by Mark Bastable
part 1 of 2
Paggy Robards knew what Friday night was for. Seventeen-year-olds know all there is to know about grabbing girls, drinking illicit beers and doing dope. Even overweight, acne-bright, socially-graceless seventeen-year-olds like Paggy. Because if experience doesn’t teach you, then the TV, the Web and the movies will.
Experience had not taught Paggy. He’d learned the other way.
He looked out of the window onto Meadow Drive and watched his contemporaries saunter down the street towards a party on the next block. He could hear the music thumping from Alice’s house — thrash metal and Chicago rap and Seventies glam. He clocked the guys and girls from school — Slink, Josh, Cool Marie, Elspeth and Bella — as they laughed and strutted past, all snake stomachs and geometric teeth. They could do Friday night. Paggy could not.
Paggy’s mother was calling from the bottom of the stairs.
“Patrick! Are you gonna come eat?”
Paggy licked from his fingers the mayo and mustard of a MegaWhopper with Cheese.
“Nah — not hungry, ma,” he called.
“You’ll waste away,” his mother advised, tutting.
“I’ll be fine.”
From a brown paper bag Paggy took his second MegaWhopper, and fired up the browser that was the gateway to his natural milieu — the chat rooms of the Web.
The rooms were quiet tonight. Paggy exchanged a few sentences with a desperate housewife in Milwaukee. A little later he posed as a mulatto lesbian, much to the delight of a nymphomaniac waitress in Oregon (Yeah, right, thought Paggy, clicking to another site) — and under his own name, he discussed early-period Asimov with a vague acquaintance in Yucatan.
It was dark outside. Paggy’s mom and dad had long since gone to bed. The kids from the party were coming back along the street, giggling and murmuring, making out under the streetlights. Paggy schlipped open a Coke and topped it up with a slug of rum from the bottle he kept stashed inside his right-hand stereo speaker.
He stuck his head out into the hall to make sure his parents had turned off their bedroom light. And then he returned to his chair in front of the glowing screen and started in on the porn.
But the porn wasn’t working tonight. Despite the dialogue he ascribed to the downloaded bitmaps, Paggy couldn’t force himself to pay attention. He was wondering — as he so often did — whether this was all life had in store for him. Two-for-one MegaWhoppers and cyberfilth.
After all, it wasn’t that he didn’t want to go to parties or hang out at Joe’s Diner or take trips to the coast like everyone else at Mayfield High. And it wasn’t like he didn’t get invited. He did. He’d been invited to the house party that was breaking up right then.
But he was just so lame at those things. He was clumsy — a physical and verbal klutz. He was forever knocking over jugs of lemonade or making ill-advised and unappetising references to dead grannies whilst in conversation with some blameless girl whose grandmother had passed way the previous day.
And then there was his laugh. He sounded like a surfacing walrus. He was careful never to laugh in company — which was easily achieved by the flawless strategy of never being in company.
“But I can’t avoid people forever,” Paggy told himself, sighing.
Paggy clicked the window that had just appeared on his computer screen.
Vita would like to message you, it said.
Paggy opened up his chat-history file and scanned the first column. He had never chatted to anyone called Vita.
hi there, he typed.
how r u? came the response.
cool. u? Paggy answered.
cool2, Vita told him. wanna chat?
At that moment, a whispered shout came from outside the open window.
“Hey, Paggy!” A pause. “Paggy! You sleeping?”
Paggy looked out of the window. Mickey Lownds was standing in the middle of the lawn, and behind him on the street was a sleek coupe into which were crammed four or five guys and girls from school.
“Wanna come for a drive out to the Heights?” Mickey asked, in a deafening whisper.
Paggy glanced back at the computer screen.
...???? Vita insisted.
Paggy leaned a little further out of the window. “Can’t do it,” he told Mickey. “Workin’ on somethin’.”
Mickey shrugged and grinned. “Yeah, I bet. Don’t know what you’re missing, man.” And he turned to lope across the grass to the car.
sorry. im back, Paggy told Vita as the coupe revved away into the night, trailing laughter and squeals of teenagers who had nothing to do but live their lives.
a/s/l? Vita asked.
Paggy was always cautious about giving his true age, sex and location because a seventeen-year-old Albuquerque boy was so rarely what his correspondents were looking for. But tonight he couldn’t be bothered to lie.
