Sunday, May 15, 2011

Buster and Tank by Chris Castle


I got the letter from Buster a month before Christmas. Around that time when everyone stops at the shop windows to decide whether to buy their gifts now or wait a little longer. The letter was short and told me the things he wanted to say; he started it with my name, rather than a nickname and I knew we were in trouble. The letter was to the point and terrible. When it was over I read it again and then I wrote him back, as best I could.

I came home for Christmas. I saw my mum and my sister, played with her kids. I’m better now and we are something like a family again. It’s become a little joke, these past few visits, when I pour the non alcoholic ginger wine, making a big show of it, like I used to with the real stuff. I always plonk two ice cubes down with a splash, to let them know I still find it funny. We talked and exchanged presents and then it was over; I guess you know when you’re getting older, when Christmas moves so quickly; it’s like every hour is accelerated. They went to my sisters for New Year’s. I couldn’t go to parties now and there was a part of me that was relieved about that, as much as the other part, which missed the craziness.

Buster came to my house the same day. People were in the streets, putting up banners, readying themselves for the festivities. I was standing by the front door, fixing the light, like I’d promised, when I saw him. He walked up to the gate and then stopped, as if he wasn’t sure if it was the right house or not. Buster has been my best friend for nearly twenty five years, since we were both five years old. I faced him and ushered him through the gate, like I was backing a car out of the driveway. He came forward slowly and then stood a few inches from me. There were no handshakes this time. I drew him in and he came to me and we stood there, holding each other for a very long time.

Then we went inside.

We had the whole day and no plans for it. We could have gone for a drive, headed into town, but none of that came up. Instead, we simply sat in my mother’s living room; it had that odd feeling of being too bare without the decorations, as if it were a stranger’s house. Buster looked around, took his time staring at the photographs, sometimes asking questions, other times just watching. He reached the last one, of my nephew and traced a finger along his face. When it was over I offered up coffee and he nodded, like he was afraid to trust himself to speak right then.

We drank our coffee and finally Buster began to talk slowly. He spoke carefully and he sounded the same as the letter he’d sent me. It wasn’t his real voice, we both knew that, but the voice he’d made himself use; trained on certain phrases and words that he’d taken from the meetings. He told me the date he’d last gambled and the time, too. It wouldn’t have mattered, the time, but the way he said it, his voice thinning and almost cracking, it sounded as if it was almost a secret of some kind. He went on, slowly gripping his hands then wringing them, as if he’d been stung or bitten. Then it was over and he looked up to me, knowing there was no answer to what he had just told me.

Buster had changed, there was no doubting that. He was hollowed out where he sat, as if he was the younger, more fragile brother of the man I grew up with. His eyes were gaunt and shot, his face pale, like he was recovering from flu. There were other things, things I only noticed because I knew him so well; habits he had now assumed, like adjusting and re-adjusting the strap of his watch, the way he thumbed his throat as if he’d just shaved three or four times. His wedding ring was back on his finger, but there was a knot of skin around either side of it. The ring was in a different spot. It looked as if it had been wrenched off and then returned.

I knew he saw the same habits in me when I started visiting him after kicking the booze. He had pointed them out in that good natured way of his, and we had laughed about it. I ran my fingers over my lips countless times, like I was still drying the beer froth from my lips. Other times I would run my hand over the back of my neck, like I was slapping on aftershave. I also tied knots in my hair, the way I did when I was a kid, just before bedtime and getting tired. If he hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known and I was glad that he didn’t see me as fragile. That year, for Christmas, he bought me a bottle of aftershave and took me to the barbers. It was the first time, coming out of the barbers, feeling the cold wind on my ears and walking with Buster, that I thought I was a real person again. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

Slowly, I asked him questions; how much he had gambled, what it had led to. He answered each of them in the same careful way, thinking and then speaking, drawing breath when he was finding it hard. There wasn’t a lot I asked him but he answered me true enough. It was the same, whatever the addiction; it whittled you down to the bare bones, making everything terribly simple; what a person had lost, what the person had left. Buster was lucky; he still had his family, he still had his job. The things he had lost could be re-built; some of those, we both knew, he wouldn’t be able to reclaim; some of them he wouldn’t want anyway. The conversation spluttered out and I refilled our cups.

