It seems like such a good idea: to tap the tall man on the shoulder, smile up into his open features and say, “We used to be friends, you know. Back in the day. Remember me?”
“I’m sorry, I – ” he starts, and then a recollection. He says a name. I smile and remember this: before others, one must always sit in judgment upon oneself. Claire’s words. It was much later I suspected she had lifted them from one of her books. That peculiar moral — my lighthouse — had been drilled home with the wave of her Pope Finger. Funny how your friends have years on you. Decades, it seems. Things seen, flavors taken, all those roads.
It’s simple. I take him up to the galley-style bedroom with the tall wardrobes, the plush toys and faded posters. The old box bed, hemmed in on three sides by pastel-blue single ply, still creaks in the night. It will surely take our weight.
“Do you mind?” I say, running a finger along the bookcase, from singles to the fat-pack triple gatefolds. He looks at his watch. “Don’t you listen to albums anymore?”
“I don’t have time to listen to anything,” he says. “The kids keep me pretty busy.”
Even so, a selection of long-players scattered on the blankets brings him closer. The art of airbrushed landscapes, angular makeup on the art-nouveau faces of power fantasies, the chrome and blood-red paint on the hood of some interstate charger. That’s the one.
“No-one listens to albums anymore,” I say. “No-one makes albums like they did. Did we stop listening because the form changed, or the other way around? Take this one.”
I hook out the worn triple-fronted anthemic classic and flex the vinyl free. I drop the needle a little heavy. The catching groove reports like a bird strike on a window, but the jump passes. We settle in as the room floods with that long-unheard yet familiar opening static.
“Anticipation,” I say, and close my eyes. The sound becomes a mantra: when something speaks in words understood only by you, listen. When a story is to be told in a way only you can summon, speak.
Track one. The singer’s small town lament beds down with a temulant guitar. In the fade a rolling bass line swells. The runaways are setting their eyes to the stars. One day, they say. One day! It’s her who says, why not today? He who always follows a light.
The brief quiet in the middle eight of track one brings us back.
“Remember all the old places?” I ask him, and more besides. We share those sharp-remembered details — the rust of our early years — and nod in time with the beats.
What is it about these would-be runaways makes them special? Maybe it’s not anything inside them but something on the road. That’s what my these kids are bursting to find out. There’s a downshifting segue into track two.
“So, Claire died,” I say in the gap. Part announcement, part question. I watch for the reaction. He just nods and runs a finger across the LP box. The sense that end was inevitable — like so much else that happened after this old town had sent forth its young — is like a lightning strike in the room. Two kids under the riverside sycamore, riding out a summer storm until diffuse orange light plays on the water. We’re fourteen again. We shouldn’t be there together, its just how it happens when weather and teenage whims set in. The others are waiting by the parkside shelter where we all smoke and the boys peacock for Claire’s amusement. They are so very distant now, but it was real. I didn’t imagine it.
A car horn in front of the house. The day is waning into one of those thin, lifeless evenings. There’s a refrain throughout track three, sung by the erstwhile lovers, and it goes like this: some memories aren’t made so much as waiting to be found.
He is beginning to unwind now. Maybe he glimpses the dream of the runaway road as I once did. We sit on the bed. He places his hands on his lap like he’s in church again. I withdraw with crossed legs but my eyes never leave him.
“And your brother?” he asks at last but I just let the track play out. The town sheriff has pulled the runaways into the roadside dirt. He lectures them on selfishness and to think of all the people left behind in that hickory-smoke town. Can’t live their lives for ‘em! the girl screams.
I just shrug and tap my palm against my knee. I think he gets it. The runaways are tearing up the night, no heed for the storm brewing over the high range ahead. The road lies arrow-straight. Wide. Inevitable.
“Oh, look!” I cry in the scratchy silence before the last of side A. From the top drawer I pull the old notebook: one of the many submissions in furtherment of our middling academic non-achievements. My name, his, and Claire’s on the cover. Handwritten. The Oriflamme, it reads. The front page is a crimson sunburst that I know Claire spent hours on. The three-way project was a combined assault on our History class. Impassioned essays on an outward call-to-arms as only a clutch of preflight young could make.
