The Tao of Jack. The story of a seeker, unleashed of the shackles of the fever dream of the past, with nothing but the unchartered road of the future ahead of him…
By: Katy Carl
He couldn’t have said how he had lost Allie’s favor. Once he knew it was gone, he couldn’t have given a good reason for staying with her. They had gone around and around, night after night, until Jack understood how she felt and decided he had burdened her enough.
He rummaged through a utility room drawer until he found the key to the gray Cadillac he hadn’t touched in months. He eyed the rust lining the wheel wells and then unlocked the car and stepped in, casting up a vague wish that the engine would start. It coughed and spat and turned over. He tried again. This time it roared to monstrous mechanical life. Soon he was ripping his way down the silver zipper of the state road toward the highway out of Charleston, headed back to Nashville in June. All around him the hills breathed like women in green dresses. The wind pressed down the grass with the insistence of a kiss. How could the place where he had become the person who he was be anything but kind to him? He would find someone new before long.
Days later, he sat on the beech-shaded balcony of his new roommate’s mid-rise in a gentrified neighborhood near Vanderbilt, twisting the frets of his guitar and imagining that he was thinking sprawling, publishable thoughts about American exceptionalism. In truth he was only remembering a disagreement in which Allie had argued him out of a belief in his own illusive personal exceptionalism, but then had made it clear that she still expected him to live as if he bought that lie. Against her claims that he should get a real job, should pay rent, he laid the claim of his art, a claim to uninterrupted, protected time: the kind of tribute the goddess deserved, a desert that the commercial market would never, never understand.
You imagine yourself as a poet, she’d said to him, a frown twisting her beautiful golden face, but you’re missing the mark. You’re wasting the real talents you do have in a chase after ones that you don’t, and he’d replied Oh really? What real talents am I wasting then? Her mouth had gone flat in a way he couldn’t interpret. Salesmanship, she’d said, persuasion.
He had had no idea at the time what she meant by that, or he had chosen not to understand. Now on the balcony, though, as the breeze and the sound of cars filled his ears again, he remembered a moment on the road when he had propped the wheel on his knee to let down the driver’s-side window with its ancient hand-rolled crank. As the window dropped, a gust of hay-scented wind like wild fingers had pushed his hair about in several directions at once. A thought without a body had drifted across his mind then but had not rested there. Now the thought returned to roost.
The thought was this: Allie had never really wanted him around. She had been glad enough to find a warm body in her bed at the end of a stressful day of crusading, but anyone could have given her that. His body, as he understood it, was just a machine he rode around in. His voice, his talk, his stream of language, was who he was to himself? Now he understood all these words of his to be a meretricious patter, a veneer of intellectualism without its substance: persuasion, mere salesmanship.
Although he already had a PhD, Jack for the first time proposed to himself that all his previous training might be useless. What could he do now to be useful? Jack resolved to apply to a new program at the university right away: tomorrow, definitely, or by next week at the latest. Next he decided, without wasting a moment’s time, to start a mindfulness practice. He put down the guitar, went in, shut the sliding door of the balcony, and lay down on the tapestry blanket, which now covered a battered and slightly musty brown microfiber couch — there was no bed in the spare room and Ben, the student who was subletting to him, had said up front he had no plans to acquire one.
Jack closed his eyes. He tried to center his mind. First he saw darkness. Next, small spirals whirling at the edges of his vision. Afterimages, parhelia, burnt in. The midday glare crept through the blinds. With a grunt of anger Jack stood up and shut them and lay down again. No, sit up, said a little voice in the back of his brain. He crossed his legs. Closed his eyes. Tried once again to center his mind. This time he tried picturing something. A lotus, naturally. But what sprang to mind was first one lily pad and then a whole pondful, each as long as his forearm, each supporting a flower the size and shape of his outspread hands placed together. Curling white petals, obscenely pert seedpod. Allie in his bed later, as pale and spreading as the flower. No. Empty. Empty mind. Lotus. The lilies came back. Empty the mind. Come on. The mind. The lily. The flow of the deep green water, in which the lilies’ roots were mired, bore him solemnly away.
