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 2

October 17, 2014

Dennis was hungover but he dragged himself out of bed and walked into the bathroom for a shower. The countertop had the bare essentials of a young single guy living alone: tooth brush, toothpaste, deodorant, comb, razor, shaving cream, etc. It used to be cluttered with hair and skin product and various cosmetics, but when his fiancée left him he went through the house and got rid of anything non-essential. He gave away the potted plants and threw away any clothes he hadn’t worn within the previous year.

While drunk the previous night, he changed his mind and agreed to help Brandon with moving. He even volunteered to bring breakfast. Besides, it would give him a chance to be around Vanessa, who he had been pursuing for half a year.

Dennis arrived at the loft as Brandon and his father pulled a box spring from the U-Haul. There were still a dozen or so items–sofa, loveseat, bookshelves–that would probably need at least two people to move. Most of Brandon’s belongings were books. Boxes and boxes of books. It was why the U-Haul had such a hard time on the highway. Though Brandon didn’t write much in Portland, he certainly read his fair share, and outside of his work and drinking, he spent plenty of time browsing at Powell’s Books and his local Goodwill as well.

Dennis lifted the bag of breakfast burritos as he got out of his Chrysler 300.

“Breakfast!” Vanessa screamed from the stairs. “You remembered.”

“I also brought some Gatorade in case any of you want any,” Dennis said.

“You don’t remember the rest of us just drinking water the last hour or so last night?” Vanessa asked.

“That’s right.”

“The stairs are awesome. I’m getting in my workout for the day.” She jogged in place. “One more box and I’ll have one of those burritos.”

“Bacon and eggs. Have one before they’re cold.”

The front door of the loft led to a hallway with a bathroom to the left and the pantry and utility closet to the right. In the rectangular living area, the kitchen was to the left in the near corner and the balcony directly ahead. The stairs ran along the left wall over the kitchen area to the mezzanine level, which had a large walk-in closet and another bathroom.

The bed and dresser were up on the mezzanine, but the rest of Brandon’s belongings were in the middle of the main floor.

“This is a cold space,” Mr. Fair said while looking at the gray concrete floor. “At least it’ll be easy to keep clean.”

“Note to self, I need to get a broom,” Brandon said. “Let me buy you all lunch.”

Brandon looked around the room and imagined where he would put his work desk, TV stand and bookshelves.

McNally’s Tavern had a square bar and at least two TVs on each of its walls. Most of the people in the bar had left work early, and Casual Fridays in this town meant jeans and just about any shirt without any holes or foul language. Brandon and Vanessa sat at one of the bar’s corners while waiting for Dennis.

“Have you thought about how you want to set up the room, yet?” Vanessa asked.

“I generally like to have my desk near a window, so I’ll probably have that near the balcony, but I haven’t given it much thought.”

Vanessa had aspirations to be an interior designer, but early in college she became a workout fanatic and developed an infatuation with nutrition. She worked at the local gym as a personal trainer while debating whether she wanted to go to graduate school or the military.

“Dennis!” everyone in the bar cheered when he finally showed up.

He blushed and waved before walking to a group of three men in their early forties, two of whom wore suits. One of the suited men was James Robinson, an extremely tall black man who owned the real estate agency where Dennis worked. James congratulated Dennis for a deal that closed earlier in the day and slapped him on the back. The other suited man was an Asian named Kao Saeteurn, a local businessman and retired basketball player who also owned McNally’s Tavern. Andy Johnson was the third man, and he looked like he just got out of bed. Dennis wasn’t short by any means, but the two men in suits dwarfed him.

Dennis nodded at Linda Marshall, the curvy bartender, and she poured him Stolichnaya on the rocks with a lime slice.

“Well, aren’t you the popular one?” Vanessa said when Dennis walked over.

“Great month at work! I should be buying you guys drinks.”

“I never thought you’d be doing sales,” Brandon said.

“Me neither, but not all of us get to go to college.”

“I was an English Major.”

Kao joined them and introduced himself to Brandon and Vanessa, but they already knew who he was. “I hear you might be looking to bartend,” he said to Brandon.

“I’m just looking for anything.”

“I don’t know if we have anything open at the moment, but if you call my general manager, she’ll keep you in mind. Her name is Amy. Just say I gave you her number.” He took a pen out of his jacket and wrote Amy McCoy’s phone number on a cocktail napkin. “By the way, welcome to the neighborhood.”

Brandon looked puzzled.

