Shem The Pen is a writer and musician in Pittsburgh, PA. Twitter: @dropthemichaiku Blog: shemthepen.com
The upstairs window was darkened with the gray flashing of the television. It was probably near eleven. I always visited at the worst times. So drunk and careless that I'd wake her up. Her sleepy eyes and sweet forgiving face in the doorway. Once I banged on her door well after two AM carrying a boombox blasting Redman's "I'll Beee That." It just seemed like a good idea at the time. But it woke her kids and her neighbors. I sent her flowers and some toys for the kids the next day. I was always buying her stuff - I'd take the train to NYC on my day off to look for records or candles or trinkets, just something to surprise her. I cared for her. I suspect that deep down I must have felt unworthy of her friendship, that I had to either keep proving myself or just making up for my mistakes.
I knocked and listened for her feet on the stairs.
"Hey there," she said.
She was radiant in cloth pajamas open at the top and bottom so you could see her belly. Her eyes were pink and I could tell that she was a little high too. She was funny when she got high, cursing with gangsta tough talk to strangers. She didn't take any shit.
"What happened to you?"
"It's nothing. Those hippie kids, Danny and Grant and them, started some trouble." We hugged and kissed and she looked at me suspiciously as she held my arms. "And you had to finish it? Since when do you fight?"
I started to say something but just trailed off, shrugged, tried to smile. My high had kicked in with skipping frames so these kinds of tough questions tripped me up.
"C'mon silly," she said.
"How're the kids?" I asked, but my drunken voice was so loud she shushed me and I switched to a whisper mid-question.
"They're sleeping. But Krissy's a little brat. She's a diva already. Allen is the man of the house. He helps load groceries, cleans up after himself. Sometimes. He tries his best."
Her living room was a healthy sort of mess - toys strewn all about, a playpen in one corner. Crayon drawings pinned up on the walls. There was an old gray pullout couch across from the TV cabinet full of children's DVDs. All kinds of mystical decorations - little buddhas, jade elephants, exotic candles. A rug with an ancient Indian design hanging from one corner. A counter with baskets of fruit and stacks of mail, opening up to the little kitchen.
"Allen just made me a calendar in school. He drew all the pictures himself."
The TV was showing an episode of the old Monkees tv show. Silly stoner sitcom
humor. "Okay you caught me," she said. "They show these at night and I can't help it."
"No it's cool."
Stuff like that was never on my radar but it's why I loved her. One night we'd gotten really high and watched the Monkees Head film. It's a cool flick, a real gonzo art piece. Even old Frank Zappa is in there. I was impressed. She was always into something unexpected, she made the mundane seem cool. She'd get some recipe for a pie which she'd mess up and it would turn out all wrong with dark misshapen crust, or she'd build and paint a misshapen toy box, a coat rack that would fall from the wall. I just admired how fearlessly she jumped into anything, on her own terms.
"Look at your arm," she said.
"Ah, it's not that bad."
I sat down on the couch while she went off to get some wet paper towels. I felt something sharp and found a toy truck underneath me.
"Here we go," she said.
I tried to focus on her as she carefully cleaned the scrape on my arm.
"Thanks. It's good to see you."
When she was done, she headed across the room for her rabbit, Davy Jones. Cradling it like a baby, she sat down on the couch under her crossed legs. It was comfortable in her arms, nose twitching.
"Here he is," she said. "Who's that? Who's that crazy guy over there?"
I reached over and pet its head. "Hey, Davy."
"This is my buddy. I have to be so careful. They chase him all around. It stresses him out like crazy."
"I'm really sorry I barged in like this."
"No it's fine. Dude, what's with the outfit?" She tugged at the frayed ends of my makeshift shorts. "No, actually I think I can figure it out."
"I went straight to the bar after work. 'Give me a shot of Jack and a pair of scissors.' One of those deals."
"I remember when you used to wear that UPS uniform you found at Goodwill. And you colored on the back."
"It said 'Dutchie's Bud Delivery.' That was kind of goofy."
She got back up and went off to the kitchen. I watched her pour wine and ice in two plastic cups. I held out my finger to Davy Jones. He was sniffing a dried spill on the couch. My high had settled in nicely, a warm numbing glow. It seemed better to be stoned and well behaved than too drunk and sloppy.
"So what happened?" she said.
"Ah, it was kind of Bison's thing."
"Oh fuck that guy."
Bison was friends with her ex-husband Josh, another local burnout musician. Their band was in a perpetual state of flux, mostly just drunken hangouts and house party gigs. That's fine when you're in your early twenties, but they were all in their late thirties. Like me.
"He's a snake," she said.
She reached across to put the rabbit back on her lap. She wasn't wearing a bra, and I couldn't help a peak at her breasts. She was pretty uninhibited anyway. The aroma of burning joss stick on the table permeated the air. A few old roaches in a decorative opium ash tray.
"Hey, have you ever been to the little reggae shack up Water Street?" I asked.
"Yo Irie? Yeah, all the time. I get shirts and stuff there. They have a DJ booth in the back and the guy is always spinning some crazy shit. They're chill as hell."
"You know what? Every store should have a rasta DJ spinning. I'd love to go to the bank or the supermarket and hear some Lee Perry or something."
"Hell yeah. I've taken the kids there before, they love it. Those guys all know me over
"I bet they do. Pretty little white girl. Praise Jah."
She got up and found a CD from a tower in the corner. "Remember this?"
"Kaya. That's a good one."
"Remember when we played this over and over when we drove out to the Pine Barrens? We all took mushrooms and built a fire."
"Yeah, I was bugging out on that fire. I kept saying, 'Fire was caveman television.' Like that was some big revelation."