Try something else. Jack’s gaze traveled up and out the window. A cloud, good. Better. Obscure, gleaming; grey at the center, edged with glare. The glare was too bright. He squinted. This is stupid, he told himself. I’m getting nowhere. His neck craned back; his crown hit the wall. Popcorn ceiling, fan creaking lazily around its flywheel, pendulating to one side and then the other. He imagined its center as the sun’s dark circle left on his corneas after starting too long.
Once more he closed his eyes, pictured a lotus. Now. Soft azalea pink. Sun on the green leaves. Floating in pure water. No real water was that blue; he saw the blue of water bottles banked for sale in a convenience store fridge. But then on the mirror-like surface there flashed the wings of an egret, all curved neck and wingspan, a dart of light. His eyes flew open. He scrambled to his feet, fumbled for a notebook, a pencil. Sight, flight: a good one, don’t lose it. He scrawled down a few lines, then stopped.
Jack stared out the window. Commuter cars flashed by, mirrorbright on the afternoon road. He wanted to go on, but when he looked back at the page it was empty, dry. The short penciled lines looked awful, adolescent; he couldn’t remember why they had seemed so good a moment ago. Truth hurt. He wanted some weed, but Allie wouldn’t have liked the smell, but who cared now.
Blank moments passed. A thought occurred to him. He ripped the page from the notebook and tore it to shreds and flushed the shreds down the rusty-bowled toilet. Then he clattered down the stairs and unlocked the old bike he’d just bought secondhand down by the college. He pedaled down to the package store and bought all the cheap vodka that would fit in the panniers. Back at the house, he hauled the panniers up to the kitchenette. He wedged a few bottles into the freezer between bags of tater tots and frozen pizzas. The rest he lined up on the counter like toy soldiers. He searched the cabinets for clean cups. Finding nothing, he took from the pantry an extra-long green plastic straw, still in its paper wrapper from a chain coffee place, and unwrapped it. Holding the straw between two fingers like a chopstick, he wrenched the red metallic cap of the first bottle and heard the threads of the seal give way with a complicated, satisfying crack like a spine being realigned by a chiropractor. He set down the cap with deliberation on the counter, placed the straw in the bottleneck, and carried the resulting setup with him to the brown couch. There he sat scrolling through bad news for a while, until it occurred to him that the couch was low enough, and the straw tall enough, that he could perhaps set the bottle on the floor and still continue to drink. He tested the thought, flattening himself as nearly face down as he could manage while leaving one eye free for scrolling and reading. He read until his eyelid felt microwaved to limpness. Then he read some more, forcing his lids up and up again until sheer exhaustion forced them down. Even then he continued to reach out to the green straw for sips until consciousness eluded him.
Jack woke to pain. Morning glare, sheen of sour sweat all down his neck and torso. He looked in the mirror and pronounced himself pathetic. He couldn’t go on like this. For one thing, rent was steep here. For another, he couldn’t face the futility of another night spent in vain. After all, Jack told himself, he cared, he really cared; he loved things so much it hurt. A fence of barbed-wire irony was the only boundary fierce enough to protect the soft warm trembling creature that was his heart, curled inside the fence for refuge. The creature demanded protection, its pathos its only justification. Jack resolved to build a stronger preserve, a more invulnerable habitat.
Time to get to work, he said to himself. He showered, standing resolutely upright in the rusty tub. If Allie is doing it so can I, he continued to coach himself, as he soaped his hair with a shampoo that smelled like melons. But this is about growing up. Becoming a man in the world. No rites of passage, that’s what’s wrong with me. I should have been made to sleep in the underbrush. Survive with a knife and my wits. Eat crickets alive. Lost all that. Chased it away with the native inhabitants. Own damn fault. (Jack could never forget that he had had an ancestor in the colony at Jamestown, Virginia, a fact that occasioned him as much pain as it had given his grandparents pride.) Still. Their genes. A man like them. Even if they were evil, I still came from people who could starve on a rock for two winters and still raise up crops and a family, descendants and a social contract, from destitution. From nowhere. Now those were adults. It’s time I adulted. Patient application. Obedience of body to brain. Jack realized he had been absentmindedly soaping his hair for several minutes now. He rinsed off and stepped out of the shower realizing he had nothing with which to dry himself. Naked, he ran across the hall and used the tapestry blanket and dressed himself before hanging the blanket on the balcony rail to dry. Now, he self-coached, time to earn the right to continue existing.
