Quartermire couldn't shut up about it. He started belly to the bar bending Fat Sam’s ear, shouting as the bartender moved along, person to person, taking orders and filling drinks and, now and then, politely looking back at Quartermire and nodding, as if still listening to the story, the endless story. Then Quartermire moved down the bar himself, telling his story to each patron in turn as if he, too, were filling orders. Then he fanned out to the tables, where people sat in twos and threes and tried to be oblivious to all around them. Finally he ended up back at his seat at the bar and talked loudly into the air.
“Maybe you should get some sleep,” said Bill Jacobs, the only person still listening.
“I'm too amped man. Too pumped.” Quartermire made little fists and shook them high above his head. “See?”
“Sure,” said Bill Jacobs.
“And I don't think I've gotten it yet, man,” said Quartermire. “I don't think I've told it right once.” By now he had moved down to Bill Jacob's spot at the bar and was leaning over him with his arm slithered between Bill and the man next to him, holding himself up by the brass railing.
“Yeah?” said Bill, because he had never been the kind of person to ignore someone or be rude to them; no, Bill Jacobs was the kind of person to listen to stories of drunks in bars until he was worn out by them and then he'd go home and look in the bathroom mirror, his eyes squinted, and he’d say all the things he wished he could have said.
“I don't have the words for the noise,” said Quartermire. “The noise that truck made. I don't think I can tell it right until I get that noise right, because it was everything, man. When it flipped it made this noise and it was like the whole world could hear it, except it was only me, and now I can't get it right.” And he leaned in close to Bill Jacobs and his eyes were watery and grey.
That was the story, and this is the scene: a little corner bar in a working-class neighborhood just on the edge of downtown, houses flaking paint and used car lots and scrap yards. The bar itself was in the shape of a hockey-stick and there was only domestic beer on tap, but the rows of liquor bottles behind Fat Sam caught the dim light and filtered it and sent it back out shimmering, insistent, as if from a lighthouse. There was a shuffleboard and sometimes during the school year there would be frat boys in polo shirts there playing and whooping and drinking the happy hour pitchers of Bud. But this was summer, the middle of a dead summer, and the city was empty and baking, hot to the touch, the wind was like an exhaust fan on your face, and the men who slumped at the bar in the Past-Time Pub were oiled and greasy from working in the sun and stooped over themselves like wilting tomato plants.
This was the bar where I ran into Mike S. one time, long ago, before I moved away. We were already many years distant from each other even then, and I thought it fitting that we met at the Past-Time, and I wrote about it. I wrote a story where I met Mike S. at the Past-Time and it was all about growing up and changing and leaving our younger selves behind, because I was young and thought it was important and insightful to notice this. At the end of the story I climbed to the top of the hill at Yerba Buena park in San Francisco with my roommates and the Blue Angels were flying around us, all grace and engine roar, and I thought this, too, was an important symbol for my life, for the changes I'd made, for where I was going. And now I'm back in Chico and back at the Past-Time and Quartermire is telling his story, a mostly unremarkable story about an accident on the 99.
I didn't know Quartermire, didn't know him from before, from my youth, my first life. He was one of the new characters in my life. Just a townie that drank at the same bar I drank at. He was tall and skinny and his cheeks were sunken, he had this gaunt look about him, like someone who'd spent at least a few years on meth. His dusty blonde hair was always plastered to his head by the small, tightly fit Colorado Avalanche hat he always wore but was constantly pulling off: to wipe a hand through his greasy, sweat-slicked hair; to rub his calloused palms roughly over his dark and wild eye sockets; to point with, emphatically, when something exciting happened on TV, or when reaching the punchline of a joke, or to order Jagermeister. He was the kind of person you'd see at the bar every night, who seemed to always just be there, and so it was hard to imagine him anywhere else, so fixed he became to this one location in your mind, to one set of emotions, to one series of light angles, within one group of people. I saw him once at WinCo and in his little shopping basket was a bunch of bananas, two large Gatorades, mustard, toothpaste, tinfoil, bologna, but the man himself is hazy and out of focus in my memory of that moment.
