Valentin and Emily were together in bed. The sheet, rising and falling with their pronounced breathing, covering their perspiring bodies, both wet with love. The window was cracked open but any breeze was negligible. Too hot outside for it to only be spring.
After the coos and promises of love quieted down, Emily asked the question prominently on her mind as of late. “Did you write today?”
“No. Not real writing.” Valentin looked over at his night table for the fourth time thinking, wishing, he had a bottle of beer there to take a quick pull from. Get some refreshment. A sense of relief. Or an excuse to pause the conversation. For the fourth time, a bottle had yet to materialize. Val was instead content with his right arm under Emily, her light brown hair cascading over the shoulder that she was resting on. “I had research to run. A few dates and locations to confirm. Brady actually connected me to this production aide at ABC that I can reach out to. Might be able to snag an interview with Quincy Jones.”
A heartbeat. Then two. She was ready with her follow-up. “Do you… are you planning to… mention the Parade at all? In your book?”
“Nothing to mention. Not in the context of the story I’m attempting to tell. Admittedly, there is a story to tell. About the Parade. Just not sure how it would be presented. Suspense. Fiction.” A pause, the suggestion of a laugh. “Comedy?”
Emily could hear his heart. She loved that sound. The steady rhythm. In concert with the rise and fall of his chest. Beating. Pounding. His life being pushed around inside nearly out of control, but also creating control. Constantly creating Val. “Your book, Val? Is this what you want to write? Or is this just another article to edit and to put together some copy?”
“No. This is my book, Em. But it’s also my in. I get an actual book written. An agent to deal with and to be represented outside of the mag. I get published. Really published. Then I move on to the next dream.”
Valentin took another breath. Wished for both cool air and a beer. Denied both. Emily’s next question was yet unspoken, but they both knew what it was. He took a pre-emptive shot.
“A year or two after my parents’ divorce, I’m in high school at the time, I spent the month of July with my father back in Chicago. My grandparents, his parents, were both dead at this point, so I was going to spend time with him and his two older brothers. Go see the Cubs. Swim in Lake Michigan. Eat dogs at the Wiener Circle. But of course a week in, he has to work on some client project for Abe Froman or some other bullshit excuse and totally pushes me off onto one of my uncles.
“So I get his oldest brother, my uncle, Richard, right? And everyone called him ‘Dick’. He was from a generation that didn’t snicker over that nomenclature. Right, Grayson?
“So Uncle Dick has this cabin up at Lake Superior, but on the Canada side. In Ottawa. I end up spending this long weekend with him. He woke up every morning to go fly fishing. Crack of dawn early morning that teens don’t even know exist. He also had this journal that he’d write in. Little short stories or tales from his youth. Fly fishing and writing. Every morning. And I bring up all these comics to read. So there we are on this lake and I’m reading my comics. Hawkman and West Coast Avengers and whatever, right? And he starts asking me about them. About the stories. The mythologies. So I totally get into everything with him. I laid it all out. All the characters, the costumes, the powers. The belief system, the morality behind them all. And he’s just there absorbing it. I don’t even think my father knew I was reading comics, but here I am unloading all these fantasies, all these stories, onto my uncle. And he’s listening to every one.”
Emily shifted off Valentin’s shoulder, propping herself up on one elbow to listen to the story. Valentin still lying flat on his back, still wishing for that brew, but gaining satisfaction in the story being told and his woman by his side. His blood beginning to quicken again after the brief rest.
“He then looked directly at me with this serious look. One that I had never seen from my own father. I mean, heaven forbid, right? He had this look of promise. Of intent. And I guess even of love. He said that after I graduate I should spend the summer up there on the lake with him and write the next great American novel.
“And it hit me. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to bring reason, to be a true voice, and to define, shape, and guide my generation.”
“But you didn’t?”
