Title: "June Bugs"
Summary: After a tragedy, a successful writer wants nothing to do with books anymore. However, some people, as well as some books, are reluctant to let him go.
Disclaimer: 'Hozomeen, Hozomeen, most beautiful mountain I've ever seen.' – from Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac.
Dedication: for Steff because I failed like a total moron to write you a b-day present (twice), and this one has bunnies and a pink bra.
A/N: This piece contains non-explicit [consensual] het sex with a minor and further mentions of thereof. The story takes place in a non-specific country; any similarities to actual places and/or persons are purely coincidental.
I invite thousands of bottles into my room, June bugs I call them.
I use the typewritter as my pillow.
Peter Orlovsky. 'Frist Poem'
He drinks tea from the cup that tastes of a dishwashing detergent.
He throws books about, and they stare at him in silent accusation, all these senseless heaps of words on paper, too many words for him alone trapped between the covers, making him feel like he is a criminal.
Jack comes to visit, wearing that silly red-and-grey lumberjack shirt of his, face tanned and weather-worn, lips chapped and hair messy from all the wind.
They don't really talk. Jack just sits by the window, listening to the creaking of branches outside, and watches the books as if expecting them to move of their own accord. Sometimes Jack delivers local gossip in a bored voice or just says things like, "You're a drunkard, Hal," things that nobody else could get away with.
Jack lives in a trailer park at the foot of the mountain. Has lived there since before Paige died. That park is like a bad habit of sorts, hard to kick. It's not that he hasn't tried.
For what it's worth, he still lives there in a small caravan that hasn't been on the road for ages. He hasn't tried getting back behind the steering wheel ever since his wife left him. He didn't know back then that she was with child; perhaps it was for the best. Try raising a kid in this hellhole, Hal snorted. Jack would make a lousy father; not as lousy as him though.
Hal is alone up on the mountain. He starts a fire every night and leaves it to burn until it dies on its own. Half of the furniture is covered with slip covers. This used to be a summer house where Paige and him would seclude themselves from the world when life got a bit too hectic. He left their uptown apartment after she died and moved here for good. Closer to nature; closer to Jack, too.
There is a pond across the road from the trailer park. There used to be ducks there. He met Paige on a windy day when she was tossing bread crumbs into the water. She wore a long woolen lilac scarf and matching gloves. She suffered from germophobia and was currently involved with Greenpeace in the nuclear disarmament programme. He showed her an incomplete poem of his. She told him he couldn't spell. "I know," he shrugged like it was nothing. "I can't spell for the life of me, but what do you think of the poem?" She squinted and said: "My brother lives over there. Would you come over for a cup of tea?"
Jack shifts in the chair and glances at Hal, taking his eyes briefly off of all the books. Hal is lost in memories. He never goes back to the pond these days. He rarely leaves the mountain at all. There is no need, really, what with Jack bringing him all the necessary supplies weekly. As for the world out there, Hal couldn't care less about it.
Jack stands up and picks up a thick poetry volume. The edges of the cover are frayed.
"Leave it," Hal snaps.
"There's no point blaming them," says Jack. "They didn't kill your family."
Jack knows full well why Hal doesn't read and much less write anymore.
Paige loved his writing. She never told him directly, but she had a way of showing it. She became his voluntary proofreader. She would always agree with him when he said he'd written crap, but at the same time she encouraged him to mail yet another piece of crap to the editors. She held his hand through the showers of phone calls and letters. She always told him to carry on writing. She said that since he appeared to have no self-esteem, she would substitute for it.
It took him a year to talk about it to Jack.
"I wrote this kids' story once," he said. "For our little girl. It was about an aeroplane. I suck at writing for kids, man. I really do. Chiquita liked it though. Used to be her favourite bedtime story. That's how she became crazy about flying. I think she wanted to be like Amelia Earhart."
"Amelia Earhart disappeared," Jack interjected.
"I know, all right! That's not the point. The point is that Paige took that flight because of that story! The story killed them both!"
It was an entertainment flight in the park. A small red aeroplane. Hal can't really look at the colour red anymore. Sometimes he wishes he were colourblind.
"You know what, we're both fucked up," Jack says. "I didn't love them enough. You loved yours too much."
Maybe he's right.
"You should start writing again."
Hal uncorks a bottle of beer. Takes a swig. Laughs hoarsely and shakes his head.
"You must be out of your fucking mind, sweetheart."
He knows how much this pet name pisses Jack off; but then, talks about writing piss Hal off, and Jack doesn't seem to care.
