Welcome to Great Falls – A Serial Novel – Part 6

October 21, 2014

Mornings were the toughest because Saan never slept enough and caffeine had little effect on him. To keep awake, he chose a seat in the front row but even that couldn’t prevent him from sitting bent over with his head in his arms. Luckily, Mr. Beasley understood and didn’t give him too hard of a time. It wasn’t as if he skipped assignments or played hooky, so aside from looking like a mope, he wasn’t doing much to disrupt the class.

“Saan, can I talk to you for a minute?” Mr. Beasley asked when the bell rang.

“Yes. I’m sorry. I’m just really tired.”

“Maybe this isn’t my place, but have you gone to the doctor lately?”

“I have and everything is fine.”

“Not mono.”

“Oh, god no,” Saan said. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. Have you thought about scaling down your extracurricular activities?”

“The problem I have is if I’m not tired enough I’ll just be in bed wide awake with my mind racing,” Saan said.

“What do you think of during those times?”

“Nothing. Just the normal stuff. I’ll be okay. I’ll just have to figure out a way to get to sleep sooner.”

By lunchtime he was wide awake and sitting with his teammates at a table in the school’s square. He picked at the grilled chicken salad his mother packed for him but he had no appetite. He felt empty yet his body felt like it was pulling in on itself. But, he knew he needed to eat to have enough energy for practice so he shoveled the salad without tasting anything and gobbled the tuna sandwich and two bananas as well.

Brandon’s eyes blurred from staring at the laptop, each word came out slower than the next. He grabbed his copy of Choke from the bookshelf because it was the thinnest of the five unread books and headed out the door with no specific destination.

He walked aimlessly looking at storefronts in the downtown area. Besides the Starbucks and movie theater, just about everything was a mom and pop shop. There were a handful of barbers and hair stylists, a few dozen restaurants and bars, an Asian food market and even a couple music stores.

Brandon stumbled into Sally’s Books. “New and maybe passed around books.” He went to Tom the cashier to show him the book he walked in with.

“You can leave it with me or lug it around the store with you.”

Brandon opted for the former.

“If you’re looking for anything specific, please let me know,” Tom said.

“I’ll just browse for a while.”

It was impossible to explain why some of the books were in their specific sections, yet, there was a huge selection of books under “Miscellany.”

Brandon tripped over Elaine while he was staring at a large leather bound Steinbeck anthology sitting on top of a bookcase. He tumbled and fell to the ground in a heap. She shrieked and almost ripped apart Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

“I told you not to sit on the ground,” Tom said from the cash register.

She accepted his apology and offer of coffee as well.

They sat outside Rubia’s. She with a latte and he with a double Americano. Unlike the other night, her hair was curly but relatively normal, and she wore a ribbed sweater with tattered sleeves.

“I still can’t believe you made me buy back my own copy of this book,” Elaine said.

“At least he sold it to you for what they bought it from you for.”

Elaine doesn’t keep books. Once she finished something she would announce it on Facebook and offer it to her friend. If she didn’t get any takers within a couple of days, she would sell it to the second hand store. Sometimes, it was a book she bought from there, and after a while, they just let her make trades.

“There’s also this thing called a library, where they’re free,” Elaine said as she picked up her mug.

“Look, when I want to read East of Eden, I want it right away.”

“No one really wants to read East of Eden.”

“Have you read East of Eden?”

“What if I haven’t?”

“Would you like to borrow East of Eden?” Brandon asked.

Back in the loft, Elaine stared at his bookcases and shook her head. She didn’t believe he could find any of his books.

“Where’s Moby Dick?”

“Never read it. Don’t have a copy.”

Pride and Prejudice?”

“Summer before senior year of high school, so it’s down toward the beginning.”

After dinner, Saan saw the Giants were up 7-0 in game one of the World Series and went to practiced jump shots in the backyard with his youngest siblings, who were both adopted. Thirteen-year-old Francesca was white and eleven-year-old Dexter was black. He also had an older half-brother, Cheng, 20, who was in his second year in the NBA and two sisters, Isabelle, 16, and Carmen, 15.

