The Everything-Goes Garage Sale of My Love
A. C. Koch
No one, it seems, is interested in anything I have to offer. They cruise by in their cars and their minivans and they peer out at the array of price-tagged junk all the length of my driveway. And then they drive away. I sit at my cardtable in the mouth of the garage where it's cool and I drink my gin and watch them come and go. We stare each other down with everything I own splayed out between us. Every once in a while, an adventurous type will come along and wander up the driveway, hands behind the back, inspecting my books and my records and my knick-knacks. My lunchbox collection. My nuts-and-bolts Don Quixote statues in all shapes and sizes. My free-standing ashtrays. My Naugahyde sofa-and-chairs set. My polyester shirts and suede jackets, all in mint condition. No one bites. This is the kind of garage sale I personally would love to stumble upon. Even if I already owned all this stuff, I would buy it all over again.
Gongs ring in the predawn mist as monks chant their meditations and the sun comes up on the dewey valleys of South Korea. That's what Darren wrote me in his letter. The line keeps going through my head like a mantra, and the fact that it's either exaggeration or downright fiction doesn't dampen its appeal.
It was the only letter I'd received from Darren in the decade since we'd been roommates in college, and I had pretty much assumed he was either dead or married until the letter arrived in my box this week. Chanting monks? Dewey valleys? The postmark read Seoul, and I frankly didn't know enough about Korea to say whether he was exaggerating or not. Darren had been known to embellish a story, back in the day. News was, he had taken a job teaching English, and he'd get a bonus if he convinced anyone else to sign on. Hence the blast from the past.
A week ago I would have smiled and filed that letter away in my study. I would have written him back around Christmas maybe, to politely decline his offer. But then, during that week, I forgot my guitar out in the backyard where it got warped when the midnight sprinklers came on. Let me say, that guitar was a beautiful thing. The sight of it waterlogged and warped on the dewey grass in the morning was just about the saddest thing I've ever seen. I was standing at the kitchen sink, taking my first sip of coffee, when I laid eyes on it. I set the cup down among the dirty dishes and barked an angry word into a crusty pot of macaroni-and-cheese residue. It was all my fault, of course, but those dirty dishes just made it worse. The night before, Lisa had split. She had left me with some choice words to mull over, and mulling them over was about the only thing I was doing, which was why the dishes were dirty and my guitar was out in the back yard, ruined. It was also why I'd gotten behind the wheel when I shouldn't have, and ended up wrapping some guy around the fender of my mother's car. That was even worse than the scene with Lisa.
Not only did South Korea start to seem like a pretty good option, it started to seem like the only way to stay out of jail. Hey Darren, was how I started the letter. The rest of the page stayed blank over the weekend while I drank myself stupid day and night and tried to figure out what to do.
The house was half-empty. I don't mean that exactly in a mathematical way, because there was nearly as much stuff as there had been before. What I mean is that it felt half-empty. The missing items were gaping holes: Lisa's toothpaste, Lisa's CDs, Lisa's coffee cup, Lisa's etc. The fact that she left not a single trace was the most glaring reminder of all.
Even worse: it was my mother's house. My mother was on sabbatical for a year in central Africa researching her doctoral thesis on the medical care of tribal women. I was saving five hundred bucks a month by abandoning my downtown studio and moving back into my high school bedroom. The band posters I'd hung up fifteen years ago were still there on the walls like the place was a shrine to adolescence. The Smiths. Bauhaus. Violent Femmes. I was afraid to touch anything because it was no longer my room, it was my mother's preserved specimen of my room. That may have contributed to some of the friction with Lisa. It may explain why the very last thing she said to me was, "Grow up, Christopher Robin."
Here's what I did after all of this had happened, with Darren's offer swirling around in my head: I popped a bucket of popcorn on the stove, mixed a gin and tonic (fifty-fifty, with a squirt of lime) in a plastic liter cup, and installed myself on the family room sofa-bed. There I watched Kenneth Branaugh's Hamlet, the four-hour uncut version. There wasn't a single line missing. I know because I followed along with a musty old Shakespeare book from my mother's library. By the end, I was bombed and delirious and slurring along with Claudius and Horatio and the Dark Prince himself. That night, instead of dreaming about Lisa, or Korea, or the dead guy in the ditch with his legs twisted up around his head, I dreamt that Kenneth Branaugh was the actor chosen to play my life. Everywhere he went, he spoke his (my) thoughts aloud into mirrors, behind which people from my past lingered unseen, knowing everything, and scheming manipulations of my madness. And sure, Kenneth Branaugh is a good actor, but that didn't make it a good dream.
