“Damn!” Jed tries to boot up his ancient computer again. He should have bought a new one a while back but he hasn’t been able to afford it. He doesn’t use it much but this morning he has two bills he really needs to pay before the start of business. Shit, he meant to do all of this last night, but with the dinner party and the baby, it completely slipped his mind. If he doesn’t get these bills paid he’ll be slapped with a late payment fine.
“Perfect timing.” He flips the power switch again and gives it one more shot; nothing.
It’s 5.30 am and this needs to be paid before he leaves for Beaujangles. He jumps to his feet and paces the apartment. God, he could do with a coffee. He drank a few beers last night and he’s a little sluggish.
He hears Sadie cough. She’s still asleep. Man he’d love to crawl back into bed but that won’t be happening. He clicks his tongue in frustration and walks to the desk where Sadie’s laptop lies open. He’ll borrow it for a minute, just to do the banking, she won’t mind.
Jed pulls up a chair and flips open the laptop. The screen snaps to attention opening directly on to Sadie’s email. He moves the cursor over to close the mail but his eyes are caught by Dan’s name at the top. He shouldn’t read it. It’s none of his business but a few keys words flash from the text, demanding his attention: medication, drug trials, side effects, and his own name; Jed. What the fuck? Before he knows it he’s halfway through, banking forgotten.
It’s still dark but the light from the screen reflects on Jed’s face, features frozen and expressionless. Elbows on the table, hands shaking slightly he rubs a hand over his eyes and reads again. He opens the attachments and reads them too. In the bedroom he hears Sadie cough and call for him. He closes the laptop carefully and heads to the bedroom door, searching the darkness for her voice.
“You okay?” His voice is flat; shock has sucked the marrow from his words, the sounds thin and hollow.
Sadie’s voice is raspy from sleep, muffled in part from the duvet, “I forgot to set the alarm Will you call to wake me at seven?”
Jed smiles weakly, glad she can’t see his face. “Sure.”
“I won’t be late babe.” She yawns. “See you there.”
“See you.” He closes the bedroom door quietly and stands still, resting his head against the door frame.
When the shaking stops, a seed of anger takes its place, flooding his senses. Grabbing his skateboard, he leaves the apartment and takes off running down the sidewalk, board under his arm, laces undone. He throws the board on the road and jumps on at speed weaving his way too quickly down the empty road. His lace catches under the wheel and the board stops abruptly throwing him up in the air to land on his knees on the asphalt.
“Fuck!” The word echoes in the early morning quiet. Knees bloody and jeans ripped he stands, grabs his board and swings it hard against the sidewalk. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” With each word he smashes the board against the kerb until it’s splintered and broken.
He sinks to his knees beside the shattered board waiting for the ‘wake up’ part. The moment when he hears the alarm and realises with relief, it was a stupid dream. A dream where he reads his girlfriend’s email and find’s out she’s sick, really sick.
When the waking up doesn’t happen and the light begins to lift, Jed stands slowly. He picks up the broken pieces of his beloved skateboard and throws them one by one in a nearby trash can. His knees throb and his elbows sting, but he doesn’t walk to Beaujangles. Screw the café. Screw it all. What the hell does any of it matter anyway? He starts running and doesn’t stop till he reaches Dan’s house.
Dan has been awake since 5.00 am. - too much on his mind to sleep. Thank God Zoe made it to hospital in time. Poor Felix, the look on his face when her waters broke. He smiles a little then frowns again, remembering Raife looking awkward amidst the drama.
He’s been a real prick to Raife. They need to talk, try and put the past behind them. But it’s hard, so many lies. He heads to the kitchen and pours himself another coffee. Sipping slowly, he enjoys the quiet, a welcome ease into another busy day ahead.
The bang on the door is so loud and unexpected Dan jumps, throwing his coffee in the air and down his robe. “Who the hell…at this time?” He glances up at the clock, heading to the door which quivers under the force of another heavy bang.
Jed stands outside, sweating and panting, face pale but cheeks flushed.
Dan is immediately afraid for Sadie, “What the hell’s wrong?”
