It was a useless groggy afternoon in November, and two undergraduates were lounging around a diminutive though not altogether unkempt dorm on the UC Berkley campus. There were various useless items strewn about the room, some old Diet Coke cans and folded newspapers, two cot beds, one of whose mattress had been removed, in a mid-term and freshman class in Eastern philosophy-induced stint of anti-materialism, and pushed up against the space, in the room’s corner, between the push-pin tired wall and oatmeal colored carpet. Beside the mattress, its removed frame, a worn and thick dull caramel colored plywood, touching part of its old appendage, comfortably, somewhat resignedly, as an old friend might lean against one’s thigh or calve in sharing a couch square, had been utilized as a makeshift library encasement. There was an old poster hung above the shared mahogany dresser from which a young and particularly equine-nosed young Gregory Peck was paused, as though in an individual sort of eternal torture, in the moment before kissing a tilted-jaw and turtleneck wearing Ingrid Bergman; as the two men in the room worked and dress and ate, he sympathized with their specific pains, their simultaneously sad and brave endeavors, with an austere and vaguely holy flavor of supervision.
At the campus-issued plywood desk, where sat the more attractive, and the darker-featured of the two roommates, a knockoff or time-worn Burberry scarf was caught in a wholly physical arrangement between the chair and the minuscule waffle-knit plane of a long-sleeved thermal shirt-clad back. Opposite this academic furniture, on the wall in which was contained the windows, the Oriental red of a cheaply-framed neighborhood takeout menu beckoned one to gummy brown sauce and lychee-flavored soda as three rows of fourteen men looked out of light eyes and black hair from a frame marked Exeter Academy, Class of ‘76, in which neither of the men were featured, to which neither of the men could claim ownership, by either acquisition or birthright, but which the more intellectual of the roommates had purchased, for no reason outside of want, to hang as a kind of broken relic above his head.
Edwin Murphy, the more intellectual of the roommates and the man in which the Exeter photo had stirred a brief warmth of blood, was polishing a row of loafers with a laundry sponge and a tin of Kiwi shoe polish opposite the open dorm window. It was cold in the room, though the air was somewhat thick with the aftereffect of rain, and the newspaper on which Edwin had lain his loafers beat up mildly against the various shades of leather, chocolate, black, pewter gray, so that little bits of polish were taken up in the fringed part of the newspaper and so little lines from the paper, like those made my twigs in snow, settled in the drying leather.
Across the room Henry Scott, the less intellectual, less handsome roommate, who was a man saved, if not exalted, by a particular rivulted quality of blondeness and a kindness, such as rare in those of moderate to exceptional intelligence, was flattening a copy of the week’s New Yorker, the particular page was one on which a mint-green room was strewn with Scrabble Tiles, as though trying to will, in want of some meaning, or some meaning beyond that which, as was evident in his furrowed blonde brow, his fidgeting sweatpants-clad legs, had preemptively disturbed him.
“Hen,” said Edwin, across the room. Henry and Edwin were moderately intimate friends, having spent four months together as roommates, and there existed between them the kind of comfortable, traditional understanding of mutual circumstance as has existed through all years between all brothers, all classmates, all simultaneous participants of war or of any similar such harrowing experience.
Henry liked Edwin better than Edwin liked Henry, or rather, Henry liked Edwin in a fundamental and human way which was not so much not returned but which was returned with a lesser wholesomeness and with an intellectual fascination to make up the lost space. Edwin liked Henry too, or he was stunned by him, in the way one is affected by a handsome thing, a creation in one way or another triumphant, and it was long thought in the sophomore class that Edwin had liked Henry more than platonically, intellectually reverently, because of the melancholy poem he wrote on the subject of his roommate’s waved hair, on a bit of cement in the quad, outside of the library and the fountain, which had been printed, for its noteworthiness, its responsibility to the truth, in both the literary magazine and the weekly newspaper which was distributed in the metal boxes, and by way of mouth. Theirs was a strange relationship then, fragile in some places, sound as wooden beams in others, so that an afternoon spent between them was a fumbling of sorts, a charade which was not so much the austere movement of little ears tucked with great sweeps of dark brown hair behind blue grosgrain, which was a success at Yale, which was cautious and, too, was neat, but neither was the comfortable understanding in which Edwin’s brother and his girlfriend sat, in leather-sink down, with the latter’s jodhpur-clad legs lain across the others at their monstrosity of a waterfront complex in Maine; it was a compromise of sorts, a meeting of ends; there was in it the allowed brutality, the allowed harsh brunt end of the truth and also the need for buffer, for white Navajo blanket between their interactions, for shared bedside table between their respective rests.
