The centerpiece of the main square is a one-eyed statue. He leans forward, hands extended though no one remembers he was once holding a tray. His jarring figure, not quite the image of St. Peter, welcomes you to Dantford. Reflected in the white orb of his missing eye is the only 7-Eleven left in the area or maybe the world. “Oh, thank heaven!” the sign reads with the drive-in brand of nostalgia. On one corner, a teenager dances without music, grinding his pelvis into the air and leering at commuters.
Most townies have adopted the mannerism of staring at anyone in a car as if threatening to trap them here through their shared gaze. Traffic is always so bad leaving town for the highway it isn’t uncommon to match the speed of a skateboarder and travel alongside him for almost a mile, the statue having passed the tour guide baton. A companion passes a restaurant advertising “Laddy’s night” and breaks eye contact to vanish inside.
Don’t cross the red line or get too close to the train or the splash zone or the door out into the hallways of the psych ward. “High Elopement Risk!” some intern had punctuated with a caution symbol on a taped-up printed sign. Elopement is blasphemy toward the sacrament of marriage, Cole thinks automatically when he sees it. He turns to step the wrong direction over the line, into safety, through the closed, barred doors, “Don’t worry, honey; this isn’t a jail.”
On the side of the singular road out of Dantford, a kid who must barely be in middle school hugs the bottom of the vape shop sign, arms grasped around it while he skateboards in circles: tetherball.
The roommates and I have trouble finding parking spots on our street since the good ones are taken up by the long dumpsters that mysteriously arrive and fill, mirrors to eviction notices.
There’s no telling how many people will vomit in what a roommate has christened “the nastiest truck stop bathroom” tonight, on the best night shared by four anti-hygienic dudes and tonight, the worst night, shared by everyone here. No headcount for the night exists. That bathroom is the most poetic rendering of life in Dantford, with its broken scale that reads E no matter who stands on it, probably for the best, and the shelf with extra lighters and matches, back-ups for emergencies: “We can’t be without fire!”
Downstairs, a voice from the kitchen announces conclusively, “We’re gonna fuck it up.” Provisions are divided up on the table, four decent piles, scale in the middle, cash held down by shot glasses. The evening’s main attraction, lid on for now, no samples til Christmas morning—or, more aptly, Easter, the resurrection—is a Rubbermaid bin containing juice, vitamin water, vodka, rum, Everclear, fruit cut by the roommate who’s a breakfast cook at a diner, and everything else they warn you about before prom night. Irene Tetrises the frozen meals in the freezer and thinks of hospital food check sheets.
“I told them I don’t eat meat, but they keep sending chicken,” Cole whines over the phone. “I’m so fucking hungry.”
“Don’t they give you those sheets, you know, where you list your preferences? Can you just choose all side dishes?”
“I’m in hell, man, we don’t get preferences.” Some friend Irene hadn’t heard mentioned before brings him Panera mac and cheese during visiting hours.
The party starts without fanfare: a couple of the roommates shrug at each other, roll blunts from the grape cigars they’ve been storing in the freezer. The same dude enters the house over and over, and soon the room is packed, the bowls are packed, and it’s hot.
The entire female population of the party, four girls, sits on the porch, too drunk to feel the contrasting cold outside. Mary and Leslie fumble around Leslie’s pack of cigarettes while Sam confidently smokes one of her Marlboro 27s. Irene sits with them, outside them, on the phone.
Cole’s mom tells Irene she hadn’t gotten anything out of him during their daily allowed phone call besides a rant about how quickly humans are plowing through natural resources.
“It isn’t sustainable,” he had told his mother.
“This isn’t sustainable,” she, much more emotional than either Irene or Cole, crackled through sobs.
Irene hasn’t told anyone about Cole, but she pulled me aside this morning, waking me up with texts and then throwing her arms around me when I dragged myself downstairs to the frigid living room and found her losing her shit on the couch. I’d heard the occasional story about her childhood best friend. She described Cole as a sharp and relentlessly supportive longtime crush with whom she recalled Wednesday Mass and nuns when the urge struck once or twice a year, despite their closeness having faded with time. Since their shared Catholic school history colored his psychosis with a religious tint, she wasn’t surprised she was his first call from the supervised hallway payphone. “Rough night?” I ask her. She pulls back, dries her face, puts her hands back on my shoulders. Irene the straight shooter: “I need to borrow $150 to get to New York.”
Later that night, I’ll go out onto the splintery porch where I know one of the girls will inevitably still be smoking, and I’ll find her lying face down to feel the cold. “Lay down,” she’ll communicate to me somehow, and I will, and I’ll be soberly reflective despite the jungle juice. Eventually one or both of us will puke on the sidewalk, but that’s what these sidewalks were made for: sweet Dantford, encouraging us to purge our sins into its foundation.
The house has blankets over the windows and no one wants to leave, so no one does, and we’re all piled everywhere in asexual stacks, most of the crowd passed out. This is a place where no one will blink if you throw up blood. I vaguely sense Irene’s lips on my cheek, but her familiar “You’re a good person, Michael,” has a more desperate and genuine tint. “Thank you,” I feel her whisper, and I know it’s for more than the $150 for the train.
“Here,” I say, doing pretty much the only thing I can at the moment: holding another roommate’s glass pipe to her lips. “I’ll light it for you.”
“I’m the worst person alive,” she tells me, exhaling.
“You have a lot of competition,” I reply, not needing to gesture around the room.
The next morning, almost everyone I remember has gone home; I wake up upstairs, safely in my bed, alone. Downstairs, two of the roommates are awake and grinning, coffee and Kahlua in hand, looking with pity onto a holdout who won’t stop vomiting in a bucket they have wisely provided. “What fresh hell,” he moans. This resonates: all present exchange knowing nods. What fresh hell.
Irene paces in the kitchen, waiting for the opening of the calling hours gate. She had chosen a later train to be sure she could talk to him again first. Cole sits in a plastic chair at a plastic table and, what? Plays card games? What objects is he even allowed? I wonder if he shares Irene’s tendency toward interviewing, documenting delusions with the psych ward crowd. Irene often does the same with us, sitting cross-legged in an undersized crop top to counter Cole’s ballooning hospital gown, perched atop a wheelchair someone “rescued” from one of the eviction dumpsters outside. “Tell me about the time you got pulled over for drunk-driving a bicycle,” she’d ask a roommate. She seems even darker this morning, though, not even managing half-hearted impressions of her usual interviews with the leftover party guests. She picks at alcohol-infused soggy fruit, already armed with a drink, and goes upstairs when her phone finally rings.
I didn’t need to listen to what I could through the floor; I could feel her and Cole, drunk or deluded and both almost hopeless, reverting to their roots: “Saint Michael the archangel, defend us in battle; save us from the wickedness and snares of the devil—”
I’m certainly trying.