enny Lorraine used to run things. Late in the moon, from town to town, over the border, anything you could think of that would be worth running like that: surreptitiously. This was dream-matter now—he remembered things better in his dreams—as the smoke rose from the stove and he deposited drool into the sofa’s cigarette burns, thinking of the nights-on-end driving you could do with the rising sun sitting like a fruit in your windshield or, going the other way, in your rearview, and of the red dust in Moab which found its way onto the dash and into your sleeping mouth if you left the window open even a crack overnight, which you needed to do, and which made for the kind of granular morning gristle that reminded you you had molars, and of St. Matthew Island, rising in the distance from the wind-peaked kyanite of the Bering, concealing in jest the bones of six thousand reindeer beneath sporadic tufts of lichen. The smoke registered with him as that time when J.C. made them burn some of their haul beyond a twisted stretch of guardrail, a small collection of Nazi-looted furniture procured who knows how, just to keep warm after a breakdown on a serviceless highway. Now as then, Benny could think only that he didn’t want to start a forest fire, and also that he’d be out a good chunk of his money just to save a little gas in the van, which could’ve kept them warm from the comfort of their own city-bus-textiled seats, but J.C. was paranoid like that. Cautious.
In this particular dream the air was thick with smoke like violet cologne, and all he could do was watch as stack after fat stack of his cut got tossed onto the unevenly growing pyre. And he could hear himself coughing from beyond himself. And he was saying something to himself, calling out. Benny . . . Benny, baby. For a flicker he thought he saw someone, a shadow of himself, sitting high with dangling legs on a branch in a faded yellow shirt, frowning and tossing pine needles into the flames. A pulse, something ringing like a lost octave began to seep in. And the trees in the dense blackness began to groan.
“Benny! Open the fucking door!”
He opened one of his eyes. The banging shook the entire apartment, and he could hear the door beginning to splinter against the thudding fist. The shriek of the fire alarm, which he had been tuning out, washed into his ears. He coughed so hard the other eye popped open.
“Benny! OPEN THE GODDAMN DOOR!” Thud, thud, thud, thud, thud.
He shot up on the couch and watched the flames as they mounted the wall behind the stove, blackening the beige wallpaper with off-white florals. “Fuck,” he said out loud as he rushed to the door, undid the latch, and swung it open. It was his landlord (who else?). Dave. No—Rick? He was in a panic and had some serious arterial palpitations going on in his neck.
“Jesus Christ,” his landlord said, pushing his way into the room and heading straight for the spot in the kitchen where he expected the extinguisher to be. “Benny wherethefuckisit?!” he said without parsing his words.
“Oh, uh, bathroom.” Benny ran to the window by the shower, which he had had to prop open with the extinguisher after dismantling its locking mechanism because he had thought, lacking the proper implement, that it might help him get the cork out of a wine bottle. He ran back toward the kitchen/living room/sleeping area and fumbled around with the safety lock for a few seconds before his landlord snatched it, and with the smoothness of habit and the metal click of a grenade coated the entire cooking area in a fine white powder. He relented, and the pair of them waited to see that the fire was gone. Benny got on his toes and disabled the alarm, and the sudden quiet was deafening.
“Jesus, Benny,” the landlord said. “Jesus Christ. What were you doing? Sleeping? Drunk.”
This wasn’t something Benny cared to deny. “Sorry,” he said. “It was an accident . . . ”—what was his name?—“ . . . Doc.”
The landlord passed a thick hand over his bald head, wicking a layer of sweat onto the floor. He turned toward Benny, but couldn’t look him in the eye. “OK,” he said, like he was acceding to a point in his own mind. “I want you out.”
“What?” Benny said.
“It was an accident. Don’t you have insurance or something?”
“It’s not about the fire, Benny. You’re a bad tenant. You smoke in your room, even though the sign at the front of the motel and on every goddamn door says no smoking. You drink constantly and leave trash bags full of bottles outside in the hall for the whole place to see. And you don’t pay your rent!”
“I’ve paid rent.”
“When? Two months ago? ‘Cause I don’t have a check from you or cash or nothing any more recent than that.” Benny said nothing. “Tonight. Don’t make me call someone.” He waited for Benny to nod, or at least gesture that he had heard, then walked out with the extinguisher. “Useless,” he said under his breath.