What happened was that a garbage truck on its way to the landfill tried to take the left onto Neal Road too fast and flipped itself across two lanes of Highway 99. Here's Quartermire:
“This son of a bitch was drunk. There was a ton of traffic on the road, coming right at him. But he didn't care or something because he just turned right into it. He had a death wish or something probably. He almost hit me, man, but I hit the e-brake and yanked on the wheel and I spun fucking sideways and he bounced right over me, swear to fucking god. The dump truck bounced, man, and all this garbage, it just rained down all over my car. It was like confetti, man, like a god damned parade.”
He's pointing with his hat, using it to show the trajectory of the truck as it spun through the air, the precision with which he maneuvered his car, the way the garbage fell so slowly, so softly , all around him. He says he finally came to a stop when his car came into contact with a big pile of garbage mush, a pile of coffee grounds and dog shit and rotting fruit and old t-shirts. “Garbage,” he says, and he sweeps the hat around in a circle, encompassing you and your friends and the bar itself, maybe the neighborhood, maybe the entire city, and when he puts the hat back on his head there's a flash in his eyes that says the story is over, a flash like the one you see in the eyes of amateur singers on tv shows when they know they've absolutely nailed their song. But the flash is fleeting and soon the eyes darken and he begins to shake his head and he knows that he has missed something, some detail was not given its due, and he knows that at some point he had lost the intangible sensation of things as they were and had failed to reach the crescendo that he'd felt he'd been building to and so had not communicated what he'd intended after all. And he moves on, to another table, maybe, or maybe he just goes to the bathroom for a long while, or out on the patio to smoke a cigarette, where he joins another conversation in progress and listens for a moment but then becomes impatient; the story he is listening to means nothing to him, it's not the story he needs to hear, and he begins to fidget noticeably, awaiting his turn to speak.
The next time Bill Jacobs drives out to Oroville, he slows a little at the turn to Neal Road. Neal climbs up a little grassy butte and disappears behind a ridge, goes to Paradise, the little town in the mountains. Between here and there is the landfill; Bill Jacobs can see gulls circling, little fingernails of white against the grey and muggy clouds. There's stray bits of garbage in the median and on the roadside, strips of rubber, a burned out flare casing. Someone behind him honks and he speeds up, holding up a hand to say, “I'm sorry, you're right.” The other car, a dented and dusty BMW, pulls up close behind him and Bill can see the man's face in his rearview mirror all twisted up and angry, his lips in his mouth. The man honks again and swerves around Bill and speeds away, the taillights becoming smaller and smaller down the open highway.
He decides to go to the Recology truck yard. The site manager is in the office bullshitting with the secretary. “Mr. Jacobs!” he says. “Time for our inspection already?”
“Nah,” says Bill. “Just wanted to check on the status of a truck, mighta been in an accident on Neale and 99.”
The manager purses his lips. “I’m not sure we have any trucks that have been in accidents lately, but let me go check.”
He leaves Bill and the secretary alone. She smiles. “How’s your day going, Bill?”
He shrugs. “Same ol’ same ol’,” he says, putting his hands in his pockets. It was how he always responded to questions like that: magnanimous, he thought. Inconspicuous. He never wanted to trouble anybody.
The manager took some time coming back. Bill leaned against the counter and the secretary clicked away at her keyboard. It was quiet, so quiet it became tense. Finally Bill said—he couldn’t stop himself—“There was this guy,” he said. “On the freeway.”
“Just…riding my ass. He was so pissed off.”
She shakes her head. “Some people.”
“Yeah,” he says. He starts to say more, feels like there is something more to say, but he just says, “Some people,” and he, too, shakes his head.
When I first left Chico, I thought I'd never return, save maybe for holidays. I went to San Francisco to become a writer and figured I'd stay there. One night I walked with some friends from a bar on 19th to the MUNI station at West Portal and the light never faded: the street-lamps were golden umbrellas held over fog-slicked sidewalks, and a general greyish glow hung over the city, its light pollution like a breath frozen about its dozing face by the cold and the wind. And we talked of literature and art and we were young and the nights never needed to end.
Zulema said, “How do you know when you've finished a story?”
“When it can't be made better,” said Will.
“But no,” she said. “How do you know? How do you know it can't be made better?”
And we all thought about that for a minute.
