Knock Knock

Late Summer 1967, Paris, France

She stood in the window, interlaced her fingers, stretched her arms over her head and yawned. The late summer, warm, close, made her long, silk nightgown almost too much to be wearing against the sun. Three months ago she had been Amanda Vincent. Barely twenty-two, Masters with Honors from Cambridge and madly in love enough with a beautiful French-Italian playboy to walk out in the middle of her M.Phil in International Finance. This late Monday morning she was young bride of three months Amanda Morisé, daydreaming out the window of a third-floor Montmartre apartment at the noise and dust of Paris, the memory of day-long lovemaking fresh in her mind. A light knock on the door brought her back to Earth.

She answered the knock to find a young woman similar in age and style, wearing a soft cotton summer dress, hair pulled up loosely against the heat, her arms down, crossed at the wrists, waiting. She had the bluest eyes Amanda had ever seen.

“Amanda? Amanda Morisé?” Obvious from the sound of her voice her visitor was very French. And on the verge of impatience overcoming her mannered demeanor. “Je peut entrer? To speak a moment? A matter I think most important?”

Amanda was still somewhere between her daydreams and the young woman standing in the open door. “Yes. Yes…of course…My manners escape me…”  As her visitor passed she thought that if whatever was holding her guest’s hair together let go, it might just explode off her head.

“Your mind is still possessed by his charm, Madame,” her guest said as she passed. “I am Alixandrie. It is too formal. I am called Alix. As in your America, now we shake the hands, oui?” The blue-eyed girl’s English was much better than Amanda’s French. Alix raised a hand, declared a halt to further polite formalities and launched into a story, told in a series of broken sentences wrenched from the center of her being. Some tears were shed in the telling and it ended with “I believe you also are married to my husband, Yannick Morisé.”

“No, that’s quite impossible,” Amanda’s tone completely dismissive of Alix’s story about a whirlwind romance followed closely by betrayal. “I know you’re upset, but you’ve made a mistake. I’m sorry for whatever your husband may have done, but my husband left just this morning for Marseille. His name is Yannick, but it’s not an unusual name, neither is Morisé.” Her daydreams returned, she saw them eating breakfast together, barely clothed, he spanked her lightly on her behind as she walked past him with her coffee. How, as he was leaving, he had bent over, dropped an end of his tie down her robe, raised his eyebrows, smiled when it followed him as he stood after a quick, deep kiss goodbye.

“No! No, I tell you he is in a house in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, half of one hour’s train ride from Paris. He believes I have come to Paris to discover an answer of my pregnancy. You are assured, Madame Morisé, I am not with child. I have come to meet you, the wife he married two weeks after me. Of treachery as such, be most assured!”

Alix removed a notecard from her black leather clutch with an address in Saint-Germain printed at the top. “I am not believed? By you, his beautiful American woman? Tomorrow he will be away the day. If not for you, perhaps another wife? The Mademoiselle of flowers waits in the road from the station of trains in Saint Germaine. As you have arrived, show her this.” She took Amanda’s hand and smashed the card in her palm. “She will show the way to you. Tomorrow.” Her face softened. “Offer her kindness, please, the young girl of flowers. If what is discovered in Saint-Germain you cannot believe? No more will I speak of it to you.”

The blue of Alix’s eyes burned through the redness of recent tears straight into Amanda’s own before she gently moved a strap of Amanda’s nightgown back onto her shoulder, turned and walked quietly away. The soft fragrance of fresh flowers followed her. She put Amanda in mind of a small, beautifully sad garden as she pulled the door closed softly behind her, not quite closing it all the way.

Amanda smoothed the card. Quite a girl, and even more of a story. Yes, Yannick had married her in a quiet civil ceremony, that was true. Often accused by the press of squandering his inheritance on a laundry list of immoral pursuits, he’d told her he needed no more publicity. That it was best his enemies, even his friends, not know that he now had such a beautiful wife. She had agreed. He could get her to do whatever he wanted. The things he said, the things he did to her, with her…It was all a lie. It must be. A jealous girlfriend with a story, attempting to start some girl nonsense. She would go to Saint-Germaine in the morning and get the truth from the lovely little French girl with her wild hair, blue eyes, and pathetic little lie.

***

When shown the card, the flower girl said “Oh, Oui,” and spoke rapidly and only in French that she knew the way, offered to walk with Amanda.

“No, thank you.” Amanda tried to politely extricate her hand from the flower girl’s. “I prefer the quiet. It’s so unlike Paris.” She tried in English, and her best French, the flower girl not understanding. Amanda finally said, “Mercì” for all the girl’s pointing and handed her a silver 10 Franc coin, which made the flower girl squeal, take Amanda’s hand back and kiss it until Amanda pulled it away.

The tiny house was no more than a half a mile from the station, off a narrow street. She passed through the hedge wall in front and knocked with purpose. Alix answered and the door opened into a cool, dark room. Amanda wanted to say “Show me your evidence, tell me your tale, cry and let me leave. My husband will be home tomorrow.” Alix’s blue eyes were burning again, lighting up the dark entryway. Amanda decided she might be better served with tact. It wouldn’t kill her to be polite. The girl was obviously hurt, give her a chance. Hear her out. It was a lovely village, so quiet after Paris, and Alix’s cottage was remarkably cool.

“I have said you are most beautiful,” Alix pulled the runaway strands of Amanda’s hair from her cheek, pushed them gently behind her ear. “Sad, no? Two beautiful women should meet such as this, our lives entwined in deceit.”

“I’m still certain there’s been a mistake of some kind, I —” Alix’s touch had been light as a feather, warm and cool at the same time…

“I talk too much to you, his beautiful American woman. See your ‘husband,’ Yannick Morisé. Come.”

Amanda had heard at Cambridge, mostly by way of racial innuendo, that French girls were temperamental, hot-headed. Meaner than Spanish girls, smarter than English girls, sexier than Italian girls. This was always said by someone in a pub, in a fake French accent. It might just be true.

She followed Alix down a short hallway to a small bedroom dominated by a double bed, the window at the foot of it open where a light breeze drifted in, bringing with it a garden awash in flowers. It felt like home should feel. No, this wasn’t Paris. A view of trees some ten yards distant replaced the dusty haze that surrounded the Eiffel tower. The soft rustling of the hedge, the flowers. It was serene, like she was inside of poetry, so –

Alix yanked open the doors of double armoire, banged them violently on the cabinet’s side. Inside, Yannick’s signature blousy, white collarless shirts he had handmade in Florence hung there in testament to his presence. His white collared dress shirt from the High Street in Oxford. No…Surely, they weren’t her Yannick’s. They couldn’t be.

