The Wolves, or, Have You Ever Read Tao Lin?
By Daryl Qilin Yam
It had rained earlier that day, so you could still smell it in the air. It was intoxicating, the smell, and it didn't help. Caleb stood, then walked for a bit, then stood still again. Nobody ever waited for anybody at Dempsey Hill, he realised; the people were always just walking, kept walking, it didn't matter if they were just scouting the area, looking at all the fancy places. Caleb wanted to walk but either way he knew he was alone.
He checked his phone, logged into the app. "I'm coming," Hongsik had written. "I just ate dinner, so I'm a little slow."
It was a Friday night. There was a Bon Iver concert at the Esplanade this coming Sunday, and it was all the hipsters could talk about: Angie, Shakti, Soph, and himself. Soph was an up-and-coming photographer, with a studio at Goodman Arts Centre and an ongoing exhibition on the first floor, where she had scrawled the 'Holocene' lyric (the one about not being magnificent) all over the walls of the gallery. For Shakti her excitement stemmed from a matter of devotion and love for the craft. She'd made it a personal rule to store only five albums on her third-gen iPod, and as of that weekend that list comprised of: The Best of Cinema Music by Joe Hisaishi; Beach House's Bloom; Beyoncé's B'Day (for the high kicks); the soundtrack to Finding Nemo; and Bon Iver's Bon Iver, Bon Iver, having most recently replaced Cults' Cults.
When asked to explain why, Shakti said that 2012 has been a great year for music. "Every time I listen to the album," said Shakti, "it never fails to makes me cry."
"My uncle knows the sax player," Angie said. "He knew him, back when he was in college."
"Bon Iver has a sax player?" Soph asked. She looked at Shakti. "What?"
This, apparently, was how Angie had known about the secret gig. According to her uncle, the band's manager had wanted them to play in a smaller, remoter location, as a warm-up for the bigger concert on Sunday. The moment the sax player knew about this, he contacted her uncle and told him to come. "It's held at a bar, towards the back of Dempsey Hill," Angie said. "The only people who'll attend are those in the know."
Caleb nodded, and clapped, in approval. He loved the way she had said "college"; it wasn't like saying "junior college", not at all. It was a "college" with an extra twang: College. The longer he dwelled on the word the stranger its spelling seemed to him, the particular arrangement of the letters—but before it got too strange, Shakti asked Angie how her uncle had come to know the guy.
He was in Brooklyn, apparently: he was minding his own business, walking down Nostrand Avenue, when he had heard a voice, calling out to him. He turned. The voice belonged to a waitress who worked the night shift at a Chinese diner, just two or three blocks up the other way. Angie's uncle knew because he ate there three times a week, and noticed the thin brass ring, pierced through her nostril.
"Hey you," the waitress had said, and he didn't know if she was referring to him, or to the homeless guy seated against a brick wall, seated squarely between the two of them. "Who, me?" Angie's uncle asked. "Or…" He pointed towards the homeless guy, and the waitress said, "The both of you."
As the three of them made their way to the diner, the waitress told them about a bunch of kids who had come in, emptied out their wallets, and bought all the food they could afford.
The homeless guy was startled. "I don't want food," he said, to no one in particular. "I don't want anything. But I want cake." He then took Angie's uncle's hand, and shook it. "My name is Forest, by the way."
"My boss gave them three plates of chow mein, four plates of Yeung Chow, and a huge ass bowl of soup," the waitress was saying. When the food had arrived, the kids then asked her boss, rather calmly, if he could possibly find some homeless people, bring them into the restaurant, and come help them eat. The waitress's boss then laughed out loud and got her to find some.
Forest, the homeless guy, looked over his shoulder and fixed the waitress a look. He asked her with utmost seriousness if she had ever owned a goldfish. "You look like you did," he said. "You do." When Angie's uncle entered the diner, he saw that there were already ten to twelve people, seated round a large table, eating chow mein and having fried rice. "My birthday is in three days' time," said Forest, "and all of you are invited. But I am not invited." He then grabbed a chair and sat.
