When Peter Doherty (no relation to the Libertine's drunken, reckless front man) came back to Iowa it was the end of Autumn. He didn't tell anyone and so I was shocked when I saw him at the corner of Washington and Linn, on his way to Record Collector. He saw me first and shouted "Sam!" I didn't recognize him immediately because he was wearing slacks and a baby-blue dress shirt. His hair was cut and he was wearing glasses. I didn't know he could exist without a Ragstock shell of tattered jeans and second-hand leather.
He walked across the street and shook my hand. "It's me, Pete," he said, accustomed to reminding everyone who he was. After the Apologies, we promised to get together for coffee, or a drink, or whatever.
Months passed, as these things usually go, and we didn't see or hear from each other until close to a year later, last week. On a whim, I went for a walk up to the Hilltop Lounge on a warm night. An ex-roommate of mine said that a writer in Glimmer Train had mentioned it as an Inspiration for some story. He saw, on the men's bathroom wall, "Rick is back in town," and a story was born. Pretty tenuous, if you ask me. But, in Iowa City, there probably isn't a bar that doesn't have the distinction of being an inspiration for some story or another, even Brothers.
Anyway, Pete Doherty was there. He was playing pool, sleeves of his Blood Red shirt rolled up, with some older guy who looked a little like and talked a little like Charles Bukowski. I only heard him mutter incoherently and punctuate everything with "Fuck."
"Said we'd get together," Pete said when the game was done.
We walked over to a table with our pint glasses and sat down. It was surprising nothing broke from mere proximity to the man. The Hilltop Lounge is a Grungy bar that is far bigger on the inside than it appears outside. I've never seen more than a dozen people there though. Thirty year old Budweiser posters or girls in bikinis perpetually smile at the patrons, though I find this association somehow Hysterically perverse.
Something you should know about Pete Doherty: in high school we used to work together at a pizza lounge in Ames and he was That Coworker, the guy who comes in ten minutes late every day because of some other adventure and no one wants to get rid of him because he's not bad at his job and life would be infinitely less interesting without him. I Loathed him. His Life was Easy and he could get away with anything. He was a musician, he drank, he smoked, he hung out with college kids, he had a new girlfriend every week (which seemed mathematically impossible, considering the size of my school) and he had that laid-back the-world-is-ending-and-I-don't-give-a-fuck attitude. But, I was This Guy to That Coworker, because I kind of worshipped him.
It wasn't until college that we hung out outside of work and I discovered what kind of world he lived in. He was everything I imagined him to be, which was awful for him because people assumed he was Someone he wasn't. We accidentally ended up at the same parties and while he sat in the corner playing his guitar sometimes I'd hear the opening lines of some Punk-ish song of his own design and sometimes I'd hear him shout at whatever girl, "I'm not Pete-fucking-Doherty! I'm from Chicago!" The more our paths crossed, the more often I heard him screaming the Denials and Differences. We probably had half a dozen brief conversations in all that time and still, somehow, he remembered me.
Yes, I was surreal sitting with him at the Hilltop Lounge because I think both of us realized at the same time we didn't really have anything to talk about. That didn't stop us from Trying, though.
"So, what are you doing in town?" I asked.
"Working for ACT, actually," he said. "I fact-check. It's more interesting than it sounds."
I got the feeling he didn't want to explain so I didn't ask. Instead I said, "Do you still play music?"
"Of course," he said. "I have a band. We're playing at Gabe's this Saturday. You should come out."
"I work. Sorry."
We talked for a long time about Inanities and Shit I'm certain neither one of us really cared about. It was just a way of passing the time. Suddenly another round appeared and I'm not sure who bought it, only that we were still drinking and desperately trying to Make conversation.
Finally I asked him, "Why did you come back here?"
He responded almost immediately. "Because I found a job."
"You were just looking for a job?" This pragmatic explanation coming from the lips of Pete Doherty was both absurd and disappointing to me.
He said, "You write, you read, you serve coffee, you sell books. What's wrong with that?"
And that was a palpable hit. I heard myself repeating, "What's wrong with that…?"
"Yes," he said. "It's not all that hard to get what you want."
"You want to live in Iowa City, fact-checking ACT questions?"
"So what if I do?" he demanded. "I'll be busy for life," he said, as if staying busy were Everything.
It was strange to ask Pete Doherty, "Is staying busy all you care about?"
"Of course not," he said. "No."
Suddenly, on the radio, we heard The Indelicates moaning, "Waiting for Pete Dogherty to Die." I didn't say anything out of respect for Pete Doherty's quiet wrath. When the song ended he said, "Christ, I hate that guy."
"People still ask you if you're the real Pete Doherty?" I joked.
He gave me a cold look. "People still ask you if you're the real Sam Ferree?"
"No," I laughed and thought about it a little more. "No. No one ever has, actually."
We had another round and then walked back through the Iowa City graveyard, stumbling over the freshly green grass and navigating around head stones. When we were almost through, he fell on his back in his business casual out fit and said, "I'm an Ares. What about you?"
"I'm an Ares, too," I said.
"Doesn't suit you."
"Doesn't suit you either."
He laughed. "Let's make up new constellations."
So we lay on our backs, tracing out new designs in the stars from the graveyard. We thought about new, wacky, worthless, and wrong horoscopes until dawn. Before we left, he stopped by the Black Angel to kiss her on the lips. "They say I'll die seven days later," he mumbled, grinning.
It's been seven days. I'm waiting on the call.