::: the novel written in seven hours :::
Walling the Dike and Other Late-Night Excursions
It's all about rage, Drew tells himself. He coughs, and ashes fall from his lips onto his gray, great-coat. He is trotting across the Arboretum, feeling fulfilled, howling at the moon occasionally, billowing clouds of moist air around his head. He has bested the powers of the English department, has scored an A on a midterm, and feels sure that tonight he will definitely, maybe get laid for the first time in a year and a half. A good day overall, so good he has decided that tonight would be a perfect time to indulge in a little physical activity. Tossing out his last three cigarettes, Drew headed to the arb, singing old show tunes and determined to break a good sweat.
The Arboretum is cold and quiet, and snow is liberally dolloped like sweet, sugary frosting on the ground. The sky is crimson, illuminated to the west by the lights of the hospital's heli-pad. Somewhere overhead, a chopper descends from the sky, a powerful insect thing carrying little human beings in its belly. Drew is metaphorizing. It is a detestable habit, but he is pleased with himself and his cunning, and he can't help himself. So he trots across the frozen ground metaphorizing everything he sees like a bad poet with nasty smoker's lung.
Ahead, in the distance, he sees a large, amorphous shape jogging towards him. Its head is set firmly on a thick, short neck. The rest is ill-defined in the dark. For a minute, Drew instinctively feels scared. Then he remembers his rage, his powerfulness in the face of the forces of the world that threaten his ability to coexist in the world. He is the Howard Roark of the neo-apocalyptic burb they call Ann Arbor, and with a barbaric yamp he will stand strong against anyone who tries to scare him out of his natural home. From nowhere, the compulsive desire to pound on the person until they bleed settles over him like lethargy.
As the other form draws closer, seemingly bobbing along on a wave of pent-up frustration, face concealed by shadow, body looming large, Drew feels scared again. He slows to a gallop, then to a timid trot. If he had a tail, he knows it would be buried between his legs. He knows he is out of his element, that he belongs in some warm, fuzzy room pondering criticism about Joyce. Out here, he is out of his element. He doesn't know how to fight. He hasn't fought since sixth grade. He can't stand up for himself. He feels utterly alone. Around him, crouching in the shadows of the dark places he has run to, are villains and warriors, AIDS-infested homeless people and dark, malevolent powers like that clown in Stephen King's It. Drew is horrified of the thing in front of him, the thing wearing shadows like a cape. But he can't run, because he knows that thing has seen him. He would look like a coward. Better a coward than dead! his self-preserving nature screams. But he just keeps ambling ahead, gasping for air, lips numb, at the mercy of the dark.
The form is about ten feet from him when it shouts out, "Nice night for a run!" Then under his breath he hears it mutter, "Fuckhead."
Drew sighs. This is familiar turf. "You scared the hell out of me. Yeah, it is a nice night." He tries to laugh a little, to convey self-assuredness. But it comes out as a little screech.
The figure stops. In their proximity, he can make out running shorts and a tee-shirt, a huge, powerful chest and legs well-defined. Like a soccer player. "You don't look like much of a runner."
Drew stops. The other one is heaving breath, his face ghostly white in the darkness. He looks like a woodcarving of Death a la Albrecht Durer. Death in Soccer Apparel, Wood and Charcoal, ca .1658. Then Drew examines himself, and realizes that corduroys and a trench coat don't the appearance of a runner make. "Just releasing some extra energy. It was a good day." He stutters the words between gasping breaths, and pounds his chest to facilitate breathing. This failing, he doubles over, opening and closing his mouth like a fish in a small, deoxygenated bowl.
"Sounds like you haven't had many good days."
Drew glances up. The hulk is watching him intently. "Not many."
"Funny, I was actually kind of hoping you were someone out here to fuck with people. I really could have used a good fight."
Is he kidding? Drew wonders. Should I laugh at that idea, and say I was feeling the same way, or will that incite a conflict? Should I play it off? Should I fucking run? Drew's thoughts are racing, pulsing with the blood pumping through his temples. He feels weak in the knees. He opts to skirt the comment entirely. "My chest hurts. It just caught up with me."
"Don't bend over. It doesn't help. It pulls you down." He feels a hand on his shoulder, a slab of meat that insists on pulling him back up on the rack with the rest of the slabs of dead cow flesh. "Stand up straight and put your hands behind your head. That'll open your lungs up. If you don't get air, you'll pass out. And you're not getting any air bent over."
Drew woozily straightens up, and puts his shaking hands behind his head. Is this how he's going to rob me? his thoughts yammer away. Stand me up and sucker punch me? Or stick me in my ripe, wussy belly? Is this how Drew dies? When things seem bad, Drew Chatterly turns melodramatic.