I made lunch for us. There was a TV in the living room, but for some reason neither of us made the effort to turn it on; it felt like if there was any intrusions, something might break in the house, or between us. Instead I went about the food and he followed me, sitting in the chair, asking me a few questions about my job-I worked abroad as a teacher-and swapping a few stories of his own about his work. In-between, when there were no words, there was just the sound of me preparing the food; the crack of eggs, the sound of the knife against the board. He collected plates and cutlery and set the table next door. Outside a car backfired and Buster spilled the knife and fork onto the floor and I realised how scared he still was.

After we ate, Buster mentioned the strangest thing; he wanted to get to work on the garden. I looked at him and for the first time, I smiled a natural smile; Buster was not a gardener. He was born inside walls, and walls were where he stayed. But I looked at him then and I knew he was serious. He looked out the back door, surveying the humble plot and his eyes lit for the first time since he’d stepped through the door. It was true there was some work that needed to be done, manual stuff that my mother could not do herself, and I said it would be a good idea. He collected the plates and dumped them in the sink as I went looking for the keys to the shed.

It was a small thing, the garden; a simple path, a few flower beds, two overgrown hedges to keep the neighbours away. At the end of the path were two huge oak trees that used to scare me as a kid. The hedges were the thing and I set up the ladder and got the clippers out accordingly. Buster went up and I steadied the ladder and we got to work. We worked in near silence, Buster calling down once in a while to say he was done, the two of us standing back and deciding if the branches had been brought down low enough. At some stage the pub a few hundred feet from my mum’s oak trees blared into life; the management were testing the sound system for the night, but that was it. We worked on, bagging what we cut, until three bin liners were full, the stray branches poking out the sides like hungry fingers.

We went on, taking time out to mend the small gate that divided the two hedges, brushing down the cobwebs that cloaked it. By the time we were done, I could see Buster was already eyeing up the oak trees. I told him it was too big a job but he reasoned we could take down the over-hanging branches. He took off his gloves and flexed his hands; his palms were blistered and sweaty but neither of us said anything. We broke for a few minutes while I refilled the flask and then we went right back to it. The branches fell in big, thick clumps, the sound heavy and billowy. I wiped away sweat and at some point found blood on my gloves; one of the branches had cut my brow, leaving a long, simple cut from one eyebrow to the other. I hadn’t felt a thing.

We finished; the ladder was unable to extend further and we carefully cut the branches into smaller pieces and filled the bags. By then it was dark and stars had begun to sit in the sky above us. I didn’t know what time it was, didn’t want to know. Buster looked at the bags gathered at our feet and suggested we make a bonfire up. I agreed, thinking the same thought at almost the same time. I told him and for the first time that day, he smiled.

Buster made up some more food; left-overs from the fridge, cold cuts; I called my family and wished them a happy New Year. I walked back and smiled at Buster moving around the kitchen; it was a standing joke when we were growing up that he knew my mum’s kitchen better than the rest of us did. Once, in desperation, my sister called him and asked him where the pickle jar was; sure enough it was at the back of the cupboard, tucked behind the beetroot, to the left.

We took the food out to the garden and laid our plates on the ground; the sound from the bar was in full swing now and the stars above us were beaming. There was a full moon. The lights from the houses either side guided us enough to let us start up the fire and then, after a short while, the bin was burning bright. We steadily emptied everything into it; carefully folding the bags into neat squares and setting them under a rock so they didn’t blow away. My body was aching by then and I had never felt better. I didn’t feel the need to wash down; either; the dirt and the blood seemed to feel fresh somehow, like it was necessary to me. A thick piece of bark popped and was followed up by another noise; a couple in the pub car park screaming at each other. Somebody intervened, someone else. Then there was a new sound; a car’s tyres screeching, followed by jeering applause.