“We’re neighbors,” Kao said. “I saw you moving in this morning with your father. He’s our optometrist.”

“You live in the lofts?”

“No, but I keep a place and stay there once or twice a month.”

Kao waved to Linda and asked to close his tab so he could make it to the high school football game where his son was the starting quarterback.

“You owe nothing!” the bartender said.

“Seriously, you have to ring me up. For accounting’s sake.”

“If you want to pay for drinks in your own bar you better walk your ass back here.”

“Fine!” Kao started his way around the bar.

“Okay, okay, okay. You bought one for yourself, a round for those three and a round for those two.” She looked to the ceiling. “Thirty-three dollars.”

“Hmm, let me get another round for James and Andy over there and one for these guys over here.”

“Sixty-three dollars, sir!”

Kao left eighty dollars for the bill.

“Thank you,” Brandon said.

“No problem. You should try Hector’s rib eye if you get a chance.”

As if on cue, Hector Lopez rang his bell and announced, “Rib eye! Medium!”

Later in the evening, Brandon and Vanessa stumbled down the street arm in arm as they tried to keep up with Dennis. He led them to The Alley, which had an outdoor seating area where Brandon’s balcony was visible across the street. Inside, there were balloons and a deejay playing to a small birthday party.

“I have this urge to move furniture around,” Brandon said.

“Really?”

“Whenever I get restless, I want to do laundry or rearrange furniture.”

“We should get some drinks and do that.”

“You sure you can handle that much excitement on a Friday night?”

“Shit. You know it.”

“Let’s find Dennis.”

“He’s sucking face with some girl at the bar,” Vanessa said. “Besides, we can handle this by ourselves.”

“Shit, I have nothing to drink in the apartment.”

Vanessa called a cab to take them to the liquor store, where she bought a twelve-pack of Bud Light and a bottle of Jameson.

Back at the loft, it didn’t take long for Vanessa to figure out what best to do with the furniture. Not more than half an hour later, they started to arrange Brandon’s books on the shelves, which took longer than expected. He organized the books in reverse chronological order from when he finished him. The first five books were ones he hadn’t read: The Bourne Identity, Dracula, Choke, Underworld and Sabbath’s Theater.

“If you look in the front cover you’ll see the start and end dates,” Brandon said.

“It’s getting hot in here.” Vanessa took off her shirt and revealed a white tank top. “I can’t believe you’ve read all these books.”

“Most of them more than once. If you can just sort them as best you can, that’ll be great. I’m going to double check anyway.”

“So for the ones you’ve read more than once…”

“First time, please.” Brandon looked at the bookshelf he completed while only having to look in the covers of two books. “You’re right. It is hot in here.”

He grabbed two beers from the fridge and his cigarettes off the black coffee table.

“You know, it’s been a while, but I’m going to have one of those with you,” Vanessa said.

They went on the balcony and looked at the patio of The Alley. The crowd thinned out.

Brandon turned toward Vanessa and they smiled at each other. He leaned forward.

“Wait, what are you doing?” she asked.

“Nothing, why?”

“Dennis told you I’m a lesbian… riiight?”

“What? Why would he?”

“He told me he told you last night.”

“No, he didn’t. I’m so sorry.”

“Look, if I wasn’t a lesbian, I would totally go for you.”

“Yeah, that’s what all the lesbians say.”

She laughed hysterically.

“I’m so embarrassed,” Brandon said.

“Don’t be. I’d hit on me, too.”

“I need some Jameson.”

Welcome to Great Falls – A Serial Novel – Part 1

October 16, 2014

Brandon Fair kept his car a few seconds behind the small U-Haul truck his father drove as they entered the city limits of Great Falls. He promised himself he would never return to his hometown, but the more he heard about his mother’s cancer the more he felt he needed to be around. Besides, it would give him a chance to finish his Great American Novel, and it wasn’t as if he was doing anything particularly productive in Portland. After finishing his literature degree at UC-Santa Cruz, he moved up to Portland to “get life experiences.” He ended up bartending and hanging out in bars, and he fashioned himself as a modern day Bukowski or Hemingway but without writing anything beyond a few sketches and short stories.

As Mr. Fair turned left on R Street and headed north to their home, Brandon continued downtown to see if there were any changes. His last visited almost two years ago for Christmas but was bedridden by the flu and didn’t leave his parents’ house except to get firewood from the back patio. He didn’t have enough of a connection with the town to recognize any new businesses nor miss any old ones that had closed.

