Across the Margin celebrates its 200th post with a collaboration piece that explores the idea of infinite possible universes. We have fun with the theory behind these hypothetical universes by looking at the various realities our chosen protagonist, one Stephen Holden the Third, could exist in…..
Quantum Spectral Line #1 – by Douglas Grant
Tripp Holden brought his right arm up off of the floor and slammed it on the glass coffee table like a drowning man reaching for a life raft. He used the leverage to lift his chest up slightly from his prone position, and his head started spinning. He propped himself up on his elbows, and then slowly rose into a kneeling position. Wedged in between the hotel suite’s couch and coffee table, he was okay with the fact that his movements were restricted. He took a look around to get his bearings, his eyes adjusting to the late morning sunlight that was pouring into the room. A quick glance downward confirmed that he was stark naked. He closed his eyes as the throbbing pulse in his skull continued unabated. What the hell happened last night?
He managed to climb up onto the couch and lean back into the cushions. He took quick stock of the coffee table in front of him. There was powdery residue alongside a rolled up hundred-dollar bill, unsalvageable, and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s that was three quarters depleted. In a jerky motion he wrapped his right hand around the bottle’s neck and pulled it to him. He took a swig, trying to piece together last night’s events after the show, and failing utterly.
Eventually he grew frustrated with trying to fill in the blanks, and he rose to his feet, heading for the double doors that opened up onto the patio. He scooped up the pack of Marlboro Reds he found sitting on the end table and used his lips to pull one of the butts free. Staggering outside he stopped at the patio’s railing, resting his elbows on the firm metal and lighting his cigarette with his left hand while the bottle of Jack dangled in his right. He stared down at the streets of Houston below, the city’s commerce already a bustle this late in the morning.
The show had been a huge success; that much he could remember. Houston had made his band, Cipher, feel very welcome indeed. The band had received a tremendously enthusiastic reception from the moment they’d taken the stage. He thought about what a long way they’d come since opening for Soundgarden last fall. Back then they’d been an unknown band, and had been given a lukewarm—if not utterly indifferent—response from a loyal Soundgarden following that had little patience for opening acts. Fast forward one year to the present, and not only was Cipher now a headliner with their own opening act, but they had a loyal and hardcore following that was growing exponentially city by city.
This in no way meant that Tripp and his fellow band members were green. They’d patiently played clubs all over LA, diligently putting themselves out there, before they’d come to the attention of a talent scout who’d thought they’d make the perfect opening act for the Seattle rock band. They’d landed a record deal, and hit the road soon after that. Tripp had been more than enthusiastic about graduating to the next level of rockstardom: life on the road. And the road certainly hadn’t disappointed. Night after night, girl after girl, drug after drug, Tripp was living his life to the fullest, and for a time it had seemed like nothing else could even come close to mattering. For a time.
“Whoa, put some clothes on!” said Ali, their head roadie, as he came out on the patio to join Tripp. “C’mon, man, you know better.” He gestured his hand toward the buildings across the street. “There could be paparazzi camped out behind any one of those windows just waiting for you to fuck up like this.”
Tripp didn’t acknowledge Ali, and he took another long drag on his cigarette, gazing down to the street below. Ali went back inside and returned a minute later with a folded bath towel in his hands. “Here, put this on.” When Tripp continued to ignore him, Ali said, “Please, man. Just do it. I don’t need to see that shit.”
Tripp rested the bottle of Jack on the railing and reluctantly took the towel from Ali, wrapping it around his waist. “The bus is all packed up and ready to go,” said Ali. “I came to get you. We need to check out soon.” He nodded toward the open patio door, to the inside. “Time to ask your friend to leave.”
Craning his neck to look over Ali’s shoulder, through the suite and into the bedroom, Tripp saw a curvy brunette, wrapped in bed sheets, sprawled out upon the mattress, her dark hair cascading over the side. He had absolutely no memory of her. He turned his attention back to the streets below.
“Hey, what’s been going on with you lately?” Ali asked, his brow furrowing. “I know you’re trying to emulate this troubled, dark persona, but lately it’s been more than that. You seem legitimately detached.”
What’s going on with me? Where to begin? Tripp thought of life on the road. A mere season of touring the country with Soundgarden, followed by a season of Cipher’s own nationwide tour, and he was convinced that he was already tapped out. He was only twenty-four. “It’s catching up with me,” he finally told Ali, the first words he’d spoken. He took a final drag of his cigarette and then crushed the butt into the railing.
“Aaaaah, c’mon, dude,” Ali moaned with disbelief. “You’re still a kid, for Chrissakes, and you guys aren’t even that famous yet. You haven’t gone platinum. You’re not known internationally. There’s still a lot to do.”
Tripp thought about every choice he’d made since graduating high school, particularly his decision to pursue a career as a musician. He was a talented vocalist and guitarist both; of this he’d never had any doubt. And his bouts with depression had only served to enliven his troubled image. Looking back on those early days he’d had very little to be depressed about: that indescribable feeling one gets when holding a captive audience while on stage, hundreds of women, booze and drugs galore, all-night parties in over a dozen major cities. Money. Fame. Notoriety.
This can’t last.
