By Travis Thrasher
“If you want a world where love is real, you must allow each person the freedom to choose.”–John Eldredge
These nauseating Halloween fun-filled families all decked out in their festive themed outfits camera-ready for Facebook. I don’t have to be drunk to despise them. But I am and I do.
I’m tired and it’s ten minutes after midnight and I have no idea why I’m checking online for people I know and don’t know but maybe I’m looking for her and for them and wondering that maybe just maybe I’ll see what they look like even if I’ve been blocked. Because maybe there’s a chance that she’ll unblock me and show me what the kids look like all dressed up in those costumes I never used to help put on.
Anything after midnight for me is angry time and I’m still up which is no good. Not good at all. But still I’m waiting to get a knock on the door and to open it and to see them. Maybe, right? Just maybe?
She knows me too well.
She left me because she knows me.
I’m tired. And I might just doze off a bit with the laptop on the place it’s named after.
I’m tired but I’ve been this way for a long damn time and I know I’ll wake up and know nothing more and know no better but that’s okay I guess. Maybe I’ll just stay here on this couch sleeping with the light on and the wine glass empty and the sound of the hamster spinning its wheel and partying in its cage oh so nearby.
God to be a hamster without any worries or fears stuck in his little sanctuary.
In some ways we’re all hamsters.
Where am I?
The buzzing synth begins and gets louder. Humming that familiar song. The Radiohead song I use as an alarm does its job.
“Everything,” Thom Yorke tells me thirty seconds in while I sit at the edge of the bed.
I look around. Tiny room I don’t recognize. Muted light. A twin bed. No pictures.
“Everything in its right place.”
But I have no idea if this is the right place to be.
I don’t even have to ask, of course. The thick coating in my mouth, the jigsaw pieces in my head, the hovering motion of being on a stormy sea.
I shut off the alarm and then go to the nearest door to find the bathroom. I turn on the light and squint and then look at myself in the mirror.
Oh, yeah. That guy. I know that guy.
Nolan. I know that. I can’t come up with the last name, but I’m foggy from some kind of Halloween party I vaguely remember.
Nolan sounds like a last name, right? That director you like. Doesn’t sound like a first name for a guy born in 1971.
That guy I’m examining looks like some famous actor. Perhaps the twin brother of the actor. But I’d be the less attractive twin. The actor used to be heart-throb in his twenties and even thirties. Lately he’s been looking a bit rough around the edges. Even more rough than me.
Honestly, I have no idea where the hell I am.
There are clothes of mine in a suitcase. I take a shower to clear the cobwebs then check my emails while wrapped in a towel try to drip myself dry.
Yeah, that’s me.
I see the questions about books. Books sold and books ordered and books on hold and books.
I own and manage a bookstore.
Oh, crap. That’s right.
An indie called HH. I tried to do something cool, something the millennials might like, a place where we sell an experience over retail services. An actual brick and mortar store in 2016. Yeah, it’s a bookstore but I don’t call it that. What does “HH” stand for? Even that I want to be a riddle. If someone really has to know, however, I tell them.
I think that’s a nice name. I had been told I might be sued or at least be forced to change my name since I’m no relation to Hemingway. I’m in the Chicago suburbs, however, further west than the writer’s Oak Park home where he great up.
It’s sevenish. The bookstore opens at nine. It’s in Appleton, a quirky suburb that’s been notable lately with the deaths of a couple of students and the school shooting at the high school. Bizarre stuff. A student at the school turned out to be a hero and averted a tragedy.
HH has been more quiet lately. But it’s probably my fault. I haven’t exactly been the star retailer of the year.
I remember I’ve been in this apartment for a year.
What the hell’s with this amnesia? Seriously.
I’m not married. No girlfriend. Parents living not too far away.
After getting dressed, I walk into the kitchen to find a whole lotta nothing. I’ll get coffee at the store. We’re not competing with the coffee shop in town, but we do have some brew for those who like to come in and camp out. Those business people who don’t want to rent an office but also don’t want to work from home. Those writers dreaming of being the next Hemingway and haven’t figured out those glory days of being a writer have passed. Even the glory days of publishing have dissipated, the ones in the late 90’s and early oughts with the Barnes & Nobles and the Borders and the wonderful hardcovers faceout everywhere and the browsing and the $25 bestseller that’s actually on sale. Yeah, a different era.
I see the note on the counter.
All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.—Edgar Allan Poe
It’s written in cursive that I couldn’t begin to try to emulate. I wonder if I got it from someone at the bookstore.
A dream within a dream.
I look around the kitchen. Then the small living room with an ugly couch and a flatscreen TV on the wall. An empty wine bottle is on the coffee table.
Something feels . . . off.
Something feels like it should be happening but isn’t. I’m missing something.
Radiohead is wrong. Everything’s not in its right place. At least not with Nolan Stewart.
I head out the door and to downtown Appleton.
The call comes halfway during my drive to HH. I’m listening to Foals’ “What Went Down” which has been in my cd player for the last . . . what? Year? Year and a half? It’s been the cd of the last couple of years. I look down and recognize the number and don’t want to pick it up since I’m getting called every hour from all those bill collectors who may or may not be computed-generated. The thing about this call is that it’s coming from Carol Stream, not too far from Appleton. I decide I better pick it up.
“Hey, Nolan, are we still on for lunch?”
It’s Betty, one of my publishing contacts. We get together perhaps quarterly to talk about books and the industry and the fact that neither of us can sell the books we need to sell.
“Definitely,” I tell her. “Remind me where and when again?”