With the door shut and the whole place smelling like a charred kiddie pool, Benny thought he should take something. He patted his pockets for the flask, then turned in a useless circle, and finally after some digging found it wedged between the couch cushions. He swallowed and pressed his thumbs against his eyes and tried to remember what day it was. Not so easy. What month was it, even? He opened the door and stood at the threshold a moment, taking deep breaths as he balanced himself on the doorframe. Autumn, definitely.
Where could he go? Back inside, he rummaged around for a duffel bag or a suitcase. Surely he had one—how else could he have gotten his clothes and things there in the first place? He tried to picture what he had had with him when he moved into the spot, but he didn’t know when that was. His head began to hurt, he stopped. There wasn’t much, anyway. A few changes of clothes, his phone and charger, a toothbrush. Coins. He found a brown duffel underneath the bed and began filling it.
In the pocket of his coat, which had a heavier wobble to its usual swing around the shoulders, he found a large Ziploc bag filled with what looked like cigarette ash. What was this? It made him feel guilty the way a to-do list made him feel guilty: not for what was left to be done, but for what he had forgotten to put on it. That somewhere, deep down, he knew the provenance of this bag was ultimately responsible for his present inability to move at the threshold between his room and the night, guarding the faint belief that if he stood still he could trace the filament of that anemic memory back to its place of origin.
A month earlier, at the cemetery, he had been drunk. The warbling was of the birds, or the rabbi’s prayer; the blinding dazzle was of the sun, or the sun on somebody’s wristwatch; the nausea was of his liver, or the general grief. Someone tried to hand him the shovel, which was going around. But J.C.’s sister intercepted it. “Not family,” she mumbled, and passed it over him.
After the little tributes of dirt had been tossed in, the gravediggers got to the silent and efficient work of filling the hole. Benny teetered on his heels and patted the space between his ribs and his inner jacket pocket, feeling the flask with his knuckles. His pits were sweating—the Montréal summers were getting too hot. The rabbi turned to the small gathering and asked if anyone wanted to say a few words.
“I loved ‘im,” Benny said, just as J.C.’s mother took a performative step forward. Several heads turned his way, eyebrows angled. He hadn’t noticed her. Not a lot of tact there, Benny. Whatever. J.C.’s sister slipped beside him and led him away by the arm, depositing him on a bench a few yards away.
“Why are you here?” she said.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I have a right to be here, same as you.”
“Yet you clearly don’t want to be.”
“And you do?”
He frowned and looked from side to side. “I’m not, not really. It’s a funeral, everyone drinks at a funeral. Mourning and all that.”
She shook her head. “Jesus, Benny.”
“That’s my name,” he said, smiling. He stood and tried sliding his hand along her waist, but she pushed him away.
“The fuck is wrong with you,” she spat, in a whisper.
“It’s been too long,” he said.
She turned to see if anyone had been watching. She was furious. “I told you, never again,” she said. “You can’t seriously . . . ” she trailed off, staring at him in incomprehension. “I ask for some help and you don’t even offer to help pay for the . . . ”
“For the what?” he said. She looked at him, seemed like she might cry, flicked her hand at the thought of him, which disgusted her all over again. After a moment, as if remembering something, she reached into her back and pulled out a Ziploc half full with a gray powder.
“These are for you,” she said, not meeting his eyes which were drifting anyway.
“For me? What?”
“His ashes,” she said, shaking the bag under his nose. He took hold of them.
Benny looked over to the gathering, where the gravediggers were patting the top of the mound with their shovels. He pointed in their direction with a finger he couldn’t quite manage to straighten. “He was cremated?”
“He thought it would be better for the environment than a burial. But when Mom found out she had them do it like this anyhow. Coffin, headstone, everything. Just no body.”
“No . . . body,” Benny repeated, knotting his brow.
