Unease in Maine

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JJ watched the fire, the pulsating red coals down in there, below the wood. Camping in Maine on the road trip with Lila. A beautiful night, high fifties, perfect weather for this perfect campfire after a sun soaked day. Stars out, not a cloud in the sky.

JJ was uneasy.

In fact he was downright irritable. Earlier, he had watched Lila as she ate a lobster. (Not Lobstah! JJ saw the t-shirts. People who bought a t-shirt with the word “Lobstah” on it? Morons.) JJ looked at Lila as Lila gazed at the picturesque Maine harbor. Revulsion at her chewing. He noticed the age in her face, the lines around her eyes, and the way her throat moved when she swallowed. He watched her crack the shell of the poor little prehistoric monster on her plate, her fingers dripping with butter. She was really enjoying herself! All that moist ripping and relishing of juices. Brutal! Who the hell was this woman?

“Eat it, JJ,” she said. “Just do it.”

He had started to. And the tail meat was good. Except there was this brown goop that clung where the tail met the body, soiling the nice white meat. It was persistent, the clinging of this brown goop. It wouldn’t rinse away and it just smeared when he tried to flick it off. He couldn’t ignore that. Shit? Guts? Brown effluvium from any body; crustacean, mammal, or other; should never be eaten. Seriously.

“It’s okay,” she said. “It all tastes like the sea.”

But he couldn’t eat any more of it and she shook her head as if he had left his cap on during the national anthem.

And now in front of their perfect campfire on this perfect evening he couldn’t shake that peevish feeling. What’s the big deal? Except that Lila had moved on and was toasting a marshmallow with the focus of a chef working some delicate morsel over the flame. The tip of her tongue stuck out in concentration and the light gave her face a glow and god, yes, she was beautiful. It just annoyed and shamed him all over again.

He got his own stick, impaled a marshmallow, and shoved it into the flames. The mallow caught fire and sizzled as the flame worked around it, leaving a black flaky shell.

“JJ!” she said.

“That’s the way I like it.”

“Okay,” she said. “Look at mine.” She showed him the golden swollen orb on the stick. She put her head back and dramatically lowered the mallow into her open mouth like an eager fire eater. She closed her mouth and removed the stick, molten white mallow coating the point, and she moaned with delight. She savored, smiled, and then said, “You’re going to have a hard time matching up with that tonight.”

To JJ, she looked grotesque in the firelight, like some ravenous wood goddess devouring bits of men as they were forced to watch. “I’m going for a walk,” JJ said and started away into the dark.

“That’s my last try tonight,” Lila said and threw the stick toward the fire. It clattered on the fire ring and bounced away. “Come back when you’re done being a dick.”

“It might be awhile.”

“That’s fine.”

He walked away from the firelight and was fully wrapped in the dark.

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That’s That

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“This is perfect,” Carl said. “A door closes and God opens a window.”

“So,” JJ said. “She’s serious this time.”  They spoke of Anne, Carl’s lukewarm wife.

“Who knows, who knows? She’s seriously fed up. The usual shit. No ambition, no money, look what those people have, why can’t we have that. Same old shit. It’ll blow over.”

They were in JJ’s farm house, in the midst of camping gear strewn all over the living room and kitchen. Tents, sleeping bags, pots and pans, spatula, propane, clothes, boots, lantern, flashlight, batteries, rope, Cracker Jacks, toilet paper…

“Well, you can stay here until we get back. Or she takes you back.”

“I could come with you,” Carl said. “I mean, can I come?”

“No.”

“Can I meet you somewhere? Like for a weekend?”

JJ thought of the three of them, Carl, JJ, and Lila, all in a tent together, and disgust rose in his gut, unlatching an old trap door to a cellar in his mind. Cobwebs of jealousy and resentment. He suspected Carl and Lila had been together once or twice. In fact, he knew it. It didn’t bother him day-to-day, but still, it was there like a blemish on an otherwise jolly photo of three amigos. The eye was drawn to that blemish and it could never not be seen. “I don’t think so,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Carl took that in. “Y’know, I know a few things about life. I wouldn’t be a friend if I didn’t bring this up.”

There was a hardening in JJ’s chest, familiar and automatic since his parents or teachers called him out on something. Stealing his sister’s babysitting money or breaking a school window with a thrown apple, it didn’t matter if it was justified or not. His jaw tightened. You’re not the boss of me.

“It seems to me like you’re running from something,” Carl started. “You can’t escape yourself. You can’t outrun yourself. Wherever you go, you’ll be sure to find yourself there. You can run all your life, but not go anywhere…”

Carl droned on. Deep down, under the growing layers of resistance and resentment, the swamp of guilt bubbled. Down there, JJ knew Carl was trying to help him, that maybe he was right. But, this was Carl, kicked out by his wife, still an overnight bagel baker. Carl, the fucking philosopher. Nobody tells me what to do.

