The idea was we were stranded. We reached out with our oars and scraped the pavement with them and when the boat didn’t move we stared at the people walking past and then looked at each other hopelessly. We’re lost, we said. I was at the bow and Nell was at the stern but it didn’t matter much because the boat wasn’t about to go forward or backward and anyway it was the kind of boat where bow and stern look the same. It had been in Nell’s garage and it was a miracle that it wasn’t at the bottom of a pond somewhere. Once the fact sank in that we were lost in the middle of the ocean we crawled to each other in the center of the boat and embraced tearfully. A couple of people had stopped to watch by this point, shopping bags in hand. A car pulled up behind us and the driver and passenger got out without seeming to notice that there was a wooden boat taking up the parking space in front of them. When we had looked into one another’s eyes for a while we moved back to the bow and stern and returned our long gaze to the street, to the sidewalk, to the stores behind the people. We sat there and drifted. Three books on a deserted island, Nell said. On the Road, The Idiot, and Tao Te Ching. Three foods, I responded. Pizza, she said. Pizza? She nodded. Just pizza. We had it settled then. After a while a meter maid came by. Our meter was empty, it turned out. We promised to move but the woman was already scribbling up a ticket. I can feel the waves picking up! Nell hollered. I can feel our luck beginning to change! The meter maid abided me—I shrugged apologetically—you had to wonder if she hated her uniform as badly as we did—but she couldn’t abide Nell, who kept yelling at the sky. In the end she gave up on the ticket, not deigning to waste her time. Better for us, but Nell was offended. We’re in the great blue sea, she said. And the sharks swim away from us. Baby, I said, standing in the boat. Being balanced on its center seam, we started to wobble. Nell stood too. Soon we were in the street and the boat was wrecked and cars were stopping so they didn’t crush us under tire. We decided to repair to my house for a beer. When we came back for the boat it was still there, but righted. Someone had wanted to perpetuate the float.
Today John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot. Nell was over and Kerry was over and after a while Willie was over and even the cowpoke twins and Ron and Tab. The TV played and played. Someone said what if we had some kind of funeral, go out in the street. But the President hadn’t been dead even 24 hours. Then Willie said unthinkably that we might re-enact the shooting. Blow his brains out in the backyard. He went on. Nobody stopped him. I can be the killer, he said, and Guy can be the President. Do you still have that little wagon? he asked, looking at me, looking at Shackleton. It took him that long to realize how off he was. The passion had gone out of our bodies sentences ago. We were done after that. All we could do the rest of the day was sprawl about the house brooding. Someone put on Peter, Paul and Mary. The part I’ll always remember is how the second a side ended, someone was there to flip the record right away. You didn’t get a lick of silence. Then for the third time Where Have All the Flowers Gone played. It was the end of side B. The trio sang, Oh, when will they ever learn? and the needle rose. No one was there. The room was suddenly a headache. I sprang up and nearly scratched the record trying to get the voices back. Peter, Paul and Mary were ghostlike, three jilted lovers, but they were all we had. God, I wanted so badly to create something. But the day just piled on.
We hauled a bed into Gaslamp Square and lay in it, Nell and I. Me underwear, her nothing. That’s how she slept. The thought was that it was three in the afternoon and in the light people would get to see the strangeness of sleeping but instead a crowd gathered on Nell’s side of the bed simply because she was naked. At least that was my take. My eyes were closed. I was trying to dream. But she saw all those people and I could feel her body begin to sweat. Under our thin sheet—a single, white sheet—it was too hot for anything more—she turned to me and planted her lips on my lips. I love her lips. You could hear the crowd gasp. She kissed me harder then. I felt a little strange. Then she climbed on top of me and my penis was erect and she started massaging it with her hand although (I hoped) the crowd couldn’t tell if that was actually what she was doing or if we were just pretending. Then she slipped it through the hole in my briefs and sat on it, put it inside her I mean, and for a second I forgot that we were in the middle of Gaslamp Square being watched by a crowd of people but then I opened my eyes to the sun that was shining down so brightly along with the astonished faces and became aware that Nell was playing for the crowd and not for me. I pulled her ear to me and whispered, Maybe the Happening is over. She shook her head. She hummed no. She swayed on top of me then and although I was aware that it was not really me she was moving around on top of—it was really all the people watching her I couldn’t help it and in a few minutes I came which felt like heat bursting out of me because of the way my body was soaking in the sun and sweating and absorbing the faces of the even more astonished crowd and trying to expel them at once. Once I had done that I felt a deep hollowness. Nell collapsed in my arms in a big show before she settled off of me and curled against my body once again. The Happening was still technically in effect and we resumed pretending it was night. Until some word of the police began to circulate and Willie and Shack and Kerry who were waiting in the wings swept into the square and carried the bed to Kerry’s truck before any law enforcement officers had a chance to find out who we were and Kerry hit the gas, us still on the mattress, the wind washing over us from the top of the truck’s cab. It was like a dream. I felt very distant. Nell luxuriated in the sweeping air and pulled the sheet off of herself. I could see Shack looking back at her body in the rearview mirror and Kerry shaking her head. I felt and still feel a little dead after the feat. I am for Nell, the sun says. She is not for me.
