A blue Volvo had been towed in the early hours of Tuesday morning, December 19th outside the Presbyterian Church on East Washington Street. Spraying rain had dissolved the soft, oblong pillows of snow into heaps of sorbet between the hours of 2:00 and 4:00.
Jean had spent the evening at an establishment called The Cue Bar. It was a strange place for a bar, next to an industrial estate, next to a bowling alley which was next to a Wholesaler. That whole evening Jean had sensed that the rules governing a civilised congregation of adults amounted to no more than those of some infantile game. It was an idea she’d carried in the reserves of her mind since childhood, but which now seemed to manifest itself in everything about the bar: in the toy money that was exchanged for booze and in the ugly jerking of bodies betraying ulterior motives.
Throughout the night, various middling men had looked on with semi-leery disdain, their skin burnt and shiny. She fantasised that their hearts whirred with lurid psychoses and ‘motivational’ propaganda: self-made man ideologies that rutted with their egos. Some of these shining examples were the same age as her – some younger still – and already believing they’d earned the world and its holiday home. Some she had known as little boys in her hometown. Garnishing the edges of the room, one could find the stock self-ruined types: those so desperate for counsel that they were unable to listen, delivering repetitious monologues. One man had a sad, puggish face with a nose like a mutated strawberry and grape-like eyes that wanted to crawl back inside his head. He sat with his legs splayed on a low stool outside the ladies’ rest room, his babyish feet barely tickling the floor. He lurched forward each time Jean walked past and tried to stutter something. She felt the kind of escalating frustration towards him that bullies feel only for their most silent victims: the ones who, time after time, refuse to fight back.
Others wore belts that suspended their soft bellies above their jeans. There they hung, barely contained, like water in a polythene bag from the fairground, a chubby goldfish flailing at the bottom. She wondered where their bellies would fall to were it not for the enforced custom of trousers. It was more than likely, she mused, that these were the ones who had taken up serious philosophical drinking at the tender age of seventeen, when they were slender and intense and could excite a girl into bed with an exaggerated gesture, a quirky laugh, or simply by placing a warm hand on their shoulder. Now, some ten to twenty years later, they glanced at Jean with small eyes made smaller with ale and time, with half-cut intellectual analysis and the shells of self-images they once understood. They seemed to say: “I’ll fuck you, but it’s not me who should be grateful.” ‘I wish you all had one neck and that I had my hands on it’, so said the serial killer Carl Panzram: these were the words that taunted her brain that night.
She had a rip in her tights. She didn’t care about it when she was indoors, dancing half-heartedly at the shouty music. But now, outside, her skin felt bitten as if that one tiny rip in her tights rendered her naked: the true harshness of winter is most accurately experienced on naked flesh.
The distinct sensation of waking up in someone else’s trousers: towelling, like a baby after a good clearing of the bowels and an affectionate, sanitary cleanup from someone who cares. The sheets are too clean, too tight, too fresh, too made, too tucked in. The drunk feels around for the contents of his brain on the pillow, squeezes his fingers tightly together as he tries to scoop the liquid up off soggy fabric and in a cupping, pouring motion attempts to trickle it back in through the bludgeoned cavity. “I am a drunk”, he says and sand spills in through his lips, parching the inside of his cheeks and coating his throat. “Aaaurgh” comes from his chest along with a measure of phlegm that is so dense and flavourful it demands forensic investigation. But there is no tissue. So he carries it in his inflated gob to where he instinctively (and correctly) guesses there to be a bathroom. Suddenly he is stabbed in the chest by his own reflection. He spits into an old fashioned sink which reeks of chamomile lotion and undiluted TCP. He stares at the pellet of phlegm, partly to marvel at its intricate design and partly to avoid his own reproachful gaze. Then suddenly, whoosh: it begins in his bowels and accelerates up the trunk of his torso like a match flame consuming cooker gas. It welds, in an instant, his ribs into a spherical cage that shrinks and shrinks to enclose his heart. But it doesn’t stop there – it charges up through his throat and engulfs his brain, slapping the image of a dark sky, a snow filled street and his blue Volvo with its crumpled and helpless face onto his retinas.
Jean had decided to sleep in the first car she found. She had walked and thought so long that the cold had ceased to matter. Her skin had become hardened gristle protecting her vital organs from the cold. Almost without hope, she had sauntered along a row of cars, running the pads of her fingers over the driver-side door handles. Finally, a crack of open window with some semi-fresh vomit! It had been a sloppy job. It was fresh, but not fresh enough to deter her from sliding a flat hand in through the crack, snaking her arm down and yanking up the lock. A glorious triumph. She heaved the door open and, without premeditation, collapsed – strewn across the driver and passenger seats. The gear stick dug into her left boob and the rim of a sticky, sweet whiskey bottle tickled her right eyebrow. Her eyes flickered: something swinging and silver was entrancing; the keys were still in the ignition. Her grateful smile widened and some saliva slid onto the upholstery. She jolted the keys and flicked on the heater. ‘Happy Christmas’, she said, with a mouthful of sleepy spit.