Spring 2014, Volume 16

Fiction by Jonathan Scott

Millers and Minglers

The lake was thirty miles south of the University.  On the winding, dark roads, it took me an hour to get to the gravel drive leading to the house.  As each drive appeared to be a facsimile of the last, I had to slow at every one and turn slightly into the left lane to cast my headlights on the little green signs.  I was looking for Applegate.  Elisha told me to keep an eye out for three large rocks just off the road on the left.  Eventually, I saw two large rocks and pulled in to be safe but then couldn’t see the sign.  I got out of the car.  It was a cold night for a lake party—biting winds off the water.  Only legible from right beneath it, the sign read Applewhite.  I called Elisha.

“Hey where are you?” she asked.  “Burgers are on.”

“I thought you said steaks.”

“Did I?  Wishful thinking, I guess.  But where are you?”

“Are you sure it’s not Applewhite?

“What’s not?”

“The name of the road.  I’m standing beside two big old rocks and a sign that says Applewhite not Applegate, so I’m wondering . . .”

“That’s it.  Yeah, I meant to call you and say two rocks.  One must have been moved.”
I doubted that.

“Okay, be there in a minute,” I said and rolled my eyes into the rearview.  It was more like five minutes before I reached the end of the drive which turned from gravel into dirt about three hundred yards in.  About to call again to ask if she was sure about the road, I caught a glimpse of twinkling house-lights through the trees.  This place was really out there.  What an eyeful of stars, though, there would be in this darkness.  No city lights ruining the night vision.  No moon either, and no clouds yet.  I almost made a fourth resolution not to bore people with facts and figures about the universe, stuff piled in haywire heaps in the recesses of my brain, stored since the two astronomy classes I took as an undergrad.  Sometimes the facts and figures blurred but the spirit of the knowledge remained—having to do with our nearly infinite insignificance as individuals.  I got going once at an after hours party at the restaurant.  I was trying to impress Lily, before we were us, and was having the opposite effect; but I could not stop myself from droning on and on about light-years, space-time, quarks, and the assortment of Jovian moons.  Lily yawned a hundred times if she yawned once.  But I could not shut up.  She cited boredom and left the party mid-discourse on the general theory of relativity.  She could have pulled her punch and cited a headache or an early morning, but no, it was boredom, plain and simple.

Elisha hugged my neck right off the batI kissed her behind the ear and told her she looked lovely.  Her hair was more red now than blonde.  She had dyed it or brought out the natural redness with some product or another.  Either way, nice result. 

“Hey, brother, I’ll take those.”  A guy in a large cloth diaper relieved me of my six-pack and strutted off into another room.  Elisha told me not to worry, that was Monty, his parents owned the lake house, he was just going to put my beer in the fridge.  No worries, I told her, it’s all good.  Inane phrase but when in Rome...

In this case, Rome was a two-story, log-cabin-esque house.  From the vestibule, it opened into a large room where the majority of the milling and mingling took place.  The whole far wall was glass so you could see the lake by day or on a moonlit night.  Through the glass on the left, I saw smoke and guessed there was a deck from which burgers and not steaks were cooking.  The deck was gained by a door through the kitchen where Elisha lead me by the arm to meet some friends.  Introductions followed, names immediately forgotten.

  The guy in the diaper materialized from nowhere.  “Hey, brother, I put your brewskies in the fridge.”

Elisha patted my arm and squeezed my biceps.  I flexed but too late and had the littleness to care.  I felt myself sinking to something, not sure what.  Like toward the lowest common denominator.  It was a mean feeling

The doorbell rang.  One of the millers shouted, “Lay-hay-haird.”  A mingler informed, “In da hay-youse.” 

Just when I thought that Elisha planned to cling to me all night, she abandoned me in the company of strangers and I didn’t see her for thirty minutes.  Uncool. 

 “Stand me up.  Stand me up.”  A beefy guy with Greek letters on his chest danced around a keg like he had to pee.  “Keg stand!”  He yelled and about ten minglers and millers rushed in, resigning factions to join as gawkers, one and all. 

