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The Younger Generation

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The first time James calls Hannah from New York, he’s in a dark service hall filled with the rustling, gasping white noise of other people’s semipublic sex lives, and he can still taste Terry at the back of his throat, feel the slide of his cock along his tongue. He means to follow Terry back into the bar when they finish their own semipublic display, but he sees the phone and sends Terry back without him. He’s drawn irresistibly to its grubby bakelite stolidity; it’s like a set prop out of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a bit of forgotten jetsam in the wake of the city’s addictive seaminess. He stares at it for a minute, unreasonably delighted, before he picks up the receiver to dial. It looks> like a prop, but there’s a dial tone, so he fishes a couple of quarters out of his pocket and feeds them to the phone on autopilot. It’s what you do with phones.

He doesn’t even exactly know for sure that it’s Hannah he’s calling until he’s halfway through her number. There are a couple of nines and zeroes to wait out, there in the middle, the long swipe of his finger, the quick clicks of the pulse-dial counting back to a standstill, it’s mesmerizing, and by the time he breaks himself out of his slack-jawed fugue state and realizes where he’s going with this, it feels inevitable. He’s going to talk to Hannah for the first time since WordFest from an obsolete pay phone in a midtown gay bar.

Seen in a certain light, it works out better for him than other recent acts of impulse have worked out for him. It doesn’t get him suspended for a semester, for example. It doesn’t deepen Amanda’s cool hostility or cultivate further disappointment in Fred. On the contrary, Hannah’s voice sounds as placid as it always does as she greets him, as though she’s completely forgotten that everything she ever knew about his life turned out to be wrong. Or maybe as though it never mattered in the first place.

“James, hi, hi! I was wondering if I’d ever hear from you again.”

“Sorry,” he says uncomfortably.

He doesn’t say he was afraid she wouldn’t want to talk to him, but he thinks she must hear it anyway, because she continues, “It was a crazy weekend, wasn’t it? Kinda life-changing for you.”

“Yeah, it was,” he says. It was definitely that. “Sudden, though. Most days, I wake up not quite sure where I am. But I guess Terry Crabtree figured it was best to get me out of Dr. Gaskell’s way for a while.”

He can practically hear Hannah’s sympathetic grimace over the phone “I can see that,” she says, and there’s a brief pause while they both see it, both imagine what might have happened if he’d stayed in Pittsburgh a minute longer than he had.

“Why didn’t you come back, though?”

She says it quietly enough that James thinks he can buy a little time by pretending not to have heard her. “What?” he says.

“You heard me, James.” She’s apparently willing to indulge him only so far. “But I’ll repeat the question. Why didn’t you come back?”

“Well,” he says, all mock-patience. “I got kicked out.”

“No, you didn’t.” One of Hannah’s most comfortingly exasperating qualities is her base imperturbability, in the face of any provocation James has ever seen anyone throw her way. “That was Grady.”

He can’t argue with that. “I felt stifled by that environment?”

“Closer, but no. Try again.”

“It’s true,” he insists.

“Okay, fine, it’s a true statement. But it’s not the real reason.”

Isn’t it? Maybe it isn’t.

James says, “Why do you care, anyway? You didn’t really even know me.” It sounds almost hostile, but he doesn’t mean it that way; more than anything, he feels an insidious sense of wonder that this should be true, because it does seem undeniably, irrefutably true. Hannah does care about him.

“Oh, please, you can do better than a line like that, Mr. Leer.” Hannah’s voice hasn’t changed -- it’s the same voice she uses when she asks him about movies, fond and teasing and maybe a little patronizing, although he might just be imagining that last bit, with his storyteller’s editorial instinct -- and James feels his fingers tighten gratefully around the receiver. “Since you’ve already thrown it out on the floor, though, I’ll address that one. I think I did know you. Do.” She laughs a little. “Right now, you’re calling me from a bar.”

He laughs too, but it sits wrong on the humid air of the corridor. Not loud, but awkward, uncomfortable.

“You didn’t exactly mean to call me, but you saw the phone and suddenly calling me seemed like a great idea. And you’ve been drinking tonight, so you’re just toasted enough to be able to write this call off, if it doesn’t work out, to be able to write it off as an unfortunate drunken impulse. Am I right?”

“Uh...” It turns out, he thinks, that he possibly doesn’t really want to be known. “Yeah, you’re mostly right,” he admits, hoping to put a period on the end of this particular sentence.