About that guitar. A beautiful thing: pale cherry finish with abalone highlights around the contour and inlaid between frets. Long slim neck, like a Nubian woman's, perfect for bass-walking with the thumb. Deep body and curly f-holes that gave it a rich, reedy sound. I'm not one of those guys who reads guitar magazines and talks about Stratocasters and Gibson SGs like they're classic hotrods. The only thing that mattered to me was that reedy sound, and I would have loved her just as much if she'd been ugly as a cigar box. It just so happened that she was beautiful. You'll see: my luck comes in these weird, deformed spurts. It's bewildering.
Thursday nights was my gig. I traded off sets with a piano player at a tavern in the Hilltop neighborhood where Italian fogies drank at the bar elbow to elbow with the hip young couples who had moved into the area. It was one of those urban neighborhoods teetering between rustic and gentrified, and the Hilltop Tavern was at the hinge of it. I had my fans among the old and the young because the tunes in my repertoire perfectly overlapped the intergenerational sensibilities of the crowd. Read: Sinatra, et al. The young hipsters drank their martinis and smoked their cigars and pulled the occasional swing-step on their young wives, enjoying the irony of mimicking their grandparents. Meanwhile, the old guys just sang along, glasses raised from time to time, voices belting out, "In llama land there's a one man band who will toot! his flute for you!" I didn't even sing, I just swung the tunes with a snappy strum and the words bubbled over from along the bar. Sometimes, at the perfect juncture of crowd participation and set drinks in my blood, I felt truly happy. Like I could just continue that way forever. Sometimes the feeling lasted for an entire song, from beginning to end.
That was the kind of comment that would make Lisa roll her eyes. "Please," she would say, "I'm dying over here, I'm dying!" As if my pessimism was actually wounding her. Only now, after writing that last line, does it occur to me that maybe that was in fact the case.
Not only was Lisa a bartender—she was my bartender. Ask anybody who does a lot of drinking on the town and he's bound to have one too. Your own bartender is the one who doesn't ask what you want, and doesn't ask if you want another—they just know, and the drink is served.
Lisa tended at a place called Daddy-O's, just down the block from the Hilltop. I started hanging there after my Thursday night sets because the rock-and-roll on the juke was the best way to get the stink of Sinatra off me before driving home. I'm talking about The Replacements. Jane's Addiction. The Rolling Stones.
Lisa was the one spinning the tunes. Every bartender is just bartending as a footnote to some other, greater scheme, and this was hers: she wanted to be a rockstar. Her CD collection filled an entire room, and was limited to rock and rock only. If she was making margaritas and the CD ended, all drink-mixing would come to a halt until the music was back on again. She mouthed the words the way rockstars did in MTV videos. Her teeth flashed under the beer lights. She had a long, slender body like a heroin rocker and she wore only black, and if you had to peg who it was she reminded you of, you'd eventually say Mick Jagger. I know that's not really a flattering image for a woman. But like Mick, she had sex appeal at a thousand miles an hour without being all that good-looking. Which is a million times better than being a beautiful doll with no pazazz whatsoever.
I'm her polar opposite. I'm a quiet guy. Thursdays past midnight, I sat at the stool nearest the front window with my guitar case leaned under the bar and had three or four Scotch-on-the-rocks and watched her. Months passed like this. Finally she said to me one Thursday night, "So when are you gonna bust out that axe and rock the house there, partner?"
Of all things to do, I blushed. I could get a roomful of VFW guys weeping and hugging and howling along with "My Way," but there was no way I was going to rock no house. But—because she was a woman—she was charmed by my vulnerability. I stammered and blushed and declined and made to leave, and (she told me much later), she fell in love with me right on the spot. I suppose for the same reason that beautiful women are always falling in love with Woody Allen characters in Woody Allen movies. Woody and I have that secret thing, that thing that women want. Don't ask us what it is, because we don't know—we just have it.
I can't drive anywhere now because it might be possible to connect my car with the accident. The guy's blood could be somewhere on the bumper, or the paint from the fender could be somewhere on the corpse. And it's not my car, it's my mother's, which makes everything infinitely worse. These are the things I think about at night, which goes a long way towards explaining the kinds of dreams I have.
