Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Author, Chapter Forty: The Walk

July 20

They didn't speak much for the rest of the day. Stuart decided to throw himself directly into his work, since he was already up, and he did so with gusto, pouring himself a towering glass of bourbon without bothering to put any ice in it.

Jeff tried to find something to do, but nothing stuck. He tried to read and found his mind wandering. He had absolutely no interest in trying to write, either. He tried to watch a movie and then he started doing laundry. He found himself staring into the open washer, half loaded, his thoughts far away.

Eventually he gave up and tried to take a nap, closing the door to his room to shut out the sound of Stuart's typing. He gave up on that idea as soon as he closed his eyes and found that the only thing he could really see was Thorsen's staring, milky eye.

“Fuck it,” he said, and went back upstairs. He poured himself a glass of water and drank it over the sink, then he went into the living room.

He touched Stuart's shoulder to get his attention. The writer looked up impatiently.

“I'm going out for a while,” Jeff said.

“You taking the car?”

“No, I'm gonna walk.”

“Okay.” The writer returned to the laptop.

Jeff took two beers from the fridge and went out the back door. He pounded one of the cans standing under the carport and dumped it in the trash. The other went in his back pocket. He put on his headphones, dialed up Fallout Boy on his iPod, and started to walk.

What he hadn't told Stuart was that he was going to buy cigarettes. The one he had bummed from Mandy had jump started a craving that would not go away. The only two things he could think about were getting cigarettes or Thorsen. He hadn't smoked since he'd come out to Stuart's house until today and it had gotten under his skin more than he would have thought possible. He kept swallowing in anticipation.

He'd felt this before, when he'd tried to quit once in college. Eventually his smoking had petered out when he lived with Malcolm because he couldn't justify buying them himself with how little money he had, and he rationed how many he would cadge from his friend. But he remembered the texture of his mouth and the slight swaying sense of his body that came from the addict's necessity. The shitty thing was, if his behavior followed the pattern, the first cigarette would taste like shit, regardless of how much he wanted it.

The sun wasn't quite at full height yet, but light was direct and strong and the air was hot and getting hotter. Jeff stopped on the side of the quiet, woodsy street, finished the second beer and threw the can in the ditch.
He was punishing himself, he knew. He could have easily driven the damn Land Rover to get his fix, but then he wouldn't have earned it. If he was going to be this weak, so weak as to be a pussy about seeing a dead body and so weak as to need nicotine after being free of it for more than a month, then by God he would walk his ass of for it. It was at least a mile to the nearest convenience store, and in this temperature, he would feel it.

Once he got to the end of the street where he turned left to head towards the main road that would lead him to civilization, he was already feeling the buzz of the beer. It didn't seem to be sitting well with his stomach, however, it was occasionally gurgling and once he burped and could taste bile in it. He just kept swallowing.
He turned right onto California Avenue, and he could see the 7-Eleven sign in the distance. “Almost there,” he said. And then he answered himself, “Yeah, and then you just have to walk back.”

His steps were heavy and he could feel the wetness of his t-shirt as it clung to his back between his shoulder blades before he reached the store. His stomach continued to twist and clench. The sun was on his back, and that meant it would be on his face when he returned, and he was sure, now, that this impulsive decision was a bad one. Not only would he have an unsatisfying cigarette, and then he'd feel compelled to smoke more of them because he'd blown seven dollars on the fucking pack, but then he'd walk back home facing the sun and he'd get a fucking sunburn to show for it as well. “Fuck this for a shitty idea,” Jeff mumbled.

When he reached the store he spent a moment standing in front of the magazines, simply soaking in the wonderful air conditioning. Then he went to the cooler and grabbed a Gatorade and immediately chugged half of it, which made him feel a bit better.

He was on his way to the counter to pay for his drink and buy the cigarettes when he saw the beer cooler. He went over, just to take a look at it.

But why the hell not? He'd already started drinking. It wasn't every day you saw a fucking dead body, was it? Some more beer would be therapeutic. He could raise a can to Thorsen, even though he'd never read anything by the poor bastard, and after the build up Stuart had given him, he imagined he'd never bother.
He was reaching for a simple six pack when he decided it wouldn't be enough. So he grabbed a 40-ounce bottle, of Bud Light, as they didn't have his brand in the ghetto bottles, just in case. His arms were full now, a plastic bottle in one hand, a glass bottle in the other, a six-pack hanging off of one finger.

The man in the turban began to ring up the items and Jeff was sure he could see a look of disapproval. Fuck him. “Pack of Marlboro Lights, too, please,” he said, remembering his manners through the light beer haze in his mind. He grabbed some 7-Eleven branded matches from the counter as well, proud of himself for having remembered. Wouldn't he have felt stupid getting ready to light up and finding nothing to do it with!

With a plastic bag in each hand, he broke back out into the sunshine, squinting. There was a park across the street, but it was too public for him to drink it. He wandered around behind the store and found a pile of milk crates there, with cigarette butts scattered around. The employee break area, apparently.

Just as he went to sit down, there was a sudden, swollen pain in his stomach. He almost doubled over, carefully setting the bags down and holding his gut. He groaned, but the feeling passed quickly. He chugged down the rest of the Gatorade, telling himself it would make him feel better and then threw the bottle in a dumpster.

He started with the 40, drinking the neck dry. Then he packed the cigarettes on the butt of his left hand and lit up. He had been wrong. The smoke hitting his tongue, following the crisp bitter-sweetness of the beer was perfect.

He'd smoked four more cigarettes by the time the bottle was empty and by then he realized he probably should have eaten something. He wobbled as he stood up, ready to return home before the store clerk came out back and found him.

His stomach was not feeling any better, “And of course it isn't,” he told himself, “You're drinking and smoking on an empty stomach.” He walked down the sidewalk, down to one grocery bag, holding his six-pack, his other hand saluting over his forehead to protect him from the sun.

It was a relief to get off California, and once he was a few blocks away, he found a quiet place to step over the ditch and sit in the scrubby grass there. He placed his feet on the road side of the ditch to keep himself from sliding in, and opened another beer. He felt better, sitting in the shade now, although his stomach continued to gurgle.

He stopped several more times along the way, smoking and surreptitiously drinking, even though he grew more and more paranoid about someone seeing him.

He broke the cigarettes into the trash can behind the car port, knowing that if he kept them around he'd just smoke the rest of them. He finished the last can of beer and threw it in after.

Jeff opened the door quietly, not wanting to disturb Stuart. The writer did not look up, but kept staring intently at the laptop. Jeff walked unsteadily to the laundry room and staggered down the stairs. He managed to turn off the light and kick off his shoes before he passed out on the bed.

He woke in time to make dinner around 7:30, and Stuart did not mention his absence. He probably had not noticed at all. Jeff work still craving beer, for some reason, and managed to get drunk again and pass out for the night by 11 p.m.

It never occurred to him that his stomach didn't hurt any more, or that, even though he had drank an entire six-pack of beer on his journey home, his stomach had hurt less and less the closer he had gotten to the house.

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