A Hell of A Day, J.

By PATRICIA LOWDEN | Published: January 27, 2010

There was something about that old red ford that made me hot. How my thighs quivered subtly as I pushed the clutch all the way down and turned the key. My left foot barely getting the pedal to the floor while my right pumped the gas heavy and hard. My hands, one sliding over the wide wheel as the other gripped the stick shift, slipping it into neutral while she revved and revved until finally she coughed out her own rhythm. I’d wait, light a cigarette, my boot touching the gas a little less each time. I eased her back to life, the rumble became all road and the mouth of the day opened before us. Unsure if we’d make it, make it even beyond the driveway or around the turns, up county route 2, back down to town, through the traffic, loudly making all our entrances and exits .All the forward and backwards, with no passenger, and nothing to do but to drive and wind down the hours to the classic rock station buzzing on the old radio.

It was the end of November, unusually warm, the sun slipped through the clouds in streaks and the cool wind left all the dead leaves in lines and piles against the door ways of the houses on my street. Outside my window the garden that seemed at once untamable had become flattened by a month of morning frosts. Dried twigs stood there, where once in a moment of glory lilies would rise announcing the day on strong stems, greener than my young bones, bending with the weight of bees. It was there, beyond the dirty panes I would also be in my glory. Late afternoon sun, day worked with strong hands and jeans that smelled of turned soil and sweat. Slowly pulling my boots off beside the garden wall, leaving them there until all the flowers huddled together in the blue twilight that seemed to creep in as I was having my second beer. Feeling finally every shovelful of soil in my muscles that ached with good work, work that completed you at the end of the day, where you made something and later go belly up from it into a deep sleep. But now, it was November, nearly December. Everything has gone belly up into a deep sleep and upon waking that day I made the decision, over coffee and Coltrane’s tenor song of Transition, that there was no belly up, nothing to complete, nowhere to hide, nothing to not do. I would not battle winter, the chill in the bones, the light shrinking days, the length and heaviness of solitude, of lighting fires with damp wood and wind whipping at you from all directions. I didn’t want to know the desolation of Main Street, of ghosts that crept up from the grave or fell down from star light. I didn’t want to see the inside of the bars or the grey banks of snow piled up on the roadside. I would do something I always wanted to do. I would turn into the sun and resurrect that part of my life that belongs only to a road. It had been a long time. I had worked hard. I deserved this. In one confident gesture and few phone calls later, I had an open-ended round trip ticket to Mexico that would begin in Mexico City and leave me somewhere I couldn’t fathom. No more death and darkness, no more clocks that catch me carrying on with my shadow or shades of someone I was trying to grow away from. No more whisky crying, cross eyed, in the street. I wanted to be possible. I opened the window and smiled. Emmy-Lou, my ’79 ford glistened with frost and sun in the early morning light. It would be a good day for a drive. I smack a pack of Camels against my knee –one-two-three- times. I tear away the plastic, flip open the paper top, peel back the foil. Pause. Look at the phone. Take a cigarette out. Flip it. Put it back in. A wish cigarette. It’s the last one you smoke. I don’t always do this. It’s random. Something I do when I’m excited. A friend showed me this a long time ago. He said- it’s just a little something extra to wish on when you need it. It comes and goes. I look at the phone again. Take a different cigarette out, glance out the window. Drive drive drive-

I pick up the phone again. Put it down. My fingers fumble for a lighter on the desk that’s a mess with maps of Mexico, coffee cups, and notes about departures and arrivals. I pick up the phone again. Put it down again. I light the cigarette and breathe in a drag deep and long and hold it. I fidget with the phone and exhale a thousand images. I want to just drive and drive, but there’s a girl. There’s a girl I’ve been seeing or just sleeping with. I’m not sure. It’s a blurry middle ground. She’s probably too young for me, but she’d appear at my door and not say much. I’d offer her coffee and something about her stoic silence made me cock my head when I looked at her, bright eyes, with a charming space between every tooth smile that was gentle and wild all at the same time. We drank Irish whisky one night and when she leaned in toward me I met her halfway. I want to just drive, but I thought she’d look good in my truck, know she could handle riding shot gun, switch the station when they played too much AC/DC, light a cigarette for me, lean in close around the turns. It’s turning into a perfect day. The phone stares back at me, the cigarette collects an ash that seems inches long and I’m always a giddy mess at the thought of some new fling where it would seem only natural to love and leave each other. I take the last bitter drag, crush out the cigarette, and dial the number.

“Hello..” A tired voice on the other line coughs and waits.

“Hey, it’s me. How are you?” I’m soft spoken and realize its still early.