“Enough!” JJ said, louder than he intended. “Just, enough.”

“All right, all right.”

“I’m sorry, but just stop with all that. I’m not some invalid. I need to live.”

“I’m just worried about you, man. You’re like my brother.”

The guilt swamp bubbled and the anger was swallowed in the morass. How can you hate and love someone in the same moment? JJ sighed. “I know, me too. I feel the same way. But, I have to move, man. I have to get moving.”

“But, that restlessness. It’s not a good thing. That’s all I’m saying.”

Why wouldn’t he just let it go?

You think you’re better than me?

“Thanks, I guess,” JJ said through clenched teeth. “But I’m going away with Lila. You can’t come. But, you’re welcome to stay here while your marriage is broken.”

“And that’s that?”

“That’s that.”

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Careful What You Wish For

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At Lila’s.

“I can’t believe this Katelyn thing,” she said. “I mean, she’s hot!”

“Who’s that?”

“Katelyn Jenner? Bruce Jenner?”
“I heard something about this,” JJ said. “Is that his daughter?”

Lila just looked at him. “Incredible,” she said. “Where have you been hiding?”

“That’s a complicated question.” He went over to the couch and sat next to her. A TV show, loud and brash with celebs and quick clips, jumping between a photo shoot, a magazine cover, and a seventies athlete with that non-athletic body and hair. Pre-1990 athletes looked so puny. And, those shorts! Even Michael Jordan. And, then he remembered. The decathlete became a woman. “Wait, that’s her? Him?”

“Her.”

More of the same, JJ thought. You could be whatever you said you were these days. Unless you were white publicly posing as black. That wouldn’t go over too well.

“Could we turn that off? I want to ask you something.”

Something in his voice. Lila got very still and stared straight ahead. JJ reached across her for the remote and turned the TV off. “Not THAT something. Relax,” he said.

She let out a sigh. Relief? Regret? A catastrophe avoided? “You just kind of sounded weird,” she said.

JJ felt himself slide toward being offended. He could picture them married. Why couldn’t she? It was conceivable. But, stay the course. Don’t let that JJ sensitivity, the delicate ego of a fourteen year old, don’t let that throw you off. “I want to take a trip with you,” he said.

“That would be great. Let’s go to the Cape for the weekend.”

“No, not that kind of trip. I want to hit the road for a while. Do the nomad thing.”

“The nomad thing? For how long?”

“A few months, at least. Maybe a year?”

Lila was quiet, looking at JJ. This was not good impulse control, she thought. He used to have these big ideas all the time. Old behaviors: not good. But, it was also a relief to hear him propose something weird and grandiose. He was getting so docile and comfy with all that lottery money and that house. Everything was fine with them. It was just so goddamn fine these days. She asked, “What does your sponsor say?”

“He thought it might be good. A journey of self-discovery kind of thing.”

She knew it was a bad idea, that it was bad for him. And something in his demeanor, she knew he was lying. She knew that Professor Tom character didn’t approve. She just knew. But…

“And what about my job? And my rent?”

“You hate that job and I’ll pay your rent.”

They sat in the still and quiet void created when the TV show was turned off. A wall clock ticked from the kitchen. A car drove by. Then, a truck or bus. JJ dared not look at Lila. His heart pounded. He wanted this and he was afraid to speak. And, he was afraid of the answer.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s do it.”

And, for some reason, his heart just sank.

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Wings Clipped?

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Sunday night AA. In the parking lot, it’s the meeting after the meeting. Cigarette smokers and laughter. People talking in twos and threes. Two women hugging, one in tears, the other whispering comfort and encouragement.

JJ met with his sponsor, Professor Tom, in the front seat of Tom’s old Chevy pickup (bench seat!). A little close for comfort, from JJ’s perspective. “I’m going on a trip,” JJ said.

Tom didn’t respond right away, but stared into the dark, chewing his gum. He always had some gum going since he quit smoking a few years back. Or so JJ’s been told. He’s only known Tom for about a year, since limping back into the AA fold. Tom asked, “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know,” JJ said. “Me and Lila are going to drive around the country.”

“Why?”

“To be with Lila. To get away for a while.”

Professor Tom chewed and JJ could feel the beginnings of internal squirming. “It’s not a good idea,” Tom said.

I met this guy on the mountain. He inspired me to take a journey.”

“Does this mountain guy know about you? About your love of self-destruction, self-deception, and self-sabotage?”

It’s Mountain Dude, JJ thought. Mountain Dude. “No, but it feels right. I didn’t get sober to not be free. Besides, Lila…we just want to be together.”

