Thebulus, Ghandash, Me.
by Chris Lenton
"Ghandash." I motion with my neck towards the ocean.
"Immense," he says.
Three of us in the car driving through the heat. The day is spitting light; off the road, through the window, into the dry black stone of our eyes. One side of the road is the earth: flat, hard, endless. The other, the Atlantic. I’m pointing at a boat in the sea, an archaic schooner of bruised purple wood, anchored beyond the break.
"What are you looking at?" Thebulus asks, holding the steering wheel.
"That boat," I say.
He glances over.
"Cool," Thebulus says.
"It was built two hundred years ago, that boat," Ghandash starts, "built in Western Java. It was used for decades by the Dutch to bring spices and oils and wood from the outposts - Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi - to the rich European ports - Batavia, Colombo, Singapore. It had a good, useful life until the early 1940’s, when it went out of service. It sat in a boat yard during the immediate independence years. It was forgotten about. No need for it. A reminder of the brutality of Empire. Then, ten years ago a Malaysian archaeologist – a keen entrepreneur, known well in South East Asia - came across it, in some scrap heap in Jakarta. He put it back in the water. Just last year for a few million Euro the Malaysian sold it to an Omani American oil man, a vessel fanatic, a navalist, a collector. The guy redid the schooner, the Omani, rebuilt it the way it once was. Now he is taking it across the globe, complete with servants, white linens and tea on the deck at sunset. He travels with a harem of twenty women."
We nod, screaming through the day.
We’re not questioning. All knowledge is accepted as fact. Every word purity. Within us, infinite insight. We continue driving. Wind lifts up ghosts of dirt. The land is vast, and though cars stream past, we are alone. Ghandash wears a saffron robe. Thebulus is naked, save a thin, dirty pair of boxers. I’m in suit and tie, without shirt. At our feet the carcass of a chicken lies. Next to it ceramic bowls for water. Incense burning turns the air pink.
We turn inland. It’s the end of summer and we’re traveling where the dying season takes us. We want scorched land, fire, trees breaking in humidity, our bodies drenched.
"Melancholy in this weather sits on your tongue like sugar," I say.
Thebulus – long willowy baby skin Thebulus, ever the leader, the driver - speaks of the Ancients. For him human wisdom was discovered in its completeness during a short few years in Athens.
"Today we all think we’re getting closer to the nature of nature – but we’ll never get there. If anything we’re moving farther away," he says.
We pick up speed. Our eyes blur, vision slants. I close my eyes and hear the engine tire. It fights unsuccessfully Thebulus’s heavy toe on the pedal. Ghandash, plump, serious, is throat singing.
We are the magi. We. Three thirty somethings tearing through North America at the end of August, bringing treasures.
"Shit," Thebulus says.
"What?" I ask.
I turn and look out the rear window. The blue red flickers cut my eyes. A miserable howl emerges from the vehicle below the flashing lights.
"What do we do?" Thebulus asks, picking up speed.
"Drive. Fly. Fly. Turn into the field, there!" I yell.
But Thebulus slows down. The car sputters to a stop. Quickly I clean up the lunch at my feet and blow out the incense candles. Ghandash hops to position, throws a shirt over his robe. Thebulus similarly cleans up, rummaging under the seat for something to put on. I button my suit. Tidy, tidy, tidy.
Few minutes later:
Man in black and blue clothes, sparkly badge melting orange in this sun, speaks:
"License…" he begins.
Night Before –
It’s 8pm and I’m alone waiting on people at a bar after work. In front of me: a slow burning cigarette, ash dripping at the end. A beer. Darts. A few stains on the wood - reminders, warnings of innumerable such nights past and future. Now walking slowly in are the two graduate school friends I’m reuniting with, Tom and George. We haven’t been very good at keeping in touch; George, traditionally the quiet one, arranged the time and place.
Thirty minutes later we’ve hugged, re-met, discussed the details – it’s been three years since we were last in the same room – and settled deeply into our chairs and beer bottles.
"How did we become such boring fucks?" Tom asks, loosening his striped tie.
"Ties," I say.
"Lack of sun," George says.
We look at each other, assessing, quiet, amazed at how we’ve all morphed into the same shape. We are sallow, hollowed of all color. We’re wearing the same thing. Our wallets of equal weight. Drinking the same bad beer. Brandishing the same clean hair cut. And now that we’re clones we have nothing to say to each other.
Silence and glances around the bar. Eye contact is yet awkward.
"Isn’t it obscene that…" Tom starts suddenly, naming an event, placing a few names next to it, borrowing a view point, summing it up with acceptable cliché.
I disagree, referencing a book I had read, (non fiction only now), this week’s Sunday paper, and a sound bite from last night’s news.
George butts in. He says we are both right. He uses two catchphrases of the day, a book blurb, and the words of his favorite Op-Ed writer.
The discussion ends. We’ve all proved a bland working intelligence; the sameness extends to thought. We drink.
Three hours later the bottles have mounted up. Tom is the first to crack.
"What is worse than sitting around watching past optimisms fizzle?" He asks.
"This," I say. "Watching them die without putting up a fight."
"I’m cheating on Marie," he says.
"What?" George asks, astonishment large on his large protruding chin.
"Yes," Tom says.
And now numerous other discrepancies to good character are elucidated. Poor decisions. Financial mistakes. Lies. Jealousies. Further cheatings. Tom begins, but soon we all admit to them, at once, quickly, competitively, as if dirtier human failures dignified lives of superficial dignity.
But, eventually, even disappointments dry up.
We drink silently.
It is 2am and we are being asked politely by the barkeep to leave the bar.
"OH – fucka, just give us a lil more time," Tom slurs aggressively.
"Its OK," George says, looking at Tom. "I know a place we can go."
