I’d been newly stationed on one of the orbiting military satellite bases when the warning signal was sent out. A large unidentified vessel had been picked up on the radar, slowly approaching the earth's atmosphere. The control center at the main space station had attempted to make contact with the approaching vessel, but no one responded to their call. Since the vessel was closest to our post, we went to investigate. We would have to take the stealth pod and board the thing ourselves. The pod only fit four soldiers, so Smiley, Hickson, Loverboy, and I were assigned to the task. We carried the new high-caliber pulse rifles with us, special issue—our first real mission.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
I’d been newly stationed on one of the orbiting military satellite bases when the warning signal was sent out. A large unidentified vessel had been picked up on the radar, slowly approaching the earth's atmosphere. The control center at the main space station had attempted to make contact with the approaching vessel, but no one responded to their call. Since the vessel was closest to our post, we went to investigate. We would have to take the stealth pod and board the thing ourselves. The pod only fit four soldiers, so Smiley, Hickson, Loverboy, and I were assigned to the task. We carried the new high-caliber pulse rifles with us, special issue—our first real mission.
Monday, February 23, 2009
This is all the toaster's fault. Stupid piece of shit. I glare at the miscreant appliance and my warped reflection glares right back. “I hate you,” we both mouth.
Plan B. I'm not going to work so I might as well play golf. It's 6:00 AM. I've been up all night anyway. I leave the kitchen and walk down the hall, doubling back at the hall mirror. I'm still wearing a shirt and tie from yesterday. The wrinkles are ancient and damn near permanent. A cigarette hangs limply from my chapped lips. What a picture. My boss couldn't possibly want to see me looking like this anyway.
I grab a nine iron and a box of dusty, garage-sale golf balls, then head out into the morning air. Outside, the world is quietly, groggily preparing for another day of responsible labor. The park bench is engrossed in the newspaper, the squirrels are marching to the office. The pigeons are holding a board room meeting. Everyone is industrious, everyone but me. I'm leaving this workaday world and heading to the edge. I amble through broad, suburban streets. I pass house after uniform, practical house. I walk right out of town.
Eventually, the ground drops off and I can't go any further. I've reached the very corner of the known world. Or something. Yesterday's strip mine is today's scenic wonder: a poor man's Grand Canyon. Since it's early in the day, the mist hangs heavily throughout the depths. I can't see the bottom of the ravine, I can't even see the other side. Perfect. It's tee time at the edge of the abyss.
Somewhere deep, somewhere ensconced in the ether, there is a line of demarcation. Beyond that mythic boundary, everything is ordered and perfect. There is a mirror world, a world of fairy tales and happy endings. Beyond that border, beautiful people fall forever in love. Beyond that border, evil is defeated time and time again. There is purpose and meaning in this mirror world, there is succor that I will never find. From where I stand, the impenetrable void mocks my life of jangled imperfection.
I hate that fairy tale world. I hate the reflection it casts back upon my face. I cannot join in on the happily-ever-after, but at the very least I can make my feelings known. I push a golf tee into the dirt. Here we go.
Prince Charming is galloping about on his noble steed when I brain him with a well aimed shot. He pitches forward into a brambly thorn bush. Rapunzel is combing her long, long hair and staring off into the horizon when a darting shot caps her in the forehead. She totters, then slides head first out of her tower window. The Cheshire Cat grins and then takes a golf ball right in the teeth. I swing and swing and swing, raining contusions and concussions down upon the seven dwarfs, the fairy godmother, the three little pigs.
I was never meant to be beautiful. I was never meant to be happy. I was never meant to win. But if I can't win them I'm sure as hell going to cheat. The key, I've found, is to adjust the rules until I can't possibly lose. Right now, I'm getting a hole-in-one with every swing. All I had to do was find a large enough hole.
Golf balls aren't the only missiles I launch into the mirror world. I've been known to fling large rocks, car tires, framed pictures, worn out furniture, and shopping carts. I am lethal. I am quietly furious. I am a winner. I once crushed Sleeping Beauty with a futon. I ended five of Puss in Boot's nine lives with R through Z of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
I've never seen the bottom, nor do I want to. That would ruin everything. I don't want to see dirt and rocks. I want to see a fantasy land terrorized by my unquenchable rage. So I come here early in the misty morning. I come here at dusk. I come in the dead of night. I fling all my cares over the edge where they disappear forever. It is very cathartic.
I've never heard anything hit bottom either. There are two possible explanations for this phenomenon. Explanation 1: the ravine floor is composed of soft, noise-muffling dirt. Explanation 2: There is no ravine floor. Only one of these answers is true. From where I stand, I'm inclined to put my money on the latter.
With each swing I listen for the telltale plunk of impact. I listen for splashes of water, ricocheting rocks, cries of pain, anything. I hold my breath as the club finishes it's swooshing arc, then dangles above my head. Nothing. There's no wind, no crickets, no singing birds in this place, no ambient noise that could mask the thud of impact, however distant it may be. The hum of town ended somewhere back on the trail. Here, at the edge of the void, all is silent.
I've been here a thousand times. I've hurled a thousand odd nothings into the greater nothing. Each time I've listened. I've waited and waited but the void swallows everything without a trace, as if there really were another world lurking in the depths.
But now, breathless and frozen, I can hear it.
It's unlike anything you'd expect to find wafting out of the ravine. It is tiny. It is incredibly faint. When I move, even when I breath, it vanishes entirely. I stand rigid, transfixed, I tautly snatch vibrations from the air. There's no doubt about it, the noise is real. It is singing.
What does this mean? Is this the fairy tale world rising out of the abyss? Is this a trick? Is it a trap? Whatever is happening, it's all wrong. Nothing is supposed to be able to come back up out of the abyss. The edge is where I hurl my misery. The edge is where I dispose of all my haunted baggage. Whatever crosses this boundary cannot trouble me again. That's the rule. There is nothing tangible out there in the darkness, nothing frightening, nothing intriguing, nothing at all. But now there is singing. This is practically an epistemological crisis.
It's time to initiate contact. “Hello?” I call out into the mist. I've never spoken at the edge before. This sanctuary of calm is governed by a code of silence. Now, I am surprised by the disruptive power of my own voice. My call reverberates off of unseen walls. The echo fills the ravine and returns my own greeting to me, now hollow and ghostly. There is no other reply.
I try again, this time louder and longer, “Hellloooo? Is anyone out there?” The echoed words crash together as they roll about the canyon. They fade and once again there is silence. I hold my breath and listen. The singing continues. It is sweet and sad, low and beckoning.
I pace back and forth, frustrated. I need to know where that singing is coming from. But how? Climbing down the ravine would be foolhardy. Who knows what's down there? One false step and I might as well be a fairy tale myself.
The smart choice would be to surrender and go home. I could brew a pot of coffee. I could try my luck with the toaster again. Maybe I can still make it to work on time. The possibilities are limitless. But no. I'm a winner, and winners don't quit so easily. Besides, I threw the coffee pot over the edge last week.
I gingerly toe the ground as it drops off into the void. The sun is feebly peeking over the horizon. This fog won't lift for at least half an hour. Right now, it's impossible to tell how steep the descent is. A gentle decline? A straight cliff? The yawning pits of hell? Perhaps this isn't such a good idea after all. Winners don't quit, but winners don't hit bottom either. What a conundrum. Maybe I'll take just a couple steps and see what I can see...
I crouch low to the ground and shimmy downwards. The dirt is soft and loose. It's easy to slide, too easy in fact. My feet get ahead of me and suddenly I'm on my butt, slipping faster and faster. This is no good. A vicious bump and I've lost what little balance I had left. I can't even face forwards, I'm tumbling. Dirt and gravel invade my shoes and fill my pockets. Dust enters my lungs, choking my startled cry.
