Ian Stansel

WE'VE GOT TONIGHT

 

OUTSIDE AMANDA COURTENAY’S WAKE, people smoked cigarettes and heaved arms around one another, while Hank Margolis weaved through the cluster, his head down. The sun, high and blinding, washed out the details of the world. After nine hours of air travel (Dublin to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Chicago), and two hours in the company of the body of his ex-girlfriend, Hank’s mind was not right. He moved forward on inertia, and now, turning the final corner to his apartment on Wolcott Avenue, an apartment he hadn’t been to in over four months, he thought he might even fall, not make it those last three blocks. He envisioned his couch, his bed. He hoped, as he had many times since he flew out of O’Hare for Dublin back when the air was springtime cool, that he hadn’t left anything in the fridge to rot.

He could just see his building when he passed a man whom he would have paid any mind had he not, somehow by chance in his woozy, exhausted state, caught a glimpse of the other man’s azure eyes. They were set above taught, high-boned cheeks, and below the brim of a stiff black baseball cap. But the eyes. That was easy.

“Chase,” he said, turning to the man, now past.

The man stopped and looked, those eyes now in the shadow of his cap.

“Hank fucking Margolis,” he said in the lilting North Carolina drawl that thrust a whole history of acquaintance back into the front of Hank’s mind. He was thin, half of what he’d been fifteen years before, back in college when the two of them swung in the same circles, a mere wire hanger beneath a long-sleeve black tee and wide-legged black pants, the sort with buckles dangled from the seams—the sort that Malcolm McLaren, back in the day, would have called bondage trousers.

“I’m standing here, I’m seeing you, but it all seems like a mirage,” Chase said.

“I know just what you mean,” Hank said.

Hank switched his valise to his left hand and extended his right. Chase Bonnay took it and tossed his other arm around Hank’s shoulder. He smelled of cigarettes, sweat, and some- thing pungently chemical. His skin, up close, was blotched red and stippled tiny whiteheads.

“Look at you, man,” Chase said, flicking a finger into the lapel of Hank’s suit jacket. “What’d you just get back from an asshole convention?” His mouth spread into the sly smile that Hank now recalled as a nearly permanent fixture of Chase’s demeanor. He’d been the sort of young man who could insult the biggest, baddest motherfucker at a party and receive only a fresh beer in return. Surely part of it was his accent, which oozed sweetly amidst the Mid- western mumblings of their Indiana college town. He’d brought girls home who, on the surface, shouldn’t have given him a glance. He’d charmed extra half-grades from professors. But now that grin was disrupted by a grill of rot: the teeth behind Chase’s lips were chipped and blackened around the edges, piss yellow everywhere else.

“A wake,” Hank said with a shrug and a note of apology in his voice.

“Oh, well, shit,” Chase said. “Friend?”

Hank nodded.

“Man,” Chase said with two shakes of his head. Then, “You stay around here?”

Hank hesitated. He didn’t know this man anymore, and he looked desperate. But in its fatigued state his mind could not conjure anything but the truth.

“Right here.” He pointed to his building.

“Well, this is fate,” Chase said. “This is God’s will or some shit that I run into you on this spot right here. See, I’m in a little bit of a situation. No, I know, but listen, I’m not asking for money or anything. I’m not a bum, man. You know me.”

“Okay,” Hank said skeptically.

“I just need a couple hours. I need a place to stay for a just a couple hours. You got a couple hours you can spare me? I don’t need anything else. Just a place to sit down and chill for a little bit.”

“You going to tell me why?”

“It’s not that. I’m not on the lam or anything.”

Hank normally would have then excused himself with some story of business begging for attention. Certainly he’d run into old friends before at bars and grocery stores and, like now, on the street, but he’d never had much interest in rekindling the relationships beyond quick hellos and vague catch-ups. The past was the past, and so on. And he’d long since lost any desire to court the brand of squalor with which Chase, based on his appearance, seemed to be intimately attached. As he aged, Hank’s tolerance for crazy and broken plummeted. But it was a strange day already, a day against which Hank had no energy to fight.

