Light, Time, and Gravity
I wish I could say that Dylan Wiersma was my friend, but sadly, he was not, even though I worked with him for some eleven years. He was something of a pariah in our department, an ‘ideologue’ in the infamous, early twentieth century sense of the term. If he spoke to anyone, it was to typically upbraid them for some throwaway comment regarding the stupidity of students or (what amounted to the same) popular culture. He once overheard me lampooning something–an episode of American Idol, I think–and he fairly pounced. “So what are you doing about it, eh, Fennel? Convincing yet another generation to turn their back on their community?” On another occasion he literally grabbed my elbow to wheel me around: “So this is what you do to feel special? Eh, Fennel? Curse the buckets that you emptied?”
We all have our ‘Weirdsma Stories.’
I imagine you find these admissions tasteless, even shocking given the circumstances: but as little as I genuinely knew Dylan, I am quite certain he would out and out despise any attempt to misrepresent my impressions of him. Despite all the ways he resisted (and in some instances, sabotaged) the norms of bureaucratic and collegial communication, he did so out of an obvious commitment to honesty. There was quite simply no guessing where Dylan Wiersma was concerned. He told you what he thought no matter what interpersonal mayhem might result.
So yes, he was not well liked. And he was more feared, I would say, than respected. But he was what he was, and our small community will not be the same without him.
For reasons unknown, Dylan Wiersma failed to return for the 2008 fall term. University administrators made several attempts to contact his family, all to no avail. The police were contacted. After several weeks, the decision was made to clear out his office, where the manuscript form of the present work was found tucked behind a shelf of science fiction, wrapped with string and wax paper the way butchers once wrapped meat. To this day I have no idea why my name had been scrawled in the top right corner (and in a hand distinct from Dylan’s own, no less). But there is was.
And so the task of bringing his work to public light fell to me, the colleague whose office happened to lie across the hall.
As a novel, Light, Time, and Gravity is every bit as flawed and perplexing as its author. The philosophical portions, I am relieved to report, can be safely ignored. I circulated this manuscript to several scholars of note, two of them specializing in cognitive science. They were all but unanimous in their dismissal: apparently the theoretical gestalt that Dylan was pursuing, whatever it was, eludes even those with expert knowledge of his subject matter.
The same might be said regarding the science mentioned in the text. At several junctures, Dylan cites various human cognitive incapacities: he apparently believed that the intellectual pursuits characteristic of the humanities were little more than self-aggrandizing shams, ‘faux solutions’ to Medieval misapprehensions. But once again, the expert consensus speaks otherwise. As Dr. Daniel Mellamphy assured me: “The findings are nowhere near so conclusive. The implications remain entirely indeterminate. The overall situation is not nearly so dramatic.” I admit, I very nearly excised these passages altogether, given their obvious scientism and reductionism.
The true interest of what follows lies primarily in the narrative portions of the text. Dylan did indeed work on a tobacco farm in the summer of 1984, and as far as I have been able to ascertain, his descriptions are accurate in all save a handful of details. Despite his emotional and intellectual turmoil, Dylan Wiersma was nothing if not a keen observer of social surroundings. Between his diatribes he manages to capture the lives and aspirations of an often overlooked strata of Canadian society at a symbolically important juncture in our history.
For this reason alone, I believe, Light, Time, and Gravity should be considered a work of genuine literature. The author, who was by all accounts a troubled man, is simply too present in his work otherwise.
One final point of interest: The question of the character named Cutter, whom I had initially thought fictional, apparently remains part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
Susan Fennel, The University of Western Ontario, February 19th, 2011
Book One: Irrigation
What is the meaning of a deluded life?
I ask this question the first day of all my undergraduate classes, as a segue to discussing the ‘Purpose of Literature.’
Someone in the class always laughs–or at the very least smiles. Perhaps they’ve confused ‘delusion’ for the passing of gas. But most of them simply stare witless with youth. Typically, I let them twist in their inability to answer. You become numb to silence, when you profess for a living. You learn how to wield it as a tool. The more condemning the better.
“Why does it have to be deluded?” one young woman once asked me. She was what you might call a “believer,” one of those relentlessly earnest types, gifted with an almost inexhaustible capacity to be alarmed by cynical proclamations.
“What?” I replied. “You think the life you’re living is true?”
A look of scowling horror.
This was when the smart ass ‘dude’ in the back cracked, “Don’t you?”
Smart-asses. Every class has them–only their boldness varies.
“Not at all,” I quipped, smirking as if this were another predictable response. You have to be quick on your expressive feet, as nimble and resourceful as Elmer Gantry, standing before the rows.
“Just more true than ours,” he concluded.
The Colorado Avalanche host the Chicago Blackhawks. Midway through the second period, Steve Sullivan of the Blackhawks catches a high stick behind the Colorado net. The play is blown. Blood pinks the ice. A Colorado fan, cozy with his beer, grabs Sullivan’s attention as he skates past the glass with a towel held to his face. The man gestures to the bridge of his nose, says something inaudible, but easily understood because of the sneer that animates his nondescript features. “See?” he says, “that’s what you get,” only mild and bleary, like a father too detached to be truly vicious to his children.
Sullivan mops his face, skates on, perhaps accustomed to the bravery of fools drinking beer behind plexiglass, perhaps understanding that even this is simply one more part of the show. His number glides across the ice…
But this is mere coincidence. The miracle doesn’t happen until later.
The game continues. Flushed cheeks and tingling lips. Whisk and impact. The spastic clatter of sticks.
Patrick Roy, the goal-tending legend, clears the puck high and it sails over the glass. Like all things thrown, the eyes track it more in memory than in fact. It follows a woolen arc, vanishes against the tiered confusion. But it comes close. Seems close.
Sullivan skates up to the glass, perhaps not believing, but hoping all the same. The spectator is indistinct behind the acrylic sheen, hazed by the glare and warring planes of reflection. Then he sees…
The heckler is bloodied. A woman in lime green, his wife perhaps, holds a towel to his head. He looks out incredulously, outraged that his impunity has been stolen, frightened by the effortless collapse of mockery into humiliation. Sullivan cruises past, gazing, skating close enough to intimidate. The man sees him, becomes agitated, frantic even. He tries to gesture past the woman’s ministrations, shouts something in the other direction. And the commentators laugh.
Laugh at the miracle of justice.
Because there can be no doubt that it is a miracle. “One of the most bizarre incidents this season,” a sportscaster later calls it, as though it were some kind of aberration, a perversion of natural law. And though all of us understand this description, we rarely if ever ponder its significance. And for good reason.
Justice, you see, is something we make happen.
It’s only as real as we are.
I grew up outside.
This probably explains my childhood interest in the weather. It started sometime around the age of 8, I think. The question, What was it going to be like tomorrow? became so important I would wait out the entire news, impatient with hope and fear. The hitch, of course, was that we were poor and lived on the north shore of Lake Erie. All we had was an aerial perched on a rusty iron pole that had to be turned manually using a wooden handle. I spent quite some time staring up at the thing–a fish-hook for the vast transmissions swimming through the sky–and gauging the aim against the gutters and across dizzy blue. Since Erie, PA had four television stations and London, ON only had one, we almost always pointed the aerial south. As a result, the news we watched, and the weather I always waited for, was invariably American. Though I was the designated aerial turner, I was also a shrill little whiner, and so in the interests of domestic harmony my father was forced–he would insist on this–to ignore the broadcasts of his Canadian countrymen. (During the Olympics we used to cluck and shout, “See-see! There!” whenever we caught a glimpse of a Canadian. Sometimes we even rooted for them.)
