Long Haul

Long Haul

by Amanda Stern

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Overview

Long Haul by Amanda Stern

The Long Haul is about a frozen relationship between a college-aged alcoholic ("The Alcoholic") and his codependent girlfriend (the protagonist whose name is never spoken). Shifting between Upstate New York and New York City, the story follows the trajectory of their doomed six-year relationship.
The Alcoholic is a college-town musician—a shiftless, disturbed yet oddly gentle and pathetic figure, he demands fealty and receives it from his girlfriend, who sees no choice but to stick with him for "the long haul."
The protagonist, infatuated both by his irredeemably broken state off-stage and his Cobain-esque charisma on-stage, follows him everywhere. But she can barely apprehend the hollowness inside the two of them, fascinated instead by the trauma she encounters everywhere, an abandoned child, a pregnant junkie, a self-mutilating college friend…and in him.
In an effort to find their way in the world, they drive through an ice-storm, kidnap an abandoned girl, break into a house, make and break the same promises, uncover the futile existence of lost causes, and forsake their own needs. As the redemption they found in the other turns to ruin, these two addicted youths find that extricating themselves from the other is not as easy as sacrifice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781932360066
Publisher: Soft Skull Press, Inc.
Publication date: 09/28/2003
Pages: 142
Product dimensions: 5.52(w) x 7.48(h) x 0.43(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Long Haul


By Amanda Stern

Dzanc Books

Copyright © 2003 Amanda Stern
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-7954-2


CHAPTER 1

Sympathy for the Devil


The Alcoholic says be prepared. We are in his car, his "honey wagon," an old olive green automatic Dodge Swinger from before we were born. His gig bag is in the back seat. There are picks on the ground, strings. He says something big is gonna happen tonight. I say, "In the world?"

He says, "No. Onstage."

He is playing the Rubical, the on-campus alternative stop for hipsters, wannabes, and other rising poseurs of the 20th century college scene. It's on the side of the road, next to the Genesee River. It used to be a small cabin, made from wood planks that smelled from lack of maintenance. Back in the sixties, the seventies, students used it as a political activist center. They wanted to be down like the Students for a Democratic Society, but they couldn't get with the violence, so it ended up a protest house. People rallied for Angela Davis, the Chicago Seven. It burned down one night, taking with it a girl named Rubi and her boyfriend, Cal. The administration built it back up using cement and cinder blocks. It's not lovely to look at, but it's a place to go just the same.

The Alcoholic is playing his first solo gig of the year. The world it seems, knows it. We spent the better part of Sunday hanging up flyers in town and on campus. Some folks gave him the thumbs up, others yelled, "we'll be there." I knew he was good, but I didn't see what the big deal was, why everyone wanted to go. I'd never even heard his band play before. Others did. They had a huge following. Even the locals came out to hear Mr. Lipstick play.

He pops open a can of Genesee beer, drinks the whole thing in a couple swallows, tosses it to the back seat. He opens another, repeats the performance. It's near five. We're late for the sound check, but he doesn't seem concerned. I open his guitar case, run my fingers lightly across the strings. A delicate echo of notes fills the front seat.

"I had this girl once. Said my hands played her like a guitar," he offers.

"That's nice," I say.

We are in the beginning stages of our romance. He says things like this from time to time, trying to impress me. Once he told me he made it with his camp counselor at thirteen. He wants me to think he's hot shit, but I already think that. Someone taps the car window—his side. He looks up, rolls it down.

"What's up, man?" his friend asks.

"Not a whole lot," the Alcoholic responds.

"You uh, playing tonight?"

"Yeah. You gonna be there?"

"Wouldn't miss it. Is it gonna be like last time?"

"No way, man. It's gonna be different. Really different."

"That's cool, man. That's cool."

It's bitter cold, winter already, although it's only October. The Alcoholic rolls his window back up, looks at me.

"Think I should play the black guitar or the red guitar?"

"The black guitar," I answer.

