The first words Lester Francis Bart heard himself say in a long time were tender and sonofabitch, in that order. The former described chicken, as in not a leg or a thigh or a breast, and the latter was an expletive response to the shock of the sound, which was not in the least bit a tender shock. The waiter looked him up and down before asking him whether he wanted the kid’s portion or the adult’s. You could never be too sure with these older men; sometimes, as their prostates got bigger, their appetites got smaller.
Lester was no dinosaur, but he was far too young to be a Lester. That being said, he was too old to be a James, or a Jason, or a Jake. He was too old for most J names, in fact, and had thought this to himself surprisingly often in the last few months, on nights when he soundlessly tossed and turned. A Paul, he would say to himself, I think I could be a Paul. And that’s how he would drift off. Going from name to name, Baby Benjamin to Youthful Andre to Decrepit Lester, a counting of sheep for the nominally inclined.
A strange life, that’s how he would often describe it to people. My life, it has been a strange one. His house, sandwiched on the border between Philadelphia and New Jersey, had the white fence and the big tree. His parents loved each other moderately, though they were seldom home, and his siblings, all three of them older, all got along well. Lester was a relatively easy child. He hardly cried and ate everything in front of him, except cauliflower, which everyone figured was a totally acceptable aversion. Later in adolescence, once his siblings all flew the coop, he would bounce around relatives’ houses to fill the alone time, going through phases of shadowing Uncle Jim or Cousin Gina, joining their lives for a few months and then moving on. He would figure later on that he was like most boys growing up. Brown hair and green eyes, mid-height; not athletic, but not awkward. Lester flew under the radar for his first twelve years. Then it happened: the strangeness.
Lester was playing stickball with his friends when he hit a line drive far left into his neighbor’s yard. Abiding by the etiquette of you-lose-it-you-find-it, he ambled after the little orb, when suddenly, like a flash of light, a silver-backed greyhound galloped by him. Lester tripped, falling over himself, scraping up his shins. The beast leapt and nabbed the ball, extending like a leopard after prey. In that moment two things happened: Lester, for the first time in his life, felt deja vu, the most powerful sense of it. He was swallowed by the itching comfort of the grass, the warm streak of blood running down his leg, the beast, its beauty, the immensity of nostalgia without the weight of a memory. The second thing was the jolt of a rifle, belonging to the owner of the lawn. The mutt looked right at Lester (he would later swear on this), and, foaming at the mouth, teetered and fell, letting out a sigh as the ball rolled to Lester’s feet. The last thing he heard as he looked up at the farmer, a killer, was this: It’s gonna be forty when it happens. Well, that’s what Lester told people, though it really sounded more like uganda bekayro rabbits.
Doctors would tell Aunt Martha, his I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-mother at the time, that after a few weeks they couldn’t figure out why his hearing wasn’t back. He was far enough away from the blast, in distance, and far enough removed, in time, that everything should have returned to normal. But still, his cells fully vital, his eardrums tuned like snares, Lester Francis Bart couldn’t hear a thing. That is, until the tender – in this case meaning kind, gentle, delicate – age of sixty-five.
Lester blinked twice and muttered the first words that came into his mind. Mellow, softly. Lofty lozenges. Lester. He cringed at the sound of his own name. Doo Wop harmonies emerged from the booth in front of him. Paul, Poppycock. Froth, coffee, frothy coffee. Clap. First, he said it and then he did it. Separately, then at the same time. Lester began to cry, like a fool, in the middle of the goddamn diner. And could you believe his surprise when he realized that all the tears in the world don’t make a single sound. Welp, he said to himself for the first time in a while, almost out of habit, it’s gonna be forty when it happens.
