CHRIS FOSTER - REQUIEM FOR A GADFLY
Chris Foster is a son and a brother.
He is very fortunate to have known Jane and the all the rest.
His work has previously appeared in Adelaide Magazine.
Requiem for a Gadfly
He picked his nose and flicked his cigarette. In front of him on the counter of the café was today’s paper, which he read lazily behind the veil of dark sunglasses. It was early in the afternoon and only an hour ago he had phoned the office saying he wasn’t coming in—the knowledge that he’d probably be fired this time aroused in him only the animation to take another pull from his beer. It meant the loss of a steady paycheck sure, but there are only so many ways to regurgitate editorials for semiconductor equipment, and even his hypocrisy had its limits. Behind him 6th avenue flickered sapphire, bronze, gold in the heat, the sound of traffic intertwining with a soft breeze that was pleasant sweeping across the skin and washed a late afternoon matrimony against the long windows of the hotel across the street—somewhere beyond the silver and steel of these buildings he knew the Catalina’s were clawing their ragged curvatures against the teal underbelly of such a cloudless sky.
He took another drink and shook the paper till the folded page was crisp in his hands—something tangible in that crinkling sound has always appealed to his terminal nostalgia, like the sound an old record player makes in the interlude between the needle and the music, soft blissful fade away dropping down, dropping on the ears which strain for that old eternal whistle, that far-flung sound beyond the Twitter shriek, beyond the hysterical pandering for presence—in his left ear the melodies of some new pop song fall from an open air jeep, deep synthetic bass and catchy choruses, “Half of my heart is in Havana, ooh-na-na…” or whatever passes for allurement in its pebble moment in time, falling across the stop light motor to him, waiting for the light to change, its cadence causing his cigarette to tap against the marble countertop. The glass was soon drained and called for another—in the slices of the mirror between the bartender’s limbs, Jordan Chambers silently took in the ghost of himself: black omnipresent sunglasses wrung across his more delicate features, even these long years had not robbed him of his precious vanity, his feminine cheekbones and the posturing black eyebrows, a gauntness running either side of the face and the unruly shag of light hair drifting over—the real crux lies in his horror at the comfort by which he smiles at himself, the clown who watches the water and sees not makeup nor the bulbous insanity of his nose. Bangs made nearly blonde by two years in the sun over withdrawn eyes—one might be tempted to place him in his early 20’s but he was closer to the end of that decade. If he was still young it belonged to someone else’s opinion of his flesh. Near the tremulous cigarette hand, twitching from more than just a car stereo’s rhythm, his pocketbook lay open to the warm air—neat little black lines running into nowhere sunlight, equations, poems, drawings of mysterious faces, secret hieroglyphics—carried around in the breast pocket of his leather jacket—even the leather jacket looked the part of ragged years, fabric peeling and dangling in splotches, shedding black flakes wherever he went, a threadbare vagabond feel to what had once been a graduation present from his mother the day he graduated college back east, ominous skies rolling over, the cathedral where they cheer with raised hands and hats, their own sarcophagus—like everything else, it bled its wrinkles into time. It was, he supposed, the last honest act he could still perform, wearing this dilapidated rag of a life that no longer was, intended for a man he no longer was, and because well, he liked to make himself laugh remembering that line from an old western movie—“Even bad men love their mamas”—the nub of cigarette remaining in his hand suddenly began to burn and he threw it on the concrete floor, smothering its insistent orange glow with his shoe.
“I’ll do another one Abe”, sunglasses pushed back against the eyes, catching the brooding look of a raven-haired girl across the way, 6th avenue blooming with afternoon around her head like a halo—hands go fumbling for another smoke and crinkle the edges of the sports section, “Shot’a bourbon too if you don’t mind”.
Abe, genteel hulk of a bartender from Panama, chuckles without looking up from his polishing of a glass, “I don’t mind Jordan, but the rest of your day might. You comin’ from a funeral or somethin’?”
Only the mouth curled beneath the sunglass horizon, “Heading to one in fact”, cocking his head towards the woman swirling in beauty, “Tell her I died well won’t you?”
From the smallest of smiles emerged the giggling curvature of dimples in her olive face, rivulets of dark hair go running to their own wind-addled repose, delicate strands pushed behind the ear in an attempt at innocence which does not quite reach the eyes, the body in cold dichotomy. He’d seen her around before. Vague clippings of conversation hung just beyond the distance of recollection—another blackout’s orphan, another call against the mind, another routine, another pattern, so worn and yet continued, however drenched in boredom and duty—She is pretty in that tired sense by which you watch the sun go down, she is looking far beyond what she has to offer—he drew slowly at his beer, waiting for nervous laughter to bleed into words.
“So you’re dying are you?” finally came the measured silken voice—light, airy, inviting, wholly welcoming, but balanced with that practiced seduction that only its equal can recognize. “Wanna race?” lifting the beer beyond the glove of his casual smirk. Abe came forth with her drink which she raised in his direction, fire at the edges of those green pools, a challenge burning beneath the pleasantries of two strangers—secretly, he was allowing himself an emotion which he had long learned to drink away—her coy smile betraying the same inclination—“Towards what?”
