Jul/Aug 2009  •   Spotlight

Last Call

by Richard Larson

"Bristol Palin is an alien," says Chuck, and it's not really that funny because it might actually be true. This might be some kind of invasion. This might be the end of the world. I tell Chuck I don't have time for this kind of thing in my life right now, and he just looks at me like he's waiting for me to figure out this is really the only thing I have time for. "You see—" he says.

We're watching the tiny television at a bar near my apartment, and she's standing there onscreen among family, in front of the whole world, like a soldier. Five months in, no going back. This is a big deal because she probably never expected to be standing there, would never have imagined herself standing there. Probably doesn't understand what it means. Maybe she isn't sure where she is, really. She's 17 and not sure of anything, except she believes in love, not like in the movies or in church but something more real, something secret, something a little bit dirty. She wants to be somewhere else with someone who can show her that particular kind of love. The kind that doesn't care about the future, the kind that keeps going all night. The kind that explodes out instead of crawling inside. She has seen it before, inside a house she was walking by around dinnertime, or at a dance club late at night, or in a passenger train as it flew on past to somewhere better. Maybe to her home planet.

She hasn't found it yet. She tried, once, in the back seat of a gray sedan parked somewhere lame and kind of seedy, but to her it was speeding out of control, like the brakes had gone out on the way down the side of a mountain, and she knew she should have been scared and screaming, but instead she was screaming in a different way, like maybe this was it, this fullness, maybe this was real and could turn into something she could maybe believe in, but instead he came way too quickly, and then he drove her home, and she was more than a little bit confused. She wanted to yell up into the sky, Fuck you. Because it's really not fair.

We don't know it yet, but when she's standing there in front of us, she's already painfully aware of the four months left. And those are not going to be easy months. She fantasizes about it happening the moment her mother is sworn in, this thing emerging onstage in front of everyone. She's getting heavier, acquiring stuff, growing. Something is about to crawl out of her. It's a sad thing: the whole thing (she thinks in a silly way about the time she barely made par while playing mini-golf with the whole family on one of those disturbingly long summer days back when things made a little more sense and when Gonzo's giant snowman sucked her purple ball into its mouth at the end of the course and she felt irreparably less as though she had given away something she never suspected was important to her) so sad the way we never believe as much as we used to, the way parts of us shrink while other parts grow.

But as we watch her stand there like maybe she owes us something but she's not sure exactly how to pay, my mind wanders away from Chuck and what I guess we'll probably do later (in spite of everything), and I think instead about my own mother watching her own television screen, vaguely protective as though she, too, is this young girl: stupid, scared, ordinary, alone, both of them distinctly aware (because she was 17, too, when she believed in love) of the explosion, the moment everything changed and took a turn in the direction of totally fucked.

I think of my mom sometimes when I'm in a cab going over the bridge back to my apartment in Brooklyn, and I remember how scared she always was of bridges, how she worried she would get to the center and the bridge would suddenly collapse. Maybe no one from another planet would swoop down to save her, and she'd fall, just fall, and no one would ever find her. If she was caught in traffic on a bridge, she would cry the whole time, even if her five-year-old son was sitting behind her with maybe a picture book or a sketchpad and wondering what was so sad about bridges, what was so sad about being kind of in between, coming and going.

I'd ask her, Why are you crying? and she would sit up a little straighter, dry her eyes with her sleeve, and maybe try to imagine herself somewhere safer, on more solid ground, somewhere less suspended.

She'd say, Mommy just gets scared sometimes, and I'd realize no matter how old we get, we never forget what it means to be afraid. I'd wonder why anyone ever wanted to be anything more than a kid in the backseat with a picture book or a sketchpad, a kid who didn't know anything about bridges and didn't really care. And now, obviously much later, I'm not going to visit my mom again until Christmas, and I know there are way too many vodka bottles in her freezer, the equivalent (in our family) of a gun in the mouth or a head placed decisively into the oven. We've always been drinkers, and we've always made bad decisions, and we've usually stayed in the same places forever, always a little bit afraid of the center of the bridge between.

When I was a kid, I woke up one night to noises in the kitchen, something breaking and someone crying, and I stumbled out to find my dad beating up my mom, calling her names—




—and later she just explained he had drank too much at the bar with his buddies, or maybe with aliens who looked kind of like his buddies, and she made me promise never to drink so I wouldn't end up like him, even though my teacher had told me I needed at least six cups of water every day and eight was even better. But I would do anything for my mom. I'd never drink anything ever again if it would somehow keep her safe, and I'd even stop sweating and crying so I wouldn't ever need to replenish my supply. I would just keep it all inside. I'd be like an ocean, but walking around. I would have hurricanes and pirates and naval wars and undiscovered islands, but no one would know because I wouldn't let them see.

