Clouds Being Torn By Mountains
Floydd Michael Elliott
TV looms large giving Nana her daily bread. Into her own life Nana filled her inner theater, would reminisce about long lost nonexistent dance partners. “It’s called Simple Green, and it’s a juice. You can find it in the Health Food section.” The mixture is almost always uneven, but there is no recipe for this. Nana would lament, “That poor lost child Jon-Benet Ramsey, she was so terribly young.” Poppy made a slicing motion across his neck. No one dies at home anymore. If it were Alzheimer’s, it would be easier; Poppy would forget how mad he was at me. They call it the Saint Vitus Dance.
Marvel at how well Nana blends details seamlessly from make-believe media, how she pines for the pounds gained by Oprah. Ronald Reagan was the best president this country ever had. Poppy stared out the window at clouds being torn by mountains. Yes, that’s it exactly. Fractured. Sundered, split, ripped. He only has one or two of the symptoms, though. Convince the Green Valley horse doctor to prescribe Aricept, he doesn’t care, does he. Nana knows things. He couldn’t move, his breath hurt, his toes growing numb. He takes the pills she hands him.
Let’s watch Dancing with the Stars, reminisce about long lost nonexistent dance partners. A friend must have explained this to her before. Maybe it was actually sister Fran or brother George. I certainly did not change my history, did I. Lament, yes, it must have been on the TV show. Simple Green is not a drink, it is a cleaning product. Ask Dr. Phil, he knows, give him a call. Younger sister Susie could not be bothered. These ‘dance-like’ movements of choreia (from the same root word as “choreography”) often occur with athetosis, which adds twisting and writhing movements. His walk a swagger now. Keep the walls close.
Nana decided that must be what Poppy had. She would lament. The walls are never close enough to hold Poppy up. When a friend told her about something, it was usually Oprah or Dr. Phil, they were so close, almost daily visitors. The toes grow numb. “That’s why he doesn’t like to garden anymore.” Red sauce on the chin. She would get excited watching game shows, she followed Tiger Woods, worried about his day. “I don’t know why Poppy doesn’t use the lift on the chair, that’s what it’s there for.” The legs grow numb. The things I found in the cupboard. Loadstones. Broken, fractured. Twenty-seven vases, no flowers. Stamps on un-mailed envelopes.
I stood in the Health Food section for thirty minutes looking. The Biggest Loser was a hit, she started to diet in earnest. Who wants to be a Millionaire? It must be her cousin or high school pal up there on stage. “I hope Sarah wins, I think she really deserves it after what she’s been through.” Channel changer needs batteries, again. Push the button harder. Pliers work good on these childproof bottles, pills spill, scatter everywhere. It must have been her sister Fran. Brother George. Catch her changing her history. Buy more cards at the Walgreen’s, put them on the cupboard shelf. Underneath, stains of cleanliness. Red sauce and Simple Green. Breathing shouldn’t hurt.
My wife said “Adult Protective Services is going to be called if someone doesn’t go out there and take care of them. They need 24-hour care.” No one dies at home anymore. Slicing motion, chin. Persuaded by a Midwestern bias, crushed by a Catholic guilt that good daughters take care of family, Nana’s daughter Mary Ellen volunteered to move them back to St. Louis to live with her (younger sister Susie couldn’t be bothered). “I’ll finish remodeling the basement and live down there.” Simple green is toxic. “They can have the upstairs to themselves.” Black trash bags, with the ties, or else he’ll be madder than a son-of-a-bitch. He doesn’t need clean, he needs sameness. Catch drips in the kitchen sink so they do not mark the drain with their wetness. “Make sure to mail their pillows. They need their things.” He woke up, cold air from the frig blowing on his feet. “I’ll get Ben and Alex to help, they’ll like Poppy’s stories about the farm.” Red sauce on shirt and chin. “I had 300 cows once, in the morning they’d line up and kiss me.” He couldn’t move, his breath hurt (usually he got up quick so his wife wouldn’t find him). Leftover spaghetti, spat out on the floor, cold, red, slippery. Never mind that his doctor didn’t think so. Their pillows? “If I’d a known what it’d be like, I’d a never left the farm.”
It came time to sell their house, Mary Ellen wanted to keep the new refrigerator, have it shipped back to St. Louis along with their (shit-stained) bed, their (broken particle board) furniture, their (monstrosity of a) console Television, the (tape eating) VCR. Their pillows. The pills she hands him. Channel changer, batteries. We hid the ladder in the neighbor’s yard, no more getting on the roof. His walk a swagger now, across the room, a Saint Vitus Dance for no one. Drugs may intensify, or even cause choreia. Walking may become peculiar. “What is that bastard hippie grandson still doing here, I thought I asked him to leave.”
He would offer to buy me a razor. This time, he couldn’t, just lay there for a long while noticing nothing. Toes growing numb. My son gave Nana his baby quilt to keep her lap warm in St. Louis. They need 24-hour care. We all told her to call a friend in town, not knowing she had none left. I don’t know why Poppy doesn’t use the lift on the chair, that’s what it’s there for. Nana would lament, she was so young and pretty. The legs grow numb. Vintage Tupperware without lids clutter the bottom shelf. It was clear to me that I was only accepted into the family because I married into it. I knew that 30 years ago he would have been able to hate me and have it mean something. There is no recipe for this, I’ve checked. The people at Walgreen’s knew which cookies Nana liked, but not what Simple Green was. The old horse doctor thought he may have Parkinson’s, warned Nana that Aricept may worsen Poppy’s symptoms. It’s cold, his feet grow numb; he’ll check the thermostat, but can’t read it. Turn it up, now Hell is cooler. Chicken fried steak, white gravy; can’t chew it, dentures punch his gums.
III. Poppy’s Ailment
Because then he would forget. When she found out that her favorite president Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer’s. The old horse doctor in Green Valley didn’t want to argue with Nana. Toes growing numb, the walls are never close enough. “That’s why he doesn’t like to garden anymore.” On the garage floor. Hands and knees, looking for all the world’s cracks. Simple Green can be used to clean tile and grout, you can’t find it in the Health Food section. He would methodically wipe the sink out after each use. “Pliers work good on these childproof bottles,” pills spill, scatter everywhere. “That’s why he forgets my name.” Don’t buy the white trash bags, or he’ll be madder than a son-of-a-bitch.
Poppy asked me when I was leaving; he didn’t want me there to watch his struggle. Never mind that he only had one or two of the symptoms. Dreadlocks, beard, hippie van; I am what had gone wrong in America. Mary Ellen was flying out soon, to take them back to St. Louis with her. “That’s why he is so cruel to me.” I used to joke with my wife that it was too bad he didn’t have Alzheimer’s, because then he would forget how mad he was at me. Nana convinced the local Green Valley horse doctor to prescribe Aricept, but handing her the prescription, he told her she might want to take Poppy up to Tucson to get an MRI scan to check his brain, “Just in case you’re mistaken.” Nana found him on the kitchen floor, red sauce on shirt and chin. Dried blood. Toes grow numb. “Would you kill me? Just get it over with?” No one dies at home anymore. Well, that isn’t exactly true, there were some dead flowers in the 27 vases. She handed him pills. My son gave Nana his baby quilt to keep her lap warm in St. Louis.
Ben and Alex are 12 and 10, not strong enough to lift a decrepit old man who has fallen, or help an old grandmother who has soiled herself. Mary Ellen hadn’t seen them in years (younger sister Susie could not be bothered), didn’t listen to her daughter when she told them how bad off they were, didn’t hear clearly the words “24-hour care.” He woke up, cold air from the frig blowing on his feet. The helpers only came once a week now, for communion. No, Saint Vitus Dance. Short term memory fizzles. When the walls are close enough, you can feel them. The clouds are torn by the mountains, yes, that’s it exactly. Ripped.
IV. Recognition 2
You don’t understand that they are children, very old, misbehaving, delirious, near helpless, children, desperately in need of a spanking. Toilet overflows. Quick! Hide! (that bastard hippie grandson will clean it up). It blurs into angry outbursts, it falls when it bends over. It. It, he, him. Running into walls and tumbling down. He didn’t see any reason to pack. “This is my house, and I’m going to die here.” You are not allowed to die at home anymore. Simple Green is a house cleaner, you shouldn’t drink it. Toes grow numb. She called an ambulance instead. Poppy went to the hospital, dried blood. Addicted to high doses of oxycontin, she was constipated all the time. Embarrassment would ring through her voice as she called for help.