"That's a really amazing story," said Soph. "Cool," said Caleb. He then turned to Soph. "Do you have a goldfish?" Shakti asked Angie if Forest was the sax player.
"He wasn't," said Angie. He was one of the five or six random people, dragged from another corner of the street, ladling soup into a small bowl. "Oh dude, listen, oh dude. Music is hard," the sax player was saying, before putting his hand in the air. "Don't give me a five, man," he said to Angie's uncle. "Just raise your hand with me."
Hongsik came, in a slow kind of jog, with a thin leather jacket slung over his arm. The nearer he got, the taller he became, until he was a good two inches above him. "I thought it would be, um…" He tried to find the word. "Colder? Cooler? Yes, cooler. I thought it would be cooler in the night." He laughed, a bit shy. "I'm sorry," he said, "my English is not very good."
"It's okay," said Caleb. "You're pretty good." He then smiled, to assure him that he was.
Hongsik laughed again. "No, no. Thank you."
The bar was still rather empty when they walked in, with the space before the stage completely cleared of tables. From the ceiling hung huge drapes of cloth, brown and tattered looking. There were a few people, Caleb saw, having a couple of drinks by the bar, but there was no one that he recognised. A balcony, running along the second floor, looked down onto the entire space.
"We're early?" Hongsik asked Caleb.
"I guess so," he replied.
"Do you…" He trailed off. "Do you know what time it begins?"
Caleb shrugged. "9.30, maybe 10. Who knows?" He took another glance around the place. "Maybe it's already over," he said.
Hongsik laughed. "Eh, I hope not," he said. His laughter died away. He spoke again. "In Seoul it would be 10 o'clock right now, 10.15. We are one hour ahead of you."
"Really," Caleb said.
"Yeah, yeah," said Hongsik, nodding along. He was always nodding, this guy. "I'm sorry," he said, laughing to himself. "That's a stupid thing to say." He laughs a lot as well, Caleb noticed, in the way some guys crack jokes at funerals. "I'm just trying to say things," he said. "In Korean I am a lot more talkative. Not…" He shook his head. "Not awkward. Not talking about time."
Caleb smiled and patted him on the back. "It's okay," he said. "It's fine. You told me on the app before, remember? It's really fine."
Hongsik nodded again and placed a hand on Caleb's shoulder. He had a firm grip, this guy, even though his hands were pretty small. "Thanks," said Hongsik. Caleb looked into Hongsik's face, just to see how it looked in the light of the bar, all blue and neon, and he saw that he was looking elsewhere, looking around the place, at the empty stage. Caleb looked away. There was a small twinge in his chest, somewhere close to the heart, as though a part of it had suddenly grown cold and was ready to die. Hongsik let his hand fall back to his side.
After a while, he asked Caleb where all of his friends were.
"My friends?" said Caleb, a little confused. Who was he talking about? "Oh, right," he said, "my friends." Angie, Shakti, Soph. On the app he had told Hongsik that they'd all be going together, that that would be the plan. He took out his phone and checked it a little. "They're coming," he told Hongsik, even though there was nothing on his phone, nothing whatsoever, and that the both of them ought to get a drink.
"Let's go out," Soph was saying. "Let's go for a walk." It was a Thursday night, the night before the gig, and the four of them had spent the night at Caleb's. Caleb's house was a nice little terrace, located along the fringe of Serangoon Gardens. His family had just moved in, a couple of weeks ago, but the house still smelt like its previous owners.
"But what about Shakti?" Caleb asked. "What about Angie?"
"Aiyah," said Soph. "Who gives a shit." She had a disposable camera, took it out of her bag. She waved it at him. "We'll take pictures, you and I. Come on."
They went out.
"For the record," Soph said, "I hate goldfish."
"Alright," said Caleb. He didn't speak for a while. Soph looked like she was about to take a picture of the drain, but then thought against it. "It was just a question," he said.
"Oh, really," said Soph. She turned around, ran to the drain, and took a picture anyway. She came running back. "Have you ever read Tao Lin?" she asked him.
"Sure," said Caleb.
