Summer Dialogue #1

Sam Schieren

We were on the roof of Nikita’s house, drinking beers. This is in the Central Valley. The roof was black and, so, hot. It wasn’t summer yet, but almost. The plague had just started. No one was supposed to be near anyone else. We were meant to be inside and alone. But our plan that day, as it is and will be every day, until one of us is demented, rotting, or severs our spinal cord, was to get to the heart of things.

Our only question, as always, was, How? It was an obvious question to us. Our answer: Dialogue. Yes—the ancient method to the heart of things. It was our plan, and we were going to stick to it, unless one of the above misfortunes befell us. Were we brave and radical for our choice to resist the attention economy and instead probe the human condition through conversation? Well. This was the era of movies with quarter billion dollar budgets that had undergone double-blind studies to make sure they were maximally attention grabbing and we were choosing to converse. We were absolutely brave and radical.

Okay, picture us now more clearly: A pair of radicals, atop Nikita’s hot roof, searching for the language to get us to the heart of things. Can you see us? I am the rather slim one. Downright skinny even. I’m wearing basketball shorts and drinking a Corona. Nikita drinks Samuel Adams. He is chubby, but his traps are large, so he almost looks buff. He’s wearing a white-t and cargo shorts with ten plus pockets. We both wear glasses. Mine are round. His are Wayfarer. We are sitting on the hot, tarry slope of the black hat of a California bungalow. We are on our third beers, psyching each other up like a couple of beatniks, having a little narcissistic festival of two.

A man across the street sees us up there. Probably notices how we are maskless and frothing over ourselves. What he couldn’t see was the heat, both below us and between us. He couldn’t see the big heart that was sucking us into its orbit either. It must have been just behind him. In his backyard even. If he was on his roof, he’d have seen it. Maybe been sucked right in. For it soon became clear he was seeking the heart of things too. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What matters at this point is Nikita and I were the only two on a roof and that lent us a bit of perspective.

As you well know the heart of things keeps on growing. It long ago grew big enough to develop its own gravitational field. We are all, in fact, in orbit around it, whether we admit it or not. It is safe to orbit, but be careful, if you get close enough it will pull you right in. Like the black hole at the center of every galaxy. Getting pulled into the heart of things is dangerous, of course. Rumor has it the blood in the heart at the heart of things is basically heroine (which we all know would make us feel so good if we ever tried it). Many people believe they’ve already been to the heart of things, but you haven’t. That’s one of the things Nikita and I deduce time and again while drinking on his roof.

Anyways, we assumed the man standing on the sidewalk across the street was a member of the bewildered herd, the lumpenproletariat, ignorant of all heart-of-things related matters. And so, while we did not hate him, we did not like him either. He was still in his pajamas. I suppose we pitied him.

You can tell he thinks he knows more about life than us, I said.

Look at his face. I bet he googles himself at least twice a day, said Nikita.

The man took a picture of us on his phone, then paced back and forth several times, then stopped and looked up at us again.

He’s going to call the cops, Nikita said. I know it.

Nikita has a predilection for prediction. He is right nearly half the time, while the other half he says he’d thought whatever did happened was going to happen even though he’d said something else was going to happen. He doesn’t always say what he believes, he says. He says, he lies so as not to seem weird, because what happens in life is often so weird he would seem unhinged for predicting it. In fact, Nikita lied all the time, about everything. He was utterly human in this way. I loved it. Nevertheless, I took him at his word this time.

Don’t call the cops, I yelled across the street to this man who had a hand on his forehead visoring the sun, which was high and behind Nikita and me, so he might get a better view of the two men drinking on the roof across the street from his house.

Then come down from there. I’ll only call the cops if you don’t, he said.

See, Nikita whispered.

You don’t understand, I shouted.

You’re looking right into my house at me, he said. I don’t want you looking into my house anymore.

You’re a bastard, I shouted. We’re trying to get to the heart of things up here. We don’t care about your house.

Unless the heart of things happens to be inside my house, the man said. Or inside me.

I don’t know how we’d overlooked that possibility.

Nikita tilted his body back and finished his bottle of beer. He pushed himself up to his feet. He had the bottle by the throat. It looked something like a stielhandgranate. And then he did something miraculous. He threw the empty bottle at the man as hard as he could. It landed about ten feet to the man’s right (our left) with a satisfying tink-pop and a gorgeous shatter.  

I have a dog, you assholes! he yelled at us.

A perfect response on the man’s part. Utterly selfless. I felt so lucky to be there experiencing this. Suddenly, I could feel us inching just slightly closer to it.

You shouldn’t have said anything, Nikita said.

To me or the man? I wasn’t sure. I asked.

Him, dude, said Nikita.

I smiled, relieved.

We were just mapping out our ambitions, sir, I shouted down. I don’t know why you had to get involved. We’re on a roof, so what? It’s not your roof. Stop watching us. We’ll count to three.

Fuck three. Let’s see what the cops have to say about three, the man said.

You’re not my dad, said Nikita. Seriously, you’re not. You’re no one.

I watched the man. He was looking at the sparkling ground and he looked worried.

