The night of Sebastion’s first real kiss also became the first night he ever made love. He got up on the dirty wooden slats of the potting bench to join Vivian and they laid their clothes beneath them. The moth continued to flit and fuss in the fixture above, but nothing would have dissuaded them. No outside sounds or sights, save for the ones they traded across each other’s bodies, intruded. It was all distant: the stereo and the partiers in the house and in the yard, even the moon’s eggshell coat across the water’s brilliant façade. To Zeb, the act evoked bright swirling circles of purple, tinged with baby blues and shards of silver. They were deep shades defined by solid and spattered paint strokes. There were lavender-skinned orbs that made everything real disappear. They exploded into each other, reformed, and dribbled out of sight. Behind that he heard a symphony of aural sensations. Vivian’s voice, her breathing and all the rest, was gone and in its place was a troop of conductors each commanding a full orchestra of strings, brass and timpani.
The startling conclusion, just as they each came, was when the wine colored orbs finally dissolved from his sight. His body’s million nerve endings had been reeling and exalted from firing all at once and they fell to an exotic calm. Ocean waves settling on a beach, he might have said. In the midst of both their relaxing pants, he looked down in horror to find the face and porcelain skin of his aunt Sicily—
(or was it mom?)
beneath him. The moth had fluttered with agitation during the whole encounter and finally it flew too close to the little sixty watt sun which had been holding it rapt in so much thrall. It died with an audible snap that also promptly burned out the bulb. Darkness fell across the face of his aunt. The face that should have been Vivian Leland.
<> <> <>
During Zeb’s last year of high school, time seemed to be speeding up. It was out of control and he felt like he was falling down a mountain, felt like he was swooping into the gorge on a Bat track, corkscrew ahead—the blinded, backwards loop still to come.
But he took a page from the book of Jackson Cavanaugh: the page about fame, fortune and importance. Those things, Jack made it clear, were as fleeting as a sheet of paper caught in the wind. Though he never said as much outright, the implications lay like a rug under every tone in his voice, under every sentence he mouthed.
Zeb was with Vivian all the time, and out of coincidence by association, that meant he became a liked and respected member of the senior class. And why not? Vivian Leland was of the attractive and connected set, and what was good enough for her, despite Zeb’s apparent differences from the rest, was good enough for them.
Time was spent on that perpetual motion machine, like the sine waves of coaster tracks coursing towards an infinitely unstretching horizon. Activities weren’t limited to such but, most often, sneaking into clubs on Saturday nights or finding a house party to crash and trash were the favored goings-on. And whether they all ended up at Jackson’s, Vivian’s or another’s later on each night, Zeb was always in attendance. It was another high point on the irresolute circle, the peak moment before the coaster cars do their patented plummet. His popularity was a steeple, and everyone wanted to hear what Zeb Redfield, Vivian Leland’s man-boy of choice, had on his mind.
His painting slowed briefly—he was caught in the whirlwind of new activities and new social circles—but it reached an all time high just after Christmas break when Vivian introduced him to the wonders of methamphetamines. Reluctant to even try a drag from a joint at first, he finally gave in to her powers of persuasion. “’I am your captive’,” she reminded him, as she licked a rolling paper, and plopped nude on the bedsheets beside him one night. Adams, she called them, came next; they were little dirty white pills she shook out of a vial into his palm. Soon after downing his first two, he became swept away in a fury of color and sound sent to his brain like a bullet. The little white magic pills she had miraculous—and mysterious—access to created effects so simultaneously intricate and glorious that he could scarcely come to a sense of what they all meant initially.
The world was music, it was crimson and clover, it was a marvelous night for a moon dance, it was London burning, it was a whiter shade of pale, it was twisting the night away. The assault on his senses was electrifying in the beginning and his cravings for renewal came like clouds running across the sky at a train speed’s rhythm. When he took an Adam there was a sheen across the world, a shine that glittered and sparkled and added a reverb to every voice and every sound. It was so breathtaking that he took to chasing the pills with alcohol just to dampen their effects a little. And he understood, finally, the fascination other friends had with the substances. Though he doubted they ever experienced them quite as he did.
