storm-king hopeful

 

Daniel Gardner slouched in the dingy padded booth and fiddled with his pint glass. It was almost midnight on a Thursday, and the Cannery had been slowly and steadily filling up with college students and working stiffs looking to start their weekend a night early. Desultory conversation drifted upward and soon filled the spacious barroom; the atmosphere was insouciant and pleasantly sanguine. A bluish light fell over the patrons, causing their pale skin and well-aligned teeth to glow luminously as they laughed, smiled, bandied with one another. On the jukebox at that moment was a song Daniel remembered he enjoyed, a yearning tune from a bygone era of undisguised sentimentality, and he tapped his foot to the beat and sang softly along.

He was feeling downright euphoric. He had taken this trip north to visit his friends, former classmates and housemates from his years at the university. It had been some time since they had all gotten together, and the Cannery was an old haunt of theirs. These were people of distinction and academic acumen—there on Daniel’s right was Horace Huller, who worked as a biologist for the state’s fish and game department; on Horace’s right sat Mallory Piersen, a graduate student at Harvard Law; and sitting opposite these three were Mica Kigali and Angela Mays, both lab techs at a cancer-research institute in Arizona. As always, Daniel was awed by their drive and their varied accomplishments—as well as their vast potential to do more, to do anything at all, really. “Their lives,” Daniel mused to himself, though not unhappily, “arcing so far beyond my menial existence, give me quite the vicarious thrill—this is why I enjoy their company.” In their presence he felt intellectually depauperate and shiftless, but on this night it did not bother him one bit. It was the height of summer and he was drunk and the exquisite Mica Kigali was sitting across the table from him, her cheeks flushed and her green eyes shining from the stout they shared from a pitcher. Daniel had been fantasizing about this visit for months, knowing she would be there; he wanted somehow to speak to her without overture, to express to her the import of her presence here to him. Mica turned to him then, smiling, and Daniel, realizing he had been staring rather intently, quickly looked down at his hands.

“What an awkward man, he is,” thought Mica, as Daniel studied his fingernails. “He loves me still—that much is clear—but he has this sadness about him, this terrible, unshakeable melancholy that undermines all his charm. It is not love that I feel toward Daniel, but pity.” She observed with detached interest his too-long black hair, his scrawny frame, his smallish hands fidgeting with his glass. Mica knew that Daniel meant well, however, and she resolved to take his fawning with good humor. “Still, he had better not expect anything to happen between us tonight,”—she shook her head imperceptibly at the notion—“because those days are long past.” Mica looked up at Daniel, who was now staring at the ceiling with a vague smile on his face. Horace, perceiving a lull in the drunken persiflage, gestured to Daniel with his glass and nudged him.

“So Daniel,” Horace began, pushing his horn-rimmed glassed up his Roman nose, “how are things on the home front?” This was an old joke between them: the paper Daniel reported for—for almost two years now—was called The Storm-King Front, and Storm-King was the town in which he, with his younger brother David, had resided for the last three years.

“Oh, you know, things are great,” Daniel lied, flushing a little and eyeing his hands again. He did not want to get into how lonely it was down there, how little he found himself caring about the people he associated with. Except for feckless David, of course, for whom Daniel felt nothing but somber philadelphic concern—but even David could be overbearing at times. Talking about life in Storm-King was the last thing Daniel wished to do, so he quickly segued. “But actually,” he lied again, his eyes flitting from face to expectant face, “I have a new gig lined up: in the fall I will be moving to Indonesia for a reporting position in the city.” This whopper had at least some partial truth: He would be moving to Indonesia in the fall, but only because while visiting his family three years ago, his aunt somehow cajoled the customs agents into granting him honorary citizenship status, allowing him to come and go as he pleased. There was no job waiting for Daniel in Indonesia. This flighty act was pure desperation, and he knew it. He was simply absconding, gambling recklessly, leaving behind bleak certainty for the frightening unknown.