Each loved the other, each respected the other in a way which was not similarly returned, though it was returned equally, so that there was something in their relationship not completely sound, but neither broken. It was only in personal proximity to the two that the dynamic became apparent, of course, and so it was that the homosexual rumors surrounding Edwin’s poem, such a triumphant poem, had died down, the general opinion of the college, or any of their classmate within it, that they were the men in the room McCulloch, 5B, Astor Residence, and that there was a shared satirical bent, a shared miscalculation or exceptional comprehension for life as others existed outside of which accounted for their having the takeout menu to Golden Palace hung beside the hard brilliance of the Murphy Estate mirror, so great a handsomeness, a handsomeness to attest one a handsomeness, which had come to Edwin only after having pinned the UC Berkley gold pin to his graduation robe (a breathtaking, forest satin).
So, Henry liked Edwin and Edwin liked Henry, they said. They were friends. They were content together, contented by one another’s company, and it was only the rare professor’s assistant, the variable bartender who could register unrest where the average of their classmates understood stability. They had similar sympathies, though Edwin’s more tortured, more acute; at last year’s Astor Residence holiday party they had shared a stocking which had read, in crummy glitter point, ‘EdwinHenry’ with the letters melted into one another; they had the same Patagonia fleece vest in the same shade of oatmeal wool.
“Hen,” said Edwin again, rubbing, with some difficulty, a bit of chocolate colored shoe polish into the heel of a particularly ill-balanced loafer.
“What?” said Henry, from across the room.
“Think you’d be reading the paper this time.”
Henry turned in his chair, gestured at the newspapers which Edwin had, in the way a butcher might a cut of cod or a steak, wrapped the mattress atop his cot.
“You told me I could take it.”
“Didn’t say you couldn’t take it.” Henry was smoothing again the magazine paper against the caramel colored plywood of his dorm-issued desk.
Edwin returned to rubbing in the polish; he took up a bit of it on the side of his hand. Noticing this, he ran his hand along a bit of newspaper tucked into his mattress, pulling a pale brown smudge over a column which had featured an article about a new museum in Brooklyn, in some old PS-something-or-other building, because it was the New York Times and the columns gave less space for the rest of the country than they did for the boroughs.
“How is the bottom of the East River doing?” called Henry, across the room, “Or the sidewalks? How are the sidewalks faring? The fire escapes?”
Edwin laughed a short laugh, because he was tired. It was a sharp, brunt laugh, the way a Swiss Army knife is. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Henry, or didn’t like the course of the conversation, but more that he wasn’t still, was disturbed by and preoccupied with the smudges which were materializing in the leather, and that earlier that morning they hadn’t had the coffee table book he’d wanted at the library, the one he’d wanted to have that night so that when Spencer Corrigan’s parents came over he could pretend he was an architectural prodigy or an engineer, so he could fit himself to that false image of a son his parents had formed for him so completely from age 15 that he thought they hadn’t half believed his rejection letter from Michigan, they hadn’t half separated him from the image they had in the kitchen, from when they’d toured the campus, so that for them he would always be somewhat, if not wholly, that eager 17 year old in the portrait, dark-haired, ruddy-nosed, a hunter green windbreaker billowing some outside that gothic library, frigid and unaccustomed, with his California manners, to the cold; he was thinking of the maple donut they hadn’t had that past weekend, that past stint at nine or ten PM when so many pastries, so many glazed cakes, so many dough shapes had gleamed warm in the case, warm against the dingy linoleum and malfunctioning plaid of the metal racks, where it had smelled of grease and had gleamed a color like golden bourbon, and where, despite all this, he had been sad rather than happy.