Alix grabbed a man’s lacquered jewelry box from inside, dumped the contents on the armoire’s shelf and tossed the box to the floor. Amanda recognized a familiar pair of cufflinks, the Tissot watch she had bought him as a wedding gift. No, no, no…She lifted the watch as if it were unreal, turned it over to see the “Love Always, C.A.M.” she’d had engraved on the back. Shaking she tugged on a shirt, softly at first, then violently, ripping it from its hanger to stare blankly at the tailor’s mark on the bottom. YFM, a number. It was true. It was all true. The compact bundle of electric French girl had told her the truth.

Amanda started to fold. Alix caught her, set her on the edge of the bed, kept her hands on Amanda’s shoulders. “No more tears. No more for this bastard, our ‘husband,’ will there be tears. Your Father has wealth I am certain?”

“Yes.” Amanda was dizzy, felt sick, nauseous.…

“As also mine. This Yannick desires above beauty or sex, our money to waste. Do not faint on me, Amanda. The steps now must be most severe. To destroy him. He will not destroy us.” She looked Amanda in the eye, shook her shoulders. “We have the means. In France also the women may judge these things. Divorce him together, destroy him together. Together we shame this misery of women from the face of France!”

Alix left the room and returned with brandy in a water glass, gave it to Amanda and waited a few minutes for it to hit. When Amanda had calmed, Alix walked with her slowly, held her hand all the way to the station where they sat together on a worn, wooden bench and waited for the train. “Be strong for us,” Alix whispered when she kissed Amanda on the cheek before releasing her to board the train. “Be. Strong.”

***

Alix had said “We must be taken ill when he returns to us. He cannot touch us. No sex, no control, unable to attend the bank for him? He will go mad.” Amanda stuck to her orders from Alix, feigned “ill”, kept her mouth shut while her anger and her heart simmered into a slow boil for the two days Yannick was home before he was off to Florence on “business.”

Amanda had not only inherited her father’s money, but her one character flaw as well. Impatience. She didn’t wait well, didn’t like, as her father had said, to “let shit ride.” Now she’d let some sweet-talking, hot lovemaking pretty boy French bastard take over her body, her mind, her very soul. Let him blind her, blindside her, and marry her just two weeks after he’d married a wild, rich, blue-eyed French girl. Who the hell did he think he was?

Whatever Yannick’s business in Italy, it had been unpleasant. On his return he was irritable, needed a shave, needed a shower, wanted a woman. He drank champagne from the bottle, directed loud, profane insults at Amanda in three languages, asked her why did he have a sick wife he couldn’t fuck?

She told him she knew. About Alix, about all of it. “Because,” she seethed, “an arrogant, idiot, dickless bastard, the most useless piece of shit excuse for a man ever born left his watch and cufflinks in a cottage in Saint-Germain.” An outburst that left her on the floor of their bathroom semi-conscious with a broken jaw, a cracked cheekbone, and two fewer teeth than she’d had that Sunday morning.

On the floor, consciousness fading, all she could think of was Alix. Unaware, alone, and directly in Yannick’s path. He had stormed out in such a rage. He was dangerous. Alix needed to get away…To be safe…Amanda passed out thinking of her, of Alix, the electric French girl with those blue, blue eyes.

Yannick arrived in Saint-Germain, at least as drunk and more self-righteously enraged than when he’d left Paris. Alix refused to let him in, but she did let him make enough noise pounding on the door and screaming profanity at her in three languages to wake her neighbors. He found an axe leaning against the woodpile, used it to break down the front door. When he was at last standing inside, dripping sweat, Yannick raised the axe and with a dozen or so neighbors looking on, Alix screamed “No! S’il vous plaît!”

The Axe made it to the top of it’s arc, Yannick took half a step toward her, Alix shot him four times with the Walther PPK her father had taken from a dead German officer in 1944. He dropped to his knees, the axe falling pulled him backwards into a cavernous silence.

Alix dropped the pistol on Yannick’s body when she stepped over it and through the splintered door into the late summer night. She would take the next train to Paris, find the beautiful American woman and tell her the good news. Tell her how a passionate, blue-eyed French girl with impossible hair had begun to feel about her, see what she thought about that.

Revised and Updated

No Why

He never asked her why she danced
Or why so long ago
Sewing elastic on new pink slippers
She stuck a needle in the comforter
Covering a waterbed

She never asked him why he had to play
Strange music
Or what he heard or where he went
In expensive headphones with
Famous strangers

She showed him Oxford on the power of her words
Walked the cold mist
Touched history together
In turn he rode a box of musical wires
Offered her Venice, kissed her
Under the Bridge of Sighs

Never much money
Very little time
They never asked why

The novel it is said resides within us
Lies inside our lives.

Written in response to Ian Graham’s 3 Day Quote Challenge

https://ianggraham.wordpress.com/2016/10/19/the-3-day-quote-challenge-day-on

37

When, and how, to say “No” to your wife.

She pushed the pocket door on her side of the bathroom open with her foot and the room started to smell as exotic as her shower always did. “Thursday is our anniversary,” wafted out with the fragrant girl smells.

“I know.” She was cute in her wrapped around, covers everything just barely towel and big hot-roller curlers.

“I know you know. Our daughter told me you texted her about it. We can’t do anything, though, because we’re still helping them out with the kids. I thought I’d pick up a cake, or make something. Or we can wait until the weekend.”

Please, God, don’t bake. “I can pick something up and –”

“I said I’ll do it. Do you know how long?”

I’d wait until the mascara was whipped on, the only real makeup she wore besides lipstick, just to tug on her patience threshold.

“How long what? To get the cake or until we’re off grandkid duty or –”

“How long we’ve been married, maybe?” She was doing that corner of the eye in the mirror thing that gave her eyes in the back of her head.

“Thirty-seven. This year for sure. I used a calculator. And then all my fingers and toes almost twice to be sure.”

“That’s what you said last year when it was thirty-seven years.”

“Last year fifteen minus nine was seven.”

“For you, Mister Man. Ow!” She pulled and palmed one of the hot curlers. “These things are hot.”

