I need to get going. My car needs to get dropped off at the transmission shop. I need to do it. I gotta go. But let me—just let me talk about this girl I saw yesterday. It was sort of warm. I was south on El Camino looking for a place that sells fresh plums. And rubber necking all over. Headed south, right. I’m driving and, brother, shoot an arrow through my heart. Fuckin’ kill me ‘cause I wanna die with this as the last thing in my head. I see this girl, right. I mean, goddamn. Just kill me. I see this girl riding her bike—old Schwinn, purple or blue—she’s riding but sort of stopped. She’s riding in some sort of figure eight. She’s looking southways through a honkin’ big pair of sunglasses. Forehead to nose sort of thing. She’s not close but I can see she’s got one of those nice noses and mouths. She’s got her lips colored some sort of red. Not real red, but like an orange-red. Goddamn, they were dick- sucking lips if I’ve ever seen them. Thirty feet away I’d say. Her hair was flat and limp-like, like at the beach. Whole thing was like being at the boardwalk when I was a teenager. This girl’s tanned as milk and coffee. Dark hair’s streaming along behind her back and she’s got on not much of anything. Black straps-type thing up top and shorts as short as the tops of her legs. Kind of girl you might say’s got bird legs and she’d get angry over it. So she’s in her figure eight and pedaling in this dreamlike way and looking so damn pretty that I got all twisted up and like nothing would be good again unless I had her. I turn around at the closest U-turn and she was gone. For one last look, you know. I get to my motel and call a girl over for a couple of hours. Still thinking of bird legs and lips. The girl I called shows up and she’s nice, but I stand up and she puts her purse down. I give her the money and she asks right here and I’m nodding, yes, here. She smiles in that fake sort of way so I close my eyes and then I’m back on the street with bird legs and it’s just us. She’s got her big sunglasses on. The sun’s shining off her shoulders and her thighs. It’s all so bright that I block out the shine and I’m just feeling the warmth of her mouth. I’m letting her come at me but then my hands are in her hair. It’s like the man is gone or something. I just want to feel all the way inside so I’m going at bird legs harder and her eyes tear up through her glasses somehow until she pushes me away to catch a breath. She’s got those shorts that she takes off but I just tell her to stay where she is. And those dick-sucking lips, brother, they shine brighter than anything when I put myself back inside and hold her flat beach hair until there’s nothing left of me but sounds I can’t conjure up outside being there with her. I think of her riding home on her bike and tell the nice girl I called that she can go. I give her more before she leaves. Anyway, I really gotta take my car to the transmission shop. I’ll see ya ‘round.
“Pardon me,” said the fine looking man in his very fine business suit. Dark suit, too, with a bold red tie to call attention to his middles. He had a shining leather case in his left hand that looked like it was bought at a Sears or some place. He was tensing his right hand like his fingers had a score to settle with his palm. I wasn’t sure what such a man would be doing on the bus in the hottest August since that August when a bunch of old people died. It might have been two thousand four, but I don’t think so. Maybe two thousand seven. Back then, the same as now, no man in a very fine suit would be on a bus anyway.
“What?” I asked.
“I have a peculiar itch, here on the back of my arm. Would you mind terribly if I scratched it?”
I was sitting across from the guy. We were at the back and the next closest person was an old Indian lady sitting by herself in the middle next to a big green graffiti. She was wearing one of those frumpy purple dresses with an orange scarf wrapped all around her. Her face was to the front because when you look to the front there’s only the bus driver and there’s little chance of catching his eyes with yours.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” I told the man in the suit. He would have scratched and that would have been that. But he didn’t scratch, and instead of squirming his arm around all funny he started squirming his neck all funny.
“Oh, wonderful, now it’s on my neck. Mind if I scratch it, miss?”
“Do what you want. Don’t need to ask.”
“But I do,” he said. “I wish to God I didn’t. You see, I suffer from a peculiar condition.”
I turned to the front of the bus and told him I don’t care.
“Goodness, you should! You see, my itch gets worse and moves around if people around me show no interest in my itch. It’s a peculiar condition that I have suffered for some time.” He leaned closer to me and pursed his thin, wide lips. “In fact, it’s a magical condition. A sea curse! But, my doctor tells me that it is a fascinating case, and that I may be featured in a journal. He doesn’t believe it to be of magical origins, of course, and insists that it is a psychological condition. I know better. But I must say, it’s rather exciting, truth be told. But yes, the itch itself. It is very troubling, I’m sorry. But please, you need to care about my itch.”
I knew he was crazy as soon as I saw him. No one wears a suit on the bus in August.
“I’m not interested in your crazy itch,” I told him.
He sighed and looked around, then walked toward the Indian lady, trying to explain to her what he’d just said to me. She stared at him blankly and said “no” over and over again until the man in the business suit stood and approached the driver.
They say you shouldn’t walk up to the driver or talk to him, and sometimes that’s not true because what’s wrong with a nice chat? This driver wasn’t having it, though, and the man came back and sat down across from me again.
“Why will no one care about my itch! Miss, please, can you explain why?”
“Your head problems aren’t my problems.” I got up to go sit closer to the bus driver and the old Indian lady and he grabbed my arm and would not let go. His hand was sweaty and now that he was closer I could see he was sweating all over. His face had little bumps running all down to his chin.
“Please, all I ask is that you care about my itch. Please?”
“You get your goddamn hand off me!” I tried to shake him off but he wouldn’t budge. His case fell to the floor at his feet when he leaned to hold on. I pulled harder and he just kept on holding tighter still.
“Oh it’s all across my shin now! Miss, simply tell me that I may scratch! For the love of God. This is the last time I will ask you.”
“Driver!” I yelled. “Stop the bus! This old guy is going crazy.” The old Indian lady stared.
The driver glanced in the mirror and yelled out, “Hey! Let go of her!”
The man in the business suit held tight. He looked at me with a sad expression in his eyes, like his wife had just told him she wanted a divorce. He held on and I stood and tried to get away. All while the bus driver yelled and the old Indian lady huddled in her corner, finally looking frightened as hell, probably more frightened than even I looked.