17m albqrqe, he admitted. u?
Almost before he’d hit Enter, the reply came back, stripped of on-line abbreviations and properly punctuated.
I’m 56 at this point. In Ireland. Oh, and female. How are you doing, Patrick Robards?
Paggy sat back in his chair — startled, and a little scared.
how do u know my name? he typed,
It’s what happens at this point, Vita replied — again, as swift as speech.
at this point? Paggy asked.
At this point in our lives, she said. Don’t you ever wonder what’s going to happen in the years ahead, Paggy? Wouldn’t you like to know what’s coming?
Paggy narrowed his eyes.
this is benjy, right? quit screwin with me, benjy.
Shh. Listen. Listen, Vita soothed. I’ll explain.
As Paggy absently sipped his Coke and rum, eyes fixed to the monitor, Vita talked about lifespans, and how any life is defined, bookended, by two unchangeable boundaries. And she pointed out that the journey from birth to death is seen as a toboggan ride — a careering, skimming descent, unstoppable and one-way.
“But it needn’t be so, Paggy,” she said. “Although life runs from this point to that, one can travel it as if it were a monorail — back and forth, pausing first here, and then there. Going to and fro to re-visit one’s favourite parts, and skipping over the less enjoyable stretches.”
Paggy dispensed with the pretence of the soda and took a swig of rum straight from the bottle.
“She’s nuts,” he muttered aloud.
“Nuts? I can see how you might think so,” came the instantaneous message on the screen.
Paggy squealed and pedalled his office chair backwards.
“Look,” Vita said.
The computer monitor went blank — and then the speakers began to hum — a low, throaty cello note — and an orange dot appeared in the middle of the screen. The dot grew to a disc, and the disc cycled through deep tones of purple, azure, emerald, silver and back to orange as the cello note from the speakers rose and swooped like a gull above the Gulf.
“You know those flick books, Patrick?” The voice was close and breathy in Paggy’s ear. “The ones where you flick the corners of the pages with your thumb, making movement?”
Paggy nodded, still staring at the revolving disc on the monitor.
“Well, just flick through your life, and stop wherever you please... Flick, Paggy...”
The revolving disc on the screen pulsed and smeared, the hum behind it rising and falling.
“When do you want to go today?” Vita asked. “Ten years, twenty years, thirty years forward? Or back? Right back? When?”
“Ten,” Paggy murmured, unblinking. “Forward.”
And Paggy felt something assemble inaudibly inside his head, like a crystal of ice forming in stop-frame on a February window-pane — and he pressed his forehead against the pane and saw through the frosty glass a rush of hours, a torrent of tomorrows — and he moved through them, easily and suddenly, as if walking through glass were a trick to be mastered, like riding a bicycle.
* * *
Patrick took a seat at the bar of Les Trois Étoiles just off the Boulevard St-Michel. His arms ached from the gym, and his back was still shower-damp against his shirt.
“Hey, Alain — can I have a Stella Artois and some of your famously stale peanuts?” he asked, in fluent Paris-accented French.
“Sure,” said the barman. “Meeting Louise?”
“Yeah — she’s shopping, so it could be a while. How’s business?”
From behind his own eyes, Paggy looked out and caught a reflection in the mirror behind the ranged bottles of whisky and anis. The face that looked back at him was undeniably his — but thinner than it had been ten years back, and a little tanned. The hair was shoulder-length and streaked with flattering grey.
“Have you tried that Chinese restaurant up by the Luxembourg Gardens?” Patrick asked Alain, as a beer was placed on the bar.
Paggy understood what the barman was saying — although, at seventeen, he had known no French at all. He felt around in his own mind, and found a memory of coming to Paris after college — just a three-day stopover on the way to London — and meeting Louise and falling in love and now, seven years later, living on the Left Bank, working in IT... All that detail was just there, known, accepted — a part of his life.
Paggy wondered how he had become this self-confident, urbane young man. He rummaged around in himself to find the clumsy, tongue-tied adolescent he’d been — but there was no trace.
Almost as if it were a physical movement, Paggy pressed the forehead of his consciousness against the imaginary iced windowpane, thinking Another ten.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Bastable