Remember the girl you once knew, the theater kid? Now she’s become the Queen, and you might need to rescue her.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from “Delta Function”, one of 16 stories in Richard Butner’s debut collection The Adventurists, publishing with Small Beer Press on March 22nd.
Remember the girl you once knew, the theater kid? Now she’s become the Queen, and you might need to rescue her. There’s the historic house, where someone once saw a ghost and you almost fell in love. An ornithopter hangs in the lobby of your corporate workplace: your co-worker thinks he might be able to operate it. Once you found a tunnel under your old high school, and couldn’t resist going to see where it led.
Sometimes a door will open into a new world, sometimes into the past. Putting on a costume might be the restart you are half hoping for. There are things buried here. You might want to save them. You might want to get out of the way.
Gray had been so many places. They’d sent him to Oak Park, Deer Park, Menlo Park, Echo Park. Bangor, Miami, Seattle, San Diego. The technology had evolved over the years, digital recording replacing magnetic tape. Email and text messages replacing phone calls and faxes and beepers. He had clipped lavalier microphones on Oliver North, Judy Chicago, Karl Lagerfeld, Janet Reno. He had held boom mikes over the heads of winners and losers, anonymous victims and celebrity predators, the fortunate and the doomed. He had set levels on the voices of actors in convenience store commercials, corporate training videos, low-budget horror flicks, and independent feature films. He worked long days, straight time fading into time-and-a-half into double time. Golden time.
On a few rare occasions they’d sent him out of the country. He turned down most of the wars or catastrophes. Still, he had been to Iceland, Ireland, and Italy, all travel paid for by this or that broadcasting corporation. All expenses deducted from his extremely complicated taxes. He had been so many places, so finally after all that time working in video and film they sent him to the town of Poston. Where, thirty years before, he’d graduated from Poston State College.
Gray was staying in a Quality Inn near a new plaza of big box stores. It had probably been a farm outside of town when he’d been a student there. Driving in on the interstate, nothing had seemed familiar. Glass box office buildings, hotels and condos, a new sports arena. He found an organic grocery store and stocked up on almonds, sardines, beef jerky, and coconut water. Many of the people he worked with, both above and below him in the pecking order, had eaten craft services food for too long, and it showed. He had gone bald years earlier, but he was in much better shape in his early fifties than he’d been as an undergrad. Days at home were usually days off and days off were spent in the gym or at the pool. Work hard, play hard, that was one of Gray’s mottos.
The job in Poston was an outsider artist who had toiled in relative obscurity all his life, on a farm just outside the city limits. The farmer/artist, Mack Walters, welded gigantic sculptures out of scrap metal and old farm equipment, looming stick figure people that he planted in a fallow pasture on his farm. Gray recalled hearing about the crazed welding farmer when he had been in college in Poston, but he’d never been out to the farm. It was a wonderland, and now it was news because the Hirshhorn was buying Mack’s biggest piece to add to their sculpture garden on the Mall in DC. Mack, who had been getting by as a well-kept secret among art brut cognoscenti, was suddenly a superstar in overalls. For Gray, the job was a piece of cake. No tricky setups, no diva talent to cope with. Short hours, so no overtime, but the day rate that the networks paid was already high, even in these lean times. He built in extra days on the road on all of his jobs—in the years since the divorce, poking around roadside kitsch in America had become one of his hobbies. In Poston he was going to have plenty of time to see how well the town had aged.
It was a bigger town, sprawling further out into the county now. The Poston of his college years seemed to be gone. There were no old school friends to look up, because the friends that mattered had all left too. The ones that mattered were Kitty, Robert, Hilda, and Jerf. The other members of the band Delta Function. Kitty and Robert, bass and lead guitar, they had got married and drifted away and he hadn’t heard from them in decades. Last time he googled them, on a whim, they were running a goat farm in the mountains of West Virginia. He exchanged email with Jerf, the drummer, every six months or so. Jerf was in Chicago, and exhorted Gray to visit anytime he was in town. Most of Jerf’s messages involved a lot of talk about being sober, and faking it until making it, and doing things one day at a time, and being thankful and mindful. Hilda had found Gray on Facebook and friended him, but they didn’t communicate there very often. As best he knew, Hilda had made a fortune in the computer business in the eighties and nineties and lived in semi-retirement in Hawaii, just doing the occasional tech consulting gig. Her Facebook presence consisted of news about her two teenage daughters, and photos of them. No photos of Hilda at all.