Stool softeners, her attempts at purging sometimes worked too well. Toilet overflows. Poppy staring at me for long periods of time an anger burning in him, demanding to know when I was going to shave, offering to buy me a razor. Unshaven-Guitar-Playing-Bastard Hippie Grandson (In-Law). Thirty years ago he would have been able to hate me and have it mean something. Nana drank jugs of prune juice. Always taking any of the pills she handed him. On the garage floor, hands and knees, looking for sameness. Repetition. I bought white trash bags by mistake, and he was madder than a son-of-a-bitch. Nana would lament, that poor child.
She called us out in New Mexico, called daughter Susie in Georgia, called Mary Ellen in St. Louis; we all told her to call a friend in town, not knowing she had none left. The helpers only visited for communion. Red sauce stain on his shirt, dried blood. Why are you here? Unshaven-Guitar-Playing-Bastard Hippie Grandson (In-Law). I brought my guitar with me, knew I’d be out there a long time and would miss it. Poppy’s silent anger exploding across the living room at me, “Get out, We don’t need anything from you!” Poppy had tuned out Nana’s constant chatter long ago. I don’t think he cared that people go to prison for murder. He made a slicing motion. Many nights I’d wake up sweating because both of them had turned up the heat. Simple Green doesn’t exist, at least not in the Health Food section. Hallmark cards in un-mailed stamped envelopes, un-addressed.
Soon I figured out that if I played guitar, I wouldn’t have to talk; even better, Nana would stop talking. “As soon as Mary Ellen gets here, I’ll help you pack and leave.” On a weekend visit my wife took Nana out shopping so it was just me and Poppy. He made a slicing motion with his hand across his neck – “Would you kill me? Just get it over with?” Crushed by a Catholic guilt, a Midwestern bias. He had 300 cows once, in the morning they would line up and kiss him. He didn’t care that people go to prison for murder. Legs grow numb.
I played everything I knew over and over again, changing time signatures, tunings, strumming everything. I played Ramones’ riffs, slowed down, over and over again. 2nd verse, same as the 1st (Nana said she liked my chamber music). Sometimes, if she said his name, he’d look her way, a defiant angry look on his face. Since they no longer really spoke to one another things would get done twice, three times, or not done at all. Always the Walgreen’s cookies, but I could never find Simple Green. Saint Vitus is the patron saint of actors, comedians, dancers and epileptics. Poppy sat in his chair, watching clouds being torn by mountains. There was no recipe for this, I looked it up.
On a cool Friday night in August we stay up too late, singing and doing shots. My cousin Veronica, even after the cancer, still has a beautiful body. She is built like a dream, like our grandma, Cruzita. Appropriately, on the day of her burial, our grandma’s name means “the little cross.” Grandma Cruzita has just died of cancer, which started in her stomach and made its way up to breasts, but left her heart untouched we like to think. Now, the night of the funeral we gather around the fire in our uncle’s backyard, so that we can practice being alive.
I rub my burning eyes and work to clear the sting from my throat and wonder if it was a curse to be built so beautifully, like we were built to bear children. The women in my family are graced with wide hips and full breasts, except for me. I know that underneath my cousin’s bra is flesh burned from radiation, patched together with stitches like shreds of shiny cotton. She is still glorious in her perfection but now a bit singed and scarred. Her chest, a quilt of poorly approximated edges.
“How many more treatments,” I ask Veronica when laugher and voices have stopped for just a moment.
“Two. I think.” She pays little mind to my question and I understand that she doesn’t want to discuss this from her short answer and lack of eye contact.
“Quit asking stupid questions,” my sister Kathy says to me as Veronica walks away. I don’t respond to Kathy, because I always feel foolish, the younger cousin, the younger sister, always so curious, so different from my sister and cousins physically, but so similar in spirit and curiosity.
We all have many things in common, all of the women in the Quintanilla family. We were all taught to sing about the lost black bird, about the same time we were taught our ABC’s. “Paloma Negra. Paloma negra. Donde? Donde andara?” The lyrics that tell of the search for a lost black bird run through my brain each time I lift my glass and remember my grandma’s dark hair turned up into a French twist, and her tiny lips covered in magenta gloss. When my grandma’s thin lips were pursed together she sang like a bird, soft and sweet. I am grateful that we were taught this song, and sing it loud with my mother in my Tio Chavy’s backyard, standing over a table of empty beer cans and wedges of lime until all of the west side of El Paso can hear.
As the night gets cooler we start slamming shots with our Tios and brothers, arms around each other as if we would never leave.
“Sing that one, you know it, you know you do,” my mother calls to me.
“I haven’t had enough to drink,” I respond, but I sing anyway.
Our tias look on at us girls, like they are looking in the mirror. They sway back and forth on the lawn chairs while we perform around the fire with a mixed drink in one hand and the other securely wrapped around the waist of one of our cousins. We don’t smoke, because we know it causes cancer, but we drink. Our skin makes us undeniable as family. We are the lightest family on Yandell Street and the neighbors know by looking at us, who we belong to. “You are a Quintanilla girl, aren’t you?” they would ask as we ran through the corner grocery store as children. The neighbors expect that a Quintanilla girl will have a small waist, light skin, mature hips and eyes that can speak volumes with just one glance. We all have a laugh that has extended through the ages and through my grandma’s grave and through her pink and lavender suit which she was buried in. When we laugh, her belly moves up and down as she laughs with us.
Sitting around the backyard fire our Tias feel responsible for telling us about our past, and where our grandmother came from, as if she looked on, rolling in the coils of smoke.
“You know mija, you look like her sometimes. Sometimes, when you are lost in thought, like right now. Everyone around you is singing, so sing. Your life is so much more carefree than your grandma’s was. Celebrate it.” my Tia Alma taking a deep breath, as if she will sing the next sentence that emerges from her mouth. I understand that my grandma came from the earth of her father’s San Elizario, Texas ranch. We are told that the rich ranch soil fills our bodies. In our nurturing ways, we can grow something from nothing, like our great grandpa did so many years ago. In the most difficult times of uncertainty, I pull from this knowledge and remind myself that if I water that soil within me, I can continue to grow regardless of the devastation. Whether devastated by life, or by the sting of chemotherapy, I know that my survival is inevitable. My grandma knew this and as she moved away from the ranch, she transformed into a paloma, a bird, always growing, always singing. The stories are a huge part of the drinking, singing and dancing because they act like sweet, sappy sugar that keeps our family stuck together through times like these or weigh us down when we work to emerge from what is expected of us.
Like our cousin Veronica, all of the women in our family have edges of flesh that are not well approximated but come together so that we don’t spill out all over the place, so we continue to survive.
“I can’t maintain myself here,” I said to me sister when we entered my grandma’s life celebration this evening.
“You don’t have a choice. None of us lose our composure, you know this, you’ve been told so many times. How could you forget it?” She squeezed my hand before I turned the knob of the door to the home that once belonged to my grandma. I know it has never been acceptable to let our emotions seep from our bodies in mixed company. Maintenance of composure and security of self is what we are told makes a strong woman. I can’t spill because I don’t have the luxury of spilling onto the table in my uncle Chavy’s kitchen in front of my family, then everyone else will have to set their grief aside and help me gather myself back to composure. I don’t want anyone to see my thoughts come out, from within, because I fear they may not understand. I know this isn’t true. So, I let my edges hold me in as the sutures tug and flesh pokes out from between running stitches. We are not unique in our wound. I am certain that each woman has her own scar from which she fears she may spill.
My cousin Veronica sits her daughter Alexis on her lap and leans into me, telling me in my ear,
“Be grateful. Look at your husband and your children, and thank God.
“Pass me Alexis,” I smile at her awkwardly. Somehow I refused to count my blessings. Whether it is superstition or the knowledge that I have my husband and my cousin does not is not what is important to me on this night. I still don’t want to think about my husband or my children. I don’t want to be grateful.
“Don’t change the subject mija, it’s important that you understand that your health is in your hands. You have a lot of time to take care of yourself, so be grateful that you don’t have cancer. Mija, you have a chance still.” I smile again, but say nothing. Because she is right.
She knows I will listen to her, because she is my older cousin, and I always do. It is a reality that I sit amongst nine women who will never know the maternal act of giving milk again. Radical mastectomies and lumpectomies are a part of our stories now. My Tia Aurora teases me and points at my flat chest saying, “The reason mija, our baby girl has not gotten cancer, is because she has no breasts. Look at her, pobresita, you poor thing.” My breasts are small but they are still attached to me, unlike my aunt’s and are smooth and unscarred. I shrug off the laughter, sit straight up and stick out my chest, which is almost as flat as those of my aunts whom have already been through surgery. I am grateful, because I have my breasts in the morning when I place them into my bra and know that the youngest of my cousins to suffer from the struggles of breast cancer was only three years older than I am today. Veronica was only thirty-six when she was diagnosed.
