It’s been awhile since I’ve posted. A few months at least. I’ve been engrossed in rewriting my novel–or trying to turn the rough draft into a novel. With sleeves rolled up and a smudge of peanut butter and strawberry jam on the corner of my mouth, I sit hunched over my laptop tapping away. I thought I’d share the first chapter. It’s not much more than a rough draft either, for when I re-read my novel I realized it had no real beginning. What was the first chapter is now about seven or eight chapters in, and I’ve had to add about sixty pages to create a beginning. Here’s part of the new beginning. I’ll share a little more later this month.
Jack held the blade up. Red ran down the blade as if with blood, as if by unsheathing it he had pricked the morning sun. He extended his arm, holding the knife out, cutting figure eights in the rising sun, so that the horizon grew redder and redder. The handle nestled into his fingers. Snug, it felt like an extension of his hand. He measured the balance and weight, and then tossed it up and down in the air, marveling at the craftsmanship. “Wherever did you come from?” he asked the knife.
He found the knife this morning as he rummaged through a box of his dad’s camping supplies. The friends he was going camping with had no supplies, so he knew they relied on him for camping gear. He got extra pots and pans, and then decided to make sure there wasn’t anything else he could use. Tucked at the bottom beneath a wineskin, he found it wrapped in a silk cloth. He unraveled it, expecting to find something of his mom’s accidently stored in this box; instead, he found the knife. The bare bulb illuminating the basement provided ill light to see by, but he could tell even in this semi-darkness, the quality and beauty of this knife. The handle was brown, the color of chocolate, and made from a wood—or maybe a bone—he did not recognize. In the pommel of the handle was a star sapphire cabochon that shone with a starry twinkle. He held the sheathed knife up into the light, studying the sapphire. It’s like another world in there, he thought. He stuffed it into the box of camping supplies he gathered and went upstairs to the balcony, where he could examine it comfortably and in better light.
His examination came to end when he heard his father crossing the kitchen floor. His father was a barrel of a man—squat and solid—who communicated more through his body than he did words. This morning, Jack could tell from his father’s footfalls, that he slept well. Jack sheathed the knife and slipped it into the box of camping supplies. By the time his dad slid open the sliding glass door to the balcony, Jack was hunched over his guitar, tuning it.
“Mornin’,” he said. His dad nodded and set down two cups of coffee on the balcony railing.
“Got everything you need?” he asked, eyeing the box of camping bric-a-brac. Jack nodded. His dad chuckled, and a smile peeked out through his beard. “Can’t believe that Gary’s getting married. After he asked her, how did she get him to stop talking long enough to say yes?”
“Who knows? She may still be waiting to give him her answer.” They laughed and drank their coffee.
“So you boys are going to the mountains for Gary’s bachelor party? You sure it’s a good idea? Between the three of them, I don’t think they’ll figure out how to roast a hot dog over a campfire, or get a campfire started.”
Jack laughed. “Gary shouldn’t have made me his best man, then. Look, I want to get them out of town for awhile—Gary and Alec have their heads buried in their video games, and Greg, well . . . Greg’s a mess. They need to get away from these distractions. Get away to the woods for some soul-searching. Maybe it’ll help them straighten their lives out.”
His dad said nothing in reply—instead, he drank his coffee and brushed his beard with his knuckles and watched the chickadees and sparrows assault the bird feeder for their morning breakfast. He need say nothing, for his eyes betrayed him. Jack saw in his dad’s eyes the worry and concern he had for Jack. He knew his dad had concerns about how well Jack took care of himself, let alone his friends.
Jack strummed a few notes on his guitar, the opening of Cat Stevens’s song, “Father and Son.” He played the Cat Stevens song, singing while his dad leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply, and puffed out blue plumes to mix with the red petals of the rising sun. This had become a routine for them—Jack playing and his dad smoking and listening. Neither one could find the words to adequately talk with the other, so they relied on music—carrier pigeons shuttling messages between them. In this way they joked and fought and shared their feelings. Once Jack finished singing, his dad stubbed out the cigarette butt. He gave his son an amused look, and then began to sing.
When he spoke he sounded as if deep in a mine shaft, but when he sang it was as if he lay in a meadow atop a mountain peak. He sang folk songs in his native tongue—songs of mining and mountains, murder and betrayal, the beauty found deep in the heart of mountains and in women. His songs were earthly and ribald, lyric and romantic. This morning he sang a song about a young woman who lost her first love in a mining accident and who mourned him the rest of her life, forsaking all suitors, so that she died alone and cold and regretting her decision.
Jack accompanied his dad, picking the tune of the song and playing along. When they finished, they both wiped tears from their eyes, though his dad did so with a smirk. “You work too much. Distract yourself . . . take time to play. I think you need a woman—or someone—to share your life with. The mountains will be there long after you and I are gone. Your youth you only have today.”