Over the past fifty-three years, Lester hadn’t learned to believe in much. Doctors especially. The less and less they believed him, the harder he found it to believe in them. He spoke with an impediment-free accent, and his auditory faculties were, according to the MRIs and CTs and DVRs, all there. Still (he couldn’t explain it any better than this), his sense of hearing, of outward vibration turning inward, was totally lost. Not a sound left in the jukebox. The church couldn’t save him, any church, and the few psychedelics he’d tried had failed miserably. As they turned themselves inside out for him, bending and snapping and shivering and moaning, Lester believed only in the power of that which he had discovered as a boy. So, initially, when it happened, as deja vu does, in that middle ground between frequent and infrequent, he began to tell himself, It’s gonna be forty when it happens. And somehow that made it all a little less strange.
But, alas, even with the power of that number, forty days came and went, and forty months too. Soon after, forty years flew by. Lester leafed through all things numerological, astrological, and still, he
couldn’t find any logical explanation for what had happened to him or what would. Soon, he lost touch with that phrase, and it was absorbed into the past-future memories of the deja vu that would visit him every so often.
Many people talk about science or spirituality as tugging at the corner on the roll of tape that is Truth, and Lester knew that if that was the case, he was fumbling with a short fingernail to even find the edge. He had been his whole life, twirling the roll around, only seeing clear and never seeing clearly. Sometimes he wondered whether there was any tape at all, and if he found it finally, what he could use it for. But he had nothing else and so, he stuck with it. By the time he heard his order at the diner, he had twelve booklets full of deja vu information, the last ten with details about intensity, time of day, and emotional response. The latest read, “Washing dishes at home | 7PM | Six out of Ten | distress, fear, and hunger”.
In all two thousand six hundred and eighty-three instances he had experienced, there had only been four Ten out of Tens, producing a sensation so gargantuan that Lester became certain there was more to it than coincidence. All were early on in his life. The first was, of course, the culling of the beast, and if Lester had to pick, he would still claim this as the most powerful. The second occasion always seemed an anomaly to Lester. It happened while he was walking down the street. He stepped into an unexpected ditch, twisting his ankle. There was that falling sensation, like missing a stair, but there was more, too.
There was despair, and understanding, and absurdity, a confounding mixture of the three, and he didn’t have a clue where the tape was on that one. The third perfect score occurred when Lester was in college, and he came upon a tango lit dim and blue. It was the year-end recital and he had gotten tickets last minute, since a birthday party for an acquaintance of his was postponed unexpectedly. The tango was the first performance, and Lester had never seen such a gentle battle of wills, such a sad and hopeful war. Even though he couldn’t hear the music, he cried silent tears onto his fifth booklet and left before the next waltz even began. The fourth, and most recent time Lester had felt unequivocally uncoincidental deja vu, in the most trite and predictable way, was when he looked into a pair of eyes for the first time, I mean really looked, and lo and behold, saw them looking right back.
Jean Martha Waldrey, Jeannie for long, thought of herself as sprightly, wry, witty, and strong-willed, and the rest of the world seemed to agree. When Lester asked her out, the first thing she told him was, I’ll think about it, and the second was that she was no goddamn supporting character and was that clear?
Born in the middle of a seven-person household, the daughter of Irish immigrants, Jeannie had to fight for the chicken on her plate as a child, and as a result developed a habit of eating too quickly, to the point where she often felt sick. This is why she ordinarily chose to stay home when Lester went out for dinner; if she was going to feel ill she preferred to do it comfortably. Consequently, at the very same moment Lester heard himself speak for the first time in nearly fifty-five years, Jeannie, six miles away, let out a superhuman belch and went to lie down for a bit in the den.
Growing up, she went to school, and then she went to university, but until she was twenty five years old, Jeannie Waldrey felt as if she was floating through this world. She often found herself awake in the twilight hours, especially when she had to wake up early for church, searching for something to ground her. But her ceiling didn’t have an answer, and apparently neither did God. She called bullshit, unwaveringly. Still, she wore the flowery dress and said her Hail Marys, and then she took the dress off and stuffed it in the drawer. And seven days later, after the heavens and the earth were created, the animals roamed around Eden, and light and dark danced their dance, she would do it all over again. The sabbath. Day of rest.
