The sink grudgingly supports his weight as he presses his face closer to the mirror to see himself more clearly, though clarity’s not something he really expects anymore, no matter how close he gets to things. Every day the sagging sink’s connection to the wall weakens, but every day his steadily diminishing weight is less of a problem for it. What grows clearer daily is the evidence of his failing: the merging of neck and chin, the slack flesh hanging from cheekbones with an air of boredom, the sagging shadows under his eyes; these bags are partly from the drink, he knows, but they’re also a grim symptom, another tell-tale sign…can’t this thing at least have the decency to keep things between the two of them? Makes him mad. He’s had enough of having enough.
As evidence of this an idea comes, solicitous and beguiling, yet so obvious and so potent he wonders how long the beautiful siren’s been dancing in his periphery, just waiting to be taken up on her offer. Five minutes ago and now feel as different as the two halves of his half-shaven face. Enthralled, he flicks his razor back and forth in the frothy water, then drags the blade down the creamy hollow of his left cheek, and then again and again, varying the angle by degrees until he can catch nothing more. This shaving’s about anything but aesthetics. Somehow, it’s been one of the few things that makes him feel better, and his best guess is it’s something to do with God in there, hope that all your best guesses are wrong. Whatever the hell it is, what it isn’t is practical, and if he’s still around by winter he’ll let his beard out again, because God in there knows the cold on the neck and down the shirt’ll kill a man faster than any damn terminal disease a person might care to not take medication for.
He opens the medicine cabinet, the idea expanding in his mind, turning the world stirringly new and desolately old at the same time. He leaves the orange bottles of supposedly life-extending drugs untouched, but he takes the bottle of T4s in hand and closes the cabinet.
The noon hour at last half passed, the idea mulled and mulled over, twenty-three theses written and folded up in his pocket just in case, he takes the first beer of the day and polishes it off in one go—the only way to have the first beer of the day. He takes a second beer, his Ziploc bag of butts, and the newspaper off the table and heads out into air of the sort that leaves the leaves little cause for optimism: cold and decided and out for blood. Said leaves rustle dryly in the trees and crunch like tiny skeletons underfoot, while the oblivious clouds do their thing in the sky above it all. He deposits the beer and the newspaper in the wheelbarrow and heads to the tree line some thirty paces distant, where he gathers two tangled fistfulls of twigs, brings them back to the wheelbarrow, then retrieves eight cedar quarter cuts and sets to making the fire. After a minute or two of blowing at the base of the pyre, it is alive and kicking and able to be trusted. He sits on the edge of the rotting-and-loosening-at-the-screws picnic table bench and squeezes the tobacco from three butts into rolling paper and creates for himself a near perfect smoke. He lights it with his loose-lidded Zippo and watches the yellow leaves of the birch trees clutching at fading hope against a sky of grey and white fuck-you clouds. He takes a long drag and forces it deep into his lungs, feels the pain in his diaphragm, and his lower back, and the pressure in his ribs. The breath hurts, but not in the same way as yesterday.
She’s drying the last spoon when she hears the knocking on the door, the one, one-two rhythm telling her it’s him; he’s also the only one who opens the screen door to knock on the heavier wooden one behind—invasive, peeling back the folds. She looks at the two-twenty-seven face of the clock; he’s early and she’s happy for it, more in need of a drink than even usual. No particular reason, just existence weighing too lightly.
She shuffles her slippered feet across the soft-in-spots linoleum to the door and pulls it open. Ignoring him, she turns to look at the outside face of the door he’s just sounded. She shakes her head, turns to him. “Still no?” she says. “Zactly when you going to finally give me your theses?”
“Best not to leave a paper trail,” he says, his beautiful rolling stone voice getting deep into her. “This Wikileaks business taught you nothing?” These are updated responses.
It’s their ongoing joke, his name being Luther and she being from a faded-out line of English reformists, the first of her emigrating blood having come to Port Arthur in nineteen-oh-something from Shrewsburry and starting the first Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the Lakehead. Not that she herself gives a damn about Christians or temperance anymore, or even unions beyond those that take place between the sheets.