"That's exactly what I thought. We are such a good team."

He sticks a cigarette in his mouth, pushes in the car lighter, bounces his leg. He has a lot of nervous energy. Burns it right off with the leg bounce. That's why he's so damn skinny, he says. Two things I have never seen him do in the three weeks we've been together: eat and go to the bathroom.

His pea coat is falling apart. There are holes in his black jeans. The red union suit he wears underneath is too big and it bulges over the top of his pants like a beer belly. He is so skinny even with long johns his pants are still baggy. His hair is growing out of its skater cut. The sharp ledge in the back is getting long and I hope the next time he gets it cut, I'm with him. Maybe I'll just cut it myself. He looks seventeen to his twenty years. I look fifteen to mine. I guess he's right we are a good team.

The car smell is growing on me. The leather interior has absorbed two decades of stale cigarette smoke. Gnarled guitar strings poke out of the closed glove compartment. Dried orange peels with cigarette stubs blistered into the skin of the rind sit forgotten under the front seat. The back seat is missing half its leather. The stuffing springs out like a fashionable fur vest.


The Alcoholic tunes his guitar. He doesn't need an automatic tuner, a tuning fork. He is his own equipment. He plucks each string, adjusts the tuning pegs and twists tones up and down octaves until he finds the right note. It takes all of one minute for him to do the whole guitar. He hotboxes his cigarette. Takes a final deep fast drag, bulldozes the last of the filter into the pullout ashtray and turns off the car.

We jog-walk downhill; the gust launches us like a slingshot. The wind brings out the freezing in the cold. It's probably ten degrees out here. Five below with the wind chill factor. I wish I were home on my couch with a blanket over me, watching a movie, drinking hot chocolate. It's ten past five and already it's pitch black. The air smells like burning pine, a forest fire. It's nostalgic, depressing. For a brief second I miss my childhood bedroom. The powdery rose perfume trapped in patches of quilt my grandma stitched when I was born. Sometimes I feel like a grain of magnetic dust being dragged by an overgrown pointer. I look at the Alcoholic, his guitar slung over his shoulder. We are a team.

The metal door sticks to its frame and the Alcoholic yanks it open. Inside, sound guys and fraternity boys run around setting up things. Someone is sweeping the floor. Everyone's still geared up in coats, hoods. It's a different type of cold in here, stagnant, like a meat locker. Guys look up, nod. The Alcoholic puts his guitar onstage, shakes hands with the sound guy. I walk around the room, stand in the middle, watch the Alcoholic as he unzips his gig bag. He's doing Rodin below the mic, the thinker pose. He pulls out his slide, runs it like a bottleneck across the strings. He flat picks the steel with his right hand, dragging the slide back and forth over the same three frets. The acoustics in the room pick up the sound and everyone stops what they're doing, looks up.

He puts the strap around his neck, stands. Lips purse into guitar face and he closes his eyes, skimming his hand across the strings, making her weep, making her sing. He removes the slide and his fingers whip into shapes of Ws and Vs across the bridge of the neck. His hand darts from one configuration to the next, never missing a note. For him it's nothing special, nothing planned. It's impromptu, a skipping of pebbles across a pond, but there is something special about him up there, in his pea coat, caramel hair glowing under the stage lights. I am not the only one awed. A frat boy leans into me.

"Were you here last year?"

"No," I whisper.

"Oh man, it was awesome what he did. Something big always happens when he plays."

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"You'll see," he says.

The sound guy gives the signal and the Alcoholic leans into the mic.

"Microphone check. Check one, check two, check three."

The sound guy gives him the thumbs up, shines the spotlight only on him.


We have a couple of hours and the Alcoholic wants to take it off-campus. We walk uphill toward the car, only this time he saunters, unswayed by the wind, chin pointed up toward the heavens, shoulders jutted back. The sound check went well, he feels cocky, like a star.

The Old Toad is holding half price happy hour, so we go there. The English accent sounds out of place in this town and we laugh when the bartender asks us if we want,

"A beah or hahd licka?"

