First Avenue by Michael Ramberg

Imagine he’s named Beige. In his mid twenties but still thinking of himself as a child on the carpet, watching cartoons on Saturday morning with a thin plastic bowl of Fruit Loops in his lap. Odd shades of pastel seeping from the Loops into the milk which he drinks from the bowl feeling the sharp plastic edge cut into his lips and then he dries his mouth with the elasticized wrist cuff of his blue pajamas. He sets the bowl next to him on the floor, knocking the rim of another milk encrusted plastic bowl that’s been hidden under the couch’s apron for he had no idea how long.

The television flickers calmly like a friend waving hello. The barely moving, limited animation super heroes with steady chins and unblinking eyes fly about, combating the same group of evil super villains over and over. Even to six-year old Beige’s senses there’s something askew about the world he’s watching, a deep weirdness in their evil and their justice, like goldfish in a bowl compared to the open sea of monsters and sharks called real life. But because he’s six he’s willing to overlook how bad the show is, in fact he has little interest in reality. He’s got no father, so he knows something about reality already. Reality means facing things that make you unhappy, and for that he can wait. There’s only his mother and his grandmother and him. They all live in a house now, but it used to be they lived in an apartment, and before there was Beige they lived with his grandfather in a small house by the lake where Beige sometimes goes to visit.

He thinks about that first bowl, about how neither his mother nor grandmother have found it under the couch yet, and when they did he knew they’d say nothing to him about it. He watches television for another ten minutes, then he carefully stacks the new dirty bowl into the old dirty bowl, places both spoons inside, and shoves the whole assembly under the sofa. He arranges the sofa fringe so a spoon handle is sticking out and there’s some chance his mother or grandmother will spot it. They remain there for days, then weeks, until he tires of waiting and carries them out to the sink himself.

Sometimes he thinks he’s still a teenager writing unsent love notes to swim-team captains in bathing caps who stood swinging their arms on the pivot of their sleek shoulders before diving, torpedo-like, into the pool’s float-columned surface. He still dreams of them, the girls of high school. The math wizard across the aisle with her curly, short, neglected hair, beautiful in the way she sits tapping a mechanical pencil against her dry, thin lips. Part of him can’t stop being a college student trying to make sense of such basic philosophical texts as Descartes and Plato while spending hours immersed in Star Trek miscellany and the intricacies of C++ libraries while the swimmers and cheerleaders walked back and forth on the quad arm in arm with baseball-capped pipe-armed fraternity brothers.

He’s still growing up and getting sick of it, a product of the suburbs moved to the city – Minneapolis, in this case – to prove some distant point about himself and leave the dull sameness of his past behind. Moving didn’t help, of course. The city was full of people like him who grew up memorizing the words to Oreo commercials and Christmas shopping in strip malls. In grade school they’d divided themselves into factions based on whether they chewed Bubble Yum or Bubblicious. Sometimes the superstitions of their childhood were all they talked about.

Perhaps it was Minneapolis itself, a quiet city on a quiet prairie. No mountains, no desert, and as such totally unsuited to inspire the kind of socio religious movements Beige both craved and, as evidenced by his never moving anyplace where they occurred, feared as well. Instead they (Minneapolis and he himself, Beige) trudged along in the wake of larger metropoli, stripping away ideology until all that was left to life was the stale rote and cant of lifestyle by the numbers: tatoos, fruit smoothies with nutritional supplements, SUV’s choking southbound 35W, half hearted poetry slams, a lukewarm but much beloved fledgling film industry and a few landmark dance institutions, where Beige finds himself right now.

First Avenue. There he is, pretending to be a grown-up and getting older by the minute, standing around in the cavernous of Minneapolis’s premier night club, a warm plastic cup of beer in one hand. He’s in a bad mood, of course, that was a given, and he’s pretty sure this time it’s because the band is lousy, a ten piece ensemble churning through the old swing-era standards as if they’d seen the music for the first time that morning. Or he’s pissed because of all the freaks and weirdos that his work friend, G.G. Brook, had promised wouldn’t be here. It was jazz night, G.G. said. The freaks hate jazz. So out he came, and immediately he remembered why he hadn’t been to First Avenue for a while.