Jed steps in and swings a fierce punch that strikes Dan just underneath the chin, knocking him out cold. The action releases the last of his anger. With the fire gone, Jed deflates. Rubbing his knuckles, he surveys the crumpled heap on the floor; a mess of coffee stained white towelling. Jed steps inside and kneels down beside Dan who is slowly coming round.
“What the fuck?” Dan voice is woozy and he brings an unsteady hand to his chin.
“You deserved that.” Jed helps him to his feet.
“I should kick your ass.” Dan growls as Jed guides him to the kitchen. “Ice packs in there dip shit,” he points to the freezer. Jed pulls out some frozen peas and throws them at Dan.
“Do I need to tell you what this about?” Jed sits on a bar stool, arms folded, head down.
“No, I don’t think you do, but maybe you can tell me why you hit me.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You should have fucking told me Dan.” Jed turns to look out the window, the sun pokes over the tree line unsure of its reception. “Why didn’t she tell me?”
“She hasn’t told you? Then…?”
“I saw your e-mail.”
“You read her email?”
Jed flushes, “I didn’t mean to…oh fuck off, don’t look at me like that, it’s lucky I did. Was anyone going to fill me in anytime soon? Or did I have to wait for her to collapse as I over-fucking-work her in the café? Jesus Christ. I gave her such a hard time yesterday.”
Dan closes his eyes and rubs his chin, “How can you not mean to read someone else’s e-mail?” He opens his eyes to Jed’s glare. “Okay, I get it. You didn’t know because she was afraid you’d treat her differently.”
“What? That’s crazy.”
“Is it? Look at you now.”
Jed rubs a hand over his face. “Christ Dan, how bad is it? I don’t know anything about this.”
“Take it easy. It’s okay. You need to go home and talk to her, it’s nothing you can’t deal with.”
“I know I can deal with it. Why the hell did she think I couldn’t?” He looks up. “Listen to me? I don’t even know what I’m saying I can deal with.”
“Hey.” Dan stands and moves across the kitchen but Jed looks up quickly.
“Don’t fucking hug me! I’m not good with that.”
Dan suppresses a smile. “Right, reining that man-hug right back in.” Jed nods, but his eyes are wet and Dan pretends not to notice. “Listen, how about I don’t hug you, you don’t punch me and we’ll take it from there.”
Jed nods, “Right. Sorry man, about the punch. I didn’t plan that.”
Dan points a finger. “If you’d chipped a tooth there would be hell to pay. Now pour yourself a coffee and wait till I get changed. I’ll print you off some stuff to read. Once you know what you’re dealing with, you two can talk it through.”
While Dan’s in the bedroom, Jed’s phone vibrates and he pulls it from his jeans pocket. A text, from Sadie: ‘Come home. Now.’
It’s an hour later when he arrives. He’s read every paper Dan had on cystic fibrosis. His head is spinning, but like Dan said, now he knows what he’s dealing with.
It’s the first day in eight years he hasn’t opened Beaujangles. Truth is, he hasn’t even thought about it. He climbs the stairs slowly, opens the door quietly and kicks off his shoes.
She’s on the couch waiting for him, staring at the door. Her knees are pulled up under her chin, arms hugging her legs. Waiting.
“Hey.” She speaks first and he’s relieved.
She looks down at his torn jeans and bloodied knees. “No Beaujangles today?”
Jed shrugs. “Fancied a change.”
Sadie nods and Jed sits down opposite her. The laptop is open on the desk and the email glows. He glances over, sighs and rests his scraped elbows on his thighs.
“Been reading my email again?”
“Gets better every time.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“I didn’t mean to snoop. I was going to use your computer for the banking and…”
The silence is heavy and the distance between them large. They both go to speak at once. Jed gestures for Sadie to go first.
“I didn’t tell you at first because I didn’t want ‘it’ to be who I was to you. We weren’t serious so there was no reason to say anything.”
He looks up. “And then?”
“And then…hell, then I just didn’t want to. I liked who we were together without all that shit. I liked that you thought I was tough and fiery and strong and independent. I didn’t want you to know that really, I’m the opposite of all those things.”
