In the Details
by Daniel Carbone
Carl believes he is Jesus. Not a metaphorical or a pretentious “fuck you” kind of Jesus. He believes he is the real thing. I want him to prove it, to show me what the son of God is like, but I’m worried he may stab me or set me on fire before the night is over if I upset him. I don’t try convincing him that he is a delusional psychopath who is no more like Jesus than I am like sour dough bread. Then again, I’ve never met Jesus. I don’t know anyone who has, and I think that perhaps Carl is exactly like him. Jesus was all into self-sacrifice too. Maybe when I watch Carl through the window in the backyard biting a tree, he is sacrificing the bark, the enamel of his teeth, for some reason other than obscurity. God works in mysterious ways.
He comes back into the house, grabs the glass pipe from Ella and takes a hit. He looks at me. “I used to bite my arms, my legs, sink my teeth into my skin until I would bleed, but it hurt too much. That’s why I bite the tree now. It hurts less,” he says, “but, but it’s less intimate.” He rubs his hands up and down across the hair and scars on his forearms. These are his public displays of mutilation.
I nod my head. I’m concerned that the wrong reaction will send him charging, sinking his teeth into my flesh instead of his own. Ella asks me if I want another beer or some wine and when I say both, she starts pouring the wine into my tall plastic glass. I indicate with my eyes to keep going when she is about to stop. I just met Carl, I just met Ella, and the alcohol makes what they say more believable. I enjoy the warm buzz it creates in my head. It makes it okay to become one of them.
Carl says he’s going to take a nap before we go to Maynard’s Cafe and he skips back into his room and I hear him close the door, slowly, trying to make the sound of it clicking shut seem as if it’s happening within a vacuum. “That’s your roommate?” I ask Ella.
“Yeah, that’s Carl,” she says. “People give me a hard time for taking him in, but Carl has a good heart. I couldn’t possibly turn him away.” Ella tells me she pays his rent. He looks homeless. If he really is Jesus, he traded in his seventies rock star look from his crucifixion days for a badly executed crew cut with large sections where he had completely buzzed off his hair. The well-kept goatee that Jesus displays in pictures and paintings had been replaced by a badly shaven face covered with cuts, and now he kind of looks like Popeye, the sailor. Carl is forty-four, Ella is twenty-three.
I am not interested in Ella. I thought I was while reading her online profile and talking to her, but I was impatient. I wanted to meet. And Carl—I didn’t even know he existed. Cut to the present and the only thing that keeps me from running out of the house and towards the ignition of my car is curiosity. These people—their relationships—fascinate me, and I think if I make it out alive, I’ll have plenty of material for whatever I write next. I no longer look at the night like a traditional date. It’s a date for information, a date for details, and Ella and Carl and whoever else participates in this evening are the characters that will illuminate the pages. I smile; more excited about the night than before, when I thought it would be a romantic night, when I had hopeful expectations.
It’s just Ella now, standing with her shoulders hunched forward with an old lady’s posture in the kitchen. I want to talk about Carl, about how unattractive she is to me, how repulsed I am by the whole situation yet strangely excited to fill empty pages with the little that has already happened. Instead, I ask about her best friend and her best friend’s boyfriend, who live upstairs, Leah and Chris, who she says will be joining us soon. “Where did you meet them?” I ask.
“I’m training Leah to be my replacement at work. And Chris—I met Chris on an online dating site too, but of course he had a huge crush on Leah. He only kept coming back for her,” she says. “It’s bad enough they hooked up. Now I have to hear them having sex above me every night.”