We sat on the cold stone of the path and ate our food. The fire crackled and rose higher; the smoke ran clear in the freezing night air. I looked up and saw the moon was full. Buster began to talk but it was different now, more like his old self. It felt as if he’d exhausted himself back to his natural state of mind. He told me about his youngest and the things he did to make him laugh. Then he mentioned the local club we had used to go to years before and how it was now a department store. Further back, he jogged my memory for the name of an old teacher of ours, one who had been teased mercilessly and locked one of our classmates in a cupboard.

I poured more coffee and felt the jolt of it run through me, making me suddenly aware of just how cold it was. I fished out a small packet of cigarillos and offered him one, before taking one for myself. It was something like a joke-the only addiction left for the two of us. Neither of us even enjoyed smoking that much, not really; but we lit them up and smoked them. For those few minutes I enjoyed it in a way I had never done before. The feeling of the smoke in my body, then breathing it out and gulping in the iced air felt good. Buster blew great plumes of smoke and then tossed his into the burning bin.

He said he had to make his phone-calls now.

I turned away from the fire and watched him go. There was a moment when he stopped at the door, his hand on the doorknob. I thought, for a moment, he was going to turn round and walk back and I knew if he did he would be that same figure that had made his way to the front gate; hollowed out and somehow defeated. But then there was the sound of the door opening, that unearthly grinding sound it always made and then he was gone. I looked back to the fire.

I drank more coffee and looked at the stars. I thought about things, things that mattered and other, unimportant matters. I closed my eyes and thought about people I had known and tried to picture what they were doing in that instant. I tried to imagine most of them happy. I wished luck to those who I couldn’t quite find it in myself to see smiling. When I heard the door crunch open I didn’t know if a lot of time had passed or not, though it had felt like it. I turned back round and saw Buster come towards me. He was still uncertain on his feet, as if a loud noise had just stunned him, but he didn’t shamble the way he had done; he looked as if a certain strength had returned to him. When he sat he patted my shoulder, but didn’t speak and that was enough. More than that, it was what felt right. He moved a little on the ground, as if trying to find the exact same spot as he had done before and then went on watching the fire. After a few minutes he wished me a happy New Year. I laughed, having missed it, missed the noise from the pub, not checking my watch, having no-one that would have rung me, and he laughed too. And then it began to snow.

I wasn’t sure if it was just tiredness at first. I thought I had felt snow fall onto my cheek, but for some reason, I had decided that it was actually a small fragment of the stars falling on me. Then a second flake fell, a third. After a minute or so, it fell in a soft, steady swirl all around us. I looked over to Buster and he was craning his neck, watching it happen all around us. And it really did look as if the stars were all tumbling down around us and a part of me waited for the moon to fall out of the sky. And it was beautiful.

The sky collapsing and falling in on itself was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Buster pulled himself up and reached down for me. Both of us looked up to the sky and let the blizzard rain down on us, as if it was the most natural sight in the world. We opened out arms and one of us was screaming and then the other and then we couldn’t stop. The two of us went on, screaming and howling and I didn’t know if we were laughing or crying, scared or exhilarated, but we kept on. We kept on and didn’t care if someone rang the cops or shouted blue murder at us, because none of it mattered, none of it at all. The fire died quietly near to where we stood, drowned by the falling stars and there was nothing left but the cold night sky above us. And I felt the blood drying on my skin and my limbs aching so bad they were fit to burst and I carried on. Buster brushed my hand and I looked over, but he was still howling, his eyes wet with tears or snow or something else. I looked to him for a long moment. Then I looked back up and faced the moon. We just couldn’t stop screaming.

Chris is English, but works in Greece. He has been published over 250 times. His influences include Ray Carver, PT Anderson and Stephen King. He can be reached at

This Zine Will Change Your Life previously published Reckoning by Chris Castle. Check it out.

Street art by Nick Walker.
Photo by Adam Lawrence.

Falcon is a side project of some of the members of the Brooklyn-based band Longwave. Their new album Disappear will be released on May 17th.

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