My alarm clock was beeping and I couldn’t make my hands do what they needed to do to turn it off. I’d been turning off alarm clocks for years. I was great at turning off alarm clocks, could do it asleep and in the dark. If there were a championship belt for turning off alarm clocks, I’d have cinched it around my beautiful waist on at least three separate occasions, but until that moment I’d never tried to silence the beeping, blinking machine while warm streaks of amber and fire-brick poured out of the top of my head and colored the white walls. I was in this predicament because I had ingested a small square of blotter paper of the type often purchased from that class of people my father refers to as “characters.” It’s very hard to leave their apartments. Some of them have exotic pets and they know a guy who can get you an albino lizard. No one ever takes them up on this offer. The contents of their refrigerators make very little sense. I’m thinking of one in particular that contained only an eight-ounce carton of chocolate milk, a porno magazine, two beers, and a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Don’t misunderstand me. My vices are mostly legal. I’m a drinker and an obsessive music lover and I smoke four or five cigarettes a year. I own so many books I’ll be dead before I’m halfway through the pile of unread ones. Sometimes, though, when my rut gets so deep I can’t see over it, I take a weekend trip to Hoffman’s lab. It’s just spring cleaning. A brain colonic. The biennial purge. I’m not a regular in downtown alleys or pawn shops. I’m a citizen. I work and vote and never carry much more than a little walking around money. I almost always know how to turn off my alarm clock.
My whole body was crackling and buzzing that morning, and the pillow wasn’t even warm when I tilted my head toward the hooting alarm. I hadn’t slept. A bald friend gave me the drugs at a terrible party. I was only there to drink a few beers, but the conversation was so bad it made the beer taste wrong. People talked about floor tile and law school and gas mileage. I was ready to make any poor decision that precipitated an exit. My bald friend – his name was Jason – gave me the stuff, gave it to me and two other bored acquaintances. We dropped the tabs, left the party before we were rubbery and traveling the spaceways, and drove out to the country. We turned off the highway and parked the car on the side of a dirt road near a wooden fence. Three cows stood in place on the other side, staring at nothing. We got out of the car, leaned against the fence, and looked at the cows while our internal chemistry changed. It was cold outside, but we didn’t notice because the cows looked so stupid and alien and strange and we were on drugs and wearing coats and gloves. The otherness of a cow’s face up close is something to see. There’s no lesson in it. It’s just unusual, looking at a cow’s face that closely in the dark. We share nothing with a cow. Don’t let PETA fool you. A cow is a cow, and we’re us.
I made it home by early morning. I don’t really know how. I was seeing colors and lights and thinking about the human connection to the reptilian essence. Somebody drove the lighted mothership, and we all got home without killing anyone or accidentally getting on a cruise ship or going to jail. I started thinking about my teeth until there weren’t any other thoughts. I ran my tongue over each individual tooth and felt the urge to brush. My teeth felt gritty and old and strange. I didn’t even take off my coat. I took off my gloves, but not my coat. I thought of that space under the refrigerator that never gets cleaned unless you move, and I felt my teeth occupying a similar space in my head. I wanted to brush the everlasting shit out of them, and I did. It was amazing, like coming up for air after the older kids at the pool hold your head underwater. My gums vibrated with pleasure. After several minutes of breathing through my nose, I spit out a gob of toothpaste, and it crawled around the sink in little jerks like a few frames of stop-motion animation. I decided to follow the gob if it somehow made it onto dry land, but the moving ball of fluoride and spit just kept circling the inside of the sink. I left it alone and opened the closet in my bedroom. I threw my coat on the floor because I didn’t think I could deal with a clothes hanger. Every tooth received individual attention, but a clothes hanger was another story. Too overwhelming. I might miss one sleeve and the whole thing, coat and hanger, would fall to the ground. How many times would I have to repeat the physical movements before I correctly placed the coat on the hanger and the hanger on the rack? It would take only two or three failed attempts to bring on the fear, invite the existential dread, turn everything the wrong way. The nightmare loop that sometimes plagues the lysergic traveler. You start thinking that way and you’re stuck there forever, dropping the coat and the hanger on the floor eternally. So much depends on a coat hanger. Yes, the coat must be tossed nonchalantly to the floor. Hang it up tomorrow. That is the right decision. I brought my eyes up from the floor and saw something that made no sense. Who was that woman in a bikini standing in my closet? She looked like Pam Grier in one of her ‘70s movies, with her perfectly symmetrical Afro and dark, creamy skin. Coffy, maybe, or Foxy Brown. She stood perfectly still, and responded to none of my questions, possibly because they were all variations on the same question, which was, “Who are you and what are you doing in my closet?” It was hardly bikini season. How could she maintain her composure in this weather? I mean, she was indoors, but it was a little cool in the house for swimwear. I looked hard at the woman until my eyes reconnected with my brain and realized, with some disappointment, that Pam was just an old beach towel draped across a suit jacket. People who say truth is stranger than fiction have it all wrong. The truth is imagination’s stern parent, the one who says “time for bed” and “you’ve had enough for one day” and “don’t waste the batteries in that flashlight” and “I’m counting to three.” Truth is never strange enough, not even that cow’s face. I sighed as I got into bed and that’s when the alarm started beeping.
