Old Music Remembered

Juteau is tracing power lines with her fingers as we lay together in the grass by the old school near the airport. Her hands dance in the air, sliding this way, crossing over that, like she is conducting an orchestra of electricity. She hums a tune as she goes, something I can almost place, but which hangs just at the edge of recognition.

“What’s that song?” I ask.

“Cyndi Lauper,” she says. “‘All Through the Night.'”

“God, I haven’t heard that in years. I had a tape of that when I was a kid.”

“I used to play it out in my treehouse,” she says. “I had a cheap tape deck my grandmother got for me, and I’d sit out there and read and play it over and over until it finally wore out and the machine ate it.”

I smooth the fabric of my shirt over my belly and leave my hands crossed there. “I was a kid out of my generation. I used to listen to Jackson Browne all the time, and the Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt. Everyone else was listening to Def Leppard and Bon Jovi, I wanted Southern California cocaine music.”

Juteau rolls over and puts her arm over me. “I was worse than you. I had a plastic Batman mask that was a leftover from Halloween, and when I was in the treehouse, I had to wear it. It was my Batcave, and the only music that was allowed in the Batcave was Cyndi Lauper.”

“I would hide in my room,” I say, “listening to Jackson Browne and reading In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter. I had a weird serial killer thing going on back then. My parents thought I was going to grow up and be a Manson family member.”

“I dated a guy who killed someone. Not when I was dating him, but after. He had an argument with a guy, not even a bad guy, someone he knew, and then he shot him. I don’t think that counts as a serial killer, because he just did it the one time, but he’s still in jail for that.”

“Once is enough,” I say. “Once is too many.”

“I knew he was going to do it,” she says. “Well, not that specifically, but something. We used to go for drives all the time, and he’d always keep one hand on my thigh while he drove. He’d never try anything, never under my skirt, but he’d just have to hold me there. Sometimes he’d squeeze me, hard, almost pinching me, and it hurt but I didn’t tell him to stop. I liked to pretend that when I got home, I could lift my skirt and see his fingerprints pressed into my skin, like a tattoo.” She rolls onto her back again and looks up at the power lines. “He had these scars on his shoulders, thick and hard ones, as long as my finger. You could feel something under them, like bone where there shouldn’t have been anything, and they were white as salt.

“‘Is that where your wings were when you were an angel?’ I said once while we were driving. Stupid kid thing to say. I thought I was being cute, but then he got all quiet and turned to me with this snake’s look, black and hard, like something hiding under the stairs in the basement waiting to grab your ankle when you come down. He was doing eighty miles an hour easy, and I wanted him to pay attention to the road, but really I just wanted him to stop looking at me with those eyes. They were like oil on fire, bottomless black and red pools of burning oil.

“‘Those weren’t wings, honey,’ he said. ‘That’s where I got the mean put into me, and someday I plan to give it back.’ Then he squeezed my leg so tightly that he left a bruise that didn’t go away for a week, and he dug his nails into me so hard that I thought my skin was going to break, and I couldn’t breathe it hurt so much, and when I thought I was going to pass out from it, he let go, and he went back to watching the road again, just like he turned off a switch. Scariest thing I can remember.

“He kept his hand on me the rest of the drive, though. Same as always.” She reaches for the power lines again, and then lets her arms fall down to her sides. “I didn’t get back in his car again after that. Sometimes I still dream about him though. He’s got snakes coming out of the scars on his back, big ones as thick as his arms, with black marbles for eyes, and they’re squeezing me tighter and tighter until I can’t breathe.

“And then I wake up.”

We stop talking then for a while, and there is a chill which falls over me that raises bumps on my skin. Soon Juteau goes back to humming her old songs while above us, a plane takes to the sky, and we watch it climb higher and higher into the clouds, the roar of the engine gradually fading, until all that is left is the sound of old songs remembered, the whisper of traffic on the nearby freeway and the buzzing of the electric wires high overhead.

Tea Leaves and Cloudbursts

Two minutes ago, she was wearing a white slip, standing in front of the window while the morning light sneaked in around the shades and swirled around her like smoke. The way the shadows moved across her hips and her belly made me want to put my face against her stomach, in hopes that they would move across me in the same way.

One minute ago, her slip was on the floor, abandoned in a pool of light like a cat sleeping in the sun. Her arms were crossed at the wrists, hands held together in bird wings, and the shadows moved up her belly to gather under her breasts and in the hollow of her throat.

Now she is on the bed, laying on her side, one arm beneath her head, the other arm beneath that. Her hair falls over her back like water, flowing out across the sheet in a flood. The shadows gather below her neck and in the small of her back, dark chocolate across white icing, sugar for the tasting.

