Short Fiction

New Galilee

Everything reminds me of everyone.

For example, today I was listening to music through a set of wireless headphones while I was working, and the song “Saints Preservus” by Andrew Bird came on and it made think of Elena Brücker, who I used to be in love with, even though my memory of her has nothing to do with the song. The song is actually from a more recent album of Bird’s, Are You Serious, released in 2016, long after I walked out of the lives of everyone I used to know, including Elena Brücker, and into the lives of everyone I know now. My wife is one of the people I know now. So is her best friend. One day in the early fall of 2016, my wife, her best friend, and I drove a hundred miles to see Andrew Bird perform a set of songs from Are You Serious. After the concert we stayed at the apartment of a friend of mine, getting in close to or after midnight, a little drunk, and fell asleep: my wife on the couch, her best friend on the other couch (my friend had two couches, maybe still has two couches—I haven’t been to his place since he moved to Los Angeles a year ago), and me on an air mattress on the hardwood floor. I woke sometime around 3am to pee and my wife’s best friend was still awake, looking at her phone. I could tell she was on her phone by the glow of it on her face, but I couldn’t see her face itself because my vision without contacts or glasses is dreadful.

A few months earlier—Fourth of July weekend—my wife and I had travelled with her best friend to her best friend’s family’s lakehouse. That weekend I realized I was in love with her, my wife’s best friend. I wrote a book about it.

A long time ago, about a year before I was in love with Elena Brücker, I was in love with Jamie Carney. Jamie Carney introduced me to Andrew Bird. She put the song “Masterfade” from his album Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005, Righteous Babe) on a playlist. She made two playlists: “Gloriously the Slow One” and “Some Not So Slow Songs I Have Fallen in Love With.” I don’t know what happened to “Gloriously the Slow One.” Probably my best friend from those days took it and hid it somewhere or threw it away. I think Jamie Carney was in love with him. I was in love with her, but she was definitely in love with him. Probably too I was in love with him, in that small heterosexual way a man is often in love with his best friend, especially when his best friend is thinner and stronger and better looking than he is, and undeniably pretty.

I still have “Some Not So Slow Songs.” I don’t have it on purpose—like, I didn’t hold onto it intentionally out of some sense of nostalgia, I don’t need to hold onto things because they remind me of some person or time; I am not a nostalgic person; I own not a single photograph, neither digital nor physical, from those days—but somehow the playlist is still on my phone, after all these years, transferred from cloud service to cloud service, a background task, happening without my knowledge but with my inexplicit consent. Here is the tracklist for “Some Not So Slow Songs I Have Fallen In Love With—A Playlist by Jamie Carney”:

  1. For Nancy — Pete Yorn
  2. Unless It’s Kicks — Okkervil River
  3. Bridge and Tunnel — The Honorary Title
  4. Masterfade — Andrew Bird
  5. Meantime — The Futureheads
  6. Son’s Gonna Rise — Citizen Cope
  7. Fork and Knife — Brand New
  8. Eyes Like a Levee — Johnny Irion
  9. Periscopes — The Beautiful Girls
  10. Music — The Beautiful Girls
  11. Baby’s Got Sauce — G. Love
  12. The Bucket — Kings of Leon
  13. Being There — The Stills
  14. Let’s Roll — The Stills
  15. Secret Smile — Semisonic
  16. Sweet Pea — Amos Lee
  17. Seven — The Long Winters
  18. Flake — Jack Johnson

Consider the above a soundtrack, if you’d like, even though soundtracks for books are dumb and I will not be an enabler. If you want to listen to the above playlist, you’ll have to make it yourself. Break it yourself. Speak for yourself. 

And don’t waste your time trying to find the hidden link between these words and the lyrics of those songs. There is none. I’m not that clever. I wish I was that clever, and I’ve tried to be that clever, tried to write a book like that, but I’m not capable of it. Besides, it’s been done before. To death. The above is just a playlist from another time. I probably shouldn’t even have included the tracklist here. 

You know what? You should just ignore it, pretend I named neither the songs nor their artists. It’s all worthless information, significant of nothing. I promise.

Anyway, Jamie made this playlist, and the other, lost, slow one, for my best friend, Gus. She gave them to him on a thumb drive. He copied them to his hard drive and then returned her thumb drive. Then I gave him a thumb drive of my own and he copied the playlists to my thumb drive and I copied them to my hard drive. And in that way I told myself that Jamie Carney had made me a couple of playlists. And I fell in love with her. I fell in love with her because of her taste in music and because of her two dogs and her swimming pool and because of her white Mazda and her love of coffee and because of the way she could swing dance. I lived in Youngstown, Ohio, at the time, and so did Gus, and nearly every weekend we would drive to Pittsburgh, where our other friends lived, and swing dance. It was Jamie’s idea, and Steve’s, and Alexander’s, and Jessica McClain’s, and maybe one time Elena Brücker did join us, but it wasn’t her thing, you could tell.

