It’s Halloween on a Thursday and I’m on my hands and knees looking for a valve stem pin in the Sunoco parking lot. I’m using my iPhone flashlight because it’s dark. Because the asphalt has seen better days. For a moment, I shine the light on my forearms. Hesitation marks. A fossilized cry for help. But it looks more like a map to me.
“Did you find it?” Cassie, my fiancé, asks.
“No, but we’ll be fine. Let’s go.”
“I don’t trust you,” she says. “You’re not a car guy.”
She’s right. She’s always right. So I keep looking, reflecting on how much of an idiot I am. I should’ve just put the pin in my pocket while putting air in the tire, but I didn’t.
Cassie eventually gets out and starts shining her iPhone. Together we find it. This tiny pin. Without it, air will slowly leak out of the tire and then a great flattening. No one will get anywhere. And we can’t have that. Because Cassie’s sister is getting her white coat from the University of Pennsylvania tomorrow afternoon. She’s going to be a veterinarian. Me and Cassie are driving from Buffalo to Philadelphia for the ceremony.
As we drive away from the Sunoco, we start listening to The Daily with Michael Barbaro. Catching up on old episodes. Tales of the world falling apart and sometimes the people trying to hold it together.
But it’s tough paying attention, because I keep thinking about that tiny pin. How it’s holding everything in. All that air. Admirable, but scary. That tiny pin is all that stands between fulfilment and emptiness.
Two episodes in, I begin to wonder if America has lost its pin. Was it getting air in its tires at some dilapidated gas station and forgot to put one of the pins back in? Then was it driving on that metaphorical road we call progress and suddenly its tire gave out? Did it abandon its vehicle and wander through Nowhere? Did Nowhere infect its brain and heart and America started getting real depressed, worried that it would never be found?
America is self-harm that spews in every direction. The roads we drive on behave more like midnight knives. How they just cut and cut and cut. How eventually all the air in the country will leak out. Maybe it’s already happening. How eventually we’ll all just float down here. Maybe it’s already happening.
Maybe Pennywise was right.
“Have you ever seen a picture of Michael Barbaro?” Cassie suddenly asks.
“No,” I lie.
I’ve seen plenty of pictures. Because I’m in love with him. With what his soothing voice represents. This idea that if you talk to people like human beings, things might change for the better. When people can tell their own stories.
Anyway, he’s the perfect soundtrack as me and Cassie drive through various small towns straddling the shared throat of New York and Pennsylvania. Towns on their last legs. But since it’s Halloween, it’s tough to tell whether the houses are crumbling due to a failing economy or just seasonal decorating. Ambitious, one way or another.
Towns like these though, it makes you think of Trump boys burning down condom churches. The feeling of never being safe. Or what happens when you feel your wholeness leaking out of you. A trail of breadcrumbs. But no one knows how it’ll all end.
Places where there’s a candlelight vigil every night and there are always glamorous headshots stapled to the oldest tree. Places where it’s always raining dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets and people, young and old alike, are tired of pretending to be asteroids. The illusion that we’re combustible to the touch. I want to roll down my window and scream out, “Careful! The flag is still an animal!”
But I don’t. Because there’s still life here. Smiling kids trick or treating in the gentle night rain. Each town has a fire station that has opened its doors for the night. Firefighters dressed up as The Avengers and handing out candy. I imagine tiny chocolate fire hydrants wrapped in aluminum foil. Hopefully there are no fires tonight. But if a house does catch fire, it’ll look like a blockbuster. Captain America, Iron Man and Thor rushing to the rescue.
America cannot just snap its fingers causing these towns to vanish. We’re stronger than that and we should take solace in that fact.
“I don’t know about that,” Cassie says.
I forget we’re listening to The Daily about how this guy died in Nebraska because he was vaping too much. Me and Cassie are trying to quit smoking. The rain keeps falling and I think it’s darker than it should be.
