A year before, Byron had received a letter from Nathan recounting the circumstances of Gordon’s death. Along with it were photographs of the event that followed: the ritualized destruction of four half-scale effigies of Byron. One had been drawn and quartered; one, burned; one, dropped from a great height; and one had been given to the local children to crudely dismantle as they best saw fit. In the house in Duluth, Byron had shown the photographs to Alyce. She reviewed them in silence, staring more closely at some than others.
“The fake blood is really good,” she said after a while. “They put a lot of work into it.” Her expression was bemused, caught somewhere between an artist’s admiration for quality craftsmanship and the strange horror of witnessing a three-foot-high representation of her paramour slowly divested of its head and leg, corn syrup birthed onto the sidewalk below. Eventually, she handed the stack back to Byron. “Did they need a permit for any of that?” He shook his head. Alyce walked downstairs to record, and soon enough he heard her music easing through the floorboards, a tainted keyboard and something looped. Byron lit a cigarette and hoped that this would be the time he’d find the place in him where it might resonate. Resonance found nowhere to dwell, and a month later she had left and he was leaving.
January in Asheville, Byron newly returned. First single-digit weather in years, they told him at the airport. Coldest weather the kids could remember. He’d packed little for the trip: a duffel bag, his laptop, a camera. Reached into his pocket for smokes, then remembered that he’d left his last pack at home. All right, he thought, that was that. He’d packed the winter coat he’d had since Duluth, and he felt ready for the cold, though he hadn’t anticipated it. Minnesota winter in North Carolina; Duluth cold in Asheville.
Byron had been drifting from place to place for a while now, a small laptop his sole point of connection with the wider world. Guest lecturing and holding periodic discussions with the minimalist composer Henrik Phebes for a long-gestating book on his work. Arbitrarily couch-surfing across academic America. And now, the return to Asheville, to be interviewed in turn by Nathan for his own project: a documentary on the life and times of V. Gordon Robertson, with Byron grudgingly imported as devil’s advocate. The main attraction, the naysayer; if not the whistleblower, than at least the man who’d handed over the whistle.
After the weekend ended he would take the train to Baltimore for a week-long consulting project, and then rendezvous with Phebes somewhere in New England. In his brain the timelines and projects began to intersect and intertwine, entering a hazy cacophony, a Terry Riley piece played intermittently. And out of that haze came fear: a precise sense that Gordon’s vitriol had prepared Asheville for him even now, had lain pipe bombs and promised bounties as a response to Byron’s trespasses. As the hotel came into view, a three-story fork at the base of the downtown’s incline, Byron found his heart beating faster, sweat massing on his brow, and so cracked the window, letting in the chill and earning the driver’s reprimand.
Byron checked in at the hotel’s well-travelled lobby, traversing levelly towards his room. Once settled, his clothing placed into the room’s dresser despite his brief stay, he called Nathan to announce his arrival. The call was directed to Nathan’s voicemail, and Byron left a message notable only for its terseness until its final moments, at which point he was struck with awareness of his own emotional tone and sought to compensate, volleying out a just-like-old-times reference and a chuckle he hoped might sound upbeat.
As he stepped back outside, he heard a trilling coming from his pocket. Phebes, he saw, was calling him again. Phebes was on the road, alternately paranoid and triumphant, as far as Byron could tell, and Phebes’s calls to Byron followed that pattern: low-slung confessions and Nietzschean exultations. Byron spoke as he walked, using his free hand to cover his exposed ear, and began the uphill walk towards the downtown’s heart. By the time he had reached a familiar corner and his call with Phebes had ended, the phone had chosen to trill once more; he glanced at the display and saw that it was Nathan.
This was Nathan’s great talent: he could call someone buddy and make them understand that he meant it sincerely. It wasn’t an accusatory use of the word; neither was it ironic. If you were Nathan’s buddy, he let you know it. It had taken Byron four months to understand this, and once that had happened, his glowering resentment of the man became tribute laced with remorse, Byron’s own particular burden. Byron heard the roll of Nathan’s familiar greeting and smiled; soon enough, he would learn that Nathan was courting. They agreed to meet in forty-five minutes for drinks at a nearby bar.
Once, it had been their local. Byron hardly recognized it, and by the time Nathan strode down the sidewalk towards him, he found himself craving a different venue. He peered through the windows, saw a newfound layout: square tables in precise rows, each with uniform space surrounding it; far from a place where you could get drunk. File under fatal flaws, thought Byron. He looked at Nathan, confusion in his eyes.
Nathan said, “You still want to get a pint here?”
Byron opened his mouth and imitated a smile. His teeth barely showed and he wondered a moment after he did it just how it might look to Nathan. “You know another bar?” Byron asked. “And who does this night find you courting?”
Nathan looked at him. “I have good things to say about Liane’s place. She opened it a while back with a couple of partners. Doing pretty well. It’s got a good crowd.”
Byron said, “Liane going to be there?”
“Later,” Nathan said. Byron saw something, a twitch that was almost a smile, and knew before he asked, before Nathan could even think of a response. Later, he realized Nathan probably detected the moment when he gave himself away.
Byron said, “I thought you were meeting the lady you were sweet on later.”
And Nathan said, “Exactly.”
They walked through the door into Liane’s bar and not ten seconds later, Byron felt welcome. The ceiling loomed twenty feet above them, fixtures hanging from beams, their light reflecting off the walls and lending the place a comfortable glow. Two drinks passed, Nathan and Byron conversing in a locked-in rhythm, no anxious calls from Henrik Phebes or blind acolytes of Gordon Robertson rushing the table, no bursts of anger from either man, no resentment, nothing pinning them down, nothing to fear.