Now Tom turned. JJ could just see Tom’s eyes in the yellowish light from a parking lot lamp. There was concern there in the warm depth of his look, but cold skepticism in his squint and cocked eyebrow. “As your sponsor, I suggest you not take any journeys of discovery right now.”

“But…”

“And here are my reasons. One, you’re still a newcomer and only on step three. That’s the only journey you need to be concerned with right now. Two, we often plan our relapses without even knowing it. Three, you won’t be doing any service for other alcoholics while roaming the land. That’s key. And four, the last thing you need is to detach from the roots you’re putting down. You need to stay put and dig deeper.”

“Are you forbidding me to go?”

“It doesn’t work like that. You can do whatever you want. I strongly suggest you stay put, though. For both you and Lila’s sake, if you really want to be with her.”

“It’s different this time.”

“Yeah, you have more to lose than ever. Your house. Lila. The lottery money. You can’t see it, but I promise that you can lose it all and wash up somewhere pretty quick.”

“But…I feel so good. I haven’t wanted to drink at all.”

“Like I said, I can’t stop you. But I strongly suggest you stay close. Go away for the weekend with Lila. What does she say about this?”

Pause. “I haven’t told her.”

“Okay. That’s your assignment. Go tell her what you’re planning for her. Then call me.” Tom reached for the column and started the truck. “Meeting over.”

“Alright, thanks.” JJ hopped out and closed the door. “I’ll call you,” he said through the open window.

“Talk to Lila,” Tom said and drove away.

“That didn’t go well”, JJ thought. “Well, fuck him. Lila will love this.”

So, he went to find out.

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The Walking Dead and the Mountain Dude

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Monday after a rainy Sunday. A drippy morning, skies clearing slowly.  Most people went off to work but JJ commuted up his road and hiked the mountain in the mud.

He and Lila binge-watched The Walking Dead yesterday and now he imagines if he would survive the zombie apocalypse and all the damaged humans left behind. All that roaming and desperation. Would he be hard enough? Could he and Lila survive? And, what about Carl? Carl would no doubt be that obnoxious philosopher dude, the one with the camper and the scruples. He would stay aloof, floating above the fray, until a dead hand from some leaf pile or gaping manhole reached up to show him it didn’t pay to think so much. Or, maybe some “friend” would just shoot him in the back.

A stick cracked and JJ turned to see the Mountain Dude walking down the hill, off-trail, coming right towards him. No lurching zombie, the Mountain Dude. He came straight down, nice and smooth, absorbing the terrain, taking what he was given.

“It’s been awhile,” JJ said.

“But I’ve seen you all winter and spring,” the Dude said. “From a distance and up close. You almost stepped on me once.”

“Um, ok. So why’re you approaching me now.”

“This is where I cross the trail. You’re in my way.”

JJ looked up and down the trail, level and straight in this little valley. Lots of trees, no landmarks, no other trails. “You cross right here?”

“Today I cross here. Yesterday I crossed there.” The Dude pointed to a spot ten feet back down the trail. “Tomorrow I cross there.” He pointed to a spot ten feet up the trail.

They were quiet. Then the Mountain Dude moved on, passing very close to JJ as he crossed the trail to start up the other side of the little valley. As he brushed past, JJ smelled moist forest, all wet sticks and ferns.

“So,” JJ said. “Why?”

The Dude stopped but did not face JJ. “Concentric circles from the summit of the mountain. Ten feet out each time.”

“And…why?”

“A journey in place. I want to walk all the ground on this mountain. And I want to expand outward from the center.”

“What about the ridges? And the swamps?”

“Sometimes you scramble. Sometimes you slog. I’ll get through.”

“So, that’s life?”

“That’s nature. We’re all just animals who think too much. Maybe you should consider a purposeful journey.”

And now he moved off up the hill, curving slightly to hug the mountain, picking his way with grace and flow.

“The Mountain Dude would survive the zombies,” JJ thought. “I would have to be the tagalong who slowly grows on him. Or gets left behind.”

The idea of a purposeful journey, though. That sounded about right.

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Under the Dirt Floor

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Lila and JJ were in bed.

“It’s too hot,” she said. “Don’t you have a fan?”

“Yeah, somewhere.”

“Well, summer’s here.”

“Not yet,” JJ said. “This is just the beginning.”

“Well the sticky is here. And I don’t like sweating in bed.”

JJ looked toward the window, still and dark out there and, yes, humid. No breeze from outside. No moonlight. The hot and hazy days come suddenly and then you wait for the breaks. You wait for the thunderstorm and the dry breezy day after when everyone says “what a relief” and “I can live with this”. But, we still have to live through it all, JJ thought. Or we should try.

“Did you ever think we’re supposed to sweat? Maybe it’s supposed to be hard to sleep.”

Lila got out of bed. “Where’s that fan?”

