EDITOR ZoĂŤ Etkin EDITORIAL ASSISTANT Jackson Burgess DESIGNER Amanda Gartman
Red Sky seeks to showcase new work from established and up-and-coming writers and artists. $8.00
TABLE OF CONTENTS
redsky volume 2 issue 1
Thomas Alan Holmes
Rivers of You
Thomas Alan Holmes
Aspic and Lace
Lisa J. Sharon
Directory of Desitinies
It Was Raining in Florence
My First Suicide
Sean Thomas Dougherty
The Last Scene in the Movie
Egg Poems: An English Languacultural History of China
Yer Blues, Alternate Version
Justin J. Murphy
Maggie Van Fossen
thomas alan holmes
Veiled and gentle, he, deliberate and slow, would lift the honeyed inner frame and rob. Iâ€™ve watched him with a fingertip nudge stinging bees from his bare wrist with no more force than an inheld breath when turning keys, relieved at home. Old and patient, he, considerate, would dote on boys he never saw mature into men. I, once a child who grew to learn of blessed and meek poverty and hungry stoicism, heard him tell his neighbor bees our lives. Two summers gone I halted when a worker lit inside the right lens of my glasses. Iâ€™d learned to raise my steady hand to my left temple, lift my glasses from my face, and let the bee fly free.
It seemed but within weeks, a queen had found a hollow a few paces from the path up to our porch, the swarm for three days pulsing as my young ones veered, in fear they might be stung. I strode up to the trunk and jumped and yelled and whooped so they would laugh and understand a queen will mind her work with life’s commotion all around. This morning, though, was cold and wet as we could not expect, and still I hoped the sky when I got home November afternoon would clear enough to stir the hive, that I might see just one of those who hovered days ago, but none was there, all clustered deep inside the well of that old tree. And so my son, turned back to watch the path up to our porch, has seen me stand and call the huddled hive in hollow sassafras, “Our friend has died. Oh, our friend has died. Oh, our friend has died.”
RIVERS OF YOU emily strauss
I am in moon madness circling darkly tonight, vicious as cave echoes slipping down paths of fixation the walls return whispers of dark promises like bats in the treetops, awakening rivers of you Space is filled with unseen worlds, floating reflections in silver tones, the fruit of my lips dies in shady hollows, stolen by the blue light on my bare skin I am coldly round and pale tonight against the black arch of stars holding loose trinkets in my apron sail I shake dust out of my orbit, my hair floats free in waves of white beams I circle still, unsure of the distances between my features and yours, waiting for your shadow to fall, for your current to bend the pondâ€™s surface until my image is broken by ripples spreading after the stone is dropped, silently I am watching for signs as the clouds blow across the face of the peak starkly white in the moonâ€™s glow, I shiver once from frost and my own taut muscles, waiting as still as a deer to touch you.
One frame of Chuck Jonesâ€™ art reveals the coyote composed of jagged lines and oval smears against a rocky desert scene. He has a name: Wile E. Coyote. He can write and draw intricate charts on blueprint paper. His elaborate plans make his failure heartbreaking.Â Today, AARP sent an invitation, but I will not retire, and I will never die. I quicken my scrabbling on uneven purchase and hurtle without pause, leaning into my reach, dismissing the impact of a deep canyon floor.
thomas alan holmes 9
ASPIC AND LACE lisa j. sharon 10
My experience with exotic plants is limited to the time I threw up all over Mrs. Stanford’s variegated clivia. My friend Marcie, who worked as summer help for the Stanfords, told me that the clivia never recovered and had finally to be replaced with the less rare and far less satisfying blue orchid. I am told that the story has become part of the family lore and Tom Stanford’s liaison with that “unfortunate girl,” as I have come to be known, has been held up as an example of a narrow escape. A cautionary tale for the young ones. What I was doing at Tom Stanford’s house that summer thirty years ago is a question that brings heat to my face every time I think of it. Coming from a family with little education and low expectations, I had been sensibly raised to anticipate a life of work in the local cannery, or perhaps, if my typing skills improved, a secretarial job. But being a beach town, we locals were inundated every summer by rich visitors, many of whom came so regularly that some of us were able to infiltrate their ranks, if only briefly and with proper distance maintained. Tom’s parents were literature professors at an Ivy League college. Tom was a prince on a white horse. He wooed me efficiently and rapidly. At the Tastee Freeze he put his arm around me and leaned over to take a bite of my blue moon ice cream even while I was licking the other side. Our faces were close and he raised his eyebrows charmingly and deepened his dimples. We headed to the beach. The very beach where Tom and Veronica had loudly broken it off only a few days earlier. I cringe now at the memory of the words my Prince exchanged with Veronica in that very public separation. “So stoned all the time it’s like fucking a goddamned dishrag.” That should have given me pause, but I was young and he was handsome, and there you have it. The next thing I knew we were sitting by a dying fire at the beach, his bare chest against my naked back in postcoital nesting.
After several more late night trysts in which he gradually diminished the nesting and dispensed with the fire altogether, it was I who, in a fit of desperation and thoughtless ambition, insisted upon meeting his parents. “They’re not easy,” Tom said. “You won’t like them.” When, of course, what he meant was, “They will be mortified by your presence in their home.” But, as Veronica was steadfastly opposed to reconciliation, and Tom was an eighteen-year-old of the male persuasion, I suppose he thought an afternoon lunch could not do too much harm. He relented. I prepared to meet the Professor and the other Professor. I spent a small fortune on new clothes; a flowered skirt, powder blue sweater and leather heels to match. I wore lipstick that I wiped off on a tissue as Tom and I headed to his house. He walked with an air of grim determination. I walked on shaky legs. Marcie met us at the door. She was wearing an unattractive uniform and a fake smile. She directed us to the dining room and, when no one was looking, raised her eyebrows at me in such a way that I was not sure whether she was impressed by my accomplishment or mocking my efforts at self-improvement. Mrs. Stanford, thin and severe in her white tennis skirt and yellow sweater, offered me her hand which I attempted to shake with the same degree of indifferent lassitude that she bestowed upon me. Mr. Stanford, a large, round-bellied, bewhiskered man, greeted me with the enthusiasm of a friendly dog and I gladly responded with a firm handshake. In obedience to Mrs. Stanford’s loose-wristed wave, I seated myself at the white-clothed table with the sprig of lavender flowers in the center. Tom sat beside me. I was glad that he appeared relaxed and oblivious to any discomfort until I realized that he was merely absorbed in a baseball game playing on the large-screen TV in the next room.
Marcie, with a small smile that cut through my pretenses, brought out a salad consisting of nothing but pale green lace and pear slices. I contemplated the extraordinary amount of silverware circling my plate. Which of the three forks to use? While Mrs. Stanford commiserated with her husband about an ignorant student who failed to appreciate the difference between the apostrophe form and that of the internal monologue, Mr. Stanford came to my rescue with a subtlety and kindness that drove home the obviousness of my predicament. He eyed me significantly then raised the small fork furthest from his own plate. I did the same. Marcie delivered the aspic with the sliced ham. It jiggled menacingly on the china serving platter. I watched Tomâ€™s mother serve herself some of the bloody-looking mold, adding a dollop of sour cream by loosening it from the spoon with a sharp karate chop of a motion. I did the same. It was the texture that made the aspic intolerable. An unpalatable combination of grit and gelatinous glop. I gagged discreetly on the first bite but charged forth nonetheless. The second bite had the misfortune of having a drop of sour cream on it and that did me in. I jumped from the table, realized I had no idea where the bathroom was, and bolted through the French doors by the garden. The aspic, the lace and pears, and some of my breakfast, spoiled the delicate peach colored flowers of the clivia. Flowers, I have since learned, that are rather difficult to cultivate. Tomâ€™s mother was the soul of grace and concern. She insisted that Tom drive me home immediately. In any case, the net result was that I had to throw away my aspic splattered leather shoes and Tom was safely returned to his Veronica of the willowy figure and narrow nose. And it was just as well because the shoes squeezed entirely too much and Tom not enough at all.