When we arrive in Philadelphia, it’s just past midnight and officially Friday. Our Chevy Cruze smells like truck stop coffee and beef jerky. Super drunk people are running through the streets and chanting, “Trust the process.” I think the 76ers played tonight.
Brunch is a complicated process. One that I’ve spent years trying to understand. Because brunch feels like the opposite of death. I’ve always wondered why that is. Like, is there a creation story of brunch that can help make sense of it?
Imagine that once upon a time, overworked gravediggers walked into the sun. Then they walked right back out, carrying a bunch of magical oranges. Obviously in this myth, the oranges represent the pangs of suffering and disappointment. Then the gravediggers doused the oranges with champagne. Not just any champagne, of course. But champagne that tastes like supernatural optimism. Then the gravediggers got drunk. Then they turned their bodies into orchards and vineyards. Then they redistributed everything they owned and never felt more alive.
“I can’t believe you slept in your white coat,” I suddenly hear Cassie say.
It’s Saturday afternoon and we’re at brunch. Callie has yet to take off her white coat. Maybe she’s proud of the accomplishment or maybe she just drank too much and forgot to take it off. Not that it matters. She can do whatever she wants with the coat.
“It’s still spotless,” I say.
“There’s not even any cat hair,” Cassie adds.
“My cats don’t shed,” Callie says defensively.
Then we’re quiet for a little bit, because there’s a TV hanging above the bar playing Season 2 of Arrested Development. I remember when Jason Bateman was a werewolf.
“Hey Callie, you think a werewolf gets treated by a veterinarian or a regular doctor?”
“They should probably see both,” she answers, then guzzles down the rest of her mimosa.
“Are we even gonna talk about how weird last night was?” Cassie asks.
Nobody wants to get into it. But I don’t know why.
The white coat ceremony was fine. Lovely even. Like any graduation, there was a sharp divide between the students with overeager parents and the students whose parents are ephemeral like ghosts. Like any graduation, there were guest speakers conducting clichés and the music of boredom that slow danced with our brains. Despite all that, there was still this sense of hopefulness in the auditorium, the belief that anyone can change the world. And that’s nice. Especially these days. Afterward, we went to eat at this Mexican place. It was okay.
Then we got too ambitious, a collective decision to check out this Halloween-themed pop-up bar even though we were tired. And it felt like a dream. Like how a party isn’t a party until weird cops show up. Or how a party isn’t a party until there are insomnia clouds. Or how a party isn’t a party until smartphones devolve into burning radios. Or how a stash of Amsterdam makes us forget we’re American.
Michael Barbaro, come save us.
When we get to the pop-up, it’s crowded with ghouls, probably because it’s the last night for it. The last night to admit there are heavy skeletons weighing us down. Acknowledging this is important, because it helps us stay close to the earth where things can still grow.
The bar is narrow and it feels like everyone is on autopilot, holding drinks in novelty casket cups. I’m reminded of an airport when a crowd of people get off a plane and drift aimlessly toward the baggage claim.
Anyway, the whole pop-up is an Instagram spot, especially the tiny room in the back where severed doll heads are nailed to the walls. There is a long line of people waiting to take pictures in that trendy toy box.
“This is the best,” Cassie says.
“I need a drink,” Callie says.
“I’ll take a Red Bull,” I say.
While waiting in the long line, we meet this lesbian couple. The one girl looks like Stevie Nicks. She’s wearing a hat that reminds me of a windmill. Stevie’s girlfriend is named Becker. She’s wearing Disney shoes and Cassie won’t stop talking about them. Illuminations in her eyes.
Soon it feels like a funeral home, because there are more and more novelty casket cups. When we finally get to that trendy toy box, Cassie grabs me and shoves me inside. She orders Callie to take our picture.
She does. But Cassie doesn’t like it and orders Callie to take another one.
“I’m not a fuckin’ photographer!” Callie yells.
Everybody’s drunk. Callie takes another photo. Cassie doesn’t like this one, either. And she storms off. I rip off one of the doll heads from the wall and hold it like the skull of Yorick. Callie shows me the photos and they’re not bad.