“What,” said Henry. It was not a question. He had perceived in his roommate this solemn, strange discord, this momentary unrest or frustration. He had seen it before. He had seen it the night he and Edwin had gone to a protest, a sit in, or a sleep-in, at the Cal library, where sleeping bags in various hues of navy, black, forest green, ugly sepia and pumpkin subdued oranges had been pressed up against the book cases, against the tinily-pebbled blue carpet, and someone had spelled a name wrong on a poster-board, which had seemed to him somehow sacrilegious.
“You’re not still thinking about that letter, are you?” Henry set down the magazine. Turned momentarily to look at the dark-haired, inherently thin but then circumstantially thin form of his roommate, who looked sad and handsome polishing his loafers. The room smelled of polish and also of the swim-team bathing suit someone had left on the floor the night before wrapped in the crustacean of a navy and saffron striped towel; it was cold though it was groggy outside, and through the window, as the miniscule fringe of the newspaper, the little texture whipping up at the wind through the window as though in tiny protest, the place where the barcode of the publication was stamped in tiny little bars of varied widths. He was speaking about the letter Edwin had received the week prior, something which had come in a purple letter with the white block lettering of the ‘NYU’ logo on the front, in the corner, which had been a response to his inquiry, the nature of which had remained that week to Henry indeterminate.
Edwin was looking out the window. The little fringe on the newspaper was flapping the little barcode against the drying shoe leather with the mild wind and the top of Edwin’s hair, which had grown some long, was nudged a little too, though his face remained unmoved, focused on the oatmeal knit of the carpet or the signage of the gas station across the street.
“Are you gonna tell me about the letter?” Henry took up the magazine from his desk and relocated to his bed, where he folded his legs up, pulling his knees outward against the mattress, and dropped the magazine in the space of his lap, as though in the basin of a wastebasket where it was to be discarded. “Are we gonna talk about it? Don’t tell me you’re gonna pull that Edwin trash and not talk about it.”
Edwin did not respond, but took up the laundry brush where he had set it down and set to rubbing the hue back into the leather.
“Don’t tell me—”
“Drop it, alright? Drop it.”
“Alright.” Henry unfolded the magazine in his lap. “You’re boring you know that? You’re the most boring motherfucker I’ve ever—” but he dropped it halfway, dropped it because there was in him, though it in no way matched Edwin’s journalistic responsibility, a certain loyalty to truth which others had identified in them common, and he had known it false, too false even for mocking. “I’ve got something for you,” he changed his course.
“You bought me a box of maple donuts from Jasper’s,” Edwin said, not turning, speaking soberly to the wall. “No,” this too, soberly. “The Julia Morgan book that’s been checked out two weeks. The exact one, Hen, with the gold lettering along the spine.”
“An article, you jackass.” Henry let one of his legs down off the bed, caught his nose, the left side of his face momentarily in the Murphy Estate mirror in his movement. “About some internecine conflict. How a language can be lost.”
“Like those mints?” Edwin said, preoccupied with rubbing out the last of the unfinished spots in the chocolate colored of his three sets of loafers.
“What?” said Henry.
“Lost in translation,” this the small indignant spot of leather which would not conform, “like those mints you’re always talking about. Those Altoids from when you were a boy in Seattle that no one ever knows what you’re talking about when you—”
“Not a mint tin, Edwin. A language.”
“Mint tin, language, same difference.” The chocolate loafer had yielded to the kiwi polish on the sponge and so Edwin, feeling mildly amused, mildly dominant in that way one feels after having, even about a small manner, conquered something, forcibly pasted down the flapping triangle end of the newspaper with a book he’d gleaned from his desk, at which point the small noise the newspaper had been making, lapping at the wind, ceased, so that the men understood the sound they had mistaken for the wind itself had been, instead, the papery and barcoded scalloped end of some outdated and time-worn spread of the Wall Street Journal.