STEALING HORSES How her head stoops, how slowly the words come, television blinking in glasses that never help her seeâ€” My deep red pumping heart whooshes beside her on the couch, running across the highway inside with nothing but a shaved head and a backpack, hitchhiking to Albuquerque, all the way down to mesa, the dirt road, a careless smudge of pink giving up across the sky, the sky, the whole universe in this sky, getting down on hands and knees, feeling bone through the earth, I lean over herâ€” her face, the age spots wrinkles tears I lay my fat tongue across her cheek.
TOWER kevin griffing No more mountains he said, I want needles of metal stretching up higher than I can reach. He said, I want monuments to me and my hands, my veins like scaffolding with purpose in the knuckles. He said, I want to tower like a mind struck by lightning because it was high enough to hit with a bolt of electricity, he said watch me stand tall.
DIRECTORY 1/ Water (born in a year ending in 2 or 3) -helps wood but hinders fire; helped by metal but hindered by earth with her transparent tenderness coded with colorless violence she is always ready to support or sink the powerful boat sailing south 2/ Wood (born in a year ending 4 or 5) -helps fire but hinders earth; helped by water but hindered by metal rings in rings have been opened or broken like echoes that roll from home to home each containing fragments of green trying to tell their tales from the forestâ€™s depths 3/ Fire (born in a year ending 6 or 7) -helps earth but hinders metal; helped by wood but hindered by water your soft power bursting from your ribcage as enthusiastic as a phoenix is supposed to be when you fly your lipless kisses you reach out your hearts until they are all broken
OF DESTINIES changming yuan
4/ Earth (born in a year ending in 8 or 9) -helps metal but hinders water; helped by fire but hindered by wood I think not; therefore, I am not what I am, but I have a color the skin my heart wears inside out tattooed intricately with footprints of history 5/ Metal (born in a year ending in 0 or 1) -helps water but hinders wood; helped by earth but hindered by fire he used to be totally dull-colored because he came from the earthâ€™s inside now he has become a super-conductor for cold words, hot pictures and light itself all being transmitted through his throat
SUMMER HAVEN lisa locascio 18
In the living room after dinner Mother slaps me, grabs my wrist and drops to the floor, yanking me down with her. My head just misses the corner of the sofa where my brother James is sitting. She sits on the waistband of my jeans. I buck under. I don’t want her there. The phone rings. James has the TV on loud, some show about men with guns. He doesn’t move. Mother rubs my nose with her left hand. James’ fingertips dangle off the side of the sofa, grazing my nose. Mother’s face is hidden behind her highlighted hair. The answering machine clicks as it picks up the call. “Claire You,” says a tiny voice. James’s weird girlfriend always leaves the same message: just her name. Mother doesn’t move. The phone rings again. The answering machine clicks on. Nina’s voice fills the room. “Hi Bobby, it’s me.” Mother lifts her hand like she’s going to slap me again, then changes her mind and drops it onto my cheek. She caresses my face. She is drunk on expensive beer with a fancy name: Anchor Steam. Nina keeps talking. “You should come this weekend. Jonah is. We’re driving up on Saturday afternoon.” She told me about her summer house for the first time two weeks ago, during a long afternoon we spent drinking iced tea on her couch while we waited for Jonah to finish rehearsal. I look up at the green lampshade, at James’s fingernails. I listen to the TV men and their guns. Mother rubs my cheek harder, like she’s trying to start a fire. Bile spits up into my throat and I swallow hard. On the machine Nina sounds hopeful. I close my eyes. Her voice makes me forget where I am. “We’ll be back before dark on Sunday. Summer’s almost here, isn’t that cool?” Tomorrow is the last day of school. At lunch I order a grilled cheese sandwich and watch the hairnetted lady dispense three pumps of nacho cheese onto soft white bread. I carry my tray over to the tables by
the radiators where the retarded kids sit and pick out a spot alone at the end of the table. I like to sit here. It’s quiet. The fake cheese oozes through the soft white bread as soon as I pick it up, getting all over my hands. I forgot to grab napkins at the counter. I think I think Nina before I see her. I feel her soft hand on my shoulder, smell her Secret deodorant over the stench of lunch. It’s like magic, the way I go from eating lunch alone to feeling her touch. Like going to a different place. “Hi,” she says, her red hair bright in the fluorescent light. I stole the dye from Only Oona, my mother’s salon, and double-processed Nina’s hair in her upstairs bathroom. The color is called Don’t Panic. I wipe my hands on my thighs. “Did you get my message?” She twists a piece of hair around her finger, swaying. I did a good job; I can’t see any of her real dishwater blonde color. “Yes,” I say, “Yes, and I definitely want to come.” But arms come from behind Nina and close around her waist. The arms pick her up and she laughs and laughs. “Dude,” Jonah says, digging his chin into the top of Nina’s head. It looks like he’s hurting her. “Yo.” Nina can’t stop laughing. “Jonah. Put me down!” But he doesn’t. He holds her above the floor easily; he is very tall. She turns her green eyes up to his and he smiles down into her face. Jonah is my best friend. “Yo. Uh, dude, Bobby,” He points to my cell phone on my lunch tray. “It’s ringing.” I pick it up. It’s Mother, loudly. “Robert. Do you have… do you have any idea what I’m doing over here on Fuck-Fuck Street? Because I do not. I do not know…what I am doing… wasting my talent on the passel of faggots and mental midgets that this pathetic place has to offer. Robert. I just wanted to ask you? If you knew? What I was doing? Here in this goddamn fucking horrible cunt of a place?” She’s slurring hard. I close the phone and look at the
clock. It’s twelve-thirty, a busy time at the salon. Mother’s drunk. She called from Only Oona’s front-of-the-house phone, the one at the reception desk, not the private line in the backroom. After the last receptionist quit, my mother insisted that she could manage all of the salon’s duties, from setting the old ladies’ bouffants to sweeping up scrap hair. And answering the phone. “Besides,” she said, “you’ll come help.” Mamie Graber, who’s been coming to my mother for ten years, has an appointment in half an hour. Regulars are important; we can’t really hope to attract new customers at this point. Almost all of Only Oona’s business comes from people who knew Mother before. “Hey Jonah,” I say. He and Nina are still looking at each other. I say his name again. “Yeah, bro?” “I gotta go.” “I get it.” Jonah knows what happens when my mother calls. “Bye,” Nina says, squeezing my shoulder, sending a little burst of light up and down my arm. I run through the Student Center out to where I parked my bike on the mall, unlock it, and go. Businesses on Lake Street whiz by: Quintero, where a basement full of ladies will sew you any dress you want, the storefront a Greek man turns into a different restaurant every six months, Great Harvest Bakery where all of the girls at school with dreadlocks and leather sandals work. Only Oona is in a strip of shops on Oak Park Avenue, down the block from Scoville Park. There’s a soap store on one side and a place that sells shit like blank diaries and paperweights on the other. The old lady who lives upstairs owns the building. I lock up my bike in front of the salon. I’m too late. Through the glass door I see Mother raving and spinning, a blur of motion in front of the bowed shape
of Mamie Graber, who must have come early. I push inside. The contents of Mamie’s purse are strewn across the floor: a rolling pink tube of mascara, used tissues blossoming on the gray tile, her exploded wallet at the foot of the reception desk. The purse itself is crumpled at Mamie’s feet. Mother, screaming, doesn’t notice me come in. Neither of the women move as I crouch. The purple disembodied name of the salon, faded in the midday light, falls over my body. I am the only one of the three of us who notices. I almost trip over the lighted words. I used to think Mother was the fastest driver in the world. I loved the way she skated her Trans Am through the darkened streets near our house and onto the lighted strip of Harlem, the way she made the world go by in colored lines outside the windows. The neon sign at Only Oona is ten years old. Mother took me with her to pick it up from the man who made it, a Russian in Elmwood Park named Yevgeny Ursa. He was standing in his driveway when we drove up, a tall thick-waisted man with bushy white eyebrows. “Come,” he said, and led us to his garage workshop. The sign, wrapped in thin white paper, sat on his worktable like a giant gift. He plugged it in and the purple beamed through the paper. Then Yevgeny Ursa gently pulled apart the tape holding the paper around the sign. I wondered why he had wrapped it at all. The words ONLY OONA glowed in the spirally cursive script Mother had chosen from a thick black book. She picked me up and held me over the lighted words. “That’s your name,” I said. My mother laughed. “Are you named after the famous playwright’s daughter?” Yevgeny Ursa said. “No,” my mother said. “She was named after me.” She laughed and the sound was like when the phone rang on a Monday morning and it was a client calling to say they were going to give us lots of money. Mother was happy so I was, too.
