From The City We Forgot To Name
By the time Juke met Vincent, the band had changed their name to RESETME and had just released their second album, Fight. The official word on the band was: give them time. Juke and Season’s marriage was already a farce. She had slept with thirteen other men in the past month – Juke felt he was lucky because it was a February. Those extra few days could have driven him over the edge.
Vincent was sitting alone at a plastic table with a beach umbrella stuck in the middle, sipping a cocktail which had its own umbrella, and wearing a Hawaiian shirt and yellow-tinted sunglasses. It was one o’clock in the morning. Hundreds of freestanding gas burners – the city’s version of palm trees – made being outside bearable. Juke hadn’t dressed for the Tropicana theme, but happened to be wearing flip-flops (though, hailing from New Zealand, he would always call them jandals and point to his feet when met with confused expressions) with his black jeans and blank grey t-shirt.
‘I give your outfit two out of ten,’ Vincent said.
‘I like the company you keep,’ Juke replied. They were alone on the far side of the swimming pool, if you can say a pool designed to look like a record has sides. There was a circular island in the middle of the pool with the label of All Summer’s first gold record (the surprise urban crossover Hood Vibrations by CC Hitz) painted on it. At other parties Juke had tried to trace the grooves on the bottom of the pool to find out if it was one continuous groove or several concentric circles, but he could never keep his finger in the groove and hold his breath long enough to find out.
Most of the guests were by the mansion, clogging open doors, or in the centre of the record, sobering up and starting to dread getting wet again.
‘Where’s your wife?’ Vincent asked.
‘I’m beginning to think I haven’t met her yet.’
‘Well you’ve just met me: Vincent de Paul.’
‘Like the saint?’ Juke asked.
‘I guess. Did they have gay saints?’
Juke hadn’t got around to weighing up Vincent’s commitment to the Tropicana theme, his exotic drink and the slight tremolo of his voice. ‘Behind every good saint,’ Juke said, ‘is a sodomite.’
‘They never told me you were funny, Duke Morrison Hillman. Shy, intense, good in bed – but not funny. It just gets richer and richer.’
If you’re wondering about the name: Juke’s parents were big fans of Westerns, and named their son after the movie star Marion ‘Duke’ Morrison. In his early teens, he grew frustrated with people asking if he preferred his name to be pronounced ‘Dook’ or ‘Djuke’, so he shifted over to spelling his name J-u-k-e to solve the problem.
He wasn’t surprised Vincent knew so much about him. It wasn’t that he was famous anywhere outside the city’s cloistered music scene, but his marriage to Season Summerall had made him a cause célèbre. It was as if his vital stats had been passed around the clique – and he didn’t like it. He didn’t want his own baseball card. He didn’t want anything that felt like fame – in those days. He was just a member of a humble indie band trying to play music without indulging in showvinism, as they called it – what others might call ‘show business’ or ‘selling records.’
Juke and Vincent’s friendship developed quickly after that first party.
Vincent was a staff writer for Mixed Nuts (Music) Publishing, but perennially struggled to meet his quota of album cuts. Juke thought this was a badge of honour rather than a scarlet letter. He hadn’t told his bandmates about his own songwriting problems because he’d always felt the most expendable. He was the least musical and the most naïve – or so he felt – and without his lyrical contribution he was sure to be jettisoned. But he had told Vincent and it was like exchanging an electron.
They were alone at the corner of another party, one of them had a drink, the other didn’t.
‘It’s a question of ullage,’ Vincent said.
‘Ullage. It’s the term for the amount by which a liquid falls short of filling its container.’
‘How come I’ve never heard it before?’
‘The glass is half full. The glass has fifty percent ullage. Too clumsy.’
‘But,’ Juke said, drawn into Vincent’s words, as he so often was, ‘it must have some special use, or why would there be a word?’
‘It’s a question of ullage,’ Vincent repeated his earlier statement, but now it seemed like the start of an answer to Juke’s question. ‘Some people struggle with things that are, others struggle with things that aren’t. The things that aren’t there, that are missing from your life, are always the hardest to bear. Dead relatives, unrequited loves . . . The question is not ‘how full’, but ‘how empty?’’
Juke thought of his heart. First, it was an anatomically correct heart, a pump with inflow and outflow tubes, and he was looking at it in cross-section. With every beat – ba-boum – his heart filled, then emptied. His heart’s ullage was always in flux – which seemed accurately confusing. But then he thought of his heart like a box of Valentine’s chocolates. There were no tubes into this heart – just an outflow of chocolates. Slowly, his heart was being devoured. The ullage was growing. He was going to drown in his heart’s ullage.
‘Happiness,’ Vincent continued, running his finger around the rim of his glass, ‘is about how we perceive the level of ullage in our lives.’ He drained his glass and picked up the bottle of pinot noir and put it directly to his lips.
‘What can you do about it?’ Juke asked.
Vincent held the wine bottle by the neck and waggled it to show it was empty, then placed it on the table in front of them both. He continued the motion of leaning forward from his chair until he was on his feet – his hands placed just above his knees, his arms acting as struts for his heavy, swaying torso. ‘You fill in the blanks,’ he said, looking down at the space between the table and his knees. He turned and placed his hand on Juke’s cheek and kissed him on the lips. It might have ended there – the embarrassment – but Vincent’s lean continued after their lips connected. His centre of gravity was somewhere past Juke, somewhere through him. His lips were pushed up as the rest of his drunk and cumbrous form collided with his stunned friend. His lips smudged over Juke’s cheekbone and came to rest in the slightest indentation of his temple. He withdrew his splayed lips, but did not remove his face. He could probably smell the wine on Juke’s skin, the wine that had so recently been in his mouth. ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered into Juke’s temple, and untangled himself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Craig Cliff lives and works in Brisbane, where he claims it is too hot to write. To prove his theory that a cooler climate is the key to writing extended fiction (just look at those Russians), he took eight months leave in 2006 to do the MA at the IIML in Wellington and wrote a novel.