“Stand him up,” said a girl with Greek letters appliquéd across the ass of her too-tight, pink sweat pants.  She nudged me.  What the hell.  Go along to get along.  Personally, I had never spotted for a keg-stand, had never witnessed one, for that matter; but the ritual had been described to me by more outgoing friends, when I had any to speak of, and . . . what the hell.

It took three test runs before the beefy guy was ready for his coup.  I held his ankles while he sucked the hose.  The gawkers chanted.  The pitch fevered.  My arms grew tired and started to shake.  Don’t be the one to spoil fun, I thought.  Be that guy and you might as well go home.  No steak, no burger, no nothing.  Finally, the hero choked.  Suds shot from his nose.  Still determined not to be the little guy who let the big guy fall short of some dipsomaniacal record that, to be safe, I assumed existed in the annals of partydom, he started to kick against me like a tortured man drowning.

“Let him go,” ΖΦΒ-ass yelled.

I lowered his legs, my arms still shaking. 

The celebrants cheered briefly and then returned to the other room.  I followed them.  Someone else would have to spot the next guy. Elisha was on the deck smoking a cigarette.  I went to the window, tapped, and gave her a shrug.  She shrugged back, grinning.  My belly warmed.  I wanted to kiss her face.  Lips, brows, nose, ears—the works. She waved me out. 

“Having fun yet?” she asked.

“Just about.”

“Did you get a burger?”  She launched her cigarette butt over the rails and the tip glowed all the way to the ground.

“You’ll start a fire,” I said, half-serious.

“It’s too cold,” she said, whole-serious. I guess she honestly thought coldness trumped fire in the same way it might trump heat. 

“You’re right, it should be fine.  Besides, it’s kind of wet down there.”

The last of the burgers were being carried in by the designated grill cook—an older man, probably the parent of diaper-boy who would be congratulated on his coolness for “letting us hang here tonight” every time he passed a group of sloshed revelers.  Elisha held the door for him and then for me.  Three cheers went up for the chef and someone brought him a beer.  One of my Coronas by the looks of things.  Elisha handed me a bun, pinched a patty with her fingers, and plopped it on the bread.

“Cheese?” she asked.

“Yes, but I can get it . . .” 

She situated a piece of droopy American cheese on the burger and rubbed my lower back with her other hand. 

“If you want mayonnaise, you’re on your own.  The stuff makes me gag to look at.”

“I’m fine plain,” I said.

We went into the main room and found a spot in the middle of a plush sectional couch.    Laird walked through the room with a beat up Ibanez acoustic in one hand and a three-foot water bong in the other. Seven duckling party-goers followed him—five ladies, two gentlemen.  The image made immediate sense and didn’t surprise me in the least.  Of course he played guitar.  And not in a cliché way but in a guru way.  He played, I knew without knowing, magnificent arpeggios and sang dulcetly of the patient growth of mountains. Or he steadily thrummed in muted down-strokes singing not to his audience but to his subject, the steadily pounding river, its eventual climax at the delta.   I also knew that I wanted to go listen to him play. Waiting until the procession ended, I asked Elisha if she wanted to go.  She told me to go ahead, she’d catch up with me later.  I asked if she was sure.  She was sure.

I followed the mewls of strings being tuned.  A dark hall stretched toward a bluish glow and led into a black-lit room. Laird sat on the floor with the seven followers in a semi-circle around him.  His hair rested on the upper-curve of the guitar while he tuned with his ear against the wood.  I entered quietly. 

Two of the young women scooted to make room for me.  They didn’t say a word, just took my presence for granted and looked back at Laird.  Three black bulbs glowed softly overhead from beneath a barely turning fan.  A man my age or so, sitting to the immediate right of Laird, stuck his mouth into the bong and lit the pipe with a struggling Bic.  It took several clicks, several flashes of orange light against his dark brown skin, before the weed caught fire and crackled.  I couldn’t believe how long the guy sucked before coming up for air.  I had never smoked before but guessed he was giving it a decent go.  No one complained, though.  No one looked impatient like I’d seen circles of pot-heads over a fast burning joint. 