But hell, was there power in that stuff; that raw, unleashing kind, that kind that made Zeb flex every part of himself. Crimson and clover, over and over—it was as though Adam brought Zeb to the doorway, the lynchpin, holding clear every admonished concept his exhausted brain had ever fumbled with. Skipping the light fandango, as the miller told his tale, he came to understand the reality behind things; just as there is a scribe to every written word, Zeb now discerned, there too must be a painter’s stroke to blame for every mask on every face he had ever seen. Over and over and over and over and over.
He set up his easel in Vivian’s spare bedroom and spent time there throwing paint on canvas after canvas. They became some of the most intense works he had ever produced. Jackson thought so. Vivian thought so. Everyone thought so.
So he continued. And he stayed away from the house in Vaughan, his parents’ house, as much as possible. He painted on weekdays, skipping class at times, he painted while music pounded beyond the door, he painted while couples had awkward high school sex in other rooms, he painted as the liquor cabinet at the Leland residence was emptied then refilled then emptied again. People peeked into the room or sat on the bed or crowded around him to watch as he whipped off another masterpiece. And he was talented, that much everyone could see. He became a modern day Pollock, but with an audience of rowdy, jeering high school kids to rev him up. And always at his side, was a handy joint, ready to be puffed, or a handy little pill, ready to become fuel for this new, this renewed, obsession.
The colors weren’t reinvented or even made brighter by the meth variants. They just seemed different. He couldn’t explain that with articulation, but he did understand the resurging energy the Adams brought. He hadn’t felt that kind of energy in a long time. Early on he hummed while he caressed the blank portraits with bristles and the blade of a palette knife—and everyone sat quiet. Later, borrowed records of Oliver’s would spin nearby, spilling out songs like The Rolling Stones’ 2000 Light Years From Home, Baba O’Reilly by The Who, Pink Floyd’s Piper At the Gates of Dawn album, and an endless strew of Velvet Underground records—mostly stuff that had been recorded before he was even born, mostly stuff that Oliver had listened to in his younger years. As time progressed, the tunes were forgotten and his humming gave way to low grumbling talk. Talk about politics, what he could see in his mind as he painted, talk about the middle-east—what Hussein had done right, he said with audacity on one occasion—talk about big business and where he stood on that. The view from his father’s office tower and what it would feel like, maybe, to dive headlong from one of its tinted windows was another description and one that drew gasps from the girls and cheers from the boys. The essays turned into rants and he stalked back and forth at times, in argumentative style, dabbing diminishing globs of paint from his brush onto the empty surface at the easel.
This was all the finest novelty at first, the beatnik painter who expounded on the virtues of life and described the colors in his head. But after a while, as with everything, the gimmick wore off. He became, as the school year rounded its final bend, just a novelty act, an objet d’art. A young man with but a brush and a bawdy voice.
Vivian thought it delightful at first, then cooled, as did everyone else. Their purple fires of passion became embers, the fireworks of the summer before had been extinguished, and an initial indecision about whether to leave the next fall and attend McGill or stay and go to York University with Zeb had become a moot point. She left and he stayed. Theirs was a cancelled courtship, the future of which no longer up for debate.
<> <> <>
Zeb insisted to Oliver that he would be taking a year off before going to York, and Oliver insisted to Zeb that oh no he would not be taking a year off. Zeb informed his father that a trip to Europe with his friends was in order. He had to keep up, you see, had to be like all the rest—those with influence, prospects, and all the time in the world before settling into their degree programs at the more prestigious schools. Presentation Is Everything, dad, he told him. And Oliver, without even a pause, informed his son that a trip to Europe was not in any such order and would not ever be. Presentation, it would seem, cost too much.
