As promised, as a thank you for sponsoring Kelley in her daily write-a-thon in support of Clarion West, here’s more Aud. No one except Kelley has read this before (it’s a draft). It’s the third and last chunk of the original Chapter One of the first draft of Always. (Here’s the first and the second chunks. You should probably read them in order.) If you’ve read the published version, you’ll recognise some of the conversations.
It’s long and leisurely. Enjoy.
Borealis, Dornan’s chain of Atlanta-area coffeehouses, now had more than half a dozen outlets, but the one in Little Five Points was the original, and still his main love. It had a low ceiling, no windows, and not enough ventilation. It was eleven o’clock and the open mic crowd was long gone, leaving behind a shoal of smoke swimming lazily below the ceiling, and two intense twenty-nothings sitting by the wall arguing about whether cyberpunks owed their attitude more to Materialist philosophy or to a misguided interpretation of Descartes’ interpretation of Aristotle.
Dornan had probably been up seventeen or eighteen hours; his periwinkle eyes were pinkish and there was a faint sheen of black stubble on his chin but his step was still springy and his tee shirt white. He was relaxed. Jonie, his favourite barista, brought him another Americano (short, room for cream), and as usual he sipped and nodded with as much pleasure as if it were his first caffeine of the day. I was drinking Rioja, a gran reserva that he kept for me so I didn’t have to suffer the stuff he poured from the jug labelled House Red.
“So what do you think?” Dornan said.
I thought Mr Materialism was about to get lucky: Ms Cartesian Dualism was leaning forward in the kind of unnatural pose that has been practised in front of the mirror because someone once told her it made her throat look delicious, and holding her hand palm up while she talked, tilted towards him in a way that could only be interpreted as touch me. And indeed Mr Materialism was beginning to stumble over the bigger words as his subconscious figured out what was going on and diverted blood from his brain to more important organs. “About what?”
“You know about what. About what your banker–Laurence?–about what Laurence said.”
“I’ve told you: I don’t really care about a discrepancy in my real estate portfolio, which is why I pay lawyers and bankers to handle such things.”
“Right. So you did. Rather emphatically.” He drank off his coffee in one smooth movement, lifted a finger to the barista–she was watching, she was always watching; she wouldn’t have had a job otherwise–and nodded over at the debating couple. “Did you ever argue philosophy with a girl in a cafe?”
“There are easier ways.”
He nodded. “Walking up and asking her to dance always worked for me. So have you tried any interesting approaches lately?”
I looked at him.
“I just thought that, seeing as you were so keen to not talk about Laurence and the responsibilities of money, you might be willing to talk about sex instead.”
“You could at least reassure me that, well, since, ah, well, that you’ve–” He hated to mention Julia’s death. Perhaps it was because he thought I’d go crazy again and start chatting to her ghost. “I just don’t think it’s natural to be so… Look, I know how you are, what you’re like. I didn’t think you could stay– That, well, you could deprive yourself of…”
Didn’t. Past tense. “You’ve been talking to Tammy.”
“I might have spoken to her a week or two since, yes, and she might have dropped some broad hints.” He sat back and looked expectant.
“Her name was Reece.”
His expectant look didn’t waver. Ever since I had let him help with the cabin in North Carolina he seemed to believe he deserved a window into my life. I had not yet worked out how to shut him out, or whether I wanted to.
“When I went back to the cabin earlier this spring Tammy held a party. There was a woman there, visiting from the midwest. Reece. Tammy more or less pushed us at each other. Tammy’s smugness got so irritating that we left early. We had a nice conversation that ended up in bed. She’s a nice woman. It was a very pleasant evening. I doubt I’ll ever see her again.”
I had needed the animal warmth of the sex, had welcomed the familiar building heat of skin on skin, the harsh breath, the shudder that starts in your bones. The terrible urge afterwards to weep until I howled had been new.
“That Tammy. Isn’t she something?” It had been four months since she’d returned his ring, but his voice still throbbed with pride.
“Ah, thank you,” Dornan said to Jonie, and took the proferred coffee and added cream.
I nodded thanks for the bottle she’d brought but didn’t pour. “And how about you?”
“Well, you know me, Torvingen, a magnet for women. An absolute magnet.” No one, then. “But we were talking about your meeting with Laurence.”
