Novel Excerpt

JACK WAKES UP

By Seth Harwood


As part of our feature on podcasting, Seth has agreed to us to reprint the first two chapters of his popular “Jack Wakes Up” podcast novel for your reading pleasure.

ONE


Jack Palms walks into a diner just south of Japantown, the one where he’s supposed to meet Ralph. As he passes the Wait To Be Seated sign, he wonders if these things didn’t come standard issue with Please at the start not too long ago, back when the world was more friendly and kind.

But Jack knows what Ralph and the rest of the people who come to a place like this would tell him: fuck that.

The diner’s built out of an old cable car, with a bar along one side and booths on the other. Ralph sits alone at the last table eating, hunched over his plate, long brown hair hanging curly around his face, his blue and white Hawaiian clashing with the ugly checked wallpaper. He hasn’t gotten any younger or prettier over the years: his pock-marked cheeks move like a rabbit’s, his eyebrows form a thick mustache over his eyes. He wears wide sunglasses, the kind blind people wear, pushed up onto the top of his head.

Ralph smiles when he sees Jack. “Jacky boy,” he says, showing Jack the other side of his booth with a big hand, not getting up. “You look good. Like you added a little weight.” He winks. “In a good way.”

“Thanks.” Jack pats his ribcage. He calculates it’s been three years since he last saw Ralph. Three years and then the phone call this morning, asking Jack to come in on a deal.

“You see that game against the Mets?” Ralph starts, saying no one should be allowed to pitch around Bonds, the steroids homerun machine, that the Giants lost because the Mets did just that. Ralph shakes his head. “I guarantee you: they pitch to Bonds, he puts that shit in The Bay.”

“Just coffee,” Jack tells the waitress, who’s just come out from behind the bar. She stops with the brown-rimmed pot over the table when Jack says, “Decaf,” and it’s clear she’s not happy about having to go back and get the other pot.

“And toast,” Ralph adds. “He’ll have a wheat toast, darling.” The waitress, pushing forty and only a few years from when the days on her feet and gravity will own her, smiles and tips her head. “Thank you.” He winks. When she’s gone: “You got to have toast or something. So they know we’re not camping.” He tilts his head, forking more waffle into his mouth.

“Just don’t eat it.” He shrugs. “I’m buying.”

“Right,” Jack says. Next to Ralph’s untouched water, two butts half-fill his ashtray: one coming in and one with his coffee, waiting for Jack and his food, Jack guesses. He’s a quarter into his waffle and has a side of eggs and bacon that he hasn’t touched. Ralph did a good job syrupping the waffle: buttered it first, went liberal, and stayed away from the fruit flavors—no blueberry or apple bullshit.

“Listen Jack.” Ralph barely looks up, cuts the next quarter-waffle into strips. “I’m real sorry about how that shit went down with Cora. How you handling yourself?” He looks up, pauses from eating.

Jack runs his finger over the rim of his coffee mug. “Getting by, Ralph. Thanks for your concern.”

“Because I really feel for you about Cora telling people you hit her.” He shakes his head. “That wasn’t good.” He looks at Jack, like he’s trying to get it all figured out right then and there. “You didn’t, right?”

“No, Ralph.”

“And that wasn’t cool that they pulled the money for your sequel, dumped the project.” He forks a big piece of waffle into his mouth. “I’m sorry about that too.”

“So what’s the basics here, Ralph? The big picture?”

Ralph nods. “It’s a buy,” he says, mouth full, using his fork to point. “Easy and simple: a buy and a sell. One big trade, no small shit or breaking up of product. We each stand to make a couple thou for a few days work.”

“You said on the phone we’d be set for good.”

Ralph shrugs. “Shit, Jack. I needed to get you down here to hear this, right?”

Jack looks around the diner, thinks about how it’d feel to just get up and walk out. But then he considers the two thousand reasons to stay and the guy from the bank calling his house this morning about his missed mortgage payments.

“Keep talking.”

A sip of coffee and Ralph cuts off some eggs with his fork and adds them to what he’s already chewing. “You want this bacon?” he asks. “I’m trying to watch my cholesterol.”

The waitress comes back with the decaf pot and fills Jack’s cup until he stops her about an inch from the top. He’s glad Ralph doesn’t ask about the decaf, doesn’t want to explain that he had his coffee at home and knows a second cup will leave him too jittery to deal with Ralph’s shit. She drops off a small plate of dry wheat toast, lightly toasted, at the top of Jack’s placemat. Little pats of butter line the side of the plate, the kind you have to peel the paper off of. Ralph drops two bacon slices on top of the bread. “Make yourself a sandwich,” he says.