“Come on up,” he said.

The air in his apartment was dead—hot and hanging with rank dampness, as if each molecule had been breathed in and out a hundred times already. The shades were down, and with his eyes not yet adjusted from the blinding light outside, the living room was nearly obliterated in his vision. He felt for the entryway light and flipped the switch.

“I’ve been out of town,” Hank said to Chase, who’d come in silently behind him.

There was an austere stillness to this collection of rooms, a silence that was only momentarily broken by the clatter of plastic blinds as Hank yanked the cords, allowing a cascade of light to wash through the windows. With some difficulty, he jerked the window sash up. A burst of air coughed into the room.

Chase sat on the couch, leaned his head back, and worried the brim of his cap. “Let me see if I have anything to drink,” Hank said, though he knew he didn’t; he’d cleaned his kitchen out completely before leaving for Ireland. He hoped he’d at least left some ice in the trays, but found them empty and upside down on their rack. The water spit and hacked from the tap a few moments, and Hank filled two glasses.

“Sorry,” he said, handing a glass of lukewarm water to his old friend. “All I have right now.” Chase drank the entire glass down, a feat that left him breathless. “Where were you?” “Dublin,” Hank said. Then added, “Ireland.”

“Yeah, man,” Chase said. “I’ve heard of it.”

“I’m teaching there for the year. Heading back tomorrow.”

Hank had been invited to teach a series of courses in a program at Trinity College. A year of American Studies. Hank had plodded away in the discipline for nearly a decade before penning a book that had somehow gotten caught up in a tiny breeze within the cultural zeitgeist. Songs of Ourselves: A History of Heartland Rock chronicled the uber-American musical genre that peaked in the mid-80s but still remained—as Hank argued in the book—a touchstone for the nation’s understanding of itself. Springsteen, Mellencamp, Petty, as well as those slightly less known: Lucinda Williams, John Hiatt. The Irish seemed to go wild for this crop of troubadours, and so it seemed natural that Hank was one of the handful of professors invited to participate in the program. And with a stalled follow-up book project—a history of New York’s little-known “No Wave” musical movement (his publisher was not thrilled)—he eagerly accepted the twelve-month distraction.

Hank lowered himself in an armchair across from where Chase sat and they ran through a few general pleasantries of reunion. Hank told Chase a bit about his work, his research. He mentioned briefly a girl he’d begun seeing in Dublin (leaving out the fact that she was sixteen years his junior and a student at Trinity). They revisited old friends and antics, all the while Hank trying to not let his eyes roam too freely over the other man’s ravaged face and teeth.

At Chase’s request, Hank retrieved his book. “Hot shit,” Chase said, perusing the back cover and inside flaps. “Check you out.” Hank rolled his eyes at the thought of his author photo, all blue denim and white cotton. Aping the musicians inside.

Hank excused himself and went to his bedroom, even more stifling than the front room and kitchen. He opened the screenless window, which faced the brick wall of the building next door just two feet away, and leaned his face into the relative cool. He retrieved his iPhone from his pocket and saw no missed calls, no voicemail. He tapped to his email account and found only a message from the literature department chair at Trinity wishing Hank safe travels and condolences on his loss. Hank had offered only cursory details about his abrupt departure, and he figured most of his colleagues would assume it had been a family member who died.

He took another moment to check Facebook and Twitter, but found no messages, no posts, no tweets of interest. He’d been hoping for something from Madeline, the woman—the girl, really—he’d been seeing the past two months. She was not his student; this Hank insisted on repeating to himself in one way or another nearly every time he saw or even thought of her. Yes, she was a student at the university, and no, she was not yet twenty-four (as compared to his thirty-nine), but she was not enrolled in his course and seemed to have zero interest in The Boss’s oeuvre, so there was little chance she would opt into Hank’s upcoming second and final semester. Yet his insistence on the academic legality of the relationship only served to confirm what he certainly already knew. There was a reason why he declined invitations to go out with her and her friends, why most of their dates were spent in bed.

