An e-mail invitation makes it clear that a woman is throwing a birthday party for herself. It also mentions A ZILLION HOMEROLLED MAKI, just like that, in all capitals. This seems like a good thing, so we reply simply, gracefully, in lowercase italics: we’ll be there. Saturday night, we drive out of town, heading to a farmhouse, empty handed. Self-conscious about showing up without a gift, already late, we brainstorm excuses: pandas, stuffed pandas, ferocious, more like a pack of rabid wolf-dogs, jumped the fence between yards, devoured our present (giraffe on back porch), attacked us, explains why we’re late, why we’re giftless. But with one quick U-turn, we scratch our panda-battling tale, as airtight as it is, and return to town to buy whatever flowers are left at the co-op market.
The co-op’s the perfect place to find last-minute flowers. But its inclination to offer nonessential horseshit (aromatherapy cure-alls, edible dreamcatchers, organic condoms) means we have to go to another store, a real store, to Johnny’s, the place around the corner that sells everything you need. In this case, all set to down more than our share of a thousand million sushi rolls, Japanese beer is the thing we need—a few big Sapporos will come in handy if the party is slow.
I’ve heard Johnny’s claim to fame thousands of times since coming to town. It’s the place outside of which Raymond Carver was found most mornings waiting to buy a bottle. I don’t mind hearing the story from everyone. I like thinking he’d get there early and wait. I like thinking that Carver’s drinking made him think of this corner grocery store as a militiaman, patrolling the intersection of two main roads, enforcing that part in The Declaration of Independence about the pursuit of happiness. I like the image that pops up each time someone tells the story about him waiting for his bottle: in graduate school, wearing a nearly colorless raincoat like a scientist’s smock, he needs materials for his experiments. He pounds the door. Let’s start the day, dammit! I like how functional he is, how fictional, a poet hurrying well before noon.
But this is just liquor-store lore, a tale told by drunken graduate students in one of the town’s three good bars, about a well-known dead man waiting outside a place removed in time/space coordinates from where we are, around the corner from Johnny’s, at one of those hippie whole-foods markets, among aisles stocked with varieties of organic blue-corn chips, slews of them, bags all shiny and fluffed, arranged on thick wood shelves treated with some non-toxic staining agent: a mix of Alaskan pine sap, New England wasp spit, Paraguayan slug slime, the gelatinous guckiness of rare things decomposed long ago. Each time we come to this place, every morning for coffee and scones, I barely conceal an almost neurotic annoyance with its wares, the way it all reeks of dissatisfaction with what’s typically available. Not that what they have tastes bad or exploits migrant workers or abuses honeybees or does any serious damage to anything other than one’s checking account. Just that they’re offering brands you’ve never heard of, hundreds of them, thousands. And by doing so they’re blowing minds already obliterated by an already too-intense intensity of consumer choice. And what’s worse: buying things at a store like this means you’re one of those people who buys things at a store like this.
Watching the woman I’m with construct a beautiful last-minute birthday bouquet, I stand beside her, silent, imagining a seismograph machine registering my thought-disturbance. The jagged marks on the page, rendered by a coffee-drinking kindergartner with early-onset aggressive disorder, would remind anyone of stalactites, shark teeth, Martian mountain ranges: peaks and troughs soaring and descending.
All this is exacerbated by the simple yet grinding fact that I haven’t smoked a cigarette in a while. With forceps tight to my temples, the Great Obstetrician/Spirit of Nicotine Withdrawal longs to deliver me into the Smoky Night of Addiction Fulfilled. And so, at this moment in the store, watching the bouquet construction, I am all want, all desire.
I must be sated, or I’ll waste everyone here.
Co-op employees are a rag-tag team of liberal fuck-ups, most of whom have slept with the woman I’m with, she who’s taking me to the party tonight. I know it’s not so nice to call them what I’ve called them. It’s totally unnecessary, bad mannered, et cetera. I do not hate them. They’re just people, living, breathing, trying to find a quiet life in an inexpensive Midwestern town. They’re causing no harm, getting by, treading lightly, smiling to shoppers as though whatever organic buildup in their soft skulls broke down long ago into a wonderfully stupefying, pungent sludge.
I reiterate: I do not hate them. Despise may be a better choice of word, in this case, although I guess that’s still a pretty strong one.
Abominate? Loathe? Detest? Scorn?
There are too many choices.