Jack biked downtown to the coffee shop where he had found Ben’s number on the bulletin board. Its handmade benches, artfully warped, gleamed with polish and care. Its hand-painted murals spoke to him of culture, vibrancy. He did not think of either fact as an advertisement, or of himself as its target market. He bought a triple espresso that cost several dollars and took out his notebook again, this time to record job postings and contact numbers. He stepped outside, sat on a glossy bench, and made some calls. Now he need only wait.
He locked his bike to the rack, walked down to the Frist Museum, and stared at Turner paintings for a while. The smudgy strokes, the contrasts, cheered him. Yes, Jack thought, Turner knew the way to see the world. Light and darkness, inexplicable fires, stormy seas. Danger and trauma. Jack left the cool of the museum and stepped back into the light and heat of the sidewalk.
Suddenly there hove into his mind’s eye — in his own handwriting, tucked away in his pocket, but to him as visible, and as glaring, as the neon signs of Broadway Street at night —the signposts of his own likely near future. Barista, bartender; art handler, tutor; assistant, intern. No fishing in a midnight sea for him, no brave rescues from burning buildings. No carving out a living from chalk hills, no riding on dusky chargers. No more opportunities for heroism.
Jack considered his education, considered everything he knew about police crimes and about the history of injustice. Could he, for the hope of living for a few moments once in some thrilling atmosphere of smoke and fire, stand the mindlessness of that training, the brutal physicality of it, the boredom? Could he follow orders given him, watch others perpetrating aggressions small and large — in short, could he get through it, in the hope that in some obscure corner of some city or town it would be granted to him to save someone, do something noble?
Where would he begin? Who would he call? Jack had no idea. It was hot and humid, and he was tired and bored. He walked on a little farther until he found a poured concrete paling around a trucked-in garden of dirt and mulch, planted in tidy rows with plumes of feather grasses. He sat down on the paling, which was shaded by an overhang of more concrete, and scrolled through missed calls.
One from the tutoring service, he wasn’t going to answer that. A hatred of teaching had been one of his main discoveries in graduate school. One from the business office that had been looking for an assistant, too many early mornings. One from the coffee shop, same. Five a.m. and Jack were not friends.
He wished, fleetingly, that he had kept in better touch with more of the people he had known when he lived here before, when he had gone first to college and then to graduate school at the university. People who went to that particular college, to that graduate school, were not supposed to end up in this sort of fix. Yet, here he was.
If only he could go back, could start again. Nostalgia took him. He remembered in particular one concert, one evening. He had gone to check out this wild gathering at some famous musician’s house — his buddies Hank and Terence, who now both toured with bands, had known the singer-songwriter, had worked for him as unpaid interns on his crew. At the gate of the hedged-in yard of the mansion it had turned out that security didn’t want the interns there, but Hank and Terence had fast-talked the guard, had possibly plied him with the goods. Jack had scrupulously not paid close attention to what was going forward — anyway, they had made it inside, and the evening had reached its high point for Jack when he found himself floating on an air mattress in a pool filled with rose petals and candles, holding the hand of a nearly naked stranger on a nearby float who couldn’t stop giggling, and certainly the goods had come from somewhere because both he and the woman on the float had been high as kites in a tropical storm.
Jack had never seen her again. Anyway all that was over now. He was determined to stay clean or at least off the harder substances, which for him meant staying away from the music scene too. Even so, it would certainly all be dredged up in whatever dreary background check would accompany the effort to be accepted into the ranks of Real American Heroes: so Jack considered this possibility and rejected it. He stood up off the concrete bench and continued down Ninth Avenue, making for the green space behind the museum.