Jeannie was certain about many things as a child, but none more so than the importance of the public library system. She loved reading, of course, but she was fascinated too with the pure organization of the thing, the universal exchange and ubiquity of information, the comforting smells of the wise old books and the crisp new ones. It was markedly different from everything else dog-eat-dog in her world, and as she watched her father struggle to work, and she watched her mother cook and clean, she built the library into a concrete sanctuary for her mind. So she grew up, and she got a job at a little one, and then a bigger one, and soon enough she was a veritable leading lady, at least in the library community, known for her progressive cataloguing techniques, her innovative groupings, and her embrace of new technology. To boot, she could send shivers down the spines of even the rowdiest of patrons with just a glance.
Say something, Lester said, and for a second Jeannie feared the worst, though for what reason she didn’t exactly know. She folded her arms and stood up from the couch in the den, the dim natural light from the west fast disappearing, and realized suddenly that this was the first time she had ever heard Lester’s voice on the phone. Is everything alright? She couldn’t understand why he was asking her to speak, why he didn’t just use the TTY operator like he usually did when he had something important to tell her. She heard muffled tears on the other end. Jeannie, oh my Jeannie. Your voice...I can... More muffled tears. She gasped. You can hear- you can hear me? All she heard were blubbers. Lester, now darling you’ve just gotten your hearing back, don’t go losing your voice. She was crying now too, and laughing a bit, and she heard the same dance mirrored across the line as she sat back down. What-what happened? A scoff. I don’t...Well I was ordering and I...I’m not qu-quite sure. Jeannie wiped her eyes, and hesitated before she spoke next, thinking about what Lester would think she sounded like. You’re some kind of case study, aren’t you, Les? He laughed and cried harder. I suppose I am, darling. I suppose so.
When Lester got his hearing back, he and Jeannie agreed they needed to do something fresh, serendipitous, and together. Jeannie was the planner and the adventurer of the two. Lester preferred to be on his couch, or in Florida, which seemed to him the proverbial couch of the Eastern United States. Flying frightened him, airports overwhelmed him, and he hated explaining himself everywhere he went. He hated the blank stares and the confusion and the disbelief. Only once in a blue moon would there be an employee who knew how to sign, even if they called in advance, and just the same, their presence always made him feel like an outsider. He could read lips pretty well, sure, when people were conscious and looked straight ahead, but the whole thing was just a miserable ordeal. Even now that he knew no explanation would be necessary, he noticed the hate was ingrained in him, residue that proved itself nearly impossible to scrape off.
She wanted Iceland, he proposed Key West, they settled on Maine. Within an hour, Jeannie found the best flight, and the best spots to hike, given their physical parameters, plus a spacious mountain house to stay at. When she booked the tickets, and went downstairs to tell Lester, she found him in a deja mood, as she called them, reading one of his older journals from college. When Lester was like this, he was nearly impenetrable. Jeannie had found it was easier to just leave him be. She rolls her eyes – rolled? She rolled her eyes and went for a walk.
Jeannie had started listening to these things on her walks, these podcasts they were called. It struck her as funny, that word, but no matter, they fascinated her. She was listening to one about music as she strolled, about how it accesses that same part of the brain as language. An A minor and a Goodbye, they weren’t so different, neurologically at least. She wondered how time factored into all of this, the reason being that time – and she felt weird admitting this – had been schizing out a bit lately, at least ever since Lester called her from the diner. She didn’t know how else to explain it. It was nothing serious, but occasionally she would feel as if things were just all mixing together and shoving the world forwards or backwards. She had seen a doctor about it. He’d claimed anxiety and suggested that it possibly warned of early onset-something.
She disagreed with this, privately. Jeannie retained information like a Rolodex. She couldn’t even count the amount of times coworkers, friends of Lester, classmates in her early school days, had reintroduced themselves to her. It was like that with trivia too, little tidbits that she wished to god-with-a-lowercase-g she could forget. Diagnoses and dates lodged in her brain like popcorn kernels hiding in molars. And even with time moving about this way and that, she hardly ever forgot a thing. Lester was a witness to this fact. When she talked with him about his four big ones, as he called them, she would sometimes pull particulars for him from the stories, helping to unify details, or find disparate ones. She often found herself helping to draw pictures of memories that were not her own.