Because the freaks and weirdos had discovered jazz in the last few years and were out in force. They were polyglots, the freaks and weirdos were. Anything that wasn’t on the top 40 station they loved, apparently. And here they were, the self-mutilated fashion impaired, martyring their natural selves on the cross of some counter-cultural trend. Would be rebels in black with color-streaked hair and platform boots stalking moodily about, smoking and tapping fingers and swaying their tightly wrapped hips to the rhythm of the band. Beige used to admire them for their dedication to the cause, though he’d never known quite what the cause was. There was something out there in the world they all hated, and something in here that they all loved, and they’ll find it if only they can be outrageous enough.

He’s never coming back, he thinks. This’ll be Beige’s last time at mythic First Avenue. It’s old age creeping in, some gene of his mother’s, perhaps. The quiet wallflower chromosome kicking in to ruin any potential fun he might have.

Then there’s this normal looking girl standing in front of him. Normal, that is, except for thick black glasses in the tradition of Buddy Holly. Dirty blond hair, a few freckles, sharp nose, in a conservative short sleeved black dress, asking him to dance. That’s what she says but he expects it so little he has to ask her to repeat herself, and when she does he thinks to himself, You seize the moment! So he does. He says, “I’d love to dance with you,” and extends his hand. They glide out to the dance floor and begin moving around in an acceptable Lindy, swirling, turning, while the band destroys, in a bad way, Salt Peanuts.

Her skin is silky under his fingertips, and she smiles at him in a completely unremarkable, normal way. She’s tatoo-free and unpierced on all the places he can see. Face, neck, chest, arms, lower legs. Who has the guts for that, these days? To leave yourself unmarked, a plain vanilla human being? “Tell me your name,” he says, but she simply smiles at him. He senses trouble but ignores it to focus on a brief fantasy of a brilliant future.

“Did you know they’re filming this?” She asks. Beige does, in fact, know this. One of the Hollywood studios currently in the area has a second unit crew in the building. They’ve mounted cameras in the balcony behind plexiglass and black velvet curtains to be safe and anonymous in order to produce crowd scenes, background and transition shots to be placed behind the star, who according to rumor was either John Cusack or Janine Garafolo. All the normal, non-famous patrons have signed waivers just to get in, relinquishing rights to their evening’s images in perpetuity.

“We’ll show the tape to our grandchildren,” Beige says.

“This place,” she says, “is not fit for family viewing. I don’t know why people even come here.”

Beige says, “They come hoping for moments like these,” and then is stunned. It seems the perfect thing to say, and he can’t believe he said it.

She gives a brief smile as if she agrees, or as if she didn’t hear a word he said and smiled only to be polite. “Look at that chick,” she says, pointing to a homely blond girl with a round face, small eyes, and a rainbow of colored extensions woven into her hair.

“Confetti dreadlocks,” Beige says. “Natty mon.”

“I couldn’t stand being stared at for having hair like that. I don’t know what she’s thinking.” The band is winding down, slowing the refrain, and the pace of the dance slows with it.

Beige says, “So did you come with a boyfriend?” He’s stunned himself again, this time with the stupidest thing to say. He can feel their emerging repoire wobbling like a top near the end of its spin.

But she smiles again and says, “Thanks for the dance.” The music ends and their hands slip apart. Whatever happens next is about to happen, he thinks.

And now he’s looking in her eyes and now he’s looking at the back of her head and then there’s no sign of her and he says to the vacant spot where she used to be, “Hey.”