It was all so fleeting, so finite he could almost feel it starting to slip away. He was punishing his body physically every night, but he was more worried about the spiritual drain. It was early spring, 1994, and his band had come into prominence riding on the coattails of Seattle’s grunge acts. They’d actually conformed to an image from another city, and although no one else seemed to notice it, he felt like Cipher had sold out. And what he truly believed—just knew it to be true—was that Grunge’s days were rapidly coming to an end. An intense chapter in American rock and roll, but one that would be brief, living forever in the archives of music history, while those who were part of it would be cast aside and quickly forgotten. “I wanted to do something, Ali. Something meaningful.”
Ali’s mouth twisted into a lopsided smirk. “I just don’t get you sometimes, Tripp.” He leaned against the railing so that he was looking Tripp in the eye. “You’ve done it, man. The American dream: rock star and icon. Meaningful? You’ve changed lives, man. You inspire people. What’s more meaningful than that?”
Tripp thought back to his junior year of high school, to a conversation he’d had with his biology teacher. “You’ve been gifted with an intricate mind, Stephen,” his teacher had told him. “Less than one-percent of all the students I’ve ever met can do what you do.” Tripp remembered his elderly teacher placing a bony hand on his shoulder for emphasis. “The world’s going to need you. Stem cell research is the wave of the future, but the scientific community may not feel ready for it. We are going to be met with heavy resistance.”
“I’ll think on it some more,” Tripp had told his mentor.
“Don’t think too long on it,” his teacher had urged. “You’re at an age when you’ll soon be choosing your path through life. The life of a scientist can be one that is uncelebrated and underpaid, but at the end of the day we’ve done our parts to make the world a better place.”
Perhaps his teacher should have left that last part out. It just might have altered his decision. But Tripp had lost the grant, foregone college, and perhaps thrown away his future. He’d chosen, instead, what to him was the holy trinity at the time: sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And for a time he’d been happy.
Now he imagined himself twenty years down the road. Forty-four wouldn’t be that old in the grand scheme of things, but his day will have come and gone. Such a momentary milestone this was when considering the course of one’s life. He pictured himself at a casino somewhere in a city like Reno, perhaps trying to play a new song he’d just written about all of the pain in his life. He’d be washed up, and desperately trying to reconnect with his audience, while they would boo him and shout, “Shut up and play the hits!”
“I wanted to do something, Ali,” Tripp muttered with a faraway look in his eyes, not even glancing in Ali’s direction. “Something great. Something lasting.”
“Hey, snap out of it!” Ali demanded. “Who are you to piss and moan? Do you have any idea how many people would kill to be you? To have what you have?”
“They can have it.”
Ali shook his head. He was frustrated, and they were all short on time and currently driven by a tight touring schedule. “Look, man, I don’t know what’s up with you, but my suggestion would be to go in there, wake up that tart, get your rocks off, and then shower up and be ready for check out. And I’d quit hitting the sauce if I were you, at least until we’re on the road again.”
Ali said nothing more, convinced that he’d gotten his point across. He turned and left, and Tripp stole another glance at the naked girl asleep on the king-sized bed. He took in that shiny, raven colored hair. He didn’t remember this girl from last night, but she reminded him of Suzy.
Suzy. The love of his life. The girl he’d discarded soon after graduation because he hadn’t wanted to be tied down. The girl who no longer wanted anything to do with him. And the mother of the five year old son who barely knew him. He’d fucked hundreds of beautiful women in his young life, but he still longed for his Suzy. She’d been very patient with him, and had given him plenty of chances, but he’d always managed to screw them up.
He ached with regret. This wasn’t who he was. It translated that way, because the dark thoughts and depression blended so well with the spirit of the music scene. Everyone wanted to be like Cobain. But Tripp wasn’t dark or mysterious, just sad. Sad because of the meaningful life he’d thrown away in exchange for a quick fix.
His lyrics were bullshit. He knew that in his heart. He’d fooled the masses, but he hadn’t fooled himself. Cipher was a novelty act that was at the zero hour of its fifteen minutes of fame, and tomorrow the writers of Rolling Stone magazine would find some other garage band to do an expose on.
He could have done something great for the benefit of mankind, but instead he’d given it a huge distraction. This realization wasn’t meant to disrespect the art form, or to sell it short. Music was a language that all people spoke, bringing them together and enriching their lives, but not for one second did he entertain the notion that he, himself, was anything other than a pretender. With this realization came great pain.
He had thousands of rabid fans that would soon reach into the millions. He had more money than he knew what to do with. He was still in his early twenties, and he had his whole life ahead of him.
And he was utterly alone.
This can’t last.
Quantum Spectral Line #2 – by Michael Shields
“Forgive me father for I have sinned. It has been….”
“Stephen,” Father Sheridan interrupted. “That isn’t necessary today. What if we were simply to talk? It’s been some time since we have had the opportunity to do so.”
Stephen Holden the Third, Tripp to those who knew him best, relaxed back into his metal folding chair, which had attached to it a desk that encompassed the right side of his body. The musky basement that doubled as the prison’s chapel was set up similar to a classroom with 6 rows of seats, 4 to a row, and a large weathered wood desk at the head. Behind the desk ominously reigned a large white cross, fashioned from two painted 2 x 4’s hung upon the wall. The consistent, menacing tick of a wall-mounted clock echoed off the chamber’s walls. Legend had it that Warden Stokes searched far and wide for clocks with highly audible clicking sounds, so that inmates fully experienced literally every moment they were incarcerated under his domineering watch.