“Alright..I’m sick or getting sick or something.” She pauses, coughs again.

“ yeah, just woke up like this…it does suck though cuz I wanted to get some shit done.” She sounds annoyed and tired. I feel stupid for even calling.

“Anything I can do? You need anything?”

“ I don’t think so. I’m just going to lay here and watch a movie or something. You can swing by if you like, if you’re in the neighborhood.”

“ Maybe .Maybe I will bring you some movies and tea.”

“so, maybe I’ll see you later?” she coughs and mumbles something about a comedy..

“ yeah…Call me if you need anything..”

“Ok, bye..”

She has this way of saying – bye-…..

It’s like she sings its…like she wants to go, but not really.

I hang up the phone. Noone riding shotgun today. Anyway, it’s a day to celebrate. I’m going to Mexico with a back pack and my boots on, with no worries, and no cold wind to blow me down some sad mountain. I lift up the door handle. You have to really pull that old ford door open. She’s riding nice today. Loud and bold. She sways side to side.You really have to steer her in the right direction, keep her on the right side of the road. Good on the curves, hard time with the straight aways…something like me…like there’s not enough going on when the path is clear. The plastic bag slides side to side on the plaid bench seat. Juice, a box of herbal tea, a couple of movies, some cough drops. This isn’t love. This is me losing myself in a smile before I blow out of here. Maybe some one to drink coffee. Some steamy hour in the cab of this truck before she blows herself up on the roadside, all eight cylanders, and leaves me alone to do what I need to do.

I pull in the driveway. Hers. Its early afternoon. Its warm enough that I’m wearing a t-shirt, my leather jacket, jeans. The sun follows me. I feel relief in the warmth of it and tap on the window. She comes, opens it, a slight smile, red nose. I’m not sure if she’s happy I’m there, but she’s like that. You can’t tell. She doesn’t give you much to go on. That’s the part that keeps me going. Any other way, I probably would’ve kept on driving down the road. I follow her into her living room, show her everything in the bag.

She seems grateful. I can’t contain my excitement any more. I’m seeing sienna bursts and blue waves, smelling chilies being smoked on a grill, coffee brewing, and bold colors passing me by everywhere.

“I booked a ticket to Mexico today…” Rubbing my hands together as though something will appear, some treasure that will prove its really happening.

“ Really! That’s great!” She smiles that smile I love. She puts her hand on my thigh.

My phone rings-

Its an old friend I never hear from. I don’t answer it. Her hand is on my thigh. The sun starts stretching into the room.

“ That’s really great..you’ve been talking about that since we met.”

I feel relief that I’ve said it out loud, that now its true. My heart beats in my chest and its has wings that sing- “Andele!Andele!” Faster Faster! Vamos!

Her hand is on my thigh. My phone rings again. Same old friend. I still don’t answer.

She gets up to grab a tissue.

I look at the phone. Voice mail from my old friend. Three missed calls. Maybe I should listen to it-

PATTI-WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU? YOU NEED TO CALL ME RIGHT AWAY.

I must’ve looked alarmed.

‘Everything ok? Her hand is back on my thigh.

“Yeah, I dunno. I should call my friend back though. Give me a minute.”

“Sure.”

Some how even in the urgency of her voice I still didn’t hear that voice, the one I’ve become all too familiar with.

“ Kim, its Patti, what’s up? You alright?”

“ Where the fuck are you?”

“at a friend’s place in stone ridge..”

“Come to my house right now!”

“Right now?”

“Yeah, right now!”

“OK..be there in ten..”

The phone went dead. I look around the room. Tissues, movies, ice cream, the girl I’m trying not to love sitting there smiling…

“I have to go.”

“everything ok?”

“ I dunno…call me later…take a rain check on that movie..”

“Ok…”

I went to the door, keys in my hand, still within my own world of red truck and girl and mexico. I didn’t know what was so urgent. I hadn’t seen her in a while. She had just been in a small car wreck, maybe she wasn’t feeling right. My friends call. I’m there. That’s always the way its been. No questions asked. I’m on my way. The Truck rumbled the few minutes between one small town and the other. I still had pictures of Mexico on my mind. The day seemed to carry me away with it now. I turn into her driveway. She steps out her front door. She’s in a t-shirt and bare feet. I can’t believe how warm it is and I’m mouthing the words as I climb out of my truck and stop short when I look her in the eyes. I know. I don’t want to know. I just want to get back in my truck and drive. Keep driving. Drive all the way for a long time. But I don’t know who and I feel sick and I turn to her. I barely see her mouth move. The words sound like they’re being played too slow on a record player-

Jason hung himself in his apartment this morning..