J.C. was paranoid like that, about the climate. On long drives during hurricane season, he liked to listen to the news and make note of wind speeds and weather depressions and related data. He had once asked Bossman if they couldn’t get a couple of hybrid vans, or at least do the UPS thing and only take right turns. And on that night about which Benny would later dream, lying splaywise in his apartment, it was a J.C., back-of-the-envelope type calculation that had concluded that, along with saving fuel, burning the writing tables and decorative stools that had once belonged to Austrian Jews or Greeks would be a lesser evil than leaving the engine running, another mystifying conversion that entered the realm of commensurability only after several operations of the mind. Hurt his head to think about.
Whether he remembered it or not, Benny had once been party to J.C.’s decision to go anti-burial. “Think about the embalming fluids,” he said, “when they pump that stuff into you. It’s toxic. Seeps into the soil.” And then the caskets: “Tons and tons of wood varnish, brass and other metals. Every year, all over the place. What, do you think the earth embraces that? Absorbs that?”
“It’s trees,” Benny had said.
They were sitting in the cab of a semi, Benny at the wheel, smoking a joint and looking out on the small hill of a cemetery across the road. They had come out to Hull, MA, for a pick up the size of which, when they considered the size of the truck, wasn’t what surprised them. It was the contiguity of the thing. One big piece: the skeleton of a whale. “You think it’s a blue whale?” Benny had asked, when they loaded it. J.C. hadn’t answered until right then, as they sat in the cab and looked at the gravestones across the road.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said.
“What kind of whale it was.”
“It’s a counterfeit, no doubt. Probably an old one. Why else would Bossman have sent us?”
Benny nodded and sucked in, trying to ghost the last hit of the roach. As he exhaled he pointed to an illuminated patch of the hill, opened up under the clouds, the tombstones black and mottled and stumped at odd angles, as if painted there with a thumb. “Real green, isn’t it. Beautiful.”
“That’s the other thing,” J.C. said. “The amount of water that goes into maintaining a graveyard, a single grave, even. Just unfathomable on a large scale.” Benny flicked the roach out the passenger’s side window, into the ocean. “Better to burn.”
He looked at the bag of ashes, thinking he could use a glass of water. “What am I supposed to do with them?”
“I don’t know. He wrote a note before he went, left it beside the hospital bed. I threw it out, sorry.”
“What did it say?”
“It said to give you these, or . . . give you him…. Anyway, that you’d know what to do with them. ‘Bring them to the spot where you made me a promise,’ it said. ‘You owe me.’ Something like that.” She covered her face with her hands, rubbed her eyes so hard she kinked the retinal nerves. “I don’t know any more than that.”
“That’s fine,” Benny said, squishing the bag with his fingers. He closed his eyes and tried hard to remember what promise he had made. But Benny had long ceased to travel well through the gallery of recollection. Each moment was a car window streaked with rain, or an eyeball glazed over with tears. He couldn’t reach the wobbly forms, whose lines went out like watercolor with the streaking droplets. And they couldn’t reach him. It was like lacking depth perception: you’d grab at something vague around the edges but moving without doubt in your direction, not right at you but right by you, like a train on its track and you, the onlooker, right there to watch it whip past the station, only now you grab for it, or you try to leap in front of it—and miss. It was like always missing, he thought. “Did he mention what spot?” he said, looking up. But she had gone to join the mourners.
The thing about J.C. was that he liked to test people. And it was never about getting them to meet his arbitrary standard—he didn’t really have one. It was about a person’s potential, what they could push themselves to do. He liked finding the limits to each thing and seeing if he might not be the person to push them. When they were kids, tramping around the northern foot of Côte-Des-Neiges, this meant holding the lighter clean and constant over the bowl, waiting to see how high Benny was willing to get, saying that if he picked the grass, he should smoke it, something like that, whatever would get Benny feeling just that little bit inadequate that he’d take a challenge.
But I didn’t pick it, Benny would say, and J.C. would smile and the two of them would hop uphill under the yellow lamps, heading in the vague direction of downtown but not having the money to arrive there. Once, in a fertile winter, the entire parabola of the road was so carpeted with snow that in the early hours of the morning no cars could pass. A silent, immaculate arc passing up and over the mountain, one foot tenderly placed in their neighborhood and the other pointing its toes into the Golden Square Mile. They pinched some cross-country skis from J.C.’s mom and clicked into them at the top of the hill, letting the potential energy carry them all the way down to the Lachine Canal, the city lights and the approach of the pink dawn washing and casting shadows along their ribboned path. It took them hours to get back to J.C.’s place, but Benny had long suspected on nights like these that the distance was the point, that J.C. needed to get away for a while from the drinking and the berating, though some part of him, Benny knew, felt guilty for leaving his sister behind to endure the same. But he wanted to get away from guilt, too.
