East of town there are fields. And a tree, a lonely barn, two houses in the distance, and the sun changing from a dull glow to a bright pinwheel in the November sky. It’s eight AM on Friday morning and we haven’t yet slept.
“I hate seeing the sunrise before I go to bed,” I say, maneuvering my little car down the gravel road. Gravedigger doesn’t respond. We’ve been seeing a fair number of sunrises lately, so maybe it’s lost that edge for him, that feeling of daylight creeping in and illuminating your life, showing you how the things of the night are really ugly and sad. I don’t know if it could ever lose that feeling for me.
I’ve got a pocket full of small change and a few crumpled dollar bills. In the back seat there’s a plastic sack with my dirty work clothes stuffed in it. Gravedigger’s got at least a hundred, rolled up in the chest pocket of the red chamois cloth shirt he always wears as a jacket.
“Turn here,” Gravedigger says. The rutted driveway rattles my exhaust system till I think it’s going to fall off. The house looks shabby and abandoned, with paint stripping off the clapboards and a yard full of tall, dry grass. The screened porch lists violently to one side. For a minute I’m scared that Gravey’s dragged me out to the hideout of some hardened, murderous criminals or, at very least, a meth lab.
There’s no funny smell in the air as we step up onto the porch and the two guys who come to the door don’t look old enough to be hardened criminals, but I do get a funny feeling that we’re buying our drugs from the living dead. There’s a slightly decomposed, non-oxygen-enriched look to their skin when they step out, squinting, into the daylight. The taller one looks barely old enough to shave and his blue eyes are watery. His friend looks like he’s been sleeping, his bushy brown hair all flattened on one side of his head. Neither of them seems to acknowledge me. They see Gravey, the customer, and me, the girl he’s with. They probably think I’m his girlfriend. Thinking about that makes me smile.
Gravey does what we came to do. He hands over the money and, in return, gets one bag of weed and one small packet of something white. He puts the little packet into his shirt pocket and the bag into the cargo pocket of his pants. Before we can leave we have to seal the deal, so we all smoke a bowl on the saggy couch with the psychedelic polyester tapestry thrown over it. No one talks. I’m too tired to even think. The details of the living room are all jumbled for me. A big TV resting on a stack of milk crates. A black light poster of some giant pink and green mushrooms. A huge glass bong on the coffee table. As Gravey and I walk back out to my car the air outside feels heavy and still.
“I can’t believe you have to work in an hour,” I tell Gravedigger as we rattle back down the driveway. Gravey laughs. His laugh always sounds fake, but it’s not. Heh heh heh. Like that. He pats the right chest pocket of his shirt. The packet of white stuff is in there, close to his heart. I shake my head.
“Tom, you have to admit it was a good night,” Gravey says. “I just can’t believe Jeebus bailed on us at three fucking AM. The guy has the day off, for Christ’s sake.”
“He was just unhappy that the girl he was flirting with at the bar took off without him.” As much as I like hanging out with Jeebus, his flirting habits really get on my nerves.
Gravey laughs. “Yeah. Typical Jeebus.”
We head back to Gravedigger’s apartment. I fall down on the couch, stopping only to take off my shoes and set my cell phone’s alarm to wake me up in three hours, when my shift begins. Gravey disappears into his bedroom and emerges a few minutes later, wearing his greasy old work shoes and looking twitchy.
“See you soon,” he says.
Gravedigger’s apartment is the nexus of activity for almost everyone who works at the Royal Shack Brewery. It’s located directly above the restaurant. Only the installation of a fireman’s pole could make Gravey’s commute to work any quicker. This is convenient for Gravey because he loves the Brewery. He feels that washing dishes there is his life’s work, his calling, in a literal, figurative and utterly spiritual sense. He is a sailor in love with the all-consuming sea that is the Royal Shack Brewery, located in the middle of Main Street in Ames, Iowa, as far from the real sea as you can get.
