This is a story I wrote as part of a failed proposal to 33 1/3 to write a book of short stories based on the songs on the Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday album. Song lyrics are included at the end of the story.
He stayed on the sidewalk and finished a cigarette. The blinds in the living room were drawn and he could see the television’s flicker through the cheap plastic. Across the street, a little pit bull barked and jumped at a fence. The dim bump of music and voices tinkled down from some front porch or backyard further into the neighborhood. A car slowed and then sped up as it moved down the street, and he felt like an idiot all over again. I am a fucking grown-up, he thought. A teacher. What the hell am I doing?
He took out the notebook and opened to his notes from last night in the club, barely recognizing the hurried, exuberant handwriting. An underlined word: HALLELUJAH. If he actually wound up writing the article, if this was more than just a simple way to score, to hang out with some hoodrats and skater kids and feel like anything was possible again, he would open it with something like this: “Her parents named her Hallelujah, but the kids all called her Holly.”
Holly. There was something about her. That was why he was standing here in the middle of the night, a little high and a little drunk and stalling through another cigarette. He looked at the text messages: Can I come over? Sure. The girl was smarter than that, or he had thought so last night, but then clearly she wasn’t because unless this was part of an elaborate joke, she was in there waiting for him right now.
He finished the cigarette and threw it on the sidewalk, took another hit from the flask. Did the blinds just open and close? He shook his head. He was higher than he wanted to be, much more than he’d planned, but that was becoming part of his deal these last few weeks. Months, maybe. The blinds were still. Maybe he had imagined it. He walked to the door and wondered if he should call or text or knock. If he knocked she might be out the back door before he could get his phone out of his pocket.
The door opened and he jumped back. “Fuck, you scared me,” he said. The girl, Holly, was standing in the doorway in a pair of Shrek pajama pants and a Bad Brains tee shirt. She turned and walked to the couch and he watched the bounce of her backside in the pajamas.
“Close it,” she said, and he did and then followed her into the living room.
She settled into the couch with a sigh and he arranged himself on the armchair. The television was playing old skateboard videos, a teenage Tony Hawk spinning around empty California swimming pools. The sound was down and a Replacements album played on a light blue CD player. The room was dim and dirty -- wrappers and pizza boxes and dishes on the floor, the walls decorated with show posters that had been ripped off barfronts or windows. A few books were stacked on the table and he couldn’t fight his curiosity, leaned over to check the spines: On the Road, the collected works of Flannery O’ Connor, Lolita, a few old Elmore Leonard novels. She didn’t say anything, just watched him looking around. She was comfortable with silence. He had noticed that last night, in the alley behind the club. No constant scurry to check something on her phone. None of the empty chatter he was subjected to on the off times he found himself alone with a student, their words eating up seconds like Pac Men chomping snack pellets. She just was, and the question of whether it was innocence or wisdom, genius or idiocy or something else was one of the things that had been nagging at him all day, one of the reasons he was squirming on this armchair right now, trying to seem cool and no doubt failing miserably in some way he would never understand.
On the coffee table, a bag of weed and a bowl made out of a toilet paper holder and aluminum foil. She picked it up, covered the back with one hand and lit the makeshift bowl with the other. She closed her eyes when she inhaled, held a pinky up like a debutante. She exhaled a stream of blue smoke. “I haven’t really done that much of this,” she said. She handed him the bowl and the lighter.
“You did plenty last night,” he said, and wondered if he had been wrong about the heroin, and if there was an article in all of this if that was the case. It was a funny bit of chemistry, he thought: the harder the drugs, the better a chance an article might have to find a publisher.
“Not that. I mean this,” she pointed a finger at him and then at herself. “You know.”
He lit the bowl. He did know. Or at least, he wasn’t going to be the one to take it off the table, not just yet. He coughed, feeling stupid because she hadn’t. She handed him a water bottle and he repeated the process and then handed back the bowl so she could fill it up again. He liked the way she didn’t seem to mind him staring. She didn’t seem to mind much of anything.
“Some light reading?” he said, indicating the books.
She paused just for a second and he felt like he was being scanned by some device. “The Kerouac is Gideon’s. I can’t even, with that,” she said.
He picked up the paperback, looked at Kerouac on the back cover, young and cool and iconic. He was never going to be Kerouac. That was clear now. He had published a few short stories in a few small magazines that nobody read. He had a half a novel on a computer somewhere, just like a million other people who weren’t going to be anything more than adjuncts or copywriters or landscapers. He wondered whether his eighteen year old self would be impressed or disgusted by the fact that he was getting high with a girl like this, who looked like Fiona Apple in that old video -- beautiful and doomed and likely to pull somebody down with her on the way to wherever she was headed.
The weed was kicking in on top of his high and he felt lighter all of the sudden, like the cloud he was walking around in had parted, just a little. He felt like talking. “I tried rereading that last year,” he said. “On the Road? And it was just too, I don’t know. Too much? Like, they really thought what they were doing was important, but they were just…” He almost said partying, or wasted, but caught himself before he said anything that might discourage her from doing whatever they were going to do next.