Nathan had not mentioned the weekend’s interviews to Byron, and Byron was himself loathe to raise the subject. Their conversation began with reminiscing and evolved into the current state of the city, Byron seeking news on more of the places he had frequented during his time here than had been conveyed via Nathan’s periodic letters, calls, and dispatches. And so the last few years of Asheville was summoned to the table before then: rises and falls and hidden histories, lives Byron had lost sight of moving to the forefront, old acquaintances trading up aspirations.
Through it all, Liane’s rise to prominence was implied but never fundamentally stated, the shifting fortunes of their old comrades sometimes complimented and sometimes contrasted by the bar’s innate feeling of home and the steady stream of patrons that surrounded their conversation. And the community. And the investors who had made that community. And, of course, Gordon Robertson, a presence even now, a foundation, two foundations, a memorial scholarship and a middle school soon to be named in his honor. Rumor held that a local manufacturer of bicycles would soon be issuing the VGR, a state-of-the-art design; in Asheville, it was said, they would soon be ubiquitous.
They had implicitly agreed that Byron should depart prior to Liane’s arrival. Nathan figured this would happen at seven-thirty, give or take ten minutes. Byron checked his watch as he and his friend pulled at their beers, the amassing of alcohol in empty stomachs causing their rhythms to catch and unspool. And when his phone issued forth its glib chime, Byron nearly jumped; he silenced the ringer and stood. The time seemed right.
“Nathan,” he said, “I should go. I’ll see you tomorrow at the space.” Nathan nodded and stood and hugged him. Byron turned and walked towards the door hoping and praying Liane wouldn’t step through it before he had made it to the sidewalk. The closest parking lot, he thought. Where was it? He reached back for his phone, the call still incoming. Two hundred feet to the right of the bar to park. His hand was on the doorknob now, turning it, he was moving out into the night air, making a cursory glance down to his right. A slim woman made her way towards the bar; turn to the left, he told himself, turn to the left and and run. He thought better of it immediately. As he turned he took the call.
“Are you there?” asked Phebes. Byron waited to answer until he knew his voice would be out of the range of Liane’s ears. “Are you there?” A pause, and again: “Are you there?” He heard the sounds of the bar coming through a temporarily opened door and heard them slide shut and said: “I’m here.” There would be no reckoning with Liane tonight, and he wondered whether he might be fortunate enough on this trip to avoid that interaction altogether. She had once told him, I have to stand by family on this, and it had been their last conversation. Even though she had never been close with Gordon; even though Byron had almost forgotten to consider that connection between Liane and Gordon.
Byron found himself entering a conversational rhythm with Phebes deeply unlike the one in which he had engaged with Nathan, one that peaked and fell, each participant reassuring the other in certain ways and parsing interrogations in others, as Byron conversed with Henrik Phebes while huddled against a corner in a parking lot, it became clear to him that he resembled a fugitive, that he would pull himself smaller if he could, that the passing of headlights and pedestrians made him involuntarily shake, shivers that denied the cold.
Byron understood that the bulk of the weekend would be spent with Nathan, that much of it would be spent in the downtown, that Nathan’s home and Nathan’s studio and Nathan’s preferred bars and restaurants were all found there. And so Byron walked down the hill towards his hotel once more, still seeking the presence of others somewhere other than streets that echoed familiar facades and brought to mind memories of a time before natural impulses had led to a clash. Were he to spend too much time alone, he knew, the old conversations, the rehearsed ones with Gordon and with Liane, the accusations and apologies, would come to the fore.
Forty minutes later, after finding the hotel bar empty, he walked the corridors of a mall a mile or two from the downtown. Here there was passage, here there was an appropriate density of people. No calls from Phebes since the parking lot, Byron considered, and then remembered that Phebes was performing that evening, that if Phebes did call it would be much later that night.
As Byron passed a wall near the bathrooms, he saw a plaque, a familiar face rising from bronze. Even here, he thought. Byron read Philanthropist and hero below Gordon’s name, and wanted to cough, wanted someone to whom he could decry the plaque’s language, could reference the work in which he had attempted to render that imagined heroism human. The report, practically his report, now cushioned by lawsuits and effectively suppressed for decades to come; the cause of so many flaws, so much brokenness. That schism that had separated Gordon’s friends from his family.
He had traded one identity for another, Byron considered, had exchanged Gordon’s lofty patronage for the ebbs and tremors brought by Phebes. He looked back at the plaque, Gordon’s face rendered stoic, and shook his own head involuntarily. He stepped outside, the hood of his jacket up, shielded from the cold.
He would call the hotel soon enough, he knew. He would call and have them arrange transportation back. This he knew. He wanted to walk, though, suddenly wanting the solitude, a calm traversal of the outside of the building, his vision reduced, his progress occasionally impeded by streams of shoppers pouring from department store doors like blood into a syringe. He walked on, his gaze locked into what fell immediately before him. He walked and wondered whether his most feverish imaginings might be true: that Gordon had lain a posthumous vengeance before him, had left actions and triggers in place. Byron walked on. No blows fell, no shots came, no angered shouts or sounds of advancing footsteps could be heard. Tomorrow he would memorialize an old friend by rendering him human. For now there was nothing left but to walk into the night with no anchor, his walk the only certainty.