Long, delicate arms hug her knees tightly, hands knotted together, knuckles white. He notices how pale her arms are and wonders why he hadn’t noticed before.
“Then the pretending had just gone on too long. I know how to take care of myself, and it was easy to pretend, soon I got to where I didn’t even know how to talk to you about it. I’d let it become this big secret when really, it’s just how it is.” Her hands move to cover her face. “And then you went and asked me to marry you and that really screwed things up.” She pauses but he doesn’t interrupt. “The past couple of weeks I haven’t been feeling so good. I had to talk to Dan, and once I’d actually told someone here in St. Cloud, someone that wasn’t you, it felt deceitful, like a lie and…” Her voice fades out.
“I just don’t get it.” Jed shakes his head. “Did you think I wouldn’t want to be with you?”
“No, are even listening? You don’t deserve to choose a girl who will compromise your life. Do you hear me?” She flushes with anger.
“Then who gets to choose what I deserve?”
“Do you know my life expectancy Jed? Do you know that I probably can’t have children? Listen to me, I’m telling you what you deserve and it’s not this.”
Hot tears flow down her cheeks and she jabs then away with the back of a hand.
Jed stands matching her anger with his own. “You don’t get to make that choice for me. You don’t have the right to say who I get to love and for how long.”
“I can’t give you what you want,” she’s given in to the crying, her words wet between sobs.
“You don’t know what I want and you sure as fuck don’t know what I need.”
He won’t let himself crumble seeing her cry like this, she has to know. He kneels down in front of her, wincing as his skinned knees hit the floor. “You don’t know what I need Sadie, so look at me because I’m telling you right now.”
The last rays of sunrise bathe the room in shades of yellow and for a moment he’s silhouetted in light. “I need you.”
A quiet follows the chaos. He holds her hands and looks steadily at her face. “I need you for however long you’ll have me. That’s all I need. Nothing else. And a day or a month, whatever the fuck you think you have, is worth more than a life without you.”
The sobbing has stopped and she’s still; eyes fixed on his. She squeezes his hands and blinks, letting another wave of tears free fall down her cheeks.
“Now will you quit with the crying and tell me you need me too?”
Sadie wipes her eyes and watches him, she takes a long careful breath before answering.
“Well, let’s get married then.”
She’s laughing and crying at the same time and he watches the beauty of all that emotion flow, the boundary line finally fallen.
“Do you ever give up?”
“Never. Let’s do it.”
“Is that really your best proposal?”
He grabs her by the shoulders, pulling her down on to the floor where he wrestles her wriggling body into submission. He leans in and kisses her and it feels like the first time because it’s honest.
“Sadie Brooks, will you fucking well finally say ‘yes’ and marry me?”
“Say it again without the fucking.”
“Can we do that bit later?” She swats him with a free hand but he grabs it kissing it carefully.
She takes her time, watching him watching her. “Okay.”
Morning light paints streaks of joy on his face. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
He blinks and shakes his head like a wet dog. “You said ‘yes’.”
She smiles, nodding, “Technically I said okay.”
“Say it again.”
“Okay you’re saying it again or okay you’ll marry me?”
“God, I love you.”
With unsteady hands, he takes the edge of her shirt and pulls it slowly up and over her head. He touches her pale skin gently and she smiles up at him, never more beautiful than now. Taking his time, he traces her breasts with a finger watching her expression change. Suddenly he throws his head back, howls like a wolf and punches the air like a teenager at a ball game.
“Best. Day. Ever!”
Laughing, she tries to swipe him with a free hand but he’s too strong and for now she doesn’t mind. “You are such a kid.” He answers with another howl and she only stops laughing when his fingers move inside her underwear, and he whispers it again.
“Best. Day. Ever.”
While most of St. Cloud wind down by early evening, as cocktail hour approaches Bastian is busy preparing.
Happy Hour at Santos is a drawn out affair. It lasts for a few hours rather than just one. The routine is always the same. At 6.00 pm Bastian extends his outside seating area, pushing a few tables and chairs out on to the quiet sidewalk. He often has a musician or a band at night and sometimes they’ll play in the covered area outside, the bar gets hot in summer.