Most nights James beats Claire You in his bedroom. I can tell by the sound of their footsteps, moving fast then slow across the living room ceiling. Something bangs, a lamp falling to the floor or Claire’s shoulder hitting the wall. James never opens the windows in his room. His moldy towels are layered in with the sheets on his bed, where he takes Claire when he’s done hitting her. He licks her bruises, pushes her down, lifts her Trinity uniform skirt. A poster of beautiful women kissing is taped on the ceiling. Claire has a car. She doesn’t have to come here. She could go other places. I try to watch TV but all I see is Nina’s mouth speaking to me, the pink sleeveless shirt she wore today. Her red hair touched her pink breasts. I move my hand down my stomach. “Disgusting.” Mother leans against the side of the doorway that leads into the kitchen, a can in her hand. We ran out of the fancy beer so she’s back to Hamm’s. She keeps twenty-four-packs of it in the back of the basement fridge. I put my hand back on the arm of the couch and turn the volume up on the television. “You’re disgusting,” Mother says louder. Something thumps heavily upstairs. “Go to bed, Mother,” I say. She comes closer, thrusts her beer at me. “Don’t think I don’t know,” she says, “What your mind wants. Where you go in there.” She taps my temple, hard, sending tadpole lights into my vision. I close my eyes, ready to go back to Nina’s body: the way her breasts hang braless under the black tanktop she wears sometimes, the curve of her ass in blue jeans. But all I can see is the shiner Claire had last week. When I open my eyes again Mother’s face is two inches from mine, closer, one inch. I smell her beer breath and see all the lines in her skin. I run upstairs. In my clean room I lie down on my bed and touch my pants. I won’t undo my fly until the noises from James’s room start again.
The next morning I walk to Nina’s with my weekend bag. It takes about half an hour to get to where she lives, in the western part of River Forest. I like watching things change on the walk. The brown stubby houses on my block grow up higher and brighter and the lawns stretch out, feeling their edges. I take Division west, past a little house that must have once been a store, with a clear door and strangely exposed front room. I pass the park with the high hill and the Mobil on Harlem. It’s not that River Forest is so different from Oak Park, especially not north Oak Park; there are huge houses and parks there, too. But Nina lives here, not in Oak Park. And everything about her River Forest is different from my Oak Park. The people who live next door to Mother’s house have five kids and they let them leave all their junk in the front yard, a sad little show of broken bikes and crap toys. Nina’s neighbors have massive globes of blue and white hydrangea lighting the way up their front walk. I’ve showered and pushed my hair off my face. It dries into big fluffy wings in front. I try to comb it into something better but it won’t reshape. I tell myself it doesn’t matter what I look like. Nina likes me for who I am. She hangs out with me for hours and tells me about her feelings. Once when Jonah was at rehearsal all day we made tea and sat in her house until it got dark. I put my head in her lap and we talked about colors. Nina’s back door is always open. I walk up into her fancy enclosed porch. Her house is like those places that children in adventure movies go home to after they’ve saved the world: big warm kitchen, marble fireplace, soft blankets on every couch. Her fluffy white cat is sleeping on a velvet wingback chair. “Hi kitty,” I say. “Kitty kitty.” The cat leaps off the chair and runs into the next room, which is the kitchen. Nina’s laugh floats over to me. I follow it into the dark short hallway lined with bookshelves. Then I hear the unmistak-
able sound of kissing. I know it from commercials: the wet smack and the smooth detaching sound after. Before I even make it in there, I know what I’ll find: Jonah and Nina’s faces too close together. “Bobby!” Nina’s hair has faded since the day before, light pink patches showing in gaps where it falls away from her face. I told her not to wash it more than once a week. Red dye has the weakest grip on hair. It changes even after one rinse. She throws her arms around my neck. The smell of her scalp confirms it: she’s been using Herbal Essences, a cetyl alcohol-heavy shampoo that strips color from hair. I let her hug me. My head feels tight inside. I step back from both of them. Jonah has removed a mass of receipts and junk from his pocket and begins picking through it on the table. Nina touches the bottom of her ruined hair. Nina’s mom has some stupid pictures of puppies up over the stove. “So when are we leaving?” I ask. “Well, soon,” Nina’s father says, coming into the room. He has a broad pink face like a slice of Krokus ham. “Can I ask you gentlemen for help carrying some stuff to the car?” Every time I come over to Nina’s house she pimps me out to her dad for physical labor. Now she just looks at her hands. “Sure thing, Mr. Nocente,” I say. An hour later, afterI’ve hauled a six-foot cooler and several ladders out to his giant purple truck while Jonah helps by watching, Mr. Nocente lets us get in the backseat. Nina sits in the middle. Her little sister Sophia is on a choir trip to Wisconsin and won’t be joining us, Mrs. Nocente tells me, as if I care. Her parents climb into the front seat. Mr. Nocente takes the Eisenhower to I-88. Nina tells us how to come up with our porn star names. “It’s the name of your first pet and then the name of the first street you lived on.” She pushes some of her faded hair off her face. “So mine is Apple Clinton.”