Hannah, always kind, lets him off the hook. “Yeah, I know I am. And don’t think I haven’t realized you’re not answering my question. That’s okay, though, I think I know the answer to that, too -- I am a writer, James. I know these things.”

James hopes, for a second, that she’ll tell him what the answer is, but the moment passes, and he doesn’t want to ask. “Hey, look,” he says finally. “I gotta go. Terry Crabtree’s out in the bar waiting for me.”

“Okay,” she says equably. She probably knew he was going to say that before he did. “But call me again, if you don’t mind. I like knowing you’re out there, James Leering all over everybody around you.”

“I will,” he says, and he means to do it--he likes knowing that there’s someone out there, thinking about him, wondering what he’s doing, and he wants to hang on to that.

“And, uh, James, be careful, okay?” She says it as though she means it, but without conviction, as though she already knows he’s not going to be careful. And it’s true that that’s not much on his agenda, these days. In spite of everything, all the years he’s spent in someone else’s basement watching movies, it never really has been.

:::

What he told Hannah, it’s true. Most days, he wakes up bewildered, staring at an unfamiliar, mold-free, not-in-the-the-least Lovecraftian ceiling, wondering where in the world he is. Usually, it’s only Terry’s snores that remind him; on the days Terry gets up before him, he lies awake for long moments, panicking, before he manages to orient himself.

It’s been three months since he and Terry, respectively, came to New York and returned to New York. That’s a long time to be still getting his bearings every morning. Maybe he’ll always wake up disoriented. Maybe that’s the price you pay for living in one room for twenty years. Or for moving out of it.

Luckily, though, this isn’t one of the panicky mornings. This morning, Terry’s sawing away beside him, while he writes in one of the dozen or so perforated composition books he bought at the Duane Reade on the corner when he got here. He hadn’t taken anything with him when he came to New York. Terry hadn’t let him. He’d just hustled him onto the flight on standby, charmed their way into business class, given him a long, discreet handjob under a light airline throw blanket that made the flight last five minutes. He didn’t have a chance to panic then, and maybe that was the point, but it seems like he’s been making up for it ever since.

(When he thinks about it that way, though, it feels like an even exchange to him. He doesn’t miss too much about his life in Pittsburgh. Not even his typewriter.)

Beside him, the sputtering motorcycle drone of Terry’s breathing evens out, and James smiles and puts the notebook aside, slides back down under the covers to roll Terry, still mostly asleep, on top of him. “Good morning,” he says, scraping his fingernails along Terry’s nape hard enough to mark, and every part of Terry’s body jerks awake all at once.

“Jesus Christ, James,” Terry gasps. “You’ve got to stop doing that, you’re gonna kill me one day.”

James rolls his eyes, rotates his hips a little to get Terry’s already-hardening cock settled just right between his thighs, and says, “Why stop when we both like it?”

Terry grabs James’s wrists and pins them to the bed, leans his weight on them until James imagines them snapping under the pressure and it’s his turn to gasp. Terry says, “Touché, kid,” and then neither of them says anything that makes sense for a while.

They get sidetracked, sidetrack each other, a lot. Terry moves his hands a certain way, and in the next instant James can still feel them on his hips as he spreads James wide open. James triggers Terry, too; he’ll do something, say something, and next thing he knows he’s being hustled out of rooms with Terry’s breath hot in his ear.

But Terry’s not quite so readily distracted this morning, and he says, as he’s pulling off the condom, “Quit lying around, James we’ve got places to be today,” as if that’s not true every day, there’s always work or some meeting, but James does know what he means. Today is a big day. A different day. “Get dressed, why dontcha,” Terry says, smacking him on the hip, and James reluctantly rolls out of bed to retrieve a pair of pants and a shirt from the haphazardly folded pile in the corner. He tugs them on. Terry eyes this entire process askance; he always does, when he’s around to witness it.

“They look like you’ve slept in them,” he says, indicating the wrinkles as he buttons his own tidy shirt. “If you’d just hang them up --” He lets the sentence trail away.

James shrugs. “There wasn’t a closet in the basement back home,” he says. “I just never think of it.”

“Well, think of it now,” Terry says. “I made space for you in the closet, and it’s not as though you need a lot of it.”

“Okay, fine, I’ll think about it, Mom,” he says as they walk out of the bedroom. Terry grimaces but doesn’t reply, just picks up his keys while James retrieves his knapsack, and they head out the door.