Then something hard and hollow breaks my fall. A washing machine? Well I'll be damned. I don't recall tossing one of these over the edge. This must be someone else's dirty work. Puzzling, but an admirable feat nonetheless. I stand up, brushing dirt and pebbles from my soiled clothing. Too bad this derelict washer can't function anymore.
I pause and listen. The singing is louder here, closer. I still can't decipher words, but the voice is stronger, richer, more than just a wisp on the air. It is female.
The decline is shallower now and I can walk upright. I follow the Siren song towards an unknown doom. Here in the depths, the mist is thick and I can't see far. But within my small island of vision, ghostly forms peer through the ether. A box spring here, a vacuum cleaner there, a patio table, a printer, a guitar. I'm walking through a graveyard, a cemetery for the obsolete and unloved.
Many of these objects I recognize. They sit in the dirt, accusing and haunted by memories I'd thought I was rid of. There's my old typewriter. The wire hammers are twisted and mangled, the keys leer with a gap-toothed smile. Once upon a time I wrote poetry. I used to sit and plink out ridiculous little rhymes.
There's my niece's plastic Cinderella doll. My sister brought her kids when she came to visit last month. One of them left the doll behind by accident. I meant to return the stupid thing, I really did. But when life went downhill, so did the doll. Now Cinderella lies on the ground with dirt smeared into her dress. Her cheeks are muddy and brown but she's still smiling her implacable, beauty-queen smile. She's still wearing those glass slippers. I shudder and keep walking.
The singing is close now, very close. I can make out words but I cannot understand them. Is that Latin? Italian? French? The voice is mysterious and alluring. It weaves a silken spell around me, drawing me ever closer. Who is this singer in the mist? Is she a fairy queen? An angel? A princess with alabaster skin? Is she trapped by some spell and waiting for a hero to rescue her? Am I that hero? Perhaps this is my own fairy tale, finally come true. Will I at last live happily-ever-after? Or maybe this really is a trap. Maybe this is a cunning ploy, hatched by the wounded denizens of Fantasy Land to revenge themselves upon me?
I continue to walk and the voice sings ever louder. I walk through the mist and at last behold a singular vision. There she is, beautiful beyond words, sad, and regal. She sits atop the forgotten detritus of civilization: soda cans, cardboard boxes, car parts. Her throne is ruin and she the singer amidst the wreckage. Why is she here? This woman is the embodiment of all that is perfect. What business could she have amidst this desolate waste?
For one second, for less than a heartbeat, she pauses from the weeping melody to acknowledge her pilgrim visitor. The lady smiles, then raises her voice to a wailing crescendo. The mists swirl and part. I lurch forwards, stumbling to my knees, I want only to touch this vision, to know that she is real. Yet as I raise my head, the singer is gone. She was never there in the first place. A battered radio plays atop a pile of rubbish. The antenna is bent and the speaker hangs loosely by fraying wires. The music crackles weakly.
I recognize this radio. I threw it over the edge three days ago. I stand and grieve for the lady who never was. The small miracle of this radio is utterly lost on me. Yet the radio plays on. Bravely, defiantly, it performs its function long after the master has ceased to care.
I stand quietly cloaked in thought. Soon the light of the climbing sun will burn the mist into empty air. Soon there will be no more illusions, no more shadows, no more ghosts. Soon there will be nothing left to hide. As I walk back towards town, the void itself will fail. But what of that? I'll be back again this evening. Perhaps I'll bring my friend the toaster with me. Then again, perhaps not.
Friday, February 20, 2009
“I don’t understand you,” he said and shot her in the head. He’d been creepin’ about for some time so it finally felt good. The snowfall on the streets was soft and quiet as he crept away to find his car down the block and vandalized. Parked there for maybe ten minutes. And now the mirror was torn off and the driver’s-side window smashed. I can’t do nothin’ he thought and sulked for a second.
A second later came a woman ‘round the corner, not bleeding but looking as if she should be and running from a nun with a knife. He jumped into the car in the nick of time. The nun slipped and slid down the sidewalk and stopped herself by plunging the knife into the ice like a mountain-climber.
The running woman was black and white in all the right places and got in the car and said “I gotta go”
“What’s that fragrance?”
“Meat. Salt. Whatever”
“Oh. Yeah.” He started the car. The nun got up and lashed at the window with her Bowie knife. She finally fell over and they zoomed off in the wreck, trailing sparks.
It was the best decision they could have made. He drove out past the houses and bones and streetlights into the dark and found a place to pull over.
“I can’t talk to you right now,” she said. “I just quit the nunnery. The nun-hood.” She tried a kiss.
“Okay.” He got out and opened the trunk. He took out a box kite and assembled it in the beams of car light. Snow was thick on the bare branches and he thought for a moment about heading south.
“What’s your name?” she hollered from the smashed-out window.
“Jake,” he answered. He fired off a round from the gun and tried to fly the box kite in the winter air. Jake ran up and down the road to get the kite aloft. A puff of wind chill finally took it and he stood on the road, away from the lights, and flew the box kite while he hummed an old tune.
“There’s something I’d better tell you,” she hollered through the smashed out window as Jake flew the kite in the dark.
“Nope. Don’t,” he said.
Headlights appeared and came down the road toward them. The car went past spraying slush and Jake let the kite go. It flew off to nest in a nearby tree as he got back in.
“I’m Gertrude,” she said, but you can call me Ruby.” The lights were coming back.
“That’s what you had to tell me?” The car pulled up behind them. A wolf climbed out with a tree monkey on his shoulder.
“Not so fast,” said the wolf. The tree monkey snarled. The wolf looked at Jake then at Ruby. “Hell, I’d eat her,” he said to Jake. “Oh, and ‘go fly a kite’ is merely an expression.” The tree monkey, a water-eater, whispered in the wolf’s ear. Murder. Killer.
The wolf looked at Ruby. “Don’t look at me,” she said, “I’m a nun.” She lit a smoke.
“Uh huh” said the wolf licking his chops. The tree monkey grinned like a tree monkey can and jumped through the smashed out window into the smoky car.
Take me with you, he rasped.
“Okay,” said Jake as he sped off to leave the wolf without his monkey.
The monkey climbed down and clung to Ruby’s chest.
WOWGODDAMNIT, Ruby said.
“My whole fucking life is a wreck,” the monkey said.
“We’re desperate. Get used to it.” Jake grabbed the monkey by the scruff of the neck and placed it neatly in the back seat. He squirted and squirmed a bit but then seemed to get used to it. Ruby took off her habit. Red hair fell loose and damp across her face and fired her green eyes. “You may be desperate,” she said, “I just needed a ride away from the nun-hood.”
“Too late,” said Jake. “The wolf’s behind us now. And gaining.”
“Yep,” squealed the monkey from the back seat. “He does that.”
Jake swerved down the dirt street spitting snow from worn-out tires. The wolf was indeed gaining. Up ahead was a fork in the road.
“Left,” screamed the monkey from the back seat.
“Right,” said Ruby from the passenger side. She grabbed the wheel and pulled it hard and the car went right in the flash of lights. Cops had lined the old road in wait. Jake slowed and stopped.
“Get out,” he told Ruby, “and take the monkey.”
“You were never right,” Ruby said.
“And I was never wrong,” said Jake. She slammed the car door shut and the monkey stood up on her left shoulder and waved his paw. I never dream about my teeth anymore he whispered in Ruby’s ear.
Jake ran the cop blockade in his big black Oldsmobile. He knew the wolf was in hot pursuit, so he moved fast and forward.
“I should’a not shot my girl like that,” Jake said aloud while he drove and whipped up the winding gravel road, running from the wolf and the eight cop cars.
