Jack was at a party in the woods, and there was no-one in the whole world that she wanted to talk to. The sky was a bright, billowy grey, and it rested like a solid thing, tiredly glowing, on the needley tops of the spruce trees. Before her was a picnic table and a blackened ring of fire, around which crouched flushed young revelers, clutching cans of watery beer. There were brownies, two foil packages of them, on the picnic table beside the barbeque potato chips and vegan kabobs. She was allergic to gluten, it made her face redden and her gut seize, but she ate a corner of a brownie, anyway, picking it awkwardly from the foil, and from the taste she could tell that it was either a pot brownie or a vegan brownie, or both. Everyone at the party was drunk- not just drunk but way beyond it- drinking like young people in Alaska, apparently, do- as if attempting to pound oneself into the very earth, to drink until transcendence, to drink as if drinking will lead to somewhere other than drunkenness. Looking around, Jack felt invisible, on a plane of sobriety all by herself. She pulled a whole brownie the size of her palm from the foil and settled on the hood of a car, which was still warm from the sun, to eat it. Her friend Meadow sat on the carhood to her left, properly and thoroughly intoxicated, which was the only way that Jack knew her. Meadow was one of those people who seemed to collect the stray threads of themselves when drinking, to come home. What some might call an alcoholic. She was wearing a shimmering print dress that hugged her ass and scrunched up over the tops of her knee-high doc martens when she crossed her legs beneath her. On her shoulders was a shrunken burgundy sweater with a rusted, dented button pinned to the breast- it said “fun meter”, with a bit of metal you could move from left to right. It was set all the way to the right, for maximum fun. Meadow liked to describe her style as “nineties revival”, and when they went to the thrift store together she littered the dressing room floor with scoop-neck floral tops and black leggings.
“The mosquitoes are bad,” said Meadow, waving, as Jack ate her brownie on the carhood, which was spray-painted red and, although she did not know it at the time, would leave a pink stain on the ass of her light-wash jeans.
“My mosquito bites don’t itch,” said Jack.
“You’re becoming immune,” said Meadow, jealous.
“Those are pot brownies,” said Jack, slowly chewing the last bite of hers and pointing at the foil packages on the picnic table, which were emptying fast.
“Duh,” said Meadow.
After finishing her brownie she rested her hands on the hood and stared at the fire, where the drunkest people huddled, vacant, the smoke like a shroud against the mosquitoes, and some of them sprawled out on flattened cardboard, and seemed to become even drunker. They were too far gone for Jack to try and make friends with them, and besides not really her type. Other than talking with Meadow on the carhood, her only conversation that night had been when she’d set a jumbo hot-dog on a wooden skewer over the coals of the fire to heat.
“That looks gross,” she’d said to no-one in particular, as the skin of the hot-dog puckered and grew black, and the hot-dog sort of shrank in on itself, and the wooden skewer burst into flame and then went out.
“Are you a lesbian?” Asked a man at the fire. His eyes were red and dry, and he had gel in his hair.
“Yes.” she said.
“That’s why.” He said.
“No, it’s not,” she said. “it looks gross just because it does.” But he wasn’t listening anymore, and she pondered the merit of arguing the idea that a blackened, shriveled hot-dog was gross in its own right and not because it looked like cock which she supposedly didn’t like, which wasn’t even true, to the other anonymous partygoers who were now looking at her, curious. “It just looks gross!” she cried, but they were too drunk to see. She was a lesbian. One must choose one’s battles.
Sitting on the carhood, Jack could tell that she was starting to be stoned. Someone had turned the wooden deck of the yurt they were all drinking around into a sort of stage, and someone was playing home-made punk songs on an amplified guitar. Someone else was on the ground in front of the yurt dancing, flinging flat beer into the air around them. Inside, the narrative in Jack’s brain was slowing down, like a string of flatcars pulling into a siding at sunset. And she seemed to stand at a crossing in the tall grass, watching rapt as each word of her thoughts made its way past in the falling yellow light. WHERE. AM. I. WHO. ARE. THESE. PEOPLE. Big capitals, and she could see their dull red corners, the places where the dust had gathered on their long overland journey. WHERE. AM. I. WHY. AM. I. HERE. I. DON’T. LIKE. THIS. PARTY. True, true! Thought Jack to herself, with a sort of delight. What truth! Oh, beauty! Gathering momentum from her epiphany, she pulled herself off of the carhood and walked down the pitted dirt road to where her camper van was parked in the trees, the strange din of the party receding a bit behind her. The steady drip of time was slowing, but if she hurried, she thought, she might be able to sequester herself away in safety before it stopped entirely.