Jack wanted to tell him that he had had plenty of “distractions” throughout college: from Diana with the blonde hair dyed black because she wanted to be taken as seriously as her straight teeth, and who left him when he gave her a bouquet of rose stolen from the Portland Rose Garden to Samantha with her crooked nose and teeth, and red hair always a mess and a laugh like a squeaky chair. Samantha, who smoked pot and shot smack and played Scrabble naked in the moonlight, and who drowned in the ocean right after he proposed to her. Samantha was the end of a string of crushes, flings, and one-night-stands. They had gone camping on the coast, just south of the Heceta Head lighthouse where he took her on her first date and they watched the sea lions flop and frolic on the rocks. He told her they were only going on a hike to celebrate her fourth month of being clean, but then led her down a brambly trail to the beach where a campsite candlelit by Chinese lanterns awaited them. He took his guitar—which he tucked away on the side of the trail—and sang her the song, “Suzanne,” but substituting her name. He stopped after the first verse, took the ring from his pocket, and without a word from him but a tearful “yes” from her, he placed it on her finger. They celebrated around the campfire with s’mores and champagne, and then, exhilarated and bursting with nervous energy she stripped down and leapt into the embrace of the ocean. Jack, blind with joy, watched her swim, and thought nothing as she faded in the distance while the stars above her grew brighter and brighter. By the time the worried and went out to find her, it was too late. She was gone. She washed up days later, found by a fisherman at the mouth of an inlet.
Since her death a year ago, Jack had to admit that he had immersed himself in his field work. His dad knew nothing about Samantha, let alone any of the women he dated. He worried that school and spending time alone in the woods had broken Jack, and Jack let him think that—he didn’t want to try and explain everything to his dad, who was more a stranger to him than some of his professors. Theirs was a working relationship, and had always been so—Jack kept up his grades and his countless extracurricular activities—horseback riding, fencing, archery, guitar lessons, even etiquette—while his father kept Jack on task. He was more a mentor or a trainer than a father. Only when Jack went away to college did he and his father begin to have something of a relationship, but more like friends than father-and-son.
“When I get back, dad . . . When I get back I promise I’ll hose myself off and become a respectable gentleman, and then I’ll go out and find myself a bonny bride. Why, I’ll be sure to run off with one of Callie’s bridesmaids—maybe a pair of them.”
His dad chuckled, and the wrinkles in his weathered face all smiled, though his eyes held fast to his concern. “One more song, before you go.” He lit another cigarette in anticipation.
Jack fingered the neck of his guitar, feeling the strings to see what song he would find in them. He watched the birds flitting about the birdfeeder, and then settled in the sunrise, the scarlets and oranges and pinks. Finally, he found a song. Once he found it, he couldn’t think of any others, couldn’t remember any other chords but these. He played “Sugar Mountain,” by Neil Young, letting it reveal itself slowly, as slowly as the sun rose, and with as much beauty. When he finished, he sat back and drank his coffee while his father stared at him, uncertain what to think.
They sat there in silence, drinking their coffee, his dad smoking. His dad finished his cigarette. Jack finished his coffee. They smiled, shook hands and said their goodbyes. Jack loaded the box containing the pots and pans, odds and ends, and the knife, into his Jeep Willys. He checked over his gear one more time, waved at his dad who stood on the porch, and then got in and drove off to pick up his friends.
Jack considered what his dad said and what he read in his dad’s eyes as he drove to Gary’s apartment. Maybe he’s right, he thought. Maybe I’m being selfish by dragging them into the mountains. They’re going to hate spending a few nights there, but it’s going to be good for them. They need this. I’ve got everything packed . . .
He groaned and slapped the steering wheel. He is right. They’ll find some way to kill themselves out there—Gary’ll get drunk and fall in the fire, Greg will do something stupid like chase after a bear, and Alec? Alec will die from starvation because we didn’t bring enough to eat, or keel over from a heart attack when he mistakes a pine branch with a pinecone attached for a rattlesnake. Why? Why did I have to come back? I need music. That’s what’s wrong here.
Jack popped in the tape sticking out of the tape deck. The middle of Neil Young’s “Old Man” began playing, and he immediately ejected and yanked the tape out. “Damnit, the mopey bastard mix? That I don’t need right now.” He tossed it onto floor of the passenger’s side of the car. He fished through his box of tapes, found another one. He popped this tape in and found himself drowning in a Whiskey River with Willie Nelson. “Thanks, Willie.”
He pulled up to Gary’s apartment building recharged by Willie and ready with a new plan—they would spend one night in the mountains camping, and then the remaining two nights would be spent at his dad’s house drinking, eating delivery pizza, watching movies, and playing “Samurai Swords” and video games. Exactly how those guys spent every night of their lives, and exactly how he knew they would want to spend any celebration.
