Alexander Jones has placed short fiction in Akashic Books, Bastion Magazine and Crack the Spine, among other publications. His poetry has appeared in Down in the Dirt and Juice Magazine and his nonfiction has been anthologized by 2 Leaf Press. He has a BA in English/ Creative Writing from SUNY New Paltz and a day job as a metal fabricator. He lives in Jersey City.
Art shackled his bicycle to the chain link fence off the pedestrian path in the park and sat down on the bench next to Ray. Ray, slouched against the thick wooden slats, took a hand out from the pouch pocket on his hooded sweatshirt and the two lightly touched knuckles.
Art shrugged, adjusting himself on the cold wood. “You know. Same shit.”
Ray nodded. “I know.”
They both stared across the path at the dirty river and the twinkling lights of the city on the far shore. They listened to the muted traffic sounds of horns blaring and engines revving from the highway overpass in the sky above them. Car exhaust drifted and settled to the ground, the smell less burnt and acrid at this distance. Layered beneath was the sweet autumn odor of rotting leaves, signaling the impending winter.
Farther down the path, an old man with pock marks on his face cast a line into the gray water. Otherwise, they had the park to themselves.
“What’s he gonna catch, fishing this river?” Art asked.
“Cancer.” This joke never got old.
Art slapped Ray’s thigh and rubbed his hands together. “So. Whatcha got?”
Ray grinned. “You’re feeling it? You want it?” Then, with a slight teasing edge to his voice, “You need it?”
“Yeah, I want something. It’s cold out. Something to lift the blues.”
“But do you need it?”
“Stop busting my balls.” But he had no animosity, no annoyance. Just another part of their little ritual dance.
Ray shrugged. “Alright.” He wagged a finger, “You know, you do too much of this shit and you won’t remember-”
“And I won’t remember who I really am anymore,” Art singsonged. “Right.”
Cracking his knuckles, Ray reached under his sweatshirt and came up with a worn brown leather satchel about the size of a hard cover book. He slowly unzipped and flipped it open.
Ray called it his twonky. He’d named it after a science fiction story, he had once explained.
On one side, snuggly tucked into little pockets were vials of various sizes filled with a rainbow of colored gasses. Some labeled, some not. All firmly stoppered. On the other side were different sized empty vials and ampules, a pipette, a baggie of spare stoppers, some notes scrawled on scraps of paper.
Ray pawed through the collection of colored vials, pausing at a yellow one. “A kid, playing with a Labrador puppy.”
“You serious? That’s a commercial for laundry detergent or something.”
Ray smiled. “You like to bike. How ‘bout a cyclist in an important race? Bought it a week ago. Tour duh France. Last few miles, exhausted, wanting that trophy so bad. Exhilarating. Inspirational shit. You can feel the wind in your hair.”
“I feel the wind in my hair right now,” Art answered, a smoggy breeze wafting down from a tractor trailer overhead. “Besides, that sounds like it’s been used a few times already. Third, fourth generation. Right?”
Ray lit a cigarette. “Now who’s busting balls?” He smoked. “But you’re right, it’s been passed around a few times, but it’s still pretty clear. Have I ever steered you wrong?”
Ray tossed his cigarette. “I’ve got something special. A girl.”
“A woman.” Ray nodded his head. “Not just fucking her. An entire relationship with a beautiful woman. I got it from one of the washouts down at the university. Not some blowup doll fantasy, either. A real relationship.”
Art licked his lips. “Is it fresh? No thin spots, no hiccups? How much?”
“It’s been a while, you know? I’m reluctant to part with her.”
“I thought you were a terror junkie. You getting soft?”
“I haven’t got a hundred.”
“There’s an ATM at the bodega.”
“I don’t have a hundred. Besides, remember that guy tortured by the Chinese secret police? I gave that to you for practically nothing.”
“Yeah." Wistful, he said: "That was something. Only thing better was what I got from that Holocaust survivor in my mother’s apartment building.” He tittered. “Good times.”
Art didn’t want to hear about that again. “So you owe me.”
“True. But I’m not letting go of her for just money alone. On principal. Nothing scary ever happened to you?”
“I OD’ed once.”
“Coke or Heroin?”
Art smiled at him. “Speedball. Best of both worlds, right?”
Ray shook his head. “Not for me.”
Art looked over at the river, at the ripples extending from a bridge pylon in the center, lapping against the stone barrier at the edge of the park. The gray brown water held a shifting reflection of the city’s lights. A protracted blast from a car horn came from the bridge.
Ray touched his shoulder, and when Art turned, gave him a glass vial. About three quarters full, it held a coppery red smoke. Art shook it and the smoke languidly responded to the motion. “Dense.”
“Yeah, it’s a whole relationship, like I told you.”
“It’s red,” Art said, the heavy smoke drifting as he shook the vial again.
“Hey, red’s the color of passion, am I right?”
Returning the vial, Art said, “So what, then?”
“Fifty. And something horrible.”
Art dug through his pockets and handed Ray a wad of money. Then, touching his chin, he leaned his head back against the cold wood of the bench, eyes closed. The dread of coming home from school, walking around the block a couple extra times, waiting for his father because his father used to beat him with a doubled over belt. Getting caught with the belt buckle a few times. He’d pissed himself once, and pissed blood after the beating he caught for pissing himself in the first place. As a teenager, he’d broken into a junkyard to find a quiet place to get high, but a Rottweiler started chasing him. He remembered that clearly.
Opening his eyes, looking out at the water, Art thought of it. His best terror. Better than the mangy dog, or the belt.
“You got something?”
Art nodded. “It’s good.”
“It better be. You only gave me 43 dollars.”
“It’s a fair trade.”
Ray held up the vial. Sunlight caught and projected the smoky red color onto his washed out sweatshirt. They both stared at it and Ray danced the vial around, the reflected red light shifting around on his shirt. “Want to take a sample?”
Art shook his head. “Have you ever steered me wrong?"
Ray produced an empty vial from the twonky.
Ray handed him another empty vial, half the size of the one holding the relationship.
Art rubbed his eyes and stared at the churning river water, remembering everything, fastening on to details, his emotions, his beating heart, playing it over in his head and over again, over and over, faster and faster. When the memory started to spin, Art took it into the palm of his hand. He gently rolled it into a ball and squeezed it, compressed it to the size of a dinner roll and then smaller to the size of a golf ball, then smaller still to the size of a vitamin pill, careful not to lose anything, careful not to fracture it or fold it too many times, careful not to melt it with his body heat, and when he had the memory just right, he placed it right on the end of his tongue and drew in a deep, diaphragmatic breath.
Uncapping the vial he exhaled sharply through his mouth and the memory flowed into the tube. Art swiftly covered the opening with his thumb and then pushed in the rubber stopper.
The color inside the clear glass was the same color as the river water.
“That was good. You’re getting to be a pro.”
“I found a book about yoga and meditating. Expand your mind, control your center. Shit like that.”
Ray handed him the red vial. “Maybe you’ll get tantric with the girl.”
Overhead, rush hour traffic crawled. The old man had caught two fish, flopping around in a sack at his feet, and was loading up the line again. They watched as he cast.
“You wanna do them together, or wait till you get home?”
Art shrugged. “Whatever.”
“Let’s do ‘em here.”
They touched their vials together, toasting.
“To pleasant memories.”
Ray popped out the stopper, held the vial to his nose and sniffed all of it in a single shot. Art opened his and savored the smoke.
The campus gallery doesn’t open for another hour, but there are already people inside. They’re standing around and talking, pointing and gesturing at things, smiling or maybe trying to appear erudite as they hold forth on this or that. The gallery strikes the right blend of open space and bright lighting without being harsh or sterile. Those lights are extra soft fluorescents, I know because I’d installed them a week ago, nervous at the top of a twelve foot ladder.
In some places the floor is polished wood, in others it’s a sepia toned carpet which I’d vacuumed and steamed earlier in the day. I smile, the way I usually do when I get assigned to work in this area of the school. The paintings are someone’s work, displayed in the gallery, and the gallery display is my work. I stick around for the exhibits; a part time chemistry undergrad doesn’t get enough exposure to the artistic types. I’m deliberately adding to my well-rounded education, learning things I wouldn’t learn without the effort. Making myself cultured. Plus my boss thinks I’m clean cut enough to represent the maintenance department.
There’s a girl standing alone, off to the side, close to one of the walls, staring at one of the smaller paintings. I remember first being aware of her hair, a deep red flowing over the collar of her shirt. Irish? I wondered.
“You like it?” I ask, walking up beside her.
She shrugs. “You?”
I look at the painting, thinking of something to say, something on point and witty to make me sound smart, something to impress her with my depth of artistic insight and rapport, because I already know that it’s her own painting. No one in this gallery stands in front of one painting, staring, unless it’s their own.
I come up short on the sagacious artist front, so I step in a little closer, squinting theatrically. “It’s cocked.”
“What?” she asks, forehead wrinkling, drawing up her little button nose.
I grin at her when our eyes meet. “I said that it’s cocked.” I continue. “Cocked. You know…”
When her expression shifts to puzzlement, my grin widens. “Tilted.” I hold my forearm at an incline.
“Oh.” Her face relaxes as a thin smile comes to her lips.
“Oh?” I repeat. I want this girl to smile, really smile at me, and maybe laugh, or I want to know that I tried even if I failed miserably, so I say, “Oh , did you think I was saying something dirty to you?”
She blushes, her eyes darting to the floor, and bites her lower lip. “Ummm…”
Time to reel her back in, time to say something friendly or look pervy and blow it. I shrug. “I can’t think of any other dirty sounding things I can say about your painting.”
She turns to me with an amused expression and says, “How do you know it’s my painting?”
“Because you’re not admiring it. You look like you want to change something, fiddle with it.”
“So do you.”
“I’m the one who hung it here. So if it’s cocked, then I didn’t do a good job.”
“It looks alright.”
“That’s just my point. We’re not spectators admiring a piece of art in a gallery. Both of us are looking at your painting like it’s our work .”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that.”
"So it is your painting, right?"
Her smile widens so I forge ahead. "“See, this painting over here” I gestured, “I didn’t hang it and you didn’t paint it, so we can go over there and admire it together.” I touch her shoulder.
“How do you know I didn’t paint this one, too?” she asks, falling into step with me.
I smile at her. “Because this one isn’t as good as yours.”
She laughs, finally. “I’m Fran.”
“And I’m Eddie.”
“So,” she asks, as we make our way along the gallery wall, “Was the painting really cocked?”
“Well, the answer to that depends.”
“Whether I get your phone number.”
Our first date at an Italian place away from campus goes well, after I spend 20 minutes combing each strand of my hair into place before meeting her in front of the student union. We talk about her plans, her art, what she wants to be when she grows up and makes her impact on the world. I don’t talk too much about changing light bulbs at the school, more about chemistry and metallurgy, and she’s listening when I talk about the summer internship I spent extracting and smelting gold from junked computer parts at a reclamation plant. I try explaining to her why I like the work. How the impersonal challenge to formulate the best titration of chemicals is in fact a call to outwit and outsmart the immutable laws of physics. She nods and says that art is the same, it’s all about getting as close to your ideal vision as you can. That’s right, I say, and the little silence after that is comfortable and familiar instead of the stilted, awkward silences that sometimes happen on first dates when there will be no second. This quiet moment, shared during a plate of overcooked linguine, is when I fell for her.
It’s on the second date, sitting on the steps of the gallery, enjoying the warm summer night when Fran spots the burn on my forearm, a souvenir from the sulfuric acid baths I set up to get the gold. She touches the wrinkled scar, running a nail over it, and I kiss her even though I wouldn’t have a second earlier. She’s into the kiss, our lips work together, hers moist, and we hold hands. I touch her red hair and the back of her neck, her skin soft and warm as we draw to each other. Her eyes closed, mine open.
Later that night in my apartment I touch the rest of her. Her nipples are the thinnest pink against her luminous white skin, and when I touch them too eagerly her breath catches and her forehead wrinkles and her nose scrunches up; I’ve gone too far too fast, gotten out of sync with her, and something about her scrunched up nose turns me on and melts my heart at the same time, and I kiss the tip of it and she giggles and then we’re both laughing. Together.
Over time that togetherness grows and we relax and I learn her, getting to know her mentally by touching her physically, the way her eyes close tight and her two front teeth show the slightest white against her lips when she’s enjoying my touch and I feel like I’ve accomplished something, something more than just getting off or even getting her off, something greater than myself, this is what separates having sex from making love and in a way, it’s the same challenge of getting as close as I can to the ideal, having her enjoy it, having her wanting it to match my wanting it. And it only gets better.
One night in the dead of winter we rush inside, into the warmth of the apartment we now share, and start kissing, fooling around, dropping our things and pulling off our winter jackets and boots as we heat up together. We have sex in the kitchen because we don’t make it to the bedroom. The windows steam up and she shivers when I touch her with ice cold fingers. She’d been painting something with a bright blue acrylic paint which was still on her hands and the next morning I’m laughing to myself while she gets dressed. When she asks me what’s so funny, I show her the blue streaks she’d left on my body and tell her I’d been having sex with Smurfette.
She fills out paperwork for schools, I help her assemble a portfolio and write an essay over a bottle of wine and Chinese takeout. That night we make love and I tell her that her work was good and any school would want to have her as much as I wanted to have her, and that I loved her. The next morning I mail her application on my walk to work. It gets rejected, and we send a few more a couple months later.
I finally graduate and my mom visits and the two sit together in the auditorium while I collect my diploma. I take pictures of them both. At some point over dinner when Fran goes to the bathroom, my mother leans across the table and tells me that my father would have loved her, and that’s why I’m teary when she returns and whispers “What’s wrong?” and my mother winks at me.
Fran’s father is a retired lawyer with a firm handshake and calluses like mine from working in his basement wood shop. I shake his hand when we take a trip out to her parent’s for a Thanksgiving weekend. Her family is cozy and wholesome, her brother plays lacrosse and her mother makes the best turkey I’ve ever had, but the thing I’m taken with is her bedroom, preserved just as it must have been when she finished high school, with stuffed animals on the bed and a vanity mirror in the corner. I look through her yearbook and read the inscriptions. Fran tells me that her father worked from home and kept odd hours, sometimes working through the night, so she never got to christen the bed, not even with her old boyfriend Todd who’d drawn a heart on the back page. So we do, and joke about hearing a power saw whining through the floor as we finish.
The ring is good. My timing is bad. The ring is made out of titanium because any metallurgist knows that titanium shines brighter than silver, is stronger than steel, is more malleable than gold, and never tarnishes, all of which I think is a metaphor for love which I’m trying to articulate as I show her the ring. Fran takes it, says “Oh Eddie” and starts to cry. She says she loves me but she doesn’t say yes and she shows me an acceptance letter from one of those schools she’d applied to months earlier. It’s bitter and ironic that she’s been rejected by her safety school right across town; I could have dropped her off on my way to work, but her dream school has admitted her. Her dream school is an art institute in New Zealand. I’m quiet as I feel a void open somewhere inside, but then I tell that she has to go and she says that she has to stay so I tell her she has to go, and somehow we end up fighting, screaming at each other, both of us so determined to make the other happy that now we’re miserable.
The day before she leaves almost everything is moved out. The place has magically transformed from our home back to a shitty ground floor two bedroom apartment in a rotting triple decker in a questionable neighborhood. Her things have been shipped back to her folks, and I’m already moved into my new place.
“I got you something,” she tells me nervously, holding out a package to me. I take it from her, the brown wrapping paper crinkling in my hands.
“What is it?” I ask, running my index finger over the seam where she’d taped the wrapped package closed.
“Something I want you to have.”
“What is it Fran?” I regard her warily as I still touch the wrapping paper. Lately, everything we say to each other has layers to it. Will the contents of this package hurt me some more?
She says nothing, her arms folded under her breasts, so I rip open the paper. Inside is the painting, the one from the gallery.
“Great. I’ll be able to auction it in twenty years. I’ll tell people that ‘I knew her, way back when.’”
“Please don’t start.”
“Start? Start what?”
Holding up the painting, I squint at it theatrically. “You know that it wasn’t.”
I reach out to her. She comes to me, and I kiss her. “That painting. It wasn’t-”
“It wasn’t cocked. It was perfectly level.”
She starts to cry, and her hands cover her mouth so that it almost looks like she’s yawning, one of those little things about her that I love.
I kiss her again.
We make love, but it isn't loving the way I've enjoyed and come to expect without taking for granted; instead, it's the way I'd imagine the last meal of a condemned prisoner must be- no matter how well cooked and how delicious, the taste and texture of the food isn't what's relevant and can't cover up the reality to follow.
We kiss, lick, rub, suck, tease, squeeze, please; grunting, moaning, panting, gasping, grasping, inhaling, expelling and finally holding each other, sweaty from the press and the crush, breathing each other’s breath all for the last time.
At some point the sky lightens and I hear a car horn outside. A yellow cab.
Fran leans close, so I feel her lips against the peach fuzz on my ear. “I knew it wasn’t cocked.”
Then she kisses me, and then she’s gone.
Coughing, he sat up on the bench and he touched his face, cheeks sticky with drying tears. He rubbed at the slurry in his eyes smearing his vision, rubbed until he could see straight. Staring at the ground in front of him, he leaned forward, his back cracking as he sat up straight.
“Dude,” he said, turning to Ray. “That was… I can’t even say what.”
Ray said nothing.
“Worth every penny.” Art nudged him. “Ray?”
The hood of his sweatshirt fell back, revealing Ray’s pale, slack face. His blue lips, parted, revealed his tongue, also blue, and a rope of drool slid out from the corner of his mouth. His glassy eyes shined wide at nothing.
“No,” Art breathed, leaning towards him. Ray’s body shifted and slid part way off the edge of the bench, his knees scraping the leaves on the ground.
At age nine, Art spent a Christmas with his cousin who lived upstate, out in the woods. Behind his cousin’s house was a scrubby polluted pond that looked idyllic, surrounded by trees all dusted with a crust of snow. When she heard them preparing to go outside, boots dragging across the vestibule floor his aunt called out "Stay off the lake, like I told yooz," without looking up from the Price is Right. The two went outside, crunched their way through the snow covering his cousin’s yard and along the short path to the lake itself. They stared at the wan sun, and at the glare it made on the frozen water. Then Art took a shaky step down, balancing himself against the shore with a tree branch he found. He shuffled a few paces across the perfectly smooth, clean ice and turned. He slipped and almost busted his ass, moon walking to catch himself. From the shore, his cousin snorted with laughter.
“Why don’t you come here and laugh in my face, motherfucker?” He yelled, liking the echoes.
“Cause I’m not a crazy fuck, like you!” his cousin called back.
Art called him a pussy and slid out a few more feet. The ice below him sighed and cracked, a gunshot in the stillness. Art’s breath caught in his throat. Pulse pounding, his body went ramrod straight and stiff. Suddenly burning hot with tension, a drop of sweat rolled into his eye, and after a long, unquantifiable time of staring at the spider web of cracked ice beneath his feet, waiting, waiting for something to happen, he slowly, timidly stepped back toward the shore, toward his cousin, now watching him, wide eyed.
The lake surface here felt solid, so he shifted his weight onto the stepping foot. Nothing. He stepped again, another mincing step toward solid ground, toward land, and again, nothing. He let out the breath he’d been holding for so long that he couldn’t remember taking it and inhaled a fresh blast of cold air. Some of his tension faded as Art relaxed a hair.
The ice gave way.
Art let out a short scream that lasted until he submerged, the freezing water going right down his gullet through his open mouth, running up the cuffs of his pants, through his shirt, soaking everything, the gray iron water so cold it didn't even feel cold, just shocking. Art thrashed around. He sank into the frigid mud at the bottom, kicking up dirt and filthy sediment so thick it blotted out the sunlight and he couldn’t tell which direction was up, so he thrashed harder, twisting and corkscrewing himself further and further into his clothes which bound and tied him up, so that finally he lay in the muck, punching and kicking until he gasped for breath. The cold water flooded in. Now the cold inside him matched the cold of the lake outside him, and Art weakened further, his struggles feeble as his time stretched out, as each softer and softer thump of his balled fist against the sticky, yielding mud took longer and longer, became more and more epic in fuzzier and fuzzier slow motion. Too tired to panic anymore he had one last lucid thought, “This isn’t too bad,” before the blackness took him.
He didn’t remember the ambulance crew his cousin summoned, being pronounced dead, the epinephrine shot that restarted his heart, or the coma; he remembered only the cold, the terror, the dark. The grogginess as he woke up in the hospital two days later, for once glad to see his father and mother, was worlds away.
“No,” Art repeated, “no, no, no.” He slapped at Ray’s chest, and put his face close to Ray’s, hoping to feel breath, but when Ray’s clammy corpse slid the rest of the way off the bench, Art gave up.
He stood, his stomach lurching, leaned against the fence and vomited onto the bike path until the roiling queasiness subsided. He fumbled for his keys and dropped them twice in the slimy leaves attempting to unlock his bicycle.
He looked back at Ray, the terror junkie who'd now gone the route most terror junkies went, lying dead in front of the bench having finally scared himself to death. At his feet, the twonky lay upside down. Art went over and retrieved it, frowning. He didn't kid himself that this was noble or what Ray would have wanted, but Ray was dead and Art needed it.
So he took it.
Art pushed his bicycle, too shaken to ride it. It was chilly outside. He needed home. Fran would warm him up. Fran could massage his shoulders or…at least she could listen to him talk about this, Fran listened to him, but…Fran… Is Fran? Was Fran? Was he? Is he?