As he walked back up the way he had come down, past the tall white sweeps of wall and window, he ruminated. From a major in music at Vanderbilt he had switched to a major in English at the last possible moment. He had done a PhD program but had quit three-quarters of the way through writing the dissertation, over a disagreement with his advisor, the substance of which he couldn’t now recall. He had lived with Serena, his undergraduate girlfriend, most of that time, before meeting Allie. He had flowed along with that relationship, had even been engaged to her, had balked only when it became clear that Serena was serious about all the middle-class economics of marriage, the wedding registry, the hard gold rings, the pillows and thick towels, the curtains and sheets and napkins and tablecloths, the heavy, heavy furniture. He was sure of few things but was certain he did not want to live like that, while she had been quite sure that she did.
Lack of clarity had been his enemy, that and a series of terrible trips, the last one of which left him hospitalized at the end of senior year, every vein burning. He lay there missing convocation, knowing it was going on, seeing in his mind’s eye his classmates crawling in slow gowned rows across the platform. At that moment he had made a strong decision, rare for him: He couldn’t continue to live among his current friends and yet also say no to the things they enjoyed together. This was the only thing he had known for sure as he lay there in St. Thomas’s in midtown. That fall he had cut his hair and bought new clothes and applied to the graduate program in English with a vision of being the next Robert Penn Warren. A few semesters of rejection notices, secondary literature, and interdepartmental contretemps had burned this out of him too. He had slogged along through sheer inertia until he had come to a point when the work no longer seemed worthwhile. He had flowed past the point like water past a rock and had been borne by the current all the way to this place, here, now.
Where was this place? He stood, confused, in the shadow of a stories-tall parking garage where none used to be, a decade ago. The heat staggered him. By now it was almost one p.m. He was looking for the Flying Saucer, and by turning in the opposite direction and walking several blocks he happened upon it and went inside and asked for a table for two. From there, he thought, he would call his former advisor to catch up and then maybe even, who knew, Serena — it didn’t seem impossible. All the lightbulbs on their long wires reached down generously toward him, their filaments shaped like the nibs of fountain pens, ready to disclose secrets, dozens of little touchpoints of optimism.
Jack ordered a Saint Arnold and a chickpea burger. He opened his notebook and made a list of his positive traits. He could hold up his side of a conversation. He could repair bicycles. He was a respectable vegan home cook. He could discuss multivalent ideas into the small hours, including his self-taught expertise in climatology, provided he didn’t get too bored or annoyed or drunk. He could teach a class if necessary but didn’t want too much to do with actual students. He could — sometimes — write a decent poem.
He stopped writing, scratched his hair with the green metal band around the pink eraser, smelled the pencil’s cedar scent, and continued. He could wash dishes. He could compose and, to an extent, edit papers. He had dealt — in a minor way — weed once, had learned that he had an eye for the likely client and the vulnerable moment, but he wanted no more of that because of the risk factor.
What could someone like him do for money without feeling dead inside? Who was he kidding? Would they even take him back at the university — a failed scholar, a washout? He threw the pencil down on the notebook. A stranger at the next table frowned at the pock it made.
By moving out and leaving Allie behind, ending his long and informal artist’s residency under her patronage, he had, he knew, made himself a peasant once again on the great American debt farm, an indentured servant to Wall Street. The symbol of his servitude, a slick new plastic card with a black strip and a brassy chip, now rode uneasily in the cargo pocket of his old shorts. He had had no intention of changing his life when he applied for it, but now it struck him that this lack of intention had been naïve. To succeed on this country’s terms, it seemed, he would have to mortgage a piece of his soul.
Jack looked at the list again. It seemed that the pieces of a soul like his were considered, at least by those who held the tickets to the auction, as hardly worth bidding for on the open market.