It’s been a spectacular day, another St. Cloud steamer, literally. At this time of year, the heat is usually broken by a heavy, warm rainfall late afternoon. The rain never lasts for long and when the sun breaks out again; steam rises from moisture-laden streets and sidewalks. The air is heavy and fragrant. A curious mix of hot city streets and perfumed foliage that rests on the skin in a soft misty layer.
Steam rises as Bastian readies his tables and chairs for the night, it’s Friday and they should be busy. Back inside Santos the speakers hum and Josefina sings along to the Madonna track she has selected. Bastian grimaces and heads into the kitchen to negotiate.
“I’d do anything, for ma material girl. Cause I am a material girl…” Josefina is immersed in frying corn fritters. Bastian watches as she ladles the batter in time to the music, does a little dance until the bubbles rise and pop then flips each bite size fritter over deftly, not missing a beat. Beside her is a tray towering over with golden fried corn fritters.
He surveys the cycle once then steps in to sample the offerings.
“…living in a material world” Her voice rises as she sees his hand approach the platter,” Materia… a… a… al… Hands off!” She snaps the spatula at his extended hand. “Okay, just one Bastian. You’re getting fat.”
Bastian laughs and pats his round belly affectionately, “I was a thin man till I met you.” He grabs a fritter and bends down to kiss her on the cheek.
“Don’t you blame me! It’s the beer, not the cooking.” She smiles at Bastian whose expression is far away as he savours the still warm morsel, the sweet flavour of corn balanced expertly with the zing of fresh chilli. She shoos him with her hands. “Now get out of my kitchen while I make some salsa.”
Josefina’s forearms are spectacular, quite out of proportion with her small, round frame. With her sleeves rolled up and a kitchen knife to hand, a tattoo or two wouldn’t go a miss. They are strong, well-muscled forearms, tuned from kneading bread, rolling fajitas, chopping, slicing, mashing and beating. Food is her passion. It’s her home. The kitchen her place of worship. It’s the language she speaks and her offering of love. Bastian’s belly had no chance.
Lifting a crate of ripe red tomatoes, she begins to chop rhythmically. In time, she lifts the chopping board deftly. A horror show of decimated tomatoes are tipped unceremoniously into a large metal bowl. The bowl is soon full, and she gets to work with red and green chillies, shiny purple onions, lemons, bulbs of garlic and coriander. The smells are heavenly and Bastian would stay and savour the sight of his wife at work but, he’s had enough of Madonna, and he has other jobs to do.
Heading back out front he restocks the cooler and approaches the stereo apprehensively, waiting for the yell when he switches the playlist.
“Not again… Listen, I’d rather have Madonna than Boyzone. Seriously, it’s too much for anyone, all that white-suited, shiny-faced, Irish heartthrob stuff. I can do without it. I mean, they didn’t even look old enough to have pubic hair. Don’t you agree?”
Bastian knows it’s Dan before he has to turn around. “Rough day kid?”
“Same shit, different day and all that. Can I have a beer please?”
Bastian is still focused on the playlist, his large thumbs scrolling down the screen of the iPod. “I know I’ve said it before but I preferred it when we had CD’s.”
“Trust me” Dan grins, settling himself on a stool. “You’ve said it before.”
Bastian turns to serve him, his lips shaped to sing along to the lyrics he knows will come soon. “A winter’s day…in deep and dark December…”
“Simon and Garfunkel? Quick with the beer would you, I’m welling up.”
Santos fills slowly, mostly regulars, a few tourists. Dan sips his beer thinking back for a moment to Evan, his airport and the changes that will inevitably come to St. Cloud. Since Evan’s death, the controversy died down, no-one spoke about objections to the international airport anymore. No-one seemed to worry about the adverse effects of tourism. People’s priorities were kicked back into place by his untimely death. Why stop the inevitable, change is always on its way.
“What happened?” Bastian points to the angry welt on Dan’s chin.
Dan sighs, extends an arm to flex his well-toned bicep, then shakes his head with a frown. “Thought I had a future in boxing, but turns out it just isn’t my sport.” He rubs his chin tenderly. “Back to Tai Chi tomorrow.”