“A dead language,” Henry said, smoothing the magazine vehemently over his thigh, “Like Latin, Edwin, but with the symbols gone, too. No one speaks Latin except for emphasis, except for Hemingway in italics, except for the parochial school children, but they can speak it. There are words, still, symbols still to sound it out, should one feel so inclined but here there is nothing. Here every last bit of—”
“Here?” said Edwin. He was wiping his hands on a towel.
“This tribe. This case. A group of people native to California. A group of people, Edwin, whose bodies might be buried right under us, right under this dorm house, right under the crappy linoleum counter of that stupid ramen place you and Spencer are always ranting and raving over all week until you can get your fish-tank noodles in their big plastic containers—”
“Alright what, Edwin? A whole culture of people ground into—”
“Alright it’s 9AM for Chrissake, Hen. Would you lay off a minute while I take a shower? Order my thoughts out of oblivion? You asked me the name of my scotch last night I wouldn’t know it, and here you are—” setting down the hand towel, “lecturing me as to whatever role you seem to mistakenly think I played four hundred years ago in the fate of some indigenous peoples.”
Edwin walked tiredly, but arrogantly to the bathroom, for he recognized the smell in the room, that of newspaper columns time-balanced and made fragile, that of leather and of polish, dense and sharp, which he had somehow leveraged himself victorious over. When he slipped out the door and padded down the hall to the common bathroom at the corridor’s end, in his stupid fleece sleep-socks, Henry heard the slam of the wooden door he knew to be marked ‘gentle bears’ and affixed with a crudely torn out advertisement for Smirnoff’s vodka, because someone had thought it humorous, someone had thought it an altogether welcomed and civilized comment on McNally’s pub, fourth street, to cross out, with black marker, the words in between ‘gentleman’ and ‘bears.’
The first was a sign affixed the door, denoting the sex of the room, ‘gentlemen,’ and the second a paper poster which read ‘go bears,’ but the words in between had been crushed out with that will of Sharpie, that will of brilliant though disturbed and wasted undergraduate, so that the message had been altered to fit the oft-repeated motto of the more indecent of the male half of the sophomore class.
When Edwin returned from the shower it was naked to the waist, with dark hair combed back from the ears, and with a bottle of half-empty Tropicana orange juice clamped in his left hand. When he entered the room he pulled on a pair of boxer shorts and gray fleece sweatpants, a t-shirt, and took down a deeply faceted scotch glass from a little metal tray he and Henry kept underneath Henry’s desk. He poured the remainder of the orange juice into the cup and settled with his new cleanness and his pulp-free through lukewarm drink in a crisscrossed position on his mattress.
“Alright,” he said, when he’d settled, or pushed aside a fleece blanket to make room for his folded legs. “Hit me with it now.”
“I mean,” said Henry, still pouring over the magazine article, though now ensconced at the plywood monstrosity of his desk, “we don’t know anything about them. Not anything. We don’t know how they talked or how they raised their children, or whether they banded themselves together in groups when they went out to accomplish a thing, how we do. We—” Henry paused a minute, as though to consider. There was a draft so he got up and closed the window, a rickety old wooden window, painted thickly in white paint, which closed slowly.
“Think of them,” he said, stepping over the rock of a hardened cinnamon bun or some other indistinguishable dead pastry, Edwin’s just-used towel, still warm from his heat and the steam of the bathroom, “what do we know about them, you or me? What do you think when you hear about them? Think about that. Native Americans. What’s the first thing you—”
“How my dad fed the hummingbirds,” said Edwin. “How we made those headbands out of feathers they bought in packs from the craft store when we made all sorts of things for no reason. Igloos out of sugar cubes. Butter by turning a marble around an emptied jam jar that was supposed to teach us colonial sympathies or some shit like—”
“Or that distant friend from tennis camp whose brother got into Dartmouth for being one-sixteenth Cherokee,” Henry rushed, “Or your fiscally conservative grandfather and how he read you the Hemingway stories about making oatcakes on hot black griddles in the woods. That Gucci add wedged in the bathroom at Stanford as a hand towel, when we went for the water polo game, that looked some like leather skinned from a hunt hanging to dry, because it was dark brown and chestnut—”
“And how,” interrupted Edwin, “it all boils down to nothing, right? How that all boils down to some misconceptions, some Anglicized beliefs or lies, some warped sense of—”
“Exactly,” Henry was frantic now, excited. “Exactly! A language lost altogether, Edwin, crushed into the dirt. A language crushed!” He stood from his bed, pulled on a decrepit pair of dark leather loafers—held together by some combination of a force, willed of the leather, to repay, if in half-trashed, thin, crushed-down service, what had been the latter half of a boyhood, what had been a good nine years or so of loyalty, some by cream colored thread pulled with some expertise about a certain warranty-assured manner through the tiny holes in the leather—and shoved an white baseball cap on his head before rushing, without pause to pick up either his cell phone or his wallet, out the door.