Saan smiled at the memory of a then nine-year-old Dexter explaining adoption to Francesca. Just because you’re both white doesn’t mean mom’s your mom mom. They were good kids. Bright and considerate and happy.

At 8:30 their mother, Erica, came to the court to corral the two young ones for baths and bedtime. She stood slanted with hands on her hips. When the ball bounced to her, she heaved it toward the basket and missed everything. Her children serenaded her, “Airballll! Airballll!” Dexter threw her the ball and she missed again to the children’s delight.

“Don’t stay up too late, honey,” she said.

“Just going into the batting cage for a while. Goodnight, mom.”

He filched a bottle of Jack Daniel’s from the pantry that night and took three big swigs before hiding the bottle in an old shoe box with medals and ribbons from elementary and middle school. He chewed on an Altoid while staring at the ceiling fan and waited, but he started thinking about upcoming tests and papers… his teammates who had a hard time reading… Jenna in physics class with the limp… Mrs. Fair and her cancer… Dexter having to explain his white mother and Asian father… the player from St. Mary’s calling him a dirty chink after sacking him… if Mary actually liked him.

He went to the closet and took three more swigs.

Welcome to Great Falls – A Serial Novel – Part 5

October 20, 2014

Brandon called Amy McCoy at noon and was asked to meet her at McNally’s in two hours. He loaded his printer with nice heavy stock for his resume, which consisted of his educational background and his experience at two Portland bars. He made a second pot of coffee and thought of witty lines to explain his situation but came up blank. He brushed his teeth, washed his hands twice and at a quarter to two he walked out of the loft wearing a black wool suit and blue Royal Oxford shirt and silk tie. It was an outfit his last girlfriend picked out so they could attend a wedding.

Amy sat at one of the bar’s corners with a clipboard and her second glass of rye. She had just called in the week’s order to the distributor. Her reddish blond hair was pulled up in a bun and little white wisps flared out from the nape of her neck.

“You don’t plan on working in a suit, do you?” she asked

“I could if you need me to.”

She laughed. “What are you drinking?”

“I’m okay, but thank you.”

“Rule number one, always say yes when a woman asks if she can buy you a drink.”

“Okay. Jameson on rocks.”

Amy ordered the drink, and Brandon took his resume out of a leather portfolio.

“You even brought a resume.”

“Who doesn’t bring a resume?”

“Look, I know you can bartend. I just have a few questions I need answered, but I don’t want to interrogate you, either, so we’re going to hang out for a while if you’re okay with that.”

They went outside and smoked cigarettes, picked classic rock and 80s pop on the jukebox and split an order of hot wings.

“Three things you never talk about in a bar?” Amy asked.

“Religion, politics and music.”

“Music?”

“Fanatics and zealots.”

“Do you want to work days or nights?”

“I prefer days but don’t mind either.”

Amy waved over George Franklin. He was the head bartender, a large man with a large brown beard and friendly disposition.

“George is going to train you a couple days this week unless you’re busy. The register is a touchscreen and pretty self-explanatory, but I’m sure there are some quirks.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

“We don’t currently have any openings, but you’ll be on call and hopefully be available to cover.”

Mrs. Fair walked around the class room with a box of sandwiches. Peanut butter and raspberry jam or turkey and pepper jack cheese. It was the weekly lunch meeting for the College Prep Club, and almost all the juniors and seniors preferred the turkey because it was more sophisticated by their estimation. Besides the underclassmen, the only student who regularly had the other sandwich was Saan Saeteurn, and he usually had two or three of them. He was president of the club for the second year running and also the school’s star quarterback. Saan’s older half-brother chartered the club a few years ago and when he graduated, the club members naturally voted for him, and it seemed prescient when the club figured out his SAT scores from the previous spring and dubbed him “Mr. Perfect”.

