The latest installment in Tablet’s monthly original fiction series, by the author of The Gospel of Anarchy
“Dylan?” says the guy. “Yeah, he’s OK, sure, but what about Albert Ayler, Parliament, any Dead show from the spring of ’74?” Gregory, swaying on his barstool and feeling osmotic, scribbles names and dates on a napkin, offers to get the next round.
The day Audrey’s train comes in it starts pouring, doesn’t stop for two weeks. Also, they have no idea how to live in a house together. They don’t even know where the nearest grocery store is. He’s been on an all-takeout diet, trying to figure out whether it’s (1) possible or (2) worth it to jam out “China Cat Sunflower” on solo acoustic guitar.
“This isn’t working,” Audrey says, staring forlorn out their front window at the gray rain that’s eaten the world. Looks back over her shoulder, sees the look on his face, clarifies that she just meant Montreal. “Or maybe Canada altogether. We need to get back to the roots of things. Where did you grow up again?”
“Okay, forget your roots. What would you think of a cabin in the pines outside of Johnson City?” Gregory says he’s always wanted to explore sweet Dixie. Audrey’s sundress makes a blue pool at her feet.
But August is a stupid time to be anywhere. That’s what he keeps telling himself to feel better about being here. The cabin has a porch he can stand on in the shameless nude, two porches, actually, front and back. Not bad. But it’s 45 minutes to the nearest strip mall full of chain stores and the rednecks they encounter on their weekly supply junkets do not charm him. His faith in Žižek wavers. He thinks the Slovenian has given short shrift to Buddhism; he’d like to investigate for himself but doesn’t know where to start. Him and Audrey can go a day, days, without speaking, to each other or at all. He can lie down on the floor and listen to Albert Ayler Live at the Vanguard from start to finish without feeling the least bit restless or opening his eyes even once. Are these things Zen? And if not then what is fucking Zen? Bodies moving past each other through the same hot rooms, pouring cold drinks into jelly jars, throwing steaks in the skillet, flat on their backs in a queen bed, side by side. Sounds all right when you put it that way, but still, something’s off.
At the back of the bedroom closet he finds an old math textbook left behind by some former occupant’s no doubt underachieving son. He decides Algebra II must be like Buddhism and suggests to Audrey that they seek to master that which they faked their way through in the prehistoric and halcyon days of their respective tenth grades. They work in earnest on problem sets, sneaking glances across the raw scored kitchen table, then check each other’s answers. The work gives their lives a grammar and their days a shape. By September they’ve completed chapter 10, running way ahead of the schedule suggested by the book, though as far as the book knows they are (1) 15 years old, and (2) taking five other classes besides this one, plus presumably extracurriculars. Audrey says she tried track but wasn’t built for it. Ditto honor society, A/V club, chess club, debate. He played football, had a nickname and everything, until a senior year knee injury reduced him to recording secretary for the local student chapter of the Young Republicans. Their biggest accomplishment had been remembering to show up on Yearbook Picture Day. Three of the six with clip-on ties. Now he’s holed up in the woods with this woman, wearing pilled boxers, torn wife-beater, unending beard—all three of these articles dried stiff with his own sweat plus Audrey’s, having finally mastered that bitch goddess The Quadratic Equation, and it’s just like, Who the hell was Jacques Lacan, where the hell on the map is Slovenia, and how could I have ever fallen for this fat Commie poseur’s stuttering bullshit?
Audrey says her rank-choice vote for the next city is Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Madison, Wisconsin; Portland, Maine. He says, “Baby when I look in the cracked mirror of this cabin’s bathroom what I see is a man in his rightful place.”
“Cause you stopped shaving your head,” she says, “or grooming your beard. Your mountain man fantasy is about a half-inch deep; see if there’s some scissors around we can restore your dignity with—my Lady Bic if it comes to that.”
“A Lady Bic will restore my dignity?”
The night she leaves they have one of those legendary sessions, personal instant classic, a story you’d tell to everyone you knew if you knew how to say it in a way that didn’t make you sound retarded: It was exactly the same as always but somehow infinitely better, the best. Then she gets dressed, puts her things in the car, goes, is gone. When her taillights wink out of view he strips down, stands stark on the porch in the crisp October air. It’ll be a long walk whenever I leave here. He thinks he ought to write a song about this feeling, an expressive instrumental composition like something John Fahey might have come up with if he could have ever got his mind off of God and American folklore. Instead he uses Garageband to record a 20-minute “Not Fade Away”->“Uncle John’s Band”->“Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad”->reprise of “Not Fade Away.” Adds layers of himself doing the harmonies and backups, foot stomps and hand claps, beating forks against the math book and the table and the skillet for a little drum break, emails the result to his brother as the first sunbeams cut through the pines. His brother writes back an hour later: “If you need a place to crash you can just say so.”
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