They pick up Grady and Dr. Gaskell -- Sara, she says to call her, and smiles at him reassuringly, as if she knows she’s just asked the impossible of him and doesn’t really expect him to obey the directive -- at Grand Central. She catches them up a little on university news as they make their way west and north, chatting easily with Terry while James and Grady observe. Grady watches Terry as though he’s expecting something, and James divides his time between listening to Dr. Gaskell, trying to work out what exactly Grady’s expression means, and watching out the windows carefully, ticking off stops against the growing MTA map in his head.

It’s not until Dr. Gaskell mentions Hannah’s name that they both give her their full attention. “At Knopf, really?” Grady asks, his brow furrowed. “Why would she edit when she can write?” It’s a quasi-innocent question, the way everything Grady does is innocent of malice but weighed down by his own transparent, self-centered ineptitude, but James can see both Terry and Dr. Gaskell stiffen.

“She says she can do both, if she likes, and she’s learned that writing full-time isn’t really as healthy a lifestyle as she’d like to be leading.” Dr. Gaskell’s statement, unlike Grady’s question, is not without malice.

It stings a little, and it must sting Grady a little, since James knows Grady liked Hannah as much as he himself did, but Grady accepts the implied criticism from both women without a word, and says simply, She didn’t tell me that.”

“Yeah,” says James, wondering. “She didn’t tell me, either, and I talked to her just the other day.”

“Well,” says Dr. Gaskell, “is it possible that you didn’t ask?” Her gaze encompasses both of them, and they both blush. James didn’t think that Grady could blush, and from the eyebrows Terry raises, he hasn’t seen many blushes from Grady, either. “Maybe next time you should ask her about it; I’ve always found Hannah to be delightfully easy to talk to.”

It’s harder than it sounds, remembering to ask other people about their lives and listen to the answers. He hopes he’s up for it. Not only does he not want to end up like Grady, forty-five and relying only on what he can see -- which is a lot less, anymore, with his eye and all -- or what matters to the story he’s trying to tell; but also, the stories are usually pretty interesting.

:::

After they put their bags down, they install Dr. Gaskell, who says she’s not feeling all that well, on the sofa. She smiles on them, a benediction, and begs Grady with a smile not to get too stoned -- “Three months, and she still won’t believe I’ve given it up,” says Grady with a shake of his head -- and make their way to a little storefront restaurant a couple of blocks away. Grady eyes the hand-lettered front window signage doubtfully. “Motherclucker’s,” he reads. “Home of The Finger.” He turns to Terry. “Just exactly how much do you hate me, Crabtree?”

Terry has a look in his eye that presages their most careening nights out, the look James first saw at WordFest, the look that James suspects is brought out more frequently in Grady’s presence than in any other person’s. But he’s cheerful when he pulls open the door. “I don’t hate you, Tripp,” he says, leading the way in. “Chicken fingers are good for the soul. I thought everyone knew that.”

Grady subsides when he gets a look at the menu and smells the onions and curry in the air. It’s a chicken finger restaurant, sure, but it’s also got a substantial Indian menu, and it’s pretty good in spite of, or maybe because of, the name. He and Terry eat here regularly enough that James already has a usual, and Ajay, the owner’s son, rings him up without asking, though he waits for Terry’s order, because Terry gets something different every time. Grady finally settles for the Chicken Tikka Masala.

“Ah,” says Terry, as he pays. “The safe choice.”

“Oh, fuck you, Crabtree,” says Grady, but he’s looking more in his element than he has been since they met at the station, and buoyed up by the food and the atmosphere, he squints at James over their paper plates. “So, James,” he says. Tell me what you’re writing these days.”

James thinks of the composition books, and shrugs. “Nothing, really. Just editing The Love Parade.” Terry, who knows all about James’s wakeup ritual, flashes him a knowing look, which he ignores. “It takes up a lot of my time, you know? There’s a lot that needs changing.” He’d actually been surprised by this, that Terry could praise something, genuinely like it, and still want to change so much about it, but he’s gotten used to that idea by now.

“Just don’t let him change it too much,” Grady says, teeth bared at Terry in a smile. “Don’t let him turn it into something you never intended it to be.”

James just picks a meatball apart and shrugs. He’s silent for the rest of the meal, letting Terry’s and Grady’s adversarial banter wash over him.

:::

Grady tires easily, this afternoon. He’s lacking the passively manic, drug-fueled energy that sustained him through his career in Pittsburgh. Which is proof enough, James supposes, that he really is, at this moment, completely sober. And after they’ve walked Grady back up the five flights of stairs to Terry’s apartment, Grady looks ready to spend the rest of the afternoon napping with Dr. Gaskell, so they leave him to the warm summer quiet of the messy apartment and go back out into the city to give them some space to rest.