“Sure why not?” Stephen conceded.
Father Sheridan noticed Stephen glancing at the clock, the irresistible pull of its tick lured eyes throughout the prison, drawing one’s gaze helplessly its way, part of the Warden’s sinister plan no doubt.
“They should put a silencer on those suckers,” Father Sheridan offered.
“Yeah,” Stephen chuckled without looking up. “That will be the day. At least we don’t have them in our cells.”
“Yet!” Father Sheridan quickly added with a smile. He then let a moment of silence pass between them, a pregnant pause that allowed Stephen a minute to settle, and to provide for an opportunity to switch gears frictionlessly.
“So, how are you sleeping?” he began.
“The same. Very little. Even my daydreams are disasters.”
“Those Ludlum novels I gave you aren’t working for you then? They do it for me every time.”
Stephen perked up in his chair some, “I actually like them. A whole lot in fact.”
“Ludlum’s a hack,” Father Sheridan interrupted playfully. “I am not buying this Bourne character for a minute. Retrograde amnesiacs? Treadstone? C’mon…..”
“There’s something there, I’m telling you. It’s like Bond without all the excessive frills.”
The conversation had Stephen revived, just as the seasoned therapist who waived words like a wand, putting a spell over all he conversed with, relaxing them into a state of diminished inhibitions, had hoped for.
Father Sheridan smiled. He had taken to Stephen immediately upon his incarceration, as he had never before witnessed someone marched through the towering steel gates of Lancaster’s California State Prison riddled with so much guilt. It is a well-known fact that every inmate had conceived a well-rehearsed anecdote of how they were wronged; all variegated takes on the they-got-the-wrong-guy defense. But not Stephen. He was prepared to bear any cross levied upon him, as weighted and awful as it may be. He was broken, and it was his own actions that had shattered his world to pieces, something Father Sheridan could relate to.
In 1990 the trial of Stephen Holden the Third, aspiring rock-star, was front page on all the dirty rags throughout the City of Angels. The bloodthirsty vultures of the press are always in search of a misguided soul to fasten their talons upon and Stephen was their latest fancy, and appropriately so. It was late one sweltering August evening when Stephen heard his six-month old son crying in the next room. Laying in bed, drunk, with his girlfriend Suzy, the mother of the infant child and Stephen’s longtime squeeze, he told her “I got this one, I need to take a piss anyways.” Stumbling into Kent’s nursery he scooped his son up like a football, the child’s face pointed down in the palm of his hand. He held his crying child while relieving himself and then eagerly emptied half a bottle of water down his parched throat. While walking down the hall Stephen momentarily slipped, reaching out to brace himself upon the wall with the arm that held his son, knocking into it his hand and Kent’s head. Kent fell silent, yet his inebriated father thought little of it and tucked his inanimate son back into his crib.
Suzy snapped to attention at 6 am, immediately concerned at the magnitude and length of silence throughout the apartment, and found Kent motionless in his crib. She called the police and wept, clutching her lifeless baby to her chest until they arrived. Kent was taken to the Children’s Hospital of LA, where, at 6:38 am, he was pronounced dead.
An autopsy showed bilateral fractures and hemorrhaging within Kent’s skull. Doctors said the infant was “cold to the touch” when he arrived at the hospital. The medical examiner’s office determined that the cause of death was blunt-force trauma. A groan of disgust echoed throughout the packed courtroom when Suzy testified that when Stephen returned to the bedroom he had kissed her, and whispered in her ear with stale beer breath, “I finally got him to shut the fuck up.”
Stephen had never found a way to slow the party down. The copious amounts of drugs found when the LAPD searched their apartment sealed his fate. He got careless and he lost his son because of it. And then he lost Suzy, all of his friends, and eventually his freedom.
“Maybe you’re right,” Father Sheridan continued. “Maybe you’re right.”
He let another pause fill the cavernous basement’s air and then finally presented the matter at hand.
“Stephen. The Warden came to see me this morning. He told me what you attempted to do last week. I thought we were past this?”
The conversations abrupt turn had blindsided Stephen. I should’ve known, he thought. He hadn’t realized until that very moment that he had been stroking his left wrist. The wrist that he had attempted to cut with shards of gravel he smuggled indoors from the prison yard. Stephen slowly lifted his head, and with an even tone, and in a matter of fact manner, repeated the words Father Sheridan had heard from his lips before.
“I don’t deserve to live, Father.”
Father Sheridan, a man who relished in illuminating even the darkest of corners, wasn’t even minimally fazed by the enormity of Stephen’s confession.
“Sure you do, Stephen! Don’t be ridiculous.”
Father Sheridan’s dismissive tone wasn’t a surprise to Stephen; at this point they knew each other well. He knew it would be impossible to explain his desire to extinguish the fires of his unrelenting pain, and do what the State of California should have done in the first place.
“There is nothing you can say to make me believe I deserve to live,” Stephen offered bluntly.