The future is made of tea leaves and cloudbursts, from bare skin and gossamer strands of dusty sunlight that wrap like fingers around your shoulders and hips, pulling you forward with the inevitability of a lover’s desire.

Lost and Found

Bez sits in the dirt and gravel with her back against the rusted iron post that pokes like a metal finger out of the ground in front of the old tackle shop. She takes her sketchbook and pencils out of her bag and opens to a blank page, while I poke around the building itself. We are not here to fish, which is a good thing, as the shop doesn’t look like it’s been open in a thousand years. I peer through the dirty glass into the dark interior. There is enough light to see empty shelves and bare counters, abandoned boxes in corners and faded and yellowed posters on the walls. I try the handle of the door, not expecting it to turn, and it doesn’t.

“You should try the back door,” Bez says. “Nobody breaks in the front these days.” I do as she suggests, walking through the brown grass along the dirty white cinderblock wall of the building, and sure enough, the window of the back door is broken out. I start to reach through the pane to unlock the door, but realize that if someone else has already broken the glass to unlock the door, they were unlikely to have locked it again upon leaving. The knob turns in my hand, and I push the door inward.

The dust is thick, and covers everything with a layer of dimness and it feels as though it is absorbing what little light comes in through the glass. My footsteps are muffled, and there is a low hum which drifts through the air, almost inaudible but there when I stop moving and hold my breath. I feel like I’m walking through an empty dreamscape.

We left early this morning, just at dawn, and headed north in Bez’s car, bringing nothing but art supplies and a camera. It has been a long and difficult week, and a spontaneous decision to leave town for the day seemed like exactly the sort of thing that would help to press the reset buttons in our heads. We are directionless wanderers when we travel, taking exits when it feels right, eschewing freeways for narrow blacktop, feeling a sense of triumph when the cell signal has faded.

There is no more sure way of finding yourself than becoming lost.

I walk behind the counter of the tackle shop, following footprints in the dust that have been left behind from a fellow explorer. There is a small pile of discarded cigarette butts on the floor behind the counter, and an empty potato chip bag. I kneel down and pick up the bag, but I leave the cigarettes behind. They seem like they belong to the art of this place, whereas the bag feels like an intruder in the scene, much as I myself am. I will leave nothing here that doesn’t belong when I go.

I look through the window and watch Bez for a few moments. The sunlight warms my face through the glass, and it feels good. I have been cold a long time, and a little warmth should always be appreciated. I know that when I leave this old shop, I will go out to my friend, and I will kneel down next to her and give her a long kiss on the mouth. Warmth that is taken must be shared, and there is no one I would rather share it with than Bez.

I start to turn from the window, but as I turn I see something at the corner of the frame, resting against the wood. I bend down to get a closer look, and see that it is a fish hook, curved into a J-shape, a barb on the tail, and an eye on the head. I reach down and pick it up, and twist it in the sun. It is an artifact, and I feel like an archaeologist, searching the dirt for clues of another time. How long has the hook been there, I wonder. One year? Ten? I think about taking it with me, but it would feel like grave robbing if I did, and so I set it back down in the window and leave it there.

When I go back outside, I find that Bez has fallen asleep against the rusted post, her legs straight out, her arms crossed over her chest, her hat pulled down low over her eyes. She has been driving all day, and her sleep recently has been as troubled as mine, so I do not wake her. Instead, I sit cross-legged in the dirt beside her, and I think about how it felt in the pre-dawn darkness of my room, waking from a thin and restless sleep, finding Bez’s warm hand pressing lightly against my stomach, and feeling her breath against my cheek as she whispered into my ear:

Let’s go for a ride.

Audience

The zipper of the dress is down, exposing Bez from the nape of her neck down to the small of her back. Her skin is pale, caressed by the winter light coming through the window, and I think for a moment of going to put my hand against her, to feel the bones just below the surface, to touch and feel the solidity of her, but instead I just curl up on the mattress and rest the side of my head against the cool fabric of the pillowcase.

Bez regards herself in the mirror. She must be aware that I am watching her, but she doesn’t give any indication that she does. She is unselfconscious, spinning this way and that, pulling the dress off her shoulders, then back up again, raising the hemline high up on her thigh, then letting it fall again down past her knee.

We have not left the house all weekend, spending it watching movies and eating spaghetti, instead of bothering with the outside world. I am more than a little antsy from not going out, but Bez has wanted nothing other than to lay under blankets with me, and I am not one to argue such behavior.

