Skinny piano pop

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The porch steps have eroded from generations of flood water. Muriel listens for the susurration of crows’ wings to rise from the flattened mud of the driveway before she steps outside through a curtain of moths, wearing only a cream-colored slip and a cigarette. In bare feet, she considers the size of the day: already long, already hot.

There is time lapse furniture in the backyard: a secondhand hutch where Nama used to store her mother’s Desert Rose pattern dishes before she started mixing them in with the everyday Corningware, set outside in 1978; the kids’ dresser drawers — now utilized to grow tomatoes and basil and cucumbers — from her first marriage, before Luke’s cancer scare. There’s that old oven that the rust ate up after the heavy October rains of ’97, now cozying up to a picnic table that hasn’t been sat at for twenty-some years; the crumbling skeleton of a console radio they couldn’t afford to fix when the speakers blew in the middle of a summer storm, pre-Elvis era. And, most damning, that spinet upright piano Uncle Edwin used to play and then gave to Muriel’s mother after he got sick with AIDS. It was out-of-tune from the big move all the way from Syracuse, and they didn’t know anyone local who could make it sound right. It was Edwin’s skinny piano, Nama called it, even after she forgot who he was, and you couldn’t set a laundry basket on it, or even a good-sized bowl of radishes, it sat too conspicuously in the living room. Muriel supposed everything they abandoned ended up on the back lawn. Good thing Edwin had friends who were willing to bury him in Upstate New York and not here, in some unmarked plot no one but her would bother to tend to. They treated that piano like they treated that boy, and it became another stain on the family name.

Morning is — how did Old Happy say it? — Bodies of trees lit immortal by silver. He wrote it down on one of the outhouse walls, now sunk somewhere further along the Mississippi. The light is silver for a minute, she thought, just before everything blurs from the heat.

The weeds have not thinned out yet, the nettle and itchgrass, and the ground is still soft from the previous night’s rain. Not as wet as when Katrina paid a visit, back in ‘05. That bitch was a souse. Murial remembers the sheriff telling her that Sam might have to be dug up and buried elsewhere before that goddamn hurricane got her hands on the cemetery.

“I’m telling all the folks who have kin buried there,” he said, “so don’t take it too personal.”

“I can’t afford to relocate him,” she said. “Besides, what difference does it make? The man is still dead, ain’t he?”

“Gov’ment will take care of the cost. Eventually. A man’s shape, uh, changes after it’s been laying in the ground a few years,” he said. “It can cause all sorts of health worries if he just floats down river.”

“Dave Marlson, you’re not moving just his body, you’d be removing the entire box, ain’t that right?”

“Depends,” said the sheriff. “It’s been mighty, uh, liquid around here lately, by which I mean wet rot.”

“I know what you mean. Just get out. If he floats all the way down to the Gulf with the rest of us, so be it.”

At least Sheriff Marlson had the brains to look embarrassed. “I’ll come back here if I have to,” he said, “and if I do, I’ll try not to bother you with the details. And I may have to order everyone to leave, not just the corpses.” He paused to adjust the brim of his hat. “And for Christ’s sake, Muriel, I bowled with the man. Fished with him, too. This ain’t something I want to do.”

And before you knew it, almost twenty years have passed since that conversation, and no one has moved anywhere, no one has touched anything, and even the dead have been forgotten again.

During the day, Muriel draws pictures of Edwin’s piano at her kitchen table until a headache sets in behind her eyes. She draws the lines with a set of special pencils she ordered from a stationery store in Bay St. Louis, and she uses her old high school geometry tools to get an accurate measurement. She keeps the drawings in a binder on top of the refrigerator.

She has spoken to Julio from McHenry’s Hardware about lumber prices and cast iron plates and gauges of piano wire. “You thinking of rebuilding Edwin’s piano?” he asks her.

“Course not. Just curious.”

They both laugh, like it was a foolish question for him to ask, though they both know she’s considering it.

“Because I can order the parts,” he says, “and sell them to you for cost.”

“Let me think about it,” she says, but her mind is almost made up. “You don’t tell a soul about this, Julio,” she says. “You promise me. I’ll be laughed out of the county.”

And he promises.

At night, she listens to the rain on her bedroom window, the lightness of its engravings scratch on the screen, drawn and erased before seen, clean water, clear water, and then it follows her into sleep.

“Do you still miss her?” Uncle Edwin asks her. He was always a young man, always pale.