It is a pleasure to be in a circle, around the fire, watching my aunts taking in shots like water. I see them letting go, laughing a little bit louder, dancing a little bit looser. By midnight, my white, freckled chest is exposed and I am the only one of nine women not afflicted by the wounds from a scalpel but I am the most embarrassed to have my chest exposed. My aunts and cousin wear their scars like badges of honor, like metals that tell the world that they have won a personal battle, and as a family we fight a war.
In the summer air our passion grew stronger but the fire began to go out. Between adding more wood and fanning more oxygen to the fire, my Tia Alma would intermittently pull the white tissue from the cups of her bra to keep the fire going. “Por favor, please Alma, before long, you will need to go for a refill,” my mother says to her oldest sister, offering up Kleenex from her own bra. White, thin tissue against the black of the sky, like white palomas, graceful birds flying above the fire, swaying down and swooping to the center, until they finally curl out of sight. Our dark hair, our freckled shoulders and walnut colored eyes made us family, but the August picture of all of us, in our bras by the fire made us blood. There is so much to be said about the fire. There is smoke in the hair, smoke on the skin, and burning red eyes the morning after. The morning after a family gathering fulfills promises of hangovers and chorizo.
Just a day since we buried my grandma, the morning after we built our fire we are tired and need to go home. We know that we have to prepare for our jobs and school, the life we lead when we are away from the comfort of our family. My invisible stitches hurt when I look at Veronica scoop up her breakfast beans with her tortilla. This day, after the fire, and the songs, she doesn’t wear her wig. She has her head hung uncomfortably low, tired from grief and company. Her scalp is shining and pale against her mint colored pajamas that button over her sunken chest. Her black bra from the night before, hangs on the door knob in aunt Chayo’s bathroom no longer stuffed with tissue and she winces as she drinks down juice. She is no longer playing the part of my healthy cousin, but is now a victim of the disease. She is no longer serving me advice or telling me to offer up thanks. This morning I imagine that she is haunted by the black bird that drifted down to my grandmother and took up her breath in its beak. She won’t admit her fear or illness this morning as she eats with tired eyes, but we remind her that being weeks from finishing treatment, chemotherapy cocktails should be her only indulgence and she should not indulge in tequila on Friday nights. She laughs, and as we laugh, my grandma’s belly rises and falls in the cold earth, as she laughs too.
We eat our breakfast at the same table where my mother sorted beans as a girl. My Tia Chayo’s kitchen décor is the same as it has been since I was a child. She has red linoleum, copper kettles hanging on black shelves, and a nice big round table where we can gather to eat my Tio’s cooking. “I have eighteen hours of driving ahead of me Tia,” my sister says between bites. We eat slowly because we know that soon we have to go back to New Mexico, to Las Cruces. My sister is already tired from the eighteen hour drive ahead of her to Modesto, California.
My sister lives far from us and has forgotten how gratifying the feeling of family is. She pokes fun at us because she says we need to be better Christians. She can’t believe she has been sitting in our uncle’s jacket until all hours of the night, just as she did when she was a little girl and wanted to be part of the party, while the adults drank and sang. She comments on the liquor, the Tecate and chicharones that were all around us, just like she remembers from her childhood. She says, “I can’t believe the way our Tia Aurora belted out her best Linda Ronstadt between shots of Tequila but pinched me at church for crossing my legs. We are horrible Catholics,” and we all laugh.
At our dead grandma’s table, my sister eats and smiles, recounting the fun from the night before, telling us that she does not regret driving from so far away. She closes her eyes and makes a satisfied hum as she takes in the soft papas. She looks down and her eyes swell. Too strong to cry, she throws her curly hair back out of her face. I look up from my plate at my sister and get up from my chair to help her pull her hair back into a semi-ponytail and she smiles, and laughs. I know by looking at her that she is thinking about the song, the stories, and the warmth from the previous night’s flames. She relaxes back in her chair as if her mind is doing the backstroke through the smoke of the night before. This smoke she remembers is swirled in tales of my mother as a child and carried the words into the smoke that curled past my plump lips and into the black sky above our heads.
My sister reminds my mother that she needs to get back to California in time to go to church. She sits and eats with cheeks that are burned from the night air of summer. The radiation of the backyard flames has turned the tip of her nose the color of strawberry taffy. Her brown eyes are outlined in red and are glossed over with the tears that were cried at yesterday’s funeral. She sits quiet and I can tell it is because the food is so good and the fullness of family sits in her belly. The love is so tasty that she craves for more. She is warm from the chile, warm from the coffee and warm inside from a fire that has been burning for many years in our Tio’s backyard on Yandell Street.
Tia Chayo comes by the table and stands between me and my sister. She carefully leans in and starts to pull her fingers through my sister’s dense mess of curls. Out of the corner of my eye I see the young girl I used to follow around, want to emulate, my only sister, as she leans sideways and rests her head on our Tia’s belly and closes her eyes. It is at this time that I acknowledge that my sister, like me does not have breast cancer. I remember that once she told me, “Hey, I am nine years older than you and if you think you are ever frightened about something, remember that I have been frightened about it for nine years before you and I will always understand.” When she opens her brown eyes, they are filled, but not overflowing. She says that when she goes away she will not wait so long to return, but she does not cry.
After the dishes, the cleanup, and the hugs we walk through the chain link gate in front of my Tio’s home which is the home that my mother was also raised in, onto the uneven, cracked sidewalk and say our good-byes. We wave good-bye to Veronica, Tio Chavy and Tia Chayo. Like always, we promise to not stay away so long, promise to keep in touch, and promise that we won’t forget all of the stories we were told. I only live forty-five miles from my Tio and Tia but do not visit them unless there is a wedding or a funeral and I smile foolishly when they remind me of this.
I look to the side of the old adobe house and smile at my grandma as she sits on the wooden rocker under the patio. There is a thin ribbon of smoke rising up toward the afternoon sky and the breast tissues are white ash at the bottom of the pit now. Before I close the car door, I smile and wave at my grandma. She sits in her pink and lavender suit, her right hand pressed gently across her heart laughing heartily as we drive away.
“Only about an hour,” she said. “Maybe a little longer.”
“What’s only an hour?” I had just picked up the phone and had no clue what she was talking about.
“Let’s grab some drinks.” She was quick and to the point, “We won’t be out longer than an hour or so. I’ll have you home by bedtime. I promise.”
A little longer than an hour to Lilli really means we’ll be out until she can’t stand up anymore and she needs me to coax her to get in the car and come home with me. This is me acting like we do this all the time. We don’t, but this is what I got from our previous conversations. She thinks she can handle anything. She says so herself. She also thinks she’s the most goddamned funny person on this planet. She’s really not. She is fucking magnetic though.
It started with her and a bottle of Jack. Then she called me and I got added to the equation. This is where the ‘only about an hour’ conversation gets thrown in. It was not only an hour. It was all damn night. I can hardly say it bothered me to spend the whole night with her though. Isn’t this what I’ve been waiting for?
So I go to get her. So much for trying to play hard to get, right? Its like I try so hard to resist her but I keep crawling back. Literally I feel like I’m on my fucking knees. Its like she could give a shit less if I’m there or not, but I keep pursuing her. It could be the Buzz that is doing it to me. No, it’s got to be those legs. No man could resist those legs. I’m leaving it at that, pure sexual desire. That’s all men want anyway right?
So this is how it went. There I was, fifteen minutes after she called me, at her front door. We both live on the east side so the first five minutes was driving. The other ten minutes was me trying to make it look like I didn’t jump in the car as soon as she brought up the idea. I rang the bell. I hated ringing that thing. She bought some weird box from the novelty store that sings “YMCA” every time someone rings. It drove me fucking nuts, so I don’t know how she put up with it going off all the time. I could see her through the screen. As she walked up she was making a giant ‘Y’ with her arms and shaking her ass. I couldn’t help but smile. Did I mention she wasn’t wearing pants?
“You don’t look ready at all,” I pointed out. “I thought we were going out?”
“We are going out silly.” She giggled. “We’re just going to do a little pre-gaming.” This is what she called it when we drank before we went out. Not very smart but if she could, I could. I mean hell, was she trying to test me? She took a drink out of the bottle and handed me the Jack.
“Where’s the glass?” I said. “The Coke?” She just laughed and pushed the bottle on me. She lit up a cigarette and flopped onto the sofa next to me.
“When did you start smoking in here?” I asked.