I started to say something about that’s why they’re called hot curlers, knew better.

“Thirty-seven years,” she said. “We’re old married people. Boy, that’s a long time, huh?”

“No, it seems like yesterday and I’d do it all again because you were so cute in that purple robe I couldn’t stand it. And you let me bring my waterbed.”

“That thing,” she made a face and banged a drawer closed with her hip. “Last year, did it really feel like thirty-seven years?”

“That’s two trick questions on one cup of coffee.”

“Well?”

I let that one hang like the last drop of honey in one of those little plastic bears she uses for tea and to keep a sticky spot going on the kitchen counter.

“No…”

She checked his grin with the sideways mirror eyes. “You. Don’t be funny. I need some privacy, please. I need to get dressed.” The door closed with the same foot that had opened it. She raised her voice a touch. “You don’t have to get me anything, as long as you remembered when and how long.”

“Right. No card or wine or even a token gift is how I made it this long.”

“What? I couldn’t hear you, the door’s closed. Are you still in here?”

“Leaving. Just talking to the dogs.”

I may be old and math challenged but I’ve been married thirty-seven really-I-checked-this-time years. And I’m not stupid.

 

 

It’s Instant, Okay?

Houston, Texas. On and around Valentine’s Day, 1979 

She was sitting on his knees, maybe the top of his shins, he knew that, and she was totally involved in whatever she was talking about. He wasn’t alert enough to make much sense of it. She either thought he was awake, or needed to be awake, or at least she needed to be talking to him because she was awake. What he noticed was the lavender bathrobe loosely wrapped around her small frame and on a hair-thin gold chain hanging below her throat a tiny cross and diamond caught the morning sun and splashed her walls with rainbows.

Her big blue eyes sparkled under a morning-esque cascade of dark waves while she emoted and asked him, “This way…or…this way? Which one is more believable?” She had somehow rolled modern dance from a class she’d been to before he arrived last night, theatrical and everyday body language along with linguistics into a single thought that needed to find a way out of her head at six-thirty in the morning. He was pinned beneath her and her bedspread while she let that thought and everything it brought along with it out into the bright sunrise of the day after Valentine’s Day Gulf Coast morning. Her voice was light, she was completely engaged with herself and her audience of one and it was important to her that what was on her mind got worked out, and that he heard it. He let her voice wash over him and tried to participate.

“I’m not sure,” he said, thinking that safe and maybe he’d get an explanation or a repeat that would bring him up to speed.

“Of course you are! Subjectively. You know what’s sincere and what’s contrived. Now that you’ve thought about it, though…” she looked down at her hands on his thighs with an air of disappointment, didn’t let it stop her. “Here. I’ll do it again.” She emoted and said “I love you” three different ways. She was playing with him and thinking about something deeper than messing with him at the same time and he couldn’t keep his eyes off her.

“Well, one was just TV phony, you know.” He thought a few seconds.  “And the other two might both work. It depends on what sort of reception you wanted.”

She looked at him, he thought to gauge his comment for bullshit factor. “How do you mean?” Yep.

“Well, one of them is romantic and the other seemed more substantial. Infatuation, hearts and flowers. The other was like maybe you were sitting on a park bench or the beach somewhere and wanted to let someone know you just got eaten up with the fact that you loved them.”

“So in one it’s partners and in the other it’s sort of one-sided?”

“No. Sort of.” Shit, girl. It’s too early. “Like in one you hope they’re listening and in the other you know they are, so there’s more of you and less Hallmark moment ‘love’ drama getting tossed out to see what comes back.”

“Of course! One is completely fake, we knew that. One is mooshy and one is like, ‘Hey, you. Love ya.’ But which one was which?”

“Does that matter?”

“Of course it does! We play games with each other all the time. And dance, everything really, needs to be authentic. That’s what we worked on last night, where I went that you had to wait before you could…come over.” She seemed to get flustered a little with “come over.” “She talked to us about the need to be authentic last night, so if it’s anger or love or whatever the choreographer wants, it has to be believable, unless it needs to look contrived, and as dancers we need to know the difference. Did you know that most people think the most contrived is the most believable and that the real one isn’t emotional or theatrical enough? That’s pretty bad. So if I danced ‘I love you’ and wanted everyone to get it I’d have to do the fake version. Anyway, that’s what we worked on last night. Before you, and…I have a teapot, or maybe a saucepan and instant coffee, I think. It’s A&P. When I was a little girl in New Orleans they’d grind it at the A&P right on the counter. It smelled so-o good.”

He didn’t think they ground instant coffee at the A&P, and he usually drank a Coke or Pepsi, nuked one of those local apple fried pies at the U-Totem by the video studio where she was temping and he used to work. The same at the Totem in Tulsa, down in the Montrose or Del City. Coke or Pepsi and a fried pie were ubiquitous. You could find all three in places that were hours from an Egg McMuffin. It was a road food breakfast habit he’d developed since his first band guy homelessness years ago.

“Sure,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Coffee is coffee.”

“Me, too.”

He was trying to discern how “Me, too” was an answer or even a response when she hopped off his legs and disappeared through the bedroom door, the loose lavender robe flowing but never getting too loose, the dark waves bouncing on top. Where the hell was he? Her apartment?

***

Yesterday. He’d played a show-and-blow hard hat soundtrack gig at a video studio in southwest Houston. He’d been late, something that never happened. In the parking lot he’d talked to the girl with the Porsche from GDL&W and they’d bitched about VW engines vapor locking in Houston. His van, her Porsche, same engine, same problem. She’d been a daddy’s little rich girl cheerleader in Tulsa, a last stop hippie holdout town they’d joked about, a place he’d escaped from once already. Now the people who had failed him in Houston and run home were trying to suck him back. He’d thought about hitting on Porsche girl a couple of times, she was friendly and receptive enough, but things were never in sync. Nothing was in sync lately.

