Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Floating World

I was sixteen, so I guess the whole thing was endowed with that sixteen year-old feeling, which I can’t really describe except to say that new things seemed to be happening all the time and none of them were really that bad.

I didn’t get along with my parents. When I was home, we argued all the time. There was this increasing sense that the disappointment I was causing them was going to become a permanent thing. Up until that point, it looked like it might have been possible to turn things around and go back to being the decent kid I had been. But now I couldn’t seem to halt my progress of becoming a pain in the ass.

The way I saw it, everyone else just couldn’t accept what I knew to be true: we were all pretty much all a bunch of bastards. The only thing to do was to reject everything. You couldn’t even talk to me about it. I had the answer and didn’t need to listen to any more conjecture. Rejecting everything was an easy credo to maintain and I didn’t want anything messing with it.  

Embittered as I was, I was still having fun. I guess that’s what I mean about the sixteen year-old feeling. I learned things that upset me, but I just let them roll off my back. It was the first time I had been able to feel bothered and simultaneously unconcerned about something. I had always been bad at stuff like that and I used to hit every problem head on like a brick wall. My first year of school, I cried every day for the first few weeks. I couldn’t shake the idea that I’d been abandoned. When I was ten and my parents left me at my grandma’s to take a vacation, they’d hardly driven away when I began to convince myself that they’d died and that I’d be alone forever with my autistic sister. I went behind the garage, which looked out over a field that was stubbly with the remains of some kind of crop. The sun was setting. I sat at the edge of the field and planted my feet down in one of the furrows of loose earth. I watched the sun set while I lashed myself with the words ‘your parents are dead’ over and over until tears came into my eyes and it seemed I would grow up with only this gnarled field for love. After years of feeling this way, it was liberating to have finally achieved apathy. 

I wasn’t in love or anything. No girl would have me. There was a girl named Michelle. Everyone actually called her ‘stache as in ‘mustache.’ She didn’t seem to mind. Someone would say “hey, ‘stache!” and she’d come over like it was her name. I got drunk one night and convinced myself that she had something no one could see. She said ‘no’ and I remember thinking that I must’ve been pretty pathetic to not even be able to get ‘stache for a girlfriend. But it didn’t bother me. Like I said, things just happened.

One of those things that I remember in incredible detail was that Ryan and I tried to stay awake for an entire weekend. Although we only made it one night, it changed my perspective. I guess my threshold for spiritual quests was low enough that a single night wandering around in the snow was equivalent to a few weeks in the desert. The weightlessness of the buildings, the way the hulks of frozen snow and light rendered everything inert and useless, it was all the furniture of a floating world and even my rejection of it was decadent.

I’d met Ryan before. He had sold punk records out of his parents’ house. I went over on my bike when I was about 14 and bought an LP and a few 7”s. He was eating pistachios out of a bag from the health food store, which seemed like the weirdest thing to me. He moved to California a few weeks later. I forgot about him until someone mentioned that he’d come back. We all called him ‘Captain’ so everyone was talking about how Captain was back, but I didn’t expect him to remember me. We’d only met once. 

He was sitting on a washing machine, at a basement show one night listening to the bands, nodding his head. A band played a Code 13 cover and dedicated it to him because they’d bought the record in his parents’ basement. I had a few drinks and went up and we started talking. He said my band needed to practice more, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t really even interested in being in a band. It was just something to do. When the last band was hauling their stuff out, we went outside and talked standing in the ruts made in the snow made by the cars, each of us wearing tennis shoes. I was kind of drunk by then. I told him about all the records I bought since I’d seen him last and gave my opinion of each one. Ryan had an encyclopedic knowledge of the DIY punk world and added pertinent comments as to who had been in each band and what they were doing now. He was older than I was and obviously knew much more, but the way he talked included me. He ended every statement with a “right?” like he wasn’t sure and thought maybe I’d know, although I knew nothing and was just some drunk kid standing on a snowy street.

Ryan came over the next night in his dad’s pickup truck. My head was still kind of fuzzy and I couldn’t think of much to say. We listened to a tape of a band I’d never heard of with a name that sounded like it was in another language. I had to keep kicking my feet together. The floor was too far down for the heater to reach and the cold was rising through the rubber floor mats. Ryan asked where we were going and Taco Bell seemed like the most convenient place to suggest.

In comparison to the dark and empty streets, the dining area was as bright as an emergency room. I walked up to the counter, stomping my frozen feet and ordered a bag of bean burritos that had heft like a garbage bag and a cup for water that I filled with orange slice. Ryan didn’t get anything and politely looked out the window when I unrolled the burritos to squeeze copious amounts of hot sauce onto them.