“I’ll be out back,” he says and turns from her, too quickly, as if afraid she might ask him in to perform miracles. As she watches him work his wheelbarrow of fire carefully over the lumpy ground, trailing smoke like an old steam train, his blue and yellow tartan bush jacket holding dearly his thin frame, she feels the thrill of relating to a crazy fuck.
She gets two beers from her old-as-her fridge and puts on her elbow-worn fleece, then steps out into the pull of the wind. She hands him a beer, drags another lawn chair up beside him, sets her beer down and grabs a couple pieces of birch from her son-piled-up stack. It’s the only thing her son ever does for her, but she knows how to be grateful. She hands them to Luther. He never lets her add the wood herself; very particular about the shape of his flame is this aging-before-his-time, far-from-old man. And of course most fires don’t have to worry about movement from A to B to C and however many letters it takes on a given day for Luther to get drunk enough to return to his trailer able to count on sleep coming before the ugly kind of madness; something she knows all too well. He’s shaven especially closely today, and she longs to feel those sleek loose cheeks on her thighs. She’s not sure what to make of his thinning mostly-grey-but-still-some-black-in-it hair pulled tight-as-fuck back into a ponytail, like swearing off the barber for a few years is some ennobling feat on par with shooting down forty-seven Sopwith Camels over the Arden—or whatever the hell the world war planes and rivers were called. She wonders what he wants to be; all he seems to wanna be is warmed by fire and always getting drunker. Not very noble, but understandable.
She sips her beer and as it sets off on its too-fast journey to her bladder she can’t help but laugh at her last forty thoughts.
“Wind whisp’rin’ funny nothings?” he says, shifting his eyes to her but his face still confronting the fire. His bottle’s empty and looks like it’s never been anything but.
“Just asking myself here how crazy you really are.”
“So far past it,” he says, “I think I may have come back around.”
“I wonder,” she says, then gets up, goes back to her trailer and brings out two more bottles. They sit and sip in yet more silence, watching the fire and feeling the wind and observing the lively trees and the birds yet to vacate, until, both new bottles empty, she goes and brings out the third bottle each. She’s hoping hard, telling the realist in her that learns from experience that this time it’ll be different, that Lord-bless-us-all this time he’ll forget his stupid three beer rule and stay with her the remainder of the day and make inspired love to her as night falls and falls.
She goes and retrieves two more pieces of wood and sets them at the feet of the grunting-gratefully Luther. What is it about this crazy, barely-a-word-to-spare, fire-in-a-wheelbarrow geezer that makes her feel so free, so unalone, hopeful?
Whatever it is, as she watches him upend his third bottle in his particular way—holding the neck with three fingers, never tipping the bottle past horizontal, patiently letting it all flow languorously into him like a river into a boundless sea—she feels the loneliness overwhelm her again, the emptiness of the bottle becoming her. “One more then, Luther?”
He’s already gathering himself. “Things to be, places to do,” he says, getting up.
“Yeah, sure. What’s the damn difference who you drink with?” He’s got the wheelbarrow rolling. “Just come on in for a while. Warm me up properly, won’t you?”
“Sorry sweetie. Bigger fish to fry.”
She feels embarrassed, for the both of them, as if she’s asking the executioner to spare her, forcing him to admit he has no power.
If she kept her hair away from scissors for a few years, could she earn her nobility back?
The open windows are part of the ritual. Aware of every pore and every hair. Bringing the outside in, taking it for what it is and hearing the sounds of happenings. The drying, dying leaves give the wind voice, texture and harmony, soul. There’s a chaotic rhythm, a ghost melody. His distorted self’s deep in the varnished black as the rag slides so smoothly along the curves, organic and gorgeous. He puts down the rag and reaches for the can of Brasso. How he loves the down-to-business smell; Brasso’d be what you’d want your brain surgeon to smell like, or your divorce lawyer. He only polishes the handles once a week. He loves the initial coat, the seeming ruination, then the gleaming life.
Now knocking on the inside door. Not knocking but thudding, the heel of a hand. One, one two, one, one two, silence. He checks under the not-nearly-heavy-enough lid. One of the speakers has fallen face down against the purple velvet and he stands it back up.
Luther stands there grinning, his missing tooth like a door left wide open. No worries about anyone trying to break in. Nothing worth stealing in there.
“Coming out old man?” says the halfway-drunk drunk.