Commuting between Tulsa, OKC, Pasadena, Montrose and Southwest Houston. Occasional Little Rock and Dallas trips thrown in. Living on couches, floors and in a van just to play music, smoke free pot and be a one man soundtrack machine was getting out of hand. He’d fucking had it with everything but the live soundtrack guy in a van. His old girlfriend quit her job and cancelled the lease on their apartment in Houston without telling him and that had lit the fuse on his “fuck it.” She’d gone back to fucking everyone in Tulsa with a dick and a heartbeat, giving away his shit she’d said he could store in the duplex he wouldn’t move into with her. All because he never said he’d marry her except once when she’d fed him ‘ludes and sexed him to the edge of consciousness. He’d have admitted Disco was his fault that night and he’d told her as much. Then there were the festival stage managers, caterers, dealers. All wanting to hang, talk shit, shoot pool, get high, ask him to improvise his one-man Tangerine Dream shtick or restaurant air cheese new age gig. Or play prog rock for Jesus one night and high heeled guitar band for topless dancers the next. Fuck it. All of it. All of them. Except his bass player. And GDL&W Porsche girl and he didn’t even have time to work that because they’d both vapor locked and were running late. Happy Valentine’s Day! He’d felt the same on New Year’s only now his van would start before it vapor locked. Slush in Pasadena, Texas and a dead van in front of a Jack in the Box for New Year’s Eve. His bass player had told him it had to get better, hang in. Right.

***

She was temping at the front desk when he walked in. Way pretty. Too pretty for this gig. Blue eyes the size of quarters, long, wavy dark hair. A small framed, tan, blue eyed gypsy movie star looking girl in a summery dress. He was toast the second he saw her. His keyboard rig got wheeled in from the van past her desk with a few theatrical bumps with the dolly, and he did the gig. Didn’t hang for touch up or additional drops in the control room. He left his gear set up, waited out his audio to video marriage approval in the guest chair in front of her desk where he pretended to read a leftover newspaper and flirted his ass off. He tried musician, office guy, professional guy, cool guy, nice guy. She wasn’t buying. Plain old conversation that he used as piano bar guy was up next.

He turned a page of the paper he wasn’t reading, shook it. “So you’re new?” Lame, lame, lame.

“Yes. Kind of. I’m a temp.” She kept typing. “I heard about you coming today. You were late. Jan sure seemed glad to see you.”

“Who’s Jan?” Smooth.

“Jan. From GDL&W? The blonde with the black sports car thing? You talked to her in the parking lot?” The parking lot comment came out wrapped in “duh?” and the typing never slowed.

“That’s her name? I call her the GDL&W Porsche girl. We were talking about how her expensive little car sucks as bad as my big cheap one in the heat.” He thought for half a beat, added “My VW van has the same Porsche engine in it as hers. Can you believe that? Like a Porsche van, with the wrong logo.” He wasn’t sure it bought him any cool points but he was clutching at straws. She was way too cute, smart and disinterested.

“Mmm.” She checked a page she was typing from with her finger. “I guess. That’s why you were late? My car overheats sometimes.” She continued to type. He flirted. She answered the phone, got instructions from the regular receptionist and office manager who glared him out like always. He flirted more. He talked about what was in the paper, what she was doing, where she’d gone to college, worked in all the are you married or have a boyfriend questions. She answered no to them all and worked questions of her own along the same lines into those answers, typed like Bach at the harpsichord on crack and didn’t have to look at the Selectric while she did it.

“So a temp, huh? Like Manpower? For girls?” Ouch. “Is that like Girlpower? Or Womanpower?” He followed that with a weak laugh. More ouch.

“No. Lollie Lowe. They’re small and specialized and pay more for college degrees. And they get me better jobs and nicer clients.” She looked at him, never stopped the blaze typing. “Usually.”

He caught that one, grinned in spite of himself. “Where’d you learn to type like that?”

“In high school, first. My mom went to a secretary school in New Orleans, before she and my dad started having babies, and said I should learn. And I worked as a medical transcriptionist for a while. With the Dictaphone things? That’s where I learned to type fast for real.”

“Like typing boot camp? I need to go. I play keyboards and I still can’t type for shit.”

She snarf laughed, caught it with the back of her hand. It was beautiful, though. Just what he needed and it dropped him right back in the toaster.

“Some of that medical stuff was pretty bad.” She made a small yuk face. “I learned to type really fast so I could get through the gross body parts stuff, I think.” She was getting lighter, Valentine’s Day started to look up.

***

 Two weeks later, after making almost daily and nightly phone calls from wherever he was and two one night trips to Houston between rehearsals, gigs and Hotel Oklahoma floor and couch surfing to see her, she stopped him in the little alcove between her bedroom and bathroom. She had mastered the loose, but not loose enough for exposure, unintentionally sexy robe wrap. She was nervous, her hands started talking before she did. When she did start talking she was more serious and worried than he’d ever seen any girl, but she had a rare depth, and her emotions were right on the surface. On top of that she seemed almost apologetic for being about to let go of her real feelings. Again. She let them go whenever she felt them, didn’t sit on them. He always listened, fascinated by her. This was something way more than dance and music and poetry and wine and love making.

“We,” she unfolded her arms, held her hand between them, took a deep breath, sighed big. “We can do this. If you want to.” She looked at him, big blue eyes wide open. “This…us. What we’re doing.”

“Okay.”

She put one hand on his flannel robed upper arm, stared at it while she caressed his arm with her fingertips. “Because of you,” she looked up at him again, nodded towards the bedroom, “and that. I mean really be usIf you want to.”

“Look, I’m not driving ten hours to see you and then turning around just for sex. There’s more going on.” He wanted to say something about how relationships, including a marriage, had always been a dead end pain in the ass, how sex was an equational, simple tap and go most of the time. But that she wasn’t tap and go, or simple, and was the uncommon kind of girl he wouldn’t, or shouldn’t say that to, so he left it.

“Alright. But… ” she was lost in her fingers and his arm again.

“But?”

She squeezed his arm, looked him in the eye, let it out in a rush. “When I want to get married I want to get married, and when I want a baby, I want a baby, okay?” She paused, the worried seriousness ramped up. “Or we can’t…do this.” She looked off toward the bedroom again. “I can’t. Not with you.”

“That’s okay, too.”

For the first time in nearly ten years he put his arms around a female because he meant it. He didn’t try to kiss her, distract her, ignore her, heat her up. He held her. This wasn’t the game he’d been playing since a girl taught him when he was seventeen that really caring was a deep hole of one way stupid in the female culture of opportunistic, reward based convenience. This girl? The looking for herself college graduate video studio temp out of nowhere? He’d never met anyone like her. Passionate, talented, smart, caring, spacey. Sexy, pretty, petite and shit free. With a classical sounding name. Self-admittedly she wasn’t much of a cook or a housekeeper, and her laundry skills were laughable. All of her white undies were light, “Don’t laugh, it works out for ballet tights” pink. She liked real wine better than Mateus, shrimp pizza with Alfredo sauce and veggies, books and dance and classical music. Could play the violin and dance and write, hated nail polish and plants grew when she walked past them. She’d said she loved him. He wasn’t letting her go unless she broke both his arms.