Not being privy to Daniel’s turmoil, his friends gasped at the news. “Why, that’s fantastic!” gushed Mallory, wide-eyed and laughing. The others agreed, though their enthusiasm was muted. To those who knew him well, it was understood that such fortune seldom befell Daniel—this seemed, though not one of them delighted in the thought, too good to be true. Mica watched Daniel, waiting for him to explain himself. In fact everyone wanted to hear more, so Daniel gave a vague, casually rehearsed description of his post that likely fooled no one and then he neatly changed the subject. “So, another round for everyone?” he asked, suddenly rising from the booth, face aflame. “I say we shoot some pool in a bit. Be right back.” Mica’s emerald gaze followed him and she felt sorry for him, rather sorry indeed.

Daniel rushed to the men’s room to splash water on his burning face. “Keep it together,” he murmured stupidly to himself, hunched over the sink. “You’ve said it, there’s no turning back now.” Another hot wave of shame washed over him then, and he grimaced at his countenance in the mirror. “Salvage this night…”—there was the sound of a toilet flushing in one of the stalls—“…it’s still not too late,” he finished, whispering now, as the stall opened and a nattily-dressed man with a Van Dyke beard emerged. It was, of all people, Daniel’s former roommate from the dormitories, Chet Haskins! They had scarcely spoken, let alone seen one another, for the better part of a year. For a split second each regarded the other. Chet had not yet washed his hands; Daniel’s face was dripping wet. They embraced awkwardly in the tiny washroom, and it is fortunate for all parties involved that no other male patrons chose to use the toilet at that precise moment.

“Were you just talking to yourself a minute ago?” Chet asked, holding Daniel at arm’s length and grasping his shoulders. Such as among all old, good friends, there was little need for pleasantries or idle chit-chat to “catch up” on things. The salient details would be forthcoming. Conversations flowed more or less continuously despite gaping lacunae, and these gray areas were filled in gradually, with broad, unhurried strokes that were unevenly layered and slow to dry up. He clapped Daniel’s shoulders and turned to the sink.

“I remember you would always talk to yourself in the shower,” Chet continued, as he lathered his hands with soap. “Everyone in the dorms knew about your ‘morning monologues’ and were sort of weirded out by them. I thought it was hilarious.” He laughed loudly at the memory. Chet appeared to be even drunker than Daniel, which was no small feat.

Daniel wanted to ask if Chet had actually heard any of what he had just said, but decided against it. Chet would hear it from him sooner or later, Daniel reasoned, and preferably under more sober circumstances. They stepped out to the barroom.

Wordlessly Chet led them to the bar, where a wan brunette with heavily made-up eyes glared at her register’s display. Punching buttons and flaring her nostrils, she pointedly ignored the queue beginning to form. “So, friend, what are you up to these days?” Chet asked Daniel, pausing a moment to look appraisingly at his old friend before turning back to the bar. “Well…” began Danny, but Chet had started clamoring for service. “Say, bartender? Hold up, Danny.” Chet peered into his wallet, fishing out a twenty. “Could we get a pitcher of PBR, and—hey Danny, you want anything? My treat.” As Daniel opened his mouth to speak, his brain somehow could not formulate a coherent reply, and the bartender fixed him with an almost injurious look. “Uh, no thanks, Chet. Um…” He chanced a hasty glance at the bartender. “Sorry, nothing for me, thank you.” She whipped away, and Daniel allowed himself to breathe. Chet smirked. Daniel smirked. “Whoa, intense!” Now Daniel was smiling broadly, elated to clown with his erstwhile drinking buddy again. “Hey Chet, who are you here with? Your party should join our party for some pool.”

That night Chet had arrived at the Cannery with his girlfriend, Amelia Tran, and her roommate Grace at a quarter past eleven. They were celebrating Chet’s recent acceptance into a study-abroad program in Venezuela, where in the fall he would be learning to manage a locally sustainable, eco-friendly cacao plantation. The trio had been plowing through the PBR at an impressive rate, and when Daniel suggested they join his group for pool, Amelia said, “Duh! I can’t believe you’re in town, Danny! Chet’s just getting wasted; he’s down to play, aren’t you, Chet?” Amelia was smiling at Chet, and Chet, with his right arm draped over the back of Amelia’s chair, was grinning beatifically at Daniel. Suddenly an idea gripped Chet violently and he leapt up from his seat, startling everyone. “Danny! Duh! What are you doing this weekend? We’re going backpacking on the Chuwamish Trail, and I just realized we have an extra seat because Grace can’t go!” They all looked over at Grace, who shrugged and sipped from her glass. “So yeah, man,” Chet went on, his eyes shining with excitement, “we’re going backpacking and we’ll be bouldering and fly-fishing and stuff. Amelia and I, Jeff and Sam, and Jeff’s brother Nathan. We’re leaving tomorrow morning. Can you come? You should come!”

