“There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” -Zora Neale Hurston
My thought life has always been more real to me than my waking one.
Even as my day job fills my lungs and the loss of one beloved after another braids cold moss up my legs, around my waist; somehow, I always rise to the surface again, and gasp on.
But this land of stories, of my thought life-
sometimes it haunts me, whispering, “what is this for?”
All my endless pushing away of happinesses, of rest-
it haunts me, staring in with the face of each new failure (rejection slips, both warm and cold; of years wasted; joyless workdays and so quickly growing old, closer to the moss; of our dead (our beloved) baby boy, buried in red pieces under the myrtle tree-
as I open my laptop in the dark, and try again.
King, Queen, Ghost.
It was 4:30 in the morning when my roommate’s lover rolled out.
I heard him leave and padded naked into our living room to check that he’d locked the front door behind him, and of course he hadn’t.
So picture this. Our burbling fish tank, silent kitchen, everything blue in the dark. Moonlight slatted by blinds, and my shadow flying over the room like a sweeping hand.
The expectancy of silence, as if the room was waiting for something to happen.
The sudden, prickling closeness cupped around me like hands.
My heart racing for no reason, I turned on all the lights and went around the house, wrapped up in a fluffy blanket from the sofa now, double-checking all our locks and closets to make sure nothing from outside had snuck in.
Then I went back to bed, but couldn’t sleep.
I kept running from room to room in the house of my head, looking for a place to stop thinking.
But each room — I was dreaming by then — had something off about it. so I kept going until finally I was in the garage of my parents’ old place, sitting in someone’s town car, cradled deep in soft, black seat leather.
Finally sinking into sleep, and purest absence of thought.
Then. There was a sudden, blistering awareness of the garage door cranking up behind me.
I turned to see a small, red-headed man standing in the gap as the door rose to the ceiling. It was dark in their garage, but bright behind him, so I could see the man clearly. Thick features, small eyes, a blank cruelty behind them. He was terrifying.
Then he was coming for me.
I couldn’t move. My body was locked in slow gear. I tried to make myself lean on the horn, to slam down on the garage door opener, anything, but I was as paralyzed as a caterpillar stung by a wasp.
I could see the red man thumping around the side of the car- he had a limp- staring in at me with those dead eyes.
He reached for the door.
I managed to jolt myself awake, whacking the lampshade next to me in the process. My husband flopped over in his sleep, groaning.
But I had remembered something.
The troll was real.
I met him when I was fourteen, but not in my parents garage. This is my story, and this seems as good a place for it as any.
The Lizard King
The first time I saw Tyler, he was sitting on the other side of the coffee shop patio, sun basking while this woman poured herself all over him.
I could see even from my table that the woman was married, and not to him. But Tyler was lazy, confident, demonically attractive in that delicious, specifically gritty way of all poets and baristas. He had caramel-colored eyes that could charm the halo off any girl’s finger.
She’d been buying him drinks all afternoon while I scribbled, but as day sidled into evening he began singing to me from across the patio.
He’d caught me peeking.
I smiled, just a little. You’d have thought beautiful older guys sang to me every day.
The thing was, I was pretending.
Wearing a wasp-waisted 1950s dress out of my grandmother’s closet, dreamily sketching downtown passerby with a charcoal pencil I’d sharpen up from time to time with my pocket knife. Because this was a dive where the real artists went, and I wanted to make the right impression.
Mysterious, glamorous, powerfully in control.
I was fourteen.
He came over to sit with me. He was like the ponytailed bad dude in a movie, the one you’re supposed to like just a little bit. Immediately I had him in my head as the lounge lizard king.
I let him stay.
Before I left, Tyler made me promise to see him again. He wanted to show me his poetry, he said.
“I hate bad poetry,” I said.
“Are you trying to make me nervous?” he said.
“It’s working. You keep messing with your hair.” I reached out and smoothed it behind his ears.
We started seeing each other all the time.
“It doesn’t bother you how young I am?”
“How old do you feel?”
“Twenty-two,” I lied.
But Tyler was twenty-eight or something. The truth was, obviously, that I felt like a kid. Like I was fourteen. That’s why I was wearing my grandmother’s dresses. I wanted to learn how to be a woman, a real woman, like my grandmother.
You know, she was halfway famous once. When I was little she told me it was because her dresses were magic. “Black magic. You can have them when you’re old enough, you’ll see.”
I believed in those dresses. They made me feel like her—mysterious and remote, carelessly elegant. But I wasn’t.
I was only a girl. Abstract, unfinished. No match for the lizard king.
That summer one of our favorite things was to walk up to the the bridge to sit on the edge with our legs dangling over and throw mulberries at traffic.
Tyler was teaching me how to smoke. “No, no, you aren’t breathing in right. You have to breathe it into your belly, see, like this? And then hold it there.”
The smoke burned. “I’m going to swoon,” I said.
“Swoon?” He laughed, holding the joint cupped in his hand so it wouldn’t go out. He took a deep hit. “You read too many books. Come here. Breathe in.”
He exhaled, and I sucked in, holding the smoke down like he said, until something lit and flared at the end of my spine, making me tingle.
I glowed at him happily.
Tyler smirked back. “I feel like we just kissed, Paula.”
“Kiss me really,” I wanted to say, huskily, like an old-time movie star— but really I just sat there, smiling around.
Tyler laughed, and helped me stand. “Paula, Paula, Paula,” he said. “If I say your name a fourth time, you’ll belong to me.”
But he didn’t, of course, so I was free.
Our hands lingered. Then he had to go away somewhere.
I wandered home alone, high as a bat. I teetered at stoplights, waiting for the light to change, and men in their cars honked crazily.
I was seeing halos around all the streetlights and this got me thinking about how I used to believe in angels.
For some reason, when I was really young, I used to believe the Virgin Mary was my angel. I had dreams about her coming to me in my sleep and everything. Probably in some other age people would have thought I was having visions. But you learn to be secretive in Catholic school, at least if you've decided to not believe in all the parts they teach, so I kept Mary my secret.
Stoned and alone in the dark, I tried to remember what it felt like to believe. I couldn't, and felt ashamed.
Because I was the kind of girl who was still trying to see angels, or because I no longer could? You tell me.
Another night, Tyler and I were out walking. We’d spent all day together. Now it was dusk, and lights were coming on in all the houses. People’s windows were open, so from the sidewalk we could hear them setting out for dinner while their kids played on the carpet, televisions babbling blue in the backgrounds.
“Electric light takes away all the mysteries,” Tyler said. “Anytime you feel like it, you can just flick a switch to see what is really there, and what isn't.”
“Huh,” I said.
Tyler was always saying things like that, practicing how he sounded. I knew he didn’t care what I thought because I was too young to really count. So when he started talking like that, I’d just smooth down my dress and relax, letting his voice trail all over me. I didn’t even need to listen to what he was saying. I felt like we were inside a beautiful painting. That was all I cared about.
“What do you think?” he said.
I looked at him.
“Well, I like to see things as they are,” I lied. “Not the ways I’d imagine them, if everything were dark.”
“I bet you’d believe in God if we didn’t have electricity.”
I shrugged. “He’s the best bedtime story I know.”
“Maybe you need a new bedtime story then.” We were standing close. “Watch this.” Tyler swept his hand out in front of us. Just like that, all the lights in town went out.
Tyler pressed against me in the dark. “Do you believe in God now?” he whispered.
Shrieks and laughter lifted up from inside the houses. Kids squealing off to find candles, the adults looking for fire. Soon dots of candle light showed behind the curtains of people’s living rooms.
“I love the smell of matches,” I said.
Tyler came closer.
I was aware of the warmth of the asphalt, drifting up beneath my dress. I wasn’t wearing any underwear, just dabs of my grandmother’s perfume. The scent slipped out from under the warm fabric, coiling behind my ears. Ask him to give you a bedtime story, it whispered.
“No,” I said.
Tyler walked me home. All the way home, he didn’t turn the lights back on, and I was glad.
Because I was embarrassed. For all my bravado, even in my grandmother’s clothing, I still couldn’t figure out how to be a woman.
What was my body supposed to do when it was kissed? I was aware of my posture, my movements, but I did not live inside those lines. My body was something separate from me.
Where I was actually located, I didn’t know, but I knew that a kiss, a real kiss, required for me to meet Tyler halfway, which I could not do.
I liked the idea of him, and the ideas I had of sex and forgetting, freedom—but suppose you did give yourself over. What if you lost yourself forever? I wanted to learn to live inside my body, to live in the moment, but I was so terrified I’d be taken.
You can’t ever really trust someone else, especially not with yourself. My secret self was safer where I kept it—in a place unknown even to me.
And Tyler could swallow women whole. I’d seen him do it. Women he introduced to me and then discarded within days, replaced within hours—women who adored him, who gave themselves to him. They trusted him because he was beautiful. But Tyler ate them whole, like fruits, and then threw their cores away. Each one of them probably thought she was going to be the one to change him, but Tyler was insatiable.
I imagined those discarded women drifting like ghosts in the streets, Tyler turning the streetlights out after each of them, one by one.
After somebody you love throws you away, you’re never whole again. The part of your soul you gave them becomes a ghost.
My mom was like that after my dad left. She was helpless, a ghost. Grandmother had no sympathy for it. After a while she didn’t visit us anymore.
THE VIRGIN QUEEN
Maybe that was why I used to feel like the Virgin Mary was hanging around me all the time. I needed somebody. I’d feel her touching my back when I was asleep. I was aware of her still when I woke. She was feathery and pale, and I felt her beside me all day, no matter if I was sucking dog kibbles or terrorizing my little brothers. She was my secret superpower.
At Catholic school we put on two masses a week. On Sundays, we had a third mass, and afterwards my mom volunteered my brothers and I to work at the L.I.N.K. kitchen, which was this
free slop line for the homeless. She’d drop us off and go run her errands, and then there we were, with a bunch of nuns and other volunteers. You chopped up stuff and prepared it, and then you stood behind folding tables and doled food out to the bums.
All kinds. Scary ones, junkies, drunks. Once even a bunch of hippies. You didn’t see a lot of hippies running around in Kansas back then.
The hippies walked like they were dancing, their eyes shining. Some of them were singing. Their happiness was sunshine, and I told one his scarf was very beautiful.
The hippie didn’t miss a beat. He dashed it off and tied it around my neck with a flourish, so that I looked like some kind of Parisian. I couldn’t believe it. The scarf was black silk with red and orange tie-dye in the middle. I’d never met somebody who just gave you things, but all I could do was look at him with this big stupid grin.
“Wear it in good health, girl,” the hippie said. I looked for him after we were done serving but I never did see him again.
Mostly, though, it was scary there, but with the Virgin’s hands on me, I could do anything. When the hungry people would smile or cough, their mouths showed black with desperation. My brothers would duck down under the table to hide when someone really scary came through, but because of the Virgin, I could take up my brothers’ ladles and serve for them, too.
We could have hidden upstairs in the church until mom came back for us, but we were too young for that to occur to us. That’s the funny part about being a kid. You haven’t figured out how to protect yourself yet. We all just figured we were stuck there until she came back, and that was that.