If they had come up together, long before the business of running, it was because they could play off one another when things were tight, Benny always the straight man by virtue of his astronauticisms, “What”—drawn out, airy, no denser than sponge—being the word that slipped like a cool sphere most easily from his mouth. They were hard times, cold times. Benny’s parents lacked the money, J.C’s lacked the parenting, and they put themselves together like a door hinge, forming all the angles, knuckled onto the same hard pin. And this middle ground, the place where they met and were sutured, became their home and territory, which they carried with them like a tent through years of general social abandon.
The whole thing about running had been J.C.’s idea. When they started drinking for real and scoring the synthetic stuff, he found some small transport jobs for them through his dealer, mostly between grow-ops in the province. It was easy work, and as they had come through a degree in no-college and more often than not found themselves squatting in the empty warehouses of Chabanel, they needed the income. But J.C. could still talk the whole thing up in terms of potential.
“There’s a network of needs and desires in this world,” he would say, “that runs through tunnels, beneath bridges, under cover of night. And it has no plan, no infusion of energy. Wherever there’s a gap in the ordered way of things, there’s a gradient of pressure, of charge. The natural flow of the uncollected, the unorganized souls of the world is into those hollows, servicing the forgotten, the unmeasured. A city grid goes live: what do you see? Tartan. An orange-gold filament, and a blackness. Don’t you see, Benny? There’s a whole universe in that blackness.”
They filled it out, the two of them, slowly, nonlinearly, like a spirograph. But the more they saw, the more J.C. picked up energies that didn’t make sense to him, dark ones, a black light that ran against everything. Counter-matter. And like the canyon opening out, plunging between the trees, a landscape, the negative image of the one they had been sketching, the one they always thought was the true negative, began to form a film over his eyes. The disintegration of the world, drawn in the charcoal of human exhaust. Each line had its counter-line, running into the recordless future. And slowly, through dejected grumblings and obsessive calculations made contrapuntally with the static of an out-of-reach radio, J.C. went grim, no longer saw in lines but in depths. And he brought Benny with him. But Benny didn’t have the equipment for it, meaning he patched things with a flask.
It was getting cold, now, October being the time when the Montréal weather stopped teasing. The landlord wouldn’t even wave back as he passed the motel office and turned right along Décarie. It was a rotten stretch of the city, nothing redeemable about it. An expressway cut like a gash into the earth. And up above, on either side, a sorry array of lamentable structures, brown and grey and vomit-yellow. It flooded badly, once, as if the earth had forgotten that it was no longer farmland, no longer in need of nourishment.
He walked past the Namur metro station, duffel slung over his shoulder, sorely needing a drink. Every few seconds he would feel for the bag in his coat pocket like a debt, partly wishing it would fall out or otherwise disappear. A ways down the road, near Paré, there was a stout little pub with a neon DANSEUSES NUES sign. He knew people there.
Before going in he gave Bossman a ring, hoping he might know about the spot J.C. had mentioned. Maybe a little something about what was owed to him, while he was at it. And it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he could get on another job, after all this time, though he’d never done it solo. If J.C. was there from the beginning, he was also there throughout, and the times they had fixed the engine themselves or found a back way over the border or stayed sober or even just shot the shit were unthinkable without him. And it was J.C. who, in his cryptic talk, could wade past the money and sometimes even the darkness to reach something like the point of it all. “We’re like archivists,” he would say. “Just putting things where they’re meant to go in a library the size of a continent.” Benny could hear him saying so, over the ringing on Bossman’s line. “All the detritus, future and past, of history.” He hung up when he got to voicemail and tried to remember J.C.’s face. He could no longer picture it, but he knew about it: sharp cheekbones and a hollow mouth, thick black eyebrows that would curve in consternation, a soft spot beneath his lower lip, where the hair wouldn’t grow.
