Michael Bryson

Six Million Million Miles

All of a sudden Patrick was nearly forty. Yes, he'd noticed birthdays piling up, but it took his doctor to impress upon him the meaning of numbers.
Patrick told his buddy Phil, "The doc said I should see a nutritionist, change my diet, take calcium pills for my teeth and bones. He said he needed to test my blood for LDLs and HDLs. Of course he said, 'Stop the smokes and moderate the drinking,' but I was expecting that." What he wasn't expecting: A finger up the butt.

Phil said, "Wha?"

"A finger up the butt, to test the colon, I think."

"The colon, eh? What's that do?"

"I don't know, but it can kill you if it goes off."

"I guess so," said Phil, who was already forty-one, though he hadn't been in a doctor's office in ten years and wasn't about to go now, whatever Patrick said.

It was three minutes past three on a Saturday afternoon in May. Phil had an ex-wife and two small children in Vancouver he hadn't seen in five years. He had a twenty-eight-year-old girl friend, Debbie, who lived with her parents and slept with him on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Her father
was dying. Her father had been dying all of the time Phil and known her, which was going on three years. He wanted to marry her because he wanted to be married. He wanted a home again with a woman in it. He had to wait for the old man to die. It wasn't something he'd ever heard about, a marriage contingent upon a death.

They were sitting on Patrick's couch, watching curling. Patrick and Phil had a business venture, but it was still in the "idea phase." That's what Patrick told everyone who asked. "We're still working out the details." It was an idea they'd first had years earlier, before the
dot-coms collapsed.

"What do people need?" Phil said one day. "That's how you make money, by selling people what they need, what they can't live without."

"Food," Patrick said. "Heat, shelter, love." He wasn't sure about love. You could live without love, but not without food.

Phil was on a different wavelength. "Office supplies," he said. "You sell a pen for a dollar that costs pennies to make. We'll make a killing."

They tried to register www.officesupplies.com, but it had already been taken. "The best laid plans of mice and men," Patrick said, but Phil demurred.

"We'll make it work."

Patrick wanted to find a way to make money by making art. He'd started gluing things together to create new things. Tooth brushes and staplers. Matchbooks and condoms. Playing cards and plastic figurines. He had no idea what any of it meant, but he kind of enjoyed the process. Art had no place on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, unless it fell under"self-fulfillment."

Patrick thought Maslow would have associated the need with the consumer not the producer. Gluing together random objects or lacing together papier mache might make one feel good, but as Auden said, "Poetry makes nothing happen."

Today, it was the women who were curling. Phil said, "If you were a woman, would you wear makeup to the rink?"

"I'd wear makeup if I knew I was going to be on TV."

"Good point." One of the reasons Phil broke up with his wife was because she stopped shaving her legs. Okay, not true. He broke up with his wife because they fought all of the time. One of the things they fought about was her legs. Or his "expectations." The subject of their fights changed
depending on who you talked to about it. She thought Phil needed to revise his expectations, and he thought she needed to shave her legs.

Outside, it rained heavily. They were waiting for JayCee to arrive. JayCee was Patrick's ex. She taught kindergarten in the suburbs. She was forty-two, sometimes looked thirty and sometimes looked fifty. They'd met at a dinner party held by mutual friends two years ago. For past three months, JayCee had found an excuse to skip out on all of their dates. She didn't like the city, she hated the commute, she was over-worked and needed a quiet day alone. So Patrick started to call her his ex. Not that they had ever been a couple. Not really.

"It's a post-structuralist romance," he told Phil, who had no idea what he was talking about.

Patrick's doctor told him he was good for another 10,000 miles. "But come back and see me next year." Patrick imagined his life like a pancake. Flat, doughy. Where was the maple syrup? Where was the fruit, the whipped cream?

Suddenly, the television shook on its stand and the air filled with the sound of a large explosion. Patrick thought, "A bomb."

Phil jumped up from the couch and ran out to Patrick's balcony.

"Flames," he said, pointing two streets over. Soon they heard sirens from fire trucks. A plume of black smoke lifted into the sky.

Patrick said, "Life is a strange and multi-glorious thing, isn't it?"

"Just one step from Paradise," Phil said.

The rain was now like a sheet of water. They stood away from the railing of the balcony to avoid getting soaked. Patrick remembered something Phil had said to him when they'd first met: "Just do the best you can. You can't do any better than that." Even if his best was 2 + 2 = 3. The words had gone straight to his heart. Why was he thinking of them now?

The wind was picking up. Two streets over, the flames from the explosion leaped higher. "I'm going inside," Patrick said. There had been women once. In his twenties, Patrick had played guitar, traveled the country. He spent four years on buses and trains, in vans and motels. He'd been all motion, all movement. All process with no end in sight. The arc of his life had seemed different then. Each high made the downs bearable. The future, he'd thought: Where stasis lay. Once, there had been three girlfriends in three provinces. He'd thought, "One of these women, surely, will be my wife." But they had each wanted him as an occasional friend.