“We’ll find out…cheers” bourbon hot and angry against his smoke-lanced throat. She came over and took the stool beside him, her elbow brushing his as they leaned over their drink—a dance he unfortunately knew well, and had long lost genuine interest in, only the redundancy of automation gave one any indication he was present at all, a witness only by blinking, he had mastered the delicacy of pretending; relationships bored him for the simple reason they could never be emancipated from the auspices of control—one was always the master and one always the slave, and he had no desire to wear either costume. All of society appeared before him that way: as an intricate, yet ultimately recognizable pattern, of predetermined roles, a parade in which an idealistic singer is always moaning, “Na na nanana na”—everything to its proper category by its proper name—to such a faithlessness persistent in modern life, he had learned to place is his rebellion in Joyce’s three virtues.
The curve of her cheeks were spangled with dark freckles which he found odd against her tan skin, “You don’t remember me do you?” she asked looking up.
“Does it really matter?” both hands jumbling through pockets, procuring a limp cigarette, “You don’t have a light do you?”
Flicking a match between his cupped fingers, they regarded each other across the flame—there are certainties to the human condition which cannot help but be primal reflexes to the underlying, desperate silence, and they chiefly oscillate between lust and war—such it was that this rotation left them with nothing to do but fuck. Morality evaporated beneath the desire of four pupils—this is the way empires rise and are returned to the dirt. He left his tab open with a wink toward Abe—his apartment wasn’t far and soon the smooth softness of her belly was grinding him against the wooden grooves of the front door.
The soft dampness of her tongue slid along his throat and small fingers danced through the curls of his hair as she reached up to him, murmured languages blending from her lips but he wasn’t listening, couldn’t feel the hand on his belt buckle—the Bradford pear in the courtyard, white pedals flowing across red brick waxed richly with the burnt orange glows of hanging lanterns and the dark iron skeletons of low tables where her face drew the silhouette of a flame’s shadow, large almond eyes green pools of sea at a low boil and the button nose wrinkled in laughter, French braid of flaxen hair rolling down a shoulder’s incline, the slight swell of her breasts, white teeth catching the heated glow, plumes of breath rising in the November air, it’s her birthday and they’ve stopped down to the bar after dinner, in an hour they’ll go to the movies but right now she’s surrounded by friends and talking excitedly about a shared something—he thinks she looks younger than when they first started sleeping together, maybe he’s only peeling back layers with everyday he watches her get ready in the morning and brush out her hair in the evening, deepening her skin with each unseen intimacy he learns, and tonight the five years they’ve known each other coagulate in the pale resplendency of her skin before the fire, he’s told her he loves her many times before, but watching Jane across the chilly courtyard bathed in that irradiant aura of easy hours, he thinks he might actually mean it….there she is, turning to him suddenly, smiling at no one else--
“Hey….come on, ditch these pants cariño,” red fingernails are clutching at the waistline of his jeans, shaking his loosened belt through the dim light like a foreboding maraca, in the corner of the apartment sunlight falls thinly from several cracks in the blinds along the smooth flesh of her back where darkly laced bra straps ride the curve of little shoulders, intricate stitch work gleaming ebony across the fleshy hump of her ass which he promptly smacks to jolt himself back into the present rhythm, shake out a memory’s dust, shadow side beneath the mind, he twists a handful of her thick midnight hair pulling her to his mouth—in the sloppy tango of their lips he searches for that pulse between them in which he can recline away from the world, from the stupid and predictable parade of himself, quell the gallery music and the burning oil in the smothering forgetfulness of the flesh, of chemical cause and effect, one lonely reach beyond the veil—but he doesn’t find it, or it won’t come and his eyes flutter open. Sensing this, she looks up, “Take off your sunglasses handsome.”
The lake churning in gold shadows behind her flickering corona, tawny like the Platte river banks after summer rains, rich, thick, still coursing where the wind and the water left them, even through the dark glasses her eyes pierce emerald, past the plastic, the hollow altars where witty nihilism duels with absurdist school lessons for composure in the mask, past the plastic, past the plastic, slips beneath the charismatic armor dead upon sharp thrust and sinks just like a stone to bottom of that universe where he abandoned his real convictions to death....she is reaching for either side of his head in the summer grooves of this thing they have discovered, together….
“No”, he tells her stepping out of his pants, “why don’t you sit on the bed there….”
The girl steps backward and the bed stiffens slightly at the soft plop of her ass, her slender fingers play at the bra strap behind her, “I want to see your eyes when you fuck me.”
He looks at her for a moment—her eyes are dusky and impenetrable beyond the arch where his reflection dances; they are, he figures, what’s left of each other….for a second he wants to care, to know, to remember what it’s like….and passing, only nothing remains. His jaw reflexively clenches, “As sensational as that sounds my dear, you see….they don’t belong to you…and besides, this way, you’re free to pretend I’m who you really want. I’m Italian or faintly Portuguese, rich with muscles and a poetic hard-on.”
