March and there’s dirty snow humped on the windowsills, still; sidewalk’s mucked, sky’s been the color of dust for days. He’s shaving his head over the bathroom sink, weekly ritual some years now, ever since that first spot blossomed high in the back. He remembers how the pads of his fingers felt when they first found the smooth patch, warm and soft, and how he thought, Shit no not gonna be that guy. So instead he’s this guy, whoever this guy is, clean-scalped, boasting a thick beard, well-groomed, hazelnut, he likes to think but would never say. A well-groomed beard is paramount, believes Gregory who when he meets new people says “Please, call me Greg” but doesn’t mean it. The full name is what he likes, its fine whiff of archaism, bouquet of saints and England, popes and Greece; the two “g” sounds granting clangorous passage toward the open and humming “ory” with its quick high finish like young wine or the inflatable slide you ride to escape from the burning plane. But nobody calls him Gregory except his mother, and he rarely calls her at all. So Greg, then: a higher-up in the lower echelon of a medical copy-writing firm in far West Chelsea. Sometimes it seems like science fiction that one blue train line should connect that neighborhood to the part of Bed-Stuy where he’s been living for—what is it, two years now? Two years. Merciful Mary. Fucking hell.
In April he stops at his corner coffee shop for an afternoon latte, asks the barista out on a date. Not only does she say yes, but over riojas it turns out she doesn’t just work at The Grind Shack, she owns it. Used to have one just like it, successful, in Charlottesville, Virginia, unless she said State College, PA. Anyway, she sold that place and with proceeds bought this one because she wanted to have the experience: city life. Audrey says business is booming but she never imagined she’d hate New York the way she does. She expected an adjustment, sure, but up all night crying? Never. Says she’s wolf-whistled at by corner drunks, wants to see a field sometime, may be suffering PTSD from a train grope.
“What can you do?” he says.
“I’m looking for a buyer,” she says. He’d meant the question rhetorically—hadn’t, in fact, thought it could be taken any other way.
He has these great big bear hands and loves them, favorite thing about himself, easily, the way a double cheeseburger looks a little lost when held in them, or the neck of his old Fender Strat. Proud, too, of the arms they’re mounted on, whose size is half gift and half result of honest effort (he’d looked into a gym near his office; joined the Y near his apartment instead). He’s in the bathroom lathering his head. It’s May and already most days the mercury’s hitting eighty-five by noon. The stripper—one of four strangers he shares this narrow two-story house with—is banging on the door for the second time. She wants to get in here to do her own shaving, plus mascara, body glitter, diaphragm. She’s running late, she says; the car from the club is going to be here any minute. His eyes are red, cheeks round, puffy, hairy, and high.
Everything about his job disgusts him. He engineers the jargon that lies the company out of whatever the studies they’ve done have proven more or less unequivocally. The raw data is enough to keep you up half the night mulching your fingernails, choking back bile and fright. Ergo face puff, ergo eyes. He buys Žižek books by the pound and wine by the gallon. Žižek and Audrey, he feels, are the only people who understand him. Zombies his way through the workweek with a bottomless coffee mug—I’m always on drugs, he thinks at the mirror, Always trying to go faster or else slow down, sharper or more dulled, my fingers a beige blur over the beige keyboard, up and down my beige girlfriend; if I were someone else looking at myself at my desk I’d see a slack face bathed in monitorlight, dull. He heats the razor by running it under the faucet. He touches the thin hot steel to his head, pulls.
By June Audrey’s found her buyer. She’s ready to go but where? He says, “Well, we’ve both got some money.”
She says, “Are you serious? I mean is this us talking serious?”
He says, “I moved to this shitass city to become a rock star. Instead I’m an office drone and, increasingly, a raving Communist, only the only times I have time to rave I’m too drunk or too sleepy and then the people who really need raving at aren’t around, or they are but they’re holding my leash. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I search Craigslist for sublets in Canadian cities. Square footage alone has brought me to the verge of weeping joy.” This is the longest monologue he’s ever taken in her company. She throws her arms around his wide neck, tilts her pelvis into his hip. “I want a new guitar,” he says. “Acoustic.”
Part of the deal for selling The Grind Shack is Audrey has to help the new owner learn the ropes so Gregory’s alone in Montreal the first couple weeks of July. When they Skype he plunks out “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and can see her in her little digital box, melting for him. And there he is, in his even smaller box inset in the corner of her box, the Ibanez slung across his belly, his sweaty head agleam. Sometimes they let whole minutes pass in silence, he watches her and he watches himself watching her. Audrey in her New York living room, a pale face afloat before a plain gray wall. He takes epic walks around Montreal, up backstreets, down alleys, wherever. If a parade went by he’d probably join it. In a bar near McGill he finds himself knocking back whiskies with a guy who does research on sleep cycles. Guy’s going on about fruit flies, the neverending bitchwork of grant proposals, how it’s gonna be when he gets his degree, his own lab, tenure. Guy says he wants to move to New York City. There’s a post-doc at Columbia he’s got an eye on. Gregory starts to tell him about the old loathed Bed-Stuy share, the way the city stinks in summer. Guy’s not saying much anymore and Gregory, worried his frankness has unnerved, swerves toward a different subject.
“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.
“Baby when I look in the cracked mirror of this cabin’s bathroom what I see is a man in his rightful place.”
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.”
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.”
Justin Taylor is the author of The Gospel of Anarchy and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever.