EUGENE

Eugene is part of the Bluffton novel.
Listen. Follow along. There is a note at the end...

 

 

by

Lawrence Santoro

The season ended. The show cancelled. He fled L.A.

In New York he took his time, three months, then slid into an ad agency. Those cowboy dogs driving that herd of tiny cattle to the food bowl? That was his. The German rats drinking Heinekins at the Rathaus? Eugene's. The lady jocks at the guy's health club? Yep. Won a Clio.

Money was good. Life sucked. L.A. ruins people for living anywhere else, he reckoned. Every day on the IRT he wondered why everyone near him talked way too loud and was way too stupid. It took him less than a year to realize it wasn't nearness to him, all conversations were loud and almost everybody was stupid.

Within a few months he hated everyone. Within a few years he was edgy enough to begin worrying about himself. A little after that, he started worrying about the people near him. He sensed in every exchange, in every transaction with a real person, he felt that part of him was close to...he couldn't think what...to "doing something." That was it: Close to doing something. Every time he actully spoke to someone real, he wanted to do.

One day on the subway, going home...it hadn't been a great day. He was trying to read a book, a kid's book. He'd grown tired of adult literature, serious books. The jerk behind him was talking much too loud about...well, something. The guy's voice was off. Nasal, made him sound like he had a cold, but he didn't. Throaty, made him sound like he knew everything, having experienced nothing.

Every other word was "game."

Eugene turned and looked right in his fucking eyes. Holy Christ, he realized, he'd known this guy. Way back, freshman year. A guy that dated Leslie, for crineoutloud. Dated her after. After the problem.
Of course it wasn't him. The subway rider was a kid; just out of school. Working downtown in one of those jobs they give kids. Eighty-five thousand to start on the assumption they'll spend a hundred and twenty.

This guy wasn't anything like the guy from school who'd dated Les. Jesus.

Still, he wanted to leap over the seat and bite the guy's nose. That was it. He wanted to clamp his teeth on the guy's perfect-plastied nose and feel the thing snap and spurt.

Eugene laughed so suddenly he almost snotted the guy. That finally shut the moron up, made him look. Eugene laughed again, more cautious this time, pretending to catching something at the back of the car. He turned back to his book but couldn't read; he kept feeling his jaw muscles bunching tighter and when they did, he laughed again; laughed to himself, laughed aloud.

He resigned from the agency less than a month later and started driving. He drove and drove. There was no goal other than to stop somewhere, sometime, to write the perfect screenplay. Perfect. Get his Academy statuette for the mantle and never, ever, go to L.A., New York or anyplace like it again. The Award didn't mean anything. It was just The Thing. The thing that would let him work anywhere. Anyplace he wanted. It showed he had the chops to do what and where he wanted. Even in a place like...

...he read the road sign slipping past in the twilight...

...Bluffton. Even in a place like Bluffton, Pop. 676.

He swerved off the road and shot down to the main street and Jesus Christ. The place was pretty. A victorian Jewelbox. Restored, maybe. But still pure. Couple of streets. Old shops, pretty facades, covered boardwalks like a western town. A little river that meandered through. High bluffs on the other side. Big park at one end of town. Amish carriages in the streets at sunset. It was perfect. Big old Victorian houses. Catholic church on one hill, Lutheran on another. People in flannel. People who'd lived here all their lives. Like back home. Jesus. He walked past the real estate office. Property for sale. Prices good, too. Huh, Eugene thought. Why wouldn't real estate stink in...Bluffton...? What's do to in a place like this? Can't eat the scenery. So to speak. Where the hell was this, anyway? Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa?

Bluffton.

He pulled up to the hotel. The Bluffs Bed and Breakfast. It was perfect. He grabbed his suitcase, threw it on the bed, changed into something comfortable for walking around in beauty, and went out to find the town.

The air cooled his nose and lungs. It was the edge of some season. Eugene had to remember what. It was almost or inbetween one or another. But the air tasted good.

He walked easily here. The sidewalk felt right. People ignored him or smilled and nodded. He heard conversations. They were about food, or business or problems. He went into a bar. THE bar. The Wagon Wheel Inn was dark and smelled like beer. There they were on the electric sign over by the register. The rats he'd invented, drinking beer in their little rat-made "Rathaus." He kept quiet about his part in this particular piece of millennial beer art. The beer was cheap, cold and the third pilsner was free. The juke box. Christ it was great. He could have stayed all night and punched every button.

Instead he went out. He looked at one restaurant. Too faux. He looked at another. Upscale.

The American House -- Eats down at the far end, the river end, of town was just the ticket. It was bright, white and advertised pie. You could tell everything about a dinner, about a town, about the people of a region by their pie. He knew that from somewhere. It was from someplace authoritative, so he assumed he had made it up just then. He took a note to himself to that effect on his Perlcorder. Then took another note to check the source.

Fuck, the pie was good! He had the cherry. He tried the Apple and it was so good it was a cliche. Jesu Christe! He kept sucking it down. The peach was next and he damn-near ordered a fourth, the banana cream, but stopped when he realized that people were watching. He relaxed.

"It is... Just. Great. Pie!" he said aloud to the room. Everyone smiled. One or two laughed. An old guy in a booth, must have been a hundred, ignored him. Deaf, Eugene figured.

The bill came to less than he could have dreamed in New York a week ago. That wasn't the point, though, for Christ sake. The owner -- he guessed the old lady was the owner -- thanked him for stopping by and asked if he was just passing through or here for the hiking or what...

He smiled and said he was just living. Living, is all. She smiled and said that was a good thing. Wouldn't want to be feeding no dead men, she said and laughed.

He relaxed and joined her.

It had gone dark while he ate pie. The street was quiet and he felt gentle. He walked toward the river, just to listen to the water and to test whether it spoke to him.

Beyond the restaurant was a barn. The Compass Playhouse. The parking lot was empty but lights were on inside the theater. Passing on his way to the water's edge, Eugene heard the sound of fictive passions being rehearsed inside. Noise and fury, shouts and cries. He listened for a minute. Shakespeare filled the night air. The river rippled over the words. The moon stood on the bluff and a bird swooped from its direction and the rush of its passing moaned in his head.

"If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended..." the voice spoke from the barn. "That you have but slumbered here whilst these visions did appear..."

It wasn't a dream. He was home. This was home. Home again.

Then Leslie ran past him in the moonlight. She laughed and screamed. Running flat-out from the river's woods, two kids nearly scooted into him before they realized an adult was standing in the night. Twelve years each, maybe. They didn't apologize, but jigged around the pillar of his legs and gut and shrieked off toward town. It was Leslie. Really.

And it was he, Eugene, aged 13, who followed her, hooting.

Eugene, aged, mature, left behind and silent in the parking lot, watched the children thump up the boardwalk steps to the American House -- Eats. They slammed the door, the door screeched in, banged shut. Then it was quiet.

Oh, Jesus. It was she. Really. It was he.

He waited in the shadows across the street from the restaurant. He couldn't go in, he couldn't sit and watch them. Not after his pie frenzy. He was noted, he'd be remembered.
He consoled. Children take no longer than THAT with anything. He remembered: A soda pop -- gulped in a flash. A piece of pie -- two chews and gone. At twelve, he could watch a two hour movie in a minute and a half. He remembered. Life ran full-out when he and Leslie were kids. Ha. They still were kids, he reminded himself.

He could see them through the plate glass. At the counter. Quivering with life. That was she. The flame red hair, cut ragged, shaggy with big shears and fury. Yes, it truly was her. He recognized her. More, he knew her by her energy. He knew her by her rhythms. He'd caught it in her passing. Her scent was the same: a rich mixture of sweaty girl, day-old dirt, week-long clothes.