An odd hissing sound. She’s dragging her nails across him now, enticing him to form, the other hand applying pressure on his backside to draw him closer, low moans postured for effect and she falls to the bed with him atop her—his head finds the space between her breasts and breaths there, tongue testing the slightly damp flesh simmering with anticipation, curious mix of salt and sweat he’s come to know more as an emotion now than a taste and each time this recognizance annoys him more and more, she’s pleading for him and pulling at his hair, he can feel the marks she will leave along his back and he’s aware of the growing refusal of his dick to be motivated by any of this and at the same time, at the edges of his mind, he sees the dark perimeters of a dream beginning to encroach—desperately he bites a nipple and squeezes the soft mound, sealing his eyes from everything but the sensation and the ripe sounds of her moaning, what’s her name again, Maria, Sophia? He probes with a tentative moaning of “Maria…” and finds his mark, she’s returning the call and dragging the tip of him against her warmth, anxiety giving way to the further invasion of his mounting dream, colors and pictures beginning to emulsify in the blackness, sounds of the past in tiny rumblings, she’s begging now in words but inside his head the defenses are already crumbling, the neurological cocoon weaving around his thoughts, thoughts turning to the unearthed memory of a night in Mexico beneath the moon, several years ago, a forgotten song…..
The wet heat of a Sonoran evening swirled as brown skin glistened in the cheap hanging lights like husky jewels. Thin ribbons of sweat sliding down necklines and smooth foreheads, smells of dried suntan lotion and tequila, innocence lost and raw sexual fervor coalescing beneath the brothel’s lazy ceiling fans, churning like ghosts ships through dead air. Cigarette smoke swam in circles from their fingers, the girls reclining in various poses strewn about the room, dark eyes nodding to the cymbals of a throbbing music seemingly against the lurid tranquility—Rory leaning his broad back against bar with his gargantuan Midwestern laugh lifting his block head towards the ceiling and two senoritas descending with propositions on either side, clear liquid dribbling from his lips—its deep on past midnight and she comes to me through the crowd. She’s small and walks lightly on little feet as she approaches, a star becoming brighter and brighter in her eyes. Standing before me her eyes are silver and she tells me her name is Ariel—upon tiptoes she offers me her hand, “Besa mis dedos Señor….”
I move to speak but she only giggles like rain drops over water and shakes her head in a way young women in any culture know how to do—“Chu want to love me now, sí?
My eyes roved for my old friend Rory and catch purchase of his thick shoulders disappearing down a darkened hallway toward the back, two arms escorting him at the waist—but here is the girl who sees in stars, the sad-eyed priestess of these picked over rooms, destinies exchanged for survival and imprisoned now in the dust-like chambers of stale dreams—she’s waiting for an answer, suddenly vulnerable with the idea I don’t want her, the stars dimming as her face loses it buoyancy and falls to the floor, shoulders turning in on themselves—this poor girl in the throes of that unspoken yet universal human terror: you’re not enough. I couldn’t have refused her anymore than men can refuse death. I kissed her fingers. Those eyes climbed back into the universe and taking my hand in hers, intricately thin, soft and small, she led me past the music into a room with nothing but the sad moon through a dirty window casting its glow on a mattress. An oil lamp sat next to the bed on the floor, unlit. Ariel shrugged out of her worn jeans and blouse, they fell in a swoosh that kicked up the dust from the wood floor, laid down on the old mattress with skinny arms stretched over her head and the moon waxing over that small brown body as if a celestial gown. It was enough to drag even the angels down to Earth and in my mortal heart I wept for the prayer that remained beyond return, to turn back, to go home. She rubbed her belly button and smiled—she knew. The moon lengthened and her arms opened for me. The night shivered somewhere beyond the lonesome walls of these rooms, this flaming house teeming eternal with moments like this, one body grinds to a sweet rhythm as the other slinks with practiced enthusiasm to Hell, her face still girlish in fleshy cheeks and crooking a finger at me now, pert breasts and tiny attentive nipples straining from the smooth incline of her stomach in the shallow hue of coffee, silver eyes offering what she’s been made to understand all men from any avenue of the world want—how many times has she performed this sacrificial ritual, how men fiendish eyes have looked upon her as I am now with blood rushing to their loins and licked their lips, taking from her what can never be returned and not even knowing, how many? She should be somewhere else, anywhere else but here, playing with her belly button and smiling at me—where were the years and the rooms full of flowers and warm adobe houses in the sun, a husband to raise babies with, vacations and small moments of amazement—anything but evenings of flat beer and foreign men on dingy mattresses. Oh Ariel where have you been? Where are you going—where are any of us going besides the unalterable catacombs of death? Ariel let me try again, let me take you again sweet joy and plummet the strange deception of the flesh, let me groan into you and explore the human mystery beneath all this, let me reach into that astral stream of ceaseless deliverance from which life is cast off and returned again, let me find the gates of your thighs that stretch beyond heaven, let me come to you and unweave the shroud. But we both knew I was thinking of someone else—poor little Ariel just laid there smiling sweetly and reached out for me again. I realized I was crying and fell into her arms.
Beneath the Spanish moon, our bodies crumpled together, she began to sing:
“A la rorro Niño, a la rorro ya, duérmete Mi Niño, duérmete mi amor, a la rorro Niño, a la rorro ya, que viniste al mundo sólo por mi amor.
Esos tus ojitos ya los vas cerrando, pero estas mirando todos mis delitos.
A la rorro Niño, a la rorro ya, duérmete Mi Niño, duérmete mi amor, a la rorro Niño, a la rorro ya, que viniste al mundo sólo por mi amor.
Por cuna te ofrezco mi fiel corazón, pues no lo merezco, te pido perdón.