“I don’t think about her much.”

“You don’t think about anything else.”

“I do. I think about your piano.”

“Not mine. Your mother’s. Yours now.”

“It’s complicated.”

“It’s simple. You loved her, you couldn’t tell her, she moved on, you didn’t.”

“I was married, Uncle Edwin. And it would have been wrong.”

“You were young.”

“I was young. Yes.”

“Listen,” he said, and he became quiet.

“Rain.”

“You remember her in that boat, don’t you? That rowboat that had no business still floating. You girls were lucky it didn’t sink to the bottom.”

“Yes. But it was….”

“Invigorating.”

“It was something. When she slipped her feet over the side and into the water, the boat shifted, and I thought… well, I don’t know what I thought. I thought it might tip us over.”

“That’s not all you thought.”

“No. But what I thought had no real words attached to it. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She’d been my friend for most of my life, and I only just saw her then. The goosebumps on her thigh, the flex of her leg when she fanned the water into the air with her foot, and… and the way the drops slid off her, dripping down to her calf, slithering. This is what wanting is, and I finally knew what that meant. I turned my head so fast it made me dizzy. We got the boat leveled and then we laughed about it. But the wanting was draped all over me, and I was amazed she couldn’t see it. Does it ever leave? And that makes me feel like another version of me has been misplaced. Do you know how that feels? Does it make any sense?”

“You want to rebuild a piano no one has ever wanted, from a man no one wanted to know or understand. Yes, it makes sense.”

“Does it? Because I don’t know.”

And he was gone again. And the sound from the rain has softened.

In the morning, Muriel listens for the susurration of crows’ wings to rise from the flattened mud of the driveway before she steps outside through a curtain of moths, wearing only a peach-colored slip and a cigarette. In bare feet, she considers the size of the day: already long, already hot.

She thinks, some day she’s going to have to order that maple wood and spruce from the hardware store before the days start to noticeably shorten. Today, she’ll draw it again, just to make sure of the dimensions, to assure herself that the measurements are true and correct.

Fishing in the Luna Maria

photo by Plato Terentev

The permutations of anger: the same lean belt administered each time, creased leather, broken down, worn, worn; the flesh burst purple below his underpants, somehow artful — a stained spider scarred on his ass, a sledge of pain stretched across each swing, torn, torn; the days of suppers in the dark, the last fibers of light pulled tight across a Chinese restaurant chimney, just down the street, he, outside, hip against the Parisienne, drawing from his smoke, long, long, in the rain.

Bobby came to this place, his father’s house, three days before Labor Day, one year after they buried him. He favored these days for their softer summer light, when the mosquitoes were disinterested in anything beyond the riverbank. The trout were spry in the morning and fed on small damselflies and midge larvae. He left them alone. Their splashes were enough.

His father lived here the last few years of his life, after his second wife passed. There was a little insurance money, and he had always been frugal, so he bought it outright. “Come on down, Bobby,” he said. “The river’s hopping with brook trout, just like that stream by Cranberry Falls. You wanna do that, come see your old man?”

He deferred. Every Easter weekend, every Fourth of July, every October weekend closest to his birthday. No, it was crunchtime at work, or, no, he was coming down with something coughy, or — just to fuck with him — no, he needed to spend time with Meg and the kids. “Bring ‘em, I’d love to see them.” “Megan’s mom is sick, dunno, could be bad.” “Oh-no.” ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ shit without the irony.

The truth remained: Meg left him months ago, found a new boyfriend who wrote game code, the kids loved him. Boyfriend was the new superman. “You’re such an angry man, Bobby,” she told him. “I have that capacity, yes,” he said, “but I’m not a violent man.” “Not yet,” she said. “No.” The most naked word he ever spoke.

Bobby helped them pack their things and he sold his car to her for a dollar. “We need to stay good to each other,” he said. “No anger, no resentments.” She agreed. It broke him that it could end so cleanly. They still spoke on the phone, they still listened to each other’s yearnings and grievances, but he was more muted. He taught himself to listen without being defensive, and so he listened. She talked, she wept, she became angry with herself for talking and weeping. “No worries,” he said. “So what are you doing next?” she asked. “I’m gone fishing this weekend or next.” “You should do that,” she said. “Maybe resolve things with your father, finally.” “I should, yes,” knowing that he wouldn’t. Resolve things was too big, akin to maybe you should plant a flag on Everest, or, hey, the moon could use your boot print. Sure. They made it through another conversation, and they remained on the good side of good.