And the truth is, I try to avoid thinking about it at all. This is denial, and it's like arm-werstling your own mind. Trying to sleep, I can feel the strain inside my head, as if veins and tendons were bulging in there. Wake up exhausted. Talk to myself in the shower. My voice has this hollow, flat sound. I say my name and it sounds like a name no one will ever use again, like I'm the last "Jake" who will ever live.
I know you had no way of anticipating the circumstances of my life at the precise moment you sent that letter, so there must have been some kind of Buddhist fairy sitting on your shoulder, making you wait for the perfect day. Things have been kind of bad around here lately—girl trouble, among other kinds of trouble—but your letter has given me something to think about. Is the offer for real? Is the money good? Can I just show up there and get a job? Do they run background checks or anything?
Lisa could never make it as a rockstar, and here's why: she's a drunk. Heavy drinking is institutionalized in rock-and-roll, but she was beyond even that. She was in a band for a while but they kicked her out after a disastrous show. I was there, and it was ugly. She tried to be sexy with the mike stand, rubbing up and down it like a stripper on a pole, but she didn't realize that the cord was shorting out and everytime she tweaked it, there was this huge crackling blast from the sound system. She was too drunk to notice. Then she stuck the whole mike in her mouth like she was the Lizard King going down on the Great Spirit of Rebellion. All she got was piercing feedback. The crowd booed, the soundman walked out, and the bartender cut the power. The whole bar went black. That might sound righteous and cool to some hardcore dopes, but the truth is, it just sucked. The band kicked her out. I held her head up that night as she puked in my mother's pink toilet. "Did I rock?" she wanted to know between wretches.
"You were a kick in the head," I said. She didn't even know what I was talking about. Even worse: she had a big red hickey on her neck, and I don't think I was the one who put it there. It wouldn't be the first time. I drug her downstairs to my room, stripped her down, and pulled the covers over her. That body was almost always unavailable to me, even though she was my girlfriend and we lived together. Because she was almost always, as the Dead Kennedys song goes, Too Drunk to Fuck. Most of the time it was like this, me tucking her into bed, turning her head to the side, putting a washcloth down to catch the drool or the vomit before it soaked the pillow. Her small, round breasts, her flat stomach, her slender waist, her neatly trimmed pubes—it was no more real for me than a magazine.
I know this isn't the kind of thing that most guys would complain about. I'm sure a lot of guys would have loved that kind of girlfriend, so they could just mount her up when she'd passed out. That never seemed like a good idea to me. Confession: sometimes, when I needed to, I masturbated standing over her. It felt dirty, like I was doing something terrible. But all I wanted was to feel something, and all she ever was was numb. What was I supposed to do? Clearly, we were doomed.
"Hey, Jakey. Raspy Ale?"
"Sure." I took a stool at the bar while Lisa wiped the spot clean for me with an extra flourish that conveyed a bit of affection if you knew how to look for it. This was before the end. I was still gigging down the street, Lisa was still tending bar, and I still had no intention of ever watching the four-hour version of Hamlet. She poured me the microbrew from the tap, taking care to keep the head low and creamy. This was also affectionate on her part. When it came to serving me booze, she gave me the sweetheart treatment. She slid the pint across the smooth wood and leaned down on her elbows to look me in the face. "Guess what," she said.
It was early in the evening. That meant she was still sober. I was between sets, so I'd have to go back to work in twenty minutes. I said something goofy, something along the lines of a Woody Allen character, to get a couple charm points in while she was still clear-minded. Later, my efforts would be meaningless. I was starting to think of her as two people, the Nice Lisa and the Drunk Lisa. "You got a part dubbing the voice of Yosemite Sam in a new film version of Loony Tunes," I said.
She didn't say yes or no. She just watched me. The thing I'd just said hung in the air between us, and it didn't sound so much charming as just downright dumb. Then she said, "I'm pregnant."
I nodded. After a minute, I said, "Sufferin' sucotash." But neither of us laughed. The Black Crowes CD on the speakers had run out but Lisa made no move to change it. She watched me, leaning on her elbows, not a finger twitching, not an eyelash quivering. "What am I supposed to say?" I said.
She shrugged. "I don't know, Jake. You tell me."
"You tell me."
