Department of Archives and History
As Holly stared past my head, she said, “What do you think he’ll be wearing? Jeans? A sweater? I bet he wears sweaters.”
“Scrubs,” I said.
Holly bucked her teeth at me and crossed her eyes.
“A cape and a mask.”
“Mrs. Thomas said he was wearing some kind of flannel shirt when she saw him here. She said he looked like a skinny lumberjack.” Mrs. Thomas was the other first grade teacher at St. Therese. Days of calling each other Mrs. Thomas and Mrs. O’Brien had given them the manners of Victorian women.
“She tried to talk to him,” Holly said. “He just stared at his food. Wouldn’t look up or anything.” The waiter’s arrival interrupted her. I knew him. His name was Jeff.
In 1991, I was singing lead vocals for the Square Root of Now. For a while it looked like we were going to be the first Jackson-based band to really make it. By 1992, we were one of MTV’s top five unsigned bands in America, had a gig on the new acts stage at Lollapalooza in Atlanta. A record deal with IRS. A tattoo for me—a six inch wide square root symbol with the word “now” written beneath it, blue and black on the inside of my right forearm—to fulfill my promise to the other guys in the band (“No record deal, no tattoo,” I had told them). IRS dumped us when Nirvana hit.
The weird thing was that I didn’t mind that much; relief was my primary emotion, overwhelming relief. Over the couple of years the band was together, I had learned that I wasn’t really geared for “rock star.” When we were in LA, I had read The Last Gentleman and realized that like the main character, I was ready to “find me a wife and live me a life.” I craved normalcy. When the rest of the band split for Washington state, I returned to Mississippi, went back to school, and met Holly.
I still ran into people from those days, though I found it hard to believe it was only seven years ago—burned out guys and girls I had met at shows, people connected to local acts from all over the Southeast, friends for years or just for a weekend. Their romantic, death-seeking lives offered a weird reproach to my own ascension/descension into faceless, middle-classness. They always had stories of trips to exotic places, of expeditions made in search of drugs or their true selves to Mexico or Colorado or Madrid. I envied and pitied them.
Experience had taught me that when I talked to these guys I had to offer my name since I could never be sure how well they remembered anything. Before Jeff could take our orders, I said, “Jeff Foshee, I didn’t know you were still in town. I’m Scott O’Brien.”
Jeff looked down at me, a hank of his long, black hair dropping down in front of his eye, and offered me his hand to shake. “Yeah, Scott, yeah. We did that thing together that time. So what are you up to?”
“Not much, man. Working at the Archives.” The word alone was enough to destroy his polite interest, and I felt an urge to outcool him. I wanted to roll up my sleeve, show off my ink to let him know what kind of archivist he was dealing with. Instead I said, “What about you?”
“I just got back last month. Till then I was working as a goatherd. In Montana.”
“That’s cool,” I said. Goatherd.
“Yeah, I’m just doing this until January when I’m going to chef school in Dallas.”
Holly suddenly stuck her hand across the table. Over the low hum of the crowded restaurant she said, “I’m Holly.”
“I’m sorry, Jeff. This is my wife, Holly,” I said wondering what she was up to. Maybe she could scam us free drinks or dessert since it was our anniversary.
He shook her hand and asked, “So how long have you guys been married?”
“Five years,” I said.
“Listen, Jeff,” Holly said conspiratorially. He leaned in so that he could hear her. “Somebody I work with said George Clooney’s been coming in here all the time. Is that true?”
“Oh, all the time. Almost every night.”
“What’s he like?” Holly asked. I thought she was about to squeal.
“He’s okay…Skinny. He likes the Santa Fe chicken…he doesn’t usually come on the weekends, though.” Holly’s gave a disappointed look and Jeff said, “Sorry.”
After he took our orders and left, Holly said, “Who was that dude?”
I told her about Jeff’s band Mr. Lipstick. They were a tongue in cheek glam-punk hybrid. Pretty funny but not very good.
I talked about Mr. Lipstick opening for Square Root, and she made noises in the right places, but whenever the restaurant noise level changed, she returned to her vigil. Stories she had already heard about how close I came to fame (notoriety, at least) could not compete with the genuine article.
