I show up at Jay’s place a little before 11. The front door is locked, so I go around back, trying to avoid the dogshit hidden in the grass. The moon is round and blue and a squat patch of mist has gathered in the adjacent lot. I stop a while to look at it. Beautiful night.
Jay is on the phone when I walk in. We nod to each other and I tap his mom’s dog on the head a few times. He sweeps his hand across the room in grand style, directing my attention to a plate of cornbread and a pot of stew on the stove. I give him my most thankful grin and proceeded to dish myself some food, half listening to his conversation.
A girl is on the other end. I know this because he’s apologizing. I’ve never heard a man go so out of his way to appease another as when he’s got a girl on the line and he’s trying to end the conversation against her will. I sit at the table and try not to smile too much, so he can remain serious and considerate of her emotions. It takes him a full ten minutes to wrap things up.
“Hey pa,” I say when he hangs up.
“Yep. What’s going on?”
“Just got back from the knitting circle.”
“Oh yeah. You should’ve called, I would’ve showed up.”
“Thought you had capoeira.”
“Yeah, I didn’t.’
“You talking to Julie just now?”
“Sound’s like she’s giving you the run-through.”
“She’s been stressing out lately.”
“You know, I mean this seriously even though it might sound rather flippant. But I miss being a shit taker. There’s something quite satisfying about taking everything a girl has to dish out. Takes me out of myself for a bit, gives me something to think about that’s different from what I normally think about.”
“I guess it’s just a matter of proportion, man, cause I’m sick of it.”
“Yeah, well, what else is new?”
He rests his hands on the table, playing with a piece of string. “Nothing.”
“You work today?”
“Yeah. Did some electrical work – wiring light sockets. Those guys at the hardware store are nice. You got any questions, they’ll explain it to a tee. Free knowledge, man.”
“Everyone’s got something to give.”
“What’d you do today?”
“A couple of runs. Mostly legal stuff. Had this one secretary start talking to me after I had her sign over the package. I asked her a few rote questions – how are you, what’s been going on -- and all of the sudden she starts telling me about her life – her real life, man, not the one we’re trained to float out there long enough to appear polite. Like I said, everybody’s got something to give.”
“What’d she tell you?”
“Well, her brother apparently died last week. The guy was thirty-two or so, an epileptic. He snapped right in the middle of breakfast, shortage of the brain. No warning. Blood vessel popped and he’s gone. She’s totally numb about it, was going to go out there in a couple of weeks to visit. He lived in Michigan or something. Said she hadn’t seen him in a year and was feeling like she needed to go out there for a while now, but couldn’t make it. Now he’s gone.”
“Grief’s a bitch, man.”
“I can’t even imagine. I believe in the soul and life eternal, but to be left behind, especially by family, by the close ones, it doesn’t make much sense to me.”
“It’s a bitch.”
We nod in silence. I finish up my meal. We get to talking about the guns and look over a couple maps until his sister yells at us to shut up. We adjourn to the porch, waxing pathetic on our women luck. The old bitchgoddess Fortuna. When I see his sister come to the door, I figure we’re headed for another talking to, but it’s just the phone. We go inside and I build a fire while he apologizes for a good twenty minutes in the other room.
I get the fire going real hot and study the bright tentacles of flame swiping through the belly of the stove. Fire is something else. It eats and craps and wants, just like any other living thing, but it also glows. It radiates heat and light and I’ve always wondered if it doesn’t somehow warp space and time just a bit. You can see it bending light, why not something more fundamental?
My feet feel oppressed by the boots I have on, so I untie the strings and slide the leathers off. They send me a warm round of applause, breathing in the air, the space. I roll myself a cigarette.
When I was eleven or so, living just outside Sacramento, I had a friend who lived a ways north, in the climbes right prior to where the Sierra Mountains get full-out drastic. His parents owned some acres full of oldgrowth pine and dusty red earth and whenever I went up to see him I’d spent at least a few days there, because it was such a hassle to spirit me to and from my parent’s place.
One evening in chilliest winter, my friend’s dad was feeling the itch to educate and marvel us boy, as elders will sometimes feel is the required course of action when in the presence of impressionable lads who’ve got nothing better to do that to give them their full attention.
He built a nice bright fire in the iron stove, snagged a pair of leather boots and gave us boys a wise look.
“This is how to treat yourself to some comfortable footwear,” he said, opening the black iron grate and setting the boots within. He might’ve put them on a couple of planks, which seems like the appropriate procedure, but I can’t recall if he did or not. What I remember is the lady of the house tsking her old man to be mindful.
A full sixty seconds latter we opened the stove to find a pair of black bubbling puddles of tar and soot wafting at us with ugly little spirals of poisonous smoke.