And it’s not like I scroll my mind’s thesaurus for hate synonyms because I’m jealous about their sleeping with the woman I’m with. Only one of them, I think, has slept with the woman I’m with, she who I visit in this town, where she, like Carver, once attended school. Unlike Carver, she’s spent more time shopping at the co-op than waiting for Johnny’s to open, more time denying than entertaining needs, more time settling into THE GOOD THING Carver supposedly sought. But I don’t really want to talk too much about the woman I’m with, or the useless hippie market, or Raymond Fucking Carver.
A handshake is what I want to talk about. How you move through a night, nearly unconscious, then step into a distraction, down a hole, into an anti-wonderland of thinking too much about not enough. In this case, it’s someone you’ve never met who does it. He must be someone you’ve never met because it -- the entranceway, the hole -- needs to be a first impression, and the action, the thing that gets written about, involves a space meant to be waved across, not intended to be stepped through: it’s something that hovers between the two of you like a cloud of gnats. And then this someone extends a hand through this cloud and bows slightly, the weight of his knuckles causing his uppermost parts to droop.
The woman I’m with, who is wonderful, who I will not mention too many things about, arranged a bouquet of flowers: a few lilies, blue ones, something yellow, some white stuff, baby’s breath, maybe. I try to help her arrange it but the forceps-pulling-on-skull thing kicks in and I think that if she is to exert a certain perfectionism here, if her actions are to start taking considerable time, then I will spend this time waiting outside, releasing the tension in my skull with a cigarette. But it’s raining hard. I stepped in a huge puddle getting out of her passenger seat. I don’t remember seeing an awning. (Useless hippie supermarket: no awning to smoke under when it’s raining!) So I wait and watch her arrange the bouquet. The people who come in are young and semi-stylish, in an academic way, mainly couples, graduate students transplanted from the urban to the rural, drawn to an epicenter of fresh and possibly rare produce. There’s something at the co-op emanating shockwaves, attracting them all. Like everything’s organic except for this ultrasonic lure, designed to attract a specific breed, embedded in the cores of their $1.10 apples, hydroponic shitakes, Laotian cilantro, Bulgarian eggplant, Honduran lichees, Thai kumquats. I notice that everyone who comes in stares at me too long: they’ve seen everyone else in town and seeing someone new mesmerizes, or maybe they stare because I’m shaved and scrubbed, wearing my Saturday Best. Whatever’s going on, they wonder who the hell I am, in a nice way, as though the young, stylish, academic couples intent on procuring kumquats are interested in a foursome with me and the woman I’m with, who’s ready to pay for the bouquet.
The cashier, a tall man with an exceedingly well-groomed beard, greets her like he’s the pastor of a flock and he’s picked her out to fuck. He’s behind the counter, smiling. His hips are pulled back so that even from directly in front of him it’s obvious his stonewashed jeans are not sagging, but tight and clinging to buns that are simply too high for your average Midwestern white man. The line of sight of the surveillance mechanism, recessed into the ceiling at a corner, forms a tense hypotenuse between the camera’s eye and the cashier’s ass. He smiles widely and his teeth are long and equine. He asks the woman I’m with for her ID number. She tells him. He says oh right, as though this is something he knew and forgot while she was out east for two weeks with me, and as he enters it he smiles again, or more so, the smile he’s had the whole time rushes to the next level. It’s now unacceptably pleasant. It’s beatific, straight out of Nazareth, the kind of overblown facial response that makes you want to take a hammer to his teeth. After he wraps the flowers in aquamarine tissue paper and ties a silver cord around it and runs a scissor blade along the cord to make it curl, the woman I’m with pays.
As we head to the door, a man in a baseball cap and longish beard, a university sweatshirt, calls out her name -- Alice! -- and she exclaims, literally exclaims -- Jarrett? -- questioning whether he can be the one she’s clearly identified by name, and she repeats the name a few times, even as he shakes his head yes, yes, it’s me.
It turns out I’ve heard a lot about Jarrett. I’ve heard about his extravagant wigs, velvet capes, dainty parasols. I’ve heard about how he’s often seen towering above the campus crowd, thanks to the foot-tall platforms of his silver space-boots. In summertime, he’ll wear homemade clothes. He will go out on the town, to see roots-rocky boys from Chicago drawl high/lonesome standards like they’re Alabama natives, in bikini and boa. He’s flamboyantly sexual. Quick to do anyone in the world. Anything it’s rumored, although he’ll only do the inanimate and the inhuman at small gatherings, in back rooms, for money. Not that he needs it. The grandson of Hollywood aristocracy getting his masters in film-making, Jarrett’s planning to make the jump from Freaky Accessory of Hot Young Movie Stars to something more his own. But now he looks like a lapsed Deadhead, a frat boy just back from Jackson Hole, provisioning a Saturday night before loading the cooler for the following day’s straight shot down the Mississippi to Mardi Gras.
