It was day again, but it had really all been one long mutant day, and we had shattered the peace. We'd been sucking energy out of the morning, out of the rising sun and the evaporating frost, hanging onto the previous night's binge. We'd been trespassing. We weren't supposed to be still be up, up so early, up so late.
On Tuesday I slept through all my classes, waking in the late afternoon, hacking from a slight cold, maybe allergies. Could be all the smoking. I was stiff but the shower doesn't help much. I stood with my mouth open under the spray, trying to wash out the truck mouth taste. It was already getting dark when I scurried over to my eating club to catch the end of dinner. Out back, over a cigarette, someone asks me how my thesis is going. "Mind body problem, right?" "No," I say. "It's Hume and induction now." A couple of cigarettes later I say a few goodbyes and head over to Julian's room to see who's around. Julian and all those guys were a year ahead of me, most of them philosophy majors, all of them major stoners, people who could talk about visualizing four-dimensional time-space manifolds while high on acid. These guys are doing blow now too.
I came in on Julian and Ivan playing poker on the rug. Julian's room is too small for a card table. They've got a mirror on the floor with them and a cut up little pile of blow on it. Ivan won the hand and crowed, rudely lording it over Julian, and then scratched out a few lines, snorting one in each nostril with a rolled up twenty dollar bill.
"Want in?" said Julian.
"Do I need to buy a share?"
"Nah," said Ivan. "You can just get the next eight-ball."
In the end were up all night playing poker for lines. The game is a sham but it gives us something to focus on. Ivan keeps complaining about a burning drip from his sinuses, irrigating his nostrils with some saline contraption. "You're neurotic," I say. "Always with the paraphernalia."
Julian got if possible more jovial, more jovian. He seemed to fill up the room. We had this running joke about Julian. My roommate Ralphy says Julian is the devil, the way he calls our room at all hours and tempts me into skipping out on my homework and instead playing foosball or Robotron with him and these other guys at all hours.
He swiped a bunch of quarters meant for children with muscular dystrophy from the counter at the Wa Wa market, just to play vids with. Another time he borrowed and lost a priest's robes. The list goes on and on.
All during the poker game he's got the two of us in stitches telling stories and keeping up his running gags - lots of innuendo about buggery and castration - but it's mostly all in tone of voice, turning our own words back onto us, and a form of unrelenting dullness he calls "boring humor" that consists mostly of baseless assertions and mindless repetition. If someone mentioned truckdriving he'd say "I used to be a truckdriver." If you complimented the sunset, he'd day, "Thank you. I made it." It was too stupid to get mad at and, trust me, eventually it seemed funny to us.
We're all sitting there staring out, watching the part of sky we can see out the dormer window turning a noticeably lighter gray, when Julian says, "Anyone up for a walk?" "Sure me," I say, "I'm antsy." "No thanks," says Ivan. As Julian and I stand up I notice how stiff my legs are from sitting in the same position all night.
Julian puts the mirror on his desk and turns to me: "A line for the road?" "Twist my arm," I say. He cuts out two short chunky lines from the pile, mostly gone now, and I do both of them in my right nostril because the other one is glued shut at the moment. They've been switching off for the last hour at least.
On the first snort, I feel a metallic tang in my sinus and after the second a medicinal drip hits the spot in the back of my throat where coughs start. When Julian folds his bulk over the desk and chops out two more little rails for himself, I say "Think it's still cold out?" "Let's check," he says and we crawl out the window onto the roof.
The chief attraction of his room is this roof-porch, with its gentle slope perfect for reclining out of sight from the proctors and randoms passing by. We even sat out there in the winter, nearly everyone bundled up and shivering, me wearing just a sweater and keeping cool by embracing the cold and preaching to the others not to remain so tense and hunched against it. It's too stressful. Look at me, I'd say. I'm not shivering. You get used to it. They never believed me, but whatever.
"Wait a sec," says Julian and he ducks back into the room through the window, his legs slipping on the shingles briefly. He comes out again in a minute with his ceramic bong, a cartoon skill. The other night we'd watched a candlelight vigil for open stacks stream past below the overhang, and we dedicated our bonghits to the overthrow of apartheid. "Bonghit for Divestiture?" Julian asks me as he passed the waterpipe, his face pursed and impish, like a kid kicking a pile of leaves. "Sure," I say as I reach out to take the skull. "Fight the power."