Someone near him says, “Effing right, Hey,” and moves away in a dark blur of shaggy hair. Damn. Beige searches the club, nosing around every dark recess he can find. On one side cigarette butts float in a puddle of beer half an inch deep, on the balcony there’s a cluster of frat boys in untucked oxford shirts and sigma nu caps, and down in the hole behind the stage a man with a spike through his eyebrow has his hand up the shirt of an androgynous redhead, but there’s no sign of Beige’s girl anywhere. Like bad magic or Beige’s luck she’s gone, whisked back to what can only be explained as some alternate reality like in those sci-fi channel shows he watches all the time. She’d slipped in through a wormhole to give Beige a glimpse of the life he could be leading, then left again. He stands behind a low iron railing near the most recessed of the club’s four bar counters, considering whether to buy another beer or something stronger when he discovers G.G. Brooks is right next to him.

“Dude,” says G.G.

“Dude,” says Beige.

“Time to roll.”

“Frigging right, time to roll.” She’s gone, the band sucks, and Janine Garafolo is nowhere to be seen. Time to call it a night.

At the door he’s waiting for G.G. to come back from the bathroom when a tall man wearing wire-frame blue-tint glasses and an off-white suit comes up to him and says, “I saw you with Denise on the dance floor in the time-honored fashion, which is to say, good Lindy. As for me, I am Tim.” Tim is rail-thin with mascaraed sideburns like black blades of paint on his gaunt cheeks, a neon blue tie on a shiny white shirt glowing under the club’s blacklights. He bows slightly, extending the back of his hand from his forehead in a deferential salute.

“Thank you,” says Beige.

The man pulls down the bridge of his glasses and with a theatrical glance around the room says, “To speak bluntly it did my heart good: She never does that.” He’s wearing novelty contact lenses that make his eyes a rich mahogany with gold fleur de leis pupils.

“Well, that sort of thing never happens to me. So that must mean something, right? Where is she?”

The man, Tim, stands up straight, then bends in close, fluttering one hand at shoulder height. Ah, thought Beige with a sinking heart. He’s a Character. One of those kids who turned himself into a cartoon. Tim the Character says, “A modest child, Denise, we drag her out once in a while to fulfill family obligations but she takes a cab home without saying goodbye or engaging in social intercourse; I imaging that’s what’s happened now.” The man winks one fleured eye, twists up his face in a satyr-like smile. Beige wonders for a moment why a man wearing tinted contact lenses is also wearing tinted eyeglasses, then decides not to dwell on the question. He was sure there were plenty of reasons and this guy could go on and on about them in great detail.

“She left without you?”

“Not a large loss or unexpected occurrence, as my obligation for the evening is to watch my Connection.” He points at a snow-white, six foot tall woman in a green-trimmed black halter top, a tribal tattoo covering one shoulder. Jet black hair frames her face like a set of parenthesis. “As in, connected to my condition, sharer of the secret burdens. My muse and model, perhaps you’ve seen my work on the fifth floor of Dayton’s, then again maybe not, Tim Tyme I sign my work, nevertheless. Your girl’s name is Denise Plowman. She’s in the book.”

“And she wants me to call her?”

“She does what she wants. You know. Her own girl. That’s P-l-o-w-m-a-n. D-e-n-i-s-e. And as for Tim, he must attend to his Connection.” And with that Tim moves off to his parenthetical connection, moving stiltedly with a hand on the railing for support as if the world he viewed was indeed cropped to the tri-lobed outlines in his contact lenses.

And then G.G. and Beige are outside and walking toward a trio of huddled cabs on the corner of Nicollet and Eighth. G.G. is wobbling along muttering to himself. According to when you ask him, G.G. stands for George Gonzalez, Gandalf Godzilla, or Great God. If you push it he’ll lecture you on semiotics and signifiers, nomination and phonetics. In the three years Beige has known him he hasn’t been able to get a look at his driver’s license. Probably said G.G.