She turned around and went to the stereo. The next CD she slipped in was Lou Reed, that song that goes, "You're going to reap just what you sow." It's getting to the point where I can't stand it when people play me music as a way of expressing their own feelings. Why can't they just come out and say what they mean? Why do they want to make me wonder about some stupid song lyrics written by a heroin junky thirty years ago? Lisa was particularly guilty of that kind of thing. She thought rock-and-roll was everything. What kind of mother would she make, anyway?
Back at the Hilltop, finishing up my set, I played "Lush Life" for a solid thirty minutes. No one noticed. I didn't sing the lyrics, I just strummed the tune and tapped my foot and bobbed my head. Billy Strayhorn wrote that song when he was seventeen. How could a seventeen-year-old know so much about life? It's taking me quite a bit longer.
It could be mine. I recognize that. We had managed to screw every once in a while, and I recognize that it could have been me who got her pregnant. It could even have been one of those times when I stood over her, when she was passed out. But it was probably someone else. Whoever was leaving those hickies on her. She must have known that I would come to that conclusion. "Who's the father," I asked her a couple of days later. She gave me a cold look. "So that's how it's going to be," she said.
"Just tell me. Is it me? Who is it?"
"Don't give me that. Who else would it be."
"I don't know. That's what I'm asking."
"Go to hell."
It's too bad she said that. I think if she had been graceful about it, everything would be different. Even if the thing wasn't mine. I think I would've started looking at those hip young couples that came into the Hilltop and I would've started taking mental notes on what they did, how they talked to one another, what made them happy. As if Lisa and I could be that way too. It could have worked.
That night, sauced on tequila, I tried to serenade her. She was inside, watching TV in my mother's bedroom and keeping her distance from me. I went onto the back porch to smoke a cigarette and ended up watching her through the slatted window blinds, and that gave me the idea. I got my guitar and strummed a chord. I walked onto the grass and stood in front of the window and played "All of Me." I sang it, too, from beginning to end. Can't you see I'm no good without you? I don't have any kind of singing voice, but the booze in me at least added a note of sincerity to it.
She came over to the window and cranked it closed. Then she turned the blinds shut.
I sang louder. I did "I Got Your Number" and "Straighten Up and Fly Right," belting out all the words. Finally she appeared in the window again, cranking it open and pressing her face up to the screen. "You're a goddamn neighborhood hazard," she yelled into the backyard.
My shoes squeaked on the grass. I hadn't gotten around to mowing the lawn in quite a while. "This is the suburbs," I said. What I meant was, Who cares what people think? She said, "You're going to spend the night outside if you don't stop this stupid shit." I had never heard her talk like that before. She always put some kind of joke in everything she said, or a light-hearted tone of voice, but tonight she was just plain mean. I sat down in the grass with my guitar. I ended up sleeping half the night on a chaise lounge on the back porch, all those damn songs swirling through my head like a sickness. Nat King Cole crooning, Your story is so touching, but it sounds just like a lie! You got that right, Nat.
Lisa spent half the night packing her stuff. She must have been relatively sober, because she didn't miss anything. Every trace of her was gone by morning. I still don't know why she left. Maybe the father really was someone else, and she went to him. Maybe she had met a guitar player who really could rock the house. I don't think I deserved it when she woke me up on the chaise lounge on the patio and tossed her keys at my feet and said, "Grow up, Christopher Robin." I don't think I deserved it, but I accepted it, because what else could I do? Every day is a lesson in swallowing shit, once things start to go downhill. But you already know what happens next. My guitar, in the morning, lying out in the grass like the victim of some twisted crime. The sprinklers had come on automatically during the night. Another senseless suburban tragedy. If I'd still been living in the city and I left my guitar outside overnight, somebody would have swiped it and would be playing it right now in some room somewhere. But because this is the suburb, the guitar just goes to waste, of no use to anyone.
Can a person find a good guitar in South Korea? Are there bars where bands play? Can a guy make a living at it? As a one-man-band? And how are the women? Is it possible to meet women without drinking oneself stupid? Does anyone speak English? Do you live in the city or in the suburbs? Can you walk to a bar or do you have to drive?
It was later that evening when Lisa called and I paced around the house listening to her on the cordless phone. She was explaining why I was like Christopher Robin, and why that wasn't a good thing: I couldn't grow up. I lived in an imaginary enchanted land where I was responsible for nothing. I wouldn't make a very good father.