Norma’s friend Mike was sick in the hospital so we told Norma we would see what we could do. The costume store was charging exorbitant prices for bear costumes and no one had any extra fabric lying around, so in the end we dressed up in our old high-school lab coats and filed through the hospital into Mike’s room and surrounded his bed. He was sleeping. We stood there waiting for him to wake up, pretending to be doctors while all the equipment beeped. The thing was nobody had ever done a Happening on request before. After a while Norma went over and shook Mike awake. He took one look around at us and started crying. It was clear right away that we had made a mistake.
I would probably classify the previous Happening as not-a-Happening simply because of the high functionality quotient. It became clear when Mike woke up and began to cry that we had expected a certain outcome, which was against the spirit of Happenings in general and why we felt so weird in the first place when Norma asked us to do it. Turns out Mike was on a heavy dose of morphine and crying all the time anyway but we didn’t know that. I’m not sure it made a difference. What I would classify as a Happening however was when we marched out of there utterly convinced we were doctors. When we made it outside we began to pass around the cigarettes that Shackleton had been harboring in his lab coat pocket. You’ve never seen so many doctors so happy together, that’s for sure. There were a couple others by the front door eyeing us. We laughed and talked about the different patients we had seen that day. Willie had interrogated a man with a single eyeball as to the location of his missing eyeball, with no success. Nell had tried to help a man with a can of beer glued to his palm. As for Shackleton, he just shook his head. He had seen things far worse. Finally he just said, Parakeet. And shook his head again. One of the doctors who were also lingering outside the front door coughed loudly at this and rushed inside. We all shrugged. He must be new, we speculated. A few minutes later I went back through the hospital to check on Norma, who was still with Mike. That was when the Happening ended, although I forgot to take off my coat. It smelled like a burning house.
Also not a Happening: Norma on the side of the bed where sick Mike lay, crying herself. Me breaching doctor code—I was still in this doctor mindset—by taking her shoulders and pulling her against my chest. A couple of nurses walked in and were about to say something but I lowered my brows at them. They understood. The nurses left and shut the door. Norma’s head kept bumping my neck in little sobs. Soon Mike was asleep and she was on her feet, contrary to the plan, kissing me.
The marriage was technically a Happening so I feel obligated to record it here. Shackleton is still around although his hair is a lot shorter and Nell managed to come too even though Willie is dead, Kerry has disappeared, and most of the others we’ve lost track of. Three of us was enough for an inside joke. Norma has basically forgotten about the Happenings—taking her shirt off at The Frog for instance—but Shackleton and I talked and even got Nell in the mix and we all decided it was going to be a Happening. Not the wedding but the entire marriage. That it was never going to stop happening. This might be off-putting if you forget that we were never pretending at the Happenings, we were just being, that it was never a joke to us, it was just life. So the rest of the marriage is supposed to be that kind of being, and Norma’s eye rolls are part of the being, and so are the wooden chairs stacked on the lawn this morning, and Shackleton’s terrible tuxedo, and the ring I bought that was one tier lower than what Norma wanted, and the dew on the grass that is ruining all of our shoes. The vows are scheduled for five o’clock which is a nice conservative time and that will be the beginning of the Happening and the end will be when one of us dies. I can’t help looking at Nell and thinking of some of the times we used to have. She and I. Well. Those times are long past. Still I see the straight life as easier to abide if you think of it as one long project instead of as an extended shrug. The other option is Shackleton. He’s gone a different way. Art lives forever but it also kills its elders and every time he calls with another story about a Grateful Dead show or a manhole cover removal I hear him one step closer to the outside of the circle and I look around at the representationalist paintings on our walls and they don’t look so bad. We’ve been gifted multiple sets of knives today, I just know it. I’ll make sure to use them all, and that will be how it starts. Diced carrots, radish discs, French fried sweet potatoes. This is how we begin our lives.
Dennis James Sweeney’s stories appear in The Collagist, Crazyhorse, Five Points, and Indiana Review, among others. He is the Small Press Editor of Entropy, the recipient of a Fulbright grant to Malta, and the author of two chapbooks of poetry: THREATS and What They Took Away.