She laughed. "It was. You know, I just talked to Paula the other day. She's a dental assistant up in Westfield. She's doing good."
That wasn't so great. I would have rather heard about old friends in trouble, in decline. This was not out of malevolence but just for my own ego. Everyone passing me by. And by staying the same, I was falling further behind. I'd put my focus in all the wrong places. There was a time when it seemed perfectly acceptable to be a mad drunken poet wandering the bars. But now – not so much. Can it be that it was all so simple then?
"I've been working on lots of poems and stuff lately."
"That's good," she said. There was some pity in her flat smile. "What about school? Are you still thinking of going back?"
"The way you always talk about your reading and stuff, you'd be such a good teacher. Do know how cool you'd be? I would have loved to have you for a teacher."
"I love you too," I said. Took a big gulp of wine. "Maybe I'll open up my own school. I'll teach classes in Finnegans Wake and Wu Tang solo albums."
"How's your work going?"
"It's okay. They're pretty cool at the office. It's better than waitressing. I don't miss that at
"I don't blame you."
I stared out blankly at the TV. The Monkees were cleaning their apartment in fast motion.
"I can't believe you got in a fight," she said. "I almost wish I could have seen that. Remember that time outside the Beach Club, we got away from those guys you pissed off. They wanted to kill you."
"They were marines or something. I got into this anti-war trip with them. Being a real asshole about it too."
"You ran pretty fast out there. You were ready to leave me behind. And then when we get to my car, you start yelling back."
"Yeah that sounds like me. I swear I didn't even want to get into this fight stuff tonight. I just went out to watch or help or whatever. And I got blindsided, this guy knocked me down like a truck."
"I'd ask if you want to smoke but you look pretty lit already.”
"Yeah." I was focusing on the jagged reds in one of the crystals on the table. It looked like half a grapefruit glittering with frozen stones. "Hey, you're still into this crystal shit, huh? Does that really help?"
"'This crystal shit?' Yeah, I guess that's one way to put it."
"No I didn't mean it like that."
"I know, I'm kidding. Yes, I am still into that stuff but every time I try to explain it, I can see you working on some smart ass response. There, you're doing it now."
"I really want to know."
"No you don't. You're sweet for pretending though."
"I don't know, I just feel like I need something like that in my life. Like I'm missing what everybody else has. That stuff probably wouldn't work on me though. Nothing does."
"You know, I started seeing this psychologist," she said.
"You did?" My heart sank. I just hated the idea of her getting involved in a relationship.
"Some of it's covered by my insurance so it's not bad. My mom watches the kids most days anyway."
"Oh," I said. "Wait, why are seeing a psychiatrist?"
"Psychologist. I don't know. Lots of reasons."
"Lilly, you know you're perfect already, right?"
"Right," she muttered. She looked down. "I don't know. It just gets hard sometimes."
"Are you sad?"
"I'm not sad. I'm just alone here. I want something better for Allen and Krissy. I want them to have a house and a yard, all that stuff. It sounds corny, but whatever, it's important. I'm still borrowing from my mom for my bills as it is. And Josh is barely half a father. Like singing Black Sabbath songs in the bars a couple nights can support anything but his own bullshit. The kids know he's bullshit too. Allen does, I think. He needs a father. They both need so much more than I give them."
Her voice sort of cracked. She looked down at her cup. I wanted to her hug her but I had the sense it would come out wrong.
"I'll always help you if I can, Lilly."
She just kept nodding. There were tears in her eyes.
I felt this helpless longing fall over me. I saw with absolute certainty that there was a world somewhere where we had a life together. Where we lived and breathed each other. I think she saw this too. Or she had at one point and had since abandoned that dream. Now my presence was just another man in her life who would keep letting her down.
"'You know, 'Life just goes on and on, getting harder and harder,'" I said. "That's from the Stones song. 'Indian Girl.'" Silence. "Good song on a bad album. Emotional Rescue.”
Her expression was flat, as if she hadn't heard me. She was almost talking to herself. "You don't know what it's like. You don't have all this hanging over you. The kids and
everything. You could do anything, you're free. You don't have to stay around here."
The wine was gone and I felt a heavy sadness in the room. It was oppressive, beyond my control.
"Look, I'm sorry for bothering you. I shouldn't have come here so late."
"You're not bothering me, but you just pop in at some crazy times. I mean, I love you but you're like a little vampire. How about normal hours once in a while?"
"Oh, please don't do that. That guilt shit. Allen's started doing it too, he got it from his father. I'll put up with a lot but I don't need another martyr in my life."
"I'm - I mean I'm not sorry."
The room was spinning. That's the problem with wine, you gulp it down like beer and you're in trouble. The worst hangovers too. I sort of swayed and almost felt like passing out.
I took the cup to the kitchen, rinsed it. Then put my face under the faucet, wet my eyes, sipped some water. The fridge was covered with pictures of the kids, her and her friends. Little magnets of cartoon animals, silly phrases.
She was there behind me and we hugged and I kissed her cheek. Then her ear, then her
"Okay, okay," she said. She smiled sweetly. "Get some rest please?"
"Yeah, thank you." I started to say something else and then just turned to leave.
I descended back down the staircase. After I got outside, I stopped and took out my little notebook. I ripped a page and scribbled: "You are the river of the world. I see my true reflection when I look into you. Thanks for the water and wine."
I folded it up and slipped it under the door. Then went out into the night. I had to piss like crazy and I didn't want to ask to use her bathroom. I unzipped openly at the bushes just down from her place. The parking lot was full now, even those places that were empty when I arrived. Everybody settled in. No space left.