So we're sitting out there watching gray things turn watercolor pastels when I say, "Weren't we going to go for a walk?" "Oh, right." Julian gives me that look again and we both laugh till we scare each other with our twisted cackling. We go back into the room where Ivan was now sitting on the bed, reading Julian's "More Tales of the Leather Nun" comic and working his right knee in an incessant nervous jiggle. Julian grabs his frisbee and we go out into the hallway quietly, trying not to wake anyone.
Down two flights of stairs and outside I notice I'm actually pretty tired, but at the same time still wired, my muscles twitchy, like a hunted rodent. I call this feeling twired. "I'm twired, J.," I say, and he sounds it out while staring at me absently for a sec before he nods.
We head off across the oblivious campus, angling toward Cannon Green, and pick up our last puzzle, about whether knowledge is indeed nothing more than a justified true belief, but we wander off into quibbles about semantics and the exact meanings of the words we're using and end up lost in a thicket of the kind of skepticism that renders almost any line of inquiry useless.
We crisscross in our double drunkard's walk, east from the Green, then over and down through the arch at 1879 Hall, across Washington Ave. to the Woody Woo Fountain, and then roughly west toward where we started. I can tell Julian is wound up tight because he keeps aiming the Frisbee and flicking his wrist, making like he wants to chuck it at a tree or something. He says, "See that squirrel?"
About 50 paces away on the gravel between the two Greek temples sits one of those black squirrels you only find around here. I say "Yeah," and Julian slings the disc at the squirrel, smacking its hindquarters with a loud thwack. I'm surprised how loud it sounds in the stillness of everything else. We freeze in astonishment as the squirrel races to a tree, scampers up the trunk, and starts wailing - moaning and crying like a human child in pain. It's pitiful and Julian gives me this guilty look. It's crying these long drawn-out sobs that makes ice shoot down my spine. We both get paranoid at the same time. It's now obviously morning, earth tones and all. Joggers will be along soon. I can't get over how Julian had flung that thing like an uncoiling spring. The caveman accuracy of it frightened me. We get out of there, hurrying back to Julian's room with the wails of the injured squirrel still clearly audible.
"Did we miss our stop?" said the small boy with the small backpack to his older brother.
"What? Hey, you're right. I think we did..." said the bigger boy with the bigger backpack. "Sit still here for a minute and I'll ask the driver."
"Please take your seat" said the heavyset man in the hydraulic chair up front.
"Did we pass 9th street already?"
"Sure, we're almost at the end of the line now."
The bigger boy walked back to the middle of the bus, stopping to yank the stop-request chain on his way to the seats by the back door.
"Yeah, we missed it. We're getting off at the next stop."
"Where are we?"
"I'm not sure yet, but we can't have missed it by much. Hold the door for the lady."
"Which way is home?"
"Let's walk to the corner so I can get my bearings.... OK, we need to cross here. Wait for the light. Hold my hand, Quentin."
"How far is it?"
"It's about twenty blocks. We can play a game to make it go faster."
"It's called... fractions. Each time we finish another block we'll figure out how far we've gone and how far we still have left to go."
"Sure, like here we just walked a whole block, cross with me before the light starts blinking! That wasn't so bad, was it? That means we've gone one block out of twenty, or 1/20th."
"It gets funner. Think of it this way. If we were working on a dollar, we'd have a nickel by now.... You know, I'm sorry I let us miss our stop. It was that Jonah Hex comic."
"You didn't let me read it."
"You're too little. Also, I thought we were on the M-one-oh-one to sixth street. If I daydream on that one it's just three blocks to walk back. ... OK, that's another block. Are we going too fast?"
"You seem out of breath. We've got a minute or so till the DON'T WALK sign changes back."
"What fraction is this?"
"Well, we've gone two blocks out of twenty so that's--"
"Right, but 2/20ths is also 1/10th."
"Right, so we're up to a dime. Since we're walking here, there's something else I wanted to say I was sorry about."
"You know that game where we tease you and say you're not the real Quentin and that the real Quentin disappeared and you're a little different in some small way that we never explain and then we blame you for abducting Quentin and trying to take his place?"
"Well, it's just a game, you know. We don't really think you're the fake Quentin."
"But it's not just that. It's just... I'm sorry for teasing you."
"You know I don't like it."
"It's like Dad says, 'needle, needle.' I can't help it some times, but it's mean and -- hey, look, 3/20ths."
"Yes, it doesn't really reduce. Anyway, I'm sorry if I was mean."
"It's OK. I know I'm the real one."
"Robbie from upstairs told me he thought you were starting to believe us, but I told him you knew we were just kidding."
"Well, I knew you were kidding but I didn't like it."