Anyway, one Sunday I had to go into the outer room for some reason, I think to get more bread. They kept the bread in the outer room, where the bums ate. This was so that if any of them needed to take a bag home they could take it without having to ask anyone.
As I walked out into this room, the little redheaded man grabbed me. He and I were smaller than everyone else, and well below the sight line of the crowd.
We were the same size, but he was old. He stuck his face right up to mine. His was terrifyingly blank and emotionless, a face from a nightmare.
In some people curiosity is cruelty.
In him it was poison.
I’d seen him before. Lots of places downtown gave him free coffee and food, like he was this mascot or something, but now he clamped his hand over my face and started to drag me into the men’s room.
He hobbled; one foot was clubbed.
I felt everything like it was happening far away, in slow motion, like in a dream. And no one stopped him.
You can’t imagine how strong a troll is until you are caught in its hands.
I screamed and screamed, but only inside. My angel had vanished.
I felt like one of those baby gazelles you see when a crocodile has it by the neck and the gazelle understands that it will die, but then somehow my mom came from out of nowhere and grabbed me out of the bathroom. There were streaks from my shoes all over the floor.
She hustled me away. As soon as we were alone she shook her finger in my face.
“Nothing happened. Do you hear me? Nothing happened, nothing ever happened.” She stood next to me the rest of the afternoon until we finished our shift, and then she never took us back there again.
We didn’t talk about it either. I forgot about my angel Mary.
Many years after that, and three years after I’d met Tyler, I took to wearing the silk scarf wrapped around my hair. I still wore my grandmother’s magic dresses, even though I’d worn them ratty by then. The rattiness made me like them better. I was seventeen, and I believed in Jack Kerouac, too, besides her dresses. A fraying black ball gown seemed like something he would have liked.
I also had this idea that I needed to get away from the safe life my mother craved so badly for us, and was always trying to create with each of her new boyfriends. After another bad day at home, I decided it was time for me see the world instead.
Tyler could take me, I figured.
We’d been in and out of touch since that first summer, but when I called, I pretended it was otherwise. The way I always did with him.
“Remember how you told me anytime I needed you, you would come get me?”
If Tyler didn’t recognize me right away, he played it off beautifully. His voice was more wonderful than ever, low and intimate. There were people at our coffee shop who called him The Radio, because Tyler was such easy listening. I loved the nights we used to talk until dawn — patios, park benches, rooftop sofas — until, eventually, always, I fell asleep with my head on Tyler’s shoulder. His radio voice slipping even into my dreams.
“Where in the world are you, Paula?” he said, sounding like he was already beside me.
“I’m under the tree,” I said.
He would know the one. It was an old tree, easy to climb. We used to do that sometimes instead of going for walks. I waited for him for what felt like ages, daydreaming about skittering around the world with the lizard king.
Then he was there, and nothing like I remembered.
Tyler’s voice didn’t match him anymore. He was too skinny and pale. He’d stopped writing - “everything’s been said, anyway”- and the ponytail I loved was gone.
But I decided to believe these things made him a true poet. That Tyler was too pure to care about the conventional trappings of success and competence.
We took off in his car, a hatchback that coughed. You had to hold the ceiling upholstery up or it touched your head.
Tyler squeezed my thigh shyly. “Watch this.”
He waved his hands, and all the stoplights flickered out.
“Seen it,” I said.
Still, it was nice, driving all the way out into the countryside without having to stop once.
We camped three days. The plan was to live on fish and flowers, but that didn’t work out, so we’d go back to town to pull donuts or pizzas out of the dumpsters. Tyler knew all the places.
“I live outside the system,” Tyler said, pulling out a spotless long john maple donut. “See? Live free or die. None of that J-O-B stuff, not for me.”
But while he said this, he was watching me carefully, like he was worried I didn’t believe him. He took a huge bite, and I noticed the skin under his neck had become loose, deflated, like an iguana’s.
All I could think of was that old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?”
I thought we were going on this great adventure, but instead I’d become just another bum. I wondered if this was where the red troll ate, too.
I was still a virgin and wanted to wait, although I didn’t understand why. Catholic school gives you these knee jerk responses.
“No,” you hear yourself saying, to everything. “No, no, no.”
Tyler said he understood. At night he’d kiss me and spoon me tight, even though I knew he thought I owed more to him. Sometimes, he’d grind on me from behind, kind of softly, maybe hoping I wouldn’t notice or maybe hoping I would, and this made my heart turn cold.
I started to hate him.
It was only when he went into the trees to take care of himself that I’d think anything nice about him at all. Maybe we were spending too much time together, I don’t know. But I couldn’t think of anywhere else I wanted to be, except inside a book. I wondered if it would have felt different with a real artist, maybe, instead of somebody who just looked like one, talked about being one.
But at least he had a car.
“We should go,” I said on the third day. “My parents will have called the police.”
“They don’t know about me, though, do they?”
I chewed on my thumbnail. “I forgot my journal,” I said.
So we drove all day and night to Monahans, Texas, where just about everybody is hiding from something and they know better than to ask any questions. We got ourselves jobs at a steakhouse. Everybody there stole food all the time, so we always had plenty to eat.
We skipped out on rent all over town for months before people caught on. Our last night, with nowhere left to go, we hiked into the sand dunes and went wandering into the shifting land.
Oil pumps heaved up and down under the moon like they were kneading something shameful back into the ground. Scorpions scuttled all over the place.
“Put on your shoes,” Tyler said.
Things had changed between us. His voice was bright and hard and flashed in the air.
“No,” I said. “I don’t need to.”
Even after my feet started bleeding, I wouldn’t put on my shoes. Everything was fine.
Finally the sun roared up on the horizon, and Tyler said he thought maybe he’d go to Mexico. The way he said it, I knew that I wasn’t invited, even though by now he’d said my name plenty of times.
The magic didn’t work unless you said it four times in a row.
“Tyler, Tyler, Tyler.” I said. And then, for no reason other than I wasn’t sure I was ready to be out on my own, “Tyler.”
He looked beautiful all of a sudden, with the sun coming up behind him.
I felt bad about how things were turning out. Also he’d seen me grow up, and I knew the little-girl part of me would go with him the moment he left.
“Okay,” Tyler said.
“Listen,” I said.
This guy had tipped me with an old vintage watch on my last day at the steakhouse, and I’d kept it in my pocket. It was the kind that you could hear ticking.
Tyler didn’t wear watches because they stopped the moment they touched him. Tyler was the kind of person who could have turned everything off in the world if he’d wanted to, but I guess he was afraid.
Neither one of us was quite all the way shaman. I bet you my grandmother was, though.
I held it up to his ear, just far enough away that he wouldn’t hurt it, and he listened to the watch’s polite ticking and smiled.
The watch had a picture of a penguin inside, and the man who gave it to me had taught me the word “penguid,” for somebody fat who waddles when they walk.
“It’s for you.” I strapped it to Tyler’s wrist and listened to the watch’s heart drop silent. “Don’t forget about me.”
“What will you do now?” he said.
I was as surprised as him when I heard myself say, “I guess I’ll go to college.”
“Oh, honey,” he said, and that meant something, because he'd always called me Paula.
I wouldn’t let him kiss me goodbye. I saluted him and went off in the opposite direction. I didn’t look back until I was so far away I knew he couldn’t see, and then I sat down and cried. You might think two near-shamans might have made a whole person between the two of them, but you’d be wrong.
Now there was even less of me than when we started.
My body felt different. There was less of me for the sand and the wind to push against. But instead of blowing deeper into the desert, it was easier to slip away.
Sometimes I dream the red man finds me. I dream my mother does not save me, and the man takes me down, all the way to his darkness. But the Virgin follows me there. She stays beside me the whole time, feeding me dreams within dreams, so that I look the other way and my heart stays safe.
I wonder about what I remember. Maybe it didn’t happen that way — maybe I only wish it did. I’ve asked my brothers about it. They don’t remember our mother ever coming into L.I.N.K. to pick us up, much less working beside us on the line.
So I wonder if time has scabbed across the truth, and it is hidden inside me where I cannot get at it. Black under the skin like a broken blade, my body healed tight around it.
My family has a bonfire every November. We come from all over, my brothers and aunts and uncles, all the cousins. There’s lots of us. The fire is mostly for brush, but sometimes we burn old chairs, bad photographs, or court summons. When my grandmother was alive, after her third divorce she threw all her jewelry in. The fire burned blue for hours.
I hadn’t been to the bonfire for a long time, but a few years after Tyler left me for Mexico, I showed up out of the blue.
My family and I were strangers by then, but they seemed happy to see me. They let me stand in their circle to watch them burn up their pasts. We ate gumbo and they sang songs and asked what had happened to my pretty dresses. They seemed pleased I was in school, and it was nice to see my brothers again, although there wasn’t much to say. Nobody knew where our mother was. I guess I wouldn’t have known what to say to her either.
After a while, I walked back to my car. I had parked a ways off in the dark, to make sure I didn’t get trapped in case I wanted to leave early. I couldn’t see well. The fields waved around me in slow currents and it was like crossing a river at night. The whole world stretched out wide and dark, but I wasn’t afraid.
It occurred to me I was part of it. I was part of everything around me.
I belonged to it. The prairie, the darkness. Even to my family behind me, still huddled around their vanishing pasts.
And this vastness, it belonged to me, too. My grandmother’s magic, still alive in her dresses; my mother, lost ghost, saving me when even angels couldn’t. I felt Tyler somewhere inside me, too, small as he wandered across the desert, looking for the place that would love him.
I hope he found it.
Writing is excruciating, but somehow I can never keep myself from it. Revisiting this story last week at Harbinger reminded me why I keep throwing myself into the fire, and always will. Earlier draft, if you're curious, here.
I'm including this in a softcover collection of stories coming out later this year. If you'd like to know when the collection is out, please email me at mygoodnesspauline at gmail dot com. I'll be looking for advance readers, and would love your help.
A Gothic Thriller from Pauline West
“It is in the brain that the poppy is red, that the apple is odorous, that the skylark sings.”
- Oscar Wilde
Years ago, you asked me how I came to be a loner. Traveling on a wolf’s passport, you called it.
I laughed. I think I said, “I’m gonna go with response ‘A.’”
“That’s A for ‘Ask me tomorrow, right?’”
You knew all my jokes. We’d worked together a long time.
But the truth has blood on it. I couldn’t tell it to you then. If these pages have found you now, there is no longer anyone alive they can hurt.
The night I met Death, he thought he was just passing through...
+++ +++ +++ +++ +++ +++ +++ +++ +++ +++ +++ +++ +++ +++
So recently we had this delicious spell of stormy mornings, and I found myself nostalgic, for some Bizarro reason, for small-town Kansas and her lovely, lonely old Victorian wheatfield hotels... so I wrote a story.
Interested in being an early reader in exchange for your honest review? Send me an email at mygoodnesspauline @ gmail dot com and tell me how much you love bloody fairytales :)
I'm gonna try some new stuff with this one. I'm all atwitterpated with nerves/terror, but I think I'm gonna try reading it for Youtube... this one is so fucking fun to read aloud, and if there's anything I've learned from all my misadventures, it's that you just gotta keep throwing yourself out there.