I don’t share Gravey’s love of restaurant work, but I admire his ability to be content under almost any circumstances. I’m not content with waitressing. No matter how much I love my co-workers, no matter how much I tell myself that the Brewery is the best possible restaurant to be employed at, I can’t shake the feeling that I should be doing something else. I’ve got a college degree in women’s studies that I don’t like to talk about. I’ve been living off tips, paying student loans and sharing a duplex with two snotty grad students for two years now. I’m no one like the person I thought I would be when I started college six years ago. I work and I party with my co-workers and I get up and go to work again. There’s no getting anywhere. And worst of all, I think that I am getting somewhere. I think that if I could just hang around late enough, long enough, get fucked up enough, something new and different and really great will happen.
We’re hiding out back behind the restaurant and Gravedigger is telling me about the conversation he had with his mom on the phone last night. He tells me that his mom is always worried about his spiritual health. She’s always asking if he’s dreaming and projecting positive energy into getting What He Needs and if he’s thinking more seriously about spending time meditating.
“I told her that I meditate all the time,” Gravedigger says. “Only, what I really mean is that I get together with you guys after work and smoke pot and lie out on the balcony, watching the sky and listening to the trains.”
I like thinking about Gravedigger as someone who has a family. Even if his parents are crazy new age fanatics somewhere in Indiana, it makes him seem a little more normal, a little more like me. It makes me smile to imagine him calling his mom, rolling his eyes while she lectures him on what she thinks is important.
“My mom always asks if I’m looking for a real job. Or if I’ve met any nice boys.” I force a laugh and duck my head.
“I guess you won’t meet any nice boys working here,” he says, stubbing out his cigarette on the side of the dumpster. Our eyes meet for a second and we laugh. I don’t want to go back inside. It’s warm in the sun, even with the occasional gust of icy wind, and it’s been a bad day for tips. I’m exhausted to the point of delirium, even after three Cherry Cokes. At the busiest point I only had four tables and it felt like I was swimming between them, forgetting where I was going, only getting the right food and drinks and credit card receipts to the right people because I’ve been waitressing at the Brewery so long that I can do it in my sleep. Literally. At least once a week I dream a whole extra shift into my week, waking up feeling less rested than I would after a night of normal dreams.
Gravey’s been smiling all afternoon, as usual, looking happy and fucked up all at once, like he can’t imagine a better way to spend his Saturday than washing piles of dishes in this jacked-up, sleep-deprived state. Maybe he’s already anticipating Saturday night at his apartment, which is sort of a Brewery tradition. I know I’ll be there, no matter how shitty I feel now. I can’t stay away.
I’m stupid for Gravey and I don’t know if I’ll ever stop being stupid for him, but I’m good at hiding it. When he looks at me it sometimes seems like all he sees is a big blur, a face he vaguely recognizes as human, so he smiles his all-purpose, everything-is-good smile at it. I’m like part of the scenery, gliding by Gravey’s head as he floats through the day. Gravey will never be stupid for me or anybody.
When I get to Gravey’s, half the Brewery is already in the living room. Crisco, one of the prep cooks, is there with his roommate Greg and all the cooks are gathered around them, watching Crisco roll an enormous joint. Jeebus is leaning back deep into the beat-up sofa, still wearing the red-and-white striped polo shirt he wore to work earlier in the day, the one that makes my eyes unfocus if I look at it for too long. His blond hair is spiky and freshly gelled.
People at the Brewery have a thing about names. Only the people with the most unusual names get to keep them. If you’re named John or Joe or Liz, within the first week of starting work there the kitchen crew will rename you as they see fit. Our friend Jeebus’s real name is Mike, but everybody calls him Jeebus McDrunkity now. Crisco is just Steve. My real name is Jen, but at work everyone has taken to calling me Tom Petty, mostly because I have light blond hair that hangs limply around my face, kind of like the real Tom Petty. Gravedigger’s real name is Gravedigger and he gets to keep it. His parents named him after a long-dead and largely unknown blues guitar player from Atlanta.
When Jeebus sees me he waves. “Tom Petty! You made it!”
“Yeah. I took a nap when I got home.” I showered too, and put on mascara, which is the only kind of make-up I bother with and only because my eyelashes are invisible without it. I didn’t use to care about having invisible eyelashes, but lately I’ve felt self-conscious, like I should be trying harder to look like something.
