By James Sullivan
“It’s the only way they let you get a break,” John said. “Outside, you know.”
“I wouldn’t think you were in long enough,” I said, watching ashy particles of John’s cigarette smoke settle into the contours of my jacket. I knew the smell would stick for days, reminding me he was out and smoking. He’d gotten a new habit. “To get hooked.”
“You wouldn’t think.”
I almost said something sharp then, detecting a slightly superior tone. But I held back. This peace-keeping part of myself was what made him call me before anyone else when he needed this ride. Even after he’d called me “a worthless shit with no sense of melody, a saccharine lyricist” and most of all unlovable by man, woman, or beast. He’d said worse to the others in his life, I’d gathered from the chilled atmosphere left in the wake of what he was still not entirely admitting was a suicide attempt. “I admit,” he’d said on the phone, “I’ve gotten carried away—a little out of balance—with the booze, and then I just wanted some god damn sleep, and you know how it is with those pills, man.” His meltdown before what happened made his intentions almost irrelevant. The verbal lashing, the smashed bottles still rang. The scenes he’d acted out crippled the sympathy and grief and concern you’d expect when the man nearly died. And now he’d wanted to ignore the flaming bridges and wade through the waters, returning to normal life riding on my back. The gurgling waters and his streaming words carrying away the debris of what had happened. Hey man, I’m out. Can I get a ride? After it all, I couldn’t say no.
We drove along Madison Avenue with the windows down, John burning away his next cigarette. He wasn’t the type to go half-assed. Chain-smoke if you’re going to do it all, he’d probably have said. “Dress Down” by Kaoru Akimoto was on my stereo. City Pop, the genre we, along with our singer Julia, had started aiming to reproduce after its internet-remixed offspring Future Funk took off several years back. Electronic pop by Japanese artists in the ‘80s that evoked idyllic modern life: thrilling city nights, days on beaches so pristine they must have been painted that way. Actually, they were painted. These beaches only existed, as far as Julia and I knew, in stylized album art. Even John, a California transplant, seemed nostalgic for the city pop fantasy. But here in South Dakota, the beaches stunk of river fish, the lakes froze so hard you could drive over them, and the expansive sky felt oppressive rather than heavenly. To feel Heaven, we had to turn on songs by TUBE, who sang only of summer. “Stop the season in the sun,” they sang, as if from a parallel sunny dimension locked forever in July. Here, each year was simply a wintery ordeal with a brief, sweaty smoke break.
“Hey, pull over here,” he said at the Smoke ‘n Bottle. You could pick your booze and cigarettes up through their drive-thru, but, as before the Human Services Gulag (John’s term), he preferred to go inside. He liked browsing, seemed to enjoy the one place in town with an air of imminent danger, the people with edgy, sleepless eyes darting in and out with paper bags. I wasn’t in the mood, so I stayed in the car.
The job of chauffeuring him had fallen to me because I was the only one soft enough not to hold his outbursts against him. Julia had decided to separate from our group. “John is good at what he does, and I like him,” she’d told me during John’s stay at the HSG, “but I don’t know how to go back to what we had before.” Whatever he’d said to her in their confrontation (she was not forthcoming) had turned her against him. We agreed, of course, to support him in getting well, if he had any intention of doing that, but Julia insisted that didn’t mean a return to the status quo. She’d been the one to find him slumped over in his efficiency apartment after he’d called her, slurring into the phone that it’s too bad we wouldn’t finish the new album. She’d been unable to rid herself of the cold, falling feeling that had lodged itself in her chest when she’d seen him on the edge of death. That lingering sensation—like snow caps that never melt in Spring—kept her keenly aware of the consequences having John in our lives would entail. I cringed when the word “toxic” was thrown into the mix but, sitting in the parking lot while John carried out a suitcase of PBR and a couple boxes of cigarettes, I began to feel I was party to the poison industry.
John slid into the car with his prizes.
“Where to next, sir?” I kidded him.
John cracked open a beer and, ducking down to obscure his technical crime, slurped up the rising foam. “Deliver me to the waves, Charles my good man.”
October wasn’t beach weather, even if you liked the murky river water and the sand prickly with burrs. We pulled through the state park check-in (staff AWOL) and parked near the beaches just as the sun was setting. I’d worn a jacket, now seasoned with cigarette smoke, but John wore only the fraying button-down the ambulance had carried him in. As if he’d only fallen asleep and the whole world awaited his return, frozen until his light thawed us. We hopped out into the chill and sat directly on the stick-littered sand. The sun had set behind the cliffs, but the fading glow offered us a slow-changing color show. John passed me a beer, and as we cheersed, I felt myself giving in to his will.
On days the music was going well and the sun was stronger than the wind, we’d come to the lake and forget we weren’t in some pop fantasy. Julia painted glistening in thick layers of sunscreen, her hair growing one impossible shade more summery, almost the blazing white of our sun itself. I’d wear my good Hawaiian shirt and let my feet sink into the sand, which wasn’t so bad once you resigned yourself to its grime. John would stretch out an old beach chair he’d brought with him when he moved for college, not realizing just how little summertime this riverside Midwest town could offer. Beside him was always an old boombox he’d load with a cassette of whatever we’d recorded most recently. He’d grin under a gleaming pair of pink sunglasses listening to his bass-dominated beats that made our musical universe possible. My guitar parts that rode his electronic rhythms like a wave. Julia singing lyrics we’d half-written, humming and vocables filling in the rest. It had to be our parts he was hearing. After all, the heartbeat of our music, the parts he produced with vintage synthesizers, poured forth straight from his mind. At least it seemed that way to me. He’d have no need to listen to his own music: it was as if it were his own pulse. I’d watch him composing, and it struck me as more like a process of extraction rather than creation. Bringing what was inside John, fully formed and beautiful, out into a form we could share. Julia and I would crouch on the beach at his feet, watching his expression for hints of what sunshine he’d release next into our world. Somehow, he made us forget our service industry jobs. He made the cold winters glisten like music videos. And even that oppressive emptiness of our sky, our vast fields leading nowhere looked instead, when we made music, like infinite blank canvases.