There's lots of snarks waving around their pitchforks & sharpened sticks, but also some lovely Other Witches, and how else can we find each other, if not by all of us flailing, shaky-winged, out into the empty air?
It was a lifelong dream of mine to hole up for a month or at the Savoy Hotel back home in Kansas City, but, alas, the place burned down. Harry Truman used to eat his boiled egg breakfasts there...and dad used to take us on special occasions for lobster bisque and shrimp cocktails.
Gleaming silver and dark, thick-paneled wood, tinkly ice, old-fashioned waiters. Worn red velvet carpet, slippery leather booths. I loved that place intensely. Curses.
However, I held the below images in mind as I wrote, and you can also check out my Pinterest (guilty habit!) moodboard for it here.
Man, to write awhile in an old, falling apart, stuck-in-the past hotel, wouldn't that be heaven...!
When you carry a tiny secret red notebook with you wherever you go-
"The neverseas of... (her hair, unexplored time, an old age they would not have, etc)"
NAMES: T.T., Etta, Sixto Lake, Bird Summerson, Greeley, Blitchridge, Dulsey.
DOG'S NAME: BOOZER
"Hmm. Might get a little sporty now." (Riverguide, calmly.)
The loose, brief charm of a dog rose
She had a brief, fragile beauty, like one of those girls married too young in colonial times. (wildflower beauty)
White as electric snow.
A place called Wet Planet, somebody keeps calling it Wet World.
Write a story about people who work at a pet store
A memorized smile (painful, rehearsed)
"I don't eat sweet with savory, myself."
".. you have to eat the voices in your head..."
"Its so... primitive, that we need to sleep!"
I could smell the lake's sour basements
The sour basements of his lungs
Woman who cuts her mouth with a diamond ring, spits blood at people.
Character: flight stewardess
"Why are you doing this?" (to fatale)
"I like the attention. Obv."
I knew her parents had been married to other people, that their divorces had been more of a spousal swap than anything. Afterwards the four friends continued to live on as before, in the same apartment complex. Anyway, it had given Nura a kind of fixed coolness; she was a dyed in the wool cynic.
"Ah, that's where assholes come from- hangovers."
"Look, I'm making sure people have jobs, ok?"
And if she hadn't closed the door in precisely that same way, would all that summer have been different? Or is each of us- is everything- put together in such a way as to be drawn ceaselessly in one inexorable direction, like leaves and bottle caps sucking towards a storm drain-?
Snapped her dreams as easily, thoughtlessly, as a spider's filaments
A mosquito prickled my leg
He had a venipuncturist's mouth, sharp-toothed & pursed, and a nightmare image of a correspondingly needle-nosed dick sprang up in my mind (during convo/cobra img later)
"Did you know there was this ancient tribe that used to, like, smooth their heads so that their eyes bulged out, like this, for better peripheral vision?"
"Where do you get your ideas?"
"I don't know, man, think I just love dramatic shit."
"Everything is niche now," she said, assuredly. A grinning woman with a golden grill had just sauntered past, and she was thinking to herself about how many kinds of beauty there were, how many kinds of beholders.
"You know whats funny about that," he said, still texting, "Its always been. We just didn't realize it- there never was a dominant paradigm, just a bunch of disparate niches, all trying to hide themselves under it. Like kids hiding under a table. Nobody wants to be the one who gets whipped first."
"Alex Perez, or the driver of a 2008 Isuzu Rodeo, please return to the cell phone waiting area, where your car has been abandoned, to meet with law enforcement. Or your car will be towed."
Bums laughed hysterically.
(fragment after painful dialogue) The grubby bacon fat of the soul, sizzling away.
It was a humid, petaled dream: she felt it all through her, an opening of her senses, as if she were being stepped through, tasted; a round, warm bee lightly wandering into the fingertip doorway of her flesh.
Letting go of the story
He had a secret fondness for scented soap
Blank eye socket
He was round shouldered, sway backed, as if nurturing a nonexistent potbelly, a comfortable slouch which had begun as innocent kindergarten defiance... now slowly malforming his spine...
Raincoat of indifference
-Maybe words too reductive- an image driven society, because too complex, evanescent, for words? Written language comparatively new, unnatural anyway-
She snailed from the sofa towards the kitchen, still wrapped in and dragging a quilt
a deep mirror, satisfyingly unknowable- but which knows you
as if i were floating in sunstroke
“It looks so different from here.”
“Everything is perspective, honey.”
this was their game.
"Then I see Nura’s boyfriend walking around outside. Blake. He’s Cat’s best friend- in fact, Cat is how we all met each other, a thousand years ago, or two, depending on how you count it- but let me tell you about Blake. He’s the kind of guy who comes over for dinner and then stays at your house into the next week, only you don’t mind because he just sort of makes a space for himself. Re-upping the beers in the fridge, maybe your cocaine, too, crawling comfortably into bed beside you when you’re watching a movie, always with something good to talk about. But just then I didn’t feel terribly social, unsure, in fact, who had seen what of me last night, and so I drew back into the trees, watching him.
He was going to wash his car; he’d parked the thing in the densest shade beneath the oak trees where the sunlight wouldn’t dry the paint too quickly, splotching things. He loved that fucking car. Even parked, his Yenko has the taut crouch of a racehorse, and I can tell how he’s savoring the slender nubility of her door’s handle as he’s getting out; how, walking away from it he loves the intelligent expression of her headlights and grill the way other people love a breed dog. He’s standing in the garage, looking back at it as he slops car wash soap into the first bucket, already starting to hum without even realizing it.
He filled that bucket and then another with hose water, stopping for a drink, and then he dragged the length of the hose out to the car and stuck his thumb inside the nozzle to blunt the spray and began to wash off the Yenko’s wheels, loosening and softening the dirt before he knelt and put the long, skinny wheel brush to them, working lovingly down between the spokes that were as familiar to him as the keystrokes that bought him the car itself.
Computer code. If that had been his first golden ticket, Nura was his second. Then came the Yenko, which he'd bought not long after. But the Yenko was more than a ticket, a ride. She was both river and sail, a creation so irreducibly perfect Blake could not imagine her as anything other than the sum of her parts.
Yet for years, he’s told me, he’d believed he was shut out from ever being able to participate in such a thing- the Nuras of the world, the Yenkos- if he couldn’t become a success as a ball hero, he didn’t want it any other way.
It had sunk in during Blake’s first year in college that he would never be good enough to go pro. Slowly at first, like Chinese drip torture, and then all at once: the scalding knowledge that he could never be what they called a five-tool player.
One of the luminescent ones the agents hunted for from the stands; no matter how much he trained, he would never be fast enough, he’d never be able to hit for average or power like some of the other guys; his arm was never as strong or accurate as some of the others. The ones for whom it came naturally. Once he started noticing them, the other guys. How many of them there were. It was then that he knew. No way he could go pro.
Only thing was, it had been his entire life, baseball. When that receded, video games flooded in, eclipsing the passage of time like a hungry tide.
“The way the games can dissolve hours, stealing days and then weeks; it’s better than painkillers, better than booze. You walk into the flash and the throb and you don’t have to come back. Or, at least, not very often.” He’d only gotten into app design because finally his father, normally a mild-mannered man, had suddenly gone explosive on him. Blake still remembered the night clearly. It was summer, rain was coming, the barometric pressure had already begun to drop. He could feel that, even in their basement, through their window wells.
He hadn’t looked up when his father came stomping down the stairs, stood there glaring at him. That in itself was not unusual. Blake had been so fixated on his game that he was afraid to breathe too deeply and jumble up a shot. Much less turn to look back at his father-
“So this is what you’re going to do now?” his dad said. “You’re going to sit here and rot like some kind of fungus? Blake. Blake, I’m talking to you, you disgusting maggot. Look!”
“Dad, chill- whoa, what the fuck?”
But his father was gathering up crazy fistfuls of games from the storage cabinet. The plastic cases escaped and fell from his hands, their discs scraping out onto the tile floor.
“Jesus, you’re going to scratch everything, what are you doing? Hey, hey, now you owe me like 400 bucks, that shit is expensive-”
“You will not,” his father roared, “speak to me like that!”
Then Blake had had to chase him out onto the lawn, in the rain, and his father had thrown everything in a pile on the grass and for a confused second he wondered if the old man was going to try to burn it, in the driving rain.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he said, and a moment later, even as the John Deere kicked into gear and its headlights carved shifting tunnels onto the pile of colored plastic, Blake still heard his own voice repeating, in a terrible cringing whine- “Dad, what are you doooing?” and he was ashamed- blinded with anger- ashamed- as the John Deere lurched towards his video games.
He screamed and ran at them, trying to protect them like some deranged mother bird, but his father wouldn’t slow down and there was nothing he could do but run, slipping on the grass, out of the way. Shards of plastic stinging his calves and thighs as the tractor crunched over the pile.
He was screaming so hard he thought that his vocal cords might pop, if vocal cords were capable of such a thing, but he hadn’t cared. Nothing mattered: shrieking, he turned back- and so did his father, again and again, until the little heap was no more than glittering confetti sinking into the mud.
His father stomped back inside, his glasses opaque with rain, mission accomplished, while Blake collapsed over the confetti. His throat was blood-raw. Had he been screaming this whole time? His whole body keened: the games were his reality, his passport, all that he had.
“You owe me 400 bucks!” he screamed again, at the flapping screen door. But eventually, his wet hair clinging to his face like shredded tissue, still clutching the single empty envelope that had escaped the blades, he’d had to go in (and he refused now to ever mow again)
and he’d lain in bed sobbing, without a life.
Now he was smiling, remembering how it was as he cleaned the Yenko’s sidewalls and then rinsed her undercarriage, from various angles. He dumped out both buckets and began again, this time from the top down.
After all, he used to say to himself, who was he if he couldn't be a baseball star? The crack of the bat, the stink of dip and the way it used to light and sing inside them as they went swaggering around in their piped pants- four o’clock sunlight shining down on the unnatural grass, and then the hum of artificial light that enclosed the green diamond from the rest of the world when the sun slid away, hours later- all that had made a kind of shape inside him. He was unrecognizable to himself without it.
Shapeless, full of weird dreams- shoving his hand into the batting glove again and again but now it wouldn’t fit over his fingers; and he was in the hole, they were calling his name- or worse yet, those dreams when he was out in center field, far from all the others. His body was locked in slow-mo while the world sped up around him, as if it had forgotten him. Every dream came on like a fresh and inescapable hell.
Shapeless time. The hours like bottomless sacks he could never fill. Gone too, was the effortless camaraderie with the other players. He couldn’t face them any more than he could watch a ball-game on TV. Just the sight of the bright green playing field made his gut knot up and twist off into cramps, like a bad case of shits.
The difference, of course, was that it refused to leave his body: his bitter truth of not being good enough, of not being special. For example. His hands lacked that magical loosiness that, in combination with power, could turn a man into a great hitter. He wasn’t especially fast, or strong, or even cunning. All he’d had was the desire to be those things.