This meant I grew up on American weather.
But of course, America was the only country on the weather map. This isn’t because Americans–then or Now–are that much more self-absorbed than other people in other countries, but because they have so much more Self to be absorbed by. People who reproach Americans for their parochialism generally forget the boggling size of the country–what makes them a superpower. Americans can barely keep up with America, let alone the rest of the world.
I know this because like most Canadians I was raised as one.
Whatever the case, I had to use my wits to figure what tomorrow would hold. Southwestern Ontario, where I lived, was either a little blank thumb pushing the tack of Toledo on the national weather map, or a gigantic one on the local. I was somewhere in that gap. I quickly learned that the high and low pressure lines that ended on the western shores of Lake Huron could be connected to those that began on the southern shores of Lake Erie. I also realized that weather, like words, had to be read from left to right. This meant the fridge-magnet cloud in Michigan carried much more weight than the fridge-magnet sun in Ohio or Pennsylvania. The one was the future, the other the past.
Thinking back, it seems I did all this automatically. My mother and father would periodically complain (“I hate that. Why do they do that?”) but in a tone that said they didn’t really care–like complaining about the distance to church. As the only thing I knew it seemed entirely natural to me. But then, this is what children are: blank spaces on the edge of superpowers. They spend a lifetime reading the symbols from left to right, confusing themselves for their hopes and their fears.
I’m not sure exactly when the Erie stations started with the weather satellites. I think we had moved to a place with cable by then.
Sometimes, when Mom and Dad began screaming late at night, my younger brother and I would crawl to the top of the stairs, lay on our stomachs, gaze down and cry. The upstairs was always dark, and the floor would seem an endless black plate suspended above an illuminated world–a tunnel-world. Below the shadows would lean and pace. The cracks would shiver through the work of unknown framers. We would huddle side-by-side, our fingers clutching the penultimate step, sobbing between soft, soft wails.
“No, Daddy, no…”
Sometimes my brother would crawl down and confront them. I would always whisper after him, try to call him back… He was younger and didn’t know any better.
My dad liked to drink.
I got the job when I was 17, during the summer of 1984.
Since that 17 year old seems so strange to me, stranger by far than the child staring up at the aerial or crying at the top of the stairs, I’m going to refer to him as he. I’m not sure why I feel closer to the child than the adolescent: it stands to reason that the unfamiliarity would compound the further back you go in years–that the child, and not the teenager, would be far more ‘he’ than ‘me.’
But this presumes aging is chronological, which although undeniable is almost certainly not the case. Memory is anything but linear. Lives derive their meaning from the stories we tell, where before and after are little more than an illusion, an artiface drawn across the simultaneity of what has already happened. When you really think about it, the past is about as deep as the Queen’s profile on a penny.
So, it was Dylan who got the job when he was 17, during the summer of 1984. And even though he is in fact me, I really have no idea who he is.
I often wonder whether other people find their teenage selves unrecognizable. But I never bother to ask. My curiosity for small things was killed long, long ago.
By people like you.
The job was working in tobacco, which at the time was about as pure Southwestern Ontario as you could get. Thanks to his alarm, Dylan woke up early, so early that he actually laid in bed gasping, wondering in the nethers of thought if it were possible to be killed by waking. Certainly someone somewhere had been killed, hadn’t they? By waking?
He dressed with the deliberation of an invalid: Levis, Black Sabbath T-shirt, and socks. For some reason I remember the socks most of all. His feet were large and cold and tacky, and it always seemed a total pain in the ass to pull on his socks. Years later he would learn it was because he suffered a rare form of arthritis. At the time, there was just this place in his routine that called for a wince that would become a grimace as the tobacco harvest wore on. Fucking socks, he would think. Ever since reading The Lord of the Rings he had sort of envied Hobbits and their hairy feet. Sort of.
Otherwise he thought Hobbits were gay.
He pissed, admired the techno-skull on his shirt, fretted over his narrow chest, all in the bleary, shambling manner of the half-conscious. Then he went downstairs to the kitchen, took his place at the table, sat and blinked and blinked.
Consciousness seemed an illness.
All the world was slate and water-colour beyond the window. His father was already up–his father was always already up in the morning. He leaned against the counter holding a mug, watching 100 Huntley Street on TV.
His father called out this greeting in two separate words because he so often called Dylan “Johnny” and vice versa. This is the fate of many brothers, to be interchangeably named. At least there was no question of their being loved equally. Favouritism requires the ability to discriminate.
“Morning, Dad. Tea?”
“Listen to this idiot,” Dad said, nodding to the televangelist on the screen. “He’s saying that the Soviets are about to invade the Middle-east…”
“Armageddon?” This perked Dylan up. Armageddon always perked him up in the morning. He was a big fan of all things apocalyptic. “That would be a drag.”
Dad laughed. “Watch,” he said, taking a quick drink of his tea. “This is what they always do, scare the hell out of you, tell you the clock is ticking, then say, ‘Send me your money! Ah, Jesus-Jesus!’ Do you believe this? Eh, Dylan? How can people be such fucking idiots?”
Dylan got up, shuffled next to Dad to pour himself some tea. Sure enough, the television face slipped into its effortless television pitch. “And if we receive your gift within…”
“Agh!” his Dad cried. “See? See?”
This was an almost a religious routine of theirs, spoofing 100 Huntley Street in the morning. Dylan never really thought about it much, except to think that it was cool and fun and maybe even a little dangerous. It was one of the things he used to punish his mother when he and his brother drove over to visit her on the weekends, telling her how they would all sit and slag religion–her three men. (It should have been two, given the divorce, but she never stopped loving his father.)
Sometimes she even cried.
Dylan stopped believing in God when he was 14.
His mother had made the mistake of buying him an old manual typewriter (a Smith-Corona) at a local yard sale. He then made the mistake of using it, not just to type out adventures for his weekly Dungeons and Dragons session, but to think things through. He had always scribbled errant thoughts on paper using an indigo-blue Bic pen. But this was different somehow. Handwriting was disposable–he was simply too present in the cursive tangle for him to take what he wrote that seriously. The Smith-Corona, on the other hand: there was a kind of publication in the mechanical precision of the type, a sense of permanence and autonomy. His writing had taken on the appearance of his reading, and there was so much magic in that… a potentiality almost indistinguishable for power.
These were words he could take seriously. And they were his own.
He began to theorize. Sometimes it would be a song that would set him off–Black Sabbath tunes, primarily–and he would write about the mysteries of death and God and the tyrannies of the modern life, and it all seemed so awesome and so wicked. Sometimes it would be something he was reading–Edgar Rice Burroughs or some shoddy Robert E. Howard wannabe in those days–and he would write about power and love and the bottomless hunger for justice.
