UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Wake up crying, real actual tears, the sunlight pouring in, the trees a maw of hungry crows. I’m an easy cry.
The doctors don’t know what’s wrong. My pallor is changing. My liver is oversized. What was it Robert Lowell said, It’s not death I fear, but unspecified, unlimited pain. I’m trying to reclaim my mind. Mornings like this I get a flash of cognizance, brief as a pulse-stroke, right as I open my eyes to the world … I say to myself, Salvati, how nice it is to wake up in your own bed. How pleasant. And I find myself in a waterbed in a room with high ceilings; instead of curtains, long vintage dresses are hung on the windows, billowing like the gowns of ghosts. My legs are tangled in the sheets and the waves and an arm is draped over me, bare, hinged to a taut breast, and long hair that’s a mess of tangled, dishwater blonde. Tierney is one of my better teaching assistants. I can hear my mind snapping its fingers … this is her parents’ vacation home. It’s a Sunday and term papers are due in two weeks. Her face is marked from the bedding. There’s ink on her lower back. Her lip is pierced.
In the WC there’s vomit on the rim of the toilet. Another one of my assistants, Darren, is sleeping on the bathroom floor, cocooned in a comforter he must have dragged off our bed. The commons room looks like a brothel – bodies are strewn about like after Ypres. From the looks of it, we drank yesterday like furloughed prisoners-of-war. Empty Schnapps bottles in the sink. Castles of cups on the ping-pong table. I started a pot of coffee and assumed the thinker’s posture on the dining room table, and search me, I couldn’t piece last night together if I tried.
* * * *
We caravanned upstate in Volkswagens, a who’s who of Tierney’s “hometeam:” the Aggie outfielders Sean and Brock, myself, Darren, Tierney and a litter of her girlfriends, Sharon and Celia and Gabrielle, her on-and-off boyfriend Jones, and three girls named Zoe. She collected loved ones like they were baseball cards.
First thing, Tierney walked around the house pulling sheets off of furniture. She wanted everyone to be comfortable.
“We can make the place up with flowers if you’d like,” she assured Jones. “There’s nothing flowers can’t do.”
Jones stood in the open doorway taking in deep draughts of the clean air. He looked out into the woods beyond the low stone fence. In his mind he was flying down country roads, fishing on docks with his feet in the water and crickets squirming between his fingers.
“I want to chop down a tree,” he said.
“Not on my property,” said Tierney.
It was two or three past noon. The Zoes were angling for booze. Early drinking is only for the stouthearted. We drove to a watering hole in town, Dawson’s, with walls festooned with dollar bills and polaroids of regulars holding up fish and game, smiling. The construction workers at the bar were as interesting to the girls as foreigners. One of them was in a Caltrans vest. Another advertised a pool cleaning business on the back of his shirt. Saturday was Independence Day and they were watching a broadcast of last year’s fireworks show. After each explosion, the pool guy said:
“There goes $1,000.”
I laid $100 down on the bar and we all drank on that, gossiped and took turns feeding the jukebox. Young people are lifting to the spirit. My colleagues, chloroformed by academia, sit around and debate the merits of obscure papers over glasses of imported wines. But I like to drink where Budweiser is king.
I was looking at the grout in the floor tiles when Tierney sidled up next to me. Behind her two of the Zoes were learning to throw darts. The third was watching the boys play billiards.
“How’s college?” I said.
“You don’t learn anything in college,” she said. “You drink in college. You stay up late. I’m 21, but I feel 30, my skin’s sallow. I look 30. You learn about men. You learn about cause and effect.” She bit at the inside of her cheek. “You find out that people don’t need full moons to act like lunatics.” Her guts were spilling. “Jones and I are a mess. The mixed tape I made for him he did not acknowledge. I spritz perfume on my love letters. I tell him about lacrosse and my chemistry classes. It only vaguely interests him.”
I offered her the Parliament I had bummed from Caltrans. “Plus he calls me disparaging names,” she said.
“‘Pile of words.’”
I laughed. “Well, you don’t look thirty,” I said. “You do look like you haven’t been fucked in months.”
“Don’t say that. You’re too old to say that.”
“I’m not allowed to say fuck?”
“It’s just … vulgar, coming from you.”
Tierney, what this friendship means to me. The lengths I would go to. The favors I would renounce. The invitations I would refuse. All in the name of your company and your grace.
