“Different places, yeah but they all look much the same,
Dreams of faces in the street devoured by names.
I’m in collision with every stone I ever threw,
And blind ambition where the flame turns blue.”
—David Gray, ‘Flame Turns Blue,’ Lost Songs (2001)
The party lasted for three days, and while the faces in the periphery changed, the core members of the house stayed the same. On the second night, I hooked up with a girl that came over from Notre Dame’s campus, which was a little under an hour away.
I think she was a cousin of one of Caroline’s friends or something, but I didn’t really pay much attention.
We wound up in the basement by ourselves around two in the morning, which led to some making out and heavy petting but not much more. In truth, I think I was still reeling from the night before, watching Caroline through the window. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get the image out of my mind. In and of itself, the image of Caroline’s naked body shouldn’t have been a bad thing at all, but I just kept feeling this cold ache in my chest.
On Saturday morning, Flatrock and Toke showed up, and their presence could only mean one thing. The sit-down was over. Whoever Whistler’s magic and powerful allies were, they evidently had come through.
“By the time he got to the meeting, Tae was ready to get on his knees and open his mouth, take in whatever we had to give him,” Toke said.
“Damn!” Karl yelled. “If only Bonnie and Okie had been there! They would have loved it!”
Okie was lounging on a couch watching Sports Center, and simply flipped the bird casually over his shoulder without looking. Bonnie just shrugged his shoulders. “Whatever,” he said. “Tae’s a handsome man…and you black folk have some creamy skin.” He rubbed his hand alongside Toke’s cheek, which sent him into a tizzy of flailing arms.
“Get the fuck off me!” Toke had never been one to enjoy people invading his personal space. As such, it was never difficult to get a rise out of him.
“We’re opening the bar back up tonight,” Flatrock said. “We should all come back and celebrate.”
The majority of the group seemed in favor of the plan. Our capacity to deal with one another seemed to be wearing a little thin after three days of sequestration in the cabin. “Sounds good to me,” Farley said, “I’m sick of picking sand out of my ass crack.”
“You guys go ahead and head back,” Whistler said. “I’ll stay behind and clean the place with UB, then we’ll come meet you.”
“I’ll help,” I said. “I don’t mind.”
We spent the bulk of the day cleaning up the detritus of the three-day bender—random bottles and red plastic cups, a few suspect piles of filth that we couldn’t quite identify. By late afternoon, though, the cabin was returned more or less to its original condition.
“Should we head back?” U.B. asked.
“Or,” Whistler said, whipping a bag of weed out of his pocket. “We could hang back and enjoy this place to ourselves one more night.”
The thought of another all-night bender at the Hall sounded great in theory, but after three days, the hangover was beginning to compound, and a calmer night with just a few sounded a bit better. “I’m down for staying,” I said.
UB nodded, licking his lips greedily and grabbing hold of Whistler’s baggie. “Scribe,” Whistler said, “would you like to partake?”
“Not tonight,” I said. “I was thinking more about that bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel downstairs behind the bar. You think your old man will notice if it’s gone?” I asked UB.
UB had already pulled a glass pipe from his pocket and was loading a hit into the bowl. “Don’t give a shit if he does,” he said. “Have at it.”
We spent the first few hours just sitting around a card table. Since we were short a fourth for pitch, we played cut-throat euchre instead. At around sunset, we moved the party out to the back deck, aligning ourselves in a row of vinyl deck chairs, a few small tables between us. We stared across the water at the orange glow of the setting sun, watching the shimmering orb drift slowly into the water on the horizon.
“It’s beautiful,” UB said.
I thought again about the Bukowski poem. “I met a genius once who would disagree,” I said.
UB wrinkled up his nose. “What?”
Whistler hooted out a high-pitched laugh. “A six year-old boy,” he said.
I nodded enthusiastically. “I love that poem,” I said.