Saan spent most of the lunch period going over different thought processes for how to find the answers for tough verbal analogies and word problems, but when he was done he spent the rest of the time talking with the underclassmen about their various interests and the different paths they might take to do something they would enjoy. However, Mrs. Fair knew the kid had no idea what he wanted to do himself. She remembered a conversation they had the previous year when he was her student and asked for help on an essay that was already better than you could hope for from someone his age.

“Aren’t you going to play football or basketball in college?” she asked as she looked over the paper.

“If I’m good enough.”

“Saan, all those schools are giving you scholarships to do just that.”

“But what if I get there and I’m not good enough.”

“Well, what do you like to do? Besides football and basketball.”

He thought about it for a while. “I don’t know. I like to compete.”

“You’re still young, and that’s exactly what college is for. I have no doubt you’ll find your calling.”

“But I’d rather find it now than later,” he said with a look of desperation.

“It’ll be soon enough.” She put a hand on his shoulders.

When she had her surgery and chemotherapy that winter, he brought her flowers and get well cards signed by her students and the kids in the club. And even though she never wished to have Brandon replaced, she was overwhelmed by guilt the moment she imagined Saan was her son.

Welcome to Great Falls – A Serial Novel – Part 4

October 19, 2014

Upon waking, Brandon reached for the small spiral notebook on his nightstand and pulled the pen from the coil. He always had a couple around to jot down any ideas or dialogue that came to mind. Most of the ideas were crap and some became redundant, but he liked playing it safe just so he wouldn’t miss out on anything, and it also gave him the impression of being productive.

He rolled over on his stomach and wrote down the basic premise for a time travel story, where a man was selected to be part of an experiment because he was receptive to thoughts sent from the future while he slept. Once Brandon’s mind went blank, he walked down to the living area and opened his laptop on the coffee table to transcribe the notes. He was a firm believer in writing upon waking when the head was still clear from sleep.

Brandon lit a cigarette and imagined what it would look like if someone took a picture of him from the mezzanine. The smoke rising, the faceless writer hunched over his work. He snickered and went out on the balcony to finish his cigarette. The street was empty except the sidewalk seating for the Downtown Café a block-and-a-half west of his loft. He smelled coffee from the Starbucks east of him.

Brandon took the blue Maxwell House tin from the top of the fridge and scooped a few tablespoons into the coffee filter. A few more mornings and he would have a new patio ash tray. He cooked four strips of bacon in a cast iron skillet and scrambled three eggs in the leftover grease. He reviewed his notes while eating.

Elaine Goodwin had at least a dozen flower tattoos, ranging from the stargazer lilies rising from her right hip to the middle of her back to the blue irises on her left shoulder blade. However, most of them were covered by her workout pants and t-shirt.

She jogged on a treadmill next to Vanessa, who was technically her trainer for the workout. They met each other in middle school but weren’t particularly close until Vanessa started working at the gym. It was the only thing they really had in common. While Vanessa liked going out with her friends, Elaine preferred sitting in front of a computer with one of her role-playing games or reading in bed, particularly thrillers and murder mysteries. She got to see enough people as a cashier at the supermarket.

“I met someone new,” Vanessa said.

“Really? Who?”

“This guy.”

“Guy?”

“Actually, I want you to meet him. I think you’ll really like him.”

“No, I’m not doing this again. You realize you have terrible taste in men, right?”

“Because I’m a lesbian?!” Vanessa shouted.

The girls continued jogging as if nothing happened while the other members looked toward them unable to decide how to react.

“Tell me again what you want in a guy,” Vanessa said.

“Smart—”

“Nice, funny, interesting, blah… blah… derr… derr… blah. How about a guy who plays video games?”

“No, definitely not one of those.”

“Well, I didn’t see an Xbox in his apartment.”

Brandon leaned on the kitchen counter and watched his mother chop green onions for a salad. Mrs. Fair lost some weight over the last couple years but was still radiant and upbeat. Cancer was the most effective diet I’ve ever been on. Brandon regretted not being around for the surgery, but his mother insisted he stay away. He was quite squeamish and turned pale each time he walked into a hospital or saw needles piercing skin.