I couldn't really come up with anything to say to that. Should I argue with her, try to convince her that Christopher Robin would make a good father? Should I agree with her, and then hang up, once and for all? It was almost midnight, there was no more wine in the house, only gin, and I needed to get to the liquor store before they closed. Here's what I did: I got into my mother's car in the garage, still holding the cordless phone to my cheek. I opened the garage door—Lisa asked what the noise was and I told her I was making margaritas in the blender—and backed down the driveway. Her voice got crackly as I went down the curving street under the trees, but she didn't break up completely; Mick Jagger in the background sang, "No sweeping exits or off-stage lines."
I had done the cordless phone trick before, and I knew the signal would last until the parking lot of the strip mall where the liquor store was. Between here and there was a long rise overlooking the suburb where the signal came in loud and clear. I steered with one hand and held the phone to my cheek with the other. The boulevard unfolded in pools of streetlight at forty miles an hour. Lisa was saying the only kind of father I could be was the Catholic kind. She said, and I quote, "Get thee to a monkery!" Always quick with the one-liner, even when she was breaking up with me. That was when I hit something. It flashed off the right fender and cluttered under the wheel. Lisa wanted to know what the noise was. "I think I just hit a dog," I said. She was silent for a second while I pulled over onto the gravel shoulder. "You hit a dog," she said, "while you were making margaritas?"
But, you know, it wasn't a dog. I saw that right away in the rear-view mirror. I hung up on Lisa, and she didn't call back.
It's not like I'm some kind of hotrod jackass. I wear my seatbelt like a sacrament. I go the speed limit and I use my turn-signal without fail. Alright, I was a little distracted by my phone conversation, but there's nothing illegal about talking on the phone when you're driving, cordless or otherwise.
I drove home on side roads and parked the car in the garage. The fender was pretty smashed up, but I didn't want to inspect it too closely. Instead of doing anything decisive, I started puttering around the house. My theory was that my actions would speak for themselves, and my decisions would be made without my even knowing it. Call Lisa? Call the police? Go to Korea? Those were the options.
In the middle of the night, I mowed the lawn, trimmed the shrubs in the front flowerbed, pulled the weeds from the cracks in the driveway. Before I knew it, I was dragging stuff out onto the driveway and setting it up in little rows in the moonlight. Isn't that what grown-ups do? Have garage sales of all the stuff they've outgrown? My mother did it all the time. But no one comes to garage sales in the middle of the night. I ended up sleeping on my Naugahyde sofa right there in the driveway, and woke up sore when the sun came over the trees and the rooftops.
On my sofa-and-chairs set, I put a masking-tape pricetag of $450. On my turntable, twenty-five. On my record collection, one dollar each. On a rack of vintage leather jackets and polyester disco shirts, everything from fifty cents to ten bucks. Assorted artsy knick-knacks at assorted prices. It was all the stuff I'd hauled out of my studio downtown when I'd moved back into my mother's house.
Within fifteen minutes, a K-car with a couple of blue-haired old ladies pulled up. They wandered up the driveway peering at everything, touching nothing. And then, without so much as a neighborly "hello," they went and climbed back into their K-car and drove away. I watched them go. "What do I have," I said under my breath, "the plague?" There was no one there to answer. The silence wasn't reassuring.
I could have sold everything at twice the price in half an hour if I'd had the sale downtown in my old neighborhood where the population was solid hipsters and gays and punkrock kids. They would have snapped up my records and my disco shirts and my Knight Rider lunchboxes and my nuts-and-bolts Don Quixotes in seconds, leaving me with nothing but a fistful of cash. But this was the suburb. I blame that fact for all my ills. None of this would have happened if I still lived downtown. My energies would be better spent.
I got smashed sitting at a cardtable in the sun, surrounded by all my crap that no one wanted. I was drinking gin and iced tea from a plastic tumbler, sucking ice cubes down to smooth lozenges and spitting them at the cracks in the driveway. That's when I felt the conscious part of my mind losing the arm-wrestling match with the dark subconscious. I started thinking about the dead guy. It had only happened a half mile from here, the accident. His ghost could be out walking around, even in the middle of a sunny afternoon. The suburb was totally silent except for the whisper of cars slowly threading their way through the curving streets under the trees. My ears began to ring and wouldn't stop. "Murder," he said, stepping out from the jackets hanging on the clothesrack. He was twisted, one leg bent backwards, patches of his jeans burned away from where he'd skidded over the asphalt. I held my drink in my fist where the ice cubes made dull bumping sounds inside the plastic cup. Everything else was the muffled buzz of a Sunday afternoon. "Murder," he said, and I could hear the gravel in his throat. I closed my eyes and saw the negative image of the driveway, the front yard, all my crap arrayed, the dead guy in silhouette. Nothing moved. When I looked again, he was trying on one of my vinyl butterfly-collar jackets, snapping up the buttons and checking the sleeve length. "How much?" he said.