Life inside summers, between inflatable pools and pitchers of lukewarm lemonade, he saw his own reflection in his boys, prismed, damaged. He considered his father’s place, the clean little river, the smooth elasticity of its current, bound by chubby clay berms stitched with grass. He told his father he would take care of the property. There was no signed will, no legal papers to clarify to whom his shit should go. The estate was still in probate, and he was the only surviving heir. It didn’t matter much to Bobby, he went there when it felt right. He mostly wanted to visit the river, and Labor Day weekend sounded right.

The rain held back, straining hard against heavy-bellied clouds. Not even dusk yet, and he could hear the far away preparations for fireworks, a coiled whistle and crackling strings of firecrackers, an indistinct murmur of approval from the crowd. He decided to mow the path of grass between the car and the porch, and, suddenly ambitious, from the porch to the back of the yard towards the river. The mower sputtered. He checked the oil, topped up the gas. Mechanical needs fulfilled, he cranked it again. Five minutes in, he was sweating from his scalp onto his neck. The yard was weedy and uneven, but the smell of grass clippings was pleasant. He remembered his father tinkering with his Evinrude on hot days, smudged fingerprints on his shirt pocket whenever he reached for his cigarettes, rags spread out on the workbench according to absorbency. “Go tell your mother I need a soda, but none of that diet Tab shit. Coke or a 7-Up.” He was a rigid abstainer; his own father drank and it ruined him, so he was determined to be the straightest fucking nail ever to be driven. Maybe a glass of bourbon would have mellowed him, maybe it would have set his brain on fire, who could tell? Bobby drank beer when it was hot, when he was puttering in the yard, but didn’t think about it too much.

“You are going about this the wrong way,” his father used to say, about almost everything Bobby did. The old man was good at drawing, amazingly good, fucking fantastically good, but he considered it a chore, something he only submitted to when he had exhausted everything else and didn’t feel like watching TV. He kept a Faber-Castell colored pencil set in his sock drawer and only took it out on rainy days or late nights when everyone else had gone to bed. Sometimes he told Bobby to watch him, maybe learn something. “You don’t just set the pencil on the paper and start to draw. No, sir. ‘Carving is easy, you just go down to the skin and stop.’ You know who said that? Michelangelo. And drawing is the same thing. Look for the thing and draw it. It’s already there.  It doesn’t have to be hard, but it has to be good, the best you can do, excellent if you can. Get it? Do you understand why I don’t do it very often? Because it would goddamn consume me.” And that was the deepest his father ever spoke about anything, and Bobby was eight years old, and that stuck with him more than the physical beratements. The beatings. He never forgot the lesson and he never lived up to it. That was what goddamn consumed him. His imperfection and his apparent acceptance of it.

Megan called him after supper. The place still had a landline and Bobby kept the phone connected, because you couldn’t get any bars on a cellphone out here in the Great Beyond. You could be laid out beside the river, half-eaten by a bear, before anyone realized you’d already been digested. At least a landline forced you to crawl back inside the house and die righteously, on linoleum.

“Just wanted to make sure you got there okay,” she said. “Is the place alright?”

“Locked up tight. A little dusty, and the yellowjackets have built a nest over the woodpile, but it looks good. Oh, and I think the back deck has termites. I’m going to call the exterminators on Tuesday. Nothing broken, though.” He took a deep breath. He hadn’t spoken so many words since he filled the car on Thursday and bought two bags of ice for the cooler. ”How are you doing?”

“Oh, I’m fine,” she said, and paused. “Shitty, actually. You know what? I miss you. Labor Day was always a fun time. Wasn’t it? The promise of kids going back to school, cooler days, everything feeling fresh again.”

“You’re just being sentimental. If I were there, you’d be missing Elon.”

“His name is Alan and you know it.”

“Sorry, it’s a bad connection. You have any plans for tonight? Fireworks, cocktails by the lake?”

“He’s working, as usual. Are you planning to blow shit up?”

“Not even a sparkler. I can hear them getting ready over at the park. I’ll watch from the yard. A shot of bourbon and I’ll call it a night.”

“Sounds wild.”

“How are the boys?”

“Oh, they’re okay. They’re hanging out with Dennis and that other one, what’s his name….”

“Ronny?”