“That’s hot,” Jonah says, and puts his arm around her. “Mine is Kugel Twenty-fifth, I guess.” “That doesn’t really work,” Nina frowns. “What’s yours, Bobby?” “Flip East,” I say. Flip was a bird I watched in my backyard. Mother doesn’t like animals in the house. “Holy shit,” Nina says admiringly, turning her entire green gaze on me. “That is a great porn name.” “Seriously, dude.” Jonah says. When we’re close to Nina’s summer house we pull off the expressway and drive through a series of small towns with faraway names: Peru, Marseilles, Pontiac, places where the gas station and the grocery store and the video store are all the same place. Nina’s parents make small talk about how strange the towns are, but they make sense to me. I could imagine living here, working at a Casey’s, driving a used truck. It wouldn’t be as hard down here to save up money and buy my own place. People get married out of high school all the time in these towns. My friend Veronica grew up in a place like this called Morris but then her family moved up to Oak Park. She got involved with Rascal, got hooked. Her mom had to take out a loan to send her to a place in Schaumburg to get clean. Now Veronica drinks coffee all day and meets other people who drink coffee all day at the library. For work she answers phone at a realtor’s office. She takes correspondence classes in sewing. Veronica should have stayed down here. Mr. Nocente parks the car in front of some woods. “Need your help again, boys,” he yells into the backseat. Nina shoulders her bag and walks into the trees. Jonah and I carry the coffin-sized cooler down the hill to the house. Just above the door is a brass plate engraved with the words SUMMER HAVEN. The place looks like the house on The Brady Bunch; the colors are even the same, dark orange and brown. In the bottom room ground floor are two shiny green
plastic couches and a sliding door just like the one in Nina’s kitchen in River Forest. She shows us how the couches can be pushed together to form a sort of bed. Jonah and I are supposed to sleep in the twin beds in the yellow bedroom. Nina says she’ll sleep down here. She walks us down to the lake. The water glints silver between the trees. She wears baggy blue pants and a gray fleece sweatshirt. An overturned red canoe sits in the tall grass to the right of the stairs down to the dock. “C’mon, guys,” she says. I can’t look at her eyes, so I study the acne above her eyebrows instead. Jonah and I lift the canoe onto our shoulders and carry it down to the water. A massive spider crawls out and peers at me. I shake my head at it. We slide the canoe into the water. Nina appears with the oars and throws them in the boat. Then she takes off her pants and climbs into the canoe in just her big sweatshirt and pink underwear. “I was hot,” she says, settling on the middle seat. Jonah and I get in after her. He sits in the bow, and I take the stern. We row while Nina looks out at the lake. It is not a warm day. The water is strangely white, and the only sounds are from bugs and birds. In the middle of the lake we enter a sort of fog. The air becomes the same shade as the water. The canoe’s red hull and Nina’s pink underwear are the only colors; even Jonah’s face and my hands have turned the strange white of the air and water. “This reminds me of the lake in The Mists of Avalon,” Nina says. “What’s that?” I ask. “It’s a book about a bunch of chicks wishing they were knights of the round table,” Jonah says. Nina swats him. “No, it’s a really good retelling of the Arthurian legend from the point of view of the women in the story, especially Morgan Le Fay,” she says. “Haven’t you heard of it, Bobby?”
“No,” I say. “Jesus, read a book, Bobby,” Jonah says. “Live a little.” Nina laughs. Every year of high school I’ve worked at Loro Auto Works on South Boulevard, illegally when I was underage, doing shit jobs to make enough money to buy my schoolbooks. I know that Mother has some money, something comes in from Only Oona and my grandma in Arizona sends a check sometimes, but I don’t go to Barbara’s Bookstore twice a week like Nina does and buy seventy or eighty dollars’ worth of the hardcovers with beautiful illustrations I see in her hands every day at school. “I don’t have a whole lot of money for books,” I mutter. Nina’s face softens. “Then you should go to the library, Bobby. The books there are free.” I know this, I’m not stupid. “I will. On Monday. I’ll go check out that book.” We’re quiet for a while. Then Nina looks out into the mist and says, “I love this weather,” “I don’t,” Jonah says. “I hate this shit. I like sunny days.” “I like fog, too,” I say, but Nina doesn’t hear because she is executing a complicated backbend into Jonah’s lap. Her shoulders dig into his gut, both of them doing some kind of deep yoga breathing. They make s noises as she burrows into his middle, s-s-s-s. Jonah has stopped paddling, so I do, too. Soon Nina has bent almost completely in half. The stretch of her neck stares at me like a second face. There’s something accusatory in the glare of skin. I drop my gaze to her crotch, to the black tendrils of pubic hair curling out of both sides of the elastic. After we tie up the canoe, Jonah suggests we watch the sunset from the dock and pulls out a joint, but Nina doesn’t want any; she has a sore throat. In solidarity I refuse also, but then she decides she wants to smoke after all. She and Jonah share it and sink into a private stoned world. First her
head slips onto his shoulder, then he puts his arm around her, then they’re basically cuddling. “Guys!” I say. “Oh, dude, sorry,” Jonah says, and tries to shrug Nina off his arm. But she won’t let go. “What, Bobby?” she says in the most bored voice possible. “What?” “Man, I have got to piss,’ Jonah says. He gets up and walks up the stairs towards the house. In the purple light off the lake Nina’s hair looks dark and slick. The tip of her nose points up. “You know,” she says, staring down at her hands. “You’ve been acting weird all day, Bobby. Like you’ve been in a bad mood. What’s wrong? Did you not want to come out here?” I glare at the smooth surface of the water. “Maybe you came to hang out with Jonah and it bugs you that I’m here,” she says. Loud frogs sing from the rushes in the shallow water. In the fading light I see her pretty green eyes. They look darker than normal. Violet. “Nina,” I say. “I heard you and Jonah kissing.” A happy flush rises into her face. She drops her gaze immediately down to her hands, rubs them together in her lap. She tries to look incredulous. “What?” she says, pitching her voice too high. “When?” “At your house. When I came over.” “But we weren’t.” She’s so happy. She smiles not with her mouth but with her eyes, with the skin underneath. “But Bobby, Jonah and I are both single. I broke up with Elijah like a month ago. Even if we were kissing – which we weren’t – what’s the big deal?” A wave carries the canoe into the deck. It begins to bump quietly against the dock. “What’s the problem with Jonah and me maybe being together?” The canoe bumps rhythmically, over and over: thunk. Thunk.
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” I say to Nina. She’s getting tired of me already. She rolls her eyes back in her head and burrows deeper into her gray sweatshirt. Her pants are back on. My eyes go to where I know her pink underwear is. “Um, why? Can I ask that?” Jonah introduced Nina to me at the start of the school year. He knew her through Elijah, of course. One day when I came to meet him at his orchestra locker he presented her to me with a little wave of his arm, a flourish like a magician’s gesture. Her hair was dark then, an overpriced henna job from Salon 212, and she had on these amazing tight purple pants. “I’ll tell you soon,” I say. Nina inclines her head, considering me from the corner of her left eye. “I will. I’ll tell you sometime soon.” She opens her mouth to speak. But the voice I hear is Jonah’s. “Dudes?” he calls down the stairs. “Dinner’s on.” We look on as Mrs. Nocente drops orange pucks into an ancient electric frying pan. “I found these stuffed salmon medallions in the back of the freezer,” she says. “Fun, huh?” None of us asks what exactly the salmon is stuffed with. It doesn’t become any clearer as the pucks transform into wobbly gray disks leaking taupe discharge. It’s not clear if the carbon smell is from the fish or the cooking appliance. Nina’s mom serves the food on chipped blue plates, insisting on adding a sprig of parsley “for garnish.” As soon as dinner is over both Nina and her dad announce that they feel sick. Nina goes down to the basement. Jonah and I watch as she pushes the green plastic couches together. She lies down in the middle, moaning softly and holding her stomach. Jonah and I take our places on either side of her. “I feel awful,” Nina says. “Me too,” Jonah says, even though he bolted his puck and asked for seconds. He reaches over and rubs her arm.