I felt better after eating and the conversation in the truck picked up a little. We went to Meijer’s and walked through the mercantile vastness. No one seemed to be around, the streets, the Taco Bell and now Meijer’s had all been empty. On the way home, we listened to the same tape of the band with the weird name and Ryan told me about the band and their myriad connections to the greater DIY world. I tried to make jokes about the bumper stickers on passing cars.

We started hanging out after that. Ryan moved out of his parents’ place and in with Katrina, then Katrina moved out and Ryan lived with a series of roommates who were never at home. I’d go hang out at his place all the time. He never seemed to be doing much but listening to records, so usually we’d sit on the living room floor and talk about bands. I was always a little nervous he was going to play something really important that I wouldn’t be able to recognize or that I’d mistake one band for another or just say something dumb. But gradually, I started to relax around Ryan. He seemed to be completely free of the latent desire most people have to pass judgment.

Around this time, everything really started to go to hell at home, but I was sixteen so I had that underwater feeling about all of it, like it wasn’t really happening or at least if it was happening, it didn’t matter. My dad moved out. My sister went to live in a home and I have this memory of standing on Ryan’s porch late at night that winter. It was one of those open porches that the snow drifts up onto and gets all stomped down by people walking in and out of the house. The bootprints only go from the stairs to the door. The rest of the porch, with the chairs and ashtrays, is frozen and untouched, like something after Chernobyl. I was standing on this porch. It was late at night, freezing cold out and quiet. I was smoking, trying not to use my hands so I wouldn’t have to take them out of my pockets. I listened to the glissade of cars trundling down the frozen streets, blocks away. I think it was a weeknight. You could almost hear everyone asleep. I looked down the street. The streetlights were so intense there were no shadows. The snow that the plows had piled up was frozen in golden crags. Everything the snow didn’t cover, like the ground under the arborvitae along people’s homes, bedroom windows and car tires looked wet and black. Everything else looked like burnished gold. 
The streetlights vibrated like florescent lights. I wanted to stay out after I finished my cigarette, but it was too cold. I went inside, wrapped myself up in the blankets and my sweatshirt that smelled like smoke and wind and lay down on the old oatmeal-colored couch. I fell asleep immediately, sinking into the crease where the cushions met the backrest and still hearing the blurry hum of the streetlights outside.

The next day we started talking about staying up all night. Ryan said he’d stayed up before for something like three nights in a row. I’d never done more than one. It seemed amazing to me that I’d been so impatient to accomplish the goal of staying up all night as a kid but then, soon after I’d achieved it, dropped the idea of staying up longer as something unworthy of my attention. We agreed to try to stay up all of the next weekend.

My dad called home that week. I hadn’t talked to him since he’d moved out. When I heard his voice on the phone, I handed it to my mom without saying anything for a reply. My sister came home and stayed with us for a few days and then she went back to the group home. I took naps on the couch every day after school and my mom woke me up for dinner when she got home. It was usually getting dark, by then.

I stayed up late and tried to write. I wrote a lot about snow and different kinds of light, waiting so long for the right word that it sometimes took more than half an hour to write a sentence and even then it wasn’t anywhere near what I wanted to say.

That Friday, I walked to Ryan’s after school. We listened to some records and then made dinner: a bunch of sautéed vegetables, brown rice and half a bottle of Bragg’s. I had a few plates and all the rice felt like a brick in my stomach. I went outside to smoke and it was getting dark. It must’ve been early January because it wasn’t much later than 5 o’clock and the streetlights were already coming on. A few cars went by on West Ave. but there were few other sounds.

It was exceedingly cold, so we stayed indoors most of the night watching movies and talking. I went out to the porch every few hours to smoke. Around three am, I started clenching my jaw as a subtle way to keep myself awake. There didn’t seem to be anything to do inside that didn’t involve sitting down in one way or another and, every time I sat, I started to fall asleep. Ryan seemed fine, but he saw my drooping eyes and suggested we take a walk. Not ready to give up on the idea of staying up all weekend so early, I agreed.

Whatever minimal sounds had been drifting around earlier in the evening had been killed. The street had the prickly silence of something abandoned that had not hosted sound in years. There was no wind. About a block away, like a watch’s second hand, I could hear the periodic tic of the traffic light which had switched from red, yellow and green to flashing yellow— north to south— and red— east to west.

Going out into the night was like falling into some huge frozen body of water like Lake Baikal. The snow lay heaped around like slag and our bodies seemed to dissipate in the intense cold. A breath billowed out like a mouthful of cottony cigar smoke; each word we spoke chugged out like a locomotive puff. The snow crunched under our shoes like soft ice between the back teeth.

Most people on the block had not shoveled the sidewalks in front of their homes and the path was limited to a narrow gorge where the snow had been trod by people passing in the day, most of them probably going up to the corner store to buy cigarettes or lotto tickets.