Late Night/Morning -
We’re driving in George’s car through a bleak part of town. Tom has his head out the window. He is smiling, looking up, drunk. We’re all drunk. Inebriated past sadness. We’re happy. Excessively.
"Where are we going?" I ask George, but I don’t care. I’m now in the mood for whatever might come, for the night to continue on, for the delusion that this is it, this is life as it is meant, simple and light and drunk – I’m in the mood to have this feeling never end.
"A friend of a friend’s place," he replies, stripping off his meaty dinner jacket.
Ten minutes later we are walking up thin broken steps in a pre-war building. The smell is of heavy, cramped life. As we walk Tom is on about the fire bombing of Tokyo. We’re steadily stripping off the wear of years of corporate life, mortgages, formal arrangements, dead discussions, moving back to a time of idle conversation - conversations that had all the feel of imminent importance, endless conversations in coffee shops, late at night, on subways, in parks, conversations that ran over everything else, the millions of other things we should have been doing.
"That – that was savagery. Burning tens, hundreds of thousands of civilians as they lay unaware in their beds," Tom says.
George is knocking on a 5th floor door. No one responds. He tries the handle and finds the door unlocked. It opens to a black room. He enters slowly, calling out to see if anyone is there.
Silence. He ploughs deeper into the room. Tom and I follow. I find a light switch, switch it, but the electricity is out. Somewhere water is dripping.
"Where the fuck are we?" I ask, but the others don’t respond.
A match is lit by someone. In the faint light I can make out an empty room with a mattress on the floor.
"There’s a candle over there," George says to Tom.
The candle is lit, and we find two more. George sits on the mattress, and indicates by patting his hands on its moldy edge that we should, too.
"This, guys," he says, "is my friend Joe’s place. A place I come to get away. An alternate life. He also sells me weed."
Tom and I laugh, feeling rough, in the thick, deeply pleased our old friend remains our old friend.
In front of George is a stack of magazines; below that, a small wood box.
He takes the box, opens it, and pulls out a series of plastic bags.
"Time is like this: everything important occurs in a few moments," George begins. "Lives are decided in an hour. Worlds change in minutes. A job interview. A bullet from a gun. A kiss. A question. And then there is stagnancy. Years pass, and it is as if nothing goes anywhere. Perhaps things even move backwards."
He is handing us each a small handful of what appear to be dried mushrooms.
"Tonight we end the stagnancy," he says, looking at us in the eyes. "Tonight we break free. Tonight we change speeds."
He throws his handful into his mouth, and, with barely a few chews, swallows.
Tom follows soon after. I’m not far behind.
On the roof of the prewar building the sun rises over our bodies. Moments ago we saw rabbits as big as bears running across telephone poles. We laughed uncontrollably.
Now we stare out over the concrete and graffiti of the dilapidated area talking about falling in love. We’re suddenly very kind to each other. Gone is the derision. We’re children, open, playful, accepting, little behind us, less in front.
Three thirty somethings lying in their fine clothes on the dirty roof seeing things happily.
"If I had a woman to kiss every morning," I say, "a woman who would kiss me, really, fully, with purity and only purity as her motive – I’d be perfectly happy. That is all I need. Janie, she…"
"Then let’s go find her. Let’s go!" George interrupts. "Why are we wasting time, wasting time with our lives, wasting time, lying here, why? Let’s go!" he says, standing eagerly, his stomach large and rolling and round.
"Where?" I ask.
"Anywhere. Anywhere but back to yesterday afternoon. What prevents us from running? What, really, but silly conventions we don’t actually think exist?"
Tom stands, too.
"We’re going. Now. Let’s get the fuck out," Tom says.
His eyes are blood shot, massive and red underneath petered-out sockets.
"Let’s go. Who cares where. Now. We’ll find a way. Let’s gooooooooooooo!" George howls.
I stand, shared energy now spilling out across my wide smile.
"OK. Fine, we go. We go!" I say. "But not as ourselves. We need names."
"I’m Thebulus," Tom says instantly.
"And I, well, I’m Ghandash," George says.
"Then I’m….Libertine," I say.
We nod and shake hands.
And now we are rushing down the steps, rushing down the steps seeing a world vivid, splashing out in color, a world limitless in its potential, massive, new, we’re rushing down, out the front door and out onto the empty, brilliant sun-swept streets.
"We haven’t done anything wrong," Ghandash whispers to me as Thebulus speaks to the officer.
We’re all standing on the road. We’ve been asked to leave the car.
"I know. I know," I whisper back
Ghandash looks more like George. Gone is the color of his robe – it never was saffron. His face is lined heavily in the unkind light. Aged beyond his own age – death about it.
Thebulus is saying things, quotidian, working things that minutes ago we’d imagined we’d never again need.
"We’re on a trip to…" he says.
I tune him out. Must illusions always end? Behind me, barely, I can make out the sea. The boat – where is the boat?
We’re being asked for identification, George and I. I wonder briefly about my dogs. And wasn’t I meant to do something today?
Three worn out thirty somethings feeling guilty like children on the hot summer road.
Five hours later we’re re-entering the city. We had done nothing wrong – nobody hurt, nothing illegal found on us. We were merely speeding.
But guilt washed over us with the sun as we stood there being questioned – the incense, clothes, smells, all very suspicious, the officer said – and soon, as soon as we exited the car, we were those respectable selves, back to our old names, back on the road, coming back to our houses, the lives, the lies, realizing, in a moment, our folly.
George, Tom, and I, driving under the speed limit, entering the city, tired, in silence.
About the author:
Chris Lenton was born in New Delhi, India, and has since lived in Sri Lanka, Argentina, Barbados, Indonesia and England. He now lives and writes in New York. His work has appeared in Adoh!, Sri Lanka, Versap and Thieves Jargon. He is finishing a novel.