Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

‘Colliding Atoms’

So we’re sitting in Rimsky’s, waiting for the rest of our friends to show up, and Randolph is telling us about his band. God, I hate his band.

“When we started, we called Adam West and Burt Ward,” he says. “Because, you know, were just a combo. Just me and Reno, you know.”

“‘Adam West and Burt Ward’?” says Zora, his girlfriend. She’s new.

“Is Amy coming tonight?” I say. I’ve heard about Randolph’s band before, and its many permutations.

“The dudes in the old Batman television series,” Randolph says to Zora. “You know, ‘biff!’ ‘pow!’ ‘wham!’ You know.”

“I used to watch that show religiously,” Louis says. He’s holding Jean’s hand. I don’t believe he ever lets it go.

“Then we got a new guy — a bass player, and we called ourselves the Justice League — the new guy was into comic books, and he took the Adam West and Burt Ward thing and ran with it. That didn’t last long. Copyright infringement, I guess.”

“It’s a dumb name for a band anyway,” Jean says. Randolph shoots her a dirty look. I’m not sure they like each other all that much. I’m looking down at Zora’s coffee mug. It’s moving clockwise with the table, a fun fact I’m not sure she knows about. Before it gets too far, she picks it up and takes a sip.

“When are they getting here?” I ask Randolph. He ignores me.

“Okay, so we needed a new name. We got a couple more people — this is five years ago, maybe — and now we’re a quintet. It’s tough pleasing everyone when you’re a quintet, but Reno and me, we were the founders. You with me?”

“Of course.” Zora again. She’s either a really good actress or she really does find this fascinating.

“We lived over a grocery store on Ankeny — Christ, what a place that was — it was Vietnamese, so we called ourselves the Viet King Kong. Kind of a joke.”

“And a lame one at that,” Jean says. Randolph shoots her another evil look. Jean enjoys baiting him.

“Then it was Pug Fugly, after a comment Moe makes on The Simpsons — I guess we watched a little too much television — then Hammer and Tongs, then Ali Baba and the Four Thieves.”

“You spent so much time coming up with names, you never got any gigs,” Louis says.

Au contraire,” Randolph says. “You spend so much time in wedded bliss, you never came to see us. Remember, Chet? Remember the Ali Baba gig? Over at, where the fuck was it, over on the West side? In Old Town?”

“At Darcelle’s?” I ask, smiling. “I didn’t know you went in for that drag queen stuff, Randolph.”

“Real fucking funny, Chet. No, you know what I’m talking about. Doesn’t matter. Louis never had time, because he was off … you know.”

“You can say it, Randolph,” says Jean. “‘Getting laid.’ I won’t be mad. Beats playing dive bars and scoring skanky chicks. Not you, Zora.” She smiles at Randolph’s girlfriend, who sputters into her coffee.

“Berbati’s Pan!” Randolph blurts out. “That’s the place.”

“Is that really Old Town?” I say, just to piss him off.

Randolph ignores me again. “For some reason, none of the names worked,” he says to Zora, who has recovered from her momentary embarrassment and is now glaring at Jean. “Someone came up with Evil Roy Slade, which is what we are now. I think it’s the best one yet.”

Zora takes her eyes away from Jean and looks sweetly at Randolph. “‘Evil Roy Slade’? That doesn’t track, although I’m sure there’s a reason for it. Isn’t there a progression from one name to the other? Isn’t that the way it usually works? What was the point of that story?”

We all laugh, except for Randolph, who bites his lip. I don’t know Zora that well, but I like her. Anyone who can put Randolph in his place is okay with me.

“Randolph,” I say, forcefully. “Is. Amy. Coming. Here. Tonight?”

“Shit, Chet,” he says. “I didn’t know you have a crush on her.”

I flip him the bird and look around the place. We’re in the back, sitting around the low table painted like a clock that moves with a clock’s motion. It’s fun to watch people lose their mugs, and I keep waiting for Zora to lose hers. Maybe she knows about it, because she keeps picking it up. In the main room the pianist is playing something, and people are clumped together in twos and threes discussing, I’m sure, matters just as important as the names of Randolph’s band. Saturday night at Rimsky’s.