I had to pull the alarm clock until the plug came out of the socket because my fingers were under the impression they were in the fifth row at a 1970 Grateful Dead concert in Oahu, third encore. I couldn’t perform any tasks requiring prestidigital precision. I could only slap and pummel and yank. I needed to call in sick, but how could I hit the buttons on the phone when I couldn’t even turn the alarm off? They were so tiny, those phone buttons, and my hands were idiot slabs, a couple of china shops after the bull went home. I was still a low-level throbbing space cadet. I needed to be straight for a couple of minutes so I could call my boss at the record store and make something up. I picked up the phone with my left hand and stared at the buttons. I couldn’t make sense of the thing. When did phones get so complicated? What did I usually do? I leaned in close and stared at the letters and numbers. Then I flipped it shut and continued to stare at it in wonder and consternation. That’s when it vibrated in my hand. I dropped it in creepy-crawly, all-consuming terror and pulled the pillow over my head. My god, it was like an angry little snake. I collected myself enough to remove the pillow, pick up the little beast, and answer it. My boss’s voice greeted me from the other side. Can you believe that luck? Sometimes you catch a break. I tried to say hello, but a random assortment of grunts and alveolar trills came out instead. My boss reacted as if I’d clearly enunciated an articulate greeting.
“Hello, Jim,” he said. “I was just looking at the shift schedule and noticed you were on the clock today. Can you come in a little early and help us unpack and shelve some more of these new releases? Now that the black ice is gone, we finally got the shipment. Three days late, every time we have bad weather. I’m getting sick of this. A ton of shit came out this week, too, God knows why. Not that anyone’s gonna buy it, but you never know. Maybe a busload of people who’ve never heard of the Internet are making their way here as we speak, clamoring for mediocre indie rock.”
I made a few more noises before my words returned. I tried to sound sick, which was pretty easy since I’d been awake for 24 hours and living in a pharmacological nightmare wonderland where Tex Avery was in charge of the laws of physics.
“Hey, Will, I was just about to call you.” That part was true. “I hate to do this to you, but I feel really sick. I’ve been throwing up half the night. I won’t be able to make it in today.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Will said. He was a reasonable man, and was therefore easy to lie to. “Get some rest, drink some fluids. We’ll get by today. Bob’s coming in at nine, and Shawna wants some extra hours, so I bet I can get her to fill your shift. We’ll get this shit on the shelves one way or the other. Take her easy, buddy. Get well.”
“I’ll do that, Will,” I said and hung up. I turned the phone off and crawled back into bed. Visiting hours in my brain were mercifully drawing to a close. I slept until it was almost dark, woke up tired but no longer hallucinating, and ate some cereal that consisted of some kind of flake with some kind of powdery, blueberry-flavored stuff stuck to the flake. I turned my phone back on and checked the messages. I didn’t have any, but the phone rang a few minutes later. It was Scott. He was a close, personal friend of the bald guy who gave me the drugs, but he’d spent that evening reading and was ready to go out.
“Jim,” Scott said. “What’s going on? I’m bored. Lee’s here, too. He’s also bored.”
“Morning, gentlemen,” I said.
“Uh, Jim,” Scott said. “It’s almost 10 p.m.”
“Last night just kept going,” I said. “But I’m refreshed, well-rested, enriched with vitamins and minerals courtesy of a fine bowl of cereal I finished right before you called. I’m up for hanging out tonight. What can we do?”
“Hold on.” I heard Scott and Lee conferring in the background, and then Scott came back on the line. “We could go downtown. Have a couple drinks. If it’s boring, we’ll pick up some beer and go to Lee’s house.”