Gary and his fiancée lived in downtown Colorado Springs in an apartment building reminiscent of an English manor. When Jack pulled up, he saw Gary lounging on the steps leading up to the front door of the building, smoking a cigarette and reading a beat-up paperback, a thermos of coffee at his side. An army duffel bag slumped at his feet. Beside it was a red backpack. In his red plaid flannel shirt, ripped and faded jeans, and hiking boots, he looked like Brawny lumberjack down on his luck. Gary took a drag from his cigarette and waved. He and Gary had been best friends since high school, and though they chose different paths after high school—Jack went away to college for biology while Gary saw no point in college, and continued working at the hotel where he began as a room service delivery in high school, eventually becoming head front desk clerk—he still grinned when he saw him. Gary made him laugh, and posed questions to him that would’ve stumped most of his professors. They could, and often did, talk for hours—though Gary did the majority of the talking, while Jack listened, feeding him more questions or sometimes responding as Devil’s advocate. Sometimes, Jack would play guitar, musical accompaniment to Gary’s logorrhea, and the rhythm of Gary’s speech would harmonize with Jack’s playing, so that it became something of a song.
“Hey,” Jack shouted as he walked up the stone pathway to Gary. “Decent, hardworking people live here. The soup kitchen’s down the street a few blocks.” He took a quarter from his pocket and flipped it. It landed on Gary’s duffel bag. “Go buy yourself a cup of coffee.”
Gary chuckled, and began to respond when a young woman came out of the building and cut him off. “You’re just jealous because you could never pull off this look.”
“Good morning, Callie,” Jack said. Gary stood up when he heard her come out of the apartment building. Callie smiled and shivered as she sauntered barefoot onto the stoop. She carried a pack of Lucky Strikes from which she drew a cigarette. She set the pack down on the nearest window ledge, and then leaned against his back. She rested her chin on his shoulder as she reached around and fished in his shirt pockets for a lighter.
“I need you to take care of him, Jack, okay? Don’t let anything to happen to him. If he doesn’t come back in one piece, you’d better have a tuxedo ready ‘cause I’m not letting my wedding dress go to waste.” She winked, and gave Gary a kiss on the cheek. If anyone could challenge Gary to a talk-off, it was Callie. Jack joked about how much Gary talked, but Callie rivaled him, word-for-word, syllable-for-syllable. She was one of the few forces that could bring Gary’s jaw to a standstill. She lit her cigarette and then sat back on the wide concrete railing.
“What? I was counting on Gary to take care of me.” Jack replied.
“Shit,” Gary said, knocking a cigarette loose from his pack and propping it between his lips. “The only Jack I’m taking care of on this trip is Jack Daniels.”
“Seriously, look after him, Jack.” Callie said, pointing her cigarette at Jack. Jack waited for her to make a joke, to toss out a barbed bon mot, but she took a drag from her cigarette.
Jack bowed. “I will do everything I can to ensure his safety, my lady.” Jack picked up Gary’s duffel bag. “Come along, my prince—your chariot awaits . . . to drop you off at the railyard where you can wait with all the other hoboes for your ride out of here.” Gary began to walk with an affected air, as if he were a king sauntering to his throne, until it sank in that Jack had made the crack about hoboes, to which stopped walking and laughed, “You are a bastard, Jack.”
Callie slipped down from the concrete railing and gave them both hugs, and then kissed Gary. “I love you. Try to keep the stupidity to a minimum.” She held him at arm’s length and looked him over. “This . . . this is how I expect you to return. Maybe dirtier and more disheveled, but with all your limbs intact and functioning, and as handsome as you are now. Well, maybe you could come back a little more handsome.” She said with a sly smile.
With Gary’s duffel bag loaded, they waved their last good-byes to Callie and left to pick up Alec and Greg. Gary watched Callie recede in the passenger side view mirror of the Willys—she waved, and her blouse and gypsy skirt fluttered in the breeze along with the leaves and the branches of the oak trees in the front of their apartment building, so that it seemed as if all of the entire apartment complex joined Callie in wishing him “bon voyage.”
Gary kept his eye on Callie, refusing to let go of her image in the mirror. The farther they drove, the more indistinct Callie became, until she was indistinguishable from the rest of the landscape, no more than a speck of dust. He held onto that speck of dust as if it was the last grain of sand of Fantasia. “Damn . . . You know, this is the longest I’ll be away from Callie in the four years we’ve been together. We haven’t taken a vacation apart—let alone more than a night—since we met at Denny’s. Remember that story? When me and Allen were just hangin’ out philosophizin’ in our usual booth, and Callie and her friend Amber came over ‘cause they hears us talkin’ and loved listening to us, and I got so nervous I spilled my strawberry shake all over my basket of fries. I told her I always ate them that way, and they are pretty good like that, too. Allen thought that Callie liked him best, ‘cause she sat next to him and laughed at his jokes, but when we decided to leave, she—”
Jack nudged him, and Gary turned away from the mirror. As he did, the grain of sand that was Callie slipped from view and with it his train of thought. Jack held out a small bottle of peach schnapps. “I think it’s time that we begin this bachelor party,” Jack said.
“Hell yeah,” Gary said and took a healthy swig from the bottle.
As he did, Jack popped a tape in the tape cassette and the riveting bass of the Descendents thrummed through the Willys. Gary grinned and nodded his approval. Not another word was spoken as they passed the bottle of schnapps back and forth and sang along with Milo. He forgot the speck in the mirror as the alcohol washed away his trepidation about leaving Callie. This is shaping up to be a mighty fine bachelor party, he thought.