“You have to mean it.” She pushed back, coy, sparkling and ridiculously feminine.

“I do mean it. Pick a day if you want.”

“How about July? The fourteenth?”

“Fine.”

“You mean it? I just made that up, the July thing. We don’t have to use it. Really?”

“Really.”

“Good! Us is us.” She hugged him back before the loose lavender robe and dark, unbrushed morning waves stepped around him, flowed and bounced their way to the kitchen. “Coffee? It’s still instant.”

“Sure.” He followed her, his hands on both sides of the kitchen entry. “I need to go back, get some things. It’ll take me a couple of days. There’s not, um…I don’t have much left. How do you feel about waterbeds?”

“Don’t know. If you like them we can try one, I guess.” She was opening drawers and cabinets and then closing them like the coffee had sneaked off somewhere new since the last time he was there. It might have, the way she used and cleaned a kitchen. “Do you really have one? A waterbed I mean? I’ve never really…” Slam. “That’s okay, the waterbed. You can bring it if you want to. Something new. Have you seen the fucking coffee?” Slam. “No, I guess not, huh.” Slam. “Well, shit.” She stood up, glared tight lipped around the kitchen, landed on him. “Where’d it go?”

“Someplace.” He got a knitted eyebrows look. He was laughing at both of them, not out loud. He’d already seen it. “If I were instant coffee, I’d be on top of the fridge. Don’t ask me how I got there.” He got a quick waist high hug and more of a kiss than he deserved for finding coffee. “Sorry I got all sailor mouth, but some times, you know?”

Yeah, he knew. He’d said “Okay.” To married. To baby. Those hadn’t been on his calendar, but then he didn’t have a calendar. He had a front pocket full of business cards and bits of paper with notes on them. It was her first gift. His was no shit going to be the barely used Mr. Coffee he’d left sitting in his bass player’s girlfriend’s garage.

Dying in Your Window

The flowers I brought you
Are in your window dying
I hope they say, “He thought of you!”
One more time
Before they gasp their last

In my hand they stood tall, proud
Radiant in their best yellows and greens
They brightened your day
“Aren’t they lovely,” received with a kiss
They told you I thought of you
When I had nothing to say

Now they are dying in your window

I could have let them be
Left enthusiasm to float
With the pollen on the spring breeze
Spared their lives, sneezed
Found something to say to you
That’s never there when I need it

Instead I killed some flowers
To brighten your day
To let you know I thought of you
When I couldn’t find the words
To tell you how I feel

And now they are dying in your window

And Godammit, I’d do it again
Flower Murderer that I am
To brighten your day
And let you know I thought of you
When how I felt was bigger
Than all the words I couldn’t find

That often can be found dying in your window

Photograph by Alex Markovich
Find his work here https://photo-art.me/

For Elizabeth, the constant muse

Quesadilla

“All I want to be when I grow up is a ballerina.”

“I think everybody knows that, mom.”

“Most ballerinas retire by the time they’re forty. I don’t think anyone is going to hire me at sixty-one, huh?”

“Probably not.”

“I just love it so-o much. Is that stupid or what? Me and the other old – lady ballerinas. I can’t believe I’m going to a night class. I used to feel really guilty when you were a baby and I’d go. I won’t be home till after nine.”

“Lots of people are out after nine, mom. You’ll be fine.”

“I know, but I got up at five and I’m exhausted. I ate half a sandwich and a little bag of Cheetos at one. I guess I’m not too bloated.”

“Mom, it starts at seven. You’ll be fine. You haven’t gone to night ballet for a while, right, except for rehearsals? What’s dad say? He doesn’t care, does he?

“He says he’ll split a quesadilla with me and leave it in the microwave. And you know your dad, he said he knows if he bitched and told me to go fix dinner and run the vacuum cleaner I’d poison him. I told him I wasn’t passive-aggressive, I’d just stab him or something and be done with it because I don’t have the patience for manipulative stuff. He said the strangest thing, though.”

“Dad says lots of strange, spacey things.”

“Really, right? He said the reason he’d never told me ‘no’ about school or books or ballet wasn’t the knife or anything but because the two things in the universe that cast the longest shadows were love and art. And if I was lucky like him to know both I should stand  by the window and let the evening sun kiss me before it went down and throw my ballerina shadow into forever.”

“Sounds like it’s still okay if you go to ballet class at night.”

“I guess. But you know, I’d go anyway. Splitting a quesadilla with me is nice of him, though. Don’t you think?”

Stigma

Neeko watched Lamar blow in through the door with the wind, late. He knew how much Lamar hated being late to anything, and on top of that, he was a sight. His half-a-head of hair windblown, the shirt tail on a cleaner’s stiff shirt was out. Slacks. Not the usual Friday Lamar. It was Neeko’s turn to offer the contents of the plastic wicker bowl when Lamar dropped on the stool to his right.

“Your girlfriend in the body shirt down there got your pretzels ready, I was afraid her heart would break when she thought you’d stood her up.”

Lamar looked down the bar, got a smile and a towel wave. Sure enough, Neeko’s offering was full of low-sodium baby pretzels. At least he could count on his friends.

“Hey, Neeko. You told her thanks and tipped her five, right?”

“Told her you were a dirty old man and the tip I offered was to run as far and fast as she could.”

“Fucker.”

“You’re late,” Neeko grinned, tipped a Collins glass that had been full of Coke, rattled the ice around. “Not like you.”

“Man. You know, what I wanna say is ‘what the fuck.’ Just ‘what, the, fuck.’”

“Long week?”