“Wow,” I say. “I promise I won’t have sex with any of your friends.” I can’t help thinking that would make an interesting story too. I put down the tall glass of wine I am holding and ask Ella where her bathroom is. I don’t use the filthy toilet, but I notice stains running up and down the walls by its side. I don’t wash my hands. I rub my eyes and look at myself in the mirror. Then I take notes in my phone. I’m already drunk. I don’t care if it’s rude. Ella just told me she was moving, that she got a job offer in Washington—that her old job ended and she wouldn’t be sticking around. I see no reason to perpetuate a lie, no reason to return her affection, when before we met I told her I wasn’t into short-term dating. She lied to me. I see no reason why I can’t enjoy myself and get something out of this misadventure, even if it comes at the expense of what she thinks of me.
I come back from the bathroom and I realize I have no idea what Ella does for a living. She told me before but I couldn’t comprehend the profession, forgetting what she told me almost immediately. I should ask Ella why she is still friends with Leah and Chris after they started dating, but I think it will be more interesting if I meet them and let the relationship play out for itself. Like a movie or book I’m experiencing for the first time—the details will be more vivid and exciting. I don’t really care about Ella’s feelings, but she is a part of this group, a part of the story, and I push her off to the side, willing her, forcing her to become the flat character I have already decided she is.
I chug the rest of my wine and she asks me if I want some more. She empties the bottle into my cup and I hope we leave for the bar soon before my buzz wears off. I take a seat on the recliner in the living room and she sits down across from me and picks up her banjo.
“So—do you know what you’re playing tonight?” I ask.
She tunes the banjo and strums different chords and strings while she talks. I shift my gaze towards Carl’s room. I wonder what he’ll do next, when he comes out. “Well, yes and no,” she says. “I think I’m going to read the poem “Pinocchio” by Shel Silverstein. Maybe one song. I’ve never played the banjo live before.”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine. You’ll do great. I’m excited.”
Leah and Chris barge through the front door with their arms wrapped around each other, dragging the strong smell of marijuana into a room already soaked with the scent, and Leah screams out a war cry of excitement that makes the panda hat she’s wearing look like it’s dying on top of her short-cropped red hair. The sound she makes is a loud-pitched wail, her hands high in the air and her eyes closed towards the ceiling.
If Carl thinks he is Jesus, Chris is John Lennon. Lennon’s glasses sit on his nose and the circular glass in the frames magnifies the pupils in his eyes. He’s tall and skinny and has an acoustic guitar strapped around his shoulder. I look behind him to see if Yoko Ono is following. I introduce myself to them and hand Chris one of Ella’s beers. I tell him to drink up. I make it a personal goal to make sure there will be no sober people tonight.
I met Ella on an online dating site. I wanted to meet alone. I wanted a personal introduction at a coffee shop or a bar or in a third world country, surrounded by malaria-infested mosquitoes—anywhere but here with a bunch of her friends whom I’d never met. They constantly stare at me. Leah keeps asking if I’m having a good time. She says I look like I’m bored, like I don’t like them. I don’t tell her that I’m studying them intensely, that my looks aren’t judgmental but perceptive. Ella told me her friends are cool, her friends are interesting, her friends are awesome. If she would have only added weird, I would have completely agreed.
“Chris, we need to practice this song,” Ella says. “Did you hear me, Lennon? We need to be at the bar by seven, and I haven’t practiced yet.” Chris doesn’t lower his beer. He raises the bottom of it higher to force the alcohol down this throat faster, dragging the oxygen away from the corners of the can by his lips, and I want to tell Lennon to wait for me to grab a beer so I can join him. I use the distraction he creates to write in the note sections of my phone, “Lennon,” over and over again, all in capital letters. Then besides that note, I write, “Goofy, Leah and Chris, hippy hipsters.” I hope what I write makes sense to me in the morning. When Chris finishes his beer, he swings the guitar over his shoulder and goes behind the counter of the kitchen.
“You should have practiced. We don’t have a lot of time.”
“If you got the weed earlier,” Ella says. “How was I supposed to practice without you, exactly?”
“I’m going to get a private show, then, huh?” I say. Ella smiles and plugs in her keyboard.
“Ready,” Chris says. “One, two, three, four.”