“Hmm. Nope. Life. College. Other plans that my mother had. Maybe forced on me.” Valentin sank down slightly in the mattress. The weight of the past now in the bed with him. The mass was dark and undisturbed, like a tea bag sitting in a mug of still water yet to be stirred. “I only saw my uncle two more times. The lure of LA anchoring me down.
“He’s dead now. Just a dream.”
“But your stories aren’t dead. You dream Val.”
Val, a little restless now. Wanting more than a beer. And maybe the chance to write something other than how dead people party. Wanting that passion to bring reason.
“Do you still remember what that great American novel was going to be? How was Ethan Valentin going to capture and mold the voice of his generation? A memoir?”
He answered with a humph, a sound resting somewhere between the satisfaction of sex and the anxiety to get out of bed. “No. Nothing so ballsy. Or presumptuous. I ever tell ya about the first work I published?”
Emily, still up on her elbow, still looking down at her man, gently shook her head in a teasing way. Like a freshman cheerleader being asked by the star QB if she ever took E and partied.
“I self-published an eleven-page novella chronicling a class trip that got out of hand at the Lincoln Park Zoo.”
Emily smiled. Holding back a laugh and proud of her accomplishment. “When was this?”
“Fifth grade. My last year in Chicago. A classmate, I totally forget who, purchased this highly-realistic rubber snake. The kind with a shine to the coating that gave off that dollar store smell of cheapness. Under the proper lighting conditions, the cheapness of it made the scales look wet with accuracy. I was with a whole class group in the reptile house when… it… happened.” Letting out a breath for an exaggerated emphasis on those last three words. Building the story. Then being interrupted.
“I’m sure I can guess what happened next. He threw it into a group of students. They freaked out. Yelled ‘fuck’ and a bunch of other curse words fifth-graders shouldn’t be shouting when out in public and you got blamed.”
“And you’d only be half right. So score to Emily for the snake toss and panic.”
“And the ‘oh fucks!’ I bet.”
“Yeah, plenty of those. But the panic was induced by a bunch of girls from my class who rioted out of the doors screaming their heads off as if Freddy Kruger was bearing down on them with their absolute worst nightmare. Which probably included snakes. But here they slammed the doors open, and bolted outside, and ran right into our teacher’s aide. She was this college grad that all the boys had a crush on and all the girls wanted to be. She was cool and beautiful. She tried to slow everyone down, but it wasn’t working. They completely ignored her and, in a complete fit of panic, pushed her down.
“But there was this duck pond right outside the house. And it had those shallow rails all around that were really just a deterrent for stopping baby strollers as opposed to keeping people clear of the pond. And certainly not teacher’s aides from being pushed in. Which is exactly what happened.”
“Shut. The. Front. Door. She was pushed into the pond?”
“All the way in. And, of course, little college hottie aide was wearing a tight yellow T-shirt that did nothing to hide her, ah, assets, which were then wet and on display for a bunch of newly-adolescent boys that had just piled out to see what was happening.”
“You were still blamed for throwing that rubber snake, weren’t you?”
“Everyone in the reptile house at the time was blamed. Including yours truly. We had a full week of detention ending with a Saturday…”
“A Saturday detention, too? Did you spend the day in the the library? I think I saw a movie about that once,” Emily interjected.
“You did? Rats. That was going to be my great American novel. No, community service was scheduled for Saturday. We all had to report to the municipal building and were assigned tasks like painting curbs and scrubbing off graffiti.”
“What did you have to do?”
“I didn’t go. The divorce was kicking into full gear right about then. Neither of my parents were giving a shit about me and certainly were not giving a shit about some little punishment that the school thought was worthy penance. Nope, I typed up that story, an attempt, really, to clear my name, although I probably spent my too much time focusing on the wet breasts we all saw. I went to this local gift shop where I had copies made, stapled it up, and handed it out.”
The story, Val concluded, was a hit among his peers while also encountering his first taste of criticism and censorship when the school principal, that high priest of be-all-end-all authority for grade schoolers, asked him to cease distribution if he wished to finish the school year thankyouverymuch.