“Just now.” She laughed again. “It’s my house. I pay the damn rent.” This is her thinking she’s a rebel. I’m not really convinced she is one, but she has her moments. I felt a little uncomfortable. I had only been to her place a couple times before, but she acted like it was something we did every night.
We stayed there. Well, at least for a while. We drank, a lot. She drinks like a sailor. And we smoked, a lot. We both smoke too much. A lot happened that I don’t really recall. I think this is when I loosened up. One of us called a cab. She finally got some pants on. We ended up at the bar on 5th Ave. I had been there before. Previous to Lilli, I lived at bars.
I’m not sure how we didn’t get thrown out.
Shot. Breathe. Shot. Beer. Shot. Breathe. Double shot. Cigarette. Fresh air. Streetlights. We were laughing; I know that much because I can remember how her face crinkles up when she smiles really big. She makes me laugh, or is it that I’m nervous? Or was I drunk?
I don’t know when we left the bar. I do remember the sidewalk. I remember her voice. I remember the pain. Then she punched me. Or, maybe she punched me before I was in pain. This is an example of her thinking she is hilarious and really fucking cute. It didn’t hurt, but it irritated the living hell out of me. It actually wasn’t cute or hilarious.
I don’t even know how it ended up like this. Well, yea, I guess I do. Lilli and a bottle of Jack plus me being addicted to cute girls who have the same bad habits as me. Or is it just Her?
“She punched me,” I laughed.
“What’d you do to her man?” My boss couldn’t believe I got a black eye from a chick.
“Nothing,” I said. “She was being funny.”
“Funny?” He said. “Fuck that, I’d hate to see her pissed off.”
“She was also drunk,” I said and walked away. I hate my boss. He’s a douche bag. He tries to act like my best friend, but I hardly know the guy. I went back up to the front desk and stood there. I do a lot of pretending at work. I pretend to be busy. I doodle on the steno pad by the computer. I pretend to care about the customer. I could give a shit less what’s wrong with their transmission. I pretend to like my boss. I usually tune him out. I’ve gotten really good at tuning him out, but he doesn’t get the hint.
“You sure do know how to pick ’em, Ryan,” he found me and was back to try and bond some more. I mean, goddamn, the guy is almost thirty years older than me. What does he possibly think we can bond about? He tries to talk about chicks and booze and getting laid. It’s always weird. He has tried to get me to go out with him and party, but I won’t wander into that fucked up territory.
“I didn’t really pick her, Bob,” I said. “She just kind of drew me in.”
“Oh, she has a nice ass, eh?” He said “Heh heh!” He was a creep.
“Yea,” I said in a flat tone, “Something like that.” I tried to escape again, but he grabbed me by the shoulder.
“What did I say about calling me Bob?” He said.
“I can’t recall.” I walked outside before he could hassle me anymore. I lit up a cigarette and pulled my phone out of my pocket. I had a voicemail. My stomach dropped when I saw who called me. Why does she have this effect on me? She doesn’t even like me. She’s just messing with me. I dialed my inbox and listened to the message.
“Hey Ryan, it’s just Lilliana.” She sounded out of breath, “Wanted to say hey, call me later I guess, no rush.” What the hell does that mean? Say hey? No rush? She has to be messing with me. Why did it sound like she was out of breath? Que the douche bag.
“Ryan put that out, it’ll kill you,” he said, “You should be inside anyway. You are at work.” He is always around. It’s really irritating.
“Alright Bob,” I said and took my time to finish smoking.
“Why do you have to call me Bob?” He was starting to get red. I knew I was bugging him. This is the best part of my day.
“What do you mean, Bob? Do you prefer Robert?” I asked, holding back a smile.
“Whatever, Ryan. Just get to work.” I hate my job. Did I already say that? I don’t even need to work here. I make a ton of money at the clinic. I only work here to make him happy. It’s my beer money I guess. I’ve worked here since I was sixteen. I can’t quit. He needs me around. He’d probably be a wreck without me. He’s so fucking ridiculous.
Did I mention Bob is my dad?
I used to have these nightmares when I was younger. There weren’t people, or I don’t remember any. It was just a noise. A buzzing sound. It felt like it was taking over my body. It wasn’t only something I heard, but something I felt. The next time I got that feeling was when Bob beat me as a kid. I think that was a little different though. My body would shut down and all I could hear was the Buzz. I would snap out of it and find myself bloody on the floor. It wasn’t sexual. He just had a rage he couldn’t control. He stopped when I got big enough to hit him back, but he still wonders why I hate him. I had forgot about the Buzz until I hit college. I got the same sensation when I did mushrooms for the first time. It was an all over Buzz. At first I hated it, then I craved it. Lilli gave me this feeling too, the first time I met her. This feeling I couldn’t control. I knew it couldn’t be good, but I wanted it. I wanted it so bad. It was her.
I got that buzz for the first time since I dropped out of college, five weeks ago. I was outside chain-smoking at a local coffee joint. Wasting time reading a magazine.
This is how I passed my time not at work, if I wasn’t at the bar. I work two jobs. One of which I hate and only do as a kind of favor. The other I only like because I get paid so well. I work a lot, that’s pretty much all I ever do. So I don’t have time for women. Well, at least I didn’t used to have time for women.
The door opened from inside and I thought nothing of it. I didn’t even bother looking up from the article. I blocked out the racket of the chairs mauling the concrete. I didn’t even notice I wasn’t alone anymore until I smelled coconuts. My senses were completely enveloped and I turned to find the source. I don’t know what I expected, but my eyes weren’t let down. She peered up over her glasses at me and instantly down at her mountain of books. She wanted nothing to do with me, but I wanted everything about her. I wasn’t afraid to look at her, so I kept on staring. Her hair was auburn-brown and it brought out a glow in her skin. That wasn’t really the first thing I looked at though. I caught a glimpse of the tattoos scattered over her body, and her long legs that she was making no attempt to hide. She had on short red shorts and a white shirt with some logo I didn’t recognize scrolled across. She seemed confident. This is where my confidence takes hold of the situation.
I pulled my probing gaze off of her and looked back down to the article. Something about the presidential election coming up and how the world was doomed. I really don’t read that kind of shit, but it was the only thing left in the magazine rack. I tried to concentrate on what I was doing, or not doing, as the case was. My gaze just crept back onto her though. My eyes were all over her. I felt disgusted by myself, but intrigued by the power she had over me. How is it that I, a levelheaded bachelor, could be torn down by the glance of an unknowing woman? I didn’t know and I really didn’t care. I had to get to know her, but I had to keep it cool. And then I coughed. Fucking ridiculous right? Well, yes it was, because I didn’t need to cough. I did it merely to see if she would look up. Yea! It’s like shootin’ fish in a barrel. She looked up. She gave me a sly smile and went right back to reading. Then she paused and yes I was still staring. She looked down into her purse. Rummaged around for a bit and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. This made my heart melt. It’s weird I know, but smokers love smokers. This was my opportunity. I walked up to her before she even had the chance to ask and pulled out my lighter. She stared at me. I couldn’t tell how she was taking this, but I persisted. She let out a small smile and a quiet thanks.
I had a feeling I could break her. So I pulled up a chair and sat with her. “I’m Ryan, couldn’t help but say hello.”
“I’m sure you could have helped it,” she laughed. “The names Lilli.”
She was trying her hardest not to let me in, but I continued. I sat there and kept picking her apart with my eyes. She looked a little worried, like she had a lot on her mind, but she carried herself in a self-assured manner. She didn’t say a lot. She just focused on her books, but I tried to keep the conversation going. I asked her what she did. Where she worked. All of the general small talk kind of questions. She gave me one-word answers. A Few little smiles here and there. She was flirting more so with her eyes, and she kept flinching in the chair. It was like she had no control over her body, or she was sitting in a hot seat. She moved constantly, shifting her weight from one side to the other, touching her face, adjusting her glasses. All these things made me more and more attracted to her. I was hers. She could have me. End of story. She didn’t know that, and I think that was the most endearing thing about her.
I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable, but I couldn’t leave without making an impression. I needed to know that I could see her again. So I asked more questions.
“Do you hang out here often?” I said. This was me dragging it out.
“Almost every day,” she said, not even looking up.
“So, if I happened to be here tomorrow, there’s a good chance I would find you here?” I said as I smiled.
“You never know.” She blushed a little and looked at her hands. They were intertwined in such a fashion that they looked like they would never come undone. Was she nervous? Was this a good thing? I didn’t want to make her nervous. I just wanted to be around her. We sat there a good ten minutes, and she pulled out another cigarette almost immediately after she finished first. This was my type of girl. I followed suit and lit up as well. As soon as she took the first inhale her body relaxed and she went back to trying to ignore me. I was worried she had played the nervous thing off like a joke. She was way too cool right now. Did the tables turn without my knowing?