As Edwin watched his roommate go he recognized in his eye that old excitement, that old earnest inertia toward proximity toward life, that very quality which Edwin had pegged in him the first day they’d met, upon discovering their room assignment, and had found a hundred times as worthy, as honest as he had thought it in witnessing it that first cold Sunday. Edwin sat and drank his Tropicana orange juice out of the cut-glass scotch glass, also a possession willed of him in that single extravagant and morally-steadying unloading of artifacts and attitudes which had preoccupied him that weekend after graduation and which had included, in the lot, along with the glasses, some old wallet images to trace his roots back through class portraits, the Murphy mirror, that sense of intellectual entitlement he’d acquired whole-heartedly only then, in that assumption of objects, for before it had seemed naked, had seemed wrong, the familial code of interaction without the familial weight in cups, in soft leather, in brandy decanters and rugs and mirrors of great esteem so that they retained their names, even in that egalitarian, ramen-eating effort of Cal to rub them out, the Murphy mirror, how it would have felt skiing without the puffer coat, without the assurance of the bindings holding one, physically, to the boot and the ski and thus the ground which one intended to traverse.
Edwin watched out the window as he saw the English nose, then just a sliver, the white of the baseball cap he wore for tennis, the messy loafers of his strange and handsome roommate, his once-supposed lover and his always friend, stumble out upon the damp gray of the sidewalk and start maybe for the quad, maybe the student center, maybe some odd dinner as he favored to frequent, probably the library, where he found so often his desired respite.
When Henry returned later, shielding under his shirt a pile of library books, a stack of glossed coffee table stunners and less attractive hard bound volumes, a thing of floppy dog-eared paperbacks from the rain, which made a thud when he proceeded to drop them on his bed, exhausted and unfed from the library, suggesting that they pick up some hamburgers so that he could work without thinking of his stomach, it was then that Edwin understood in him a hunger for finding what had not been provided him, for comprehending that which had squatted low and deep, which had hid away, and thus had evaded, altogether, those more menial or common of investigations of his sort.
* * *
The next week was Thanksgiving and though Edwin and Henry had been gone most of the week, they both had returned the weekend before, on some false pretense of accumulation, though they both understood, and did not speak between them, that their early return to campus was in fact prescribed for the sake of partaking, that Saturday, and as a kind of mid-semester cleansing, a notoriously cheaper, and thus more packed evening at McNally’s down on fourth street, where the owner had made it a tribute, a sort of nod to the more gifted of the country’s undergraduates, or to some sort of vague banker-lamp-lit and sink-down leather couch bedded academia, to offer two-thirds priced hard alcohol from 5PM until sunup, as denoted by the orange and yellow and hot pink and gelatin green colored printer paper signs tacked up about the telephone posts and solicitation boards and the windows of the less elitist of the campus fraternities.
It was Friday evening, early, in room McCulloh 5B, and Edwin was rubbing into the space behind his ears the musky and surely over-priced cologne his brother had bought him and given to him when he’d been home on account of returning to Dublin for school and not wanting to pay the postage on a small bubble-wrapped brown package. Henry was sitting on the floor, struggling with straw and string in a vain attempt to copy in miniature size a Native American boat from instructions in a book; he wore a worn Cal Soccer t-shirt and a sweep of mild frustration across the mouth.
“You done already?” said Edwin, because it was 6PM and he and Henry were supposed to meet some of the other Ascot residents in the common room before heading to McNally’s.