Once alerted, his eye began picking out theory everywhere he turned. Assumptions, he realized. Everyone made assumptions all the time, and no one really knew. He dwelt in a kind of comic book ‘theorium,’ a space of cartoonish abstractions clustered according to hazy associations and accidents of conception–more a lazy man’s curiosity shop than an amatuer’s museum. He hammered thought after thought, stacked the points and paragraphs in a tidy pile next the typewriter and began gloating as it thickened.
I’m no longer sure what it was he loved: the process, that heady feeling of tracking noumenal crumbs, the endorphin flare accompanying this or than adolescent epiphany; or the accumulation of product, the sense of title that comes with ownership of any estate, temporal, spiritual, or semantic. Or maybe it was nothing more than the crass sense of becoming something special, the subtle power he seemed to wield over peers who had yet to learn how to dismiss and ridicule people like him. No matter what they thought, he could always think one thought further…
Theory became his narcotic of choice, the one drug he dared indulge in solitude. He would hammer away, rewinding the ink ribbon again and again until his words became ethereal and gray, then he would flip the thing over and begin typing in red, and it would seem so very proper theorizing in the colour of blood. He would pretend he was writing his own Demonicron, that his claims possessed gravity of incantations.
He was writing spells, he told himself, a magic that left the world at once untouched and enslaved.
He was the centre. He was the origin. Sometimes he would spin counter-clockwise in his room, his head thrown back, his eyes closed, and he would feel the world slow its eastward rotation. It was a strange, megalomaniacal pirouette, a circumnavigation of the world from the inside, a head turning in a world that was all in his head. His fingers tingled for the friction. If only he could spin fast enough, like the Flash or Superman, he could drag the earth to a halt. Freeze all confusion and time.
Undress women at his leisure.
Then, at one point, he typed the following:
Everything has a cause.
A –> B –> C
A= outer event
B= inner event
C= this very thought Now!!!!!!
I like to think I can still taste something of the madness of this moment… our fingers often move faster that our brains when it comes to reckoning debts and implications. The clatter of juvenile inspiration, followed by the slow breathing of appraisal… A, B, C…
1, 2, 3…
But nothing. There was no arguing… at least not with the childish conceptual resources at his disposal.
The insight had the character of a religious revelation to him, quite literally. Compared to finding Jesus and losing God it seemed little more than a logical technicality, one of those realizations that you simply trip into. But the consequences… They kept reaching and reproducing and killing…
Murdering until the world was utterly transformed. A semantic holocaust.
He even wept, realizing not only that everything he had hitherto thought (and had been taught) was a lie, but that he himself was a lie. At the tender age of 14, he had discovered that he was an illusion weeping at his illusoriness.
How fucked up was that?
He began smoking dope alone. He would throw on Rush or Pink Floyd and just sit steeping in the music, staring at his experience, trying to will his way through it, or daring it to show its paltry hand.
He became a kind of naive nihilist, blowing away his buddies and alienating all the babes at parties with his arguments against the freedom of will. He would always finish the same way, swinging his arms wide and saying, “It’s all bullshit. All of it. It can’t be and yet it is. Bullshit, through and through!”
Of course, he never stopped believing in the “Bullshit,” as he called it. Dylan was, if anything, quite strident in his moral declarations, and extremely possessive of his choices. Nevertheless, a ribbon of despair continually floated in and out of the obscurities that hedged his daily life–particularly after jerking off. For the first time his thought had been set against his living. He would sigh and look away from all the looked-at things, out a window, or through the fingers of a tree, and just exist in momentary impossibility.
A vacancy absorbing space, as Helen Keller would say.
When people ask me about God I sometimes say that I pray for him, not to him. Sometimes I say I’m having a hard enough time believing in Good, let alone God. Otherwise, I simply shrug.
That, or make like I’m laughing behind my hand.
The early morning drive to work. You know what I mean.
Sunlight gilding the power lines, bellied between poles, on and on, diminishing, sharp and white against the misting greens. Fields like fresh-made beds beneath sunny windows.
His stereo was for shit, so Dylan often drove to the roaring silence of gravel roads, thinking how the weight of his car lay distributed across four rubber-rolling points. All that weight, floating across electromagnetic planes.
Poor stupid bastard. Always mindful of senseless things.
He was ten minutes late arriving at the farm that morning, by the clock. His Dad was shouting, “Jeeezus! Dylan!” before he finally made it out the door. Even still, he had to wait ten more minutes before his boss came stomping out the kitchen door chewing a toasted bacon sandwich.
His boss, Jerry, was a friend of his Dad’s back in the days when his Dad was still into Harley’s, which meant Dylan had literally known Jerry since he was a kid meteorologist projecting fridge-magnet suns and clouds across the gap to the east of Michigan. His Dad had been something of a hero to all the teenage boys on the concession, the go-to man for all things motorcycle, and Jerry had been one of the more hardcore hangers-on. There had been many, many parties, lots of vroom! vroom!–even a couple of gigantic pot plants behind the barn.
Jerry and Dad only rarely got together anymore. This was inevitable, given that they were both heavy drinkers. All drinkers fall in love with their kitchen tables sooner or later. Not only is it hard to make a fool of yourself seated before a flat surface, kitchen tables tend to be pretty forgiving of drunken rages and what not. And since a kitchen table’s whole existence was essentially a black-out, it rarely begrudged boozers their more momentary ones.
The downside was that kitchen tables were confined to the kitchen.
Nevertheless, Jerry had dropped by several months back with a forty-pounder of whiskey, both to tell Dad how he would be share-cropping tobacco on the Finster farm the concession over, and to ask for his advice. Even though Dad had gone back to driving truck, he had spent almost twenty years in tobacco. So the two of them got hammered at the kitchen table, shouting about dirt-bikes and pussy. Things like, “I tell ya, that old Yamie IT 400, when the powerband kicked in? Zoooom! Rip your fucking head off!” Or even better, “You should’ve seen this pig! She picked. A beer bottle. Up“–a long punch-line breath–”With her fucking asshole!”
Dylan had landed the job trying to sneak a glass of milk out of the refrigerator.
So here he was. The screen door swung to a negligent crash, and Jerry walked up, nodding and laughing at the gobs of dough that made it impossible to say anything. He would make as though to say something, point to his mouth, then make a ho-hum, waiting-to-finish-chewing expression. He was an enormous man, built like an East German power-lifter, everyone said, but with the face and mannerisms of a knobby-kneed 12 year-old. After a gargantuan swallow he said, “Hey, Dylan… Where’s fucking Cutter?”
Jerry liked to talk to people as though they were his constant companions, apprized of his every thought and move. He wasn’t so keen on context.
“Yeah,” Jerry replied, throwing a piece of crust at a bird hopping through the driveway dust. “Good buddy of mine. He’ll be working with us.”
Dylan wasn’t sure how much he liked the sound of this. Aside from being shy, he was afflicted with a painful awareness of his own peculiarities. Of course adolescents are prone to feel this way, either because of the whole tedious “identity versus role confusion” thing or by sheer dint of masturbation. But in Dylan’s case the peculiarities were quite real. He was always thinking one thought too many. What was worse, he had the bad habit of pinching the suspicions of those around him by verbalizing this surplus cogitation. People generally liked him, but they never really knew what to make of him. He was a kind of blind spot in their field of social vision.