I finally said, “What are you going to say if you see him? He’s just a celebrity, right?”
“Why do you say it like that?”
“I didn’t mean anything by it. I mean, I met the Chili Peppers, Michael Stipe, Jim Cantore. From the Weather Channel? They were all just regular people but worse,” I said.
“Sometimes they’re not. Bon Jovi was nice and he was a huge celebrity.”
“When did you meet Bon Jovi?”
“I told you about this. The concert here in 1988. When I slept with him.”
“You fucked Jon Bon Jovi?”
“Oh my God. I never told you?”
I shook my head and smiled. “How?” I said as the tink and chatter of the other people in the restaurant suddenly receded from my hearing.
She had a friend in high school whose parents had the concessions contract at the Coliseum. They got the girls backstage passes. “Jon” took a shine to Holly and invited her to a party at their hotel (The Walthall). Et cetera.
“I thought I had told you,” she said finally. “I mean, I meant to tell you sometime, it just never came up. I don’t think about it, to tell you the truth.”
While she talked, I ate the pasta from my shrimp fettuccine. I picked around the shrimp without thinking, saving them for later even though I was no longer hungry.
As she told her story, she seemed to change, she transformed from my familiar companion with her sensible bob and new black anniversary dress to the girl she was then, a skinny seventeen year old beauty clothed in the tight-dressed, big-haired trappings of a sophisticate, her green eyes caked in makeup.
“I’m a cowboy,” I crooned quietly, “on a steel horse I ride, & I’m wanted…Dead or Alive. Yuck.” I began to mock her, told her that Bon Jovi was bubblegum, a corporate commodity meant to be consumed and discarded, not music at all. “They were pet rocks with guitars,” I said.
“They’re not any different from the shit you used to listen to back then,” she said. “Guns N Roses and AC/DC. Bon Jovi was just more popular and had better hair.”
Aesthetics were, of course, beside the point. The point was that the girl I had married was telling me that she had been, not too many years ago, a fast machine who kept her motor clean, a woman willing to get down on her n-n-n-n-knees-knees.
Holly apologized over and over. She couldn’t say how sorry she was. “I really thought I had told you.” She was about to cry.
I assured her that I wasn’t shocked, didn’t think any less of her, wasn’t angry. “I’m sorry, honey, I just need to go to the bathroom,” I said. She laughed and sniffled as I got up to cross the restaurant.
When I returned, Holly had let Jeff take my remaining shrimp away. Another smaller betrayal.
“Jeff just told me that he’s here,” she whispered urgently.
I looked at her, puzzled.
“George Clooney. He’s at the bar. We’ve got to hurry before he gets his food.”
“I want to smoke,” I said. Clooney had suddenly become something more. A rival. But she grabbed me by the arm and pulled me away from the table.
The bar in Amerigo was paneled in some kind of dark wood. The paneling seemed to absorb the meagre light that a few sconces provided. A bald guy in a suit sat on a stool squinting at a small TV hung high in one corner of the room. The bartender, dressed in a white shirt and black pants, watched, too. The man we thought was Clooney sat at a corner table. The light above it was out so that he was shrouded in shadow.
I ordered a bourbon and Coke while Holly worked out a game plan. By the time I had paid for my drink and lit a cigarette, Holly had decided on a full frontal assault.
Together we walked over to him. She stood just behind his left shoulder and said quietly, “Mr. Clooney?”
He looked a little annoyed at first, but he turned it on when he saw her. The guy was handsome, no doubt about it. Salt and pepper hair, soulful brown eyes. He even wore the sweater Holly had predicted, a big gray cable-knit that looked expensive. But he had a huge head, much more than a forehead, he had an eight head.
The bartender came over, put a beer (Michelob Light) on the table in front of Clooney, and said, “Your salad will be out in a minute.”
Clooney thanked him, but kept his eyes on Holly.
She smiled and in her sweetest voice said, “I just wanted to tell you how glad we are that you’re here. And what big fans we are of your work.” I tried to catch the bartender’s attention to let him know I wasn’t in on this. I wanted to shrug my shoulders, to say, “Women…” with a sigh of resignation, but he had gone somewhere, into the kitchen maybe.