Laird strummed a full chord.  Satisfied, he partook of the bong and passed it to his left.  He strummed the same chord . . . once, twice, three times and finally exhaled.

“Right on,” he said and started in arpeggio.  I felt gratified—almost as if I had requested the song for having imagined it.

I passed on the bong twice but by the time it began its third loop, I had decided to give it a go.  Having studied the mechanics as others took their hits, I could probably wing it without too much trouble.  Maybe don’t even re-light the pipe, maybe just pull on the embers.  You’re half done anyway, I told myself, feeling wonky from the second-hand swirls that hovered for awhile before finally reaching the fan and meandering across the ceiling like winter-lazy snakes.

The moment of truth came and went with no ado.  No one cared.  No one applauded.  Nothing had absolutely anything to do with me.  A funny way of putting it.  I re-put it to myself—everything had absolutely nothing to do with me.  But that didn’t sound right either.  Laird played on.  We listened, enthralled, a circle of preternatural eyes and teeth.  I partook each time and slowly lost my unaccustomed mind.  The music became symphonic—impossibly iterated and voluminous.  Harmony and dissonance as passage of time.  I made a mental note to follow up on the physics of the insight.  Harmony and dissonance, harmony and dissonance.  Remember that.  Remember what?  You bastard, you bastardly bastard, listen to the music, look at Laird. What a joke, what a joy, remember, harmony and dissonance as . . . as what?  . . .  as passage of time, as light or something . . . as Elisha . . . where’s Elisha? . . . who’s Elisha . . . she has nothing, no, absolutely nothing to do with you, wait . . . or what? . . . everything has nothing, everything has nothing . . . damn it stand up, do it now, stand up and get out of here.  You bastard . . . you are the passage of time . . . a waste of it . . . this is, no isn’t, no is utterly inane.

Getting out of that room, getting off of my rear, for that matter, required a greater concentration of will than I had ever mustered in my life.  Everything conspired against me.  Music, marijuana, the circle of people—all held sway and the fact of my existence blurred in the moment of lost control.  I had to get out.  I waited for a song break and lucked-out when Laird needed to retune the guitar.  Using the shoulders of the two young women beside me, I stood.  My jellied legs threatened the effort. For  many seconds, maybe a full minute’s worth, I steadied myself.  Laird started again.  Something about the fallacy of isolation but in terms of rain . . . I wasn’t sure . . . or maybe just about rain, no fallacy implicated.  Hard for to tell. 

When I felt steady enough, I backed away like I was trying to leave the scene of a crime without making a scene of my own.  An unnecessary precaution.  I could no more distract that group than float to the ceiling, though I feared that as well.  I reached the hall and turned around.  The far end seemed interminable.  The choice to walk, to put one foot forward and start the journey, was, sad to say, one of the hardest choices of my life.  But I managed, concentrating on the distant light and muffled sounds.  It took an eon.

As I walked, the rectangle of light broadened but the sound of voices diminished; and when I finally got back to the main room, there were only a few millers and no minglers to speak of.  My first thought was that everyone else had left, that midnight had come and gone and it was a new year and the auspiciousness of the moment had passed me by.  I felt like I had lost something.  Not sure what.  An heirloom?  A pet?  A soul?  The sensation pitted my gut and cinched my throat. 

I thought I was dying.  Breath came in sips through a chewed-on straw.  Heartbeats chased each other, supersonic, through a maze of dead-ends.  The walls, of course, gathered toward the center of the room where I stood wanting to scream, to get the attention of those people, those lucky unaffected people with their unsympathetic bursts of laughter.  I would surely die and they would surely not notice and it would serve me right.

With its Cheshire cat mouth, the sectional couch cajoled.  Come sit down, doofus.  You’re a sloppy mess.  Look how happy I am.  Think how happy you would be.  Wisdom.  Wise, wise couch, I thought, and rushed headlong, like a toddler to its mother, until I tripped on the rug and fell, deeply cushioned, onto the heavenly couch.  I told you so, it said, now just relax.  Easy for it to say but I tried—commissioning every ounce of me to the act of breathing . . . deep, slow.  Another eon and then I settled down.  And for a while things were wondrous.  I could hear the music from the black-lit room, the conversations of party-goers outside by the lake, the whir of the dishwasher in the kitchen.  I could smell the now-cold grill and its bits of gristle, the sulfurous ghosts of bottle rockets and roman candles and the skunk-scent of pot gently wafted by the ceiling fan.

