“That’s good,” James says opening Tom’s Hoopla.
“I don’t know what it’s like to read this book.” Gaiman’s introduction begins. “I only know what it [is] like to live the writing of it.”
Tom changed the tense, not because [was] is inaccurate, but because he doesn’t believe the story is over yet. He’d only read a couple of chapters himself. He’s not a fast reader, tends to mouth the words, questioning his pronunciation of new ones while panning for meaning within the stories flow.
The sun falls early when the year is late, Tom mutters out loud to himself as his mind drifts through the broken lights of a disappearing dream.
“How long?” James asks, silencing their library book. “Jay’s wondering.”
“We passed through LA about an hour ago. Maybe another hour, or so,” Tom says, cracking his window for some fresh air. “How ’bout some music?”
“K,” James says, shuffling through his dad’s favorites.
“Crank it up.” Tom takes a hit off his coffee. “My mind’s been drift’n,” he says.
They’d reserved the suite adjoining Jay’s room, but it wasn’t available tonight. Originally they’d planned to travel with Jay’s sister and her two daughters, but both their schools got in the way. “It will work out,” Tom told his wife when she questioned his decision to leave a day early. “Worst-case, James and I sleep in the car.”
“You guys can stay with us,” Jay’d insisted, over the phone, before they left. “Tomorrow night, I was going to get a room, but…”
“Of course,” Tom said.
“I can sleep on the floor, or…”
“Not a chance.” Tom interrupted him again. “We have two beds…”
Jay never asks for anything, Tom thinks, staring out the rear view mirror, across the darkened valley and over the fields of broken dreams. We are similar in that way, he thinks, remembering Jay as a scrawny teen, with an even scrawnier punk-ass’d little sister;)
He’d shared an adjoining wall with them at the Standiford Terrace Apartments. Their Mom slept on the couch. “The kids are too old to sleep in the same room,” she’d said.
Hard-working, is how Tom defined her— always put her children’s needs before her own. But, what Tom really liked, was that she made them work for what they wanted and held them accountable for their actions. Never once did he witness her softening a blow. People don’t parent like that anymore, Tom thinks.
“In the bathroom.” Jay nods toward the door.
Tom grunts. “The fiancé?” he asks, trying to conceal his displeasure.
“Getting ready.” Jay nods toward the fridge again.
Tom hadn’t met her, and this annoyed him. Sure he’d seen a few photos. Hell, he was with Jay during their first fight.
“We’re done,” Jay had said while swiping open his phone. “She’s way too jealous. Saw some posts of me at a rave and just went nuts.”
“Lame,” Tom said taking hold of the screen, and then he laughed. “Fuck dude,” he said scanning through the images of Jay with both arms wrapped around a pack of sexilyclad girls. “Hey, Betty,” Tom called his wife over. “Can you explain,” he said, handing her the phone, “why this might be upsetting?”
Tom slides back the memory like he slides open the curtains of Jay’s suite. “Continental breakfast?” he asks, already knowing the answer.
“Don’t think so,” Jay says.
Stop it, Tom tells himself and unlatches the sliding glass door. “The Hawthorne didn’t have one of these,” he says, stepping onto the balcony and closing his eyes. “The highway sounds like waves rumbling toward the beach.”
English rolls off Jay’s fiancée’s tongue and out of her mouth like a Filipino “valley-girl.” She says, Oh-my-Gawd, when she “gets” it, and Fawk when she doesn’t.
“For you,” she tells James, unfolding the hide-a-bed.
“Thanks again for letting us crash here.” Tom looks at the bed beside his where she and Jay sit crisscross (applesauce) and smile at each other.
“Is that something you do every night?”
“Yeah,” Jay says and turns off the light.
It’s one of those early mornings when everyone is awake, but no one wants to disturb anyone, so everyone lies still… listening for someone else to wake up first.
With a few hours to kill, Tom drives James to breakfast. The only Quarter he’d been to before was the Vieux Carré in Louisiana. He expected to see something similar and is confused by the retro-lamps lining the streets.
“I guess those are supposed to be gas,” he says turning onto sixth. Louisiana’s Old Square predates Rabbitville’s by one-hundred and fifty years. Instead of balconies, the Gaslamp Quarter offers continuous facades of common brick.
“There.” James points to a meter with time remaining.
The Broken Yolk reminds Tom of Huckleberry’s, off Yosemite in Modesto. Both places feel less franchised than, say, Denny’s or Applebee’s.
“We could spend days here,” Tom says, driving through Balboa Park.
“How about the USS Midway?”
“The aircraft carrier?”
“Yeah,” James says looking at his phone. “Says it’s a three hour tour.”
“Parking’s easy and admission is fair—but you’d better plan on spending more than three hours here,” Tom says swiping through the images he’d captured with his phone.
Edward turns his head. “I don’t like screens,” he says.
And Tom thinks he knows why. He’d read Hope’s End several times and admitted (at least, to himself) that it was good. After his initial go-through, Tom realized that Edward had written an easy to follow, first-person, adventure story about growing up, facing Death, and becoming a man. Every subsequent reading revealed another layer.
“Try to think of it…” Tom stops to read a text from Sydney… “As a camera,” he says.
Edward cringes. “Maria tells me you’re working on a project with Karl?”
