Thursday 23 July 2020

The Girl Who Was Jack Kerouac

by Alexina Dalgetty, 

  a glass of gut rot wine - preferably red

Lucas noticed Nancy their first day on campus. 
‘The first time I set eyes on your mother it was 1970. Two green kids picking classes and trying to look cool. Except your mother was beautiful and I just faded into the background. She didn’t know I existed that first year in Calgary.’
It was Mr. Ricketts, her grade 12 English teacher, a man maligned for his erratic marking and unfortunate name, who had persuaded her parents she should go to university. They had favoured a secretarial course at RDC - Red Deer College. Or maybe nursing. Something practical. Anything so long as she lingered at home. But Mr. Ricketts had sat there, in their living room, and argued her case. He was perched on a couch still covered in extra strength plastic so if he, or anyone else, spilled coffee it wouldn’t make a mess. 
‘If she’s allowed to stretch her wings, she’ll be able to achieve anything.’ Nancy thought his word choice disheartening and hackneyed for an English teacher. ‘She has talent. Academic talent, and that talent needs to be nurtured, and it needs to be nurtured in a real university.’ Nancy crossed her fingers, held her breath, and forgave Mr. Ricketts his strange little cough and final sentence. ‘It will help with her shyness, too.’
First day. Nancy waited to pick classes, have her fees assessed, make payment, and officially register. The would-be students were lined up in a large outdoor space. Eight tables were set up for registration. She was in front of the K - N table. There was music and the grass, flattened by too many impatient young feet, was latticed with walking paths. She identified Mac Hall, the library, Corbett Hall … she could identify all the buildings; she’d studied the map. The sun was hot and the line slow moving. In front of her a couple kissed, cuddled, and nuzzled; behind her a man and woman stood silent while a toddler screeched and ran in circles, certain he was a train. Nancy curled her hand tight around her acceptance letter, pulled it out of her pocket - one last time, she promised herself - and confirmed its precious information. Her name, the word accepted, her new student number, instructions for registration. She slipped the letter back in her pocket and pinched the flesh inside her arm. Ouch. She smiled, awake and present. 
Nancy sank into a shoulders-hunched and head stretched forward pose. 
‘You look like a duck, quack, quack, shoulders back’.  Her mother’s voice trilled in her brain. She hid behind her long hair, shiny; in her mind’s eye it streamed behind her in the wind. ‘It’s too flat to wear down, mousy, thin. Get it cut, act your age!’ 
Nancy crept forward with the line, her heart pounding louder the closer she got to the K - N sign. She needed a drink of water but was reluctant to ask the people with the small boy to hold her place. She was tempted to bolt, forget Mr. Ricketts’ words, forget academic talent. Her head dipped lower and a thin layer of damp dewed her upper lip. She knew it was lodged in place by a fine layer of hair. Down, her mother had called it, and cute. 
Nancy hoped Lucas hadn’t seen her. 
All summer Nancy waited tables at the Red Deer Gasthaus. At night her skin smelled of French or Thousand Islands dressing. At the top of her shift she’d decant dressing from gallon jars into metal ramekins in expectation of people ordering the dinner special - small green salads included. At the end of her day she’d slop the unused dressings back into the jars. Her breath caught in her throat. She’d enjoyed the certainty of the Gasthaus, the familiarity of setting tables with place mats, gold coloured water glasses, napkins, and the knife, fork, spoon trio. She’d relished the waitress script.  
‘Hullo, how are you?’ Big smile. ‘Table for two? Take any empty table you want.’ Another smile and an arm sweep towards the empty tables. ‘Coffee or tea to start?’ 
First day on the job her mouth was dry, the smells made her gag, and she’d worn her head low and thrust forward - extreme duck pose. It had taken a week to grow used to Old John who washed dishes; Peter, who cracked four eggs at a time with one hand and pounded the order’s up button with a spatula and a grin, despite her standing right there; and Sharon who called herself hostess but was really a waitress the same as Nancy. Helen, part time and studying business at RDC, was aloof yet kind. A couple of weeks in and she happily answered their questions about school and moving to Calgary. She even asked questions. Her neck straightened. But she wanted more. 