Jack adds a sugar to his coffee and stirs it with one of the diner’s dirty spoons, adding a half-and-half. “So what’s the who? The when?”

Ralph goes on eating. “The when is still up in the air, but I say it happens within the week. Thursday or Friday. The who you don’t need now. I’d tell you, but it wouldn’t mean anything. You’re too long out of this game.”

Jack nods, sits back in his chair and looks at the little white mug of decaf, thinking about whether he should walk out. “Tell me why you need me.”

“Listen. You made that sequel, you’d be in a different world right now, financially.” Ralph holds up his hand, stopping Jack before he can tell him to shut up. “I know,” he says. “Enough. But I’ll just say I heard you’re touching down on your luck, that maybe you could use a little money. That’s why I called.”

Jack takes a bitter sip of coffee, puts the mug back down. “I’m listening.”

“I need a side, a guy who can come along, maybe drive a nice car and get us into some respectable places if these guys want a nice time in the city. You still got the Fastback, right?” Jack nods. “And that mug of yours can still get us past a few red ropes. More than mine anyway, probably more than any of the suckers’ I know.”

Jack lifts up a triangle of toast and looks at it, puts it back. With butter, maybe it’d be all right, but plain it looks like warm cardboard. “You see my name in the papers lately?” he asks. “No one gives a shit who I am anymore.”

“Exactly, my man. They see you, people don’t care, but maybe a small part of them remembers your face, knows you from the movie. I know it, you know it. That’s why you wear the hat.” He points to Jack’s baseball cap, the Red Sox World Series Edition that he’s taken to wearing when he comes into the city. “They recognize you and sometimes it’s good: ‘Oh, Jack Palms, you the man from Shake ‘Em Down.’ Then sometimes it’s not good; someone says: ‘You the guy got addicted to smack and hit his wife. The one never made a second movie.’ Either way, bad or good, they like knowing you, recognizing someone they think is a celebrity. And we get the treatment we want.”

Jack doesn’t want to believe it comes down to this, to hear this is what people think of him, that he’s down to the point where these are his options. He’s been up in Sausalito for a long time now, two years of hiding away from the city, cleaning himself up, but he can’t hide out forever, especially with his money from the movie running out.

Jack takes a deep breath. The flat surface of his coffee has no reflection. Across his toast: bacon grease soaking into the bread. He wonders how Ralph can still be eating like this and partying like he used to, how nothing’s changed, nothing’s come along and kicked his ass like the newspapers did when they came to take Jack’s picture in handcuffs.

“I apologize, Jacky.” Ralph puts his hands flat on the table, no longer eating. “But you know how it is. I know the papers got it wrong, but let’s be honest about the street: you not the man, Jack, but you still got something.”

Jack sips his coffee: cold already and bitter. He takes a deep breath, lets it out slow. “OK,” he says. “I’m in.”

Ralph nods, fluffs his eggs and forks in a mouthful. “Good,” he says. “It’s Eastern Europeans coming in from out of town, Czechs traveling big time, looking for a large chunk of blow. We meet them, take them out, show them The Guy and see that the deal goes off. It’s easy.”

“Right. And they’ll pay big for that.”

“Relax.” Ralph stops eating for a beat, points his fork at Jack. “Why so skeptical? It’s just a trade. Big trade. Don’t doubt, bro.” He forks up a big chunk of eggs, rubs it in the syrup. “I just need a backup. And for high rollers, I have to look good. That’s why I call you. When I say we do this, I mean we do the fucker. No stops.” He brings the fork to his mouth.

Jack nods. It’s been a long time since he’s worked anything. Maybe he’s just getting nerves; maybe he just needs to be involved with something outside of his own house. He thinks about where he’d be right now if Ralph hadn’t called: probably at the gym lifting or out on a morning run—activities that were good until they got old, things he needed at first to keep himself sane while he cleaned up. Now he’s clean.

“So when do we start?”

Ralph laughs, chewing, and catches some egg going down the wrong way. He coughs into the top of his fist. When he finishes catching his breath, he says, “That part you can just leave up to me, baby.”

TWO


Two days later, after Jack’s run his three miles and just started a coffee, Ralph calls again and says to meet him downtown on Stockton at noon, at the Hotel Regis. Jack doesn’t know it but knows the neighborhood around it: the city’s boutique shopping. The finest places: only designer names and upscale hotels.

