o n e
SHE FELT SOMETHING FUNNY she said, and I said "Is it love?"
And when she hit the ground the sound was almost musical, some deep African percussion, a diaphragmatic explosion of breath and air and chest reverberation, a coconut thud as her head hit the cement. ("Damn it Jose," she'd say, reading this, "Diaphragmatic? Coconut?") The floor was cold and stained in large, roughly-circular blotches of brown and black, like dried-up pools of motor oil or blood. We stood silently as she lay still and without breath.
It was the rum and the aspirator and probably some sort of antidepressant, then the weed in the garage. It's always these asthma chicks—they trigger in me some instinct of protection, suddenly it comes to me how all those men throughout history could have seen and treated women as children, how it feels like life to be needed in that fundamental way and God how she's so small.
Later she says "What the hell was that?" and I tell her she didn't breathe at all for I don't know how long, that the truth is when it comes to breath I guess you never know how long.
She looks up and says "I think you need some chairs out here" and does her best to smile. When we don't laugh or react at all she says, "What? I'm all right guys."
Rob and I pull her to her feet, and I swear she's cut off. No more anything, she's done for the night. I tell her I'll lock her in my bedroom if I have to—hold her down myself.
"Oh how horrible," she says—
AMY SAYS. "OH HOW horrible," Amy says.
I know you want names. You all want fucking names.
ABOUT A DOZEN OF them are left, yelling and shouting across the space of a foot or two, as we step back into the house. They stand in the kitchen spilling splashes of brown and blue and red onto every available surface, every fabric, dipping elbows into the sour cream and chives, tossing volleys of ridged potato chips and Ritz crackers, inadvertently spitting great mucous drops and small flecks of food.
"This fucking school," says some vague blonde caesar-cut with a thick, slurred "f," leaning back against the counter. "Four papers due the same fucking day and Benning was looking right at me when she said she's got a ruler for the margins." What he doesn't say is he's known about each of them a couple months now.
It's the end of the fall semester and it's all coming due.
In the living room they lean over one-another on couches and the arms of chairs, the men sliding closer, closer, closer. Eventually they'll be sitting on laps—it's an emasculate position, but at some point in the night they'll reach a critical mass of alcohol and nicotine and realize that contact, any contact, is a lot more real and a lot more now than whatever they pretend is their masculine dignity.
Amy, she sits on the couch and tells me she's feeling all right. Really. So I find her a glass of water and say, "Here. Drink this."
HER HEAD HURTS AND her back hurts and her left hand, she says, is red and blistered and ugly from a burn she's taken at work. The middle finger is all wrappedup in gauze, she won't remove it to show me the wound.
It's gonna God-damned hurt when she takes it off, she says, and besides, she doesn't want me to see.
Amy worked the evening shift at her local Burger King in high school, and she's told me that eventually you get sorta used to the deep grease-burns. Then she came to college and moved on to a profoundly more sophisticated position in the school cafeteria, where she can burn and otherwise wound herself using a much wider variety of food preparation techniques.
This is what we call "work study."
"Look, you all right?" I say.
She looks at me for a few seconds, then sits up abruptly and says, "I need to use your stove."
"Oh?" I say. "This sounds interesting. . . ."
t w o
"YOU TOO CAN SPEND four years?" says Amy.
"Yeah," I say. "It's a story about college."
"Like, emphasis on the 'spend.'"
"Yeah," she says,"I get it. You're trying to be clever."
"Uh," I say.
"And I guess this is a flashback."
"Well, yeah," I say, "that's what that double-less-than thing means. It's a computer thing. It means 'shift left," and since left is backward on a timeline—"
"Oh, honey," she says, shaking her head. "Forget all that. Just say what you're trying to say."
"Let's go in," I say.
She closes the manuscript, and we step out of her little black Toyota and into Perkins Restaurant & Bakery. It's about two AM, and like she said this is a flashback, back most of a year earlier. The snow and ice and so on is dirty and muddy and melting, except about this time of night it's frozen again to a nice uniform gloss. You learn eventually that when you step, you step directly downward, zero forward motion as your foot touches the ground, even if it doesn't look like ice.
This is Fargo, and this is what we call "Spring."
