Amelia Garretson-Persans lives and writes in Nashville, Tenn. This short is selected from her original text-and-image collection House Stories. Find more from her via her website: http://www.ameliagarretsonpersans.com.
Down by the bay,
Where the watermelon grow,
Back to my home,
I dare not go.
Long, spindly, dancing legs, jumping and shaking, carrying them forth, but this time it isn’t out of fear for the Walrus — it’s a celebration! The oysters are delicious and they’re the first to know it. My uncle Steve compiles sheet music from the ’20s, the ’30s – even the ’40s — all in the service of proving that oysters have always been and always will be delicious. The faceless animals, they put spats on over their boots, they balance top hats on their craggy foreheads, and oh, the pearls! Their fingerless hands are adorned to bursting. Shimmering, iridescent pearls blast forth from red, sagging gloves with visible stitching. Now they are doing the conga! They bump into one another heedlessly and laugh and scream when one of their number falls. The irregularities created in the path by fallen dancers create a kind of stage where others thrive. There is jumping and twirling and a kind of guttural, wordless — not unmusical — din. Anticipation pushes the march forward — they have been waiting for this day for as long as they could dream and praying for their legs – praying that they wouldn’t get two left feet! Oh they have waited for the eyeless, uncomprehending gaze of their shallow water neighbors, neither surprised nor jealous, only feeling the automatic twitch of phantom limbs, as they — the blessed oysters! — surged out of the water. Into the pot, into the stew, into the cauldron! They are part of a madwoman’s spell — they will live forever! My grandmother is arranging the recipe in a book of lined paper. It is the 1940s and people don’t have time for much, but they still have time for — ragtime! She is in Manhattan in the already declining Tin Pan Alley district, and she is being paid by the hour to realize someone else’s crazy fever dream. This dream is like a phoenix, jittering and lilting up out of the ashes with a clownish, fooling smile. It spreads itself thin and then tightens itself back up like an accordion, floating above and mocking without language — without reason — the winter smog below.
Oyster Bay! Oyster Bay! If only it were that simple! But they were always watching, peering up out of the murky bay water providing a constant, silent commentary. They thought they were so smart! The idea is a house — so simple! — a house where my mother will someday buy all of my grandfather’s pipes, unused since the ’70s, since people had the first inkling that their pleasures might be killing them, where an unlucky frog finds himself encased eternally in unforgiving, yet empathetic cement and the topic of much heated debate, where a rebellious teenage daughter begins a life of crime snipping squares out of department store dresses and ironically ends up scrawling lurid details into a small, black notebook, donning only a minimally altered pillowcase. But the idea is not only a house! It is also a labyrinth! Un labyrinto! A house within a house within a house. A sister within a sister within a sister, like a Russian doll. There is only one brother and he is the prize. There are parts of the house that no one even knows about: an art deco and bejeweled bathroom tucked away behind a set of stairs that could completely resolve all of the family’s financial troubles, an upstairs bedroom triple the size of anyone else’s room with two small children’s cots for ghosts, and a billiard room where the pool balls play themselves, and quite well at that. The idea is generally a house set apart from the woods, guarded by bewitched, tame animals, but sometimes it is just easier that the house is actually a part of the woods, that its swimming pool be fed by underground, naturally occurring iron pipes, that unfinished steps or lampposts rise up out of the earth like weeds, or that the floorboards never creak, their cracks filled with damp, springy moss. When mostly everyone leaves – except of course the oysters and Uncle Steve – the houses continue to run themselves. In some ways they are tidier than they ever were filled with people and aspirations.
Sheet music is no longer hand-typeset, though it is still winter. My father plays children’s songs on the trumpet from a book perched on the same music stand he used in high school, and I wonder at the words I cannot read spoken by the trumpet. I like to eat eat eat eeples and baneenees. These are fruits I cannot imagine but would not eat anyway. The music staff in its unerring regularity and its careful, tacit watch of notes that soar or dive above and below its confines reiterates a promise of protection with each turn of the page. I like to oot oot oot ooples and banoonoos. I imagine a whale with a polka-dotted tail. Rhymes form the basis of a more realistic, more ordered and understandable reality. They have more weight, more plausibility than facts. The house is riddled with rhymes and the rhymes are its history and its future. I stack them on the shelves and save them for later:
“Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more –
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.”
Things heat up between our private eye hero, Harry Jome, and his client in this segment of Peck’s noir serialization. For the last installment, follow this link.
Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).
Immediately in my office I phoned Cramm, my tailor.
“Is it done?” I snapped over the line, right in the space where most people say hello. “The suit. This is Jome.”
“I know,” he said. He took a moment to collect his response.
“I’ve gotten backed up,” he said.
“How backed up.”
“Pretty far backed up.”
“You aren’t a good tailor,” I said. I slammed the phone down.
The taxi I called for was late in coming and dropped me at the corner of 3rd and 4th at around 8:15, right by a defunct flower shop whose roses and sunflowers and poppies were rotting in their planters out front. When the cab pulled away another cab drew up and a man gazed out and quickly turned away. His cab was followed by a green sedan with its lights on. I noticed this because the guy in the cab had his window down, and I heard him say in an urgent voice, “Keep going. Just keep going.”