A la rorro Niño, a la rorro ya, duérmete Mi Niño, duérmete mi amor, a la rorro Niño, a la rorro ya, que viniste al mundo sólo por mi amor……”
When she finished even the dust swirled in sadness. The raggedness of life stole over me and forever buried itself in my bones—I knew then, under the frail moonlight and echoes of her song, I would never go home again. The only way was further. She kissed me softly and dressed, twin star pools disappearing into the darkness of the hallway. The Spanish princess returned to the dusk. I laid there for a long time, watching the angels fall across the moon…..
“Take off those fucking glasses baby! Look at me!”
He blinks slowly—she’s frothing underneath him and bucking her hips to meet his, hands clutching at his shoulders, a searing demand implicated in her face. The oily splay of her hair gleams darkly against the bed sheets, the flimsy window light reaches him in squalor and he recoils, blinking through yellow crystals of Gomorrah, ah hell—“I’m sorry”, he’s standing upon his knees in the middle of the bed and running a tentative hand over his head, chest heaving with confusion and the dead sense of surfacing after a deluge below. For a frozen moment he is still the boy who loved Jane beneath the library arch, who never left—then the blood, by gravity, drops through his veins again commissioning the rag routine to surface.
“What’sa matter with you anyway? Why won’t you take off those stupid fucking sunglasses huh?” she stretches manicured fingers towards his face…the lake in golden boughs, Platte river plastic, reaching—he grabs her wrist. Suspended there, they look at each other as the familiar smirk etches across his face. “Ah c’mon, where’s the fun in that?” he stood and picked her clothes up from the floor, “Here.”
“Why are you handing me these?” eyes knitted in immolating anger, he slips into jeans and goes rummaging for a cigarette. An ugliness hangs limpid in the uncirculated air, two minds divert to their familiar shadows and he the more practiced in silence, bony shoulders resigned to the search…
“Eh what the fuck?” Her clothes are pinned like barriers against the sudden modesty of her breasts, “You’re kicking me out?”
He finds one lone smoke in an old pack by the microwave and frowns, turning over his shoulder, “Say you don’t still have that matchbook do you?” An opera of obscenities unfurls in pedals across the apartment, he is imagining birds taking flight like well-cracked peppercorns over the city and shivering at that music playing slowly towards the back of his mind—as usual there’s the well-bred politics of conditioning beyond the zero morality still choking up from somewhere deep where they get you at an early age, but a shrug and his soul does the rest—“Ah well…hey!” instinct ducks the shoe she’s thrown and at quick glance he sees the damn matchbook’s come with it too, she’s still yelling and he supposes she has the right to, “You sunnovabitch, you’re an asshole! Everyone was right about you.”
The match won’t catch on the book once, twice…there’s the sulfur hiss, “Don’t be so dramatic.” Quickly now she’s dressing and fumbling with her remaining shoe, he stoops and tosses back the failed projectile, she glowers evermore, he wants to say something other than destruction but doesn’t, says nothing, and the room rises. Slipping back into heels, “You couldn’t even get it up. What’sa matter, thinking about your next drink?”
“Well, I certainly wasn’t thinking about you.” He’s leaning toward the window, smoking.
“You have some goddamn nerve you know that!” at the door now with knuckles white around the knob, he keeps his sunglass’d eyes toward the window’s flittered haze and Gable’s “Frankly my dear—”
“Oh fuck off!” one last volley from the eyes and the door slams behind her—a long breath slowly fills the apartment. Smoke suffers across the still room. He leans against the window in silence, passing the cigarette between his lips. Across the city the mountains hang darkly suspended in the air like a wave frozen at its crest. Below, the billboard sign for Hotel Congress absorbs heavy columns of afternoon sun—it was here they captured Dillinger and sent him north to die. Betrayed by the tag on his luggage. Now the hotel’s tall windows gleam at night with chic neon, pastel camouflage, well mirror-approved leather covered in iPhone blue, and the latest chattering Friday night calamity, recycled and returned in seven days—outside on the curb, a man in rags is humming, “Don’t cha mi-ind people grinnin’ in yer face…ahhh don’t cha mi-ind people grinnin’ in yer face…”
He stamped out the cigarette on the ledge and flung it towards the streets below. Dull sounds of traffic floated up and mingled with the drooping smell of sweat—what did it matter anyway, the past is nothing but a dreamcatcher, a tapestry collecting every passing hour and inching closer. If each heart carries a curse Jordan’s was of a long and inexhaustible memory, he never wondered why—when the hats sailed through the sky and everyone was drunk on the future he had reflexively yawned, it all seems so well-rehearsed, where it had empowered others he had merely ticked off patterns like one files their fingernails, he had never livened to the colloquial jazz, able to be loved certainly, ambitiously, but burdened with half-hearted empty returns. Out beyond where the sun made the concrete dance he began to see the lake, the dirty mattress, viniste al mundo….and shut the window. The thing to do now was to go back to bar, he could borrow the phone to call Rory. Jordan wondered if he would even remember Mexico, that long night in the Spanish dusk…
Down at the bar he sits at the counter ordering a whiskey neat and rummages through his notebook for old numbers. The old man across the street, a bum now by further inspection, salt and pepper beard tasseled with sweat, croaking, “Innnuh pines, innnuh pines, waaar the sun don’ ‘errver shi-ine…”
Abe is wiping his face with a rag, asking what happened with the girl, “She walked past here man, fuming n’ yelling man, the hell you’d do?”