“Rory. Like the cowboy. They say they’re going to play video games, but you know damn well they’ll be down at the lake smoking cigarettes and picking up women.”

“Milfs, they call them.”

“Is that what they call them?”

“Seriously, though. Are they doing alright?”

“Oh, sure. The magic has rubbed off with Alan, as I figured it would. They’re kids. They’ll get in trouble and it’ll burn them once or twice, but I think they’re good boys and hopefully it won’t be too devastating for them. They’re fine, Bobby, really.”

“Okay. You need me to give them a stern talking-to, just let me know.”

“You know I will.”

A companionable silence fell between them. A rumble of thunder came from somewhere in the west. 

“Meg?”

“Yeah, Bobby?”

“I don’t want to go fishing in the Luna Maria anymore.”

“Well, that’s good,” she said. “I don’t think you’d catch very much, and the conditions aren’t conducive to, you know, living.”

“That’s what I’m saying. I’m tired. I don’t want to go further away.”

She was silent. He could almost see her, studying her watch, distracted by a noise from outside, contemplating her scratched rose fingernail polish. “I never asked you to.”

“Okay. I just wanted you to know.”

“What do I know?”

“That I think I want to keep this place, maybe flesh it out, build on it. It’s not his anymore. And that I want you and the boys to come visit and maybe hang out. Elon can come too, if he’s not too busy.”

She gave him a faint raspberry. “Talk to me tomorrow, Bobby. By the light of day, not by the light of fireworks and sentimentality.”

“I will. Are you sorry you called?”

“No. I just didn’t expect it to take this turn.”

They gradually said their goodnights and he sat in an old adirondack chair in the middle of the yard and waited for night to arrive. The overhead clouds shambled by slowly, great beasts sniffing at the earth.

The first raindrop fell on his wrist, and it was cold and spread onto his hand like a spider. The deluge was sudden, and it stopped him from moving; he was committed to it now, a full-on rain, and he was submerged in it, tasting it like a kid, and it felt a little like a blessing.

A patchwork of cotton flowers

The only breeze that blew through Nannie Dee’s front yard carried a miasma of malt liquor fumes and hyacinth perfume, Millicent’s step-mother’s favorite and thereby unavoidable. Nannie could count the number of real Christians in her front yard with the fingers on one hand, and the rest of them could have the back of the other one. Still, she would be polite. She would offer refreshments and compliment them on their new shoes (or their new blouses, or their fashionable ties, if they bothered to wear one), and her countenance would not change. This was Millie’s day, and none of their frowny-face pantomimes were going to change that.

“She’s with God now,” proclaimeth Judith Meyers, the new-ish teacher who taught Millie ‘Northern History’ and was likely from someplace like Boston or Newport, but who had tamed her accent to fool the local folk. Oh, she probably came from good stock, alright, raised in some third or fourth generation Italianate style home, on her second marriage at the tender age of thirty-four, and, no doubt, already eyeballing her next Mister. There were stories about her, but Nannie Dee would be charitable: “Thank you, honey, God bless.”

Next up was Courtney Everding, Millie’s Academic Advisor, and her husband Darryl, a stately-dressed cowboy-type — a mustached goober, really — and the man who most likely raped Millicent. He was currently squeezing a sausage biscuit to death. “So sorry for your loss, Missus Dee,” she said, and offered her a hug. The goober nodded, distracted by all the young women wandering the yard. Millie’s friends.

“Appreciate the kindness,” said Nannie, then whispered: “And if you was to cut your husband’s throat and cock when he falls asleep tonight, I would gladly alibi you without any complaint from my conscience.”

Missus Everding acknowledged her with a crisp nod as her husband squeezed that biscuit until crumbs started to fall on his shoes.

Next up didn’t matter. They were all cotton flowers from the same patchwork quilt around here. Oh, she would judge them in her old-style way, everyone did that, always judging each other until that judgment didn’t even matter any more. This was Millicent’s day, and if Nannie Dee — the girl’s grandmother, after all — made a sour face for just the tiniest of seconds, it wouldn’t be more damning than if her dentures had slipped a little. And who would fault her for that?

“God bless you, honey,” she heard herself say to a boy who rode over on his tractor. She would complain to his grandfather tomorrow, because the boy tore up a small patch of her sweet alyssums. Things like that did not sit right with her. Boys had to learn early, or look at all the trouble they’d cause later. “Give my best to your mama, you hear?”

