Lying by the Wall*
The problem is Joe's eyes. That's the problem. They're too clear. The problem is, always has been, that Joe's eyes are too clear, too open. So open and clear that when he's fucking you over, he can do it while looking you right in the face without remorse, without a guilty sliding left or right, without any contamination of his pure purpose, without... anything like what you'd expect, what you'd want to see when you're looking right in the eyes of a guy who's fucking you over, right then, right there. He can lie to your face and you know it's a lie and you believe it anyway, because there's something so pristine about his motivations, the clearness, like bullshit distilled to Evian in some kind of alchemy of personality and will. There's a truth to Joe's lies, like one of those photo realist paintings you can't help but admire because you know it's not real. The only thing Joe Dick never lied about was being a liar.
They were fourteen and got caught in the smoking shelter out back of the highschool--the shelter, with its plywood walls, pissant wanker graffiti scrawled in magic marker and etched with jack-knives into the benches--F+L, Jim B. takes it up the ass, fk u--the scrawling yawps of teenybop revolutionaries hunkered down in their leather jackets and headkicker boots, defacing the den of iniquity paid for by mom's tax money before going home to tuna casserole and Happy Days. Billy and Joe, caught in the smoking shelter and the whole shack blue with sweet-burning skunkweed clouds of ganja—good stuff Joe's cousin scored at the Led Zeppelin concert, hidden for eight months in the freezer behind a rump roast, and sweetened by the association with Plante's unexpected trip to the hospital that closed the show—and the whole smoking shelter is three-alarm thick with it and outside it's gotta be twenty below or something, some kind of nuclear winter bullshit fast-freeze, and some dickwad's little brother is on the other side of the basketball court with his tongue stuck to the fence and tears on his face, and the sun's hanging low down and giving nothing but enough orange light to make the crying kid's breath hang around his head like a gold halo, like he's some sacrificed saint, patron of dumbfuck little brothers, avatar of the vengeance to come, someday--not today, but someday, just you wait, just you wait, just you wait. And Billy's got no buzz going at all there in the smoking shelter, even though he's sucking in what's gotta be 90% concentrated THC and 10% breathable air, although, granted, most of the smoke's been processed through Joe's lungs, swirled around inside him, blown out in a not-quite-escaping cooling curl and then sucked back in like he does, a trick that Billy won't perfect for another ten years of two packs a day.
The little brother's making penguin flapping motions against the fence, the only thing moving on the empty court except for a lunch bag skidding along in front of a sharp wind, and Joe's inside the smoking shelter with Billy, high enough that Billy thinks about catching him by the ankles, and wonders if his own body is defective, broken, if he'll be doomed to sneaking bottlecap shots from his dad's liquor cabinet or bribing Wendy Whatsername to buy him a mickey so he's got something to fortify him against the long night of leaning against the wrestling mats on their racks on the gymnasium wall, watching the girls dance together in a clutch, nothing but turned backs and swaying asses, implicit invitations that are really rejections in waiting. He'll be doomed to un-cool, to dull-nuthin, the only straight edge in a room full of lava lamps. He's pissed about that, and about ready to stomp out of the shelter and across the basketball court to extract the little brother from the fence because it was funny for about ten seconds but now the sun's made a silhouette of him, his mittened hands hanging down in defeat, and Billy gets jaw-cramps watching that, the way the tears stop, even, and leave nothing but passive waiting for no rescue at all. In a few years, he'll see John on a bus stop bench by the hospital and he'll think of that little brother with his mittens hanging limply from the ends of his gone-still arms and he'll bring John home, his pet saint, avatar of vengeance, and eventually, a long way down the line, he'll hear the message, John saying over and over that in the end it was love in the end it was love in the end it was love until Joe looks with those clear, open eyes right into Bruce's camera and fucks them over for once and for all.
The thing is, a normal guy—not Joe—would wear all the weight of lying on his face, in the bloodshot eyes, lines and creases, scrawling tells, but Joe doesn't. His face at 36 is his face at fourteen, the same innocent audacity, eyes that turn you to glass. It's as though he feels no weight at all. Billy wears it for him, maybe, like Joe's picture of Dorian Gray.
So, in the smoking shelter, Billy's stepping over to the door because he can see little brother hanging by his tongue off the fence but he gets nowhere because the rectangle of light is filled up with the linebacker shape of Jake Thorne, shop teacher, part-time football coach, who's maybe cutting through the schoolyard on his way back from the Baptist church and smells the thick, sweet smoke seeping into the dusking air through the cracks in the plywood walls of the shelter. He's a mountain in the doorway so there's just a narrow band of light all around him, promise of escape if Billy could somehow make himself three inches thick and also invisible. Thorne's got them dead to rights, the roach still pinched between Joe's fingers, and his repetition, "You boys... you boys..." is so weighed down with disappointment Billy can barely lift his head, feels like he's drowning under a blanket in an icy swimming pool. Worse, he's got guitar camp this summer and he's one strike away from losing it and spending his vacation cleaning fish tanks in his uncle's store instead. But Joe faces Thorne straight on, no denial, no nothing. Billy can see him seeing Thorne, in that way that Joe does, where he reads the stories off of the angles of people's shoulders, the curling of their fingers, the twist of their mouths. Down the road, it's this that will make his songs so good, the stories he sees under people's clothes and under their skin that he gives a raw, angry voice.