They play the song “We Are Young” by Fun a few times, never making it through the second stanza. Ella doesn’t hold notes down long enough during the chorus. When they finally get their timing right, they play through the song, and Leah and I listen, happy spectators. I can’t help but smile in her direction more than in Ella’s. I don’t find either girl attractive—Ella is a liar and a hippie and physically unattractive and boring. She has nothing interesting to say, nothing interesting to offer, and I don’t know what I saw in her when I messaged her on the dating site for that first time. I think I was just looking for something to do, a distraction from the feelings I had for someone else I couldn’t be with. Leah has something to offer me, though—a panda hat. A comparison to Ella, the girl I follow for the story, like a reporter following a soldier in a war zone, not for the solider, but for the action he will ultimately lead her to. And I hope Carl is an active Jesus who will help the story, and me, along. I hope God really does help those who help themselves.
“I’m just here for moral support,” Leah yells into my ear.
“Huh? Yeah, I have no idea what’s going on,” I say, and smile. “I’m just trying not to get in the way.” They play through the entire song, Chris singing like any proper Lennon would, without disturbing the excitement in the room, and the song seems nostalgic and perfect for the evening. I write the song’s name down in the notepad of my phone, having never heard it before, but knowing I’ll want to listen to it the next day.
When Chris strums the final chord Leah throws her hands in the air. “And the crowd goes wild!” she says.
“You guys are awesome,” I say. And I think I mean it.
Ella goes back into her room and changes her clothes. When she comes out of the room, she is wearing a tight tie dye t-shirt that shows her weight spilling over the side of her jeans and hugging the fabric of the shirt, stretching it beyond its designed size. I’m glad she pulls her jeans up high above her waistline—it prevents her stomach or her backside from popping out into the open where they’re not welcome to be seen. Closely behind her, Carl is following her into the room, shirtless. The circus is in town.
“Carl’s not coming to Maynard’s,” Ella says to Leah and Chris.
“Why not?” Chris says.
“He’s sad,” Ella says. Carl grabs a beer and lights a cigarette. “He’s upset that I’m moving.”
“No, Ella. It’s that neighbor. I swear, when you move, I’m leaving too. If these people don’t want me here, I don’t want to be here.” He takes two slices of pizza from the rack in the oven.
“What happened?” I ask.
“Our neighbor called the cops on him. He was trying to record Carl speaking, so Carl went and took a shit on his car, and then the neighbor, he called the cops.” I feel guilty, for a second, and realize I need to be more careful about my note taking. I don’t want to have to clean feces off my car. That neighbor has access to Carl and these people on a daily basis, and whatever other odd people lived in the area. He had the idea before me. I just hope he’s a poor writer.
“I’ll tell you what—Dan? You said your name’s Dan, right?” Carl says. “Dan, these people don’t understand. They don’t get what I’m trying to do. They’re all ungrateful. They don’t appreciate me. What did I tell you, Ella? Huh? I told you. What did I say? Yesterday I said there was going to be no more bad weather and what happened?”
“Today was beautiful.” Ella turns her back towards Carl and looks at me and rolls her eyes into the back of her head. Carl is serious. He believes he is Jesus. A bitter Jesus disappointed about the ignorance and weakness of his followers. You’d think he’d understand, I mean, after being crucified and all, that humans are imperfect.
“That’s right, Ella. If these people don’t appreciate what I’m trying to do, then fine, I’ll go somewhere else.”
Leah and Chris are sitting in the living room that connects to the kitchen. They aren’t paying much attention to Carl. I notice the guitar of Carl’s that Ella showed me earlier. Carl made it himself. Ram’s horns have been morphed into the frame of the guitar, wrapping around and protruding out of the edges of the solid dark wood, ending where the frets begin. It looks incredibly intricate and detailed, beautiful in a horrific way, but it doesn’t seem saintly. I can’t remember if it’s “God is in the details” or whether the saying is “The Devil is in the details.”