But the other just stands there and watches, until he seems convinced Drew isn't going to pass out. "My name is Kenny, by the way."
"And I'm unathletic," Drew offers, feeling the pathetic, familiar need to be liked settle in.
"Nice to meet you, Unathletic."
They just stand there for a while, Kenny studying the sky, Drew panting like an old, beaten dog. Finally, Drew gets his breath and tests the waters. "Why could you use a good fight?"
"Oh, I was just kidding. You know how it is, you get to feeling bad-ass when you're out alone in the woods, and you see someone and for just a second you think it would be great to beat the hell out of them. But then that's not very nice, so you think maybe they are like some mugger out to kill you, in which case it would not only be fun but socially acceptable to beat the hell out of them. Well, I get that impulse a lot."
Drew thinks, Maybe for you, Mr. Universe. Some of us don't have those kind of illusions about our bulging pecs. But then he remembers his first instinctive desire to ram Kenny at full speed, to send him flying, to reclaim his piece of the world, his turf, with a sort of primeval masculinity. "Yeah, I know the feeling. I just don't have any illusions about being able to ever act on it."
Kenny thinks about this for a minute. A strong wind starts howling out of the hollows on either side of the running path, and somewhere to the east the helicopter has landed and its thumping blades are slowing gradually, with the slowing of his heart. Thumpa thumpa thump. Thump.
Finally, Kenny intones, "Well, I don't think about the practical problems of being violent. The idea that I could actually hurt someone by fighting them never crosses my mind. Or that I could get hurt."
Drew harrumphs, feeling a little more at ease. He tests the water again with his toe, but with a bit of a compliment seated on the tip. "Of course not, you're huge. Looking at you, I'd guess you were some kind of monster soccer player. I bet you've slide-tackled hundreds of people right into the hospital."
Kenny laughs, but his eyes stay locked on the ground. Unconsciously, he flexes his right arm a little bit, touching the rigid muscles in the forearm with his left hand. That favorite subject, myself. "Well, I played varsity in high school, but now I just sort of do it IM."
Drew is fascinated by the way his muscles ripple in his arms. Catching a definite homoerotic subcontext in the way he's staring, he reasserts his machismo as best he knows how. "Well, I used to run track. The 800 meter. We didn't beat the hell out of each other, but I had pretty sturdy legs, and I used to like to think I could kick like a mule."
Kenny looks at him steadily. He has softened considerably since they first encountered each other. "800 meter is a tough run."
"Damn straight," Drew says, enjoying the respect for his own, pathetic version of masculinity, drawing it out. "My coach called it the hardest event in a meet."
Kenny falls silent, and suddenly Drew feels like a parody of himself, out here in the woods with some monster of masculinity, desperately wanting to be respected. Kenny probably thinks runners are pussies, he realizes. Look at him, he's huge. Recognizing this approach as futile, Drew decides to try another attack. He decides to probe a little deeper, to avoid being just another dude looking to swap varsity stories. "So, if it wasn't getting hurt or hurting someone else, what keeps you from getting violent?"
Kenny shrugs. "I don't know. Honestly, some times I think it's just conditioning. Just a belief that it isn't the right thing to do, but not grounded in any sort of moral or ethical rationale."
Drew turns on his psychiatrist mode. This guy has issues, and they're fascinating. "Do you feel that way a lot?"
Kenny snaps out of his reverie suddenly and looks up. "Oh, what the fuck am I doing? I don't even know you, dude. Thanks for listening to me ramble. I better jam."
He starts to walk away, but Drew doesn't want this one to get away. This could be a hell of a story. He grapples with thoughts, emotions, and suddenly just shouts, "Hey!"
Kenny turns around, a big lumbering bear whose curiosity is aroused.
"Look, Kenny, I'm Drew. I'm something of a fuck, but I realize when someone has issues to deal with." He stops to make sure that what he just said didn't come off as condescending or pretentious. "I'm not really good at talking. I don't ... well, I don't relate well. But I can listen. We can talk if you want. I mean, well... " He starts to flounder. God, I hope he doesn't think I'm gay and that I'm trying to come on to him. I was staring at his muscles for Christ's sake. I must look like some tart. Then he just sighs and says, "Well, I could actually use a chance to talk things out a little. I'm going to grab coffee, and if you want we could just go and shoot the breeze."
Kenny flinches at the word coffee. "I hate these god damned coffee shops. They're so ..."