The bus stopped eventually and the driver opened the doors. He talked into a radio and I couldn’t hear him, but this finally got the man in the business suit to let go and step away. He still looked sad and I just stumbled away to the back, so I never saw him walk to the front and leave the bus. I never even heard footsteps. He simply appeared outside, glanced back at us—at me—and walked away.
The old Indian lady and I looked at each other. Then the driver and I looked at each other. Then he asked me if I was alright, and I said I felt okay. He closed the doors and talked on the radio again. I just sat down and waited for the bus to start again so I could feel the engine and calm down. I wanted to get his face out of my mind, and his thin, ugly mouth. I wanted to get home to Jim.
I looked at the ground and saw that the man in the business suit left his leather case on the ground. The case had slid under the seat. I figured the man in the business suit might want it back, even if he’s crazy, but I was so angry that I decided in that moment that it would be better if I took his stupid case. I don’t know why. I made sure no one was looking and slid the case out onto the stairs for the back exit with my foot.
I did not move the rest of the way. The old Indian lady did not move either. We both stared at the windows, and no one else got on the bus. Outside, it was getting dark. When we arrived at my stop I stood, and the driver asked, again, if I was okay. I smiled to reassure him. The old Indian lady continued to stare at the windows. I stepped to the back and, when they stopped looking, kicked the leather case out onto into the gutter and stepped out after it. The bus drove away, leaving me and the case on the sidewalk.
The case was wide, cracked along the joint where the top flipped open. When I picked it up it weighed what a leather case might weigh, and when I opened it, there was nothing but a few sheets of paper. The smell from the case was strange, sort of like a mildew. I picked up the papers and saw that the inside of the case was lined with a crusty green coat of seaweed. I began to feel strange about all of this. I felt like I felt inside the bus.
The papers were white, but crisp. They had been soaked in water and then dried. There was something written on both sides, in English, and in a strange ink that didn’t run even after it was soaked in water. The lettering was perfect, like art, and I don’t know why I noticed but it looked beautiful. I could tell that each paper was written in a different hand. I could not read it there in the dying light, so I moved to the bus bench beneath a street lamp and sat down.
Have you heard the tale of the mermaid beneath the tree? She lies in sleep forever, beneath the sun that dries her wispy hair, beneath the moon that soaks into her flesh, beneath the dirt that takes the life from her and feeds it to the trees and worms and gulls and eagles. Her life was in the ocean, in the cold and frigid waters of the coast so near the man that brought her up to land. She began her life so tiny, a small fragment of a thing, floating among thousands of her siblings to and fro with the ocean’s current. Her mother and father, long forgotten, having floated away, their love momentous and exquisite in its simplicity, a meeting of a pair of long, elegant ocean angels, guided by the moon, their long limbs wisping about, out and in, spreading from the soft and semi-visible bells that were their bodies, propelled to each other not by currents but by will and senses that told them: I see you. They met and felt the jolts, each other’s presence, a natural progression from no presence to presence and then engagement and release, spawning their children, the angels of the ocean, the nonexistent swarms that seldom last above the surface. The mermaid’s mother and father, long forgotten, were the foundation of her universe. The mermaid wandered, lost, taken in by no one but the ocean’s caress and beatings, avoiding the dangers and threats of the predators that lurked about, seeking a quick and easy meal. The mermaid knew none of this, of course. She did not know she was, and did not know they were. As time passed, she changed. The mermaid was released from her small, tentacled form into a larger shape, like her mother and father, small and simple. She grew, then. Grew and grew, larger and larger, seeking out the small creatures in the darkness and drawn only by the ocean’s will and the movement of her small and growing body. Her wisps became longer and longer. The mermaid was pulled along with swarms of others for days, weeks, and as she grew she felt the surge, the call, like her mother and father, like all the others. She felt the jolts in the water and responded to the presence. She engaged and she released, and something happened. Something new, that she could not understand, a great force that overtook her and would never be seen again by anyone, as such things only happen once, if the universe is pleased. She felt. She knew she was. But she was unable to respond to this new type of feeling. She was still an angel of the ocean, still like the rest, except for the feeling trapped within her. The mermaid floated onward, feeling, until at last she floated closer than all of the others to the land, where she was taken, and died, settling on the surface of a swath of seaweed.
The man’s mother never knew him, having disappeared days after his birth. The man’s name was Guardia, a child of men, named by his father and grandfather, for they could predict he would be a large and formidable figure. They were slight men and unable to become pillars of the community, as they were only fishermen with no boats of their own. But with Guardia to help them, they would catch many fish, many turtles, many sharks. Guardia grew as they predicted. He grew large and strong, overtaking other rowers even as a boy and going farther and farther out into the reefs with each passing year. In time he became the greatest fisherman the villagers had ever known. With the strength of his back and power of his arms, he fished out giants, beasts with long, spiked noses and thick tentacles that would have choked a lesser man to death. He tore the beasts apart with his hands and beat them back until they lay helpless in his boat. They sold for much in the market, and as they predicted, he brought the family wealth, prosperity, and a standing in the community that was highest of all the people. When it came time to step into manhood, Guardia courted a girl whose family lived in a small house by the shore. He wedded her and took her into his home to be his wife. He loved her and she did as he asked, for he was a man of great standing and earned her love.
Ana Vela lived alone and today exists in a place where you and I cannot enter. Her soul was like flowers, and like flowers it had its times of beauty and times of frigid sadness when nothing grew. She showed me her soul many times but never in the frigid times. She would not allow me. So it went that I did not know her well, not in the way that a woman should be known. Even now there are nights when I rise, leaving my slumbering wife alone in bed, and walk out toward the sea. When she asks why I walk out at night, I tell her that the effort of bringing in the day’s catch has fallen on me heavily, or that the meal from that evening did not sit well in my stomach. And my wife, lovely as she is, believes my every word.