“Yeah,” Tom says while swiping his reply. “Sorry,” he says, looking up from his phone.
“What’s the premise?”
“Well,” Tom says. “It’s…” He stops to look at his phone again. “You know,” he says, skimming through the message. “I don’t feel comfortable discussing it without Karl. But…” Tom slips his phone into his pocket. “It will grow out from the project I’m calling, Tom’s Kure, which is an organic, who-dun-it, sort-a thing that I post to NEBertolero.com, every couple months or so. And,” he says, “the really cool part is that you can enter the story by following @nebertolero Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. A reader will be able to influence chapters, maybe even alter plot-lines, by interacting with me.” Tom stops to take a breath. “It’s in the early stages. I know what I want it to do, but there’s some wrinkles to work out,” he says. “What about you?”
“Are you really calling it Hell on Wheels?”
“Verdict’s still out,” Edward says as if the fate of the world depends on this one decision.
Everything’s a game with Edward, Tom thinks. A puzzle wrapped in an enigma crosshatched into the fabric of his fuck’n blue jeans. “So,” Tom says. “What’s Act Five about?”
“It evolves around vehicles,” Edward replies.
“Graffiti Night,” Ryan says jumping into the conversation.
“No. Not really,” Edward says. “Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands made that pilgrimage. Don’t get me wrong,” he says, with his infamous agonysweet smile. “It was awesome. McHenry Avenue could have been downtown New York City. Cars clogged the streets. People walked and waited, shoulder to shoulder, pressing against each other as they waded up and down the sidewalks…”
Jen busts in. “We’re back,” she says tossing her purse onto the bed. “Bubba’s right behind me.”
“Nope,” Edward says, turning back toward Ryan. “Act V will be more like the view from Grandma’s front alcove, just north of five-corners, along the turnabout that every cruiser idled by, eventually.”
“Excellent,” Ryan says, hitting his pen. “I cruised my 19…”
Tom quit listening. He tried, but he never really understood the obsession people have with engines, bicycles, or shoes. Don’t get me wrong, he says silently, as if whispering into his own ear. Each has their purpose. Engines transport heavier loads longer and faster than a bicyclist, who in-turn covers more distance than a pedestrian and, of course, shoes protect the sole more than moccasins do…
“Should I fix my hair?” Jay looks at himself in the mirror above the Best Western dresser.
“Nah,” Bubba says setting down and breaking open a case of beer.
“Wait. Wait,” Tom hijacks their conversation. “Did you just ask if your butt looks big in these jeans?” Everyone laughs and Tom grabs a beer. “Can’t believe your dad didn’t make it,” he says popping the top for Jay. “The only thing I was looking forward to, more than being here for you, was meeting your dad.”
“Had to work,” Jay says taking the bottle from Tom’s hand.
“What the fuck.” Tom tosses the cap into the trash. “Is he worried about your mother?”
“I don’t know,” Jay says, taking a swig.
“Check these girls out,” he says, pulling out his phone. “Saw them with Highly Suspect at the Bottom of the Hill.”
The night drags on to the smell of Ryan vaping a freshly baked cake. Conversations move lightly around the room. Laughter is applied, where and whenever necessary. It is, after all, Jay’s last supper. Tomorrow he is to be married.
“I can tell you were handsome once,” Jay’s fiancée says.
Tom stares back at her tilting his head, like a dog. “What?”
“Like Tom Cruise.” She laughs.
“No, no. I mean, when you were young,” she says, laughing even harder. “I mean, you’re old.”
“No, no,” she says unable to stop herself once she gets going. “But is the truth.”
She is adorable, Tom thinks, and while listening to anecdotes about her time in Singapore and the culture shock it delivered, he realizes that Frances is intelligent too.
“Americans are very liberated,” she says talking about sex. “And they are obsessed with film.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, they film everything secretly. And if you go to their room, they think it’s to have sex. I tell them, I don’t care how big is your dick.” She laughs.
Tom lifts the bottle to his lips. “You’re hilarious,” he says, taking another hit.
“I can’t believe, I just say that. But is true.” Frances laughs again. “My friend say, why did you marry Jay? There are so many. And I tell her—you can’t choose who you marry. Is like poop coming out.”
Tom chokes. “Sorry,” he says, wiping at his mouth. “It’s the beer.” He shoulders Bubba.
“No.” Tom laughs. “I like it. It reminds me of a campus kegger…”
“And,” Frances continues, “when he gets fat,” she says, leaning into her fiancé… “I just squeeze it,” she says, pulling Jay hard into her embrace.
“… from now on, you are bound to each other till death do you part… husband and wife… What God has joined together, let no man put asunder!”
Tom speeds through Los Angles like he’s fleeing a fire. “Did 90 till the Grapevine,” he tells his wife. “The honeymooners are a day behind us.”
“How long are they staying?” Betty asks.
“No idea,” Tom says.
“What are their plans for Thanksgiving?”
“No idea,” he says again, smiling this time. “They might drive up to see his sister since she couldn’t make the wedding. But, I expect Frances won’t want to get back into the car, so his sister might have to come here…”
Betty sighs. It is her first Thanksgiving without her brother.
“It will be ok,” Tom says pulling her close, looking into her eyes. “We will get through this together,” he says, pressing his lips against hers. Silky soft, he thinks as their mouths embrace, once again, for their very first time…