The Death of Minor Characters

Nick just e-mailed his weekly column to the local newspaper. Blending high and low culture had been his trademark, and he felt the pride ( narcissim? ) only writers could generate in their minds. He sat in the fixer-upper Victorian, drinking over-priced Courvoisier, working on the novel's next chapter. Why couldn't he become another Stephen Crane, Pete Hamill, Joan Didion, or Ward Just, journalists turned novelists. What had facts got to do with fiction: imagination and memory counted more.
        Darkness moved through the rooms. Switching the lights on, he heard hacking on the porch. Brendan lived in the Midwest, not the West Coast anymore. Then the familiar spat, tobacco spurting onto the sagging porch. Damn, that shit Brendan's back.
        Something bad had happened in a midwestern suburb. Nick had to check into a mental hospital. Every day, the group therapist asked him the same question: "And why are you here, Nick?" He never answered.
        They soon released him, but he took a moderate Thorazine dose at night. Sort of a punishment for not answering the question, he assumed.
        Jewel moved to Green Bay. Brendan's father lost his buiness partner, her father. Their construction business partnership was defunct, thought Brendan's dad. Soon they quit mourning and moved to Green Bay, re-claiming the business.
        Nick lost two best friends. Friends in the easy seventies weren't hard to acquire. But he resisted. Consolation came reading novels. He'd read only school assignments and the sport section until then. He especially liked how fiction fuzzed things out, vagueness prevailing over substance. Jewel blurred into a minor character, as one in a 900-page James Michener novel. In one chapter, then the character summarily dismissed by the next one.
        "It's me." He hadn't knocked.
        "Who?" He faking paranoia, knowing it was Brendan.
        "Forgetting me isn't easy," he said.
        "Don't need fictionalizing you anymore, I guess," Nick said. The novel would be a portrait of Brendan. Nick revered Saul Bellow's, Humboldt's Gift, a portrait of poet Delmare Schwartz.
        "What's that mean?" Brendan sat in Nick's favorite chair.
        "Bellow always has the highs mixing with lows," Nick stated.
        "Non sequitors. Can't you speak English?"
        "That chair. See the photo." Nick pointed to a sepia photograph. Brendan cork-screwed his neck.
        "I saw it at your folks' home." He and Jewel drove down from Green Bay.
        "I believe in one commandment. Don't covet. Anything." He poured a large glass of cognac for Brendan.
        "Referring to?"
        "The antique rocker in the picture. I don't covet it." Bragging made Brendan want to puke.
        "Where you get the money for this?" He held the glass aloft.
        "On sale for $28."
        "Lots of money. I'm just a poor-boy redneck."
        "With a Masters degree," Nick said. "I couldn't organize my thoughts for one." The umbilical cord wrapped around Nick's throat at birth. He'd given up convincing shrinks he was disabled, entitled to federal benefits. The last doctor told him he nearly died when that happened to him. Nick became a reporter because he failed with psychiatrists.
        "You said I screwed up your life," Brendan said. "You'd still be on your bed, popping Thorazine, listening to talk shows, if I hadn't come along."
        "I love interviews." Nick wanted radio-words to annul him. Nick recalled Melville's poem.
        "I listened to Rock, getting high when they played The Dead," Brendan said.
        "Pink Floyd were better."
        "Snob. Jewel liked Bachman Turner Overdrive," Brendan said. "Never heard of them." Nick ridiculed that band, though he'd never heard them. Jewel was pissed at his tastelessness.
        Nick turned on local news. Streets, events, crime reports, city council, names: old flowing into new, nothing changing for 23 years. Brendan admired the newspaper's old publisher, thinking it hip knowing such a plugged-in person. Brendan gloried whenever he interjected the publisher's name into a conversation. He couldn't do that with Nick the Journalist's name.
        "You hate me for not being hip?" Nick said. "Hippie-Dom died. Didn't you see Time's cover back in '67?"
        "What makes you think I didn't hate you before?" Before? Nick's rage, how it never would've happened without amphetamine and home-made alcohol. The precipice, how she plunged into the spot where the three scuba-dived for placer nuggets. The Royal Highness had done it, not Nick. Primodial jealousy, its stubborn persistence, an Eternal City for non-believers.
        Brendan's laughter, its thunder everlasting and loud. The pleasure of hostilty co-mingled with nostalgia. Nick switched the news off. They listened to headbanger music, which both Nick and Brendan despised.
        "Taboo, hatred, no?" Brendan's inflection, like conferring philosophy to a rock. MurderMouth, Nick thought the DJ called group that, screamed at them. He killed the radio. Ten bells chimed from a church.
        "Damn noisy, those bells," Nick said. Twenty-four years he'd liked their tone, and told him the opposite of what he intended.
        "Brooklyn Heights, coming down on Palm Sunday," Brendan said. Nick wrote his first poem, "Stretched Across the Palms," published it, too, hearing them slightly bent.
        Silence: inwardness time-traveled backward.
        "Jean Baudrillard just died," Nick said. "The Frenchman said there's no such thing as reality."
        "The fuck knows reality now," Brendan said.
        "We've got little truths, not the Big One, he said."
        "I don't read The New Yorker," he said. " 'He can run but he can't hide,' I remember a boxer said."
        "Joe Louis to Max Schmeling." Brendan put a chaw into his cheek, quickly spattering it onto the carpet. Flem Snopes had done that in a Faulkner story.
        Nick picked up a real poker from the faux fireplace, jabbing it toward Brendan. No one spat on his carpet before.
George Sparling