Daniel’s besotted brain reeled at the prospect. It sounded perfect to him. He had planned to go back to Storm-King on Saturday, only because Mica and the others were leaving town then. But now there was this. An adventure—and if Chet was leaving the country, this might be the last such adventure for a long time, Daniel figured. Even though it meant spending one less day around Mica…but, as much as he was loath to admit it, his relationship with Mica had little basis in reality. Mostly it was wishful thinking, Daniel thought ruefully, a hoping against hope that she would heed his amorous appeals and let him love her. “Mica, you are amazing,” he had told her once, long ago, “I could spend the rest of my life just taking you in.”

Daniel made up his mind. “I would love to go. But I don’t have any camping gear with me, or even anything more than a change of clothes.” Amelia and Chet answered in unison. The resulting mash-up of “No problem!” and “Are you kidding me?” made Daniel smile, and it was summarily decided that Daniel would be outfitted in borrowed gear and would report to Chet’s house at eight o’ clock the following morning. “Where are you staying tonight?” Chet asked. “Because you’re more than welcome—” Daniel held up both hands and laughed. “I’ve got a room at the Rhodes Inn,” he said, “but you guys are really too kind. Let’s play some pool!”

Despite not really knowing one another, the two groups commingled with ease. This was due in part to the large amount of alcohol each party had imbibed, but the conviviality owed more to the charisma of Chet, a natural-born storyteller, than anything else. Amelia served as a goad for Chet’s antics, and together they engendered an immediate sense of familiarity. Horace in particular found Chet uproariously funny, and was continually removing his glasses to dab at mirthful tears on his cheeks. Daniel had worried for an instant that his Indonesia announcement would resurface, prompting him to provide an embarrassing explanation to Chet, but nothing of the sort happened. Chet had the floor—cue stick in one hand, pint glass in the other, gesticulating wildly with both—and was regaling his audience with slightly embarrassing anecdotes from their dormitory days. Daniel laughed along, relieved to play a peripheral role in the conversation. They ordered two more pitchers and rotated in pairs around the pool table. Daniel was playing horribly, but his state of drunkenness was such that it precluded any feelings of inadequacy or self-consciousness, and thus the game, in his turbid mind, was reduced to simply that—a game.

Mica watched Daniel and Chet’s interactions with quiet amusement. Daniel was clearly comfortable in his presence, she noticed, and their banter would occasionally approach levels of pure comic genius. “You are killing me!” Chet exclaimed, after Daniel performed a reenactment of their first karaoke duet at Izzy’s. She liked seeing Daniel this way. “Though it’s too bad he’s so drunk,” she thought, as she saw him scratch the cue yet again. “Ballocks!” he yelled. “Ponderous, hirsutulous ballocks.” He looked up and gave her a sheepish grin. She had removed her sweater some time earlier, so that a low-cut top revealed her ornately tattooed arms and chest, and she could feel his eyes on her as she lined up her shot. Daniel had enjoyed tracing the curves of her tattoos with his fingers, and he would spend inordinate amounts of time doing just this during their mornings together. She wondered if he still talked to himself in the shower like he used to…Mica quickly banished these thoughts and tried to focus. She became suddenly aware of how drunk she was. Exhaling evenly through her nose, she called her shot and missed, badly.

The evening drew to a close near two in the morning. Pool had descended into utter slop, including one memorable fifteen-minute stretch in which not one ball was sunk besides the cue. Chet was barely standing; Amelia occasionally had to prop him up but appeared to suffer the arrangement good-naturedly. They all bade each other goodnight, making promises to reconvene at some indeterminate juncture. Chet staggered up to Daniel. “R’member, ayyy-clock t’morrow, OK? Don’ be layyy…” Daniel laughed and steadied his friend. “I would not miss it for the world. I hope you don’t have to drive in the morning!” Chet shook his head, leaning into Amelia. “Naaah…hehe…Sheeessss!” Amelia made a face and pulled Chet toward the door. “See you tomorrow, Danny.”