“Sure. But I’m out of beer.”
Luther’s grin grows wider, then snaps out of existence. He turns cotton tartan back and heads down the stairs.
He waits till the ass gets to the bottom step, thinks to let him just go, then calls to him. “Just joking Lute, Christ.” Luther stops. “Good to know where we stand though.” He heads to the fridge and pulls out two Lakeport each. He wonders if today’s the day Luther forgives him for buying the cheap stuff.
He sits in the lawn chair that Luther’s arranged beside himself. The fire’s high. He recognizes his own Cedar in there. The bark’s sizzling, the wood’s just blackening. He hands Luther his pair of bottles. He sits down, opens and sips one of his own. Waits for Luther to comment, but he just says, “Thanks.”
He rides Luther’s silence through one beer. Some of the warmth is from the fire, but again he has to admit to himself that some of it’s from just sitting alongside someone, in this chair that’s been put here for him. He stares at the fire, always and never the same. “How’s Mario today?” he says, poking a baby to make sure it’s alive.
Silence continues its reign, but then, “Trying to think how he’s gonna top Elsa this year,” Luther says, chuckling stiffly the way he does, but for longer than he thinks he’s heard before. Then he stops, says, “And only two beer in his fridge today.”
“Gonna cut him out of the loop?”
“Might,” he snorts, sloshing the beer in his second bottle to check how near empty it is. “Just might have to.”
He hands over his own second beer and Luther takes it like it’s what he’s made for. He turns his gaze back to the fire and thinks of Mario’s old goat Elsa that died last December, frozen solid after falling over dead. Mario had stood her up and leaned her against his fish shaped mailbox. Strung Christmas lights around her. Bungee Corded sticks for antlers. For the two days till Jackie made him remove it by threatening to call the city.
“How’s the coffin?” says Luther.
He reads malice in the question, as always. “Again I’ll tell you I only answer questions that want answering.”
“Speakers hooked up?”
He sees a smirk. Watches Luther place another one of his logs on the fire. Something makes him want to kick him. Hard. In the teeth. Open another door to nothing. “If you had any at all appreciation for real music, you’d get it. Probably lucky you don’t.”
“Yeah?” says Luther.
There’s an unusual to-hell-with-it carefree recklessness to Luther’s everything today. He wonders once again if maybe the man isn’t perhaps something more than a collector of intoxicated states. “Yep.”
Luther slams his beer, number three, and gets straight to his feet. The recklessness of his tone is mirrored in his actions, a nonchalance toward effect and consequence. He takes the handles of his wheelbarrow and lifts, then turns to him. “I hope those speakers do fill your dead ears with the love you remember, I do. But if I were you I’d be making the most of your ears right now…in case dead’s just dead.” And then he walks away with his portable fire, as if trying to disappear into smoke that’s too thin and wind-whipped to help anyone hide from anything.
He wants to stab the smug bastard in the back, at least throw his fuck-off-finger and derail him, tip his fire into the cold stiffening earth that’ll devour it.
He stands there and watches him round the corner and disappear behind Ted’s place, then he notices the cold and makes his way inside, where it’s no warmer. He closes all the windows and turns the heat back on and then sits on the sofa in the sealed-up silence. He looks at the stereo. Wishes he could bear to turn it on.
Ashes to ashes ‘n dust to dust,
Nothin’ really but, ashes ‘n dust,
‘n if you don’t like it,
he hears in his head, his grandfather’s so-broken voice—understanding comes at a price. Perhaps if he’d never put the idea in his head, that in every breath you take you’re inhaling Jesus’ atoms, he’d never have ended up with these almost-a-hundred-now jam jars full of vaccumings, the dust of who-knew-how-many people gathered in glass and set upon the shelves like shells in an arsenal. And he knows it’s nuts so what can he do to make meaningful sense of the zillion specks of matter other than imagine each jarful to be the complete makeup of someone beautiful that’s lived and died.
And just the words Marilyn Monroe written on the masking-tape label looks sexy.
He rolls the jar of her down the inside of his upright thigh and rubs himself slowly on the edge of his orgasm. Once again uninvited into his head come the words of his wife (currently only the latter half of dead-and-gone, so there’s no jar of her yet):
When you’re dead and so am I, we’ll make nuclear love forever and always and if—
And then uninvited into his head comes something else. He tries to ignore it, but can’t: THE GODDAMN KNOCKING OF THE HEEL OF A HAND ON THE GODDAMN INSIDE DOOR.