Jack leaves eventually, taking all the light with him. Hal draws the blinds right after he is gone to keep starlight from pooling on the floor between the scattered books. Turns on the radio. Disquieting piano music fills the room. The house is like a funnel down which the music streams into the void. He lies on the wooden floor amidst books and beer bottles and waves his hand, conducting an invisible orchestra.
"I got a postcard from Kathie," Jack says next morning.
The door is locked. He presses the glossy picture of a pagoda against the window.
"From Thailand. Can you imagine?"
Paige wanted to see Thailand. She wanted to go all around the world, even despite her germophobia. Sometimes in his dreams, Hal sees a toylike red aeroplane floating around the globe.
"I know it's not really her idea," Jack goes on. "I mean, she was already three when we first met. And I haven't seen her much since then. I guess it's Dina's olive branch. To make me believe my little girl thinks of me."
"Why don't you go to them?" Hal draws out. "What d'you have to lose?" He doesn't want to get up from the floor. Jack is an ass. He has a family, albeit estranged, but should he want to, he could get them back, piece of cake.
"Let me in," Jack says. "That's enough, Hal. I've arranged an interview for you."
"What the hell?"
"A job interview, okay? You need to do something with your life."
"What would you have me do?"
"You need to get out. Talk to people. The school down in the valley needs more teachers. I told them you were up for Literature or English or something."
Hal bursts out laughing. Him? Teaching someone? Yeah, right.
"You could write a new book," Jack eggs him on.
"You've never read any of my books."
"That's not true. I never told you I'd read them. There's a difference."
Hal lifts his head and cranes out his neck to have a better view of the window where Jack's face looms like a dark blur.
"Why would you hide it from me?"
"Because they were too fucking good for me, that's why. Now get your ass over here! You don't wanna be late."
He takes the job because he's damn bored. The kids look him over curiously. The older ones giggle at his shabby brown jacket with leather-patched elbows and the stubble he doesn't care to shave off. He reads to them, but only until the bell rings. At the end of the day, he crosses their faces and names out of his memory and returns to the log cabin on top of the mountain, to his worn books and his bitter beer. Jack drives him until he decides to buy a bicycle to torture himself.
He sits down to correct the timetable in his organizer. Tomorrow his students are writing an essay. He has warned his superior beforehand that he will not grade it. No way he's touching any writing again.
The pen springs a leak in his hand. Hal swears and drops it on the table. It's half-full; the golden block letters on its plastic body read: CROWN HI-JELL ROLLER KOREA. Hal stares at the ink stain on his finger, then wipes it briskly against the page.
His fingers used to be stained all the time. Random sheets of paper covered in crude scribblings laid out his floors like a carpet pulled together from shreds of various shapes and sizes. At some point Paige had given up on the spelling in poetry. Prose, she would do. Poetry was something else, scraps of soul garbed in words, and what right did she have to re-write his soul?
He wrote everywhere. Bus stations, hotels, cafés, trains, even public restrooms. There was dirt under his fingernails and fire in his eyes. He could close his eyes and recall the noise the writing utensil made when touching the paper. It was different every time. Light rollerballs, ballpoint leaving deeper dents, whispering pencils, elegant fountain pens; each of them had a recognizable voice of their own.
The sound haunts him now. He tries not to listen when he writes, and he writes only when he absolutely has to.
"I thought you were a hero," a schoolgirl tells him once. "I have all your publications."
"I'm not a hero," he says without looking at her. "I'm a lousy teacher who will fail you at the end of term if you don't stop chatting in class."
"Yeah, I can see that." She cocks her head. She has the same pigtails his daughter used to wear, but she's older. "You're wasting time. You'll never learn to love it."
"Oh, you're a little know-it-all, aren't ya?"
"I know that you haven't done anything to punish yourself for."
She never brings it up again. He persuades himself not to give her words a second thought.
Come Jack's birthday he pulls some money from his untouched account and buys Jack a ticket to Thailand. Go show them you care, he says. Family is the kind of a thing that's all too easy to screw up.
It's quiet in the cabin without Jack's daily visitations. Lying on the floor and watching the ceiling, Hal tries to remember what Dina looks like. She is petite, with delicate hands and a small smile. Dark hair, thick eyelashes. (Paige was a redhead, a little round-shouldered, her face uncharacteristically devoid of freckles.) He's only met Dina a couple of times: either she and Jack were on the road, or Hal and Paige were elsewhere. She was a press photographer. She seemed like a fine girl. Somewhere along the way, Jack must have royally screwed up.
Jack returns sooner than expected.
"She's seeing someone," he informs matter-of-factly. "I didn't even get to talk to her. What's the point? They have a life, I have a life. That's that."
"Moron," Hal says like he knows better. He doesn't.
"I got you a souvenir." Jack places a plastic dolphin key-ring on the table. "Sorry it's kinda lame. I have no imagination."