“Deserve is a funny thing,” Father Sheridan began without skipping a beat. “You can argue that all of us mindlessly walking this mixed up world don’t deserve to be here. I mean, what could we have possibly done to deserve a body, a mind, a soul? No, we really don’t deserve any of this, any way you look at it. But I believe what we need to talk about is atonement.”
“Yes, atonement, Stephen. I think that you don’t really believe you deserve to die at all. Well maybe you do, I can’t say that for certain. But I think that you just can’t face another day in here, thinking about what you did. And I get that. These walls close in fast, and the guilt you are saddled with is unimaginable to most. Crippling. A ten thousand-pound weight, sitting directly upon your chest, suffocating your every waking moment. But, there is a reason you are alive – a fact you must come to grips with. And I believe that reason is that you are being granted the opportunity to eventually forgive yourself, so that you may be forgiven.”
Stephen chuckled a nervous laugh. He wasn’t buying it.
“There is no hope for me, Father.”
“I must ask you, Stephen, if there is no hope for any redemption at all, why do you come to my chapel and continuously ask the Lord for forgiveness? You say there is no hope, you attempt to take your life, yet you are my best client so to speak.”
Father Sheridan was an imposing man, an obese Friar Tuck type with an impossibly manicured beard and a nose that resembled a rotten tomato. His thunderous prose could be heard reverberating off his chapel walls and throughout the adjacent corridors. He had a confidence that humbled even the most heinous of criminals. And although his presence was imposing, he had a pacifying quality about him that allowed one to feel safe, and to open up completely.
Stephen leaned forward in his chair, his eyes almost entirely devoid of life slowly began to manifest a reflection of the halogen light above him as they moistened with tears.
“Because Father, if there is a chance that I could one day be forgiven…..I have to try, don’t I? It’s the only chance I have to ever see my boy again, to hold him, to say I’m…..”
Stephen collapsed into a chorus of sobs and sniffles, fighting yet failing to gain composure. Father Sheridan stood, took a step towards Stephen and placed the palm of his hand softly on his shoulder. He then reassuringly squeezed his withering shoulder, more bone than flesh at this point. “There there, my friend. There there. I trust you have little to fear as far as your forgiveness is concerned. Hell is for those who weep not for what they have done.”
Father Sheridan gently squeezed his shoulder again and then began to walk away from Stephen, allowing him space to cry out a measure of pain, and act frowned upon outside of the chapel walls.
“Father,” Stephen managed between sobs, halting the clergyman in his tracts. “Do you still feel guilty?”
“Everyday. Every….single….day,” Father Sheridan deliberately responded. “Those kids didn’t deserve what happened to them. And I deserve to be right in here with you.”
Father Sheridan continued to walk away and then paused with purpose, turned and faced Stephen, locking eyes with the broken young man.
“But, although I will think of that day for the rest of my life, and I am sickened to death and tortured by the decisions I made – I do believe the man upstairs is going to forgive me, forgive us both for that matter.”
“WHY!” Stephen interrupted with a snarl. “Why would he forgive you? You got drunk and took two of his children from this Earth. You fucked up, just like me.”
“Because,” Father Sheridan went on with a confidant smile. “I have found a way, over time, to forgive myself. And I assure you,” he continued while looking up, “nobody is going to be harder on me than I have been. Not even Him.”
Quantum Spectral Line #3 – by Tom Rau
They drove unencumbered through the rural North Carolina countryside, the two of them and their two black mutts Otis and Sam, who were currently doing their best impressions of Ace Ventura, their heads and upper torsos protruding from the nondescript silver station wagon. The dogs smiles were pushing the limits of elasticity. Please go faster, please go faster, their faces screamed. The car growled over each rolling hill, through each shitty beat-up rural North Carolina town. It sounded like a cross between a go-kart and one of Marge Simpson’s sisters, the result of a dime-shaped hole that had been ripped through the exhaust pipe directly under the drivers seat.
Stephen’s girlfriend Susan liked to give him shit about the sound of his car. There was nothing in the world that tipped him to red faster, save the look on her face as she cherished each new barb. It was a car, and by his standards, which were extremely minimal, a relatively decent car. So it occasionally sounded like some kind of Frankenstonian beast that a 16 year old kid built in his small town shop class. He did not give one or two shits. All he wanted this weekend was to watch the countryside unroll in front of him, to skate across the land and find peace in a world that seemed to be falling apart all around him.
“Hey Tripp,” Susan squawked as they whizzed by two kids piled on top of a riding lawn mower. In passing they somehow resembled a pile of laundry loosely strewn atop of a little used appliance. “Maybe we should race these kids for pink slips. Think this thing can take em?!” His insides seethed at every new word that slithered out of her mouth. Her head appeared slightly oversized, her body bobbing and weaving like a cobra as she taunted him. Her fangs dripped. She currently appeared to him like one of the dragons he conquered in his childhood. He wasn’t sure if this was the result of a blown retina he suffered from a tragic cocaine accident which had left his right eye completely unreliable, or the combination of high quality marijuana cookies and amphetamines he had taken that morning. He also was willing to admit there was at least a small possibility that she was indeed a dragon. Either fucking way, he hated it when she called him Tripp.