Bastian is only half listening. He’s serving. The bar is lined with custom; Happy hour begins. Soon Josefina walks around tables with small baskets of fritters, and ceramic bowls of salsa. Simon and Garfunkel have headed back to the seventies, and an island reggae band’s latest tunes beat rhythmically from the speakers.
Dan is planning the set for his radio gig tomorrow. He meant to do it last night, he likes to be organised, but with the last minute dinner party he didn’t have time. He likes to sit at the bar in Santos to plan his play list and topics for the show. He gets a feel for what mood the people are in, what they want or maybe need to hear, and usually he’ll hear a few good bits of island gossip that he can joke about.
Sipping his beer, he scribbles notes on to a wire bound note pad, chews on his pencil for a time and watches the crowd. It’s nice; he likes this part of his routine. Usually, because mostly everyone knows who he is, when they see him with the pencil and the notepad at the bar they give him peace. He likes a bit of quiet and refuses to talk doctor shop. The pencil and pad are the sign: don’t disturb…or else I might bitch about you on air.
Surprised at the break of protocol, Dan looks up from the page. Raife slides on to the spare stool beside him.
“Raife.” He tries a little warmth in his voice, remembering he’d decided only this morning to be nicer.
“Planning tomorrow night’s show.” Raife looks bemused. “I DJ a couple of nights a week.”
“You do?” He shakes his head like the suggestion is ridiculous.
“A lot changes in ten years Raife.”
“Yeah.” Raife looks around and breathes out slowly. “I hardly know anyone anymore.”
“Maybe that’s a good thing, fresh start.”
“Right.” Raife takes a long sip of beer from his bottle. “I don’t even know if that’s possible here.”
“Don’t talk like a fool Dan. You know why.” Raife looks away and Dan stiffens.
“Well maybe you need to take a look at all the reasons you ran away and deal with them. Try starting from there.”
Dan places the pencil down carefully on the note pad watching Raife, waiting for the inevitable backlash. Raife was never one to let anyone tell him what to do.
“How do I do that? You tell me. I see Lil everywhere. I want to punch Jack’s lights out. I’ve got no home, no fucking job.” He pauses, closing his eyes. When he opens them he turns directly to Dan. “You know the rest.” For a moment he’s vulnerable, but the moment passes quickly and the cool, closed expression returns.
“You’ll always see Lil, of course you will. That won’t go away. Jack does too, he doesn’t talk about it anymore but I know he does.”
“Good old Jack, cruising on with his life like none of it ever happened. Mr Fucking Perfect, always was. He screwed up and I paid for it.”
“Are you for real? Don’t you think Jack’s paid enough? Get off your self-pitying ass and be a brother. He’s paid his dues. You weren’t around. I saw it all.”
Raife shakes his head. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
“Really? Well I do, because you know what the problem is? You can’t be honest. You can’t tell anyone how it really is because you’re a fake. Be a man Raife and step up.”
The bar is busy and no-one but Bastian has sensed the tension between the two. Before Raife can answer Bastian is in front of them offering drinks, attempting to diffuse whatever has started.
“Raife Kelly, you causing trouble in my bar again? It’s been a long time since I kicked you out on your ass but I can do it again.” Bastian is smiling. The tension is broken and soon Raife and Bastian are making plans about the gig Raife will play with a few local musicians the following weekend.
Dan takes a while to settle. He knew eventually he’d have this conversation with Raife; it was never going to go well. He doesn’t know whether to be angry with the guy or feel sorry for him. All the lies and self-pity are why Raife is a fuck up. He can’t help him. He was stupid to think he could.
God, the conversation brings it all back. A memory faded from neglect and tainted with chaos, buried deep for so long. But the anger and proximity to Raife are such clear triggers. It’s all there, hazy but fully formed; that night and how it had felt like waking up. It was the first time the pieces of his life seemed to fit and the understanding had felt like freedom.
Then, so quickly, the chaos.
When Raife stands to leave he lays a hand on Dan’s arm. “Thanks. You’re one of the good guys.”