Inside, they greeted him warmly. “It’s le Duc!” the barman said, meaning Duc de Lorraine. They liked the easy pun on his name, and often spoke of the bar and its patrons in the terms of French nobility. Regulars were Nobles of the Sword. Drunk college students from the greasy spoon across the expressway were Nobles of the Robe, or worse. He sat down and accepted some vodka.
“Benny, baby,” someone said. It was Emmanuelle, whom he hadn’t seen in, well, a considerable spell. So she was still dancing for cash. Used to be a runner herself, from time to time, but got the teeth kicked out of her, Benny recalled, by some Nazis outside a bar in Bigfork, Montana. Stabbed, too. Lost her duodenum or something. Quit that racket real quick, anyway, got herself a pair of glow-in-the-dark chompers. She slid onto the stool beside his and placed her hand on his back. “Been too long.”
Benny smiled. “I was in here yesterday, Elle. Was you who was missing.”
“Baby,” she said, “you haven’t been here for many nights and many days.”
He thought about it. “Maybe,” he said, finishing his drink. The barman poured another, and Benny took the bag out of his pocket and placed it on the bar.
“What’s that?” Emmanuelle said.
“My god,” she said, putting a hand to her heart. “Already?”
“I heard about that,” the barman said. “I’m sorry, Duc, he was one of a kind.”
“Mhmm,” Benny said. “U-nique. Hey, he ever mention to you about a special spot that he and I went to? Somewhere important?”
The barman thought for a second. “I don’t think so.” Emmanuelle shook her head.
“I’m supposed to bring him—to bring this—somewhere, it’s a debt I owe him.”
“And you don’t know where?” Benny shook his head. They were silent a while as they drank and reflected. Benny clocked about ten other people in the bar.
“You know,” the barman said, “this really reminds me of that time J.C. came in here looking for you. Real worried, too.”
“When was that?” Benny said.
“Oh, way back. He came in here panicked, asking everybody if they’d seen you, said he hadn’t heard from you and was starting to get worried. Said you were meant to start on a job or something earlier that day. I asked him if he wanted a drink, but he said no, that he’d just sit here and wait to see if you’d turn up, knowing you came here almost every night. But you didn’t show up that night.”
“I’m trying to remember,” Benny said. He closed his eyes tight. “Can I get another?” The barman stepped over and poured.
“Anyone ever tell you the secret about what to do with someone’s ashes?” Emmanuelle said.
“It’s a way of… being with the person. Not bringing them back, like. But finding them in their new form. Animism’s not the right word, but something like that.”
“Transubstantiation?” the barman asked.
“I don’t believe in that kind of thing,” Benny said.
“It’s not like that,” Emmanuelle said, taking the bag and opening it carefully. Using her pinky nail, she scooped a small heap of ashes and held it to his mouth. “You just put it on your tongue, let it dissolve.”
He hesitated. “You’ll do it, too?”
“If you want, baby,” she said with a smile. He opened his mouth and received the offering on his tongue. It tasted like peppercorn, and the three of them sat there for a couple of minutes with closed, cavernous mouths, trying to maximize absorption. The barman swallowed and raised his glass:
“To J.C.,” he said. To J.C.! the crowd yelled, sounding like a packed room. Benny turned and saw that the place was full, a hundred people at least.
“How did they get here?” he said. Emmanuelle poured him another drink and rubbed his shoulder, smiling.
“You got any papers?” she said. He could see the prism in his glass, and, beneath it, the long grain of the wood was swimming. He pulled a pack of papers from his pocket and handed it to her; 2.7 seconds passed, and she had a dozen joints laid out on the bar, leaking ash from their open tops. “Where’s the bag?” he said. “Back in your pocket, baby,” she said. He leaned back and was floated to the center of the room, which pulsed and bent with cryptic music. Dozens of hands buoyed him close to the ceiling, where the smoke was curling and gathering. He had the sensation of tipping, falling through the water-logged air of someplace far away from here. His skin was like clothing, and he received the tributary of naked bodies with tongues outstretched. One by one, he reached into the bag with old General Custer’s spoon, pinched from the whole set after dropping it in Atlanta, and decentralized J.C. among the nobles of the city. Somewhere in a booth, with hands all over him, Emmanuelle kissed him, her teeth green and luminous in his eyes, and in the drink she brought to his lips he could see cumulonimbus, the roofscraps of old barns and tornado shelters. And as he accepted it he tasted the red water they had filtered in Moab, saw J.C. in the distance reconstructing a dinosaur from its bones, whispering into its ear: you’re too early. And then the room was sleeping, the floor littered with glistening bodies, Emmanuelle dancing in the back corner to no music, humming Woody Guthrie to herself. This land is your land, you know. At the other end of the bar, fifty yards away, J.C. was writing down data from the Canadian Arctic Weather Science project up in Iqaluit.