“Okay,” I said. Though Scott and I had been friends for years, I only knew Lee as an acquaintance. He and Scott had gone to high school together. I liked what little I knew about Lee, but he was a nervous guy with a habit of darting his eyes back and forth when he was listening. He always seemed to be expecting a surprise attack from behind.
Scott and Lee picked me up ten minutes later in the van Scott borrowed from his stepfather after his Kia broke down. We drove to The Green Lizard first, a hangout for college kids and twentysomethings who lacked visible cultural stereotypes. The drinks were cheap and strong, but the jukebox played manufactured pop and earnest singer-songwriters at conversation-destroying decibels. We looked at each other awkwardly, had a round of whiskey and Cokes, and left for Pine Top. The music was better but the drinks weren’t cheap, and the bar was thick with people and a couple of German shepherds belonging to the owner who kept sticking their noses in everyone’s crotches. We wandered out to the patio, but the air was bitingly cold, so we went back inside, slowly sipping our overpriced whiskeys and looking at girls, wet dog noses occasionally probing into our personal areas. We had nothing much to say to each other. Lee’s eyes were darting back and forth like he was watching a tennis match his mortgage was riding on.
“Fuck this,” Lee said. “Let’s just get some beer and go back to my house.”
Scott and I put up no resistance. Lee had purchased a moderately expensive house the previous year with a small inherited windfall from a childless dead uncle. It was an odd purchase. The house was enormous and in a distant, suburban part of the city. His neighbors were almost-rich elderly lawn care zealots and middle-aged couples. Some of them jogged with electronic apparatuses stuck all over them. Lee seemed to have no opinion, pro or con, about his neighborhood, his house, and the decision to buy it. It was just another thing in his line of sight, just something he did. He had no attachment to the place. This was all second-hand information from Scott, however. I’d never been to Lee’s house before. I really didn’t know the guy. We kept staring at each other stupidly, so I decided to force some conversation between Scott and me.
“Your youngest brother just finished school, right?” I asked Scott.
“No,” Scott said. “He’s been done for a couple of years.”
“Wow,” I said. “Time really moves. Sociology, right?”
“Yeah,” Scott said. “You got that part right.”
“So, what’s he doing?”
“Nothing. He worked an office job for a year, then quit and moved back in with my folks. He plays video games, sleeps, reads blogs, smokes weed.”
“Maybe he’ll grow out of it soon. Or maybe he won’t. You know, I have an uncle who quit his job in Arizona and drove to his parents’ house and never left. Never got another job. His car’s still where he parked it, weeds growing over it, flat tires.”
“What job did he quit?
“Car sales. He did it for thirteen years, and then one day, he just pulls up at their house and never leaves.”
“What does he do all day?”
“Helps his folks in and out of chairs. Reads the paper. Watches TV. Sleeps in.”
“Huh,” Scott said, creating his own version of the Arizona uncle in his head. “Not bad.”
“Not bad is right,” I said. “I’ll never be able to play that card, though, if it all turns to shit.”
“Divorced parents. They remarried. It screwed everything up. The home base is gone. The headquarters imploded. Selfish pigs. Don’t have kids if you can’t stay together.”
Scott looks at me and I don’t know what he’s thinking. He goes back to his brother.
“Your uncle from Arizona and my brother. I know what you’re saying but you can’t compare that, man. Your uncle. That was burnout. This is pre-burnout. People want to be infants forever now. “
“Maybe he’s depressed.”
“He’s 23. What does he know about how bad it’s going to get?”
Lee entered the room and threw each of us a cold can of beer. I didn’t notice him slink away while Scott and I talked. We were still wearing our coats and gloves. Lee’s roommates moved out the previous month, one getting married and the other moving to Portland, and Lee saved utility money by refusing to turn on the heat. I could see my breath. I always ran a little cold, but Lee’s house was frigid.
“You want a tour,” he asks us. We nod. The room we’re sitting in, the living room, is comfortable and inviting, temperature aside. Lee has two easy chairs, a sturdy couch, a nice wooden coffee table, a television, an old lamp with a red shade on a wooden end table, a rug, and a stack of paperbacks and magazines on both the coffee and end tables. An old baby grand piano sits along the wall on the opposite side of the TV. Its wood frame is scuffed, but it’s still a beautiful instrument. Next to the living room is a huge kitchen. Lots of shelves and counter space, and two ovens. “One of them doesn’t work,” Lee says, anticipating our question.
A hallway leads from the kitchen to the bathrooms and bedrooms. Shelves are built into the walls along the hallway and are sparsely stocked with canned goods and two fishing poles. A small bed fills an empty space below the shelves on the right side. It’s an odd place for a bed. “My dad sleeps there when he visits,” Lee says.