Meanwhile, I alternated between Gullivers with respect to the size of the millers.  Now amongst Lilliputians, now amongst Brobdingnagites.  Also, I considered Laird as houynhnhnm and yahoo, too sane, too crazy, all at once.  The meaning and the mystery as one.  Embarrassing thoughts and I felt the eyes of invisible antagonists glaring at me, jeering, irises full of disparagement.  And for the life of me, I could not remember the number of the new year. 

Two thousand and what? 

Where the hell is Elisha? 

Are you kidding me?

I had to get up.  You’ve been here long enough.  Get some air.  Everyone’s outside.  Go.  Go now. 

I went.

The air was cold and wet.  Frenzied lake wind stung my face as soon as I walked onto the deck.  Then it lulled as if to say it had welcomed me and now it had better things to do.  Below and a hundred yards off, I saw a large group of people.  They all seemed to be smoking because of the chilled air but, looking closer, I saw the glow of several cherries and one of them briefly lit the features of Elisha’s face and reflected off her glittered make-up.

A ball of red exploded over the lake followed by a fizzling shower of ashes.  The boom of the blast startled me but the brief flash of light illuminated the boarded path down to the dock where the others were gathered.  I made my way slowly.  Over and over, the image of me tripping and falling flitted through my mind.  Over and over, I considered going back to the couch to wait out the danger of looking or acting absurd—a fear of mine, early and late, to be avoided at almost any cost. 

Another flash, this one green, and another booming retort.  A smattering of applause. 

Elisha saw me coming down the path and jogged up to meet me.

“Where’d you go?” she asked.  “I was worried.”

“Apparently so much . ..   not so much that you . . .”  I wasn’t ready for dialogue.

“We’re shooting . . .” A blast interrupted her.  “Fireworks,” she finished with a smile.

“I see.”

“Come on.”  She turned back down the path and patted her thigh like one beckons a dog.  On the other side of the dock was the boat house.  Cloth-diaper-guy, now clothed like an adult but probably for the cold and not for the shame, led us through the large doors that creaked noisily against their hinges.  The walkway split into two narrower catwalks on either side of a dilapidated pontoon that bobbed on the pitch black water. 

“Awesome, dude,” said one girl.

 “Can we get on it?  Can we, like, get on it?” asked another girl, manifestly drunk and then some.  She teetered, both hands fisted around long-necked beer bottles.

“I don’t know . . .” said our host.  He cited a variety of reasons as to why he should not take the boat out, all of which were sound and wise and therefore completely unacceptable to the group at large.  I, for one, had already decided that there was no way I was getting on a boat in the middle of the night, in the cold of winter, only just now coming back to planet earth. I looked up and down each catwalk for Elisha, to make sure she intended to stay in her right mind. She was nowhere. Rather, nowhere that I could find.  She had left me alone again amongst strangers. Uncool.

At last, Baby New Year relented on the condition that everyone wear a life-preserver and therefore the idea was summarily rejected as unnecessary and the balls of the host called into question.

“Suit yourselves but let the record show that I warned you.  And let it also show the proof of my balls and how you all can go fuck yourselves . . .”

The pontoon lurched and the dock rose. I stepped forward for balance and walked directly into the dark, freezing water.  Going down, through the ascent of my bubbles, I watched a glowing cigarette dimple the water overhead and fizzle out. How inane to hope a doused cigarette could warm an entire lake.  How absurd to imagine I could smell Elisha, a scent I’d always thought of as smoke and hyacinth.




BIO: Jonathan H. Scott was born in Virginia and resides in Alabama. His writing has appeared in a variety of literary journals, most recently: Floodwall, Poet Lore, Unsplendid, and Weave.