“Shit. It started last Sunday when I got light weight bad-husbanded. Marie and I spent half the day bustin’ ass on garden cleanup, I moved fifteen fuckin’ bags of wet cedar mulch into the van, out of the van and stacked up. Then up the sidewalk and stacked them again then threw them out in front of the garden like dead soldiers before I moved all of Marie’s rocks and pave stones and leveled a couple of giant pots. I finished all of that, went to the store covered in sweat and mulch, got her some shrimp, first time in forever she wanted to bust the ban of cholesterol. I had a good Sunday goin’. So she takes a bath while I’m gone and the whole bedroom smells like heaven when I get home so I took a shower and you what happened next. Later she tells me ‘I’m sorry I didn’t have anything sexy to wear, but my husband hasn’t bought me any new lingerie in for-ever.’ Which is bullshit because at Christmas I load her up on those panties she won’t buy herself. Loud, silky, fun everyday panties don’t count. I hear her when she moans about no off-white hose anyplace so I get online, deal with that and all of her ballet tights and leotards. None of that counts because it’s not that sort of lady gear. So I’m screwed. No Charming Charlie, no easy way out of lingerie.”

“That’s the what the fuck? Why you haven’t bought Marie sexy satiny nighties lately?”

“What’s the point? That lingerie shit’s coming off pretty soon anyway, right? This old fart told me back in high school that foreplay started at the mall, and I was like ‘What?’ Holding hands or go make out behind the big potted trees or what? No, he meant shopping for the right kind of undies and both of us thinking about what we were gonna do with that bottle of sandalwood body lotion, gettin’ primed in advance. And I haven’t been doing that, and that was why I took the bad husband bash. But my ‘what the fuck’ is way worse than that.”

“That wasn’t really bad enough for there to be a worst, man. Buying gas on a rainy day is worse than that if that’s all you got.”

“No, man. All week, when I tried to solve any kind of issue with her is why the what the fuck. I go to Home Depot, trying to replace an old faucet set. I’m waiting, and there’re these two women next to me, don’t even know each other and one of them asks the other a question about what the other one said about her health, and they go off on cysts. Vaginal cysts. How one has these cysts that show up and send her blood pressure through the roof and gave her a stroke, and she’s only maybe forty. The other one says how she had these cysts, and her metabolism was so cranked she could eat anything she wanted and lose weight but had to get it operated on, and they were telling all these vaginal scrape and medication stories, and all I wanted was a cheap bathroom faucet. Can I do that? Hell no. I get to wait for the one person with a clue in plumbing while these two women get down on their plumbing. It’s not like they didn’t know there were men around while they blew it out all over the aisle about growing mushrooms and shit in their vajayjay’s and how it fucked them up.”

“Marie might have your ass for doggin’ women not being able to talk about their business like anybody else.”

“Not my point. Look, I had a nut twist in junior high, and it got the size of an orange. They un-twisted it, it was okay. I didn’t stand around in the hall with girls in earshot talkin’ about my giant nut or how my nutsack got so stretched it lost the raisin look. A couple of years ago I thought I was dead because fluid can settle around your nuts and I had a regular and a large in there. I didn’t even wanna tell the doctor. ‘Hey, Doc, while I’m here, am I dying or what?’ He talks about this happens a lot, the fluid on a nut thing. Okay, cool. But you and I, we’re waiting in Home Depot, and we are not going to say ‘swollen nuts’ out loud. ‘Oh? Really? How big did it get? Well mine was ginormous, and I fell in love with pizza again, and I looked great in tight jeans. I mean that shit belongs where it belongs, not in the plumbing aisle.”

“Did you not tell Marie you thought you were dying of a giant testicle? Because that would be stupid. What do you say to her just before you croak? ‘By the way Marie, I, uh, had this giant nut just like killed me overnight.’”

“Marie is going to know if I have a giant nut, that’s how I got the bad husband knock in the first place. The other thing is she decided to start watching this NetFlix show and will I watch it with her so sure, whatever. It beats ignoring reruns and wishing she was wearing something sexy I forgot to buy so we watch, and there’s a hint of a plot and BANG, Kevin Spacey has his face buried in the crotch of this girl half his age while she talks to her father on the phone. And there’s three-way sex and gay sex and all of this in the middle of an episodic treachery drama, and I’m like no wonder she wanted me to buy her something sexy because all these people are standing around in their underwear with their tongues out and moaning. And I’m like wait, this is TV. That’s porn, not a politics show. Every episode it’s like somebody has to assume the bra and panties or less pose and fake an orgasm. If Marie binges on two or three on the weekend it’s like all these people trying to fuck each other over, and then actually fucking each other, over, under sideways, and that’s a TV series? I mean politics by Leave it to Beaver. Beavers.”

Neeko thought about the pretzels in front Lamar, held up his Collins glass instead. “Television isn’t the same, Lamar, nothing is the same. We could talk about why forever. Shifting cultural paradigms and all of that. We know better than to waste air on that shit, part of it is our fault. Nothing is new, it’s just more out front.”

“That’s the deal, Neeko. Stigma. There is no fuckin’ stigma about anything. And in some ways, that’s a good thing. I’m just not ready for anatomical funk where sex happens to be like, ‘Oh, did you have any hail damage Friday? How is your vag?’ at Home Depot.”

“None of that is enough to piss you off.” Neeko was shaking a little with silent laughter. “Get to the good shit before I have to leave.”

Lamar ran his tongue around his teeth, gathered it all up.

“This morning, the reason I’m late? Victoria’s Secret. I’m too old for that place, and that is an unfortunate stigma. But I defy the letch shit and go in. First, they don’t have anywhere near what I found online. Then I’m prowling through silk and satin and being followed by this big bi-cultural guy who asks me in a very affected way if I need any help. A guy. In Victoria’s Secret. A linebacker-sized gay guy who is delighted by the complimentary colors on the nightie I pick out. Of course, it’s not Wal-Mart where the cheap itchy lace panties are on the same hanger. So he goes off to find me some non-itchy Victoria’s Secret matching undies while a couple of girls, one with a figure that would have netted me a restraining order forty years ago are giggling and watching this whole episode go down like something out of Marie’s NetFlix. The gay linebacker comes back really pleased with himself waving Marie’s ‘aren’t these just perfect?’ panties like a fuckin’ ‘Go Niners’ banner. We transact, the girls all still watching while he rolls everything up in pink tissue paper, you know down to the size of nothing and puts it in a bag that might as well have been a billboard for me to carry out of the mall. ‘Old dude buys peach colored panties!’ Jesus. You know? What, the, fuck?”

“A gay, I’m guessing half-black linebacker since you don’t like to talk race at all, helping you pick panties for Marie that you probably wouldn’t have found on your own, that’s the big ‘what the fuck,’ right? The rest of it was just –”

“No the rest of it is just all of it. I want to know when did stigma go away.”