Touch/Either/And/Or/Adoration

A big thank you to Suzanne Craig-Whytock for publishing my latest flash fiction, Touch/Either/And/Or Adoration at her brand new literary magazine, DarkWinter at darkwinterlit.com. Please pay a visit and check out the other works (fiction and poetry), and feel free to add something to this growing publication. Suzanne is an award-winning Canadian author, and she’s extremely talented and funny. Also check out her must-read hilarious blog, mydangblog. Thanks for reading.

Advent season

Those were the last brilliant and bitter days, leaves still filthy from drought, unadorned by color or definition, and even the dampest of mosses had become brittle sashes weaved into the bark. We woke each morning to an odorless breeze that seemed to chant to the trees with a hollow catch in its throat. 

This used to be our Advent season, more self-serving than celebratory, when we drank Burgundy from heavy goblets and you fed me artful pastries. You once knew a chef from Paris, you claimed, perhaps a former lover, you hinted, whom you called Nina, but I think your truest recollection was of Gowan from the Gondola Restaurant on West Lebanon Street. I remember the way he looked at you then, like a shaggy boy who discovered you in a forest, a halo of sunlight adorning your crown. You were always kittenish that way, telling tales of lovemaking in your younger years, narrating with such startling clarity in your Ocracoke brogue, shattering me like old pottery, reassembling me with new poetry. I was such a boy, wasn’t I, feeding from a banquet that starved me? 

The fragrant oils you drizzled on my arms, lavender and frankincense, bore weight on my skin. You washed me with a soft cloth soaking in clean hot water, steam still rising from the bowl, and you kissed me directly on the mouth. I shall always remember that kiss. You lathered my meager beard with scentless shaving soap and gently stropped the blade so I would notice the cleverness of your fingers. It felt curious, this luxury you bestowed upon me, but I did not move. I could not. You did not linger, and you whispered words into my ear a song I did not recognize.

“How does one bury a boy?” you asked, and I, of course, could not answer. The question had not been directed to me. 

faraway

i have forgotten the names of the people
i dream about but still
hear the faraway tin-tack rain
on the hoods of those big boat chryslers
from that picked-over lot on elliot street
the drops splashing down
from plastic pennants
sliding down antennas washing
over old chrome
into cataract headlights

we followed the map
you drew on the takeout menu
to watch the churlish evening light evaporate
around the water tower in
some small town’s lower union street

i dreamed that the night peeled
white paint from each bungalow
as we (always we though there has been no you
for 46 years) drove past a row
of old men in old undershirts
drinking pabsts, their motions choreographed
like a busby berkeley musical,
conjoined by their respective stoops
tapping cigarette ashes into old peach cans
their zippo lighters communicating like fireflies

it was like mourning
someone whose name you can’t remember
in some town you never been to before

we were the last two ghosts you and i
i guess and no one was frightened or even a little worried
when we arrived if
they noticed us at all
i recognized some faces and you recognized
some others but their names were
lost to us otherwise
as we were lost to them
as another day evaporated as somewhat
of a surprise

Cypress

And this is where you will find me:
beside a good dog
who can sniff out the scent of bullfrogs hunched
between the soaked knees of Cypress trees;
where an old woman in her kitchen
can hear the soft swoop
of a cherrywood paddle before it slices
through tangles of swamp,
and where I am almost always
six years old,

this and

she says tonight my father is most likely crouched
in the break-down lane on US-11,
somewhere between
Watertown and Pamelia
fixing a flat for a forsaken mother
with a cream soda stain
on her last good blouse
and a shaving scar on her shin,
far from her house.

rising like ashes, we are fallen like rain

we cross the water, circumspect
of the crosses we etch
on wet Cypress trees

Actress

The lowly roads of grit and stone brought Actress home. She surrendered her Jeep near the highway, parked it beside a dense imbroglio of pokeweed and gutted cardboard. Daybreak percolated below a broad swath of Kwanzan cherry trees, scattering immaculate light across Cornelius Lancaster’s tobacco field.

She left this place wearing river-soaked Nike knockoffs forty years earlier, and so it seemed proper that she return in the same manner: the clothes on her back, with an over-sized purse for the necessaries. Instead of the lick-and-stick tattoos she once adored, she now wore the real things, intricate etchings she collected from downtown parlors and off-ramp strip malls.

Her mother: You have no common sense, girl. You’re confusing chickens with horses again.

