everything happens at once
published in Folio, Vol 31, Issue 1
Nick Hawthorn is a 42-year-old food engineer, a relatively successful preservatives man toiling for a brand-name frozen dinner company, living predominantly in his corner office and sometimes coming home to sleep, perchance to have dinner with his wife Liz. One Saturday morning he decides to take the day off and so spends a few hours in his recliner watching football, though he knows nothing about football and follows no team. He is thinking about apples, for some reason. Trying to decide if he wants to eat an apple—no, doesn’t seem like it—so then why apples, why apples. Something about apples. And it happens that during a commercial break there is a notice, that for so-and-so pennies a day you can feed a child in so-and-so-Africa, a modern-day purchasable indulgence. This gets Nick thinking and he mentions to Liz—who is passing periodically through the room distractedly performing domestic chores, slightly unnerved by her husband's unexpected presence in daylight—that he hasn't heard from Gordon in ages and should probably look up that man's number. And Liz dutifully asks who Gordon is, causing Nick to irritably set down the remote control and seek out eye contact. I've spoken of him often, says Nick. I spent that year with him in Namibia.
What on earth are you on about? she asks him, now herself rather irritated. She was going to invite friends over for coffee that morning, and now Nick is here fucking it all up.
Namibia, the Peace Corps.
Oh for God's sake, she mutters and leaves the room. I'd like to see you find Namibia on a map.
And now Nick is quietly furious, because this confirms his suspicion that his wife doesn't know him at all. Eighteen years of marriage and she doesn't understand, doesn’t recognize, won’t acknowledge even the most fundamental pillars of his history and his character. He calls her back into the room in order to argue with her for a bit, but finds himself derailed momentarily when she asks so what language do they speak in Namibia? Namibian? And he throws the remote down onto the table, causing the little plastic flap that encloses the batteries to come somersaulting out, well and truly broken.
That evening he goes out to the store to buy wine but ends up driving around aimlessly, thinking about Namibia, and Gordon, and how they helped install latrines in a village near the Angola border. And how he had decided one day—watching a group of children play with a soccer ball until their mothers came to usher them off to their evening meal—that he would write poetry after all, that is, be a poet—forget practicality, forget employability—and would change his major as soon as he returned to the States, or maybe drop out of college altogether. But he wouldn’t be an engineer. He wasn’t going to. And whatever happened to that? Nick thinks to himself and snorts, and he buys the wine and goes home, and drinks the bottle himself.
Nick goes to work on Monday and opens up two different spreadsheets on two different computer monitors. He does some calculations on one, and comes up with a number that he compares to some other figures in a ledger on his desk, and then puts those numbers into the second spreadsheet, where he does some different calculations, and then he writes those results down in his ledger and goes back to the first spreadsheet. He does this for five hours and then takes a lunch break. He eats a peanut butter sandwich and a banana, while sitting at his desk. He doodles on his ledger. He draws a railroad track running along a river. He draws an apple. He goes back to his spreadsheets for another seven hours.
The next weekend Nick again takes Saturday off, and because he is feeling tired and restless and aimless and bored, agrees to join his wife and her sister on a shopping excursion to a popular second-hand store that often has "real treasures" available for a song, according to his sister-in-law. A good place to pick up bargain silverware. And he wanders the aisles, stocked with typewriters and cameras and Truman-era board games, and finds a corner dedicated to musical instruments of all manner and in all states of repair. He picks out an acoustic guitar that has all its strings, of the type he once owned in college, and sits down on a bench to think of what he should play. It's been so long since he has held a guitar, so long he can't even remember when. He can’t remember at all. Liz and her sister come around the corner, Liz's basket full of ridiculous Christmas knick-knacks, and she starts to laugh. Look at Eric Clapton, she says, look at Bruce Springsteen. Play us a song. And he will, he's going to, but he doesn't. There most certainly is something wrong, perhaps wrong with the guitar. He stares at it for a few seconds longer and then sets it down. I'm sure it isn't tuned, he says, and then makes a snide comment about the dancing Santa automaton in his sister-in-law’s basket.
He tells his wife and her sister that he will walk home, although it's a good three miles and Nick isn't a man given to casual exercise. He stops at a pub on the corner, the corner of So-and-So and Something, and steps up to the bar. He orders a vodka tonic, for no apparent reason since he doesn't enjoy vodka, or maybe he does, who knows, because it tastes just fine. Is this a vodka tonic? he asks the bartender, who shoots him a look and doesn't answer, just moves to the other end of the bar, maybe offended. I'll just sit here and get drunk, Nick thinks. And why not. I'm not driving, he thinks. And he remembers the car accident he had been in, three or four or god-knows how many years ago, when he had fallen asleep at the wheel and driven off the road, flipped the car. Spent two weeks in the hospital with broken ribs, broken left humerus, a tremendous gash across his chest that sometimes still ached, not with the weather or pressure changes or any of that nonsense, just sometimes. There was a pretty nurse named Carol. He pays for his drinks and goes to the restroom to piss before he walks home, and he stands there in front of the mirror thinking about Namibia, and poetry, and the absolute silence that one can experience in a wrecked car upside down in the middle of nowhere. And he unbuttons his shirt and looks at his chest, which is unblemished, not a single scar that should have been there, but has been screaming in pain since he stepped foot in the place because sometimes it just hurts, just sometimes.
Nick walks home but gets lost, eventually asking a gas station attendant for directions to Apple Court and getting a blank look. They get into a brief argument before Nick walks away. It's dark outside when he finally recognizes a landmark, an outpost of a local fried chicken chain, and trudges another mile to his home which turns out, actually, to be on Grand Street. He doesn't go inside. He stands in the driveway and looks up at the stars, he knows the names of all the constellations, he just can’t remember them at the moment. They are somewhere with Gordon, in Namibia.
He gets in his car and drives west, sober as a judge. He leaves town and keeps going. There are the plains and the mountains, and forests and desert, as he takes a route that maybe he has read about, or dreamed about, or that he is creating currently. He meets nobody along the way. Probably some number of days pass, and several times he pulls over to sleep, and he has odd dreams about being a food preservatives engineer. Something about spreadsheets. He finally comes into a town that he's heard about somewhere, that he's read about, that he knows, a town that he was living in when he self-published his first collection of poetry. He drives parallel to a railroad track and crosses a river, and shortly thereafter the sun goes down. He knows exactly where he is going. The street was repaved last summer. He pulls into a driveway, a pleasant little two-bedroom in a cul-de-sac, Apple Court, with identical houses on either side. He walks up to the door and unlocks it with a key he finds in his pocket. His chest aches wonderfully. She is waiting in the living room with two vodka tonics on the coffee table, and she smiles, and he loves her.