The threat was groundless as Valentin was soon divorced from both school and parents alike. Chicago was left behind for sunny LA. “Books,” he concluded, “and to sound completely cliche, were my only true friends for quite a while. Took me time to adjust to a new middle school that wasn’t quite as white bread as my home of Northbrook. So I read. I wrote. I dunno played video games and went fishing with Uncle Dick.”
“I like that,” she said snuggling back down onto the mattress. “I like hearing stories about my man when he was a boy.”
They laid there together and Valentin thought he actually heard the sound of rain coming in through the window. Faintly. The occasional rush of wind stirring up along with the hint of humidity. This was a more natural sound than the passing of a truck pulling off a red-eye delivery or that of an import carrying a tired husband home to his neglected family after the doors of the bar had finally been closed.
Valentin shifted to look over at Emily. “Your turn. What’ve you got for me?”
Emily smiled, also listening for the rain. “No,” she whispered, “you’re the storyteller of this particular family unit.”
“And I cry bullshit. You’ve got more ghosts in chains than Dickens. Tell me one.”
Still smiling, eyes closed, she continued to snuggle up to her man. “When I was in high school, I, like every other high schooler that actually had to work and not suck on the teat of their trust fund, had the typical shitty after-school job. This one particular time, I was working at the mall food court – a slave to the wage – when rumor had it that the world was going to end.”
“Did it?” He had to ask.
“The world coming to an end? No, babe. That will happen as soon as you publish your book.”
“If you weren’t so good in bed you’d be walking home for that comment.”
“I can leave now,” she teased.
“No, no. Sounds like rain. You should stay. At least the night.”
“So very fucking chivalrous.”
“Admit it. You love it. And me. So, the world was going to end…?”
“Yeah,” she smiled again. “This rumor even made it to the six o’clock news. Just one of those stories that somehow went viral in those early Internet days. Some mathematician or televangelist figured out a formula or cracked a code. The earth was doomed. And our teachers were all joking about it. Telling us to finish to our homework because if the world didn’t end today, it probably would when our grades were released.
“I figured that if the end was indeed nigh, I wasn’t going to spend it at work. So I totally called out sick. My manager was pissed, but I figured if the world was going to end, he wouldn’t be pissed for long.
“There was a small, wooded area not far from my house. An overgrown park really. I took my dog and just … went. I eventually took his leash off and let him sniff and mark his territory and enjoy his final moments on earth as a free and happy pooch.”
Val was now on propped up on his arm, looking down at his beautiful woman lying between, on and within the sheets. And it was definitely raining. That magic rat-a-tat sound on the window pane.
“There was this flat rock in a clearing that I had made use of before plenty of times. Great to sit on or lie on. Make out on. So I sat there and started writing poems. Just poems that teenage girls would write. I had dumped a boyfriend over the weekend, this guy that I didn’t want to give my virginity to but I still liked, so I’m sure there was a lot of angst in those writings. But basically I wanted a testament proving that I was alive. That I mattered! If this was the end of the world, then I wanted something of me to survive and exist. And these poems were the best of my expressions. The best of my world.”
“Which didn’t end.”
“Nope. Didn’t end, love. After a while I went home. Had dinner with my family. Went to bed. Went to school, and then work the next day.”
“Carpe diem?” Valentin asked, his finger gently beating out a staccato rhythm on her bare shoulder in time with the rain dripping from the gutter.
“A little perhaps. More likely teenage chemistry. But if the world was really going to end I wasn’t going to see it happen from behind the counter of some fast food joint. I want to see the end of the world on my own terms.”
“How do you see the end of the world?”
“Standing on my feet. On my terms.” Then she paused, listening to the wet splashes outside the window before asking, “How ’bout you, Val? Is this… all this… the book, the Parade… just a way to get a glimpse at the end of your world?”
“Perhaps. Or maybe the end comes to me just one dream at a time.”