Velvetby Joey Brown
At 3:20am Auction Guy comes on John’s living room tv.
John would never admit to Dorie why, but he likes Auction Guy, thinks he’s like a cartoon. He’s somebody’s grandpa, or at least wears somebody’s grandpa’s old checked suit. He comes on cable Friday and Saturday nights.
“It’s the best of Bargain City,” Auction Guy says. “Just look at everything we have for you tonight, folks. If you like what you see, call the number on your screen and be the first to bid.”
There is no number on the screen. It’s someone on the stage holding a poster board with a phone number written in Magic Marker. John can see the person’s hand holding up the board.
John knows Bargain City’s set. It’s the stage at the community theater. He’s delivered for Coke there. It’s not his regular route, which is the best one in the Great Plains district, the one with all the convenience stores on US 81. It pays and it pays good for this part of Oklahoma, but John knows all he really does is stock groceries and drive in circles.
Auction Guy is wound up tonight. His toupee is a more cock-eyed than usual. The show raises money for charity, but John doesn’t remember which one. He’s never called the poster board number. He just likes watching Auction Guy’s energy, the way the old man is never slowed when he gives the wrong prices, mispronounces the names of donors. He doesn’t stop even when he breaks things. Tonight he stands in front of a folding table stacked with purple shot glasses, old boxes of hair dye, and dolphin figurines made of genuine porcelain. When Auction Guy bumps the table, the dolphins ring together like bells. “Whoa there, fishies!”
Down the hall the bed creaks. John mutes the tv and listens. Dorie doesn’t move again, but John leaves the sound off. Auction Guy motions his viewers to follow him to some items hanging from a pegboard at the back of the set. The camera jerks and shudders as it follows Auction Guy. He’s already pointing to item in the row, but the picture blurs to refocus as it moves to each one. It looks like something Christmasy, but the camera is too out of focus for John to tell. He leans forward, hopeful. The bed creaks again. John turns the tv off.
In bed he works the pillow, looking for a cool spot. It’s warm for October. Everything feels slightly off. Dorie sleeps like a child. She’s very clear, John has observed, in her wants and her ways. Life is not the mystery to Dorie that it always is for John. She’s good at lots of things, especially playing house and having someone to take care of, and John feels pained sometimes that she’s as good as she is. He had a fantasy once of telling a girl how they’d be partners. That was the word he’d said in the picture in his head: we’re partners. He thinks Dorie might even like that he is the one she takes care of. But he’s not sure if she’s that specific. He hasn’t asked her to marry him, but she seems to assume he will. She gave him a bracelet she made, a leather cuff with two strings that tie. It has silver conchos and looks faintly Indian, and Coke won’t let him wear it while he’s on the job: non-regulation uniform. She says she loves him, and John has never asked for details, like why, for example, but he’s wondered. He kneads the pillow some more, trying to shape it into something he hasn’t found yet.
In the morning, when it’s light and Dorie is already moving in the house, John wakes on top of the covers. He figures he’s slept about three hours, what has recently become normal. He stares at the clock on his dresser where it sits aligned with his wallet, his watch, and a small black bowl for his change. Dorie brought the bowl when she moved in, and the aligning of his things is all her.
“You’re up?” she says from the doorway. John smells green apple soap and dryer sheets. She holds a laundry basket parked on her hip.
“That’s good news. You got anything you especially want washed today?”
John wears red and tan pinstriped shirts and tan pants everyday, sometimes shorts when it’s hot. It’s the same uniform all the drivers in the Great Plains district wear. He owns little in the way of clothes of his own, but Dorie keeps all he has washed, ironed, and hung in coordinated rows: a-these-shirts-go-with-these-pants kind of thing. She gets most of it done when he’s not looking. He misses doing his own laundry.
“I’m good,” John says.
“Yeah? You don’t look all that good. Maybe vitamins.” She zips through the bedroom checking for items to add to the basket. She has the energy of Auction Guy, but she has all her own hair.
“Maybe if you started taking vitamins. I saw some on tv the other day. Ones for men. If I see the commercial again I’ll order them for you. Okay?”
Dorie stands at the side of the bed and looks down at him. John feels heavy, cemented there. “Thanks,” he says.