Terry gives James a pill from the ever-present stash in his jacket, and James takes it, as always, unquestioningly. Which may seem like a stupid thing. May in fact be a stupid thing, looked at objectively, but Terry’s never given him anything that did him serious damage, and it actually doesn’t do much for him as they walk, just softens everything around the edges.

They end up sitting in the shade on a bench in the little park near Terry’s apartment, watching some guy on the other side of the statue practice his guitar, rather more tragically than the bright summer sun would warrant, and when Terry leans toward him, James opens his mouth straightaway for the kiss. He doesn’t care, has never cared, whether Terry knows how hopelessly gone on him James is, happy to accept anything, willing to ask for anything. This kiss is slow, more measured than their kisses often are, and when Terry pulls back, James leans forward for more, more open, wetter, but Terry pushes him back.

“God,” Terry says, low, “I love that mouth.” He swipes his thumb across it, once, and sits back, watching Guitar Guy. “Who’s he, do you think?”

James is ready for this, expects it, after three months. “His name’s Tristan Bathosse,” he says instantly. “His wife’s pregnant with their sixth child, and he’s left his eldest child to babysit while he’s come here to work out his existential despair before he heads off for his job as a-- a--”

“--A factory worker,” says Terry. “He sets grommets into golf towels all day long. He used to be head of the Local Grommetworkers’ 312 -- that’s the LGU to those in the know --”

Obviously,” says James.

“But the chapter was recently dissolved in disgust by national for slipshod management, which was mostly Tristan’s fault. He’s just so busy with those five kids, and his wife Felicity can’t help, because--”

“Because she’s taken up with her new lover, Stefan Diamantopoulos, an elusive and polyamorous shipping magnate of mixed Continental parentage. Stefan may or may not be the father of her child. Felicity’s one of his four girlfriends, but even so, she doesn’t have much free time to bother with things like teacher conferences and macaroni dinners. It’s up to Tristan to take up the slack there.”

“Yes, and the constant stress is clearly taking its toll on him, poor guy.” They stop there, both gazing in mingled satisfaction and sympathy upon Tristan as he strums dejectedly on the guitar.

Eventually, Terry sits up straighter. “So listen, James, what Tripp said at lunch.”

“Grady said a lot at lunch,” says James without cutting away to Terry. He’s still trying to fit names to each of Tristan’s kids.

“No, listen,” says Terry, gripping James’s wrist, and James has one of those mini-flashbacks to the morning, Terry grinding into him, clasping his wrists hard enough to leave bruises, but he has the feeling that now is not the time to go all soft and pliant on Terry.

“Okay,” he says finally, reining in his unruly cock in a ruthless fashion entirely unlike Tristan’s sad, halfhearted attempts at discipline. He turns to look at Terry. “I’m listening.”

“James, I don’t want you to think I’m trying to rewrite your book, or change what it is, fundamentally. You know that, right?”

“I do know it.” And James does. It was pretty hard, at first, to watch Terry marking up his typewritten pages, but as he’s watched the book reshape under their hands, he’s working not to feel defensive, because as it happens, Terry Crabtree, editor for Blicero Verlag, née Bartizan, is actually pretty good at his job. He sees potential, he sees how a scene or a passage can be teased out or truncated for maximum effect, he sees when something doesn’t work and needs to go, and he sees all those things much more clearly than James does.

Terry’s eyes are still crinkled, though, so James continues. “I don’t know, Terry. I love Grady and all --” or at least, he’d loved Professor Tripp, almost right up until the night he became Grady -- “so I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by disagreeing --”

“I don’t think Tripp’s feelings can be hurt by arguing about books,” says Terry. That doesn’t sound right to James, and he thinks about arguing, but in the end, he keeps going because he hasn’t finished making his point.

“I mean, I didn’t want to say, but when we, when you and I, talk about The Love Parade, it doesn’t feel like an overwritten first novel by some outcast of a college senior. It feels like a real book, you know? Like we’re turning The Love Parade into something that I never dreamed I could write.” It is turning, as Grady suggested it might, into something he never intended, but it’s better than anything he ever intended, feels bigger, more authentic, less like a drafted film script and more like something you’d find at the library. Something you’d come across unexpectedly but be instantly enthralled by. At least, he hopes that’s what it will be when they’re finished. “So, nothing against Grady, but I think his advice kind of stinks.” In fact, in a huge raft of advice pushed helpfully towards pathetic, pseudogothic James Leer to save him from drowning, that kind of feels like the worst he’s ever gotten.