Jeannie was out walking. Lester was alone in the den with his mouth wide open, his hand on his journal, and his mind a long time ago. A broken spotlight turned the stage a fragmented azure. He didn’t know what castanets sounded like, but he imagined they sounded like restraint, like sexual tension. Like you-know-that-I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know held in the palm of one’s hand. Two dancers approached from either side. They moved slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. Slow, slow quick-quick,
slow. This was the third time Lester had felt it, felt it like this, and he recognized it was no longer a fluke. The feeling of catching something as it is happening, of not knowing whether you’re anticipating what’s to come or it’s anticipating you.
Lester felt it All, nearly fifty years later, and all of the baggage it brought with it. He felt pulsating loss, and melancholy sufferance. He felt depression, apocalyptic mania. Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. His gut and his brain danced a tango of their own. He was so twirled around that he didn’t even get up when the dance was over, and the lights came on, and Jeannie called his name out. He figured it was intermission, and just sat there mouth agape like a dope, with tears welled up in his big green eyes.
It was March in Maine and Lester was cold, really fucking cold. Jeannie wasn’t; she was born in Minnesota, so this was summer weather. For Lester, it was one thing to look up pictures of the landscape, to fantasize about the salt and the sea and the breeze. It was another to be there, to be a popsicle and hear your teeth chattering a drumline inside your head. Jeannie sympathized, but she saw the place, and she saw the company, or the mostly lack thereof, and relaxed into her vacation. And ultimately, because she was so thrilled, Lester’s heart begrudgingly warmed his body.
They had been in Maine for a few hours, and were just now checking into their place, a log-cabin-style one-bedroom home off the highway and slightly up the mountain. It was raining intensely, as if God’s heart had been split in two, and not an inch of blue peeked out over miles of sky-tissues. They went out at nearly five thirty, for the early bird special at a diner nearby. Jeannie figured since it was their first night in Maine, she would accompany her beau to eat, even if she was a bit bloated in public afterwards. Lester ordered fresh lobster, why not splurge a little, right? Jeannie ordered one too. By the time they drove back to their little cabin, the crickets were singing lullabies. God was on the rebound, donning a full moon and hitting the town.
How would water sing if it could? Would it sing the blues? Would the rush of the river be the rhythm? How would ice sing? Sharper? What would be the melody of mist? Jeannie had no way of knowing, but she still thinks – thinked – thought this, half awake-half adrift, as the trees outside her window dripped rainfall onto the sill, drips which freeze into little horns as the night meandered onward. The hours began to schiz a bit again, the present and the past conjoin, and she stays in the same position for such a while that she begins to believe time has lost track of her, which slightly frightened her, but it’s just late, she figured. By morning all traces of the devilish icicles had melted and then refrozen and then melted again, and she still hadn’t caught a wink. As per usual. Meanwhile, straight and silent like a log wearing an eye mask, Lester dreamt of the past.
Lester and Jeannie met when he was twenty-four and she was twenty three, and the spirit of rebellion was in the air. She first made eyes at him in the lobby of the college library. He was standing alone with his hands in his pockets and something in her told her that he could use a friend. He wasn’t bad to look at either. Hey, can I help you find anything? She called it out twice from behind her desk. She received no answer. She waved her hands, then waved them harder. Nothing. She called out once more, a little annoyed, Hey, can I help you find anything?
Someone tapped Lester on the shoulder and pointed at her. Lester looked up and saw the librarian waving her arms like he was on fire. She stopped midwave, rolled her eyes, and began to turn around. Mortified, he ran over to her and began to explain his situation. She put her finger to her lips (at this point they were both causing quite a disturbance) and he quieted down to a whisper. She listened to every word. When he was finished, she said that she was sorry for rolling her eyes. Then, for some reason, that his eyes reminded her of big green pools. He laughed. She apologized again and then began to laugh too, and the two of them went on like that, laughing for some time, amassing glares from nearly every studious patron in the building. When they fell into that intermediate emotional space between hysteria and joy, it hit Lester like a stickball bat to the face, the first time he had ever felt it about a person. When he got home he would mark it in his sixth journal, leaving the emotional response blank.