“Stop standing there. You’re freaking me out,” Mrs. Fair said and shot him a look.

“I’m just glad you’re doing okay.”

“You think I would ever die without you around?”

Brandon didn’t say anything.

“I’m kidding. Jesus, you’re just like your father.”

They looked out the kitchen window. Mr. Fair fiddled with the gas grill’s knobs while checking the thermometer on the cover.

“He does know that reading is never accurate, right?” Brandon asked.

“I’m not having that conversation with him again.”

“He does all that and I know he’ll take the tri-tip off after an hour.”

“How do you figure?”

“He does sixteen minutes a pound, and I saw the label in the trash.”

Lizzie walked in with a bottle of wine and went straight for the corker. She looked like a 28-year-old version of her mother. Light brown hair, tall, graceful.

“I thought you were never coming back?” she said to Brandon.

“I wasn’t planning on it, Nurse Lizzie, but then I missed you sooo much.”

“Come here.” Lizzie wrapped her arms around her younger brother and pretended to lift him. “Putting some weight on, aren’t you?”

“I weigh—”.

“I’m kidding. You look great. Ma says she wants you to have grandkids.”

“I said no such thing, Lizzie,” Mrs. Fair said.

“Don’t use the expired condoms in your room. She poked holes in them,” Lizzie said.

“I’m going to smoke a cigarette. I hear it lowers your sperm count,” Brandon said while leaving the kitchen.

The Fairs sat in the living room with quiet disappointment. It wasn’t even halftime and Peyton Manning had already thrown three touchdowns, but more importantly, the 49ers were down by eighteen points.

“The tri-tip was excellent, Dad,” Lizzie said.

“Thanks. Well, let’s hope the Broncos cover,” Mr. Fair responded.

“You bet against the Niners?”

“I thought they were going to lose pretty handily.” Mr. Fair played quarterback in high school and college and watched it as more of an analyst than fan.

“Oh, well.” Lizzie turned to Brandon. “Have you been writing?”

“Started a new project this morning.”

“Will you actually finish this project, or will you be too busy bartending?” Lizzie asked.

Mrs. Fair looked up from grading mid-term papers for her junior English classes.

Mr. Fair said, “Brandon, when I was your age—”

“You were still in grad school,” Brandon said. Everyone laughed except Mr. Fair.

“Wait, how old are you?”

The room went silent.

“I’m kidding. You’re turning 26 next month.”

“Well, I’d like to read the story when you’re finished,” Mrs. Fair said.

Brandon’s phone beeped. It was a text message from Vanessa asking him to meet her at The Cantina.

The Cantina was filled with solemn people in red 49ers jerseys and two Broncos fans who were buying drinks with their winnings.

Brandon saw Elaine through The Cantina’s windows while he and Lizzie waited for the bouncer to check their driver’s licenses. She had ridiculously over-the-top curls and a puke green-shirt, but he was fascinated by her face. She looked like no one he had ever seen but yet familiar.

“Sloppy seconds, huh?” Vanessa said to Brandon before introductions could be made.

Brandon froze until Vanessa and Elaine started laughing. He left them and his sister to get drinks from the bar.

“All the guys in the bar are pissed because the Niners lost, but even more so because you’re with the three hottest chicks in the place,” the bartender Josh Walters said.

“Hah! One of them is my sister.”

“Sorry, my bad. What are you having?”

“I need a shot for now. You want one?”

“Sure, I’ll have one.”

“Shot of Jameson for me and whatever you’re having,” Brandon said.

Sunday was service industry night and as the football fans thinned out, the place got rowdier with people who worked the bars and restaurants. Dennis joined the group and vied with Vanessa for Lizzie’s attention. Elaine and Brandon engaged in small talk.

“I really like what you did with your hair,” Brandon said while nodding and holding his laughter.

“Oh, you do?” Elaine responded. “It’s natural, of course.”

“Is it from your mother or father?”

“Grandmother on my dad’s side. It skips a generation.”