Dorie smiles. “Sheets. Get up so I can wash the sheets.”
When John shaves he looks at his face in the mirror for longer than he probably ever has. He is 32 and looks old-man tired. His father would have said “Son, if you was a gas station dog, somebody’d done shot you.” That’s the look John has now.
He doesn’t know why he doesn’t sleep anymore. It’s just this thing that started one night, a few months ago. He lay awake in bed, in the room overstuffed with the dark bedroom suite, in his house that felt so full. He tugged on the sheet, and Dorie tugged back in her sleep. It meant nothing. But he felt the fabric pull from his hand, the slight ripping sound it made. He’d laid there, suddenly restless. Panic had trickled through him that Dorie would awaken and ask why he wasn’t sleeping and he’d be dumb about what to say, how to say it. He’d gone to the couch every night since.
Now of course Dorie knows he doesn’t sleep. She worries. She has bought him teas from a health food store, played soft music when she cooked. She changed all the light bulbs in the house to ones she says give off a diffused glow. She offered to give back her side of the bed. John has okay’ed all of her suggestions, tried each one though he has known all along they would not work. He has assured her she is not the problem, and he doesn’t believe she is. He just thinks about things he can’t put into words.
John craves home and good coffee. He wants to see to the end of his world, but not the end of his life. He wants a day off, but he can not name from what. He wishes keeping a cooler of beer next to his porch swing didn’t make him a redneck. He wants peace and quiet. A book that makes all the sense in the world. His name said out loud, always at the ends of things.
The day is Saturday. Chris arrives early in his pickup. John doesn’t know where they are going, but he has already said yes.
“I gotta go see a guy in Charlie,” Chris says when Dorie asks.
“Charlie?” she says. “Texas?”
“Charlie, Texas. Yeah, I think that’s what they call it.”
“That’s like fifty miles from here.”
“More like a hundred.” Chris places his palms together and makes an arrow of his hands. He looks down the length of his fingers like he’s sighting a deer standing just south of him. “See, Texas—“ he pauses in a way that John knows irritates Dorie, “Texas is all the way down in Texas.”
Dorie looks at John. “What is there in Charlie?”
“This guy I’m going to see. I told you,” Chris says. “And peaches.”
“Peaches? In October?”
“No, there ain’t no peaches in October. There’s peaches in the summer time.”
“Then why did you say peaches?”
“’Cause you asked about them They’re the best peaches down this way. Everybody goes to Charlie to buy their peaches.” Chris pats himself down, looking for his lighter. “’Cept for those who go to Stratford. Now Stratford’s got some good peaches.”
“Just stop talking,” Dorie says. John watches as her forehead scrunches tighter and tighter. She sorts clothes on the kitchen table. She makes a pile of her panties separate from John’s boxers. “So?”
“I’m going,” John says. “He might need me to help him with some stuff.”
They talk as if Chris isn’t in the room.
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.” John stands up. He takes his jacket from a hook by the door.
Chris lights his cigarette. He’s set his Zippo on the highest setting. The hiss crackles in the cool air of the house.
“Outside,” Dorie says. John’s notices she no longer adds “please.”
He watches Chris go out the screen door, puffing smoke through the mesh.
“I don’t mind you going,” she says. “It’s just you’re gonna make yourself sick. You don’t sleep. Then you run around with that one. You can’t be healthy like this.” She moves the clothes into their assigned piles. “Just don’t stay gone all day. Come home before supper.”
“Yeah,” John says. He watches Chris through the screen, shaking his head no.
“Y’all be careful.”
“Harmless fun,” Chris says through the door and smoke. “I’ll bring him back in one piece. Honest, Ma.”
“Not likely if you’re driving.”
“One sheep,” Chris says. He tosses the cigarette into the yard. John watches it pitch into the gray. “I run over one sheep and suddenly I’m the world’s worst driver. Wasn’t even a big one. I’d’ve swerved if it’d been a big one.”
Dorie looks at John. “Just be careful,” she says into his chest.
Chris’s canoe is still tied to the roof of his truck, there since the one trip he took to the river in July.
“You ever going to take that thing off?”
“Nah. It’ll be spring again in . . .” Chris looks at his watch.