I wish I hadn’t mentioned Ellie to you. I wish you never met her.

She did all right for herself. You can ask her, she’s right here.

No, Ma. That was a long time ago. I knew there were stories, and I closed my ears to them.

Stories? Ask her, she’ll tell you. She’s tired of waiting, tired of wanting. You had her phone number in your change purse for twenty-three years, long enough for the ink to bleed into the lining. That scrap of paper smelled like old pennies when you were done with it. An anthropologist couldn’t have read those words.

There were no words, Ma, just her number.

Of course, there were words. I bet you still have that piece of paper squirreled away somewhere, maybe folded in the back of an old copy of Mademoiselle, or between those fancy garter belts you used to hide, scuppered under a layer of cotton panties. I knew about those, you know. I wasn’t snooping, but Lord Jesus Christ, girl. You kept that scrap because of what she wrote. I’m guessing there were just a few words. I don’t know what they were, but they were probably the heaviest things you ever carried. Sure, you memorized them, of course you did, recited them in front of a hundred sleazy bathroom mirrors, maybe had them tattooed on your hip, the one that gives you so much trouble. What does it matter now, they were only the words of a young girl. So go ahead and ask her, little Actress. Ask your girl Eloise how the years have been since you left. I’m sure she has more than a few words straining to get out.

Ma, talking to you is like staring into five loaded chambers. I’m tired.

Well, come on, then. I’ll be waiting.

The road was more compact than Actress remembered; it was diminished, really. The gravel was shallow and meager, randomly scraped down to the gray dirt. Rhododendron shrubs pushed against the road from both sides, drooping from humidity, pale lavender flowers in states of decay and disarray, scentless, ridiculously excessive. A thin daylight moon hung overhead, a scimitar blade ready to carve out old wounds.

Old wounds, indeed.

Hello, Missus. Good morning to you.

Actress saw Preacher Eli standing in the doorway of the Embury Methodist Church. He was an old man back then, surely in his sixties, and she could still remember his blue-veined Old Testament hands. He stood in profile, but she saw his hair had turned from nicotine yellow to Just For Men brown. It was unkempt and drifted below the ratty collar of a t-shirt commemorating The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls Tour. He was sweeping carpenter ants off the concrete walkway.

Have you yet been saved, dear?

Hello, Preacher. Yes, I have, but I’m not sure for what. Amusement, probably.

Bless you, girl, but I can’t hear. Can you come closer? Are you new? Do I know you?

No, you don’t know me, but I’m not new. I’m Actress.

Actress?

Yes.

Is this a joke? What kind of name is that?

A real one, given to me by my mother.

I once knew someone… long ago. Or perhaps it was a dream, a foretelling of God’s Plan. Your mother must have been very confused to give you such a name.

Yes. Or she had low expectations of me ever becoming a real person.

I’m sorry, please come closer. My ears are not so good. Do you have family nearby?

Yes. Just down the road. My mother.

And does she have the love of Jesus running through her veins? The rich, dark blood of his sacrifice, and not the puerile, watery piss of unbelievers. Does she?

You’d have to ask her, I guess.

Would you kneel with me, child? You see, I have swept all the ants away. They keep coming back, and I shall sweep them away every time. Will you kneel with me in prayer?

If you used a magnifying glass, you could burn them away. They wouldn’t come back.

Do I know you, girl? There’s something about you.

I have quite a ways to go yet, Preacher, and the day is warming up.

It is warming up for all of us, child. One day, only a few of us will be plucked from the furnace. I hope that you’ll be one of them.

Goodbye, Preacher Eli.

And you know my name? Praise God!

Yes.

Will you kneel with me? Acknowledge your sins to Him? And to me?

Goodbye, Preacher. Remember that I never did you any harm. Remember that, should anyone ever ask. Just say, ‘Actress never hurt a soul, but I still condemned her when she was 17 years old and had nowhere else to go.’ I don’t hold a grudge, but if you could say that to someone sometime, it would mean a lot. I don’t expect you to oblige, but I’m glad I had the chance to mention it.

What are you talking about? I don’t know–

Just somewhere down the road, that would be fine.

Damn you, girl. Get thee behind me, Adversary.

Yes, you’ve said those words to me before.