Ana lived alone, supporting herself with the meager earnings from shelled and beaded necklaces she sold at the faraway markets, where people bought such things and did not make them with their own hands. She did this endlessly, created and disappeared for weeks, sometimes months, but always returned to her cottage. She mended everything herself, fixed her own roof, fished her own food, and refused men that came to court her even as time passed and lines began to appear along her forehead, at the edges of the seams of her eyes, and her mouth. Many men tried, but she refused them all. It was believed that she had a man in the faraway markets, someone who pleased her and provided her with something the village men lacked. Some said she would become a lonesome witch, but I did not believe in such nonsense. She was simply a woman. My evening walks eventually extended later and later into the evenings. That is the time when I met Ana Vela. She was sitting on a rock far from the village beach, looking into the sand. I did not think it right to meet a woman alone in the evening, whether by chance or as intended, but I would not be rude.
Hello, I told her.
She turned and did not smile initially, but recognized me and showed it with her eyes.
Hello, Guardia, she said. It is a beautiful evening, isn’t it?
Very much so, I told her, but I would advise you to be careful. The tide is high.
Are you worried about me?
I turned to the ocean. I am simply advising, I said. Be wary.
Your name is Guardia, she said. You protect people, your family, and even someone like me, alone out here on a rock, looking at this little miracle.
What miracle? I asked.
She stood and motioned for me to follow and pointed to the sand. I stepped closer and looked over the rock to see a pile of sea grass and a strange shape lying on top of it.
What is this? I asked.
A sea angel. Come here, look.
I stepped closer still, now curious, and saw that it was one of the bloated sea jellies that we so often encountered near the surface. This one was large, several paces across and with long, thin tendrils, the tips wavering in the surface of the water.
She blessed me, said Ana, and I turned to her.
How can this thing bless you?
Ana showed me her arm and revealed a purple mark on her arm. She blessed me before she passed.
You should see the doctor, I told her. You should seek medication.
She did not know, Guardia. She just wanted to feel. But, I will make sure it is attended.
He was like the rest of them. He knew little of life outside the village, spoke of fishing and the weather and the latest squabble in the market. But he was strong, and he held much power in the village, and I could see that he would not waver. He called me a fool the night we met. He called me beautiful the night we sat on the same rock, the one nearest to the angel, and discussed his family, the child in his wife’s womb, the world as he described it, full of responsibility and realities that he was concerned with. In truth, his life was more complicated than I imagined. When he asked me of my life, my dealings in the markets at the harbor, I answered simply. I sold necklaces, I stayed at inns, I purchased flutes. He enjoyed my flute collection the night that he came to my house. Like a small boy, he picked them up and played, or pretended to play, and walked around, as if in march with the village musicians. It delighted me to see his mind free of the burdens.
What do you see in the ocean? Mermaids or fish?
And why do I have to choose, Ana?
Don’t think about it. If you’re the type who thinks you are going to bore me.
She stood and removed her dress, beneath which she had not even a strip of clothing. With a smile that was more a girl playing than a woman seducing, she ran and threw herself into the water.
Come here, Guardia. Mermaids are out here. A mermaid is waiting for you, but only in the sea!
His lust was evident often as we sat together in my house, sometimes silently or sometimes talking about things that mattered little but filled the space between us. The first night of lust, he came closer, spoke of the beauty of my eyes, my voice, the passion with which I created my products. To him, a simple fisherman after all, it was miraculous. He could not see that my necklaces were his fishing nets and poles. The second night, we sat on stools made of old wooden stumps and looked out at the village, where his wife and unborn child slept. He reached out to me and placed his hand on my thigh, and felt me quiver slightly. He did not remove his hand. The third night, we lay in bed, whispering. He asked me who I am. I told him who he wanted.
Her body was cold, even in bed, beneath me. I kissed her face, saw her eyes partially close as I lay on top of her and loved her, entered into her with such passion as I had not felt before. She did not remain silent or still, but called out to me, for me, and in her voice I heard the sea, a hiss and crash that aroused me and lifted me higher, hardened me to painful heights. She wrapped herself around me, pressed her heels into my back, and in her voice I heard a whimper, and knew, then, that I would be bound to Ana. All my accomplishments, my work, my life, would be informed and guided by our every moment, beginning with the blessing, and all else mattered little. We lay together in silence as often as we could, listening to the breaths, pressing our lips against each others’ and in places that I never knew one could kiss. An entire body, all flesh, meant to be adored, meant to be loved
Ana passed several weeks after our first night together as man and woman, and every night until then was spent with her. When asked by my wife where I was going at nights, I explained that the night brought fish of such enormity that I would become a king in the village if I could catch them. I began to notice the white sleeve Ana wore, which she scratched frequently.
I asked her to reveal what she hid. Just scratch my arm for me, please? she asked.
This is ridiculous. Show me your arm, I said, and when she did not, I reached out. When I pulled away the white fabric I saw a sickening mass of purple and red flesh. Her blessing, as she continued to call it.
She had been blessed by the angel of the sea. I buried her beneath two trees near her cottage. I was no longer concerned with the village, or their thoughts and gossip. I buried her in a place where her spirit could look across the sea, if she wished it.
I died with him at my side. Farther still, I could hear the angels in the water.
It was cold. I was shivering, and I thought I could hear the ocean somewhere, but it couldn’t be because I was nowhere near it. I thought I could feel my arm itch. I put it out of my mind and put the papers back in the case. The walk home was quiet. Sometimes a dog, sometimes the sound of a passing car, and oddly, no people. When I arrived, Jim was in the living room, watching a sitcom. I could hear the laugh track. Everything sounded like the ocean.
I wanted to fall apart.
He called out. “Anna, that you?”
“Yes. Hi, honey. Sorry I’m late.”
“I was getting worried. You alright?”
“Yes,” I was alright. I no longer wanted to tell him about the man on the bus, or the case, or the mermaid, so I placed it in the linen closet and went to the living room. He smiled and kissed me on the cheek. We watched television. I felt an itch on my arm.
“Jim. Scratch my arm, please?”
“Hm?” I gestured to my left arm. He reached out and scraped his fingers across my skin. I felt better.