“Nice. Should be a fun night.” He leans in and in a confidential whisper he says, “I invited some of those hot girls who work at the Italian CafÃ©.” When Jeebus says hot, he usually means half-naked and practically underage. I don’t meet his criteria for hot and he’s already been through all the waitresses at the Brewery who do. Now he’s making his way around town.
“Great,” I say sarcastically.
“You’ll like them,” he says. “They’re nice girls.”
Gravey appears from the kitchen, grinning, a beer in one hand and an ashtray in the other. His clothes are clean and he’s wearing his sandals, but his hair looks greasy, poking out from under his Royal Shack Brewery baseball cap in straggly blondish-brown half-hearted curls. I try to memorize that image. The dirty hat, dirty hair. How could someone like that care what I look like?
“You’re here!” Gravey’s smile gets a little bigger. “Come on.” He hustles me and Jeebus into his bedroom, where it smells stuffy, as if he’s been sleeping with the windows shut. He pulls the little packet out of his pocket.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Come on, Tom,” Gravey says. I can’t explain it, but I’m bad at saying no to him. I get around him and I’m like a loose ball of string, ready to be pulled in any direction, unraveled and tangled around household objects. Gravey could probably get me to do anything short of murder, just by looking at me and saying my name.
“All right.” Gravey laughs. He puts one hand on Jeebus’s shoulder and one hand on my shoulder. It feels like there’s electricity shooting down through his fingers. My whole body hums. I watch Jeebus cutting neat lines of coke on the cover of the Sergeant Pepper album that’s always propped up on the top of Gravey’s dresser. I feel far away for a second, realizing that these guys, Jeebus, the former frat boy, and Gravey, who believes his life’s calling is dishwashing and who walks around in a perpetual happy haze which no one can attribute to drugs alone, are probably my two best friends and here we are, doing what we do. It’s a moment of How Did I Get Here? and Is This Really My Life? It passes as I watch them leaning over the record album, inhaling the powder. Then Jeebus hands me the rolled up five dollar bill. I look at Gravey, shrug, and suck up everything that’s left.
Later, with our hearts pounding, Jeebus and I lean our heads out of Gravey’s window, breathing in the damp cool air. Gravey’s gone to play cards with the cooks in the living room.
“Man,” Jeebus says. “Gravey’s a dumb ass, isn’t he? You’re like the best chance he’ll ever get.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Nothing bad.” Jeebus is distracted suddenly, peering down at a group of girls who are tripping across the sidewalk in their heels. The waitresses from the Italian CafÃ©. “Those chicks on the other hand… well…” Jeebus smiles lecherously and pulls his head back in the window. “All right, Tom Petty. I’ll see you.”
“This might help,” Crisco volunteers, pulling a bag from one of his cargo pockets and waving it in my direction. “Did you try this? Brand new stuff. Awesome.”
I smoke with him and Gravey and the cooks, desperately, inhaling so hard that my lungs seem to convulse. Gravey makes eye contact with me once, smiling and absentmindedly shuffling the deck of cards. The room shimmers. Down the hall someone puts some weird ambient music on, one of those CDs where every song is twenty minutes long and has no discernible melody. Pretty much everyone is there, except Maniac O’Riley, the actual owner of the Brewery. He sometimes parties with us, but I think he’s been working on keeping professional distance. Or maybe he has better parties to go to.
Crisco stares into the kitchen, where Jeebus is leaning against the stove and laughing with the CafÃ© girls. Crisco sinks down in his seat and whispers, “Fucking sluts. I hate those girls.”
“I know,” I find myself saying. “Could they be any more naked?”
“Seriously.” Crisco taps the arm of the couch. “They’re not my type at all.” I don’t know what Crisco’s kind of girl would be – I’ve never known him to date anyone – but I don’t ask. I keep talking about the CafÃ© girls. I can’t stop. I don’t even want to be talking about them.
“What, do they spend the whole afternoon doing their hair?” I hear myself saying. “And another two hours on the make-up? They look so cheap. And what gets me is that guys always go for that. What the hell?”
