He went on to tell me all about her, the guy really had it bad. To him she was so incredible and beautiful and unlike any other person he’d ever known that he couldn’t for a moment understand how anyone else could know her and not think the same thing. That their pulse wouldn’t race like his when she walked into a room with her fashionable high-heels clicking against the floor. How they could not go mad when she swished by in a pencil skirt trailing her sweet essence behind her or her big blue eyes that made you stutter when you tried to speak. Even the gestures he seemed enchanted by, like her pursed lips when she looked in a mirror or how she brought all five fingers together into a point and stabbed about wildly in the air when she talked about something that excited her; a motion he emulated several times over with a drunken laugh.
It was a bit impressive and a lot awkward to be sitting next to a grown man as he pined over someone that seemed like a mythical creature or a product of only dreams. So finally I had to ask, “Shit man, it sounds like you really love her still. Why not try again….” I trailed off when he glared at me looking suddenly very cold and sober. He got very stern for a moment and drank again straight from the flask. “It’s too fucked up man. I fucked it up too, that’s the worst part,” he spoke with a conviction that told me he really did feel like it was his fault, that he wasn’t just feigning humility. “She had a really hard time growing up and one of the most impressive things about her is how she was able to become as classy and successful as she is, despite having to do it all on her own. When you hurt someone like that though, they don’t wait around for you to do it again, ya know? Her entire life she’s been abandoned when she needed someone the most.” He was probably only 7 or 8 years older than I, but he spoke like a man who’d been walking this earth since the dawn of time and with a knowledge that, like most things relating to love and life, was realized only after it could no longer do him any good; those pyrrhic lessons that are worth knowing, but cost everything to learn. He went on about her for some time before falling silent and retreating into some distant memory that wasn’t to be shared. He was drunk, sad and he was ugly, but he was all love. When I finally spoke again, he seemed almost thankful to be rescued from whatever torturous memory he was drowning himself in, “Dude, how do you even get out of bed in the morning knowing that she’s out there and you can’t have her?!” He laughed good and hard and I handed him another smoke as he began to answer, “Well… booze helps. And the arts I think do also. Playing or listening to music, drawing, fishing,” he waved a hand out towards the river, “Writing too, you know. Even though I write for a living, everything I write is either for her or about her.” I nodded involuntarily. Not a an obligatory nod of social grace or politeness, but because I really, truly, from the bottom-of-my-soul understood. More than he would ever know. More than I wanted to admit. He took another swig and held the nearly empty flask up in front of me, “Haha, Obviously I haven’t quite figured it all out yet!” and with that I snatched the flask from his hand and gulped down all that remained.
What could I say? He loved her more than any other person in the history of the universe had ever loved someone and it still wasn’t enough. At that moment I stared into the disenchanted broken abyss of a man sitting next to me and I realized that the only thing I knew about life and love was that I knew nothing at all. And despite his clever answers and outward hopelessness, I had a sneaking suspicion that the truth was, what dragged him out of bed in the morning was an infinite capacity for delusion that allowed him to sway himself into believing that someday it would all work out again. Poor bastard. A fish jumped nearby making a splash that broke the silence and reminded me that the river was still there, still moving, still enduring nobly on.
It was getting dark and the cold air was sinking back into the canyon when we finally trudged tiredy through the willow choked path toward camp. I got a fire going while Mike cleaned up Logan, which was quite a job considering all the trout slime and sweat and the random filth little boys seem to amass. We cooked some Polish dogs on my hibachi and set two cans of baked beans on a rock next to the fire. The sweet smoke roiled up through the campsite and permeated my senses, teasing me until I could no longer stand the waiting. I plucked the most charred sausage from the flames, burning my fingers in the process and shouting three-quarters of a curse word before remembering I was in mixed company. The boys quickly followed suit, though opting to spear their dogs with forks instead of bare fingers. Donning the old leather gardening glove I carried for just such an occasion I lifted one of the cans of beans from the fire from the fire and pried the lid back with my pocket knife. I dumped a heaping pile onto my plate and when I turned to set them down again the boys were both behind me with their own plates up looking like modern day Oliver Twists hoping to be served. I obliged and we tiptoed with steaming plates back to our seats around the fire. We ate quickly and without much conversation hunched over our leaking paper plates, save for the occasional grunt of approval. It was a good, proper cowboy dinner and I think we all returned for second helpings. Few things in life are more satisfying than a full gut, a cold beer and a nice fire to stare into after a long day. I sopped up the last of the beans and pork grease with my last bite of bread and tossed the soggy plate into the fires, my eyes growing heavy as I watched the center of it turn blacker and blacker until a small flame burst through and swallowed it. It wasn’t long after we’d finished eating that I noticed Logan bouncing his chin off his chest as he struggled to keep his eyes open. He sat Indian style in the dirt between his dad’s legs with his plastic fork still in his little hand and ketchup streaked up one cheek. Mike had his hat pulled down low over his eyes and from across the dwindling fire I could barely see him, but I thought I could just make out a crooked smile on his face. Though when looked again it was gone and I wondered if it had ever been there at all
The fire had dwindled into almost nothing so I got up to take a leak and lay on a few more logs. While I was up Mike lifted Logan and carried him into their tent; a battery powered lamp flicked on inside projecting their large, dark shadows against the canvas walls. I heard a sleeping bag unzip followed by a few murmers of protest before Logan relented and crawled inside. I heard Mike say “I love you son” and watched his shadow linger for a while over his beautiful son as he drifted off to sleep.