Before dancing, there were lessons. I missed the first lesson. Gus went without me. My parents wouldn’t let me go. Didn’t want me driving so far. I was seventeen. They didn’t trust me with a car. I’d only just finally gotten my license. Not because I didn’t want it but because they wouldn’t let me. My first car was a teal Pontiac Sunfire. With a pink racing stripe. I hadn’t yet driven it further than my high school or the restaurant at which I worked. My parents were afraid, I’m sure, that, were I to drive from Youngstown to Pittsburgh, I might get hurt. I hadn’t yet proven myself as a motorist. Two weeks later I ran into a tow truck, to their credit. So I told them Gus would drive—“He’s had his license nearly two years”—but they were not persuaded. So Gus went without me.

When he came back he showed me what he’d learned. Move your left foot like this, your right like this. Hold the other person like this. “Here,” he said, “you need to learn how to lead, so for right now I’ll pretend to be the woman, give me a second to figure it out.” And how easily he did figure it out: just take what you’d learned and do the opposite, look at yourself in a mirror, see how good you are at one thing and then be good at it another way.

I was good at little. I’d shown a certain predilection for art, sketching and doodling, especially faces and bodies, although I could never nail down composition, could never place subjects aesthetically on a page. Writing came easy, even if putting in the work did not. But most other things I had no talent for. Certainly not music. Certainly not dancing. 

The next week no one went swing dancing. Nor the week after that. But the following week everyone was on board again, and by then I’d convinced my parents to let me go.

Gus drove. His Toyota Scion. A box of a car. Feminine yet clunky. We listened during the drive  to Pittsburgh to artists like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and big-band standards like the song from the Chips Ahoy! commercial. “You’re going to love this,” Gus promised me.

I could not get the rhythm at first. One-two-backstep. One-two-backstep. But eventually it came to me, never mind that I’d forget it the following week. But eventually it seemed to stick. The dance was not so difficult. If you timed it right you could do fancy little movements on the backstep: spin your partner round and round, bring her into the crook of your arm and kick your leg out and then step back again and throw her forward, just don’t let go of her hand. And if you were Gus or Steve you could let go of her hand, because you had nailed the impressive technique where you could then, almost telepathically, bring her back to you, just in time for the final note of the song, concurrent with which you’d engage your partner in a shallow dip, or a deep dip if you were strong enough, and everyone would applaud, and your dance partner would say thank you.

If you dance with someone or have sex with someone and afterwards they do not say “thank you” you have done something wrong and probably should never dance or have sex again. But if they do say thank you, you can say “you’re welcome.” And if they say thank you but you know they don’t mean it, that they did not enjoy themselves, but they say thank you anyway, then you know at least they like you, or pity you, and may even dance with you again, next time, if no one else will and you look very lonely.

We started to get really into the dancing. We watched the movie Swing Kids and started dressing in three-piece suits and wearing fedoras. Gus could pull off a fedora. Alexander and Steve started wearing zoot suits: bright red suits with pinstripes and huge lapels and jackets down nearly to their knees. Alexander could get away with them because of his dark skin. Steve because of his sheer audacity. The girls wore black dresses and red dresses and light blue dresses. Gus once pulled off a move where he picked up a woman and spun her around him like a hoola hoop before catching her again in the crook of his arm. He tried it again some weeks later on Jamie Carney, but this time he missed the catch and she fell and in a panic she bit his upper arm, nearly taking with her a chunk of flesh, and somehow the whole thing to them was funny, almost romantic. Gus knew I was in love with Jamie Carney and that she was almost definitely in love with him, but he was not in love with her and he felt bad, he told me, because there was nothing he could do about her feelings. 

Somewhere in there I turned 18.

One Sunday morning, around 1:30 am, we were driving back from Pittsburgh. By now I’d convinced my parents to let me drive sometimes, so this night we were in my Sunfire. We had the iPod plugged in. The Sunfire didn’t have a built-in auxiliary jack; I instead had purchased one of those cassette tapes with a cable sticking out of it, and the cable plugged into the phone and relayed the music to the car’s inadequate sound system. I’d tried using a wireless device that streamed the iPod’s music over FM radio, but the results had been unpredictable. We were playing “Gloriously the Slow One” at near-full volume. We were singing with the music. Sometimes Gus and I would belt out songs together during nighttime drives. There was something raw about it, emotional. We were particularly fond of Irish singer-songwriters—Damien Rice, Glenn Hansard—whose songs seemed always to start so soft, so melancholy, and end in a heartbreaking, guttural yell. We would yell with them. Together we’d share that release. It was therapy, yelling at the night at 1 am. Years later, I would become friends with an Irish singer-songwriter. I would write a press release for him. One of his songs would be my wedding song.

Gus and I were yelling. The music was turned up very loud. A fog rolled in. We were not so far from home, somewhere between Homewood and New Galilee. We passed the Sandwich Factory and the Burger King, and at a red light the high-beams of the driver behind us cut dimly through the heavy mist. The traffic light turned green and I accelerated. Gus reached over and turned the volume up. At the next intersection I made a right turn. Half a mile later those high-beams were still behind me; diffused through the infinite suspended water droplets, they were prismatic. In my rear-view mirror they were especially blinding. They dimmed, and then they flashed bright again. Dimmed again. Flashed.