“To be fair, the one with the red hair does have a nice ass,” Crisco says. I’m used to hanging out with the boys and hearing them say things like this. Gravey’s the only one who doesn’t talk like that, but I don’t think it’s out of courtesy on his part, just obliviousness. In a way, it’s flattering to be accepted so completely, to be so thoroughly one of the guys that they’ll say anything to me. On the other hand, it makes me feel invisible and untouchable, like no one would ever consider me girlfriend material, like I’m obviously so scruffy and unfeminine that I don’t even count.
It’s late, though I’m not sure how late. I know I’m starting to come down. I go into the kitchen, where Jeebus and his girls are giggling into their beers. I pop one open too and take one large, bitter sip. I don’t want to be here anymore. It’s the interest in how the night will unfold that usually keeps me at parties and, after nights and nights of partying with my co-workers, I know exactly how the night will unfold. It’s like I’m stuck in a feedback loop. Jeebus will end up in Gravey’s spare bedroom, the one he’s thinking about renting when his lease is up at the end of July. He’ll make out with one or more than one of his girls, maybe sleep with one of them, then pass out. The cooks will drink themselves stumbling drunk, then make their way home, across the railroad tracks to the apartment complexes where they live, leaning on each other the whole way. The waitresses and waiters will get high, flirt with each other and give each other rides home. Gravey will sit on the couch. I will sit near him. We’ll smoke another bowl and I’ll be silent, my eyes getting progressively wider and my thoughts getting progressively slower. When I can pass for sober, I’ll drive home. The streets will be empty and the stoplights all flashing yellow. If I can’t pass for sober, I’ll sleep on Gravey’s couch for a few hours and leave early in the morning while he’s still passed out.
I didn’t grow up here, so it’s not so bad. I’m not as bored and desperate as some of the people I work with. Sometimes I can convince myself that I’m just casual observer, that no matter what bizarre and desperate things go on, it has very little to do with my real life.
This is the worst kind of lie. What is my real life if not this—what is happening to me right here and now?
In the end, Jeebus’s girls take off and Jeebus, looking disappointed, sinks down on the couch with me. Gravedigger puts in a new CD and Jeebus listens to that and stares out the window.
“You tired?” I ask him.
“I feel okay,” he says vaguely. His eyes unfocus and he’s gone, slack-jawed, tapping his foot to the music.
Gravey and I decide to walk down to the Quik-Stop. He’s out of cigarettes and I want Cherry Coke.
“You always want Cherry Coke,” he says, as we stumble the deserted three blocks. “It can’t be healthy.”
“At this point, I think I might just die without it. It’s been a long haul the past forty-eight hours, you have to admit. But at least Cherry Coke is better for you than cigarettes.”
“This is true,” Gravey says slowly. “But you know I’m not a real smoker. I only do it when I’m drinking or working.”
“When are you not drinking or working?” I ask, blowing on my cold hands.
We walk back in silence. I’m gulping from a 20 oz. plastic bottle like it’s a precious life-giving elixir. Gravey stows the pack of Marlboros in his pocket and doesn’t smoke. Both of us are unsteady on our feet and every few steps we brush against each other. I feel good, reenergized. Around us the downtown streets are surreal, with the last of the autumn leaves tumbling noisily over the pavement and all the shop windows dimly lit. I get a feeling that the place that’s always just out of reach is closer than it’s ever been before. It’s the other side of staying up too late, that impossible place you always think you’ll get to if you could get just a little bit more fucked up, drink just a little more, take just a few more drugs. A place that I’ve never been to, but I find myself always moving towards, then pulling back at the last minute, shutting the door, choking down big glasses of water, going to bed.
Back at the apartment Gravey, Jeebus and I climb out the living room window onto the little balcony and smoke a bowl. We all lie down, side by side, pressed close together for warmth, staring at the sky. I feel gravity pressing my body into the cold metal slats. There aren’t any stars visible now. Some light is beginning to leak into the sky as we lie on our backs on the balcony. I hear my friends breathing, slowly, and it seems very peaceful, but I feel that doorway receding, daytime creeping up on us much too quickly.