UB spat on the ground in disgust. “You fucking literary types,” he said. “Always making shit complicated.” He carefully packed another bowl as he spoke. “It’s a fucking sunset against the water. Looks awesome, and that’s all there is to it.”
“It’s certainly a sight to behold,” Whistler said, “but that doesn’t mean Bukowski doesn’t have a point.”
I nodded in agreement.
UB choked out a thick cloud of pungent-smelling white smoke. “Ok, smartass,” he said. “You trying to tell me that you don’t think that sunset is amazing?”
I thought for a moment, determined to give an honest answer. “I think it’s beautiful,” I said, “but it also makes me feel small.”
Neither of them responded, and we all sat for several minutes in a thick, contemplative silence as the waves broke quietly against the beach beyond the dune.
Two hours later, UB was so stoned that he literally couldn’t walk. Upon deciding it was time for bed, he stood, and then promptly fell three times before reaching the sliding door. “You think he’s going to be alright?” I asked Whistler.
He shrugged his shoulders and waved his hand. “He’ll be fine,” he said, his words drifting out in long, exaggerated syllables. I looked down at the bottle of Whiskey on the table.
The bottle was half gone, and I was feeling cloudy-headed and loose, but my state was nothing compared to Whistler and UB. The whole bag of weed was gone, and it had been supplemented by a few beers and at least one suspect pill that UB had produced from his pocket.
Though he wasn’t quite slurring his words, or falling over like UB, Whistler was on the verge of the abyss. Suddenly, he stood and grabbed my arm, roughly wrenching me to my feet. “We need to move,” he said. “We’re going to pass out if we sit here any longer.”
I groaned in meek opposition.
“Come on, Scribe. Don’t be so fucking lethargic.” He snapped his fingers a few inches in front of my face. “I’ve got it! Let’s go to the beach and skip some stones!”
As much as I wanted to slink back down into the chair, there was a certain poetic beauty to the idea. Our conversation about skipping stones had been one of the moments that brought us so close in the first place. Actually skipping a few stones together made perfect sense.
A few times, I had to help Whistler maintain his balance as we made our way through the thick sand of the dune. Whistler tended to hold his shit together better than just about anyone I had ever met, but that particular evening, he was a complete mess, his long limbs flailing everywhere as he worked his way up the steep grade.
When we made it out to the beach, the nearly full moon and receding tide made it easy to find plenty of flat, smooth rocks. We both went about our work quietly, measuring the rocks one by one for weight as we collected a handful of stones.
“This was one of my favorite things when I was a kid” he said. “Some of my best memories.” He let loose a side-arm throw, skipping a rock across the uneven water six or seven times before it plopped below the surface of a breaking wave. “I grew up in Obsidian,” he said, “right on the Mississippi River.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. From my first moments in the Hall, I learned that Whistler’s past was an absolute mystery—his most fiercely guarded secret.
His childhood hometown had been the source of a dozen speculative conversations that I’d shared with other members of the group. Each of us had our own theory. Loosened by weed and booze he was inexplicably letting the secret slip.
“Actually, I was born in Crawford, a little further down the river,” he continued. “I moved to Obsidian after my parents died.”
From the first time I had met him, I had been aware that there were profound, unspoken connections between us, connections that seemed to go beyond a shared knowledge of Bukowski poems or appreciation of Bob Dylan songs. Somehow, I had always known that we were the same on many levels.
“I don’t remember all that much about them, except the fighting.” Though he wasn’t slurring, he talked slowly, spitting a bit when he said certain words. “I’d sneak out of my house sometimes, when they were fighting…” The longer he talked, the more his speech became pregnant with long pauses. It was as if he were narrating a dream rather than telling a story. “…they fought all the time, right up until the day that they died…I didn’t even cry. I didn’t shed a solitary tear…but before, when they’d wake me with the yelling and the pounding on walls, I’d crawl out of my window and run down to the river.” He took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly, the air whistling slightly as it passed his lips. “It wasn’t too far,” he continued, “but I was such a little boy…”
I thought about standing on the river bank at home, casting stones across the water with Tommy, challenging each other with every toss. Arguing over the merits of a tight skip radius versus a long hop, generously accounting our longest consecutive skips, the numbers growing over time like any good fish story.