Jack’s van was a nineteen ninety-five econoline with four giant, overstuffed “captains chairs” and a bench in back that folded down into a “bed”, or more accurately, it folded down into three distinct panels which were each about five feet five inches long, meaning that she could sleep comfortably on one of the panels so long as her feet were on the windowsill. The entirety of the interior of the van was upholstered in camel-colored fabric, some of it in the form of fuzzy velour, the rest of it as carpeting. There was nothing at all utilitarian about the interior of the van, although there was a set of “party-effect” track lights set into real wood paneling along the ceiling, and tinted windows throughout. Being inside of the van, which she called “Grandpa”, generally gave her the feeling of existing on the inside of a sofa which, although stained and lumpy and badly colored, was also comfortable and sort of womb-like, and so did serve some purpose.
Locking the doors, turning on the college radio station and opening the narrow screens on all the little windows, Jack then crawled in slow motion into the bed and set about stringing up her army-green mosquito net to make a sort of fort. Next she lined up her comfort objects on the window-sill- earplugs, good well-water in a glass jar, hanky, calculator watch, cellphone. She managed to change into her new heather-blue sweatpants that fit her just so and her black hoodie with the wolfs on the back, but before she could wrangle her sleeping bag and dumpstered quilt from their hurried mounds into a suitable position for nesting, she was Stoned. Suddenly stalled, she stared out the window at the crowded spruce forest, where the trees tipped and bunched together like bristly darning needles, and the ground was a trampoline of moss. The clouds had broken open, now, and the sub-arctic sun had worried through, piercingly clear and yellow, to make shadow-play with the particulates in front of her face. The noise of the party was an indecipherable hubbub in the distance, like water flowing. Coming back into her body, she abruptly realized that she was cold, but also that she wasn’t sure how not to be cold. The blankets, she remembered, the blankets! But which side of the bed to put her head? This all depended, you must realize, on the slope of the land on which Jack had parked her van- sometimes the left side of the van was a little higher, sometimes the right- and to the higher side went her sleeping head. But now that she was Stoned, it was impossible for her to tell which side was higher- she tried them both, and both ways she felt as though she was hanging from the air by her ankles- which was, of course, because she was Stoned. The thought of sleeping with her head on the wrong side of the tilted van seemed incomprehensibly tragic, and Jack began to cry, sitting upright beneath her green mosquito net, cold. Poor Jack. Poor Jack! What a mess she was, what a mess. Here she was crying, all because she was stoned and couldn’t figure out which way to lay herself. And what a hard life she had! she continued, on the outside looking in. Always having anxiety about this or that, always and forever!
At last she chose the right side for her head and the left side for her feet, which was the opposite of the way she’d been sleeping for the last week or so, parked on the gravel turnout next to the bog where people went to pick blueberries, but also she was fairly certain it was the correct way in which to sleep, tonight. That thought-train all built and headed out of the station, Jack pulled her sleeping bag up to her chin and simply lay, waiting for the cold to go from her and the warmth to wrap its gentle arms around her. After a moment she became aware, like a sleeper waking from a dream, of the college radio station playing in her van, and also of Music in general. There were speakers throughout the whole length of her van, in true 1995 luxury fashion, and so one could hear quite well whatever music might be playing, no matter where one might happen to be in its interior- front captains chairs, middle captains chairs, or bench-that-becomes-a-bed. And so she was wrapped, now, in gentle mid-night college-radio-station surround-sound, and she became quite certain, after one indefinite moment of non-judgmental listening, that this music she was listening to was Total Crap. And she could tell, of course, because the song was playing extra-slow inside her brain, and each small noise rang like a bell inside her skull, and each simple lyric was as gentle and indecipherable as rain beating on a car window. And she understood, suddenly, how one might make music, how one might cobble together sounds from nothing, and how one could be bad at it just as one might be bad at anything, and as each single tone bleated out from the college basement and she collected them carefully beneath her green mosquito-net, she could see clearly, like she was looking straight into the bottom of the lake in which she liked to swim, at the waving water-plants and crushed aluminum cans, that this was not Music at all- this was a farce, a free-write, an unfortunate jumble of notes.
