Sunday, December 23, 2012

NEW HOPE FOR AN OLD DOG

Holiday fiction, 2012

"It's like you're drawn in chalk against the dark. You ... "

Shaking his head, Ryan punched the DELETE key and watched the clunky sentence vanish from his screen. Drawn in chalk. Jesus. The connection between his brain and his fingers blinked out, leaving him alone in the small room he arrogantly called his office. He looked around: a desk, two chairs for the guests who never visited, a few framed pictures of a cat he once fed and a woman he used to love but could no longer remember.

"Bullshit. I call bullshit," he said to one of the photos. "It's like that fucking Irishman Oscar Wilde said. You remember Oscar Wilde, don't you, Nicole? Irish just like you."

She didn't answer.

"Yeah, yeah," he waved, pulling a Camel from the box and firing the Zippo with two snaps of his fingers — snap, open the lid, snap, hit the flywheel and spark the flint. He knew it was a stupid trick but he didn't care. He was Making Art, goddammit, and artists are allowed their eccentricities and stupidities. His other great trick was flipping a stack of 25 quarters off his elbow and catching them with one hand. He was sure drunks like Steinbeck and Faulkner had equally idiotic tics. He was equally sure they never admitted them to their audience, their fans.

"Hear that, baby? Fans. Fans. Your Ryan has fans, too." The woman behind glass stayed still, her hands fanning out her skirt, a coquette's sly smile frozen on her unlined face.

"You'd better smile, baby. It's because of you that I'm semi-charmed and semi-famous. Didn't you see me banging on the keyboard? I'm writing about you. I'm writing the movie, based on the book, based on the short story, based on the time you pulled a Kanye and ran away fast as you can. You remember that, don't you?"

Her eyes never blinked, never left his.

"Course you don't." He spun the wheel off the bottle of tequila on his desk, poured out a double shot, gulped it without a flinch. Inside his throat exploded but he made it a point to look like a bad-ass when he drank tequila, even when he was by his lonesome. Flinching would not do, especially when he was downing post-appearance shots at a bar, a handful of nerd boys and comely lit chicks looking at him like he was a goddamned God. Or at least an old man masquerading as one.

He was old, of that there was no doubt. He would be 72 in two months, the age where for most people, everything starts to break down at once. For some reason he didn't have that problem. Maybe it was his lifelong affection for pharmaceuticals or the five decades of cigarettes or the tequila or the darkness that surrounded his words and deeds. He'd held up remarkably well for someone who had spent the past 20 years trying to destroy himself. If anything, he was in better health than he was back in those black and lovely days, when he was fresh in his grief and his fingers had trouble keeping up with the screams pouring out of his brain and onto the computer screen.

Being on the college lecture circuit didn't hurt. It kept him in the company of those lasses and laddies who read his early work with feigned respect but adored his later writings, the ones referred to in cool lit circles as his Post-Girl Work. Those were the pieces he read aloud from the stage, his hands shaking from one too many hits off the glass pipe that made the kids whisper about that fucking old man, he's so fucking bad-ass, he's so fucking righteous, he's so fucking cool. On lucky nights — after the applause and the questions and his patented smart-ass answers — he usually convinced the best-looking girls to come back to his comped hotel suite, where they were puzzled and sometimes angry when he chose not to fuck them.

"Because you don't sing the song that only I can hear," he had told one of them at his last gig, after they had downed half a bottle of Johnny Walker Black in his room and she had offered to get naked, an offer he dismissed with a bark of a laugh and a cough.

"Oscar Wilde, right?"

He nodded. "Thank God someone gets the reference."

"It's not because you think I'm stupid? Or too young? Or ugly?" she asked, her face a bit crumpled from the rejection of a man old enough to be her grandfather.

"Darling," he said, pouring her another shot. "You're quite the opposite of ugly. You are, in the words of a long-dead friend of mine, exceedingly fuckable. But you know I'm spoken for."

"The Girl," the college girl said, before she downed the shot and it made her shiver.

"Yup," he said, picking up the pipe. "Again, glad you got the hot, lewd, miraculous reference. Besides, I'm old enough to be your grandfather."

"Yeah, but he's not cool like you," she said, accepting the offering of acrid smoke.

"Of course not, dude. Of course not."

This marked the 20th anniversary since The Girl broke his soul and saved his spirit, the 15th anniversary since the publication of the book he'd written about that experience. He'd only waited that long because he hoped that once she understood what she had done she would find her way back and sew up the jagged hole in his center. She did not, and he didn't know how to sew — a good thing, as it turned out, because the shit that poured out of that gash was money, baby, and now he was on the verge of selling out and going Hollywood with her story, his story, their story.

On the verge, but still not there yet. Now he had one week to make his first-draft deadline on the screenplay and he used the growing panic to rifle through his writer's bag of mental potions and conjure up the One True Trick: her voice. Even after so many years of not hearing it in person, from her lips, he'd never really learned how to forget it. Most nights he still heard it in his dreams — teasing him, chiding him, reminding him that no matter how skilled a word magician he might think he was, he had failed to keep her enchanted.

He usually let the ghost of her voice torture him — it kept part of her close, at least — and only when it got too overwhelming would he dose himself to blot out its beauty. He couldn't do that now, of course. He needed to use her to make the words come.