Everyone is here with someone. Except, of course, me. Do I have a crush on Amy? Maybe. Maybe it’s just loneliness.

“Is this the coffeehouse that’s haunted?” Zora asks.

Louis says, “No. That’s the Pied Cow. This is the place with the tables that move. See, this one rotates.”

“Nice job, asshole,” Jean says. “She’s supposed to discover that for herself.” Jean speaks this way to Louis out of love. When they first got together, nobody, including me, thought it would last — and they’re my two best friends. I wanted it to work, but I thought, deep down, what everyone else said aloud — “She’s way out of his league,” or “She’ll get tired of him pretty quick” — evil little things like that that keep us from admitting our real feelings. They got married about a year after their first date, and they are the happiest couple I’ve ever seen. Strange thing, life.

I look around the coffeehouse so I don’t have to look at the couples at the table. No one would ever say it — Louis-Jean and Randolph-Zora aren’t really here “as couples” — they wouldn’t be here together, without me — but I am the fifth wheel. I am currently unattached. Maybe I do have a crush on Amy. A “crush.” I’m thirty-one years old. I don’t get “crushes.”

As I look, I ignore the continuing conversation at the table. Zora is explaining her job to Louis and Jean. She’s some kind of graphic designer for an underground newspaper, and she also works at Meier and Frank. Portland has all kinds of these people, although I’ve never been one of them. Louis and I call them “vampires” — they work in a coffin during the day, but come out at night and show their true calling. Zora’s a perfect vampire.

Suddenly I see someone I know. Laura. I used to be close with her and her boyfriend, but then Michael went a little nuts and she disappeared for a while. It’s tough, seeing someone with whom you shared moments but haven’t seen for some time. How do people do that? We pass through each other’s lives, and just when you think everything’s over, we bump into each other again. Colliding atoms.

“Louis,” I say, “do you remember Michael Sandusky?”

Louis looks puzzled for a moment, and Jean answers. “That guy you knew? Tried to kill that preacher who was here a few years ago? That Michael Sandusky?”

Jean’s memory is impeccable. “Yeah, that Michael Sandusky,” I say.

Zora stares at me. “You know him? He made national news, didn’t he? He’s like … shit, Tonya Harding or something.”

“Well, I know a lot of strange people,” I reply, not wanting to get into a long conversation about Michael. “Listen, guys, I just saw someone I know. Someone who also knows Michael. I’ll be right back.”

I get up and move into the main room of Rimsky’s. Laura is sitting with two other women, neither of whom I recognize. She looks happy. I wonder if I do.

I linger in her peripheral vision for a second, and she feels my presence. When she turns, her smile disappears, replaced by a haunted look. I think this may have been a mistake. Then her smile reappears, and she waves me over.

“Bill!” she says, standing and reaching out to me. She calls me by my middle name because I used to use it. I embrace her, somewhat awkwardly, not expecting such warmth. She grabs my hand and pulls me down in the empty chair at their table.

“Bill,” she says again, with less enthusiasm. She has not let go of my hand. “It’s been … years.”

“Four, I think. Since …” I don’t finish, because I don’t want to remind her of Michael.

“Yeah, yeah. Oh, God, my manners. Bill, this is Fiona and Ellen. My best friends.”

They say hello politely. I think I’ve met Fiona before. I’m not sure.

“Girls’ night out,” Laura says, “and we end up here, not some bachelorette club. Pathetic, really. It’s Fiona’s fault. She’s tragically devoted to her husband.”

“I wanted to say ‘hi,'” I say, lamely. “It’s been too long. How, uh, what’s going on with you?”

“Shit, what a question,” she says. “How am I, ladies?”

“You were friends with Michael,” Fiona says. “Back then.”

“Michael?” says the other one, Ellen. “Laura’s Michael?”

“Shit, bring him up more often, why don’t you,” Laura says. “It wasn’t my fault. Bill told me where he was going that night, didn’t you?”