Nancy listened to the family behind her.
‘Why didn’t you leave him in day care?’
‘I told you, it was just an orientation.’
‘Toot, toot.’
‘I thought we paid for the month.’
‘We did, but we’re subsidized.’
‘Chugga, chugga, hss.’
‘Everyone’s subsidized, aren’t they?’
‘Yes, and nobody got to leave their kids.’
‘Toot, toot!’
The family grew louder and louder. Their lives drowned out the student world. 
Today, Nancy could still see that small boy’s face, hear the parents bicker. She remembered the couple making out ahead of her in line. After all these years. But no Lucas. She hadn’t seen him, not then. 
Nancy sat silent in classes, head bent, hair covering her face, terrified the prof would call on her, her classmates confident and comfortable. Her hand refused to raise itself and her throat was closed to the requested answers, unable to join the discussion. She pinched her leg every time a classmate earned praise for saying what she had been thinking. 
Nancy sought sanctuary in the university library. She had to abort the first time. Her heart beat so loud she thought it would burst through her skin. Her palms clammy-ed up and her legs buckled. She dipped her head lower and her breathing grew jagged. In the library stairwell, sandwiched between exit signs, she attempted the stairs, but couldn’t move up or down. She breathed deep and bent over, she sat on the stairs. They were deserted, everyone else used the elevator.  She strained to control her pounding heart. She lowered her head between her knees. She counted to a hundred. Again. And again. She stumbled outside.
Nancy rehearsed. On her fourth trip to the library she made it to twentieth century fiction. Almost safe. She read. And read. Essays were returned and her marks were good. A face smiled and asked if she was enjoying the class. She managed a half grin.
Nancy discovered Jack. When Lucas remembered those days, his voice was proud.
‘Your mother’s first love was Jack Kerouac. I was her second.’
But it wasn’t love, not with Jack.
Big Sur. When Nancy opened it and read it was as if Jack had moved into her head. Every word, his description of pairing down his life, leaving for the wilds, living with the essentials - one cup, one fork, one plate, a single knapsack, resonated. She was ready to donate her worldly goods to the Sally Ann. But didn’t. She had so few. Maybe two knapsacks at most.
Nancy read about Lowell, Massachusetts - not so different in her mind to Red Deer, Alberta. Lowell a little less agricultural, Red Deer less industrial. She listened as he described how he left his first wife - she had just left her first life, almost on the road herself. She stumbled on a picture of Jack at the reading of ‘Howl’ at City Lights’ books. She read the poem.
It wasn’t love with Jack. He wasn’t her soul mate. Couldn’t be reincarnation - he’d only died a year earlier. But somewhere between Lowell and NYC and Jack’s early death Nancy and Jack developed an inner connection and Nancy became Jack. Jack inhabited her body, she handed over her life.
Together they took the library two stairs at a time, his words a motor to live by. They experimented with the elevator. Once they pressed the wrong button and the doors opened on emptiness - a floor for future books and students, wires hanging from an unfinished ceiling, walls bursting with insulation but no drywall or bookshelves; polythene on the elevator doorway to prevent innocents from stepping out - she barely panicked. With Jack’s blood in her veins she pushed another button and by the time Nancy arrived at the twentieth century novel her breathing was normal. 
‘I’m Jack Kerouac.’ Nancy blurted it out in a poetry class. There was a hush. The prof forgot his question and everyone stared. Jack and Nancy burrowed into their chair, practiced “brooding and silent”, and listened to the brains in the room tick over.  “Did the girl who never says anything and always wears black, did she just say she was Jack Kerouac?”  Who’s Jack Kerouac? “Is he that right wing woman hating thrill seeker who just died?” “Cool.” “Cool, man”. Nancy was astonished she’d spoken out loud, but not disappointed.
Lucas said Nancy was notorious. Nancy said everyone had a literary familiar.
‘People used to call your mother Jack. She had quite the reputation. They’d say, “hiya Jack” and “aren’t you the girl who’s Jack Kerouac?” She was famous.’
‘What about you and Richard Alpert?’
‘That was different,’ said Lucas. 