Back then, he'd looked forward and seen a landing pad. The arc had been rising, pointed upwards in an optimistic spiral. But the landing pad had not been forward and up; it had been backward and down. A crash pad.

"Illusions are made for shattering," he'd said to JayCee, mimicking Nancy Sinatra. JayCee worked with four-and five-year-olds. She knew about hope.

She knew about limits.

"Potential is earned," she told Patrick, who felt for her suddenly all warm and loving.

The buzzer went off.

"She's here," Patrick yelled to Phil. He walked across the apartment to buzz down and let JayCee into the building. Phil came in from the balcony.

"There's three houses on fire down there," he said.

"What was that?" Patrick asked. He'd gone into the kitchen.

"There's three houses on fire down there," Phil said.

Patrick said, "Oh, shit. Really? Lots of fire trucks, too?"

"About eight or ten."

Patrick uncorked a bottle of wine and laid out two bagettes on the kitchen table. He poured himself a glass.

"You should invite Debbie over," he said to Phil. "We should all just stay in tonight. Stay in and talk. Give her a call. See what she says. I haven't seen her in ages."

Phil nodded. He went to get his cell phone.

There was a knock on the door.

"About six million million miles," Patrick heard someone say when he opened it. JayCee stood there smiling. She gripped him and kissed him on the cheek. Beside her, a man shook water off of an umbrella.

JayCee said, "Patrick, this is Jason."

The man reached out to shake Patrick's hand. Patrick shook it.

"What's six million million miles?" he asked.

JayCee brushed past him into the apartment. "A light year. The amount of distance light travels in a year." JayCee embraced Phil and kissed him on the cheek. "Phil, this is Jason. Jason, Phil." The two men shook hands.

They were all in the apartment now. Patrick closed the door.

"I'll take some of that," JayCee said, pointing to Patrick's wine glass.

"Some for Jason, too. Right Jason?"

The man nodded. "That would be terrific."

"How far is the sun from the earth?" Patrick mumbled. "How far are we from each other?" He went to the kitchen to fetch glasses and wine.

"Home is elsewhere," Jason was saying when Patrick returned with the wine. Jason was telling a story about one of his co-workers, a Russian Jew who'd left the Soviet Union for Israel, then come to Canada two years later.

"Immigration is a disaster," Jason said.

This was apparently the Russian man's thoughts. His life had been torn asunder. He was raising a daughter, taking her to chess tournaments. He had a library with 10,000 Russian books. "Ten per cent of what he had in Russia." His wife had a PhD and worked at IBM.

"They're desperately lonely people," JayCee said. "Lonely but not unhappy. They have that wonderful, dark, Russian sense of humour. You know, life is bleak, but they laugh a lot. They're terribly homesick, but they would never go back. They see their situation as immeasurably better and also not good."

Jason had taken her over to their house. Patrick saw she was sitting next to him on the couch. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen her so happy.

"There's a fire outside," he said. "There was a large explosion, and now there are three houses on fire. Phil and I were watching from the balcony. There's eight fire trucks. It's a huge disaster."

They all looked at him.

JayCee asked, "Is Debbie coming?"

Phil nodded. "She's coming. I called her. She'll be here in a bit."

Suddenly, there was another large boom! They jumped up and followed Patrick to the balcony. The rain was still heavy. Water dripped on Patrick's head from the balcony above. Where one of the burning houses once stood, a blue flame shot twenty metres into the air. From the street below, they could hear people screaming. Blue and red lights from emergency vehicles flashed off nearby buildings. They could see firemen scrambling and police officers stringing up yellow tape and pushing back spectators clutching umbrellas.

"I'm getting wet. I'm going inside," JayCee said. Jason and Phil followed her.

Patrick wiped the water off his head and found a spot on the balcony where he could stay reasonably dry. He'd brought his wine glass with him. He took a sip. He could hear the rest of them inside, picking up their conversation. Jason was saying, "The Beatles deconstructed the pop song. They started writing verse, verse, chorus, verse, then they broke the mould and improvised all kinds of arrangements. U2 followed a similar trajectory."

Patrick crossed his arms against his chest. He could see three more fire trucks approaching the blue flame. The wind changed direction and blew a spray of water across his face. He lifted his shirt
and wiped it off, then he went inside.

What happened next was more of the same. Debbie arrived. Patrick refilled wine glasses. They ordered pizza and discussed the possibility of playing Monopoly or Risk. Phil and Debbie had an argument about how to make real Italian spaghetti. JayCee kept touching Jason on the knee. Patrick kept his eyes open and knew things were being said that weren't being talked about.

He excused himself to do the dishes, tidy up the kitchen. Outside, the blue flame went out. The rain stopped. The sun went down. The fire trucks, the police officers, and the spectators went home. The next day the newspapers said a miracle happened. A gas explosion blew one house off of its
foundation. Two others burned to the ground. No one died. Patrick spent the night on the couch.

He woke up hung over.

Michael Bryson is the author of two short story collections, Thirteen Shades of Black and White (Turnstone Press, 1999) and Only a Lower Paradise (Boheme Press, 2000). He lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and edits the online journal, The Danforth Review.


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