“Jerr!” a female voice cried. “Jeeesus Christ! What? You gotta kick all the doors open?”
It was Jerry’s wife, Arlene, hanging from the interior frame to pull shut the screen door. Everyone called her “Harley,” a name that was entirely at odds with her petite, peasant beauty. Dylan always felt afraid for her whenever she stood close to her husband, she was so small. On two different occasions during the previous years, he found himself spending entire evenings with her on the couch while Dad and Jerry whooped it up at the kitchen table. She frightened him for many reasons, her university education and take-no-prisoners cynicism among them. “Look at them,” she would say of his Dad and her husband, “Just look at them!” before beginning to lampoon their drunken theatrics. Whenever Jerry called out to her, “Honey? What did so-and-so tell you again?”–that kind of stuff–her reply would be pure country ham, “Say to me? Nothing important, I’m sure,” then she would look back at Dylan and screw her face into a can you believe these clowns? look.
That was the thing that freaked him out the most; the way she automatically treated him as though he stood with her were on the inside, automatically, while Jerry and his Dad stood on the stupid, stupid outside–at least while they were drinking. Well, the second most. The thing that freaked him out the most was the way her eyes simply found him, like he was a set of keys lying exactly where she’d left them. When others looked at him, their eyes would either roll around the shape of him, refusing to fasten, or they would out-and-out fix him, peer, as if he were a road sign in the fog. It was never a simple click, oh there you are–not even with his mother and father.
Only with Harley… and his brother.
Jerry turned his profile to her, spit crumbs saying, “Sorry, honey.”
Her scowl turned into a sunny smile the instant she locked eyes with Dylan.
“Hello, handsome. You don’t let him push you around, okay?”
“If he gives you a hard time,” she said, receding into the kitchen gloom, fading, “you just let me know.”
Jerry smiled, crammed the rest of his breakfast into his mouth. “I luf tat bitch,” he said, throwing a thumb back over his shoulder. Then he bent over and picked up a stone, threw it at the bird pecking at his discarded crust. He snapped his fingers and grinned when he missed. “Shit.”
I should pause here to reflect on the character of early summer mornings in Southwestern Ontario.
For me those mornings are what shine the brightest in my memory. Had I been a painter instead of a professor, that’s what this book would be, a sunshine sketch of a July morning on a tobacco farm. Dry. Calm. The air chill. The dust cold as tap-water. The long-shadowed sun, rising bright, yet painting the skin with only the merest warmth. The kilns leaning away from the dawn, their angles drawn oblong and acute by the low brilliance. The ink of night dripping into the hollows. And the fields reaching… stark beneath blue-scooped skies.
I know that Dylan loved them as well; he is me, after all (or should I say, was: he has long ago receded into the it that thinks me). But they were quite different for him, both phenomenologically and existentially speaking.
For me, those mornings have taken on an emblematic beauty, you know, the kind with the adhesive strip on the back, attachable to any clean, dry surface. Memory has unstitched them, tugged them from the whole cloth of experience and turned them into moments of art-gallery indecision. I live no more than thirty-miles from that farm, less than a half-an-hour away, and I literally can’t remember the last tobacco morning I’ve seen.
They all belong to him.
For Dylan, on the other hand, the beauty was embedded, continually harried by a consciousness of the toil to come. They were a sanctuary, to be sure, but more in the sense of a tether than a place. For him, those mornings were always backed against the hard corners that laid pregnant within them: the heat, the sweat, the spinning grimaces against an oh-so-punishing sun. They were the day’s final moment of grace.
And somehow, that made them so much more beautiful.
That’s the thing about running away. Whether you escape or not, the place you ultimately come to always finds itself defined by the place you have fled from.
Nothing falls over the horizon when you flee.
The two of them had a smoke in the driveway while waiting for this Cutter guy to arrive. As I mentioned, Jerry was one of Dad’s old friends in the sense of ‘from before,’ rather than ‘long time.’ This meant lots of uncomfortable courtesies, lots of pretending to give a damn. Jerry asked him how their old dog, a generally ferocious German Shepherd named Soho, was making out.
“Dead,” Dylan replied. “Just found him in the grass one morning a couple years back, both his eyes gone blue.”
Jerry laughed. His lips had this way of pulling away from his teeth when he smiled, as if the muscles to the sides of his mouth were dedicated to mocking seriousness, while those above and below just wanted to howl–they kind of opened like a shiny red horn. In anybody else, this would have been out-and-out weird, but with Jerry it just seemed to work–and to wondrous effect. The man had the most contagious smile Dylan had ever seen–enough to make him chuckle at the death of his own dog.
“I remember that fucking dog, alright,” Jerry said, looking down and shaking his head to some beat only he could hear. “Bit me in the sack that one time, you remember that?”
“Ooo yeah. Owich. But he was good with the family.” Dylan took a drag of his own smoke. “Scared me a couple times when I was a kid…”
“What was his name again. Pike? Pickerel?”
“Soho. And she was a she.”
“Too bad about him dying, though.”
Jerry was always a couple of moments absorbing bad news.
“Well, your sack can rest easy.”
Jerry threw his thumb back over his shoulder to the screen door and its phantom of Harley moving in the kitchen beyond. “I don’t know about that!”
They both laughed, not so much because it was funny, but because it was moment for laughter. Everything had its rhythms, even waiting in driveways.
“I actually picked out a dog–” Jerry began, but was interrupted by the swooshing arrival of a poppy-red Buick Regal. “Here’s the fucker!” he said, as the dust rolled over them.
Cutter skidded to a halt behind Dylan’s baby blue Mustang Gia, sat for a moment, a shadow behind the flash of the early morning sun across his windshield. The wailing crash of guitars–Motley Crüe by the sounds of it–whined through the air over the engine’s low-throttle rumble.
“He’s a character,” Jerry informed Dylan. “Great fucking guy.”
The car coughed into silence, and the door made the airy creak that only big-boned North American models can manage. The first thing Dylan thought when Cutter climbed out was that he looked like a scrapper, like someone who could kick some major ass if he wanted. Running shoes, faded blue-jeans, a ratty-white T-shirt with a washed out Pioneer logo across the front (“Like my farm wear?” the guy would ask later that day, pinching his pecs like titties.). He walked around the front of his car, dragging his feet over the gravel, staring meditatively at the cigarette he was trying to light behind a shielding palm. “You must be Dylan,” he said, puffing and looking up. “That your Mustang, there?”
He looked like Burt Lancaster. He had one of those hard handsome-mean faces, the kind designed by God to enter pleas in family court. Everything about him, his saunter, his grey eyes, even the way he grinned, like the Joker out of Batman only with a magazine model’s teeth, seemed to be ‘asking for it.’
Dylan swallowed. “Yup.”
“You gotta watch out for those Ford four-bangers. They’re programmed to self-destruct at seventy-five grand.”
