Chapter 4

Direction Chapter Six

Cut

Celtic punk echoed through the long bar. Jeff downed a shot of Fireball, then soothed the burn with a swig of the cold lager in his opposite hand. Third shot, second lager. A good remedy to the leg pain of a laborsome walk. He slid and raised the gold box of Marlboro lights that he picked up on the way to the bar, thumbing open the top and shaking out another clean, smooth cigarette. He stuck it in his lips, picked up his grey lighter from the bar top and brought the lit flame to his face, drawing the blaze into the cigarette’s end.

To the right of him in the long, slender barroom was the door-sized doorman, and three fratty guys from a local university who were holding bottles of light lager beer, cackling to each other like madmen. The one with his back to Jeff kept obnoxiously bumping into his chair, he thought about saying something, or shoving the lit end of his tobacco into the guy’s exposed elbow. He wasn’t sure which would be more appropriate. On his left there were two servers, four stylishly dressed women; and a bald, male construction worker in a hoody. The four women were having what looked like a very serious conversation. Jeff imagined it was in regard to something extremely profound; a deep, meaningful discussion exploring the sociopolitical ramifications of poor gender equality at a grade school level. Yeah, yeah that’s probably it. The hooded man was all the way in the back near the bathrooms, chatting to one of the servers.

Jeff took another drag of his cigarette, watching the orange ember devour the paper, then looked at his phone. 8:23 p.m., two missed calls from Riley, one voicemail, and a message from Chris about ordering pizza later. He let the smoke escape his lungs and took a swig of beer. “Where the fuck is he?” he thought, flicking ash into the plastic tray in front of him. He was a flurry of fidgeting and movement, running through his mental checklist every minute or so. “Drag, swig, phone, swig … shot?” He folded a bill longways and held it out like a fishing line.

He wasn’t sure why, but he messaged Carl on his way there to see if he wanted to meet up for drinks. He had no one else to turn to. He felt pathetic, hated talking to anyone let alone Carl of all people, who was a complete loose cannon under the influence of alcohol. Carl was also well acquainted with the idea of being completely unreliable. He was going to show up, probably get into some fight, then embarrass Jeff in front of every opposite gendered body in the place. He was a crazy fuck but Jeff needed to talk to someone; anyone whom wasn’t Chris, or the woman he’s loved since before he even met her. He always had this particular idea of what the perfect person would be like for him, then she came along the eleventh year of high school; it was like dropping in the last piece of a 9,000 piece puzzle he’d been working on for seventeen years.

“Hey fuckface!” Jeff heard coming from near the entrance. He leaned back and turned, looking past the three frat guys who were now very interested in the loudmouth who had just sauntered in. Carl was standing there smiling, overly chewing his flavorless gum and handing his identification to the large doorman. He was wearing a loose fitting, button up Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts, with black slip on sandals overtop high socks, his unwashed blonde hair brushed back. He looked like Bill and Ted could’ve given birth to him right out front on the sidewalk.

Then Jeff saw it, a flare of gold. Morgana was with him. Why the fuck was Morgana with him? “You stupid fucking dumb ass piece of shit,” he thought, or did he say it? The frat boy directly to his right turned and began what looked like sizing him up. Jeff was unsure. He awkwardly smiled then quickly turned back toward his vices, swigging his beer.

Carl and Morgana made it through the gatekeeper, angling their way in and arriving on either side of Jeff. Carl stood to the right along the obviously intoxicated wall of testosterone. “Great,” Jeff thought. Morgana smiled and waved.

“Hey Morgana,” he said returning the smile, then turned to Carl with a much less enthused expression; to onlookers an almost perfect “comedy and tragedy” mask impression. “Why the fuck did you bring her?” he whispered angrily. “It’s not going to happen man, just fucking let it go.”

“Oh come on, man, a ‘thank you’ should be in order,” Carl shot back as he hung his arm around the back of Jeff’s neck, pulling him close. “She totally digs you and looks like a goddamn movie star, I don’t see what the fucking problem is … and the Copper Shamrock Inn is such a shit hole, I don’t know why you like this place.” The middle-aged barkeep directly in front of them was now looking rather annoyed.