When they sat down for lunch a week later, and he told her to tell him something interesting, she forgot everything she had ever retained. She looked down, and mustered a hmm...lemme think... followed by a fact about polar bears, which he only read half of on her lips. By the end of their meal, she looked straight ahead, relaxed, felt them pulling towards each other, and that’s all she wrote. It would take Lester until they got married a year later to write about it. In the blank journal space, one single and two coupled words: Awe. History/Future.
When Lester woke up, Jeannie was already sipping a cup of black instant coffee and reading the paper. He shuffled towards her, mouth caked with that sleepy feeling, and kissed her on the cheek, a long kiss. Happy anniversary, sweetheart. Their 40th, a Big Guy. Lester took a huge gulp of orange juice. As he scratched himself and walked back to their room, Jeannie thought, how sweet is he, followed by, wow, we are old. An hour and forty five minutes later (Jeannie thought it was longer), they were both sharp and ready to face the day. Lester, in slacks and a blazer, like some sort of Professor Paul of Linguistics or Sociocultural-whatever. Jeannie, in a long, flowery skirt and a tan blouse, like Janis Joplin at a job interview. They both wore a smirk as they imagined all the other old folks nearby getting ready for their anniversaries, probably. She turned to him and asked, half-joking half-serious (boy, she was feeling off), whether it would finally happen today. It was forty after all. Lester mumbled that he didn’t think so.
They started off with a walk around the park near their cabin, a brisk one, and then it began to rain, lightly. For brunch, because it was a celebration for them both, Lester and Jeannie took out and went back to the cabin, where Jeannie, of course, got a little bloated and had to lie down for a nap. Lester took that time to revisit his third journal, as he tended to do whenever he had any free time.
He would tell everyone who asked that he considered himself a scientist of the stuff, a compiler of research, anecdotal, sure, but also with a definitive method. He learned that part from Jeannie, the method, that was her speciality, she actually won an award, a librarian award, can you imagine that? For her cataloguing! Everything post-Jeannie was so much easier to read, but even the way that she helped him organize the whole thing was, well, it was perfect. So anyway, it was like reading research journals, tracking data that hadn’t been tracked before. And he couldn’t quite do anything yet with the information, in terms of the world, but there was something special, to him at least, about having all of that recorded, and didn’t they think so?
He would read them answering affirmatively, yes of course, and then he would tell them honestly, that being unable to hear, he missed a lot of the world’s goings on a lot of the time. That so much of the world, so much of the small talk and the depth and humor and bullshit and music and politics and breakups and makeups, so much of the world was sonic. He didn’t mean to catastrophize it because there was art and there were closed captions and there were people who he signed with and spoke to and he had Jeannie and so he wasn’t all that lonely or isolated, but sometimes, he felt left out. So with his journal he made his own world, a world of memory-predictions, which made him laugh and cry and think and brought him to a place outside of himself, which wasn’t so bad.
Walking down carmody rd, under dead peach tree, twisted my ankle | 12:30PM | 10/10 | i am trying hard to describe thexperience in detail, hardly write much in these journals at all but this one was a doozy. em prss im pressing ice on my leg i twisted it bad and im in pain while i write this but it was important. i felt it big this time, big rushing in like a lion it was a crazy one and i just sat down and i cried for a while for i dont even know how long. ok so it was ab- out midday and i dropped my right left leg into one of thosehidden ditches they they have near mrs. rosetti’s house, and i thought it was broken for a second but it wasnt it was just throbbing and i could move it but then the throbbing started spreading andpounding my head and i suddenly felt like i was gonna die but not exactly but i had been sitting their there before and maybe i had always been sitting there and maybe i would be forever sitting there. it sounds kinda weird writing it. it was like one of those kicks in the bed, remember that when you read this, and it was like thatbut over a long period of time. very uncomfortable. i started fumbling with my hands and then i started to laugh and then cry like i said and then it was just both and it was so hysterical and i was just holding my leg and laughing and crying like a maniac until mrs. rosetti came out and she gave me a glass of water and asked if i needed anything and i said no i was just having an off day and so she told me to tough it out and to run home. i wasnt much for running at that moment lemme tell you that but i did my best and i got home and now were here. anyway i dont quite much know. it was weird and i hope it doesnt happen like that again it was rather scary and i wonder if im going a little off the rocker. that would be nogood.