“What does it say?” Benny asked.
“Where we’re going,” J.C. said, gesturing to the room in general. “It’s wildfire season in California.”
“But what does it mean?”
J.C. smiled. “That’s the story of Being, baby. That’s what this will tell us. The beginning of the story.”
“But the beginning of that story is long ago.”
“No it isn’t, buddy. Baby buddy. It begins right here, right now, in fact. With this sentence: Being is.”
“Being is what?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You do. You see that little thread? It hangs right there, between subject and predicate.” Benny could see it, the sentence suspended in reverse along the bar mirror. “Being and meaning. No one without the other. The one is the other.”
“Uhhhh huh, sure. Being . . . meaning . . . yeah, sure.”
“That’s right, baby.”
The barman handed him a jar with a thick, black and yellow gas inside. The masking tape label said: BEES OF NORTH AMERICA, and then, when it turned solid and green and brown: SEEDS OF NORTH AMERICA. Bossman was ringing, now, burning a hole in his pocket. Benny got panicky all of a sudden. “Where’s the spot, J.C.?” he asked, shaking the air’s lapels. He saw his friend recede and open his mouth as if to say something, but he had to cover his ears because the ringing was too loud. Before long, he was gone, and it was just Benny, sitting high on a branch above a fire of looted furniture, watching himself and J.C. as they said nothing, huddled together to stay warm.
In the morning, the light passed through a gap in the curtains and landed between his eyes. Benny turned over, could smell the stench of sweat, and saw Emmanuelle and the barman lying beside him. “Elle,” he said, but she just grunted and rolled over, lips parted and teeth charging for the first time in hours, starting to pack that glow all over again. He stood up and ambled over to the kitchen. Emmanuelle’s laptop was open, and when he moved the mouse it awoke to an article about a series of sweeping wildfires out West, and another about off-season tornados in Oklahoma.
He found a moka pot on the stove and some ground beans nearby, and got everything going while he searched her liquor cabinet for something brown. He poured one into the other and looked out the window onto the grey street, speckled with red and orange leaves. He tried to remember how they had gotten to her apartment, what had happened the night before, the motel—and when his mind alighted on the ashes his eyes went wide and he turned to find his duffel and jacket. The latter was slung over a chair, and he shoved his hands into all of the pockets before coming up with an empty bag, frosted with the soot ghost of its contents.
Benny felt the diaphanous plunge of his organs, like cresting a hill on a state road. That he was always a fuck-up, would forever be a fuck-up, clung to him like something sticky. He was shameful, a great shame upon the earth, a drunk with a debt he could never raise himself to pay. He opened the door to the small balcony formed by the fire escape and dropped the bag over the rail, watching it flush through the air of one, two, three, four stories. Oh Christ, Benny, it’s no good no more. If he did it the right way, it would be high enough to deliver him. He thought about J.C.’s sister, tried hard—hurt his skull, even—to remember what he had done to her. But he couldn’t, and he cried and smacked his fist against the rail, and lifted one then two legs over it. Sitting, now, he had only to determine the appropriate angle, to bring certain data about the force available to his palms to bear on the situation.
A hand fell gently on his shoulder. “Benny, baby,” he heard, but only as if from the other end of an underpass. He was already being transported through touch from hand to hand, from this one to its cousin, its mirror image. Below his feet, way down, the Pacific rolled in black peaks and white collars. He was all the way back, right around the beginning. He had never seen mist move so quickly, had never inhaled air so pregnant with water. He could hear the odd car pass behind him, but the lamp was out and they couldn’t see him, anyway. Their motors waxed and waned in his ears, and in the distance he could make out, very faintly, someone calling his name. Benny . . . Benny. He wouldn’t get there in time, couldn’t undo whatever it was that had just happened.