"Whatever you want," I said.
He was patting the jacket pockets, as if he expected to find some little treasure forgotten there. "A hundred bucks for all of them."
He meant all the jackets on the clothesrack. He was not a dead guy with twisted limbs. He was a young guy with close-cropped hair and sideburns and small hoop earrings. He wore Dr. Martens and cut-offs and a bowling shirt that said "Evan" in embroidered cursive letters. And he was holding his wallet attached to his belt by a thin chain. "How about it?"
There must have been fifteen jackets on the rack, from denim to leather to vinyl, all various styles and conditions, collected from Goodwills and Salvation Armies over the years. Some of those jackets practically defined my personality, the way fancy cars and yachts do for rich men. "Deal," I said.
Evan turned and signaled the sofa-and-chairs set. "And those, too. They're in perfect condition, straight out of The Jetsons. Five hundred for everything?"
That's just how my luck goes, you see. A whole mess of bad, an absolute pounding rain of shit—and then some dude walks up my driveway and hands me five hundred dollars for a bunch of junk I've outgrown. If I could get rid of the bad luck by getting rid of the good, I would I would I would. But no one's ever given me that kind of option.
"You usually never find this kind of stuff out in the burbs," Evan was saying. He was pulling the money out of his wallet in fifty dollar bills. "But some days are just lucky, you know? So what's the story—getting married and shedding all the bachelor trappings?"
"Korea," I said to him. "I'm moving to Korea."
"Wow. Quite a move."
"Yes." I jiggled the ice in my tumbler and sipped watery gin. So that was it. It had just slipped out. The money was on the table in front of me. I watched the guy loading my jackets into the trunk of his perfectly preserved '68 Valiant. Then he handed me a business card that said, CARD SHARK: VINTAGE DUDS, and promised to return later in the day with a truck to pick up the sofa and chairs. "Now don't haul that stuff off to Korea before I get back."
I gave him a smile and shook my head. "Nothing to worry about," I said.
Can a guy find vintage duds anywhere in Korea? Like a suede jacket or a leather coat with a wide collar? Is anything familiar? Are there cafes and restaurants or is it nothing but bamboo shacks? Or concrete high-rises? Does your place have furniture, or just mats and pillows? Did you really mean that part about misty mountaintops and monks banging gongs, or was that pure fiction? These are all the things I need to know, and quick.
Arrangements were made. This could be a whole different story: making the phone call to the Kids-Time English House in some district of Seoul, trying to communicate with the director of the school who barely spoke any English. With the phone tucked at my shoulder and my pen scratching on the back of Darren's envelope, I wrote down numbers as the director told me, digit by digit, what my monthly salary would be: "One, eight, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, point, zero, zero." Was that correct? Yes, that was correct. Including air fare. When does the job start? As soon as possible.
The day after tomorrow? As soon as possible.
That was when I rented Hamlet and watched all four hours of it straight. Why Hamlet and not something lighter, like Die Hard? Maybe it was what Lisa had said: "Get thee to a monkery!" I think she was blaming me for how lousy our sex life had been. Was it my fault she was always passed-out drunk? Maybe the whole pregnant thing was just a joke, to see how I'd react, like when Hamlet staged a play for Claudius. As if I'm living a Shakespeare play instead of a life. Only one important question: Tragedy? Or Comedy?