We ride out the next hours at a back table nursing a pitcher. The Alcoholic runs through his set list, switches around a couple of songs, but won't tell me what he's playing.

"It's a surprise," he says.

I'm beginning to think he wrote a song for me. I wonder if he's starting to love me. I imagine him nervous up there, finding me in the crowd, the spotlight dimming. He'll grin, his mouth will go dry but he'll carry on.

"This is for you," he'll say. The song will be long, but simple. It will announce me to the world, declaring me like a major. He'll take his love and fling it over the cliff of students staring up at him from the edge of the stage. The chorus will be catchy, but wistful, the kind of song you either cry or make love to. I play with a lock of his hair, twirl it around my finger.

"So, what happened last time, what's the big deal all about?"

He looks away, gets nervous, purses his lips.

"Oh, nothing really. It's stupid."

"Tell me."

He gives me an apologetic smile and I take my hand out of his hair, lean back away from him, and brace myself for the worst.

"I proposed to my girl."

"Oh."

"It's not a big deal. I didn't even mean it. I was drunk, it just came out and well, we're not married, so you know how it all turned out."

I smile, look around the bar, see if anyone overheard that I'm the only girl he's ever loved. At him, I just shrug. No big deal. So he wrote songs for someone else, so he was in love with her, wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Big deal. Who cares?

"Hey, that's cool. I was engaged before also," I say, lying. His face drops a bit, and I feel the playing field level.

"You were?" he asks. "To who?"

"It's not a big deal, really. Let's talk about it another time."

"But, what was his name? What happened?"

"Really, let's talk about it later."

"Her name was Moe," he says. "That was my girlfriend's name. And his?"

I pause, think about all my boyfriends, and pick the one from sixth grade.

"Billy. Billy Macklowe," I say. He takes a deep breath, looks around. His eyes seem darker; he starts bouncing his leg, pulls at the splinters at the edge of the table. He flicks a rolled up piece of beer label off the table onto the floor.

"That's cool," he says, but he doesn't mean it.

It's getting time to pack it up, but suddenly he wants another round. A shot of whiskey, something hard. From my seat I watch him down a shot at the bar. He points back to his glass, the bartender refills. I contemplate going up there, telling him he shouldn't get drunk, but it's only been three weeks. I can't be ordering him around. He knocks back one more, heads over to me. Without meeting my eyes, he says,

"Let's go."

"How many did you do?" I ask.

"Just one," he says.

I don't say a thing.

I toss a couple bucks on the table; we throw on our coats and steer for the street. Outside, the Alcoholic is trying not to walk drunk. I ask if he's all right because he's navigating the ground like he's in high heels. He asks,

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"Well you had a lot to drink."

"Same as you," he says.

"I didn't do shots."

"I only did three," he says.

"You just told me you did one."

"No I didn't."

"Yes you did."

"Trust me, I know what I said," he snaps.

He's never snapped at me before.

The car is freezing and we shiver for a minute before even turning her on.

"You all right to drive?" I ask.

"Why wouldn't I be?" he answers.

"Never mind," I say.

He's a better driver drunk than sober and I remember to keep that in mind.

"So, were you like, in love with him?" he asks.

"Who?"

"Billy Macklowe."

"Oh, yeah. I guess."

"What happened?"

"He just wasn't right for me," I say, hoping this will end the conversation.

"What wasn't right about him?" he asks.

"Lots of things. Can we talk about this another time?"

"Was he good looking?"

"He was okay," I say.

He picks up one of my gloves from the floor. Starts tugging at the fingers.

"What about in bed, was he good in bed?"

I almost laugh picturing twelve-year-old Billy Macklowe naked.

"He was alright, I suppose."

I try to change the topic, guess how many people are gonna show up, and he gets high off the potential. He sings a couple of lines from a Velvet Underground song, then asks,

"How'd he do it?"

"What?"

"Propose. How'd he propose?"

