Joyland

a hub for short fiction

The Border

And then she pulled off the highway and rolled into the town there and stopped in front of a bar and said “Get out” and I said “For real?” and she said “Get out” and I got out and she popped the trunk and I retrieved my bag and closed the trunk and without looking back at me she gunned the car and drove away.

This was how it was going to end, in a kind of preordained melodrama, with an egregious stupidity that would manifest itself like this. We had just crossed over from Quebec. The gust of wind kicking up the parking lot dirt was probably Canadian. And now I was here, the first town in New Hampshire, and I was in front of a bar and that triggered a thirst.

So I walked into the bar. Inside, the dust of yesterday’s drink hovered in the sun and I walked up to the bar and sat down and I said, “What’s local?” and the bartender shrugged and said, “We’re not known for making much” and I asked for a whiskey and he asked for ID.

“What is it with Americans and ID?” I said and to this the bartender shrugged, like he should have, since I had just asked him to defend a law he had nothing to do with and he said, “Just show the ID,” leery of the response, the dance of proving something you both already know. I reached for my wallet and produced my driver’s license and the bartender said, “Percy’s an old fashioned name,” and I agreed. “I’m named after my grandfather,” I said.

The bar was a log cabin gone to seed, like the clubhouse of an old biker gang that had been busted in a spectacular police raid. The floor was wood and warped and creaked and something about the smell of the place reminded me of the old Montreal taverns, the “bienvenue aux dames” places, with fat guys in toques drinking pitchers of soapy beer and complaining about the Habs.

The bartender poured my whiskey and I downed it and he poured me another. “Percy’s thirsty,” he said without a hint of humor but I smiled anyway and then he smiled as well. I heard laughter from a corner of the bar and I turned and saw two figures, shadows protected from the sunlight. They were laughing on their own, not at my expense, though I wouldn’t blame them if they did. “I need a motel or something,” I said. And then I told the bartender my story.

I told him I had been seeing Jo for three months.

I told him she worked in marketing and that her mother disliked me and that her parents had recently divorced and this bugged her though she didn’t like to admit it.

I told him her mother would call her up and talk about sex because they were both seeing someone now.

I told him Jo found me mouthy, especially recently, and I couldn’t disagree.

I told him we had been fighting but I won a weekend at a resort in the White Mountains in a charity auction and figured this way we can figure out if it’s a go or not. We were on a quest.

I told him about arguing as we hit traffic on the Champlain out of Montreal and kept arguing right up to the border. And we were civil at the border because everyone in Canada is afraid of American customs agents even if we don’t like to admit it because the worst thing you could do to Canadians is keep them out of the States. And that after we passed through, we started arguing again, and then she pulled into this town and here I am.

I told him I wanted a beer, too.

And he poured me a beer and called a motel and spoke to someone named Sheila. “There’s a Best Western a few miles down the interstate,” he said, protecting me from whatever Sheila had on offer. I couldn’t be bothered. I wanted this bar and nothing more. A bed without infestation. A shower that worked, perhaps. A way to get home.

I imagined Jo approaching the resort, the grandeur of the approach if it looked like the photos on the internet, which managed to be impressive and unimpressive at the same time, a kind of generic New England scene that evoked warmth and luxury and relaxation and a slightly modern Rockwell vision of the region, like Rockwell wearing a thong, that kind of modern, and I imagined she was thinking she would enjoy her weekend, break up with me in her mind, and maybe even pick up some bland pool boy at the spa and fuck him just because he wasn’t me, and then call and find me and pick me up and we’d go home to Montreal to never see each other again. “I also want another whiskey,” I said and with it my shoulders kind of hunched and I became one with the bar, somehow. A denizen.

The bartender introduced himself as Jack. I told him that was a fine bartender’s name and he told me his full name was Jackson and I assumed he was named after the president and he said he was named after the painter. And then a grizzled woman in a lumberjack shirt walked in and sat next to me and said her name was Sheila. Her chin sprouted an inordinate amount of long and wispy graying whiskers. She smelled of cigarettes in that I-smoke-and-don’t-shower-much-or-open-the-windows kind of way and she told me my room was ready and then Jack pulled a beer from the tap for her and I thanked her. Jack told her the abridged version of my story. “He got dumped by his girl right in front of the bar,” he said.

I imagined Jo in the hot tub eating French fries and talking to her mother about the sex she wasn’t having because I was a loser, or the sex she was having with a bunch of guys who weren’t me and I could hear her mother’s overly-enthusiastic approval. I picked up my phone and thought about chucking it. Or turning it off.

I recognized my inherent flaw. I was constructed as the sum of a series of nothing obviously redeemable. Unloveable in an unthreatening way. A Disney level of unloveable. And she was the same. I realized that she was selfish, perhaps more than I was, and sad, and her sadness was being played out on a loop that made her sadder and more selfish and that to her, only her own sadness mattered, and so she was blind to the sadness around her. She had used her sadness as the mortar for a wall of ignorance. And I had used her ignorance as a chance to get laid repeatedly. I was never in the relationship for her. I was it in for me. She had been disposable. And yet she was the one who had left me stranded in New Hampshire.

I pulled out my wallet and put my credit card on the bar. “I’m already running your tab, Percy,” Jack said and I shrugged and Sheila said, “Percy’s an old fashioned name” and I told them about my grandfather. He was a doctor. He was married three times. His first two wives died, both of them while skiing, which seemed odd to everyone though I had never seen it as odd because no one really acknowledges their family as weird just different. His third wife was also a doctor and she hated skiing and they produced four children, the youngest of whom was my father. My father’s name was not Percy. And here I am stuck in this town in northern New Hampshire and I’m going to get drunk at this bar. That’s what I said.

