Unimportant

by Erik D. Harshman

 

Kemp cut through the crowd and eventually spotted Jeremy Ivans sitting at a table for two, staring out the eighth story window at the Chicago streets below.

Taking off his jacket in a fluid motion that he’d learned from watching old videos of Bill Burroughs, Kemp draped his jacket over the back of his chair and sat down, rolling up his sleeves.

“Hugo Boss?” Ivans’ face inched back slightly.

Please!” Kemp snorted, “nothing so ostentatious… It’s Paul Fredricks.”

“What’s that?”

“They’re a mail-order clothing company out of Pennsylvania. Once a year they rent out a hotel suite in Pittsburgh, fly me out there and bring out their entire inventory, along with a tailor. I try stuff on. If I like it, they modify it to fit me, then I get it for free.”

“What’s the catch?”

“Whenever I’m on a book tour, or a talk show, whatever, I mention their name and the fact that I wear their stuff. That’s the catch.”

“So you sold out.”

Kemp laughed through his nose. “You sonofabitchbastard! No!… Look, ‘selling out,’ as the kids call it… as you and I used it back in the nineties, means sacrificing your dignity, your artistic integrity in order to obtain mainstream success and a larger, more diverse audience. It’s being bent over a barrel by corporate scumbags who want to use an artist for their own means. These scumbags make the artist produce work and do things the artist would normally never do. But both parties submit to this ridiculousness for the money. I’m not doing that! I found a creative way to get free clothes. And, I’ll have you know, I have a list of other shit I will gladly endorse, stuff I use on a regular basis, just so I can get a lifetime supply of this shit.”

“Such as?” Ivans asked, projecting an amused smile over the rim of his wine glass as he emptied it.

“Switzer’s Licorice–”

“Thought they only sold that in St. Louis?”

“So what!”

“Didn’t you go to school with Matt Switzer?”

“Yeah.”

“And weren’t his grandfather and father patients of your dad?”

Kemp sighed. “So… Switzer’s Licorice. Smart Water. Jägermeister. Red Bull.”

“Oy!” Ivans groaned and signaled for another glass of wine.

“Dickie’s workwear.”

“That’d be a conflict of interest.”

“Whatever. KY Jelly. Kiwi shoe polish. Old Spice.”

Ivans jolted as if galvanized. “Fuckin’ Old Spice? Kemp! Seriously?”

What? I think every man should smell and feel like Ernest Hemingway. What’s your problem?”

“What are you drinking?”

“What’re you swilling?”

“Ah…” Ivans looked down into his glass, “Merlot. I think.”

Somewhere down Wabash a heavy, god-sized CRASH transmitted through downtown, forcibly muting every sidewalk conversation.

“Fuck was that?” Kemp craned his head over his left shoulder.

“Construction, I guess.” Ivans shrugged. “Can we get down to business?”

“Oh, sure… Yeah… You want me to sit stoically while you cry in your cereal for a few hours. Gotcha.”

“Oh, fuck off, Kemp.”

“And then I’ll dispense some world-weary, but overtly misogynistic advice and we can both walk away drunk, contented but vaguely pissed off… That’s if all goes well. If I fuck up my advice you could walk away full of rape… like a Hell’s Angels biker who’s been on a week-long snuff porn bender in his shack.”

Ivans sat back. “Can we be serious?”

“I’m sorry. Go on.”

Kemp listened as his gaze drifted toward the window. Down Wabash Avenue prismatic human tendrils coursed down a thoroughfare of silent, stilted cars. “What’s going on down there?”

Ivans leaned towards the window. “Don’t know. Fire drill?”

What? You can’t be serious.”

A young Indian woman, college age maybe, in a white blouse and black skirt shuffled past Ivans and Kemp’s table. She was taking off her high-heeled shoes as she ran. Kemp grabbed her arm softly.

“Heyhey! Can you tell us what’s happening?”

“Something came out of Lake Michigan.”

“Something?”

“Like a monster.”

Really? What does it look like? A giant lizard? Giant ape? Giant turtle? What?”

“I don’t know. But it’s big. And old, like dinosaur old. It’s started chewing on the side of the Sears Tower.”

“Well, that’s no good. Is it a biped or quadruped?”

The girl’s face scrunched. “A what?”

“Never mind,” Kemp sighed.

“Anyhow, so Janie.” Ivans began as he reached to receive his new Merlot from the waitress. “And he’ll have the same.” Ivans indicated Kemp. The waitress nodded and shuffled off.

“So,” Kemp sighed, “Janie…”

*****

“Kemp, I don’t think closure will make me happy.” Ivans lowered his voice.