Jack takes out a cigarette, his one of the day: the one he smokes with his cup of coffee in the morning, the one that reminds him of where he’s been. He kicked the junk three years ago, one thousand, sixty-six days exactly, and hasn’t had a drink in two years. No cigarettes, just this one every morning.

He looks out over The Bay while he smokes, through the huge kitchen windows that were biggest selling-point of the house, the thing Cora fell in love with when they first saw it. Now he’s used to the view, to seeing the tiny sailboats move about on the water while he eats. As he takes a long drag, he feels the familiar nausea, and closes his eyes, eases into the comfort of his chair. The rest of the cigarette goes slowly, bringing the day to a crawl that Jack can appreciate now, knowing the afternoon will feature things he doesn’t know.

When he’s done, he snuffs out the cigarette, gets up and washes his hands, scrubs them vigorously with soap to remove any of the smell from his fingertips, knowing it won’t ever work. He takes down the cereal and a ceramic bowl off the shelves that Cora had installed when she remodeled the kitchen.

He skims the front page of the newspaper while he eats, looks out over The Bay, thinking about what Ralph’s going to get him into with this and whether it’s worth it overall. Compared to sitting around all day, there’s hardly a choice. Compared to losing the house and looking for an apartment he can’t afford either, he’s ready to hit the shower and get dressed to go.

The phone rings and Jack waits it out, finally hears his answering machine beep. The plain voice of an agent from his bank comes on, the second call in as many days, asking Jack to call back, make an appointment to come in and discuss his loan. Jack knows what the bank knows—that he’s late on the second payment in a row now—and beyond that, that he doesn’t have the money for it anymore. He’s just transferred the balance from one credit card to another, buying himself some time, but the bank won’t wait much longer.

Out in the Bay, a steamer makes its way toward the Bay Bridge, heading for the port of Oakland. Soon it will dock and the cranes will start to unload its containers; people will work to put its cargo onto trains, trucks; others will drive it across the country to places from California to Maine; still others will unload and unpack whatever the containers hold, putting items onto shelves to sell.

***


Jack dresses in jeans and a dark button-down, not tucked in. For too long he’s been up here wearing sweats and track suits, going to the gym, and it feels good to be clean, dressed. Back in L.A. he dressed up for parties, went out to clubs all the time, had work to take care of. With Cora, he’d dress nicer even: tuck in, wear a suit jacket every once in a while. But that was back then. Even before the divorce, after her first time in rehab, they stopped going out, mostly just stayed at home to nurse their addictions.

He stops at the mirror in the living room before going out to the garage. This is where he usually puts on his Cal hat, but now he leaves it on the rack. He looks at himself in the mirror, runs his hand over the short brown hair that he cuts himself every couple of weeks with an electric clippers, smoothes the skin over his face that he shaves clean now every couple of days. In L.A., he used to have his hair styled and he’d wear a goatee or something else whenever he wanted, shaved himself with an electric and had a good time playing with the styles, but not now. Now he shaves with a razor, hot water, lather, and a badger brush. His face feels tight, the skin sensitive, but he takes his chin in his hand and looks at the side of his face, the bump on his nose from when he broke it playing football in high school. He’s still in there, he tells himself, the guy he’s known his whole life, alive and breathing, has the same looks that got him the movie, and has even added a little muscle since he made Shake ‘Em Down, the movie where he drove the fast car, won all the fights, got all the girls.

The dark circles under his eyes are gone finally, the payoff of two years of getting a good night’s sleep, running every morning and spending a time in the sun. He stands up and looks over his body, patting his ribs like he did when he saw Ralph. He doesn’t look bad, he tells himself, and does his best to try and believe it.

***


From Sausalito to the bridge, Jack opens up the rebuilt engine on his light red, almost orange, ’65 Mustang Fastback coupe. Here on the 101, late on a weekday morning, he can hear the engine roar, feel the torque and the power of the rpm’s as he eats up the hills. He’s replaced almost everything inside the car himself, repainted the body too. It was orange when he got it and he’d wanted blue, but something in him couldn’t make the change. Something in him knew that this car was meant to be orange-red forever, new paint or old and faded. So when he put on the shiny new coat, waxed it, he had to stay with the original color.

He got the car after the movie, when he had money; this was the big thing he’d wanted, the thing he had to have: a ’65 Mustang Fastback that could only survive in the clean California climate—no winter slush or salt to eat through the frame. Now, even without anything in the bank and the mortgage falling apart, he’d give up the house before this car.