“See you tomorrow then,” I tried to keep my cool, finished my smoke and walked to my car.
“Bye then,” she said. Did I read her wrong? Maybe I was the fish and she had shot me dead and I wasn’t even aware of it yet.
I was in some kind of purgatory that she had cast me into and I didn’t know how I got there. This is where the buzzing set it. Just like the dreams and the shrooming. This was Lilli.
Lilli walked up to the glass doors. She reached for the handle and paused as she caught her reflection staring at her. Her hair was wrecked and her make-up was a slight memory of what it had been at seven this morning. She still looked amazing. She always did though. She shook her head and opened the door to walk in.
“Hey,” she said with little excitement in her voice.
“Hey,” I said. “Where ya been lately? Haven’t seen ya in a while.”
Lilli sat down next to me as she spoke, “Well, at least you noticed. Glad you didn’t forget about me!”
“Nah, I won’t forget you anytime soon. What’s going on?”
“It’s just the same shit. He is going insane I know he is!” She wiped away a tear and faked a smile.
I leaned closer over the counter, “Who is it this time? What did he do?”
“Why does it matter who he is? He asked me the question last night. Like it was nothing. Like I would actually want to commit to him.” She took a deep breath and it looked like she was searching my face for something. “Do I look like a girl who commits? It’s fucking ridiculous.”
“He’s just a guy, Lilli, who wouldn’t want to be with you?” I knew I sure as hell did. I looked at her. My dimples must have been showing because she smiled. She loves my dimples and she points them out every time I smile. I think that’s all I have on her. We went outside and I left the counter unattended for the fifth time that day.
Her voice got softer and she looked down at her shoes, “Well, I just don’t understand what he wants with me. Its not like I’m a great girl or anything.” She looked back up at me, “P.S. your dimples are showing.” Told you. Every time.
“Oh, I’m sure I could guess what he wants.” I grabbed a cigarette and held it between my lips. I lit it and stared into her eyes. The thing is that Lilli is a great girl, if you can ignore the fact that she’s out with new guys all the time. And the fact that she drinks a lot and she’s flakey as hell.
“Very funny, Ryan.” She looked back up at me. “I don’t even want to think about what that says about me.”
“That doesn’t say anything about you. You’re an all around good, good girl.”
“Don’t say things like that.” She looked away.
“Things like what? I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just telling you how you’re a good girl, and I like good girls,” I said.
“You know that’s not what I meant. Stop teasing me.”
I smiled at her again, dimples and all. “But, I love the way you get all red when I’m annoying you. Plus, your smile makes me happy.” That’s not the only part of her that makes me happy.
“My smile shouldn’t be making you happy Ryan,” she said. “I should be kicking your ass and leaving you here alone with your pathetic smoking habit.”
“Hey, don’t act like I’m the only one with a habit,” I said.
“What do you know about my habits?” She said. “In fact, how well do you really know me at all?”
“Hey, hey! Calm down,” I said. “I just meant I’m not the only one with a ‘pathetic smoking habit’ as you called it. You sit here and smoke cigarette for cigarette with me no problem,”
“You’re right, sorry.” She paused to light another cigarette and laughed a little. “I will quit some day, I’m just not ready.”
“Seems like you’re not ready to quit a lot of things Lilli,” I said.
“Now, now. Let’s not jump to conclusions,” she said.
We kept up this bantering for a while. Then Bob came to find me.
“What are you doing?” He said. “There was a customer standing at the counter for ten minutes. Get your ass inside!”
“Sorry,” Lilli said. “Bob, right?” He looked at her, then me, then back at her.
“You must be the one responsible for Ryan’s black eye,” he laughed.
“Oh, oops. Yea, that’s me,” she giggled, putting her hand on his shoulder. “I hope he doesn’t just tell you the bad things about me.” Right this moment, I’m fucking disgusted. You have got to be kidding.
“He’s had a couple good things to say.” He grinned. “I can see they’re all true with you standing here.” Oh, hell no.
“Okay, Lilli.” I reached for her arm and pulled her towards the door. “Come inside with me. Bob’s a busy man.”
“No, no. Stay. Talk. Ryan needs to go do his Job.” Was he seriously trying to hit on my Lilli?
“No, it’s okay. You are both busy. I was just leaving anyway.” She batted her eyelashes at me and sneaked in a grin. “It was so nice to meet you Bob, I can see where Ryan gets his good looks from now.” She blew him a kiss and sauntered out to her car. She is so sick. I know she did that just to fuck with me. She is evil. Or no, she just thinks she is fucking uproarious.
“I think your little friend over there likes me,” he said and pushed me by the shoulders. “You are just a shittier version of me. I wouldn’t be surprised if she left you and called me tonight for a good time.” There it was. The Buzz. But this time I wasn’t the one on the floor bleeding when it stopped. He was. Granted I just broke his nose, but that was enough for me.
“Fuck you, Bob.” I walked inside, grabbed my keys and left. I really don’t need this fucking job.
“Ryan, you know it will be fun.” She was pulling on my shirt.
“Lilli, it’s always fun with you.” I smiled. “Unless you punch me like the other night.”
“I only did it because you told me to.” She laughed. “Plus, I didn’t hit you that hard. You probably just bruise easily.”
“Isn’t there a different guy you can torment tonight?”
“That’s not funny.” She turned away and imitated pouting like a child. “I like hanging out with you better than the other ones.”
“Well, I’m glad I’m the top of your list,” I grinned, “or did you just beat up all the other ones too bad, so they won’t go out of the house?” It hadn’t even been twenty-four hours since I had seen her. I had called her back right when I got back from work and told her what happened. Well, not right after, I drove home first. Then there I was with her, again. At her house, again. And she was drinking before I got there, again. I know I shouldn’t, but I like that about her. She isn’t afraid to live her life. She isn’t embarrassed by it, and she knows that’s who she is. I was about to become who I wanted to be. I felt qualified after the day’s events.
“Ryan, lets just have some fun,” she laughed and fell into my arms. “Like the other night.” I just wanted her to stay in my arms forever. The buzzing recommenced in my stomach.
“Like the other night?” I pondered that statement. “You promise not to hit me?”
“I don’t make promises,” she said, “because then people can’t be mad when I break them.”
“When you break them?” I said. “Not even if?” At least she was honest. She had been honest since the first day I met her. I think that was part of the reason I liked her so much. Or it could have been her body. Or the fact that she was damn amazing.
“I don’t know, that was some stunt you pulled today.” I glared at her. “Hitting on my dad is so very not funny.”
“Oh, come on Ryan. If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t have grown some balls and left that douche bag in the dust.” She crinkled her face up in a huge smile. “Please?”
“Okay, Lilli. We can do it. When?” I finally gave in. “But you don’t get all the credit for today”
“I think right now,” she said, giggling. “Let me make you a drink first. And, I’m totally taking credit” She skipped over to the kitchen laughing and poured up some ‘Lilli-concoction’ then came back and pulled me down onto the couch with her. She went through the usual motions. Lit a cigarette. Put her feet in my lap. Looked gorgeous. Laughed and drank. I just wanted her. I wanted to take her right there on the couch. I knew she could be mine. Well, I guess I didn’t know that. I just wished she could be mine. She always looked so good. I’m surprised she couldn’t feel my eyes exploring her body. She was drunk though, so she probably didn’t notice. Or maybe she was just acting like she didn’t notice.
“Ryan!” She leaned in really close to my face. The buzzing was taking over, I almost blacked out. Was this it? Was I finally going to get her? I knew she wanted me!
“What happened to your eye?” She tried to keep a straight face, but fell over laughing. Of course, I don’t know why I expected anything else.
“You think you’re so funny,” I said.
“Okay, okay.” She smiled. “Lets get this show on the road!” She went to the closet and rummaged around for a good ten minutes before she came back. There it was. What she had been waiting for all night. This, for the record, was not what I had been waiting for.
“I haven’t played Monopoly in ages!” She exclaimed. “See, this is why I like hanging out with you more than anyone else!” Fucking great right? Her Monopoly buddy. That’s so damn cute.
So that’s what we did. We drank a lot. Drank until we were both shit faced. We smoked a lot. Until both of our packs were empty. We played the fuck out of that monopoly game. Until we couldn’t see straight enough to count the spaces on the board. Then, after we couldn’t play any more games. After Lilli had sobered up enough to stop laughing for five seconds. Then I grew my second set of balls for the day, and made a move. Lilli took the bait and for once I felt like more than just entertainment for her. That’s the night Lilli and I became more than just Monopoly buddies.