“Nothing about this situation is supposed to make you happy, Jer. Women aren’t supposed to make us happy. They’re supposed to make us miserable and we’re supposed to enjoy it.”

“That’s a lot of supposing.”

“There’s a great dichotomy between how things do work and how they should work. We, people, have made a great mess of the modern social, moral, and emotional dynamic. In doing so, we’ve created a great deal of supposition.” Kemp sighed, sat back, and folded his hands over his lap.

Outside, Michael Bay sound effects dominated: the whining of metal, steel girders or maybe the tracks of the “L” train, bending against their will and definition, shuddering; muffled explosions; glass confetti screaming and splinking against other windows.

“This relationship only lasted a handful of months.” Ivans shook his head as he married his mouth with that of the wine glass.

“Did I ever tell you about that phase in my life when I’d have two relationships, virtually back-to-back and the combined time for both relationships would be less than two years? I’d then take a year and a half to two years off, intentionally or unintentionally, then the process would start all over again.”

“Really?”

“That is fact.”

“And how about now?”

“Well,” Kemp reached for his wine glass. “I think Deidre broke the cycle. When she and I dated, for better or worse, for two years I think that disrupted the pattern.”

“You really believe that?”

“It stands to reason. I truly do believe the universe works in cycles. I mean, seriously, can you think of anyone who had a good year in 2010?”

Ivans shrugged.

“Exactly.” Kemp gulped the rest of his wine and signaled for another while his mouth was still clasped to the breast-sized glass.

Kemp overheard timorous whispers coming from the wood-paneled bar area.

“What do you think it is?”

“CNN says the military can’t kill it. I think it swam up from Hell.”

“Does it have horns or cloven feet?”

“No. It looks like something out of a museum.”

“Okay, then it’s not from Hell! Sheeeesh!”

“I hate to interrupt,” Kemp cleared his throat.

Ivans waved away the comment.

“But are we going to get some food?”

“I think the kitchen’s closed.”

“Alright, then we’ll keep drinking. No problem.”

*****

“And why exactly did the split occur?” Kemp adjusted in his seat, his leg was falling asleep.

Ivans shrugged. “She didn’t say, really. She just split.”

“Over the phone? E-mail? In person?”

“In person.”

Kemp deliberated a moment. “Do you think it would’ve been better if she’d done it facelessly?”

“I never thought of it like that. I don’t know.”

Outside, the soundtracks of James Cameron persisted: the belligerent churning of automatic gunfire, the mechanized toiling of tank wheels, the oracular punching of mortar shell cannons and some strange screeching, like a bat caught in a thin grain silo.

“In all reality,” Kemp ran his fingers absently along the stand at the base of his wine glass, “you’re back to square one. You were alone before, you’ve been alone for so much of your life, as I have, that the break shouldn’t affect you all that much.”

Shouldn’t, but it does.”

“I know,” Kemp sighed.

A flaming car, something expensive, perhaps a Bugatti Veyron, soared past the window.

Ivans barely glanced. “Is that car Swedish?”

“You know I don’t know anything about cars.”

“Yeah. So how long will it hurt, Kemp?”

Fuck! You’re asking me? Michelle hasn’t stopped draining me since I realized I fucked up in letting her go. That was in late 2004. I still miss her. The sex, the companionship; I still worry, I mean really worry to the point of it keeping me up most nights, that I’ll never sufficiently replace her. I’ll find someone new, someone gorgeous, someone gothy and aesthetically comparable on all levels, and I’ll still hold her up to the Michelle benchmark.”

“So it’s hopeless?”

“It’s not hopeless. Forgive my saying, but you’re still inexperienced. You have time. You haven’t found the End-All-Be-All yet. When you do, if you let her go… Well, then you’re in trouble. Until then… I don’t know what to tell you. Have fun. I’d tell you not to get attached, but that runs contrary to what I believe.”

“Which is?” Ivans signaled for two more glasses of wine.

The waitress’s expression communicated both a sneer and a look of disgusted concern, for whom, Ivans wasn’t certain; he just wanted the damn Merlot.

Kemp tightened his tie. Maybe I’ll choke. Then I’ll be saved and won’t have to explain this.

