There’s a lot of staring tonight. Andrew at the stunning portrait of a woman love has chosen for him; John Steinbeck at his French poodle, Charley; Jack Kerouac at Andrew’s back; F. Scott Fitzgerald at Andrew’s bottle of gin; and the two men about to fight on the dirty street below, face-to-face, eye-to-eye, fists balled, muscles tense.
Andrew pours himself a third shot of gin into a single glass he purchased for two bucks at the thrift shop around the corner. The glass is thick and smooth and heavy in his hand.
The ghosts in the almost empty studio apartment disappear. Andrew has no idea why Scott suddenly showed tonight with his slicked back hair and intelligent blue eyes. This room is for traveling writers. Maybe the old sport came to remind him how he wasn’t allowed to marry Zelda until after he’d completed his first novel.
A police cruiser turns onto Jones Avenue, five miles per hour, also staring. The two angry men back away from each other and head in opposite directions.
Andrew returns to the picture on his writing desk. He loves the way she’s holding onto him, the happy smile on her face, peaceful and content. It was a sizzling-hot summer day in South Carolina. They had cooled off in a clean creek, their laughter and conversation muted by the white noise of white water. Afterwards, dripping wet in the sun, he had plucked a single wildflower and asked if she’d place it in her hair. She did. They kissed. He remembers the intimate scent of her hot mouth drying on his.
He stands, stretches, walks to the bathroom, pees, cranks out twenty on a chin-up bar wedged in the door frame, sits at the desk again, stares at what he’s written. He does so, patching one eye, like James Joyce. His vision is aging faster than the rest of him. He’s trying to avoid wearing reading glasses but it’s no use.
What he’s written is shit. He’s a no talent fraud and a fool to think he’ll ever succeed. If he chooses a life on the road, he’ll lose her forever and have nothing to show for it. If he returns home to her comforting arms, he’ll be happy and—what, what, what? There’s always an invisible something tugging at his sleeve. What the hell is it?
Last fall, he remembers her calling him to bed. He closed his laptop and then the window, the same routine. A gust of wind, the whistle of a train, dogs barking, all three sounds combining into one voice, “Come on! Come on!” they said, inviting him outside. He felt a rush of excitement. Then she said, “Come on!” from down the hall, inviting him inside. He felt a rush of another kind. Afterward, she fell asleep on his chest, golden hair tickling his nose, and that adorable soft click of a snore. He squeezed tight, never wanting to let her go, but also knowing he would eventually leave, completely content and discontent at the same time. How is that possible? What’s wrong with him?
All writers have a mental problem. That’s what it is.
Steinbeck is back and his poodle is barking. Kerouac is clicking his fingers to jazz. Fitzgerald is dancing. Andrew pours another shot and slams it down. He needs some fresh air.
Ten floors below, some vagrants pull a booger green couch from a dumpster and they carry it over to the sidewalk. Andrew, the naked writer, slips into jeans and a black T-shirt. He grabs the bottle of gin by the neck, slides a pack of Marlboros and a lighter into his back pocket, and takes the elevator down. A stoned girl is sitting in the lobby. He says hello. She says nothing back.
Outside Andrew makes his way down the sidewalk to the long couch, now occupied by two people with just enough room for one more. “Scooch over,” he commands. They stare up at him. One is confused, the other amused.
“This couch ain’t for you, white boy.”
Andrew pulls out the smokes, lights up, extends the pack with a nod. The couch people offer him a seat in return.
“Name’s Devon and dis my boyee, Lenny, who be as stupit and dumb as his name.”
“Andrew,” he says, offering a hand that isn’t accepted. “Pleasure to meet you,” he continues, and gives them the bottle. “Keep it. I’ve had enough.”
What follows is a long and awkward moment of silence in an acrid cloud of smoke.
Finally, “Why you sittin here?”
“I need some damn advice.”
“I look like Dr. Phil or sump’m? It’ll cost you another cig, yo.”
Devon flicks the Bic. “What’s your question?”
“Should I stay or go?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Is there a woman involved?
“Thanks, guys. You’ve helped me a lot.” Andrew stands, laughing and shaking his head, feeling dizzy. “Have a good night. And—if you don’t mind—please keep the noise level down out here. I’m trying to write up there.” He points to the top of the building.
“White boyee in da Penthouse! Damn!”
Back in his apartment, Andrew watches from the window as more people gather around the couch, smoking and arguing over the bottle of gin. He observes their animal behavior. Regretting the loss, he opens a bare bones cupboard and doesn’t have to search. There it is. Kentucky Bourbon. Just one more, with a plunk of ice.
Andrew sips the cool drink in a hot shower. Missing her.
Soapy clean, he brushes his teeth. For a moment, he stares at his tired eyes in the mirror. “Ugh,” he says to himself, “I don’t know what the hell she sees in you, you ugly asshole bastard.”
1 a.m. Time for bed. First, a little Charles Bukowski . His advice. Stay or go?
“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”
Is isolation really the gift? Is that what’s tugging at his sleeve? Is that the nature of the road and the fastest route to success? Is loss really gain? Writing as a religion?
Suddenly, Bukowski joins them in the room with an obscene cough. Upon his rude entrance, he punches Scott hard on the shoulder.
“What’s up, sissy boy?”
“Not much, old sport. Just waiting for Andrew to make a decision.” Massaging his shoulder, “You’re extremely fortunate Hemingway’s not here.”
Charles laughs with a raw throat that’s been burned by too much alcohol and too many cigarettes. Snapping his fingers, “Look over here, Andrew. I’m your future!”
Andrew balks at the idea.
But wait, wait, wait! Damn, if the same thing doesn’t happen again —
A Union Pacific train engine whistles from miles away. “Come on!”
Steinbeck calls for Charley to get into the truck. “Come on.”
Kerouac signals to Andrew with his hand. “Come on.”
The only outlier is F. Scott, who’s already left with Zelda, a huge grin on his handsome face. That wild girl was running away from him earlier tonight. Moments ago, he found her smoking with Devon and Lenny. Clearly jealous, he seized her dainty, perfumed hand and said, “Come on!” Happily, she obliged. Andrew sat up straight when he saw the wildflower in her hair. She looked up at him and winked. She’s the beginning of everything.
Almost nine hundred miles away, Christina falls asleep alone. Andrew studies her precious features in his mind. Golden hair, soft breathing, sad face waiting in vain for him to come home. For a moment she opens her piercing blue eyes. She’s been crying.
Come on, Andrew! Come home. Come to bed.
Andrew closes his laptop and then the window, same routine. Arms behind his head, he stares at the ceiling. Torn.