Nothing matches the power feel of the Mustang, the looks he gets on the street, or the feeling of knowing what he’s driving, exactly how it runs and what pieces went into it. And the style. This car has more style than anything else on the road for Jack’s money—any amount—the sick line and the rise in the back untouchable. And he’s not trying to compensate for anything, as Cora once suggested. The Mustang eats hills like they were bumps, a San Francisco must, makes a sound like a jet engine, and does what he wants. The car is Jack’s love, the only friend from L.A. times that’s still around.

In the city, heading downtown, Jack gets looks, especially in and around Union Square, where the traffic slows and the shoppers all look to see who you are. Jack keeps his sunglasses on, tries not to make eye contact with anyone. Whether they’d really recognize him or he just needs to get over his fears, he’s not sure. But a part of him doesn’t want to find out.

Jack pulls up outside the hotel and parks next to a new white Mercedes G-Class, a big boxy number like a cross between a German tank and an SUV. He’d guess this for the Eastern Europeans’ car, but they’re probably driving a rental, one of the sports cars, the convertible Porsche, or an S-class sedan. He sees a new Mustang parked here too, a convertible, but it’s one of the recent releases he’s heard so much about. Supposedly they’re more powerful than his with the same size engine. Forty years later and they must have reengineered it to do something better, because it’ll never look as good as the Fastback. They’ve only made a lighter body, it’s likely, and that’s no great feat with forty years of technology on your side.

Getting out of his car, Jack catches a quick second-glance from the parking attendant—the look Ralph described; people know Jack, recognize him still. As San Francisco goes, mostly sports stars and locals, not that many actors, Jack’s face is one of the few that people recognize. The fact that his breakup with Cora made a few tabloids makes it worse, means he reaches a wider, lower segment of society. So the look can mean one of two things: they recognize a faded image of something that was once good and now old, or they remember the trash tabloid news of his addictions, his wife’s, and their divorce.

He gives the attendant a five and hits the revolving door without looking back, still holding the keys to his car. If it has to be moved, they can page him.

Inside the lobby Jack looks around, trying to decide what he should do. The place has second-story level ceilings, fancy chandeliers and leather couches all over. A big guy wearing a designer suit stands up from one of the couches on the left side of the lobby. Jack looks around for the bar, and the guy makes his way over, asks if Jack is “Mr. Palimas?”

“No.” Jack shakes his head, taking a good look at the guy: big nose, face like an anvil. He tries to dodge the guy, more from habit than not, but the guy moves faster than Jack expects, cuts him off.

“You are Jack. I am told to wait.” He holds up a small version of Jack’s old head-shot, probably clipped from a bad newspaper article. “Ralphie told me to meet you.”

“Oh, Ralphie,” Jack says. “In that case.” He shrugs, holds his hand out for the guy to lead the way.

“I am Michal. Please to come.” The big guy starts toward the Penthouse elevators.

“Where did you get that?” Jack points to the picture.

“Ralphie has changed our meeting from bar to our suite. It is big.” He turns and shows Jack an awkward toothy smile, as if he got an extra helping of teeth in the attributes line at birth and his mouth did its best to fit them all in. They run together at angles, jammed and overlapping. “Our suite is big so we can have party.”

A bellman holds the elevator doors open and they enter. The doors slide closed. Jack sees his reflection and that of the smiling suit. He’s taller than Jack and wider; this guy can carry himself. Plus he’s been lifting more than just the rocks they’ve got where he’s from, and his suit is well-cut, expensive.

Jack rubs his face. He leans toward the door and looks at his cheeks: pale and clean from this morning’s shave. A couple of dots of blood that have come out since he left the house. His eyes still look tired; he doesn’t like what he sees. Though he’s put on five or ten pounds of muscle in the past two years, his eyes still look deep-set in his face—like he’s using—as if he could use a couple nights of sleep, even though it feels like that’s all he’s gotten for the past two years. His skin is pale, freckled, has been since the sixth grade when his mother moved him and his sister up from North Carolina to Boston to get away from his father and the sun. He takes a good look at his brown eyes and runs a hand over his hair. Would I believe me? he wonders.

He turns his neck to the side, leaning his ear to his shoulder, trying to loosen up, get a pop. In his movie, they gave him a big tattoo from his chest up onto his neck, out the top of his shirt. People liked that, were disappointed when they found out it wasn’t real. Even Cora, when Jack first met her, ran her fingers around his neck and pulled his collar down.

As the numbers light up above the doors, Jack rolls up his sleeves. They’re going all the way to the top.


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