Jeff sighed and shrugged his shoulders at the server, then leaned back a little so they both could hear him. “What are you guys drinking?”

As the night went on, his head start in alcohol consumption became gradually more apparent, making his depressed mood rather transparent. He at least had enough sense beforehand to move them to a booth before the bar started to populate, and before Carl started actively searching for conflict.

“You know, fuck them,” Carl said, taking another drag of his cig and pressing a finger down on the oak table for dramatic affect, “they hire these kids who don’t know shit, then work them fuckers to death. The turnover rate there is higher than a goddamn whorehouse.”

“Well, people with real lives wouldn’t be able to live off the shit we make,” Jeff replied over the melodic riffs of Whiskey in the Jar. “But it’s perfect for some high school kid to have a little spending money, you know, for drugs and shit.”

“Well, not all of us spend our money so wisely,” Morgana laughed, then sharpened her focus on Jeff across the table. “And didn’t you actually go to school? You don’t even need the theater anymore, you should be out pursuing your career!”

“Eh, what the fuck am I going to do with a degree in business communications? I should have gone for fine art like I fucking wanted to. So, whatever, I don’t mind the theater. I get by.”

Carl pointed two fingers at Jeff. “Speak for your fucking self! I’d like to burn that shit palace to the ground. There’s that one door in the back that doesn’t close right, anyone could just walk right in…”

“Just fucking quit then man if it’s so bad,” Jeff burst out, “go pursue your dream of reaching high shelves for the elderly, or whatever fucking giraffe people like you enjoy doing.” Morgana giggled, triggering some random memory. Riley’s face flashed in Jeff’s mind and he looked down at the table, then to his left at the four stylish women still huddled along the bar, now surrounded by a dozen other bodies. He didn’t want to be there anymore.

Carl stood suddenly, “I’m going to use the pisser, you kids be good.” He patted Jeff on the shoulder on his way by.

"So, how've you been?" he heard suddenly. 

The question wriggled across the table, Jeff could feel the weight of it pressing down on him, smothering. "Well, I've successfully changed huge aspects of people's lives with some weird fucking mind magic, all of which I can't even begin to conceive how it's fucking possible, but I still got fucked, and the outcome was still the same," he wanted to say. What he actually said was far less informative. "Going alright I guess." 

"You guess?"

"Well, life, you know? It's just ... I'm dealing with coming to grips with the fact that it doesn't matter how badly you want something or how hard you try, life's still going to turn around and take a big steamy dump right in your goddamn mouth."

“Geez, I’m sure it's not that bad!"

"How's the dancing going?" Jeff diverted. 

"Um, pretty good I guess.”

“You guess?”

"Well, I started dancing with this performance art-type dance troop. It's great, I've learned a lot, but I don't think it's for me. Ballet, a proper stage, pretty music; they're always in the back of my mind reminding me that's where I belong. Improvising is fun for a while but I really miss what I'm used to."

"Hey, I can relate," Jeff replied. "I've recently been given these abilities that give me a lot of ... control over my life, and I'm not sure I want them anymore."

"Now come on, being a manager can't be that bad!" She balled her hands under her chin and leaned forward onto her elbows, smiling, her blue eyes prying into him. "It seems like it'd be nice, getting to make people do whatever you want.”

A glass shattered behind him, throwing a sound loud enough to cut through the melodic riffs of Metallica blasting from the speakers. Jeff leaned to the side and looked back. "Godammit," he said almost matter-of-factually. Carl had the hooded bald man — who was not quite his own height but twice as thick — wrangled in a tightening headlock. The man was bucking like a wild horse, pushing Carl’s thin, ragged frame hard into the unforgiving bar top. Carl widened his stance, trying to win the skirmish purely on the back of his height advantage.

“What is it?” Morgana asked, lifting herself up to see past Jeff. “Oh no!” She began to stand.