But perhaps he wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. He checked again just to confirm. No messages, no posts, no tweets. When he’d seen her the day before (was it only the day before? two days?) she rubbed the back of his head and cooed sympathetically in the bedroom of his flat. They’d just made love and were still mostly undressed. He’d just told her about Amanda’s death and his need to return to the States.

“You were close then?” she asked.

“We were.”

“When was the last time you saw her?” she said.

“A long time.”

“Like, years?”

“Fifteen, maybe.”

“Fifteen?” She stopped rubbing. No more cooing. “Sorry, I’m just surprised. You’re flying all the way back to America to see a girl you haven’t seen in fifteen years get buried.”

“You don’t understand,” Hank said.

“Tell me,” she said, bringing back a sweeter tone.

“No,” he said. “It’s pointless.” He stood up from the bed, tugged on boxers and a t-shirt. “Why’s that?”

“Because you won’t understand,” he said. “Because you’re a child.” It wasn’t the first time he’d gone after her for her age. His way of pushing her away, not too different from what he’d done to Amanda back in grad school. It was Amanda he thought of when he was with Madeline. He saw her face, the pitying smile for the cliché he’d become: the horndog American prof bedding the student body abroad.

Madeline spun to the other side of the bed and pulled on her underwear. She shouted, “If I’m a child, then you’re a pathetic fucking pedo.” And without another word, she yanked on her jeans and shirt, hooked her Pumas with two fingers, and walked out. So it was no wonder, no surprise, that she hadn’t reached out. His work done, she’d finally lost patience with him.

Hank returned to the living room to find Chase lying across the couch thumbing through his book. “Seger, man,” Chase said without looking up. “Fucking ‘Night Moves,’ right?” Hank went to the kitchen and refilled Chase’s water glass, set it back on the table.

“You should write a book about me, man,” Chase said. “I’m playing music. It’s like throwback techno, you know. The stuff we used to listen to in college. Remember those warehouse parties?”

“I was always more garage than warehouse,” Hank said.

“You know, though. All that’s coming back. Toss in a little old-school house.” He set the book on the floor, sat up, and bobbed his head to imaginary beats. “It’s all coming back. People want to move. Enough of all this sad bastard music. Fucking hipsters playing ukuleles and singing about their beards.”

Chase’s story, when they got to it, was muddled and difficult for Hank to follow. Chase drummed open palms on his knees and the fingers on the coffee table while recalling a labyrinthine knot of people and events. He lived in Chicago at the moment, but at other points had stationed himself in Austin and Portland, in Omaha and Madison. He even, it seemed, if Hank was following, returned to their Indiana college town, where he tended bar and spun records under the name DJ Jesus Fuck. He’d lost his parents within six months of each other. At some point he was robbed at gunpoint. At some point he was jumped and beaten. A multiple points he was arrested. It was impossible to keep a timeline straight, so bestrewn was his monologue with stammering asides, references to stories not yet told and characters not yet introduced, and great leaps back and forth across years. But while the larger story eluded, each individual anecdote offered a small glimpse at the man.

“A couple years ago,” he said, “I got caught trying to heist a Christmas tree. I come out of the Empty Bottle and I’m shit-hammered and there’s this tree place. I haven’t had a Christmas tree in years, man, twenty years probably, and I see them all propped up, man, and I’m like, I want one. You know? So I start climbing the fence but at the top my pants get caught up on the little belt hook thing. Right at the back so I can’t reach it. I twist and turn trying to unhook myself, but nothing doing. I’m stuck, man. So I’m just hanging there, arms crossed, waiting it out. Finally, Chicago’s finest pull up like I knew they would, and they look at me up there and kind of look at each other, and say to me, ‘What are you doing up there, bud?’ Stupid question, right? So I say, ‘I was trying to steal a Christmas tree, the fuck do you think I’m doing up here?’ I was in the can for three months.”