Maybe there is a reason that buzz comes to me at weird times. Maybe it’s more of a warning than a craving. Maybe Lilli and I should just stay here for a while. Drunks who smoke a lot and have a damn good time together and finally get something out of each other.
The sound of snails cracking beneath his bike tires went unnoticed by Abelard, who was listening to his discman with the volume all the way up. The Ride of the Valkyries. Wagner. It made him feel like he was conquering kingdoms, pillaging villages, raising goddamn hell. The crescendos made him pedal harder, more thoroughly as if saying: This is my land. I’m conquering it in the name of Abelard!
Pigeons fluttered away as he drew near, flowers crumbled under bike tires and puddles spished in the agony of defeat. Dogs barked their pleas of surrender. Abelard the Warrior took no prisoners, had no mercy, knew nothing of compassion. He silently roared, flinging his head to the side, squinting.
The neighborhood hadn’t looked quite the same since he’d come back — everything had a greenish tint to it. It was six months since he’d been back home. That trying time was spent in Flint. He had met a girl on the internet, datonalovr69, who invited him to live with her. She’d forgotten to mention that she was addicted to meth, lived with her stepfather, and for some inexplicable reason collected used styrofoam plates in the hall closet. Abelard didn’t want to complain, she was an alright girl. Nothing like Julienne, though.
Julienne was his real girlfriend. The night before he left to Flint, he had stayed over at her house. He’d snuck in through her window and she’d told him that she loved him without blinking, without hesitancy. There was something too clean about it. Abelard would have preferred her to stutter the words, for her heart to skip a beat, for her limbs to go akimbo. Nothing made him more nervous than steadfastness. The next day, he packed up the few things he owned, and left.
Abelard told Julienne he had joined the army. He wrote her a long letter, dipping it into tea, wrinkling it and drying it on a radiator to make it look war-torn. If need be, he could fictitiously die in combat. He concluded the letter with: “In the jungles of Kuwait, where I am, the world seems empty. The only thing that keeps me sane is Sonny playing his harmonica late at night and the memories I have of you. Please don’t ask me why I left. I can’t really explain it, my dear, but I think God had something to do with it. I’ll mail you again when we get back to camp.”
The day he got back from Michigan, he bought some fatigues at the Salvation Army a few towns away. They were a size too large. As he rode his bike, the wind made him flap in the wind incessantly like a sail. The stitched tag on the shirt read: ‘P. Parkington.’ Abelard had told Julienne a great story about how the typo had made him a beloved member in all the ranks. He’d told her how he approached his sergeant, casually bringing up the mistake, saying that he’d been A. Rizer for twenty years, he wasn’t in any rush to go back to it. Abelard wasn’t sure if she’d believed him, she’d laughed a little, but that night she didn’t let him touch her breasts when they made out in her car.
Abelard wore the fatigues everyday. They came in handy. He got discounted meals at Jake and Bake’s. Old men, who seemed to collectivize in afternoon chat circles, saluted him with slow, shaky hands. He’d nod at them, then lifted his own hand to his head, deftly acknowledging them. It made Abelard feel important. Before he turned soldier, most people in town had ignored him. They didn’t trust him on account of his shifty eyes. Now, if he was ever caught picking his nose or smelling his armpit, people thought he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The town of Stockbrook loved their soldiers, especially when they returned missing a limb or even better, two. Dead soldiers were gods amongst men. Their pictures were permanently displayed at the town hall next to Jesus and the mayor. Special prayers were given every mass for the souls in Iraq. The newspaper ran poetry dedicated to those in combat in a section called: Verses for Soldiers. Last month, a poem by an 11-year-old neighbor girl ran. It was about Abelard.
My Neighbor, the Hero
He is as good as Abel.
With a heart as strong as a table.
He is a soldier, true and true.
He loves the red and white and blue.
Abelard was touched. He cut out the poem, folded it and put it into the small pocket in his wallet. He read it every so often, before going to bed. Once he read it aloud to Julienne as she knitted. He thought about how he was as good Abel – his name was derived from Abel after all. He’d press his hand against his heart and feel the solid beating. If any heart could be described as a table it would surely be his. Of course, he wasn’t exactly a soldier, but this seemed a small detail. After all, he had the fatigues, all he really needed was to enlist. In a sense, he’d been a soldier his entire life. His mother told him that he was born at 6:00 a.m. – on the dot. 0600 hours. In elementary, he played the toy soldier in the school’s production of The Nutcracker three years in a row. He’d run miles a day in high school. He ran from enemy fighters, bullies with large fists and little temper. He’d taken a soldering class at the community college and soldering was just one letter away from soldiering. He was a soldier all except for title. And he did love the red and white and blue. He loved it so much that he’d pray to it. He’d pray in front of a tattered American flag, kneeling before it with his head bowed low. When prayed to the flag, he asked for a job and for Julienne to marry him. He asked for her to get pregnant so she’d forgive him. He asked for a good enough lie to tell to the town that’d leave him in their good graces, but allow him to change from the uniform that had grown cumbersome and dirty.
He was tired of pedaling. He wished he had a car — the car he’d sold before leaving to Michigan. A little silver ’88 Tracer. He learned to drive before he learned to ride a bike. His mother’s boyfriend kept promising him that’d he’d teach Abelard come summer when Abelard was a child, but summers came and went until finally the guy left the day after school let out when Abelard was twelve.
Julienne wasn’t expecting him. He wanted to surprise her. She’d grown sadder looking since he’d left. She never smiled or laughed. Only a look of concern fractured her face. She grew pudgy. Julienne was never a pretty girl, but she had attractive qualities — she liked Abelard for one. Her parents were relatively wealthy, they were able to buy her anything she wanted. Her breasts were perfectly pear shape like tears. She didn’t mind being ignored. Abelard called her ‘Julienne Fries’ in high school. She was a cheerleader then, but not a very good one. She was used mostly as a lifter or the bottom of the pyramid. She bore the grunt of her peers. It was a surprise to Abelard that she even noticed him, that she took any interest in him whatsoever. He wasn’t good at anything, except making perfectly round spitballs. The trick was good saliva consistency, attained with the potent combination of coffee and hot sauce. But all in all, Abelard wasn’t worth waiting an entire year for. Even he knew it.
He was almost hit by a large truck. He thought about how he’d fly in the air, how the ring he’d stolen from his mother would slip out of his pocket. He thought about his picture being posted on the wall next to Jesus and how Julienne would cry and wear black for a month or so. Maybe the neighbor girl would write another poem about him. He’d like that. He’d like that very much.
Julienne lived far from him. She lived in a studio apartment near the university. The apartment was decorated with collages of Victorian ladies, crepe paper, lace, and roses and it smelled like weed even though Julienne didn’t smoke. She had cheat him. With some Philosophy student. He once made her stay perfectly still, not making a sound or a move. He wanted to know what it was like making love to a cadaver. It made perfect sense to Julienne, but most things did. She took a roofie and rested on her bed. The next morning, she woke up to find her bedsheets covering her like a shroud. Her body was ritually painted with highlighter and rose petals were logged against the inside of her dry cheek. She took a shower and drove to Abelard’s.
“I’ve fucked another guy. He’s Philosophy grad student. He might be a necroph-. I think he might get turned on by doing it with dead people.”
“Okay. But you’re not dead. He didn’t hurt you?” Abelard asked, unscathed.
“I drugged myself. I’m sorry. Aren’t you a little bit upset?”
“Did you like it?”
“Aren’t you upset?”
“Did you like it?”
“I was asleep. He did it while I was sleeping.”
She kissed him right after that. She frowned as she placed her hand on his scruffy chin. She unbuttoned his uniform silently, then put it on. She cleaned the house wearing it. She got on her hands and knees and scrubbed the tile, the toilet, the tub.
Abelard’s mother was passed out in her room. She slept most of the day, only waking up to watch daytime court television and to eat. Julienne looked into his mother’s room like a parent asking, “How did I make this?” It was at that moment that he realized he wanted to marry Julienne. That she was something special — not like that nut, datonalovr69. Though she had cheated on him, she also revealed that she was Abelard’s. She put on his guilt-ridden skin without knowing the burden of the uniform. She put it on for him. She scrubbed for him. She loved his mother for him, too.
Abelard got startled as a kid rode up beside him. The boy had large blue eyes and ice cream staining his mouth. His hair was messy and overgrown. Abelard had seen him riding on the streets before. He rode a Huffy with rainbow streamers and liked riding in front of cars. He was the Evil Knevil of Fifth Grade. Abelard stopped momentarily to put his discman into one of the large pockets in his cargo pants. The boy stopped alongside him. They stared at each other like they were in some spaghetti western about to have a pistol duel. The boy’s eyes narrowed as the sun hit his face and instinctively Abelard’s did as well. He wished he had a toothpick in his mouth, just so he could spit it out.
