I am Gordon Carter, a teenager, and I have been drinking for about an hour. I elected to skip the final class of the day, Physical Education, and instead sit by the dumpster behind the theatre with a bottle. I hesitate to say that it was typical teenage rebellious behavior, if only because no one else is around to see it. All day I have been in an intolerable mood and I am just so tired. For some reason there is an old mattress behind the blue dumpster, so I sit on it smoking Parliament cigarettes and taking timid sips. The mattress is soaked and water creeps into the seat of my pants. I do not get up.

At the end of that lonely hour it is time to walk home. I put on the heavy coat then break the bottle on the ground and step on the pieces. The waning daylight makes the dirty snow on the ground look blood orange. I hate this kind of cold, it intrudes everywhere. It goes up your nostrils and the warmth inside your ears pulses like a slap in the face. I watch my lonely feet as they march on the sidewalk. My dumb combat boots have long shit-looking smears on their steel toes; it’s from the sand the city puts in the streets when it snows. Cars drive through the sand and splatter it onto the sidewalks. Most cities use salt, but this one uses sand. Salt apparently corrodes cars or something; it’s better just to make everything dirty I guess. I don’t really know a lot about traction or snow; this is the first city I have ever been to where it snows. Where I come from the only thing they put on the roads is new asphalt.

I have been walking for what seems like a long time but when I see the sign for Chesterfield Lane I know I’ve only gone about two blocks, maybe two and a half. I take a seat on the curb because I’m tired. Maybe if I wasn’t always skipping gym I’d be able to walk more than two blocks without having to catch my breath. Maybe if I didn’t smoke so many damn cigarettes– light a Parliament and examine the tip. I love the way a cigarette glows, the way I imagine coal burning in the furnace of an old steam boat must have glowed.

A year ago, back in Austin, my friend Ken had a pack of Japanese cigarettes with charcoal in them. That was really something if you ask me. We shared a pack on his front lawn; even though his parents were cool we always smoked outside because I think it’s primitive to be lighting fires indoors in this time period. People here are allowed to smoke in the fucking supermarket because there is this stupid zoning law that lets people smoke in casinos. Apparently the Indians threatened to sue when the city voted to ban smoking in restaurants, but when they changed the law to exempt casinos the definition of casino included businesses with lottery machines. Anyway, Ken’s mom was always going back to Hong Kong and she would buy him foreign cigarettes from duty free.

“Ken,” I said, “it’s fucked up that your mom buys you cartons of cigarettes.”

“In China kids start smoking in elementary school. It’s like France and wine.’

“Bullshit.” I said

“It’s not bullshit, it’s my culture you racist. All the kids and the teacher light up and read the Little Red book in a big cloud of smoke. It symbolizes the problems with industrialization, and the government makes them do it to solve the population problem.”

“Fuck you, Ken.” I said, “All I am saying is that I think it’s weird that your mom buys you cigarettes.”

“Well,” he replied, “you can’t possibly object that much, can you?” He pointed at my cigarette.

“You’ve got me there. I just love these things.”

Ken always was a great debater. I imagine one day he will go back to China when they get Hong Kong back and be a member of the fucking Politburo or something. A few months ago he sent me a whole box of those Japanese cigarettes, and I have been saving the last one; transferring it from pack to pack for when I really need it. I miss Ken. If this place were a steamboat Ken and I’d be working the furnace chatting it up.

Lately I never put out my cigarettes when I finish them because I love to watch the embers explode when the butt hits the ground. When I let this one go an old blue Chevrolet hops the curb scraping its right fender against the Chesterfield Lane sign. “Shit!” I think and run over to the passenger door to see if whoever’s in the car is okay. I look through the window to see a girl about my age, probably in my year, leaning across the front seat struggling to open the passenger window. Of course this car has those old crank windows and she’s restrained by her seatbelt, but with her arms fully extended she manages to get it down about half way. I am waiting for her to say something, I am waiting for her to cry “Help!” and spit out a mouthful of blood.