One by one the flashing lights were left behind in his rearview mirror as Jake sped on in the big car while Ruby and the little tree monkey watched all the cop-lights and tail-lights and sirens dissolve in the mist over the faraway hills into the winter night.
Only one car remained, idling a hundred feet back with the headlights still blazing in the falling snow. Ruby walked with the tree monkey on her shoulder to the empty car and got in. She put her habit back on and turned off the motor. They sat and watched through the windshield and waited.
Jake looked again in his mirror as the last of the lights dwindled and went out, blinking off like bug lights—all gone now in the dark night. Lonesome.
“I shouldn’t-a killed her that way,” Jake mumbled again as he checked his mirror.
First he saw the ears. Next he saw the eyes. Then he saw the fangs. Strands of drool ran thick, streaming from a grinning jaw.
“That’s what I thought as well,” said the wolf from the back seat. “You should’a done it like this.”
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Not even sure how I know him. It was after the wake, the open bar at the reception (per request of the deceased), and I stumbled into a conversation that led me to an overnight respite at Mr. Joseph Horner’s house. The man claimed to know me as the son of an aunt’s niece. His could’ve been a fake name, the familial relation nothing but a lie. Regardless, I stepped into the night with this man. The night with its rain and lack of stars, no moon to cast shadows meant to inform. No umbrella, either. No coats to serve as shields.
Once inside his door, he offered me, first, a towel then some dry clothes.
I don’t recall the outside of the home or any sense of exterior grandness (as one can sense these architectural volumes, heights, and widths like a kind of molecular aura), but the maze of hallways and rooms and doorframes suggested wealth and a considerable square footage. I reevaluated my wavering mistrust of the man and found for him a naïve and sheepish respect.
With each upturned switch, various assortments of sconce-style and torch lamps came to life, casting a dim light onto lush rooms, packed with antique-looking tables, stocked bookshelves, shapeless paintings set into square frames, and so on. All variations of impressive to someone with any aesthetic taste or appreciation. Horner moved forward into each room with a confidence only known to those who live by themselves, fearing no out-of-place obstacle. He spoke of how he often walked the rooms at night, without even a candle, he knew the place so well, telling of how it had been passed down through generations and generations, reaching far back to the times of historic dust-covered names.
“The whole lot of them travelers, I’m afraid that’s in the blood as well. An inheritance of which I shall never complain.” He began to gesture at artifacts from numerous countries all over the globe, listing destinations by their even older names (Abyssinia, Ceylon, Southern Rhodesia, Siam, Edo, Constantinople, Gaul, Persia, Mesopotamia).
His language seemed to grow more archaic as we went along. I imagined him on the stages of theaters long since burned down. The little remnants of alcohol left in me surfaced a laugh. Horner didn’t turn, he just stopped. It was only a pause. He continued forward with fewer words.
“So, this is your room. You can use the intercom if you need anything.”
“I have to thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Horner.”
“Please, you can call me Joe. Heck, we’re family, right?”
Comforted by his slip back into a familiar diction, I smiled. “Okay, Joe. Although I’m not sure we’re too close in the family orchard. This place is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it, except for those audio-guided museum tours, you know, with the headphones and the booklet.”
He offered a polite laugh and turned to go.
“Bathroom.” My embarrassment for the bluntness and tactlessness of my request was superseded by my bladder’s urgency manifesting itself as an ache in my sides.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. How inconsiderate of me. The guest bath is just down this hallway here.” As he pointed with one hand, he flicked another switch with the other, sparking a sequence of evenly spaced lamps on both walls. “At the end, take a left.”
He nodded. “I’ll take you back to the funeral home in the morning.”
By now, no longer feeling the slur of alcohol on my lips and in my steps, I could’ve made it home just fine. As he walked back from the direction we had come, I heard the sound of switches (one by one by one) and saw the glow of lights turn to the quiet of darkness. I thought of calling out to him, but felt it would be impolite to insist that he take me back now what with the time of night, the weather outside, his kindness in offering me a place to stay and dry clothes, not to mention the fact that I could no longer even hear his footsteps as they made their way through the house. I stared into an enormous void, its mouth swallowing my every nerve.
There was one path left illuminated and I moved with fast steps to the bathroom at the end of the hall. On the way, I felt a rush of air, much like the inhale or exhale of breath. There was a stirring as well, a noise, small. Perhaps a mouse or large insect. I considered stopping, but the sudden pain in my side brought my bladder’s needs to the forefront of my attention. I will investigate further, I told myself, after the bathroom.
As I leaned with one hand against the wall, pissing, I noticed how well-decorated the room was, despite its size. There was a painting above the toilet, framed in gold, which was flaking due to its age, much like the frame of the mirror. I peeled off a flake and let it crumble into nothing between my fingertips. The hand-towel was a rich burgundy color with a tiny fleur-de-lis pattern. On a small table occupying the corner, was a box of cigars. I didn’t know much about these things, but, lifting the lid led me to consider learning more. They smelled delicious, much like the dried leaves and spices of autumn, and appeared to be hand-rolled. A thick black bathrobe hung from a hook on the back of the door I hadn’t bothered to lock.
After I finished with the task in hand, I took a while to wash my face, and shrugged into the robe. We are family, this strange man and I, so I didn’t think he’d mind. I also had to help myself to one of the cigars, my pack of cigarettes no doubt being left in the casket.
Walking back to my room, the robe’s ties trailing behind me, I thumbed the cigar and placed it in a pocket. There was the inhale (exhale) of breath again, a movement in the air, and I swear it was at the exact spot I had sensed the disturbance before. And to think, I almost forget about my investigative poking about.
On my left, I saw a bust on a stand about waist-high. It could’ve been anyone really (Poe, Mozart, Shakespeare, Bach), but the part that got to me was the moving of the lips and the voice (part distinguished, part snide) that came out of the mouth.
“Thanks be to good graces,” it said. “Finally, someone to talk to.”
Just then, another head appeared – a face out of nowhere. It was fixed to the wall, above the bust and to the left. This one spoke, too, but the voice was more brittle and unsure. “Hey, what am I? Chopped liver?”
“See what I mean?” the bust said.
The second face was reminiscent of Africa with its tribal masks. It was carved, with a hole for a mouth (not quite a frown, but no smile), and speckled all over. Its ears were pronounced and large in proportion to the rest, the eyes, painted on over gouges in the wood.
“Don’t act like you’re king around here.” The mask rolled his eyes down in the direction of the bust before they turned to me. “We all have to deal with him,” he said.
Clearing his throat (if he even had one), the bust spoke again. “The conversation runs short and dry when you’ve been with the same company for as long we three.”
Another voice chimed in (though more of a gong than a chime) with drawn out, lazy tones. It was a stone, twisted face, like many of the gargoyles I had seen when reading about places I’ve never been, and was positioned on the wall, to the right of the bust.
“I don’t much mind the quiet, honestly,” it said.
I looked back at these faces, studying each one. They stared at me in return, waiting for a reaction, I would guess. I tied the robe closed and crossed my arms. At first, I questioned my mental faculties, but knew full well I was no longer inebriated. Nor was I dreaming (the old pinch test proved that much). Then, I suspected a trick, a kind of off the wall game at my expense, brought forth by Mr. Horner and his intercom. The heads, though, how they moved could be nothing less than magic or insanity. After inspecting the walls, I could find no other intercom, and the one in my room was far enough away.
“Okay,” I said. “What’s going on here?”
“Well,” the bust answered, “as you can see, we’re kind of stuck here. The old master visits us less and less.”
“And he no longer tends to our necessities anymore,” added the mask.
“Good riddance, if you ask me,” said the third.