He played it over in his mind: J.C. had told him not to come when they loaded up that time he didn’t like to think about, in Florida or someplace like it, told him to find some diner and wait for him to bring the truck around. But there wasn’t much to figure out; he could hear the noises through the back of the cab. It was something living, something endangered, maybe. A being. In the night, when they slept in their seats outside New Orleans, El Paso, Fresno, he could swear there were more than one in there, many more. He didn’t dare ask, but he refused to drive, kept saying that it wasn’t right, didn’t feel right.
“It’s not our job to think about what’s in there,” J.C. said.
“So try not to.”
“But it’s someone’s job. And what if they’re not thinking about it right?”
“We’re just working the archive, Benny. That’s all.”
Somewhere over the Golden Gate, late in the moon, as they wound through the Marin headlands an animal ran in front of the truck. J.C. hit the brakes, and with the mist hugging the asphalt and the road curving the way it did they entered into a spin, scraping the sloped mountainside and detaching from the trailer, which bounded over the guardrail and, for all they could tell, into the sea, carrying all its life with it. The cab stopped, headlamps smoking, and the fact of not hearing anything through the back of it was deafening. J.C. was looking wide-eyed into the pitch that obscured the water below. “Benny . . . ” he could barely say, dry and wispy through his windpipe. But Benny had already opened the passenger side door and begun to walk, then run, back toward the bridge, keeping his eye on the city lights. It was an impulse, that’s all. The only thing he could think to do now that he had done what he had just done.
By the time he got to where he was now sitting, an hour or so had passed, long enough for him to dwell on what was in that trailer, for the wretchedness to grow thick and impassable inside of him. He had once heard an old man with a yellow beard, the kind of person who called teeth chicklets and snorted coke like he was slaying the demon at the front of his brain, say that you felt freedom in the space between where you jump and where you land. But how could he have known that? And how would Benny be sure if he didn’t jump? There was that old hesitation. Benny turned it all over in his mind for longer than he realized, because the next moment he felt a strong hand draped over his shoulder. “Benny,” he heard.
He didn’t need to be told anymore. He came down without protest, looked J.C. in the eye, and slumped over on the walkway, exhausted, his back against the rail. They slept right there, huddled for warmth all night, the bridge blinking in the fog. In the purple morning J.C. made him promise that he’d never try something like that again, that he’d never hold out his life like that. “We can make up for what happened.”
“How?” Benny said.
J.C. thought for a moment. He seemed to be making it up as he went along.
“One thing can offset the other.”
“I don’t know what you’re thinking, baby, but you’re not gonna do that here.” Emmanuelle had both hands on him now.
“I know,” he said, swinging himself back around. She led him back into the apartment and offered him his drink.
“You want to finish this?”
He shook his head and she tossed it in the sink. “I fucked up bad, Elle,” he said. “The ashes…”
She looked up at him, smiling. “We still got one left,” she said, as she crossed the room and found her bag. She pulled out a joint and handed it to him. He smelled it and was saturated with images from the previous night.
“I gotta go,” he said.
He put on his jacket and some pants from his duffel bag. “I know where the spot is.”
“Oh yeah? Where’s that.”
“Come on baby, just smoke this thing.”
He heard the barman laugh from the bed, where he was sitting up. He was laughing so hard he was almost out of breath when he finally spoke. “You can’t go there.”
“I can’t afford a plane, but I know how to make my way.” He zipped the bag and slung it over his shoulder, feeling like a hero in some film he’d seen long ago, the theatre dark and heavy with red curtains, the popcorn compressed into his back molars, the seat that sank back, way back, all the way to . . . Someone coughed.
“Benny,” Emmanuelle said. She approached him and smoothed a wrinkle in his shirt. “California’s burning, baby.”
And it is.
Ben Libman is a writer in Montreal. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Rambling, and elsewhere. He is currently a PhD candidate in English at Stanford University.