His coach even took him aside once. “Rice, kid, sit down. Sit the fuck down, you listening to me? Kid, I’m gonna tell you the truth and save you some years, way I wish somebody had me. You just don’t have it, kid. All right?” Ol’ Coach, buzzed on beers and tired and honest because he was getting divorced and had lost his faith in everything- so why shouldn’t everyone have it straight- “You hearin’ me, Rice?”
“You’re a good guy, Rice. You’ll be all right.” As if Blake could only be as relieved to hear the truth as Coach had been to tell it to him.
Now Blake was drinking from the hose, relishing the brightness of the day. So bright you slit your eyes against it. How about a beer? It was always whispering to you in the summertime, coming down with the sunshine: how good a beer might taste, nice and crisp and tingling in your blood as it worked inside you, knocking off tension and hang-ups the way a wheel brush knocked dirt off a tire. Invisible dirt, that was the worst kind, the most corrosive. The brake-dust and heartaches and bushy longings that grew up tall in South Carolina, shining down as it did on the houses and yachts of billionaires and their gorgeous untouchable daughters.
He came inside and I slunk around behind the cabinet as he grabbed up an armful of High Lifes, thinking there was no one awake in the kitchen to judge him.
(it was only nine in the morning, but it was summer, you know, and he was washing his Yenko, no judgements from me)
When he went back out he clicked on the radio, he walked back out onto the grass and pulled out the windshield wipers, one-handing them into their propped position away from the glass as he drank. He soaked the mitt in the soapy water and sopped it over the car in gentle circles, over the paint that was was as blue-dark and cool as those moments right before a thunderstorm, when you busted your ass getting inside the screen door just before sheets of rain began to fall down in those big relentless blades shattering down like panes of cold glass, scattering mud and flowers and broken plastic into the air like colored birdshot. It was the hard blue of midnight.
He worked in circles around the car, moving from the top down, washing her gently with the hose between rounds to keep everything wet until he’d finished and would dry her by hand.
I wondered how he remembered the years he’d dissolved into video games. The worlds he’d seen there, and the wars he’d fought and the women in them, how at some point it must all have begun to seem real, or real enough. That was when he disappeared from the ordinary world, anyway. He hid from us on his birthday, even deleted the day from Facebook, not wanting anyone to be able to keep score.
Sometimes in the silence, he told me, he could hear familiar voices. Eerie, small, maybe just a particularly malevolent strain of tinnitus-
“Let’s see… he’s what, twenty-six, twenty-seven? And he’s done… nothing, he still lives at home…?”
“All he does is play video games. His dad has to take him down his dinner at night or he forgets to eat.”
Not that he could fool himself. One November and then another mowed by and Blake was forced to admit his life had stalled. Now suppose, just suppose, it never got started again? Suppose fifty Novembers from now, he’d be standing as an old man looking back down that long tunnel of months, knowing that his young self was all the time going to turn into the older one, still sitting in the same place on the couch (sitting deeper and deeper) never going anywhere. That all of it, every breath and lunch and every doubt- that all the long collapsing tunnel of his life would be pointless, to no important end.
But after his games were mowed into pieces, leaving him broke and with nothing to do, open stretches of time gave him palpitations. So he slid into an obsession with social media instead. Fiddling with things, it turned out he liked that. Fiddling with stats, with this and that, and like a duck taking to water he learned code, almost without his own noticing. He built his first app, Statstalk, in just under two weeks. It was a tool that allowed him to keep tabs on all the hits received on his various social media outlets. With a click he could see not only where they came from, he could see who was looking.
The next part happened so quickly it hadn’t seemed real. A bidding war between the government and a billionaire in San Francisco. Always a bit of an idealist, Blake chose the billionaire, and for a little less money, too- and suddenly he was famous. Anyway, for a moment he was. Now he was just rich.
He stood back, observing the fat water droplets form on the Yenko’s paint with satisfaction. He rinsed the mitt and picked up the second, older one to use on the undercarriage.
And how bout Nura, he might have thought then, cracking another High Life. He still couldn’t entirely believe his luck in having her. The way they’d had happened was nothing short of miraculous. The way she’d dropped a smile on him as they crossed on the sidewalk. She was on her phone, chattering happily at an invisible friend, and had loosed on him that unguarded smile the way summer sun glints off a windshield.
And to top everything, Nura’s light just happened to fall over him the very day he’d accepted the billionaire's bid, and so- almost not recognizing himself!- Blake had turned on his heel and asked her to come celebrate with him. He could have just as easily gone down on his knees right there, not needing to know anything else about Nura besides that careless, glittering smile that was like your favorite song spilling out of a well-lit bar. But of course in that moment how could he have known how rarely Nura smiled- how could he?
“Do me the honor of celebrating a guy’s brand-new status in the millionaire’s club? By which I mean, me- I’m rich?!” he said to her, laughing as he said it.
And she’d laughed, too, of course she had, incredulous. And then she let him buy her a sandwich, and then an ice cream, and then a fancy dinner that same night. And like that, she was his.
But deep inside himself he knew he was just an ordinary man, one who’d stumbled onto the right idea at the right time. He’d captured a goddess with the same blind luck as some idiot in a myth. His own private goddess; his immortal chariot, and both of them bought with stolen time. How long could it last?
Sooner or later Nura’d realize the truth about him. That probably he’d never get as lucky as he had with Statstalker again. And then she would leave him, she’d be out the door. After all, he was a normal. She was otherworldly. Nura loved to strive the way a racehorse loves to run. She was like a movie star, lean and wild and unknowable, always going places. He couldn’t conceive of growing old with her, much less Nura’s ever actually being old. In some ways being with her was like playing another video game. Real, but not quite real.
Glittering, undeserved, at his side like a dark star.
He gave the car another rinse and then took a squeegee to it, a California Jelly Blade made from medical grade silicone, only the best for his Yenko. Last of all he dried the machine with a square of chamois that was as soft as a woman’s arm. The car winked back, absorbing his attentions as though they were her very birthright. And they were, of course, a Yenko is a minor deity.
And yet… when he was honest with himself, what was wrong in wanting a woman you could feel comfortable with? A woman who was maybe something more like a Volvo? Simple and unquestioning, a man could feel safe with a woman like that. What was wrong with wanting to feel safe? Nothing, that’s what. Not yet, but someday...
Someday. Not just yet. There was a time for Yenkos, and there was a time for Volvos. Whistling, he came inside, and I used the opportunity to dart across the lawn and run in through another door.
People were starting to move around the house. I slipped upstairs to my weaving room with my cooling coffee, wanting to avoid any conversation before I started working. I sat at my stool like a spider taking its seat at the web, feeling an awareness, a delicious ESP, extending out around me in all directions of the house: here a pulse, as Cat turned over in his bed, sighing at the dawn of another day; there a pulse, as Nura stretched out lazily in the wicker room with her sketch-pad.
As Blake walked through the kitchen, pleasantly loose-limbed and certainly not feeling any pain, when he saw Nura folded up with a sketch-book in one of the wicker chairs in the sun-room, he grinned at her in spite of himself, in spite of all the fights they’ve had recently, that much she told me later- he sauntered into the room and Nura gave him one of her almond-eyed smiles, and then the cat came out from beneath her chair, all cobwebby, smiling up at him, too.
The cat stretched and yawned, her arching pink tongue saw-toothed bright in her black face. Anyone who thinks size doesn't matter should consider the implications of a housecat suddenly become twenty times its size. Certainly a cat is an instrument of death and destruction if any has ever walked the earth. But Queenie was no bigger than a football, which endeared her to everyone she ever met, except anything that smaller than her- kittens, anoles, bare toes. She was a brisk and efficient assassin, ‘nice to know ya- no hard feelings, pal, yer what’s for dinner.’
Queenie leapt up beside Nura, scratched quickly at the arm of the wicker chair to create a cool, sandy debris for a nest, and then lay down.
“Girl-baby makes her own shade,” Blake said.
“She’s a snake-killer, too,” Nura said, idly. “Good ol’ Queenie.”
“What you working on, babe?” He sat, and Nura showed him her sketchpad. A tomb-like structure, two thick-bodied snakes squiggling over the top of it. He traced over them lightly with his finger, and she jerked back slightly, worried he would smudge it. “Hell, why not three snakes?” he said.
She turned the paper sideways, squinting at it, falling right into his trap. “You know what, you’re right. It does need a couple more.”
He crumpled his beer can. “Why can’t two be enough, Nura?”
“Blake. You have to love with open hands. Stop worrying so much about what’s in it for you, what’s coming back to you. Just love. Let it all out.”
“You're making this all mumbo jumbo, but really you just want to fuck other people.”
Nura looked at him. “Yeah, I really do, Blake.”
He stood quickly and left the room. His beer can gleamed at her accusingly from the floor. She kicked it through the doorway and resumed her sketch, drawing a third, fourth, fifth snake draping over the tomb’s face.
Blake, Blake. Nura wasn’t the kind of girl who could make him happy. She didn’t care about making him happy- and she didn’t want to care. If there’d been any chance she’d grow up to be a breeder, that had shriveled up and died like a salted snail when she went home to visit her sister a few weeks ago.
Nadya had crapped out four brats in a row. Their incessant screaming and whining, their idiot conversations; all that had thrown salt on Nura’s womb. She’d said as much to Nadya, too.
“But who will love you when you are old then, if you do not have a family?” Nadya said to her, stiffening.
“That’s a stupid reason to have children. Because you are afraid no one will love you later in life? I want to further society in ways besides just contributing to its population. There’s enough of you doing that.” No, there was no guarantee family would love you when you were old; Nura did not love hers. Visits home were a mistake, a waste of time. Maybe she would make no more, that’s what she told me.
Nura looked at her sketch. Family, bah! There was far more comfort in art and nature and warmth. Warmth! Warmth itself is a gift, whether it came from the sun or from a man. Or from this glass of tea. Smiling to herself, she sipped, shading in small, perfectly rectangular marks along the scaly backs of one viper and then another. Yes, art and silence and warmth- that was enough."
-excerpt from Savages
Haven't decided whether I'll keep this framework for this chapter or not... I've got some chapters oscillating between first POV & third, but so far only one narrator. But that changes for me, and rapidly, as you know all too well.
I've been loving hot, gooey 6 minute eggs for breakfast (amazingly my boiling privileges have not been revoked) but forgot them in the sink all morning and now, having found them again, they are cold... sadness.
Finished smoothing in all the new stuff yesterday, and rejiggered the ending. This new ending was slow in coming, so hard to wait for, because if you've got a shitty, disappointing ending, no matter how delicious the preceding pages, well you've got a shitty, disappointing book. (The Club Dumas, The Man Who was Thursday*, I'm looking at you.) *Andrew read this to me out loud when we first started dating :) o, his radio voice!
So I hope this one's more satisfying (haunting). We'll see. I've started sending the thing off to friendly eyes. So now I bite my nails, play frantic catch up with my day job. Maybe pick up on Savages again. I've been told to check out Don Winslow's handling of a big cast of characters first, so will have to read that soon.