“I thought you said the salmon didn’t make you feel sick,” I say to Jonah, who acts like he doesn’t hear. “Oh god,” Nina says. She stands and looks around frantically, then tries to hop over my body. Her foot lands on my stomach. “Oof,” I say. She runs up the stairs. She throws open the door to the bathroom on the landing and switches on the light. We lie on our backs in the dark and listen her to retch. When the vomiting sounds stop, Nina turns on the sink. We hear her brushing her teeth. Jonah turns to me, his face a silent mask of concern. We do not speak. The bathroom sounds cease, and Nina stumbles slowly back downstairs. She appears, yellow and upset, in front of the couch. Nina climbs over me and I smell her spearmint toothpaste. She lies down between us, turning her back to me. Jonah moves towards her, and all of the sudden I realize I’m in bed with them. I wonder how her arm feels in his hand now, as he rubs it, whether her skin felt different before she threw up. After a while Nina’s breathing steadies and slows. Jonah raises his head over her body. “Dude,” he says. “Let’s go brush our teeth.” We remove ourselves from the couches and go up to the bathroom. Nina left the light on, so the sight and smell of her puke hits us at the same time. The chunky pink stew stares at us from the sink. She must not have been able to make it the extra foot to the toilet. There’s an entire dollop of undigested stuffing in the mess. “Oh, sick,” Jonah says, holding his nose. “I mean, yeah, it’s gross,” I say, reaching for the paper towel roll next to the hand soap. “But whatever, she’s ill.” “I guess. I don’t know, man, maybe you’re used to this stuff because of your mom, I’m not.” He flinches as soon as he says it. We hold each other’s eyes in the mirror. I lean over and scoop up some of Nina’s puke with a paper towel. “Bobby, I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean –“
“It’s cool,” I say. “No, it’s not, I’m a fucking asshole. I don’t know what I meant,” he says. I drop the ball of paper towels and vomit into the trashcan without looking up. “I do,” I say. He lingers in the room for moment and then disappears back downstairs. I hear rustling: Nina waking, reaching for Jonah’s face. Even though I’ve never been to Nina’s summer house before, I find the Lysol easily. Everyone seems to keep it in the same place: under the sink, behind the extra roll of toilet paper. Jonah’s not wrong. I’ve done this a thousand times before. I’m used to it. I imagine him kissing her minty mouth in the dark. After I’ve got the sink shining, I brush my teeth with Nina’s toothpaste, then tiptoe back downstairs. Nina and Jonah lie together under a dark blanket. For a moment I just look at the shapes of their bodies, wondering if Mrs. Nocente came down and covered them, wondering if she cares that Jonah’s here and not in his bedroom, but then Nina’s voice comes through the darkness: “Bobby. Hey.” I climb back over the hard brown cushions and into the makeshift bed. “Hi,” I say. “Are you feeling any better?” “Yeah,” Nina whispers. The moonlight touches her face. “I think sometimes you just have to get it out of you, you know?” She giggles. “I mean, that’s gross, but you know what I mean.” “Of course,” I say. “I’m sorry you got sick.” “It’s okay,” she says, yawning. “I don’t know what my mom was thinking with that stuff. Really, it was super gross. I noticed you didn’t eat any. That was smart.” “Thanks,” I say. “I guess I just wasn’t very hungry.” Nina turns onto her side and looks at me in the way she did the first time she met me: like she knows everything about me and likes all of it. “You know what, Bobby?” she says.
“What?” “I really admire you. You’re just a really good person.” “Thank you,” I manage after a while. “That means a lot to me.” “No problem,” she says. “Oh, Bobby, I’m sorry, I’m so tired. I think I might – I think I’m going to go back to sleep.” “Okay,” I say. She’s quiet after that. I lie next to her, the space between us electric, wondering if she’ll touch me. I tell myself that everything happens for a reason, that every moment of my stupid life and every dried puddle of puke I’ve scraped off the kitchen floor prepared me for tonight, when I did what Jonah could not. She’s faking sleep, I’m sure now, because she rolls closer to me, her hair in my face. I smell the Herbal Essences again, but now it’s the best smell in the world. I lie and wait, the warmth from her body seeping into mine. Light from somewhere plays in yellow squares on the wall. The green vinyl sticks to my skin. I can hear the lake outside, the thunking of the canoe against the dock. It blends with the beating of my heart. I don’t know how much time passes like that, the boat thunking, me breathing the sweet shampoo scent. Maybe I sleep. By the time I remember to wait for her to touch me again it seems like a lot of time has passed. I sit up in the dark, my head pounding. My stomach growls. I ate almost nothing today, just a few handfuls of sesame sticks that Nina brought along for the car ride. And I’m cold, too. I grab a handful of the blanket Nina and Jonah share and pull it on top of my body. But then I’m too hot; I’m hot all over. I roll a little closer to Nina, who lets out a small snore. I roll closer again and press my body against hers. I wonder if she will wake, but she does not. I look under the blanket. Nina must have taken off her pants while I was upstairs cleaning. Just like in the canoe, she’s wearing only her gray sweatshirt and her little pink underwear.
I put my hand on her stomach and stroke it softly. She shifts but does not wake. I reach down and thumb the top of her underwear. They’re soft. They’ve probably been washed a thousand times, she’s probably had this underwear since she was a little girl. Mrs. Nocente has probably folded them and put them in her drawer more times than anyone can remember, a perfect span of uninterrupted time stretching back forever. Nina’s mother never sits on Nina’s chest. Nina’s mother never swats her face like a lazy cat. I slip my hand down against her left thigh. It’s hot like an empty pan left on the stove. Between my fingers the hem of her panties feels tiny and fragile, like paper. I reach past it and touch her. I’ve never felt a girl here before, or anywhere else either. I wouldn’t have guessed how it is. I wouldn’t have thought the hair would be like an animal’s: coarse, somehow oily. I didn’t know that inside wasn’t always wet, that sometimes it was dry and soft in a different way, like the web between my thumb and forefinger. Once I read an article about the g-spot in one of the Mademoiselles Mother keeps in the front of Only Oona. “To find your g-spot,” it said, “reach up inside with your index finger, and make a ‘come-here’ motion.” I try that now, but it’s not as easy as I thought. Nina’s body doesn’t give much, and it’s a struggle to even get up there; the “come-here” motion becomes a limp little wiggle. I remember too late that my nails are kind of long. I should have bitten them first. But all of me is alive with possibility. I want her to wake up. I can’t wait for what happens next. My finger is inside her forever or just for a minute, I can’t tell. Then Nina breathes in sharply, and squirms. I look up at her face. Her breathing is different, not steady any more, but her eyes are still squeezed shut. I wiggle my finger, hoping. Nina shudders heavily. She must have been asleep this whole time. Now she will wake. She is probably waking up right now.