“What’s the deal with this asshole?” I said.

Gus laughed. “I think you’re not going fast enough. I think he wants you to go faster.”

I accelerated further, leveling out around 85. I drove another half mile. The asshole continued to flash his lights.

“That’s dangerous,” I said. “What the hell does he think he’s doing?”

“Yeah,” Gus stopped his singing to say, finally looking concerned. “You should probably let him pass.”

We were on a two-lane road. I slowed. The other driver matched our speed, did not pass us. We couldn’t see his car; he was still to us just a pair of phantom, aggressive headlights.

But then, puppeteered by the outstretched staff of Moses, the sea of fog before us split in two. We could see the road, the cornfields on either side of us, the stars above.

“Dude,” Gus said. “That’s a cop.”

Red and blue lights, before enshrouded in cruel mist, flashed behind us.

Gus turned the music down, turned it way down, and we could hear the sirens.

“Well, shit.”

Understand this: We were two young males out very early on a Sunday morning, driving a teal Pontiac Sunfire with a pink racing stripe through rural Pennsylvania, going 65 in a 45. A highway patrolman pulls in behind us after buying a spicy chicken sandwich. He wants nothing but to eat his spicy chicken sandwich. He sees us speeding, follows us a quarter mile before finally realizing we aren’t going to slow. He flashes his headlights at us. Kindly. A warning across our stern. We go faster. Eighty-five in a 45. Honestly, maybe 90. He resigns himself to the fact that his spicy chicken sandwich is going to get cold before he has a chance to eat it. When he approaches the car, he finds us sitting there in our three-piece suits and striped fedoras. I’m trembling—I’ve never been pulled over before.

Neither Gus nor I spoke during the ride to the Beaver County Jail. The patrolman muttered occasionally into his CB radio. The Beaver County Jail was back in Aliquippa, 20 miles in the direction from whence we’d come. Closer to Pittsburgh than Youngstown. Closer to far away than home.

I’d never been arrested before. Gus had never been arrested before. And through the present, as far as I know, Gus has never been arrested again.[ But the narrator has. This is important. This must be a climax of some kind]

The patrolman escorted us through the police department’s front entrance, into a lobby that looked like any other lobby except there were fewer people, more stacks of papers, and more glass and walls around what in a different building would have been the receptionist’s desk. We were not wearing handcuffs. 

“Stand here,” the patrolman said, maneuvering us in front of a pillar the drywall of which was the yellow-green of mucous and crumbling in places. He walked to the glass partition. “Arlene,” he said.

“Joe.”

“You gonna let me in back or what, Arlene?”

“You sound like my husband.”

“Arlene . . .”

She extended her arm, touched something I couldn’t see. A buzzer sounded and a door to the inner parts of the building swung open slowly, as if it were made of iron, not wood. But it was clearly made of wood.

Gus moved to follow Patrolman Joe, and I to follow Gus. “Stay put,” Patrolman Joe said.

We moved back to the pillar.

Through the glass I could see Joe and Arlene talking. I could hear them mumbling, but couldn’t make out the words. Joe disappeared and Arlene followed. I looked at Gus. He shrugged.

“This is odd,” I said.

“A little bit,” he said.

“Couldn’t we just walk out the front door?”

“Probably cameras,” he said. “And he has our IDs.”

“Good point,” I said.

“And plus . . . where would we go?”

He was right. There was no way we were walking back to my car, which we’d left sitting by the side of the road where Patrolman Joe had pulled us over.

“Are you scared?” I asked.

“Of course I’m scared,” he replied. “What the hell are my parents going to say when they find out I’ve been arrested?”

I thought of my own parents. Gus and I were both adults, or near-adults, and still terribly fearful of what our parents would say when they found out we’d done something wrong.

“Will they have to bail us out?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“I don’t think my family could afford that,” I said.

“I’m sure my parents would bail out both of us.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Maybe my parents would never have to know.

We stood for a while near the pillar. I don’t know how long. There was probably a clock in that eerily empty lobby, but I didn’t think to look for it. I sometimes have an eidetic memory, but when I think back to our time in that police station lobby, I remember few physical details. There must have been chairs, a clock, art of some sort, maybe inspirational posters, signs with instructions or lists ordinances, a metal detector, more doors than the one leading to the station’s mysterious inner chambers through which Patrolman Joe had disappeared, security cameras, vending machines, carpet. . . . But I can recall only the pillar, the teller-like window, and for some reason austere marble floors, like a bank lobby or a Greek temple. I shuffled my feet and the squeak of my polished black dancing shoes echoed throughout the chamber. I tensed, certain Patrolman Joe would have heard, would return to chastise me, us, would decide the squealing of my too-shiny footwear was the final straw, the transgression that would lead to our imprisonment for life. Your honor, if I may offer my expert opinion, the character of this young man is such that he should be denied bail, denied the possibility of parole, for who knows what he might do next.