Anyway, I learned some cool stuff when I was squirreling around, trying to figure out how to rejigger my ending. In our world, as you know, we have a podcast for everything, and I am the podcast queen. This one started off kind of slow, but towards the ending it had all kinds of ideas going off in my head. Some key points in it for me were:
1. You want an unexpected but inevitable ending (Flannery O'Connor)
2. The ending is already written in your book somewhere.
3. For shapely fiction, don't remove the sense of conflict and tension at the end. This should live on to haunt your reader- but you still need to tie up your narrative arc.
4. Last of all, and the scariest: The last line should be a flashlight; when you reach it, it should illuminate the whole thing.
So how about a little something from my book to leave you with, huh?
This is from Chapter 7, one of the new ones written from Faye's perspective. (I had to change her name to Faye from Nell, as there were two N-starting names in EL.)
April 9th, 2011
So Ada’d gotten in a fight at school with Jenna Hazel because Jenna had called her a freaky-eyed slut, and at the end of it Ada had a black eye, but Jenna had two. After that, Ada was instant friends with Jenna’s ex, an older boy named Matthew Blue we’d heard legends about for years, and now we were at his party.
The other guy who lived there called himself Witchhazel. The two of them were small time pot dealers: glass and charred buds were everywhere, but their place smelled meaty and herbal from smudged sage, and an incongruously good pottery collection was ranged along the tops of the adobe walls. Mobiles of driftwood and dried chiles hung from all the doorways, and a big cougar-colored cat bellied up to everyone as they came in through the door.
Ada picked the cat up and snuggled him against her as we stood there, looking into the dark. The house was cool and cave like. There was a humidifier, blankets and beanbags. A small television crouched in one corner, an old Nintendo spidering out in front of it, and Witchhazel, some scary chola girls I didn’t know, and Matthew Blue were all sitting there, hiding their hands.
"Nice place," Ada said, into the room. Her black eye looked kind of jaunty and she knew it.
Matthew Blue was curved low in his chair, as long and thin as a bean, his blue watch cap tugged rakishly over one eye. He nodded over at us faintly, too cool to stand up.
“The sugarbears are here!” Witchhazel said. He came over for a hug, and I saw he had a nasal strip wrapped around one finger as a band-aid. He smelled like mildew. I made myself small in his arms, trying not to touch him.
“Ain’t we sugarbears?” one of the cholas said from the beanbags. Picking at her long, pierced nails. “Mijo, please.”
“Nice shiner, girl,” Witchhazel said, ignoring her.
“Thanks,” Ada said.
In one of the back rooms I could see people with spoons and needles. I kept looking all around me, everywhere except the single place I wanted to look.
He was at ASU now, but the stories about him still trickled through high school like blowing sand. He was one of those beautiful, wolfish boys who always seem to be ranging along the perimeters, infamous for coming up with one crazy scheme after another. In grade school you used to hear about him stealing candy from the concession stand, selling it to everybody at half price. He led the kids in Barrio Hollywood in making a conveyer system through the sewer drains from pulleys and skateboards.
They’d spent that whole summer rolling through their neighborhoods blasting super-soakers in through the windows of passing cars - and then it became a high speed weed delivery system, which led to Matthew’s first run-in with the cops. Everybody said that when they’d caught him, and the officer asked him what he had to say for himself - Matthew had reached out and tickled the man’s belly.
His dad was a lawyer who collected fine wines; Matthew filched them to drink in the secret hallway behind the theatre room. He used to tag all the cool kids to go back there with him between classes.
Matthew loved to test his limits like a wolf loves to run. And here we were, a couple lambs running to slaughter. More people came in and the music cranked up. Witch poured us a drink and Ada went off somewhere, and I was sucked into a confused conversation with some stoners about caving. Finally I skittered outside and found her again. I had begun to feel so anxious that I felt inhuman and buoyant, my body filling with beating wings. I could hardly hear what anyone was saying anymore.
Ada was with Matthew, the two of them standing close, sucking down cigarettes, laughing hard. A knob of painted wire was sticking out from the adobe wall and I pulled on it shyly, watching them together. They made a matched set. The both of them Homecoming Court pretty, but in their feral ways: Matthew lean and tall, with sly brown eyes like he wasn’t quite ever letting you in; Ada with her slinky ticks, her knowing gaze, her laugh as sharp as a blade. Oh, she was terrifyingly pretty, even with that muddied eye. Suddenly I wondered that we’d even been able to find one another in the first place.
How many people never find their missing piece, never even know she exists? You could be walking right past her every day and never even realize. Never even recognize her, your other half, your very closest of friends.
But in that heartbeat it began to seem to me that there was an unimpeachable gulf between Ada and I after all. She was handling this, was made for this. Cool college parties, talking to older boys in the dark. And I was not. I was frozen somewhere outside myself, witnessing myself there as if I were only half real. I turned to go back in, maybe even to leave.
Then Matthew Blue glanced over at me. “Hey, it’s Faye, right?” he said. As easy as that.
I nodded, wrapping my arms around myself with a shimmering happiness. “Can I have one of those?” I said, joining them.
Matthew’s eyebrows slid up and one side of his face went into a smile. It was a habit of his, that lopsided smile. We were just kids, but his habit was already starting to crease his face in a way that made me think of old-school Westerns; men wearing stars and black hats.
“You smoke?” he said, incredulous.
“Oh, I’m just an opportunist,” I said, shyly, taking one.
“Kids these days,” he said.
Ada grinned at me around her hand and the floating ember of her cigarette lit up like a firefly. She had these deliciously secretive ways of doing everything, Ada could make eating a cheeseburger seem mysterious. “You have to watch out for Faye, she’s a wild one,” she said to Matthew. “She bites.” Smiling, I copied the way Ada was holding her smoke, leaning towards her, and she lit mine with hers. “Go easy,” she said, and she wasn’t just talking about the cigarette.
But I pretended not to know what she meant. She wanted Matthew for herself, but Ada was always reeling in boys. There was something about Matthew that made me feel both still and trembly inside. A new feeling. I wanted to know what it was.
“What’s this, you bite too?” Matthew said to me. “Jesus christ, and here I had you pegged as a sweet little angel, my mistake…”
“You have no idea.” Ada grinned and rolled her eyes up at the sky, and I knew she’d decided to let me have him.
“Oh, god,” I said, inhaling tentatively. The smoke tasted strange, poisonous. I felt it curl all through my veins, and dizzy little sparks went off in my head. The side of the adobe looked rheumy in the dark; thick and milky, like a spiked milkshake, as if decades of people had stood here smoking in the dark. I wondered if the place had ever been clean.
“Okay, well first off- I’ve always loved biting people,” I said, and Matthew laughed.
We were drinking wine out of red plastic cups, and he poured some of his into mine, smiling.
“That moment when you first sink your teeth in,” I said, covering my glass with my hand to stop him, laughing, “I used to have these passionate dreams about it. Chasing my enemies down and just sinking my teeth into them. It was incredibly satisfying. Biting slow and deep into somebody who’s all springy, slightly resistant; hot, salty.”
“You’re a cannibal,” Matthew said, and wasn’t sure what to do with his face.
“Men for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Ada said. She looked careless and abstracted, shoving her hand through her red hair. Hardly listening. She’d heard this story a million times before. She knew how much I liked to tell it, though.
“So maybe I was some kind of jungle thing in a past life- okay, anyway, so we’re on the playground, Ada and me, and out of nowhere I just turn and attack this kid-
“Robbie,” Ada said.
“-like, I flew at him, at Robbie, the back of his head, and knock him to the ground. And I bit him really hard, and then I kind of came to, and he’s screaming and crying, and then I remember just standing there, sort of astonished at the fact of my own brutal efficacy, the way I’d just- bam!-dispatched him. Like in my dreams, you know? I think maybe that was the first time I ever got in trouble in my whole life. Ms. Hernandez, she was crazy-appalled. She yelled at me, put me in time-out. The way they did that in Catholic school, you had to stand next to the chain link fence and hold on to it for the rest of recess. Remember, Ada?”
“Yeah. Pretty sure I bleached out a couple of the rungs, they made me stand there so many times.”
“So I’m standing there crying, while Robbie goes limping back to kickball, all like, shocked and shaky. I mean, nobody saw that coming, I straight up leapt on him out of nowhere.”
“In sum, you’re a psycho,” Matthew said, his eyes soft.
“I guess, man. Little bit.”
“With an angel’s face. I think I like that.” He blew smoke at me, smiled. There were tiny smile lines etched at the corners of his eyes. "I'm surprised you girls came here, you know? This isn’t the kind of place a guy usually meets girls like you.”
"We like to say yes," I said, and Ada was silent, letting me talk. She knew why I’d bitten Robbie, what had happened to me the night before.
"I'll try to make it so you never have to say no, then," Christopher said, seriously.
“What makes you think you know anything about me?"
"I'm in the business of knowing about people," Matthew said. He looked at me, smiling lazily, and then he looked up at the sky. “The first girl I ever loved was crazy.”
“Jenna?” Ada said.
“Hazel? No, Jenna was just-” he waved his hand. “You guys don’t know her. This is a girl, she and I were kids together. She broke my heart, fair and square.”
“I think once you’ve experienced love, you should just push it away. So that it never becomes tainted, you know? Love is like a drug. You get addicted. You start to need it, and then you get weak, you get vulnerable,” I said. But I could already feel things inside me rearranging themselves as I looked at him, and I knew I was lying.
“No, I think love is selfless,” Matthew said, slowly. “I think that’s the point. It’s not about pleasure or even pain. It’s about giving yourself up to something larger-”
“Sounds very impressive, Mr. Blue,” Ada said.
“But that sounds like an addiction,” I said. “And what if you choose the wrong person, and then you waste your whole life loving them, refusing to see that your person is nothing like what you believe them to be?”
“But you can’t always try to control things, mama,” Ada said. “We can’t control anything. The moment you realize that is the moment you get the real power. Being comfortable with uncertainty, being able to operate that way, when everything around you is in chaos. To be able to take events in hand…”
I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“No one’s perfect,” Matthew said, waving her words to the side. He was talking just to me, I realized. Intently, as if it were just the two of us, standing there in the warm dark.
“People aren’t archetypes,” he said. “I mean, you don’t know me well, so maybe I seem that way to you now. I’m just a fucking drug dealer, right? But we’re all just people, in the end. And the flaws are what is important, maybe what’s most important of all—because once you decide to look past the flaws and love the person that’s there inside—and they love you in return, in that same way—you’ve both crossed this kind of threshold; you’ve found real love. And then you go on holding up your image of them like a flame, because you love them so much. You show them their best self and help them rise up to fulfill their potential. And whether or not they ever actually achieve their full potential doesn’t matter; it’s the journey, learning how to love, how to become, that’s the point.”
I smiled at him. The scent of creosote hung in the air between us, and somewhere a bird was singing out its night cry again and again.