When Abelard kicked the ground for a quick start and began to pedal fast, the boy did as well. His small haunches pushed down with ease while Abelard began to sweat. There was something so exhilarating in the pick-up drag race. The wind softly beat Abelard in the face, the sun whitewashed his view. He began to stop looking left and right when he got to stop signs when he realized that the boy never did. The boy’s face remained in its jutted, forward position with his tongue sticking out. He looked like a gargoyle.
Abelard didn’t turn on Julienne’s street. He continued on, not wanting to let the boy win. It was until he had gone ten blocks too far that he finally decided to head back. He dismounted and positioned the bike in the right direction and as he started to push his pedals, he looked back at the boy, who didn’t seem to notice Abelard’s absence, who didn’t slow down at all.
Abelard put on his headphones once again, fumbled around with his discman and pushed play. Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3. He’d always liked that one. As a child, he detested classical music. His mother would play it on her boombox as she cleaned the house in the fit of rage she felt when she had to clean. To Abelard, Phillip Glass would always connote Windex. Stravinsky, wood cleaner. The urn containing the ashes of his grandfather, which had tiny filagrees that were hard to dust reminded him of the indulgent chords of Mozart’s Funeral March.
His mother used to received a cassette every month in the mail. She belonged to a club — The Harmony Listeners. Abelard liked the sound of it. He’d write it on his binders and on his sneakers. He whispered it as he walked to school. The club was his mother’s way of culturing Abelard, but he’d much rather watch television or read the funnies. He only liked Liszt, who he called ‘Lists’ and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. As he waited at a stop sign, he imagined Julienne walking down the aisle to it wearing a dark blue wedding dress, almost violet. The jazzy inclinations of the music twisting her legs and hips in smooth gyrations.
As he pulled into Julienne’s apartment complex, Abelard began to wonder if he should go down on bended knee or not. It was hokey, he always thought so. Every time a guy did it in a restaurant or football stadium, he couldn’t help but roll his eyes and laugh. But because he had on his army uniform, there was something respectable about it. It was a classy maneuver when it was done wearing camo, although — in hindsight — he wished he’d gotten a Navy uniform instead. It would be better with a Navy uniform. He’d take off his hat and put it against his chest. He’d pull out the ring from inside a breast pocket. He’d get down on a knee, slightly hesitating about the condition of the floor and its effect on his pristine white pants. If he could do it again, he’d have bought a Navy uniform. Julienne would be so proud of her seaman and so would the town. Being a private in the army was becoming an increasingly common thing. Abelard wanted to be special
Abelard decided against chaining up his bike. It was always so inconvenient undoing it, he’d much rather bring it inside. Julienne never minded. It took up an entire corner of her small living room and one time it crushed her cat, Judd when it toppled over, but Julienne didn’t mind as long as it didn’t track in any mud.
Before Abelard could knock on the her door, a guy rushed out. The guy had a worried look on his face. He held the top of his shirt closed with his clenched hand as he huffed past Abelard, pushing him against a railing. The guy ran to his compact, brick car and left. Abelard turned back to the apartment where his girlfriend lay sleeping on a row of couch cushions set up on the floor. She had on a pretty floral dress, the dress she wore to the prom. Her hair was curled in thick ringlets. Abelard nodded his head as Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5 began to play in his headphones. The music reached a caesura and there was silence. Abelard knew that the music notes would fall though once again, but he felt nervous about it. The crashing sound, the continued moment of existence. I’ve been A. Rizer for twenty years. Violins, horns and vibrating cymbals attacked the air. Abelard the Warrior was defeated by one measure of music, by the pitiless inflections of staccatos and triplets.
Abelard took off the large, smelly shirt with ‘P. Parkington’ stitched on it and placed it on top of Julienne. Bare-chested, he would ride home, put the ring back in his mother’s jewelry box and take a nap. His old high school was going to present him with an award and an honorary diploma that night and he was going to accept it wearing denim overalls, a white tee shirt and a look of contentment. They’d forgive him and cite the war as the cause for the damage in his brain.
A Day in Time
He didn’t like the way it smelled, like black licorice dipped in tar. That wasn’t how coffee was supposed to smell. It was supposed to be comforting, like a warm memory. He wondered if it was coffee at all. He thought of waiting in line to complain, but he only had ten minutes to make it to the platform for his morning commute. He grabbed a couple of creamers and poured one into the patchy, off-colored swill. It curdled as it hit the surface. The creamer was sour. He was sure of it. There wasn’t enough time to order another cup. He wanted to start over. That was what he wanted to do. Start over. Actually, he wanted to go back to yesterday, to exactly 4:32 p.m.. That was when he had forgotten to pick up his suit from the cleaners. That was why he was wearing the same ensemble he had on yesterday. The women in the office would notice that. They would snicker. They would tease him about it.
“Didn’t make it home last night?” the receptionist would say. “Who was she? Not someone from the office, I hope.”
She would smile and the other women would laugh and look around, hoping to spy embarrassment on the face of one of their office mates. The guys would stick their heads out from behind the walls of their cubicles. They would stare at him with toothy, jackal-faced grins, as saliva dripped from their canines. They would want to know who she was. And no matter how many times he told them that he’d went home alone and watched a rerun of Lost, they would persist with the interrogation until he came up with a plausibly disgusting sexual escapade.
Maybe he should call in sick. But he was already at the platform, waiting for the 7:05. He glanced at his watch. It had stopped. More accurately, it had malfunctioned. Symbols he didn’t recognize littered the digital display, as if mocking him in a language he didn’t comprehend. Even the numbers on his watch were fucking with him. He asked the elderly woman standing next to him if she had the time. She gaped at him as if he wanted to mount her right there on the platform. She arched her brow, fixed her one good eye on the watch adorning his wrist, and harrumphed.
“Broken,” was his simple reply. He tried to show her, but she inched away from him. Maybe he was diseased. He hadn’t felt right all morning. He considered hissing at her, just for attention, but didn’t want to spend the rest of the morning trying to explain to a transit officer why he was acting so peculiar. Peculiar. Peculiar. Pe-cu-liar. That sounded funny. No, not funny, strange. What was in that coffee?
The 7:05 approached the platform at precisely 7:17. He knew this because there was a large clock tower at the far end of the platform. He had never noticed it before. It looked new. Maybe they had just built it…last night. He was going to be late. Barring any other delays, the train wouldn’t make his stop until 7:59. It would take him another twelve minutes to walk the five blocks to the office. That would make it 8:11 when he trudged into the building. Add another six minutes for elevator time, and he wouldn’t reach the office until 8:17. He wouldn’t have a chance to stop for a morning paper. Maybe someone would leave one behind on the train.
He boarded the locomotive and jockeyed for a good seat, one near the doors. All of them were taken, so he made do with one halfway down the car, next to the elderly woman he had frightened on the platform. He smiled, hoping his charm would smooth out any concerns the woman had about him. Instead, she sprung to her feet and forced herself past him, her right hand placed deftly behind her back, guarding her rear. He laughed. He had actually thought of goosing her just for the hell of it.
His smile faded as he slid towards the window. A mistake. He had broken one of the cardinal rules of train travel: never get boxed in. It made escape nearly impossible. He attempted to return to the outside seat, but a frigid looking woman with a plaster cast of her face squeezed into the seat. She managed to sit squarely on his hand. Surprisingly, she didn’t seem to mind. That was odd. He managed to pull himself free without incident, but made the mistake of looking too long at the cast in her lap.
“It’s for my daughter’s show and tell.” She put the cast up to her face. “They’re going to fill it with some kind of gel. It’s supposed to have the same consistency as skin after it hardens. Then, they’re going to let my daughter paint it. All the parents sat for one. The mold, I mean.
What do you think?”
“Nice,” was all he could muster. He gazed out the window. They weren’t travelling very fast. Not even thirty miles an hour by his estimate. He still had his coffee so he took a sip. The creamer was sour. Why hadn’t he dumped it while he was on the platform? Now, he would be stuck holding it for the next half hour.
“You look like you slept in that suit. When’s the last time you had it dry cleaned?”
“I have another suit. I forgot to pick it up.”
“Didn’t make it home last night?”
He cringed. “No, just didn’t make it to the dry cleaners.”
She shook her head, the way a person shakes their head when they don’t believe what you’re telling them, like a bobble head Jesus on the dashboard of a moving car, somewhere between yes, no and whatever.