“I always felt guilty. He trusted me, and I betrayed him.” I have never confessed this to anyone. My friend, Michael, told me why he was going to see the reverend. I didn’t believe him. He tried to kill the preacher, and they sent him away, but I always felt I betrayed him. Why am I getting so serious with Laura and her friends? I didn’t know her all that well, and only through Michael.

“He’s better now,” Laura says. “He’s still in the hospital, but he’s better now. I see him occasionally.”

“You look familiar,” Ellen says. “Do I know you?”

I turn to her, looking at her closely for the first time. “I, I don’t … I don’t think so.” I study her face. Nothing all that memorable. She’s not ugly, just plain. A face of the masses. And I am also not memorable. Why would she know me?

“Somewhere …”

“I should probably go,” I say, suddenly uncomfortable. “I’m with, you know, people, and …”

Laura pats my hand. “You’re cute, Bill. You always were. So repressed.”

“What? You’re nuts.” I wince at my choice of words. “Shit. Sorry. Laura, it was good to see you. Are you, you know, around? I’d like to get together. Chat.”

“Deschutes College!” Ellen blurts out. “You were in my Shakespeare class. Dr. Howard?”

I stare at her. No recognition. “Wow. That’s back there. That’s before I transferred to U. of P. I’m sorry, I don’t remember you. Wow.”

She smiles. “I wasn’t very memorable.” Her smile gets wider. Is she reading my mind?

I back away, unsure now. The three women are chuckling, and I hear Fiona say something like, “He’s cute,” but I can’t hear clearly. I turn awkwardly and move into the back room. How do people do it, I wonder. How has Laura done it? She lived with someone who went crazy. How do we survive?

My friends have multiplied. Amy has arrived, bringing others. I met Amy through Randolph, a few years ago. We clicked immediately, and very quickly, she became another female friend in my life. I accumulate them. I love them dearly, but wonder why I can’t move past it to romance. My girlfriends are mostly forgettable. Shit. I went out on a date with that girl Ellen once. Shit. I suck.

Too late to go back now. Amy sees me and waves, beckoning me. After we had known each other for a little while, she told me more about herself. Heroin addiction, occasional prostitution, a rape that left her with a nasty scar on her face — she told me everything, and I gained new appreciation for her. She has turned her life around, and now works part-time for the city and full-time as a pet sitter. Vampires.

Amy has brought a guy and a girl with her. The woman has taken my chair, so I drag one from the other room and sit down next to Amy. She grabs my hand and says hello, her smile lighting me up. It’s dazzling. She lets me go and points to the new guy. “This is Leon,” she says. “Say hello to my friend Chester, Leon.” He shakes my hand and mutters hello. “And this,” Amy continues, pointing to the woman who took my seat, “is Morrigu. Chester, Morrigu.”

Morrigu is beautiful. I am rarely struck by a person’s appearance, even someone like Amy, who is marked in a disturbing way. Morrigu, however, is stunning. She has black hair down to her waist, braided in a thick ponytail, and her eyes are bright green. Her mouth is small and firm, and she has a clear look on her face that admits nothing. She looks like a falcon.

“That’s an unusual name,” I say, attempting to make conversation with this beauty.

“Hippie parents. Named me after a goddess — very earthy-crunchy stuff. I love ’em, but I think they were a bit high on weed — Morrigu’s an Irish battle goddess. I deal with it.”

If I can use a word that has perhaps fallen out of fashion, I’m smitten. I feel like a fifteen-year-old asking a girl to the dance. I can barely focus.

“You’re, um, Amy’s friend?”

“Leon’s, actually. I know Amy a bit, but I’ve known Leon for years. He knows Amy. I have no life, so I tag along with them occasionally. What’s your position in this delightful little web we have?”

I chuckle. She is sitting three chairs away from me — Amy and Leon are between us, but they are talking to the rest of the party. Would I look desperate if I stood and walked over to her? Suddenly, I don’t care. I get up, circle around the back of Amy and Leon, dragging my chair behind me, and place it next to hers, outside the circle.

I say, “I can’t hear too well, and I like your term — ‘web.’ I’m a friend of Randolph’s,” I point to him, “I don’t know if you know him. He’s an old friend of Amy’s.”