I dreamt I was a jellyfish. My tentacles were long and beautiful, and instead of trailing behind me they enveloped me, like the hair of a medusa, like the seaweed along the bottom of the ocean. I could not do anything besides move with the current. My body quivered and bulbed in and out, and I glowed when light from the surface shone down on me. There was no thinking. Just being and feeling.
I woke up soon after the dream and sat in the living room. I could hear the ocean again. It washed in and out of the space, like the indecisive wind. My thoughts were scattered and I felt like I needed to look at the papers again. I pulled them out and noticed something I had missed before when I was in the darkness. It was a pen. It was small, worn, made of some kind of wood. The tip appeared dry but left a sharp dot on the back of my hand. The dot looked like it soaked into my skin so deeply that I doubted I would ever be able to remove it. The man in the business suit’s words came back to me: sea curse. I don’t think he understood.
I pulled out the last sheet of paper and looked at it. The words were there. I could feel them even if I could not see them. I took the pen in my hand and wrote.
The dot made me sleepy, and I returned to bed. The ocean whispered to me all the while.
“One and a quarter.”
He paid with a one, two dimes, and a nickle. It was offered as a pious man gives penitence. He wouldn’t have been out of place before an altar of the church. The clerk accepted the currency and parsed each piece into its compartment. He watched as his money returned to the fold and sighed on the inside. He took the brown paper bag and exited the store.
“Parsimonious fuckery,” he said, staring off toward the lake. He needed to walk several miles to return to the den he shared with three other men and two women. His sleeves hung loosely and draped over his hands like drags of meat at a marketplace. The bag became partially absorbed in his clothes. He was a walking rag. No pigeons flew in the open when the wind was high and he walked. People in overcoats stepped around him. His dominance of the sidewalk cleared a path to Michigan.
“I… I’m as tired as my old balls.”
The rains threatened him like everyone else did.
His knees wobbled when the wind rose up out of Randolph Street. He stepped behind a corner and inhaled. He inhaled several times. Two minutes, three minutes, seven. He pressed against the building. It felt to him like he was drowning. He inhaled again and stopped when he nearly dropped the bag onto the ground.
“Jesus, mother of Mercy. Jesus cry.”
The wind continued. He turned onto Randolph and walked east. He could feel Etta already. She always waited for him. They slept together, her with her large breasts to his back and his coat wrapped around her. He walked to Etta’s warmth.
The birds all stayed out of sight when the winds were bad. They hid in cracks and corners. Sometimes, some damn fool bird didn’t hide. It died.
His old coat was nice for hiding inside of. Himself and all manner of things. His old flask that he washed with gutter water. A turban of cotton. Candy from the store. Forks, spoons. A knife he found once by the yacht harbor. He took it, assumed ownership. His pants worked as pants and this season’s winter boots were rubber. Those he bought off of Rory, who wasn’t at the den this season. He died.
There were cars lined up at Michigan Ave. Eye to eye cars. He crossed between them. The crosswalk sign holders held up a hand and made him stop. There were kids in bright puffy jackets and their parents. There were runners in spandex. There were suits and more overcoats.
He walked under the crossway where it was dark, to the same building and the same gap between the concrete foundation pylons. He walked further in with his hands against the cold and wet walls until he saw the light from the fire. He looked for Etta first and saw her. She was bundled. Her hat was on down her face so that most of her eyes weren’t there. All the rest but Finch were around the fire.
He walked over to Etta and sat.
“Didja, didja get it?”
“Yeap, I got it here.”
He lifted the paper bag and handed it to Etta. She ripped it open and held the bottle in her hand. The aspirin clinked as she shook it.
She grinned wide.
“You’re good to me, Jeffrey.”
He leaned in and kissed her wrinkled temple.
“Remember to save the bottle.”
The first thing about this girl is her nails. They are coated in glitter. It’s the gold kind. Next, her red hair. Simple braidwork, loose travel strands. Then her face. She’s pretty and about sixteen years old. She’s the slightest presence in the world seated next to me. Her knees are like twigs.
She commences to do phone things and I turn to a book. It’s to do with a young woman coming into her own as a passionate, desirous person. She’s desired by various members of my gender, as is the way of things. Her thoughts interest me more than her actions.
Some hours in I’ve placed my book in the seat pocket. My shoulder aches. I’m well aware of the activities of those around me even as I feign interest in the flashing red light outside the window. The kid in front of me is flying a F-18 beneath his reading light. His dark-haired mother is asleep. Behind me I can hear the muffled laugh track of the sitcom playing on the overhead televisions. The girl next to me has been doodling on her left arm. She lifts it toward the seat ahead of her with her fist clenched.
-Do you do tattoos?
She laugh-sighs and retracts it to the safety of her lap.
-Oh, no. I’m just bored.
-And you’ve run out of space.
-Yea, I guess so.
-It’s good work.
-Oh, thank you.
-Can I ask you a favor?
She hesitates as anyone with sense should.
-Would you draw something for me?
-Oh, well I don’t have anything to draw on.
There’s a barf bag peeking out from the seat pocket. It isn’t what I had in mind.
I lift my right sleeve to show her my wrist.
-What do you think? Nothing fancy.
She smiles and nods.
-Are you sure? I’m not an artist or anything.
She lifts her pen over the tendons and pauses.
-What kind of drawing?
-Anything. Whatever looks good to you. Like yours.
She presses the ballpoint to my skin and proceeds.
We discuss destinations, things we do as she works on my arm. She plays water polo. She started four weeks ago and still finds it difficult to stay afloat with the strength of her legs. I used to swim until the autumnal downpours. My shoulder really bothered me when I was in the water for too long.
I watch her glittery fingers work across my skin. The designs are reminiscient of Japanese whirlpools.
-Do you only draw on arms?
-Sometimes on my notes.
-You should try a blank canvas. This is good work.
-At least now I know what I’ll look like when I get drunk and wake up with a tattoo on my wrist.
And she laughs.