“I’m not sure there was a sell-by-date posted anywhere or if it was officially repealed. It just happened. Why?”

“Here’s why. You remember when I was a kid and sold expensive men’s clothes for a while in college? People called me sir when I was twenty-one ‘cause I had on a Pierre Cardin suit and needed a haircut. Well if stigma had taken a hike earlier and men could have sold lingerie my whole career path might have changed. I woulda stuck around a lot longer and had a shitload more fun with a tape measure at Victoria’s Secret measuring what needs measuring in there than I did knuckle knocking nutsacks out of the way to measure inseams.”

The Cure

Note: This is the full version of Aftertaste, located in the Flash menu

Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mid-May, 1977

Harper woke up like he had almost every morning for the last two weeks. In his underwear, under a plain white hospital sheet on top of the bumpy fabric of a twenty-year-old rectangular couch that was just short enough to make him bend his knees. After he’d made a cup of instant coffee, dealt with all the morning issues, brushed his teeth, pulled on his jeans and stuck his feet in some old canvas deck shoes, he sorted through the nasty gold-tone aluminum ashtray on the coffee table searching for a roach from the previous night.

Late every evening on the mostly perfect spring nights the small house hidden across the creek and behind the hedges was filled with people. Musicians, artists, writers. UFO chasers, incense burners and crystal gazers. A doctor, a lawyer or two, a promoter, small business owners, men and women who worked with them, knew them all or wanted to know them all.

He found what he was looking for in the ashtray and took the short walk to the gazebo at the back of the art museum grounds, said “good morning” to the goldfish as he passed. They followed him down the side of their terraced ponds as always like he might have, or be, food.

He’d gotten the divorce that he’d blown off for two and a half years, finally. Hadn’t seen her for months except when he’d asked her if she wanted her maiden name back. Every morning for the last week, since he’d found out it was final, he’d sat in the copy of Marie Antoinette’s gazebo, hit the roach, sipped his instant coffee and thought about how now that anything that had anchored him to anything else was gone and he should be getting gone himself. Today was getting gone day. One of those women from the late night Bohemian rhapsodies was coming to pick him up later this morning to get them both gone.

This morning was different in another way. Aside from being his last in Marie’s gazebo, he had a letter in his hand from someone else he hadn’t seen for a while. In years, not months, except when he’d tripped over her in a store a week ago. After checking her watch she’d said, “You can come over, but you can’t stay very long.” He stopped by that afternoon, coincidental to the day he’d found out the divorce was final. She’d had on a plain, gray suit, an apprehensive girl cloaked in a woman’s demeanor. She told him that she’d graduated, was maybe headed for a master’s, was getting married whenever whoever he was graduated doing whatever he was going to do. And intimated, by way of half-asked questions, that whoever he was might be a couple of light shades of jerk. But the man had a plan, got things done and she was on board.

They talked about very little of substance, forced a laugh about the divorce he’d drug his feet on. She didn’t care. Neither did he, really. Telling her was a simple touchstone to a kind of life he’d turned his back on, just as she’d turned hers on him. Before he left he’d looked her in the eyes, told her how special she was, in so many words, and not to worry. She could handle the demands of a possibly lightweight jerk and run his plan like she was born for it.

He hoped the letter he was holding contained what he’d always wished had just been a short conversation between them, years ago when it needed to happen. Two kids standing under a tree in a park somewhere, hands in their pockets. They’d say words that would hit the ground between them and wobble off like a drunken Frisbee and they’d walk away. For some reason, she wouldn’t give him that one, not even now. Put the stray dog back on the porch, “See ya around, dog,” don’t leave food out, hope it gets the message. Sad.

The letter was handwritten on light blue notepaper. Two pages, but they were small and she wrote like a Seventies girl, large and loopy. He read it twice before he tore it into small pieces. Not methodically, or geometrically, just into pieces that came off between his finger and thumb when he pulled.

***

She rolled to a stop on the grass and gravel next to the greenhouse at the end of the service lot, saw him standing on the bridge between the public grounds and the groundskeeper’s house hidden behind the shrub wall to his left. The house where they’d met and laughed and eaten and partied like a wayward Methodist potluck supper among loosely knit friends with casseroles, leftovers, bags of deli sandwiches, and burnt, grilled whatever that got thrown on the rusty grate over the brick fire pit. They’d stand around, talk until midnight or after then go out on the grounds somewhere and make gentle or crazy or wild love. Grass stains, mosquitos, and all.

She’d been collecting men for a while, in short spurts one after another, looking for someone “worth it.” She knew worth, the way she measured it, and after a week-and-a-half she knew it was worth splitting a U-Haul trailer with him, loading what was left of her life after selling her antiques and going wherever they ended up. She walked the thirty feet to the bridge and continued to watch as he dropped bits of paper the size of dimes that fluttered out of sight. She knew they would find the creek at the end of their flight and continue to float and flutter on the water until they disappeared, which looked to her like what he was after.

When he squinted, the morning sun that forced its way through the oak tree canopy wove a blanket of diamonds on the ripples of the creek. He thought of the refracting sunglasses someone had given him as a gift, and how they would have made the creek diamonds explode into color, then made him lose his balance and fall off the bridge like he’d fallen off a median and into traffic the first time he wore them. There was some irony in almost being wannabe-hippie roadkill in “rush” hour traffic.

He rolled the dead roach between his thumb and forefinger and she saw that drop away with the other bits of paper. He’d waited long after it was useful before he walked down to the bridge and gave it to the creek every morning. He thought it unfair to drop it on the unsuspecting fish. At least any fish he considered neighbors.

He turned to greet her when she arrived at his point of reverie in the center of the bridge and received a big, warm, cheerful kiss for his effort. She was still wearing her sunglasses, squeezed his butt with both hands, pulled him to her, kissed him again before she let him go.

“Hey babe. What was that?”

“Arrogance.” He gazed at the creek where the paper bits had landed, floated away.

She raised the sunglasses, let her eyes ask the next question.

“Nice to see you but not really, beat it, don’t ever call, come by or anything ever again. Forget you know me, get lost, stay that way.”

“Yeah?” She stood beside him now, put her hand in his back pocket, grabbed his butt again one-handed. “Anyone I know?”

“No, you wouldn’t. Grown up sorority girl from the City I knew a long time gone. Getting married sometime. It’s cool. I should have expected it.” He sent the butt of a Marlboro menthol spinning toward the creek in pursuit of the pieces of arrogance.