At five thirty on the dot, Jeannie and Lester put their nice shoes on and left the house for what would be the last time ever, this time around. Jeannie took her annual capful of dietary supplement with her, and focused her breathing so she would eat more slowly. Time slowed down again and sped up again; each breath felt either like a windstorm or a hummingbird sneeze. Jeannie began to worry about her brain. Do you feel this too? she asked Lester. He shook himself out of the daze he got into while reading his journal, and asked her what she meant. She told him Never mind, and they grasped each other’s rough and calloused hands into the golden hour. Thin strands of Lester’s hair gleamed and swept in the car, and Jeannie wound and wound around the mountain descending lower and lower, until she was sure she had reached below the bottom.
The air was crisp at the bottom, and Jeannie flattens – will flat – flattened(!!) her dress, which shone a muted sunset color, as Lester ran around to her car door and opened it. To onlookers, this act of chivalry was a scene preserved for the ages. To them two, it was as natural as anything else. They swayed with the wind as they walked towards the restaurant, one with two stars on its mantlepiece. Before entering, they looked at each other and Lester listened to the sounds that he hadn’t heard in thirty nine other anniversaries, the most beautiful being the chuckle that urged him into the dining room, saying: you’re holding up the line now, honey, other folks have anniversaries as well.
There seemed to be five other couples in the room with them at the time, but Jeannie and Lester were the Truest one in the place, by a long shot. Something wasn’t quite right, though. The clock ticked backward. No matter, Jeannie said to herself. She smiled. Two of the couples, based on clothing alone, appeared to just be celebrating another random Wednesday. One of the other three was surely celebrating a promotion of some sort; Jeannie said she could tell because the man was much more excited than his wife was and he had the condescension spread all over his face that men often do when they are rewarded for their efforts. Lester lowered his eyes and tried to hold in a big laugh, to moderate success, while Jeannie feigned old-school Hollywood femme fatale. Not I, I tell you! She was doing her best to avoid spiraling, but she had a nagging feeling in her gut. Love, I mean real and true love, is much too comfortable for all that business, don’t you agree darling? He did.
A Bordeaux. They didn’t know why, but they agreed that was the one to go with. Just the sound of it, lips forward stretching towards the future. Not too aggressive, but not a pushover either. And as an appetizer, they ordered fried calamari and the fresh made spinach artichoke dip. The other two couples were, for lack of a better description, quite boring. The nearest one to Lester and Jeannie’s age looked like they were perpetually trying to resolve something, though neither could tell what exactly. Jeannie caught sight of a holster in the husband’s jacket, and she saw the unmarked car parked outside, and her protest days flashed into her mind. He’s a cop, Jeannie whispered, through a mouthful of squid. Hmph, figures, Lester replied, crunching a chip.
For their entrees, Lester ordered the steak, marinated in rosemary herb butter, and Jeannie got the grilled sea bass with a citrus glaze. They were brought out promptly, still piping-hot. The last couple looked to be mid-thirties sweethearts. It was fine, their relationship, good enough for most people to give them a pass, but you could tell they still hadn’t reached the difficulty of the thing. They were at the meat, per say, but the fat hadn’t caramelized yet, there wasn’t enough flavor, and, according to Lester, straightfaced with rosemary butter dribbling down his chin, their dynamic lacked nuance. That drew a single snort from Jeannie, which then drew the attention of the other five couples, who all turned head-first towards them like synchronized swimmers. Yeesh, Jeannie said, as she tucked her napkin into her v-neck. The color of the sauce on her fish nearly exactly matched the color of the lower edge of her dress. As she picked up her fork, and inched it towards her dish, Lester yelped and banged his plate down.