“Oh hey, don’t worry about it. This happens almost every time I come out with him.” He raised his hand up, gesturing for her to stop. “We should just head out front, he’ll be kicked out in a minute.” Jeff slid out of his seat, grabbing his lighter and pack of smokes, and finishing the last small portion of his lager, then motioning to the entrance. Morgana gave one last look back then followed suit.

The camera tracked along the side of them as they weaved their way to the exit. The place was full of incoherent shouting, with a thick curtain of smog hanging in the air giving off the stench of stale smoke and whiskey; the occasional over abundance of perfume thrown in for good measure. Jeff couldn’t tell if he was actually moving forward or if the floor below him was shifting like some sort of giant treadmill. What proceeded was a delicately choreographed dance through a herd of adolescent hoodlums. The short path became a mutating labyrinth where the walls could walk, and talk, and accidentally dump their drinks on you; like walking through an intoxicated war zone. Any moment that bouncing betty was going to fly up through the floorboards and coat the entire room in sour mix and tequila. As he moved he looked to the right along the wall opposite the bar, an auburn haired girl had her back to him having an animated conversation with the boy to her front. Jeff looked back down to the self-perpetuating floor, pressing his shoes into years of caked on alcohol and grime covering the wooden ground, solidified by the weight of the army of barely legals and lukewarm mop water.

Jeff pushed open the heavy door and stepped out onto the sidewalk. The air was refreshing. Cool, with a bite, giving a kind of revitalizing life to the nighttime. He dug the grey lighter from his back pocket and lit up a fresh cigarette, feeling the booze really beginning to settle in, a certain warmth to it. There were two other men smoking off to the side of the entrance, with scruffy unkempt beards and hair which fit perfectly with the rest of their flower child appearance, speaking what sounded like French?

Morgana followed out into the orange light of the street lamps and bar sign. “You really should quit, that stuff will kill you.”

Jeff reached the curb and turned, stumbling slightly. “Eh, smoking won’t change whether I die someday.”

“It could make it a little sooner than you’d probably want.”

“Well that’s debatable.”

Silence for a beat. “What’s debatable?”

“I’m just saying I wouldn’t mind skipping all the parts where I’m restricted to soft foods, forget who I am, and shit my pants more often than I’d like to.”

“Well you don’t necessarily have to be old for any of those things to happen to you.”

The bar door quickly swung open and the large doorman was holding it ajar with an arm about the diameter of a Christmas ham. Carl was enthusiastically attempting to rationalize with the giant man, he just shook his head and waved him in the direction of the sidewalk. Carl continued to state his case as he stepped across the threshold. “Come on man, I’m here all the time. You know, you know I’d never start shit like that. He started on me when I was leaving the fucking bathroom man!”

As soon as Carl was out of range, the door clicked shut. “Did you even make it to the fucking bathroom?” Jeff said, taking a drag from his cigarette.

“Yeah man, but that crazy skinhead started screaming at me as soon as I walked out. Then he poked his greasy finger right into my fucking chest. I happen to like this shirt without a grimy, crud print right in the middle of it. Ironic for a Mr. Clean looking mother fucker to be so goddamn disgusting.”

“Well in any case, this seems like a good stopping point for the night. I’m as drunk as I’d like to be, so I’ll be getting the fuck out of here now.”

“Would you like us to escort you?” Morgana chimed in.

“No, that’s alright,” Jeff replied. “My drunken side stepping won’t be as noticeable to the authorities if I’m by myself.”

“At least let us give you a ride. I assure you I’ll be driving, not Carl.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” Carl protested. “I could ride a fucking unicycle on a high wire right now, I’m as sober as a bird.”

“As much as I’d love to participate in your inevitable D.U.I. tonight, I think I’d still rather just walk. I’ll be fine on my own, the fresh air will do me some good.”