He felt like Bukowski writing about his beloved Jane, the doomed woman who had been the poet's obsession. When she died he poured his blood-covered grief into a wild torrent of words that brought him the attention of critics who had largely ignored his earlier work. As a living lover Jane had been a drinking partner and a wild fuck; as a dead muse she gave her artist the inspiration that brought him fame.

Some of the same was true with Nicole. When she was The Girlfriend she brought Ryan calm and peace and the things that made him realize he didn't need to write to live. When she vanished he wailed and tore at his skin; he let the agony burn down to his marrow and used its intense heat to forge lasting work. Those creations eventually brought him applause and attention and an offer to help make a movie about his torrid, doomed affair. Now his biggest worry in life was wondering if the actress signed to play Nicole would be enough of an enigma.

"No matter how hard they tried they just couldn't find anybody exactly like you — and neither can I," he said, his voice rough from the Turkish Silvers. Fucking Camels. He figured quoting Bukowski's words about a long-dead lover was appropriate on this Christmas Eve. Nicole wasn't dead — well, he couldn't be sure, even though she was still young anything could have happened — but he had been dead to her and that was close enough.

He pulled down his copy of The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses, a book he had bought in the first days and months after Nicole ran away. He found the passage he wanted. It was easy; the book fell open to the page he'd read and re-read when his grief was fresh and furious:
when you left
you took almost
everything.
I kneel in the nights
before tigers
that will not let me be.
"Those were some good fucking tigers," he muttered. He did a lot of that these days, he realized. An old man muttering to a ghost on the wall, half-drunk and three-quarters crazy. Hey, it paid the bills, or at least it would once he pulled the mental trigger and finished that fucking screenplay.

"What say we pull a Passion Pit and take a walk," he said to her photo. He waited a minute. "Silence means consent, dear muse. Shall we?" It took him but a minute to put on a coat and wrap the Fiore Di Firenze muffler around his neck. The last present he'd ever gotten from her, he realized for the first time in a long time. Fitting, that.

It took him but another minute, once he stepped outside the door, to understand that this was a stupid idea. While he was inside, whining and puling, it had started to snow, and now he was tromping about in a fresh blanket of miserable. Jean Claude Van Damme, but it was cold. For an instant he thought about going back inside and talking some more to her forever-young photo, but ... but ...

"That way lies madness," he announced, his voice swallowed by the falling swirls of white. Not even an echo to slap him back to reality, or what passed for it in his world. The snow squeaked under his brogans.

"I used to call you the best thing that ever happened to me," he said to the sky, to The Girl, to the memory. "I remember that, even if you don't. I remember how you changed my life, every bit of my fucking life. I remember crying when you left and threatening to cut my goddamned wrists. Good thing I didn't do that. I wouldn't be talking with you right now."

His mouth felt numb. Probably the tequila, he thought, so he took a small swallow from the bottle he'd thought to bring along for the walk. He tromped on until the lights in his room — pardon me, in his office — were swallowed by the snow.

"I remember how you made me feel like Beethoven, how you were my Immortal Beloved — my heart full of so many things to say, and me not being able to say them. Imagine — a writer who couldn't find the words to save his soul. Now there's a bit of fucking poetic justice, don't you think? You made me the happiest and unhappiest of all men. Remember? Of course you don't."

He decided to sit down, just for a minute. His belly was hot from the tequila. Just another shot. Make it hotter still.

"We liked to walk, oh yes we did," he said. "It was one of the things in that list of stuff you wrote about why you should stay and why you should go. 'We like to watch movies.' 'We like to take walks.' I don't know if there was anything else on that side of the list. Doesn't matter. You'd already decided to leave. And I forgave you. I forgave all of it — the lies, the hiding, the other guys, the bullshit. I didn't want to. God knows I didn't want to. But I had to. Couldn't hate you. Couldn't even stay mad at you. Because as hokey as it sounds, lovely, I was so goddamned happy that I had finally found you. I didn't have to search any longer for the only one who really knew me. You saw me — you saw right through me. How did the song go? 'Like stars burning holes right through the dark.' I loved that. I didn't have to pretend anymore. God, that was the best feeling I ever had. Like sunshine. Sunshine. I'd give up everything to feel that again."

He finally realized he was in trouble now, in deep shit. He struggled to get up. He decided, on a whim, to quit struggling. Someone would find him. He was, after all, almost memorable.

"I'd say some Bukowski is appropriate right now. Don't you?" He laughed and coughed weakly — once, twice — then recited from memory the words he had said when he watched her drive away for the last time.
If I never see you again
I will always carry you
inside
outside
===

Four days later she was walking out the door of her home, vintage Louboutin heels — they were all the rage these days — clicking on the tile of the foyer, when she heard the voice on the TV in the living room. Something about a writer found frozen in the snow near his home. He'd been drunk.

She stopped, her head filling with the deafening roar that sometimes caused her to fall silent and caused other people to think she wasn't paying attention. Her husband, improbably nice, impossibly clean-smelling, so good and so thoughtful, heard her heels stop and called out: "Nicole? Something wrong?"

She blinked away the roar. "Nothing," she said, her voice firm because she was good that way, always able to mask her busy mind behind a placid facade. "I thought I knew that name, but I was wrong. No worries."

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