“Three months?” Hank said. “For trying to steal a Christmas tree?”

Chase waved a dismissive hand. “Man, they found some shit on my person.”

“Jesus,” Hank said.

Chase shrugged and said, “Life.”

A negligible breeze came through the window, offering a momentary respite from the heat. But just as quickly, it was gone.

“You want to tell me what’s going on with you? Today, I mean.” Hank said.

Chase leaned back further into the couch, passed a hand across his chapped face. “I’m going in to a facility. Tonight. My aunt lives down in Pilsen—she’s coming to get me but she can’t do it until she’s done with work. Not until like eight o’clock. I got a problem, man. Little this, little that. Mostly crystal, though. Bad shit, man, that shit. You ever? No good. It gets you, man. Gets you down in your core, you know. Eats away at you. I’ve done some shameful things on its behalf. So I’m going in, getting clean. I’ve been staying with a guy but he’s in deeper than me, you know. Needed to get away from that.”

Chase’s confession put an awkward current to the air between them. Neither seemed to know what to say next. Finally, Chase said, “So who was your boy? Cat whose funeral you were at. How’d he go?”

“She,” Hank said.

“Oh,” Chase said. “Fuck.” As if to lose a man was one thing, but for a woman to die was something else entirely. A tragedy.

“It was—” Hank started, then paused. “It was suicide?” His voice formed the statement into a question, an apology. “Nobody said exactly how.”

Chase lay back on the couch, staring at the ceiling. “I tried once,” he said. “Pills. Along with a fifth of Polish vodka. Plastic jug kind. No good, though. Just woke up about a day later covered in puke. Shat myself. Pissed. Nasty business trying to die and living through it.”

Hank marveled at this man’s openness. He seemed to hide nothing. If there was any opacity to him, it was due to his trying to tell everything at once.

“She was my girlfriend in grad school,” Hank said. “This was in Michigan. We lived together.” “Good gal?”

“She was great, yeah. Nice person. Really pretty. Smart. All that. We were pretty good, too. Used to take weekends out at those Michigan beach towns—Holland, Grand Haven. We were broke, but we’d make it happen. Didn’t need much back then.”

Chase watched him with those kind, icy eyes.

“She tried to do herself in twice while we were together. Pills both times. The first time it was like this crazy thing. She was like, ‘I don’t know what I was thinking.’ We treated it more like a weird fluke than anything. Stupid.”

Hank remembers thinking that she was more shaken up by having tried than anything that had made her try in the first place. Not that he knew just what had prompted the act. He supposed he didn’t want to know, and he supposed she understood this. So they didn’t talk much about it. Got on with their lives.

The second time she went into the hospital for a month.

“I cheated on her while she was in there,” Hank said Chase. “Can you believe that? Girlfriend’s in the psych ward and I’m out running after tail like I’m sixteen.”

“Long time ago,” Chase said.

“It’s hard being with someone who’s sick. You start feeling sorry for yourself and getting resentful. You start thinking it’s okay to do whatever you’re doing.”

He left her two months after she got out of the hospital. Those two months felt interminable—endless days and sleepless nights, never knowing what to say, what to do, always wanting something other than what his life was right then. But now he thinks of such a period as nothing. A blip. Things get busy, it can take him two months to read a book.

He recalled the way she sat on their couch, her hands in her lap, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. He held a floppy duffel bag full of clothes in his hand and moved towards the door. Amanda lay on the couch, her face turned to the back. “It’s going to be harder for you,” she said without looking at him, “to love anyone. The longer you go without giving yourself to anyone the harder it will be. And at some point you’re going to realize that it isn’t a choice anymore. You just won’t have it in you anymore.”

Descending the stairs of what had been their building, he felt as if he’d just been cursed, though he understood it was nothing of the sort. He just didn’t like the way she knew him.