"Why Thailand?" Hal asks, ignoring the trinket. "Why did she choose Thailand?"
"Who knows? Maybe it felt like getting far enough from me."
"What the hell did you do, Jack?" Hal snaps suddenly.
Jack shrugs. "I guess I wasn't… there. All the time." It's the only crime that can't be forgiven.
He goes back to the city for Christmas to put some of his financial affairs in order. Sally could do it like he always did when still being Hal's agent and friend, but he's on vacation and disturbing him doesn't seem like a good idea.
The city greets him with Christmas lights bleared in the rain and crowds of people hunting for last-minute presents. Everything is so loud, so lively. He winces as he squeezes himself into the corner of the train car. Paige loved this time of year. She loved winter in general, too; a perfect excuse to leave gloves on, she'd say.
Their neighbourhood hasn't changed much in four years. One or two newly erected advertising screens and a fancy French bakery across the street, that'd be all. Their block of flats has always looked more like a palace-hotel. All that money doesn't seem to matter anymore. Friends live here now. Some pay the rent; others have just invited themselves in. He has too many 'friends' for his own benefit.
He slips the key into the keyhole and turns it forcibly. The lights flick on automatically.
He takes off the damp shoes, slides off the socks and enters the living room. His toes sink into immense fur (which he hopes for Paige's sake is artificial). He doesn't remember this carpet. Someone else must have laid it out here. He stands still for a moment, keeping his bare feet warm, and looks around.
The room is unexpectedly in order; only the absence of dust betrays someone's living there. Photographs smile at him from the chimney shelf. Paige with a couple of her Greenpeace friends, wearing tawdry green neckerchiefs, in the middle of the selva. The photo from the honeymoon: they are standing on a ship's deck (right after it was taken, Hal fell overboard). Chiquita holding a silvery string attached to a red balloon.
He has no pictures in his cabin.
He lowers himself on the couch, feeling that he has become a stranger to this house. Paige's things are all here.
He looks at the phone sitting on the coffee table. He wants to call someone but doesn't know who to choose. It feels so much easier not to have a phone. Phones stir up anguish.
He finds Paige's old phonebook and leafs through it helplessly. It's Christmas outside, and he is sitting alone in the flat that doesn't feel his anymore, pining for a conversation with someone who wouldn't care to listen.
He picks up the receiver and dials the number. A female voice answers after a few longish tones.
"Hey… Dina. Did I wake you?" He has totally forgotten about the time zones.
She takes a deep irritated breath. "Jack? Is that you?"
"No, uh…" He chuckles despite himself. "No, it's me, Hal."
He can tell that she is surprised. Something rustles, then a buzzing sound is heard; she must have lit up a cigarette.
"What do you want?"
He is one step away from hanging up. He doesn't know why he feels the need to stir up more trouble. His wife is dead, and his friend's wife seems like the next best thing.
He asks her if she's seen Jack. She hasn't. She sounds even more surprised. He should hang up before he's weirded her out completely.
"I haven't heard from you for ages, Hal," she says, tenderly. "How're you holding?"
"I'm okay." He smacks his lips, pensively. "Talk to Jack. Whatever he did, Dee… anything can be forgiven."
She laughs, embittered. "You want to know what Jack did? Go ask him then."
He gets up, uncorks a bottle of whiskey and pours himself a glass.
"Jack was never with me," Dina says. "Even when he was, he really wasn't. It's not that he refused to earn more money; that, I could deal with. He didn't cheat either; physically at least. But it's like he always had someone else on his mind."
"Did you know who?"
"I did, and I'm sure it hasn't changed. Just search his drawers. Have a nice whatever-time-of-day there is, Hal."
With that, she hangs up, leaving him clinging to the dial tone. His fingers are cold. His nose begins to run. The city has always welcomed him back with snotty draughts.
The girl from his class plays cello and reads poetry to the old farts in the local hospice. She pops pink strawberry gum and paints her fingernails bright lettuce green. She is around sixteen and she has killer eyes – and he knew working at school was a sucky idea, but it's too late now.
She takes her time before she brings his novel to school and 'accidentally' drops it open right in front of him. It nearly causes him to spill his coffee. A ready apology springs forth from her lips as he stares at the book, enthralled, and she picks it up and winks at him.
He tells her to stay after class. She pushes herself up on the front row desk and sits there cross-legged and insolent.
"What did I tell you about talking in my class?" he asks.
She pretends to ponder the answer. "To stop doing it?"
She grins. "What do you care? You hate this job anyway."
"Says everyone." She fishes the book out of her satchel. "How about an autograph?" He falls quiet and she shakes her head. "Your face tells me your first reaction would be, 'Screw you.' But you can't tell me that. You're a teacher."