And himself. A billion little things fit. That boy by trhe counter in the American House, the one debating: Should I? Chocolate or vanilla fudge? Vanilla fudge or chocolate? Cone or Cup? It was Eugene, aged 13. He'd get the fudge cone. She was Leslie. Aged 12. She'd have butter pecan in a bowl, no spoon!

They were out in four moments flat. The boy looked at his watch and scooted up the street in a panic of lateness. Leslie stood in the wake. She had never tried to follow. She sat on the steps of the American House and sucked her ice cream from a paper bowl. Leslie did that. She had hated cones. Jesus.

He couldn't wait. He had to see. He crossed the street. The light spilled from the vanilla white interior and lit the stairs where Leslie sat sucking cold and sweetness from a paper bowl. The girl watched him approach. It was as if she was waiting for him.

The pressure of her stare slowed him. In a heartbeat, he stopped. She squinted at him. Her face, screwed up, her right eye shut, her lip curled. Like always. When Leslie thought about something, it looked like half her face was trying to get together at her nose. It was not attractive, but it was her.

She put her bowl down. "Hi," it was her voice. She sounded like a duck.

"Leslie?" he said.

"Yep."

"What are you..." He stopped. This was silly. It was NOT. It could not be. This was just a girl who looked like. "I'm sorry," he said, "this is a mistake. You remind me."

She picked unconsciously at a scab on her arm. "Yup." she said, "I remind people. It's what I do."

"I know. You're going to tell me, your a witch. Right?"

She grinned like an imp. "You read minds. I like that." In the next moment she gave the scab her full attention; in another moment she had it off. The thing bled and the blood swept a clean streak in the dirt on her arm. She'd already forgotten about it by then.

How many times had Eugene watched and been disgusted as Leslie pick herself bloody? About a million. He restrained himself from making HIS face and telling her what a stinky crud she was.

They fought every day, about everything. They'd thrown mudballs, snowball, clods and rocks at each other. Rammed each other with wagons, bikes, and with themselves on skates. They hit each other with balls, sticks; lashed with rope whips and cold hose water; whatever there was to hurl, had been hurled by one at the other.

Fencing, he'd once stuck the point of his pencil into her arm and it had broken off. Until the last day of their lives together, Leslie carried the small dark smudge under the skin just below her right shoulder, a tiny tattoo.

There it was on this Leslie's arm. Fresh. New.

"Hurt yourself?" Eugene said.

She looked dazed for a billionth of a heartbeat, then held up her bleeding arm. "Him!" she pointed with her chin at the closing hole in the atmosphere that had been made by her friend a half-minute earlier, the boy being chased by time. "He did it. I hit him with a duck and he stabbed me with a pencil." She thought for a second. "He said the duck was not a duck but something else. A monster. He sees monsters. That's what he can do. This was..." She thought for a second. "...day before yesterday. I'll probably get lead poisoning and lock jaw." She laughed at the idea.

"If you get lock jaw, and you feel it coming, just keep your mouth open. That way they can pour water and stuff food down your mouth til they cure you." She laughed. It sounded like good advice. She nodded in agreement.

"I knew you," he said carefully. "About a century and a half ago." She didn't move. "I knew you when I was..." He stopped and thought how to say this. "I knew you, when I was him..." He pointed at the empty street where her friend had gone. "Really! I mean. I was him. He...is going to be me. You are someone I've known all my life."

"Imagine that," she said.

"I don't want to scare you. I'm not a creep or anything. I want you to know that."
"I know that," she said. "You're Roy and I'm...Leslie." She picked up her ice cream and lapped at it like a cat.

"Look," he said, "I don't know how this happened. Leslie and I were friends back East. A long time ago. I did that to your arm." He pointed to the open wound. "Only with us? We were fencing. It was in the gym at Twelfth and Oxford grade school. It was an accident but I ended up in the principal's office anyway and my father had to come get me. You don't get lock jaw, by the way, and lead poisoning's not from pencils. But you do keep the mark. For..." he didn't know how to say it. "...you keep the mark for as long as I knew you."

