I can see them on Mel’s small porch with paper plates in their laps and a smoking barbeque blocking the stairs. I can see into their heads, somehow, more clearly than ever. Even what they hide from one another is distilled, as if in response to the fining force of time that hasn’t happened to them yet. On that porch, on that day, my students are mysteries only to themselves.
Axo began it by growing anxious, which was his normal response to prolonged silence. He expected everyone around him to be sitting comfortably in their own thoughts, a state of being that Axo could not understand. Every sentence he ever submitted to me, the narrator seemed to be shouting at the top of his lungs. Axo was a bit of a chauvinist clown, and some of the faculty expressly hated him. I rather liked him. His lack of self-consciousness was refreshing to our program. I liked too the stories he told about hooking up at bars, even though he could never remember the names of the women he’d hooked up with.
There are pictures of this gathering on Facebook, and in them Axo either smiles or assumes a myriad of goofy facial expressions with boundless confidence. He wears a Chicago White Sox jersey and hat, the latter turned backwards overtop his strong face and close-cropped blond hair. He might have been one of those beautiful young baseball players, living in a tangible world of green parks, stirrup socks, the smell of leather and perfect swings.
“There’s more to this,” he stated.
“What do you mean?” demanded Mel, who sat on the cooler by the door because she only had enough chairs at her cabin for her two guests. Every now and then she stood, lifted the lid of the cooler between her legs, and passed out another one of her beers. Unlike Axo, Mel couldn’t help but listen to herself think. Her thoughts drowned out the real world for minutes at a time where she could neither see nor hear nor speak. Mostly, her thoughts convinced her conscious mind of her own ineptitude, to the point that Mel existed in a state of near perpetual ingratiation.
That day she wore a purple sun dress with chintzy green beads embroidered in a half-circle above her narrow breast. A streak of gray ran through her brown, quarter-century hair. She bore a constant sheen of sweat, brought on by anxiety, above her generous upper lip.
“I mean I think she cheated,” said Axo.
Mel glared at him and muttered,
“You don’t know that.”
“They weren’t the most passionate couple. He’s not the passionate sort, anyway. Maybe she is. I always got the sense that she…well…”
“That she wanted your cock?”
Axo put up his hands and smiled.
“No. Of course not. Not that.”
“There’s no making sense of it. It’s just sad,” said Mark from where he stood beside the grill. Mel’s on-again off-again, confident and grounded. Utterly uninteresting as either a person or a writer or a physical specimen of Homo sapiens sapiens. He wore Carhartts a lot and he had black hair; that is all I remember about him.
“Burger? Hotdog?” he asked.
“Just a burger, please,” said Mel.
“Both, man. Both,” said Axon.
They ate Axo’s food,, smoked Mark’s pot and drank Mel’s beer–Arrogant Bastard Ale, I know because I was the one who left the case at Mel’s and it just sat there for months; I’d see it every time I came over, under the shoe shelf in Mel’s mud room. She liked bitter beer, but she didn’t drink much and anyway for the first few weeks I think she just forgot it was there. After awhile its presence in her mud room became more important than the beer in the bottles. It put a smile on my face whenever I reached down for my shoes. I would mention it to her for a new laugh. Then I saw the empty case in the pictures on Facebook.
Arrogant Bastard Ale is amber in color with a dirty head and stiff lacing. If I dip my fingers into the froth and move them around, I can temporarily style the top of a smartly poured AB like it was soft whipping cream or incompletely beaten egg-whites. The liquid itself is thick, hop-oil-slick stuff that bites in succession up from the back toward the tip of my tongue. Ancient tea leave bitterness, and then caramel sweetness, blooming in a direction opposite that of the beer’s general trajectory. Flavor continues to bloom after I swallow, the bitterness and the caramel converging like a friendly foreign shouting match playing itself out in the background noise of a great party where (fortunately? unfortunately?) the only hors d’oeuvres are hops buds served on slices of extra sharp cheese.
I can’t imagine drinking Arrogant Bastard in temperatures exceeding eighty degrees Fahrenheit. After two pints, I have to move to liquor. I have a hard time drinking AB slowly. For me the traditional goal of drinking is getting drunk. When I first bottle a new brew, I put the bottles in a box underneath my cabin and go to sleep thinking,
There’s alcohol in those bottles. There’s alcohol in those bottles right now.
Waiting for the beer to mature is therapy for me, and I guess so is drinking AB, because both recreate the exact tragic moment for me to relive better than I have in years past: No, you know what, I won’t go for the Seagrams today.
“Do you think we should go hang out with him or something? He’s alone in that house,” said Mel, staring down into her second and final Arrogant Bastard.
“He isn’t. He’s in a hotel,” said Axo.
She looked up sharply.
“I thought she was moving to the lower forty-eight.”
“She hasn’t yet. Does she need to hurry? This is the world we live in.”
I picture Mark as if he continues to flip burgers long after all that which can be has been consumed. He is unable to stop, and when Mel notices that he’s doing it her stomach turns. He’s still cooking? It seemed the type of realization precluding a sharp plunge into nightmare–the man behind her is not Mark but a robot, or Mark’s lost his mind to mechanical repetition, or she’s just paranoid, or perhaps she’s dreamed the entire situation. That would be nice. There is a lot Mel wishes never happened, including, from time to time, her own birth. She marks off the reoccurrence of suicidal thoughts as if they were the disembodying contractions of some existential labor. Sometimes she thinks the contractions are happening faster, other times it seems they may have never really occurred, but truthfully she has consigned herself to the fact that she will never be able to objectively judge. Is despair approaching? Is she despairing already? What is despair? Mel is brilliant, but her thoughts are so compulsive in their unmaking that, without anything better to do, they proceed to unmake themselves.
I said I could see into their heads more clearly than ever, but that’s not true of Mark. And I said that I couldn’t remember his face, but that’s not true either. Rather, his is the clearest physical presence in my mind, complete with mannerisms and trademark silence, demarcated by self-assured statements of seemingly genuine objective origin.
“I guess I saw it coming,” he told Mel and Axo.
Mel’s heart raced. She felt herself wheeling into a bad trip, which happened for her more often than it seemed to happen for anybody else. She also smoked more than anybody else she knew, wondering each time how the habit continued when as often as not she was unhappy with the results.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
Mark dangled the spatula from the grill and picked up the metal brush. There were no extra burgers going, after all.
“They weren’t happy,” replied Mark.
“She wasn’t happy,” said Axo.
Mark shrugged while Mel watched him. I watch him too.
All he says, finally, is never mind.
They kill the case and Mel staggers into her cabin looking for more alcohol, kicking her thongs into the space where the case of Arrogant Bastard used to be. There are books everywhere, and gifted, half-filled, abandoned notebooks on the shelves about which she feels intense guilt. But she keeps them.
She finds rum in the freezer and begins to cry. The rum means nothing to her. Above her is the beam where she decides not to hang herself.
Outside, the real story slowly breaks, like a wave realizing the shape of itself, in Mark’s head. His decisions will surprise us all.
While Axo drags his asshole across the surface of the deck like he’s a dog.