Midnight, the Stars, and You


It had never gotten him anywhere; everything he’d ever wanted—the glory and the accolades—had been sacrificed to serve his near-sighted desires. The cocktail of drugs now just to keep his body from flaring up made him sick in the mornings. And, still, a pretty woman, a pretty man, walking down the street and his insides preceded him—jumping out onto the concrete and slugging behind his newly appointed beloved. Of the flesh, of the mind—there was no distinction anymore. The slightest smile in return—a cheek taking on a pinkish tinge—was like a backup generator for his own failing machine. But he had begun to hate his frailty; it made him sick with himself.

In his mind, he was the great unknown songwriter of his generation; he held the secrets and he felt the pain for all the godless-post-post-generation in search of god. It was everywhere—in the trees, in coffee shop laughter during the cruel winter, in the solitary farmer reaping his fields on a John Deere tractor, the hippies selling the farmer’s stalks of corn at the street market. And in the touch of a stranger’s fingertip grazing his skin on the train. Not being discovered for his musical talent, he defaulted to prior modalities, proving his own worth in partners. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes—these were small road bumps along the way, no match for his desire. He craved so desperately the spontaneous adventure of free falling into a stranger in a nightclub, at a street festival. It was all that kept him spinning.

But this new sickness was different; he’d have to fight to keep its ravaging qualities at bay. And no longer could he feed on the night—flesh, the great dampener of screaming bones colliding. His self-pity sometimes brought him to weeping tears in public. For a few months, this was even exhilarating—a sedative somehow, a replacement for reckless behavior. He’d be having a San Pellegrino at Milk and Honey Café, watching the younger twenty-somethings find new ways to say fewer and fewer things to one another while remaining comfortably in the same place, when a lunch group of Lincoln Square women in pencil skirts and starched dress shirts came in laughing like a gale on the peaceful shore. The collision of these two disparate peoples brought him to a laughing sob—this was life after all! He moved down a few chairs in the busy place for the women to sit at the communal table next to him. They smiled tight-lipped smiles as he wiped the tears from his eyes, returning to his book—a copy of Where the Red Ferns Grow. Just to see, after all, if he was still just the crying boy he suspected his father always thought he’d be. He was not embarrassed to hold this book up to his face for all to see. But with his sickness, the violent mood swings—between bliss and night closing in—began to take their toll. He could find another who shared his affliction. But how could he leave someone, should he tire of them, knowing they were closer to death than the rest? If not from the sickness itself but from the ghost weight of sickness—nostalgia of the life before it.

He was just a boy in his room once more, but no longer with the fruitful auspice of a life beyond boyhood. At an emaciated one hundred and forty pounds, he felt sexier than ever, a slinking thing moving through the hedonist crowd. But when, standing at the edge of Lake Michigan on one final warm autumn day, the sun falling into the dark water, just the crest of the moon already formed in the sky, he got down on his knees and wept until his eyes were in the sand, he knew he was no longer weeping for anyone but himself. That sex had so violently bullied his sexuality.

It was then that he went to the north woods of Wisconsin, a place where the land looked like the Carpathian Mountains of the German Expressionist films he loved so much. He took a job as a dishwasher in a bowling alley, renting a basement studio from a widow who only ever ate Borscht, the pot constantly on a low boil on the stove they shared. ‘Here,’ she said, holding out a spoonful for him. ‘It will clean you out.’ He didn’t mind it so much. He played his guitar and sang his falsetto on a small bench in her backyard. Sometimes she watched. ‘You should be a star,’ she said. He knew as much. He was envisioning the crowd as he played, the hallucination almost real. Maybe even better than. He’d stopped taking his pills. There was not so much stress in Lakewood. One hundred miles to the southwest was a Menominee reservation he’d stopped in for respite during his exodus. In the small café where he had hot tea and a plate of toast and jelly, he studied the men so well-practiced in their slow dying—souls trapped in weather-beaten flesh.