She squinted at his hesitation, then nodded. "Yeah. So? Am I living backwards?"

He shook his head, but he didn't know. He didn't.

"I gotta get a grip," she said.

"You believe me?"

She slurped more ice cream. "Sure," she said between licks. "I kind of figured I'd leave the point in there, anyway." She squeezed the bloody little wound and smeared a pale red streak across her muscle. "I figure it'll remind the jerk what he did." She gave an evil chuckle. "Did it? Remind you of what you did to me? Forever? For as long as you knew her? Me?"

Eugene blushed but it was too dark for her to see.

"So what happens," she said. "Do we get married? I'm counting on it. He doesn't know yet, of course. We're going to be married and I'm going to have a hundred children. It's magic," she added to explain. "But you knew that. You knew I'm going to be a witch."

She shut up and looked at him very simply.

"You're going to be very tall," Eugene said. "In about two years. You're going to shoot up. Six feet by the time your 17."

Leslie thought about it. "Six feet?" she said.

"You'll grow into it. It'll be tough at first. Then you'll crush everybody's heart."

The door opened and light spilled across Eugene's face. A couple left the restaurant. "G'night," each of them said to the girl. They gave Eugene a nod and a look as they brushed by him on the steps.

He bowed his head. Embarrassed to be discovered talking to this girl.

She liked that. "I have got to get the hang of this time thing," she said. "Did I die?" she said.

It shocked him. The simplicity of her asking. He didn't know how to say. Simple was best. "No. Not so far as I know. You lived. Lived happily ever after."

She gave that squinty Leslie look.

He slipped another step down from her and sat on the railing. "I've been happy, too. No. I'm successful. I write television. I did. Now I make ads. Commercials. And I'm working on a screenplay."

"No hundred kids?"

He shook his head.

"Well, you never wanted them. A hundred kids! What do I do? Do I do great things?"

"You are going to be the most beautiful woman in the world," he said. He could feel tears. It was all there. All the best of the world, there, in this funny looking, smelly kid.

"Huh. I wondered. Figured it could go a couple of ways. Really funny-looking or the other way. Carrot-tops are funny like that."

He was starring. Breathing her.

"I guess we didn't get married?" He shook his head. "Did I become a witch?"

"I think." Another simple answer. "Yes, maybe. I wasn't there."

"Well, for crineoutloud. What happened?"

***

Later he walked through the town when it was entirely dark. One end to the other. From the dam and Elysium Park all the way back to the American House. He saw only one person on the street. A barefoot man walking in the other direction. Even paradise had homeless.

Leslie was off. Into the night. Home. In bed. Asleep, probably.

This was a good place, this town. He could stay. He could write here, he felt. Maybe write the script that would get him that statuette that would let him stay here forever. He looked forward to watching her grow. He looked ahead to a year of watching her grow very tall. Too tall for Roy. He wanted to see whether or not, this time, they'd get together. Could he wait for her? Would she wait for him? Would, this time, she and the boy get together and live happily ever after?

He would settle, wait and watch. He had time now.

It was long after midnight when he got back to the hotel. Instead of going in, he found himself starting the car.

Eugene was all the way to LaCrosse before he realized he'd left his suitcase in a room in Bluffton. He'd live without it.

 


Copyright 2000 Lawrence Santoro


Eugene is part of the Bluffton series. "God Screamed and Screamed, Then I Ate Him" is another. These 22 stories are interconnected by place and character.

I used to try to sell "Eugene" as a stand-alone story. Nobody bought it.
Maybe you need to know more about Bluffton to make the thing come alive.

Oh...that bit of Shakespeare Eugene hears being rehearsed: It's Puck's final speech from "A Midsummer Night's Dream." I've been in this play three times. I've directed it three times. It's the center-piece of another Bluffton story, "Thalia and the Two-Legged Dog of Commonwealth Street." Of course, you wouldn't know that.

Okay. Hope you enjoyed it for what it is.
If you want to go back to the "about" page, click here.