“We live in a world of non-love, that’s why people are so obsessed with it, that’s why we see it so clearly,” Ada said, looking around. She shook her hair and then began to stack it on top of her head in a lopsided bun, the ash from her cigarette tilting wildly.
I reached for her just as her hand went back down safely. Her hair fell over her face and she grinned happily.
"We should celebrate," she said. "Just us and old Reverend Moon. There's something happening here. Right? Something about this place, the two of you. You kids. This moment." She lifted her cigarette and moved it in a sign of the cross in front of us. “Don’t ever forget this.”
“Let’s get you some water,” Matthew said. He moved back and held open the door, grinning at her fondly. Then we we were all standing around blinking in the kitchen, and it was like returning to earth after having thought maybe you’d escaped it.
Witchhazel was sitting on the oven, talking to a chola girl. He was wearing yellow ostrich cowboy boots.
“Can we shower?” Ada said to him, abruptly.
Witch blushed. “Of course, just go through there. But it’s, um, kind of a mess.”
“That’s cool,” she said, and I had to follow her.
I hoped Matthew was behind us. For a while I felt him there; his gaze on my neck, and then it fell away, and I knew she and I were alone.
The rafters in Witch’s bedroom were strung with drying herbs and there was some weird kind of altar above his mattress. Action figures, skulls. Dirty black sheets, his bed unmade, cheesy tapestries pinned over the windows. And Matthew was gone.
Witch’s bathroom didn’t have a door. I slid up onto the bathroom counter and squirted toothpaste on my finger while Ada examined the shower skeptically.
I could see from where I sat that it looked slimy. Long black hairs were pasted on all the walls and on the soap. The shampoo was uncapped, lying empty on the shower floor next to a dead, knotted-up spider.
"Huh," Ada said.
She was instantly herself again now that we were alone, and I realized that her stony act had been to get me away from Matthew. Had I made her jealous?
“I think maybe ol’ Witch isn’t really a showering kind of guy, you know?” she said.
"I don’t know, but no fucking way am I going in there,” I said.
“Dude, we have to. We smell like pot, your mom will kill us.”
She turned on the faucet.
“Why, do you want to go home already? It’s not even-” I flapped my hands around. I didn’t know what time it was.
The water groaned through the pipes and came out smelling sour. The room began to fill with steam as Ada undressed.
“So what do you think of Matthew?” she said, innocently.
I wriggled, grinning helplessly. I folded my legs up, dropped them again.
“He’s... a city I’d like to visit,” I said.
Ada smiled to herself quietly. “He likes you,” she said.
Then I saw the long, angry cuts on Ada’s legs, high on her thighs. They were purple at their edges, and deep.
“Ada… what the fuck? You fucking promised!”
“Jesus.” She turned away. “I have. It was just-” She stepped into the shower, waving her hand at me. “Sometimes I still need to, that’s all.”
“Whatever.” I slipped out, pissed. As I left she was still talking, making promises. Assuming I would be still standing there. Like always. Ada would never have imagined I’d just walk away from her like that. I never had before. But the things rearranging themselves in me, one of them was a long thin cord, and it had snapped. It truly creeped me out, her fucking cutting.
“I’m not sick,” she’d say; but it was. She was tempting out a beast I knew by name. That ashy dreamless sea drawn down by girls with their knives, by men with blackened spoons- and by the end of this story I will be sundered there, but Ada was always made for the bright shore.
I didn’t want the darkness for her. For her to slip and fall, irretrievable, into my sea. I used to worry sometimes that I’d somehow infected her, that what was bad in me had found her out, too.
When I first learned about Ada’s cutting- swapping dresses, a warm spring day- she cried and cried, and then we talked about it for hours. She promised me she would stop, but she never did. We’d talk about it again. And again. Now, buzzing with something I knew wasn’t entirely anger, I stood in the bedroom doorway, looking for Matthew.
He was in the kitchen, talking to some Latina I didn’t recognize. She looked like she was from Phoenix; a beautiful, tea-colored Barbie with a tight-packed bounce beneath her micro-dress. Her long, glossy black hair was curled into shapely ringlets, twin wrist dermals glinted delicately against her perfect skin. They were laughing, standing close.
What was he saying to her, I’ll make it so you never have to say no-?
Hot-faced, I turned back into the bedroom, feeling like an idiot. Then suddenly someone had my hand, was winding his fingers into it. Matthew. I threw his hand away.
“Don’t go,” he said, pulling me to him.
The pressure in the hallway seemed to change around us as if the floor had dropped out and he were breathing up all my air. “Just-”
"Dance with me, Faye," he said.
"It wasn't a question. I'm trying to make it so you never have to say no. Remember?"
“You’re a fucking player,” I muttered, but Matthew knew what he was doing. He fitted me to him gently and folded his arm around me so that I automatically curled into his arms, just as if I belonged there. Then he lifted his arm again, so that I spun, and we were dancing, stepping, turning, laughing, and the girl in the kitchen watched us quietly.
His face, when it touched mine, was very warm. "You're beautiful," he said. "Tell me about a time when you were happy." We were electrically close. "Tell me," he said.
I tried to think, shook my head. "I’m happy now,” I murmured. Because I didn’t deserve this, whatever was happening- although- would it be crazy to enjoy it while it lasted? Or would that only make it all worse?
"You're running from something," he said. "Something in your head. Or is it… something in your future? What is it that you don’t want to do?"
"Please don't... tell me about myself. Stop."
He touched my face again. This time he didn’t take his hand away. "Hey, it’s okay. I won’t. We're all running from something. But how old are you, anyway?"
I tried to laugh. It sounded fake and dumb. "I'm growing up as fast as I can," I said. Then I tried to pull away again, but he still wouldn't let me, as if I were a bird he’d caught with his bare hands.
"You're young. You're so young."
"I know. I know." I shook myself free. “You keep telling me about myself, why do you-”
"I can take you home. Do you want me to take you home? Let me do that."
“I don’t want to go home.”
"There’s a lot of people here. Let's go somewhere," he said.
Matthew’s bedroom was cleaner than Witch’s. He had books, maps. More than one laptop open on his desk, I’d never seen anyone with more than one laptop.
"Little lost Faye," he said. He kissed each of my eyelids.
"I'm not any of those things," I said, but I was saying one thing and doing another, and he wasn’t listening to a word I said.
"What, you’re not even a Faye? You're cute." He stroked my hair, and pleasure slipped through me. He felt so good.
"You were going to tell me about something happy," Matthew said.
"You're insistent, is what you are," I said.
"Don't you know about me? I get what I want.”
"And what you want now is a bedtime story?" I murmured.
He squeezed me.
"I'm not good at stories. You want Ada for that."
"Story," he said, snuggling me. “And the one I want is you. Not Ada.”
"I remember... being nine or ten. With Ada.”
“We were at her grandparents place in the country for a week or something, and her dad sent us out with this big bag and some scissors. We were supposed to cut down musk thistles. This invasive species, you know? But we found this creek instead, and some tadpoles, and then there was this cow skull, too, and she was telling me about how one time, she’d been out there all alone and she found all these massive bodies, all lying in a row- cows that had been struck by lightning. Then all at once it was really late, and there was a storm coming in. You know how you can feel it in the air sometimes? And we were totally, completely lost."
"Wait, what, this is a happy story?" Matthew said.
I laughed. "Worried you won't get what you want?"
"Never. I always get what I want. Trust me."
"Hush then. So we're out there all alone, and the wind's picking up. It's dark, and we're crossing this huge mud bank, because Ada is sure it's a shortcut back to the cabin, and what do I know, right? So there's all this mud, and the moon, and us, and these coyotes start crying and screaming. And they sounded loud, like they were really close by, and Ada starts fucking telling me this story about how sometimes coyotes do come after little kids, which I didn’t know. So then we're terrified, right? We’re running, and our shoes get sucked off in the mud. And there was something, right then, about that moment that was perfect. That's my moment. Running through the mud, not knowing what was going to happen. I felt utterly alive."
"Maybe you like to be lost," he said.
"Maybe I do."
All my life I’ve wanted be somewhere else; someone else. I did like to be lost. When I was lost I forgot who I was. I could be anyone. As a kid I used to walk around reading a book until I didn’t know where I was.
I wanted to be so lost that when I looked up, I couldn’t recognize anything around me. This meant I had to walk a long time. Then I had to give in and knock on people’s doors to ask them if they would take me home. You’d be surprised how happy you can make people when you ask them to come to your rescue, if you just ask for it in just the right way, so who was I to deprive them?
I had other hobbies, too. I’d slide into unlocked cars whenever I found them. Sit at the wheel, breathing what it felt to be someone else. I stole things. Kept them, looked at them, knowing how my own action had unfastened that of someone else’s, turning theirs loose in the world to float like a ghost. Secrets, lost actions. A true map of the world would show all the lies.
"Lucky me." Matthew kissed me lightly. "You've got a lovely taste," he said, "and a lovely touch, and I'm glad I found you.” He kissed me again, and I kept my eyes open, watching him. His expression was so tender I couldn't believe it. With his eyes closed he looked young and sweet and his lips were like wine. Somehow he sucked all my breath away and the next thing I knew we were crushed together. I felt my heart tremble wildly.
“I wonder what will happen next?" He touched my mouth softly, as if I were a rare and delicate flower he did not want to crush, and then he bit his thumb. “I think I know.”
“You’re such a hippie,” I said.
Someone pounded on his door. We ignored it.
The pounding got louder.
“What?” Matthew said, sharply.
And then I could tell we both had the same thought at the same time, that maybe the cops were here. I looked at his window and wondered if there were cacti underneath it, because somehow I’d lost my shoes.
“It’s Ada, let me in!”
“Uh-” Matthew said.
I looked at him. “It’s fine, mamacita, I-”
Ada threw open the door. Her face was hot and wild like I’d never seen it. “What the fuck? You ditched me- there wasn’t a door, and some fucking guy came in.” She was close to tears. Her shirt was soaked. I could picture the scene. Some handsy drunk guy, and Ada trying to fend him off, to dress herself and escape. Alone and vulnerable. Because of me.
“Oh gosh, I’m sorry, I didn’t-”
She flung my hands away. “It was fucked up. I’m going home.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Okay,” Ada said. “You’re staying.” She looked at Matthew and then back at me, her eyes hardening into golden nails. “Okay, fuck you, bye.”
She closed the door. Quietly, and that was worst of all. I felt like eggshell. We’d never had a fight before.
But I was mad at her, too. Because now, after all, she was the one ditching me, and I turned to Matthew shakily, I wanted to grind myself against someone’s metal, wear myself down.
"You said you knew what would happen next," I said. “Tell me.”
“Are you okay?” he said.
"Whatever. I have to go."
He grabbed me, laughing. "Hey princess, wait.”
“Do not call me that.”
“No, stay with me, she’ll be fine. How about this? I'll write it down. I'll write down everything that's going to happen. But you have to promise me you won't read it yet."
I paused. "Okay."
He took one look at me and laughed. I was still hot-eyed and pissed, distracted.