He chose Lakewood because he’d once dated a girl there, when he was barely drinking age. She took him out to a lake at the beginning of winter and they took off their clothes and swam out to where it was deep. The lake was warm like childhood bathwater—every second he feared the moment when they’d have to step back onto the shore. They made love twice out there, the towering forest their only witness. She wanted children after she learned that she loved him. But she was too simple, he felt. He wondered what she would think if she could see him now. She might laugh at the irony. The woman who ran the bowling alley hired him because her own nephew had been sensitive—people had not treated him nicely in that area—and she could see a sweetness in him right away. When he began to explain that he wasn’t what she thought he was exactly—not even stopping to wonder over her presumptuousness—he was pleased to find the instinct to correct had vanished. He accepted the woman’s kindness. It didn’t matter what he was anymore.

He was going to kill himself. If nature didn’t take him first. Gun magazines were easy to come by. He started studying them. Speaking to the pawn owners about the different models. It came to be a bit of a hobby. But after much studying he came to the conclusion he’d figured in his mind before the research—it would be an Old West style revolver he’d use. He’d watched John Wayne’s final film, The Shootist, a dozen times. Davey, his great lover, hated it something fierce, and sometimes he talked like The Duke just to make Davey tell him to shut up. Davey had left him for San Francisco because the ocean was his own true love. He wanted something like the gun from the film, only a bit more ornate—silver and gold—and began to covet an M1851 Navy dual tone. For the first time in his life, each day studying for his own suicide, objects began to seem interesting. And with each object that seemed interesting, one related to it that would relate to another. And another. Not only were the guns interesting, but so too were the bullets. And the holster he might decide to buy on aesthetics alone. What outfit should he be wearing at the time of the suicide? How to synthesise all these things in one burning moment.

You might ask where this man’s family was. In body, they were in places near cities of the Midwest. Dubuque, Chicago, Kenosha. In his mind, they were already waiting for him on the other side just as they were on this side—only there, time would work differently. He could sit there with them not counting the seconds. His birthday was October 14th, just a day after Columbus Day—he thought this would be the ideal time to do it. But when the time came, he had not properly planned (there was still the precise location to decide on—deep in the woods where he might never be found or somewhere in an alley down in the town centre), and the widow had a cake waiting on the table. Two chunky candles like tombstones stuck into dirt, a “33” made out. ‘Your Jesus year, yes?’ she said. What was she telling him? He didn’t have the heart to tell her it had passed two years back without him ever once thinking of that phrase. Drugs had always been recreational for him, never really a thing, but maybe he’d get into something in the year to come. He hugged the frail old woman, picking her up from the ground, and she slapped at his back. It was the first time he’d wept in months, and this time the weight of the widow’s sadness had bled into his own. He feared he was balancing out.

Not long after, he broke and called his mother. Where had he been all this time? She didn’t want to believe anything he had to say. He didn’t try too hard to convince her. Accept it or not, he thought. ‘That doesn’t change the way we feel about you,’ she said. He didn’t have the heart to tell her that wasn’t the issue. It was just a new body he wanted, to go with his bad brains. He’d thought it over, and he was sure he’d do it all over the same way again. Reckless, uninterrupted. What was sadness but a speed bump when the destination was bliss? He was able to get on Medicaid; the country doctor didn’t know what the pains were that he was describing; he called it fibromyalgia to get him out of his office, sent him along with a script for OxyContin. Two months later he was walking through the forest when he keeled over in stomach pain; he hadn’t passed a bowel movement in over a week. In the little country bathroom, he squirted enema juice into his asshole, but forgot to lock the door. The widow walked in. She was not surprised. He took her into town that night for dinner at the one restaurant on the strip, an Italian place that used gas station ingredients like Hunt’s canned tomato sauce. He’d never seen the old woman so pleased. They shared a bottle of sweet red wine. He took her hand and guided her into the middle of the empty restaurant and they slow danced to Johnny Mathis’s “Chances Are”. ‘My husband was no dancer,’ she said. He was feeling light again.