I looked away when Mike crawled through the tent door and acted startled when he joined me back by the fire. I twisted up a couple smokes and lit them both before handing one over to him. “So,” I began, “Is your wife working this week or you guys just doing the father-son thing?” He looked at me sideways -obviously caught off guard by my question- for a painfully silent few seconds and started digging around in the breast pocket of his jacket. I quickly tried to think of something else to say, some generic subject to move on to from this obviously sore one, but I choked fantastically in the pivotal moment. I was about to ask him how old he was when he finally looked away. He withdrew his hands from his jacket and the firelight danced and glinted off of his his flask as he unscrewed the top and took a long pull before holding it out to me. It was nothing fancy, long and faded silver and the sweet mash torched my nostrils as I brought it to my lips. On one side a bull elk was etched into surface and I rubbed my thumb over it as I blew the fire from my throat. I took another drink and passed it back. He simply said “Yep,” and took another slug of the cheap whiskey.
In spite of the potential trespass I was making by pushing the subject, I blurted out “How long you guys been together?” He sunk back into his chair and sighed deeply, “We were together about 5 years.” His reticence quickly became clear, “were” being emphasized and drawn out, so I quickly abandoned my line of questioning. He plucked the ashes on his cigarette and spoke again, “We split up fairly recently. I usually wouldn’t have Logan this weekend, but she’s going to a Bonnie Raitt concert tonight so the boy and me boogied outta town.” Incredulously, I still didn’t change the subject. “At least she’s got good taste in music,” I said, in spite of myself. “Oh she’s definitely got an affinity for some really great tunes,” then added “I think she’s there with her new boyfriend.” The rules of male friendship clearly outline what to say in this situation, so with all of the conviction I could muster aided by a little liquid courage, I shouted “Well fuck that guy, whoever he is!” He passed the flask back to me and I ceremoniously tipped it towards him before taking another swig. He forced a half-hearted laugh.
I had hoped we were done with the topic, that he would excuse my faux pas, but he answered anyway. “Nah I’m sure he’s a swell fella,” he said somewhat sarcastically. “Well that’s mighty mature of you,” I chuckled. “I mean I don’t know him and I’m sure there’ve been other dudes she’s hooked with or whatever, but…” he took a long drag off of his cigarette and tossed it in the fire.” “At first I hated him even though I don’t know who he is, but eventually I kinda just realized that I hate the fact that he exists….not himself personally, but as her man… which is my fault in the first place.” Little tufts of smoke shot out of his mouth while he spoke, as if his words were so heavy that they took physical form upon they entering the world.
After excusing myself for a few minutes to pull myself together I stood at the river’s edge staring into the water pulling on a cigarette, thinking about how unfair it was. That poor kid didn’t deserve the hand he’d been dealt. I’ve done some pretty awful things in my life; hell, we all have. Yet I’ve been shown forgiveness and given second chances and skirted punishment for things I knew I didn’t deserve absolution for, but this kid, what had he done? The world doesn’t allow you to make up rules based on how you wish things would be, though. This is a world that doesn’t care about bargaining and mea culpas and what makes sense. Sure, sometimes things turn out the way you think they ought to, but more often than not it’s screwed up and redundant and it hurts; mostly it’s just dumb luck and sacrifice. Bitter, throbbing, sacrifice.
Despite how cold it had been the night before, by midday it already over 90°. Beads of sweat dripped down the sides of my face and my backside was becoming ridiculously swampy. As it usually happens when I start drinking too early, I soon had a splitting headache and as it always happens when I drink coffee at all, I was dilated to about 8 centimeters and starting to crown. Having time to either find a secluded hiding place or go dig through my raft for some TP, but not both, I slunk stiff-leggedly off into the underbrush to drop trow. Upon relieving myself I returned to the campsite minus one sock and an even worse headache. It was the kind of heat that turns sandwich bread crunchy and makes the mayonnaise a serious health concern; so I discreetly tossed the salmonella sub Mike had waiting for me and told him I needed a nap. Before excusing myself, he asked if I minded sharing my camping spot with him because he’d like to pitch his tent and let the little guy take a nap too. Of course I didn’t mind.
I woke up nearly two hours later in a tangled heap of clothes and wadded up towels I had been using as a pillow, nauseous and sweating miserably atop my nylon sleeping bag. It wasn’t a “yawn, stretch, lay around a little longer” type of wake up. It was an “I’m dying, get me the hell outta here” type of wake up and the second my eyes were open I burst out of my tent, cursing as I scrambled down to the water, Even though it was the first week of July, the water still held quite a chill and it took my breath away as I sank down up to my neck. After a short soak I tiptoed gingerly up the beach on my sore feet back up to camp, feeling all the better for it. I had planned on covering a few river miles that afternoon, but considering how late it was and seeing Mike and Logan’s tent setup for the night, I decided to stick around.