Jordan polishes off his drink and swirls his glass for another, “Hard to say, hard to say. I may have broke the camel’s back with that one, I don’t know”, sunglasses abridged back up the nose. “But what I really need Abe, right now, is to borrow your phone in the back. How bout it?”
Big jowls glisten like scales as the older man laughs, “Baah! If you didn’t sink all your money into me you’d have yo—“
Colossal shoulders bred through years of Panamanian sunshine turn and lumber towards the back, wringing hands on an apron, “Alright, alright…c’mon back.”
In depth of what passed for Abe’s dingy personal office, Jordan punches in the landline digits. A silver line of electricity he imagines racing across the red desert flats of New Mexico and leeching northward through the barren Santa Fe hills, Albuquerque, Raton south of the Colorado line and the long quest through Kansas hills of waving nowhere to the old avenues of Lincoln, Nebraska, falling now into evening under a mauve sky meeting highway 81 and unspooling through the gates of downtown. It rings twice and clicks, “Hello?”
They are hugging the north shoulder of the lake in a grey afternoon, it’s still early August, and when he slips on the jetty rocks following Rory, the blood oozes from his leg in the mysterious shape of a claw that neither one can account for. “How the fucking the hell do a couple wet stones do that?” Laughter elevates over injury. Rory’s dumping peroxide on Jordan’s outstretched leg, white suds rising with purpose and having their intrinsic moment in the sun, coagulating and dissolving back into nothing, redness sowed with vestiges, chemistry in the warm breeze off the water. Rory gets out the whiskey and they sit there on the shoreline watching the sky come driving down from Iowa in translucent parades of turquoise, pink, and meridian red flung headlong out west to where manifest destiny drowns in the Pacific. Rory hucks a rock that skips and sinks some thirty yards out in slow ripples, breaking the flaming sky into a thousand shards. They were young—Jordan had just graduated college, there was talk of a road trip.
“So what is it then man” Rory finally, with lips fresh from whiskey, “You gonna ask her to marry you or what?”
Jordan laughs and kicks a stone to the water’s edge, tentatively making marks in the tide. He’s into T.S. Eliot now and doesn’t respond. Out beyond the quay rocks the last ripple disappears….
Vocal intonations across memory, deep, flat, devoid of accent, emblematic Great Plains, land where the horizon becomes highways.
“Is this some kind of joke…who is this?” The static drift of expectation, as though all those years wove together into a single irradiant stream and reached out for him now, choking in the sudden flood waters….. “I’m hanging up now.”
“Hey Rory…this is Jordan, uh, Jordan Chambers.”
One can hear the small slip of breath, considering, “That so? Is Jimmy Hoffa there with you too?...I don’t have time for this, goodbye.” There’s distant shuffling….
“Did you get my letters?” a discernible freeze, even breath hangs suspended and the gears crawl forward, “I know there wasn’t a return address on them but I—” he is cut off by the return of that voice into which amalgamations of twenty years pour….
“J-Jordan? Is it really you?”
Something between a laugh and reluctance seeps out, “It’s really me Rory.” Down the hallway Jordan swears he can still hear the old man singing—he tosses his boots on the desk and leans back in the rickety chair, longing for a cigarette and wondering why he called at all, the recognition in his old friend’s voice….beneath the sentry wall, dead flowers lift their pedals toward the distant light. He is becoming rankled the longer these guilty introductions persist—oh the ineluctable prisons of history! Frost’s unheeded warning….
“So you did get them.”
Pause, the silent wasteland between memory and reunion, the swamps where rooms rise in bubbles and burst with skittering images, “Jordan I-ah, I…I did. I would’ve wrote back you know, but…I dunno, I never knew what to say or where to send them….are you still out West?”
Before Jordan can slip into some fallacy, the other man continues, “Still have em’ though. Right here on the coffee table.”
“Under the, oh let me see…six or seven hunting magazines, couple open ammo cartridges in those green tin can-looking tubs, various assortments of vitamins with the yellow CVS lids on them, the binoculars, probably on the far left corner if you’re looking from the couch, electrical bills, one or two of your omnipresent knives, a burger king bag half wadded up with wrappers from somewhere in the last three days, a thin line of bullet casings arranged in a neat row from tallest to shortest along the T.V. facing edge, fish food, a water glass I’m guessing is half empty, your laptop, and possibly that monstrous bong, Goodnight Robicheaux, if I caught you at a good time.”
“How’d I do?”
“7 out of 12. And you even remembered Goodnight…”
“People don’t change man, we just put on different costumes. I’ve missed you Rory.” Another pause. Jordan considers sending a carrier pigeon to see if that big Panamanian bastard has any cigarettes; his eyes zero in on a framed picture of several people standing in front of a house, a child in the center, forever captured in the throat of laughter—Rory’s saying something…”You too man. Even I was starting to forget you’d left….”
Jordan feels his tongue snap before thought, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“What? Nothing, just you know…you’ve been gone awhile man, people tend to forget, people move on…”
What is this mutiny coursing upwards through the veins, what rakish heat kindling in the cells and spreading, vanity fanning itself in dendritic patterns—jealousy? What did he expect and what did it matter? He knew well what happened when the music ended, when circumstance and time unite against the will to hold the world still, the shadows had fallen across his wake, not theirs…..and yet….Even cold philosophy weaves atop a heart’s rhythm…..
“Ah yes, water through the goddamn fingers, eager with a useless curiosity to what’s next…we all watch each other fade…” old and yet easily reclaimed geometry.