Earlier, she made me lay on the floor while she sketched me, for some project she is working on that she doesn’t want to talk about yet. It’s too soon, she says. It hasn’t finished baking yet.

She is drawing me a lot recently, and I let her do it. I can tell when she’s building up to something, some large project that can only be approached at high speed, and reached on steps built from a dozen other smaller works that exist only to slip her mind into whatever gear it needs to be in in order for the entire thing to flow properly.

She doesn’t show me everything she draws. I don’t show her everything I write. Not everything needs an audience. Sometimes the act of creation itself is everything that is needed.

Eventually, Bez pulls the dress over her head and drops it on a pile of her abandoned clothes on the floor before coming back to bed with me.

Tomorrow, we are going for a drive.

Today we are staying in bed.

Mercy

It was her lips that brought Mercy’s attention to focus: how red more than red, plump and liquid in the light of the kitchen’s fluorescent, a swath of scarlet across her pale, pale skin. Julia was everything that Mercy was not: smooth where she was rough, light where Mercy was dark.

“Read my tea leaves,” Julia asked, and of course Mercy did. She did everything Julia asked of her. Mercy peered into the swirl at the bottom of the cup, and nearly dropped it, so startled was she by what she saw inside.

“What is it?” Julia asked. “What do you see?”

“Your dreams coming true,” Mercy lied. “And a light brighter than the sun surrounding you.”

The leaves spun into a dark circle, pulling inward on themselves, the gravity of their evil dragging in the light around them.

It was Joshua, Mercy knew. With his blond hair, framing his face like a windowpane, and his devil’s eyes that Julia couldn’t resist. She’d seen how Julia’s blush raised when she was thinking of Joshua, how she leaned out the open window to watch him while he worked under the hood of the car he never finished tinkering with in his driveway.

“I’m going out tonight,” Julia said.

“What are you wearing?” Mercy asked.

Julia put out her cigarette. “I don’t know. My yellow dress, maybe.”

Mercy poured more tea in Julia’s cup, not caring if she drank it or not, but wanting to stir the leaves up again, to break the bond of their dark portent. “Are you sure? It’s going to be cold tonight, and that dress is awfully thin.”

“It won’t be that cold. I’ll be alright.”

“I just don’t want you to get sick, that’s all.”

Julia turned on the radio, which was on the cabinet by the table. “You worry too much.” She spun the dial until she found some soft rock music, something Mercy didn’t recognize.

Mercy had once brought Joshua a piece of mail that had been delivered by accident to their house instead of his. She’d brushed her fingers against his hand as he took the letter from her, and Mercy had known the mail was from a woman in Minnesota, a woman named Maude, with hair like a pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, moving like a cinematic dream in Mercy’s mind, and she’d seen how Joshua had kissed her, felt it on her own lips, and tasted the pillow against her mouth while he held Maude down against the bed, felt the headboard under her hands as Maude gripped it, knew the way Joshua’s muscles felt tensing and releasing against and inside of her.

Mercy had excused herself as quickly as she could and hurried back inside her own house, trying not to run, not until she was out of Joshua’s sight and could dash upstairs and to her own bed, where she collapsed in a flushed heap. She could taste Joshua on her lips, salt and rust, and she could taste Maude as well, baby’s breath, and Mercy knew there was nothing to do when she got like this other than to hide away, stay in bed with the blankets pulled up high against her chin, and not to come out again until the shivering had subsided, until the flush was gone from her skin, until the heat that radiated out from her head and her heart and from between her legs dissipated. She couldn’t leave until she was one person again, and not three.

Julia wanted Joshua so badly that Mercy could feel her desire slipping like smoke between the plaster wall separating their bedrooms, while Mercy’s own want was trapped in a windowless place inside her, locks on the door, keys thrown away. It was safer that way, not just for Mercy, but safer for Julia as well.

Things happened when Mercy let her heart out of its box.

Things happened, and people were changed, and then the weight of sin grew a little heavier around Mercy’s shoulders, and the dirt floor of the house’s basement would have another secret to help cover over.

Things were safer with Mercy’s heart kept in its box.

Glass Anna

What was on the other side of the mirror, that’s what Anna wanted to know. It had to be something, not just her own reflection looking back at her. When she moved her hand in front of the glass, didn’t the Anna in the mirror move just a tiny bit later, with a gesture just a tiny bit off from her own?

