Last week, we were at the bar theorizing shared doom on account of an impending asteroid. The news showed a cartoon rock plowing through the solar system, passing Saturn and Jupiter and Mars, aiming for our humble blue world. Next week, it’ll show up at our doorstep. If it glides on by, another will come, and one of these millennia, we’ll get knocked silly, all civilizations and their remnants vaporized. That was CNN’s thesis, the whole drama rendered in a muted graphic sequence. I argued humans would get extinguished by political not celestial forces. Julien looked for a long time at his beer, which meant he disagreed or had some other notion, something beyond my grasp. The room was howling, everyone obeying Elvis Costello’s edict to “Pump it up!” and then Julien said, without looking at me, he was born to save people.
I looked at the side of his head and wondered if I’d heard right. It’s the last thing you’d expect from Julien Peres, a taciturn machinist at Jeep, the most even-keeled guy you’ll encounter in several lifetimes. “From what?” I said. He tried to shrug me off but likely knew better given my impulse for rhetorical pursuit, plus the countless nights we’ve sat conjuring. I told him you can’t drop such a notion and go mute. He ordered another round and conceded.
On two different nights—over what time period, I don’t know—a voice yanked him from sleep and announced his purpose. I asked for actual phrasing, the words themselves, and what about the voice? Was it angry, commanding? Did he assume God, Gabriel, or someone else? But he started folding in on himself, studying his beer like a textbook. The night cranked up, the issue evaporating into a crescendo of Styx, Bob Seger, and backslaps from regulars. Ruth came along and tsunamied me with her gin-fueled rant about economics. At some point, I looked over her shoulder to see Julien cashing out.
I went to Lana with it. She’ll divulge anything about family life, her own sexual partners, stomach woes, whatever. She brought me a Guinness, poured herself a gimlet, and said Julien has always been special. It’s hard to know if she meant it as euphemism, a way to soften vulnerability, but I think not. She meant better than the rest of us, clued in, privy to some broader conversation. Years back, they were at the dinner table in pure silence when he asked who was talking in the ceiling. Everyone realized little Julien was either a master prankster or an F.M. receiver for spirit radio. There were other situations, for instance, the time he told their father to visit the neighbor, a widower who hadn’t been seen in weeks. When the father went in through the back door, the old guy was at his kitchen table, gun in hand.
So I’ve been living with this, turning it over, allowing myself some wonderment, and then earlier tonight, with people packed around us again, Julien asked for a favor. I asked only when and what. He said immediately, after beers, then explained how his sister, not Lana but Tabatha, had broken up with her boyfriend. They’d been together for years, long enough to get financially entangled. She’d given him a down payment for a car, had the loan in her name, and all that. Our mission: get the car. From Julien’s point of view and probably that of bank authorities, we’d be retrieving his sister’s property. From the ex-boyfriend’s, we’d be stealing.
Around 1:00, Julien tucked some cash under his empty, stood, and nodded. We exited, crossed the lot, and I asked the boyfriend’s name. He wanted to know why it mattered. I told him all names matter. “Mickey,” he said.
I took this job way back because I knew the history degree would get stretched beyond my means. I needed steady income with low expectations. As it turns out, I could manage the chaos of a kitchen, blowtorch heat and charred arm hair, the maddening insistence of servers, the come-and-go oafs who work the fryer. Something about my constitution allows me to sail through pandemonium, to send out plate after plate with no dead orders and no returns. Why am I good at it? Why not computer programming or lead guitar or rocket science? I don’t know. It’s an ontological curse, my state of being shackled to modern culinary infrastructure. Even my corpus matches up. I’ve got these protracting arms and a high pain threshold. Lana kept throwing money at me, more than kitchen guys normally get, so I stayed on, and that’s how I ended up here, part of this story, an apostle or something. I could apply for loans, grants or a federal program for wayward people like me. I could put all my muster into classes, get beyond grill work, but I haven’t and probably won’t. At some point, on some fine morning, some crustacean in a robe will hand over my degree. That’s when I’ll leave. Or not.
We went out west where Toledo crumbles into shards, where a small treeless subdivision sits next to an anonymous block warehouse, then a sickly farm surrounded by mangy fields, then ill-defined flatness waiting for the end times. He turned off and came to a lone two-story camouflaged by its own dumpiness. He rolled to a stop and looked out, studying the place. I followed his gaze and saw the car, a maroon Challenger with shiny chrome wheels and fat back tires. It was easy to imagine how such a thing would punctuate the final days of a relationship.
“Alright,” he said.
“Alright,” I said back.
He reached into his jacket, got out a keyring, and left. I slid over the gearshift and adjusted mirrors while he walked to the Challenger. He fidgeted some, got in, and closed the door like normal, that somber punch announcing itself to all ears. He sat for a few seconds, longer than the situation wanted. Then he started the engine, a deep gurgle bubbling into Toledo’s nether region. That’s when a guy came out the front door and marched toward the lot. I honked. It was an idiot reflex but the best my body could generate. The guy, no doubt Mickey, turned and stared, his arms cocked and his face half-lit. He wasn’t a giant but seemed ready, primed for confrontation. He took stock of me sitting behind the wheel, walked to the Challenger, and disappeared from my line of vision. I inched ahead to see him at the driver-side window leaning down, palms on his knees. Then Julien got out with the Challenger rumbling. They stood face-to-face, one thick-neck bruiser and one factory worker. I left the door open and approached. Julien didn’t turn but held his hand up: a wait sign.