Clooney returned Holly’s smile and gave one of his ER head ducks. “And who are we?” he said. What a jackass.
“I’m Holly O’Brien and this is my husband Scott.”
I gave my best impression of rock star indifference and said, “What’s up, Batman,” then sent a column of cigarette smoke into his face.
Holly elbowed me in the stomach and I dropped my drink onto the carpet. I scrambled after the glass while she apologized for my behavior. Clooney laughed at me.
* * *
Sunday was excruciating. I slept until noon and awakened to find Holly perched on the couch watching some Doris Day movie on AMC. She petted our dog with one hand and held a cup of coffee in the other. Bitch.
“Good morning sleepyhead,” she said brightly. I wanted only to be away from her.
“I don’t feel well,” I said. “I think there was something wrong with my food.” I dashed for the bathroom and locked the door. I poured water in the toilet to approximate the sound of diarrhea.
Holly tried to take care of me. She went to the store and bought Immodium and Gatorade. She checked in on me periodically. I lay in bed and watched football most of the day, insisting that I just needed some peace and rest. Every couple of hours I would run to the bathroom and pour more water into the toilet. I slept on the couch that night in case my “illness” was contagious.
* * *
On Monday, I had hoped for some hard work or physical labor to take me away from the increasingly vivid Bon Jovi fantasies that had replaced my rehearsals of what I’d tell David Letterman or what I’d say on my sports radio show. But there was nothing that needed moving. We would not remove the hundreds of boxes of ex-Governor Fordice’s papers from his office until Thursday, my supervisor told me.
I was left with the Susan Amanda James collection—five diaries created by a Reconstruction era school teacher. It should have been straightforward—she lived, she worked, she died—but I had noticed that the last name she reported at the beginning, Clark, had turned to Hawkins by the time she married Elijah James in 1876. The first diary started in 1861, when she was sixteen, which meant I might have to read everything up to 1876 to find the missing husband or stepfather.
It took me most of the first diary to get comfortable with her spiky brown cursive, hundreds of reports of the weather (“It was sunny and hot today.”) and what her students were doing in school. Why would anyone bother to write about such shit while the Civil War raged not even sixty miles from her home in Hernando, Mississippi? There were no suitors, beaux, or gentleman callers; no war stories or treasure maps; nothing to replace the arty black and white video image of a smiling, white-toothed Jon Bon Jovi leading my future wife into a hotel room to poke her. Just weather and work.
Susan bounced around, taking teaching positions in north Mississippi, northeast Louisiana, and Southeast Arkansas, but nothing much happened until 1865. News of Lincoln’s assassination, by “an actor from the stage,” reached Susan in late April. “I wish the same fate on all who marched under that blood-stained banner,” she wrote. She also started taking guitar lessons from Guy Hawkins.
Within three months, they were engaged, and the couple married a month later. He left looking for work shortly after the ceremony and didn’t return for almost a year. Sue documented her loneliness in the most flowery and maudlin Victorian terms. I assumed that “Mr. Hawkins” would succumb to catarrh or consumption during his journey, but he came back, and for a few months she seemed to be happy. Unfortunately, the work Guy had found was stealing horses (Sue didn’t tell me this; I had to find it in the Greenville Times Democrat). He was arrested and jailed.
Following an unsuccessful attempt to break out by dressing in his new wife’s clothes, Guy was hanged for horse-thievery. Susan contracted a fever, was prescribed Calomel, a mercury-based purgative that turned every tooth in her head black. A broken-down old woman at thirty-one, she married Elijah James, had a few kids, and the diary trickled out shortly thereafter, the greater part of her life a denouement.
If pressed, Holly might see her own life the way Susan did. I couldn’t imagine her being happy with my modest expectations, my small needs and goals, not after she had fucked him. I was not a cowboy. I was not wanted dead or alive.
* * *
By the end of the day, my Bon Jovi fantasies had given way to thoughts of revenge and/or divorce. Thankfully my friend Chad, a resident at the University Medical Center, called me to go get drinks after work. Unable to face the prospect of sitting across the living room from Holly, of talking about my day, of acting as if everything was fine, I jumped at the chance.