The view from the truck’s cab features a triangle of the yellow nylon rope that holds the canoe secure. John stares at the apex of that triangle as it disappears into the hull. He likes the way the rope seems to hold the truck steady when Chris swings onto the road, and the way the hull curves into a point and sails on. Chris has a brown paper bag of beer on the floorboard. John takes one. He doesn’t drink it. Right now he just likes holding it. “Where’re we going?” he asks.
“Hell if I know.” Chris looks in the mirror as if to check all the rest of John’s world stays behind them. “You want to go to Charlie?”
They arrive close to sundown. The exact distance and direction from John’s house in Oklahoma to Charlie in Texas proved more difficult to remember than either man has anticipated. A two-hour trip has taken the entire day. It is past supper time when Chris pulls them into town. Most all of the 109 population of Charlie mill the few blocks that make up the main drag. Long tables and awnings sit outside the storefronts. Church women sell apple butter and chances on a gas grill.
“Well, if it ain’t Sunday-go-to-meeting,” Chris says.
“Fall Fest.” John reads from the banner strung between streetlights. Rain sprinkles the windshield.
“Looks like we got here just in time.” Chris parks at the end of Main Street and they walk back. John thinks how happy all this would make Auction Guy. He sees pottery, horse blankets, shot glasses in just about every color. A man sits in a lawn chair at the side of a van, its doors thrown open, a brown and white cow hide displayed over the open doors. They pass tables covered in music boxes, necklaces made from rolled strips of newspaper, the same dolphin figurines John had seen on tv last night. Most of the sellers are stowing their things. Wind blows the rain a little harder. A sign, “Hides $295,” hits against John’s leg.
“You boys are late.” A lady puts rag dolls in a white Stroh’s box. “Should’a been here before the weather.”
“That’s us,” Chris says. “Always a day late and five dollars short.”
The lady waves her hand at Chris and they laugh like old neighbors. Chris stops, takes a doll from the box. John walks on to the end of the block, to a blanket spread on the sidewalk. Row after row of paintings on black velvet. They’re all of Mary, Jesus, bullfighters, cowboys, mountain men with pelts. They all look stark and defined against the velvet. John doesn’t know anything about Jesus, but he likes Jesus’ eyes in the picture at the end.
“All pictures ten dollars.”
John notices a woman in a coat so puffy she seems swallowed by it. She sits on the sidewalk next to the portraits. She motions John to look on.
He goes straight for the Jesus picture. He holds the frame loosely, feels the velvet hurriedly tucked and nailed, sees the dust in the pleats. Solid and square and warm and light.
“That is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.” Chris stands behind him now.
“You come on. You can’t be serious, man. Why would you want that thing?”
“It says something to me.”
The way the fabric holds the paint, the fibers matted underneath. The muted, earthy colors, nubs raised on the surface.
“You know, I ain’t gonna be the least bit surprised if that thing does start saying stuff. Look how its eyes follow me where ever I go.” Chris sways back and forth. “OOOOooooo.”
“Shut up. I like it.”
“You would. But you can’t think Dorie’s gonna let you keep that in the house. She don’t even let you smoke in the house.”
“She doesn’t let you smoke in the house.”
“Same difference. She’s got a lot of rules, is all I mean. When the dog can come in, no shoes on the carpet. She picks your clothes out for you.”
“What do you know?”
Chris taps his temple with one finger, squeezes one eye almost closed. “Ol’ Chris is always paying attention. You think I don’t notice? Chin plowing the ground. Hell, man, your house don’t even smell the same. Something wrong with that.”
Chris turns from the wind and lights a cigarette. John concentrates on the portrait. He spreads one hand across the fabric, pushes in with his fingers. He likes the weight and strength behind Jesus’ eyes.
“I’ll get her to like it.” He reconsiders. “I can explain to her why I like it.”
“Good luck. You’re married to a funny girl, that’s all I can say.”
“We’re not married.”
“You sure about that, man?”
John isn’t. Dorie has a way of shaping his life for him when he isn’t looking. She could have gotten them married and he not know it. She could have his life written out on paper somewhere.
Chris is gone. Johns looks around. A squatty whitewashed building with a red door, The Crack-Up Lounge painted in gold letters, stands across the street. All of the other booths are closed now. He looks back at the painting.