No matter where you are in the world, Sunday afternoons seem to always feel the same; quiet and lazy, perfect for a nap, a ballgame, yardwork or an old John Wayne movie. So although I am vehemently opposed on principle to this current generation of RV driving, satellite dish toting, Powerbait using bunch of weekend warriors that now plague our woods and national parks, I was pretty stoked that my new pal had a satellite radio tuned to a Dodger game when I returned to camp. I joined him at the table -which was now under a pop-up awning- still wet and trying to catch my breath.
It didn’t take long to figure out that he was almost as big a baseball junkie as I. In fact, we were both die-hard Braves fans who’d never lived within 1,500 miles of Atlanta. He was a converted Dodger faithful who’d fallen in love with the Braves in the early 90’s when Maddux and Glavine and Smoltz were dominating the roided out hitters of the era. I, on the other hand, have never loved another team. Growing up my family didn’t have much money, which meant no TV for long periods of time, so I rarely got to see a live game, but my maternal grandmother used to babysit me during the day and she almost always listened to baseball games on the radio while she knitted. The Braves were always on the radio. Say what you want about Ted Turner, but the man knows how to promote his product. Anyhow, Mike and I hung around under the shade of the awning nursing beers and listening to the game while Logan slept. Whatever unsurities we’d had about each other were put to rest right then and there. It’s amazing the problems two guys can work out over a mutual rooting interest and a 6-pack.
Somewhere around the sixth inning Logan woke up and immediately wanted to start fishing again. Most little want constant help or attention and they can’t do anything in their own; not this kid, though. He grabbed his pole, argued with his dad about the necessity of shoes and sunscreen and snuck off before he was forced into wearing either. Mike and I laughed upon realizing he was already gone, then drug our lawn chairs down to the water so we could at least keep a watchful eye over the stubbornly independent boy.
Was I born with a piece missing or did it fall off somewhere along the way? Maybe the question is rather a simpler one: what the hell is wrong with everyone else? I sigh so loudly that the people sitting at the table next to me -apparently a study group of some kind- turn to glare at me. I want to tell them to fuck off, but I bite my tongue. Everybody is so nosy nowadays. Besides, this is a popular coffee shop and perhaps I’m drawing attention to myself. Since when does a monster deserve privacy anyway? So I unclench my fists and drop the hot coals burning inside them; returning to my own business and hoping they’ll do the same. It takes me a few seconds to flip through my expensive leather-bound notebook -a gift from my oldest friend – and another minute to regain my train of thought before touching pen to paper once again.
For me, writing has never been as simple as words scribbled on paper. It is how I survive. How I communicate, remember, forget, engage and retreat. It is purification and exorcism and nonsense and clarity all at once. Madness and gospel. A panacea for the torments of living that cures everything from the common cold to RLS, a broken heart, boredom, constipation. Even insomnia. Especially insomnia. But sleep is overrated and dreams are torture. The worst ones are painfully horrifying until you can finally escape back into consciousness and the sweet relief that it was only a dream. The best ones are horrifyingly painful once you get sucked back into a reality that rubs your face in the fact that it was only a dream. Then you’re just….awake. Now what? Despite your best efforts you can never fall back asleep into the good ones. And the cold bitch of real life will still be waiting for you even if you do. There’s very little you can actually change. It’s incurable. For most of us the lines have been drawn since inception and that, as they say, is that. You can’t just be whatever you want. What did you really think was going to happen? Maybe the tragic, heartbreaking dichotomy from one second to the next is punishment for wanting more. Things rarely change, loyalty is conditional, Bobby Cox ain’t coming back, love has an expiration date, most people just cannot spell. Perhaps all I’ll ever be is a pale, freckled, too-smart-for-my-own-good, sharp-tongued, dead-eyed dreamer in cynic’s clothing and maybe I just need to accept it . You can’t know what dreams may come, what the future holds, but still, it’s all you’ve got. The past is concrete and it is fact. The future is only hope. Like the last coin pulled from an pocket and dropped into a slot. I dream of 7’s knowing that just as easily I could come up snake eyes. Hope, that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I’m stumbling around in the dark, barefoot and thirsty, but at least I’m moving. I’ve wept big stinging tears of anger and loss and betrayal and confusion because of a beautiful story that has drawn to a close. I must bid my farewell the actors whom I’ve shared my most poignant moments and wonderful adventures with. Those I’ve laughed with until we cried. The ones I loved, leaned upon, held up, admired. Shared all of my secrets and fears. Those without whom life seems hollow and scary and incomplete. You feel all of things, both good and bad. Though it would be easier not to have to feel at all because then I wouldn’t have to feel like this. Those who have not lived in their stories, who’ve merely read the lines on the page, they cannot fathom the frightening tragedy of blank space after the final chapter. They’ll never understand the pain of an exclamation point when all you really want is an ellipses. The white blank page glares at me through whiskey stains and the roiling smoke of a dozen Lucky Strikes. It is what I fear more than anything in the world and is the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. The sordid, rotting wake of my past and the delicate nubile hope for what lies ahead. Concrete still wet enough to write my name in.