“You know, if I ask you more questions than you ask me, it almost guarantees you’ll like me more.”

“But I’ll only ever ask questions of you if I actually like you.”

Brandon nodded, and Elaine drank the rest of her Maker’s Mark.

“Hey, thank you for the drink. Can I buy you one?” Elaine asked. “You know, so we’re even.”

Welcome to Great Falls – A Serial Novel – Part 3

October 18, 2014

Vanessa sat up on the couch and wiped the dried rheum from the corners of her eyes. She looked around the loft with satisfaction and pulled open the balcony’s thick blue curtains.

“Too much light!” Brandon yelled from the mezzanine.

“It’s almost ten o’clock.”

She stepped onto the balcony and her throat got drier just from seeing the cigarette butts in the gas grill. Vanessa grabbed the empty beer bottles and took them to the kitchen to rinse.

Brandon and Vanessa walked a few blocks to the Downtown Café and arrived just after the morning rush. The tables were still full, but most of the customers had finished their meals and were just having coffee and conversation.  They took seats at the counter.

“I’m really sorry about last night,” Brandon said.

“Seriously. Don’t worry about,” Vanessa insisted. “But, I do have a way of getting back at Dennis.”

Dennis lied on the weight bench and did ten reps of 205 pounds. On the last repetition, Vanessa held her hands under the barbell just in case he needed help. He didn’t.

“I still can’t believe you guys ditched me,” he said.

“From what I saw, you wanted us to ditch you.”

“Everything was going fine until she disappeared to the bathroom while we were waiting for a cab, and the next thing I know, her friends are carrying her out the bar.”

“You roofied her?”

“Shut it,” Dennis said. “And you disappeared to move furniture with Brandon?”

Vanessa smiled mischievously as they moved through the crowded gym to the leg press machines.

“Wait!” Dennis said. “No! No, you didn’t?”

“I’m not saying anything happened, but if it did, it wasn’t very good.”

“So you’re not coming back to the light?”

“Not for him, that’s for sure.”

“Too small?”

“No, if anything… I’m not talking about this anymore. Put two forty-fives on your side, sir.”

Vanessa contorted her body into the proper position and did twenty leg presses easily. She ran the 1600 meters in high school and always had strong legs, but she hated the hard workouts. Besides, she wasn’t looking to bulk up.

“God, I barely remember anything,” Vanessa said. “We damn near drank the whole bottle of Jameson. Yeah, I definitely blame it on the Jameson. Do you want a ride to your car later?”

“No, I think I’m going to jog. Get tired of these treadmills after a while. Besides, the weather’s perfect for a nice run.”

“Good, get out of here because you reek of booze.”

“You don’t even drink Jameson.”

“Well, apparently I did last night.”

Brandon pushed his shopping cart through the produce section and glanced at the list on his phone. It not only reminded him of what he needed, it prevented him from buying too many things that could spoil, especially fruit. He was always mesmerized by the way the fruits gleamed under the bright lights. Yes, he was a merchandiser’s dream, but his list restricted him to half a dozen bananas and a combination of six apples or oranges. He grabbed a bag of red potatoes and headed to the meat section, where he selected a whole chicken, three T-bone steaks and a pound of thick bacon.

In the liquor aisle, he put bottles of vodka, scotch, bourbon, rye, gin and cognac into the cart.

“Am I getting an invite to the party?” Kristen Ferguson asked. Her wild black hair was tucked under a blue Golden State Warriors hat.

“You haven’t RSVPed?” Brandon responded.

She laughed. “I’m just kidding. Gotta work tonight anyway.”

“There’s always the after party.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, no, just shopping to fill up the apartment.”

“Cool. You live around here?”

“Actually, I’m down the block from The Revisionist.”

Kristen was thirty-five years old but looked much younger. It must have been from her mother, who was carded even for cigarettes until she was almost fifty years old.

“Well, I will be there all night if you get bored.”

Dennis kept a seven minute pace, and even with the traffic lights and his mind wondering if Vanessa actually slept with Brandon, he reached Brandon’s loft in less than fifteen minutes. He checked his car, and it was untouched from the previous night.