“We were about to.”
“Your oldest friend is burning with vulgar curiosity about how people who don’t have to work for a living deal with tedious little details like money. Indulge me.”
Maybe talking about money was one of those friendship things that everyone but me seemed to understand. I considered, then shrugged. It was just money.
“I have quarterly meetings with Laurence to discuss any significant movement in my holdings. He makes recommendations about what I should do. Mostly what he says makes sense so we talk it over for a bit, I sign things, and he sends the papers to Bette, my lawyer, who also does my taxes.”
“What kind of holdings?”
“Equities: stock, individual and funds, and bonds, US and foreign. Real estate, mostly in this country but a little in the UK and Canada too, industrial and residential. Cash.” We’d talked a lot about cash, and rolling CDs, and money market funds. “Some commodities. Some annuities. Enough?”
“So he reads reports from the various areas of investment and gives me a précis.” He opened his mouth. “Which is in both dollar amounts and percentage gains or losses, along with a general idea of what individual industry returns are, and how my portfolio performs against those benchmarks.”
“And you trust him?”
I thought about that. “There’s a certain mutual respect. We understand each other, I think.”
That afternoon, we’d begun with tea. Laurence, or rather his assistant, had learnt to make it the English way, as I preferred, and as we sat on the two easy chairs by the silk rubber plant that had graced his office for two years, and sipped, I had asked after Catherine, his wife, and his kids–in whom I hadn’t the slightest interest, but people with children seemed to take great delight in being asked. Instead of pulling out pictures of his new grandson, as he might have with another client, we got down to business. We zipped through the information in the various files and folders until we came to real estate, specifically my cross-shipping and warehousing facility in Seattle which was doing very badly.
“I said, Oh, well, so what course of action do you recommend? But it was clear I didn’t really care. At which point he got agitated and said, I don’t believe you fully appreciate the fact that you are being defrauded. To which I replied that, yes, indeed I did, but that’s the kind of thing I paid him and Bette to deal with and I had absolutely no urge to get on a plane and fly out to a city where everyone wears flannel and it rains all the time just to look at some industrial shed.”
The philosophising couple got up and walked out past Jonie’s counter. They left a tip in her jar, and walked to the door twined about each other. I wondered if either would howl afterwards.
“So how did he respond to that?”
“He said, with some asperity, that a good steward should know what she owns.”
He raised his eyebrows.
I swirled the wine in my glass. No one had ever accused me of irresponsibility before. “But that’s what I pay him and Bette for: to be my stewards. It’s their job, not mine. And besides, as I told him, I’m thinking of selling it all. Everything. Turning it all into cash and walking away.”
“I’m guessing that didn’t go down too well.”
“No. He said, And then what? What would you do with the cash? It will keep generating more cash and you can’t just have it sitting around doing nothing.”
“He’s got a point.”
I didn’t say anything.
He leaned forward and tapped the table next to my hand. “If I’m forced to drag it out of you word by word I’ll end up exhausted and with a splitting headache, so if it’s all right with you let’s pretend you understand when I say friends talk to each other, let’s skip the cajoling, and let’s get straight to the part where you start talking. All right?”
“All right.” It was still hard to begin. “I have too much money.” Too much for a hundred lifetimes. “I’m thinking of setting up a foundation.” I cleared my throat. “In Julia’s name.”
“Well. That all sounds very worthy and therefore quite out of character. Well, I’m sorry, but I just can’t imagine you living in penury, giving up your house and cabin, your lovely car and precious hand tools.”
“Why would I sell those?”
“So when you say everything you mean not everything?”
“Not my things. Not my house and my car.” My tools. The land and cabin in North Carolina. What was wrong with him?
He waved it aside. “So. All right. A few hundred acres of Appalachian forest notwithstanding, we’re still talking about a huge endowment. A non-profit corporation that size would be monstrously influential, whether you like it or not. It would be a lot of work: a board to select, a mission statement to draft. Not that I’m saying it wouldn’t be a good thing. I think it would. You need something to do.”
“I have plenty to do.”
“It’s all makework, a series of hobbies that are just enough to satisfy that Norwegian Lutheran soul. You’re in a holding pattern, Torvingen. What I’d like to know is, what are you waiting for?”