When she finishes she removes the phone from her bag and photographs the elaborate piece on her arm. She turns to me.
I lift my right wrist into the light. She captures a portion from my lower palm to the first quarter of my forearm. The ink has begun to lose its shimmer. She may have drawn an ornate octopus.
I look at my wrist in the light.
-This is awesome. Thank you.
She returns the phone to her bag. I lay the back of my closed hand on my book and stretch my neck toward the ceiling.
I glance at my wrist when we’re off the plane and she’s gone. I listen to the clipping feet and conversations. I think of her in a busy parlor with a tattoo needle in hand. I start to feel fatherly of her. She’s going to go through things and I want her to make it to the other side.
The guy knelt before the screen door. He pressed his weight against the aluminum frame and attempted to peer through the glass window of the wooden door beyond the screen.
He said, “Damn, baby. Damn. Why you gotta do this, baby? Why? Don’t be like that, girl. Come here. Come here. Please, baby, I’m sorry! Please, baby, please. Just, come on, baby. Come on. You don’t gotta do this. You don’t gotta leave me out in the cold. Keep me warm, girl. I need yo love. I need you. Damn, girl. You cold. You gonna do this? You gonna do this? Fuh real? You fuh real just gonna leave me here? Just break my heart, girl? Please, baby! Don’t… do… this! She wasn’t no thing, girl! She wasn’t no love like we got. We got love, girl. We got love! Talk to me. Come on, girl. Goddamn it open the door. Open the door! Open this mothafuggin door. I’ll wait for you all my life, girl. I’ll sit here all my lives in this universe. I’ll sit here, baby, and you open the door when you ready. Remember we promised? You remember that? We gonna have so many kids, baby. We gonna make em and have a big house. Like a mansion, girl. And yo momma livin with us and my brothers and sisters. We got dreams, baby. Open the door and let’s make our dreams come true. Come on, girl. It’s gettin cold out here without you. We got a future ahead of us, baby. We got the world. I’m like Scarface. We gonna do this. We gonna be the best. Ain’t no one make you feel like jelly. No one hits that pussy like me, girl. Makin you quiver. Makin you quiver, girl, like it’s icy hot. Like it’s my love inside you. Girl. Baby! Just open the door and I promise you ain’t gonna be sorry. You gonna be my queen, you gonna have it all. Girl. It’s gettin cold. Open the door, baby.”
Hated them kinds of places. Faded pink flakes clingin’ to the walls, windows painted shut, cactuses linin’ every wall and dead weeds pokin’ out of the cracked asphalt. All the same. Even the shiny-domed guys with the horseshoe ‘do at the front desk seemed to be at every one of these roach stops. Some franchise they got goin’.
I stepped up and you’d think a few footsteps on the shag’d at least get a glance and an “evenin’” or somethin’. It took a few finger taps on the desk to get his face out of the paper.
“Can I help ya?”
“Evenin’. I’m lookin’ for someone.” So I showed him her photo like I’d shown every clerk and gas flunky in the few hundred miles between here and Hawthorne. I’d picked the best one I could find in that album she was keepin’. In it she’s wearin’ the necklace I gave her for her birthday last year, showin’ off that smirk that she calls a smile. I always pretended that it was irksome but then I think she smiled that way just so I could play at getting irked. Unspoken sort of joke.
I flipped the picture to show the guy, held it just above the counter. Boy did he eyeball the photo real good. Damn horndog.
“Hey buddy, you seen her or what?”
Another few seconds and just shy of me smackin’ him on his shiny dome and he looked up again.
Goddamn wise guys can never answer a question straight.
“Listen, just have you seen her or ain’t you?”
“Well, I ain’t just gonna say I seen somebody less I know why someone’s lookin’. All I know you’re lookin’ to trouble this girl.”
Christ! I couldn’t get any straight answers from no one.
“Look here mister. This is my girlfriend, and I’m lookin’ for her because she’s missin’. You seen her or not?”
He eyeballed me again, looked at the photo on the counter again, then shook his jowls.
“Sorry, son. I ain’t seen this girl. You called the police?”
“Yea. Thanks.” Tucked the photo back into my shirt pocket and thanked him like I’d been doin’ for damn near a month. Thankin’ people for nothin’.
Back out into that damn heat. It kills me that people livin’ out in that hole could survive it. I mean I’d expected to see at least the old folks droppin’ flat to the ground. Like a damn furnace. Don’t know why anyone’d want to come out and see that shabby joint much less some hole. Death Valley. The name alone tells you to stay the hell out.
I was back in a familiar place. Days of lookin’, askin’, wanderin’. No leads, no clues, no nothin’. I’d gotten all the way here to Ridgecrest without as much as someone sayin’ she looked familiar. It’s like she disappeared soon as she stepped out of the county. Not a trace of her since the report from that Janey friend of hers that Olive had talked about goin’ to see that Death Valley desert. Just a weekend trip. The police heard it same as the rest of us, but a month on and they’d hardly done a damn thing. Checkin’ with stations, detectives meetin’ with her folks, meetin’ with her friends, meetin’ with themselves. Meetin’ and talkin’ their goddamn ears and mouths off. Not doin’ a damn thing is what they were doin’. Even Olive’s pop was fine with lettin’ them do their job and just spent all his time makin’ sure her ma stopped worryin’. I mean I get it, but he should’ve been the one stoppin’ Olive from goin’ on some goddamn trip by herself. I mean, Christ, by herself! A girl drivin’ around some backwater holes on her own. I mean, God, it’s great that she ain’t the sit at home type, and we had some great times wanderin’ the coast or drivin’ all up and down La Brea lookin’ for weird joints, back before I went off to college. But she shouldn’t have been doin’ that stuff alone, not Olive. What’d anyone expect but the worst. That’s where I was most times. Thinkin’ of where she was, where she could be, and still just hopin’ she was okay.
Drivin’ up the main drag that I’d already spent the day gettin’ familiar with and figured it was time to stop for the day. Gone damn near to the valley itself and people were tellin’ me that there wasn’t much else out there except for the base and a whole lot of rocks and sand. Look for a person that could’ve gotten lost out there and you may as well’ve been lookin’ for a needle in that damn sand.