“Hey,” Gus said.

“Shhhhh,” I replied. We weren’t cuffed, but I couldn’t raise my finger to my lips.

He spoke again, but whispering this time. “I have something to tell you. It’s important.”

“What?” I asked, whispering myself.

“I’m moving,” he said.”

“No, stay still,” I replied. “He told us to stay still.”

“That’s not what I mean. I mean I’m moving. To Texas.”

What?” The question squeaked worse than my shoes had. I swear the puberty I’d gone through years before, the same puberty that had cursed me with a blanket of body hair, with a satisfyingly large penis I’d probably never use in anything more than a urinary way, had left its work on my voice unfinished, had broken for lunch one day and never returned to the job site, citing union problems, no doubt.

“I know,” he said. “My family decided. Dad’s business has been slowing down here, and he got an offer from a practice that needs a new orthotics specialist, and they’re paying more than he makes now doing things on his own, like way more, and—”

“What about the house?”

“It’s sold.”

“You guys were selling your house and you didn’t tell me?”

They didn’t tell me. Apparently it closed like a week ago. I had no idea.”

“Dude, it’s like the end of senior year.”

“I’m gonna finish it out homeschooled.”

“But what about—”

I was interrupted by a loud, distant sound. Like a door swinging on thick iron hinges. We froze. Then the door by the teller-like window opened and Patrolman Joe appeared. At first he seemed to not see us. He was carrying a paper coffee cup. The top two buttons of his shirt were misaligned—the lower button pushed through the other’s intended buttonhole.

Then he looked at us. “Get out of here,” he said.

“Where?” I asked.

“What?”

“Where are we supposed to go?”

“Home, whatever. Wherever you want. I don’t care. Drive more slowly from now on. Don’t play your music so loud. Use your fog lights. Don’t do drugs. Et cetera. Et cetera.”

“Aren’t you going to take us back to our car?” Gus asked.

Patrolman Joe shook his head, jingled his keys, walked toward the station’s front door. “Can’t do. I’m heading in the opposite direction. Shift’s almost over. I’m going home.”

I wanted to ask how his shift could possibly be over. Wasn’t it like an all-night thing? But after he’d driven off and left us standing on the sidewalk (“No loitering in the station parking lot!”), Gus pulled out his phone, which Patrolman Joe had returned, along with our keys and our identification (but not the pack of spearmint gum he’d confiscated from my inside jacket pocket). “Shit,” Gus said. “It’s nearly 4am.”

“Can you call us a cab?”

“You have any cash?”

“Yeah, probably enough.” I didn’t know what enough was; I’d never taken a cab before.

Rural Pennsylvania was at the time still clinging to its pay phones, and we found one just a half-block away. It had a phone book, from which we found the name of a local cab company. Local being a relative term. A driver would be there in thirty to forty-five minutes to pick us up. 

“We’re going to be home so late,” Gus bemoaned.

“Early,” I said. “So early.”

“Yeah . . . shit.”

A 4am return to Youngstown we probably could have gotten away with. We could have crept quietly into our respective houses, in bed before anyone woke, could have slept till 10 or noon, as we often did after Saturday night swing dancing. But now, with nearly an hour wait, a half-hour cab ride, and the final stretch of our drive home . . . we’d be lucky to arrive by 6:30.

“My dad will be up at six,” Gus said. “He’s always up at six.”

“You could stay at my house. We’ll say we got in at one but you decided to sleep over. We’ll get some flack, but it’s better than saying we just got back, that we were arrested.”

“Your parents won’t be up?”

I shrugged. “They might be. But they might not. Probably not.”

He shrugged too. “I don’t think we were technically arrested,” he said. “There’s not like any record or anything.”

“Yeah, well, whatever. My parents won’t care whether there’s a record, just that it happened.”

“I mean, but we’re adults, so what’s it really matter?”

“They can still kick me out,” I said. “They could especially kick me out, since I’m an adult. Probably they’d kick me out.”

“That sucks. I don’t think my parents would kick me out.”

“Wait,” I said. “You could move out.”

“What? Why would I want to do that?”

“I mean about Texas. You don’t have to go. You’re an adult. Like you said, we’re adults. We could move out, get an apartment, be roommates.”

“I’d have to get a job.”

“You have a job.” I did too; I’d been waiting tables since the day after I turned 16, walking to work until just recently.

“Yeah, at my dad’s practice. Which will cease to exist in a couple weeks here, remember?”

“A couple weeks? So you’re moving . . .?”

“End of the month. And, well . . .”

“Well what?”

“I want to go, man.”

A pair of headlights illuminated his face, first distantly, dimly, and then brighter as the car got closer. I thought perhaps it was the taxi, but for a moment I didn’t care whether we ever got home.

“Why would you want to go?”

“I—”

“I mean, dude, it’s Texas. I lived in Texas for a few months, remember, when we moved here from San Diego, when I was like six, when we drove and drove and stopped and thought we might live in Texas. There was nothing special there.”