“You’re nothing but a long, hard weekend a sorority girl couldn’t talk about, buddy. You should know that by now.” She turned him, draped her arms on top of his shoulders, kissed him again. She’d been to the lake already this spring, had the dusting of freckles to prove it. “You know the lady could just be protecting herself.” She grinned with a hint of girlish blush behind the freckle dust. “You look a lot like a serial fornicator I know.”

He grinned back. She was a take-charge girl who left the feeling of a thrown party in her wake, would initiate sex often and enthusiastically, anything deeper than the surface was too deep. She asked for little emotional investment, only mutual gratification, and someone willing to split the check and live in right now. It was nowhere near a forever deal, but it was going to get them both out from under some recent, claustrophobic anchored-to-a-futureless-past baggage.

She smiled, kept her eyes on his face. “Just like that, beat it?”

“She dressed it up. Wrote it by hand.”

“That was a nice touch. Personalized stationery?”

“Pretty and blue, no initials. Lipstick on a pig. Only one of those I’ve ever gotten.” He decided he liked the light freckles. Not usually, but on her they worked. “Have you ever been the most embarrassing thing that happened to someone?”

Her eyes got wide and quickly filled with humor before her voice dropped into a theatric “Noooo-ooo.”

Her? Of course not. Attractive, sexually predatory women in their mid-twenties who had been married, divorced, walked like they owned the pavement and were born to wear clothes embarrassed no one. Him? There was a good chance that he had been. He wanted to look off down the creek but kept her face in focus.

“Looks like I have.”

“That’s hard to believe.” She shook her hair back, her smile wouldn’t go away. “Were you a butt-ugly baby, or what?”

“A lot of stupid high school guy shit. Maybe a virginity thief.”

“You all do that to one of us, at least. You might have been a repeat offender. And you were all stupid and horny. So what? That’s the arrogance part? I’m different now, beat it, if I never knew you I’m a slightly used, unembarrassed arrogant virgin again?”

“In that pocket somewhere. Like I’m some lovesick puppy whining and peeing on her door to get let back in, needed to be reminded where I don’t belong. I thought about sending her an ‘I’m not an idiot’ note back. You know, ‘Excuse me, it was hard to miss the first time I ate some ego in your driveway. I’m on my way the hell out of Dodge with a long-legged sex-machine.’ The ‘last word’ is always a shitty gig, you know, so I’ll let it ride. It is what it is.”

***

She held the trunk open, her make up case in the other hand, waited for him to lift his soft-sided suitcase. “Long-legged I liked. Machine might grow on me. This one stays on top. Drop yours, I’ll drop mine and we’ll blow this high-rent cab stand.”

“Drop yours, drop mine and blow I liked.” He checked the U-Haul chain. Checked her eyes as he stood.

“Done is done, babe. Now is now.” She let that land, wanted to be sure he heard it. “Understood?”

“Yeah. Six years done. It was about time.”

“Six years?” She dropped the trunk lid, stepped over the hitch and into him. “Okay, after that long, she’s not married yet, right, you’re not interrupting dinner or anything? You’re invited to drop by, say ‘Hi,’ and you get a ‘beat it’ letter? Like there’s nothing going on in your world, and what, she thinks you’re all ‘Lucy, I’m home’ again? Some sisters… I didn’t want to before, you’re assholes when you get the word sometimes, but six years to drop ‘We’re done, beat it’ in the mail? I’ll give you that arrogance call now.” She didn’t light the cigarette in her hand, instead she set it on the trunk and tried to suck his tongue out. They were eye to eye. “Done is done. Done stays done.” Her free hand was in his back pocket again.

“I know. Like licking a penny, though. It’s the aftertaste.”

She was still right up in his face. The other hand she’d gotten trapped between them tugged on his shirt. It pulled them even closer and she whispered, right on his lips.

“I have a cure for that.”

Not Too Deep or Wide and Kind of Slow

You could fish here with your Grampa. Or stand by the rail and think about Route 66 a long time ago. Walk across and feel the wood move, hear it creak and groan. You could park just off the road in the shade and blow an entire afternoon with the stereo off and nothing but the music of the breeze and the birds and the creek to serenade you on a hot, Oklahoma summer day. You could share it with a friend or your true love, lean on the rail and watch the leaves land on the water and get carried off into nowhere like your thoughts. You could think about who you are, where you’ve been and where you haven’t and how you might correct that. You could think about nothing at all and let the movies your mind wants to play for you run until the sun starts to set and twilight says get home before they eat without you. You could bask in the simplicity of your not very deep thoughts and be all the better for it. Because simple isn’t always as easy as it appears and navigating shallow waters is often worse. Which is why we should enjoy all of our moments with our not so deep thoughts. Because they pave the way for deeper ones.

Not far from this peaceful bridge in Catoosa, Oklahoma, a man shot and killed a police officer. The man convicted of it somehow seduced, from prison, a girl who was at the top of the list of girls most likely to be somebody. She became the somebody in a story full of tragedy who helped him escape from jail and they moved to nowhere in the Dakotas. Years later they were both recaptured, and she died of an overdose and a broken heart at forty-nine, the love of her life back in jail until he turned to dust. Her house could have been on your paper route. Maybe her mother made you talk to her through the screen door. She might have made fun of a record you took to a swimming party once, but your name wasn’t on it so you dodged that one. You could watch a leaf kiss the water and float away and make it almost any allegory you wanted.

Oklahoma trip 039You could stop here after taking a picture of your lover in that Route 66 Blue Whale, laugh, drink a Coke and talk about all those people who splashed in that mud hole like it was fun, watch another leaf kiss the creek and wonder where memories go, and if they really live forever.

One day no one will stand here because the bridge out of Catoosa will have rusted away. All of the dreams dreamed by dreamers with the top down on their MG, the travelers with their tired kids who needed a place to pee right now, the people who crossed this bridge daily or only once, all of those will no longer have a home. Did the girl who escaped with the murderer cross this way? Will their memories all die with the bridge?

Lord Byron begins his ode to Venice with,

I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs

and ends with,

There are some feelings time cannot benumb,

Nor torture shake, or mine would now be cold and dumb.

All of our dreams, all of our crossings travel a Bridge of Sighs. A bridge of memories that once made, cannot collapse or die. They merely fall like leaves in the breeze, kiss the water and float off into forever.