“Ella, do you have any cigarettes. I’m out,” Carl says. “Ella, do you think you could buy me cigarettes?”
“I’ll buy you cigarettes if you come watch me play.”
“Okay, Ella. For you, darling. I’ll go for you. Call me when you are about to go on. I’ll walk over.”
I shove Ella’s keyboard in between my body and my arm and we are getting ready to walk over to the bar, Maynard’s Café, a few blocks down the street. Chris leaves his guitar strapped around his shoulder and Ella brings a laptop bag and video camera. Leah is carrying a large beach bag, which she fills with beer.
“What are we going to do with this?” she asks.
“We can just hide it outside the bar,” Chris says, “or you can bring some of it in your bag. We’ll just go outside when we want a beer.”
“Okay, but I can’t carry that much,” Leah says.
“We’re only five minutes away,” Ella says, her glasses slipping down her nose. “We can just run back and grab more. Come on, let’s go. We’re already late.” I hold open the door for the three of them and they start walking down the dark streets crusted in the smell of ocean and the decay of the beach town of Margate just outside of Atlantic City.
We pass a Wawa convenience store and cross streets without looking both ways, and Chris starts singing the song they played earlier. Everyone joins in, and even though I don’t know the lyrics, I attempt to mouth the words of the stanzas and sing what I know of the chorus. When they finish singing the song, they start over from the beginning. Ella puts her arm around my shoulder and it feels awkward and uncomfortable. I don’t lean in. She leaves my side and walks close to Leah and starts talking to her, leaving me in the back, playing follow-the-leader, where I can observe them without fear of being caught recording.
I see the bar and it’s a dive. It is one of those outside bars with a roof and four walls giving the illusion of a building but not the heat or insulation. I walk into the bar and see that it’s worse than I thought. People are smoking cigarettes and the air is cloudy with tar. In each corner of the small bar is a fake fireplace emitting heat, and we claim a spot in the corner by the stage near the heater. I look around the bar and see a world I’ve only seen in movies. A tall blind guy sits behind the bar, clutching the reins of his Seeing Eye dog. He must be running the audio equipment. Either that or the owners of the bar let him run his fingers through the dozens of wires and play with the knobs of the equalizer before the show begins. It gives his dog something to do, as he is trying to untangle himself from the wires that the man has shoved the dog into. The sign on the bar says beers are two dollars for a draft, and I can’t believe we went through the effort of dragging a twelve pack of beer into the bar in our bags and pockets. I see the guitarist Ewan Dobson, who lives locally and occasionally plays free open mic nights to hone his skills. He is relatively famous and I wonder if I could add that detail to whatever writing comes out of this night, but I’m not so sure. Then again, I know sometimes a writer jots down a lot more than he uses, and I take note of his presence.
After a few hours, Ella is spending most of her time talking to other patrons of the bar, and Leah and Chris are making out. Dobson is playing a twelve-string guitar and he plays so quickly that my eyes fail to follow his fingers dancing up and down the fret board. I close my eyes and let my mind get lost, using the loudness of the music as an excuse to remain silent, and I think this is exactly where I want to be, away from everyone, alone, but feeling more connected to the life of the town, the setting, the characters that I am creating in my head for my next story, than I could have in an empty room.
Eventually, Ella rests her body beside me. She inches close to me. I keep my arms in at my sides and my hands on my lap, and I don’t turn in her direction. I wonder if my next online dating experience will be this productive. I’m excited to find out. We don’t talk much and in between our conversations I find myself texting my roommates—who are excited by the prospect of me spending the night with Ella—about the date and taking more notes in my cell phone for further reference. I tell my roommate no, that I’m not into her, that I’m out late because this is too interesting to walk away from, that I’m having a good time, a good experience, and I have a fun story to tell her tomorrow, and I snap my phone shut, but it’s too late. Ella catches me.
“Are you texting, right now?” she says.