Didn’t matter anyway. She was my girl. I’d search this entire planet for my Olive.
Drivin’ up the avenue I looked around for a place that wasn’t some Bates Motel lookin’ dive. I’d heard that flick was based on some real life stuff over in them okie states. Crazies.
I kept on drivin’ up until I was damn near outside the town. A place called Desert Jewel Inn looked good, and didn’t have some damn screwy rates. It was the last place before a whole lot of dark horizon. Seemed kind of empty but it was pretty damn late and I was feelin’ tired as all hell. Pulled in and walked up to the front desk and I had to shake my head. I’m tellin’ you I get the crazies, it’s my lot in life.
Behind that desk, and I couldn’t make this up, was a big, and I mean large, lady in one of them big wide dresses with yellow and purple flowers all over it. Over that she had on this gold-type vest with a good half dozen pockets runnin’ down the front of each side over that big bosom under her chin, and inside each of them pockets a different colored bird feather. Her face and neck were all brown and leathery lookin’ except where the skin turned white and spotty right around the chest. The Arabian hat on her head shook a bit when she turned to me. She’d been watchin’ some small television set perched up next to the phone.
Couldn’t make this up, I swear. Figured that if she was a psycho she prob’ly wouldn’t be able to catch no one. But like I said, I was just tired as hell.
“Evenin’, ma’am. I’d like a room.”
She turned to me and squinted a bit before reachin’ for some pair of movie star glasses with them pointy ends. Or whatever they’re called, I’ve seen that Monroe with them. All the girls wore them.
Not Olive, though. Not them big, pretty eyes.
She said, “You like room? Which room is that?” A ruski.
“Not any particular cabin. Just somethin’ for the night.”
She squinted again with the glasses on and looked me over, givin’ me another dose of the old eyeball. How many times did I have to get funny looks in that town? Jesus.
“You sure you want room here?”
“Yea, alright.” Well I was agitated. Crazy old lady.
“Listen, if there’s no rooms I’ll—”
“No, fine, fine. If you are sure then I have many rooms. I have many rooms.” She reached under the desk and pulled out a register, openin’ it somewhere at the end. Pages were yellowed and dirty.
“You sign here. Ten dollars.”
“What? Why do I have to pay now?”
“Here, you pay first. Now sign here, please.”
I looked at that book. They had lots of names, and must’ve been here a while I guess given I was signin’ damn near the end, but none of the dates were close. It seemed like a person every few weeks was checkin’ in, one at a time. Didn’t seem peculiar then, though it should’ve, then maybe I’d have walked the hell out of there quick as I could.
But I was lookin’ for Olive. It’s all that mattered. I signed, and gave her ten bucks. I was tired.
I had a stupid question, and I knew the answer, but it had to be asked. “Your rooms have air conditioners?”
She raised her eyebrow. What did I think?
She looked back at the wall behind her and opened a small cabinet to reveal a complete collection of keys, all brownish lookin’ and kind of dingy. On the right side, though, was a row of little hooks with a single little wooden tag hangin’ on the end of each one. Had some sort of number on them but just as they were gettin’ my attention the lady pulled out a key and shut the cabinet.
“You are room twelve,” she glanced down at the ledger, “Mister Richard Olson.”
“And you, ma’am?”
She stepped, sort of waddled I suppose, out from behind the counter and walked toward the door, sayin’, “I am Mrs. Otkupshchikov. Follow me, please.”
“That’s a mouthful of a name, ain’t it?”
She glared at me then stepped out of the door, so I followed. No way I was goin’ to pronounce that name correctly is all I’m sayin’.
The cabins were lined up on two sides, and down the middle was just the empty space for parkin’ or drivin’ up. There weren’t any lines or nothin’ painted on the ground, and when I drove up I’d just parked right in the middle near the office. There were also two large palm trees sort of sittin’ over the entrance on either side, showin’ some of them late day shadows that make things out to be bigger than life itself.
She led me to the left side, the odd numbered doors, and we walked away from the office toward the entrance. The white walls were sort of grayed now, but not stained or dirty, which was strange since it seemed like nothin’ out here could be clean of dust. Each door was also real old lookin’ and the bare wood showed like it’d been through a hell of a lot of sunburns. Counted off the doors as we walked. There was one and three, each kind of next to each other like the rooms were mirror opposites, and then five and seven also paired up, then nine at the end, and then nothin’. Or just a blank gray wall in any case. I looked across the other side of the motel and sure enough there was a twelve.
I wanted to ask her about it, but didn’t know how without sayin’, “hey lady”, which seemed kind of a rude thing to do, even out in that dump.
“Sorry, can you pronounce your name for me one more time?”
She stopped again and this time shrugged her broad, lumpy shoulders.
“Are we friends? You find need to say my name properly because you want to be friendly?”
“Listen,” I told her. “No offense meant, sorry. Just wanted to pronounce your name right.”
She sniffed angrily and kept walkin’ until we got to door nine.
“This is your room. Here is key, and only key so do not lose.”
She shoved it at me and I took it. She started to turn back toward the office, but then she stopped and said, “You just call me Ot.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Can I ask you somethin’, Ot?”
Boy she sure was anxious to get back, but she paused so that I could ask.
“Yes, yes, what?”
“I hope you don’t mind my askin’, but I noticed and…”, and I couldn’t finish askin’, stupid question as it was. What business was it of mine?
“Never mind. Sorry, thank you.”
She sniffed again—twice—then waddled back to the office. Her gold vest kind of shimmered on and off as sunset hit the different folds in the cloth.