Jason hung himself in his apartment this morning

Jason hung himself in his apartment this morning

But I’m not sure for sure…noone is sure…I’m waiting to hear back

Jason is dead and he hung himself in his apartment this morning

And all I could think to say is-

did he really do it this time?

I pulled a cigarette out of my pack and lit it. Shaking. I didn’t cry or speak or wail or fall down. I just shook and looked at my pack and noticed I was smoking my wish cigarette and where did the day go and why is it so warm and when is the phone going to ring so we can know

For sure for sure

The phone rings- its Nikki, the mother of his 15 year old son.

Jason hung himself in his apartment this morning. He built his own gallows board by board and hung himself with an electrical cord at 8:00 am and didn’t leave a note.

Silence. Like a dark place in the woods where nothing moves. Like when the power goes out and there’s no sound, no furnace stuttering to a start, no tea kettle shaking to a boil, no music floating under the door from other rooms. Silence. Like when you hold your breath or the moment your eyes shoot awake from a nightmare and there’s nothing and you don’t know who you are and black has never been more black and night is not night but a place that is haunting. Silence. Like when you close your eyes in that moment to lose yourself to sleep again, but there is no sleep, no sound, you’re not sure if you’re breathing, and then it all falls away.

Kimmer looked at me. She had tears in her eyes. We didn’t embrace. We didn’t rage. We didn’t do anything. The phone sat between us on the old bench that seemed the only the real thing because it held us there outside her front door. The rickety wood held together by rusty nails shook, shivered, shuddered, because I did. My hand that held the cigarettes, one after the other, my legs that didn’t seem to be part of me, my rib cage that somehow kept all the tiny fragments of my heart in my chest, shook. Kimmer put her hand out for my lighter that I was clenching in my fist and as our hands touched and our eyes met we both looked down and grumbled at the same moment one simple word- “Fuck…”

The phone keeps ringing. She keeps answering it, talking rapidly, moving in and out of doorways. The light is so bright. The sun is floating in the sky. Its rays lead down the driveway to where I haven’t moved from this bench. Its crawling up my leg, The knee of my jeans is growing hot with it, radiating to my thigh. I think of the girl. My thigh, her hands. But I don’t see her hands. I see his. I always see his hands. Thick fingers, knuckles tattooed, something powerful there, scarred, and traveled, through ages and pain and highways and maddening love. I see his hands with a cigarette, smoking one, handing me one, on a cup of coffee, curled around a pen, a pencil, a Sharpee marker, a broom, sweeping the steps outside Hoffmann’s deli, where I met him on main street, where we fell in love over and over again. His hands, fat, short fingers cooking heroine on a spoon, pulling at his own hair as he detoxed from it in my arms. Hands that loved every inch of me that I would never give him. Fingers, he counted on to explain each and every reason we were at war.. Hands and fingers and arms and lips and eyes. Eyes that lived a hundred thousand lives and couldn’t take the pain anymore. Eyes that were the clearest blue I’ve ever seen and could see through me or to me like no one could, like I wouldn’t let anyone, like I still haven’t, and probably never will.

The phone is still ringing. Kimmer just deals with it because she has to. We go over and over names. So many names, numbers to get, people to find, locate, names, real names, street names, nicknames, and with every name a wave of nausea comes over me. Kimmer says I’m going to break her bench if I don’t stop rocking and shaking. I say its already broken and start pacing. All these names rolling off my tongue. Clara, Rach, Bentley, Ludwig, Harmony, New Paltz, Neko, Hoffmanns, Oliver, Xavier, Cheesewiz, Slim and so on and on it goes. The list like a litany of summers and winters that seem like yesterday and other lives and mothers sisters brothers hours that unfolded for me because of him. Because of him the day is swept away in yet another death. But this is not just another death. This is the one I feared the most. I kick the front left tire of my truck as Kimmer hands me the phone-

“No.” I say, waving it away from my face.

“Yes. Just deal.” She won’t take it away.

‘No. I just…I just can’t yet.”

“Yes. You can. Its Clara.”

And everything fell away through a blur of moments that made me who I am, right now, standing in the driveway, thirty years old, and fifteen years earlier I fell in love, and to this day I have yet to find a more genuine, unruly love that knows me and holds me accountable for all my faults and perfections.

“Clara.” I hear her hysterical, mad and whirling on a New York City street. I can’t quite make out what she’s saying. I can’t quite count the fragments of my soul that becomes tiny shards with every gasp of her voice.

“Patti. I knew this would be a day in our lives but, not now. Not now. Not ever. Not really. “

“I know, bean.” I say the name J. gave her out of habit.