“In the basement.”

“Shit.”

“I’ll get it,” JJ said and rolled out of bed. The basement floor was dirt in this old farmhouse without a farm, and she hates it down there. She thinks there are bodies beneath that dirt. JJ thought of an old Stephen King story as he walked down the two flights. An old Nazi, living anonymously in the American suburbs, rediscovers his penchant for killing. Old habits, old lusts, reawakened. The old Nazi starts with animals, cats from the neighborhood, and buries the bodies in his cellar. The old Nazi may have buried a person down there, too. Maybe Lila had a point.

He returned with the fan and plugged it in. It was a box fan and it fit nicely on the window sill to pull in the fresh air. “How’s that?”

Lila was stretched out on the bed in a long t-shirt, spread-eagle on her stomach. She spoke into the pillow. “Now I’m cold.”

JJ pulled the sheet, which they had kicked into a crumple at the foot of the bed, over her. He got the light blanket and left it folded in half at the foot of the bed, ready to be deployed for a 3:00 AM chill. “How’s that?”

She rolled over and looked at him. “You’re nicer than you used to be. It freaks me out a little.”

“Yeah, well, fuck you.”

“That’s better. Don’t get too nice. Don’t go all docile on me.”

It could never work between them the old way. Their past was always in the background with it’s relentless patterns and ways of being. Bags in the hall. A reversion to the mean. You try to change, you try to bury it and move on, but a hand comes up through the dirt and grabs your ankle. You can only pull free so many times.

“Let me tell you what’s buried in my basement.”

“You know that freaks me out.”

JJ got into bed and turned out the light. “I’ll never be too nice,” he said and reached for her.

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A Polar Plunge: The Girl with the Curls

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Cold. And colder still. JJ squinted out his kitchen window at the whiteness and the harsh sun glare from the icy field in back. Gusty winds kicked up snow that swirled and sparkled in the air. Fairy dust of frost, enchanting no one. Except…

… Another cold day in the 90’s. JJ regained consciousness on a strange couch after a night of acid and Pink Floyd. Alone in someone’s apartment, everyone gone. Who was that guy? And that girl with the curls and the sweater. Oh my God. Tripping nicely, he had watched her watching The Wall. Her, luminous and ripe. Him, deranged and all aflutter. “So ya, thought ya, might like to…go to the show.”

He drove home after guzzling some orange juice from the strange fridge. A bright and sunny bluster of a day. Eight degrees? Ten? The heater in his beater of a Sentra blew air that was slightly warmer than outside. His feet felt like two ice blocks. The road was gruel gray, salt streaked with white, like the cracked surface of some playground for ice krakens. JJ was spent, dazed and dull. When he got home he burrowed into his blankets and slept for twenty hours.

The phone rang. His mother, dead now. “Where are you?” A cousin’s First Communion (in the winter?), missed. A sacrament. Well, he had taken his wafer, hadn’t he? Actually, two paper wafers. And he had drunk prodigiously from the Wild Turkey. Communion for the wayward, blotter and booze, body and blood. It did the trick.

That night he went to the bar to watch the Patrick Ewing Anthony Mason Knicks. Something light- draft Budweiser and cigarettes. You could still smoke in the bars then. And he did, like a chimney.

Carl came in. “What the hell happened to you the other night?”

“When?”

“The other night.”

“You mean after?”

“Yeah. Where’d you go?”

“There was this girl.”

“The girl with the curls?”

“Yeah.”

“Holy shit. You didn’t…?”

“No.”
“Then, what?”

JJ thought of that part in The Wall when Pink really starts losing his shit, disillusioned and drug addled, holed up in some hotel room hell.

“So nothing. We watched The Wall.”

“That movie sucks. What about the boyfriend?”

“He watched too.” JJ thought of the girl with the curls, how a golden light emanated, how they smoked a joint and watched the movie while the boyfriend dozed. She turned and caught him watching her but just smiled. He had almost fallen off the couch. “What was her name?”

“Kelly or Kayla or something,” Carl said.

“Kara,” JJ said, remembering now. “Kara.”

Carl looked at him. “What the hell is the matter with you?”

“I think I’m in love.”

“Well get in line.”

“First in line,” JJ said. “I’m first.”

On the TV, Starks hit a three and the announcer said, “After missing his first nine, he’s really starting to heat up now. Hot and cold, as usual.”

JJ knew what he meant.

…In the present, the blowing snow settled until the next gust. Kara, the girl with the curls, is an alterna-crunchy personal trainer in Pennsylvania (Spirit Flex™). She’s married to an accountant and they have two kids. (He tracked her down on Facebook, hoping for pictures. Like we all do). Carl is a bagel baker right here in town. And JJ is JJ, also right here.

The boyfriend? Who the hell knows.

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