We talk for a few moments, then before she goes her tone turns a bit ominous.
“I need to warn you—I’ve got some news you’re going to freak out about,” Betty says.
We often share crazy and funny and baffling stories with each other about writers or readers or the book business. But nothing which sounds like some deep and dark secret.
“What sort of news?” I ask. “That sounds scary.”
“I’ll tell you in person. But it’s about Jack. That . . . that’s just all I can say.”
I chuckle just out of nervousness.
“Okay. I’ll see you soon.”
Jack is the publisher who’s run Spotlight Books for as long as I can remember. He reminds me of The Most Interesting Man In The World from those Dos Equis beer commercials. Always tanned and debonair with his slicked back gray hair and perfectly coifed beard and his endless wisdom and pontification. He’s been in HH quite a few times, trying to sell me on something or trying to get one of his authors into my store. I oblige and go along with the Most Interesting Man In The World because I have to admit I’m not that interesting. He looks like he just got back from Bolivia meeting with some famous literary writer he’ll be translating into English while I look like I’m some middle-aged stressed out suburban father stuck in some kind of boring Groundhog Day sort of story.
Wonder what Jack’s up to.
I’m sure a story about Jack from Betty will be interesting.
I arrive to main street and find my usual parking spot up the hill from the store. Before I shut off the car, I listen to the Foals’ song play.
“It’s a new day just in time for me to say I’m sorry
For all the things I said I didn’t mean
It’s a new time, so why must I wait in line for what is mine?
It’s a new day, why must it be the same?”
The song, “Lonely Hunter”, is one of my favorites. I listen to it as I stare out at the bright blue sky hovering over with the sun starting to raise its hand. Lately, however, it seems like it’s just been giving me a bright middle finger. Reminding me of a store I’m declaring bankruptcy on soon and a life that seems so sad that I wake up with amnesia wondering where I happen to be.
“Why must I wait in line for what is mine?” the singer sings.
Maybe that’s why I like these words. Because I keep questioning why I have to keep waiting, day after day, for something I assume is truly mine.
The question I need to ask is along the same lines as that Edgar Allan Poe quote.
Are our lives ever truly ours to begin with? And do we get any say in helping to write them?
It only takes Betty a few moments before she starts to whisper at the booth of the Chinese restaurant we’re sitting in.
“Jack lost his mind,” she says.
I laugh. “That’s not news.”
“Nolan—seriously, he went batty.”
Betty looks around the dining room to see if there are Russian spies or something like that listening in.
“He locked himself in his office, then came barging out of it. Completely naked.”
The look on Betty’s face shows me she’s not kidding. Her wide eyes, the look of WTF that I’ve seen before when we’ve shared funny publishing-related stories. Those are boring compared to this.
“Why? Was he drunk or taking drugs?”
“Nobody knows,” she whispers, her face completely perplexed. “He had his phone and keys in his hand and bolted out of the building and in his car.”
“Naked?” I said, laughing.
“Buck naked,” she says
“When’d this happen?”
“Yesterday. The department just flipped out. We haven’t heard anything. The only thing that was unusual was the manuscript that he’d just printed out to read. He had been speaking to Mark, one of our fiction editors. They’d received a manuscript from a new author—a novel of some kind. Jack told Mark the first few chapters were the scariest he’d ever written. That was before he freaked out.”
“What’s the book? Who’s the writer?”
“I don’t know,” Betty says. “But what—did some book make him lose his mind?”
“I’ve been around some authors who’ve made me lose mine,” I say.
An inside joke about one of writers Betty got to come do a signing and talk at my store. A nightmare. Beyond a nightmare.
“We still have no idea where Jack is. None.”
It’s a funny, bewildering story. Unexpected. Of course, these days, anything is expected.
The Cubs will be playing in game six of the world series. We either have a criminal or a creep who’ll be elected president. In one week.
Perhaps the pressure of everything made Jack snap. And streak. Sometimes I feel like doing it. I’m just not the world’s most interesting man. It’s not really exciting to see me naked.
When I say goodbye to Betty, telling her to keep me posted on Jack, I make a note on my phone to ask Mark to fill in any missing details. Mark comes to HH all the time, mostly to read and check out what’s new and exciting and recently been released. He likes and trusts my taste in books, so we spend a lot of time talking about the literary world.
I can’t wait to ask him what Jack was reading. Maybe the most interesting man in the world was reading the most terrifying tale ever told.
The Cubs win.
I’m at my apartment and still feeling like something’s off. I’ve had a few beers but I’m not bombed. I’m just a bit bored.
It’s like there’s a fuse waiting to be sparked and set alive.
I think of Jack rushing out of his corner office with all those windows. Running past the employees without an ounce of clothing on. I wish I could have seen their faces. I wish I could know why in the world Jack would do something like that.
Then again, everything feels odd these days.
I look at my phone and click on the photos and don’t find any there. This isn’t a new phone. I know that simply by feeling the slight scratches on the front surface. Yet it feels empty. Like it hasn’t been lived in for very long.
When I’m finally in my bed ready for sleep, it doesn’t come for quite some time. I stay awake, awash in my thoughts. Wondering what drives a successful businessman to do something so rash and irresponsible.
Before I’m out, I find myself picturing a couple running along a beach. Naked and free. Dancing, dashing over the water. But it’s not an episode of The Bachelor I’m imagining. It’s me. The woman—I can’t quite make her out. But I know her. And I love her. And somehow in someway I lost her.
I just can’t remember why. And I can’t remember why I can’t.
And the circle keeps going around and around and around.