She nodded and took a baggie out of a drawer, started cutting lines on the table. The back of her shirt was pulled up and he noticed the satiny line of her thong, a tattoo that said “damn right” and then something else that was hidden by the pajamas. “I won’t be much for conversation if we go and do the rest of this,” she said.
“Or anything else,” he said. It was supposed to be a joke but it didn’t come out like one. She paused. Finally some change in her face but he couldn’t tell what it meant.
“Well,” she said. “To be honest, I’m not much for all this Humbert Humbert stuff.”
“I’m not that old,” he said. Now he wasn’t even sure if he was joking or not. “And you’re not that young.”
She waved a hand at him. “Demographics,” she said.
“So we’re going to…” he said, and immediately regretted it. Whatever was in her face before had changed back into a hustler’s pokerface. He picked up Lolita. “Great fucking book,” he said.
She nodded. There was something in her body movement, a looseness, her control ceding just the slightest bit. “You want to try this?” she said. “I know you didn’t, or last night you said….”
“I’m not sure.” It was a line he hadn’t crossed, the one he told himself he wouldn’t, the one that might mean all this partying was something more than partying, this whole project about the scene was more like an excuse than a project at all. “What’s it feel like?” he said.
She smiled. For the first time, he felt like she was right here, in this room with him, like whatever Holly container she had closed herself up in had fallen away and finally he was looking at Hallelujah. “Like a resurrection,” she said.
+ + +
He had lost track of exactly where they were somewhere around 76th, but the neighborhoods had gotten better, then ceded to chain restaurants and drug stores, and then fences and boarded up factories as they got closer to the 169.
It hadn’t felt like a resurrection, exactly, but it sure as hell felt good. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting – something dark and slow and lugubrious, like the second half of those drug movies, when the noses start bleeding. It had been nothing like that. Slow, he guessed, but bright and amazing and “If I Dare” had been playing on the little blue boombox and it was more like the first parts of those movies, everybody laughing and gauzy and beautiful and not a care in the world. He’d handed over his five twenties to the one called Gideon without a second thought. It was only now, his knee bumping against Holly in the back seat as they rumbled through the city, that he remembered why he’d brought the money in the first place. It seemed like a long time ago. He made a note that there was something metaphorical there, took out his notebook, stared at it and then put it back in his pocket.
The one with the skinhead haircut, Gideon, was driving, and the other skate-kid, Charlemagne, was in the passenger seat. Hallelujah, Gideon, and Charlemagne. Somebody had named them like secondary characters in a Flannery O’Connor story. He started laughing and Charlemagne turned around and laughed, too, patted him on the knee and nodded like he understood exactly what was happening.
They passed a donut shop, its lobby bright and warm. A few patrons were sitting in a low window booth, their heads drawn close together in conversation.
“What do you think they’re talking about?” he said.
“Robbing a bank,” Charlemagne said, he turned and smiled and held his fist out for a bump.
“Donuts,” Holly said.
“It’s up here soon,” Gideon said. “Pay attention, motherfuckers. One of you at least.”
He leaned back and watched the lights of the houses roll by in the window. Maybe he wasn’t so far from Kerouac, after all. This was the story – these kids, looking for whatever was next, something to get them higher, for peace or answers or questions, it was all the same story.
Then Gideon shouted “fuck!” and the car lurched right and he crashed into Holly. The notebook fell from his hand and he reached for it, but Gideon adjusted the car and they bounced to the other side. Charlemagne whooped and Gideon shouted “fuck fuck fuck” and he looked up to see headlights coming right at them. Gideon brought the car to the side of the road and careened into a three point turn. Cars shushed past them. Nobody stopped. Gideon was breathing heavy and Charlemagne was doubled over giggling in the passenger seat.
Holly was just sitting there, her hair glowing in the streetlight. He realized she hadn’t said a word the entire time it was happening, that she’d gone slack and just let herself slam into him, first this way and then that. She looked at him and smiled. “Let me tell you about Jesus,” she said.
by Craig Finn
She says always remember never to trust me
She said that the first night that she met me
She said there's gonna come a time when I'm gonna have to go
With whoever's gonna get me the highest
She said I won't be much for conversation
If we go and do the rest of this
And I've never been much for conservation
I kinda dig these awkward silences
She's got those Bones Brigade videos
She knew them back and forth, she slept with so many skaters
She had the place to herself, she had a couple hundred bucks
And he had nothing but the number
I like the guy who always answers the door
He always knows what you came to his house for
She said I won't be much for all this humbert humbert stuff
I've never really done that much of this
And I have to really try so hard not to fall in love
I have to concentrate when we kiss
She mouthed the words along to "Running Up That Hill"
That song got scratched into her soul
And he never heard that song before but he still got the metaphor
He knows some people that switched places before
I like the crowds at the really big shows
People touching people that they don't even know, yo
I guess the heavy stuff ain't quite at its heaviest
By the time it gets out to suburban Minneapolis
We were living up at Nicollet and 66th
With three skaters and some hoodrat chick
Drove the wrong way down 169
Almost died up by Edina High