I moved my hands to my pockets, finding the cigar.
Perhaps it was the presence of three heads, instead of just one, that made me feel more at ease. “And what do you need exactly?” I asked the mask.
“I thought you’d never ask!” he said. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I could use some blood. Just a taste.”
The bust scoffed. “What need have you for blood? Only skeletons want blood.”
“What do you think is under this veneer?”
“Only splinter,” replied the bust.
“Skeletons want blood?” I asked.
“I wonder why that is. Seems it would pour right through.” The mask was looking at the ceiling.
“Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s a vain attempt to be whole again,” said the third.
“Nonsense,” said the bust.
“Alright, alright,” said the mask. “It was a shot in the dark. If I may, though, ask you to run back to the bathroom. In the cabinet, there are some cleaning supplies, namely, some wood polish. If you could, go get some for me, with a rag.”
Without words or a second thought, I went back to the bathroom and found the polish, where the mask had said. As I was walking down the hall, washcloth in hand, I saw the heads following me with their eyes until I was in front of them again.
“Okay,” said the mask, “if you could then, be so nice as to dust and polish my face.”
When I sprayed the cloth, the mask said, “Watch the eyes.”
The bust sniffed. “That smells rather pleasant,” he said. “Lemons, if I’m not mistaken.”
I looked at the bottled and said, “Yep.”
The mask sighed and said, “Much better.”
“Now, I suppose it would not be too terrible if I asked for something,” said the bust.
I shook my head. “Not at all.”
“I could desperately use a smoke,” he said.
“I believe there are some of those in the bathroom, as well,” said the third head.
“No need.” I brought the cigar out of my pocket. “Will this be okay?”
“Oh, much more than okay,” he said.
I felt my pockets and realized I wasn’t in my own clothes and did not have a lighter with me. The cigar needed to be cut, too.
The third head seemed to read my thoughts and gestures. “Well, those things would be in the bathroom. Next to the cigars, possibly.”
This time in the bathroom, I splashed my face with water, just for good measure. If I returned and there were no talking heads, no faces to be found, then I would know this was just some delusion or some strange effect of the house on my senses. Regardless, I grabbed another cigar from the box (releasing the fine-rolled perfume into the air once again), along with the cigar cutter, and a matchbook.
Upon returning to the hall, I found myself happy with the fact that the heads were still there and were, indeed, still chatting away between each other.
“Well, then,” the bust said, “were the items found?”
“Indeed they were.” After cutting the tip, I placed the cigar in the bust’s mouth. His lips held it in place as I ripped out a match. There were creases in his gray forehead as he stared down (cross-eyed) at the cigar. I held the new flame to the cigar and the bust puffed away (how he did this without lungs, only now am I beginning to wonder).
Every five puffs or so, I’d pull out the cigar from his mouth, doing the work of his non-existent hands. The others looked on – the gargoyle face, quiet in his observation, while the mask was wide-eyed.
He said, “I think I would like one of those, too.”
“You’d catch fire,” said the gargoyle head, “what with all that polish.”
“All the more reason for it,” said the bust when the cigar was away from his lips. “Put us out of our misery.”
“It probably wouldn’t be a good idea,” I agreed with the gargoyle face.
When the cigar was finished, I returned to the bathroom to dispose of it, first running it under water to snuff out its smolder. All of this walking to and from the bathroom, I thought, was enough exercise for the night. I was thinking about trying a different way back to the room, to bypass the heads, so I could enjoy my pilfered cigar. Of course, there was no such alternate route.
“Anything you’d like?” I asked the gargoyle face (more out of courtesy than care).
“Why ask? I never get what I want,” he replied.
“I’m serious. Ask away. The others did and they are better for it.” The other two heads agreed and nodded as much as they could.
He waited, thinking.
I grew impatient, turning over the second cigar in my pocket.
“I know what I’d like,” he said.
“You know the man who owns this house?”
“Yes, of course. He is a relative of mine, though distant, who offered me a warm place to stay and dry clothes.”
“Master Horner, yes. You see, the fact of the matter is, I’d like you to bring me his head.”
I nearly choked on my surprise. I said, “But he has been such a gracious host. Why would I think of doing such a thing?”
“Gracious? Him? Why, if not his head, it’s yours,” said the gargoyle face.
The bust spoke, too. “We know his intent. There used to be four of us. Now only three remain. He’s begun his search for another fourth as of late and I am not leaning in the favor of coincidence on your part.”
“He is a cruel man,” the mask said. “All we know from him is neglect.”
I had no reason to doubt the heads, that I could tell, and if what they said was true, I was certainly now suspecting foul play from my supposed distant relation and host. Joseph Horner’s quick kindness and accommodations were perhaps too eagerly supplied.
The heads spoke to each other as I turned the options over in my head.
“Do you think he’ll agree?” said the bust.
“You shouldn’t have asked him. Now we’ll all be in trouble. Destroyed even!” said the wooden mask.
“Shh. Here’s his answer.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
All the faces, their mouths turned up into smiles.
“Splendid decision,” said the gargoyle face.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said the mask.
“If you’re ready,” said the bust, “there is a long knife in this cabinet I rest upon.”
I tried the door. “It is locked.”
The bust mumbled and started prodding his cheeks from the inside with his tongue. He stuck out his tongue, providing a key. “This should be the one,” he said. “Go ahead.”
I held the blade in my hands. A foreign shape to me, it reminded me of the jungle and those adventure movies, getting through all that growth.
The gargoyle head watched as I turned the blade over in my hands, bumping over the pearl-studded grip. “It’s a kukri,” he said.
“Another of the master’s trappings,” said the bust.
“Tell him how to get there, already,” said the mask.
“Yes, of course,” said the gargoyle head. “You just go back the way you came. The way he brought you to your room. When you find the front entrance, his is the first door down the opposite hall. You more than likely passed it on the way up.”
As I started down the maze of hallways, I heard the heads conversing.
The last thing I could hear was the bust talking to the mask. “I guess you can have your blood after all.”
There was laughter. I joined in, too, though much quieter so no one would hear.
When I found the room, there was the flicker of light under the door. My nerves made me freeze. Every breath became loud in my mind. Heartbeats. Blood pumping, surging into my brain. I had to think.
I remembered, though, what the heads had said. If not him, then me. It was his life, or mine. Only one head would be returned to the others, and all I wanted was the cigar in my pocket, to enjoy the inhale, exhale of its perfume. My body relaxed and pushed me into the room, the door, unlocked.
Mr. Horner was awake, his fingers pressing against the intercom, mouth open, head tilted with one ear, listening. He was white, sheet-like, expectant.
The next morning, I was no longer surrounded by the strange and lush atmosphere of the house. Instead, I was in my car, drool slipping out of the side of my mouth and onto the car seat (reclined). A man I recognized as the funeral home director tapped on my window. His suit was different than yesterday’s and there was the perspiration of dew on my windows.
I was in the parking lot. I was in my car. I was in my own clothes, slightly damp.
I rolled down my window and apologized. The man gave a humble nod of his head and walked back to the double-doors of the entrance.
On the drive home, I was laughing. I thought of dreams and all of the bizarre sorts I’ve had, finally able to claim a winner.
The sharp turn onto my street jerked something loose on the passenger seat. I looked over, seeing a cigar, pre-cut. A small shiver coursed through me, mixed with the excitement aroused by the cigar’s rich scents. The turn into the driveway, the bump, shook something else loose, this time in the trunk.
Of course, I knew what I’d find there.
My hands shook when I put the key to the lock at the back of the car.
I was right. I was still alive. And, somewhere, three heads were happy. In his robe, there was the body (headless) of the former Mr. Joseph Horner.