Dylan still smiled, though he had started scowling within. His car had always been a touchy subject: he had bought it from Dad for 2,500 bucks, not so much because he wanted to–it was fucking baby-blue, after-all–but because Dad needed the cash and swore up and down that it was a “great car.” When Dylan brought the thing to Canadian Tire for the safety, the mechanic asked him how much he paid. The asshole laughed in his face when Dylan told him. Shaking his head at the wonders of human stupidity, he said, “Buddy, you go screwed.” When Dylan told him he’d bought it from his father, the guy had to lean against the chapped vinyl roof, he was howling so hard.
“Programmed?” Dylan asked.
“Seventy-five thousand. I shit you not.”
“How do you know?”
Cutter simply shrugged.
“They tell me tobacco is hard work,” he said to the empty space between the three of them. Then, as if to pick a fight, he blew smoke at its vacant face.
“I was just telling Dylan that I picked out my dog,” Jerry said. “A black Lab.”
“Yeah? What are you going to call this one? Trout?” Without missing a beat he turned to Dylan. “He called his last dog Goldfish”–a bobble-headed roll of his eyes–”fucking Goldfish!” He turned to Jerry, laughing, smacked him lightly on the shoulder. It was a gesture Dylan would see countless times: a cackle, a mischievous look, a sideways lean (so that one Adidas left the ground), and a reach that culminated in a push or tap. He even did this little move afterward, a vestigal mime of a boxer’s bob and weave. Taken together, it was the physical version of, Just joking with you, you fucker…
Jerry laughed and pushed his buddy back, but in a manner too stiff to be habitual. Somehow, Dylan knew without knowing the big man had done it for his benefit–Dylan’s–to remind him who was boss.
Eyes to God, Cutter shook his head at Dylan as if to say, Here we fucking go…
Dylan first read Being and Time as an undergraduate at York University. He began auditing philosophy classes in an effort to understand deconstruction and Derrida, whom he initially thought just had to be wrong, whatever it was the crazy bastard was saying.
Heidegger would be his second theoretically motivated religious revelation, one that would ultimately lead to his disastrous tenure as a Branch Derridean. The facticity of his throwness made a deep impression on him. As did the ontological difference. He realized his earlier revelation was simply that of a naive 14 year-old, one who had been brainwashed by the Encyclopedia of Technology and Innovation that he’d received for Christmas when he was 8. He had made a fetish out of science, failing to see that science had its own historical and conceptual conditions, that it was a skewed artifact, part of the dread “metaphysics of presence.”
Aristotle, man. Had to go fuck things up for everybody.
It was a joyous, heady time for Dylan. Suddenly the world, which had been little more than a skin of mammalian lies when he looked with his theoretical eyes, became positively soupy with meaning. Sure, thanks to differance, he could never nail that meaning down with representation, but it was the oh-so-Western urge to nail that was the problem. He had been the proverbial man with a hammer–of course he had seen all questions as ontic nails! At long last he could set aside the conceptual toolbox he had inherited from his well-intentioned, but ultimately deluded Euro-fathers.
He still waved his arms at parties, but this time the babes seemed to listen. He stared in the mirror saying, “Je ne sais quoi…” He cursed himself for hating French when he was in public school. He began practicing his Gallic shrug. He openly envied the children of diplomats.
Since he had read Derrida and Heidegger, he had no choice but to read Descartes. How could he carry on the critique of metaphysics unless he immersed himself the Western Tradition? Know thy enemy, no? This lead him to ponder the famous Frenchman’s infamous cogito, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes attempt, given the collapse in confidence wrought by the new science of the 17th century, to place knowledge on a new, secure, subjective foundation.
But who did the guy think he was fooling? Really?
To show just how hopeless Descartes was, Dylan began returning to Nietzsche time and again in most all of his undergraduate papers. He loved Nietzsche, but only as a kind of accessory to Derrida. At parties, when everyone started arguing over what was what in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Dylan would always say he was the dead tightrope walker stuffed in the hollow of a dead tree. Damn that Zarathustra! Then, if people were stoned enough, he would put his hand over his mouth and call, “Let me out. Help. Please. I’m a dead tightrope walker stuffed in a tree…” in his best deadpan.
But in his papers, he was all Beyond Good and Evil. He continually paraphrased Nietzsche’s famous reformulation of the Cartesian cogito. He would always write, using a double hanging indent for dramatic purposes,
It thinks, therefore I am.
Of course, the “it” simply had to be italicized, if only to underscore the abject impersonality at the root of subjectivity. Even though we like to think our thoughts come from our prior thoughts, which is to say, from ourselves, the merest reflection shows this cannot be the case, that each thought is dropped into consciousness from the outside, and that hence the ‘I’ is born after the fact.
Love him or hate him, his undergrad peers genuinely feared him. Few English Literature students bothered to read the works assigned, let alone pursue the history of Western Metaphysics in their spare time. First one professor, then another, asked him to save his questions for after class. “You have to understand how unnatural all this is,” the second told him. “Your classmates live in a state of almost constant anxiety as it is. When you start posing questions they can’t even understand…” A long, pained look. “Do you see what I’m saying, Dylan?”
You have to shut the fuck up, kid… For the greater good.
Sometimes, when I think about it, it seems that the bulk of what Dylan knew he knew without knowing.
Most of it hailed from the stone age. He knew without knowing, for instance, that Cutter was obsessed with what psychologists call dominance hierarchies. You couldn’t be a teenager without encountering dozens of these guys–you know, the kind that made a pissing contest out of every occasion. Some required a certain amount of drink to show their hand, others were 24/7. Some were all talk, bluster you played along with because what else was there to do? Others barely said anything at all, they would just grab you and off to the races you go. Most were idiots, and the smart ones tended to be filled with bluster, unless that is, they became very drunk and decided to prove their own bullshit to themselves–usually on easy targets.
Without knowing, Dylan knew that Cutter was something of a mutant when it came to this type. He was 24/7, that was for sure. He was also smart. But there was no bluster to him whatsoever, at least none that Dylan could detect. Bullshitters always hedged, as if rationing the degree of skin bared to the amount of suntan lotion remaining. They always had a keen sense of the lines crossed, which is why they needed to blur things with booze before they could ‘follow their heart.’ Somehow Dylan just knew that Cutter would be Cutter, no matter how much he drank. And he was right.
Everything was a pissing contest for Cutter, the looks, the grins, even the apologetic smacks on the shoulder. Everything.
And–this was the thing–the guy knew it.
Later, when he found the courage to ponder Cutter at all, Dylan would wonder if the guy was a sociopath. There was a kind of relief to those wonderings, a sense of putting things into their proper perspective.
One of the peculiarities about Dylan was that he had no idea what obnoxious was. He knew what an asshole was–an asshole was anybody who fucked him over. To say someone was an asshole was to say something personal. To say someone was obnoxious, on the other hand, was to say something social. A guy could be an asshole to you and a sweetheart to others, no problem. But a guy who was obnoxious was obnoxious, end of story.