Brandon answered the door with a glass of Jameson in hand. “Hey, come on in.”

“Got any water?” Dennis asked.

“Did you run here? I think there’s still Gatorade from yesterday. Kao and I are just watching the street fair from the balcony.”

Dennis looked at the counter and saw a bottle of Jameson that was still three-quarters full. He felt relieved and didn’t say anything. It was the same bottle from the previous night, but after he left the gym, Vanessa called Brandon to fill him in on the conversation. Coincidentally, Kao had just stopped by with a bottle of Jameson as a welcome gift, and Brandon put that new bottle in a cabinet above the fridge. Otherwise, he would have done the same with the other.

They went out to the balcony.

“I have to run,” Kao said. “But if you guys want to play, there’s going to be some cards next door tonight.”

“Five-ten no-limit is too rich for my blood,” Brandon said. “Hey, thanks again for the Jameson.”

“Welcome to the neighborhood. I’ll let myself out.”

Dennis chugged his Gatorade and took a deep breath.

“Heard you found a lady last night?” Brandon asked.

“Oh, god, I don’t even want to talk about that,” Dennis said. “Just came from a workout with Vanessa.”

“Nice, how’s she doing?”

“Did I ever tell you she’s a lesbian?”

“No, why?”

“Well, she is.”

“Are you sure?”

“Look, she already told me about last night.”

Brandon smiled. “Yeah, what did she say?”

“That you weren’t any good.”

“What? That’s bullshit.”

Dennis started laughing. “Yeah, apparently, you failed to convert her.”

“Convert her?”

“Make her straight again.”

“Oh, Jesus. I didn’t even think of it that way.” Brandon paused. “I just wanted to christen the loft.”

“Christen the loft? That’s terrible,” Dennis said.

“Wait, are you in love with her?”

“No, I’m not. Well, I don’t know.”

Brandon debated telling his friend the ruse because he didn’t like being cruel, but he also knew Dennis wasn’t in love with Vanessa, so he said, “If we’re going to be friends, you can’t go falling in love with my sloppy seconds. Besides, you’re the one who ditched her to make out with Lucy Lush.”

Kao’s loft was decorated more like an office than a living space, but this night the furniture was pushed to the side to accommodate two poker tables. One table had $5-$10 no-limit Texas Hold ‘em and the other hosted a $20-$40 limit Texas Hold ‘em game. Most of the players were local businessmen in their forties and fifties and looking to just blow off steam, and they all chatted with little inhibition one is prone to do with longtime friends.

Brandon watched the tables from a distance but wasn’t impressed. He played a bit when he was in high school and college, mainly on-line but he logged some time on live tables as well. Right away he saw almost all of the guys playing too wide a range of hands and without enough aggression. Too many hands went to a showdown. When Brandon went to smoke on the balcony, Kao joined him.

“I’ll stake you if you want to play,” Kao said as he pulled a cigarette out of its box.

“No, it’s been too long since I last played.”

“Like riding a bike.”

“Why don’t you play?”

“I will later or if they need an extra body. Besides, I want these guys to have fun and get into their rhythms.”

“Patterns?” Brandon asked.

Kao smiled and lifted his glass for a toast.

They walked down the block to The Revisionist and Kao commented on how dead it was for a Saturday night. Most of the bars were at half capacity because of mid-terms and there was also a stabbing the previous weekend that was all over the local paper. At the door, the bouncer nodded at Kao and let the two in while checking the IDs of a group of girls.  The speakers pumped nondescript dance music with a repetitive beat to a few dozen people dancing in front of the deejay’s stage.

“Well, you sure meet everyone fast,” Kristen said when she saw Brandon with Kao.

“Just wanted to make sure you’re coming to the after party,” Brandon said.

“You said you weren’t having one so I made other plans.”

She poured Bombay Sapphire on ice with a slice of lime and put it in front of Kao.

“What are you having?” she asked Brandon.

“Same.”