“I’m sorry, Nina.” I lean close and whisper the words to her face. “I’m really sorry.” I pull my hand out of her underwear and lie still beside her. I think of saying it again, but don’t. Maybe I sleep. I hear the boat smashing into the dock, and at some point, before dawn, low voices in the dark. I think there is movement beside me. Maybe I sleep. In the morning Jonah and Nina are gone. The basement is dark and hot. When I walk to the window and pull up the shade the sunlight rushes in all at once, and I’m blind. I back away and go upstairs. There’s no one there, either. I walk through the empty rooms of the house, one by one, and then go out the front door. At the end of the long driveway I see Jonah helping Mr. Nocente load the car. “Oh, good morning,” Mr. Nocente says as I walk up. “We thought you’d never get up.” Jonah just looks at me. He lifts a heavy box and pushes it to the back of the truck bed. “Nina and her mother called a car service this morning,” Mr. Nocente says. “Nina’s illness got worse during the night, and they decided to go back early. If you’re wondering.” I push up my sleeves. “Here, let me help you guys.” “No,” Jonah says. “It’s cool. We’re almost done, bro.” He gestures towards the house with his chin. “Just go get your stuff. We’re leaving soon.” In the car Mr. Nocente asks us if we had a good time. Jonah and I both say “Yep,” and then we don’t talk for the rest of the car ride. Mr. Nocente plays a Bob Dylan record on repeat the whole way home. We drive past the same towns, each with their stupid hopeful little streets, kids’ toys all in a mess on front porches. On I-80 I count the giant industrial complexes, gray rectangles spreading across my eyes, until I get to eleven and I don’t care anymore. The drive is two hours, I remember that from the ride out, but it feels like an
entire day passes in the car. I imagine the car winging right, into the divider, falling into the ravine, bursting into flames. Nina and her mom would get the phone call at home. She’d smile at the news in her darkened kitchen. But instead there are just more gray buildings, more road. When we get to my house Mr. Nocente says “Goodnight, Bobby.” Jonah just nods. I get out. As I’m walking up to my house, the front door opens. Claire You stands in a sliver of yellow light. She’s wearing her uniform under her denim jacket, despite the fact that school is out for the summer. Even in the dark I can see that she has a new shiner. A chain of fresh hickeys marks a path down her neck and into her blouse. I look down, ready to walk by her and not say anything, but Claire fixes me with her eyes. “Bobby,” she says. I look up into her pale face. She looks weirdly rich, important, like a princess with a black eye. “What?” I say. She’s never spoken to me before. I wonder if she and James got into Mother’s beer. I’m ready to push past her, to push her if I have to. She pulls her cheap denim jacket over her shoulders. “Hi,” she says. Then she smiles like she knows, a grin splitting open her beat-up face. Then her face falls back into its slack dumb expression. She walks quickly down the steps and into the street. Her footfalls echo and fade as she walks to her Camaro. I’ve never noticed it before, but her car has one of those trashy neon underlights, a ring of purple that powers up around the wheels as she drives away. I try to remember where she lives. Elmwood Park. Inside James is watching television. Mother perches in the doorway to the kitchen. Her eyes burn into me as I cross the room and sit next to my brother on the couch. I know she’s walking towards me but I can’t hear her. I don’t know she’s coming. On television people are dancing. Moving fast because they’re happy.
IT WAS RAINING IN FLORENCE
my fifteenth summer
I sat on my lawn
Dave drove a candle
red El Caminoâ€”leather seats, chrome mags weâ€™d cruise the boulevards
waving at girls, his hand
brushing my thigh
as if reaching
into the earth. breathe
his terrible want
we are no more
than plaster saints
waiting for someone
to come smash us
MY FIRST SUICIDE
sean thomas dougherty 38
THE LAST SCENE IN THE MOVIE I ask a cop who’s doing the roaring. He says it’s Jews who don’t like Israel. “Anti-Zionists,” I say. “You seem to know a lot about it,” says the cop. “Maybe I ought to be asking you the questions.” We chuckle. The city is still a healthy animal. Its fur is shiny, its windows clean. The roaring behind me sounds like an end-of-the-world dress rehearsal. It’s probably sounded that way forever. But it’s only another ring in the circus of rush hour. And I go wheeling forth toward the pink sky in the West, to the train, uptown, to pay my taxes.
Leaving work at dusk, with a pink band of sky above the train station before me. While behind me, a crowd roars at an embassy.
EGG POEMS: *
AN ENGLISH LANGUACULTURAL HISTORY OF CHINA changming yuan
1/ Ancient China They used to drink tea Wear silk Eat from china Think in terms of zen And practice Confucianism Only - is it true?
A word (or person) with a Chinese origin living in the West is often called an ‘egg,’ which is white-skinned, but yellow-hearted. *
2/ Semi-Colonial China Wearing cheongsam These poor coolies arrived here On sampans Always ready to kowtow To a tycoon Who lived in Shangri-La Eating dim sum Drinking oolong Playing mahjong Gambling in a casino every day Though reluctant to give cumshaw 3/ Mandarin China Led by dao A yin Running dog Wearing qipao Is fighting against a yang Paper tiger With wushu After getting brainwashed Through maotai Like a taikongnaut At a fengshui spot Dominated by qi
She told me that one time how after Grandpa died there was still the exact indentation of his body beside her If he wasnâ€™t so mean that would just shatter me like glass at every recollection she lived next to his absence for 8 years, maybe even cuddled along it like this vast expanse along the mattress was him was enough.
MY GRANDMOTHER jeremy hight 42
DAYemily ONE strauss The land is empty but for you: quail fill up the quiet spaces with their anxious clucking The breeze riffles fields of foxtails where I will sleep under the half moon, but you are not here though I wait for you to return from behind that oak or the creek running clear off the asbestos hills. Let me make up a bed among the tall grasses and maybe you will appear, take me in your arms Hold me in the clear air, warm me in the cooling evening and we will watch the kingbirds and the shadows lengthening up the far hillside And I would wait for you— for words, for silence, for you to tell me something important But it’s only a crow and a hummingbird overhead As the land stills and my breath sinks into the oak-rimmed canyon— You are far away.
YER BLUES, ALTERNATE VERSION justin j. murphy 44
I hadn’t noticed that the walls were moving. Or maybe it was me that was moving. I was nervous. I watched the glossy white walls move back and forth behind her face, her head like the hand of a grandfather clock carved out of a bathroom. Behind her right ear, the stem of a yellow rose wove between the strands of blonde that fell down past her shoulders on their way to her waist. To the right, above the shower, a bluish mold spread across the ceiling, a wet, sickly scent masked only by an open bottle of bleach partially hidden behind the grimy yellowed toilet. It was cold. The icy air outside forced itself between the cracks of the fogged sliding window. I wondered how much longer her flower would blossom in these conditions, the edges slowly curling inside, a dim bruise of brown rolling with it. My tongue pressed up against the roof of my mouth as her pointed fingers pressed down onto the razorblade, slicing the jagged rock of cocaine. Thin layers of crystal flakes floated down, crumbling, until a mound of soft white had gathered upon the porcelain water tank of my toilet. I looked back up to the mold as if it were thunderclouds, blinking my eyes. It was snowing in my bathroom. At twenty-five years old, I had never seen a woman pull a razorblade out of her purse. It might as well have been a flaming meteor or a burning comet that only passed by every thousand years. I wanted to touch the shiny metal edge to see if it was real. She smiled at me, one dimple that had waged war against male guts since her adolescence nine years before. Her smile reminded me of the fantasies I once had about my friend’s mother. His mother, a woman who used her eyes to speak, never smiled like this at me, twentyeight years removed from her own adolescence, but if she had, it would have been this smile, this dream. “I think I like the Rolling Stones better,” she said to me. She was answering a question that I forgot I had asked. I was still thinking about the question she had asked me out-
side as I counted the goosebumps that rose up from her collarbones, exposed inside of her corduroy jacket. 69. I thought about the answer that I wished I had said, or even blinked, instead of letting the silence speak for me. “Death is the ability to relive the past, to see the things you cannot see, to replay those images, to be somebody else.” But now, we were together in a bathroom underneath moldy clouds. She did not care about the past. Her lips shined cherry with a thick layer of Chap-Stic. “You like the Stones?” she asked. “Yeah,” I said. “I guess.” “Mick Jagger is sexy. And I like the blues. British, black, or Akron.” “Akron?” She smiled tenderly at the neat white lines in front of her, then licked the edge of the razor blade, rubbing the residue from her tongue into her gums. “Yeah. That’s where the Black Keys are from. Akron, Ohio. It can be a cool town with the right people and good drugs.” She swallowed, the veins in her throat tightening, the faux-purple feathers dangling from her earrings twitching with her heart. Her esophagus pushed out towards me. I wondered how numb her throat was, how ice-water would feel running down the inside of her neck. It might have felt like swallowing an avalanche. Or maybe she felt nothing. “I’m a Beatles fan. I liked the Rolling Stones growing up, but the Beatles, especially the later stuff, really makes me think.” I thought about the White Album, how I would have liked to cram that down her throat, tumbling along with Sexy Sadie and Bungalow Bill towards some musical enlightenment at the end of her. She rolled up a crisp twenty dollar bill, dropped down like a swan towards the grimy pond of the toilet, and inhaled with her beak. She blinked her eyes like graceful wings. She said, “Your turn.” She rolled the tubular currency