The job was no job after all. The woman hired him to be her personal confidante, and he sat there with her in the muted mid-morning rays of sun behind the counter and listened to her speak on issues ranging from her daughter’s trouble with an emotionally abusive husband to Rachael Ray’s Super Sloppy Joes. How she hated that clown Guy Fieri at first, but how he was growing on her. Like the friend of a child who always seems to be coming around the house. Her own words. Like chubby little Peter Stoll from up the block who almost ate her out of house and home when her boy was in elementary school. Occasionally, he had to reset the pin machine when one would get stuck. He was surprised to find the potbellied men appreciative of his work—a small warm feeling that spread out quickly inside like the rising sun. ‘This place isn’t so bad after all,’ he told the manager. ‘I told you, sweetie. There’s good people no matter where you go.’ That was true, but it was easier to face the ugly ones here, where he expected them to be. He could no longer imagine facing the young curly-haired business man in Cole Haan wingtips ordering a macchiato while putting an associate on hold at the Edgewater Starbucks. ‘I bought a gun,’ he told her one night after she’d encouraged they share a bottle of Pink Moscato behind the counter. Then he explained the whole thing—his plan. She was piqued, like she was learning something on the National Geographic Channel, but didn’t bite further. Accepted it point blank like he was telling her his candy bar preference. They got back to the Food Network and its personalities. He smiled and laughed with cosmopolitan flourishes—head shakes and hand waves. It didn’t matter where you were in the world, nobody wanted to talk about that.

He judged the sickness’s progress by his weight, had only gone to the doctor for the narcotics but shortly after found that women around town had bags full of the things hidden away in shoeboxes that they were more than willing to share. He was down to one hundred and twenty-five, on a steady diet of Borscht, painkillers, and bubbling wines. It was summer and he took to sitting in a gazebo on the edge of a stranger’s farm not far off the road, with a view of the forest up on a hill about a half-mile off. He’d bring his Washburn parlour down there and play songs. Like Dolly Parton’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind”—he’d stopped singing his own songs months before. He was often sick. But in his weariness, in his exhaustion, he felt more alive than ever. Dream worlds spilled over into waking life, and only when he felt like there was cement in his head that wouldn’t allow him to rise would he get truly depressed. When the vehicle itself could not be started up. And he’d lie there in that little room, shivering or sweating, until the little insects inside burrowed again, or seeped out through his pores.

It was a Sunday night, and he wanted the widow to come with him down to the gazebo. She was sick too. They were almost the same weight. They walked along the ravine, she in her nightgown. The sun was going down, the mosquitos in great flocks above their heads. It did not matter that they were not birds far off in the distance—all was beautiful once more. She smiled up at him, confusedly, spiritedly, like a toddler just barely at speaking age being led to some new ride at an amusement park. She slipped in the mud and he grabbed her arm. Then he slipped too, and they fell down into the little stream in the ditch, laughing like children impressed with their own antics.

At the gazebo, the sun went down over Lakewood. There was no bulb up in the centre of the pitched roof, only the faint spray of whitish yellow coming from the owner’s house far off in the distance, its dim light moving toward them as if from the helmet lamp of a deep-sea diver. ‘I take requests,’ he said, sitting her down on the bench. He sat directly next to her, so that they were looking out at the black outline of the forest against the purple sky. ‘Midnight, the stars and you,’ she said. ‘You know that one?’ Though he had heard the song, he had never played it. He heard it in his head and began strumming, but couldn’t capture the rhythm. Frustrated, tired from their walk, he slammed the guitar down. ‘I don’t know that one. If I did, I would play it for you.’ There was panic in his voice; he worried she didn’t believe him. ‘I would,’ he said. Why had he offered what he could not give? He said it once more, ‘I’d play it for you if I knew it, I would.’ What had she ever done to make him think she didn’t believe him? She locked her arm around his and patted his hand, began singing in a crackling whisper, her fading voice like it was coming from the phonograph itself:

Midnight with the stars and you
Midnight and a rendezvous
Your eyes held a message tender
Saying, ‘I surrender all my love to you’

He thought of the crickets going in the distance, how the noises they made came from their bodies and not their mouths. ‘I know you would have played it, sweetie. I know,’ the widow said. Sitting there in the gazebo in the darkness, he took in a deep breath that felt like it would choke him into tears. She began to rub his hands. ‘I surrender all my love to you,’ he sang, slowly, like an echo coming from far away. They each smiled, almost imperceptibly. Light bobbed on the indistinct firmament before them, giving the sensation that they were floating on their own little ship. Her hand cupped in his, he steeled inside. How lovely it was to be in an obsolete structure somewhere. On the edge of night, in the warmth, with an old widow. How perfect, really.

How would they ever make it back now?

Michael Madden earned his MFA from Spalding University. He lives in Chicago.

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