“Give me your passport,” Sheila told me. “I’m going to put it in the safe. And give me your wallet.” And for a reason I still don’t get I did as I was told and I gave her my wallet. Jack took the credit card and put it in the cash register behind the bar and then I reached for my bag and opened the zipper and searched for my passport. And I searched. And I closed my eyes and saw the passport in the glove compartment of the car and I smiled and I asked for another beer. “My passport is on its way to North Conway,” I said. I picked up my phone and called Jo’s number and that voice came on, the bearer-of-bad-news-cellphone voice, meaning her phone had no service, lost in the shadows of the White Mountains, or she had shut it off. Or she had blocked me. Already. She had already put me behind her. I found the reservation for the resort and called the number and left her a message with the front desk. I was lucid enough to leave the number for the bar.

“You’re stuck in America,” Sheila said. She took my wallet and waved to the shadowy figures in the corner and left the bar and I was alone with Jack. He poured a shot of bourbon and said “On me” and I downed that and waved for another. “Now now,” Jack said but he poured it anyway.

I told him that my mouth was too big for it’s own good. That those things that had made me successful in business were not always good in my personal life and Jack noted that if that’s the case, we no longer have to wonder why the economy’s the way it is.

I told him I thought letting Jo drive, suggesting even that we use her car, was a sign of my intent, of my giving, but she didn’t see it that way and I realized now women and men use different symbols to navigate their parallel lives.

I told him she was not the one but she was very athletic in bed and more than once I had woken up sore but sore in a good way.

I told him I needed a burger and Jack picked up the phone and ordered me a burger and some fries.

I told him if she didn’t call me back I was fucked.

And the burger arrived and it was big and just barely beyond manageable, meaning it was an American burger, and it was delicious, it was the best burger I remembered ever having and Jack told me I was drunk, but I insisted, it was the best burger, and as if to prove it was the burger and not the meaning of the burger or my state of drunk, I told him the fries sucked and Jack said, “Those fries are famous.”

And I stumbled to the motel and Sheila helped me to my room but only after she had made me ford a lifetime of smoke to the back office to witness the reality of my wallet in the safe. To establish more trust than was necessary. And the back room was a museum of Sheila’s flotsam, a quantity of junk that was impressive but not Reality Show impressive. “What’s in those boxes?” I asked, and pointed to a corner studded with boxes in various states of decay, all covered in Chinese writing. Or Japanese, and Sheila said, “I used to have an online Korean porn business but it didn’t work out,” and she shrugged and she led me out and to my room.

And I fell onto the bed and slept in my clothes and woke with the sun attempting entry through decaying curtains made thick with age and bad design, and Sheila knocked on the door and she said that Jo had called the bar and that I would be picked up tomorrow. Sheila said, “She knew about the passport the whole time,” and she laughed.

I had a bad taste in my mouth from the night before. I went to a restaurant and on the wall was a photo of then-candidate Obama enjoying the fries I had dismissed. Being New Hampshire, there were photos of would-be presidential candidates from both parties. Bush. Father and son. Jack Kemp. McCain. Twice. Dukakis. Both Clintons. Bill looked the happiest of the bunch. Reagan looked like he was going to bless the fries. I had pancakes and bacon and home fries. I drank coffee until I was dry heaving from my elevated heart rate. I walked around town and that took less than 10 minutes. I returned to my room and took a shower long enough for the hot water to run out.

I imagined Jo in a hot tub. Surrounded by flowers. With soft music, dimmed lights. A glass of wine. I imagined her doing everything she had imagined doing in a spa in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and now it was possible because I was not there to make demands, to prick her dream, to want things she didn’t want. She was free of compromise. She would order room service and stay in that tub until her skin fell off and then she would treat herself to a massage and she might call her friends, and she would lament her loss while celebrating another freedom, another new freedom that was the only consolation to the end of another relationship. She would feel sorry for herself later, much later, after perhaps drinking the entire bottle of wine, and she might order cake, or cupcakes if they had them, she loved cupcakes, and she would watch something on pay-per-view, and fall asleep in her bathrobe, her hair still wet, blind to the electric light emanating from the flat screen television.

She would hate me more for making her feel the way she felt. Even though she felt this way almost all the time. Even when she was happy.

Later that day, back at the bar, Jack said, “That diner makes a meat pie like they do up in Quebec. And poutine.” And I asked if Obama had eaten that too and Jack poured me a whiskey and I brooded about the stupid popularity of poutine, it was the Quebecois equivalent of the taco now, and wondered what was next, where else would the wind blow, what more had to happen to me, in this place, in this life, what else did I have, a stranger in a familiar land that now required a passport of me because some years ago these psychopathic Saudis decided to do something amazingly awful with someone else’s airplane?

What if Jo didn’t come here to return my passport? And what if I didn’t care?

That night a band played the bar and they were so awful as to be enjoyable. As if the range of our experiences is a circle and awful is closer to amazing than we realize. The band played what felt like the entire CCR catalog. They played “Proud Mary” twice and their version of “Lodi” was long and pointless and verged on becoming prog rock, a small town house band playing Yes playing CCR.

And I slept in my clothes once again on the old bed in Sheila’s tired motel.

And so this morning, I walked slowly to the bar, and I wait. I wait and listen to the sounds of the highway, coming from over the small forest that separates this town from the highway, from the lifeblood of the nation. I hear trucks and motorcycles and cars whiz past, bypassing this place. And Jackson steps out of the bar and says Jo just called and she’s not far. And I try to imagine what will happen, the meeting, the forced smiles and the awkward lies we will have to tell at the border. I’m going to tell the border guy Jo is a bitch. That’s what I’m going to do and the thought of it is as delicious as yesterday’s burger. And she pulls up and reaches into the glove compartment and throws the passport at me. And then she drives off. And I kind of have to laugh.