He narrows his eyes and pretends to choose his wording.
"Oh yes, I can. Screw you. Now, your attempts to screw with me are very cute but I'd appreciate it if you stopped."
She hops off the desk.
"Why? We're both terribly bored here, aren't we?" She holds the book out to him. "Sign it, and no more talking from me."
He takes the book, holds it like it's soaked in poison, turns it over to have a look at the cover. It's a pocketbook edition, simple and neat. His first novel.
He flicks the cap off of his pen and ponders what to write. He was never fond of giving autographs.
'Hozomeen,' he writes, 'Hozomeen, most beautiful mountain I've ever seen.'
"These aren't your words," she smiles, but accepts the book back. It's not like any of them has ever cared for the meaning; all they want is the specimen handwriting.
"That guy lived on a mountain too."
He finds Jack at the sawmill. He hasn't told him about his conversation with Dina. Jack will most likely… What? Hal has to admit he has no idea what Jack will do. Perhaps he doesn't know Jack as well as he likes to think.
How did he get tangled in these human relationships again?
"Sandwich?" Jack offers. "Jelly and peanut butter."
"Aren't you done worshipping stereotypes?" Hal mounts a high stool by the window and looks thoroughly bored. "How old am I?" Jack spares him a quizzical glance. "I'll tell you. I'm six years away from forty. What do they call, huh? Mid-thirties? Or still early thirties? I feel like my life is worth less than those tin mugs you guzzle your booze from at work."
"Are you making a point here? 'Cause if not, I think I should get back to work."
"You said my books were too fucking good. Too good for what? Making bunnies cry?"
Jack snorts and throws his hands up, then waves them helplessly, as if saying: why do you care? you're not writing anymore.
"I'm in pieces," Hal whispers.
Jack nods. Uncharacteristically, he comes over and puts his arm around Hal.
"Took you long enough to notice."
Jack smells of oil and sawdust. Oddly enough, Hal cannot remember how Paige felt about having a woodchopper for a brother.
He buries his face at the curve of Jack's shoulder, inhaling the scent and the warmth. Jack is family. High time both of them learned to appreciate what that means.
Her eyes are pale green. Together with violet mascara and dark red hair, they make her face look almost ethereal. He subconsciously looks for words to describe her, but they don't come as easily as they used to.
She wears a pink bra underneath her baggy white shirt. He can see the strap cut into her shoulder. Fuck, he says to himself.
"Ballpoint versus rollerball." She holds two different pens between her fingers. "Take your pick."
"I told you I wouldn't discuss writing with you."
"That's absurd. It's rollerball, right? I read your interview where you said it made it easier to write on ceilings."
He shoves his papers into his briefcase, ready to leave. The day is over.
"If I were you," she says, twirling a lock of her hair around her finger, "I'd jump off the roof. Anything's better than slow decay."
"I don't want to die," he protests wearily.
"Death doesn't have to be physical." She blocks his way and takes her shirt off. He struggles to keep his face blank. "Well?" she instigates. "Do something. You've been staring all day." He doesn't move. "Come on. Or I'll tell them you did something."
He resists the urge to roll his eyes. She toys with the lapel of his jacket and watches him expectantly. He tries to ignore the fact that he is almost two decades older than she is.
"Let's say last time you had sex was when I didn't even know what that is," she remarks. "Though that's improbable." She smiles; there are dimples in the corners of her mouth.
He takes her by the elbow and attempts to push her aside gently.
"Who are you trying to piss off? Your folks? Don't count on me."
He might as well go to jail just for thinking about it. He makes straight for the door without looking back. Her laughter sees him off.
After a gale warning, Hal stays in Jack's caravan for the night. He has already had the lightning strike right into his chimney once; he is pretty sure he doesn't want to relive the experience. He curls up under the blanket, listening to the rain strumming out a tune against the roof of the caravan. Sinatra is singing through the static on the radio, and what do you know, suddenly life's not that bad.
Jack shifts on a makeshift bunk in the corner of the room. A dreamcatcher flutters below the ceiling.
"I haven't had sex in four years," Hal mutters. Jack is quiet for a full minute before he chuckles suspiciously:
"That's not a proposition, is it?"
Hal laughs. There is movement in the dark. He sits up, like a dog on the lookout. Jack flops on the bed next to him and holds out a bottle. Hal sniffs. Whiskey. Pretty cheap apparently.
"Okay, what is this about?" Jack nudges him with his elbow. "You know that waitress I was dating a while back? She can fix you up."