I crossed the intersection and walked up the cobblestone walkway. I was wearing a natty black raincoat and spats, but the rain had lessened to a dull patter.
Sue’s place was close to the street, and brick and mortar all the way up to a blue shingled roof, quaint chimney. It was utilitarian and imposing, without any of the squeamish platitudes of a happy home. Some thick bushes obscured the windows on the side and I could just make out a corner of the swimming pool, lying on which was a tarp currently being slapped at by raindrops. For a raw second the moon glimmered noncommittally and then didn’t glimmer any more and the rain shunted harshly off the eaves. Two sleek cars were parked in the drive, one a wine-colored Peugeot, the other a Jaguar with mud on the rims and on the bumper.
I stood on the shag mat and clanged the brass knocker, shaped like a huge ring in the nose of an unsmiling and rusted frog.
I clanked the knocker again. Almost immediately the door was pulled back by a wiry, sallow-faced man on his way out. He was entirely too short and his bald head was tapered like a lemon. Craziness was in his movements and eyes. Behind him in the foyer an oval Victorian mirror displayed his back, and below the mirror on an antique bureau covered in white silk tulle were the strewn fragments of a broken vase.
“Dear,” the man yelled in mock singsong. “The whore is here.” Casually he flung a brown trench coat suavely over his arm. “I must be the lady’s husband,” he said by way of an introduction.
“You should know.”
“And you are Jome, is that right?”
“You remind me of a publicist,” I said. “Not the good kind because there isn’t any such thing.”
The little man grinned as though I’d given him a compliment.
“I’m not a publicist. But I do have a couple of them. I’m actually just leaving.”
“I like the way that sounds when you say it.”
“I hope you enjoy the concert,” Richard said. “I’ll be there myself. I despise my wife and I am confident that someday you’ll feel the same towards her.”
“She seems fine to me.”
“Who was it that said romance is the false notion that one woman is different from another.”
“Sounds like something you might say.” Richard contemplated me rudely.
“You seem exemplary of a certain type of louse who wants money and somewhere he can get more,” the man said cheerily. “I’ve been around your type and they’re usually busy attempting to be smart and look alluring.”
Later I’d regret — a little — bashing him in the nose, but at the time there seemed no better alternative. Sue’s husband was thrown back into the bureau, a chaos of khaki and churlishness; transparent slices of the mirror skittered around him, getting snatched in his hair. Even before he landed he was already dusting himself off.
Sue’s heels echoed across the tiled floor. She hovered over the mess, peering from me to her spouse, and finally stayed on me.
“If I had a penny for every time Richard was bounced in the foyer I’d have a nickel and a penny,” she said.
The dress she had on was dark and glittery. In the precise light of the place it matched her eyes, and seemed to have been molded onto her body by a master ceramicist. Silver earrings with diamond inlays dangled just above her shoulder blades, and she held her green clutch like it was going to scamper off. Her red hair was pomaded and slicked to the side.
Then I remembered that there was a guy in the room whom I’d just slugged a good one.
“I’m really glad you did that,” Richard Longtree said, shaking glass off himself. “I’m really very glad.” He started toward the door, leered at Sue and then at me, and walked solidly out. Climbing into his diminutive car he shouted, “I am glad he did that.” The Peugeot’s engine blared and Richard Longtree yelled something out as he drove off.
“What’s his problem?” I asked.
The yellow specks in her eyes glowed like goldmines from a thousand feet up.
“Me,” she said.
Her car was the green Jaguar, one hue off from her dress and two from her eyes. It was a four-seater affair and the leather upholstery was like reclining on the sounds a clarinet makes when it’s blown well. She squealed out of the driveway and made a few sharp turns. Less than a quarter of a mile brought us to the baronial, Deco-trimmed cultural center that appeared to have been borrowed from Rome and took up one entire city block on 5th Street.
Our seats in the symphony hall were three rows from the podium. Nauseously rich people pattered around in tuxedos and long gowns, doing what they could to appear smug and secure. Beside me an old guy with his mouth open was fanning himself with a single leather glove. I stared around at the round ceiling emblazoned with Renaissance art, almost missing Richard Longtree sitting in a private box overlooking us and muttering.
I nudged Sue.
“Your husband is up there in the wings glaring at you.”
She just shook her head.
“He does that. And he hates classical music, so you can imagine how much more he hates me if he’d come here.”
“What’s he trying to accomplish?”
“He’s trying to be more like himself every day,” she said as the lights dimmed.
A sprightly quartet bounced into the stage lights and bowed, followed by a deep silence of coughs and sighs.
Someone a few rows back was talking in a loud tone. The first violist turned and stared severely at the person until somebody near him must have pointed out that he was being obnoxious.
“I hate people,” Sue whispered. “I’ve always tried to hate people before they can hate me. The worst kind of people come to these things to show off how cultured they are.”