The gas station was closed. The Wendy’s was dark and the parking lot that had been recently cleared was already dusted with snow. The traffic lights ticked on and off and drew the world in red and black. And on it went. Down the street, the Little Caesar’s and the liquor store were closed. The Heavenly Ham was closed. 

The concepts behind these places seemed much more obscure with all the storefronts dark and shuttered. Why ham? Why did we need a specific store for ham? And why was it here? It could’ve been anywhere. Was there a reason why they put it here? We shook out heads, uncomprehending.

Unconsciously, we were walking downtown. After Mason Street, the buildings grew by a few stories and you could hear them up there, with their loose hanging fire escapes, cutting through the wind. The lights on the tops of the TV antennae, cast a red glow on the buildings that made them look pixilated. It was colder downtown where the buildings were taller and there were fewer trees to halt the progress of the swelling wind. I had to pee. I would’ve gone outside, but we saw a security guard standing in the doors of an old building, smoking, and asked if I could use the bathroom. A peaceable old guy, he agreed, tossed his cigarette into the street and stood back from the door to let us in. I slipped down the faux marble floors to the bathroom and Ryan talked with the guard. Their voices rising and falling like shadows in candlelight descending a staircase. The building’s echo made all the plosive sounds in their voices pock like tennis balls being overhanded down the dark hallways.

Back outside, I couldn’t tell how far we were from morning. The sky looked mauve-grey. It may have been the streetlights and all the neon floating and squirming through the glass tubes twisted into the soft contours of the word ‘open’ over and over.  

We walked back west, past St. Mary’s, and came out over on Brown Street. Even the gas stations were closed. It was like being conscious for your own blackout, walking down streets that you weren’t supposed to remember in the morning. On Brown, we walked by a bank and started talking about a girl Ryan had met there.

“Yeah,” his words each muffled by vapor, his eyes fogged over under his glasses. “But she works at a bank.”

I thought about this for a while. Imagining a young teller, brown hair pulled back into a bun, subtle indications that she was still young: perfume, horn rim glasses, turquoise nail polish. I saw how she’d be nice to everyone, even to someone with only 82.00 dollars in his account.

“Yeah, but what if she hates it?” I asked in frozen white syllables.

“Working at the bank?”

“Yeah. What if it was the only job she could get and every day she goes in to that 70s-looking building with all the same coworkers who have been there for years thinking ‘God, I’ve got to get out of here’? ”

“Then she should.”

“What if she couldn’t?”

“Why not?”

I ignored this. “But wouldn’t you say it’s possible that you and her could have something in common? What if she likes the same movies you do?”

“Ha.” The laugh came out in ghostly burst and drifted up while the hollow sound of it rang out like a wrench dropped in an empty garage. “I doubt it,” Ryan said, shaking his head.

We talked about the bank teller until we reached the Westwood Mall. Ryan wouldn’t concede to asking her out. I countered by insisting that she was probably one of the most interesting people in town and declared, only half-jokingly, that I’d ask her out if he wouldn’t. I saw myself going in and starting up a savings account on the pretense of talking to her. I saw her driving me around in her ‘90 Focus with the rust around the wheel wells. I smoked cigarettes and changed the stations until the cold brought me back to the present scene and the extinguished McDonald’s sign blocking out a dirty ‘M’ shape against the black sky signaling the beginning of Blackman Township.

We passed the old Jewel Osco and the sidewalk ended. There were no footprints on the shoulder so we walked in the street, stomping to knock the snow off our shoes again. We crossed the railroad tracks in front of the Mopar plant that looked abandoned behind the low wall of snow that had drifted up around it. A grey water tower sagged over the building. In the faint light I could almost make out the FORD SUCKS that someone had spraypainted up there years before.

It had begun to snow again and the wind had abated. The heavy flakes were falling through the dark with the sound of someone pouring salt onto a plate. Neither of us was wearing a good coat and we frequently had to brush the snow from our shoulders so it wouldn’t start to melt and dampen our clothes. A car drove past and a flume of marijuana smoke drifted out, smelling alien in the cold, like a distant jungle on fire. The smell chased the red tail lights down into the dark meadows around the airport, down by the highway on the north side of town, in the direction we were walking.

Any town on a major highway has at least two parts to it: the central shopping area and the chain stores out by the highway. In Jackson, these districts are separated by a swath of empty, treeless land where, in the summer, the grass grows long and turns yellow and, in the winter, the snow lies even and peaceful over the hillocks left by the tufts of long, dead grass. There’s an airport runway out there and, as we walked by, lights flashed over the snow. After the bright flash, the contrasting dark was difficult to navigate and we walked through patches of light and darkness, leaving drunken, lurching footprints behind us. The cars going down 94 were muted by the snow. From less than 300 feet away, we could hardly hear them, but their lights spun through the trees and falling snow like cruising searchlights.