“It just has to feel done,” said Britta. And none of us were satisfied with that answer. Britta said, “It has to feel like you've gone somewhere. Like you're somewhere else, not where you started. And there has to be a feeling about it, about the journey, or the change, or whatever. It has to feel hopeful or desolate.”
“But it has to feel like something,” said Will.
“Yeah,” said Britta, getting excited; the words were right behind her thoughts and they were both racing. “It has to have moved you,” she said, and immediately her face twisted up because she knew the words weren't equal to her thought, whatever it had been.
Up ahead the great glow of the West Portal station came spilling out into the streets. We crossed the electric rail-spiraled cul de sac where the trains turn around and swiped our passes and entered the station. We were all going north and stood on the platform and the light was oppressive after the gentle misty glow of the San Franciscan night. A large rat moved in the dust and the garbage of the train tracks.
Zulema said, “But writing can move you any time. Just a beautiful phrase can move you. A good paragraph can travel any distance and move your character and your reader from one place to another. So when is it a story? Is that all it is, or is it something more?”
The M train announced itself from around the bend with its clattering bells. On the train with its lurching and its clacking and its dead-eyed riders bound for sleep, I thought on Zulema's question, and am thinking on it still.
Quartermire: Okay, you're never going to believe this. Not in a million years, ok, so don't even try. But I tell you it fucking happened, happened just like this. I'm driving to Oroville. I have to go to court, ok? I admit it. I was on my way to court but it was nothing big. A fucking ticket or something, some bullshit. I can't even remember what for. But I remember the cop's face, not because he was a big prick or anything but because he seemed so god-damned bored writing me the ticket. Kept lookin' off, like he was waiting for something better to happen. Anyway. I'm late. I'm speeding, thinking I'm going to get another ticket on my way to the court! Ha! Anyway. I'm going 90, easy. I can hear every piston and belt going in my truck and I'm thinking, She ain't gonna make it. She can't take it. So I start easing off a little cause I figure I can be late to argue my ticket but I can't lose my truck. So I start slowing down, and just as I do, WHOOM!, there goes this garbage truck; it comes outta nowhere and just flies by me.
Well, I'm watching this garbage truck and I don't even realize that we've come up on Neal Road, and I'd forgotten they put that stop light there. You know whats coming. The light is green, but then it turns yellow. I start to slow but the garbage truck speeds up! It's swerving all over the road! It cuts me off, trying to make a wide turn, and those little hook things that grab the garbage cans? It scrapes them across the hood of my truck! Sparks are flying off my truck, man, and big old hunks of rubber are coming off the garbage trucks' tires, and garbage is starting to float out of the back of it, all this garbage, man, little torn up pieces of paper and diapers and apple cores, man. We both miss the light, its already red, and the garbage truck is trying to turn left across two lanes and he turns too fast and just BOOM! CRUNCH! Flips himself! He's up the air, man, right on top of me! I look up and I see this garbage truck spinning over me in slow motion, and it’s beautiful. It's the most beautiful thing I ever seen. This garbage truck spins just like a ballerina, man, and it’s forty feet in the air if it was an inch. And all the garbage is just falling over me, it’s like a garbage soup just raining all over my truck. It's all wet and black but everything is happening so slowly that I can see each drop of garbage water hit the hood of my truck and hear every banana peel slap the roof, man, I shit you not.
I told you weren't going to believe me.
But here's the real crazy part, man. I hit the e-brake so I can stop and just let the truck flip over me. The fucking garbage truck—man, just listen to this part without saying nothing or making a face or anything, because its true and you won't believe it and I already told you you won't believe it so we don't even need to talk about it or argue about it or anything, you just have to listen, ok?—the garbage truck lands, right on its tires, and just fucking bounces there for a second, and then stops. It just does a fucking pirouette on Highway 99 and lands it like it was nothing. And I'm screeching to a stop right next to it and there's smoke coming from my tires and I finally spin out into this mountain of garbage bags. There's like this wind and all the garbage is blowing around in little garbage tornadoes. And I'm just sitting there and my heart is pounding and it all happened so fast that garbage is still falling from the sky. Like confetti. There ain't another soul in sight man—or so I thought.