“Hang on.” Henry was leaned over a large coffee-table book with glossy pages, the spine of which read “Rudimentary Basket-Weaving and Boat-Making, 15th anniversary edition.” He snapped a bit of paper-string with his teeth.
“Got the candies?”
Henry snapped another bit of string with his teeth, affixed the end of a bundle of straw to another bundle and curved up the end. “You know,” he said, as he tied together the boat’s end, as he had similarly been saying throughout the evening, “what the Spanish said about the sea lions when they came here? Do you—”
“C’mon.” Edwin picked up his wallet, shrugged a large back of caramel candies in yam or saffron colored cellophane wrappers. “We’re already late.”
“Pavement, Edwin. They said they looked like pavement there were so many of them. Pavement all over the beaches. Have you ever heard of such abundance? Have you—” he was frantically tying the root ends of the boat.
Henry paused, looked up from the floor at Edwin.
“Seen Spencer Corrigan drinking Midleton.”
Henry stood indignantly with his little hand-sized straw boat. “I’m serious, Edwin. There’s so much we don’t know, there’s so much—” pausing, momentarily. “I was talking to Ben, right? I told you that. I was talking to Ben across the couch—he was preparing a drink at the liquor cabinet behind the couch, along the back wall, you know—and you know what he did, Edwin? You know what? ‘What happens he said,’ after I’d been talking to him a while, ‘What happens, Hen, when the last speaker dies? Does the language go to the reeds? Do the sounds go to the dirt? If they tried to reclaim what they’d had would it be like that time we took the subway in for Moscow Mules at the Commodore and found the Commodore closed? Would it be like that day Spencer went to visit his brother at Choate and found his old ski henleys, his stupid cashmere scarf hung over his chair back and waited up all night, called people up through the morning just to find himself holding his brother’s scarf, kneading what little warmth was still in it, what little scent of Burberry Men’s remained and hearing him dead?’”
Edwin put his hand on Henry’s chest, unloading the cumbersome caramel suckers bag. “You need to lighten up. You need a drink or something. A nap. One of those stupid coffee drinks you order that’s all sugar and vodka and hardly any coffee at—”
“I mean, they’re just like us, Hen. Just like us and we don’t know hardly anything about them. Just like us.” Pulling on his baseball cap, shouldering a coat in a wondrous strain of frustration. “Sweat lodges like the places we all keep in Tahoe, jewelry meaning status just like that time I went to Tiffany’s with Lucy Wilmot and she was able to buy her weight in silver because she knew her worth, because she had on her car-keys a hand-embroidered white ‘Y’ for Yale—”
“C’mon already.” Throwing open the door.
“An all-male society just exactly like Skull and Bones—”
Edwin and Henry went down the corridor, down the stairs to the common room where was congregated mass of undergraduates about various seasons of dress. Some wore puffer-coats with hoods, others thermals, yet others loafers with thick white socks and bare legs; Spencer Corrigan wore a thick pale mauve or gray pullover sweater, Cal rugby shorts, a pair of particularly well-worn black flip flops and indecently clipped toenails. He had a laundry-softened fifty dollar bill in his right pocket he was fingering, and had been fingering for twenty minutes or more, in waiting there; knit behind his left ear was a maraschino-red dyed craft-store feather which Henry, within five seconds of recognizing the shampoo smell, the extravagantly wide mouth of his old friend, understood as a kind of personal affront.
“Hey, asshole,” Edwin said to Spencer, wrapping him in a casual hug. Emerging from it he held out, with a large grin, the fifty dollars he’d extracted from his friend’s puffer-coat pocket.
“Funny,” said Spencer, grabbing back his money, taking a little tear in the bill’s pliable corner as he did, which fell the floor, a tiny triangle soon to be trod with anxious feet, a tiny triangle contrasted against the ugly maroon of the campus-issued hard carpeting.
Henry was standing, looking Spencer’s toes.
“What’s his problem?” said Spencer to Edwin.
“Thinks he’s reclaiming a culture or something. Things he can capture something everyone else neglected to; thinks the old transcripts are wrong and the old stories false. You know.” Smiling. “Usual Henry Scott bullshit.”