"Either that, or I'm gonna kill my liver." He takes a gulp and wrinkles his face. The taste is revolting. He has been getting drunk all too many times for the past four years. "When Paige was depressed, she'd gobble up this bucket of ice-cream and watch Pretty Woman. And what have I been doing all my life when the shit got too tough? Guzzling down some crappy booze. Gender differences."
Jack is watching him. He can tell as much in the dark. Jack always managed to stay more sober under any circumstances.
"I'm thinking of working as a fire lookout again in summer. Or maybe go to the Open Range and pasture cattle."
Hal remembers one summer six years ago when he and Jack did the fire lookout job on Silver Peak together. Two months away from Paige and their daughter. Hal needed some alone time to get his drafts in order; Jack needed extra income. Two months of freedom in a small wooden cab. By the end of their term, the walls had been covered in writing and obscene doodles; it was then that Hal's second poetry volume was released.
"The truth is," Jack goes on, "I just want to get out of here. I lied to you. I haven't been to Thailand this winter. I was just laying low in the valley. I'm a coward, Hal."
Damn straight, thinks Hal. The howling of the wind outside gets sharper. The entire caravan seems to be shaking. Jack places his head on his shoulder. His forehead is hot, covered in perspiration.
The radio breaks into The White Cliffs of Dover, yelps like a lost puppy in the face of the storm before straightening out the melody, and then goes dead. Hal recalls him and Jack hurling paper planes from Silver Peak; Jack reading aloud from The Sorrows of Young Werther in his broken German; consuming an entire pot of chocolate paste in the course of one evening; wading through a stream, their trousers rolled up; blinking against sunlight; writing, writing, writing more than he has ever written before!
He squeezes his eyes shut. Almost like he's missing something.
After the rain, the air is fresher and cooler. Damp grass champs quietly under the tires of his bicycle. Hal wades through the mud up to the top, hikes the last section of road where the path gets too steep. He finds a few drowned bugs floating in the overfilled can he's forgotten on the porch. He splashes out its contents and listens to the dripping sounds as water accumulates inside it again.
He turns on the light; cutouts go out with a dry crackling sound. He curses and spends the next quarter of an hour fixing them. He puts on a pair of dry socks, dissolves some powdered milk in hot water, wraps the plaid tighter around his body and crawls up on the springy sofa, ready to devour a slice of bread smeared excessively with strawberry jam. The books glare at him in silent reproach, still lying about like bricks of a house he isn't ready to start building just yet.
A knock on the door makes him turn his head. He gets up, grumbling under his breath, pulls the plaid lower over his forehead and comes up to the door. It's her. He's not inclined to let her in.
"Aren't you a little too old to roleplay Lolita?" he raises his voice to make sure she hears him.
She hops off her bike, red hair streaming loose down her shoulders, gleaming with drops of rain.
"Thank God! I'd hate to be the 'fire of someone's loins'!" At that, he shakes his head and pulls away from the door. She chuckles. "I'm glad to see you too!"
When no reply follows, he turns around, frowning suspiciously – and bang! She's already let herself in.
"How did you–?"
"Picked the lock." She points the tip of her tongue between her lips and shows him something vaguely similar to a skeleton key. He sighs, defeated.
"There's a word for what you're doing here. Stalking!"
"Aww! I like you! Sue me."
"Someone's gonna sue me if you don't stop liking me."
He hasn't had visitors in the cabin since forever, Jack notwithstanding. He utters another sigh meant to emphasize the level of his suffering and proceeds to boil more water. The kettle coughs out thick puffs of steam.
She looks around curiously and tries to make her way between the books. He tells her she can step on them after she's taken off her shoes. She picks up a volume of Shakespeare's sonnets and leafs through it. A few pages have been crudely ripped out. There is a knife wound across Orwell; the pages of Bernard Shaw's plays crumble to dust if you touch them; the dictionary of synonyms looks like it has been barely rescued from a fire; Kafka has no cover at all; wet stains stand out conspicuously on the rumpled pages of Pushkin's fairytales. Many more cripples rest in dust all over the floor.
"I don't remember your name," Hal says as he moves a mug of tea closer to her across the table.
"Audrey," she answers straight away. "My folks are Audrey Hepburn freaks."
"What do they do for a living?"
"Mom's a Tooth Fairy; Dad's Jesus Christ." When he almost chokes on his drink, she elaborates: "A dentist and a carpenter."
"A very… euphemistic description."
"They fix things. That's all that matters."
He can't help but feel it's a little jab at his self-destructive lifestyle. Well, he can't let her get to him. She knows nothing about him. And he's certainly not buying all her Lolita meets Florence Nightingale bullcrap.