If you're the normal type, which is to say not like Amy or to a lesser extent me, you'll be surprised the first time you walk into one of these places about this time of night, morning, whatever. It's a Tuesday, you'll be thinking to yourself, this place is gonna be empty. The college students, they form a loose orbit around the nearest available cache of beer, and a restaurant like this serves nothing more powerful than the occasional raspberry iced tea. You think, who else, this time of night, who's gonna be up and craving french fries and a Coke?
Well, I count twenty-seven people, which is maybe a little above average.
"Two, smoking," she says. Then, "No," as I move to sit down. "You know that's my side," she says.
She wants to watch the door.
We all have our communities, routines, ruts, whatever you want to call them. ("Rut," by the way, means a worn track, a well-trodden path—but it also means to be sexually engorged)—
("Damn it Jose," Amy told me once, paging through one of my routine 5-page jobs on Kant, "your parentheticals are really obnoxious. I end up having to go back every couple sentences just to catch the train of thought again.")
So what was I saying? Communities, ruts, whatever. What I'm saying is this is more or less a nightly thing for this girl, and a couple times every hour someone who comes in the door walks over to our table and says "Hi." Amy, you can see, this is where she feels she's the center of something. Or at least a member of the Inner Party.
And I know by my telling you this you're capturing some psyche insight on me, you're trying to take something away from this story (and there's a nice double-meaning—"take something away"), and that that something will most likely be my tone of cynicism, bitterness, and humor all entangled. Bemused apathy, even. And you may not even be wrong. But me, the more I think back on this scene, the more I call it envy.
"There's nothing like easy listening music at two AM," I say.
"Oh Jose," she says. Then she takes my menu and says, "Split a quesadilla with me."
I say, "How bout we be actualized and socially-conscious and so on, and I just let you order for both of us."
"You'll let me," she says—cute eyebrow raise and everything.
"Emphasis," I say, "on the 'let.'"
OUR SERVER IS A Mark of some sort, according to his name tag. He bounces at the knees, squatting so he's down to eye-level, smiling, saying "How aaaaare you?" His hair spikes in about ninety-seven different directions and his eyes have that tired night-worker's glaze.
"This," says Amy, "Is Jose."
I do one of those male introductory nods and Mark says nicetameetcha and so on, then he turns back to Amy and gives her a good five-minute summary of his latest roommate issues, which I take to mean "roommate" issues, quotation marks signifying, as they often do, sex. . . . I'd like to tell you more, but the thing is I can't say I was listening.
Order, I think to myself. Order. Order. Damn it.
And eventually she orders.
t h r e e
"IT'S CALLED 'BURN-IN,' I say. "It's a computer thing. Like, say, I assemble computers and sell them to people. What I do is I get all the parts together, get everything ready. Then I turn the computers on, boot them up, and leave them to run for a day or two. The idea is that if anything's gonna fail, chances are it'll fail that first day. If there's any faulty parts, they'll break down the first time they're used for any real period of time. And it's cheaper all around to catch them in the factory."
"Okay," she says, "And . . . ?"
"And that's my metaphor for college. And the funny thing is somehow they convinced us to pay for our own stress-testing."
"So Jose," she says, smiling, "you say you're not a cynic."
"I don't know," I say.
Then she says, "If this is what you think of college what are you doing in college?"
"What choice did I have? I mean I have a choice now, to quit or not to quit, whatever. But it didn't even occur to me whether or not—Well, it goes like this: In America we have this pride in what a cynic would call stupidity, this proud ignorance of the rest of the world. But that's not exactly it. It's more just a fundamental distrust of systems. Of being locked into some set course.
"And when it comes to schools, we look at the rest of the world with their testing and standards that decide which path—"
"Tracking," she says.
"Yeah," I say, "whatever they call it. We look down on it. It's so much the opposite of how we want to look at ourselves.
"But it's an efficient system. I mean, competition-wise, you can't just make a switch one way or the other at eighteen years old, at that point it's too late. So instead of being locked in in some formal way, there's this whole psychological understanding, this obvious herding. I knew college was where I was going, no question, at least by the time I was thirteen years old.
"I mean, didn't you see this?"
"Maybe some of it," she says. She sips her coffee.