"Shoplifting From American Apparel," said Caleb. He nearly knocked a potted plant over. "And Richard Yates," Caleb said. "I read it because I love Richard Yates." He looked at Soph, who was now taking a picture of the plant. "Do you like Richard Yates?"
"Never heard of him," said Soph. "So you've never read Bed?"
Caleb thought about it. "No," he said.
"I see," said Soph. "Do you think Angie might have?"
He shrugged. "I don't know."
"Because I swear Angie might have just made the whole story up."
"What story?" asked Caleb.
"About her uncle, in Brooklyn. The kids in the diner."
"Soph," said Caleb. He stepped on a snail, purely by accident, and his brain began to hurt. "Sophia," he said, a little louder. "Soph," he said once more.
Soph took a picture of the snail. "What?" she said. The both of them said nothing; the both of them merely looked at one another. "Let's go back," she said.
When the both of them returned they found Angie and Shakti in the living room, watching The Shining for the sixth or seventh time. Every time the boy fell over the pile of snow, they'd laugh and clap their hands. This time Shakti took the remote and paused the film, and all Caleb could see was the poor boy, rolling and rolling, down what seemed like a mountainside. A person could loop it, this scene, replay it over and over again; he or she could screen it at a gallery, on a small section of wall, and pass it off as art. Shakti asked Soph and Caleb where the both of them had been.
"Just out," said Soph. "Down Berwick Drive, turned left at Bodmin."
Angie crossed her arms. She asked if the both of them had talked shit about her. "About having goldfish and that kind of shit."
Soph raised her arms. "What?"
"Did you?" asked Shakti.
"Soph," said Caleb. "Sophia."
She lowered her arms. "I'm going," she said. She walked up the stairs. "I'm going!" she said again.
Shakti pretended she was strangling a person before her eyes. "Nobody fucks off like you do," she muttered under her breath. It was a thing Shakti did: people never merely went away or left her side or said goodbye – they fucked off, violently, like a boy jumping out of a window, or a moon knocked out of orbit. Angie turned the volume back on.
Caleb received a call, an hour after the girls had left. It could have been an hour, it could have been two, he didn't really know for certain. He picked up the call.
"You know the overhead bridge, right across Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1?" It was Angie. "The long one, right over the main road?"
Caleb said he knew.
"Well," said Angie. "Shakti just threw her shoe off the bridge."
Caleb didn't say anything for a while. "I see," he said, after a minute of silence. During that minute he had found a mirror and looked at his own reflection. He continued looking at it for a while. "Hang on," he said; "I'm thinking." But he wasn't really thinking.
Ten minutes later he found himself on Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1, on the side of the road that led towards Serangoon. There was a shoe on the centre lane, alone and abandoned. It gleamed white against the tarmac, pitiful-looking. A taxi would drive towards him and slow down, before dashing off again. This happened multiple times.
Shakti began to scream at him from the bridge as he slowly approached the shoe.
"Don't you dare pick it up," she was screaming. "Don't you dare do it. Don't you dare." She then threw her other shoe – it flung out from the bridge, propelled from the bougainvillea planters, like a white, spinning comet in an old Disney film. Caleb followed its path: he saw the shoe bounce off the road, once, twice, thrice. It fell not too far away from him. He went over and picked it up as well. "Go on then," Shakti screamed. "Do whatever the hell you want." Somewhere in the nearby apartments, a dog began to bark. A light flickered on.
Caleb walked up the steps of the overhead bridge, with Shakti's shoes in his hands. When he got up to the top of the stairs, he found Angie seated on the floor, with her back against the railing. Shakti was further down the bridge, pacing up and down in her bare feet, muttering bastard, bastard, bastard under her breath.
"Hello," said Angie. She looked up at Caleb. She had her phone placed beside her, and he couldn't tell if she had abandoned it or simply meant to leave it alone. "All I did was tell a story," Angie said to him. She then looked away. "It was a good story," she said.
Caleb walked towards Shakti. "Get them away from me," she screamed, as he placed her shoes on the floor, like some weird royal tribute. "I don't wanna see them anymore." She then ran towards them – she ran so quickly, so suddenly, that Caleb had to back away, take a step back – she picked up both of her shoes and threw them off the bridge again. One landed further away than the other – spun harder, spun faster, a little out of control. She then turned towards Caleb. "You and I," she said to him. "We were never friends."