She leans to kiss him before leaving. She wrinkles her nose slightly, his stubble prickly against her cheek. Her mouth tastes of hot tea, her lips taste of chapstick. She is the girl he has written about many times; now he can feel her flesh against his.
"I'm not trying to change you," she whispers, her warm breath ghosting over his skin. He hasn't been kissed for years and didn't even know he has missed the sensation. "I'm just making a point."
She runs her fingers through his hair, just barely letting him feel the touch. Two decades splash like a sea between them.
He should probably talk to Jack. Jack likes playing therapist from time to time; as much as Hal hates to admit it, his friend is a great listener.
Jack's out. Perfect timing; what's up with that? At least he never locks the door, which is both dumb and presumptuous on his part. Hal sits down to wait for him when Dina's words from many weeks ago suddenly return to him. Just search his drawers. What the hell did she mean by that?
Hal isn't particularly keen on breaking and entering, but neither is he on making international phonecalls in the middle of the night and harassing people he barely knows. He makes resolutely for the nightstand, opens the drawers one by one, fishes out countless scraps of paper covered in words-words-words, and then there are his own books underneath them, the books that Jack has supposedly read in the end. Notes made in pencil are scrawled over the margins, entire paragraphs are highlighted in yellow, almost like someone was trying to analyze the text, to find some sacred meaning.
Hal reads the scribblings on yellow post-it notes, takes in columns of barely legible text done in bold yet insecure handwriting. He can't stop reading. A strange, astringent feeling swells in his gut. Envy and betrayal fused into a sticky, acrimonious mess, the shock of having had another poet so close to him all this time – and to find him so unexpectedly, in Jack of all people!
"Coulda said hi, you know," Jack remarks. How long has he been watching?
Hal turns to him, holds a shapeless clot of paper up and hisses in a barely audible voice: "What is it?"
Jack is quiet for a moment. "I think it's obvious," he replies then, dryly.
Hal closes the space between them, pushes Jack against the wall, presses his palm flat against Jack's chest, scraps of paper caught in between.
"They're fucking… so fucking…" He cannot wrap his mind around it. Jack, writing. "Beautiful." He chokes on the word, feeling like he's going to be sick. Invisible vomit clogs him up on the inside.
He struggles to regain control. Jack watches him. Something close to guilt flashes in his eyes.
"They're just words, Hal." His throat constricts. 'Hal' comes out like 'hell'.
"Just words!?" Hal bursts out laughing. "That's all there is to it!" he makes a small sound, half-snort, half-sob. "I don't even–! I don't want to be any part of this. Just–. Call your wife. Tell her you're sorry! Do something!"
He drops the poems and steps back. Jack makes no effort to pick them up. He continues watching Hal with sad eyes.
He lays her on the table in his office, pushing off the textbooks and the writing utensils. She snorts and comments on how corny the setting is. Corny's good, he tells himself. It's something he can deal with.
She bucks underneath him, encases him in tight, ravenous warmth, her fingers clawing at the fabric of his shirt.
He remembers the stuffy, racy nights in the City, dozens of cities and small towns, surfeited cats purring in the alleys, neon ripples breaking apart the ideal glassy surface of puddles left by the slanting rain. Chiquita was what, four years old then? Growing up on buses and trains, listening to her father spout his endless verbal puke every evening like a road-trip lullaby. He would hold her on his lap, palm resting on top of her head, and hum in her ear in a soft, drowsy voice. Paige would smile.
Audrey's skin feels so smooth. He kisses her full on the mouth, sucking in the cadence of sharp sighs ghosting over her lips.
He remembers the countless places to crash, Paige shivering in the rain, his wet jacket heavy against her shoulders. Hey, man, d'you have a spare mattress? This is a spiritual journey, and she's there for him so long as he writes, writes, writes – and so he does. Memory is a cruel bitch. Paige had red hair and such wonderful eyes. When he looks at the pretty young thing squirming beneath him, he isn't sure what exactly he sees.
He remembers buying her a pair of elegant white gloves, perfect for summer, and she'd never take them off, and when she did, he would always have those smelly moist hygienic tissues that come in rosy packs ready for her.
Then there was this husky melancholy saxophone rumbling that went straight to your heart like a cigarette smoke would go straight up to the stars twinkling solemnly overhead. There were smiles through tears of joyful sadness – just because they had hearts that felt and ached and jumped with glee, and because they were together, and they had a kid together, and they traveled the country together, singing along with Dylan and the Stones–
And now there is the realization that it will never ever happen again.
She – Audrey – cries out. He swallows a guttural sigh and tries not to stare in her eyes for fear of seeing his reflection there. He hates himself, and he hates Jack, and he hates Amelia Earhart, and he hates all the red fucking aeroplanes in the world, and all the children's stories, and all the happy endings – because that's a poorly presented lie: an ending by definition is never happy, if only because it's finish, and Armstrong was wrong: no one has all the time in the world.