“I believe in love, not lust. I think perhaps your late teens and early twenties are okay for having flings and lustful fun. But that didn’t really happen for me. I mean, I had opportunities for flings and meaningless fucks in college, but I passed them up for solid, committed, monogamous relationships. And I think I’m a better person for that. I can sustain long-term relationships and I can compromise and problem-solve in order to make things work. If I’d been a swinging cocksmith, I think I’d probably have a slew of miserable, debilitating diseases right now, or I’d be a pretty shallow, emotionally bankrupt asshole. However, the problem at hand for you and I is that our late teens and early twenties are over. Society tells us that, because we’re in our thirties, we need to start looking towards ‘settling down,’ buying a minivan, a house in the ’burbs, giving up on life and marrying a hot woman who’ll get fat and bitchy and complacent over time. A woman who’ll eventually medicate herself beyond emotional, or even physical, response through prescription meds and Chardonnay. Then we’re supposed to have kids. Maybe I’m selfish, but right now I want my time, space, and money all to myself.”

“I thought you gave away most of your money to charities?”

“Yeah, well. The point is: you have kids, they sap you, and more often than not you wind up getting annoyed with them, because love costs, man, and your kids will more than likely wind up resenting you. This happened to my grandfather. This happened to my father. Why shouldn’t it happen with you and me? We want to think to think that we’d be different. But who knows. History does repeat itself.”

“So it’s best not to even try?”

Kemp shook his head and reached for his Merlot. “I’m not saying that. I’m saying maybe it’s a blessing when we’re left alone. Maybe we need break-ups. Maybe women aren’t the answer. Maybe loneliness, celibacy, longing… Perchance these are the things that drive us. I don’t know about you, but I get a hell of a lot less done, both in life and in my writing, when I’m with a woman. When I’m single is when my work flourishes.”

“I concur.”

“Okay then.”

“Where’s our Merlot?”

“Beats me. Is anybody even still here?”

Kemp and Ivans angled their heads down the carpeted pathway that ran alongside their aisle table. They saw nothing but a dark restaurant.

“I guess the bar’s self-serve at this point.” Kemp smiled.

*****

Outside belonged to the Foley sound effects of early Paul Verhoeven and Ridley Scott: a furious suction noise, like a motorized Yankauer catheter tip, coupled with a liquid gurgling noise, the bubbling shuffle of an herbal water pipe, and the crunching only slightly more organic than a kitchen sink garbage disposal. The subsequent gulping reminded Kemp of the surfacing oxygen bubbles of his mother’s scuba tank as he waited for her on the surface of the Atlantic while she ascended from a shark dive. These sounds reigned over downtown Chicago as Kemp and Ivans stumbled from the double doors of the lobby.

Stopping, Kemp straightened his jacket and tie before turning to examine Ivans. “Are you okay? Did this help?”

“I can’t tell. I don’t know if the talk or the wine helped.”

“Eh. Sometimes it’s both. Right now it’s the wine. Time will tell if the lip service did any good.”

“Are you sticking around?”

Kemp waited a moment. “No.” He barked the word. “I’m taking the Amtrak back to St. Louis to see my mother for about a week. Then it’s back to Los Angeles to finish up a few projects. Then it’s back on the road. After that, maybe I’ll relax and annoy everyone who’s filming my latest script by showing up on the set and hanging out.”

“We can’t let it be this long before we talk again,” Ivans sniffed.

“We won’t.” Kemp tried, but a poisonous red fog that bloomed behind his eyes prevented him from recalling exactly how long it had been since they’d last talked.

This is insane. Usually, Jer is the one person I don’t mind speaking to regularly.

“What happened, Kemp?” Ivans’ eyes shuddered wetly.

“I don’t know, man,” Kemp huffed, “I got busy. You fell into relationships. And I won’t lie to you, at first I felt a modicum of jealousy when I found out you were in a relationship.”

“But it was only my second, you’ve had… I don’t know.”

“Only a handful or so more than that, I assure you. Anyhow, I’m always a little envious when my friends find some vague contentment and I’m still stuck wandering around in the dark, alone. But I shook that off and, in the end, I was happy for you. I mean, genuinely fucking happy for you. And I was not only pissed but dismayed when I saw your status on Facebook.”

“You actually look at my Facebook status?”

Kemp shrugged. “I hate post-modern, digital human brochures just as much as you do, but sometimes they’re necessary to find out what’s going on with people out of state and abroad. It also saves time covering the inconsequential details.”

“Is this an inconsequential detail?”

Kemp snorted a laugh.

A crouching silhouette, about twenty stories high, flickered against the infernal film of orange and red that veiled the city. The same impetuous screeching blasphemed through funereal silence as the shadow, thankfully, sulked several blocks west of Kemp and Ivans.

“Again, only time will tell.” Kemp drew Ivans into a hug.

Without further ceremony the hug broke and both men sauntered off in different directions.