Jeebus eventually shakes enough of the fuzz from his head that he’s able to stumble the three blocks home to his apartment. We watch him from the living room window.
“Well, I’m gonna go pass out,” Gravey says, shuffling off in the direction of his bedroom. He doesn’t take the time to brush his teeth or hang the Navajo blanket he usually uses to keep the sun out over the window. When I walk by his open door on my way to the bathroom two minutes later, I see him face down on the bed, his feet hanging over the side as though sleep took him before he could even crawl under the covers.
I wash my face and rinse my mouth with cold water. I feel plenty sober and I consider driving home, but the fact that I’ve had less than six hours of sleep in the past two days scares me. The world is starting to look sinister and two-dimensional. I imagine the drive home as a haunted house ride at an amusement part, obstacles on springs popping up in front of my car. I go back into the living room and stretch out on Gravey’s couch. The cushions sag and I immediately roll into the crack. Something stabs me in the arm and I reach in to find someone’s glass pipe, filthy with resin, an orange Bic lighter and two ballpoint pens. In the very deepest part of the crease there’s a crumpled piece of notebook paper. In Gravey’s dark, messy handwriting it says: orange juice. socks. pancake. “Socks” is crossed out in a different color of ink. There’s a terrible deflated feeling in my chest and stomach. I shut my eyes and I know that I’m crashing. Everything is hopeless. This is the sum of all I’ll ever get from Gravedigger. A few lonely daylight hours of trying to sleep in his living room, a handful of junk that’s been lost on the depths of his couch, a cryptic old shopping list, an empty, aching sensation.
Rolling off of Gravey’s saggy couch and gathering my shoes and backpack from the pile of junk by the door, I can’t think of one thing that I want out of life, but I know that I’m starting to feel desperate. I may never know how Gravey can be happy with things the way they are. I’ve tried to do everything that he does and it’s only made me feel worse. Being around him all day long doesn’t help. I can’t get any closer to him or the way that he is. I’m losing.
I leave the apartment, taking the back stairs to the parking lot.
Gravey and I get to work at the same time in the morning. For the first time he’s not smiling. He looks as low and tired as I feel.
“Hungover?” I ask as we time in on the computer behind the bar. Gravey shakes his head.
“Not really awake.” He rubs his eyes. I take a deep breath as I’m tying my apron around my waist.
Twenty minutes later, out by the dumpster, Gravey looks more like himself, smiling placidly and looking out across the pavement.
“This morning I was trying to get out of my bedroom door and I walked right into the wall,” he says.
He coughs and crushes his cigarette under his greasy shoe. “How are you doing?”
“Not so good.”
“Yeah?” Gravey leans back against the dumpster with me, his shoulder bumping mine. “What’s up?”
“I’m quitting,” I say before I can stop myself. “I’ve got to get out of here.”
I’ve just given my two weeks notice to Maniac. It’s almost the end of my shift and the place is dead. Jeebus is bartending and I lean on the bar, watching him attempt to pour beer so that the foam forms a shamrock at the top of the glass. He’s failing miserably and wasting a lot of beer.
“It’s the Greener Pastures Brew,” he explains. “No one orders it anyway. So, did you stay at Gravey’s last night?”
“I drove home awhile after you did. He was passed out.”
“Are you really leaving? Maniac just said you were leaving.”
“Yeah. I just can’t do it anymore.”
“Understandable,” Jeebus says. “You have a new job yet?”
“Hey, maybe I could talk to that girl Darcy, from the Italian CafÃ©. She’s a manager. I know they get insane tips over there, waiting tables. Much better than this old dump.”
“Maybe,” I said.
I do talk to Darcy, a week later at Gravey’s place, as we’re all clustered around the kitchen counter and a wide assortment of half-empty liquor bottles. She says she could use me for dinners and some lunches.
“Okay,” I find myself saying. “That sounds great. I’ll come in on Monday and talk to you guys.” I watch her as she goes off to find Jeebus. Her shiny brown hair floats around her head.