Dusk is coming on the hill, and Uncle Willy and I are tired of riding. He allows the engine to die, runs both hands through his hair, and spits out a big black wad of Copenhagen. From the back of the four-wheeler I can smell the raw stench of leaves and soil and my uncle’s Stetson. For years we’ve taken off on a whim, climbed West Virginia hillsides like outlaws on the tail end of something big. When the excitement begins to feel mundane, we coast down toward home with dirty mud flaps and our blue jeans warm from the heat of the exhaust. Sometimes Willy talks to me while we’re forging those old beaten paths, tells me where he set up a tree stand this year or how his knees have been hurting since the weather turned cold. I don’t bother to respond over the roar of the machine because I know he won’t hear. Our rides are a good lesson on listening.
Once upon a time, Willy was the worst crying baby my grandmother had ever seen. He cried for six months straight while she rocked him, fed him, and started falling asleep mid-sentence with him screaming in her arms. Willy was my grandparents’ fourth child, born smaller than but not noticeably different from the other babies they’d been raising in that little green house at the mouth of the holler. Doc Boggs told my grandmother that her baby was suffering from colic, so she put him face down over her knee and tried rocking him to sleep that way. The only photograph I have of Willy in those days is a black and white from a studio in the town of Clay, West Virginia, his face frozen on the edge panic, his arms outstretched. He’s wearing overalls and a T-shirt that reads, “Hands Off.” I imagine my grandmother on the other side of the lens, embarrassed, nervously pulling her bottom lip into her mouth. At that moment, she wouldn’t have known that her son was afflicted with a form of achondroplasia, or dwarfism, and that the symptoms were already fiercely brewing inside his tiny body. While my grandmother and Doc Boggs treated colic, Willy’s legs bowed and his ears filled with pus until his tiny eardrums were pushed to the point of bursting. He would never recover from the damage done to his bones and ears during that first year of his life.
For most of his childhood Willy attended a one room schoolhouse in Nebo and learned from a county teacher who rented speech books from the library and attempted to train his tongue to maneuver around the hard tissue of the mouth. After a while, the school board determined that my uncle wouldn’t benefit from a formal education and let him stay at home with my grandparents. He learned to change tires and oil and make drop biscuits. Now, at the age of forty-five, he’s a little over four feet tall and can’t hear a darn thing without his hearing aids. He speaks in the same muffled tones that I used to hear when I fell asleep against my mother’s belly.
In fairy tales, it’s not uncommon for the villain to be afflicted with dwarfism. Today, that word dwarf hits my ear with clumsy intonation. I hate how it makes me feel, how it conjures up images of impotence, of short, gnarled arms and legs, blank faces, and trickery.
When I was a child, laid up on the couch for a week after a tonsillectomy, someone brought me a videotape of Rumpelstiltskin’s story. I call it Rumpelstiltskin’s story (though some might argue that the story belongs to the princess) because he is the character I feel most sympathy for. The story belongs to him. At seven years old, hoarse and lame from surgery, I was disturbed by the harsh portrayal of Rumpelstilkskin’s short stature. In the movie, he stands about as tall as the princess’ thigh, wearing ridiculous mustard-colored tights and a stocking cap. I wasn’t frightened by his height, although other children probably would have been. At this time, I was already taller than Uncle Willy, and didn’t remember any different. But Rumpelstiltskin’s height was not just conveyed as physically limiting, it also served as a marker for social freakishness. He was live on the fringes of society in a house deep in the woods. I thought about the kid at my elementary school who was kept in a special classroom during recess because he tended to bang his head against the wall. I always wondered why the teachers never let him play with the other kids, and I thought maybe he banged his head against the wall because he resented being caged up like the hamster in Mrs. Dawson’s second grade class.
As if life weren’t bad enough already, poor Rumpelstiltskin was not only ugly but weird, sucked dry of his resources by the miller’s daughter and then sent back to the woods where he was left to maniacally sing and dance his jig and wait to take the baby that was rightfully his. I hashed the plot out with my mother—very gingerly, of course, because I was healing—and she listened at the foot of the couch with her eyes squinted as if she might really be thinking about what I was saying. I told her that Rumpelstiltskin was clever enough to spin straw into gold, but it was the miller’s daughter who became a princess. With Rumpelstiltskin’s help, the girl regained her life and won a husband and baby.
“Rumpelstiltskin will never get married or have a baby of his own,” I said and took a bite of jello. “If I were the princess, I’d give him the baby. He’s just lonely.”
I don’t remember what reasoning my mother offered at this point in time, but whatever it was, I can bet she wasn’t thinking about her brother. It’s funny how truths collide so frequently and how seldom we recognize the stories that weigh so heavily on our own lives.
I do remember her telling me, years later, that a doctor once deemed my Uncle Willy sterile. This reality still keeps me up at night and makes me believe that there is fear in all great stories—in even the most far-fetched works of fiction—that originate from a great and throbbing core of human truth.
On the hill, Willy and I get off the four wheeler and lean against a tree at the edge of a ridge. We’re silent for a while, and he spits again and wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his flannel shirt. He tells me he’s met a woman at Granny’s Kitchen, the restaurant built on stilts over the Elk River where he orders eggs and biscuits and wraps his leftovers in a napkin to take home to my grandmother. Uncle Willy still calls my grandmother mommy and rubs her legs down with alcohol every night. She’s got arthritis, and Uncle Willy’s got it in his joints, too. He won’t tell her he aches at night.
A whippoorwill sings from some faraway perch, and we look down through a clearing in the trees at the faraway shape of my grandparents’ house. Smoke rises from the stovepipe and it suddenly occurs to me that fall is here.
“She’s really pretty,” he says, and pulls out his wallet. He shows me a picture of a blonde woman sitting in a booth at a restaurant, her legs long and crossed at the ankles. “She smiles and talks to me when she has a break,” he says. “She’s busy, though. Right now, it’s no big deal.”
I look at him, surprised. He tells me that she’s young and shy and has folks down in Elmira. He says he took her to lunch at a sandwich shop in the next town over. I imagine the two of them driving to this restaurant, the radio playing bluegrass tunes and the delicate, long shape of a woman next to my small uncle propped up on his driving cushion. How odd and slightly erotic. Suddenly I realize that I’ve never thought of Willy as a man capable of romantic love. I feel guilty, as if I’ve been propagating the lie that has led generations of children to believe that Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t deserve the love and adoration of a woman or a child, that his condition is enough to merit exile to the woods, a place for lowly animals and for humans who aren’t worthy of an elevated level of human love.
Willy turns and faces me. “Don’t tell Mommy about her,” he says. His eyes are dark and serious; his features are as smooth and clean as a child’s. For a second, I think that I’ve never seen anything more pure or beautiful in my life.
“I won’t,” I say. “I’m happy for you, Will.” And really, I am.
The sky is a strange purple-orange, and we talk about how everything looks different when you get up high. Quietly, he turns around and heads toward the four wheeler.
I tell him to wait up, and shuffle through the undergrowth, zipping my jacket up to my chin as I go. He swings both legs over the seat and stands up so I can take my place on the back. I’m nearly twice as long as he is and I think about how we must look coasting down the hill, eyes on the rocks jutted out from the path, momentarily oblivious to any distraction in world but the road ahead of us. We lean against the slope to balance the disproportionate weight of our bodies.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Alyssa was walking through the woods. Even though she had come down this path before, she noticed a basswood tree with low branches for the first time. It seemed to offer itself to her, and she couldn’t resist. Swinging her arms and legs around the lowest branch she pulled herself up. Slowly she made her way into the tree until she reached a branch at least twenty feet from the ground. There she rested and looked around. The path was now far below and she felt herself embraced by leaves. A whispering sound reached her ear.
