Fiction Issue - With Apologies to Gene Fowler

First Place

It's 3 a.m. and Stuart and I are pulling an all-nighter getting the spread ready for a wedding the next afternoon. I'd rather be the one cooking than doing the delivery and set up; I did that a few times, when I first started, before one of the kitchen guys quit and Beverly shifted me over to prep. The kitchen may as well be an island, all white tiles and aluminum and nothing around outside of it but walls of shadows and city lights. It feels like an oasis floating outside of time and reality — which is a good thing, when I consider what I have to look forward to 12 hours from now. Here in the kitchen, I don't have to think about anything but what I have on the table before me.

Stuart's got a good 20 years on me, with the paunch and receding hairline to go with it. Working with him is like working with a radio on, just a constant chatter of news and reviews. He reminds me of an old football coach, the kind that tries to get in with the kids by being their friend, but at the same time, preaching a little of the live right gospel, though Stuart's version is more "Free Bird" than Fred MacMurray. This is a guy who smokes pot while watching "Breaking Bad," who wrote "Contents may explode under pressure" on the hood of his wife's lime-green Volkswagen just before their divorce was finalized. But he used a purple marker, he said, not a black one, because it was her favorite color.

All of the movies and books and stories he recounts have a sameness to them, which is either reassuring or disturbing, depending on which way you look at it. The plot is always man versus the woman, man versus the weather, man versus himself. It could be alien attacks, or Civil War remembrances, but in Stuart's retelling, "It's about this guy," and this guy always seems to be Stuart in some way. Stuart as Scarface, as Kinsey Millhone, as Pi Patel, as Winston Churchill, as fucking Seabiscuit, feeling the mud in his face as the giants thunder past.

"But the little guy had grit, he had grit, and he tore right past 'em all. Made 'em all sorry."

We've known each other a long time, and sometimes I get the feeling Stuart tells me these things because he thinks I need to hear them. He knows how it is in my family. There's Dean, the achiever, and then there's me, the guy who flunked out of Tech, the guy who couldn't hold a job until the catering gig, who turned down a loan from Dad, even when the bank threatened a repo on the Civic.

"Broke a fucking leg," Stuart grins. "Still came back and beat the sons o' bitches. That takes cojones, man. Takes fuckin' balls."

You're talking about a horse, I want to say but just shake my head.

It's his story, anyway. Let him enjoy it.

Even if he means it as a parable, I wasn't trying to be Dean. I didn't want to run track or join anything. I didn't care if I had the highest grades, so long as they were high enough. Maybe if all of that had been easier for me, the way it seemed to be for Dean, maybe then I would have thought it more important. But I wasn't like him, and I knew that early on. In fact, having him around took a little of the pressure off; so long as Dean excelled, I was off the hook. Dean was the first one in his class to land a job, and he did it without a diploma or a résumé; they came to him, recruited him out of MIT in his junior year like a first-round pick. Had I been more his equal, our relationship probably would've been the same. Dean could stand the competition, as long as it was in his rear view.

I think sometimes my parents look at Dean's trajectory, a magic mad flight ascending ever higher, and then make the inevitable comparison to that other son, the one who faltered, the investment in time and money and genetics that didn't pan out.

Then again, if you didn't want it, how can anyone call it failure?

Our building sits in the middle of a warehouse block, with large buzzing lights over the parking lot. You can hear an occasional pop pop as beetles hit the lights and crash down to the pavement. Stuart sits on the curb. He's telling me about another old book he's reading. He trawls charity book sales and sifts through the cast-offs at the library, looking for the offbeat titles, the old yellowed books with cracked bindings that smell of long-dead pipe smoke. I start to lean against the Dumpster, then notice the yellow paint dripping down; while we were inside, someone tagged it with a zigzagged arrow and a couple of words I can't decipher. If I squint, I can make out an "m." Or maybe it's a "w."

"Lousy job," I say. Stuart turns around and surveys the mess.

"Improve thy attitude, old man. They're testing their mettle. Tasting a little danger."

"What danger? It's fucking spray paint. Unless you're next to a fire or something."

"It's all relative. When all you gotta worry about getting your ass whipped, then that's danger."

"What's the most dangerous thing you ever did?"

"That's easy. Getting married."

I laugh.

"Oh, you think that's a joke? Maybe I put more in it than most people. When you throw your all into something, there's a risk. Anything that involves the heart, there's a risk. When she walked out, it fucked me up good."

"Maybe you were before. Maybe that's why she left."

"Maybe," Stuart says. He tilts his head back and blows a series of smoke rings, watches them fall apart above his head. "But havin' your heart ripped out of you can do some strange things, my friend."

Then he tells me about one of the people he's read about, some guy named Gene Fowler.