Med school had turned Chad into a sort of human organizer. Guaranteed in the first fifteen minutes of any conversation with him were an apology for not keeping up better followed by a declaration of his busyness. The familiarities were rounded out with his schedule for the upcoming week or month.
I didn’t care. I only wanted him to reduce the hours I would have to dance around Holly in steps that had suddenly grown strange.
I agreed to meet him at a new restaurant, the Woodlands. It was in one of those cursed locations—four different restaurants in eight years and the Woodlands made it five. The new owners had added a patio and a fountain. They had decorated the inside in Ducks Unlimited prints and masculine shades of burgundy and hunter green. The look was a come-on to the doctors and soon-to-be doctors of the big hospital just up the street, but the bar was deserted, and a vague melancholy seemed to hover just behind the expensive pictures and wallpaper.
I got there first and sat down at the bar and ordered a bourbon and Coke. The pretty bartender mixed it strong, then went back to her video game at the end of the bar. I watched the World’s Strongest Man Competition on the TV in the corner and contemplated divorce. Holly would get everything, I decided. I only wanted the futon and the small TV. Everything else she could have—CDs, videos, books, dishes. Everything but the computer. I needed that, too. She could even have the dog; it had always liked her better, anyway. I could put the stuff in a small U-haul and take off for parts unknown. I would get a shitty job in a bookstore somewhere, The Tattered Cover in Denver maybe. I would be a semitragic figure.
Chad, wearing a tie and khakis, came in. He was followed by Hunter who was still dressed in light blue scrubs that had “Property of the University Medical Center” printed all over them. Their clothing made me feel underdressed somehow, as if I had no right to be in the Woodlands in an unassuming Polo shirt and jeans. Chad said, “Hey, look who I found,” as though it were some kind of shock. They hung out together all through college, married within a month of each other, went through med school at the same time. Seeing Chad meant seeing Hunter.
I autopiloted through most of their inquiries about my health and career, and before long Chad and Hunter were telling hospital war stories over twin bottles of Samuel Adams and had almost forgotten me.
“What’s been going on at the main hospital?” Chad said.
“Not much. Do you remember Kelly? She married a neurosurgeon,” Hunter said.
“Didn’t she give you a blowjob at Anatomy Ball?” Chad asked. Hunter and Chad both laughed.
“I’m totally out of the loop,” Chad said. “You miss everything at the VA.”
“I did that a couple of months ago,” Hunter said. “You had call yet? It’s creepy, man. You walk down the halls in the middle of the night with all those guys sundowning. All those vets with Alzheimer’s reliving the worst moments of their lives. ‘Help! Help!’ ‘Lemme go! Lemme go!’ I hated call there.”
“I had one the other day who thought he was at Iwo Jima,” Chad said.
“What did he say? Could he tell you what it was like?” I asked.
“No, he flashed forward to 1948 before he could really tell me anything.”
I interrupted the bartender’s game for another drink. She looked put out that I had bothered her again, and I mentally deducted from her tip.
“Listen to this,” Hunter said. “I had this one old guy who coded. All the nurses freaked out—‘Doctor! Doctor! He’s dead!’ I went to his room, and he was totally asystole. I mean he was medically dead, no pulse, no nothing. But I remembered my primary response stuff. I shook his shoulder and said, ‘Mr. Higgins…’ Whoops, I shouldn’t have said that. Anyway, I said, ‘Mr. Patient! How’re you doing?’ He opened his eyes and said, ‘Pretty good.’”
“Bullshit,” Chad and I both said while Hunter swore to God he was telling the truth.
“They’re the greatest generation,” I said. We all made a toast to the greatest generation.
“And have you noticed the dicks on those guys?” Hunter said. “They’re all hung like horses. No wonder we won that war.”
“Oh God, don’t mention their sick old dicks to me,” Chad said. “I smelled the worst smell I have ever smelled yesterday.”
“Worse than an ER pelvic?” Hunter said. He and I laughed, but Chad just shook his head.