Eventually her frustration built up to motivation and she lifted the mosquito net, walked past the windows of the van, turned off the college radio station and then turned, retreating back into her nest. After this slow-motion journey that took her, it seemed, to the very edge of infinity and back, she was once again under the blankets and alone, now, with the slow string of her thoughts and the slanted mid-night sun whose rays continued to defeat the van’s miniature window-blinds with a thin burning light, as if no trick of fabric could stop the glory of this one Alaskan summer. Jack took a drink of water, sitting up, her mouth dry and coarse like a prune, and the clear water pooled on her tongue, and trickled over her teeth, all of it unbelievably cold and impossibly wet. Having not been stoned in a full year, and four full years before that, Jack had forgotten all of the different ways of feeling that come along with being stoned. She thought, then, with her hand around the water glass, which was a mason jar that had once held spaghetti sauce, and had been rinsed at the lodge where she worked as gardener, of that last time she had been stoned, almost a year ago exactly, and that time from a pot brownie as well. But she didn’t think so much of being stoned itself, for she had forgotten it, as she remembered the person she had been stoned with, who seemed to come to her, now, a year later, at the least expected times- like a lost thought, a forgotten treasure- or something bad sometimes, too, like waking up late for work or remembering, suddenly, that you had left your favorite hoodie in the park. And now, in the amber light of midnight with this slow thought-train moving through her, she couldn’t remember, it seemed, a single ordinary thing about this person- she couldn’t remember her drugstore smell of roses, or where she put her glasses when she slept. She couldn’t remember the kinds of shoes she liked to wear, or whether the cloth labels were worn inside the soles. She couldn’t remember, either, the bad things- her sugar and spite, her tourettes-like temper, the way she refused take anything at face value. Her ability to hold a grudge for infinity, whereas Jack could only hold a grudge for a few months at a stretch. All of these things were blurred and indistinct; faded, nearly, into nothingness, and the only thing that Jack could remember clearly, it seemed, was the way it had felt to hold her hand. Her small, warm hand with its straight, uncomplicated fingers and muscular thumb. She’d look at Jack over the top of her glasses when she put her hand in hers, and it had felt, always, as if she’d unlocked a box inside of herself and taken out its contents and put them straight into Jack’s palm. And this small thing wasn’t coated in spines or glistening with armor, no, this thing was barely breathing and precious and new, and infinitely old, and Jack could feel it in her very being, the thing’s vitality, its potential for wonder. And she couldn’t help but ask her how she thought it was a good idea to give it to her at all.
Of course Jack had loved her. How could she not, with this small bird of her soul in her hand? It had reminded Jack of the summer she had spent in Portland many years ago, when she had gone, depressed, to the pet shop on Broadway to hold the baby hamsters there, as a sort of therapy. She would walk through the door with its jangling bell and straight to the cages in back, where she would find a cage that was open and lift out a hamster, thumb-sized and minutely pelted and perfect to the smallest detail, with cargo-pocket cheeks and two glistening bb eyes. It would sit, bewildered, in the palm of her hand, this small yet brightly glowing being, immensely warm and dear, with small paws that hugged her fingertip like a thimble. She had put her soft hand in Jack’s, with its clean neat fingernails, and it had reminded Jack of that.
And so Jack couldn’t help but think of her, now, as she lay back beneath her mosquito net, and since she was stoned she became somewhat fixed in her thoughts. She’d jumped Jack’s slow thought-train, ran it down in the dimming light, climbed aboard among the stark jumble of capital letters and gentle music and settled down with her back against an “N”. Or maybe, thought Jack, she’d been there all along, like a pop song whose unsurprising refrain gets stuck on a loop in your head, day after day, until you forget it’s there at all, and then you lose the song entirely to the accumulation of passing time, until years later when you hear it on the radio and realize that you know all the words.
And Jack thought, too, of when she’d been driving home from work earlier that day, cresting the hills outside of town, the Tanana river valley spread out before her with all its illusion of infinity and forever, like it went on and on and on, as if anything, ever, could go on and on and on- and on the radio station someone or other had been talking about a man whose quest it was to discover and write a book about why it is that we make music, why we make music at all, the only problem being that no-one knew, and he had yet to find the answer himself. But Jack knew, now, under her mosquito net, with the sleeping bag pulled up to her chin, her thoughts like clear warm honey. Jack knew.
It’s because we’re in love with patterns, she thought, each word pulling slowly through the crossing on its own gently rocking flatcar. It’s because we’re in love with rhythm. It’s the same reason we dance, it’s the same reason we string words together into sentences, make syllables that lope like a two-step or rise and fall like a waltz. It’s the reason we plant our corn in rows, our orchards too, make grids that spin like spokes on a bicycle wheel when you pass by them on the highway. It’s the reason we make our days into months and our months into years, our seasons like quadrants that fall, whole and unbroken, into the grand canyon of time. It’s the reason we wear stripes and dots and plaids, it’s the reason we drum our pens on our desks when we’re thinking, it’s the reason we count seconds like a metronome. It’s rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. Patterns, patterns, patterns. And the original rhythm, of course, is the beating of our own hearts.