As the concert began it became warmer. They stood in the middle of the pit, and refused to move. Caleb's phone began to buzz, and when he checked it he saw that he had a message.
I see you, xx, it said. Hongsik asked if that was his friend. Caleb smiled and looked up towards the balcony. He spotted Angie, seated next to her boyfriend, drinking a tall glass of coke, mixed with something else. She waved at Caleb and blew him a kiss. I'll see you later, she mouthed. "That's Angie," Caleb said to Hongsik.
"That's who?" asked Hongsik. He could barely hear anything, now that they were starting to play. "Who?"
On stage, a number of people Caleb had never seen before began to walk to their instruments, planting themselves before their microphones. Justin Vernon, the front man everybody knew, had already plugged in his guitar and began to play the first stirrings of 'Perth'. Behind him Caleb saw a guy pick up a baritone saxophone, and wondered if this was the man Angie's uncle knew. One of the guitarists, standing towards the right of the stage, then picked up a shiny blue cup and drank from it. "Is that beer?" someone towards the front had asked, and he waved his finger. No, he appeared to be saying. It is not beer. When Justin Vernon sang the first verse, the crowd began to cheer. The lights, which had been dimmed before, flared in bright green during the second verse of the song. Caleb looked at Hongsik and found him staring, unreservedly, towards the stage.
They played 'Minnesota, WI', 'Towers', and 'Michicant' from the new album, followed by 'Beach Baby', 'Hinnom, TX', and 'Wash'. Justine Vernon appeared to take a quick break from the stage, only to reappear as 'Holocene' began. As the light grew and dimmed back down, Caleb felt his chest grow cold again; he wondered where Soph was, where she could be right now, only to feel, like the workings of magic, a light tap on his shoulder. He turned and saw it was her. "I'm here," said Soph, hugging him close. "Hello. I love this song." As the song came to an end the lights faded to black, with a single spotlight thrown onto the sax player. He rocked his body, forwards and backwards, churning out a parting solo, the notes wild and tumbling like a leaf in the wind. Caleb looked at Soph and saw that she was crying.
"Is that another friend?" Hongsik asked. Caleb nodded and said she was.
As Bon Iver went through the second half of the concert, Caleb, Hongsik and Soph found themselves being pushed to the front. There were more people, as it turned out, streaming into the bar, and it was all the bouncers could do to limit the numbers. Caleb felt Soph's hand clutch his wrist. He turned and saw her phone, shoved up to his face. There were words on the screen, some message she meant to convey, but Caleb couldn't read it quick enough. She went away. The light faded to black again, with a spotlight trained on the trombonist this time.
For the encore they did a cover of a Björk song – 'Who Is It', or something like that – a song neither Caleb nor Hongsik knew. Throughout the gig Caleb could sense that Hongsik was trying to sing, to sing along to some of the lyrics, but a part of him had wondered if a part of Hongsik was afraid. He'd look at him, snatch glances at Hongsik from time to time, and see his companion closing his eyes, losing himself, swaying to the music – and laughing, even, laughing once in a while, laughing still –as though the joy was too much to contain. Sometimes he'd reach an arm out and attempt the grab the air before him. It was all he could do to not burst out singing.
And then Justin Vernon asked the audience if they would sing the closer with him. "We need you to sing with us, would you sing with us?" he asked. "I need you to start quiet, alright, and then just get louder and louder towards the end, and then after a while we're going to stop playing and just start yelling it, and all of you should do the same." And the audience said they would. And Hongsik said he would. And Caleb said he would too, as the lights began to shutter and turn and flash like lightning during the refrain. When the song was over Hongsik held Caleb's head in his hands and asked him what time it was. "What time is it!" he asked Caleb, giddy and dizzy with the love, and the excitement, and the rush of it all, and Caleb told him that he didn't know, dude, he didn't know, he would never ever know.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 4 Oct 2014