"Before he was this big-time screenwriter, y'know, before World War I even, he was living on pennies in Denver. So one day, he fell in love with this woman — well, she's probably 17, 18 tops — only he couldn't afford to marry her, 'cause her family's loaded and they had the quote-unquote expectations. You know how that goes. So he bought a bottle of whiskey and got a room on the top floor of some swanky hotel downtown and wrote a suicide note. Pulls the gun out, closes his eyes—"

Stuart holds an imaginary gun to his own head, two fingers like barrels at his temple, then drops his hand.

"But he couldn't go through with it. Just sat there, staring out the window feelin' like the biggest coward in the world, gun in his lap. Snows fallin', and he sat there watchin' it for a while, and watchin' the people walking down there and the horses and buggies and all that. Sat there and drank most of the bottle, feelin' no pain. Still, he couldn't pull the trigger.

"So he made this bet, y'know, with himself or whoever, and he steps out onto the window ledge. 'If I am meant to live,' he says to himself, 'I'll make it all the way around; otherwise, no big loss.' And Fowler, he just starts walking around on this narrow ledge. And it's icy, and the snow is starting to look like a blizzard, but he keeps holding to his end of the deal. He keeps walking, and I don't know how fast he was moving or if he ever looked down, but damned if he didn't make it back to his window. And he climbed back in, finished off the whiskey, and went to bed. And the thing of it is, he told people about it. Thing like that you might question whether or not you want anyone to know, but not that guy."

"Sounds like a wacko," I tell him. "If he really wanted out, he'd of jumped."

"So here's the kicker. Whenever anybody asked about the bet, he'd always say he wasn't sure if he'd won or lost. And maybe that was a joke. And just maybe it wasn't." Stuart flicks his cigarette out into the parking lot and sits there, staring off in the distance. "What do you think about that?"

"He made good, later on. Don't you think?"

"Well, yeah, as far as I'm concerned," Stuart says. "With all due apologies to Mr. Fowler, I'd trade a few heartbreaks for a bankroll any day. Had plenty already and no scratch to show for it."

"Maybe he just had it too easy."

Stuart laughs.

"You should listen to yourself sometime, kid. You don't know as much as you think, especially about other people. Easy is never part of the equation. Some people just know what they want. And they either get it or they don't. Sometimes they get things they never wanted, because they played the game the way they were told to. But that don't make 'em happy."

"So where's your script, Hollywood?" I ask. "If that's what you want, go for it."

Stuart doesn't turn to look at me. He opens the door and I follow him into the kitchen. We pull the aprons off the hooks and head for the sink.

"I don't know what crawled up your ass," he says. "You want me to shut up, just say it."

But I don't want him to shut up, and I say nothing. After a half-hour or so, he's talking again, something about baseball. I know I owe him some kind of explanation. It's not that my brother's death is any kind of secret, although I didn't tell anyone that the time I was taking off was for a funeral. But Stuart's known me for years. Maybe after the shock of it wears off, I'll say something. But then, what point is there in saying anything at all? It doesn't change the fact. No one wants to be around that. It's like the stink of loss overwhelms everything else. I don't need the apologies and warm smiles and all that 'anything I can do' shit. I need it to be like every day, like every other day.

We finish up before noon and the day crew picks up where we left off. Stuart lets me out at the corner, and I wave as he drives off, his blue truck sputtering a trail of thin gray smoke. It's a wonder how it passes emissions every year. I walk a block to my apartment, and when I get there, I fall down on the couch and look at my cell. There are five messages in the inbox, and I don't have to check the numbers to know who they're from. Like I don't remember when the funeral is, or don't have the sense to get there on time on my own. Strange to think but all these years she was wasting her worries on the wrong son.

Dean always made it like he was lengths ahead of me, his easy long strides carrying him faster toward a finish line in a race I didn't know we were running. At least that's what I'd always thought.

I get an image in my mind of Fowler standing out on the snowy ledge and wonder if he ever doubted he would make it back. I wonder if he even thought about the finish line at all, or if he just walked the narrow path because it was in front of him, because it was easier than thinking too much. The problem, as with anything, is finding that sense of balance. Or lacking that, the will to leave it up to the winds, to step forward and trust that whether ground or air, you can accept the decision to risk what little mattered, what little you had to lose.

Maybe Dean was thinking the same thing, driving along the California coast, watching the waves. Maybe it's just as easy to hold onto the steering wheel as it is to let go and let the car decide.

As for the rest of Stuart's story, the question of winning or losing, pure bullshit as far as I'm concerned; the minute he stepped out on that ledge, he knew.

D C Hodgens is an Atlanta-area native and UGA-Grady College alumna. She is currently at work on a novel set in the vaudeville era.

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