I started to unlock the door then, just to get the lay of the place before bringin’ in my bag, but I got curious about that blank wall. I walked over and it seemed about the amount of space that the front of any of the other rooms took up, but nothin’. No door, no hint of a door, jack squat. I sort of surveyed it and just as I was goin’ to go open my door and enter the room, I caught sight of it. Just like in the cabinet in the office, there was a hook. Small one, made of brass. Next to the hook, and I mean so close that you’d miss it if you were lookin’ at it from that angle, was some sort of hole, with a little glass piece on the end of it. Kind of like them peep holes that doors got, just smaller. I walked over and looked at it, and got the first of them funny gut feelings. I’d been drivin’ all over the desert, meetin’ all kinds of strange folks, but I’d never had a gut shot like that. Just felt sort of like it was wrong. I was lookin’ in the wrong place. I should’nt have been lookin’ there.
It scared me a little, not that I’d tell no one. But I had to see, you know? I had to look in. So I walked up kind of close and leaned in. At first it was black, pitch black. Not a thing. I smiled a bit and tried to shake off that funny feelin’ because, hell, it was all stupid. Crazy flower dress wearin’ ruskies and missin’ doors. Too out there for me, man.
I was about to walk back to my door when the darkness inside the hole kind of lit up. Like lightnin’, real quick and gone just like that. But I swear on a Bible, I’d seen her. It was so quick that I couldn’t really figure out what I’d seen until later, but it was her, sittin’ in a clear pool of water, arms wrapped around herself. She was there. It was Olive. I felt how alone she’d been. I felt like dyin’
When I woke up, I was lyin’ here in this sand and the sun was comin’ up. That feelin’ of death was still in me, in a place in my head. Some place I hadn’t needed to think about.
Now I just want some water and a map. Olive’s here and she won’t be alone no more. The one who’s going to tell me where to start is prob’ly about up for the mornin’ and puttin’ on her gold vest.
I didn’t think to check my phone. I was angry, dealing with emotions I rarely experience; perceiving a story that I’d imagined in my head and taken to heart. It might’ve been the God’s honest truth or simply convincing. It was a reason to harden. And that phone. I was leaning against that condiment counter when I finally checked it. It isn’t instinct, it’s not in me to do that. I should’ve thought to do that.
You think that way, after.
I should’ve known, I should’ve called, I should’ve been relentless.
It must’ve been early. Earlier than I needed to leave. I saw the innkeeper on my way out. He emerged from his office at the back of the house with half a shirt on and blotchy red skin. I hadn’t seen any sunshine during my entire time in town, so I concluded I’d simply missed the ferry.
“I’m heading out,” I said.
He pulled down the remainder of his shirt and gawked. He hadn’t seen me since I showed up around midnight on Friday.
“Oh, well, alright. We’ll just print your bill out for you.”
I dropped my single bag and approached the desk they’d positioned in the center of the foyer. I could see the names of all the guests they’d signed in that weekend. They might’ve all been John and Mary.
“We’re sorry about disturing you, yesterday. Just wanted to make sure you were alright.”
“Nothing to worry about,” I told him.
“Didn’t see your guest, did we?”
“No. The plans didn’t work out.”
“Oh, well sorry to hear that. Can we fix you breakfast?”
“No. I need to catch a flight in Chicago.”
“Way out there?”
“How about we fix you something to go.”
You try to just go. You try to remain polite, and go. You pick up your bag and go.
I liked it. There’s always something to like about a place if I look around. There were fields, of course. Fields and trees everywhere. A lot of young folks, oddly enough. Perhaps youth stands out to me more than it once did. Walking along one of the main streets, Market or something, I’d seen a girl who looked too young walk into a bar in the middle of the night. I wondered, noticing this and talking to the odd gas station attendant, if it was any different. I’d been many places. People always seemed like people.
You think about what you missed and what you remembered. The logistics: the car, the four post bed, the giant mirror, the bed ‘n breakfast built of aging, creaky wood. You think of the smell of the midnight light and the library just outside the corner room filled top-to-bottom with decorative spines. The condoms become a symbol. You think of a decade ago, of awkward fuck-ups that are never past. You feel, using the word in your head like it means anything more than general malaise.
On the drive out of town you pass the hospital and wonder if they take care of her there. If they are expedient, efficient, and caring. You think of the white walls, the sickly feeling of overcompensating for bodily failure with straight lines and pastel decor. You quickly pass into empty roads and fields.
I listened to NPR. I’d found the local station on the radio and set it to preset 1. I only remember news of the weather and following the directions east, then north, then west, then north, then west, passing through towns which I don’t recall. For every five miles I passed half a car. I looked for animals and saw many lonely dogs. I don’t remember cows.
Then you’re at the McDonalds and you check the phone.
Wait, no. Before that, you arrive at the toll booth from Indiana to Illinois.
“Do you have coins?”
“Just a credit card. Nothin’ else.” I might’ve smiled. I do.
“Well, it’s alright. You can go.”
“You won’t get in trouble? Come up short?”
“No one’ll notice.”
“Alright.” I nodded and smiled again. “Thank you.”
“Oh, you’re welcome.”
That’s right. She said I’m welcome, then I drove up onto another highway. I drove up and across the state line, now two hours closer to home instead of three. That’s right. It was still cloudy, and still expansive, surrounded by rurality and industry I couldn’t tell you anything about. I could see as far as Lake Michigan, I bet.
But that’s not what you think about. Places like those, that stretch between Gary and Chicago—it’s all been shown before. Gray skies, metal yards, empty grass. It leads to that last toll crossing and the McDonalds restaurant stationed right there in the middle, straddling both sides of the highway and open to all. Waiting for a bagel sandwich of some sort, you think you ought to check your phone. You do, you finally check it, and when you hear her voice it’s about as much as you can do not to blow off the flight and drive back. You realize that you have quite plainly fucked up, having missed one opportunity, and another, and another, and another, until you’re no longer a reality and thousands of miles in the red.