"Ah... jesus. You girls. You'll read it as soon as you have your hot little paws on it, just for something to do. So I’ll tell you what. I'll write it down and then I’ll mail it to myself tomorrow. So you can see from the postmark that I really wrote it all down, like I said I would. And when it's time, I'll give it you."
"How will I know it's the same envelope?"
"You can kiss the seal."
He had to go out into the kitchen to find paper. When he told people what he was doing, the beautiful girl loaned me her lipstick. "I hope it's something really nice," she said.
"Thanks. Me too."
Matthew sat at the table, writing. He smiled at me.
"He's cute," she whispered. “I think he really likes you.” She had wide-set eyes and a clear, innocent expression. What were all of us doing there, at that dirty place in the dark?
"I like him," I said, suddenly aware of how I must look to her. Dishevelled, pale-faced, barefoot. I don’t know. Maybe they thought I belonged there.
Matthew stood up and walked over, folding the paper into the envelope, and the way he did it with such precision without even needing to look down gave me little butterflies- oh, good with his hands- and he gave me the paper to kiss, and I did.
My heart was drenched in wine. I stayed and stayed.
Andrew and I, feeling grand before a dear one's birthday party on Isle of Palms.
The last few months I've felt more deeply in love with Andrew than ever- losing James, my brother, has been so hard that its made me deeply grateful for everything good in life.
As Andrew puts it, sometimes you just have to let go and let Donna Summer tell you how it is.
I la la love you, my beem beem.
But I still can't quite juggle!
My cousin came to visit us recently, and another dear friend- T- took us out to see
Drayton Hall and Middleton Plantations, where he foxhunts with hounds on the weekends.
It was extraordinary. The hush of the place, the tremendous beauty, made it feel as though we were walking together through stopped time. And it is always wonderful to spend time with T. He's beautiful to talk with and so much fun. For a little while we were able to meet regularly at St. Albans
to work together but we've both been traveling so much we hadn't been able to align in a while.
I was a somewhat neglectful host, as I still had to finish edits on the manuscript for that agent. Finished it at 2 am last Monday. Deep sense of relief. Happy with it.
But... in discussions with other agents, there seems to be a clear preference for manuscripts written in past tense as opposed to present tense. !
(Here's an interesting article about it.)
So because I made all these delicious revisions to the thing when putting it into present... I've started work on a 2nd version of it which is written in past. The story works well either way, frankly, and I just. want. to. place. it. Don't care.
You've got to be tired about hearing about all this, but hopefully it is helpful to somebody out there. Anyway, this go-round is cake, because I'm not making any more revisions. (Okay, maybe a couple. Am endlessly obsessive.)
Anyway. So I'm doing about an hour a day on Savages, flipping Evening's Land back into past, and trying to stay on top of freelance work as well: no time to do much more than make notes in the journal. So clearly: am awful at staying on top of this place, but even though I'm an infrequent poster, it's helpful to have it niggling away on my to-do list all the time, because otherwise the journal would have fallen by the wayside. Even though I can't put a lot of what I write in there on here, I do source from it sometimes. And when all's said and done, I want to have it, you know? Life goes so fast.
Also, little snippets in it- the explorations of mind and the character studies, primarily- are incredibly helpful for my fiction.
I do think everyone should try to keep one. Yea, we all fall wicked behind on them, but I can't imagine any other tool more helpful for... well... civilization.
If you are very honest with yourself in the pages, and also sometimes use them for contemplation,
you can't help but want to try a bit harder at being a more decent version of yourself. And if you write about others for long at all, you gain empathy. Also- what a wonderful snapshot of mind. Although, as GVG pointed out once, how terrible if anyone finds it!
Well, to paraphrase the immortal Scarlett O'Hara.... I'll just think about that tomorrow.
Meanwhile, dear, you may not see me for a while. No surprises there.
It’s 4:30 in the morning, my roommate’s lover rolls out.
I hear him leave and pad out naked into the dark to check that he’s locked the door behind him- and he hasn’t-
-the burbling fishtank, the silent kitchen, everything blue in the dark-
“Moonlight. Her shadow flew over the room like a sweeping hand as she dipped to fluff her hair, still listening. The expectancy of silence. As if these rooms were waiting for something to happen. Their sudden, prickly closeness pressed in around her like cupped hands: where was he? Mary turned on the light.”
And now I can't sleep. I run from room to room in the house of my head, looking for a place where I can stop thinking. But each of the rooms- I’m dreaming now- has something off about it, until finally I’m in the garage of my parents’ old place on Alvamar. I slip into a sumptuous black town car- whose?- I’m cradled in its cool, soft black leather; sinking into deep sleep, into a final absence of thought.
Then there's a sudden, blistering awareness of the garage door being opened; I’m turning, there’s a trollish man leering there. Red-haired, with an anonymous, generically terrifying face. I’m simultaneously trying to cant myself back against the horn, to slam down the garage door opener, but my body is locked into slow gear. I jolt myself awake, whacking the lampshade so that Andrew flops over, groaning.
Then, as I waft about in unsleep, something whole comes to me. I write it down.
It comes to me now, who the man in my nightmare is.
he’s the man from the soup kitchen in my hometown. I remember that I wrote a story with him in it once, and do a quick search through the old stories on my drive, using terms that I think will be in it.
And boom, there it is. Titled Separation, although I could have sworn I'd always called it The Lizard King. I wrote the thing a long time ago, and there’s bits of truth stitched in between the fiction, so its sort of like having a conversation with my 15-18 year old self. Maybe you'll like it, too. This seems like as good a place for it as any.
Separation, by Pauline West
He was basking in the sun, letting this girl pour herself all over him. She’d been buying him drinks all afternoon, but now he started singing to me from across the patio. He had a wonderful voice. And his eyes could charm the halo off any girl’s finger.
But I hardly reacted. You’d have thought beautiful older men sang to me every day. The thing was, I was there pretending to be a sophisticate--pretending to be glamorous, wearing an old dress out of my grandmother’s closet. It was a dive where the real artists went, and I wanted to make the right impression.
He came to sit with me. I let him stay. The way he moved and spoke made me think he was some kind of lounge lizard king, and I liked it. Before I left, he made me promise I would see him again. He wanted to show me his poetry, he said.
“I hate bad poetry,” I said.
“Are you trying to make me nervous?” he said.
“It’s working. You keep messing with your hair.” I reached out and smoothed it behind his ears.
We started seeing each other all the time.
“It doesn’t bother you that I’m fifteen?” I said.
“How old do you feel?”
“Twenty-two,” I lied.
But Tyler was twenty-eight or something. The truth was, I still felt like a kid. That’s why I wore my grandmother’s dresses. I wanted to learn how to be a woman, a real woman, like my grandmother. She was halfway famous once. When I was little she told me it was because her dresses were magic. “Black magic,” she said. “You can have them when you’re old enough.”
I believed in those dresses. They made me feel like her—mysterious and remote, carelessly elegant. But I wasn’t. I was only a girl, abstract, unfinished. No match for the lizard king.
We liked to sit on the bridge with our legs dangling and throw berries at traffic. We could never do it for long before somebody tried to come up after us, but that day we’d stayed longer than usual. He was teaching me how to smoke.
“No, no, you aren’t breathing in right. You have to breathe it into your belly, see, like this? And then hold it there.”
It burned. “I’m going to swoon,” I said.
“Swoon?” he said. “You read too many books. Come here.” He took a quick, sharp hit, and grabbed me. “Breathe in,” he said, and exhaled into my mouth. I sucked him in and held him there, staring at him while I did it. Something lit and flared at the end of my spine, making me tingle up and down. I glowed at him.
He smirked. “I feel like we just kissed.”
“Kiss me really,” I wanted to say, huskily, like an old-time movie star— but really I just sat there, staring.
He laughed, and helped me stand.
“Marlowe, Marlowe, Marlowe,” he said. “If I say it a fourth time, you’ll belong to me.”
But after that he was silent.
Our hands lingered; then he had to go away somewhere. I wandered home alone, high as a bat. I teetered at stoplights, waiting for the light to change, and men honked crazily.
I was seeing halos around all the streetlights and it got me thinking about how I used to believe in angels. For some reason I thought the Virgin Mary was my angel. I had dreams about her coming to me in my sleep and everything. Probably in some other age people would have thought I was some kind of shaman. But you learn to be secretive in Catholic school, at least if you've decided not to believe in all the parts that they teach, so I kept Mary my secret.
Stoned and alone in the dark, I tried to remember what it felt like to believe. I couldn't, and felt ashamed. Because I was the kind of girl who was still trying to see angels, or because I no longer could? You tell me.
Another night, Tyler and I were out walking. We’d spent all day together. Now it was dusk, lights were coming on in all the houses. People’s windows were open, and from the sidewalk we could hear inside--people setting their tables while their kids played. Televisions on in the background.
“Electric light takes away the mystery,” Tyler said. “Anytime we feel like it, we can just flick a switch and see what’s really there and what isn't.”
“Huh,” I said. He was always saying things like that, practicing how he sounded. He didn’t care very much what I thought because I was too young to really count. When he started talking like that, I’d just smooth down my dress and relax, letting his handsome voice trail all over me. I didn’t even need to listen to what he was saying. I felt like we were inside a beautiful painting. That was all I cared about.
“What do you think?” he said.
I looked at him.
“Well, I like to see things as they are,” I lied. “Not the ways I’d imagine them, if everything were dark.”
“I bet you’d believe in God if we didn’t have electricity.”
I shrugged. “He’s the best bedtime story I know.”
“Maybe you need a new bedtime story then.” We stood close together.
“Look, watch this,” he said.
He swept his hand in front of us, and just like that, all the lights in the city went out. He pressed against me in the warm dark.
“Do you believe in God now?” he whispered.
Shrieks and then laughter lifted around us--little kids running to get candles. Soon little dots of light showed behind the curtains of people’s living rooms.
“I love the smell of matches,” I said.
He came closer. I was aware of the warmth of the road as it drifted up beneath my dress. My grandmother’s perfume slipped out from the warm fabric and coiled behind my ears. Ask him to give you a bed-time story, it whispered.
“No,” I said.
He walked me home. He didn’t turn the lights back on, and I was glad. I was embarrassed. For all my bravado, even in my grandmother’s clothing, I still couldn’t figure out how to be a woman. What was my body supposed to do when it was kissed? I was aware of my posture, my movements, but I did not live inside those lines: my body was something separate from me. Where I was actually located, I didn’t know, but I knew that a kiss, a real kiss, required for me to meet him halfway, which I could not do.
I liked the idea of him, and the ideas I had of sex and forgetting, freedom—but suppose you did give yourself over, what if you lost yourself forever? I wanted to learn to live inside my body, live in the moment, but I was so terrified I’d be taken. You can’t ever really trust someone else, especially not with yourself. My secret self was safer where I kept it—in a place unknown even to me.
And Tyler could swallow women whole.
I’d seen him do it—women he introduced to me and then discarded, replaced—women who loved him, who gave themselves to him. They trusted him because he was beautiful. But he ate them whole like fruits, and threw them away. Each one of them probably thought she was going to be the one to change him, but he was insatiable.