“You buy?” the woman asks. She has packed most of her stuff. Two Mexican boys arrange cardboard boxes like a stacking puzzle. The woman leans in, pretending to admire the portrait. She pats the frame. “Pretty,” she says.
“Yeah.” John stands thinking until the woman shuffles around him. He wants his decision to be clear. He could think clearer if the woman weren’t waiting on him. He holds the last of her pictures to be sold or packed. One of the boys says something in Spanish that makes the other boy laugh. Maybe they are her sons, John thinks. The woman snaps her fingers at them. When John looks up, the three of them stare at him.
“Yeah,” he says again and passes some money to the woman.
She sweeps the cash into her puffy coat somewhere. She and the boys are gone before John makes it to the Crack-Up’s door.
Inside the Crack-Up is shaped like a spaceship, with red carpet and a domed ceiling. The walls curve down toward the outer rim of the room, and John has to duck to keep from scraping his head when he comes through the door. There are fewer than a dozen people in the Crack-Up. Chris sits a table near the bar, a beer mug already in front of him. When he sees John he says “Oh, Jesus, it’s Jesus,” and laughs.
John feels too noticeable in the small bar. No music plays, but the chatter of the few patrons echoes in the round room. He sits across from Chris and leans the picture on a table leg. A group of old farmer-types watches them. They are strangers here. Chris is too loud for the Crack-Up, and John is too tall with his funny velvet Jesus. He is embarrassed and slides the picture under the table with his foot.
“Man, of all the ways to waste ten bucks,” Chris says.
“Just shut up about it.”
“Fine. You’ll catch enough shit at home, anyway.”
“Shut up about that, too.”
Chris shrugs and smiles. “Fine for that, as well. I’ll just sit here with my mouth closed. I’m shutting up starting now.” Chris points his index finger at the tabletop as if to mark the moment in history.
John gets that feeling again, the one he got the first night he couldn’t sleep. It grows fast. Panic creeps up his chest from his stomach. He places a hand over his jacket, as if he can stop it, then thinks he must look like he’s saying the pledge of allegiance, and puts his hands back on the table. He looks around. There are gold sparkles sprayed onto the low ceiling. Dust is collected over them, dimming their effect.
John sees a woman with long brown hair. She sits several tables away but looks up when Chris starts to hum. She looks right at John and smiles. She points to the ceiling, then to Chris. “Echo,” she mouths.
John nods, and she looks away. He’s sweating. He thinks the brown-haired woman must be waiting on someone. She seems like she’s waiting, he thinks. But calm. Her face is so clear.
She looks at John again, but John looks away this time.
“I’ll be back” he says.
“Yeah, man,” Chris says.
John walks fast toward the other side of the room. A dark narrow hall extends off the circle and probably is where the restrooms are. He feels a little stupid, and like he wants to leave, but like he doesn’t want to go home. The ceiling curves down again and he feels much too large for the room. He stands out.
Just now, like the brown-haired woman, he hears the echo of Chris’s humming. Only now Chris is half-singing. John gets a funny urge to tell the woman. But this is stupid, too, he thinks. She’ll think he’s crazy. He feels crazy. He should not say anything. He looks over his shoulder but too fast to see her, or anything, in focus.
What John does see, and all too plainly, is the sign posted over the little hall. It is about eye-level to John. HEY, DUCK! it says. There’s even a little red duck smiling at him. But he sees the sign, takes it all in, a split second too late. About two years ago, John had locked the keys in his Coke truck. And the funny thing was, he knew he was going to do it. It was that same split second, the one before he let go of the door handle, that he saw in sharp detail exactly what was going to happen, the keys swinging from the ignition, the click of the door closing. And he’d liked it. That’s how clear it had been.
And just like that, John smacks into the duck sign. He can’t draw a breath. A tinny-feeling pressure ripples through his brain. There is suddenly a lot of noise in the Crack-Up. A roar of sound sweeps up from the floor and over John’s head. It falls like rain from the sparkling ceiling, right down on John.
“Oh, man, oh man. That was something. You should’a seen yourself, man. You went down like a rock.” Chris demonstrates by whacking fist against palm, then sliding the fist down his arm. He laughs.