When John lit up another smoke, I asked him what the deal was, if he was going to keep the habit.
“The smoker vs non-smoker caste is reversed in the gulag,” he said. “If you’re hooked on these, you get an extra break at least once an hour. Smoke slowly, and you’re shaving fifteen minutes off the hour.” He audibly glugged half of his beer like the mental health workers had denied him even water the month he was in there. “You get to be a quarter free, stealing back the sentence.”
“You keep saying you got a break. What’d they have you doing? What was it a break from?”
“Oh Jesus, man.” John cracked up to himself. He threw his head back in laughter, as if tossing each misty breath toward the darkening sky.
“Tell me you didn’t laugh like that in there.”
“Nah, they’d have kept me ‘til doomsday. I was just thinking of this guy, I call him ‘Nazi Satan.’ One of the guys in there, he’d get up during counseling sessions and start marching like a little Hitler Youth, throwing Nazi salutes and shouting, ‘Fuck Jesus! Fuck Jesus!’ There are three guys in any place like that who believe they’re Satan—and just as many claiming to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.”
“And which side did you take in this spiritual warfare?”
“Double agent of course.” John leapt up and started performing the Fuck Jesus Sieg Heil routine. We both popped with laughter. But by his third waltz across our stretch of beach, I was forcing my reaction, and I think he knew that. After kicking the sand around for a bit, John sat down and lifted his beer to his lips. It was empty. The aluminum whistled like a chime as he slurped air, trying in vain to extract more than was in the can. He flung the empty toward a nearby pile of logs. An aborted bonfire by the looks of it. A bunch of the logs were scorched black in the center, but they overall retained their form. I could imagine the park ranger making some family put it out after they went to all that trouble. Or maybe the poor park pass checker had dashed down in her flip flops hoping to stop a pending forest fire, lugging a pack of bottled water to douse the flames. When John’s beer can struck one of the logs, it made a satisfying clang. And it put a look in his eye like maybe he felt some new music coming on.
“Hey,” he said, pausing as he pulled the tab on another beer. “Let’s get Julia down here.
There’s still a shot for one more beach outing with everyone.”
Tell him I wish him the best of luck. Julia’s text message notification still displayed on my phone screen.
“I don’t think she wants to see you.”
John drank. “Think you could talk to her for me?”
It wasn’t like John to ask me for anything other than my playing. He’d managed all his affairs on his own. If an issue arose with Julia or our music hosting or processing payments for our album, John always knew the way to handle it. “Let me talk to them” was his go-to response. And the next we’d hear, all was resolved. Now he needed me for something. But I wasn’t sure I could give him this. Julia might not listen to me. And even if she did, I wasn’t sure it was right. Didn’t John have to really apologize? Did we have to forever pay for the privilege of his talents, his friendship by wading in the overflow of his personality?
“Even if she’d listen,” I said, weighing the need to give it to him straight versus whether he might still be in a delicate place versus the risk of severing our friendship, which is maybe what I wanted, or what I felt I was supposed to want. “I’m not sure how to go forward from here.”
None of us ever seemed to know how to go forward. We’d followed various paths to this college town. We’d found connections. We’d stayed on the road that looked right to us, passing exits to more stable destinations. John had come furthest of all. He’d left behind actual beaches in California for a cheap midwestern lifestyle. A different kind of freedom, one with prices as numerous as the snowflakes that every year blot out a new possibility. Julia had decided to move on. But here I was, back on the beach with John. “There’s no way back,” he said.
With two solid hunks of beach wood as sticks, John started beating a rhythm on the scorched bonfire logs. They produced a strange, dull done, not entirely unappealing. Like carved wooden percussion instruments—only with a hollow somewhere, so part of the sound was trapped inside, vibrating away in isolation.
“Hey,” he said, “give her a call.”
John’s percussion disappeared for a moment against a brutal gust that whipped across my ears. His fraying shirt looked like it might go to threads and leave him exposed against the night cold. He had his back to me while he beat on those logs, and I knew he wouldn’t ask me again, and I knew he would never apologize fully or own up to what had happened. The wind settled, and the beach filled with an infectious new rhythm John was unleashing. And then I also understood yet another price I was willing to pay.
The phone rang and rang and eventually went to voicemail. She rejected the second call. John drummed away the entire time. It was strange—a rhythm could measure time, but once it got into your head, it could make the moments disappear, passing one by one until you forget it all. But would Julia and I really be able to forget?
Julia took the third call. Neither of us said anything. I set the phone by the aborted bonfire while John continued to drum against the logs. For a moment, we were together in this rhythm. I listened, trying to imagine a different beach. The water catching the light forever like liquid diamond. Everyone beautiful with cocktails in hand and sun in their skin. Our music pulsing over the impossibly soft sand.
Scorched black bits flecked off as John drummed the bonfire logs. I tried to believe in what might have survived underneath.