The churchyard cemetery seemed unchanged, its gravestones thinly illuminated by lemony morning light; it was a conspicuous luminance, one she thought she could very nearly peel from the granite like paint. The flatness of the yard, impeccably groomed, seemed contrived, like an embroidered wall-hanging. It was something Margaret Kempenaar would frame in her sunroom, above tempera-painted milk cans or surrounded by sprigs of fresh lilac.

There was wine, you know, and you know I don’t like the taste, Actress, especially the purple kind, the strong Old World kind. I made a face and I told her so, and that was when she brought out the good gin, the Old Tom gin, from a tiny cupboard above the stove. It was like a secret compartment. And I told her that. ‘Margaret,’ I said, ‘ that is so clever, having a secret compartment in the one place your husband would never think to look, right there above the stove.’ She grinned that big toothy grin of hers, lipstick on her teeth —  the exact color that a whore would wear, by the way — and she said, ‘Welcome to the Mom’s Club, sweetie.’

Ma, you know I don’t care about Mrs. Kempenaar. She’s running a divorcees’ daycare over there.

She’s my good friend, Actress. We talk about all kinds of things.

Custody battles, alimony payments, sordid tales of late-night waitress-boinking.

Don’t be crude. We talk about… the arts… current events….

Name that Gin?

You’ve got a mouth on you, girl. Did you finish your studies?

Yes. You finish yours? How to make the perfect Gin Rickey?

How do you know about these things? Do you drink now?

I know a boy who likes me and I’m practically legal.

It figures. Some 21-year-old ponytail who still lives at home?

Ma, I’m seventeen. You can’t tell me who I can accept liquor from.

What happened to that girl of yours? I thought she was more your type. I thought that was what you preferred, that what’s-her-name, Eloise? Ellie? What happened to her?

I don’t want to talk about her.

Would you feel better talking to Margaret? She likes older boys, too. She might understand.

We just can’t have a conversation anymore, can we, Ma?

This was the peripheral road, long since succumbed to weeds. Actress hoped to hear the tintinnabulation of a Private Property sign bumping against chain links, but there was only a queasy silence. The old fence post was rotted cartilage now, and the sign had disappeared, likely somewhere beneath layers of dirt. The kudzu had flourished, green had ransacked green, and the stink of mangled growth was heavy with fertile heat.

Manny, the Proprietor: Hey, Actress, you know these Mexican kids ain’t old enough, right? Their ID’s ain’t shit. These kids won’t be shaving for another five-six years, you lose your brains? I know it’s only Budweiser, but use some common sense, huh?

The road — really, just a pair of tractor tire ruts worn into the grass — led to Aquila’s Depot, a fancy name for a tin and tarpaper shack that sold sundry items to the locals, specializing in cold beer and filtered cigarettes. If you stood still for longer than a minute, you could hear the Sequatchie River talk behind your back.

Girl, take the broom to these kids, would ya? Look at that kid, does he look like Marlon Brando to you? No? Never mind, ask your mother. Goddamn Army brats, kids are hawking the ID’s from their big brothers’ wallets. Get ‘em outta here before anyone sees.

She worked at Aquila’s in her sixteenth summer, a couple of hours every afternoon, and was paid with a pack of Benson & Hedges 100’s and a twenty-dollar bill every Friday. It wasn’t much, but it wasn’t really work. She got to yell at kids and smoke cigarettes behind the shed. She might see six or seven people all day, mostly boys who tried to distract her from the beer cooler.

That was where I met you. You came to buy cigarettes for your stepfather. I wanted to brush your hair, read you Jane Eyre or something, walk with you to the river, teach you the lyrics to “Come To The Sunshine”: ‘Now comes the morning / Wet with the kiss of midnight’. I’d know right away if you liked Joni Mitchell. That would tell me everything. I wanted to know everything. God, I was so young, so foolish. So young.

Her mother: You’re spending a lot of time with that girl, aren’t you? You know, people will start to–

Never mind, you don’t know her. You don’t know me.

Look at you, almost 17 and you’re suddenly a mystery. How could I be so ignorant?

Never mind.

Bring her by for supper. If you’re such pals, she won’t care.

— Maybe I should, just to confuse you.

You should, but honey, you ain’t confusing anyone.

It was only a creased wooden fence post, its decay swathed in morning glory vines. Her sixteen-year-old hands touched it almost every night when she would unhook the heavy chain that extended across the path. She would drop its bulk into a spill of weeds, and she and Ellie would walk the quarter-mile to Aquila’s in the dark.