"Your friends here need to see a doctor," she tells him, nodding towards his books. He spares both her and them a fleeting glance and turns back to the newspaper he pretends to be reading. He doesn't know what she's doing here. He is certain he hasn't invited her.
Audrey begins to rearrange the books.
"I know a good bookbinder. He can fix anything."
"Let me guess," Hal sighs. "A relative?"
"My uncle." She chuckles, then takes something out of her rucksack. "Hey, guys! Meet a new family member."
It's a small volume of fairytales, mostly pictures as far as the cover can tell. She lowers it on the floor cautiously like one would let new fish into a fishbowl. He wants to protest that he doesn't need any presents from her, especially books; but it occurs to him that she's giving a present to his books rather than to him.
"I'll never ask anything of you," she says all of a sudden.
He looks up to meet her steady gaze. Her eyes are hard.
"You're sixteen," he chuckles. "How can you not ask anything?"
It strikes him that he's getting oddly accustomed to her, even comfortable with her presence. Perhaps she's right. The books need to be fixed.
He hasn't spoken to Jack for a month and a half. The words that have accidentally nestled in his head won't let him sleep at night. He tosses and turns and keeps mumbling them under his breath, Jack's beautiful, heartfelt words, and he tries to reacquaint himself with the person he thought he knew, Jack the poet, Jack the truth-seer.
Summer is not far off. The memories of this bizarre year resurface in his mind as he circles around the trailer park on his bike and cannot find the courage to knock on Jack's door. He has almost quit drinking. He has found a job and started screwing a schoolgirl. He has agreed to pick the books up from the floor and he hasn't seen the dream about the red aeroplane for ages. Maybe things are looking up.
Jack is carving out a wooden whistle when Hal finally pokes his head through his door. Jack is one talented son of a gun, to be honest, and he's always doing something. Hal rolls his eyes and sits down, head bent awkwardly. He doesn't know where to start. Fortunately, Jack does it for him.
"A month as a lookout," he says casually like they only had this talk yesterday. "Until my replacement arrives. And then two or three months as a park ranger down at the Pine Cove National."
Hal shrugs. "Sounds like a plan." Relief floods him. "Jack, I… How long have you been–?"
"Why didn't you ever tell me?"
He snorts, never takes his eyes off of the whistle.
"You were just so… happy. You and my sister. I couldn't… Why would I want to ruin it?"
He looks up finally, eyes hard, determined, and Hal wants to hit him. He doesn't know what exactly Jack is talking about: the words or the feelings. Frankly speaking, he doesn't want to know. He wants to say something, anything, but instead, a laugh escapes his throat.
"You fucking moron," he breathes. He crawls over to Jack across the sofa, seizes him by the shoulder and presses his lips against Jack's forehead. His fingers clench. "You get those things published – I demand an autographed copy!"
"Screw you!" Jack breaks out laughing. It feels like being young again.
"Are they all for me?" Hal asks when they're done laughing. He had never thought of himself as an object of inspiration.
Jack nods. "So… wanna get drunk now?"
"No." Hal cocks his head. He is being absolutely honest with himself. He doesn't want to get drunk. Doesn't want to tear himself out of the fabric of reality. It's both wonderful and terrifying after all these years. "Let's go see a movie," he suggests before he can stop himself. "Some kinda Western. What d'you say?"
That night, after the movie, he tells Jack about Audrey. Jack laughs heartily and promises to visit him in prison.
In summer, Audrey graduates. While there is a prom going on in the school hall on the first floor, she and Hal slip away to the empty classroom, with a bottle of wine and an old Bowie tape. Kind of silly – and frightfully romantic. She kicks off her pumps, and they dance between the rows of desks, giggling and toasting and pretending they're on board a space ship that ploughs the starry darkness far away from the Earth's orbit.
He wants to know what she plans to do with her life now. She shrugs and says she'll probably take up some summer work before she makes up her mind about college or stuff like that.
"What are you gonna do?" she asks. "Are you gonna quit this job?"
Her question nonplusses him. He hasn't given it much thought. It's a job as good as any other; possibly even better because he's grown accustomed to it.
"I'm not dying here," he says quietly. "You don't need to save me."
"We could go on a road trip." She ignores his sharp look completely. "Like the one you described in one of your novels. All the way across the country. We could go to the canyons or the Open Range."