The final twist was the bus stop. I was headed to the airport, and I certainly couldn't drive my mother's car there. For one, where would I park it for the next year? For two, there was that fender. I asked in the 7-Eleven where the commuter bus stop was, and the clerk pointed out the windows to the rise where the boulevard crossed a hill overlooking the suburb, that place where the cordless phone signal came in crystal clear, that one place. "It comes about once an hour," he told me. I hiked up there, half a mile. There were no sidewalks, no paths, just the gravel shoulder, cars flashing past. That's what it's like being a pedestrian in the suburbs. Just walking down the road is a risk to your life. Waiting for the bus to come, everything starts to look like what you're waiting for, and that is the truest thing I can say about life right now. Every pickup, every delivery truck, every pair of headlights sets a bell a-jingle in your heart for just an instant. Maybe you even take a step forward before your eyes resolve on the false alarm—it flashes past and the road is empty again. I stood on the shoulder of the road next to a crooked bench that said YOUR AD HERE, and a cool wind was beginning to blow. It was dusk. I rubbed two quarters together between my finger and thumb. My two suitcases leaned against one another at my feet. There were no buildings in sight, no houses, only streetlights and the concrete bench, and, down the long hill, the glittery sprawl of the suburb.
This is exactly the spot where I killed him. He was waiting for the bus, and he was standing on the shoulder because that bench looked too crooked to sit on. He was leaning into the road, I imagine, momentarily fooled by my approaching headlights into thinking that his time had come, that his bus had arrived. Lisa, at that very moment, was speaking in sonic waves beamed through the night into the cordless phone at my ear, saying, "Get thee to a monkery!" and my car had drifted just a few inches onto the shoulder while I thought about that.
The scene was theatrically clear, right in the sodium pool of a streetlight. He was twisted like a doll. One leg was stretched all the way up alongside his head, and blood was spreading up his flannel shirt from some dark gash at the waist. His leather jacket shredded with gravel, and his neck broken. A moment ago, he had been a guy in his thirties, shabbily-dressed and unshaven, maybe catching the bus to work at some night construction job. Maybe he had been tired, or distracted, or half-drunk. Now, he was none of those things.
I stood next to the car for a minute trying to figure out what to do. The cordless phone was turned off and lying on the passenger seat and I stared through the window at that instead of at the dead guy on the ground. How would Christopher Robin handle this one, I wondered? It was the sound of approaching traffic that finally got me moving. I grabbed the guy's wrists—still warm, just like a living thing—and pulled his body out of the pool of streetlight, down to where an irrigation ditch trickled into the night. The ditch emerged from a tunnel that burrowed under the road, and at the mouth of this tunnel, in a tangle of thorn bushes, I left the body. Maybe you would have done something different. But I'm telling you, I couldn't think of any other options. And I doubt Christopher Robin would have done much better.
But here's the worst part: the moment I walked back up the slope to my car, the bus went flashing by like a fluorescent shot in the dark. It upshifted and roared away down the empty road. This is what happens when you try to commute by bus in the suburbs. See what I mean? Blame it all, every damn stinking detail, on suburbia.
I don't think it was "murder," although I don't doubt that I deserve to be punished, even if my crime was only momentary distraction. And I don't doubt that my punishment, when it comes, will be protracted and severe, interrupted by brief sparkles of good luck. That's what it means, in this world, to be Jake.
Tonight, I'm keeping the corner of my eye on the ditch where shreds of yellow police tape are caught on the thorn bushes. No ghost appears, shouting "Murder!" but I'm ready if it does. I'll offer to sell it my last remaining jacket, the one on my back. When a pair of headlights approaches, I squint at them without leaning too far into the road. False alarm after false alarm. It's nearly an hour before the bus comes and I climb on and drop my quarters into the fare machine. I take a seat and lean my forehead against the shuddering window. The boulevard unrolls, past strip malls and shopping centers and fast food places in the middle of giant parking lots. Will they have any of this crap in Korea? Will it be exactly the same as here, except with incomprehensible writing everywhere? If so, I'll just come straight back. I'll live in a cardboard box under a bridge somewhere downtown and save the coins I beg to buy a cheap guitar and a daily bottle of booze. The idea of that, in many ways, sounds even better than going to Korea.
I'm watching my reflection slide through the cityscape where the possible directions are limitless. I imagine I'm the dead guy. Instead of getting run down by a sedan on the side of the road, I get on the bus and pay my fare. I ride downtown, already living on borrowed time, unfolding a future that was never meant to exist. Nothing can touch me now, because I'm only an actor playing the part of the dead guy. It's all artifice, nothing is real. At the end of this bus ride, there will be a plane ride, and a taxi ride, maybe a subway, somewhere on the other side of the International Date Line, on the other side of the earth. Korea might be really bad, like a prison sentence, but it also might be okay. It might be liveable. Either way, I'm sure I deserve it.