The first sigh from twelve-hundred miles away saunters into Jordan’s ear, he nudges the picture down on the desk with his toe. “Well Larry took a job in Kansas City, Rob and Gillian got married…nobody knew where to send the invitation….figured you won’t come anyways. Where the hell have you been man?”
The longest belt of silence of all….from somewhere out beyond where the hallway falls into afternoon’s golden scythe, he thinks he can hear the old man whispering, a thousand years behind, an echo lost and out of time….
“She was at the wedding yeah. She looked….ah, well…”
Without thinking he picks up the picture frame again, child of laughter…. “How’d she look Rory?”
“She looked happy.”
The silence returns—in a stillness, the old graveyards rise in Jordan’s mind: 9th and E street in the porch light evening, pocketed amber and yellow dialing all along the wooded neighborhood boulevards in downtown’s southern afterthought, the capitol building rising in Classical white, a living room ensconced with lamp shadings, they are piled around on a sofa and ruddy chairs, orange crates and boxes of unpacked books, Robert’s fooling around on the refurbished and dented piano keys while Marlo and the other roommates cajole the scene in a lazy Texas hold’em game, Rory’s a ball of drunken laughter on the floor, grabbing at his knees, and she’s in the kitchen, just outlined in a soft profile through the open door he can see into and sees nothing else…this is the night he will ask her out, this the night adrift among the collection of those starry summer tides before time’s persuasion fell upon them one by one, these are the nights still hip to mystery--
“Hey listen, do you remember that trip we took to Mexico?” An engine groans down Federal Highway 15, the desert unfolds on either side in white dunes absorbing miles of heat and returning it in sporadic glances aimed at the ebony asphalt, puncturing its otherwise perfect monopoly, overhead exists nothing—on the dashboard an outstretched map draws dials of the sun in the elevation lines not smothered by a crisscrossed pair of calves with sandaled souls flipped toward the road, an orphan breeze from the Gulf strays through the open windows and finds cool purchase across their bare chests, Rory has the neck of Goldschläger tipped to his lips and it’s a sight to watch the gold-spangled liquor jostle translucently in a glass prism of the sun—twenty-nine miles to Ímuris flashes by in aluminum and dissolves into the rearview mirror…
“Mexico? Christ man that was awhile ago…you been down there since?”
He’s fighting old habits, annoyed his old friend doesn’t spring back as quickly to memory’s flame, he swallows to push the feeling down—what’s the matter with him? Again he flips the picture over and fidgets with his boot heels. “No no, I mean do you remember that final night, when we were nearly broke and wandered into that whorehouse? We shared our last smoke in the street and counted our money, and then you said something like ‘Well why not?’”
A murmur in the throat winds into vibrato laughter, “Ha! yes yes, beautiful girls, the younger ones I mean…ashahacha!” and then quickly straightening back into well-practiced practicality, “What uh, what brings that up Jordan?”
That moon hangs so richly forlorn over the mattress, her thin fingers run darkly through his hair, pero estas mirando todos mis delitos…..
Borne back, Borne back….
A shadow slides across the hallway as though to ignite another cigarette surge—secretly, straining for the bum’s voice…. “I heard her sing man. I heard her sing.”
The star burning as eyes, soft Indian eyes, pools of the Silver Mandala, burning between the shadows…
“What’s clear to me now Rory, is that I can go no further. You know, the brain is aware of itself…when man becomes aware of himself, of what he is, he becomes aware of his limits. And it is precisely here, at the discovery of my limits, that I cease to desire anything at all. Like the prisoner denied release…the only real freedom I could’ve ever found….” he trails off, he cannot hear the bum.
In the silence, in the silence, we are forever waiting….
“Maybe you should come home man….” a hint of reproach echoes, “or have you forgotten where that is?”
He thinks how useless such hegemony is in a land whose dark stoicism absorbs all the agonies of human behavior in a vast and impenetrable silence, where even stones snap beneath the sun. “I haven’t forgotten Rory…I just can’t remember.”
“C’mon, no man is an island.”
“Oh please, every man is an island….our deaths separated by an ocean that never ends.”
Both men’s voices dribbled out, a distanced immeasurable by miles widened—one of the great human tragedies lies in the mind’s muzzling of the heart. Rory for his part, was being visited by the unearthed remembrance of his friend’s ugliness—rarely do we remember a person, a life, in equal truths, the mind reaching toward the reflection of its own belief. In the continued dearth of silence he was surprised to discover his proclivity to feel sorry for the man on the other end had dampened—before his mind Rory swam into the visions of Jordan’s callous laughter, that high-pitched cackle flashing off teeth and sideways grins, eyes falling on victims with a well-camouflaged but no doubt alive distance which the laughter never quite breached—across the single vision of Jane at his door, running makeup, the day after Jordan had disappeared.
“Yes”, he said finally, “I remember Mexico.”
Suspended there, stilled for a moment in the river of time, the two men considered all they had ever been to each other—over a telephone wire two worlds were retied, however doomed by a moment’s frailty.
“Well”, it was Jordan who spoke first, “I ought to be going.”
Rory closes his eyes, “Seems that way.”
“Alright Jordan”, before he could add ‘take care’ the line went dead.