Nancy smiled. She and Jack lived on the friendlier side of the edge, skipping meals, buying books instead of vegetables, and burning candles at both ends. There were weird looks and skeptical cross-examinations. At parties - parties Nancy couldn’t believe she’d been invited to, parties that caused her to breath deep and wear extra deodorant so she didn’t smell of sweat when she rang the doorbell - at parties, Nancy and Jack sat alone on the stairs or in a corner, and read.
At first Lucas didn’t compare favourably to Jack. 
‘So you and Jack Kerouac, eh?’  Nancy brooded. ‘Like some sort of re-incarnation?’
‘Not exactly.’
‘Then how?’ Lucas wouldn’t leave without an answer.
‘A bit like having a giant balloon inflated in my body.’
Lucas had a quiet, desperate niceness. He kept showing up. And chatting. Jack jeered in his direction and Lucas treated Jack with a kindly reserve. Nancy got used to Lucas, but she and Jack remained a team, reading obscure philosophies, drinking cheap wine, eating greasy eggs in grubby coffee shops - with Jack it wasn’t like she was eating alone
Lucas told Nancy oatmeal was good for her. More than once. He debated the merits of sunflowers seeds over chocolate chips, maple syrup against sugar. He suggested adding dates. She tried them all, the only way she figured Lucas would shut up.  Though, in an odd little moment it occurred to her that if she ate oatmeal then maybe he’d kiss her.
‘What is this shit?’ asked Jack.
‘Where’s my cigarette and coffee?’
Jack and Nancy had gotten pretty comfortable sharing a cigarette and coffee for breakfast.  Ritual. That first bowl of oatmeal shifted Nancy and Jacks reality. Once a ritual changes… 
Lucas and Nancy compared literature to history and science to art. They grew bean sprouts in competition.  Jack lurked in the shadows - Lucas didn’t know he was there.  Nancy identified a small wave of indigestion coinciding with Jack’s presence.
‘Maybe we could see a movie,’ said Lucas.. 
‘I’d like that.’
Nancy paid attention to her outfit, surprising even herself.
‘What in God’s name are we doing?’ asked Jack. He had a Catholic bent.
‘Ow!’ Jack tried to grab the iron. Didn’t he know how hot they got?
‘I’m going on a date.’
‘Let’s write a haiku,’ said Jack.
‘The iron….’
‘Scorching my hand….
Jack retreated all the way to the heel of Nancy’s left foot and sulked.
But there were times - on the weekend and at parties - Jack turned up. Nancy and Jack would connect over karma and Zen Buddhism and the City Lights’ poets but while she liked the way he broke some rules she didn’t want him to live in her skin.  Not after sex.
Jack was slow to catch on, but as things heated up he became increasingly agitated and finally a little desperate.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Jack.
‘We’re having sex’.
‘With this man?!’
‘Not me!’
‘Close your eyes and pretend it’s not happening.’
‘I’m not having sex with that man, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not. It’s out of character. What are we doing now? Stop it. Stop it!’
‘Huh?’ asked Lucas.
‘Nothing,’ said Nancy. Lucas relaxed and Jack recoiled. 
When Jack slunk off, trying to look worldly and edgy, a touch scary and definitely embarrassed, Nancy wasn’t sorry to see him go. 
Lucas left not long after Jack. He was replaced by Paul and Max and Geoff, then Lucas again. 
He showed up on her doorstep - in Toronto - with a backpack grimy from travel, a copy of the latest Kerouac biography, and a shadowy weariness. They sat up all night, sharing stories, laughing about Jack, laughing about themselves. Lucas described the outfit she’d worn that day she first registered.
‘This dress, all different colours, short with white collar and cuffs and a white belt. You looked like a singer from a band.’ Nancy knew better than to ask what sort of band, she figured shed be disappointed.
‘My mother made that dress.’ Lucas stayed the night and almost forever. 
Nancy sighed and heaved the box of Jack’s books onto the doorstep for pick up. When had he become a book and not a man? She couldn’t place the moment. A slippery slope. He’d been a face on a slip jacket longer than she could remember. No Jack.
No Lucas. It was a slow cleansing, drawers and cupboards and entire rooms. And when the house was empty - no voices, no children and grandchildren, no neighbours with casseroles - Nancy stacked the boxes of Lucas’ no longer needed possessions on the doorstep too. They grew warm from the sunshine. She leaned in and wrote his name on the cardboard with her fingertips. She curled up beside them and ransacked her memories from that first day at university, searching for his face.

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