The latest installment in Tablet’s monthly original fiction series, by the author of The Gospel of Anarchy
Kevin is five years younger, has a wife, lives in Philly, which Gregory quickly comes to recognize is a provincial shithole filled with ugly people disinterested in traffic laws or any other form of etiquette or self-preservation. Regaining his urban anomie is like physical therapy, but faster and more rewarding. He grows a goatee but not a soul patch. By the end of November he’s got his brother reading Žižek, who makes glorious apocalyptic sense again, and Kevin’s got him into the whole slow food thing. Kevin’s become this genius chef, apparently, side-benefit of his status as one of the long-term unemployed. The brothers spend their time talking revolution, crimping pie crusts, slow-cooking brisket, brining turkey, baking bread from scratch. The first time his dough rises Gregory is unashamed to shed a tear, indeed, rather wishes he might have broken wholly down. Sounds very cleansing, freeing, to be emptied out, presumably as prelude to some experience of renewal, anyway refill.
The wife, his sister-in-law, is Nancy. At night when she comes home from her job in the archives at a university art museum they sit in the living room and sing their favorite songs together, a bottle of rye going around the circle like a looped video clip while they debate whether their cover of “Promised Land” is a Dead cover or a Chuck Berry cover, since the Dead were covering Berry in the first place but the Dead version is the only one they’ve ever heard. Nancy suggests they just YouTube the original—a Gordian solution, granted, but one which seems to Gregory a pinhole glimpse into the sorry heart of the contemporary world. When she teasingly leans toward his Macbook they have words. His brother, an untalented drinker, is curled up on the couch, his head in his hands.
Kevin and Nancy cajole Gregory to fly back to Indianapolis with them for Christmas. Their father is straight John Birch these days, but weirdly, this doesn’t ruin the visit. Gregory realizes that, apart from a few particulars about immigration and Jewish people, their beliefs are basically aligned: The system is both rigged and rotten, the economy is one continuous act of fraud, anyone wearing a tie on the TV has already been bought and sold. They both voted for Obama, now feel betrayed. Two days before New Year’s, in the parking lot of Harris Teeter, he runs into Kara, a girl from his high school, a B-lister from the old vanished Hollywood of his adolescent porn dreams, hardly worse for a decade’s wear, he’s got to say—in fact she’s held up better than a lot of the old A-list, if the Internet’s any way to judge. He’s on his way out of the store and she’s on her way in. “Gregory?” she says. “Is that you? Oh em gee; I’d heard you were in New York.”
They catch up while his 12-pack of Beast Ice sweats through its paper box. She’s home for the holidays like he is, says she lives in Detroit now, is separated from her terminally alcoholic husband, who is a painter in roughly the same sense that Gregory’s a rock star. “You should come visit sometime,” she says. After a few weeks of increasingly familiar emails, he does—in January no less. If he lived here, he decides, he’d be in love with her in three months, which, he further muses, is probably about when she’ll be ready to give some kind of rebound thing a try. Back in Philly he buys a ’93 Camry, throws his guitar in the trunk, big hugs for his brother and sister-in-law. “Your devotion,” he says, “will not be forgotten. You are granted title to great mansions in the sky.” He hitches up his pants. They’re loose. You wouldn’t believe the difference fresh organic home-made food makes. It was Philly itself that taught him this, as much as his brother. Yellow drip cheese, half-priced buffalo wings, smeary death. No thanks.
Lease on the Detroit apartment starts February 15th. A whole floor to himself for what his little shoebox room cost in that Bed-Stuy share. It’s time to work again so he gets into this gig where he doctors white-collar résumés, still despicable in its way, but less categorically or directly so, and he can do it from home. He takes long drives in his car whenever he feels like it, soaks up such beauty and desolation as Detroit abides—in a month or two when spring returns many of these empty white lots will be blooming fields, Audrey’s rural-urban dream realized, but he doesn’t write her to tell her about it. Probably she has other dreams now.
He picks Kara up from her meetings, cooks her dinner whenever she’ll let him, but it’s not time for the next step yet and both of them know it, which somehow makes everything easier, rather than fraught like you might expect. What is expectation, anyway? A fantasy. A shot in the dark. A wish. What is anything? What would it have been like to have lived one of the lives of the saints? Gregory makes flank steak with raspberry-chipotle marinade, fingerling potatoes au gratin. Salmon and asparagus with Israeli cous-cous. Apple cobbler and peach pie. He pulls the guitar off its stand while the dishes soak, noodles around to warm up and get in tune. Kara’s on the loveseat, legs tucked up. He clears his throat, grins, launches into his new favorite cover, an old country blues—Garcia loved it—called “Sittin’ On Top of the World.”
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