Jordan went back to the bar and sank into his seat. The afternoon had dipped to a bronze climate and moved slowly over the skin. Everything felt thick, submerged. Out beyond the Catalinas’ eastern shoulder a monsoon was drawing dark threats in the sky. He thanked Abe for the phone call and ordered another whiskey. The dull weight of his head found flimsy relief in his hands—with eyes shut he again heard the old man’s weary vigil.
“Ima-gazzun’ out da window of’da Sa-aint Ja-ames Hotel….no’won can seeng da blues like Blind Willeeee McTell….”
He lifted his eyes to the sound and in doing so noticed the silver glint of car keys a couple seats down the bar, beside a perspiring drink—its apparent owner standing out nearer to the sidewalk chattering into a cell phone. He’d seen the guy pull in earlier, that black mustang down the block by the meters was his. Like church bells, they rang in argentate melodies before his eyes, the marble bar top moving like a sea beneath. Whiskey ran over dry lips and settled below, sunglasses masked a rising inclination—when Abe turned, he could be gone. Who would realize with enough time to stop him? Miles of open road, miles in which to dream, miles to go--
pero estas mirando todos mis delitos…..
Green almonds immolating from pale fresh, porcelain cheeks, rose bud nose twitching inside a giggle, soft curve, pulsing heat just beneath, effortless, as in a wind, washing outward over an ocean toward the distant kingdom…the lessons in mermaid hair…flaxen and unforgiving….
He thumbed several bills on the bar and walked into the afternoon—whatever designs he may have had remained sealed behind dark lenses. The keys held their note till his last leather reflection disappeared around the corner. Jordan paused before the old man and looked down, a face weathered with sun and time gazed back. It was understood the man was looking right through his sunglasses. For a corporeal second, it seemed he was about to smile—then bruised lips bequeathed a curious testimony:
“A-aaand grace, oh grace’a my fears relieeeved…how preescious did tha’ grace appear, tha’ hour I feeerst b’lieeeved!”
It was at that exact moment, the ragged enunciation on “Believed” that Jordan felt a bowling ball smash into the back of his neck and send him careening toward the pavement. Bright galaxies bloomed in the darkness of this vision, an abyss, opened and swallowed him whole. Warm pavement boiled against his forehead. From a distant nowhere he heard his name in a foreign tongue, deep, carnal, and dripping.
“You like that motherfucker? You like that? Get up! Disrespectful little pissant…nobody treats my fucking sister like that, get up!”
Rolling onto a shoulder, Jordan turned and pushed his glasses back up his nose. Squinting into the eclipse standing above him, Jordan beheld the dome-shaped head of a mustached and tattoo-laced Hispanic man sweating rage in every ballooned heave of biceps and gnarled shoulders, white tank top flecked with what Jordan assumed was his own blood, and behind this hulking assailant, the smirking eyebrows of the girl he’d thrown out of his apartment.
“Oh hello Maria. And here I thought we’d parted so amicably—” a heavy paw reached forth and lifted Jordan by the shirt. In the man’s eyes, a certain destiny danced, vibrating corneas inside a pale orchestra—his fat knuckles tightened around Jordan’s collar.
“You think you can treat my sister like that?” spit flying in shards from his mouth, “You’re not a man. I want to hear it, say I am not a man.”
Jordan decided instead, to return the favor and sent a sizeable spit-wad hurling into the man’s face, finding its mark smattering between the eyes—“I’m sorry”, he’s saying, “but I must decline your invitation to join the circus.”
The grubby hand at his shirt pulled back and then snarled forward, sending Jordan with speed into the building at his back. Bone met brick and again he was returned to the sidewalk. A boot met his ribs once, twice, with decisiveness. His arms did no good and were blasted into bruises as well—another volley sent the sunglasses bouncing away and suddenly naked eyes danced unsteady upon the old bum’s abandoned guitar case—the wrinkled troubadour had disappeared down the street.
“Say it you fucking slug! Say it!”
Sweetly came Maria, “Make him say it Ramón, make him say it.”
Another swift encouragement to his stomach and sickly, Jordan thought he heard a small crack, confirmed not a second later by an upwelling of pain beneath his ribs. It occurred somewhere in the adrenaline-propped up back of his mind that this gargoyle might finish the job before someone finally called the police.
“Fucking say it!” Another one slammed home. What he fancied might be a burp, left Jordan’s mouth as blood. Cathedral lights burst at the disintegrating edge of his vision. One more steel toe threw him momentarily airborne, a parachute of blood serenaded his return to the sidewalk. Darkness closed in at the corners.
“Say it!” and this time knuckles rammed into the side of his face, a new front had been opened up. The blitzkrieg rained. “Say it!”
“Make him say it Ramón.”
He used another kick’s propulsion to nudge closer to the guitar case, trying to peer inside his face was beaten away by another volley of caged fists—time to move—“Agh”, a hand offered in defense, coughing abound, “Agh argh…ok ok, c’mere. I’ll say it, I’ll say it.” Through one working eye Jordan watched the fist screaming towards his nose freeze—the man’s eyes blinked in momentary confusion then narrowed.
“Let’s hear it.” An article of satisfaction that Jordan assumed was a smile passed over the girl’s face—Ironic, he thought, she looked just like that when she was fumbling with my pants…
During this delicate interlude Jordan’s hand had been slowly working its way inside the guitar case—fingers finally curling around what he’d been hoping for, god bless the homeless.