He was once again shrouded in darkness. Or not darkness, but a darker brightness, the car and its headlights gone, uninterested in us, leaving us under a lonely streetlight.

He shrugged. “It’s not here, man. I mean, it’s not here.” He gestured. Pennsylvania. Ohio. I knew what he meant. I couldn’t fault him.

And yet oh could I fault him.

“Texas,” I said. “Not Paris, not Italy. I always thought your family would end up somewhere like that.”

“I never did. Those were always just places to visit, you know? We love those places. We love Europe. But . . .”

But at their core his family had never been anything but American. The type of American whose love of all things not American—things like homemade wine, and Édith Piaf, and reproductions of da Vinci’s notebooks—was the very definition of their Americanness. Gus’s family were the sort of people who denounced consumerism and yet whose home was lavish, full, defined by paintings, sculptures (originals and reproductions), too many couches that had a way of swallowing you when you sat on them, Perrier bottles in the recycling bin, a recycling bin, wine racks with wine in them, a beige and lavender and deep deep purple color scheme, vases with fresh flowers, fresh lavender—the sort of people who proclaimed their love of thrift stores but who at every opportunity shopped the Avenue des Champs Elysées.

“I don’t think that’s true,” I said. “About them maybe, but not about you. There’s something authentic about you.” Something hiding behind the inauthenticness. Otherwise, how could we have ever become friends, he and I? For I was an authentic person. Authentic in my awkwardness, my failure to as have yet come into my own. 

“You’ll go to college there?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Probably. Or I might not go to college.”

I had a full ride to Youngstown State, a combination of test scores and a journalism scholarship. I would live at home, commute fifteen minutes to the university, wait tables.

Except I knew right then that I wouldn’t. I’d known for a long time that that wasn’t what I was going to do, but still it had been the plan. Suddenly, so very suddenly, it was not the plan. Now the plan was . . . what?

The taxi smelled of rotten eggs and canned fish, and the driver attempted conversation. What’s with the hats? What’s with the suits? But we were exhausted, depleted, each of us disenfranchised from the other. Something had broken. We were silent, not intentionally, but somehow muffled. Worse couple a’ passengers I’ve had in ages, the driver said. The trip cost sixty-three dollars. I had fifty-eight in my wallet, a collection of small bills, tips from three mid-week evening shifts. Gus had a five. The fortuitousness of the situation was lost on us when I realized we couldn’t tip and so didn’t even acknowledge the custom. Worst couple a’.

My Sunfire’s driver-side window was shattered. Two of the tires punctured. Inside, the emergency break handle had been torn free of its assembly and left dangling by wires. Missing: a couple DVDs I’d been meaning to return to the library; my backpack, which had contained my schoolbooks, my trigonometry homework (undoubtedly incorrectly answered), and a pornographic photo I’d printed off the Internet; Gus’s iPod and the audio cable that had connected it to the cassette adapter, but not the cassette adapter itself, although without the cable it was useless—indeed, it had been jammed into the console, and I would never get it out, would be cursed with FM radio all the rest of the days of that car.

Again we turned our hopes on Gus’s cell phone, but who were we going to call? The police? Our parents? Patrolman Joe, whose fault we agreed this all was?

As we deliberated, around our feet shards of broken glass, dawn slipped itself into our conversation. First distant, a warm glow on the horizon of a dead cornfield. And then closer.

Before he could decide who to call, the cell phone rang in Gus’s hand.

I’d always wondered: Was Pennsylvania the Midwest, Northeast, or Appalachia? Especially right here, where we stood, just a couple miles from Ohio?

And then finally, as Gus spoke into the mouthpiece, it arrived: the fire of a clear-skied, red-eyed Sunday morning.


Jesus the Day After the Wedding

What happened the day after the wedding was Jesus woke with a hangover. Again. The sort of pain in the front of your forehead that has you pretty sure your brain has split open in the middle of the night, that you’ll find blood, gray matter, and spinal fluid on your pillow if you turn over. 

Jesus didn’t want to turn over. He didn’t want to sit up. But he did sit up and he was dizzy and groggy and a needle threaded itself through his skull. He didn’t remember taking his clothes off, but his torso was naked and his legs were bare, save for a white linen cloth around his ass and pelvis. He didn’t remember getting into bed. He didn’t remember coming home even. He turned and there was no one next to him on the bedroll.

Had one of the guys put him here? Had one of the guys taken his clothes off? Because, oh God, that would be embarrassing. All the things they’d had to do for him . . . but they’d never had to take his clothes off.

His throat and mouth were dry, but he tested his voice. “John?” he called. “Peter . . . John?”

His voice was an echo in the pulsing emptiness of the apartment. His voice was an echo in the pulsing emptiness of his skull.

He forced himself to stand. He rolled onto his side and pushed himself up. His arms were strong and his legs were strong, but the world wobbled around him. He wanted to vomit in a way, in an exhausted way, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what might come up. Had he had sex last night? Had he made a move toward one of the women from the party? Had he made a move toward that one woman? Toward one of the men in the band?

