Hotels And Other Forms Of Collapse
By Darin C. Bradley.
This is not my story — let me be clear. A man, who is sometimes a woman, threw it at me.
Really, I think he was throwing it away, out his car window — a cigarette butt with its own syntax, a poetics suddenly beyond its burning. But there it was, exploding in smoldering, disappearing bits, being a story all over the sidewalk.
That, itself, is the story. All of it. It acquired me while I smoked a cigarette of my own, and then ended there. This is that story.
When, in the burst of meaningful sparks, the smoker hit me with his near-miss, I stumbled hastily away, only narrowly dodging the thing’s tar-cottony swipe — and the speeding Buick it flew from. The butt came to rest beside my heel, its expiring ember an uneven, carbonized mouth — the still-hot contour of a cauterized limb.
Unharmed, unbutted, I watched the Buick drive away, dripping with the mechanics of rising action. A curl of the man’s vanishing smoke narrated itself into my —
I watched the hipster recede in my rearview mirror. When he started walking slowly, pointedly, after me, I picked up Marxism and pulled it, a hoary and prickled sweater, over myself. I wasn’t interested in this kid–how he’d come between Anna and me.
Soon enough, he disappeared into the vanishing gravity well of rearview perspective, bourgeois neon and streetlights lighting him away.
I realized too late that he had acquired this up there. This flash of story. I hadn’t wanted to be in any paragraph. And because he hadn’t known Anna was with me . . .
I tried to just walk away, but it was the wrong direction. This is because I already know the driver: he studies art downtown with the soft-haired, Bohemian dream who, until an hour ago, slept with, loved with, and fucked with me. Regularly. When everything is connected by plot, causal is as causal does. This is all a story, as I’ve said, because it’s his. A stranger’s tale would’ve just been garbage.
Trapped, I pulled a third-person from my lapel pocket and lit it with my remaining match. Too late, he started smoking his own story, now hopelessly pursuing the Buick-cum-Marxism (which is one of the faster philosophies).
He had to do something about the man’s cigarette butt. No one ever noticed narrative litter, and they wouldn’t until he started throwing it back.
He walked, after the other guy, toward her apartment, for under these circumstances, she waited in all directions.
I found him outside Seattle, easily enough when I lifted the entire Northwest and granny-tossed it over my head. It fell over me completely that way. Standing just to the side of Portland, I pulled this part of the smoker’s story out of another pocket and wiggled into it with a sharp eye on “I found him outside Seattle, easily enough. . . .” That did it.
This was a smoking coffee shop, which made me nervous. I once worried about vintage-wear, cover charges, and the demographics in lecture halls — now every ashtray was its own library, an entire history. This one the Bolshevik Revolution, that one photosynthesis. God only knew what He was doing in the coffee. All of this was a much bigger problem than man vs. himself and being attacked by a story with an axe to grind.
I concentrated on this line to bring things back into focus.
“Hey, . . . man,” I said to the other guy — who had, really, never hit me with this. He made it up after all — I did say it was his story — or it made itself up. Either way, it irritates me.
I didn’t want to just call him “man,” so I balled “Joseph” up in my fist and hit him with it. It splattered “Andrew” all over me in a thousand back-splashing bits. I’d explain, but the devil’s in the details. Literally.
“Cute,” Joseph said, smoking.
Joseph watched a girl in cat-glasses walk by, a slender, unending cigarette between her paintbrush fingertips. Andrew watched too, detached — her details seemed infinite, every instant further beyond his reach.
Joseph meant to put her in his pocket later. Have a conversation in a hotel over room service and bathrobes. I could tell he wanted me to make her willing — to like him and the idea. Otherwise he’d be in conflict with himself.
I felt bad for him: he hadn’t really wanted to be here in the first place — no one does. You can’t write yourself into a story.
“Hold on,” Andrew said, sitting. “You threw — or didn’t throw” he looked confused “a cigarette butt at me, and it had, like, a story in it. This story.”
You threw myself at myself, Andrew realized.
Joseph sighed. “I didn’t do it on purpose. I didn’t even really do it at all.”
This was clearly Joseph’s territory. Others like him, like her, milled around them everywhere. Andrew was interloping, driven by his own suspicions about things that come too near.
He glared at Joseph. “Still”
“But the mystery,” Joseph said, “nice. Now it’s a story for certain, and you’ve dragged us both into it. Or it into us.”
Joseph smiled at the girl with the glasses, thinking of girls who’d worn the same once before, only under different definitions of “cool” then, when he’d paid attention to such things studying design at Community. Some years prior.
It’s nice of him, I think, to characterize himself. Only his ideas about Warhol and Seurat are stories unto themselves and have nothing to do with reality. Better that he leave himself to me.