The area between the highway and Argyle St. has a long bight of sidewalk that bridges the empty area. The county had cleared this stretch of sidewalk recently and it still had partially submerged look that concrete dug out of a snow bank often has. In the summer, one often found abandoned shopping carts and the broken ink tags of stolen merchandise scattered along the sidewalk but now there was nothing but a meandering set of bootprints coming from the other direction. The freshness of which indicated that we had probably come close to overtaking this traveler and I wondered how we had missed him and where he’d been going.

At the top of the hill, the sidewalk runs out again over the highway overpass. In the day, it’s difficult to cross the exchange, but at 4 am, we walked across slowly, stepping down from the last plate of sidewalk with the balls of our feet to keep the rising snow from spilling over the tops of our shoes.

On the other side of the overpass, the Denny’s glowed like a candle placed in the window of an empty house. The bottoms of the plate glass windows were fogged up with melting snow, conversation, newspaper ink and coffee steam. Looking in at the hunched forms and the meringue-colored lights, I imagined the rattle of dozens of coffee spoons stirring at once, the crinkling papers and the springy clink of zippo lighters and quickened my pace.

We stomped the snow off our shoes, crossing the recently plowed parking lot. The cars of the third shift waitresses and cooks at the back of the lot were covered in snow, about four inches, like they’d been there for months. Even the side mirrors balanced little caps of snow. By the door, the snow had been knocked off the newspaper vending machines, probably by the guy who stocked the papers—an aspect of the job you don’t really think about.

I opened the door and the jangly, warm sounds of encapsulated humanity came floating out into the dark, like a particularly crackly fire.

A waitress, grabbed two of the greasy, oversized laminated menus from the box by the register and cocked them under her arm in a business-like manner. “Two?” She asked. We nodded. “Smoking or non—?” I looked at Ryan. He nodded, slightly. “Smoking.” I told the waitress and she marched us to the back of the restaurant.

A few solo diners looked up to watch us walk by, but most were too busy watching the snow continue falling outside through the steam of their coffee. The conversation in the air had a showered and baggy-eyed quality, like people still weren’t too sure what they were saying to each other, or what the sense was in talking at all.

The waitress tossed the sticky menus down signaling our table, a semi-circular booth in the back, too big for two people. I ordered coffee, Ryan, orange juice and, to our waitress’ irritation, we returned the menus saying we didn’t need anything else. “That’s all you want?” She asked, clarifying. “Yeah,” I nodded. My eyes burned and I couldn’t tell if it was because I hadn’t slept or a result of all the ambient smoke. I pulled out my cigarettes and put them on the table, waiting until the coffee came before lighting one. Ryan and I didn’t seem to have much more to say to each other. We were tired enough to have retreated into our own bleary thoughts in lieu of retreating into our warm, unmade beds.

When the coffee came, I took a deep breath over the top of the cup and let the steam warm my lungs and face before taking a drink. When I looked up, I noticed that the room was full of older middle aged men. The waitresses were the only women. The men were all slightly slouched in their seats, like they were waiting for someone important to meet them, but didn’t want to look overly-expectant. A lot of them reminded me of my dad and I thought about him living in the apartments across from the jr. high. I imagined him coming in here early in the morning for breakfast with the same filmy expression.

The snow started falling thick and fast outside and the volume of conversation increased a little in wonder. As I watched it, it began to look as though the snowflakes were stationary points of light, like stars, and that we were the ones rushing up into the sky, like the whole restaurant had become unmoored and was racing up to the moon.

Ryan was holding his orange juice like he was trying to finish a thought before taking a drink. The waitresses were thanking the tired-looking men and the bus boys were crashing the leftover portions of eggs and toast and coffee into those big black tubs. The Denny’s kept rising through the snow and each patron that went out for their car, pitched headlong into the darkness. I imagined stepping out of the door and the cold wind fluttering the damp and salt encrusted ends of my untied shoelaces as I fell. I saw my mom float by, her long winter coat sounding like a flag snapping in the wind. I saw my sister in her home, flanked by smoking CNAs like hideous caryatids. And my dad, sinking like a stone, with the same tired look and his hair fluttering up, away from the direction of his fall.

We paid the bill and stepped out into the salt-smeared foyer, pulling zippers up, hats down and gloves on. The highway was ahead of us, carved out like a shallow canyon. The muffled sounds of traffic increased as we pushed open the door. “Hey,” I said to Ryan, turning as I pushed open the door. “I bet that bank teller is probably down there right now driving to work. Don’t you think?” A trickle of sunlight was running down the highway on the roofs of the eastbound traffic. Ryan thought about it a minute and then answered. “Yeah, I bet she is.”  And we stepped outside.

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