No, Ma, the heaviest thing I ever carried was that chain back to its post when Ellie ran off. But you wouldn’t know about that, would you?

She stood barefoot in the hallway, blouse and jeans soaking wet, hair a spiral veil dripping down her back, eyes dark and blurred. Ma stood in the kitchen, staring back. 

I didn’t think it was raining that hard.

I have to leave here tonight, Ma. I have to.

She ran away from you, huh? Did you expect any different? No, you stay here the night. I can see you’re in no mood to talk. Sleep on it. You’re not as frail as you think.

Ma was barefoot too, wearing an uncomfortably short nightgown, veins in her legs plainly visible, hair done up in spiky curlers, a smoldering cigarette between her fingers, studying Actress, watching her try to form words in her mouth. Actress could see a small spill — toe-sized, of watered-down gin, probably — on the kitchen floor by her mother’s foot.

I just tried to drown myself, Ma, but the river wasn’t deep enough.

Come on in here and get out of your wet things. You want a drink? No harm in it now, I guess. The towels in the bathroom are fresh enough.

I have to leave here tonight.

You need to settle down, girl, no need for theatrics.

Ma, do you even know me?

Oh, grow up, Actress. You’re just not that special, you’re only seventeen. Tried to drown yourself, did you? Lord Jesus Christ, you really are an actress, aren’t you? Guess I named you right.

The preacher. He yelled at me, too. Turned his back on me, same as you’re doing now. But you’re my mother. You should know me. All this time, you should know me better!

Towels are clean, Actress. Dry off, get to bed. We’ll talk about this in the morning.

No, I think I

I have never tried harder to be someone, Ellie.

What, Actress? Oh, hey, it’s starting to rain.

A mist of rain and a gleam of moon cast a fine emulsion between them, separating them like a curtain. Actress wanted to be near her, to talk to her in the rain, just wanted to be near her for another minute.

Can we leave now? We’re getting soaked. I don’t see the point.

I thought we could…. Do you know how much? I love you, Ellie. How much I want to be with you? Before you say anything, please just listen 

Oh, Actress, no….

The old place was just down the road, half a mile, maybe, but her memory was treacherous. The road didn’t look very different, other than how small it was. Diminished, really. What if her mother was gone, the house was gone, all of it was gone? What if Ma was just a ghost? Forty years was a long time. What if she was the ghost?

“Andrea, you’ve finally come home,” she heard a voice cry from down the road. “I knew you would. I knew you would come back eventually.”

Photo by Lisa from Pexels

Água de Beber

pexels-mohit-suthar-3935572

so

do you remember me at all?

I was the boy who claimed ownership of the puddles on your front lawn in seventh grade. We both lived on Saharasan Road. When I heard that a man named Sirhan Sirhan had assassinated Robert Kennedy, I misheard and became convinced he lived on our street. I wore my almost-best Sunday shoes when I went to tell you. I stomped a muddy oration on your front porch to announce my arrival. You were not wonderstruck, your father called my father, arrangements were made to stop my ‘bullshit nonsense’. Yet I continued. I told you I couldn’t help myself, I was in mourning. I don’t think I knew what that meant, but it got your attention.

so

you were the girl who wondered if our footsteps would become fossils one day and the aliens would discover that humanity had paws shaped like size-7 Dollar Tree sneakers. We discussed this in February, just before that big ice storm hit. The raw cloth of winter wrapped around us, our snot-clotted coat sleeves bore testament to our locomotion. Why were we in such a hurry to create fossils? The alien part was cool, though. 

so

you remember this, don’t you: 

Sergio Mendes and “Água de Beber”? A piece of warm vinyl from back when we still lived inside the half-life of innocence. When it was cool for me to wear an Illya Kuryakin turtleneck under a sports jacket (cute as hell, you said, and I still question the veracity of your fashion sense).  Herb Alpert was good, Dionne Warwick was better, but Sergio was your thing, a compulsive soft-suede rhythm we confused with desire. 

so

you: baggy cardigans on the beach to cover your midriff during our vodka era.  You wanted to disappear into the sand, I wanted to find something in it. We took Polaroids of the fat Quebecois  tourists and invented Beach Boy haikus: 

So this is the life:

peeling the skinny dead girls

off our old surfboards

The antacids at the bottom of your handbag were plentiful and we ate them like Sweet Tarts.

so

do you suppose our old fossils are ready yet? Please tell me yes.

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