“We’ve met.” She does not look pleased about that.

“And those two” — I point at Jean and Louis, who are directly across the table from me — “are my best friends.”

She doesn’t know them. “Your best friends are married? So you have no life either, and tag along with them occasionally?”

I suddenly find myself gazing deeply into her green eyes. I could easily do that for hours. “You and me, we’re just birds of a feather,” I hear myself saying.

Somehow, that breaks the ice. She’s amused; I’m amazed. I don’t often ignore my friends like this — I’ve known Jean since we were in elementary school and Louis since we were in college, and I still love talking to them — but I’m captivated by Morrigu. We talk, and I hope I’m not screwing things up. We talk, and I wonder if she is thinking the same sorts of things. We talk, and I wonder if she has a boyfriend. I doubt it, because of her assertion that she has no life, but it nags me.

“Have you ever just sat up on Mount Tabor and just, I don’t know, sat?” she says. “Or somewhere like it? Council Crest? The Japanese garden? Let it all sink in?”

“You read my mind,” I say. “Louis, Jean, and I used to go up on Tabor all the time — picnicking, that sort of thing. We had a few other friends we went with — Jesus, it’s been years since we did that.” I shiver, strangely. “Hey, Louis,” I interrupt the larger conversation, something about Zora’s newspaper, “why don’t we go up on Mount Tabor anymore?”

“Beats me.”

“He’s articulate, isn’t he?” I say, turning back to Morrigu. “I mean, I don’t feel old, you know? I’m not old. But … life changes so rapidly. I look back ten years, five years, and I don’t recognize myself. I take things for granted. I used to hike. Mount Saint Helens, Mount Hood, the Gorge … alone, with friends, I didn’t care. Somewhere, my priorities shifted.”

“To what?”

“You know, I can’t really say. Do you hike?”

“I knew a man once, an old man. He taught me that life is not something you should allow to happen to you. He lied to me, often.” She smiles sadly, and I want to kiss her right there. “He lied to me about himself, but told me the truth about life. Don’t allow life to happen to you. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But it’s hard.”

We talk, until it’s late, and I haven’t spoken to anyone else at the table in over an hour, and she and Amy go to the restroom. I lean back and sigh. Jean is suddenly beside me. The coffeehouse has entered that portion of the evening when the conversations are muted, as if everyone knows they’re out past their bedtimes and are hoping their mothers don’t notice. Do we ever grow up?

“She’s a cutie, Abernathy,” Jean says. She’s the only one who calls me by my last name.

“She’s something.”

Jean is looking at me with a twitchy grin on her face. “Come on,” she says, and takes my hand. We walk through the hallway toward the front door. We pass through the small foyer and out onto the porch. She leans against the railing and I lean against the outside wall of the house. Jean is beautiful, a true Irish classic, with fiery, curly red hair down to her shoulder blades and flashing green eyes. She smiles more widely at me, and I suddenly have a memory of her when she was thirteen and about to moon our P.E. teacher. She got a week’s detention for that.

“I worry about you, Abernathy,” she says, her smile unmoving.

“About moi? Pourquoi?” I raise my hands up in mock shock.

She looks down. “Are you still madly in love with me?”

She has never spoken like this before. We’ve been friends for twenty years, but she has never brought this up. I hesitate. “Jean …”

“Don’t deny it. I was often blind to it, but it became obvious after Louis and I started dating. I know we don’t see you as often as we used to — things get in the way, things happen — but I need to know. If you are.”

I take a step toward her, but decide to stop before reaching her. “Jean.” I don’t know what to say. “I always thought we were friends. I … When you started dating Louis, it hit me. Like a thunderbolt. Something. I thought, ‘How did I not know? How stupid am I?’ I couldn’t say anything — I had my chance, a blew it. And Louis … he’s my best friend, next to you.”

“Why didn’t you know, you moron?”

“It’s always … you don’t want to ruin what you have, you know? It’s always, do I want to push this to something else, when what I have is so great? It took me a long time to realize you always have to push things, relationships are like sharks, they have to move or die …”

“Are we a dead shark?”