Why hadn’t he finished the dissertation? Could he now take it to a publisher, revise it into a popular book? This seemed unlikely. It was on Swinburne, an all but forgotten Victorian poet, angry about the failures of religion and angrier still about society’s lack of reverence. A failed priest, Jack remembered thinking Swinburne had been. Jack too — but no, Jack never would have made it through any sort of seminary, he assured himself. He had visited an ashram once, but the austerity chilled him as deeply as Serena’s materialism had done. Maybe he could live for months at a time on rice and beans, but every so often he would wake up raging and want, terribly, everything: summer sunburn, sweat on his forehead and mud on his bare feet; riffs from an amplifier roaring through his skeleton; smells and tastes of roast meat and apple pie, charred marshmallows, craft beer, mead, wine; pink and yellow tubes buzzing and glaring, night sky purple as a bruise, sidewalk sour with urine, air humid with pheromones. Highs.
He paid for the meal and walked to a glossy department store and, half ashamed of himself, bought a new wallet to house the new credit card. Next he bought a cologne he would probably use five times and then give away, and also an expensive dress shirt he knew he would inevitably ruin and throw out after a few weeks of haunting bars and concerts in pursuit of every woman who seemed remotely interested. He had done something like this when he had first met Allie, telling her the old canard that she looked too classy for the place. That had been cynical, but also the truth, and it had worked. But that had been in South Carolina, on Folly Beach, after dropping off his hoard of books in a storage unit in Raleigh near his parents’ house, and with the weight of the books off his hands he had felt dizzily free and had told Allie all sorts of intimate things that first evening that now he wished he could retract. Start over.
Outside the department store the sun had lowered and the air had cooled, but not by much. It was a long walk back to the coffee shop and the bike rack where he had started. By the end of his ride sweat poured down into Jack’s eyes, which may have been why he missed the yellow curb in front of Ben’s house and spilled sideways onto the grass. Like a child he skinned his elbow. He also broke the cologne all over the new shirt. He had to ask Ben for bandages and laundry soap. As Jack cleaned up, they talked and ate cheese fries from a microwave tray, and then smoked a joint and then another. Then they did some shots of vodka and then more of some kind of bourbon Ben claimed was more refined but that to Jack smelled like lighter fluid and tasted like hydrogen peroxide, but maybe that was the burnt plant smoke and the plasticky cheese coating his tongue, ruining his palate, Jack reflected aloud, ignoring or missing Ben’s scowl.
At this juncture Jack’s phone rang. He saw the number on caller ID and went into his room and closed the door. Before answering, he picked up his guitar and laid it in his lap. As he answered, he strummed a few chords to soothe himself.
“Are you listening?” said Allie’s voice.
“Yeah, just doing a little songwriting,” Jack said, convinced as he said it that this was indeed what he should do with his life from here on out. If it were meant to be, he would find a way.
“I need you to listen carefully.” Allie explained her situation. When Jack asked for clarity, she simply groaned.
“All I want is to make sure I understand. You’re sure it’s ours?” Jack asked.
“Whose else would it be? Are you accusing me of cheating?”
“No, I suppose not. But, I mean, you’re sure you’re…? It’s not…? Like, you didn’t just miss a cycle?”
“I’ve been to the doctor. I’ve had a blood test, an ultrasound. It’s not a missed cycle.”
Around and around they went. Jack finally told Allie that he would support her whatever she decided to do. For some reason, this caused her to cut the call short.
When Jack came out of the room again, Ben had flipped on the television to reruns of nineties sitcoms. Jack stayed to watch not because he enjoyed television — he enjoyed complaining about the banality of television — but in this case television happened to be on and it seemed good to be near another human, doing the things the other human was doing.
Gold shifted toward blue and then black in the window panes. The men ordered sub sandwiches, which arrived late, soggy and limp. They ate them anyway, courting food poisoning, and then also ordered and split a pizza. Several colorful pull-tab cans seemed to mushroom up on to the counters already empty, so distant seemed the agency that had drained them.
Jack recalled emerging at some stage from a cloud of bloat and sloth into a fountain of mental energy. He pounded the tempered glass of Ben’s coffee table with the flat of a sweaty hand, with each slap the palm stuck and smacked with the slight slurp of its rising. Jack was not clear enough in mind to tell that this sound was not the cause of Ben’s disgusted look but, rather, Ben’s well-founded fear that the table might shatter under Jack’s onslaught — slap, slap, slap, as Jack demanded that they turn off the fucking Big Bang or whatever and watch the debates, fuck yeah the presidential debates, yeah man it was a travesty but cui bono, man, who benefited from their ignoring the spectacle? Fuck right not them, where was their benefit? — slap, rattle of fragile bottles, uneasy shifting of the nearly empty pizza box out of which Ben now liberated the last slice. As he did so Ben stole a sidelong look at Jack, who this time saw in the look both disgust and fear, which he chose to ignore.