John only now hears what Chris is saying. He remembers seeing Chris’s face but not hearing him. It was dark. Were they singing? He remembers laying against Chris’s shoulder a little before now, maybe just a few minutes ago, but he thinks it was far away from here.
“You should keep your head tilted back. I think.” It is the brown-haired woman. John can’t see to his left without turning his head. The woman moves too fast for him. He feels heavy. She unwinds yards of toilet paper off a roll she’s pulled from her purse. She makes a huge ball. “Is that right?” she asks Chris.
“Hell if I know.” Chris squats down next to John. From one eye John watches Chris study his face. Up close, even in the dark, Chris looks much younger than John. They are the same age. “Man, you busted it pretty good. That’s a lot of blood.”
“Thanks,” John says. His skin feels warm and thick.
“Here.” The woman holds the wad of toilet paper out to Chris while she starts another one.
“It’s cold,” John says. No one answers. They both study his face. He realizes they are outside, in the grass lot next to the Crack-Up.
Chris tosses the wad of paper to John, the ends fluttering in the wind. It has stopped raining. “Well, you’re in good hands for the time being.”
“Where’re you going? I don’t know what to do,” the brown-haired woman says. She winds and winds more paper.
Chris is standing, already walking away. He grows tiny in John’s vision in just a couple of seconds. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Okay,” the brown-haired woman says. She pushes the first of the paper into John’s hand, tries to help him make a fist. “You should,” she starts to say but doesn’t finish.
John’s entire body except for his head hurts. He thinks that’s weird, and probably a sign of something bad. He holds the toilet paper to his nose with one hand. The woman flinches when the wad meets his face, but John does not feel it land. With his other hand he touches his lips. They feel fine under his fingers, but when he moves his hand away his lips throb like demons.
“I’m gonna lay down,” he says.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to do that.”
“I don’t think so. I don’t know, really.” But she sounds to John as if she does. The woman shifts to his right every time she talks.
“Am I leaning?” he asks.
“It’s your eye.” She points. John’s left eye doesn’t open.
“I’m gonna lay down now.”
The woman puts her hand on John’s, the one holding the toilet paper, and draws his arm toward her. He sees the paper. It looks black in the dark. When he drops it, she puts a newly winded ball in his hand, a couple more in his lap.
“I don’t think this is gonna be enough,” she says.
“I’m okay,” John says. “Really.” He puts the paper balls in his pocket.
John stretches his neck to one side, then the other. He imagines each part of his body before he moves it, unsure which parts of him work and which don’t.
“Can I get you anything? Call somebody?”
“No. Really. I just need to sit.”
John looks at her. She is pretty. The more he moves and talks, the less worried she seems. The broken thing inside his head lets go just then. He starts to float. “Do I know you?” he asks.
The brown-haired woman laughs. “No, sweetie. You don’t know me at all.”
She sits next to him, hands him the last of the toilet paper from the roll.
“Then you know me.” He doesn’t know why he says this. Whatever has broken is letting out words John didn’t know he had.
“Maybe,” she says. “Maybe I do know you. John.”
He feels something slip away from him. It’s okay it’s going, he thinks. Whatever it is. Close to him like this, he smells her flowery shampoo. He feels warmth from her body. He thinks maybe he should tell her he’s not that loopy, that he knows what’s going on, that she can leave him there. But he’s not sure that he does, so he doesn’t say that. He just sits.
“It’s okay if I keep an eye on you for a while?”
He thinks about saying an amen. Something inside John is spinning away, leaving his body. “Yeah,” he says.
“All right. I think I’m supposed to ask you questions.”
“Sure,” he says, not catching on.
“Okay. Do you know what day it is?”
“No, you’re supposed to say what day it is.”
“Oh. Yeah. I know what you mean.”
“Okay, again. Do you know what day it is?”
“Saturday. It’s Saturday night.” It is long time past time for John to go home. It is too late, he knows. “It’s Sunday morning, maybe.”
“Good,” the brown-haired woman says. “I think you covered all possibilities.”
“Maybe questions aren’t good.”
“I’m just saying stupid things.”
“Not at all.” She smiles.
John is surprised when she moves in front of him, almost right into his lap. “Look at me,” she says.