In the corner of the restaurant, silhouetted by the fireplace, sat a silver backed greyhound with old eyes, whose mouth bubbled foam like a fountain. Jeannie gasped. Each of the five couples, synchronized still, jumped out of their chairs. The beast began to growl, low at first. Outside, it began to rain fiercely, and soon the beast and the rain were competing for who could be louder. Suddenly, like a memorial bolt of lightning, Lester flashed back to his childhood, his knee bleeding, chasing the stickball, looking up at the farmer with his soft eyes, the farmer who has just killed the dog, the one who has a message for him that will define the rest of his life. The farmer looks down at his face and says, clear as crystal: You gotta be careful around rabids.
A flash, the dog ran over and leapt, soaring kite-like, gliding, and knocked Jean Martha Waldrey’s citrus-glazed sea bass onto the floor. Barking. Lester up on his feet, Jeannie on hers. The dog, up on its hind legs, faced Jeannie. Everyone faced Jeannie. The man to the left of them, the cop, stood, protectively, in front of his wife and swiftly pulled out his gun and badge. Police, nobody move, everybody stay calm! The beast, on its four legs now, bared its teeth. Jeannie looked over at the police officer and screamed NO!, which jolted Lester away from Jeannie towards the cop, whose eyes were locked on the dog. As Lester jumped towards the gun, the pup tilted its head to the side, first at him, then at the little metal thing, then Jeannie, and then it was off, bolting out of the building and into the drench. Jeannie caught her breath and then, throwing her napkin to the ground, followed suit.
What the hell is wrong with you? the cop yelled. Lester apologetically dusted him off. I hope you two figure out- well, I hope whatever is going on, and again I’m sorry about all of this, very sorry. Lester ambled out into the now-night to search for his wife and the dog. It was hardly raining, more of a sleetish-hailish-snowish fog, and Lester struggled to make anything out clearly. Stumbling forward and backwards, he called out for Jeannie. A bark. Jeannie? Where are you? And there she was, radiant, holding the collar of the beast, and inching it forward slowly. Lester...is this…Lester what’s happening? He saw that she was holding the collar firmly, but he also saw the wriggle, and the little rip forming near the bottom. Jeannie wait! Jeannie be- She couldn’t hear him, or see him. What did you say, Lester where are you? He started running, and as he did, the collar ripped. Lester saw the beast and felt nothing, and the beast saw Jeannie and also felt nothing, so it whimpered off into the night, an anticlimax to rival the best of them. Lester rocketed forward and zipped right past Jeannie. When she turned around, she saw him, dazed, clutching a left ankle that was twisted like an owl’s head, a full one-eighty. His head faced up towards the sky and through the downpour she saw veins swelling on his neck. Jeannie, where are you? She helped him up, there was blood on the outside of his hands. A rosey waterfall fell from his fingertips; tears and rain coupled on his cheeks. Oh, thank God, thank you. Jeannie looked down at Lester and tried to keep it together. Oh darling, God has nothing to do with it. Though this time, she wasn’t totally sure. It’s happening and it’s forty and that has to mean something, she thought to herself. She didn’t know yet that it didn’t mean anything at all; Lester hadn’t had the time nor the memory to tell her.
She walked, he limped, into the nearest door. The Prickly Peach. It was an odd name for whatever it was, a singles’ club, a ballroom, a bar, one of those all-in-one type dives, they supposed. Well, it was a dead zone at least, that was for certain. Jeannie thrashed around with her phone, turning it upside down and right side up with her free arm. The bartender, towel around her neck, approached and spoke like a cool breeze: Cell lines must be down, seems like nobody’s devices are working. She paused, then continued. Not the worst thing in the world though, eh? We got a show lined up tonight, how about you stay for a while? She took the towel off and started wiping down the bar. He seems a little freaked out, she said, pointing to Lester, everything ok? He need a doctor? Jeannie decided to defer to him for a response. Fine, I’m fine, thank you, Lester said blankly. Even in this much pain, he still didn’t trust doctors.