between her thumb and forefinger and passed it to me. It was damp on the end, wet from the drippings of her nose. I shoved the bill into my nostril like some sort of reverse intercourse, her fluids injected into mine. It was warm for a moment. I moved my body like a train along the three inch rail, riding it towards the soft mountains that grew out underneath her Black Keys t-shirt. My shaggy brown hair gently brushed against her peaks. I wished the strands of my hair were fingers. At that moment, I wanted to write a song. It would have been about a man and a woman in a desert. It would be sunset. He would say something to the woman, and then he would die in the dust. She would bury him underneath where she stood. Throughout eternity, she would think of him, his fingertips outstretched, that final breath, night. I could feel the heat from her body as I rose back towards her face. “My favorite song is ‘Julia.’ ‘Half of what I say is meaningless.’” “Seashell eyes,” she said. She tugged softly at her ear, then stared first at my face, then at the clumps of hair that clung together against my skull. She inhaled through her nose, only air this time. “You smell like a rock and roller.” She rubbed her thumb against my cheek and pulled a cigarette from her purse. “I liked the show. I thought your band was pretty cool.” “Thanks.” “How long have you been playing bass?” “About ten years now, I guess.” I wasn’t sure if the bathroom door was moving. It seemed to push back and forth at my eyes like a heartbeat made of balsa wood. “Hey shitbag! I gotta piss,” he yelled. His perfect voice was unmistakable. Even when he wasn’t singing, it seemed as if he was. A few weeks ago, a drunk girl with purple highlights in her hair had told me that Jake was better looking
than I was. “He’s definitely better looking than you are,” she said. Then she looked me up and down and glanced back at him. “Yep,” she agreed with herself. His fists were bigger and his fingers were longer, requisites of an exquisite guitar player. He wrapped his fingers into his fists and pounded them against the bathroom door. Staring at her neck, watching her pulse quiver with a faint bluish vein, I wondered if Jake was smiling on the other side. No woman had ever refused his smile. With my hand on her hip, feeling her body sway back and forth, I unlocked the door. He stood there smiling above me at the two of us, ruining my sex life. I could never tell if he was flexing his arms on purpose. When he played the guitar, they bulged and pulsed out from him like a physical manifestation of music, like the hammers connected to piano keys. The yellow from her rose opened his blue eyes, the green veins in his forearms rose, a silent chord pressed against her body. “Hi,” he said to her. “Hi,” she said back. They nodded their head as if agreeing with each other’s genealogy. “Watch out for this guy. He’s got crabs.” Jake wrapped his big hands around my skull. “Want a beer, my dear?” he asked. He shook my head like a magic 8-ball. “As I see it, yes,” she answered. She took a sip of her beer and nudged me in my ribs. “Crabs, eh?” “Yeah. I’m covered in them.” I laughed awkwardly and scratched my arm. Maybe I should have remained silent. She looked back at Jake and dropped her head to the side, as if internalizing a magnificent sculpture. “You’re like a Roman God,” she said to him. I thought about her choice of metaphor. He was blonde, just like she was. Maybe it was his height. And his body.
And the perfect structured pyramid on his face where everyone else’s nose would have been. “Thanks,” he said. “But I gotta take a leak. You can stay and watch if you’d like.” “No thanks,” she said. But she wanted to. Everyone wanted to. He wore extra large condoms, “Magnums.” He didn’t just buy them to impress the endless number of women who dug through his nightstand in their underwear searching for a flaw while he smiled at himself in the bathroom mirror. She stared down at his crotch where his Levi’s stretched, the corner of her lip jutting out in a subtle smile. There was no doubt about his bulge. The extra inches of lubricated latex were absolutely necessary. Our house was filled with people who wore dirty shoes. I knew this because I walked towards the kitchen with my head down thinking about Jake’s giant cock wrapped inside of a condom. Walking and thinking about cocks weren’t the only things I did with my head down. I played the bass with my head down. I sang, I drank, I ate with my head down. The only time my head was up, was when I was upside down. I liked everything associated with “down.” Down is where art came from. Down is where the roots grew. “Up” is where Jake lived. His voice soared somewhere above the clouds where his soul hung. He wrote nice lyrics about beaches, California, and fucking on the beaches of California. He was the big redwood tree that women wanted to drive their car through and climb up. “Does Jake have a girlfriend?” she asked me. “Yeah. She’s French.” I expected her to say “Too bad,” but she just smiled and went to the kitchen to pour herself a drink. It was her fourth glass of Jack Daniels. I knew this because I was intuitive, observant. I was smarter than Jake. He could play music, write lyrics, and fuck women, but I had read a James Joyce novel once. I tried to flex the veins in my brain, the
ones used to press down on James, to make that Irish fucker howl. Her eyes were somewhere else. She couldn’t see the portrait of the artist as a young man inside of me. “Slainte,” I said to her in the kitchen, yanking the top off of a beer. I raised my bottle to her glass. She looked at me in silence and then looked at the bathroom door. Jake hadn’t come out, but a woman with dark hair and a faint smile went in. She looked Sicilian. “Is that his girlfriend?” she asked. “No. That chick’s got crabs.” “Right.” “For real. Our drummer, Jess, got crabs just sitting on her couch at her apartment.” I thought about Jess getting crabs from a couch. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, his skin-tight blue-jeans pinned around the ankles. He rapped his fingers against the coffee table, the ends of his stick-straight hair vibrating against his cheekbones. He was listening to his favorite band, Uriah Heep, and pounding his hands to the drums. I’ve heard that disease called drummeritis before. The last time Jess had sex, he had pounded his fingers so hard into the girl’s thighs that she left with three bruises. He played the drum beats of “Gypsy” on her body for thirty minutes straight. At the end, his audience did not request an encore. He was bony and thin. All of his weight was in his hands. I could smell her breath. I wish I could say it smelled like incense and peppermints, but it didn’t. She smoked cigarettes, drank whiskey, and stuffed cocaine into her sinuses. Nonetheless, it was winter, and her temperate esophageal breeze was a welcome draft in our frigid house. Jess was in charge of paying the bills. It was more of a joke than a job. We didn’t have enough money to pay the bills and Jess didn’t have enough of a brain to remember to. Instead of warmth, we bought cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. If we could
have paid for everything in life with drunkenness and irresponsibility, we would have been rich, The Rolling Stones of Santa Barbara, California. I counted 24 people in the kitchen and in the living room. I thought of 12 bar blues. Two verses of deranged hipsters danced around me, the walls vibrating behind them, my heart like an amplifier of my blood. I moved my feet backwards about three inches. I didn’t know if women wanted men standing that close to them. I thought it might seem as if I didn’t care if I made love to her or not if I moved backwards, that somehow in this larger distance, she had room enough to want to fuck me instead. But I could see in her eyes that her attraction to me was the same as her attraction to drugs. As long as I had them, she would be there. But I had run out. “You like the Black Keys?” I asked. “No, I hate them,” she joked. “They don’t have a bass player.” “No they don’t.” “I guess they don’t need one.” “Not everyone does.” She stared down at her top. I wondered if she cared that her nipples were pressing the “L” and the “Y” out from her t-shirt, creating a sort of Salvador Dali re-creation of the English language. She smiled bigger. “I met Dan Auerbach once.” “Oh yeah,” I said. “How did that happen?” “I went to their show and I got backstage. It was at the Troubadour in Hollywood. He has big hands.” I thought about being backstage earlier that night. There were no blonde girls with erect nipples wearing my t-shirt. I didn’t participate in any wild sex parties. The only time my clothes came off was when I had to take a shit minutes before we went on. I tried once to have my mother hypnotize me so that my nerves wouldn’t bring me to the point of paralytic hysteria. Her hypnosis worked in the form of
diverting my stage fright into my intestines. Now, instead of tormented nervousness, I would shit. “Wow. Was he cool? He seems like he’d be pretty cool. He’s got a good beard.” “He was amazing.” She looked at me and rubbed my chin. I knew what she was thinking. I had a thin body but a fat face. My jowls hung down a bit so that the lines of my jaw were more like circles. “You should grow a beard. I dig men with beards.” The Sicilian with crabs came out of the bathroom first. Jake followed a few moments later, wiping his wet hands on his jeans. He passed both of us without looking in our direction, making his way into the living room. “Let’s play a drinking game,” he said to everyone. We gathered around the coffee table, an empty mug, two shot glasses, and a pair of quarters gathered in the center. There were 8 people dirtying the butts of their jeans and dresses on the beer-soaked and cigarette-burned carpet. I thought of Paul McCartney singing the chorus to “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” 8 bars of falling and calling. “What are we playing?” she asked. “Speed quarters,” Jake said. As a result of both his height and his naturally lean body, he had played basketball all of his life. He was an expert at getting things into holes. “What are the rules?” “The shot glasses start at opposite sides. Once you bounce the quarter off the table and into the shot glass, you pass it to the person on your left. If one of the shot glasses catches up to the other, whoever they’re in front of has to chug the mug in the center.” “There’s nothing in the mug,” she said. Jake poured a few ounces of his Pabst Blue Ribbon into the empty glass, finished what was left, and crushed the can against his skull. His antics, although simian, seemed endearing, somehow ironic. “Everyone pour some of their drink in there until it’s full.”
