I’ve sampled every flavor of his laughter and at this particular moment, the bar is serving premium High and Nervous. He’s touching the mug of tap water gingerly, almost cradling it, his fingers loosely sparking against the chipped ceramic handle. How many decades have crawled underneath my boots since I last met a man so…grey? His buttoned Henley looks moderately itchy, and it seems to darken with more soot every time my gaze swivels back around. Then there’s the wrinkled slate cargo shorts, unlikely to have ever known the pressing embrace of an iron. He’s saturated with so much ash that his beard could get hired as a Pompeii exhibit.
He’s mildly agitated—and as the object of his ire, it’s my responsibility to illustrate exactly how he’s considering all of this incorrectly.
“Glenn,” I purr softly, the name drifting in his consciousness like new-fallen snow on Christmas Eve. “You aren’t seriously suggesting that I’m to blame for your troubles, are you? Sweetheart, how long have we been friends?”
“T-twenty years,” Glenn Langford mumbles, his eyes still boring holes into the bottom of his mug.
If my colleagues were seated alongside me tonight, they’d gripe about the lack of respect. “You’re five feet away, and he won’t even spare a glance? And he’s fraternizing with water, right in front of you? Bloody disgraceful.” But they’re young; Glenn’s love, his full-throated desire for me is only a hair stronger than his denial of our relationship in the first place. He pretends not to notice me, swears he’s piloting a new course…and yet, always ends up hobbiting around my hanger.
“Twenty years,” I repeat, not bothering to strip the merriment out of my voice. “Darling, I’ve spent most of your life attached to your hip. You remember exactly when we met. That lovely girl with the Doc Martens and the permanent waves. Michelle, right? She introduced us. It’s a shame you two slipped by each other. You ought to text her, Glenn. We were releasing some steam last month, she and I, and the poor thing bloviated about ‘good ol’ Glenny’ for nearly an hour. I was rather touched.”
“Shell? You…rack off. You don’t have any bizzo talkin’ with her.” His voice is spiked with gravel on his clearest days; tonight, it’s actively paving.
“Honey, I’m a free spirit. Freedom’s sort of a cornerstone for you freemasons, isn’t it? The freedom to act independently.” He’s breathing like an annoyed turbine. As with most of my close friends and clients, Glenn remains unaware that I invented Freemasonry on a dare a couple centuries back, and it’s a damn shame he wouldn’t comprehend the picture I could paint him. It’s a good story. “And that’s why this little tantrum of yours we’re standing on is so unfounded,” I whisper, gently massaging the idea into his skin. “You told the reporter that I was to blame. I don’t bruise easily, Glennford, but I’ll be honest: I expected more loyalty.”
“Former Freemason. If your memory is so top-shelf, then you ‘member why I don’t wear the cufflinks no more,” my faded friend growls. “You can feel the hunger out there, on the streets. Temp gig I just finished kept bobbin’ in and out of overtime. Was able to nab a couple-a blue swimmers. Ain’t flush with the big bikkies or nothin’, but enough so’s I could—”
“Make a difference?”, I ask with a light drizzle.
“That makes you smirk, does it? ‘Cause I bought a few hungry folks without a warm bed or a roof over their heads some cheeseburgers?” The former freemason finally deigns to look at my face. His glare flickers with soft intensity, like a pillow sewn from a neutron star. “I can’t build houses. but I know how a drive-thru works. Everything’ was bonza, right, an’ then you showed up, promisin’—”
“Oh no, Glenn,” I say, my tone shifting gears. I’m a disappointed mother to disobedient child. “You’re confused, my dear. You weren’t tempted or somehow misled. Don’t you recall inviting me to join your burger expedition? I never decline a good social function, my friend. You surely know that by now.”
His eyebrows swing and drop, a light crease folding across his forehead. “You promised you’d watch out for me this time,” the man in grey mutters.
“And I did.”
The crease snaps. “They found me in the nuddy inside a fucking pipe organ!” Glenn Langford bellows. His pallid cheeks suddenly seem infused with a tender, spreading sprawl of rose red. “You loaded me ‘til I was spillin’ over, and then stuck a gun in my hand! I’m lucky the blue didn’t shoot me on sight!”
We’re approaching an inconvenient truth at velocity too high for my comfort. “Obviously, the responding officers were aware that you were holding a toy weapon, Glenn.” His cells, needy and mewling for my touch, are quivering at attention. I can sense them: my good, dutiful children. “I’m well-acquainted with the Brisbane Police Department, believe me. No actual harm would’ve—”
“That organ’s from the 30s! It’s insured for a million goldies, the solicitor said, but that might not be enough to repair the bloody thing, clapped out like it is! Oh, an’ did I mention I’m also bein’ charged with destroyin’ part of the wall?”
“Darling, it’s a loud, whiny instrument that went out of fashion generations ago. You started the week getting kicked to the curb by your boss, and finished it having your heart trampled by that ungrateful tart.” Sixteen years of your life, over just like that.” The snap from my fingers startles him, and though anger and frustration are still spewed across his features, I smile when I see the tiny nod I expected. “It’s natural, Glenn. You were suffering, and no one truly noticed, did they?”
No one except me.
“W-what about the remote-controlled car?”, Glenn stammers. “I don’t even remember drivin’ it. When did—”
“Oh, we stopped at a hobby shop on the way to the Temple. You explained that we could use it to deliver the cheeseburgers. ‘We’ll cover more ground in less time!’, you told me.”
“I—I don’t…that doesn’t make…sense?” I turn slightly to shield my grin, rising slowly and steadily, a midnight sunrise. He’s going to need me in a moment, and for so many other moments to come.
“Sssssh, it’s OK,” I tell him in my most gentle, sympathetic tone. It’s artisan-quality, and it ought to be; I’ve had millennia to practice. “You’re OK, my love.”
“They’ll never forgive me,” he gasps, so low that I barely register it. “All those righteous Freemasons…my former brothers!”
“Yes, they will,” I promise him. Our lips touch and he smiles again for the first time in months. It’s like what I imagine sunshine must feel like to cats when the clouds finally break and the most pure thing they know finally returns to them at last. “Everyone will. We’ll get through it together.”
“Do you promise?”, I hear him ask, half of his mouth exploring mine and the other half buried in my bony, alabaster shoulder.
“Of course I do, my love,” I sigh as every color in the room shines brighter. “I won’t ever leave you.”
I keep a file of Strange Things I See In The News And Will Someday Write About.
I’ve been watching YouTube videos lately that show the reactions of people being introduced to metal, classic rock, etc. for the first time. A few weeks ago, someone discovered “Master of Puppets.” Towards the end of the track, he figured out what was happening lyrically. For the first time in many, many years, I heard the song anew, remembered what it was like when I’d made that discovery myself.
The other factor, I believe, is that while we delight in the absurdity of stories like this (which can sometimes go far beyond silly and into pure buffoonery), no one ever talks about the aftermath. Long after people stop commenting, the real humans involved still have to live with this situation they’ve created, this legacy they’ve built. That’s something I’m always quite interested in, and those are stories I’m not usually able to read.
In some ways, “Cloudbreak” is a sister story to “Who We Are,” a piece I wrote in 2015 that takes an absolutely ridiculous headline and (I hope) injects subtlety and humanity back into it. I laugh at these headlines, of course, and I love them for their irreverence…but I also feel a (self-imposed) responsibility to make the subjects sympathetic. Because they are. Zaniness doesn’t just materialize; there’s always a story there. I think they’re worth telling.