“The school was going to throw them all away.” I answer his unspoken question, and we speak more on why it should be I save this one book above all the others. An explanation comes in combined recollection: reflected sun beats down on our faces from the white brick gymnasium wall. The mushrooms we harvest from the no-mans-land centre of the athletics field begin to kick in. Our slow redshifting sight picks out a glittering halo around that standard of the king. Claire pours it over with push-pencil and colored chalk. A peal of brass and the thundering beat of war drums only in my ears for a moment. Look at me, I cry inwardly. To me! To arms!
When all that business is done as best as possible — our heads full of sun and forage — we head home to read Vonnegut and listen to Pink Floyd.
“Now there’s a band who knew how to plan your time,” he says. We are both smiling now. Side A hisses to a close. The needle hops in its terminating loop until I lift the head and flip the disc. “Got time?” I ask. I bite my tongue. I never liked Side B so much, but it’s been so long.
He just nods, doesn’t look at his watch. His hand is resting on the notepad as the squeal of the couple’s chariot peals out from the speakers. The cityscape slides and glimmers into view. The runaways have never seen so many lights and it’s because of this that they cannot yet see complexity, just the promise of getting lost and found together.
Track seven is the one about how the runaways begin to feel the sinking gravity of the city. It used to make me rail and scream at the words. How could anyone be so stupid not to see what was going to happen? I asked that of myself once.
The runaways are both blinking through a lifetime of instructions: from the world, from other peoples’ examples, from fictional retellings of much-repeated truths. Obstacles in delivering their dream are deadfalls. Chief among them is not truly knowing what it is they want or need until they arrive at the place, and with the person, that is meant to supply it.
What could be an opportunity to smile becomes a trip hazard. What could have been a tender moment of repair becomes a storm of pettiness and doubt. Each one blames the other for not quite delivering that dream. “If you didn’t want this then why did you come?” the girl cries at her companion. His answer: a squeal of tyres and the sound of her sobbing in the motel parking lot.
That’s how it goes. You hit the road, to find that memory where it waits. And others arrive there too, not to find their own moments but to steal yours away. To make them part of something much smaller. To kill them.
It’s a lesson they both must suffer.
You go, you marry the one who looks like your high school crush. You have a brace of kids, you paint the house, you get insured. And all the time you think it’s wrong somehow. You think, why didn’t we go back to that sycamore and carve our initials in the low bark? Why didn’t we promise to come back one day with a ladder and a new story, and recarve one of those letters to match the other?
And if it wasn’t to be him, then why not someone exactly the same as him in every way? Why couldn’t our runaways have what everyone else in the city had, behind those silhouette blinds and out of the rain? Why is it she walks from shop door to gas station forecourt, waiting for the weather to break?
The answer’s simple. You stay and you die a slow death, or the you go and try to find someone to make it alright. To make you feel like you can live forever, even if you miss by a thousand miles. The old town will still be there and everyone passes back through it at some point.
Or you go and meet someone who does make it right. For a while. From a standing start, behind everyone else. From late in the day you find it in the city: the open door, the flashing neon sign of the cross, the hot food and the welfare blanket.
You find it and you hold it close, and it fucking dies anyway. And you hold it close. You hold it close. Closer and closer and closer –
The record is stuck. Last track. A ball of fluff has gathered on the needlehead. He shifts forward — all the sounds of the world around us like an explosion — and lifts the arm. He cleans the diamond head with surgeon fingers and drops it down again.
The music returns. The story resumes. The living still breathe and the runaways are still going, one heading home and the other heading always the other way. It’s not an ending that rounds out the record so much as a kind of solemn acknowledgement of the road.
“Thanks,” he says as the static folds in. “That was nice, but you know…”
“Yeah. The kids,” I say. “Nice to see you.”
“You too. And, well. I’m here ‘til the weekend.” He smiles.
When he’s gone, I flip the vinyl to side A, wipe clean, and let it run from the start until the whole thing crashes down to silence.
Peter Haynes lives in Birmingham, UK. His work has appeared in a number of print anthologies, on EveryDayFiction.com, and in Hypertext Magazine. He is active in various local writers’ groups and can be found on Twitter @ManOfZinc.