"Oh, just let me read this," she says.
f o u r
AMY REMOVES A BOX from my refrigerator and I say, "Where'd that come from?"
She put it in earlier, she says, and would I find her a large sauce pan?
There's bottle of wine involved, and oranges and other fruit, spices, whatever, I don't know what else. She backs me off and says "Spiced wine," and then this exotic herbal sauna rises and expands throughout the kitchen, the tiny kitchen, and she stands cutting fruit, then stirring, stirring, stirring.
"I did say you were cut off," I say, but with no real conviction.
Her face is flushed and colored and screaming red in a way I've never seen on her before—she has a sheen of steam and sweat across her face and neck as she stirs her wine concoction. I remember what she looks like in early August, in the ninety-seven degree days with ninety percent humidity even here in Fargo, stepping out of her car and air conditioning and immediately running in sweat, her skin slightly less pale than normal and a little bit pink on the nose and cheeks—
And, Jesus, I think, it's December, still December, the Winter's barely started—and she has more color to her now, by far, than then. There's something sticky sexual about this look.
She looks at me and says "What?", then says "Go, entertain. . . ."
ROB IS HOLDING ONE corner of the living room hostage and drinking Johnnie straight from the bottle (that was my idea: "here, drink this"), describing a scene from this production he has planned. He's in theater and graduating this month with serious film aspirations and some very capital ideas.
"This guy's name is like Raymond or something," he says. "His last name. He's a private investigator, doesn't even have a first name. Anyways he's like sixty. He's an alcoholic. There's the opening credits, he's stumbling home and the film's all dark and unstable, you're not sure what you saw. He's fucking drunk and not sure if he saw what he thinks he saw.
"There's this kid that runs into him, and he pushes the kid off then sees that he's all covered with blood. Then he's knocked on his ass by something he doesn't see.
"When he wakes up, he looks over at the dead kid and—"
"Yeah, vampire pics are always in," I say.
"Gave it away mother . . . fucker," he says. He turns around. "Jose!" he says.
"The next John Carpenter, right here," I say.
"Okay," he says, turning back to his audience, "so the ending is one of these Hitler propaganda trips, Raymond in a voice-over as you see these armies of vampires taking over the whole fucking world."
"It's one of those understated productions," I say.
One of the girls, half Rob's audience, she asks him when he's going to start making the film.
"Well, I'm saving up money so once I graduate I can move out to California. I work at Cub Foods right now, but . . ."
And that's about the point the girls' eyes glaze, and then it's Rob and me alone in the corner with our alcohol and big ideas.
"Christ, we are sorta the pessimistic type, ain't we?" I say.
(LIKE HOW A MONTH earlier, the two of us were searching through the video game section of one of the Fargo pawn shops, reliving our elementary school days, wondering if we should invest in an original NES (neither of us had one that worked any longer) and a game or two, something like Contra or Super Mario Brothers 2, something real nostalgic and so on.
"Jesus," I said, "You know, this is what we're supposed to do when we get old."
"Is twenty-three old?" he said.
Then he was the one that spotted it, in the jewelery case, something that made me feel vindicated in some fundamental way and made Rob laugh like an unruly cartoon villain.
I suppose I should explain the mystique of the private college in a place like Fargo-Moorhead, which is to a city what one of those run-down strip malls is to a real, new, four-story shopping center. It's a college town, the sort of place where the upscale school is the basic initiation into a gentleman's club of some sort, and there's a certain understanding amongst the students that they will, during an interview for the Right Job, be presented with a line of interviewers all matching in this one attribute, like some secret handshake that they as well must perform correctly.
And there it was, in maroon and gold, the Concordia class ring, the Cobber ring, the year "1993" etched across the top. Pawned.
(The Cobber is the mascot of Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota. As in, "corn cob.")
"I guess there might be something right with the world after all," I said.
I'd just quit Concordia in August. Rob, he was going to finish, he said; but we'd both agreed a couple years back, fuck the pride and the window stickers for our cars and especially the ring.
I guess the two of us, we're what you'd call dissidents.
Or maybe just bitter.)
f i v e
"JOSE," SAYS AMY, "COME in here."
The smell is something bitter and exotic, and she stands with a glass in her hand, saying, "Try this."