Oliver was clearly agitated with all the time the boy had been spending away from his studies. His anger came from the fact that while Zeb had never gotten a grade letter below an A—not in his whole academic career—he had not succeeded in getting the grades he could have garnered with even an iota of effort for school. If you spent half as much time studying as you did painting or doing God knows what with that girl, you’d have easily gotten a full scholarship to the school of your choice and I wouldn’t have had to forego retirement investments for another three years. Again.
In the end, or perhaps in the beginning, Zeb lost out on that battle. Though he viewed it as important and he fought the man tooth and nail over it, his father was more forceful and the reality of the situation was that Zeb couldn’t afford Europe anyway. York it would be, expensive, boring and lengthy. But York it would be.
At his father’s advice, or perhaps it was at his insistence, he enrolled himself in the Faculty of Commerce at York University. There was Jackie-O, at his side, always the comedian, always the auspicious sidekick who could get pot and girls at a moment’s notice.
Even thier genuine lack of interest to actually study Commerce didn’t stop the fall. They both rode the wave, feeling that they were pushed into cold waters without any real consent, but stayed in them because they weren’t too cold. Mums and Dads, The kings and queens of cheese, were paying for this swell. And, in a sense, both Jackson and Zeb understood that they were still young enough to diverge at any moment, should the overwhelming desire arise. They swallowed whole what was handed them—almost because it seemed easier to wash it down now and keep intact the notion of dining on something else. Plus, and in brute honesty, they didn’t take any of it seriously. Not for one moment.
The two were on a collision course for their future. Falling down a mountain? Yes, Sebastion felt like he was doing just that every single day. It was a painful coaster descent on elderly tracks and the bruises and cuts would begin to show any day now. And, worst of all, the colors were beginning to fade.
<> <> <>
Two years. The whipping winds that come careening along that rickety track—one which may spill you over the edge at any turn—well, they can dull the senses. That wind isn’t felt after a while; it just becomes filtered out along the way. It disappears. Like smoke.
The wind in his ears, the up and down roller coaster movement and all that went with it, made Zeb finally and completely exhausted. First year was a set of overindulgences, of casual quests for ladies’ underthings in off-campus dorms and in the back rooms of downtown clubs. He was still riding a high point on his life’s social circle, but the curve was beginning a downward turn again. By spring of his second year, he had managed to score another set of A’s across the board. But he was tired. And his new perspectives on the inner workings of things made him even more tired.
The supper table was an endless set of debates about foreign and fiscal policy. Investment opportunities were the only discussions that Oliver ever brought up. He handed the business section of the paper to his foggy-eyed son each day across a bowl of peas or corn or potatoes and there wasn’t even a look of expectancy in his face. There wasn’t a look at all. The expectations were just understood. What’s this all for? Zeb thought, blearily. Can’t we just make it stop? he sometimes wanted to say, but never did. He simply accepted the folded stack of newsprint and paged through it when his father handed it to him. It was resignation, weak-kneed and without argument.
There was something behind everything, Zeb knew. There was something that couldn’t be seen but still made all the wheels turn, still made all the bars bend. Jackson could see it even before Zeb could—long before he could—it was there in every look he gave things. It was a once-over when he arrived in a room that said he knew there was something else there, lurking under tables and behind curtains. And there was something there, behind it all, something that no one talked about, maybe because none of them could see it. The idea was intangible, it was slippery, and it did not fit into a neat description space in a scrapbook. He didn’t know exactly what it was and couldn’t place a finger on it to make it understood. But he could see it, could almost touch it at moments. It became a looming shape, with depth and dimension. It was like a shadow that stood long and thin on the horizon attached to the legs of everything he perceived, everything that made up the world. The shadow held the strings and everything in front of it became the puppet.
<> <> <>
Oliver Redfield had started with Whitman & Merridew Investments the year that his only son was born. It was tough going at first, digging out of the debt-hole and crawling back up to the surface after his layoff at the other firm. The pittance of his initial salary at Wittman & Merridew barely managed to cover the payments on the house. But Oliver, Zeb would decide much later in life and stick to the conviction, lived well above his head. Always did.