As Daniel shrugged into his jacket—the nighttime air was surprisingly chilly—Mica stepped to the side while the others piled into the taxi. “I wish you weren’t leaving so early tomorrow,” she said softly, standing close to him, staring at the pavement. “It was really great seeing you tonight.” Daniel felt that frisson again, a smoldering mote that flared up whenever he was reminded of her, of she and him, and he fought back the urge to say something fatuous about it. He opened his arms to hug her. “It was really great seeing you, too. Everyone else, as well, but you, especially.” When they disengaged she gave him an inscrutable look. “Have fun with Chet,” she said, stepping backwards toward the taxi. “I miss you already.” She opened the door, Daniel waved goodbye to his friends, and then he strode into the night.

Daniel walked down Commercial Street with a feeling of great contentment welling inside him. The cool maritime air had taken on a rarified quality that he attributed mostly to alcohol, but also, to hope. He sensed that he had made the right choice, leaving with Chet—staying in town with Mica was risky, with an inadmissibly high likelihood of failure. “But if it weren’t for Chet, I would’ve stayed anyway,” he mused, lapsing into self-doubt. He heard faintly the cries of Caspian terns overhead. “I would’ve gone into it with downright quixotic expectations and come away disappointed and disgusted with myself. Thank goodness for Chet.” It occurred to him then that Chet’s willingness to invite Daniel on this trip, completely out of the blue despite how exiguous their contact had been of late, was a remarkable thing, indeed. A man was lucky to count Chet Haskins among his friends—of this Daniel was certain. Soon he reached the Rhodes Inn and contemplated walking further, for the sheer joy of it, but then Daniel remembered how early he was expected to rise. “Good ol’ Chet,” he said aloud, to no one in particular.

In the morning Daniel checked out of the Rhodes, helped himself to the complimentary continental breakfast, and sped over to Chet and Jeff’s house on Virginia Street. He felt the beginnings of a devastating hangover coming on, and so while waiting at a traffic light he decided he would to visit a grocery store to pick up food for the trip and, more importantly, a bottle of aspirin. By the time he reached 1011 Virginia Street it was a quarter past eight. No one answered his knocks to the front door. Everyone must be asleep still, he figured, with a touch of admonishment. Daniel called Chet’s phone, Amelia’s phone, Jeff’s phone—all to no avail—and then he put his phone away, because he didn’t know Sam or Nathan’s number. He paced the perimeter of the house, let himself in through the rickety back gate, and stood at the rear entrance. “Goddamnit,” he said. “What the hell.” Turning the knob, he found it unlocked and hesitantly stepped inside.

Now the hangover descended upon him. Daniel sat down at the kitchen table and rubbed his temples, fighting a wave of nausea as he wondered what the hell was going on. He had almost fallen asleep on the table when his phone rang. It was Chet.

“Hey man, how’s it going?” He sounded strangely apprehensive. “Did you, uh, see the note?” It took a moment for Daniel to locate it, on the kitchen floor wedged beneath the door. He had likely stepped over it on his way in.

“Um…hold on.” With a growing sense of dread, Daniel read it over: “Hey Danny, SOOO sorry man, we had to leave right at 8 to catch the ferry. We NEED to hang out before I leave, though, so hit me up next time you’re free. Much love, Chet.”

Daniel felt his stomach sink like an erratic boulder—dense, stolid, unmoving—dropped unceremoniously from its glacial magic-carpet ride.

“Ah, shit. Well…” Daniel struggled to find words, any words at all, to end this conversation as quickly and tactfully as possible. “Thanks for inviting me, anyway. Tell everyone to have fun. I’ll call you later, Chet.”

He closed his phone, put the note on the table and walked out. “Oh shit,” he realized, “I forgot to tell them they left the back door unlocked.” Not that it could be helped, at any rate. Daniel got into his car and drove southward, to Storm-King.

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