I stared at him. “I’m not waiting for anything.”
“That’s not how it looks from here. Your life’s been on hold for years, for as long as I’ve known you–even when you worked for the police. Then Julia came along, and you seemed to wake up, but she’s, well, she’s–“
“What I’m trying to say is, she was your miracle, but she won’t come along twice.”
“I know.” The stem of my wine glass was as hard and slender as bone between my fingers.
“You need to do something with your life.”
I breathed slowly and carefully through my nose. “I’m getting tired of hearing that.”
“Ah.” He leaned back. “From which brave souls?”
“Everyone. Even my mother said something similiar when she called the other day.” She had actually called six weeks ago.
He took the bait. “So how is that going?”
“Warily.” We knew that mothers and daughters were supposed to love each other and trust each other and help each other, so that’s we had agreed to try. We had decided to begin by talking, something we hadn’t done much when I was growing up in Norway and England when she had been preoccupied with diplomatic functions, and I had gradually learnt to not expect anything she did or said in front of other people to mean anything. “It feels like the halt leading the blind.”
“You said a few weeks ago that it was getting easier.”
“I thought it was. There was something different when she called this time.”
“Good different or bad different?”
“How do you mean?” He liked his mother.
“Well, was it ‘Hey, I’ve won the lottery and decided to give it all to you.’ Okay, bad example, but you know what I mean. Or was it more, ‘Hey, I’ve been meaning to tell you you’re adopted after all, so this angsty let’s-get-to-know-each-other stuff is a total waste of time.'”
Also a bad example. “More like, ‘I have terminal cancer but I don’t know how to tell you and we hardly know each other anyway so why bother trying, good bye.'” And I didn’t know if that would be good or bad.
“No hints at all?”
“Right.” Silence. We had sat through many silences over the years. It was harder than it used to be; I found I wanted to know what he was thinking and feeling, and why.
“Right,” he said again. “So what’s really bothering you?”
I stared at him.
“You keep sitting here. You keep drinking. There’s no one here but us. You want to talk about something.”
He nodded and waited.
“And I went to see this art furniture exhibit, and I thought what a cold life he’d led, and how I could have ended up like that, if I hadn’t met Julia. And how I have to make some decisions. Mainly about Luz. She’s ten. She has the Carpenters; she loves them, I think, and they love her. But they’ve got no money, and they don’t know how to fight the kinds of things she’ll have to deal with. And I killed her adopted father. I’m responsible. It would be easy to say, Oh I don’t know anything about kids, here’s a big fat cheque every month, but I’m responsible. I should legally adopt her. I intend to legally adopt her. But what does that mean? Adoption is like marriage, it should mean something, it shouldn’t just be a piece of paper. If I leave her with the Carpenters, I’d be shirking a legal and moral committment. I wouldn’t be taking her seriously, giving the relationship its due weight. It would feel wrong.”
“But if I’m not going to adopt her, I’m just walking away. But there’s no order in a child’s life, no clear goal. You can’t orchestrate the experience, things just happen. And when I was looking at this furniture–Dornan, it was like looking at an equation in wood–I knew, as certainly as I know this wine is red, that no child ever ran into that man’s workshop at a critical juncture and made his chisel slip a hair and cut the ball of his thumb, spill the blood in a Rorshach spatter that pissed him off, but then made him go, Oh!, and gave him an idea. Here was a man who driving home from work might notice a bloody and magnificent sunset over the city but not really see it, because he couldn’t see something like that unless he was on vacation, wearing shorts and sandals and with a glass of pinot noir in his hand. Am I making sense?”
He nodded. “I think so.”
“It’s the difference between cold-blooded decisions and taken-on-the-volley actions. If you get your arm caught in a bear trap and then you see a hungry grizzly thundering down the trail, you have a choice: cut off your arm or die, right there. No time to think. Boom, you do it. But if you get caught in a trap and then nothing happens for a day you have to deliberately consider what it means to cut your own arm off. You have to worry about whether or not you’ve made the right decision. Even when you pick up your Swiss Army knife you wonder if you’re doing the right thing. When you lay the blade against your skin you wonder. Even when you’ve cut through the skin and fat and muscle, severed the first tendon, are unfolding the saw for the bone, you think, It’s not too late to stop.”