In a booth in The Prickly Peach, Lester Francis Bart, looking for the first time in his life quite tired and Lester-ish (drooped eyes, with an arched back and a hacking cough), told his wife that he wasn’t sure what to make of any of this. But that he wasn’t going crazy right? And she said, No of course not- well, maybe you are, but in any case, I’m with you. And at that, Lester chuckled, and then apologized, and then began to cry, because when he twisted his leg, he didn’t see it coming, and it didn’t see him coming, and there was just, again, there was nothing there. Jeannie tried to think of something, anything, that she had learned in all of her days watching Jeopardy or reading the paper, or listening to the radio, or those pod-what were they? Podcasts? She came up utterly empty-handed. Suddenly, it started, the show The Prickly Peach had lined up. Lester and Jeannie turned to face the stage.
Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. A slim pairing, two dancers, one more masculine than the other, with their head shaved on its right side and chopped short on all the other sides, and the other whose hair flowed like a river, danced a tango around the room. They took turns leading, and moved through the space like spectres, fading in and out of the woodwork, dipping and gliding. The lights dimmed blue. Outside, the air began to frost the glass, and the sleet adopted the rhythm of the indoors. As they passed in and out, and the space began to tighten and loosen, and ebb and flow, Lester let go of three tears from his right eye.
Next to him, Jeannie’s throat seized up, and her face contorted, and a feeling like cymbals calming from a crash diffused from the tip of her scalp down to her toes. And with each step, each exchange of power, each tussle, she felt it a little more. When she thought it would stop, it kept going and going. After a minute, her eyes locked with their feet. She could tell where they would move and her body twitched side to side. In her periphery, she made out Lester, looking at her, knowing? She couldn’t tell, and she couldn’t talk, caught in the paralysis of what she knew to be nothing other than the most powerful input of information she had ever received. She had felt it a few times, at the laundromat, or getting pizza, or lying in bed with Lester, but this was something else entirely. The deja vu to end and begin all others
And, snap, like that, it broke, willfully. The dam between the here and there, the tape that held everything together for the entire duration of Jean Martha Waldrey and Lester Francis Bart, uniquely. Unraveling, it clung to itself and crunched into a sticky ball, the kind that forms when a child takes too much from the roll, which dances from palm to palm for a little, but eventually ends up stuck to the side of a trash bag because no one knows any better place for it. This, this, is what was to become of their everything. Jeannie realized, painstakingly late, that of course it was.
She lets out a laugh and then a sigh. What’s happening? Lester asks a little fearfully and a little hopefully, because he couldn’t not. It’s happening, Lester. Well, it happened. He looks at her like he wanted to understand, but he doesn’t, at least not quite yet. I see it, Lester, it repeats, like you remember, but it’s in the future too. The two dancers float around the room, and the walls burst out towards the Atlantic. The ocean takes on the brass section, and the ice percusses, and the rain handles woodwinds. Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. The fog bows each and every string so beautifully. You don’t know whether you’re predicting it or it’s predicting you because it’s both. And it’s neither.
Like petals fluttering down to rippled puddles, just as it became, the world around Lester and Jeannie begins to break. Listen to me, look at me and listen…listen like you always have. They don’t – they don’t call it a sense of time for nothing. In a booth in The Prickly Peach, Jeannie looked at her husband, and she began to breathe, deeply, and accept. She smiles. What I’m saying is all of this, Lester, this is like a wheel. And it spins and it spins and it spins. And for a second, just a second, you knew that, like I know it now. He just nodded silently. Waits. They clutch each other’s hands, a closely knit pair, and never let go. Her mouth firm, his eyes widening, and she will stare straight ahead into his green pools. Now, as they sat/sit at the precipice of the Universe, everything crumbles.
Nothing says to Nothing, I will show you life in a handful of dust. And so.