The brown-haired woman has teeny freckles. She wears no make-up but mascara. John thinks that her eyes are pale green. He can’t see this, not really, in the dark. These are details too fine, but he knows they are there. For a second he thinks about leaning forward. He wonders what she will do if he does.
Just then she places her hands on either side of his face, carefully, and asks, “Okay? Well,” her voice has changed. She talks like she’s talking to someone who’s falling asleep. “I don’t think you need a doctor. Or you can wait, at least. I’m pretty sure you’re going to live.”
“Probably.” John almost laughs. “That’d serve me right.”
“Now, why would you say that,” but she smiles at him. He does not mean to be funny. He is, though, dizzy. The brown-haired woman and he sit here, just like this, for an amount of time John can not count. It might be a few seconds, maybe it is minutes. But John wants it and does not move.
The woman’s hands slide away. They stay there while the wind picks up. It rustles the woman’s hair. They each move, pulling jackets into place, and they look at each other. She is safe, John thinks. Not safe like she’s safe because she’s with him. But John is safe because he is with her.
“I think it’d be okay now if you still want to lay down.”
Then she does. John is bewildered that she seems not to have thought about where they are, that she has never even seen him before this night. Her long brown hair spills over the ground. “There,” she says, and points.
“You don’t have to stay with me. He’ll come back. Some time.”
“This is fine,” she says, and John thinks what a strange and perfect answer it is. “There,” she says again.
John looks up. Tiny silver slits of stars.
“They’re changing as we’re looking at them,” she says.
He’s fascinated, but he’s not sure why, or by what. “How?”
“They’re dying. Really,” John watches as she measures a star with one forefinger and thumb, “they’re already dead. We’re seeing their light from a long time ago.”
“Not really, just the opposite.” She sounds happy to him, like a giddy girl. “Think about it. They’ve been dead all this time, hundreds and hundreds of years. And here we are still talking about them.
He feels like laughing again. “I guess that’s nice. Nice to be remembered.”
The part of John that has broken loose and gone spinning is almost gone completely.
“Ruth,” the brown-haired woman says.
“I can remember that.”
Ruth sits up. John watches her scoop a handful of sand from the ground between them. Then she lays her palm open, and he stares at the sand puddled there. He wants to hold her hand. Or maybe just touch it, or maybe it’s the dirt he’s thinking of. He’s suddenly filled with remembering, even though he isn’t sure what he’s remembering. He doesn’t know where to look, or what to say to this woman. He tips her hand down with his fingers and watches the sand slide out.
She lays back down, closes her eyes. Moonlight shows a grain of sand that has somehow landed in the hollow of her throat. The sand trembles when she breathes in. Its color changes from blue to purple to gold as she moves. John aches for that sand. He aches to wet his finger, to touch the brown-haired woman’s throat, to lift the sand from her skin.
“I bought a picture of Jesus today,” he says.
Ruth doesn’t answer. It is something Dorie would ask more questions about. She wants to fix him, make him feel better.
“I just don’t know.”
John laughs. His head hurts now. He feels drunk and can’t think of another word to say. He lays back on the ground, his face on the sheet Ruth’s hair has made. It’s velvet. She puts her hand on his. He feels the sand grind across their skin. “I haven’t slept in months,” he says, and then he does.
“You with me, man, or what?”
John opens his eyes. “What time is it?” His face hurts around his eyes when he talks.
“Finally. Jesus.” Chris stands next to John, where he has been sleeping on the ground outside the Crack-Up. Chris leans close. Ruth is gone.
“You are drunk,” John says.
“I was drunk hours ago, I’m just drunker now.”
“How’d you manage that?”
“I got to talking to this guy in the parking lot. He was okay.”
“Who was he?”
Chris shrugs. “Hey,” he says, “I can feel all the blood in my forehead.”
“Get away from me.”
“Come on.” Chris grabs John’s arms and pulls. “Get up, already. I want to show you something.”
“Leave me here.” John’s face feels flat and thick, like he’s talking through water. He looks past Chris to where the stars had been. He closes his eyes. He’s fine, he thinks, just to stay here.
“Get up, man. It’s really cool. You’ll see.”
“I’m tired of this,” John says. He’s fine, so fine with what has let go and left him. “I’m fine,” he yells.