Sometimes you want people to be afraid because that’s when they really perform, that’s when they really become the worst possible versions of themselves. And those are always memorable selves. But when I saw the man’s fear, I was not excited at all. In fact, I think I thought, this must be the weakest man I’ve ever met, disturbed by of a couple of radicals sitting on a roof in the middle of a plague, plotting, trying to figure out the meaning of it all.

I looked at the weak man’s house, which was nearly identical to Nikita’s. It had a robin’s-egg-colored screen door that was probably squeaky. In front of the screen door, on the front step, was a very foolish looking shih tzu lying down. Had it always been there? Wait. Could it be that the shih tzu was the heart of—no. Not this shih tzu. Even up on Nikita’s roof I could see the shih tzu was unable to keep its own tongue inside its mouth. In fact, it might have been missing its whole lower jaw. I imagined this shih tzu stepping on the glass and the man having to care for the poor shih tzu and its bloody little feet. How the feet would leave red-brown prints all over the man’s filthy beige carpet, which I could just make out through his windows. How this moment would leave permanent bloody footprints in the history books of this asshole’s life. Before this sad image, my will faltered.

Don’t worry, we’ll clean it up some time, I said. But not until later, I added, to save face.

No, the man said. No. Don’t touch it. It’s evidence now.

Evidence? How about this, said Nikita. We didn’t do it.

But you did, the man said.

Where’s your proof, said Nikita. It’s our word versus yours. You don’t stand a chance against us. In fact, we’ll be dancing on your grave soon.

Unless one of us becomes demented or severs our spinal cord, I thought.

I don’t think so. I am going to be extremely long-lived, the man said.

He made a sweeping gesture with his arm spanning the sparkling shatter of the bottle.

Evidence, Nikita mumbled, bitterly.

How about this, I said to the man. Water under the bridge.

Absolutely not, the man said.

But wait. We didn’t even do it. Nikita was right.

His response had been brilliant. I had never thought that thought before, that Nikita was capable of brilliance. I had always thought I was the brilliant one, and that my purpose was to use my brilliance to help Nikita inch closer to brilliance himself. What a revelation. Yes, Nikita was right. And no one could convince me otherwise. The glass had been there the whole time. The man was making all of this up. What a provocateur. If there were any more of us around, the man might have incited a damn riot, blaming us for a mess that was not ours. But us radicals wouldn’t fall for his bullshit bewildered herd hegemony. Besides, the man was missing the point—he had just been blessed with a brilliant act of impassioned spontaneity (performance art?) and all he could think about were his dog’s bloody paws and informing on us.

I wanted to shout, What do you know about justice? What do you know about love? Do you pity us? Because we pity you. You who still believes in radical choice and an ultimate moral responsibility. Did you know we were agreeing about your low status in the cosmic hierarchy at just about the same time as you noticed us and decided to illegally take our picture, you criminal?

Instead, I said, Actually, I think I saw the glass there this morning. Didn’t you?

I was speaking to Nikita but yelling so the man would hear me. If only the man wasn’t wearing pajamas. If he’d had on different clothes, it’d have been much easier to come to some accord.

Oh, yes, said Nikita. Yes, absolutely. Now, let’s go inside and record a podcast.

We’re going inside now, to record our podcast, Sir, I shouted down. If you call the cops, you can tell them that’s what we’re doing.

He hated us now. That was quite visible. I always tended to assume those who hated me were cowards. But this man changed all that. Forever.

He stepped back onto his crispy lawn and slid off his slippers, then, without looking away from us, wearing a face of absolute scorn, he stepped forward with perfect confidence onto the scatterplot of amber glass fragments no one had laid before him. He let this constellation cut deep into his feet and he began screaming, an awful, crackling scream. I saw the blood begin to leak out from underneath the soles of his feet. All three of us watched it ooze out slowly like water from under the pot of a saturated house plant. It was clear right away that the man was in fact not a coward. Maybe not even pitiable. He was the opposite. And it was clear too that from the very beginning he knew exactly what he was doing. He had tricked us, tricked us utterly. And among his many qualities, I admired him most for bewildering us, for capturing our attention. We had still been plotting. He’d committed to a conclusion.

You’re all talk you little fuckers, he coughed out.

Are you okay? Nikita yelled down to him.

He looked back up at us, as if all of this had been some kind of miscommunication and he’d suddenly realized where things had gotten off track.

Oh my god, I said. I couldn’t look away. My chest felt hollow. My stomach, hollow. My mind was transfixed. Is this it? Is this really it? The heart of things?

The man’s eyes were wide open. So were ours. He was moving his head. Nodding or shaking, I couldn’t tell. But he was no longer screaming.

He watched the blood spread and so did we. He was shaking his head. And then he said, What have I done?

Nikita and I looked at each other.

You took a chance, said Nikita.

Like Icarus, I added.

I tried, he said.

We know, said Nikita.

I did try, he said.

No one’s doubting that, I said.

You can still call the cops if want, said Nikita.

No, he said, turning away from us to look back at his dog. No, it’s fine.

Though I could not see his face I knew his expression was terribly sad just by his dog’s new, fretful regard.

I don’t want to be alone anymore, he said.

I know, I said.

We can try again tomorrow, said Nikita.