"I know. I said I'm sorry. That's why I was feeling bad. It wasn't nice."
"It wasn't nice. You shouldn't make fun of me so much."
"Look, 4/20ths, that's one fifth. We're doing good. Are you sure you're not getting tired."
"I'm... maybe we could go a little slower?"
"Sure, I just wanted us to get home before dark. Maybe don't tell mommy we missed the stop?"
"OK. Maybe we should so she knows why we got home late?"
"How about if I get you a treat?"
"What kind of treat?"
* * *
"It means 'fire' like firing the President. Where did you see it?"
"There, the sticker on the wall. Peach Nixon."
"Nix on Nixon," said Oliver, largely to himself. Then, "5/20ths. A quarter! Not bad. How you doing?"
"OK," said Quentin, looking down.
"We can go slower..."
"...but we might not make it home before dark. Not that you should worry. There're lots of people around."
"I'm fine. What's 6/20ths?"
"We're not quite there yet, but it will be 3/10ths, not so exciting."
"Ff-- Fff--. Dog feces. Daddy said it."
"Feces is poop. Doo-doo."
"It was when that guy hit him, at the playground."
"I know dad said something about that guy's dobermans going in the fountain with all the little kids."
"He said they could get feces in there. It wasn't clean?"
"The guy hit him for that? I didn't see it."
"No, Daddy was yelling at him to take the dogs out of the fountain. Then the man came up to him, with the dogs, and when Daddy was talking he punched him in the eye."
"I know. I went to the hospital with you."
"I just wondered what feeces was."
"Hey, 8/20ths, that's 4/10ths or 2/5ths."
"We're not even halfway yet, are we?"
"No, but nearly."
* * *
"9/20ths. Nothing special. Are you getting cold. Put the hood up on your parka."
"What's my treat?"
"I told you, you have to wait till we're closer?"
"How many blocks is that?"
"How many did we go so far."
"Nine... plus a little, nearly half."
"So what does that leave?"
"14 take away 9 is..."
"Right, five blocks to your treat, or actually, four, because we just made it halfway, and the next block is Houston, so we'll be in the numbers soon. Hold my hand."
* * *
* * *
"What is 12/20ths?"
"6/10ths, or 3/5ths?"
"That's still boring."
"What's the treat."
"OK, but you can't tell."
"What is it?"
"Not real peanuts. They're like marshmallows, but they're orange."
"Not like soft fluffy marshmallows. It's too hard to explain! Just wait. They taste like banana."
"You know the fake candy banana taste that tastes stronger than a real banana? Like with some of our Christmas candy last year?"
"Banana like that. This is 13 now. One block to the treat. 13/20ths is..."
* * *
"A quarter gets you one of these."
"How many peanuts are there."
"One, two, three... seven. You can have two and I'll have two and I'll keep the rest."
* * *
"What do you think?"
"Sweet. Can I have one more?"
"OK, but here's the thing. They turn your tongue orange."
"When we kiss mommy, she'll notice and ask you, but you promised not to tell."
"I have to kiss mommy."
"I know. Here's what I figured out. It's fourth street, we've got five blocks to go, we've come 15. That's three-quarters of the way! At each corner, we have to spit a few times into the gutter, to get the orange color out of our mouths. We also have to work up more spit in between, OK?"
* * *
"Let me see your tongue.... Looks good. How's mine?"
"It's not even really dark yet. How are your feets?"
"A little sore."
"You did great. You can ring the intercom."
"I wasn't scared."
"Danny was a prick," said Mary, after the mashed turnips had gone around the table once.
Her father, John Kelly snapped a reply at her before the words were completely out of her mouth: "What are you talking about?"
"He beat me."
"You're crazy!" shouted John.
"This is why I don't come home," said Mary.
Her mother, Deborah, rested a hand on Mary's forearm and said, "Honey...."
"Do you have to start this now?"
"I'm just sick of hearing Dad talk about what a great guy Danny Sullivan was. Danny This and Danny That. Danny should have been captain of the football team. Danny looked so sharp in his uniform. Well Danny used to hit me, a lot. How did you think I cracked that tooth and lost the crown?"
"You said you ran into a door," said Deborah.
"Well, I didn't."
Mary got up and left the table. John was silent. Noreen was whimpering and then got up without excusing herself and left the dining room as well.
Deborah looked at John across the table. "When will you ever learn?"
"Oh, come on now. You don't believe Danny hit her. Do you?"
"Why would she lie?"
"Danny? Danny Sullivan? Impossible. And with the way she rages, I can hardly blame him for running off."