Early on a Thursday night, the streets were bare as Brandon expected, and he wondered if renting the downtown loft would be a mistake. But, he remembered growing up in Great Falls and his parents’ house being too far to walk to any other part of town, and after living in Santa Cruz and Portland, he got into the habit of walking for nearly an hour each evening and he always appreciated it more if he had an actual destination.

He parked his car in front of a pool hall and walked down the block to The Revisionist, whose orange neon sign advertised “Cocktails and Dancing” but the music spilling out the front door was punk rock. It was dimly lit with ceiling fans and a long rail bar made out of a lacquered wood slab, and the area behind the bar sat almost two feet lower than the rest of the place, so if you were standing and the music was too loud, you would have to lean for the bartender to hear your order.

At the far end, a half dozen patrons watched a baseball game with anticipation. A sports bar this was not. Brandon drank there years ago but didn’t recognize the bartender, who wore black and had tattoos on her forearms.

“What can I get ya?” she asked before he had a chance to survey the beer list on an old chalk board.

“What do you have on tap?”

She side-stepped and waved to the taps behind her. “I’ve got these and ten more down at the other end. What are you looking for?”

“I’ll do the Firestone Union Jack.”

“Good call,” she said before bending down to get a pint glass from the fridge.

Brandon looked up at the TV and saw a ball float into right field just beyond the red Levi’s logo, and the guys at the end of the bar whooped and jumped out of their seats. Brandon wasn’t a big fan of baseball but smiled at the dramatic ending.

Brandon checked Facebook and his last status update–Goodbye, Portland. We will meet again…–had several likes and a few questions from friends asking where he was going, which were answered by other friends who already knew. He posted a new status, “Back in Great Falls. Who wants to help me move into the apartment tomorrow?”

His phone rang. It was his mother. “Where are you? Dinner’s getting cold.”

“Oh, I didn’t know you were cooking.” Brandon got up and went outside.

“Where are you? Are you in a bar?”

“Yes. I stopped to have a drink. It was a long drive.”

“Well, get home soon. I made roast chicken and potatoes.”

Brandon lit a cigarette after finishing the conversation with his mother. He looked across the street at another bar with neon beer signs in its windows. It was surrounded by a Starbucks, a movie theater and a few different eateries.

“Got a light?” the bartender asked. She had wild black hair and introduced herself as Kristen.

“I’m Brandon. You’re taller than I expected.” In better lighting, she was also prettier than he initially thought.

“Optical illusion. Uneven floors.”

“True. What’s going on here tonight?”

“Thursdays we have a deejay come in around 10. You new in town?”

“I grew up here but just moving back.”

Brandon ate at the kitchen table while his mother hovered with a glass of wine. She checked the drawers and cupboards, moving a glass or plate from here to there.

“I just don’t know why you don’t want to live with us,” Mrs. Fair said. “With both you and Lizzie gone, the house always feels empty.”

“Ma, Lizzie lives around the corner.”

“It’s at least ten minutes, and it’s not the same.”

“You can drive to her house in less than two minutes,” Brandon says. “And, really, you don’t want me living with you guys.”

“Well, if you ever get lonely, you always have a place here.”

“I know, Ma.”

Brandon received a text message from Dennis Jordan, a high school friend, “Just saw you’re in town. Having a drink at the Cantina. First one’s on me.”

The Cantina was full but not crowded and brightly lit. Brandon found Dennis at the bar sitting between a white-haired gentleman and a younger Mexican woman with round eyes and a heart-shaped face. A few Giants fans celebrated the trip to the World Series with toasts and screams of “Ishikawa!”

“Welcome back to Great Falls!” Dennis said. “This is Bob and Vanessa.”

Bob offered his seat, but Brandon declined and told him he had been driving all day and didn’t mind standing at all. Dennis ordered a round of whiskey, and they toasted Brandon’s return.

“I’m going to need a cigarette after that,” Brandon said as the whiskey hung in his throat and nasal cavity.

Vanessa Silva and Dennis smoked with him outside.

“Thank God it has finally cooled down,” Dennis said.

“Long summer?”

“It was still 90 degrees last week.”

“So what are you going to do while you’re in town?” Vanessa asked.

“I’m moving into my apartment tomorrow, and I’ll figure it out from there.” Brandon looked at Dennis. “By the way, are you going to help me move tomorrow?”

“No can do. I’m sleeping in tomorrow,” Dennis said.

“I can help you tomorrow,” Vanessa said.