In a sense he’d swapped places with Hilda—in Delta Function she had oper-ated a computer synthesizer of her own design, a giant rig of patch cords and knobs, playing it from her post at the sound board. She wanted to be in the band but she did not want to be on stage. Working behind the scenes, as he now worked.
After a day of Mack talking in a high-pitched drawl about “my big people I make,” and the curator from the Hirshhorn talking about “reveling in an innately enigmatic personal vision,” Gray went back to the hotel, worked out in their fitness center, and showered. Then he drove over to the campus strip and parked. He assumed there’d be at least one restaurant or bar there that had stayed in business over the years, a place to get dinner and a glass of wine. But there wasn’t. He parked at one end of the strip in a bank parking lot. Even the bank had changed—once the local bank where he kept his perpetually empty checking account, now it was Bank of America. A row of boardinghouses still stood, but they’d been taken over and refurbished into faculty offices by the college, which was now a university. Poston State University, the Fighting Angels. He made the Fighting Angels sign, upraised index finger tracing a halo in the air. It was the same sign folks made on the job to mean “faster!” or “let’s wrap this up.” Past the houses should’ve been the bowling alley, then the movie theater, and then a cluster of bars, restaurants, head shops, record shops, and bookstores. They were all gone or transformed. He walked along and catalogued their fates. The bowling alley was now an Apple Store. The restaurants were now national chains instead of a dairy bar, a diner, and a vegetarian hippie place. The bars had moved elsewhere, and besides the drinking age was 21 now, had been for years, not 18 as when he’d been in college.
The place he was most interested in finding, The Outpost, had been obliterated. It took him a minute to realize that the two-story brick building he was looking for was now a parking lot. The Outpost was where he and the band had played most of their shows. They played plenty of other places… frat houses, outdoor benefits, a couple of out-of-town gigs, the student union on campus. But The Outpost was their home. He walked around the parking lot, looking for a trace of it—the foundation, anything. The newsstand next door was now an upscale dining place, global fusion street food, whatever that was. He didn’t want to give them any money. Still hungry, he walked up to the light and crossed the street over into campus.
At least on campus, some of the buildings were the same. The door of the English building was locked. He kept walking. There seemed to be a new cafeteria where the math building once stood; it was closed. He was starting to feel a little dizzy; he was prone to low blood sugar. But he kept going. He went to his old dorm, one of the oldest buildings on campus. The door was locked there, too. He looked up at the window to what had been his room. A woman appeared there, a girl, who stared back at him for a moment before pulling down the shade.
He kept walking, still pretty much in a straight line, and that took him to the old student union. It was still there, still a hulking white brick building. The doors were open, so he went inside.
The first familiar thing he spotted was the Warhol. The union was home to most of the college’s art collection, including a Warhol Campbell’s soup can silkscreened on a shopping bag. It was in a Lucite box on a pillar on the first floor. The old information desk, a curving piece of mahogany, was still staffed by undergrad volunteers, although now they stared at phones and laptops with looks of boredom instead of thumbing through magazines and newspapers with looks of boredom. The study lounge tucked away underneath the grand staircase to the second floor was now something called the Student Operations Resource Center, but the lights were off and a metal grate was pulled down over the door, so these operations would remain a mystery to Gray. The floors were still blue-and-white terrazzo, the school colors. The globe-shaped light fixtures had not been updated, although he could tell they were now populated with CFLs instead of incandescents. There was a brand-new drink machine selling energy drinks and bottled water, and next to it three recycling bins. All of this space had been free-form for hanging out or studying or napping; now it was much more well defined. There were three iMacs set up as information terminals, a Fighting Angels branded Google page beaming out from each. Where the “need a ride” board used to be bolted to the wall was a flatscreen TV, tuned to CNN. Beyond the information desk he could see that the snack bar was still open. For Gray, the most jarring feature that survived in this landscape was the bank of pay phones next to the restrooms.