A 30 year-old version of himself would have instantly realized that Cutter was obnoxious. But the 17 year-old version? Looking back, it seems Dylan had started making excuses for Cutter right from the very beginning, chuckling in the driveway, thinking him cool, and secretly hoping he would pass uncut through the guy’s dance of witty razors. Even Harley would ask him (later), “Can’t you see how obnoxious he is?” And Dylan would shrug and say, “You just gotta know him…”
He would think she was calling him an asshole.
I’m not saying anything new here, only blowing explicit smoke out of implicit asses. As I said, Dylan knew all this without knowing.
Even that he was dead wrong.
He wandered into the equipment barn listening to the two buddies shoot the shit to the wood-and-cement ring of their own echoes–something about a mutual fuck-up friend they professed to love, but obviously enjoyed pitying and carving more. Moments later, Dylan and Cutter were sitting on the back of a splintered flatbed trailer, while Jerry bounced on the spring seat of the John Deere 2755 that pulled them out, through the kiln-yard, into the early morning glare, and on to the deep green fields of tobacco.
At first Cutter said nothing, apparently content to soak in his new surroundings. Though no one had told him as much, Dylan could tell he was a city boy–or “cidiot,” as Dad called them. If Cutter’s out-on-a-lark attitude hadn’t given it away from the outset, his present, almost pensive attentiveness to his surroundings certainly would have. Sitting on a trailer behind a tractor, watching grass and earthen tracks blur into streamers beneath beaten tennis shoes was something Dylan was all too familiar with. Not so for Cutter. Dylan found the fact that the guy didn’t try to pretend otherwise, that he seemed keen on absorbing the novelty rather than denying it, well, disarming. He didn’t think it might be simply because Cutter had decided he wasn’t worth the trouble, that he was too much a boy or too obviously a goof to warrant the work of manly posturing.
Either way, something unspoken happened in that first leg of their journey to the irrigation pond. Something that for each instantly cemented the other as friend.
High up on the tractor, Jerry kept turning his profile so they could see his laugh, which neither of them could hear for the roar of the John Deere.
“Look at him,” Cutter called, rocking to the screech and rattle of the trailer. They both sat to the side, feet hanging, shoulders hunched forward for balance, their hands pressed tight to the flat-bed edge.
“He’s a happy man,” Dylan confirmed.
“Ever since I knew him in high school, he’s been talking about this, a crack at his own farm.” Another what-the-fuck glance at heaven. Cutter was one of those guys who could talk effortlessly around their cigarette. Dylan never could. Christ, every once and a while he caught himself holding his butts like a fag–which is to say, between the top knuckles of his index and fuck-you fingers.
“Not too bright,” Dylan replied, at once wincing and congratulating himself for this first small treachery.
Cutter took a faux-thoughtful drag off his cigarette, blew smoke out the side of his mouth, as if through a feeding tube.
“He hired me, didn’t he?”
And that was that. They were the workers, and Jerry was the Boss.
“My babeeez!” Jerry shouted after shutting down the tractor. His jump to the dust jarred him into a jog. “My babeeez iz cryin’ fer wotter!” He had this kind of shambling, butt-heavy walk, where his feet scraped whatever–grass, dirt, gravel–as he threw them like weights from ropes attached at the knee.
July is a hot month in Southwestern Ontario, and despite the humidity, quite parched as well–at least back then, when CO2 concentrations were a pathetic 340 or so parts per million. Because of the warm nights, you have nothing in the way of dew in the morning. And for whatever climatic reason, it seems to lack the mile-high thunderheads that pile in from the west through June and August. This, combined with the water requirements of tobacco, not to mention the sandy soils it thrives in, means that July was typically irrigation season.
Every farm had an irrigation pond of some description. Most were spring fed, typically clawed out of the corner of some field, a rink-sized-and-shaped pool of brackish water ringed by grass and sumac covered mounds. Others would be dammed creeks, drowned gullies found in the perennial wood-lots that fence the far side of every Ontario field. Jerry’s irrigation pond was of the former variety, only especially brackish and almost comically overgrown.
Tobacco in Ontario is a ‘managed’ agricultural industry. As a result, almost all the farms were about the same size: fifty acres or so of tobacco, with at least as much land in cash crops, beans or cereals, so that you could rotate the fields every season. When it came to irrigation, nothing was more important than the layout of the fields. Some fields you could plumb as easy as a summer cottage. Others required multiple ponds and a stupendous number of pipes which you had to move entirely as you cycled through the various fields. Having worked on the latter, Dylan was more than a little relieved that Jerry’s farm was one of the former. Jerry himself kept singing, “A, B, C, wait and see!”
Two kinds of pipes are used, fat pipe, 18 foot long 6 inch aluminum monsters, and skinny pipe, just as long, but only 4 inches in diameter. Usually the pipes are stored outdoors in the vicinity of the irrigation pond, which was the case here. It was in the course of kicking down all the weeds that had grown around the stack that Dylan felt the first tickle of foreboding. The feeling only deepened as they began loading the pipes on the flatbed. Finally, he asked whether there were more pipes hidden away somewhere.
“We have more than enough here,” Jerry laughed. “Believe you me.”
“So they’re no others? Anywhere?”
“A, B, C. 1, 2, 3…”
Cutter simply shot him a quizzical look.
This is how it works. You set up your pump–which in this case was a positively ancient, home-built affair, an old truck engine hooked to a rust-skinned intake and outlet mechanism, all welded onto a trailer with two flat tires–at the pond’s edge. Then you run your fat pipe to carry the water out to the fields, usually along the nearest dirt roads, but sometimes through ditches, woods, what have you. Each pipe is joined to the other using a separate coupler, half of which usually have rotted rubber seals on the inside. Once you arrive at the field, you begin counting rows, usually 16 or so, where you put your junction valves, literally silver aluminum fire hydrants with upright wheels to control the flow to the skinny pipes, which actually carry the water into the fields. These are connected to the irrigation guns, which stand about 10 feet high, perched on a storkish frame with wheels that run down the rows to either side of the one with the pipes down it. This allows you to manhandle the gun down the rows in staged increments from one end of the field to the other. Like a lawn sprinkler it could only throw the water so far.
Dylan always had a soft spot for the guns because they looked, despite their rather simple design, like something out of Star Wars.
Ideally, you have enough pipe, both fat and skinny, to lay out for all the fields. This way, you spend a hard day piping, and then all you have to move are the guns as you run through your cycle. Irrigation is sweet when this is the case. Since the sun and the wind cause so much evaporation during the day, you spend most of your time irrigating at night, getting catnaps here and there, depending on the intervals between moving the guns down the rows and across the fields. When you don’t have enough pipe to lay out the entire cycle, you’re continually recycling pipe you’ve already used. This is a royal pain in the ass. Rather than napping or throwing around cards, you spend all the time between the gun changes taking the pipe from the last row the gun went down, and carrying them one at a time across 16 rows, through muck, falling water, witch-fingered tobacco, in pitch black, with nary an hour of uninterrupted sleep, to the next row the gun needs to go down. Back and forth, over and over.