"It's your own daughter your talking about there."
"Well, she doesn't act like it. What's that shrink been doing for her all these years. For all I know he's been stirring up all kinds of imaginary memories."
Deborah just glared at her husband as he forked turkey into his mouth.
* * *
John dims the lights in the living room after pouring himself a tumber of Johnny Walker Red, neat. September of My Years plays low on the stereo as he sits down in his leatherette chair.
Danny really hit her? If she's telling the truth, then that sonofabitch had me fooled for years.
Crap. There's no way to protect your own children. you build the walls as high as you can, and then invite the devil in your front door.
I never so much as raised a hand to Mary in all the years she was growing up. Not even when the backtalk started. Sure I told her to wipe that look off her face when I caught her rolling her eyes behind my back. "Or I'll wipe it off for you," but I didn't mean nothing by that.
He thought back to the strappings he used to get from his father, the night watchmen at the Stennhauser brewery, sometimes for the tiniest misbehavior, sometimes for imagined infractions, and sometimes "'cause I know you done something."
The ice clinked as they melted into a new shape in the shallow remaining puddle of scotch. John heaved himself up out of his chair and over to the side board, took out the bottle, and poured himself a few more fingers.
The music playing now was Harry Chapin.
This maudlin crap, thought John, as a tear welled up in one eye.
* * *
"Can I watch cartoons, Mommy?" says Noreen.
"Gramp and Gran don't have a television, baby. Remember?"
"I forgot. That's OK, Mommy."
"You didn't get any pie. Stay here and keep drawing and I'll be right back."
Mary opened the door to her old bedroom gingerly, peeking left and right. She could hear the music coming from the living room, and thought she could see John sitting in his chair, either nodding to the music or dozing off.
The old drunk, she thought, making her way to the kitchen, where Deborah was nearly done washing up.
"Was there any pie left over?"
"Nearly the whole thing. Your father didn't eat any and I just had a little piece."
"I didn't mean to ruin dinner," said Mary, as she took the pie plate out of the refrigerator and cut Noreen a little piece. "Is there any ice cream?"
"There's a quart of vanilla bean in the freezer," said Deborah. She was scraping some toasted-on grit from the inside of the drippings tray.
"I just wish he'd let it drop about Danny."
"Your father doesn't change."
"Well, I suppose you'd know. Goodnight, ma."
"Make sure Noreen brushes her teeth."
* * *
"Who's Danny Sullivan, Mommy?"
"He's just this man I used to know. We went to school together. He was one year ahead of me."
"Why does he make you cry?"
"Gramp? He doesn't mean to. He's just thoughtless."
"No, Danny Sullivan."
"Why do you say that, honey? You're getting crumbs on the comforter."
"You were crying after dinner."
"It's grownup stuff, baby. Maybe when you're older you'll understand. Now brush your teeth. Mommy will be right back."
* * *
Mary saw the light in the kitchen as she walked around the side of the house. When she got to the street, she lit a cigarette and started walking toward the playground. It was just getting dark.
She thought back ten years to when her family had moved into town, her dad retired early from the navy with his bad back. They were finally able to stay in one place for more than a year or two at most. M
ary had given up on even trying to make friends, and spent her breaks smoking by herself by the chainlink fence at the far end of the school's playground. Even the other smokers, the bad girls, avoided her. She was drowning and nobody wanted to be dragged under with her.
Nobody except Danny, who broke from the pack of jocks rough housing and hanging the younger high-school kids by their ankles from the sides of the jungle jim. He had walked right up to her that time and grabbed the cigarette out of her hand.
"This'll kill you, you know," he had said, squinting into the sun. She'd shrugged. Then he took a deep drag from her cigarette, blew a huge plume of smoke into the air with a satisfied sigh, and then dropped it onto the tarmac and ground it out with the heel of his Nikes.
"You're new, right?"
"I've been her for eight months."
"Yeah, I've seen you around."
Within a week or so they were dating, and Danny was too popular and too dangerous for anyone to say boo to that.
At first Danny protected her and even gave her some status in the school, but by the time he started hitting her she felt trapped.
Mary was on her second cigarette, leaning against the slide, watching the moon rise.
I was better off alone, she thought.
* * *
Deborah dried her hands on a dish towel with a rooster on it and then turned off the light in the kitchen. She looked in on Noreen, whose face glistened with drying ice cream as she slept under the coverlet in her mother's old bed.
There was no music coming from the living room, save for John's low rumbling snores. She pulled a blanket up under his chin before retiring for the night.