Waiting in line, Jarrett is a few steps behind another guy at the register. Alice introduces me to this guy reaching into his jeans to pay for whatever he’s buying. I am Death, in a long black wool jacket, about ten feet from him, paused a few steps from the exit. Upon introduction, the guy at the register (hair all one-length, grown past furry collar of thrift-store wintercoat, long sideburns down to where jaw would be if face weren’t rounded with beer/cheese fat) interrupts paying the cashier (frilly-haired girl in a belly-revealing, youth-athletics T-shirt) who stares up at me as the guy steps through the space between us, with long strides exaggerated and smooth, extending an open hand across the distance he hasn’t yet covered.
The way he looks at me, it’s like we’re closing a deal, as though we’ve discussed the particulars of a contract, held magnifying glass to small print, consulted legal, and now, after weeks of negotiation, we’re closing something that could yield substantial mutual benefit at the risk of great expense. His eyes are dark ovals, and I swear he’s wearing contacts with pupils contracted in serpentine slits, like the eyes of some devil cat. His hands, when the handshake finally happens, are soft beyond belief. But there’s something else about it. He’s noticed I’m slightly annoyed that he’s forced me to turn my open-handed, Native-American-style hello-gesture into a proper Western-grip handshake, and so, I’m thinking it’s not a deal we’re closing at all. I’m thinking he’s thinking he hates me. Whatever we’ve agreed on, it’s become more of a threat. And if he’s not wearing contacts, then he suffers from an ocular irregularity in which annoyance constricts his pupils until they’re sharp and aggressive.
Alice introduces me to Jarrett, who hangs back and waves, indicating he won’t even try to shake my hand, that I shouldn’t worry, and we smile the smiles of Weird Moments Recognized, holding our palms in the air to prove to one another we’re not holding a weapon, at least not in the hands we’ve held up.
Alice and I exit through automatic doors. She shelters the bouquet beneath her old suede jacket. I run to the car, splash through the puddle I’ve forgotten, and once the door has closed and we’re inside and dry, I yell, “Motherfucker! That guy!”
“What? What?” Alice says.
“What’s he got, cat contacts?”
“I’ve never noticed.”
“How could you never notice?”
“I’ve never noticed his eyes.”
“How could you’ve never noticed his eyes?”
I relate the microanalysis of the handshake. When I get though the part about how much he hates me, she says if he’s with Jarrett on a Saturday night, most likely he’s trying to meet a man to take him away from what must be a very elaborate sexual hell.
“He was just checking you out, seeing what he sees, what he feels in your palm. He’s like that.”
“Like what?” I ask.
“All his senses, he once told me they’re like these translators of unspoken things. He probably fell in love. Was trying to gauge the degree to which you loved him back, which,” she pauses, looking me over, “it seems is not a lot.”
It is not a lot, the degree to which I loved him. As we escape the co-op parking lot and head out of town, the woman I’m with tells me his name.
“Not another Andrew,” I say.
“What could be so wrong with Andrew?”
Showing her a faint scar along my wrist, I tell her an Andrew nearly cut off my hand in an elementary school knife fight. In defense, I sliced up his jeans and most of a calf muscle. A few years later another Andrew got his twelve-year-old chin shattered in a Little League game by a fastball I intentionally threw high-and-tight after he hit two home runs off me. I’d stolen the girlfriend of another in high school, resulting indirectly in nothing more than a “swimming accident” that summer. In college, I’d so excessively ridiculed a white dreadlocked freshman, another Andrew, for going out to Halloween parties as an African native, in grass skirt and black face, that he decided not to return for the second semester.
We forgot the beer.
We're already more than halfway to the party, the woman I’m with easing her Civic down the meandering residential offshoots of the small city’s outskirts, accelerating into straightaways, cutting through mid-winter cornfields, attaining take-off speed, as though we need the momentum to glide through the opening stages of the party.
The farmhouse is not as far out in the cornfields as I’d thought it’d be. I'd imagined a bright oasis in the middle of the night, more remote, a beacon in a frozen lake of shallow snow cover, broken cornstalks breaching the surface here and there. It will sit on the horizon bright like a moonrise we can drive into, and all the light from the party will reveal cars splayed at odd angles across the yard, a wraparound Victorian porch of revelers, all crazed, shooting roman candles at each other, launching potatoes deep into the fields with homemade plumbing-pipe bazookas. But the bulb of the porch light is red. Only a few cars are neatly arranged in a muddy, gravel driveway. It seems we aren’t so late after all. We might even have time to go back to Johnny’s, buy some beer, and salvage what’s left of our lives.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/handshake.html]
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