We were seated at a white plastic table. It had a big green umbrella posted right in the center and hovering over us, keeping moonlight out. It had begun to cool down after yet another unexpectedly warm day. I undoubtedly had a fine sheen to my forehead. There’d been too many glasses of beer (one passed around like a joint at some point). We discussed Obama’s forthcoming win as the lesser of two evils, or rather one evil and one fucking insane possibility of regressing to the most ridiculous rhetoric and policies I’ve heard in my lifetime. There was talk of period sex versus anal sex, and even those who were grossed out by talk of blood or shit had to admit one might be better than the other. We discussed fetishes and my lengthy monologue about the dangers of always going one step further, one rung higher, and why sexual satisfaction is the cornerstone of healthy adult relations, regardless of the extremity of said satisfaction. We discussed everything because I encourage it. No one wants to go too far, so I do.
Then we discussed love as it pertains to selecting a mate. It jumped back and forth across the table while I sat quietly and stared at the cars driving along the nearby street. It annoyed me that we’d selected that bar and that table, in a place less intimate than I like. We could see young couples pushing strollers just a dozen feet away.
I took a moment.
Someone encouraged me, finally. “You had a lot to say about girls who get off on violence. Nothing on love?”
I had a foolishly sophomoric thought just then: they wouldn’t understand. But, in the spirit of open communication, I spoke up.
“I don’t know. Love is fucked up and I feel I need it too much sometimes, so I never give it. Love is like a hunger. It’s like I want to eat every part of you, the feet and the eyes and the hair, and even the organs, even though I don’t like them. I want everything. Once I’m there, I don’t hesitate. I don’t understand how it builds up. For me, it starts here, when it seems like it should start down here, when it starts at all. It’s no different from fucking. I want and I take. Then, sometimes, I’m a stone.”
There was an awkward silence, typical after some of the things I say. Awkward for them, anyway. I was watching the neon lights of the plumbing store across the street. A wrench smiled at me.
“Anyway, I’m a fucked up case. What’re you gonna do?”
Someone laughed, finally, and said something. I made note of their reactions. I thought I might someday write about something like this. It would have been nice to remember the end of it.
Stillborn and never to be, I awoke in a silence, not alone. The bones in the ends of my fingers vibrated, eager to begin their lives independent of me. I rose my eyes. The room, green in complexion, smiled, and invited me to stand. My hands guided me up and pulled me toward the corner leg of the long dining table beside me.
“Hello,” as quietly as possible, as if to no one but the backs of my teeth, tongue, and roof of my mouth. The walls, green as velvet, absorbed it all. I lay and felt the desire to sob, but resisted, urged on by reality. This was not this place. I was not here. Grumbling, I stood.
The light from the outside broke through the seams along the edges of the thick curtains. I feared what I might find and left them to their task. My fingers rose and moved the hair from my face, over my forehead, left to lie along the crest of my skull where it gathered, waiting for the time to fall and lie over my face again. It was not cold nor hot. My skin felt dry. I remembered a rain I never felt but once considered in my rush to fate. My fingers urged me forward, to the small table beside the door.
“I know,” I said. They ceased to vibrate in acknowledgement.
I padded along the carpet. The legs I used led to this, and of this came my long ago realization. I would be in this room regardless of what I followed or who I became. Born to little and made to feel like less. This was where it led me. My fingers awoke, sensing loss of purpose. I continued to the table. Among the bills and catelogs I found a string, red as the sunset that witnessed me bare as the angels, on the eve of my time here. I sat in a field, felt the grasses lick at the invisible hair on my hips. I played with a thimble I had found on the road, where I had left my car. I ran it along my arm, felt its gritty surface lightly scrape my skin.
“It’s only growing pains. I know it’s nothing more. I tried, I think, I did. It was so trying. But, this is alright. I don’t want to stay here anymore.” I tied the string around the tip of each of my fingers, as tightly as I could. When I was finished, I they looked like berries held together by a crimson web.
I looked back at the room. It was noiser now. I could hear spiders hiding in the corners, spinning falsehoods that they used to catch a meal. There was heavy breathing. The velvet walls triggered a feeling of confinement. It felt like a basement a long time ago. It felt like a basement I should never have been inside of. It felt like fat, greedy fingers, and I stopped, just stopped, because it did not matter. This room was not a basement. No one else was here.
I approached the darkened door, outlined on all sides by a lightness, like the curtains. My hair began to fall again. Fearing little and knowing that it would all be gone, I opened the door and stepped outside. I was in the field again. Each step away from the room was a loss of another memory, one moment at a time. It was strange to lose what can seemingly never be lost. I walked further still. There was no guidance, nor encouraging come hither. I lumbered forward into the space that was not the room, wandering about, caught in the daze of some parhelic distraction.
It’s this. This, fucking ivory chopsticks. Here. Take them. Alright, yes, now hold one in each hand. Hold them and let’s think about this, alright? Let’s think about this because, hey, this isn’t going to be the worst moment in your life. I mean, there’s going to be some really terrible shit. Christ, I don’t want any of it for you. Put down one chopstick. There, on the table. Don’t waste time. It’s this moment here when—stop fucking moving—when we realize the hazard of being in the dark. You can lean against the wall. Do you remember Kunta Kinte? Can you live without a foot? I don’t know, don’t ask. Put that other chopstick in your hair and let’s us take a walk. I don’t feel like it. No, just leave my shoes there and come on. The other day, in line at the gas station, I saw an old buddy of mine. Glen, you won’t remember him. You were drunk that last time. I knew him from way back, you know? He whipped his dick out once when we were walking home from school. He did it to show some girls. Twelve, probably. Couldn’t have been anything more than baby dick. He was buying Zig-Zags. Those real big ones. He said he divorced already. Fucking kids. No one knows. You’re shivering but give me a minute here on the curb before we go on. It’s real dark, isn’t it? Now give me that chopstick. Now, see this carving? I don’t know what it means. But, think about this: someone fucking did it. Someone carved this net-looking thing into the chopstick. That’s alright. Here, just take this and throw it out there as hard as you can. Do it. Wait, wait. Don’t throw like you’re aiming. Just pull your arm back, real far. Alright, then throw it like you’re not going to do it anymore. Yeah, like that. I know it feels fucking great. That’s the oxygen in your blood. It’s the muscles you use to hold onto me. Let’s go back now and remember there’s another one. It’s right there where you left it.