Judging by the height of the sun outside the window, it was near the tenth or eleventh hour of the day. Where were his friends?

He stumbled into the kitchen and found a clay jug of water on a shelf. When he touched the jug he for a moment thought he was experiencing a memory, but then he wasn’t. Either there had been a memory and it was gone or there hadn’t ever been one at all. He drank from the jug. He went to the toilet—a room with a covered hole in the floor—and used it for a long while. His eyelids were heavy. They hadn’t been heavy when he woke, but that was a deception.

He found another jug of water and washed his hair and face and beard. The water was cold. For a moment, it energized him.

He wandered back into the apartment’s common room. This apartment was the place where he and his friends had made arrangements to stay, right? Jesus didn’t himself know the people who owned the place, but one of the guys did. He couldn’t remember whom. Peter, probably. Or maybe John. But probably it was Peter—Peter knew a lot of people in a lot of places. The owners of this place were out of town, at a vacation house in Ithaca or somewhere, and their dwelling here in Cana was free and they had said, sure, use it. The key is under the mat. Help yourself to whatever is in the kitchen. Just tidy up before you leave.

Jesus pushed his way through the fog of his own brain and found a pomegranate on the kitchen table. The thought of the work involved in eating a pomegranate dismayed him. A cooking pot hovered above the remains of a fire, and inside the pot was a stiff glob of cold oats. A couple dirty wooden bowls were on the table: evidence that other people had been here this morning. Good. This was probably the right house then. He hadn’t broken into some stranger’s house last night (he’d done that once, drunkenly, before). He thought briefly about filling one of the bowls for himself. His stomach turned. He would fast today, flush the toxins with only water. He’d always been a fan of fasting. 

He went back through the common room, back to the bedroom, back to his bedroll. When he was prone again the headache welled to a sickening crescendo. But still he fell asleep seconds after his face met the reed-and-straw-filled sack that passed in his life for a pillow.

 

He woke some time later, supine now, feeling infinitely better but far from his best self. Then again, he hadn’t felt his best self in a long time; he could hardly remember who his best self was. The headache was only a soft pressure now; his stomach turned more from emptiness than serious nausea. His mouth was dry again. He heard voices nearby, laughter and conversation.

In the kitchen he found James, John, and Thaddaeus, drinking from mugs and munching on breads, fruits, and other things.

“Ho ho!” Thaddaeus said as Jesus entered in among them. “Look who the hell it is, mates.”

Jesus smiled weakly. “Hey, Thad. Morning, fellas.”

“We thought you were going to sleep all day,” said John. You looked like a corpse in there.”

“I woke up for a bit earlier. What time is it?”

“Sometime just past midday,” said Thaddaeus.

Jesus groaned. He sat in an unoccupied stool against the wall. “Give me some of that,” he said.

Thaddaeus fixed him a plate of a chunk of bread, honeycomb, and dried dates. He also spooned onto it some seeds from the pomegranate, which they’d evidently cracked open while Jesus slept.

“Would you like some tea?” Thad asked. “We made tea.”

“Water,” Jesus said, taking the plate. A piece of honeycomb was heaven on his tongue.

“Sorry we don’t have no cheese,” James said. “I wanted cheese, but Judas said we didn’t exactly have the funds for none.”

“It’s okay,” Jesus said.

“Yeah, but I wanted cheese,” James said.

“Anyway,” Jesus said, turning to John, “nice place your friends have here. Stone floors and rugs and everything.”

“Peter’s friends.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.” Jesus guzzled water, ate a chunk of bread. “Where is Peter?” he asked, his mouth full.

“Went home with one of the bridesmaids,” Thad said.

“Nice.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, it was a fun party, yeah? Did you gents have fun? I hope I didn’t do anything too embarrassing, eh? Haha.”

His friends exchanged glances. John pretended to be intensely interested in the husk of a dried date.

“Damn. I did, didn’t I?” Jesus always embarrassed himself at parties. He couldn’t be trusted at parties.

“Yeah,” Thad said. “You kind of did.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“You dranks all the wine,” James said. “And then you says it’s okay because you could just turn the water into wine.”

“I did?” Jesus said. “I said that?”

Thad and John nodded. “You did,” Thad said.

“Fuck.”

“You was a real jerk,” James said.

“He’s right,” offered John. “And then when your mom tried to calm you down, you were just kind of an asshole. Told her it wasn’t your problem where the wine went. Told her to bring you some water if she really wanted to do anything about it.”

Jesus stared at his plate. He’d done it again. Every time. 

“Fuck,” he said again.

“Yeah,” Thad said.

 

Jesus sensed a change in the mood of his friends, so he finished his food quickly. He splashed his face again and put on his robes and took leave of them.