Now I do move to her and put my hand on her shoulder. “No. No. I love you so much, and I put whatever else I felt aside, and I hope I have never been a burden on you or Louis. I think he suspects I could’ve done something, but didn’t, and I … Have you talked to him about? Does he think that?”

She shrugs. “I think he knows how goddamned lucky he is. I know … how lucky I am.”

“What do you mean?”

I catch a glimpse of her eyes in the muted light, and they are brimming with tears. “Why didn’t you ask me out? I waited for it, for years. It was always you, Abernathy. I … fucked other guys — sorry for the crudeness — but it was always you. I thought about asking you out, but then I thought, maybe, maybe, you didn’t want me …”

She huddles up a little, pulling away from me. I step back. “We were both stupid, I guess. Both idiots. But Jean,” I say, reaching out to her again, “it’s in the past. You know that, don’t you? I know you’re madly in love with Louis. It doesn’t bother me.”

“Louis … when he asked me out, I thought, ‘He’s sweet. I will date him, and hope he doesn’t get too nutty.’ It started out as a simple thing, because I knew he worshipped me — you told me so — and I needed someone who was a ‘nice guy.’ Such a horrible thing to say out loud,” she muses, “but true. You know what? I wanted to marry him after our first date. He was … amazing. Not like that,” she says sharply, thinking my mind’s in the gutter, “but … kind, generous, caring, understanding, dashing — he took me dancing, can you believe that? Ballroom dancing. A guy in this day and age took me ballroom dancing. He was good, too — excellent. I never knew. We had a wonderful night, and I realized — this is the guy I’m going to spend the rest of my life with. It was like a movie from the Thirties.”

I smile. Louis told me long ago about their first date. “He learned to dance in college. Maybe he was planning it for that long. That sneaky bastard.”

“You see? He knew. Some girls might think it’s creepy, but I didn’t. I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who saw what he wanted, and planned for that day.’ Maybe that day would never have come if you hadn’t pushed him into it, but still …” She is leaning back against the railing, smiling. She is beautiful.

“Are you happy, Abernathy?” she finally says.

“Sure. Sometimes.” I squirm in her gaze.

“I’ll do what you did for Louis. Ask her out. Ask Morrigu out. She’s waiting for it.”

I reach out again to her and bring her to me. Kissing her on the cheek, I say, “That’s just what I was thinking.”

We move back inside. It’s late, but the coffeehouse is still crowded. Jean and I walk back to the table and find it less populated than before. Morrigu is missing.

“She’s over there,” Amy says knowingly as she looks up and waves into the main room. “Saw someone she knew — not a guy, I don’t think,” she adds, for my benefit.

I sit back down and look around. After my conversation with Jean, I don’t want to waste any more time. Amy, Randolph, Zora, and Leon are deep in conversation, and Louis is whispering something to Jean. I lean back and sip my coffee.

Rimsky’s is a cozy place — an old house converted to a business, without a sign out front, without any kind of advertising. I love it, because it makes you feel comfortable. Here I can sit for hours, watching the people, the people I love and the people I don’t know, and Portland offers me something of everything. I look at the circle — the web, Morrigu called it. I’m reminded again of atoms. A girl I dated once, down at a school in southern Oregon, showing up at a coffeehouse, what, thirteen, fourteen years later? She’s sitting with another girl I knew a long time ago, whose boyfriend went nuts and came to me when he did. Amy, who was brutally raped and managed to thrive despite it, told me about the policeman who helped her out. I read not too long ago that he quit his job after shooting an unarmed bank robber. All of these people are tied together, and they don’t know it. If we saw the strands, would we be happier? Would we appreciate how close we are to each other? Or would it drive us to tug at them, attempt to break them, in an effort to prove our independence? Can we survive without being tied to each other?

Jean and Louis are holding hands again. I ache when I think of how close Jean and I were to being together. That’s what I wanted, a long time ago, and I realize that it has colored the way I feel about others. How stupid. How small I am. Self-pity. Tastes good, occasionally.