Three large bedrooms and two bathrooms comprise the rest of the house. One bedroom is empty, a second contains the remnants of an old weight bench, and a large book collection, mostly fiction, is scattered across the floor of the third. Scott and I start thumbing through the pile. It’s all good stuff. Don DeLillo, Wright Morris, Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, Stanley Elkin.
“You have good taste,” I say to Lee.
He shrugs and says, “I need some bookshelves. I sold mine.”
He looks at us while we rummage through his collection. I can’t tell if he’s embarrassed at the state of his library or anxious to go back in the living room, but he’s noticeably uncomfortable. Scott and I, unrepentant book whores, don’t care and keep looking through the pile.
“You hungry?” Lee asks.
We nod and say that, yes, now that we think about it, we could go for some food.
“I’ve got some frozen pizzas,” Lee says. “I’ll put a couple of them in the oven. The working oven. It’ll warm things up a little.”
“Sure,” Scott says. “Sounds great. Can I borrow this Wright Morris book?”
“Yeah,” Lee says. “Borrow anything you want.”
He heads to the kitchen and I look at Scott. “Why’d he sell his bookshelves?” I ask.
“He’s trying to save money. His mortgage and his property tax are expensive as hell, now that he’s not getting rent from his roommates. They cut back on his hours at the print shop, too. He used to get a lot of overtime. This was his bedroom. He also sold his bed and his stereo. He sleeps on the couch in the living room.”
“Looks like he doesn’t even use this part of the house anymore.”
“No, he doesn’t. Saving on the utilities. I think he’ll probably sell it if he doesn’t get new roommates soon.”
“Why did he even buy it?”
“I don’t know. We’re too young to be homeowners. We should probably go back out there. I need another beer anyway.”
Lee is standing next to the working stove, waiting for it to heat up. On the counter, two frozen pepperoni pizzas wait on two pizza pans. Scott and I grab another beer and toss a third to Lee. Scott drifts over to the piano, and I head over to the couch and pull an old issue of Mojo with Joe Strummer on the cover from Lee’s coffee table. Scott starts playing scales. I’ve never heard Scott play the piano before, though we’ve talked about his music degree a few times.
“It needs tuned,” Lee says.
“It’s fine,” Scott says back. “It could use a little tune-up, but it still sounds pretty good.”
Scott starts playing something by Bach. I didn’t pick it up by ear. I had to ask him what he was playing after he finished. I don’t know anything about classical music, though I like to listen to the classical station in the car when I’m driving alone at night. I’m a rock and jazz guy myself. Even through my ignorant ears, Scott’s playing sounds beautiful. I quit reading the magazine and just stare at the pages, listening to his hands on the keys. Occasionally, a note sounds wonky or unintentionally dissonant on the slightly out-of-tune piano, but Scott plays through it. He’s calm, relaxed. So am I. Lee seems content standing by the oven, sipping beer. We don’t talk to each other, but it’s not awkward like in the noisy bar. Here, we’re stretching out our own little pieces of time.
“Pizzas are done,” Lee says.
Scott quits playing the Bach piece and puts his gloves back on. I haven’t taken mine off.
“You have any napkins?” I ask Lee.
“Use your gloves,” he says, grinning. I grin back and wipe the sauce from my face with the back of my gloved right hand. We stand in Lee’s kitchen with the two ovens and eat both pizzas without saying a word. We chug our beers after the pizzas are gone and smile. We’re freezing and happy.
“Let’s go outside,” Scott says. “It’s about the same temperature anyway.”
We go. Lee hands us each another beer and takes a pack of cigarettes out of his coat pocket. He puts one in his mouth and lights it. He doesn’t offer one to me or Scott, but we only smoke four or five times a year so no one is offended. We stand around, not saying much, watching cars go past in the dark. Lee’s neighbors from across the street, a middle-aged couple that are a little too handsome, pull into their driveway. We pay little attention to them until we hear the sound of breaking glass. A bottle has been thrown to the ground, on purpose, by the husband.
“Goddamn it!” he yells. “What the fuck is your problem?”
“Whoa,” I say. Lee raises his eyebrows and glances at me and Scott. We lean back against the wall and settle in for the show.
“You’re acting like an idiot,” she yells back. “Why did you break that bottle?”
“You know why,” he continues yelling. “I can’t believe you. I can’t fucking believe you!”