Our new friends, Stevie and Becker, are understandably quiet through all of this.
So, I head to the bar. I shouldn’t be drinking, but I tell myself I’ll have a drink for every doll head I saw in that room.
Tell the truth. You like it this way.
Anyway, me and my friends are always so sad. In the land of permafrost billionaires. Death drives with Uber. Taking us to weird parties. The kind of impossible we’ll laugh about when we’re older.
But we’re already kinda old. And poor subjects for popular podcasts.
After the pop-up, we all sit in a parking lot playing Trivial Pursuit: 90’s Time Capsule Edition that Stevie has in her car for whatever reason. There are lots of questions about the Bosnian War. Becker wins.
Then we make each other cry. Conjuring ghosts that never liked us when they were alive. Our generation’s chemical romance. Let there be water.
Becker gets political and starts circling around the car like a bleeding-heart vulture.
“I think there’s a special place in hell for men like Trump. A haunted cornfield where child beauty queens use fiery lipstick to write poems on his quivering body until the end of time,” she says.
We all cheer. We all inherit sin. But the drop is never big enough. Oh bottomless pit. The irony is hot.
Later, we go to this Sunoco where Stevie buys stolen Juul pods. There’s this crust punk sitting out front shouting, “Stop profiling Muslims!” The cops come. Stevie and her girlfriend fade away. Like what happens to snowmen when the wind blows and won’t let up. They didn’t even say goodbye.
Later, me and Cassie fall asleep on the floor of her sister’s split-level apartment in Manayunk. Anyway, before daybreak, I wake up and go outside for some air. It’s quiet, like the feeling you get right before The Daily starts. Michael Barbaro is out there somewhere, reporting on the stories that matter. This isn’t one of those stories.
Look, life is strange. Your birthplace is a cold sore on a pair of moon lips. You spend your childhood eating candles. Then there are teenage cracks in your Instagram wall. You’re not very good at adulting. The one that got away. Debt. Drugstores. Doormats that say, “Behind this door is a lot of insignificance. But we’re trying.”
“Last night wasn’t that weird,” Callie says, then guzzles down the rest of her Bloody Mary.
“We got pretty drunk,” I say.
“I think we all said we wanted to die,’ Cassie says.
“We’re overdramatic,” I say.
“What happened to our friends?” I ask.
“Who?” Callie asks.
“Stevie Nicks and her girlfriend,” Cassie says.
“Becker knows her Bosnian War,” I say.
“Did they get arrested?” Callie asks.
Another round of mimosas.
“You’re gonna make a great vet,” I say.
“I’m so proud of you,” Cassie says.
“We’re a bunch of animals,” Callie says.
And right now, I can’t help but think of everyone I used to go to brunch with. Some are dead. Some are off the grid. Some are cheating on their spouses. Some are being cheated on. Some have children. Some have lost children. Some host podcasts. Some tried hosting podcasts but they weren’t successful. I miss them all. I can’t help but think of what an old friend told me all those years ago: “Brunch is magical, you forget all about your pain.”
He disappeared. And with him my heart. Maybe one day he’ll come back. But what a foolish thing for him to say. Because eventually, the sun will run out of mimosas and orange groves will go barren and gravity will ache into us. A bottomless darkness. Say cheers. Clink glasses. Pray we can still howl when that day comes.
But for now, a cup of coffee. Michael Barbaro, are you listening?
“You’re an asshole,” Cassie and Callie both say. They’re right. They’re always right. Suddenly there’s this great light. And it feels like the opposite of a great flattening. It’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
Justin Karcher (Twitter: @justin_karcher, Instagram: the.man.about.town) is a Best of the Net- and Pushcart-nominated poet and playwright born and raised in Buffalo, New York. He is the author of several books, including Tailgating at the Gates of Hell (Ghost City Press, 2015). He is also the editor of Ghost City Review and co-editor of the anthologies My Next Heart: New Buffalo Poetry (BlazeVOX [books], 2017) and MANSION (dancing girl press, 2019).