Terry laughs. “Yeah, I think you’ll find that his advice usually does.” He rubs his hand down James’s arm. “You’re okay, then?”

James rolls his eyes. “More than okay.” They watch Tristan for a while, but Terry’s still fidgeting. “So what else is bugging you?”

“Besides the Xanax?” James shoots Terry a sidelong look, and Terry holds up his hands. “All right, don’t look like that, Mom. I guess Grady’s got me thinking about things I hadn’t really been thinking about before, is all.”

“Like what?”

“Things. You know. Sewickley things, and school things. Things that you just picked up and left that you might feel like getting back to, one day. That you might miss.”

James sets his jaw. “I don’t miss anything about Pennsylvania.”

“Nothing at all, huh?”

James thinks of going to the movies with Hannah, her long legs and wide-set eyes and teasing voice that somehow still manages to take him seriously. Hannah who’ll be headed to New York next year. “Maybe some things. But nothing that I want to revisit yet. And nothing that I think I’ll ever want to move back to Pittsburgh for.”

“What about school?”

James sighs, and it comes out sounding more petulant-teenager than he’d like. “If I want to go back, I’ll apply somewhere closer to the city, or in the city. Credits transfer, and I’ve heard there are schools in New York.” A nasty thought occurs to him. “Hey, you’re not trying to get rid of me, are you? Because I can --”

“No, no, no. I just don’t want you to burn your bridges, kid. I don’t want you to leave things behind that you’ll regret later. They won’t wait on you forever, even though it probably think they will.” Terry looks tired and a little sad, for maybe the first time since James has known him. “Just think about that, okay?”

James agrees, reluctantly. Neither Pittsburgh nor Sewickley Heights seems like anything he’ll ever want again, but he knows that sometimes your course changes without warning. He learned it, without a doubt, at this year’s WordFest.

He leans back into Terry, and this time Terry takes James’s face between his palms before they kiss. James likes that.

:::

Back at Terry’s apartment, Dr. Gaskell and Grady are both refreshed and ready to go downtown for dinner. And maybe a movie, Terry says, tempting James almost unbearably -- Frank Capra’s first talkie is playing at a revival house in Greenwich Village this week -- but in the end, he opts out.

“Nah, you guys go ahead. I’ve got some stuff I need to do here.” He tries not to feel too hurt at Grady’s vaguely pleased expression; he knows Grady and Terry haven’t seen or spoken to each other for three months, and that they have stuff of their own they need to do.

“You sure?” Terry asks. It’s not like James to refuse a night out, even when there’s not a chance of their ending up fucking in some restaurant bathroom, and they both know it.

“Completely,” James says. His attempt at a reassuring smile feels unfamiliar on his face, but it must work the way he wants it to, because Terry doesn’t offer any further argument. He follows them all to the door. Terry squeezes his ass on the way out, and James resists the fleeting impulse to drag him back inside, resists the urge to tell Terry not to do anything that’ll get him out of bed to post bail at three in the morning, and then they’re gone and James is alone. James can hear Grady’s voice out in the hall, receding as they make their way to the stairs. “Crabtree, my old friend, tonight is going to be...” He wonders what it’s going to be, but in an idle way, because he really does have stuff he needs to do.

He pulls the hangers from the closet first, smooths each shirt and pair of black pants carefully before he arranges them in the closet. He won’t go so far as to iron, but Terry’s right: it’s time.

He stares at the phone for a long minute before he picks up a pen instead. He’s not ready to call, not nearly ready, but he thinks he can just about manage a postcard. And he does, though it’s harder than any workshop fiction he ever wrote; it takes him a good half hour to get the I’m safe and working, and New York is amazing he ends up with, but it’s done, and the Sewickley Heights address still comes automatically. He walks down to the postbox and shoves the card in before he can think himself out of sending it.

And then, back in the apartment, he undresses and lies across the bed which, for two nights, will be Grady’s and Dr. Gaskell’s, but is right now all his. He opens the windows, thinks about lighting a joint and decides against it. Instead, he stares up at the sky, warm breeze drifting over him, too much light pollution to see the stars clearly, and listens to the noisy city surrounding him on all sides: awake, just like he is.

Maybe tomorrow’s the day he wakes up knowing where he is. He’s got a good feeling about it.