It was windless and warm, the kind of rheumy heat that hangs around your face and neck. Mickey said something low. Julien didn’t flinch. He stood as if he were waiting in line at the bank, almost bored, and I thought of myself in seventh grade when I watched three guys terrorize Connor Jackson in the ally. They were shoving him back and forth, his bookbag flopping across his back. I knew he’d come out of it wrecked, but I did nothing. Fear, I guess. A few years later, I was in the school parking lot, some friends and I pounding a case of beer. One of those bullies, Greg something, was leaning against a car. He flicked a cigarette butt in our direction. It rolled toward my foot, and I turned into a monster. That old memory, disgust for letting Connor Jackson get ruffled, the little orange spark nearing my shoe, several beers killing restraint, everything all together lit my powder. Before that kid could shift from his cool-guy pose, I was on him, my right fist jackhammering. His head whipped against the window and he dropped like a corpse. I turned to his buddy who stepped back, hands up. I’m thin, wiry, too verbal to ignite panic, but at times, I can turn into a weapon. I’ve never been glad about that night—the blur of it, the witless victory, some electrical charge that wanted another face to hammer. Movies have it all wrong. After you ruin someone, even a cruel thug, you don’t feel glorious. You feel like a misfired gun, and tonight, standing on the outer rim of Toledo, I felt that charge. I was craving impact—thinking in those few seconds that the two of us would crush this guy, turn him into a whimpering pile—and then Mickey said “no way, no way,” just like that, two loud assertions. I took another step. Neither turned, and then Julien spoke a few short words that sliced through Mickey’s will. His shoulders notched down. He stepped back, walked in a circle, and sat on the concrete stopper. He crossed his ankles and draped his arms over his thighs. Julien stepped toward him, looked down, and said something else. There was head nodding, an agreement. Then Mickey stood and hugged Julien for a long time, their bodies one still mass, a ball of humility and mercy.
I stood like a dumb animal. Julien released Mickey and gave me a slow wave, an order to move out. We took 475 down to Maumee, the only peaceful stretch of bypass around the city. For reasons beyond knowing, it’s never choked up or rammy. Maybe it’s too far west of the main hive, a karmic notch beyond shared rage.
Tabatha’s place was a tiny brown bungalow with a slim gravel driveway. He left the Challenger outside a detached garage, dropped his keyring in a mail slot, then slid into the passenger seat. “You drive,” he said and turned up the radio. We wormed along Maumee side streets listening to Ozzy, Julien’s favorite. It’s the clarity he likes, that high clean voice, big melodies and chiseling guitar. He told me that one night. Ozzy’s an honest performer, like a magician, he said.
We got back onto 475 and sailed up the west rim, nothing else around but a couple semis. I asked the obvious. “What’d you say?”
“What he needed to hear.”
“He’s a good guy.”
Simple. I knew there was more, plenty of words going back and forth, some informal blessing or soft commandments. I didn’t want to pry because Julien tends to fade when you shine a light, but I asked if it was true. Is Mickey really a good guy?
“No,” he said, “but he wants to be.”
We hit that smooth part of the road, a couple miles of new blacktop that barely acknowledge your tires. Pink Floyd came on and we floated north. The yellow aura of Springfield Meadows beckoned from the west, some bulky night clouds lit from below, and in that smooth quiet, he volunteered a point. “Down deep, that’s the battle—who you are versus who you’re trying to be.”
I’d heard him say such things before but figured them little gems from my drinking buddy. Tonight, it felt heavy as a tank, truer than gravity. All the daily effort. All the mental grinding, celebrity worship, cults, every ad ever made, the friction behind all pleasure, the roaring of sleepless nights. It’s relentless unless you’re drunk, stoned, or dead.
Lead Belly’s was locked and dark, the one security light like a dull star. I pulled next to my Colt sitting alone in the far corner, put his Jeep in park, and looked out at the gravel. There were a million things to pull apart and work through, reams of psychology and philosophy, the stuff that could burn your brain for years, but Julien was done. He leaned over and shook my hand. Now I’m driving home the long way, looping around the underside of Toledo where old estates line the riverbank and trees that can remember the Civil War make a long tunnel. A cop just trailed me for a few blocks then turned off. There are no other headlights or taillights. It’s just me and Blue Oyster Cult serenading the river. I’ll see Julien again Monday or Tuesday. We’ll sit beneath the television and talk politics, engineering, physics, or maybe how one carries around such a mission. If the music is rolling and people are crowding around, if things feel smooth enough, I might stoke the courage to ask. Is he bound to save everyone? Is that what he meant? Will it be some fleeting act with a chain of subtle consequences or a grand sacrifice, something painted and sculpted for millennia? And will I be worthy of helping when the time comes?
© John Mauk
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb. Read John’s interview]