I stared at the mug filled with whiskey, vodka, spit, and Pabst like an orgy of hangover. “Ready. Go.” Jake bounced his quarter into the shot glass instantaneously and passed it to his left. I fumbled around with the coin, wondering about coordination, getting nervous each time I heard another quarter hit the bottom of a shot glass, my nerves winding through my stomach, until finally I was staring at both of the tiny glasses in front of me needing to take shit. Jake winked at her. I chugged the mug, then excused myself from the game. It seemed like I had already lost before we had even begun. Outside, underneath a tall eucalyptus tree, I played ping-pong with a speed freak, the ball bouncing awkwardly around on our warped table, the arced wood, a victim of the wet Pacific air. “You ever listen to radio static?” he asked me through the gap where is incisors once hung. My breath fled my lungs into the cold winter night, disappearing. The moon reflected off of the ocean a quarter mile away, leaving a milky white haze just above the horizon so that it seemed as if our backyard was engulfed by a halo. But a halo would have been too perfect. I would have been getting a blow job from a blonde in a Dali inspired Black Keys t-shirt if life was as poetic as that. “Game point,” the speed-freak said. The ping-pong ball sailed past me like the infinite stream of crackling radio waves that sped through his head. “Wanna do some speed?” he asked. “Sure.” He pulled something out of his pocket. I drank six more beers in thirty minutes, rubbing the burn up from my nose and shuffling my feet from side to side. I wanted to paint a three-storey mansion with a tiny paintbrush, or take apart a bicycle and put it back together.
There were four people left, three hours later. Jess stared at me as I banged my palms and fingers against the couch to the beat of a Rolling Stones song. With my hands taking over for his, he looked as if he had lost his job. Maybe he was thinking about how we can all be replaced by someone else. I stared at her as she spoke to Jake, her hand on his thigh, listening to her laugh about her degree in Sociology. “What the fuck am I gonna do with that?” she said. “Same here,” Jake replied, “that’s what my degree is in.” “Anyone wanna watch Bonanza?” Jess asked. Until that time, we had just been watching muted reruns of the old Batman series while we listened to records. “BIFF!” “KAPOW!” Jess had a thing for Bonanza. His last name was Carson, the name of the city on the edge of the Ponderosa. Every day, the Cartwright brothers rode into his last name to drink beer and pick up supplies. Perhaps Jess wanted to be one of those brothers, riding along with a sense of moral justice, tearing ass all over the Wild West. Maybe that was why he was concerned when Hoss wanted to marry a widow with a compulsive gambling problem. He and Adam and Little Joe did everything they could to stop him. I didn’t notice that she and Jake had left us until Hoss had apologized for his indiscretion forty-five minutes later, Jess shaking his head as if some disaster had been narrowly averted. “Good episode,” Jess said. “Where’s Jake?” I responded. We each grabbed a can of beer from the refrigerator and turned off all the lights in the house. The glow of the moon shone through our windows illuminating the hallway leading to Jake’s room. I thought perhaps this is what my mother’s birth canal looked like when I floated out into the world. For no rational reason, Jess and I got down on our hands and knees and began to crawl towards his bedroom door. Slithering through our dark jungle of drywall and cottage-
cheese ceilings, I thought about Apocalypse Now, images that sort of atom-bombed in my freaked-out mind, reverberating. A bull was being slaughtered by a slow-motion tribe of half-nude Cambodians by the time we reached his door. “This is the end,” Jim Morrison told me. We passed Jake’s room on the way, quietly listening to the sounds leaking through his thin door, our knees dragging across the carpet. “Fuck me, yes, fuck me, yes,” we heard her say. “Yes, uh,” Jake said back. “Your dick is so big,” she replied. “Yeah, yeah,” he said back. Jess looked over his shoulder at me from the floor and motioned with a silent finger to follow him to his room. We scraped along the hallway for a few more feet, stopping momentarily as Jess reached up to turn his doorknob. When the door opened, a heavy stench of marijuana jumped out of his room and crammed itself into my nose. “Can I have some pot?” I asked him. “I need to calm down.” He lit his little blue pipe for me. My heart sounded louder. I wanted to take it apart and put it back together. In fragmented movements, he reached under his bed and pulled out a small video camera. “Let’s go,” he said. We crawled back through the hallway towards the front door. “Ooh, ooh,” she said. “You’re so wet,” Jake said. Outside, I watched my breath cross the beams of light running down from the moon. As I ran my fingers across the rays, I felt as if I could feel the vibration of the earth, like the illuminated white lines were the train tracks and God was the locomotive. I could feel him coming. “Gimme a boost,” Jess said to me. I hoisted him up, paying particular attention to the veins in my forearms. They were just as big as Jake’s, I
thought. I could feel everything in my body moving. My blood was a rushing river running towards my heart. I opened my mouth and inhaled deeply. The cold felt good on my tongue. I thought about becoming ice water, crashing down her throat, an avalanche. Jess stood on my hands with the camera pressed against the glass of Jake’s bedroom window. I wasn’t sure if the exterior wall was moving. It vibrated every second like a tangible representation of time. I listened to Jake pound into her and felt what it was like to get older, to witness the seconds pass me by. “I’m getting old,” I whispered to Jess. “Shut the fuck up,” he whispered back. “She’s about to come.” The seconds got shorter. I got older. I looked around at the world, everything moving without me. My heart beat in 6/8 time. I thought of John Lennon singing “Yer Blues.” “I’m lonely. Wanna die.” Jess looked at me smiling with an eyebrow raised. “I think she squirted.” He hopped down from my hands, checking the viewfinder of his camera for evidence. The walls stopped moving. I rubbed my chin, hoping that in that time, a beard had grown. I was lonely. I wanted to die. She knew the reason why.
maggie van fossen
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