I groan.

"I don't know, on his hands and knees."

"On his hands and knees? Like a dog?"

"I guess."

"What an asshole," he says. Then laughs muttering under his breath, "on his hands and knees."


He's a better driver drunk than sober and I remember to keep that in mind.


The Alcoholic says something big is gonna happen tonight. I say,

"In the world?"

He says, "No. Onstage."

I imagine my girlfriends' faces when they realize the guy onstage is belting one out just for me. I picture them trying to contain their jealousy with forced grins; their cheekbones struggling to stay raised in the air. They'll wonder if anyone will ever do that for them, in front of an audience. Sing for their girl in front of strangers.

It's still cold at the Rubical, but with liquor in us already, it's not so hard to tolerate. He takes his ratty scarf off, tosses it behind the stage. The keg guys are starting to arrive and I watch them set up. I suck down the first few glasses of foam, helping them out. The Alcoholic is in the corner looking nervous. He pulls on a flask the sound guy gave him and quickly hands it back. I see his eyes dart my way, but I look down at the keg hose, and pretend I'm not watching. I don't want him to feel spied on, don't want him to feel caught. From the periphery, I see him take another pull off the flask.

Someone readjusts the mics, the lights. The Alcoholic pours himself a beer from the keg. He bounces from side to side on his feet.

"You nervous?" I ask.

"No way, man. Not nervous at all."

He's never called me man before.

The sound guy wants to do another check and the Alcoholic jumps up on stage as a couple people enter, start setting up benches, a quasi ticket booth. As he takes his guitar out of its bag, he haphazardly knocks against the strings. The acoustics in the room pick up the sound. The crash of accidental chords carries over our heads. It's a twang, a mishap and it doesn't sound beautiful like when his hands are sliding up and down those steel strings making even the friction sing. People look up, scrunch their noses. The Alcoholic looks around, apologetic.

Everyone's silent, listening to the mistake. The Alcoholic stands there, waiting for his cue, absorbing the silence, shifting back and forth on stage. He does not look at home. Finally the sound guy gives him a signal. The Alcoholic leans into the mic, says,

"Microphone check ..." but there is feedback, a loud sudden screeching from the bowels of the mic. The unexpected noise throws him and his voice turns awkward, embarrassed. He steps back. The resound dies with his retreat. The silence that follows styles him self-conscious, inorganic. In the back, the sound guy focuses on the levels; he can't see the Alcoholic becoming aware of his own skin, his sudden clumsiness.

The Alcoholic cuts into the quiet with,

"Do I look good, honey?"

I smile and nod my head yes. I like when he calls me honey. We've been going out three weeks and already he has a pet name for me. The sound guy gives him another thumbs up. The Alcoholic smiles. The sound guy looks annoyed, thumbs up again.

The Alcoholic leans in. "Thanks, man."

"No, kid," he says. "You need to go louder on the mic. Try it again."

"Oh," he responds.

The Alcoholic is embarrassed for misinterpreting the signs of a sound guy. He is flustered, not only being called kid, but for feeling like one. I don't really care. That's my boy up there, and soon all the girls on and off campus are going to be swaying under him.

He disappears to the bathroom. He's gone a long time and I wonder if he's changed his mind, fled. I'm almost prepared to ferry my way into the boys' room, flush him out, but he returns, edgy and disoriented. He's a new boyfriend, so I don't know whether to approach him or leave him alone. I approach, he says,

"Leave me alone."

He does jumping jacks in the corner and I'm starting to understand about stage fright. First, small clusters of people arrive: the hippies, the crunchies, then larger groups: fraternity brothers, sorority sisters, punks, skater kids, techno freaks. The Alcoholic has assembled a United Nations of college kids. Everyone wants to see him perform. Last time the stunt was about another girl, but tonight I think it'll be about me. I feel cocky that he is so cool. Like I have something to do with it.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Long Haul by Amanda Stern. Copyright © 2003 Amanda Stern. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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