Morrigu is back, placing a hand on my shoulder, familiarly, like we’ve known each other for years. It is a comforting feeling.

“Hey, Leon,” she says. “I was just talking to Delilah and Nikos. Caesar’s friends, you know them? They’re out on their anniversary.”

He nods. Another web. I wonder who those people are, and if, somewhere, their lives touch mine. Such connections. I mention this to Morrigu.

“I told you,” she says, smiling, “a web. I just met you, correct? And yet … here we are, talking, friendly, knowing, on some level, where this will end up.”

“Excuse me?”

“Please. You’re going to ask me out. We’re not stupid. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. But there will be one more connection in our lives. You’ll meet Caesar, maybe. You’ll meet Delilah and Nikos, maybe. You’ll dump me and take up with Delilah, stealing her away from Nikos. I’ll steal Louis away from Jean. Jean will find comfort in the arms of Nikos. Caesar will stay with Leon, because they’re just perfect for each other. Are you dizzy yet?”

“Do you want to go out on a date with me?”

She smiles. Her green eyes penetrate deep into my soul. “Why, Chester, I never thought you’d ask.”


[Obviously, if you read this story without reading any of the other ones, you’re going to be a bit lost. When I moved to Arizona, I quickly became a father and then a father of a special needs kid, and I didn’t have as much time to write. Also, I didn’t live in Portland anymore, so I couldn’t really write about it. Berbati’s Pan, for instance, closed in 2010, but I wouldn’t have known that. Darcelle’s is still there (and still, I would hope, fabulous – if you’re ever in Portland, it’s a place you should not miss), and the Rimsky-Korsakoffee House is still there (Rimsky’s is an amazing place to hang out, if you’re ever in the city), but there’s so much that’s changed about the city, and I wouldn’t have been able to keep up. So I wanted to give some of the characters I had written a nice little send-off, especially Chet, who ended my first story depressed because he didn’t realize he was in love. Keep striving, Chet!

I was planning on posting two more stories, which are in a different shared universe and are a bit more of the “weird tales” variety, but I can’t find one of them, so I’m not going to post the first one quite yet. I know the second one is around, I just haven’t found it yet, so I’ll have to search for it. I mentioned last week that I was going to continue, but I wrote that some months ago, and I changed my mind because I couldn’t find the second story. I invented a nifty city for them to occur in, and perhaps I’ll get back to that city and these weirder kinds of stories, but who knows. If I find the second story, I’ll post them both!

I hope you enjoyed these posts! I like writing short stories, but I find that I’m a bit better at long fiction, because I tend to like to meander a bit and build worlds and use a lot of characters. I did that with these stories, to a degree, which is why they were all set in the same place in the same time period, roughly, but I just don’t feel like the punchiness of short stories, which tend to need a “grab-ya” plot, are my strong suit. I like for my plots to develop a bit, and longer fiction is more suited to that. Anyway, I’m still writing, but not as much – life takes up too much time. Thanks for reading!]


  1. Alaric

    I admit I haven’t read all of the stories you’ve posted here, but I have read a number of them (I’ll likely go back and read the ones I missed at some point). I’ve enjoyed- and been impressed by- all of them, but this one’s my favorite. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of our lives as journeys that intertwine with each other in different ways, and, in that context, the way we run into people we used to know in other contexts as we go along. The precise ways I view these things are a bit different from the characters’ views in this story, I suppose, but it’s a mark of a great story (and a great author) when there’s more in a story than what the author intended, and this one’s full of meaningful connections to my own life (not that I’ve ever been to Portland) and interesting reflections of the things that links us all as humans that give my mind echoing tangents rebounding off of almost every line (not sure how well I’m explaining this). I’m going through an unbelievably difficult time in my own life (and the life of someone I care a lot about), and somehow this story helped me make sense of it, even though the story isn’t about anything like what I’m going through, really. Thank you.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Don’t worry about being too clear in your explanation, my Visigothic friend – I’m just happy it moved you in some way. I very much appreciate the nice words, and I hope things get better. We’re going through some tough times, too, and it’s never easy. I just glad that this has helped, even in a small way.

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