“Alyssa, Alyssa.” How did the tree know her name, she wondered.
“Come stay with me,” he continued. “I know you better than you know yourself. Let go of the world. I will catch you in a bed of soft moss that I have prepared for you between my roots.”
The leaves were rustling in the breeze, and a blue jay was calling nearby. Alyssa felt the rough bark of the tree underneath her fingertips. It seemed easy to loosen her grip on its trunk, slide off the branch, and let herself fall into the soft leaves.
When another hiker came across her lifeless body beneath the tree, he found her hands clutching small branches with leaves, as if they were sprouting from her arms.
The Pull of the Water
On Sunday, she went to the Arboretum. It was a late September afternoon, the sun already low in the sky, and every bush casting long shadows across the grass. After walking through the rose garden where a few late summer roses were still in bloom and quietly sending fragrance to no one in particular, she made her way to the pond, where she sat down right by the water’s edge and watched the leaves of the water lilies, bright green trays set on the watery surface. Mottled red goldfish were sitting in the dark green water underneath, hardly moving at all.
Suddenly a motion at the corner of her eye caught her attention and she looked up to the opposite edge of the pond. On one of the rocks by the edge sat the biggest frog she had ever seen, motionless and without expression in his huge eyes. She stared at him with a mixture of disgust and fascination. His skin was olive green with some brown on the legs. He looked otherworldly. When he opened his mouth she noticed that his inside was not green, but a lovely soft pink color.
“You know what to do,” he said, but she wasn’t sure she had heard correctly.
“No,” she found herself answering, briefly looking around to check that no one was nearby, overhearing her conversation with a frog, but the place was empty except for her and the frog.
“You must climb down the lily pad and join me at the bottom of the pond, where we will hibernate.”
“But isn’t it cold and dark down there?”
“It will be cold and dark up here soon, and down there no one will bother you. Occasionally, fish will nibble on your toes, and the water will hum you to sleep.”
“But what would I do? How would I breathe?”
“You will lie back, hair floating in the water, and forget about your life up here: the air you were breathing so eagerly, the flowers you were looking at with such longing, and the people you thought would bring you joy.”
A dragonfly made its erratic path across the water. She gazed at the frog’s shimmering green skin. The water below seemed dark and deep. She imagined it seeping into her lungs, turning her body weightless.
“Perhaps next year.”
She got off the rock and walked back to her car.
Friday, February 13, 2009
............You knew this meant she was gone.
............You knew this meant the end of “happily ever after.”
Now, three years later, you find yourself in a similar situation, only this time, it’s not that snooty little pre-Madonna. No, this time its Sally. Lovely Sally White, the girl who loved you, who still loves you, but just told you all teary-eyed and white with fright that, “There are things about me you don’t know. Things that would break your heart. I think it’s best that I go now.”
............This was sudden.
............This was unexpected.
............Things had reached a point. A good point. A point that led you to believe that it was time that you cut the shit with the “I need my own space at night” routine, and asked her to stay over.
............This…this whole her telling you that there were things you didn’t know and running out the door towards her rusty old Buick wasn’t the response you had in mind. You’d envisioned candle light flickering off her skin white as snow, entanglement of fingers in her ebony locks—you’d envisioned entanglement of other sorts as well.
............You hadn’t however, envisioned this.
You don’t want things between the two of you to end, especially not like this, so you run. You run after her. You run after her to her car, where she sits tear-streaked and fumbling for her keys. You knock softly upon her window, you speak gently, you speak charmingly. “Sally. Sally please don’t go,” you say. “There’s nothing you could tell me that would make me want you to go.” And it’s true. It’s true not because you think you couldn’t love someone else, but because you know you couldn’t find someone else with skin so white, hair so ebony.
“I can’t keep this from you anymore. This secret. This curse,” she says. “I’ve been meaning to tell you, I just haven’t figured out a way.”
“I’m sure we can talk this out,” you say. “Come on Sally, get out of the car. Please, can you do that for me?”
She finally gets out and she hugs you so tight you could swear you feel your belt buckle push up against your spine. And then her tears really start coming—they come in big waves that soak through your shirt, as she tells you that this thing, this thing she has to tell you, has really been the proverbial monkey on her back. She knows you’ll scream at her, you’ll tell her to get the fuck out of your life, but she has to tell you anyway.
You wish she’d just come out with it already. You’ve been around women enough at this point in your life to know that these “secrets” usually aren’t all that surprising anyway. They usually involve another man, or men and their respective sexual organs. If it’s a really “bad secret,” as Sally’s tears seem to indicate, it could possibly involve a whole heard of men, or even a goat. Even if…you probably still wouldn’t want her to go.
“If you tell me, you won’t feel so bad. Just let it out,” you say.
.............She almost stops crying.
.............Almost lets the proverbial monkey off her back.
“Is it your roommates? Did you sleep with one of them?” you ask.
............She doesn’t answer.
“All seven?...Which one was it? Harry? Barry? Jack? John? Lenny? Lou?...Frank?
............She still doesn’t answer.
She presses her face into your chest and wipes her eyes on your shirt. Now there is this outline of her face in the middle of your chest that you’ll have to carry around until you do laundry in the morning. Finally, she speaks. She asks, “What if I told you that late at night I turn into a heavy, foul-mouthed, old woman who drinks heavily and drives a truck? A woman who drives a truck and chases other women. Would you still want me to stay over tonight?”
............You tell her of course you would.
............It’s not like you have a choice.
............It’s not like this isn’t make-believe.
You start to ask her what the real secret is, but before you can, she wraps her arms, white as snow, around your neck and kisses you hard on the lips. She kisses you so hard, that you have to pull away. When you do, you notice three little drops of blood running from her lips down her little white chin. She looks at you and you can tell she’s just melting inside. You’ve passed her test. You’ve proven you really care. She wraps her arms around you again, and the two of you can’t take it anymore. You rip your clothes off and go at it right there on top of her rusty old Buick, right in front of the neighbors.
Afterwards, you lay there on top of the hood staring at her skin gleaming in the moonlight and you stroke her ebony locks. She sighs, feeling a little relieved and tells you, “If anyone can love me for the way I am, it’s you.” You get a little teary- eyed, and then you feel bad for getting teary-eyed, for being so sensitive.
............You go inside.
............You go to bed, together.
A few hours later a terrible crash startles you from your sleep. You reach across the bed desperately searching for Sally. You want to prove to her that you’re here. That you’ll protect her…But she’s nowhere to be found.
“Son of a bitch that stung,” yells this raspy southern voice, and then you hear this somebody toss pieces of glass into a pile at the other side of the bed. You turn the light on your nightstand on, and then you see it— you see this woman—this old, wrinkly woman—this old, wrinkly and naked woman with a crew cut staring at you. She’s holding the fragments of a picture frame in her hands.
............She smiles at you.
............She smiles at you and drops the frame.
............She drops the frame and extends her hand.
“Name’s Sandy White,” she says. She notices the horrified expression on your face as you grip her calloused hand. “Don’t worry honey, I’m as shocked as you are. I must’a been real good and tuned if I came home with you. Not that you ain’t cute. I’m just not real into the boys if you know what I mean,” she adds and winks. “Now could you be so kind as to hand me those underpants by your pillow there?”
You hand her the underwear. You don’t know what else to do. You’re utterly spellbound, utterly horrified. She pulls the giant panties up over her waist and then grabs a pair of jeans, a dirty old hat, and a flannel shirt off the floor. She tips her hat to you before she lumbers downstairs towards the living room looking for her “no good, god-damned keys.” You follow her, still not sure what to think. You want to know who the hell she is and how she got in your bed. When you ask, she tells you she agrees that this was a mistake, and she wishes she could help you, but that she just doesn’t have the best memory after she gets to drinking too much. She adjusts her sagging breasts and pats her pocket, as if this might make her keys magically appear.