I have considered the possibility I could be an alien. And if I'm not one now, maybe I'll turn into one later, like that'll be the big reveal at the end of this episode. Maybe I'm really from somewhere no one has discovered yet, somewhere no one can even quite imagine.

My mom eventually divorced my father, and then he died of cancer, and since then I've always thought of cancer as a kind of punishment, a fate people bring upon themselves. Sometimes in those cabs, heading over the bridge back to Brooklyn, maybe thinking about my mom (just a time zone away) looking up from another dinner alone and watching that pathetic girl holding that mysterious baby onstage, supposedly her little brother but also vaguely like something sent from the future, I put my head out the window and scream, imagining the entire city is listening and maybe we're all falling together, maybe the bridge has already collapsed and this whole fucking place, the buildings and the lights and the people, God, the people, not to mention the aliens, the invasion, maybe this is all just decoration, something to entertain us during the freefall.

I've broken up with another boyfriend, left him standing there in his boxers in his impeccably furnished living room, sort of caught off guard, holding a half-empty glass of red wine and looking at me with that alien stare I had always thought was hot and also kind of scary—maybe hot because it was scary—and I'm not really sure why I did it, wasn't sure even as the words came out of my mouth and I reached (probably too abruptly) for my jacket, not sure what I think I'll find elsewhere or in some other person, some other set of variables, or even when I first noticed something was wrong. But then he followed me to the bar.

"This is bullshit," says Chuck, and it's not really that funny because it might actually be true. His beer is almost empty. He's looking around. Maybe he wants to order some mozzarella sticks. Where did I meet Chuck? What did we do last year for Thanksgiving? How long has it been since I've cared what he thought about anything? I know I told him I loved him way too early, and that's something you can't take back, something that sticks with you, haunts you like a ghost or a picture of someone whose name you can't remember.

I used to think he was an alien. Back then it was easier to tell. He had a way about him suggesting he knew things no one else knew, had been to places no one else had ever seen. I thought maybe he could show me things. But he turned out not to be an alien, so what did I know?

But then who are all of these people around me?

I just keep thinking the girl on the television screen, 17 and clearly stupid, had better hold on tight to that baby (the one not even hers) because it only gets more difficult from there, more complicated and confusing and heartbreaking, and in the end none of it even matters. The last time I saw my mom's freezer, it was practically bursting. Now even if I took the next flight home and she met me at the airport with the freezer in tow and we sat there in the parking lot drinking bottle after bottle for as long as it took, absorbing as much vodka as our bodies could possibly contain, there's no way we would ever be able to drink it all. We'd get bigger and bigger. Maybe we'd float away. The pirates trapped inside us would jump overboard. The islands would sink. We'd drown ourselves.

And even though everyone else will forget about aliens and this girl's moment onstage, her unborn baby (announced later, of course), and the way everything sort of tragically comes apart despite our planning, our endless speculation about a future always seeming like some tangible thing just out of reach, we'd try, we'd try so hard in that damned car to remember everything, the whole story, the true parts and the imagined, trapping everything there forever and at the same time retracing the path, going backwards in time, a spaceship traveling in reverse, undiscovering everything. We'd eat all the breadcrumbs and cover our tracks through the maze in the snow and bury the wreckage from our top-secret crash landing, and no one would know we had ever gone anywhere at all.

Chuck isn't here anymore, though. The whole place really is almost empty, and I don't remember him leaving, or why any of us were ever here, like why don't we have somewhere better to go? Maybe I'm waiting for Chuck to come back, or maybe he's an alien now. Maybe he was always an alien. Maybe I don't see things like I used to. You never know what will happen during an invasion. And you try to keep on your toes about these things, but sometimes you forget what time it is and you end up somewhere feeling kind of wrong, not remembering how you got there or why you can't make yourself leave.

I close my hand around my empty glass, and I try to imagine standing completely still forever, try to imagine what it would feel like to just watch things go by. Maybe I'm on a bridge between two shores, and I'm crying, or I'm reading a picture book, or I'm falling, but I'm there and I'm not going anywhere else, no matter what happens, no matter how many sneaky aliens abduct me and try to cart me away into their glowing spaceships with their creepy green hands. Maybe we come to places like this just to get the check at the end of the night, some evidence of what we put into ourselves. Or maybe we pay for someone else to keep track for once, and to not ask questions when we sit sometimes with aliens and shoot the breeze about, you know, this and that, some new invasion, the end of the world. It's all just to pass the time, anyway.