“Sure.” Laughing. “The usual Henry Scott.”
“The problem with that type of recording,” Henry spoke to Spencer’s unkempt, flip-flop-clad toes, as though reading from a typescript or prompt, “is that the stories are not always complete due to translation differences where meaning can be easily misunderstood.”
“Chill, Hen,” said Spencer, “No one’s asking you for the historical play by play.”
“And no one’s asking you to be here,” said Henry.
“He been like this all week?”
“He just got home tonight. This afternoon,” said Edwin, considering. “I don’t know. Guess we could call Ben and ask him.”
“And stories are stamped out that way,” said Henry, now looking at the McNally’s advertisement which someone had taped to a building support, “like the Williams Sonoma sugar cookies. The ones we made shittily that New Year’s and no one ate without scotch—”
“Henry,” said Edwin, putting a large hand on his roomate’s rigid shoulder. “Hen. Calm down, alright? We’re going to calm down. Mellow night, Hen. Get you a drink.”
“Stamped out like bits of sugar cookie dough—”
“Jesus, Hen.” Edwin clamped down on his shoulder, nodded at Spencer. “C’mon. Let’s go and set him down. Get a booth or something. Row of stools.”
They went on over to McNally’s, a diminutive and somewhat dirty bar tucked between a bookstore and a trendy Asian fusion restaurant; it was filled with leather booths and leather club chairs with brass tack-studded backs and had specials advertised in little stand up menus that sat in what looked to be cheaply or poorly laminated attempts at order; rows of green and clear and ice blue and sapphire and deep brown bottles monopolized the right side of the establishment; a half-extinguished green fluorescent shamrock sign buzzed tiredly in the left front window. The same pink and orange and green posters which had been tacked up around campus were tacked up around the front windows and the telephone posts outside, and inside was already a swath of undergraduates, dressed to varied degrees of formality, already congregated inside around a pool table of less than average appearance.
Edwin and Spencer deposited Henry at a stretch of booth bench, leaving him, as they went to order drinks, between an old Heinz ketchup container and a cup of pre-packaged metal silverware.
When the two men returned it was to the more slumped posture of their friend, channeling what was his palpable anxiety, his palpable circumstantial frustration, into a hideous attempt at weaving made with a white paper napkin. They set before him a drink, a cup of Irish coffee, to which he paid no attention.
“But they don’t hang photographs,” Henry was saying, still knitting his napkin and not any less to the other mahogany side of the booth than to either of his companions, “Maybe they’re less inclined to being recalled, the Ohlone. Maybe—” pausing, stricken, as though by a revelation of medium or large proportion, “There’s as much sacredness to submission as there is to the British language books they distributed, or to the masses sung in Spanish, the masses forced down their throats in Catalan—”
9:00 PM found Edwin Murphy and Spencer Corrigan mildly wasted, Henry Scott mildly disturbed. Where the heat of the coffee had cooled, there was a little floating slice of what had been the heated surface; the room smelled like scotch and bourbon and of hard, cheap vodka. One of Henry’s old professor’s, his history professor from freshman year, had spotted him across the room, across the pool table and the slow-moving, lucid mosh pit, across the beer glasses and bottles, and yet he did not so much as consider venturing across the five or six foot space to speak to him, to pull him from that stricken state in which he was submerged.
He thought Henry looked strange, though he looked handsome, worn though he was obviously clean, for he looked—less out of appearance than out of stance, out of that slumped posture of his over the table, that distant glare settled not on fluorescent Guinness sign or old vodka advertisements but somewhere more far off—reduced to one tenth the man he had been in his freshman history seminar, with a dead culture separating him from his surroundings, from the small-featured female classmate who kept tucking her hair behind her ears, looking at him, doe eyes, thin lips, rose gold dress and all the rest, and who took up instead with a dark haired and thin classmate, a tennis player, whose brown eyes had turned a kind of yellowish olive earlier, when a slash of sun had torn across his features at the bar.