* * * *
Tierney stirs my rolodex of memories. She reminds me of when I had Georgia and a bungalow in Venice, playing gigs in honkytonks to make rent. Georgia’s father had opened up a chain of restaurants across California called The Mad Greek. He invested in developing towns. Our first date was on a Thursday night. I picked her up in an orange Plymouth Roadrunner, a convertible with a four-track player in the console.
What I would not give to have that car today.
“Georgia tells me you’re quite the guitarist,” her father said. He gave me a firm handshake.
Back then I thought nothing of my talents. “It’s a hobby, really,” I said.
“What is it you do for a living?”
I had my hands in my pockets. “I work at the phone company,” I said.
“What ideas do you have for my daughter tonight, Dennis?”
“Sir, I thought I’d take her to La Talpa and then to the Boardwalk and back to my place.
“To talk,” I clarified.
“And what time are you bringing her back?”
“What time do you want her back, sir?”
“Daughter, when do you want Mr. Salvati to drop you off?”
Georgia batted her eyes at him. “Sunday night, Dad.”
We dated forever. She made me work for it. I who had nothing … I would have gladly bankrupted myself for her. In the winter we smoked cigars in fingerless gloves and peacoats. Daytrips to Santa Barbara. In a journal we recorded the names of restaurants and meals and rated the looks of the waitresses.
“You should stop smoking,” I said.
“I’ll stop smoking when all I can taste is the heat,” she said.
It shouldn’t have gone on as it did, for as long as it did, but thank God it did. And here I sit in rural California in a big sweater the color of toothpaste, drinking weak coffee, waiting for the co-eds to wake. Big shot academic. We were in among the vines of a winery when I proposed to Georgia, blurting it out as one would a baseball score. It was less out of love and more out of desperation. There was so much to remember. Did she smile when she let me down, did she laugh? That’s another thing I’m glad I’ve forgotten.
* * * *
In the parking lot, because I seem the soberest, I’m thrown the keys. It’s a Vanagon that, loaded with undergrads, nearly scrapes the ground. The wind is whipping drifts of sand across the road. It seems no-one traverses these outer highways. I wonder with what measure of nostalgia that people born out here look back on these wide open spaces, these infinite vistas. My own childhood was urbane, compacted … Jews in pawn shops discussing the Negro question, morning calisthenics on 200-year-old rugs.
Jones’ head was on Tierney’s shoulder. He had drunk himself well out of contention. “How are you feeling, Professor?” he asked, thickly. His tongue and lips were leaden. Darren was beside him, fully passed out. I said, “I feel like the Germans who conquered France just to visit its towns.”
“He meant are you okay to drive?” It was Gabrielle. She resembled Charlotte Rampling. I’ve seen Gaby pour barefoot into taxicabs at 5 a.m., holding her high heels, with stamps on her hands and wristbands. Girls like her make me pine for the old American morality, where one was ostracized for one highball too many at lunch, or cheating at golf.
“Aye,” I replied.
“I’ve heard all about you,” said Gaby. “I heard you were the best mental exercise on campus.”
“I hate it when my students talk in metaphors.”
“How’s this quarter been for you?” she pressed.
“The worst,” I said. “It’s because of the election. Y’all have lost your minds.”
“I’d like to hear you lecture,” Gaby said. She turned to the blonde Zoe. “What I like especially about older men is the grey hair.” She reached over and stroked the back of my neck. “It calms me.”
“I wasn’t always an academic,” I said.
“Some years ago I was a musician.”
“You were?” Celia asked. “What happened?”
“I got the wrong gigs,” I said.
Gabrielle reached down her blouse to readjust the little that was inside her bra. Her mascara was smeared.
“Then I stopped getting gigs,” I said.
I looked again in the rearview at the best and brightest of what is supposed to be the next greatest generation.
“Then I stopped altogether,” I said.
* * * *
By 9 p.m. everyone was rested up for the evening’s drinking. We played games and had a grand old time. At some point Tierney lifted her eyes to me. She was nearsighted and her glasses were not unsightly. She took them off, put them on my face and said:
“You know, professor. Eyeglasses can change your whole outlook.”
Or I’m imagining it. I kissed her. Audacity pays dividends. An hour later she was so drunk I had to help her out of her jewelry. It wasn’t chivalrous, but once Jones passed out I added Tierney to my repertoire. At my age, desire gets old.
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