“My roommates were worried,” I say. “I just wanted to let them know I’ll be back later.” She looks down and lets out a nervous laugh and shakes her head. She isn’t pleased. I shrug it off in a conversation with myself. A few minutes later, still sitting beside me, Ella starts texting random people religiously. I think she is trying to do to me as I have done to her, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m not jealous. I’m happy she has a distraction.
We run out of money and the three of us want to drink some more before Ella and Chris’s set. I think more alcohol could lead to a more interesting set, and I encourage the idea, telling Ella that she will be a lot less nervous if she drinks a little bit more. We go outside and pull the beers out of their hiding places. Leah pulls one from her back pocket and Chris untangles one in the webbing that lines the inside of his jacket. Everyone else grabs one from the beach bag. Then we walk around the corner of the building and attempt to chug some beers, but all of us fail. It is cold. We are shivering. When we are about to go back inside Carl shows up screaming and yelling in the parking lot of Maynard’s and Ella runs over and pulls him away. The second coming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I want to run over and help, to grab some insight, to find out how the world will end and if I have time to publish this story before it happens, but Ella tells me to wait with Leah and Chris. She comes back a few minutes later, having pawned Carl off on an older woman whom I don’t know. Ella leaves again to talk to Carl and doesn’t come back.
“So what’s with Carl?” I ask Leah and Chris.
“He’s crazy,” Leah says. “Ella always wakes up to him screaming or banging his head against the floor. She says he cuts himself and beats himself to represent what society is doing to itself. He thinks he’s some kind of martyr.”
“Yeah,” Chris says, “one time, he said he was going to make flowers grow, and the next day Ella got a call from her parents that there were dandelions outside their house that weren’t there before. Sometimes she buys into that garbage.”
“I heard the story about the weather,” I say. “I didn’t have the heart, or maybe not the courage, to tell him I knew that too. The weather channel can be useful. The least he could have done was made the night warm as well.”
Leah and Chris are shivering as one, so I lead the way back into the bar and we take our seats next to the glowing television-like fireplace. Ella is inside setting up her keyboard, getting ready to play her set. Carl is in the back of the bar, apparently calm now, standing against the wall, talking to the older woman.
“Ella, do you know what you’re playing? I think it’s time to decide,” I say.
She shrugs and tells me the poem by Shel Silverstein and the folk song “Circles of the Sun” by Sally Rogers. The owner of the bar introduces her and she sits on the stool with the banjo strapped around her neck, red in the face and clearly drunk, and she trips on her own feet and almost falls off the stool, despite the fact that she is sitting. She recites the poem, but I only hear the first stanza. “Pinocchio, Pinocchio, that little wooden bloke-io. His nose, it grew an inch or two with every lie he spoke-io,” she says, stumbling. Jesus leans against the wall and watches his roommate, his provider, embarrass herself, and I think it’s ironic. Someone could pull her off the stage after the poem, to prevent further disaster, but Jesus reincarnated in Carl form doesn’t do anything. If he’s not going to do anything, the merciful one, I decide I certainly can’t either. What would Jesus do?
Once she finishes the poem, she sings the short folk song, and the few people left in the bar clap unenthusiastically. Then Chris goes up and he plays the song with her that they rehearsed earlier, and then he plays a few songs by himself. After they kick us out of the closing bar, we walk back to Ella’s apartment, with the equipment in our hands. When we get back, Carl is already at the apartment in the backyard, sitting in the tree he had bitten earlier, playing a banjo. God is in the details, I think. The saying is definitely God is in the details. I wonder if I should protect the tree from Carl, or maybe just patch the dozens of empty areas where he has bitten off bark. We walk past him and into the house and Ella fills her glass pipe with more weed and hands it me. I don’t typically smoke, but I take a hit and hold the smoke in my mouth before blowing it out into the room, refusing to inhale so I don’t get high, and pass it to Leah, who takes one hit and falls to pieces. Ella and Chris call her the “one hit wonder” and within minutes I understand the name when her eyes get bloodshot and she becomes the clown version of a catatonic person, unmoving with an enormous giggly smile on her face and a set of red circles in her eyes. Chris, concerned, wants to put her to bed, and he takes her by the hand and leads her out the door, outside, towards their apartment on the second floor.