An hour later, after Edwin and Spencer had carried Henry, that is mentally, and Henry had carried them about a manner, that is physically, back to the dorm house, Henry was standing in the grimy cinnamon toothpaste colored tiled stall of the Astor Residence shower, floor 5, watching the shower water matt the dark brown of his leg hair to his calves. Someone was beating on the general door to the bathroom, because he’d locked it, and this someone was yelling, too, though he couldn’t hear it. He heard only sounds through the plywood of the door, through the white plastic of the shower curtain, through the years of comprehension which clouded his attention and thus distanced him from the present. He knew them words and yet he did not listen for their syllables, did not trace, as he so often had before, the Latin in their beginnings.
He was thinking of Edwin, of the wicker magazine rack in their room filled with Wall Street Journal Obituaries, how he had used to love that nature of Edwin’s, his intellectual curiosity, how he’d thought Edwin a Hemingway figure then, a kind of humble god, for having had the simultaneous wherewithal and immorality to have known where to pick life for its marrow, and to have been able to have done it—he’d highlighted them up, used them for names for his fiction, his editorials, extracted from them idiosyncratic hotel names, favorite summer spots, family artifacts, more or less noble traits and careers—how he hadn’t cared when the freshman class had brought his sexuality into question over the poem they all had admired as one admires a great thing done, because he’d respected Edwin about a simple, fraternal manner, but that was gone now, he was thinking, dead, and that he wasn’t going back to that place any sooner than it was coming back to him. He was thinking how he’d brought the miniature Ohlone boat with him, to McNally’s that night, to put out as a truce, an appeasement, with caramel suckers, for the time he’d nabbed a drink or two off the house, but how he’d forgotten, had let, about his disturbia, the boat fall from his hand somewhere along College Avenue. Outside a real estate agency or a bank. Something with columns.
He rubbed a bit of eucalyptus oil between his hands, over his forearms. As he did he was thinking how he’d bought it that past week at the Westchester Mall because it had seemed something they would have had, but that when he’d gone to the Origins store, where he had used to partake in great white mint gumballs from a case, it’d looked different from when he’d been before, because he had a real Barbour coat, because in looking at a thin woman’s legs in jeans he thought of Sloane Murphy, who he’d been with once, instead of something mundane or boyish, and that he wanted to go back, to go back forever, not only then to his boyhood but before, beyond, where he could pound the dirt and know its sound, where people didn’t discuss quantum over curry to get in favor, to get their names as interns or assistants on abstracts, but made balms from leaves and pots from clay.
He understood it had been lost, whatever it had been. He understood that even if he unearthed all the books, if he dug up all the great coffee table books out of all the great libraries of the world, if he went to all the old sites and laid his nose in the earth, it still would be lost to him. He knew that even if he found an old script, a bit of language or symbols which remained, nestled somewhere, the symbols, the words, the language would be incomprehensible, broken, smudged or watered out the way the digits on a paper napkin he had carried home from the Drake Hotel had been that night freshmen year they’d all gone in, had been in the morning, when he’d taken it off his bedside table to read them and found the numbers blurred together in a kind of cruel impressionism so that he was left only with a scrap of the hotel bar, the dark green paper napkin, the smell of leather booths and mahogany wood on his chest, the silver darting of her eyes, the cup of a masculine hand on a knee, as though the napkin itself had been a hallucination wrongly escaped a dream or mistake.
“Stamped out,” he said as he smelled the eucalyptus oil on his skin, as he watched the hair become matted to his calves, as he turned over in his mouth, as though a stick of gum, the bit of redwood bark he’d pulled off a tree on the way to the bar, “like those stupid sugar cookies from Williams Sonoma.” As he stood, the shower water growing lukewarm on his back, listening to the pounding on the door, he tried to fit a different image to the pounding, to the words muddled through the plywood and the shower curtain and the beating of the water on his back and on the tile than that of the frustrated or drunken Astor House resident who surely stood, in flip flops and dark hair, too long in the front, or in an oversized sweater and tortoise shell wayfarers at night, on the other side.
He remembered how he had used to have had diversions in the dark, of the more wholesome kind, how in boyhood he had lied awake, feeling the black room around him, feeling the swirl of the cotton blanket and the sounds of his parents’ entertaining hanging from his back, making his own images to fit the sounds.