“A, B, C,” Jerry kept singing, “wait and see. A, B, C. 1, 2, 3…”
By time they had loaded the fat pipe on the flat bed, there was no denying the woeful numbers of skinny pipe remaining: Old Man Finster, the guy who owned Jerry’s farm, only had the barest minimum. Cheap prick. It was so bad that Dylan even contemplated quitting, right then and there. But Jerry was just so… oblivious. For someone like Dylan, who was too confused by social consequences to not be terrified of them, taking a stand like that would have been a rank impossibility. Besides, Dad would have kicked his ass–quite literally.
“That’s not so bad!” Cutter shouted afterward, slapping the dust from his thighs.
“Yeah?” Dylan replied. “Just wait.”
Jerry bobbed his head and cackled at this. “I told you, Cutter. Tobacco ain’t no walk in the park.”
The big man had misunderstood him, Dylan realized. He had thought he was referring to Cutter’s virginal inexperience, not to the logistical cluster-fuck just over the horizon. And Dylan understood, though this knowledge was little more than a spasm of anxiety, that at some level Jerry resented his good buddy, Cutter, that he would leap at any opportunity to avenge a foggy mountain of suspected slights.
Dylan turned to Cutter as Jerry climbed back into the John Deere. The sharp-eyed man winked as if to say, Welcome to the back of the bus. This slippery triangle of who’s in and who’s out, would characterize their relationship right up to the very end. No matter where you found yourself, if Cutter was there, you could bet there would be marbles on the floor.
He liked things wobbly.
Because the fields were pretty much adjacent and rectilinear, rather than shaped like gobs and spread between wooded gullies, laying the fat pipe was a simple matter of pulling one after another off the flat bed as Jerry putted along the dirt roads on the tractor. The big man had the radio cranked to FM 96, the only local station (in what was then a rock and roll desert between Detroit and Toronto) to play the odd cool tune. He bounced his head while staring across his fields or watching Dylan and Cutter walk, lift, drop, kneel to connect, again and again. Every once and awhile he pulled off his beaten AC/DC cap to squeeze the sweat out of his thinning blond hair. The sun glared up from the east, seemed to be gathering heat out of proportion to its position in the sky. Waist tall, the tobacco stretched out in stately rows, the deep-sea green of old Disney movies, as motionless as marble pillars.
“If my old lady had her way,” Cutter said at one point, “I’d be laying pipe like this at home all day.”
Dylan cracked up, even though he found the notion of Cutter married… unconvincing. Even when Cutter showed him pictures of his two kids later that day–pale, anemic looking boys, with dark, asthmatic rings beneath their eyes–Dylan found himself less than credulous.
His skepticism always seemed random and inappropriate in those days.
Cutter raised the pipe they were hoisting to his mouth and shouted “Halloo! Halloo!” into its reverberating length. “Hear that?” he said, as they let it clunk to the earth. “That’s what it sounds like when I go down on her…”
A few minutes later he added, “She’s got a pussy like a culvert.”
Then, several minutes after that, “Like dipping your dick in a bucket of warm water.”
He book-ended each of these remarks with a growling cackle and predatory grin, of course. But something about his tone told Dylan he was dead serious. With Cutter, he was quickly learning, half the riddle was figuring out when he was joking and when he wasn’t. Although Dylan was far too much in awe of the guy to consider the possibility, I sometimes wonder whether even Cutter knew. He certainly didn’t care, which is–or was–the important thing.
After finishing with the fat pipe they bombed back to the pond to gather the skinny stuff. Bouncing across the rattling back of the flat bed, Cutter turned to him and said, entirely without warning, “You shooor got purty lips…”
Dylan had no clue what the guy was talking about, and when he told Cutter as much, the guy simply shrugged and looked away to the dizzy sweep of passing rows. Dylan let it go, scowling at his homophobic scruples, hackles, what have you…
Yes, Cutter would play even with this.
Years later, when Dylan finally got around to seeing Deliverance, that moment came back to him with the clarity of a colour still: the bone-coloured boards across the bed of the trailer, the clods of dirt and stray hairs of weed shimming across the vibrating surface, and Cutter, leaning back, his thick-chested torso framed by the whirring black of the tractor tires, staring down a world that already bored him. Dylan actually cringed at the image, shrank in his clothes, feeling as soft and as ineffectual as Ned Beatty. And he realized yet another thing about Cutter–perhaps the most troubling thing of all. Not only was the guy quite happy to live alone with his jokes, he was perfectly willing to leave them altogether, let them gestate for years in their host, until some inevitable event at last brought their punch-line to light.
It made him seem almost, well, evil.
You might think working with the skinny pipes would be easier because they tended to be so much lighter, but this wasn’t the case. Since you need to bring them into the field, you have to carry them progressively farther from the trailer, which is parked at the end of the row. Since you have to walk so far, you end up carrying each pipe solo, rather than having someone on either end. And the tobacco laps at you, tongue after tacky tongue, its stickiness caramelizing your arm hairs, your shirt and jeans. Because every mote of dust that touches you latches, you soon find yourself painted in an inescapable black gum–which is why almost every tobacco farm has an outdoor tap with a bar of sand-soap or a tub of some kind of industrial detergent sitting next to it.
At first you think it’s a great workout, laying skinny pipe, like getting paid to go to the gym–on a beach no less. Some of the pipes even have sand in them, residue sucked up from the bottom of the pond, making them every bit as heavy as fat pipe. Cutter and Dylan actually curled these bitches as they carried them down the rows–at first. But the gym illusion evaporates as quickly as your body fluids. It’s grunt work, plain and simple. All tobacco is grunt work, which is why those farms still remaining have to import their workers from the Caribbean. Kids who used to wipe sunburned cheeks in those fields Now press pale, apprehensive faces against passenger windows as they whiz past black-skinned crews of planters, toppers, suckerers, primers, what have you.
People gotta smoke.
After they finished with the last of the four inch, Jerry took them to what he called the “smoke shack,” a small out-building tucked in the back corner of the kilnyard, announcing with an affable laugh that it was time for a “sesh,” as he and most everyone else called dope-smoking sessions. It was cute, the way he had the interior of the shed decked out: a scuff-silver ghetto-blaster for tunes, a ratty case of cassettes, three lawn chairs (each belonging to different sets), a cooler (filled with beer, it so happened), a Playboy calender on the wall, and a small table with a crib-board and a couple decks of cards. Without so much as a word the big man plopped himself down in one of the chairs. Cutter followed suit, acting as if the shack were the first sane thing he’d encountered all day. Only Dylan was taken aback–all he could think was that he’d left his lunch in the car. He awkwardly took the remaining seat, feeling as though his limbs were twice as long as they were.
Cutter leaned to the cooler, popped the lid with two fingers. “Awwwww,” he said like a dyke blushing over roses. “You shouldn’t have!” Grinning around his smoke, he pulled a shining Labatt’s Blue from the water and ice.
“I aim to pleeeeze!” Jerry laughed, fishing a vial of oil from the foils of his cigarette pack–a one-grammer. He reached behind the ghetto to produce a bottle-toker, paused to press play as he leaned back. AC/DC squawked from somewhere in the middle of “For Those About to Rock,” more sudden than loud.
“Who wants to drive?” he called, holding the bottle and vial up, but in such a way that Dylan realized he had been drafted. He took them in hand with an appeasing frown as the two older men laughed.