What he sees on Thorne—"Crown of Thorne" he calls him later—is Thorne's kid, eighteen and already doing time in Ford Mountain, and Thorne there in the smoking shelter looking for a point of intervention, a redemption that proves the kid was just a fumble and not some kind of evidence of Thorne's essential fucked-up-ness as parental material. So, he's blustering and working himself up to a tirade, but Joe knows the story, has heard a dozen versions of it circulating around the school, and he sees it now because his eyes turn Thorne to glass and light him up from the inside and what can he do with it except use it? So he looks right at him with that purity that later will make a reviewer for some crappy free rag in New York call him a sociopath, and he doesn't apologize or make excuses, but he does give Thorne what he wants, which is a glimpse of Joe's salvageable humanity. Joe points—he points with the fucking roach—toward the far side of the basketball court (which he can't see through Thorne's solid muscled bulk of outrage) and he says, "Hey, Mr. Thorne, good thing you stopped by. I think Dennis Liu is in trouble out there. We were just going to see." And just like that, he's co-opted Billy's philanthropic impulse.
Thorne, who detoured to the shelter on the way home from praying to be a better man, turns and looks at the little brother still hanging on the fence, and sets off at a sprint with Joe and Billy loping along behind him. After shifting the bag of three narrow spliffs from one pocket to the other, Joe offers his lighter to help warm the post, and holds it still, cupping the pale flame against the sifting wind while Thorne says soothing things to Dennis and Billy is finally and inopportunely hit from behind by the high that comes like tsunami and sets him giggling. He stifles it in his sleeve when Joe scolds him, scolds him with a school-marm pucker to his lips and utter sincerity in his eyes as he tells Billy to have a little compassion for fuck's sake, and Thorne agrees, and it's too much: Billy doubles over wheezing and slides down to sit stick-legged on the snow laughing in silent gasps until Dennis Liu comes unstuck and starts wailing.
So, Joe has to pull Billy to his feet as he's telling Thorne—adding a lot of 'sirs' for emphasis—that it's okay, they'll take Dennis home. When he adds maybe they'll kick Dennis's brother in the ass for him, too, Thorne smiles and claps him on the back before he tells Dennis to stop doing stupid stuff if he wants to see third grade and then heads off across the court and through the gap in the fence toward his place somewhere in the warren of high-rises two streets over. Joe lights up the remains of his spliff and herds Dennis toward the sidewalk. The kid's wailing is bouncing between frozen asphalt and the low clouds so Joe sings "Hitler! He's only got! One! Ball!" Billy picking up the tune when Joe stops to inhale the spliff to ashes that stain his fingers. As they stomp along in the middle of the street, they repeat the song in bellowing voices until Dennis quits wailing and starts laughing with his mangled tongue hanging out. By the time they get to Dennis's house, he's got his mittened fingers in Joe's hand and he stops to turn back on the walkway to wave, even while his other hand is rubbing his butt where Joe kicked him in the pants and told him to go home and stop being such a dork.
And that's how Joe does it, turns out again and again to be Jesus in Judas clothing, because Dennis is part of the lie, the mechanism of Joe's craven self-interest and self-preservation, but he's part of the truth, too, the singing, and the mitten clasped in Joe's big hand, and Thorne's renewed faith in salvageable humanity, and it doesn't matter whether Joe means it or not because there's that clearness in his eyes as he looks you in face, like he's a magician showing you all the wires and making you gasp anyway. It's the same clearness, the same purity that allows him to stand in front of a Saskatoon crowd and dedicate a song to the "(not) late, great Bucky Haight who was (not) killed in his hotel room last night in New York city" because, yeah, it's a lie, it's a lie through and through, but the feeling is real, and the feeling is in the way he sings "Blue Tattoo" with the long-stare of grieving in those eyes, and the tale is a lie but the story is true.
So the problem is, always has been, Joe's eyes. Joe's eyes are the reason Billy started wearing shades all the time because sometimes he can't hack it, being on the receiving end of that gaze and feeling that light shining around in his head finding all the true things Joe can make his own. Joe gets so far inside Billy's head Billy starts thinking in Joe's voice, and there's no resisting it, then, no fucking resistance. No wonder John went One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest three days into the reunion. It took four years in LA for Billy to start hearing his own voice in his head again and within hours he might as well have been off his meds, if only he'd had that excuse.
Now, Bruce is on the box in the other room, talking about some new venture, some joint project with Telefilm Canada, and the interviewer's being a prick, steering away from the subject at hand and asking the Hard Core Logo questions, the ones that use words like "snuff film," for instance, and Billy tips a beer bottle up as, in the clip they won't play to the end, Joe asks Bruce to pour him another drink, asks him what the proper toast should be for the last shot, the last fucking shot, and says, "Salud" before the box goes silent for a second to protect the innocent—and the not-so innocent—from the final silence, the real one that launched Bruce into the kind of fame that can only come from true infamy. And then Billy hears his own voice talking about letting go of anger, about the schtick, the pose, and it's straight-talking Billy, level-headed, got his shit together Billy, the band member who isn't off his meds or a freak of nature or a pathological, unrepentant liar. He hears himself lying and lying and lying and being too much the coward to own it.
He knows that Joe was doing it again, in those final few moments they had on stage together. It was a lie when he told the Deadomonton crowd that this was the end of Billy Tallent's life—Billy went on and off and up and is sitting in a swank hilltop house of glass listening to beer dripping down the shattered face of a framed gold record, his now-empty hands trying to hold his head together. And it was the truth—the Billy Tallent that was twin-born with Joe Dick in a basement rec-room in 1977 died on that sidewalk when Joe closed his eyes.
The problem is, always has been, Joe's eyes.
*"Dead but not buried; Anglo-Saxon, wæl (death)."
--E. Cobham Brewer 1810–1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898.
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