They continued their plea but Jeff eventually said his goodbyes and began his trek home. It was the dead of night but still as busy as midday along 3rd Street. In moments like this, Jeff actually enjoyed being in the company of strangers. He’d get the random requests to bum a smoke, he’d stop for a slice of Sicilian, enjoy the starry night that he was just far enough away from the city lights to see. It all made him feel kind of…normal, for a bit. A departure from the complete and utter shit he normally felt that he was.

He rounded the corner onto Huron Ave. and began walking up to the bridge. The breeze carried the cool air up off the river, cutting through Jeff’s thin layer of alcoholic warmth. Once he hit the center of the bridge he leaned against the railing and lit up another cigarette, looking out over the water. “What the fuck am I going to do?” he asked no one in particular. “If I try and change things again they’ll probably still just end up together.”

He continued to the end of the bridge and rounded the uphill bend toward his apartment, his heart beating harder with every inclined step. The street was mostly covered in darkness, with the yellow of the porch lights peppering the sidewalk. A hooded figure slinked along across the way, heading in the opposite direction. Jeff could see the window of his apartment approaching, cutting through the blackness, as if it were the only glowing window left in existence. He didn’t want to face Chris, he was afraid of what he’d do, and just now realized he had his pocketknife in his hand, rubbing his thumb against it’s wooden side.

“Things would be a lot easier without Chris here,” he jested to himself. “I’ve watched a lot of Dexter, I could probably pull it off.” He laughed into the night, the alcohol now completely in control. Turning away from the window, he sat himself down onto the curb of the sidewalk, tossing his cigarette butt into the air and watching the ember go end over end into the street. By the time it landed on the asphalt he was already lighting up another. “I guess I should just let him fucking have her, they must belong together. Even when she’s with me, they still fucking end up together. I should have never introduced them. Hell, even if I didn’t they probably would have met somehow anyway, that’s my goddamn luck.” He straightened his legs and leaned back onto his elbows, letting the cigarette hang from his lips and smolder, and squeezed a clump of grass in his hand. “I mean, if he was gone, she’d have to end up with me, right? Where could I send him? Through sheer cosmic intervention they’ll most likely fucking find each other again anyway.”

He turned on his phone, tapping past all the missed calls and messages, and going straight into his music. Tears began to well up in his eyes, he hit shuffle through his smeared vision. I’ll Be Seeing You by Billie Holiday. The piano began whimsically flowing from his phone, leading into the slow tones of Holiday’s haunting intonation.

“I’m sorry Chris,” he uttered. “If there’s a version of this life where I can have her, that’s the version I want. It’s a version where you’re not there.” He watched the lights of a passing car trail along the road. “I mean, if he just never existed, that wouldn’t be like, him dying, right? He’d be like a character in a play, and his part’s just through. No one will remember, no one will know...will hurt.”

He leaned up off of his elbows and stood, breathing the cold night air into his nostrils. The sky was a dark gradient of deep purple down to the hot glow of the city lights. He stood there with his hands in his pockets, his shadow stretching out over the sidewalk behind him. He turned and slowly walked to the front of his apartment. He could feel the warmth from the inside, even through the closed door. He let his head lean against the wooden grain, Miles Davis and the sounds of 2 a.m. now filling his ears. Hands clenched and shaking, thoughts stretching toward irrational behavior. He jammed his eyes closed, his mind showing him Riley’s pale arms around him, back at the café.

“I want Chris gone,” he whispered, then he felt himself falling. The smell of Riley’s hair surrounded him. He reached for the door handle to steady himself and there was nothing. “Fuck.” He braced himself for the impact and there was none. He opened his eyes and was blinded by the white light of the room. He squinted and rolled to his side, overtaken by the smell of fresh linen. There was something in front of him, his vision still adjusting. It was soft, like…skin. He concentrated his focus on the pale blur. It was Riley, stark-naked and fast asleep. The sheets covered her bottom half, her pale shoulders about as bright as the sunlight burning through the window.

He laid there a moment, taking in the site, then closed his eyes to sleep. If this was just a goddamn dream, he’d rather not chance ever waking up.

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