He stopped going out. Gave up his friends, his hangouts. He put himself into his work. During this time, Hank flourished as a scholar, bringing home departmental and university- wide awards for both his research and his teaching. In many ways, it was the best time of his life. He had few attachments, his work was rewording and increasingly recognized. Then he was awarded a prestigious post-doc at Princeton. He didn’t even move his furniture. And he didn’t contact Amanda. He just left.

“What do they call that now,” he said, “ghosting? I ghosted.”

“You never saw her again?”

“Not until today.”

Earlier in the day, he’d been surprised at how many people came to Amanda’s wake. Over a hundred, he’d say, just in the hour he was there. He came to her corpse, looked at the makeup- caked face of the woman he’d lived with and abandoned. He thought back to Madeline’s question: why would he come all this way after all this time? And he knew the answer. Because she was dead and she could not need him any longer.

The two men sat in silence for a long time. The light outside peaked and then began to turn slowly towards day’s end. Several times Hank found his thoughts caught between waking and dreaming. One moment he was thinking of Amanda or Madeline, and the next his mind was roaming wildly into nonsense. Whenever he came back to himself, he couldn’t recall just where he’d been. He looked across the room at Chase, still sitting, eyes closed, every once in a while opening them and sipping from the water glass.

After some indeterminate time, Chase sat up agitatedly. Hank’s eyes jolted open. Chase arched his back and rolled his head back and forth. He let out a high-pitched groan. “Starting to get the itch, man. What time is it?”

Hank checked his phone. Nearly eight. Still no messages. No posts. No tweets.

Chase rapped on the coffee table. “This is the bitch of it. Your body wants it so bad. Mind, too.”

“You can hold out,” Hank said.

“Don’t suppose you got any blow.”

Hank apologized.

“You just get so tired without it. Weed?”

“No,” Hank said. “I don’t think you’re supposed to show up at rehab baked anyway.”

Chase smiled, an expression of ease momentarily overcoming his face. “Sure it happens, though, probably more often than not.” He stood and shook out his limbs one by one. He languidly shadowboxed the wall. “I’m telling you, man, you should write a book on me. I got stories. Plus now I’m getting right with the Lord. Figuratively speaking.” “Maybe I will.”

“Bestseller, sure enough, my brother. Everybody’ll be like, no way this dude’s for real. But here I am real as anything. I’d be like, here’s my Twitter handle, hit me up.”

A faint buzzing came from Chase’s heavily hanging pants. He snatched a flip phone from his pocket and read a text. He asked Hank his address and then transcribed it onto the keypad. “On her way, man. Round the corner.” “You did it.”

“Getting’ right.” He clapped his hands twice. “I’m telling you I’m not one for God and all that, but how else can I explain you coming down this street just at that moment?”

“Coincidence.”

“You see it how you want.”

Chase slapped Hank’s hand, hugged him. He said, “You’re a good guy, you know?” “Where are you going to go after treatment?”

“Shit, I always got places to go,” Chase said, but he didn’t sound sure of it. There was a nervousness in his voice and in the way he turned away and started to once again to box the wall. Hank’s mind roamed the rooms of the apartment where they stood, the rooms that would be empty for another eight months. What would that kind of time give this man? Yet he said nothing.

The building was shrouded in shadow by the time Chase ambled down the steps outside Hank’s door and Hank was alone in his apartment. He did not turn on any lights, but settled himself onto the couch, still warm from Chase’s body, and fell quickly asleep swathed in Chicago dusk.

When he woke to a car alarm sounding through the open window, it was just past midnight. Even with such a simple starting point his groggy mind stumbled while calculating the time in Dublin. Too early to call, but he could email or message if he wanted to. He didn’t. He went to the window and considered walking to a bar, fitting in a few drinks before last call, but instead he simply went to his bedroom, stripped, and slid himself between the musty sheets.