Then I see this lady. I told you, man, not a word or a face. There's this lady. And I don't know if she's beautiful or not but I think now that she is, or she was. There's this lady, a brunette, and she's just standing in the middle of the highway, right in the middle of all the garbage. And its falling all around her, big old plastic bags of garbage and little bits and she's just standing there. And like I said, she's beautiful, a knock-out. I'm pretty sure now that she was the most beautiful woman I ever seen. And guess what? Don't guess, because you'll never guess it. She's wearing this grey jumpsuit—she's the fucking garbage man, man! And she must've fallen out of the truck when it spun or else she jumped out, but any way she's just standing there, looking at me. I'll never forget it, the look her in her eyes. It was the way a woman looks at you when she loves you so much but just can't fucking stand you anymore. And I'm not going to say another word after this and I'm not going to answer any questions, because you're going to not believe me and you're going to give me shit and I don't want to deal with it, ok? But what happens next is she unzips the jumpsuit and takes it off, and underneath it, man, she's wearing a fucking wedding dress.
And then she just walks away, and I ain't never seen her since.
Bill Jacobs is watching the 11 o'clock news, drinking a gin and tonic. A tornado ripped apart a bunch of small towns in Oklahoma. Reporters in corporate logos are walking through the rubble, their eyes rubbed red to show maximum sympathy. They show an aerial shot of the destruction and you can see the tornado's path cutting right through these suburbs like someone went over them with a road grader, and on either side of the path there are houses, perfectly intact, their lawns and pools all patchwork and perfect. The people who live in the path are walking around wearing pajamas. The people who live out of the path are handing out coffees and hot chocolate and telling the reporters how they opened up their homes to their less fortunate neighbors, and on camera they're saying, “We're a community,” and when the camera is off they're saying, “Thank fucking god it wasn't me.”
Bill Jacobs thinks about this when he goes to work the next day. An auditor for Recology Waste Services, it was occasionally his job to head to the Neale Road landfill and make routine inspections of the facilities. There were plans to develop a commercial site at the landfill selling composted soil and he was overseeing that, he supposed. He wasn't really sure what he did, what he was supposed to do. When he was in his office he sat at his desk and responded to emails and reviewed reports, and told his boss what he thought the report meant; and when he was in the field he talked to the foreman and asked how things were going and they said, “Ok.” He'd take little tours through the mountains of garbage, watch the fathers and sons unload bags of trash and old busted furniture and weather-cracked bike tires and sun bleached children's toys and he'd watch the pros with their faces swaddled with handkerchiefs, stomping in their wader boots, carrying pointed sticks and hiking through the garbage looking, he guessed, for discarded treasures. There were people getting rid of parts of their lives and people looking to add something to their lives, and seagulls were swooping and honking and everything smelled like sour shit. He thought sometimes that the people you see at the dump must exist only there; they are like a nest of termites in a fallen log deep in some forest that no one will ever see or disturb, and they will carry on their little task and live their entire lives without once being seen.
The scenes change, and so do the characters. When I was a kid, Mike S. would come over every morning to watch cartoons before we walked to the bus stop. Years later I played pool and drank a pitcher with him in a townie bar and when we were done, he walked off into the gauzy yellow afternoon and I haven’t seen him since.
A long time later, long after I moved to Chico, long after Quartermire, I met a friend for drinks. A new place, an upscale wine bar with repurposed oak tables and leather menus; the bar-top is lit from within and glowed amber. The building used to be a Blockbuster Video.
It’s a new place, and he’s a new friend, too, a photographer, and we’d been meeting to talk about writing and art and to ironically bemoan our stations in life. I don’t remember why we went to this new place. Change of scenery, maybe. They say, in writing, to take your characters out of their comfort zones and see what happens. We sat at the bar and ordered beers.
“Yeah,” Kevin is saying, “I’ll take a picture, a whole roll of pictures. I don’t know what I have. The ones I thought were going to be good? Shit. They look like shit. Sometimes I put them away for like a month and when I look again, they’re all shit, but, maybe, there’s one—one I hated before actually looks, like, kinda alright now.”
“It’s like that in writing,” I say. “I had this story that had been sitting around for maybe two years? Total garbage. But then the other night when I read it, I saw it had these good bones. It was about this guy, he’s obsessed with this story. And the story is kind of dumb, but it’s not to him, you know? Anyway, it had some stuff to work with. I guess you’ve gotta have some distance or something.”