Chris pulls harder. John stiffens like a board, but Chris keeps pulling. He shows remarkable strength for a man as drunk as he must be. John keeps his eyes closed and resists. Chris’s tugging begins to spin him like some bizarre snow angel. He sees it in his mind and laughs.
“Get up,” Chris yells. “Get up, get up, get up.”
Maybe he is too tired, maybe it’s the laughing. John relaxes, and Chris succeeds in getting him into a sitting position. His head, he’s almost sure, is so heavy it’s still on the ground.
“Just get the fuck up already,” Chris says. He’s laughing, too. “It’s cool. I swear. I swear to God.” Chris lets go, stands up. He backs away. “It’s cool, I swear.” He starts to run. “I swear to that freaking Jesus picture.”
John follows. They wind through Charlie, away from the highway, across a bar ditch, through weeds up the their knees. John follows the sounds Chris makes, unable to lift his rock of a head. They stumble up onto a side street. It’s raining again, or maybe still. They are lost, John thinks, but he doesn’t much care. There is a row of small white houses with a church at the end on one side of the street. It’s nearly sunup. Chris points to the church. “Down there,” he says.
“Where’s the truck?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Chris runs again. “Just come on, old man.”
Chris is being too loud for Charlie again. John waits for lights to snap on in the row of houses, for some pissed-off guy with a shotgun to step out on one of the little porches. But none of that happens.
He walks to the point at which Chris has disappeared. The street ends right in the church parking lot. Two giant floodlights are mounted on either side of the church’s announcement board. Without giving a thought to the consequences, John touches the surface of one of the lights and draws back instantly blistered fingers.
“Look.” Chris stands, his arms spread like a welcoming Jesus. “It’s the circus. Cool, huh?”
John sees the parking lot is packed with folded-down carnival rides. There is a Tilt-A-Whirl, a Zipper, a ride called the King of Hearts. “Are you fucking kidding?”
“We missed it. Can you believe, it?”
“Because you have got to be fucking kidding me.”
Chris looks at him like he’s crazy. John thinks maybe he can’t hear him, that talking through his broken face has made him impossible to hear.
“What? You do see it, right? You see all this stuff?” Chris waits for an answer. “Come on.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Ah, just forget it. You ain’t no good time, anymore.”
John walks through the parking lot, twisting around the bodies of the silent rides. They are all covered in fading paint. Half the ones that would be lighted are missing their bulbs. Worn duct tape hides a split in the Zipper’s seat. A dead armadillo is wedged under the bumper of the ride’s tire, and the sweetening smell makes John want to vomit. He presses his face on the cold wet metal a moment.
Chris sits on the steps of the church when John emerges from the dormant carnival. He takes a bottle from each of his coat pockets. “Here.”
“Where’d this come from?”
“Guy in the parking lot. He was okay. Didn’t I tell you?”
“You told me.”
Chris pulls one hand inside his jacket sleeve and uses the sleeve to twist off the cap. Foam spews over the bottle’s lip and spills a dark star onto the parking lot. John watches the star as it bleeds into the cinder. He holds his bottle in his burned fingers.
“You know what your problem is.” Chris states it as fact. “You think too much. Me?” he says. “I’m a purist.”
“Yep, I’m a purist. I take things as they come. Not you, man. You’re always fucking thinking.”
Slips of paper, chances purchased on the grill, roll across the parking lot. They stick here and there in the rain, one on the star. John watches as a man’s name and address are wiped away in the rain.
“People say shit about people like me,” Chris says, “but the truth is I’m having a very good time.”
“I can see that.”
They sit on the church’s steps until Chris has finished half his bottle. Then they walk to the pickup at the end of Main Street. They flip the bottles into the bushes.
“Oh yeah,” Chris stops. He pulls something from his pocket. “You lost this. That girl gave it me. Must’a come off when you busted your nose.”
Chris places Dorie’s bracelet on the truck hood.
They get in. Chris backs into the street. John’s fingers and face hurt only distantly. Dried blood darkens his jacket. He is a mess hard to explain. He stares ahead, the point of the canoe aimed north. For the first time in months, John doesn’t think about anything but what’s in front of him.
Chris misses the shift on the first try. The transmission lurches, then catches. John watches Dorie’s bracelet sail over the hood and out of sight.