Ben scooped up the remote and flipped to the debates. Yet soon the debates could barely be heard anyway, over Jack’s snarls and curses. Before long Jack spiked the remote into the couch cushions and then snatched it up and shut the screen off. The two men then poured more shots and smoked more weed to get back on an even keel. Jack stuck two twenties in Ben’s freezer where one of the bottles of vodka had made its tunnel between bags of frozen foods, apparently forgetting that the bottles had been his own to start with. Then, in the afterglow of his own act of intended generosity, Jack noticed Ben’s growing sullenness, his lack of response. Jack slapped the younger man on the shoulders. Ben shrugged Jack’s hand away, ambled to his room, and shut the door. Jack went to bed, first stopping by the bathroom to brush his teeth with elaborate drunken meticulousness. He set his phone alarm for five-thirty.
Jack woke to pain. Oh God his head. Why, why. His eyes could barely open. He cursed and imprecated them, shut them against the glare, forced them open again. Necessary pain. Today absolutely had to go well. Oh hell, last night Jack had left the new shirt crumpled at the bottom of Ben’s washing machine. He washed it again and, while the shirt dried, took a punishingly hot shower. Shirtless, he made coffee in the French press and eggs in the skillet. He then swallowed a few of Ben’s ibuprofen, stole a little of his Visine, and finally put on the new dress shirt. The American RediSmart Temporary Employment Services Agency Network had better get ready for him, he thought, and called a car service to take him to his interview.
The interview, as it turned out, couldn’t have been more of a cake walk. Behind a metal desk in a cubicle a weary-looking high-school-principal type of woman asked him why he wanted to work as (she squinted, took off her wire-rimmed glasses, pressed a manicured fingernail to his application) “let’s see here, an…administrative assistant?”
“I don’t, really,” Jack threw out casually. “I just need money to stay in the city so I can be connected here. What I really want to do is write. To be a singer-songwriter?”
The woman’s face lit up. “Oh! Say more.” The romanticism of it won her instantly. She made up her mind that she wanted to help him almost before she knew she had done so. He left two hours later with a manila folder full of schedules which he slid into his messenger bag. He would look at them later. He didn’t have to be anywhere else until tomorrow morning. Now he threw himself onto a bus going downtown. When it stopped on Broadway Street, he leapt from step to curb — no idea what time it was, didn’t matter — swam through the white-hot humid haze, the sidewalk a river of it, into the dark cool doorway of a pub.
Jack tested, surreptitiously, the feel of his back pocket — the new wallet swung there quietly, causing a little hitch to the lift of the fabric. Inside, the new card waited quietly to know what he would ask of it, like the genie in the lamp. Jack felt a relief beyond words, a sense of belonging in the dim smoky room with its tall windows and potted palms and plantation blinds, the only real church, his blood hummed, for a soul like his. He took a seat at the bar, ordered a whiskey on the rocks. There was never any need for him to have been a washout. There was, at this moment, no need for him ever to be one again, no need for anyone to know what had happened. He could snap right back from his Dionysian life into his Apollonian one. Nobody knew him here anymore; nobody would have to know who he had once been. The past was a fever dream; this was the future.
Three places down, there sat a woman tracing circles around the base of her glass. Jack checked his watch, another new purchase, so as not to be caught staring at her. Although it was midafternoon, she had on a black lace cocktail dress, demure enough not to be a sales pitch, flirtatious enough that he might have a shot. She had night-shadow hair like Allie’s, a string of pearls around her throat. In front of her on the counter there lay a small sparkling wallet, the kind with a wrist loop that dangled from one corner. She stopped tracing circles and started twisting the wallet’s clasp open and closed, looking at the license inside as if to check that the face on it still matched her own.