Peck said she was imagining things, but what did he know? He hadn’t caught the Glass Anna out of the corner of his eye, appearing in the mirror when Anna hadn’t been standing in front of it. He hadn’t seen how quickly she’d vanished when Anna had turned her head to really look, and saw nothing in the mirror, only it wasn’t nothing, was it, because there had been a blur of a lock of long red hair moving out of sight behind the mirror’s edge as the Glass Anna had disappeared from sight, hiding against the wall on her side of the mirror.

She hadn’t told Peck of the morning she’d gotten out of bed, wearing black cotton pajama pants and a blue tank top, while in the standing mirror across the room, Glass Anna was still on the mattress, wearing nothing, and with a reflected man that wasn’t Peck, not soft and wide in the middle, but hard and dark and layered in muscle. Anna had stepped closer to the mirror, watching the glass people, who were not asleep in the bed, but moving and touching in ways that were completely foreign to the relationship she and Peck muddled through. She didn’t realize how near to the mirror she was, not until her breath fogged the glass, obscuring her view. She stepped away then, not wanting to touch the mirror to wipe it clean, torn between being half-afraid of putting her hand through to the other side and wanting to do just that very thing.

 

Réalité et Printemps

She walks down the forest path, like a lost girl in a fairytale, ivy and feathers forming a ragged crown in her hair. Yesterday, she was making tea in a kitchen in Paris, and then without even having to click her heels together, today she finds herself moving like a ghost between ash-colored trees. She holds her bare arms up in front of her while she walks, and reads again the words she has written in black ink on her wrists: réalité on the left, printemps on the right.

Reality and spring.

What her reality is, she has no idea.

It is autumn, and spring is many months and many breaths away.

Today it is a crown in the forest, yesterday pouring boiling water into two white porcelain cups encircled in pale blue flowers, and the day before that? She has wisps of a memory, like peering through a morning fog, of herself in a Spanish field, warmed by the sun, wearing only a pale yellow skirt and a white camisole, of a young man there, whispering to her, “no creo, no creo,” and she is a reflection of herself, switched in mind and heart with her mirrored self.

She remembers one day in the summer when she was a girl, outside the town where she lived. There, a high building with walls curved like a breadbox, rusted propellers and pieces of engines strewn about, abandoned artifacts from a past that saw a different future than had come to pass. Inside, the boy with the wool scarf, who didn’t speak more than a dozen words to her, not even after she kissed him on his dusty lips and braided his black and twisted hair around her fingers, and let him put his cold and dry hand beneath her white sweater and raise bumps high on her skin. She tasted his spice on her tongue, closing her eyes, and when she opened them again, she was somewhere else, wrapped in sheets the color of strawberries, washed in the glow of white Christmas lights hanging from the bare wooden walls, a man with red hair who was not the boy in the bed beside her.

Tea leaves yesterday, today a whisper in the forest, tomorrow’s skin shadowed into stained glass by moonlight and candles filtered through a white lace shirt while a man still wet from the sea puts his gentle rough hands on her restless curves.

 

Lilac

“I don’t feel lonely when I look at the sea,” Finch says. She shades her eyes with her hand and looks out over the Pacific. “I think about all the people who have sailed on it, all the places they’ve seen, and that fills me up.”

“The seas are rising,” I say. “They’re going to swallow us some day.”

“Everything goes back to the water eventually anyway.” She slips her hands over her bare arms, over the bumps the chill air has raised. Neither of us wears a jacket.

On the highway behind us, a single car drives by, going too fast, and the whine of the engine rises and then falls as it rushes past us, the passengers traveling on toward their own private shadowy depths.

 

Two things of note, for those of you playing along at home. Firstly, I’ve got a story in a new collection that’s just been released, a Halloween treat:

Echoes in Darkness

My story is one I’ve previously released, Unseen, but it’s a comfortable fit in there with the rest of the spookiness that is collected inside. It’s fun all around!

The other thing is that Bez has put together a little author’s photo for me, although it’s more of an author’s illustration, which pleases me even more:

k blue dress 2

I do love when she gets all creative.

Frames

Bez watches me from the pillow next to mine, all freckles and burgundy hair and lips which taste like a cool autumn night. There is a stray eyelash on her cheek, and I wet my finger with the tip of my tongue before touching it against her skin. The eyelash comes away with my finger. I hold it up in front of her and say, “Make a wish.”

“I wish nothing would change,” she says. “Not ever.” She blows gently and the eyelash raises up like a bird and disappears into the darkness of the room.

“There’s nothing outside of this moment,” I say. “We’re bubbles in a piece of amber. We’ll never grow old and we’ll never die.”

She laughs softly. “You sound like Wilford Brimley in Cocoon.”

“Flattery,” I say, “will get you everywhere.”