The yelling draws Lee’s next-door neighbor out of his home. He’s balding, with a grouchy face and the physique of an ex-ball player. He looks at us like we’re somehow responsible for this disturbance.
“What the hell’s going on over there?”
“I don’t know,” Lee says quietly. “An argument, I guess.”
“How long you guys been lollygagging out here, watching it?”
I began to dislike Lee’s neighbor. I drank my beer and scowled at him, not responding.
“We just came out here,” Lee says.
“Well,” the neighbor says, continuing to stink-eye us, “one thing’s for sure. If he lays hands on that woman, I’m going to go over there and straighten things out. One thing I can’t stand is a man who puts his hands on a woman.”
He says this like he’s separating the kind of man he is from the kind of men we are, like Scott, Lee, and I are in favor of the Ike Turner school of problem solving, or too apathetic to get involved if we see it happen. Who is this guy? What’s his game? The only thing that’s been physically battered so far is the bottle Mr. Husband threw on the ground. I decide I don’t like this man, and that I am going to give him a hint about my feelings. I try to shy away from unnecessary conflict, but it was a nice night of impromptu Bach performances and silent pizza-eating and this loudmouth was destroying the mood.
“So, you’re against a man roughing up a woman?” I ask.
Neighbor looks at me and grins. Even his smile is full of disdain.
“What, and you’re not?” he asks. “It takes a real coward to hit a woman. A guy like that can’t handle a real fight.”
“I admire your stance,” I say. Scott and Lee look at me like I just dropped down from the sky. “It takes real guts to lay it out there like that. That’s a controversial stand, my man. You’re going against the grain when you deliver such an uncompromising and rare opinion. You deserve our admiration. You’re a true American, and a true hero.”
“Excuse me?” the neighbor says, and walks over to me. He puts his face close enough to my face that I can see little imperfections in the skin on his nose. He has forgotten all about the threatened, imperiled woman across the street. I am his current fascination.
“I just wanted to tell you what a hero you are,” I say. “No one has ever come out against spousal abuse before. The time was now for somebody to step up, and you did it. You should be proud of yourself. Not only did you say you were against it, but you loudly said you were against it twice. I admire that.”
I found myself on the cold ground, blood running out of my nose. The world was sideways. The neighbor leaned his face down toward mine.
“That’s what you get for being a smart-ass, you little prick,” he said, and walked back into his house. I stared at the trail of blood coming from my nose, and the shoes of Scott and Lee. Their faces leaned down toward me. Scott handed me a tissue. I pressed it to my nose. It stuck, and I left it there.
“Are you okay?” Scott asked me.
“Yeah,” I said. “I think so. I’ll just lay here a second, catch my breath.”
“Why did you do that?” Lee said. His eyes were pinging back and forth like mad. “I have to live next door to that guy.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
I rolled over onto my left side, away from Lee, facing the street. The couple was still shouting and arguing. They hadn’t even looked this way. I watched them, and I kept watching them. I watched them until I could block out the sounds they made and see them as the shapes of dancers moving across the lawn and the driveway. I put my glove in my mouth and sucked on the dried pizza sauce stuck there. I was cold. I hadn’t slept in two days, and an old man had just punched me in the nose. I pulled the blood-soaked tissue off my face and felt my nose with my gloveless hand. The blood was dry.
“It’s okay,” Lee said. “The guy’s a jerk. He just wanted to punch somebody. He thought he was going to hit that guy who’s fighting with his wife, but you started mouthing off and he didn’t even have to cross the street. See, he’s back inside now, and I bet he’s not even interested in that little domestic squabble anymore.”
“I should have just kept my mouth shut,” I said, still on my side and facing away from Lee. “I’m tired.”
“You should get off the ground,” Lee said. “You can sleep on the spare bed in the hallway if you want.”
“Okay,” I said, still on the ground. I closed my eyes and waited for decisions to be made for me.
“You can crash on the couch, Scott, if you want,” Lee says.
“Where will you sleep?” Scott asks Lee.
“I don’t know, the chair maybe?”
“No, man. It’s your house. I’m not going to take your couch away from you. Just give me a pillow. I’ll sleep in the van.”
I roll the word “yeah” around in my head, imagine it written on a piece of notebook paper and then animated and orange in color, moving across a television screen, as Scott and Lee pick me up by the shoulders and drag me inside the house. I sleep, under a fishing pole and a can of tomato soup, in a hallway connecting the furnished and empty halves of a large, cold house belonging to a man I know a little in a neighborhood I don’t know at all.