both hightailed it for suicidal mediocrity out in Millersburg. Sad shit. Adam just stopped coming. I run into him occasionally at the mall; he has short hair now, though he insists he’s growing his beard back. Then there’s been the usual parade of significant others and brief stops, but the remaining founding four, the establishing crust, the board of directors, we’ve stayed pretty steady. It’s me, Travis, Dennis, and Jenny now, though Dennis and Jenny are practically the same person these days.

We’re the one constant force in this restaurant. Same table, same waitress. Doreen. We’ve squeezed an extra e (Doreeen, and we’re considering making it even longer) into her name when we squall for service, to emphasize our whining tone, but she manages to put up with us and has even been known to fire back wicked cracks of her own when we get too sassy. She knows us so well. Like, get this: She knows that Jenny can handle three cups of coffee. Max. Then it’s time for the big pee. So Doreeen’s always reminding us to let her sit near the edge, where escape is possible. Doreeen also knows that although I start my night with a simple Dr. Pepper, around 2 a.m. I’m gonna get peckish and graduate to solids, ordering one of two menu items: the No. 4, a ham ’n’ cheese omelet with syrup on the side; or the No. 19, a fat bacon burger caged in a mass of ketchup-spattered steak fries, followed by a stream of Cherry Coke to stave delirium.

Tonight — well, all right, today, if you’re gonna be anal — I arrived earlier than usual, because I wanted a little solitude. It’s hard to explain why. I mean, these are my friends and we’ve been through a lot, and we have these supposedly quasi-meaningful, revelatory dialogues, and we analyze each other’s dreams, for Chrissakes, but I think, oddly enough, that the biggest thing we share is that we share nothing. We all have our little secrets. I have tons. My first secret is that when I get melancholy, like so, I visit the jukebox and punch in E17. Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55,” as funneled through the shameful harmonies of the Eagles, the kind you want to hear over and over again while you stare wistfully at a smile entombed at the bottom of a beer.

My second secret is that I love you. And even though they don’t know you, I could never tell them that I do. I’d never hear the end of it. The interrogations, the prying, the willowy, smoky catcalls, and that humiliating acknowledgment of weakness in the steely resolve for which I am storied. Right now this is just between us and the sugar packets.

How I came to this futile realization is trademark me: the finality of your absolute goneness. I punished myself earlier tonight by stopping at your old place, where you’d only been hours before, and staring into the blackness of your windows. What was once inevitability cushioned by time and distance and fantasies of perfect sweet talk on the perfect nonexistent summer night has become a repulsive silence, and I’ve gotta sit here and deal with it the only way I know how: the perfect letter. The one that’ll make you cry and, at best, bring you back. Or, at worst, force you to remember me fondly for the rest of your life. Somehow this is the way it must be, the television-fed chickenshit Mortes de Arthur nobility of romantic pesso-masochism, where I purposely deny myself the Ultimate Happiness — because pining from afar just hurts too fucking cool.

Ah, well. Que sera la vie. Gotta wrap this up before my Pepper gets jealous of me wasting all this syrup on this letter I’ll never have the balls to actually send. You’ll be receiving the emasculated version about a week from now, when I’ve finally exhaled. Until then, goodnight, and I’ll silently lust for you in my heart.

Sincerely,

Eric P.