Maitland is standing, fourth from the teller, on Friday afternoon at an undisclosed Hillcrest bank. He is holding a paycheck for $1050 and a deposit slip. His cell phone at his waist is ringing, a soft “meeting setting,” and he knows it will be his wife with a short grocery list: items for dinner and Saturday’s barbecue with neighbors and colleagues. The former will include the book review editor for the Mission City Union, for which he has been reviewing thrillers for over ten years. The check, however, his bread and butter as it were, is from the Silver Gate Voice, where Maitland contributes a column called “Weekend.”
Every Friday afternoon at this time, on this same spot more or less, he silently reviews his life in a cursory, largely financial way. It is usually a disappointing business punctuated with Fridays of self-congratulation: a high school diploma but no degree, and yet he is widely considered knowledgeable about literary matters. This always provokes a wry grimace at the charade. Still, as his father used to say about a mediocre golf partner, “He talks a good game.” In Maitland’s case, it is more a matter of writing a good game of literary savvy. His current column, though not among his lesser-paying reviews, is also about books, more or less. He finds his subject matter, since his gradual failure as a novelist, gravitating more and more to other people’s novels, a terminal sign he had been told once and now understood.
The man in front of Maitland is reading “Weekend,” an event notice about a book signing in Mission Valley at Borders, and Maitland is trying to ward off worshippers at the throne of Otto Salmo and the overrated novelist famous for his Mafia books until his drinking dropped him from sight. The book Maitland was writing about in the column in the hands of the realtor ahead of him in line was called Serenity Road: A Novel of Rehabilitation. It was in fact about a corrupt spin-dry establishment, expensive, and the crime scene for a confusing plot involving murder, blackmail, and drugs. It was, Maitland had said, “a mess.”
He read this excerpt from the fatuous novelist in Maitland’s column:
* * *
He had less than a half of a pack of Marlboro Light 100s and only one match; but Blackwood (aka Otto Salmo, it would appear, younger, handsomer, and doing well with all the women in detox — an irony lost, it seemed, on the more famous writer) did not want to walk back to his room and get caught in a conversation with the Marine. The guy was a compulsive talker and almost punched the out-of-shape and middle-aged writer when he made the mistake of referring to his new roomie as an ex-Marine. Completely nuts. Another one, this time with Desert Storm as his excuse.
Marlon Castle sat alone, finishing a cigarette, reading a paperback. Blackwood saw that it was some rock biography, but he couldn’t tell whose it was from this angle. He greeted the younger man, and though they’d met previously, they hadn’t spoken much. Blackwood liked him as far as it went, and Marlon Castle felt pretty much the same. After a few preliminaries, they got specific.
“How much heroin did you smoke?” Blackwood asked some ten minutes into the conversation, which up to now consisted mostly of draconian house rules. “I mean, like, how much a day?”
“Well, I could never afford that much, but one time, after my band played this back-to-school fashion show at this department store and we each got $350, I figure I must have smoked the weight of my own soul in heroin that week. That weight being, I’m told, 7H grams. Is that right?”
“I wouldn’t know. Where did you get that?”
“A movie. Supposedly if you weigh the human body just before and then just after death, it loses that much weight.”
“So you would smoke, like, a gram a day?”
“Pretty much. After that, I figured I was just getting sleepy, wasting it. How much did you drink?” Castle wasn’t aware he was lying. He often smoked more, most often none at all. He was usually without money except for what his father sent or what the band could generate once in a while.
“At my peak, I guess one of those 750 milliliter bottles of some kind of whiskey or another in a day, maybe a little more if it was there, but I don’t think I physically could drink more than that before passing out.” Blackwood figured that wasn’t always the truth either. He hadn’t drunk for years, and then he did. It was only toward the end that he could kill a big bottle like that. He asked himself if he was bragging or what? He laughed. “You feel bad about it?”
“I do. I know you’re not supposed to but I do. How about you?”
“No,” Marlon shrugged. “I look at it like William Faulkner did. He was really interested in altering normal perception. He said somewhere that he even found hangovers interesting for that reason. I feel the same way about withdrawal from heroin. It’s bad but it’s interesting. ’Course I’ve never done it for years and kicked. Where did I read that about Faulkner?” Castle searched the sky across the street.
“Faulkner,” Blackwood repeated and let it go. Inevitably, he asked him about music. So much conversation at Serenity Road consisted of loving recollections of getting stupid on drugs or booze, and he was glad Castle didn’t seem to find the subject the soul of wit much less the sum total, that or sex, of subject matter. Rock and blues and Gibson vs. Fender. The younger man asked Blackwood if he had a guitar in his dorm somewhere; Blackwood shook his head, “I’ve already got one contraband item, though I have permission.”
“Computer?” Castle asked though it wasn’t quite a question. “Figures,” he nodded when the older man said nothing.
* * *
It is Maitland’s turn with the teller. His check, deposit slip, pen, and wallet drop from his grip. He feels light-headed and nauseous. He excuses himself from the teller’s window and navigates to the men’s room on the second floor. He will return after splashing some cold water on his face and figuring out what it is precisely that is wrong with him. He must not allow this to become a ritual every Friday afternoon, and it threatens to. It threatens.