"I really have a great experience sleeping in a car." Her tone becomes slightly hysterical, as if she fears he won't let her finish. "My unlce, the one I told you about, used to take me out fishing when I was a kid–"
"So I'm good with cars and tents and whatever. You won't hear a word of complaint from me." She lifts her unfocused gaze to him. Her voice drops to a helpless whisper. "But you won't, because road trips are for Paige, right?"
He leans in to kiss her, but pauses halfway. The look on her face is a mixture of desperation and annoyance.
"I never talked to you about any of it. That's got to count for something."
Hal shakes his head. Why did she have to ruin it? He pulls away and grits his teeth. He wants her to tell him she's not serious. He wants to know she's doing it because she wants to get back at someone, or to experiment, or she's doing it because he used to be a famous writer and she is a goddamn fangirl – anything other than the evident truth, because he is old and tired and not up for another screwed-up 'happily ever after', thank you very much.
"What do you have to be such a coward?" she demands. "Why can't you just admit that some people care about you for you!? I'm here because I like you. I know the difference between a book and its author, thank you very much!"
She swings towards the door, and it is then that he spots a small key-ring hanging from her handbag. A toy red aeroplane.
"It's probably for the best," Jack offers hesitantly. "I'd say you did the girl a favour."
"Either that, or I'm the greatest dickhead in the world."
Jack chuckles as he tosses a spare set of clothes into his traveling bag. Hal could swear he's just heard him mutter something that sounded suspiciously like, "Why can't it be both?"
He's going to miss Jack and his annoyingly sober outlook on things. Suddenly these months that lie ahead of him seem too long.
"Got a card from Kathie," Jack says matter-of-factly. Déjà vu, thinks Hal. "From Korea."
Ah. The country of pens. "You gonna talk to Dina?"
He zips the bag closed and squares his shoulders. "What for? We ain't getting back together even if the sky falls, and you know it. It's not what any of us wants. When they come back, I'll try to be a father for Kathie if she lets me. But me and Dee, we're over."
Hal admires his composure for a second before it occurs to him that it's not a mask. Jack has really found his peace of mind.
He tosses his bag into his small pickup, whistling The Girl from Ipanema, still wearing his lumberjack shirt that smells of damp bark, and Hal watches him as if seeing him for the first time. What if that rusty old pickup tumbles off a cliff? What if lightning strikes into the fire tower and rips its fasteners out?
"I'm a selfish ass," Hal says hoarsely. "Do you have to go?"
Something akin to surprise flashes in Jack's eyes. He smiles. "Yeah. Yeah, I do." Tosses him the keys to the caravan door. "Keep an eye on it for me, will ya?"
As his pickup crawls towards the slide down to the valley, Hal closes his eyes to shut everything but the crunch of debris beneath the tires. Everyone's leaving. He's the only one cowardly enough to stay.
It's been two days, just two days, and he's already climbing the wall. He would drive people away for far longer, but now it's not up to him, and the situation dejects him.
He lays the books out on the floor again, this time neatly and carefully. Fixed, all of them. Audrey's uncle is damn good at his job, no doubt about that.
Hal's head is swimming to the tunes of old Dizzy and the whole bebop gang, light and fair like the quietly rolling waves. Something has to be done about this life. He lays his palms flat upon the books. Warm. Rough. The world he used to live in peeks through the dense darkness of despair for a moment – and as a writer, he mocks the sickeningly pretentious alliteration: dense darkness of despair, ding-dong, the poet is trying to get home.
If he could only use the words that have betrayed him and run off to serve Jack!
He snaps his eyes open. He needs to find Audrey. To apologize. To explain something that probably needs no explanation either way.
Audrey's not home.
"You've just missed her by a few hours," a pleasant-looking woman with steel-grey eyes – the Tooth Fairy – tells him.
He is shifting his feet on the white porch of her dauntingly ordinary house, feeling old and stupid. The woman tolerates him with professional distant civility.
"I beg your pardon," she says when he's just ready to leave. "I was wondering if you are–."
"Yes, that's me."
She smiles a bit warmer. "Audrey really loves your books."
He nods and thanks her distantly. The door is shut.
He walks down the steps slowly, takes his bike and rolls it beside him. He tries to remember if he has always been so helpless, so needy, if Paige and their mutual friends had to pull him through life just to make sure he wouldn't get bogged over and over again. Suddenly, he wants to care for somebody like Paige cared for him. He's got his jones of misery.
A car honks behind him. He steps aside and turns his head and spots a huge inscription scrawled all over the side of Audrey's house.
LEARN TO LIVE
It must be her doing. Who else would–? Hal tilts his head back and laughs. Little rascal, has she meant for him to ever see this? "You're a complete and utter asshole, Hal-boy," he tells himself considerately. "Now what're you gonna do about it?"
Sit down and write, what else? As if there ever was something else.