Mission Austin, pt. 3

Mission Austin

III.

“Do you know why books were invented?”

“Come to think of it, Ergi, I haven’t the foggiest.” Rift was sitting across my bed, his long trim legs, narrowing from the hips, almost reaching the door. He had taken a biography of Nabokov from the bookshelf wedged between the bed and the wall and was busting up a blue pill with his bus card.

“Okay, so, like, the people or ruler or whatever of the ancient city of Pergamum decided they wanted to collect the biggest library in the world. Only they didn’t have, like, printing presses and book stores back then, so they were going to have to make copies of the books themselves, and that was going to take a shit ton of papyrus.

“Well, the ruler of Egypt at the time, the only place where papyrus came from, he wasn’t going to have any of it. His city of Alexandria had the biggest library in the world. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, like how it burned up, right? Okay, so he decided no one was going to have a bigger library than Alexandria and he banned the sale of papyrus to Pergamum.

“But was that going to stop the people of Ancient Pergamum? Fuck no, it wasn’t! So, what they did is, they started writing on sheets of dead dried sheepskin. It turned out it worked really well, and was like, even more stable and shit than papyrus. And they called it parchment, after the name of their city.”

I was already surprisingly drunk. Perhaps watching Rift pour his drink from the fifth I always kept on hand had made me want to catch up, but there was really no way I could. Rift was on his second, teetering dangerously at the edge of the bookcase, while I was lapping at my first, leaning back in my chair, which banged from time to time into my desk. It didn’t take much for a tall man like me or Rift to reach out and touch opposite walls in a room this small. Fortunately, Rift was now crushing the antidote to a buzz and the ticket to a night of bottomless drinking between his card and my book.

“So, I get that there was some kinda bad-blood trade embargo between Alexandria and – Perganon?”

“Pergamum.”

“Pergamum, right. And the people had to switch really big condoms to write their books on, I get it. But what does that have to do with books?”

“Well, I mean, it’s not like it was instantaneous, but people discovered that a really efficient way of, like, compiling information on parchment was to sew a whole buncha sheets together and bind them into a book! Or as they would have called it back then, a codex.”

God, it felt like I should have been high. And in high school, moreover. I thought about this time in college when I was telling a story about a gay bathhouse in Detroit in the 70s and one of my asshole friends was like, “Oh, is that the one that was burnt down by lesbian separatist protesters?” And I said, “Uh, I don’t know, it could be, I’m not really sure.” And then he said, “There was no gay bathhouse burned down by lesbians separatist protesters in Detroit in the 70s. God.” I just couldn’t understand the need to make someone feel that small, and I’ve been scared ever since that someone else will do it. I’m pretty sure Rift has no idea what I’m talking about, but it’s not like the moon would unseat itself if he suddenly started quoting dates and years and names like Ptolemy and shit.

“All right, here ya go, big Papa: the first and biggest line for you.”

“Aw, you’re such a peach, Rift.”

Wherever we were, whomever we were with, Rift always let me do the first line of speed. He would make one special just for me and tell everyone else, “that one’s for Ergi.” Truth be told, it did make me feel special. Set apart. Yeah, okay, so we all did Rift’s speed. But I was first and I got the most, and that meant Rift and I could buy drinks all night long and still part ways somewhere on Main Street after dawn to go to our own houses and work until the sick feeling wore off and it was safe to blow our noses again.

Rift handed me the book with the lines and a rolled up twenty dollar bill. I pondered doing the line as I was, bending over in the chair to reach the book with the bill, but I realized if I could do that I wouldn’t need Terrence. So I swung the chair around, pushed some more books to the side and planted the Nabokov biography down to do my line, the fat one on the right, just like I liked it.

The first time I did coke I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t plug my other nostril. That was a hundred dollar bill, and if everyone else weren’t on coke, I’m sure someone would have pointed and laughed. Fuck, I thought, that was Halloween a year ago. That night I had taken some molly that did absolutely nothing except make me kind of thirsty, but you’re not supposed to drink when you’re on molly, so I was a good boy until I did that line of blow and stole a bottle of Jägermeister out of someone’s freezer. I mean, I didn’t steal the Jäger because I was on blow, I didn’t do enough blow to start some sociopathic rampage. I just did it because I was bored and no one was looking because they were closer than me to the person with the blow and so were doing much, much more in the bathroom. The Jäger and the blow, they made me feel kinda warm together, and I walked back to my house on William from that shithole on Division not feeling so terribly bad that the sexy DJ had taken a cab home from that bonfire way down on Liberty.

I gulped after doing my fat line of speed and tried not to cough as the sticky sweet juice of someone’s prescription started to trickle down my throat. That’s the funny thing about dex, how sweet it is. It’s really quite like candy, which sounds totally bizarre when you tell that to someone who’s never used it. I handed the book back to Rift and he did a line or two, his knees drawn up toward his chest with the book balanced astride. In that position, Rift’s wildly curving hips pointed straight at his ass which pointed straight at me, but that was a no-fly zone and we didn’t even have to talk about it. Rift was for Eskimo kisses and piles of speed and abstract questions and the arrhythmia I seemed to be developing. Terrence was for the other stuff.

Rift picked up my guitar from the other side of the bed and started to strum with the great webbing expanse of his veiny hand. Almost instantly, of course, he found that it wasn’t in standard tuning, and he asked me for my pitch pipe. Fumbling around for it in the side drawers of my desk, pushing coats dangling overhead out of the way, I thought about why my guitar wasn’t in standard tuning.

I said I was setting “Annabel Lee” to music, and honestly I intended to. But I found myself trying to shoehorn Poe into this EADGAD thing I had going on, and it was all a bit too serious and more than a little clumsy. So I had reimagined the tale as one of loss, using my own words to let meddling intercessors spirit away my love. And much as I didn’t want to think about or look at it, I realized that they were spiriting away Rift.

Which was ridiculous to say because there Rift was, right in front of me, taking my pitch pipe and retuning my guitar. There, now it was up to me to fuck this one up, right? He wanted to go back to nice, stable EADGBE, where any ten-year-old could land a Bbm7 and any bonehead junkie wannabe from Cincinnati could make a song to sway the summer away. There he was, right in front of me, showing me how I shouldn’t bother fucking this up because I hate switching between tunings and now how was I going to play the song about him leaving me?

“Ya know, we should write a song about that library in Perganon.”

“Ya know what, Rift? I think that’s a great idea.”

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