At the corner G.G. stops swaying long enough to flag a taxi near the hotel zone where cabs line up under the arched skyways to wait for fares. They climb in, tell the driver where they’re going, and drive off, passing a construction site where a fledgling skyscraper reaches tendrils of steel toward the sky, the base already covered in a thin skin of insulation and prefab concrete slabs. You see these sites all over downtown these days; pits of sand one day, a spire of metal the next. Their cab is an old green Crown Victoria with split seats leaking cheap white ticking. G.G. barks out his apartment’s address one more time and then as the cab pulls away from a red light he says to Beige, “You got something. That chick with the chunky glasses.”

Beige is craning his neck outside the window to get a look at the uppermost reaches of the building under construction. He pulls his head back into the window and says, “She’s really more of a lead.”

“Horse to water,” says G.G. “And what’s with the doorman?”

Beige sighs. Talking with G.G. is an exhausting business. He ponders the enigmatic horse to water reference just long enough to dismiss it, but the doorman part seems to require a response, so he queues it up for a run through what’s left of his cognitive skills. It takes him a while to figure out that G.G. must have seen Tim Tyme and himself talking at the door; hence, the doorman. Beige says, “She’s her own girl.”

“No kidding.”

“Sure. That’s according to the guy with french eyes.”

“What the hell are french eyes?” says G.G.

Beige sighs again, realizing now why Tim Tyme wore the contacts and the glasses and the whole bit. It was so he’d be talked about in taxicabs by the puzzled bourgeoisie; it was his form of immortality. “He wore contact lenses with fleur de leis on them,” says Beige wearily. The cab seems to be somehow spinning just a bit in the direction opposite from the corner it is taking and from that and the smell of exhaust in his nostrils and the taste of beer in his throat it is suddenly apparent from the drift of the conversation and the skewing of his thought patterns that he’s drunk quite a bit himself on top of nothing for dinner.

G.G. says, “Like a kind of vampire Boy Scout?”

“My God. He must have been.”

They ride in silence the rest of the way to G.G.’s apartment building, a five story brownstone near Lake Calhoun. Beige had helped G.G. move in just a few weeks ago, though there had been little more than a ragged futon, a pile of computer equipment and an eclectic collection of albums that G.G’s soon to be ex-wife didn’t want. G.G. and his wife, a hair-trigger blond named Rachel, nicknamed Rocks, are calling it quits after three years of crossed signals and drifting, post-college personality shifts. As the cab pulls up to the building Beige is thinking about G.G.’s divorce and says, “You okay, man?”

Somehow, in that way of friendships, G.G. knows what he’s talking about and says, “It was just a starter marriage, buddy.”

“But you got no stuff in there, man.” It’s true. Last time he was there the apartment had bare walls and when they spoke their conversation was amplified by stucco echoes. G.G.’s letting his ex-wife keep the old apartment and the furniture and the television and most of the CD’s because, he’d explained, the marriage seemed in this stage to be no more than a collection of things they’d bought together. Might as well let all that go as well and move on. Beige expected him to change his mind on this point after a few nights on that thin futon, but he hasn’t yet. Men and women. Ugh. There was no figuring out of anything, beginning to end, Beige realizes. He should know that by now. Still growing up. He’ll get it some day. G.G. rubs his face and puts ten dollars on the seat and then is out of the cab and climbing the steps of his building.

Beige rides in silence back to his condominium. Past dark alleys and bright corners, high-heeled co-eds in spandex tops skittering high-heeled across frozen pavement while chatting into cell phones, hip-hoppers in from who knew where come to mean-up Minneapolis’s drab streets. Caps that said NY, LA; no one wanting to be here, MPLS. Too many letters, maybe. When the driver isn’t speaking some foreign tongue into his cell phone he’s humming an indistinct pop tune. The city is black with yellow lights, unknown lives behind dark windows. Outside, a series of red brick apartment buildings move through a blurry reflection of Beige sprayed across the window glass. His hair, thinning more than ever, can’t cover his scalp any more, even in the dark reflection of cab glass at eleven thirty. Middle age, old age, the end of time. It was all coming.

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