“It was nice to meet you both,” I say, and shake Chris’s hand.
“Yeah, it was fun. I hope to see you again.”
Ella packs the rest of her drugs into the glass pipe and hands it to Carl, who has walked back into the apartment. He finishes off the entire pipe in under a minute. He says she should have known better. Then when he asks Ella if he can borrow money so he can run to Wawa and buy milk for coffee, she tells him no, that she has no money left for him. He starts digging pennies out of drawers, picking them up off the floor, and fishing them out of little nooks all over the apartment. He collects a little bit and says he has about a dollar, but he’s not sure if that will be enough. Ella refuses to give him any money, but watching Carl, Jesus, crawling on his hands and knees and collecting pennies for milk makes me feel sick. I don’t know who I feel bad for; Carl, Ella, myself, or the attendant who will have to count the pennies, but I decide to give Carl the money. It feels like charity, but he doesn’t refuse. He acts like he wants it. When I hand him the money he shakes my hand and cups the hand he shakes with his other hand, like he was getting a peace treaty from the president. He looks me in the eyes when he does it and holds onto to my hand tightly. His smile terrifies me, but I don’t know if it is because of the way he looks at me and says “thank you” or if I’m terrified at the thought of this man being Jesus. What if he really is Jesus? I could never really know the truth.
“Okay, this has been fun,” Ella says, “but I need to go to sleep. Dan, you can stay here with Carl if you don’t think you’re okay to drive.”
“No, no. I’m fine.” I walk around the kitchen counter and hug Ella. “It was nice to meet you. I had a great night.” There is no romance in the hug, but I mean what I say. I avoid shaking hands with Carl, but I tell him I had a good time, and that I’ll see him again soon. I don’t mean it, but I don’t feel the need to explain my desire to leave.
When I get to my car I sit in the driver’s seat for a couple minutes contemplating the night I have just experienced—the people, Ella, Carl, the odd romantic triangle between the friends—and how I should interpret the evening and the characters I have created. Lennon, Jesus, the stereotypical Hippie Ella, and Leah, who I think forms a subcategory within the hipster demographic. I can’t help thinking that it was one of the least successful romantic experiences of my life, but all I can do is smile and laugh. I’m laughing, alone, trapped in my car, away from people at four in the morning, and I enjoy every second of it. But then, I begin to cry. I don’t know exactly why I am crying. I am drunk. All I know is that something is missing, that the characters aren’t as complete as they could be, and I want to go back inside and talk to Carl and Ella again. I’d like to sit down with Carl and interview him, gather his entire life story, but I still don’t think the character and the person could ever become one and the same. I look through the notes I took in my phone. I didn’t realize how diligent I was during the evening with my observations. There are over twenty separate notes, literally pages of notes, but I have no better sense of who Jesus and his friends are. The notes are snippets, fragments of a person, and the story itself is only a series of short moments in time, forming an evening. It’s not complete. The story, the characters, never will be. I drive away with the notes in my phone, knowing they, the notes, the events, and the people will make a great story, but that I will never see them again, that whatever I write, the full story, will still be my creation. “Jesus H. Christ,” I think.
Daniel Carbone was born in Howell, NJ. In 2012 he graduated with an academic standing of magna cum laude from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and accepted a scholarship to the Rutgers Camden University School of Law shortly thereafter. He has served as an editor for Stockton’s Stockpot literary magazine and published his first short story under the same title in 2011. While busy studying law, he continues to find time to write for readers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to satisfy his need to tell thought-provoking stories. He resides in his hometown with his Fiancé, Stephanie.