“I’d stand there for an hour or two, wading down into the muddy water, picking up flat rocks with my toes, casting rocks by moonlight.” Suddenly, he turned to me, as if he had just realized that someone was sitting next to me. “That’s what I mean,” he said, throwing the words at me like an accusation.
“What I told you before,” he said. “The rocks…the stones that we’ve thrown. They say you shouldn’t throw stones,” he said, rambling on, “especially those in glass houses, but we’re all in glass houses, one way or another.” He stood abruptly, this time on firmer legs. He turned dramatically towards me. “We all throw stones because it’s natural,” he said. “Something inside us demands it.” He leaned down and whispered in my face. “It’s the flatness of the rock…the stillness of the water.” He turned back towards the water, gazing out over the rolling surface of the horizon. “And the surface is never smooth…No matter how it looks…”
He turned and started walking off down the beach. I grabbed his arm to hold him back. “I don’t think it’s a good idea if you…” He turned abruptly towards me, shoving me down into the sand.
“No!” he screamed standing above me. “I have to go! I have to do this myself!”
He leaned forward over me, spit dripping down his chin. “You have no idea what I’m capable of,” he said, jutting his long finger into my face as he spoke. “The things I’ve done…the people that have tried to cross me.” He stood again, huffing deep breaths of air as he looked back towards the water. “I made a choice a long time ago…nobody was ever going to cross me again and get away with it.” He stamped his feet a few times in the sand. “Nobody.” His voice trailed off as he turned to walk down the beach, the last word barely more than I whisper.
I stayed sitting in the cool sand as he walked away, feeling weepy and hurt, like a wounded child.
As I watched him stumbling down the beach, though, I realized that he wasn’t speaking to me at all.
Whoever he thought he was shoving into the sand, it had nothing to do with me. That much was clear.
Still, I couldn’t get past the look that was in his eyes. There had been many times that I had seen Whistler angry, many times that I spotted the beast that was hanging out below the surface. That night on the beach, though, I saw the depth of what the beast was really capable of.
Of course, no matter how terrifying the look in his eye was, I knew that he was probably no different than me. On some level, the beast lies within all of us. Hadn’t I learned first-hand that night in the Hall? I could close my eyes and see that ever-expanding pool of blood, feel the slick, gore-soaked handle of the bat in my hands. We all work so hard to make sure that the beast stays hidden, but he’s caged by frail and fragile bars.
I walked to the top of the dune on wobbly legs, stopping in roughly the same spot I was standing when I saw Caroline in the window. I could see Whistler still walking, maybe a quarter of a mile down the beach. I watched as he plopped down in the sand, sitting on his butt and facing the water while he lit a cigarette. I watched him for a few minutes before he slumped back, appearing to pass out on the beach.
I thought about going out there to try and rouse him to his feet, but I was a little afraid. I kept seeing that look in his eye, and I didn’t want to see that anger focused in my direction again.
One way or the other, he would be fine. Besides, he would have been the first to leave me lying somewhere, passed out in the weeds. Whistler subscribed to an old school mentality, and if you were dumb enough to pass out someplace that you shouldn’t, he wasn’t going to break his back trying to move you. That much I was sure of.
I looked out one last time at the water. The same dark horizon that I had viewed three nights before. This time I thought about the world under the waves, the strange creatures that must be hiding in the depths. Though I felt the same fear that I had before, I found a new longing inside, a strange desire to strip down and swim out into the black water, reaching out to touch those frightening creatures below the surface.
But I didn’t walk towards the water, and I didn’t swim.
I turned my back on the waves, and set off towards the cabin, leaving Whistler to lie by himself, fighting his own demons in the cold sand.