"Jesus," I say as I cough on the bright red, warm, soupy wine. "I don't know about spiced wine . . ."
"But?" she says.
"It tastes burnt," I say.
"Ass," she says. "It tastes like ass."
"Oh, you tried it?" I say. "Course you had to make sure I got that taste in my mouth too."
She smiles this big, wet-eye smile and says "Oh, Jose . . ."
"Hey, most of them," I say, nodding my head toward the living room, "they're too drunk to notice anyway."
"Uh-huh," she says, "I bet you say that to all the girls."
"Whatever does the job," I say.
"Oh, Jose," she says again, leaning her head forward onto my shoulder. "Damn it, why didn't it turn out?"
"I don't know. Look, I don't mind. They don't mind."
"I know," she says. Then: "Don't you ever just want to make something?"
"I don't know, Amy," I say. Then there's this five minute pause of deep reflection and so on, before I say, "Well, I guess you're just gonna have to stay around and come to the next one."
She smiles. "You are determined, aren't you?" she says.
"Nah, you got this whole future thing going on. But I gotta try."
"Look," I say, "I'm gonna get some drinks."
s i x
"ANOTHER FLASHBACK, JOSE?" SHE says.
"That's how it goes," I say. "Look, just read it all the way through."
She reads and sips at her coffee and sips at her icewater. She smokes. She looks at me funny a couple times, reading, saying nothing.
I guess these are what you call nervous times. The first read-through.
Finally, she says, "Explain the anachronism thing."
"Well," I say, "There's this theory of mine. Well, I've got a lot of theories, I know. But this one, it's that the people you know, when you meet them at a different point in time, in their lives, they aren't really the same people. That you keep up this illusion of being able to talk to this person you knew once because you need that consistency. That we need to keep that same person around who hurt us so we can feel justified in punishing them. You know, a fifty-year-old who's in prison for something he did at twenty, we want to believe we're still punishing the same person. Even though, by any objective view, we're not."
"So what does that make me?" she says.
"Exactly what you were."
"Faked," she says.
"Oh God, Amy, you're as real as anything. You're exactly how you were."
"And why now, huh?" she says.
"I don't know," I say. "You know how the story ends? I mean, beyond the ending, the last sentence, the thing about the cigarette. I mean that's a wholly inadequate ending, but I could never write the shit this close, not in any effective way, that's more a verbal thing. So you know what happens?—
"Right after, that same week, there's this plane. Then, Amy, you're in Portland and you're somebody else. . . . But how can I just end a story like that?"
"I think it's time to go, Jose," she says.
"You're not going to tell me what you think?" I say.
"No," she says, and stands.
s e v e n
"GOOD MORNING," SAYS AMY as I groan and groan and groan, and roll onto my back.
"Don't tell me it's still morning," I say.
"Well," she says, "close enough."
"Ah, God. And why am I sleeping on my couch?"
She leans a little closer and says, "You're such a gentleman."
"Oh get up," she says.
So I get up and bundle up and stand with her on the patio as she smokes an early-afternoon cigarette. I hear the shower running—that has to be Rob. The rest, they stumbled out sometime between three AM and noon.
Amy offers me one and I say, "You wanna see me addicted, don't you?" I say it, that is, while she lights me.
"You don't really inhale anyway," she says.
She's right. I'm such a pretender sometimes. Most times.
"The thing is," I say, "I have strong self-preservation instincts. It's a sub-conscious thing."
Such a fucking pretender.
I'VE SEEN DEER SHOT, and as I look at the ground this eerie sense comes over me. It's a frozen red pool in the snowbank below us, separated into single droplets at the edges like a wide-choked shotgun blast. When I was younger, in my snowball-fight days, it was not uncommon to catch a good chunk of ice in the face, tearing the inner lining of the nose and causing a serious spout of blood. I remember looking down at the red stain eating into the snow and feeling very close to death.
Now as I look down I think, Jesus, that must have been one hell of a show, her pouring that steaming mess overboard and probably a small crowd cheering her on. Myself included, more than likely. That part of the night is caught in an alcohol fog and I won't get it back.
"The ass," she says. She looks at me, smiles, and throws her cigarette dart-like toward its center.