Dan rolls his eyes. “And who the hell are you - Roy Rogers?”
Raife grins. “I’ll see you.”
“Maybe I can play on that radio show of yours?” He calls back to Dan as he weaves his way through the crowd.
Dan sighs, “Why the hell not?”
He watches Raife disappear into the night, his hand resting where Raife’s arm lay.
I haven’t gotten to the end of The Grapes of Wrath. I can’t bear to. I stall as I near the last hundred pages because I can’t take it; the sadness of what I’m sure is coming will be too much. Bloody Bruce Springsteen and his ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ song. I mean really? Of course now I know there’s no happy ending for Tom Joad because Brucie bloody well wrote a whole album about it.
Thing is, I love Tom Joad. I love that guy with his crooked teeth and his big heart and all his imperfections and quiet observations of the world. I love his devotion to his family, and I just know what’s coming and I can’t read on…you see, I need a happy ending.
I need a happy ending because they don’t ever happen in real life. You might think you’ve got yourself a happy ending, but give it long enough and you’ll find out like the rest of us, that the shitty part is on the way. It always is.
It’s part of being alive. Happiness comes with no guarantees. Maybe that’s what makes it so special, the fact that it’s fleeting. Sadness follows happiness like a sullen shadow; where there’s one, the other is never far behind.
So far life has taught me that the pursuit of happiness is just another distraction. If we could be settled in each moment we’re given maybe we’d quit looking for happiness. Maybe then our smarter, less self-seeking side would know that happiness isn’t a destination but a way of living. The thing is I get all of that, and much as I’d really like to, I don’t live it. I seek out happiness and run from sadness, and that’s a lot of running over the past few years.
So you can see why I’m struggling with Steinbeck, all that sadness. But the more I think about it; about Steinbeck and the way he wrote, about the Joad’s and their journey to the Promised Land, I realise the happiness, the real joy, is in love.
That amongst the despair of almost every character in The Grapes of Wrath, the absolute desolation around them and that bright future that is never, ever within reach, the beauty that shines is the love from character to character. Tom Joad and his mother, Uncle Al, Rose of Sharon, the preacher, all of those keen characters brought to life with words. It’s the raw love that sustains despite crippling circumstance.
And so I stay here on page 390 and worry about Tom Joad, and what is to come.
Evie and Sunny are asleep. It’s been a big day and really I should sleep too, but instead I decided to read. Unable to proceed with my book I sit down to write, head cloudy with life all around and the terrible tangle it inevitably is.
I save and close my manuscript and write a long overdue email to Iris:
Subject Heading: Help
Sent: 27/9/2008; 10.32pm
What should I do? I’m a sex crazed, melodramatic, hormonal wreck.
• I can’t stop thinking about men’s armpits - is this normal grieving or would you say I’ve moved on to a new level of mourning?
• I check the twins fourteen times a night to be sure they’re still alive.
• I keep wanting to write sex scenes, and to be honest, my work is heading for the ‘Private Shop’ in the High street. Should I give up literary ambition and settle for a career in soft porn?
• It’s so hot here I’m considering shaving my head. New approach to life, revealed in baldy, earthy beauty and all that. Is it too much? (Please say yes. I like my hair…maybe a nice bob would remedy the situation.)
• I keep crying; like all the time. What to do? I’m dehydrated…seriously. It won’t stop. The scent of the wrong laundry detergent sends me into spasms of ‘remember when I washed this dirty t-shirt of Evan’s’ pathetic-ness. It makes no sense. I don’t cry when the twins ask me where he is, but cry instead over the smell of his shirt.
• I feel like I’m on the verge of moving forward but I’m afraid. I feel like the world will think I love Evan less because I want to start again with Jack. Would Evan hate me for it? Does that even matter now?
• Sorry for the decent into nonsense, I stopped for a glass of wine; now the world is beautiful, but my writing less so.
Write to me soon. I love you.
Ignore my depressed every silver lining has a cloud shit - I want to hear your good stuff, your happy stuff: luscious Marcus, the wedding plans, the lot.
Write me soon.
Yours… a little pissed but feeling quite wise.