That paw lassoed his collar again, that mustache twitched with victory, “Say it pendejo, now.”
Jordan moaned and gurgled, “I…mouth, can’t….come here…please, please…I’ll say it.”
Ramón, as it were, bent over, his face right in Jordan’s, the furthest whiskers of his mustache nearly in reach of Jordan’s nose, “Now make my day bitch.”
“With pleasure”, and what remained of Jordan’s strength lifted the brick from the suitcase and slammed it with vengeance into the man’s temple, flesh buckling to bone and erupting. It was the second blow, delivered a moment later, that sank like butter into the skin. It was over after that and Jordan fell back. Around the man’s silenced head, scarlet begonias bloomed.
The immediacy of her scream plunged the whole sidewalk into a percussive dovetail—she fell upon the body in a wail that echoed higher than downtown’s steel empires and rose within the sky till, sound by diminished sound, it dissolved out near the end of the atmosphere. He rolled onto his back and for a moment let the sky, turning with uncertain clouds, occupy him—turning a cheek to the cement, written in the unshakable reflection of the man’s blood, he watched merry-go-rounds of red and blue go ironically whirling in the sun.
todos mis delitos…..in the stoned hours just before dawn, her dress hits the floor for the very first time, she is patient where he is nervous and yet-unvarnished blue goes slithering amongst the city…..
Well past midnight, the glow of her porch light beats back against the dark. “No I don’t understand! Why are you leaving?” Her eyes are quivering, wet, and enraged; she is wearing the summer dress he bought her in Chicago, “Do you not love me?”
In the August wind he shuffles against the darkness—across the lawn where fat lanterns glow a soft music drives, voices dance between laughter and exclamation, mosquitoes zap into death sizzling; what explanation is there for curiosity? He just looks at her…..just looks at her. And this is what finally loosens her eyes……if god is anything, he is the rain that fell that night. He is the black water all through the city….
They have his hands behind his back now, they are asking him questions, the sister’s sobs are like skeletons clacking in the wind—through his one eye he can see a staggered ring of onlookers closing in, cell phones held out like monuments before them.
“I gotta One-Oh-One copy, a One-Oh-One. Request ambulance immediately.”
He says nothing beyond blood smattering gargles. Even beneath the gallery of phones clicking, the police, the crowd, and the backseat glass, his eyes kept still upon the spot on the sidewalk, long after the ambulance had gone, where that scarlet ring dried upon his broken sunglasses. All he would ask is that they do not ask his opinion. In the slamming of doors and lights before him, in the shuffling of clothing and the cold metallic groan, in the dead night of this strange freedom, it is this that he would wish to keep.
For a week he had no desire to use his phone call. A lawyer came to see him, followed by a detective. In the cold white room, in the blinding phosphorescence, beneath the walls where they play with fate, the man sat in a black suit. His tie knotted immaculately, his fingers meeting symmetrically in a V upon the table; this is the man who as a child learns that evil is an endless corpse to bury and remains faithful—or at very least, to the necessity of such beliefs. He is persistent behind a stare that could be anyone’s.
“You do understand, Mr. Chambers, the gravity of this situation...” above the sealed door the camera turns slowly over the same scene it’s been terminally commissioned for, always the same suspended lives clasping at themselves, one in the rhythm, one to Hell…left, right, again. In the middle of the table a tape recorder sucks the air from the room.
“Mr. Chambers....” Beyond these walls….beyond these walls where the fields run gold at days recline, beyond these walls where the past, the future, and the present are right this minute crystallizing into an invisible, indifferent dream….
He looks up into a face proudly desperate, sculpted by manuals and politics, drunk on a hereditary promise, “You know…I think I’ll take that phone call now.”
Dead metal stares back at him. In the curved handle his face is a dark shape without form, relaxed, elastic shadows, no more to groan and want. He sits there for awhile. Rory’s voice is far away, and reaches him in whispered tides. It carries the salt of a great distance and at his feet it leaves the old shells by which Jordan once heard the world.
“What the hell do you mean you’re not going to fight it? It was self-defense for chirssakes!”
“Well Rory, the way I see it…if not for this, than for the rest. Sort of like, you know, time by forgetfulness regained. Besides my friend, America has no appetite for innocence anymore….it dines exclusively on guilt. Bon Appé-a fucking-tit.”
An exhale reaches out, “Jesus Christ, what about justice?”
“What the hell is that?”
Later, when evening has disappeared into darkness and warmth has retreated across the desert, when the only sounds are the metallic sliding of doors and the midnight agonies of men who cannot dream, Jordan sits against the wall of his bunk and closes his eyes. His hand slides quickly over the silver keys—he is flat-out of over falling distances in which the sun recoils behind, he is leaving it to the vultures, to the dust, there are no stars out here where the earth falls into the horizon, into the gentle rise of yellow hills adorned with the old signs, into Sunday morning windows yawning down O Street, into the Salt Valley pines, into those cobblestone Haymarket storefronts, into the ease of afternoon fishing lines cast like stones upon the summer lakes of Pawnee, Branched Oak, Wagon Train, Conestoga, into the faces the flames reflect, into the evening jazz of insects, into the lonely chicken wire fences oxidizing along the highway, into the silos, into the land that stretches on forever into the American heart, into the rooms where candles dripped, into the dimples where memory slipped, into surrender, her Earthly crypt—I am going East, I am going East…