He walked up the steps to the second floor—on the landing stood the eternal sentinels, the American flag and the state flag. At the top of the grand staircase the space expanded into the atrium of the theater, three stories high. Overhead, the knockoff Calder mobile, a collaboration between the art and engineering departments, still spun lazily. The box office was closed. The minimalist sculpture was still there, three panels of black steel. He wondered what Mack Walters would think of the sculpture. Back in 1979, Jerf had written “ART?” on it in white paint marker. The actual title, on a little bronze plaque set into the marble base, was “HELL/LUST/ACID.” The sculpture, and its enigmatic title, had outlived Jerf’s commentary. The vandalism had always pissed Gray off, anyway. He was no aficionado of modern sculpture, but he knew a Philistine when he saw one in action. Jerf could keep time behind the drum kit, and he liked all the right bands, but beyond that his conversational skills had always been limited to how cheap the beer was, how easy (or not) any given woman was, and the extent to which this or that thing sucked.
Gray looked up past the mobile and spotted security cameras mounted in the corners of the ceiling. Any would-be Jerfs of the present would be caught on video if they tried to tag their graffiti onto HELL/LUST/ACID.
There was one lone student camped out on one of the couches, lying there with a laptop on his stomach, typing in furious blasts. The student glanced over at Gray, looking through him for a moment, before turning his attention back to the little computer. Gray walked to the far set of doors that led into the theater. Like so many doors on this campus, it was locked.
By this point he was extremely hungry, and feeling a bit dizzy. He thought he’d go down and grab whatever marginally healthy something he could find at the snack bar. A bag of cashews, maybe. It was then that he remembered the steak place.
That was its name, The Steak Place. Run by the college dining service, with students as waiters, serving beers in frosty mugs and steaks on sizzling iron skillets. Except of course you couldn’t serve beer at college anymore. And he figured the tastes of most students ran to sushi or samosas now instead of steaks. But surely The Steak Place had evolved with everything else—maybe it was a sushi bar or a global cafe now.
He walked down the main stairs to the first floor, then over to the little side stairwell that led to the basement. The terrazzo was slick here—he did not see any housekeepers, but a mop and rolling yellow bucket sat on the landing. The terrazzo was so slick, in fact, that just before he made it down the last set of stairs, he slipped sideways and pitched forward, falling and banging his knee and then the side of his head at the very bottom.
He lay on the floor for a few minutes, breathing in the piney smell of the cleaner. Slowly he rolled up so that he was sitting on the steps. Nothing felt broken or sprained, so he experimented with standing up. He walked slowly through the stairwell door and around to the doors of the old restaurant.
He pulled open one of the big swinging doors. Whatever The Steak Place was now, it was dark and smelly on the inside. It took a second for his eyes to adjust. His legs felt weak and he decided that he needed to sit down as quickly as possible. He went to the nearest empty booth and slumped down onto the blue vinyl, resting his elbows on his knees.
He looked over at the menu sitting on the sturdy oak table. On the front, embossed in gold, it read “The Steak Place.”
“Some things never change,” he mumbled to himself, dabbing at his temple tentatively to see if he was bleeding. He was not bleeding, and so he sat up and looked around the room.
It was still The Steak Place, just as he’d remembered it. Probably some kind of retro night, as the students were all dressed up in ski vests and jean jackets, sporting mustaches and long hair.
“May I get you a beer, sir?” the waiter asked, setting a glass of ice water on the table. He was sporting the ridiculous hair as well, although his garb was the timeless garb of the waiter. White shirt, black bow tie, black pants, black apron.
“Sure, how about a Sierra Nevada?”
“I’m afraid we don’t have that brand, sir. We have Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, and Michelob. Michelob is a dime extra.”
“I’ll have the Michelob,” Gray said. He touched his temple again—the pain was starting to kick in, but he still couldn’t feel any swelling. As the waiter walked off toward the kitchen, Gray plucked an ice cube from the water glass and held it against the side of his head.
Something was wrong with the room, and that something was this: the students who were dressed up in their retro gear were also drinking beer. And smoking cigarettes. And on the tiny television he could see at the end of the bar on the other side of the room, a staticky picture of Jimmy Carter jumped and crackled in glorious analog black-and-white. It was middle-aged Jimmy Carter the President, not old Jimmy Carter the charity homebuilder. Gray had walked into 1979.
Excerpted from The Adventurists, copyright © 2022 by Richard Butner.