“I can’t believe you’re leaving the Brewery,” Gravey says to me.
“It’s not like you guys will never see me again.”
“Right.” He unscrews the cap on the bottle he’s been hugging to his chest. “Well, let’s do some shots. Time’s a-wasting.”
“Fine,” I hear myself saying. “Lay it on me.”
Three shots of Jim Beam later I’m sitting on the balcony, watching the dual images of Jeebus and Gravedigger shimmer and blur in front of me. Jeebus’s green track jacket seems to be glowing in the dark. Gravey’s Royal Shack baseball hat is casting a dark shadow on his unshaven face. The wind is cold and I pull my sweatshirt hood up to cover my head.
“Darcy’s great,” Jeebus says. “I’m gonna take her out this week, for real. I’m not fucking this one up. Just gonna play it cool.” He takes a deep sip of his beer and looks off down the train tracks.
“Good idea,” Gravey mumbles.
“You know,” Jeebus says, turning to me. “Sometimes I think there’s some sense in being like Gravey here, just not getting involved. I mean, you avoid a lot of shit that way, don’t you?”
Gravey shrugs. “Probably.”
I lean back against the metal railing. “Well, don’t you ever want… well…”
“Sure,” Gravedigger says, taking a swig from the whiskey bottle he’s still holding. “Sometimes. But I’m happy now, you know? Why fuck that up?”
“Oh, man,” Jeebus groans. “I could not be happy without girls. No way. I’d go absolutely fucking crazy.”
Gravey laughs and passes me the bottle. I take a huge burning swallow, looking up at the dark sky. The railroad crossing begins to blare and the tracks hum and rattle and none of us say anything else, we just sit there and watch the freight cars roar by.
I’m inside, standing at the top of the stairs that lead down to the Brewery, just a few feet from Gravey’s open door. I’m leaning against the wall, because I don’t think I can keep my balance any other way. Crisco is leaning against the opposite wall and he’s telling a rambling story that doesn’t make any sense. I see the same look in his eyes that I must have in my own – a blank, wiped-clean look.
“And, dude, I thought that was it,” he says. “I mean, the cops were there, my roommate had all this stuff, I was so out of there…”
I don’t even bother to nod and pretend I’m following along. It’s taking everything I’ve got to stay standing. There’s a beer in my hand and I’m holding the bottle tightly, but I know I shouldn’t drink anymore and the act of bringing the bottle to my lips seems very difficult, nearly impossible. I don’t know how late it is or how many people are still inside. I hear music and voices, but I can’t separate the sounds right, it just sounds like one big wave of noise. I have this trapped feeling that there’s nowhere else to go, that the party ends here and what’s just around the corner is not some mythical other side at all, but rather a big brick wall.
Behind me, in the apartment, I hear someone say my name and when I turn around I step away from the wall, waver and go tumbling over, down the stairs. I see a flash of the wall and some worn-out carpet and I’m out. I don’t feel a thing.
When I wake up someone is holding me much too tightly around the ribs. Jeebus is staring into my face, holding a wad of paper towels against my forehead. I grab his hand and push the paper towels away and then I see that they’re covered in blood. I start swearing and I hear Gravey laughing, very close to my ear.
“It’s all right,” he says. “It’s just a scrape.” He loosens his grip on me and I fall back against him. His body is warm and solid. I feel too tired to move. I try to think of something to say beside unintelligible curse words, but fail. I look down, wondering where I am and I see a pile of wrinkled blankets. We’re sitting on Gravedigger’s bed. I can still hear music playing and people talking out in the living room. Jeebus unties my shoes and throws them on the floor. Gravey lays me down on my side and they leave.
In the morning I‘m alone. I’m in the same position I passed out in, diagonal across Gravey’s bed, and my head is pounding. I stumble down the hall and in the bathroom mirror I see an ugly gouge in the very center of my forehead with streaks of dried blood all around it. My gray sweatshirt is dotted with drops of blood. I wash my face the best I can and then I go out into the living room, where Gravey is sprawled on the couch, completely out, clutching his baseball cap to his face with both hands. I leave.