Yes, he was the third in the line of Stephen Reginald Holden’s, so technically it was a legitimate nickname. But truthfully both his father and his grandfather were dicks. His grandfather had not one, but two entire additional families that no one had known about for almost fifteen years. In one of the universe’s great acts of comedy his grandfather had been forced to bring them together for Thanksgiving one year because both of his other wives had threatened to leave him if they didn’t spend the holiday together. According to family legend, grandpa had told the same stories to both families, that the other family’s father had recently passed away and that the topic was completely off limits due to the freshness of the wound. Original Stephen then spent all night recounting his blood soaked days in United States military until finally one of the kids broke down over the stories of death and gore and offered his own father up to the other family as consolation. Mass confusion, quickly turned to hysteria. In the end, both women took their families and were never heard from again. Stephen Reginald Holden I was left with one family, unfortunately for Stephen Holden III, aka Tripp, it was his.
All he wanted right now was for the dragon riding in his passenger seat to shut the fuck up. He loved her, he did, but she never stopped. Why did it have to be so all encompassing? Where was the quiet he needed so desperately? Where was his peace? He snapped back into reality to the sound of Susan asking, “Did you know that President Bush’s son is running for governor of Texas, his name is also George. I heard he is a huge cokehead. We should get some coke. Do you have any coke? Did you know….”. He checked out. He was imagining a tire fire stretching all the way across a desert when she finally lost it, “Why are we even taking this trip, huh TRIPP? If you aren’t going to fucking engage in our conversation what is the FUCKING point?” Tripp parried, poorly, without thinking, attempting to slay the dragon, “Whatever is the fucking point! There is no goddamn point. We are here. Then we die. We have the exact same point as every other piece of shit in this universe, to float the fuck around like an asshole for goddamn ever. I just want some fucking peace!”
The immediate sound of silence was deafening. The air flooded with waves of red, both of them struggling to stay afloat in the rolling sea of seething anger. This weekend is going to be SUPER CALI-FAN-FUCKING-GOD-DAMN-TASTIC, his inner dialogue was screaming. For half an hour no one made a noise, not even Otis and Sam, who had both retreated back into the car to witness the melee from a safe distance. They now were both sporting identically pathetic faces, as if someone had taken a dump on all of their dreams and aspirations and failed to wipe.
They continued on across the open world, Susan and Stephen both swaddled in their own anger. As it finally began to fade Stephen was held quiet by the awkwardness of his overreaction. He had no idea what to say, how to tell the woman that he loved that she sometimes drove him crazy. They passed a run down gas station in the most conservative and rural part of the state that advertised both “Authentic Japanese Teriyaki” and “Live Girls!!!.” There’s a great business idea gone terribly wrong, he thought to himself. A split second later, Susan let out a good-natured chuckle, “I bet you like that!” He began to laugh, “Who me? It’s definitely not the worst idea I’ve ever heard.” Susan shot back, still laughing “I think they should call it Big Ol’ Titties and Teriyaki, or Japanese Meats.” He paused, feeling the anger being sucked out of the car, like the explosive decompression of an airliner whose hull has been unexpectedly pierced. “Ya know, you are alright sweet pea,” he reached across the middle console and slipped his middle finger into her lightly closed hand. She was smiling, a few random lines of light breaking through the trees and into the car, reflecting off of her over-sized sunglasses. It was the ideal repose to the shadows that come before dark. She gathered the rest of his hand into hers.
A jet black Camaro careened south around a corner on US Route 29, pumping Guns N’ Roses’ November Rain through the 12” boxes that sat in the back. In the back seat of the silver station wagon, Otis and Sam had returned to the place of pure joy that lays somewhere between the window and wind. “Stephen,” Susan said, pausing to make sure she choose her next words perfectly. He turned to look at her with both eyes, the shadows and light dancing playfully across her face.
For a moment all he could hear was the sound of the wind, the natural music of the universe. There was no more talking, no more need for human interaction. For a brief instant there was only white noise blowing through the trees.
Quantum Spectral Line #4 – by Chris Thompson
Suzy Holden barged into her bedroom a woman on a mission. Her usually tranquil face wore a look of quiet determination and a scowl that said ‘No’ would not be an acceptable answer. As she crossed the bedroom, her bare feet thudded dully on the hardwood floor, reminding her of youth and childhood ballerina classes. Coming to a stop before a row of tall, curtained windows, she pirouetted to face the bed, letting slip a playful smile as she glanced at the form deposited beneath the covers. She was enjoying the thought of what was about to happen, but she caught herself before it grew too large and refocused on the task at hand.
She turned quickly back to the windows and raised herself up onto her toes, the calf muscles of her legs tensing as they took her weight, and she grabbed firmly onto the thick fabric of the bedroom curtains. In one swift motion she flung them open, saturating the darkened room with a powerful flood of morning light.
“Rise and shine hun! It’s already seven thirty! You’re going to be late!” She called out, twisting on her toes to again face the bed, a wide grin plastered upon her face and the warmth of the morning sun wrapping around her like a thin, gossamer blanket. This was her favorite time of day, when the sun began its slow trek above the hills of LA, flooding the valley with its rosy light and rousing the restless city from its hard-fought slumber.