I inch up to the flames, moving as close to the heat as I can stand and a hair’s breadth closer. I reach my right hand into the iron box, holding out the cigarette. I converse with the fire, persuading it to ignore my skin and concentrate on the twill. The cigarette lights a fraction of a second before I do, and I use that second to move my hand to safety. I take in a thick drag of the brittle smoke, carefully directing the exhaust back into the stove, up the vent, and out to the open air.
I smoke the twill down to a nub and toss the remainder among the blue-orange coals. I scootch back until my shoulders are resting against the couch. Jay sounds pretty close to wrapping things up – he’s rigorously specifying what he means by “I’ll talk to you soon,” using precise, simple terms that leave no space for doubt or suspicion in the mind of the other. When he hangs up I hear him take out a couple of glasses and open the fridge.
There’s no evidence of exasperation or fatigue in his demeanor as he sits down next to me, handing me a glass filled with a thick whitish liquid.
I do. It’s runny yogurt with chunks of peaches floating in it.
“Keifer,” he says in way of explanation, taking a gulp from his glass.
“It’s damn good.”
“You make it yourself?”
“No, no. But it wouldn’t be all that difficult. A bunch of milk and some sample culture. A little fruit and there you are.”
Jay’s realm of expertise extends from the lilies of the field to the cutlery in the kitchen. His isn’t a gourmet kitchen, or like any other kitchen I’ve come to know, really. With elements of organic consciousness, spicy Asiatic sensibility and sustainable living ideals, he runs dangerously close to being a full-fledged hippy, only he oft eulogizes about killing his own game and breaks out in freestyle whenever he cooks. Hipster; lock, stock and fully customized. I myself don’t give a shit as long as it doesn’t give me the shits and tastes alright. I ask him if he knows the difference between a grain and a nut, half to test him, half to keep us talking.
“Nuts are from trees and bushes, I believe. A grain is derived from grass. Corn, wheat, mullet – all grasses.”
“I didn’t know corn was a grass.”
“Essentially. Just a stock standing tall in the dank earth.”
“Huh. Why doesn’t grass grass have grains?”
“I’m sure it does. A grain is just a seed. Grass comes in seeds, unless it’s sod or crabgrass, which is more a vine… I think. I’m not sure.”
“How’s Julie? You satisfy her?”
“I don’t think she wants to be satisfied just now.”
He sets down his glass on the wood floor between us, hand-and-knees it to the stove, and pokes at the coals with a length of wood until they settle into a nice, even bed wavering in the pot. He shoves in a big log, backs up a bit, and grouts out his fingernails with a splinter. I watch him, feeling sleep approach. My butt aches so I grab a cushion from the couch and fit it between myself and the floor. I grab one for him too, setting it next to me.
“You know, I was thinking today,” he says. His voice is distant, as if he’s on the other side of a stream and the water’s eating up more than it’s letting pass. I stretch my neck. He continues, “And I’m sure some academic hack has already pin-pointed this particular state of mind, but I felt it like it was something new, when it came over me.”
“What were you thinking?”
“I was driving in the van between Home Depot and the job, taking all the turns wide, feeling the engine rumble at the lights. Just driving. And I thought: sure, disillusionment, that’s a viable point of view. I can accept that. I can see how people’ll latch on to the critical mentality, milk it for all its worth. It’s even sort of easy. You don’t have to be yourself, just float along with everything else, like a little termite on a scrap of drift just after a flood. But I wondered, what happens when you get disillusioned with disillusionment? Where do you go when you have to start taking things seriously, after you’ve set up this whole language – this whole way of survival based on being a jerk off?
“I don’t know what made me think of it. I’m not prone to getting that far out on things, but for whatever reason, I decided to follow it through. Okay, so you have to break down the whole breaking-down modality, and what do you get? It seems reasonable to say that you get whatever it is you want, right? You get you. You get yourself.
“And as I’m thinking this, a dog, this great big shit-eating Doberman with red ears – freaking red ears – it trots out in front of me, steps onto the street in the middle of my path. I slam on the breaks, and it looks me in the eyes and smiles. It smiles at me and I know exactly what it’s meaning to say. It’s telling me you don’t just get off one trip and land on the real one. You don’t shirk the asshole and become an angel over night. That’s what it was saying to me, Tom, standing there all wry and contemptuous in my path. So I let off the break and gun the engine, making to patty-cake the bitch into the tarmac.”
“Did you hit her?”
“No. No, I didn't, Tom. She’s just a figment of my imagination. I figure if I’m gonna go out on a limb this late at night, I might as well bend the bough as far as it’ll go.”
The log on the fire lets out a loud woosh!, illuminating his face, casting a shadow over his eyes. Two depthless pools. Jay closes the grate, stands.
“I’m hitting it man. See you in the morning.”
“’Night,” I say, handing him the glasses and putting the cushions back. I listen to the cups hit the porcelain of the sink, hear his bedroom door swing shut. I lay myself out on the couch, feeling the radiations of the fire bend me in the dark. I stare out the window at the wide blue moon, waiting...