He wasn’t even a junior partner when Sadie took Zeb to see the specialists, was still just slogging it out on the lowest rung. He had climbed, though, worked the seventy hour weeks and climbed further. By Zeb’s ninth birthday he had made junior partner and by his second last year of high school, Oliver had made an impressive leap into full partner, with all the trimmings. That was a hell of a night, all champagne and old Records droning and crackling from the basement. The sign’s going to read, he made no bones of pointing out to Zeb, “Whitman, Merridew & Redfield.” Now that is the result of a strong work ethic, son. Take a lesson from your old dad.
The luxuries had started then, if one could call them luxuries. Oliver finally paid off the summer cottage, though it was rarely used at all anymore. He traded in his early-run Beemer for one off the showroom floor, and started drinking a glass of wine with nearly every meal, though they were still always well past eight in the evening.
Zeb saw his aunt less—she still reached out for him every time and could never quite grab hold—but Oliver the crow was always there. By this time, in fact, Zeb had grown so accustomed to seeing his black-feathered friend that the name he had given him became condensed to just a quick phrase: Oliverthecrow. He had stopped talking to the bird long before, when he was nine or so, but these days something compelled him to acknowledge the little visitor again. He would say it every night, not aloud every time, but on occasion in a whisper, Goodnight Oliverthecrow. Don’t let the bedbugs bite. And he would roll over and fall off to sleep with a sound in his mind and a vision of something distant and brightly lit behind his lids.
<> <> <>
The shadows behind things became a permanent fixture in his mind. There were strings attached to every person, every building, every institution. He saw scenes like they were created with thin camelhair brushes, dragged across the world by an unseen painter. Everything felt like a picture created with secret intent. Everything was made of wooden limbs, discreetly managed just off stage by a devious and grinning puppeteer, whose name no one knew. But Zeb had to push those thoughts, all of them, as far to the back of his everyday life as he could. He had to or he wouldn’t have been able to carry on.
Nights of three hours sleep after spending all his pocket money at the campus pub on beer with Jackie-O and girls from the psych department had taken their toll. He had eased up on his pill-popping long earlier, but the effects of it, the dreariness of it, still seemed to hang on his body. It was like a weight that couldn’t be shed. He couldn’t keep up to Jackson—who didn’t seem to need even a wink of sleep to perform—and he began to bow out of invitations, coming home to Vaughan more often instead. His Dad was there, and the conversations usually turned to stocks and trading, but oddly, that seemed more manageable. His priorities had begun a delicate shift. Zeb felt like he had been pissing away his time, like the pills and the bottles had given him something small but had taken something large, something that he could never get back entirely—not even if he worked his guts out for all eternity. It felt like those shadows on the ends of all the feet in all the world were finally tugging at him. He could no longer step lightly, and have them follow his lead. The black outlines around everything did the impossible: they made him think it was time he started to grow up.
He looked in the mirror and saw his fatigue staring back at him. For a while there, the grades had become a prime example of his childishness, of his empty idealism, and he knew this would become an issue with his father awfully soon. They were fine, his grades. But they were slipping. And so was he.
Yes, Zeb, came the voice in his head, like so many times before and after. Time to grow up.
So, nearing the end of that semester he took it upon himself to smarten up. You want work ethic, Old Dad, I’ll show you some of that. He set himself back on an even keel and it even allowed him to relax a little more. He went out less and less and he gave up those dirty white pills entirely. The painting dried up. All his sketching and a brief stint of clay sculpting did too. That work sat unfinished, but he was finally reading textbooks and arriving on time for midterms. He started marching through the days without questioning the reasons behind his own actions.
And behind the marching, Zeb decided, behind the dictations of what he would be doing now and until convocation, there were strings tugged by the hidden puppeteer—the business section passed across the dinner table. The strings ran to a shadow that lived and breathed. It was a wooden handle held high above it all.
And Zeb wanted to hang himself on it.