“Yeah? Great,” Andrew says now, stuffing his hands into his pockets. He’s glaring nervously at a napkin on the floor. “So, what, we just toss meaningless pablum at each other for a while, and I eventually walk away knowing less about whatever than I did before?”
Joseph is uncertain if Andrew is still speaking to him. “Well, with words like ‘pablum,’ yeah,” he says.
“I was better off on the sidewalk. In the beginning.”
Joseph laughs — I’ve gone ahead and put the girl in his pocket. He doesn’t realize what stories will unfold with her. What glasses of orange juice and domestic negotiations and nights of quiet boredom.
“You were never on the sidewalk,” Joseph says. “And that wasn’t the beginning.”
Joseph left me there via a page from a Gideons Bible. When he’d finished his coffee, he stretched the page over himself like a giant condom. It wadded itself up and settled next to one of the table’s splay-footed legs. When I flattened it back out, it was nothing but Holy Writ again.
I sat there, surrounded by smoke and chatter, my nerves, like fire, consuming themselves–and me along with them. A pair of muted TVs hung from ceiling poles in the back corners of the shop, and I watched them for a little while, afraid, really to do anything else. They showed commercials mostly.
I weighed options for a little while, considering heaving geometry and hummingbirds and plates of fava beans at this mystery. I’d pick at the seams of Postcolonialism, and slip between gaps in the disappearance at Roanoke to get some answers.
But really, what would I find?
And that’s ultimately what I’d take from Joseph, only he’d be called Anna then, which is the name of the girl wearing the cat glasses who has accompanied him out via a thing I did with his pockets, her infinite lines streaming heartbreakingly behind.
I could throw whatever I wanted at the problem, yet here it would remain.
But there was the matter of Andrew, who was also stranded in this coffee shop. This wasn’t his fault.
They had gone to Florida, between semesters, Andrew found himself inspired to realize. He used the granny-toss again, uncertain how else to throw things at himself. Be-sandaled and be-shortsed now, he moved through the hotel’s arrival canopy, dodging valet parkers and bell hops.
He found Joseph and Anna on the twelfth floor. Joseph answered the door in his bathrobe, a tumbler of orange juice in his off-hand. He glanced at Anna before letting Andrew in.
Anna sat on the edge of one of the beds. She had folded her left leg up under herself, exposing it in a wedge through the gap in her robe. She smiled at Andrew as she tucked her cropped blonde hair behind her ears.
“Hey,” she said.
Joseph closed the door, squelching the hallway’s yellowy, Saran light. It condensed itself into an eye, a tiny, outside dot winking through the peephole.
“Yeah, hey,” Joseph said.
“She knows,” Andrew hesitated, “about us?”
Anna tucked her other leg under herself. “What about you?”
Andrew stared, uncertain how to explain his and Joseph’s bizarre relationship or the narrative invasion or how it had all already ended. He didn’t want her to be an unwilling part of the problem.
Sunlight striped itself through the slats louvering the window. They clacked against one another in the air-conditioned breeze. The stripes didn’t quite reach Anna.
Joseph stepped past Andrew and into Anna. She was now holding Joseph’s juice in her hand, blinking at Andrew behind her vintage eyeglasses.
“She knows now,” she said.
“You know?” Andrew asked.
“Yeah, I know.”
It would be nice, Andrew realized, to sit with Anna. To watch re-runs on the hotel television, with the window-slats thrown wildly open, exposing the insides of the room to the sunlight, exposing bathrobes and underwear to a world that it would be fun to pretend was watching — could watch — outside, below. They would take extra showers and try to look casual when they secured an evening cab to find some club, or perhaps a bar that would be more exciting, they would tell themselves, because it’s here and not where they’d come from. And it would be. The story can come from anywhere.
Andrew would like to find out about Anna, about what he missed at the beginning of her unending self. To have sex with her. Feeling better, he pulls Joseph back out of her and onto himself, leaving the couple alone again.
“This is better,” Anna says, stretching upon the bed, revealing panties that, despite the positioning of the window-slats, the entire world can see.
Joseph lies down beside her. She’s agreed to drive with him. They’ve rented a car that will become available tomorrow, when they will check out, their skins and fingernails scoured clean and dry by the hotel’s so-hard water. They will have had sex quietly and will be excited about starting a new chapter.
Anna sets the juice down upon the fingerprint-ghosted varnish smoothing the nightstand. She rests the glass upon their paperwork, upon their agreement with the rental agency, which lists the make and model of the car they will drive out of Florida, back into the Northwest, and down neoned roadways. It even lists the people they will pass on the sidewalk.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Darin C. Bradley holds an M.A. in Literature and Literary Criticism and a Ph.D. in Poetics specializing on the mechanics of “weird” in the small press. In addition to teaching composition and literature, he’s also the founding (and current) fiction editor of Farrago’s Wainscot.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, November 25th, 2007.