On the outside again.
For whatever reason, oil was the primary form of marijuana that summer (and for several summers following) in Southwestern Ontario. It was made by soaking crushed marijuana leaves, or “shake,” in alcohol, which you then boiled down to the consistency of tar, which was precisely what oil looked like: the tar you find on the inside of pipes. The price varied with quality and supply (the demand was constant), but usually you could score a gram vial for 15 bucks, a 2.5 gram vial (called a “pud”) for about 30 bucks, and a “fiver,” or a five gram vial for around 50 bucks. In the circles that Dylan moved in, you could count on pretty much every third guy (and quite a few chicks as well) having either a gram, pud, or fiver on their person.
You always used a pin of some kind to fish the oil out, but otherwise you smoked it in one of three ways. Either you spread it across a rolling paper which you then filled by twisting tobacco out of the end of a cigarette (every once in awhile those in the know would get a laugh when someone accidently pulled out a smoke with the end twined tight at a straight occasion), rolled, and then smoked. These were typically called ‘splifs’ to distinguish them from joints proper. Or you pulled a glob from the vial and simply dropped it on the heater of a cigarette; within a second a thick thread of smoke would spiral upward, which you could breathe in over the course several dozen seconds. Or you pulled a glob from the vial and dropped it on the heater of a cigarette which you then stuffed into a small hole knocked into the side near the bottom of a bottle–into a ‘bottle-toker.’ This way you could let the whole glob burn off without any waste, then wait for the smoke cool in the bottle, which would quickly become opaque. After you had driven a BT (or “steered a bot” as they referred to the process around Toronto way), you would simply hand it to whoever was next in line. They would literally scoop it into their lungs with a single, quick inhalation.
If you had time and privacy, BTs were far and away the most popular method of doing oil. Only people whose lungs had been pooched by years of smoking seemed to prefer splifs.
The key to driving good bottle-tokes, or ‘BTs’ as they were called, was to insert the cigarette on an angle so that you could always see the glob on the cigarette’s heater no matter how fogged with smoke the interior became. That way you could watch it sizzle into a stream, then yank it from the bottle before it was “cooked.” If you held it past that point (when the black glob suddenly glowed orange and petrified into ash), you would get plain old secondhand smoke in the bottle, and the toke would be what was called “kife,” probably because inhaling it cut at the lungs like a fucking knife. Giving someone a kife toke was not cool, and required an apology akin to cooking someone a bad meal: you’re sorry, but not too sorry, because hell, you’re the one doing the lifting.
Even still, Dylan had seen the kife toke used as a weapon on more than one occasion. If you received several kife tokes in a row, someone was telling you to go fuck yourself, as simple as that. It was one reason why Dylan actually preferred driving–he never punished people with tokes, so harmony was preserved. The other reason was that he could squeeze more stone out of a gram of oil than any human living. No matter what the party, if the oil was running low, the expectation was that Dylan would drive the BTs. As pathetic as it sounds, he took real pride in that. It was no small thing to be turned to when you were 17.
Dylan didn’t become self-conscious about handing Cutter the first toke until the moment after he had done so. In certain circumstances, the question of who got the first toke was extraordinarily political, even though no dope-smoker, ever, acknowledged as much. You might think this would be another reason for Dylan to prefer driving (you have to remember, the cool thing was pretend it was a pain in the ass). But in fact, it was probably the single biggest thing he hated about it. He actually went so far as keeping track of who got the first BT between seshes, so that he could alternate, and so deter the suspicion he was playing favourites. After handing Cutter the BT, he told himself something about it being his way to welcome the “new guy,” even though he knew for a fact that he himself, and not Cutter, was the third wheel in this particular party.
But he also knew that things were already changing.
Cutter made chimpanzee lips to blow the smoke out and up. He thanked Dylan with a quick glance, which like all his glances seemed too canny.
Despite his efforts, the BT he steered for Jerry was kife. The big man coughed mightily, to the point where something unseen snapped in his chair. He then spent several moments blinking tears and smacking his tongue across his own palette. It’s almost impossible to describe the taste of a kife toke, really. Kind of like coughing up engine oil, but worse. Kife is… well, fucking kife.
“Sorry, man,” Dylan said, genuinely mortified.
“Faaaawk that,” Cutter replied. “He’s the bawwss man. He’s supposed to work harder than the rest of us.”
“That…” Jerry rasped with a pained smile, “wasn’t so ba-ba-ba–” His body seized in a silent cough.
“The next will be better,” Dylan said. “I swear…”
“No-no,” Jerry wheezed, waving a hand. “That. Was. Great.” His upraised hand lingered, then began playing air-drums in time with the music, and he did what so many did when trying to pretend that a toke or a shot was anything but the kick in the balls it in fact was: he began banging his head to the tunes.
“You don’t cough, you don’t get off!” Cutter cried, smiling at Jerry, then rolling his eyes for Dylan.
On the inside, again.
There’s something liquid about getting baked, something at once loosey-goosey and chill. Dylan could feel it rise through him as he steered toke after toke, nodding to the tunes and listening to Jerry and Cutter bullshit back and forth. Cutter was pretending to ask questions about the farm, and Jerry was answering with boyish pride–this was his farm. Dylan had no idea how he knew that Cutter was pretending, he was scarcely aware of knowing at all, he just did somehow, the same as he ‘just knew’ Jerry had no clue whatsoever. The loosey-goosey came from the sloppiness of things, the sense of events doing a slow tumble beneath the crisp glare of light–as though he were part of an ethereal mudslide or something. The chill came from his heightened awareness of all things social, the padded bandwidth that allowed him to see that Cutter had no interest whatsoever in what Jerry had to say.
Stoned and weirded out, Dylan studied the interior of their shack, stared at the bare studs, at the blooms of bygone oil stains across the plywood floor, at the proverbial lightbulb hanging from a wire. He found his eyes lingering on the Playboy calendar, roaming from tits to pussy and back again. That was the thing about staring at pussy when you were stoned: it tingled.
He reminded himself to breathe.
He caught a glimpse of Jerry setting this room up, grinning at all the fun he was going to have, at how appreciative Cutter and Dylan would be. But instead of smiling along with the image, Dylan found himself agitated by it, as though they were sitting in the bedroom of a recently deceased child. There was something sad in the idea of Jerry going to all this trouble, something that filled Dylan with a faint anxiousness for the big man.
Not that he wasn’t appreciative. This was too cool for school, without a doubt. Part of him already rehearsed what he would say to his buddies when he saw them this weekend. The anxiousness had nothing to do with being drunk or high at work–Christ, that was status quo. No, it had to do with collapsing what seemed an essential opposition: hard work and hard partying. It just seemed so obvious that someone in Jerry’s position had to police the boundary somehow, someway–even if only for show. Copping a pose is always a good way to keep your options open.
The fact that Jerry had decided to have it both ways, and apparently thought himself cool and daring for doing so, simply made him seem weak.
Only afterward–years afterward–would I realize what Dylan never could: that Jerry had made this shack for Cutter and for Cutter alone.
Because that, you see, was the essence of Cutter’s genius…
Making people weak.