“Five more minutes Suz. That’s all I need. Can you give me that?” Tripp, her husband of four years groaned, his words muffled by their soft journey through layers of crumpled blankets and pillows.
“Tripp…c’mon! This is important. You need to get up. Today’s a big day,” Suzy was beside the bed now, her back still to the window, and its strong light continued to devour her. It flowed through her thin, cotton slip like a flashlight’s beam through wax paper, suggestive but not revealing, hinting of her body’s young, athletic frame.
“All the more reason why I need the extra time babe,” Tripp responded, burrowing deeper into the bedclothes to avoid the penetrating light. “Why don’t you get the shower started for me and I’ll meet you in there?”
“Noooo way Mister. I know how that one goes,” Suzy shot back, jumping atop Tripp and digging through the folds to find him. Quickly she exposed a shoulder, and then a toned, muscular arm tattooed with a wide band of coiled double helix’s. Finally she dug free Tripp’s smiling face.
“You know how what goes?” he grinned, grabbing Suzy by her hips and tossing her easily aside, coming to rest straddled atop her frame. With his hands he playfully pinned down her wrists, rendering her helpless within his grasp.
“Meeting you in the shower. I know how that goes. Don’t you remember?” She squealed as Tripp began to tickle her sides. “That’s how we got that five year old terror asleep in the bedroom next door. I’ll put the shower on for you Tripp, but I sure as hell won’t be in it.”
“I can’t hear you…I’m sleeping,” Tripp called out with a smirk, collapsing back into the still warm blankets and feigning slumber. He threw a pillow quickly over his face to cover his eyes from the encroaching light.
“You know, you’re like a child sometimes,” Suzy said dismissively, rolling off the bed and smoothing out her slip as she sat upon its edge. “Like there’s a ten year old trapped inside of you pulling all the strings.”
“I like the sound of that! Can I stay home from school today then?”
“Ha, ha. Seriously though Tripp, you need to get out of bed! I’ve let you sleep late enough as it is. Ali will be here with the car soon enough to pick you up. Stop wasting time.”
“Fine! You win Suzy. I’m up,” Tripp said, tossing an easily dodged pillow in her direction. “How about our little wild-child next door? Is he awake yet?”
“Maria’s getting him up now. She’s already made breakfast too so all you have to do is get dressed and come downstairs. The rest of the day’s taken care of hun. Your only worries are focusing on your speech and knocking this presentation out of the park. Maria and I will take care of everything else. Now get up mister, because I think I’m starting to see where our son gets his laziness from. I swear, if the two of you had it your way, you’d sleep your entire lives away.”
“Awww that’s not fair Suz! It’s genetic. Not a thing me and Kent can do about it. You want to blame someone for our laziness, blame those damn caveman who gave us men all our DNA!”
“Let me know if you ever find one,” Suzy said as she drifted out the door, pulling on her favorite robe. “I have a lot more complaints about you men that I’d like to bring up with him.”
Suzy left and Tripp closed his eyes, listening to her sounds as she moved about their spacious home. He heard the squeak of the brass faucets as she turned on the shower and the hissing of the water upon the Italian tile as it came up to temp. Then he heard the creaking of the loose floorboards in the hallway, the ones he had promised to fix a thousand times, as she went in to see how their nanny Maria was faring with their son Kent. A moment later he heard his son’s bedroom door creak open and his wife’s soft, familiar greeting to their son.
“Rise and shine little man. It’s time to start your day…”
“Five more minutes mommy!” Tripp could hear him call. “Maria won’t let me, but I wanna sleep some more like daddy!”
Like father, like son Tripp thought to himself, smiling as he folded his arms behind his head. He definitely got that one from me. All his life Tripp had put up high, impenetrable walls, keeping all but a slim handful of people at arms length. Never truly letting those that cared about him in. And in one fell swoop his son Kent had obliterated those walls simply by existing. Becoming a father had changed Tripp for the better, inspired him to get his life back on track, showing him the beauty in becoming a part of something larger than himself. That thought alone could always make him smile.
He lingered in bed with his eyes closed a few moments longer, his thoughts adrift on the seas of his over-active mind. He tried to chase down the fleeting tendrils of last nights dream but found its essence slowly fading, the memories too far gone. Sighing, he reluctantly rolled out of bed and stood, pulling on the silk robe he kept slung over a nearby chair.
The robe was a yukata. Silk. Hand made in Japan by an established family of fine tailors and expensive as hell. Following in the tradition of bright, vivid colors and bold patterns worn by the Japanese youth, this robe had two crested dragons intertwined about a flaming sun in fine embroidery upon its back. About its waist was slung a thin, heko-style obi, a type of belt decorated in precise, repetitive swirls of crimson and black that Tripp used to fasten the robe snugly. The dressing robe had been a gift from a wealthy Japanese investor and was a subtle reminder to Tripp of the importance of this day.
