Bits of Paper
Children, of all things bad,
the best is to kill a king.
Next best: to kill yourself
out of fear of death.
Next best: to grovel and beg.
I took for my own motto
I rot before I ripen.
—A Beautiful Day Outside, Frederick Seidel
There was an incredible beauty to waking up on a Saturday and making a drink. He was Geoffrey Firmin, and it was All Saints Day, or the Day of the Dead, and there was a woman arriving by train to visit, and he was drinking in a bar in the city in the morning in preparation for her arrival. But it wasn't Mexico. It was Chapel Hill. It wasn't a bar. It was a kitchen table. And although Shaw had called near ten, waking him up, and he had asked and begged for her to come over and have, as he put it, sex, she wasn't coming.
It was his second drink, and it felt wonderful. In a time of minimal sensations, the cold tang of the bourbon and diet-Coke meant a lot. It was him and the table and some diet-Coke left and enough bourbon, and just in case, a six-pack of Mickey's, to kill or seriously disarm himself.
It was one o'clock. He had invited Mel over for lunch. She was off to purchase potato chips and a 3-liter bottle of diet-Coke. They would make tuna-salad sandwiches, chopped pickles in the salad, and soup from the day before.
He was on his second or third drink. He couldn't tell. He couldn't remember. He had opened, for some reason, his Swiss Army knife, the big blade. He was playing with it while he spoke on the phone to Mel. Opened the blade with his thumbnail. Closed it against his palm. With that blade he could open up his chest, the blood everywhere, sticky and sweet on his elbows and between his fingers, pumping across the table, on the floor, and find the source of the pain, his heart, and pull that out.
In the bathroom he took two aspirins, swallowing them down with a sip of cold tea at the bottom of a cup. Looking in the mirror above the sink, he saw another person, a very serious young man. He waited for him to say something, to see if he would, thinking that if something was going to happen, this was the time. Nothing did. He felt only the shattered lines of nerves ringing through his tired arms and legs.
He had been drunk since Friday night, around six, at happy hour. He had been drinking from a large cup of water until Shaw bought a beer for herself, and he said, "Buy me one." She did. He drank a few more after that, and then he and Shaw went to Hank's. "One more," she said, "before we turn in."
Hank's was crowded and noisy. Shaw sat on the other side of the black lacquered table. She was smoking. The ashtray and two drinks between them. It was something about the way she spoke, the slight pauses, the dramatics of her person, her beautiful eyes, the heavy lids, and her nose, like his own, obtrusive, nosing into the conversation, inches from his own, that made him think he could give it to her. His nose. He could cut it off. It made sense.
He leaned over and said, "You know what?"
Shaw smiled, leaned closer to him, sharing in the conspiracy. "What?" she said.
"You should ask me to go home with you."
She leaned back, pretended offense. "With me?"
He leaned closer and said, "You should ask me to go home with you, and we should have sex."
He expected a throaty laugh and a yes, we should.
She leaned over the table, looked him in the eyes, six inches from his face, and he could have kissed her, kissed her nose, breathed the air from her mouth. "No," she had said. "I can't."
The words no, I can't were supposed to make it sure, as if she had contemplated the bliss but refused her own desire.
The knife was sharp, and it had become obscene. Closing it quickly and repeatedly without caution, he could lose a finger, a chunk of hand. He set it on the table, closed and poised near the ashtray, his watch, two books of matches, and the yellow credit receipts from Hank's.
A truck rumbled up the hill. The air shifted heavy against him. It was hot. His shirt was pasted to his back. It was remarkable that he could find this place all by himself. It was all beautiful there. The phone rang constantly. There were fifteen full glasses of bourbon and diet-Coke on the table. A parade of naked women walked up the hill by his window. He got out his camera and took a picture of them, the trees, green and plentiful, and the leaves that had died and scattered off the shoulder of the road. It was fall. It was spring. It was completely beautiful.
From his vantage at the table, the sun fell like a blanket on the flowers out the door on the wood deck. He couldn't get out of this. He couldn't get better. He had dismantled everything. He had destroyed a Saturday. Days would go by until he could begin to pick up the pieces, until he could begin to count the credit receipts from Hank's. He had told Shaw that things got more serious as they got older. This was serious. There weren't enough words. Only music and photos, a woman and the Mississippi, and a sweater, only those things, and some others, that made his life worth the bumps on the head, the broken ears, the backing-into's of another car, bearable. He was making his. Bits of paper and lots of bourbon.
Mel would arrive soon with the diet-Coke so he could make another drink. At least he wouldn't be alone. He would be charming and attentive and very drunk. He'd drink tea and eat a sandwich and eat potato chips, but he'd be drunk and get drunker.
The refrigerator hummed, and he recognized the melody. It was condensation. Later, there would be snow. It would fall over him and collect in the ashtray and on the table.