Hank flew back to Dublin the next day. The day after that, he broke it off with Madeline at a pub in Temple Bar overlooking the River Liffey. An asshole place to break up with someone, surrounded by raucous, red-cheeked students drunk on beer and youth and beauty, but he knew she wouldn’t be devastated, only angry in a general way. Nothing specific to their relationship. She called him a few names, raising her voice only slightly above the din of the pint bingers. When she seemed done, he apologized once more and left, knowing that she would stay at the pub and roar to friends, who would console her about this romantic inconvenience. With the exception of one afternoon tryst near the end of Hank’s stay in the city, he and Madeline kept away from one another for the remainder of his time in Ireland.

The director of the program assured Hank that his classes had provided invaluable insight into America’s depiction of itself, it’s self-formed mythology, and that he would be welcome back any time the opportunity arose. At the end of his final lecture at Trinity, his students applauded—something that had never happened before—and he was moved to wish that he could remain there, though he knew this was merely a preliminary stage of nostalgia. Before returning home, Hank boarded planes and trains and wandered the circuitous streets of Paris, Berlin, and Venice, speaking little, taking in the sights, a heartland American in the temporary role of the classic European flâneur.

He taught two classes at Northwestern the next fall, and another two in the spring, and was given the impression by the department head that a permanent position might be formed—a thought that simultaneously comforted and terrified him. Feeling too tired and old to continue the transient life, he knew he would apply and would take the job if offered, but some part of him, a not-inconsequential stone nested in his gut, urged him to keep moving.

Hank began dating a woman, Kate, a poet and editor for the local alternative weekly. Just six years his junior, she was nearly age appropriate. Hank felt stupid for wondering if this heralded some significant maturation within him. They ate in restaurants and visited wine bars and watched mostly good movies in their apartments. They spent a late spring weekend in Saugatuck, Michigan with another couple. As he had with Amanda so long ago, they mocked the corny artsiness of the town while simultaneously allowing themselves to become caught up in the spirit of the place enough to buy 3x5 watercolor paintings of sunsets and other souvenirs they would display with some ill-defined measure of irony. But he could not escape the vague surprise he felt each night, when they lay down in bed—sometimes turning to each other and shedding clothes and sometimes not—that they’d made it another day without his finding some reason to end the whole thing. A matter of time, he thought.

They had just finished lunch at a Cuban restaurant in Logan Square when Hank saw Chase. It was summer again, three years since their evening together. Across the street from where Hank and Kate emerged into the sunlight, Chase sat on the sidewalk, his back curled against the brick wall of a café, a small Tupperware container on the ground between his feet.

“I know that guy,” Hank said.

Kate pivoted, looked. “Really? How?”

Hank shook his head, slowly, as if he didn’t quite understand the question.

Kate said, “Do you want to say hi?”

Who would mourn Chase’s passing when he died? Was there a person out there who would initiate the dance of arrangements for our rituals of grief, who would, through whatever enterprising, track down all the names and numbers of his past associates to collect in honor of his memory? The question was depressingly easy to answer.

Only slightly trickier: would someone be there for Hank when the time came? He strode across the street, a honking cab swerving to avoid answering the question prematurely.

Though it would have been difficult to imagine it possible those years before, Chase now looked even worse. The rehab, if he’d made it there at all, had not worked. Clearly. Long, greasy hair now framed his gaunt face. An oversized tank top exposed an emaciated chest.

A warm breeze passed, and Hank felt Kate’s presence at his side. Hank wondered if he had yet, as Amanda had predicted the last time they spoke, lost the capacity to love another person. Or did his rotten little heart have a few beats left in it?

Chase looked up. That old smile alit on his face. Ravaged and decayed, but still that smile remained.

“Okay,” Hank said. “I get it.”


IAN STANSEL is the author of a novel, The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo, and a story collection, Everybody’s Irish, a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction. He teaches creative writing at the University of Louisville.


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