“Hey!” She says, “Do you need a ride?”

What? Are you kidding me?

I ask, “Are you okay?”

She looks confused, “Uh, yeah. Do you need a ride?”

Do I want a ride from a stranger who crashes her giant boat car into signs and for all I know kidnaps people off the street and dances in their entrails to the tune of “It’s Rainin’ Men”? My ear throbs, and although in another block I’d be able to see the intersection where my street crosses this one, I do apparently want a ride from such a person. I’m tired, out of breath and I’ve never really thought very much of my entrails anyway.

“Sure, um thanks,” I say.

She looks friendly enough, and I’m the rough and tumble customer with a wet ass and shit boots who’s going to mess up this person’s car—I scrape the dirt from my boots on to the curb before getting in.

“I’m Sarah,” she says

“Gordon. How do you do.”

“Oh, I’m fine,” she says, “just glad to be done with class right?”

I make the sound people everywhere make when they go to push their floor in an elevator and see the number already lit up. The people around here with their American yacht-cars and smoking in the supermarket drive me nuts. How do you do is not a question. You know what; I shouldn’t be such a dick. She’s giving me a ride.

I say, “Yeah, I can’t wait to get home. Thanks again for the ride.”

I buckle my seatbelt because, even though I’m probably gonna get cancer at 22, I’m not an idiot. I remember seeing the pope on TV driving around in his bullet proof pope car standing up in the glass bubble part with no seatbelt, the crazy bastard.

Sarah looks over her shoulder waiting for a chance to merge back into traffic from the curb and I look directly at her for the first time. She has red hair kept back with either a clip or elastic band, I can’t tell which. If were a woman I would want to have soft red hair like that. I don’t know if I would keep it back. I would probably wear it shorter because that’s the sort of look I like. Someone, a real standup chap, stops and lets her back into traffic and we start off down the street.

“I saw you sitting there and I thought about how cold it is and how it must suck to have to walk,” she says

“Oh, it’s not really that far for me. Make a right at the right up there.” I say.

As we drive up my street the warm air from the heater blows softly on my face and it makes me tired.

“Thanks, this is close enough,” I said when we were still pretty far, “I can walk from here.”

I unbuckled my seatbelt, turned and opened the door. Then something weird happened: I felt a small puff of air on my cheek only softer and less warm than the heater. As I rose from the car I think I felt something brush across my face. Sarah smiled and waved while making a U-turn and driving away. I waved back weakly. What had just happened? Did she just kiss me? Why? I’ll tell you why, it was some kind of hit job kiss-the-loser dare between her and her giggling friends. Or maybe she’s some kind of sexual predator, picking up strangers and kissing them before dropping them out in the cold. Dud it even really happen? She would’ve had to have unbuckled her seatbelt; she couldn’t even lean far enough to open the window in that damn car. I don’t remember her doing that. She could’ve unbuckled it when I yawned. Oh my god she was driving without a seatbelt. I have to run, catch up with her car, and make her buckle up before she splatters herself like the pope in his stupid fishbowl. Wait, I think I saw her wearing it when she waived. Shit, I can’t remember. Shit. If she kissed me I probably liked it, but if she wasn’t buckled up that is just fucked. That’s like smoking inside, in the grocery store—I open my box of Parliaments and take out that last cigarette from Ken that I’ve been saving. The charcoal flavor is smooth and smoky, but on a night like this– I don’t think throwing any amount of coal in the furnace is going to do the trick. I cannot remember a moment where I have felt so unreconciled with myself. It’s so hard to have reasonable expectations and dizziness at once. What did I expect? No one else could unravel the tapestry of my lonely nightmare by becoming tangled in its weave, or by guiding me to tango steps that would pull so strong the fraying threads stuck to my shoes. Yet I was so disappointed in those next days when my coal-burned eyes didn’t see any red strands stray or ships come in. Disappointed until I resigned down to looking again at sludgy sidewalks, dirty boots, and hanging threads.

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