“I can’t come there. Not yet. Tomorrow. I need a day. I need to not be in that town.”

“Its fine. Its ok. Come when you’re ready. We’re here. Do what you need.” My voice cracks but I can’t give in yet, to the tears. They won’t stop once they start, they might not ever.

I tell her I love her and hand the phone back to Kimmer.

“Steph’s here.” Kim points to the road as Stephanie pulls down and parks next to my truck.

“where’d you get that thing anyway?” Kimmer nods toward my red Ford.

I kind of chuckle.” I bought it from a friend, its my Sunday ride.”

“But its Thursday..”

“Yeah, well, you know.”

“Yeah, I do.” She puts her hand on my shoulder as she walks away to talk to clara.

I move slowly toward Steph’s car.

The warmth of the day didn’t end, didn’t cool down. We retreated into the living room. We each sat at different corners. The old renovated barn smelled musty and the light started to fade. No one moved to turn a lamp on. Names still rolled off our tongues. Who worked where, how we could find them, where and how the hell Nikko was, If Oli could afford to fly in from B.C., if she’d bring Xavier, J.’s four year old daughter with her. We talked about how all the hard living street kids would take this, what it would mean for them. Jason took care of them, the orphans, the lost cubs. He’d find them work, places to stay, food, a reason to get clean. He seemed to take care of everyone else and found himself unworthy of the return of love no matter how hard you tried to force it on him. We laughed about how he was truly the most infuriating person to love, stubborn and ridiculous.

“Guys, I feel like we should do something.” Steph sat up, her eyes the muddy banks of the Wallkill. “What would J. do right now for one of us?”

She was right. We were sitting in a dark room, stunned to stillness. There were people we needed to find, check on, love.

“ I feel like the only right thing to do is go sit on main street and drink coffee and the rest will come…” I said, feeling as though it’s the only place I could find him.

“ Let’s go” Kimmer said..as we gathered our smokes, thoughts, shards of ourselves and walked out into the twilight.

I tossed the keys to the truck on the seat. Rolled up the windows, hopped in Steph’s car. We rode up mohonk road, winding our way in and out of silence. We spoke in short sentences.

Need a light?

Can I put music on?

Need some coffee…a confirming ,yes…

This was the best time of the day, besides dawn, to come up this side of the mountain. A blue hue in the air and some lasting remnant of light that lipped the distant peaks of the Catskills and Adirondacks. It was always that heavy turn at the bottom where the field opens up, where the old red barn has been painted there beyond memory, and the horses stir like shadows, like evidence that we are just passing by on our way home or away from it. I was somewhere in between like the nightfall that hasn’t come on yet, like the mountain we are only starting to climb, as if everything that is the culmination of now was just a breathless picture. I was now the passenger in the car. We push up that road like so many times before, in so many ways the turns in it are as recognizable as the curve of my own body. We reach the top where the old stone bridge brings the road to one lane, where only one car can pass, and for a shiver of a moment I wish for a mack truck, for some teenager riding too fast, for something to break us from this silence. To take us away from our lives. I hear my own voice say, full of whisky, after some other funeral that I wanted to be next, that I couldn’t take another, that I just wasn’t that strong. But the bridge is clear and Steph barely brakes as we pass through and there’s nothing the whole ride down into town except for a few startled deer that gather at the edge of the woods.

Main Street. New Paltz. It was definitely 2006. Not 1993, ’98, or even 2000. Its all changed so much. Even the way I walk up it has changed like I’m not sure where I am. It used to have a spirit, both light and dark. It used to be a gathering place. Now they have wrought iron fences where the stoop used to be, kitschy little antique shops where once stood bookstores and art galleries. They say they took the ‘riff raff’ from the streets, but what they took is the community. And I’m not even sure who they are, but I don’t wonder too much why we choose to leave, however it is we go.

I have three coffees in my hand. One balancing on the other. Cream and sugar. Kimmer and Steph close together on a stone step, smoking. Everything is blue, the light that descends on town, exhaust from cars and trucks, eyes that stare, don’t stare, pass by, look afraid, which is always funny. Just because we’re sitting on the street, they fear us. Two social workers and a gardener drinking coffee.

“ Well, isn’t this just like the old days!” we look over, hear a voice yell from a white mini van slowing down to the red light.

“Oh shit, its Melanie…” Kimmer runs into the street, over to the van, leans in. I see Melanie’s hands go to her mouth. Kimmer steps back into traffic as the light goes green.

The van pulls away and I see, still, the hand on the mouth and one on a cell phone.

“This is just the beginning.” Kimmer sits back down and takes a smoke from my pack, lights it, and we all gasp as Jason’s son, Nikko steps up to us on the street.