We nod and drink our beers. The bartender is drying glasses in front of us.
“Are you guys talking about writing?”
“Yeah,” we say, though, really, when you talk about writing, or art, you’re always talking about something else.
“I’ve always wanted to write,” he says. “It’s just, man—the blank page! Y’know?”
I don’t know, not really. My problem has never been the blank page. It has never been ideas, or images, or characters, or getting started. My problem has always been that nagging question: what makes a story, and when is it done? The words get onto the page but is the order right, do they add up to something, is there meaning, or feeling? I say, “Oh, totally man. It’s tough to know what to say.”
I nod but the page is never blank. You never arrive empty. There’s always a chance encounter, a question, some incomprehensible series of images that you want to make sense of. A waitress gets the bartenders attention and Kevin says, “I think the reason I never got into writing is that I don’t give a shit about stories.”
I laugh, because it’s all I’ve ever cared about. Stories, and getting them right. To tell them in the best and simplest way. For instance: When I moved back to Chico, I started going regularly to the Past-Time Pub, a place where one time, when I had no real reason to be there, I ran into an old friend.
Quartermire is telling his story, the version where the garbage truck, after flipping through the air, lands on its tires and just continues on its merry way. When he's done he stands silent for a moment, waiting for everything to sink in. He's talking to three young guys standing around a tall table drinking a pitcher of Bud. One of them says, “It's just not much of a story.”
Quartermire is aghast. He pulls the Avalanche hat off his head and whips it in a circle in the air like a cowboy at a rodeo. “What?” he yells. “Are you kidding me? Did you even listen? Did you listen to a word I said. This truck—“
“Yeah, yeah,” the guy says, pouring the last bit of foamy beer into his warm glass. “The truck flips and a bunch of garbage comes out and then it drives away or whatever. That's not a story, man.”
Quartermire slowly pulls his hat back onto his head, narrows his eyes. “Not a story. How could it not be a story?”
“Nothing really happens, dude.”
“No,” Quartermire says, and he slaps his skinny hand on the table. “What makes a story then, if you're such an expert.”
The guy rolls his eyes, implores his friends to help, but one has gone to get another pitcher and the other has the glassy eyed smile of someone who drank a bit too much and now is just along for the ride. “Well,” says the guy with a sigh. “It's got to go somewhere. Like, you have to end up somewhere different. Go on a journey, and shit.”
“A journey? Did you not listen? There's an entire journey in that story, man. The whole time that truck is flipping through the air it's life and death, man. It's, like, just a minute—but it’s everything.”
“Nah, dude. The truck flips and it goes on its way and you go on yours. That's not a journey. That's not life and death. That's just a crazy thing that happened. It's like an, uh, antidote.”
“Anecdote,” says the friend with the pitcher.
“Anecdote,” says the guy. “That's all it is. You know what's a story, dude? The Fast and the Furious. It's about a guy and he's, like, a cop and shit, and he's got to go undercover to find out about these criminals who steal cars and do all these crazy street races. But then he becomes friend with them and by the fifth movie he's basically one of them.”
“Vin Diesel,” says the glassy eyed friend.
“Vin Diesel,” the guy nods. “That's a story man. He starts as a cop and then he becomes a street racing criminal. Something happened. You know?”
Quartermire takes a deep breath. “You guys are just drunks,” he says, and moves on.
Bill Jacobs, sitting by himself at the bar, says quietly into his scotch and soda, “Some stories just never end.”
The bartender snorts a laugh and says, “No shit, huh? He's never gonna stop, is he?”
Bill Jacobs smiles and says, “I don't think so,” but that wasn't exactly what he meant. Sure, it included Quartermire and his story, because the story was something that meant more than its details and all its various incarnations; Quartermire would never stop telling that story because he would never be able to communicate its meaning. And some stories never end because they have to be told, because their meaning is so obvious and important to people that they will hold the stories close to them and pass them on. And some stories never end because the telling of the story gives the storyteller his very existence, and to stop telling the story would be death itself. Some people just don't have the guts to end the story, is what Bill Jacobs was thinking.