The drink in front of her was two-thirds gone, so Jack signaled the bartender and sent another one her way. Told of this, she looked over and returned Jack’s smile. So he moved down to the chair next to hers, all according to plan.
“Old fashioned? Classy.” Jack immediately regretted the words out of his mouth. The very fact of the compliment was patronizing, the drink name making it still worse, and the use of the word classy, he could hear his mother telling him in his ear, denoted anything but class. True, it had worked before. But it had been awful, and the result had been awful, and here he was, true to pattern, being awful again.
The woman blushed, though, and smiled. His feelings seemed to him irrelevant, at least to the degree that they were invisible to her. The attempt was working, at least so far.
“Thanks,” she said, raising her glass an inch or two. “’Prechate it.”
“Long day?” He leaned a degree closer.
She rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. “You’ve no idea how long. You?”
“Endless. But over now, finally.” He smiled a slow deliberate smile of relief, suggestive of more relief to come.
“Here’s to the end of the day.” Another slight lift of her glass. So far so good. Very good, Jack thought. Could it already be time for Swinburne? He took a breath. The lines seemed to tumble out on their own.
“We are outcast, strayed between bright sun and moon; Our light and darkness are as leaves of flowers, Black flowers and white, that perish. And the noon as midnight, and the night as daylight hours.”
Her eyelids flew wide. He shrugged and closed his mouth briefly. No big deal, this is how I talk all the time.
“You write that?” she asked, almost red in the face now. He considered telling her yes.
“Wrote my dissertation on it,” he said instead, trying to look modest. Her face changed at the word dissertation: a lower degree of delight, but still she was pleased, he thought.
“Wow. Must have been a lot of work.”
“What made you interested in doing that?”
This brought him up short. What had made him interested? So long ago he had begun, so long ago finished, he hadn’t thought about why he was doing any of it for years. At the corner of his vision something pale flicked into view, like the wing of an egret. When he turned his head — toward her, never away — he saw it had been only folded napkins on a tray, borne up by a server’s outstretched hand.
“I was after…a certain sense of life,” he said, feeling with his tongue the words’ smoothness, their grandiosity, but also feeling through the air-conditioned coolness, through the light on the leaves, through the glint of ice in her drink, that the atmosphere was working in his favor. He felt he would be able to carry off what was coming next.
“A sense that life is fleeting and complex and marvelous. That in the little time that’s granted to us we should be able to do what we find most compelling, most — glorious. A sense of — of glory.”
She was compelling, she was delightful. Jack was leaning so far toward her that he felt vertiginous, a meteorite pulled by her gravity. He wanted to ask her to go somewhere alone with him — the card loomed again into his mind, they could go wherever they wanted — but to push the issue now would be to jeopardize it. Wait, wait. Look. She had been more pleased by what he just said than by anything else that had come before. Her face, already a sunset, had passed into starry peace — quiet, triumphant. She had him, and she knew it. She was going to make him wait, though, make him figure out whether he had her too. He thought so, at least, but he also thought that to rush it with someone like this would be to lose it. You could expect that, sometimes, still, here, people didn’t move as fast as they did elsewhere.
She reached across the bar to take his hand. Gently she smoothed her fingertips across his palm, the bases of his fingers. “No ring, no lines either.”
“Married to work, you could say.” What a lie, but maybe not such a lie, either. A short time ago hadn’t he considered it his work to write poems about Global Warming and send them off to little magazines that would maybe, once in a while, publish one of them?
Her lips pushed out a bit. She dropped his hand. She seemed to be thinking carefully about how to say what, in her mind, had to come next. He heard in her voice an effort to keep the sound light. “Anyone — important? Before?”
“One. A while ago.” He didn’t, he reasoned, need to say how long a while ago.
“Kids?” It sounded as though she could barely push the syllable out, and who could blame her for feeling self-conscious, if she had the restraint to ask questions like this in the first place before getting involved? Lots of women would be in the taxi on the way to the hotel by now.