“Fuck you Luther!” he yells as he drops the jar of Marilyn Monroe to the floor and pulls his underwear up, his erection putting up no fight, which makes him all the angrier. He jerks open the door and sees the flimsy chinned Luther standing there at the bottom of his three rotting steps, smiling, the fire in his wheelbarrow dangerously low. “Jesus Luther,” he says, “your fire’s near out. Grab some fucking wood already.” He turns back inside, gets dressed, and joins Luther with two bottles of Blue.
The light’s completely drained from the sky now, and Luther’s seemingly less open to discussion than usual, despite his gap-toothed grin at the door. They both sit drinking the beer, and when Luther empties his, he holds it at arm’s length to be taken and replaced.
He takes the empty, goes and brings four more bottles out into Luther’s circle of warmth and light in the vast cold and dark. “You ending with me tonight?” he asks Luther.
He says nothing, knowing the fucker’s always looking for excuses for his answers.
“…I believe I will.”
“Did you see Hardy?”
A long pause, then, “Ha!” Luther laughs, genuinely. Too genuinely. “Yeah, did do. Old fool told me, said he’s decided his meaning in life’s to write letters to Chomsky day in ‘n out till the man starts a political party.”
“Whoever fucking Chompsky is,” he says. He thinks of Marilyn’s dust.
Luther finishes his beer, pulls his Ziploc bag from his pocket.
The fact that he just screws around for the longest butt and lights it, rather than making a rolly, tells him he likely is indeed Luther’s last stop tonight.
“Told him you ain’t gonna solve politics with more politics.”
“Let me know when you’ve got something interesting to say,” he says. He looks into the ashes in the fire, wonders who it might be in there.
He watches Luther finish his butt then pick up the last beer and drain half of it, as if he’s trying to force the smoke deeper in. “That tobacco’s going to kill you,” he tells him.
“Not tonight,” is Luther’s response, then he seems to want to say more, doesn’t, sips more of his beer instead, then closes his eyes, looks like he’s praying. After a few minutes of this he shudders, gathers up his limbs, and then with groans and pulls and lurches, stands, a foal standing for the first time. He finishes the beer and holds it out for him to take. “Well,” he announces, “that’s me.” He bends forward, takes the handles of the wheelbarrow, and rolls it away without another word, his whole being resigned to the task like a ghost haunting an attic.
Luther gone again, he shakes his head, shivers, and heads back in to Marilyn and the rest, and whoever else is settling on his furniture and floor to be reinvented and made whole again tomorrow.
He rolls too-dry tobacco from butt after butt into a doubled-up rolling paper, making a fat last one, and wishes he had a tailor made. He thinks of that pleasure, of opening the sharp, tight, perfect containment of a fresh pack. But tobacco’s something to be honoured, not squandered, and seeing how many half-smoked cigarettes were discarded by people when their bus arrived, he’d taken to collecting them after hospital appointments and hasn’t had to buy a pack since. Not that he smokes much. Damn hospitals.
The fire’s goddamn raging and it’s just him now. He pulls the T4s from his pocket and sets the container on the mess of flattened grass at his feet. He detaches the emergency bottle of C.C. duct-taped to the arm of the wheelbarrow like a rocket launcher and almost burns his hair off in the process. He twists the lid off and takes a long swig; it burns, hellfires he’s on the doorstep of. He presses the bottle between his thighs. With his loose-lidded zippo he lights his fat ciggy and laughs. As if he’s going to god damn kill himself. Right. He exhales heavily and settles like sand into his chair. He pulls the paper from his chest pocket, opens it, reads his twenty-three theses. Not funny at all. “Goddamn,” he says again, re-reading the ridiculous sign off:
To another sea?
It actually is funny. He even laughs again. He throws the paper into the fire, feels relief as it burns. If only all mistakes could be erased so easily. He reaches down and puts the pills back in his pocket. He takes the whiskey in hand and grabs the hose and kills the fire, then heads to her trailer, the wheelbarrow left alone to get cold in the dark.