As he sat back down on the edge of the bed, Tripp thought of his life and the convoluted path that had led him here. Glancing down to his bedside table, he pushed away the piles of crumpled papers and stacks of scientific journals littering its top to reveal a black and white, framed photograph of his father and him. Tripp was but a child in the photo and perched upon his fathers wide-set shoulders. Large, grinning smiles were plastered on both of their faces as they stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon, the plunging depths of the landscape falling off steeply behind them. It was an idyllic photo, from a simpler time in Tripp’s life that lately seemed to have happened ages ago. Tripp picked up the photo and cradled it gently within his hands, letting it come to rest within the silken folds of his lap. He stared at it for a long moment and then lifted his head, gazing out the windows to the dense splendor of LA spread-out below, a familiar voice beginning to sound within his head.
She loves you you know?…
“…I know that dad.”
Probably more than you love her…
“…Don’t say that.”
You know it’s true son. Search yourself Stephen. This is your voice. You made me up and put me inside your head…
“…I know dad. I do love her. A lot. But you know how it is right now. I’ve got my work to contend with. It’s never been more important to me than it is right now. Today especially. When this is all over, and our future’s been solidified, then I plan on getting back to work on loving Suz.”
You better son. She needs you. All of you. Not just the fun-loving boy that she married out of high school. She needs a man that she can trust. Can depend on. That can keep her and Kent safe. That boy of yours needs a father too you know? I see a lot of you in him just like I saw a lot of me in you. That’s a dangerous thing without guidance. My absence almost ruined you Stephen. You know that. Don’t make the same mistake with Kent…
“…But you had no choice dad. You had to leave. It was your time.”
That still doesn’t make it okay Stephen. I should’ve made better plans. Ensured you and your mother were in good hands…
“…You went so fast.”
I know I did. I was diagnosed and then I was gone. You were only four…
“…I was five, I remember it all.”
That’s right. Of course. You were five. How could I forget? The same age as Kent is now. That’s an important age. An age when a father should be around Stephen. Remember that son, it’s important. You know, I didn’t let your mother know right away when I first found out I was sick? I didn’t tell her until I absolutely had too. Until it was way too late. That was selfish and a mistake…
“…I forgive you.”
I know you do Stephen. But let’s not repeat history with your son okay? You’re alive. You’re here. Time to show up and start acting like it. Will you do that for yourself? For us?…
“…I won’t let you down dad. I promise.”
Tripp showered and got dressed quickly, putting on the outfit his wife had laid-out for him. Outfit was the only term he could think of as he stared up at the clothing hanging on his dresser door. He had never been one to stay abreast of current fashion trends so his wife had carefully picked-out this look for him after an afternoon spent shopping on Rodeo Drive. She had assured him of its appropriateness, of its necessity in the ‘game’. The style was in line with the current ‘Modern Preppy’ look that had overtaken LA’s wealthy elite and Tripp stood before the garments, taking them in with a frown. He fingered the sharp crease of the slacks and the stiff collar of the dress shirt. It screamed uncomfortable. Shrugging his shoulders in acquiescence he put on the khaki slacks, canvas boat shoes, and navy blue blazer with its breast-pocket monogram and gold buttons. The look was not him at all. He felt like he was putting on a Halloween costume. Give me a pipe and a sea captain’s hat and the looks complete he thought laughing at himself in the mirror. Tripp, more comfortable in a pair of jeans, Chuck Taylor’s and a pocket tee, had wanted to go in a different direction for his talk, but his wife had dutifully reminded him that sometimes you have to dress the part. He’d put on the clothes Tripp had told his wife, and mingle with the investors, even wade through the throngs of people all looking the same with a smile on his face, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. My hero Suzy had said, batting her eyelashes at him with a smile.
As Tripp walked down the hallway, moving awkwardly in his new clothes he passed by his music room. The door was ajar, revealing walls decorated in autographed posters of the biggest names in grunge rock. Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, STP, Alice in Chains, all of Tripp’s favorites were there. He could see Maria inside tidying up, straightening the towering piles of papers upon Tripp’s desk and humming along to the music coming from the headphones of her new Sony Walkman. Pausing to look in, Tripp caught the reflection of the morning sun on the frets of his Lake Placid Blue Fender Mustang guitar. It was the same type of guitar that Kurt Cobain had played while filming the music video to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and Tripp was overcome with a strong urge to walk in and pick it up. Maybe turn up the amp, shred out some chords and kick his loafers off. But he resisted. Later Tripp thought. Focus. Today is a big day.
Kent’s eyes looked up from his breakfast, eagerly following Tripp as he came down the stairs. “Daddy!” Kent yelled, putting his arms out wide for a hug. Tripp strolled over to Kent and wrapped his arms around his son, doing his best to hug him in the stiff fabric of the navy blue blazer. “Why are you dressed up for Halloween Daddy?” Kent asked, looking from Tripp to Suzy. “Is today Halloween Mommy? Can I have candy?”
“No honey. Today isn’t Halloween. Daddy has a big meeting today and needs to look nice for all the people.”
“Is Daddy’s meeting on a ship Mommy? Like the big one’s we saw the other day in the harbour?”
“No….Daddy’s meeting isn’t on a ship honey,” Suzy caught the smile on Tripp’s face and burst out loudly in a fit of uncontrollable laughter. “Come to think of it, you do look kinda like a sea captain Tripp.”
“Hey you picked this ensemble out babe,” Tripp said, spinning around so she could take it in. “There’s no going back now. This ship has….er, set sail.”