"I hate that word," Kenny grumbles. "Bourgeois. Bourgeoisie," he sounds out the syllables with a mock-French accent.
This guy is bitter, Drew thinks. I love it. "Me, too."
They stand there in silence for a second, and finally Drew offers, "Well, dinner maybe? Or a few games of pinball? Basically, I just don't feel like wandering around alone the rest of the night."
Kenny glances around, suspicious that this is some trick, and finally says, "OK, sure. What the heck. Pinball sounds cool."
They turn up at Pinball Pete's on South University about half an hour and thirty-thousand complaints about the University of Michigan later. "And the one thing that irks me most, is those English professors who think they know what art is, and have got it all down, and still don't give you a chance to go your own way," Drew rails against the night, his voice high and scornful.
"I don't know anything about the English department. I took one English class freshman year, and I don't ever want to have to deal with that again."
"What happened?" Drew asks, opening the door for Kenny.
"Oh, I wrote this essay on Plato, because we were reading the Republic. And I didn't understand much of it, but I did get the whole thing about the guy dying and seeing visions of the afterlife, and coming back and trying to tell everyone about it."
"The Myth of Er," Drew offers.
"Yeah. So I wrote this paper that I was really excited about, that I did all this research on, and when I handed it in, my TA just looked at me like, what the hell is this? When I got it back, she scribbled all over it, and everything she said was like, 'This is off,' and, 'Your diction is too baroque.' Baroque! Can you fucking believe that? Anyhow, the next day, I took a fresh copy to another TA and let him critique it, because I knew him from another class, and he loved it. After that, I couldn't help but thinking it was a bunch of b.s. the people in English make up to cover their own insecurities." Then, as an afterthought, "Oh, no offense, man. I'm sure you're not like that."
"None taken," Drew shrugged, and dropped a five-spot into the change machine.
Kenny watches the skinny, nervous kid, and thinks to himself, This guy is all right. He actually listens when you talk. And he isn't always trying to shove conversation back into the book. He's all right.
They sidle up to the Star Wars pinball machine and start dropping quarters. Between balls, Drew tries to coax more out of Kenny about his rage. Finally, Drew says, "I don't get physically angry very much, but when I do I take it out on my friends. I do shitty stuff like make up conflicts that aren't there. Or I'll just go out and see how big a prick I can be. You know, finding random people and pegging their little faults and just railing on them."
"I can't do that. I don't have that deep an understanding of people," Kenny says, staring at the scoreboard which Drew has run up to an impressive fifty million points in two balls.
"I bet you could. I think most people can. They just have to let it out. Just like physical rage where you want to beat on people."
"Hmm," Kenny says.
An hour later, they drift over to the air hockey tables, and conversation shifts to the evening's events. "Would you believe I have a date tonight?" Drew asks, incredulous himself.
"Who with?" Kenny asks politely.
"This girl in my Shakespeare discussion. She was talking about Lear's fool the other day, and I just thought she was fascinating. So I asked her out. Didn't even tell her my name. She already knew my name. So she said yeah."
Kenny hammers a straight-shot goal. "That's awesome dude."
Drew stares after the shot for a second, then shifts the subject back to Kenny. "You know, maybe you just need to hang with different people. It might be environment that makes you feel the way you do."
"I guess. That's what my friends tell me too. I mean, my real friends, not the assholes I live with." To punctuate the 'asshole,' Kenny returns a fast-corner shot with another straight-shot goal.
"Jesus, nice shot," Drew says.
Finally, after a decisive victory by Kenny, they head out. On the street, Drew offers a few words, unable to resist. "You're an interesting guy, Kenny. And honest. I appreciate that."
"Yeah. Thing is, how would you know if I wasn't?"
Drew nods, mulling this over. "I wouldn't. But I think you are. Appearance is everything."
"That, in a nutshell, is what makes me so damn mad here."
"No, just that no one knows how mad I really am sometimes, and that makes me even madder."
"We're all sort of just drifting around, bumping into each other. No one has the time to delve very deep into anyone else. I guess you end up having to work it all out for yourself."
"Well, talking helps, anyhow. It's all just like I'm walling up this dike, stopping the flood with my thumb, but at least talking helps," Kenny says, and sighs in a quiet, unsteady way.
"Maybe I'll see you around?" Drew asks as Kenny starts to trudge away.
"Yeah, you just never can tell." He buries his hands in his pockets, shoulders slumped, eyes on the ground in front of him. Drew watches him until he rounds the corner heading off towards the student ghetto. And there goes someone else who thinks this is all just a crazy mess, he thinks, and heads back to his own private ghetto.
...on to Chapter Thirteen...
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