I imagined his discarded women drifting like ghosts in the streets, Tyler turning the streetlights out after each of them, one by one. If you love somebody and they throw you away, you can never get over it. Part of your soul disappears, becomes a ghost. My mom was like that after my dad left. She was helpless, like a ghost. Grandmother had no sympathy for it. After a while she didn’t visit us anymore.
Maybe that was why I used to feel like the Virgin Mary was hanging around me all the time. I needed somebody. I’d feel the Virgin touching my back when I was asleep; I was aware of her still when I woke. The way I imagined her, she was very feathery and pale. I believed she was next to me all day, no matter if I was sucking dog kibbles or terrorizing my younger brothers. It was like some kind of secret superpower.
At our school we put on two masses a week. On Sundays, we had to go to a third mass, and afterwards my mom would volunteer us to work at the LINK kitchen, which was this free slop line for the homeless. You chopped up stuff and prepared it, and then you stood behind these big tables and doled it out to the bums. All kinds of them came through. Scary ones, junkies, drunks. Once time there were a bunch of hippies. You didn’t see a lot of those in Kansas. They all walked like they were dancing, and their eyes were shining, some of them were even singing. I told one of the younger guys that his scarf was very beautiful.
He didn’t miss a beat. He dashed it off and tied it around my own neck so that I looked like some kind of Parisian. I couldn’t believe it. The scarf was black silk with red and orange tie-dye. I’d never met somebody who just gave people things, and all I could do was look at him with this big stupid grin.
“Wear it in health, girl,” he told me. I looked for him after we were done serving but I never did see him again.
Mostly it was scary there, but when I felt the Virgin’s hands on me, I could do anything. The hungry people would smile or cough, their mouths were black with desperation—a lot of the time my brothers ducked under the table and hid when someone really creepy came through, but because of the Virgin, I could take up their ladles and serve for them, too.
We could have hidden upstairs in the church, but we didn’t think that way then. That’s the funny part about being a kid—you haven’t figured out how to protect yourself yet. We figured we were stuck there until mom came back, and that was that.
Anyway, one Sunday we were really busy, and I had to go into the outer room for some reason, I think to get more bread. They kept the bread in the room where the bums ate so that if any of them wanted to take a bag home they could take it without needing to ask. As I walked out into this room, a little redheaded man grabbed me. He and I were smaller than everyone else, standing well beneath the sight line of the crowd.
We were the same size, but he was old. He put his face right up to mine. It was terrifyingly blank, emotionless, something from a nightmare. I’d seen him before—a lot of places downtown gave him free coffee and food, like he was some kind of mascot, but now he clamped his hand over my face and started to drag me to the men’s room. He hobbled; one of his feet was clubbed. I saw everything like it was happening from far away, in slow motion, like a dream.
I screamed and screamed, but only inside. My angel had vanished. I felt like one of those baby gazelles you see when the crocodile has it by the neck and the gazelle understands that it will die, but then somehow my mom came from out of nowhere and grabbed me back. She hustled me away from him, and as soon as we were alone she shook her finger in my face.
“Nothing happened,” she said. “Do you hear me? Nothing ever happened, nothing ever happened.” She stood next to me the rest of the afternoon until I’d finished my shift, and then she never took us there again. We didn’t talk about it either. I forgot about my angel Mary. I wore the black silk scarf all the time.
A couple years later I took to wearing the scarf wrapped around my hair, always with these big gypsy earrings. I still religiously wore my grandmother’s magic dresses, even though I’d worn them ratty by then. I was seventeen, and I believed in Jack Kerouac, too, besides her dresses. A fraying black ball-gown seemed like something he would have liked, and I didn’t feel right wearing anything else.
I also had this idea that I needed to get away from the ordinary, safe little life my mother craved, and was always trying to create with her new boyfriends. After a particularly bad day at home, I decided I should see the world instead. Tyler would take me, I figured. We’d been in and out of touch, but when I called him the first thing I said was, “Remember how you told me anytime I needed you, you would come and get me?”
“Yes,” he said.
If he didn’t recognize me right away, he played it off beautifully. And his voice, oh his voice, it was more wonderful than ever. Low and intimate. There were some people at our old bar who called him the Radio, because he was such easy listening. I loved the nights he brought me to parties and I could fall asleep on sofas beside him, his voice slipping into my dreams.
“Where are you?” he said, sounding like he was already right next to me.
“I’m under the tree,” I said, knowing he’d remember the one that I meant.
It was an old tree, easy to climb; we used to climb up into it sometimes instead of going for a walk. I waited for him a long time, day-dreaming about skittering all over the world with the lizard king.
And suddenly he was there.
He was nothing like I’d remembered. His voice didn’t match him anymore—he was skinny and dirty, he was broke, he’d stopped writing (“everything’s been said, anyway,”), and the ponytail I loved was gone.
But I decided to believe that these things were what made him a true poet. He was too pure to care about the conventional trappings of success and competence. We took off in his car, a little hatchback.
He squeezed my thigh, a little shyly. “Watch this,” he said. He waved his hands, and all the stoplights flickered out.
“Seen it,” I said.
Still, it was nice: driving all the way out into the country without having to stop once.
We camped three days. The plan was that we’d live on fish and flowers, but that didn’t work out, so we were always going back to town to get donuts or pizzas out of the dumpsters. Tyler knew all the places.
“I live outside the system,” he said, pulling out a spotless long john. “See? Live free or die. None of that J-O-B stuff, not for me.”
But all the time he was watching me carefully, like he was worried I didn’t believe him. He took a huge bite of the donut. I noticed the skin under his neck had become loose, deflated, like an iguana’s, and all I could think of was that old Peggy Lee song—“Is That All There Is?” I thought we were going on this great adventure, but instead I’d just become another bum. I wondered if this was how that redheaded man fed himself, too.
I was still a virgin and wanted to wait, although I didn’t understand why. Catholic school gives you these knee jerk responses.
“No,” you hear yourself saying, to everything: “no, no, no.”
Tyler said he understood. At night he just kissed me and held me, even though I knew he thought I owed it to him. He’d grind on me from behind, kind of softly, hoping I wouldn’t notice, and this made my heart turn cold.
I started to hate him.
It was only when he went into the trees to take care of himself that I’d think anything nice about him at all. Maybe we were spending too much time together, I don’t know. But I couldn’t think of anywhere else I wanted to be, except inside a book. I wondered if I would have felt different with a real artist, maybe, instead of somebody who just looked like one, talked about being one.
“We should go,” I said, on the third day. “My parents will have called the police.”
“They don’t know about me, though, do they?”
I chewed on my thumbnail. “I forgot my journal,” I said.
So we drove all day and night to Monahans, Texas, where just about everybody is hiding from something, and they know better than to ask you any questions. We got ourselves jobs at a steakhouse. Everybody there stole food all the time, so we always had enough to eat.
We skipped out on rent all over town for months before anybody caught on. Our last night there, with nowhere left to go, we hiked into the sand dunes and went wandering deep into the shifting landscape. Oil pumps heaved up and down under the moon like they were kneading something shameful back into the ground. Scorpions scuttled all over the place.
“Put on your shoes,” Tyler said. Things had changed between us. His voice was bright and hard and flashed in the air.
“No,” I said. “I don’t need to.” Even after my feet started bleeding, I wouldn’t put on my shoes. Everything was fine.
Finally the sun roared up on the horizon, and Tyler said he thought he’d go to Mexico. The way he said it, I knew that I wasn’t invited, even though by now he’d said my name plenty of times.
It didn’t count unless you said it four times in a row, though. “Tyler, Tyler, Tyler.” I said. “Tyler.” He looked beautiful all of a sudden, with the sun coming up behind him. I felt bad how things were turning out. Also he’d seen me grow up, and I knew that little-girl part of me was going to go with him the moment he left.
“Okay,” he said.
“Listen,” I said.
Someone had tipped me with a little vintage watch on my last day at the steakhouse, and I’d kept it in my pocket. It was the kind you could hear ticking.
Tyler didn’t wear watches because they always stopped when they touched his skin. He was the kind of person who could have turned everything off in the world if he wanted to, but I guess he was afraid. Neither of us was quite all the way shaman. I bet you my grandmother was, though.
He listened to the watch’s polite ticking and smiled. The watch had a picture of a penguin inside, and the man who gave it to me had taught me the word “penguid,” for somebody fat who waddles when they walk.
“It’s for you,” I said. I strapped it to him and listened to the watch’s heart drop silent. “Don’t forget about me.”
“What will you do now?” he said.
I was as surprised as he was when I heard myself say, “I guess I’ll go to college.”
“Oh, honey,” he said, and that meant something, because he'd always called me Marlowe.
But I wouldn’t let him kiss me goodbye. I saluted him and went off in the opposite direction. I didn’t look back until I was so far away I knew he couldn’t see me, and then I sat down and cried. You might think two near-shamans might have made a whole person between the two of them, but you’d be wrong.
Now there was even less of me than when we started. My body felt different. There was less of me for the sand and the wind to push against. But instead of blowing back into the desert, it was easier to slip away.
Sometimes I dream that the little man comes back and gets me. I dream that my mother never shows up to save me, and the man takes me down with him, all the way to the darkness. But the Virgin follows me down. She stays beside me the whole time, feeding me dreams within dreams, so that I look the other way and my heart stays safe.
I wonder about what I remember. Maybe it didn’t happen that way—maybe I just wish it did. I’ve asked my brothers about it. They don’t remember our mother ever coming into LINK to pick us up, much less working beside me on the line. So I wonder if time has scabbed across the truth, and it is hidden inside me where I cannot get at it—black under the skin, like a broken blade, my body healed tight around it.
My family has a bonfire every November. We come from all over. My brothers and aunts and uncles, all the cousins. There’s a lot of us. The fire is for brush, but sometimes we also burn old chairs, bad photographs, or court summons. When my grandmother was alive, she threw all her rings in, and the fire burned blue for hours.
I hadn’t been to the bonfire for a long time, but a few years after Tyler left me for Mexico, I decided to show up. My family and I were strangers to each other by then, but they were surprised and happy to see me. They let me stand in their circle to watch them burn up their pasts. We ate gumbo and they sang songs and asked what had happened to my pretty dresses. They seemed pleased that I was in school, and it was nice to see my brothers again, although there wasn’t much to say. Nobody knew where our mother was. I guess I wouldn’t have known what to say to her either.
After a while, I walked back to my car. I had parked a long ways off in the dark. I couldn’t see well. The fields waved in slow currents and it was like crossing a river at night. The world stretched out wide and dark, but I wasn’t afraid. It occurred to me that I was part of it. I was part of everything all around me.
I belonged to it—the prairie, the darkness. Even to my family behind me, huddled around their vanishing pasts. And this vastness, it belonged to me, too: my grandmother’s magic, still alive in her dresses; my mother’s lost ghosts and her angels—I could even feel Tyler somewhere inside me, too, very small as he went across the desert, looking for the place that would love him.
I hoped he would find it.
P.Z. West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is a Library Journal Self-e Selection, winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
Pauline West's books on Goodreads
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