“Funny, Tripp. Now take a seat and have some breakfast. Ali just called on the car phone and will be here in five minutes.”
Ali pulled up to the front gate exactly five minutes later like he had said. He was good like that. It helped balance-out the perpetual lateness that seemed to plague Tripp. As Suzy walked over to the intercom and buzzed Ali in, Tripp watched on the closed circuit televisions between shovelfuls of scrambled eggs as Ali drove his opal-colored Jaguar XJ sedan down the driveway and up to the front of the house.
“Gotta go love’s!” Tripp yelped, bolting upright from his chair and grabbing a piece of buttered toast for the road as Ali’s car came to a stop. He walked over to Kent and kissed him lovingly on the forehead. Then he walked over to Suzy and flashed her a wide grin. “I got this babe,” he said. “Wish me luck!”
“Good luck Daddy!” Kent spat through a mouthful of eggs. “Have fun on your sailing trip.”
“Knock ‘em dead Tripp,” Suzy said, slapping him firmly on the ass as he walked away. Tripp jumped, momentarily shocked and looked over his shoulder at his smirking wife. Suzy had a wild side that drove Tripp crazy and if this meeting ended well today, he reckoned he might get a chance to see a little bit more of that side later.
Ali was there waiting for Tripp when he exited the house, his short, rotund frame leaning back against the front hood of the expertly polished car. Ali had on a pair of mirrored aviators and Tripp caught his reflection in the silvery frames. “Wudda think Ali?” Tripp said, holding out his arms so his oldest friend could take him in.
“Very….ah, very sharp looking master Stephen. Very sharp.”
“You don’t have to lie to me Ali. You and me we go wayyyy back. I know I look ridiculous. But if it helps me close this deal today, I don’t care. How’s your family old man? The wife and kids are well?”
“Yes, yes master Stephen. They are well, thank you. They send their good wishes for your success today.”
“Thanks Ali. That means a lot to me.”
Ali opened the Jaguar’s door and Tripp climbed in, sinking into the soft brown leather of the vehicles rear. Ali already had the air conditioning running full blast and the cars interior was a welcome relief from the intense summer heat. Ali closed the door and then ambled slowly round to the front, getting into the drivers side with a low grunt.
“Where to, Master Stephen?”
“Library Tower, Ali.”
“Okay, Master Stephen.”
“Yes, Master Stephen?”
“I say it everyday, Ali. Every time you pick me up and I’m going to say it again. Stephen was my fathers name, Ali. I’m Tripp. Not master Stephen. Not Stephen Holden the third. Just call me Tripp, Ali, okay?”
“Yes, Master Steven.”
“Argh, one day you’re going to call me Tripp, Ali. I guarantee it.”
Ali and Tripp drove along in silence, making their way down the winding hills onto the massive, car-choked freeways that fed into downtown Los Angeles. Tripp was deep in thought, going over his speech in his head. He had a perfect, photographic memory, a gift from his father, and called up each index card of his speech, reading the words over in his mind, pausing for laughter after a joke or rising in tone for the emphasis of an important idea. Feeling confident about his prospects, he put the cards away in his mind and brought his thoughts back to Ali.
“You know, when my dad died, Ali, it was just you and Mr. Proctor, my high school Biology teacher, who stepped up and took any interest me. Mom was done for you know, Dad’s death obliterated her and she was never the same again. I just want you to know that I’m grateful for what you did for me, Ali. My father was lucky to be able to call you his friend and I hope that you see me in the same way.”
“Of course, Master Stephen, I could not think of….”
“I mean, I just felt so lost for such a long time,” Tripp interrupted, suddenly overcome with a need to get his emotions out. “If it wasn’t for you and Mr. Proctor weaving yourself into my life, anchoring me to the ground, I just know I would’ve floated away. Ended up lost somewhere in the world, blowing through my inheritance and hiding from the pain. I just want to say thank you, Ali. I don’t think I’ve ever said that to you before.”
“Do not mention it, Master Stephen. Your father was my good friend, he took me in and helped me when no one else would. Put a roof over my head and helped me to provide for my family. My debt to him extends beyond this lifetime and into the next. He was a great man, your father, Master Stephen. A powerful thinker. Despite the sadness and pain that often times covered the world, he could still see the greatness of humanities future. It’s merely a matter of properly motivating the people he would tell me all the time and it was to this singular purpose he devoted his life. I see this ability in you too. You will do great things in this lifetime, Master Stephen, and your future is now. It starts here today.”
Tripp sat there in silence and let that thought wash over him. He could see it all in his mind. All his pasts and futures were there, splayed out before him. The fear. The doubt. The confusion. But also the confidence and the success. They were all possible routes his future could take. If you had asked him six years ago in which direction he was headed, the answer would have came easily: darkness and failure. But with the support of some truly remarkable people, the boundless love of his wife, and the birth of his son, his mind had slowly changed. His future was now cloaked in brightness and success, happiness and joy. It was palpable, vibrating on the shimmering air and all he had to do was reach out and snatch it.
The future is now, Tripp thought as Ali pulled the car up before the soaring Library Tower and he stepped outside.
The future is now….