Her hesitation made him hesitant, too. At the meeting of Jack’s lips was no — no kids, no involvement — it wasn’t necessarily an untruth, if Allie had done what he expected her to do. But then, what if she hadn’t? He imagined the possible future: Allie keeping — it; Allie asking him for support; this woman catching him in a lie, this woman hating him for it.
He decided quickly: “Complicated. The mom doesn’t want me around. Not sure what I did wrong.”
“She’s — a strong person?”
“A force of nature.”
“You like that in a woman, then.” He still didn’t know her name, he realized, now worried, as she sat studying his profile, considering his preferences.
“Yes, I suppose I do.” Her smile had now spread a bit too wide. Jack wasn’t sure when or how. “A strong woman needs a strong man,” he followed up. He raised an eyebrow pointedly, slyly, waiting for her to pick up the implication that here was one on offer, if she liked what she saw.
Instead she picked up her glass. She smiled again, sadly now.
“I’ve been strong as long as I could,” she said. “Longer. It’s time for me to try something new.”
She picked up her wallet in her other hand and made for the terrace. He considered following her, even making a scene, but what kind of person would that make him, what kind of effect would that be likely to have on her?
No way. He slammed two twenties he could ill spare down on the bar and strode out the door into the still brighter heat of rush hour. No romance, then, but it wouldn’t be hard to find the other thing in this part of town, at any time of day, and he found it and used it and came thundering down the back fire escape of the derelict building, the iron rattling underfoot, his heart still racing. He paced up and down the blocks in the falling shade, watching magenta and orange and red and blue signs cut on and filaments flare up in marquees. Letters on the headliners stood out crisp and black against the warped cream of the lightboards. Abstractly he found himself thinking of barbed wire, of bullets, of fire. Cut something, shoot something, burn something down. The heat of his own flesh shocked him. His readiness to do violence. To whom? To — himself? No. To the woman? The women? No. To whatever threatened — whatever came close to, whatever had so hurt, so exhausted — the woman in the black lace dress. To whatever had forced her into that sad renunciation, into an endurance beyond endurance.
He. He himself. He had forced Allie. Not to bear the child, no. But to bear the consequences. Cut, shoot, burn down — himself? No. But whole forests, if necessary. To build a shelter for the soft thing, the small thing. Build it from his own bones if necessary. He had to find her, find Allie, find them, do something, something. What? The amber streetlights in rows reeled overhead; the concrete floor under him, the bars to both sides, felt like a prison. Dizzy, he stumbled (two drinks in? Three? Had he eaten today? — perhaps not: and so what?).
Jack walked down off Broadway and started to call himself a ride on the smartphone, but when he reached back in memory for Ben’s address, it was gone. He began to walk instead, heading to the bus stop, but he soon remembered he was out of cash and so he halted where he was. But he was nowhere, and so he started walking again.
Like a bored child looking for a toy that still holds some interest, Jack cast his eyes about: cinder block apartments, cereal-box hotels — even if he could have pulled them down like toy bricks, what could he have built with them, except more of the same? No water anywhere to throw himself into, no grass on which to lie down.
Jack walked on until he found himself in front of a lattice of ironwork at the intersection of two residential blocks. Behind the lattice was a battered and scratched plastic playground, freshly floored with mulch that smelled of pine sap, the hearts of shredded trees. Jack walked around behind the slide and lay down underneath the bridge that connected it to the ladder. He fell asleep there and woke to pain and knew, when he sat up shaking the shards of broken wood out of his hair in the morning, that the pain would be his close companion from now on, that it would not leave him until it had told him what it had come to say. As his fingers combed through his hair again and again, there came a sharp jab — a splinter in his palm. He looked closely at the splinter, which had lodged in the skin near the base of his thumb, where it stung with each pulse of his heart.
Katy Carl is the editor in chief of Dappled Things, a magazine of ideas, art, and Catholic faith. Her debut novel, As Earth Without Water, is forthcoming from Wiseblood Books in 2021. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Genealogies of Modernity, Evangelization & Culture, and Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry, among other publications. “Allie,” the companion story to “Jack,” can be read now at Belle Ombre magazine.