He stepped outside into the street and hardly was the door closed behind him before he was wincing at the strength of the sun and awash in the frenetic business of a day in Cana. Here on the left were two men, friend or enemies or business partners, arguing about the reasonableness of pricing an orchard’s yield so high when it had been such a dry season. There on the right were two women in light-colored and lightweight clothing, carrying bushels of juniper in their arms, three bushels each. They passed him, these women; they did not see him. And on the other side of the street, over there, a pair of robust horses, drinking from a trough and plucking apples from a barrel. Jesus walked—he picked a direction and he walked—and as he walked it came to seem as if everyone in the city had at least one companion. Animals, children, women, men. Even a lawyer had two other lawyers with him, one of whom read aloud meeting notes from a scroll. No one was alone in Cana except for Jesus.

He didn’t know where he was going this morning. It wasn’t morning, though, he reminded himself—he’d slept through that. It was past noon and everyone in the city had started their day long ago, with purpose and direction and intention. It was Friday; the wedding the night before had been one of those rare weddings held on a Thursday evening, after sundown, in the moonlight. It had been the wedding of a distant relative, some cousin of his mother whom he’d met so he’d been told once in his youth at a similar celebration. It was an arranged marriage, like most, but the union gave all evidence that it was destined to be a happy one. Jesus remembered warm smiles on the couple’s faces all evening, at least until the point where he couldn’t remember anything at all. Maybe someday he would have a marriage like that—a happy one, not an arranged one. In truth he had little faith in the existence of romance at any point in his future. There were women, sure, and once or twice there had been men (although the men entered into the story only on nights not unlike last, intoxicated nights, nights hardly remembered) and during a visit to Judea last year he and Peter and James had even stumbled into and taken at least small part in a Bacchanalia—oh what an evening that had been, exciting and uncomfortable and orgasmic all at the same time. But there weren’t real women, none with whom he could see himself settling. There was Mary Magdalene. There was Martha. Really he just couldn’t see himself settling at all, not him.

What he both wanted to do and very much didn’t want to do right now was see his mother. He owed her. He owed her an apology. He owed her so much more.

He didn’t know where in town his parents were staying. They’d probably told him. Cana was not large.

He was hungry still. He entered a bakery at the far end of the street. The front room was devoid of people. On a counter sat baskets full of loaves and small racks with rolls and pastries. There was a ledger, sitting open, curling slightly at the ends, and a well of ink. A pen. The room smelled of yeast and barley.

“Just a moment!” called a voice from beyond the archway behind the counter.

Jesus hadn’t realized he’d made a sound someone in the back would have heard. Then he remembered vaguely the faint ring of a bell as he’d entered.

“I’ll be up front in a second,” the voice called again. The voice was strained, aged, but joyful.

Jesus stared at the breads and considered. He considered just taking a loaf and going. Or maybe just a roll. Just a roll wouldn’t be so bad. He could take it quickly and leave. He could pay for it later, return and leave shekels on the counter when again the owner was in the back room. When he had more coin to spare. A roll would hardly be missed, and no one on the street would know he hadn’t paid. A certain braided loaf called to him. No one would miss a braided loaf.

“Sorry about the wait,” said the man coming through the archway. He was older but not yet elderly, gray-haired with creases of wisdom and labor along his face and his flour-coated hands. He wiped his hands and arms on his apron, commanding a cloud of white dust into the air. “I was putting a fresh batch in in the oven. It’s been busy for a Friday, and I have a special order due this late afternoon. But what can I get for you this Sixth Day, my friend?”

What could the old baker get for him, a man who had nothing but his freedom? “I’ll take that sweet roll,” he said, pointing to the smallest pastry on the counter, which sat on a rack under a small wooden sign that said in Hebrew DAY OLDS.

“Good choice,” the old baker said, although it was clear he didn’t think so. It was clear he thought that particular sweet roll was the worst possible choice. It was clear he thought every choice Jesus had ever made was the worst possible choice. It was clear.

The man told Jesus the price and Jesus pulled a few shekels from the pocket of his robe. He put the coins on the counter and took the roll directly from the baker’s wooden tongs and did not wait for his change.

Back in the street he ate the roll. He ate quickly, hungrily. He ate it in two large bites. Scarfed it, was what he did. He expected it to taste like something. Like despair or like loneliness or like joy or like sorrow or like freedom. But it did not. It tasted like a stale, day-old sweet roll. Things do not taste like non-things. Food is not a metaphor for feelings, Jesus knew. Food is not a metaphor for the condition of one’s life.

“Je-he-sus!” said someone behind him, and he felt a hand, strong and heavy, clamp upon his trapezius.

“Peter,” he replied, recognizing the voice. He turned to see the favorite of his friends.

They embraced, the two friends, like brothers.

Jesus broke the hug. “I hear you got some pussy last night,” he said.

Peter grinned. “Indeed, my friend. Indeed. One of the fine young ladies in the bridal party caught mine whimsical eye early in the evening. And undeniably I caught hers as well. And well let us just say I spent well into the morning catching every other part of her.” Peter winked.

Jesus offered a laugh. “Good for you, Petey,” he said.