He’s really a beautiful kid. I mean gorgeous. Fifteen now. He looks, talks, walks, and smiles just like J., its eerie and stunning. Its heartbreaking. He puts his arms around me, pulls hard at my shoulders. He short like his mom. He pulls me into him, asks me how I’m doing, kisses me on the cheek. He’s a man. And today, he really has just suddenly grown up too fast. I have to keep myself together. It takes a lot. How am I doing? For some one who didn’t spend much time with his father…How am I doing?

I can’t even answer, don’t want to.

“How are you doing?” I say grabbing his hand that are Jason’s hands in every way, the same fingers, the same thick palm, the same genuine reach.

He shrugs his shoulders, “You know..”

“Yeah…”

He turns to hug kimmer and Stephanie. After that moment all the names we mentioned earlier became faces one by one and two by two. Soon there were dogs and tattooed street kids. There was jack from the record store with tears in his eyes. There were candles being lit up and down Main Street. There was howling and whisky being poured into coffee cups, light reflecting off spikes and studs. The smell of leather and incense in the air that was still so warm, like an august night, but it was the last day of November. There was a half quiet murmur of a crowd gathered there, turning in to itself and out and in again. The way grief makes you waver. But this wasn’t grief yet. It was shock. I looked around at faces I’ve known from the first and faces I didn’t know contorted into a deep pain I had become too familiar with.

“We need to do something for these kids.” Kimmer looks at me, fingers fidgeting with the plastic lid of the empty coffee cup. Its dark now. There’s one person missing from this crowd. I’m waiting for his silhouette to turn fleshy at the corner where Church Street meets Main.

“I’ll be right back, Kim.”

I turn away, walk up the street, and vomit between two parked cars. The tears start to come. I pull them back in with a deep breath and keep walking. I return 10 minutes later with a big bucket of sidewalk chalk.

“ That’s what I was talking about.” Kimmer grabs a red one. The bucket goes empty fast, Everywhere I look people are drawing on the street. Kimmer is crying and writing a list of names. A long one. They’re all familiar. I feel like I’m going to vomit again.

Robin Polly Michelle Jenn Jason…no more please…and a tear drop.

The list is too long. How is it possible? Are we cursed? I think of the word gallows..what does that mean? I have terrible images in my mind. I reach for a deep blue. My hands become a rainbow of dust.

I write all along the curb in big letters.

I will always be your peppermint patti and then the symbol for chaos and the name he gave himself….calamity J…..

This is your biggest one yet, my friend.

The street is too much. I don’t feel like it belongs to me right now. It belongs to these kids. It belongs to no one. Its just a street in some small town no one gives a shit about. Not even me. Kimmer goes home. We’ve been there for hours. People keep showing up. The temperature never drops. Steph and I go to the bar for a shot, but we can’t even be there. I glance at every street sign along the way where some night long ago Jason wrote my name, his name for me, on every street sign in new paltz. Peppermint P. with a heart around the P.

“ I need to go home. I can’t be here anymore. I can’t be anywhere. I just want to get stoned, stare at the wall, and listen to music really loud. Really loud.” I’m starting to feel angry. Just under my skin there is a fire and something hardens like concrete setting.

“Yeah, its time.” Steph says as we walk and I lock my arm in hers. We don’t say goodbye to anyone, just head for the car.

My phone rings. It’s the girl. I don’t know why I answered it. She mumbles something about not watching a movie and I mumble something about my best and oldest friend hanging himself. We get off the phone . The silhouette of the mountain hovers over us.

“Do you want me to take you to your truck or home?”

“ Screw the truck. I just want to go home.”

“Ok.”

We drive the 5 mile stretch between New Paltz and Rosendale and don’t say a word. There’s music playing, but I’m not listening. I open the door to my house. My roommates are all sitting there. Awkward. Noone knows what to say. Which is what always happens when someone dies. Just don’t say anything. I walk into my bedroom. Its dark. I light one candle.I can’t even put on music because the silence drowns it out. There’s a map of mexico unfolded on my pillow. I realize I never told anyone about the ticket I bought. I don’t get stoned. I lay on my bed. I don’t move. Everything in the room seems too far away. The flame of the candle goes dim with each breath I take, though I feel like I can’t breathe, like something is too tight around my neck.

I wake up in the morning to a driving rain. A heavy, heaving, spitting cry. My face red, drenched with salt, drowning somewhere between mexico city and an unknown coast I drew a line to with a red pen, leaving a question mark, and something about yesterday that is a blur against the rain wet windows of somewhere I never intended to be for long.



Comments

1. shamsi on January 28, 2010

thanks, p.

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