“No man, you don’t understand. Two words…Scrotal Gangrene. I mean I retched. I gagged. I really thought I was going to puke. You know that candy, Orange Slices? Real sweet, sugary. Mix that smell with rotten meat and you’ll have an idea. I don’t even like to think about it.”
That was it for me. I waited for the bartender to bring them another round. When she got up, I went to the other end of the bar to check out the game.
It was one of those twenty in one things with a touch screen; in addition to several kinds of solitaire, it offered trivia games, a stupid puzzle that formed a picture of a naked woman. Breakout.
There were several trivia categories: general, movies and music, history, sex. Before I could choose, the bartender sat down next to me. I felt the warmth of her thigh next to mine.
“I didn’t know doctors had tattoos,” she said softly and smiled. I looked at her more closely. Long brown hair, brown eyes, pretty teeth, nice tits. Not a knockout, but not bad at all.
“Some of us do,” I said. She touched my forearm lightly. With her fingernail, she began to trace it starting with the “w” in “now” and working her way back to the left.
“What does it say? Is it Japanese?” she asked.
“No. It’s English. It says Square Root of Now,” I said. I expected her to recognize the name, but I could tell by her face that it didn’t mean a thing to her, too young.
“What’s it mean?” she asked. Now tracing lightly left to right, the friction of her nail raised the hair on my arm.
“It means different things to different people,” I said. “Like a poem.”
“What category should I pick?” I said and tapped the game screen.
She stabbed at sex without hesitation. “Let’s see how much you know about sex,” she said.
We played and did okay. I didn’t know the technical term for fisting (it wasn’t “fenestration”), but she didn’t seem to hold this gap in my knowledge against me. After the game, we talked and flirted until she had to bring Chad and Hunter another beer.
When she got up, I went to the pay phone by the restroom to call Holly. I told her where I was and that I would be home late.
* * *
I got home around midnight. The television’s blue flicker in the windows alarmed me, told me that Holly, who was usually in bed by eleven at the latest, was still up. I took a deep breath and fumbled with my keys. I had done all I could to cover the smell of Stacy the bartender’s bed—On the way home I had spilled beer on myself, smoked with the windows rolled up, and eaten a couple of Krystals with onions. I could only hope that these precautions would create enough olfactory static to drown out Stacy’s patchouli-scented sheets.
The Weather Channel played softly, and as I locked the dead bolt, Holly sat up on the couch and said, “Hey, party boy.” Her hair was flat on one side and she rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Hey sweetie,” I said. “Sorry I’m so late. I stopped at Krystal.” I leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. Forgive me, I wanted to say. I fucked up. Bad.
“God, you smell like a brewery. I hope you don’t think you’re coming to bed smelling like that.” She pushed me away from her. “Don’t sit on anything. I don’t want the living room to smell like beer.”
“Sorry about that,” I said as I sat on one of the wooden dining room chairs. “Chad knocked a High Life over on me.”
“Is he a doctor yet?”
“Sort of,” I said. “He’s a resident or an intern or something. I don’t really understand it, but they’re apparently paying him now.”
We sat and listened to the Weather Channel muzak. After a few minutes, I smiled happily at her. “I’m glad to see you,” I said.
“Me, too,” she said. In the dim light, she sat up straighter. “I need to talk to you, Scott.”
“What about?” Shitshitshitshitshit.
“The other night? What I told you? I just wanted you to know. . . well, I’m sorry. I really wasn’t trying to hide anything. I hope…Can you forgive me?”
“Forget about it,” I said. “It freaked me out a little, but it’s really no big deal,” I said, shocked at how true it felt.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too. I’d kiss you, but I don’t want to get this stink on you.”
Holly stood up and walked across the room toward the bedroom. She stopped in front of me and said, “Sure?”
I nodded, and she tousled my hair with her fingers.
As she disappeared into our bedroom, she said, “Please take a shower before you come to bed.”
“I will,” I told her.
I walked to the bathroom and stood in darkness while I waited for the hot
water to warm up.
Author’s note: This is a work of fiction. For the sake of verisimilitude, certain public figures make incidental appearances in the story, but they have been included without their knowledge, and their interactions with my characters are wholly my creation and are not intended to reflect negatively on any of these public figures.