............At this point you’re willing to believe anything is possible.
“I can’t seem to find my god-damned keys,” she says. “Guess you’re taking me to the shop to fetch a spare.” You can no longer think. All logic has left the building, has left you standing naked in the living room scratching your head like some sort of caveman. She gets tired of watching you stand there. She tells you to cover that god-damned thing up with a sock, and grab a pair of shoes because she’s got loads to deliver.
............You grab your keys.
It takes a while to maneuver around the mysterious sparkling white semi in the driveway, but eventually you make it. Sandy laughs hysterically the whole time and tells you you’re the worst driver she’s ever seen, that she hopes you drove your big-rig better than your car, if not, it’s a good thing she doesn’t remember. You’d normally think of something witty to say in a situation like this, but then again, there really aren’t situations like this, situations similar to having your girlfriend seemingly morph into an old, lesbian truck driver.
............You throw the car in gear.
............You throw the car in gear, and head toward Sandy’s shop.
Fifty Miles, three cigarettes and five passin’s of Sandy’s flask later, Sandy tells you to turn onto a dark and nearly grown-over dirt road. You begin to speculate about your future, as in, the distinct possibility that your about to be lacking one. You tell Sandy the road is too grown-over, your car will never make it through; you’ll get stuck. “Bullshit,” she says, taking another swig from her flask. She tells you to give it hell and when you fail to respond, she stomps your foot on the gas pedal for you. The car takes off, it accelerates, it accelerates at a rate that far exceeds its four cylinder capabilities. You’re no longer driving, the car is driving itself, steering its way through impossibly tight spaces, around trees as tall as houses, over roots resembling hands reaching towards your door. And then…the roaring engine falls silent, returns to its natural put-putting, and you somehow emerge onto a newly paved driveway. In the distance, a million watt sign flashes NAPA AUTO PARTS in painful neon spurts.
“There she is,” says Sandy. “Pull on up around back. I’ll make this quick.”
............You pull around back.
............You pull around back and check your shorts,
............You check your shorts and follow Sandy,
............You follow Sandy like a scared child.
Inside the shop, the smell of diesel fuel and fuel injection cleaner permeates everything. It’s as if the place has formed its own variation of the Earth’s troposphere. Sandy rummages through a giant red toolbox and curses the many “god-damned, mother- fucking whatcha callits,” while you take a look around. There are seven little red toolboxes lined up next to Sandy’s. They look like ¼ scale models of the real deal, only they’re neat and orderly; Sandy’s is messy and covered with pornographic images. You smile when you see Miss January, 1974. She was your favorite when you were a kid rummaging through your Dad’s private drawer.
After several minutes it occurs to you that you and Sandy are not alone in the shop. The whole time you’ve been here, there’s been the unmistakable clanging and banging of ratchets and torque wrenches coming from behind you, but the combination of the shop’s tropospheric composition of diesel fuel and the general shock associated with one’s girlfriend morphing into an old truck driving alcoholic has numbed your senses to say the least. It’s okay though, there’s been no permanent damage to your psyche, at least none associated with the composition of the air you’ve been breathing. Your reactions are just a little slower, a little surreal. But now the banging and clanging are registering clearly in your temporal lobes thanks to an as yet undamaged primary auditory cortex. You hear them clearly, the tools, the men singing in their singsong fashion.
............You hear them singing.
............You hear them singing Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho,
............It’s off the hubcaps go.
You turn around hoping to glimpse the faces of this chorus, but all you see is seven little pairs of red shoes, seven little sets of legs, hanging out from under seven giant semis. The seven little sets of red shoes sway to the rhythm of their seven little voices.
“Ah fuck it, I guess we’ll have to hotwire her,” yells Sandy, throwing her last wrench on the floor. “Just take me on back to your place,” she says, and then she yells towards the seven little sets of shoes, “Alright boys, me and this fella’s outta here. I’ll see ya’ll later.”
............Seven little voices fall silent.
............Seven little ratchets and torque wrenches
............Fall to the floor.
On the way back to your place Sandy scans her delivery chart. Aside from the four pallets of non perishable food, nothing is urgent, nothing is required to be delivered before sunup. She and the seven little sets of red shoes apparently put in overtime last week thanks to daylight savings. She looks at her watch and sees it’s only two. She suggests you catch a bite to eat at Denny’s. She’ll buy, she says. Gas doesn’t grow on trees after all. Besides, she feels bad about you feeling bad for sleeping with her. She smiles sweetly at you. She smiles so sweetly, you could almost swear she was little Sally White again.
............You know you’ve seen those little red shoes before.
............You’ve seen them.
............You know you have
Everyone at Denny’s knows Sandy. You can tell for some people this is a good thing-like the pretty waitresses, and the older Strippers who were sent home early. For others it’s a bad thing. It’s an especially bad thing for the men with the strippers, the ones who’ve made the mistake of raising a hand to them when Sandy’s around. Sandy waves. The strippers wave back and smile so big that their makeup masks begin to crack and reveal the signs of aging and abuse. The men stare firmly at their Grand Slams.
Stan, the third shift manager, comes thru the swinging kitchen doors with a giant grin on his face. He tucks his shirt in and adjusts his tie. Then he hugs Sandy. He thanks her for taking care of that skirmish between the aging and young factions of strippers last night. He thanks her for reestablishing equanimity. He asks her what she’d like “on the house.”
“No need for thanks Stan,” says Sandy. “But since you offered, I’ll have the usual. My friend here strikes me as the Ultimate Omelet type. Grits instead of hash browns.” You nod approvingly. You compile a list of evidence on your napkin suggesting Sandy is indeed Sally, that this isn’t in fact, some sick joke. The list looks something like this…
............Reasons Sandy Must Be Sally
............1. Sandy smokes. Sally too smokes.
............2. Both their smiles give me butterflies. Is this strange?
............3. Sally-seven roommates. Sandy-seven coworkers.
............4. Both order for me, and get it right.
............5. Sandy likes women. Sally is
Between big yolk-soaked bites Sandy asks you about the picture beside your bed. The picture in the frame she broke. The picture she’s pulling out of her pocket with the hand she’s not stuffing her face with. You tell her it’s Sally. Sally White. The girl you love. The girl you wish you were here with right now. You also tell her it’s kind of fucked up that she steals pictures off of stranger’s nightstands. She apologizes and slides the picture across the table towards you. She tells you she took it so she could have it reframed for you. She knows a guy who does custom frames, and obviously this girl is very important to you. Yes, you tell her. She is. You also tell her it was thoughtful. The intent to reframe, not the stealing of your picture.
The Ultimate Omelet, and Sally’s flask hit your gut just right. You feel good. You feel whole. You feel chatty. The two of you talk about Sally, about the way she makes you feel, about how she’s the first woman you thought you could trust with your heart since your ex-wife left you, but that after tonight, you’re not sure, things have become complicated. How so? she asks. It’s like she’s a different woman all together sometimes you tell her. “We’re all like that. Even me,” she says, and she smiles at you just like Sally. Just like Sally White, and you want to peel off her greasy hat, run your hands through her crew cut, and kiss her hard on her withered red lips.
............You kiss her.
............You kiss her so hard her lips bleed,
............Three little drops fall on her chin.