Peter stiffened.  “Then again, I suppose she might have been a cousin of yours or something. I hadn’t thought of that at the time. I’m—”

“It’s no matter,” Jesus said. “Besides, even if she was one of my mother’s relatives, I hardly know them. Doubtful they know me even.”

“Well now, surely everyone knows you, Jesus of Nazareth. He who can turn water into wine.”

“Right,” Jesus said, turning to leave.

“Oh, come now. It was a hoot. You were a source of much entertainment.”

“Much derision, no doubt.”

“Famous, infamous. Is it not more desirable to be the second than to be neither?”

“Yeah, I’m starting to wonder about that,” Jesus said. But to be the first. . . .

“In any case, I enjoyed the evening. And I think you did too. I haven’t had that much fun with you gentlemen since we went into the wilderness and found those mushrooms.”

“Right. That time,” Jesus said.

“‘But what are we to eat?’ they said. ‘Do not send us away!’ they said. And we were all like, ‘What do you mean what are you to eat? The fish, the bread, it multiplies.’” Peter laughed loudly.

Jesus forced from himself some laughter as well. “Haha,” he said. “I suppose those were good times.”

“The best,” Peter said. And then: “I’m headed back to the house now. I trust you gentlemen didn’t quite trash it?”

Jesus smiled. “Oh no,” he said. “It’s in good shape. Thad and James and John were there when I left, eating. I imagine they still should be.”

“Well then. I should go over there before they do trash the place. Drink later? I know a great tavern only a few blocks over.”

“Maybe,” Jesus said. “I’ll meet up with you later and we’ll see.”

“Sounds good. Stay safe, my swarthy friend,” And then Peter was on his way.

 

His life hadn’t always been like this. In fact, up until a few years ago, he’d had options. But he’d eschewed them, by choice, because he wanted to. Because what he didn’t want was to be a carpenter for the rest of his life, working in his father’s shop just a few dozen feet from the family home, never venturing further than the Nazareth market save for during the census or events like this, when he was required to make an appearance for the benefit of someone else. “How will it look if you don’t show up?” his mother had said a few months ago when he’d stopped in Nazareth for a visit and she’d told him about the wedding. “Your brothers will be there and your father and I will be there but not you?”

So he’d said he’d come, but he was bringing friends. And then it turned out Peter distantly knew the groom and had already been invited, had already made arrangements to spend a few days here in Cana, and of course John and Thad and James and Judas should come.

The truth was, maybe he did want to be a carpenter, but how could he know for sure if he’d never done anything else? He was almost thirty years old at the time and had never done anything else. Which was why he’d finished sanding that table for his father and then had packed a bag and said goodbye, for now, for a little while, and asked his cousin to baptize him, to wash away the Jesus he was before, the Jesus who was the conception of a rape (he knew the story—his parents never spoke of it to him, but he’d heard them talking about it once before—and he appreciated what it meant, what it meant for his mother and what it said about Joseph that he had been willing to stand with her through it all and raise as his own son a bastard child), the Jesus who was born in a fucking barn because the inns had no room for him. He’d been big on symbolism when he’d asked his cousin to baptize him; he wasn’t sure he was so keen on it now.

His mother had cried when he left. She’d said, “I don’t understand why you can’t stay here.”

And he’d said, “I’m not going far, mother. I just want to see the world more. To know the world more.”

And she’d said, “But where?”

“I don’t know. Maybe Rome, Greece. Maybe just more of Galilee than this one city.”

And she, her husband’s arm around her shoulders, had said, “You probably wish you had another mother, don’t you?”

 

It occurred to Jesus now that he wasn’t sure how much time had passed since he left the apartment, but he’d made it no farther than the end of the street. What was his goal here today? It was a question he asked often. Some days he woke and never left whatever dwelling they were staying in that week—he stayed inside, drank someone else’s tea and ate someone else’s food and read scripture and philosophy. Some days he wandered the city, visiting shops (buying nothing, usually) and temples and sitting on benches in public fora. Some mornings he ventured into the wilderness, telling no one where he was going, and stayed for days or weeks. Once he ate and drank nothing for some time and grew delusional and conversed with the Devil. The Devil offered him everything, and he wanted, for some reason, none of it.

He turned a corner, finally, onto the main boulevard. He kept walking, sticking close to the right side of the road, adhering almost to the buildings. He walked against traffic, but as out of the way as he could will himself to.

Truth be told his head still hurt a little.

Truth be told his mouth was dry; he needed more water.

Truth be told the day-old sweet roll was one of the best things he’d tasted in nearly three years.

Truth be told the bridesmaid Peter had gone home with had been unrelated to him and Jesus, too, had had his eye on her since the beginning of the party.

Truth be told, he probably could have turned that water into wine, if he really wanted to.

On his left a man in a white kufi cap led an ass. The ass carried blankets and baskets and two clay jugs. The ass kicked dust into the air as it trotted past.

Jesus stopped in front of a door. He knocked and a woman opened it and looked at him.

“Are Joseph and Mary of Nazareth staying here today?” he asked.

“I don’t know who that is,” she said.

Jesus thanked her and carried on down the road.