“So, do you have children?” she said, eyeing the ring on his finger.
“What is this, the fucking inquisition?” He wanted to swallow the words as soon as he uttered them, but it was too late. They echoed defiantly throughout the car, amplified by the innumerable metallic surfaces. The woman’s eyes widened with shock and her fingers caressed the plaster cast, nervously outlining its features.
He looked around for the elderly woman. He wanted to make sure she was there to confirm her fears. She was sitting several rows back on the opposite side of the car. She whispered something to the woman sitting next to her and they both stared at him. They seemed pleased.
A uniformed man approached him. How did he make his way through the crowd with such ease? When he reached the stricken woman, he put his hand on her shoulder to calm her. “Do we have a problem here?”
The woman leaned towards the conductor and spoke in a hushed voice, “He said the f word.” She managed to sound like she had never heard the word uttered in public before.
“Is that true, sir?” the uniform man asked in a whisper.
“Well…,” he looked out the window. Had the train stopped?
“Sir? I asked you a question. Did you address this woman with profanity?”
“Yes,” was his reply.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to exit the locomotive.”
“What?” He looked at the woman in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
The man in the uniform braced himself and reached for something on his belt.
Did they let conductors carry guns? He closed his eyes for a moment. He wanted to be somewhere else, somewhere safe. He couldn’t think. His mind was empty and cavernous. “Look, I don’t know why I said that. I don’t. It’s this day. This fucking day. I’m sorry I swore. It’s not like it’s a new word. I mean, fuck! Are you going to shoot me because of it?”
The man in the uniform raised his walkie-talkie and pressed a button. “We have a situation in car 7. I may require assistance, over?”
He could hear the static from the walkie-talkie. How had he not heard it before now? People were clamoring around him. More specifically, men were clamoring around him. It was clear what was going to happen next. He was about to be railroaded. He laughed. In hindsight that must have made him appear crazy, but the thought had amused him. Several men pulled him to his feet. The woman was no longer sitting next to him. When did she get up?
He was losing track of time. It must have been the coffee. He tried to placate the crowd by making his way towards the doors, but that didn’t matter anymore. The men had their hands on him, much to the dismay of the conductor, and as if from a saloon on the plains of the wild, wild west, the mob tossed him through the doors and onto the hard, cracked concrete. Of course, he forgot to tuck, duck and roll. Instead, he hit the pavement face first, scuffing his hands as he tried to break his fall. The foam coffee cup crumpled under the weight of the impact. Thank Christ! Its contents spilled forth like diseased bile onto the platform. Columbus Circle. He didn’t recognize the stop. He sat up and watched the people board the train without a moment’s concern for his welfare, and then they were gone.
In less than a nanosecond, the platform resembled a ghost town. He was alone. That felt odd, like one lung. He couldn’t breathe. Alone. Alone. A-lone. It was minutes before he attempted to move, and when he did, he realized he was still clutching the remnants of the coffee cup. He gazed at the clock tower at the end of the platform. Did all of the stations have clock towers? It was 7:33. He got to his feet and threw the crumpled cup into a nearby wastebasket.
It was a fifteen-minute walk to civilization. Civilization was a coffee shop on the corner of Piccadilly and Forest Lawn. Actually, it was Piccadilly Square Road and Forest Lawn Lane. He tried to make sense of the inherent contradictions, but gave up.
A bell attached to the door rang as he entered. He could see why the workers of the establishment might need such a warning device. Besides the two people behind the counter, and himself, the only other customer was seventy year old man in plaid shorts, a polo shirt and white tube socks pulled up to his knees. He stirred his cup of mud and perused the editorial section of the local newspaper. Maybe the old man would leave it behind when he left. He thought of asking him if he would share it, but didn’t want to press his luck. Any conversation would probably lead to fisticuffs and the calling in of the National Guard for support.
He sat down in a wooden high-backed booth and examined the cuts on his hands. They would become infected. He knew it. Not in days, or weeks, but within the next few minutes. What was with this day?
An attractive woman in her twenties wearing an apron with the company emblem on it made her way towards his booth. He couldn’t make out the logo. Was it a brush? Or the profile of that guy from the movie House Party? He couldn’t tell. The woman followed his gaze, examining the apron for stains.
“I know. My apron’s a mess.”
“No. I was just trying to make out the logo. What is it?”
She laughed, then realized he was serious. “It’s a cup of coffee.”
“No way. What are those squiggly lines?”
“Steam,” she replied with concern in her voice. “Are you all right?”
She studied his wrinkled suit and noticed the scrapes on his hands. “You’re hurt. Did you fall?”
“Something like that.”
“Would you like me to get you something for it? We have a first aid kit in back.”
“No, thanks. I’m sure they’ll turn gangrenous no matter what I do. It’s just been one of those mornings.”
“That sucks,” she said. “How ’bout something to warm you up? Maybe that’ll put things in order.”
“That’d be great. Coffee. Straight up. As dark as you can make it.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
She returned moments later with a napkin, a steaming cup of coffee, antiseptic spray and several Band-aids. She slid the coffee to him and sat down. “Let me see those hands.”
He thought about objecting, but it was the first decent thing that had happened to him all morning, so he decided to let it play itself out. He offered her his hands, palms up, an act of submission. She lifted the can of antiseptic, but stopped herself. “We’d better move your coffee. We don’t want it tasting like a hospital.”
“How exactly would a hospital taste?”
“Sterile. I would imagine,” she laughed.
“You’re not too busy,” he offered.
“You should have been here a half an hour ago. It was a madhouse. It always is before the 7:15. Especially when it’s running late, which is most of the time.”
He glanced at the clock on the wall. It was 8:05. He had lost another seventeen minutes.
“Are you late for something?” she asked as she gathered her supplies.
“I think so,” he said, examining his newly bandaged hands.
“You think so? Did you hit your head on something?”
He smiled. Maybe he had travelled back in time. He looked at the garland that framed the windows of the shop. It hung there like nostalgia. There were pictures on the walls, pictures of men standing proudly next to their Model-T’s. And several photos of trolley cars as they made their way down busy streets. There was even a picture of a Woolworth’s. It looked like it had just opened for business. He began to speak, but the girl was gone. When had she left?
He hugged the warm ceramic cup with his hands. It reminded him of permanence and love. It looked alluring, with a lustful lip. Its rich, reflective contents beckoned him. This was how coffee was supposed to look, dark and evenly blended, without color variation. He took a long, slow swig and felt overwhelmed.
It was 8:17.
He reached into his pocket, pulled out his cell phone, hit speed dial number two and waited for the receptionist to pick up.
“Good morning, Brown, Mabry and Reid. How may I direct your call?”
“Hi, it’s me. I’m afraid…well, I’m running a bit late this morning.”
“Oh, Mister…,” her voice drifted nervously, “that’s okay. We didn’t expect you in at all today, sir.”
He was dumbfounded. “Why? Is it Saturday?”
“No sir. It’s Monday, August 17th.”
“Oh,” he whispered.
“Sir? Are you okay?”
He pulled the phone away from his ear and gazed at the photo of a short, raven-haired woman with skinny arms and perfect teeth. She was holding a croquet mallet above her head. The mallet had three thick, blue stripes near both ends. It weighed more than she did. The waters of Lake Huron glistened in the background. A lonesome wave played splishy-splashy with a giant rock near the shoreline. She had just hit a croquet ball as hard as she could towards it. It had only travelled about fifty feet, leaving a distance of approximately three miles to the lake. She looked so happy. He had taken the picture five summers ago on their trip to Mackinac Island. They stayed at the Grand Hotel, where Rastar Pictures filmed the movie Somewhere in Time. He thought he heard her voice calling out to him, but it was only the receptionist on the other end of the line, so… he hung up.
He placed the phone on the table and wiped away a smudge.
The girl returned with a second cup of coffee. It looked as inviting as the first. She angled her head to get a better look at the picture. “Is that your wife?”
“Yes,” he whispered, “it’s our anniversary, today.”
She started to congratulate him, but eyed the scrapes on his hands instead. “You forgot, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did. But she’s been reminding me all morning.”
“Good for her.”
“Yes. Good for her.”
“So, what are you going to get her?”
“Flowers? I’d do better than that if I were you. You forgot!”
“I don’t think she’ll mind,” he offered solemnly.
He had forgotten to visit her. How had that happened? He picked up the phone and studied the image of her. He wanted to remember her the way she had been, a gleeful willow, humble and triumphant.. He wanted to remember the endless summer days they spent laughing at the grass. He wanted to remember every line on her face, and what each of her smiles meant. He wanted to go back in time, to Mackinac Island.