He didn’t like talking about gore, but he gestured for me to go on.
“It’s not about having kids or not. It’s about everything. It’s about the fact that with Julia, it was the beartrap and the bear: I let her in because I didn’t know it was happening, and I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into, but with my mother, with Luz, it’s deliberate choice. I understand now, I’ve had time to visualise. And it makes me sweat. Makes my hand shake. I’ve already cut things, but I want to put the knife down and tell myself I’m not doing the right thing.”
“You know you are.”
“Love isn’t like losing an arm.”
“Yes, it is. Except it’s your autonomy, not your arm.”
“It’s not the same. Look, you talk about control and order and structure as though that’s all you are, but you’re one of the most deeply animal people I’ve ever met. No, let me finish. Yes, you do plan and prepare and practise, and you do like your life to be orderly, but so what?” He opened his hands as if to say QED.
“I don’t understand.”
“Think about it. You’re standing on a deserted road in Arkansas with a small child and suddenly a woman pulls a gun. You’re in someone’s house and the intruder turns out to have a knife. You’re driving down the street and the car in front of you hits black ice. What do you do?”
Whatever it took. Fast and free and fluid, a fierce dance to whatever the music had become. “I improvise.”
“Exactly. Life’s one big improv session.”
“Improv is not…reliable.”
“No. But you do it so well. It’s what life’s about. Doing the best you can. Living with ambiguity. Risking failure. Letting go of the notion of perfection.”
Perfection. Like the gallery furniture. No risk, no life, but no failure. The air conditioning clicked on and the smoke under the ceiling eddied.
“So,” he said after a while. “You’ve never fancied visiting Seattle?”
“I’ve always had a hankering to see the birthplace of the coffee giants myself.”
“So go. Take some time off and fly up there, meet some nice girl.” Tammy had never been nice. “Go hiking or kayaking or whatever they do up there and dip your toe in the Pacific Ocean.”
“Have you ever seen the Pacific?”
“Yes, but not from the West Coast.” I poured myself more wine.
“I haven’t. They say it’s different. They say the whole west and northwest are like different countries. I’ve always wondered. I mean, what is it about Seattle that makes coffee so important?”
“I have no idea.”
“Maybe it’s the dark and wet thing, the need to strive to be with others in the warmth and light. That third place thing.”
That’s what pubs were for.
“I’ve been thinking about branching out a little, you know, beyond the cafe thing. Hey, maybe we could go up there, you and me, take a look, come up with next big thing, go into business together. It would be something to do with all that money of yours.”
“I don’t want to do anything with the money, that’s the point.”
We reflected into our drinks for a while.
“So tell me more about this furniture you hated so much.”
“I didn’t hate it,” I said, surprised. “It was fascinating, beautiful in its own way. Some of it looked impossible and awkward, like the idea of a jumbo jet flying, supported by nothing but air and physics. And they cried out to be touched, for flesh and bone to trace the intersection of one plane with another, follow the distribution of tension across space, weigh the amazement of an empty fulcrum–a false one, a joke, if you like–until you figure out the real centre.” I thought about it. “It hid behind its own cleverness, wouldn’t just stand there and declare itself, and be brave.”
“Furniture as philosophy?”
“You’d think so, from the catalogue.” I related snippets of the catalogue blurb, quoting liberally from the Artists’ Statement.
“They said it was what?” he said.
“A chair taken seriously as such,” I repeated. “A chair truly interrogated, a chair raised to the level of a question.”
“Is that right,” he said, and shook his head, and we both laughed.
# # #
I stood naked on the deck in the dark and let the night breeze dry my sweat. Treefrogs scricked; the air was scented with jasmine. Three o’clock.
My nightmares had changed. No more dead people–no more people at all. Tonight’s dream was already fading. Something to do with…. No, it was gone.
Atlanta slept. In the dark small mammals mated and fed, fought and died. I shivered.
My bedroom was warm and still, drowsing, as I should have been. I walked through the house: bedroom carpet, kitchen tile, hardwood floor, more carpet. I stood in front of the door a moment, then turned the knob.
The chair was cool. My arms fit the rests just right, my hands curled perfectly over the ends. The runners creaked as I rocked. A chair truly interrogated. A chair raised to the level of a question.