Friday, November 2, 2007

Papers: an excerpt

I’m standing in an amateur library, watching an extremely wasted physicist discuss the weighty issues of life. This is not the first time I’ve done this. I do it now, eyeing his weed, hoping it’ll be worth the conversation. His name’s Clive; we went to school together. I graduated with an English Bachelor’s, while he went into Physics. Fitting that he’d spend so much time around protractors—his hair is all angles, shaped by years of gel and falling asleep at desks. A joint in already, he’s trying to light a new one, but keeps talking with his hands. I worry those angles of hair will catch fire.

Success. Somehow, the lighter ignites the rolling papers and not the tangle of hair and gel a bit above it. He gestures with his joint, red ash falling to land and gently smolder on a Tribune front page from 1995.

“The point,” he says, eyes hazed by smoke, “is…” He trails off, watching that joint loop in a complicated double-figure eight, which ends back at his lips. The next minute is all inhaling. Clive is insufferable when high.

“Is?” I prompt.

Clive stares at me, nostrils fuming smoke like some very mellow dragon’s. I push back my hair, and his eyes follow the motion. “Is…” he repeats. “Is what?”

“The point,” I dutifully remind him. We’re in his labyrinthine basement, among stacks of the Tribune and Time. The collection goes back decades—were the pages not imbued with the scent of a thousand herbal jazz cigarettes, he could sell it to an archive.

“Oh, yeah, the point is, you’re not doing anything with your time. Neither of us is. Fuck,” he says, as a pile of old news hits the floor. He sinks halfway to his knees, stops, and rises again. “Fuck it. Been three years since college?”

“Four.” I hold out my hand for the joint, but get nothing; Clive’s marching off through the stacks, slamming his hand on one marked ’87.

“Four, fuckin’ four, and I’m here…” he trails off, starts laughing. “Like a goddamn hermit, and you’re working in a bookstore you hate.”

“I don’t hate it,” I say. Irate customers and endless re-shelving call me a liar. “It’s just a job. And you’re not a hermit, you’re a…” I look at Clive. The bent hair, the newspapers, the tan slacks and stained t-shirt. “Okay, you’re a hermit, but you’re a scientist. You’re all like that.” I page through a copy of Popular Mechanics from our junior year at [college]. “Eccentric.”

His eyes dismiss the term. He stumbles past another doomed stack of papers. My eyes catch on the dates in this one—they’re all out of order. He’s got them organized by headline letter. I’ll never understand smart people.

“Dan,” he says, “I’m a sellout. Remember Jerry Schriever?”

I wrack my brain, forcing my thoughts away from the dwindling joint and remembering a chubby man with a 4.0. “The guy you punched?”

Clive glares as menacingly as red eyes allow. “I didn’t punch him, I pushed hi—not my point, okay? You remember him.”

I sigh. “Yes.”

“He’s working on superconductors at Notre Dame right now. Michelle Kurtti’s doing—doing—“ he flails a little, like he can grab the words off his collection. “Important stuff. Everyone else I knew in that class is, is contributing. I’m making sure a test lab at NiTech doesn’t catch fire.” Slowly, he sinks to the basement floor; long-forgotten somethings crunch noisily as he settles. He’s just below the window, bathed in sunset light, staring at nothing and letting smoke rise to mingle with dust.

“Clive?” I ask, crouching beside him. The joint is almost gone.

“I haven’t gotten laid in a year,” he says, but he sounds like he’s happy about it.

No weed is worth this.

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