“Well hot damn! That was about enough to make me straight. Just about,” she says, and she laughs. Everyone in Denny’s laughs, you included. You laugh so hard it hurts. Sandy pats you on the back laughing just as hard, and passes you her flask. You talk about failed loves, failed expectations. Sandy tells you that when she was younger she wanted to be a beauty queen, or a princess, but that she never felt right in a dress. She tells you that late at night she would sneak down into her father’s garage and make a tiara of his air filter, a scepter of his wrench. When he found her, he would cry and say, “You can be a princess in the morning Sweetpea.” You add Sandy and Sally’s shared nickname to your list.
It’s three thirty when you finally leave Denny’s. Sandy tells you she had a great time. She tells you Sally’s a lucky girl. If all guys were like you, there might be less girls like her that hate men. You tell her she’s just drunk. It’s just the rum talking. She agrees she’s drunk, but says, “It ain’t the rum talking honey. Come on, take me to my truck. I got those pallets of food to deliver before sunup.”
............You drive Sally back to her sparkling-white
............She sings. She sings-Heigh-ho,
............It’s off to mother fucking work I go,
“Touch the green wire to the white one,” says Sandy. She’s having you hotwire the truck. She’s having you hotwire the truck because she’s too drunk to do it herself. She’s also too drunk to drive, but that isn’t going to stop her. She says she’s seen you drive, and you’re pathetic. “If you can’t fuckin’ control four wheels,” she says, “how are ya going to control eighteen.” You touch the green wire to the white wire. The semi pings and pangs to life. Sally tells you nice work, you might be useful after all, and she pats you on the back in that loving way of hers. She pats you on the back and throws the truck in gear.
The whole way to the Piggly Wiggly you and Sandy sing along with her Credence cassette at top volume. She toots her horn to the rhythm of Susie Q while you play air guitar and turn the dash into a snare drum. When the A side of the tape ends, you tell her that for Christmas you’re getting her a CD player or an IPod because it’s time to get out of the eighties. She says, “Fuck your CD’s, I like my cassettes just fine. Now stop yakking and sing dear.”
.............You sing till it hurts.
.............Till it hurts enough
.............That you know you’re still alive.
When you finally get to the Piggly Wiggly, it’s four-thirty. Sandy is concerned by this. She says she can’t get back to the shop later than five. Frank, her boss, forbids it. “He’s not a mean guy, real sweet in fact,” she says. “He and the other guys just worry about me. They like me to be home and in bed before sunup They know if I’m not, I’ll just pass out where I stand.
............You know now where you’ve seen those little red shoes.
............You know now why Sally never had a problem with your
............not wanting her to stay overnight.
It’s four fifty when you and Sandy finish unloading the truck. The produce manager is not happy. He tells Sandy he’s considering switching shipping companies. She tells him to blow it out his ass. She and her new partner here are faster than anybody else he can find so he can shut his god-damn mouth. The produce manager drops his clipboard. He drops his mouth further. You tell him not to worry. These things happen when you’re dealing with Sandy. You hand him the order. He signs, and you and Sandy head back to the truck high-fiving and passing her flask.. It’s nearly five when you hop in the cab.
When she gets up in the truck, Sandy tells you she’s not feeling so well. She tells you she hates to do it, but she has to let you drive her home; she might just fall asleep if she doesn’t. You tell her it’s probably just the alcohol. She says, “I don’t think it’s that. I just get this way every mornin’ and I can’t put my finger on it.” You tell her to relax. You know where to take her.
You slide into the driver’s seat, and Sandy crawls back into the sleeper cab. She tells you if you hurt her baby, she’ll beat the piss out of you. You laugh nervously and grab the wheel with one hand and the shifter with the other. At first you grind the gears a bit and Sandy growls in her sleep, but after awhile, you get the hang of things. You even start to sing Sandy’s little song.
............It’s off to mother fucking work I go.
The sky begins to turn a lighter shade of blue and the moon becomes less pronounced as you make a wide right-hand turn into your neighborhood. You hear Sandy groan in her sleep when you catch the curb with your rear wheels. You ease the truck back onto the pavement. You’ve never seen your neighborhood at this hour. It’s beautiful. Everything’s stock-still. In an hour, the birds will begin to chirp, the coffee makers will churn, and the sun’s rays will begin to break over the horizon and dance on the truck’s sparkling white hood. But for now, it’s just you and Sandy navigating through this deathly still landscape. You tell yourself you could get used to this. ..
When you get to your house, you notice a little blue and yellow work van in the driveway. You park in the middle of the street and check on Sandy. She’s out cold.
You throw her over your shoulder and stumble up the drive. You head inside to deal with the seven sets of red shoes.
When you walk into the kitchen you see them. You see Harry, Barry, Jack, John, Lenny, Lou, and Frank. They’re all drinking little thimbles-full of your best scotch, well, all except Lou; he’s already passed out naked in the pantry. They’re all drinking your best scotch and singing in that sing-song way of theirs. They’re singing…
............It’s down the bottle goes
............When the drip drip hits your lips
............It’s time to show some nips.
You ask them, What the hell is the meaning of all this? Don’t you know a locked door means do not enter? You also ask them if they have any idea what they just drank. Frank tells you, “Yes, we drank your Dalmore 62 Single Highland Malt Scotch, and that’s no way to talk to your guests.” You tell him, they’re not your guests. Lou stumbles out of the pantry and urinates in the refrigerator.
“We noticed someone wasn’t sleeping in their bed,” says Harry.
“We noticed someone wasn’t at the shop by five,” says Frank, pointing at Sandy passed out on your shoulder. “We were worried.”
“She was fine. She was with me,” you say.
“We were so worried,” say all seven sets of red shoes, even Lou. Frank, who’s always struck you as the tough-guy out of all seven roommates, gets a little teary eyed. He tells you he’s so glad she’s okay. He’s so glad you understand. He asks you to sit down so he can explain the details, and offers you the last shot of your Dalmore 62.
............You tell them to wait.
............You tell them to wait and,
............You Lay Sandy on the couch.
You pull a stool up to the table and take your shot. You take your shot and tell Frank you’re all ears. Fire away.
Frank tells you that this whole Sally/Sandy morphing thing is the result of some curse Sally’s great, great, great grandmother’s stepmother put on her when she was a little girl. On the distant grandmother, not Sally. Sally just had the misfortune of inheriting this awful thing at birth. “She also inherited a house in the woods, and all seven of us,” says Frank. “We were supposed to be her servants, but she didn’t think it was fair to boss us around. So we just make sure she’s okay now. We love her. She’s like family. Like a pretty sister, and an over-protective lesbian sister all in one. It’s nice.” You ask Frank a series of questions, like—how is it Sally knows about Sandy, but Sandy doesn’t seem to know about Sally? And why does her Buick change into a Semi; couldn’t there just be two vehicles? He tells you it’s complicated. It’s a mix of repressed emotions and magical realism that, when it comes down to it, you either accept or you don’t.
............You find this answer to be sufficient.
............It’s not like you have a choice.
............It’s not like the woman morphing on your couch
............as you and frank speak
You excuse yourself from the table.
As you approach the couch, you notice the beams of sunlight dancing across the horizon, fragmenting off the Buick’s rusty hood thru the window—they’re illuminating the steadily disappearing wrinkles in her skin white as snow, accenting the transformation of her tightly trimmed locks to long flowing ebony stands while the two of them lay as one on the couch before you, a wonderful juxtaposition of brashness and beauty. You look at them and you realize you love them. You love them both.
- ▼ February (12)
- I'm a professor of English at The University of Akron--I teach fiction writing and literature classes. I have published over sixty stories and essays in magazines, as well as a novel, Jack's Universe, and a collection of stories, Private Acts. I grew up in a military family, so I'm not from anywhere in particular except probably Akron, where I've lived for over thirty-five years. Before I came here, I never lived anywhere longer than three years. I got my BA from U.C. Berkeley, my MA from San Diego State, and my MFA from The University of Iowa.