The low, hungry growls of Schubert’s 15th String Quartet grunted out into the soaring acoustics, the slow and frantic opening bars leading abruptly into a sweet lament, which turned, impulsively, into the unhinged outbursts that drew me to Schubert. His music was the stillness and the wildness of pure insomnia. Schubert had always done something to me, all that rambunctious wandering and sociopathic fixation on the elusive theme. Like walking along a path alone, where the moon is everywhere, and the path is dangerous and infinite. It’s the innocence of sleep, interrupted by the most agitated dreams. The feeling was one I knew well.
Playing the slow, throbbing second movement, the musicians struggled, tippling from side to side like they’d just alighted from a cruise ship and didn’t know how to act on land.
“You like this stuff, don’t you?” Sue whispered.
“Of all the things I don’t like it would be an example of something I can stand, sure.”
“What about it do you like?”
Sue’s face was inquisitive, but even then it did not lose its derisive smirk.
“I like how anybody can make anything they want out of what they hear,” I said.
“Is that it?”
“No, but I couldn’t be articulate enough to explain and you’re not eager enough to understand.”
“That might hurt my feelings,” she said, aiming her attention back at the stage and the quartet, who were tuning in preparation of the final movement.
“You don’t have any feelings,” I said. “I’ve been searching for them since I met you.”
“Maybe you’ve been searching in the wrong places.”
I shut up and listened, yet now I wasn’t hearing the music as exclusively. I glanced at Sue. She was absorbed or was trying to be absorbed. She had a way of shifting a guy’s attentiveness away from whatever is holding his interest and attaching it to her.
Sue had been clasping my arm and I sniffed at her hair — citrus, mint, honey — throughout the 20 or so minutes of the quartet performance, tightening her grip at dramatic moments. When the music ground to a stop Sue was motionless, her hand trembling against my leg. I assumed that perhaps Schubert had affected this un-affectable woman as he did me. Schubert made every thought I’d ever had or action I’d ever taken trivial, meaningless or both simultaneously.
But Sue leaned in very close to my ear and said, “I’m thirsty.”
I stared at her. “That all?” I asked.
“Is there supposed to be something else?”
She’d let go of me and was putting lipstick on.
Richard was leering down comedically, even leveling a pair of flashing binoculars at us.
“Anyway,” Sue said as the orchestra prepared for the next piece. “They’re doing something modern next. Ligeti. Do you know him? I don’t know him. And I don’t like the way the modern stuff makes me feel.”
We slipped out during the opening notes. I didn’t check to see if Richard was behind us, but I was sure he was. “Does he usually do that kind of thing?” I asked.
“Who, Richard? Yes,” she said. “For someone who can’t be passionate he certainly has a way of pretending to be infatuated.”
We were outside and Sue had her arm entwined with mine.
“When’s the divorce?” I asked.
“Any day now,” she said, and we ran the rest of the distance to her car and sat a minute in silence while the wipers labored.
“Where are we headed now?” she asked.
Straight out the parking lot we were going 65 miles per hour. The faster she accelerated the more relaxed her muscles became. In silhouette her features were grim and implacable, set hard into that masculine line I’d recognized on first meeting her — focused on something, it seemed, just beyond the city and just beyond anywhere else.
“I don’t care,” I said.
“How about Maury’s?” she asked.
“Too ritzy, huh?” and she did that smirk.
“Amusing, isn’t it? How drab I am.”
Her eyes flashed something nasty at me.
“I’m not that rich, Harry,” she said. “I might look like I am, but what does that signify?”
“It’s Harry now.”
“It’s whatever you want it to be. I don’t think you like me very much, although earlier I thought you liked me quite a lot.”
“I don’t like anyone, and why would you say that?”
“Well, maybe for a few minutes we can be friends.”
She drove the car through an alleyway that cut between 7th and 9th Streets. Disgruntled faces flitted by, screaming out epithets I couldn’t hear, men and woman loitering behind their desperation. On 4th Street Sue gripped the wheel tight and spun into a vacant space.
Outside, Maury’s was faintly lit with paper-covered bulbs and little illuminated ponds, where bleak fish cavorted unenthusiastically with artificial seaweed and tiny plastic divers that swayed and looked to be actually diving. Customers squirmed through the bronze doors in two and threes, and once they were in the gaudy mauve interior they bunched together in confused groups and demanded tables.
The silver-haired maitre d’hotel took Sue’s arm and noted her reservation in a gold-embossed registry. He took both of our arms and led us to the rear of the loud, golden dining room. We were relieved of our coats and informed that the waiter would be along shortly. Then we were shown to a corner niche that resembled a message parlor, with a pink tulle drape furnishing us with a mask of privacy. It reminded me of a pun but I couldn’t think of the set-up.
“You come here often?” I asked.
“Often enough, I guess,” she said.
When the waiter arrived and pulled the curtain aside, Sue ordered pale beer, a bottle of thirty-year-old Scotch and snifters. I was fine with soda water. The waiter kept arching his eyebrows and it was starting to bother me. As he was pulling the curtain back, I saw a man dressed all in denim gesturing madly at the maitre d’hotel and getting nowhere. He kept pointing at our table, the half-closed palm of his hand displaying some kind of currency.
“What do you want?” I asked her when the waiter had departed.
Sue rested her chin on a jeweled fist.
“We’re just celebrating how well the case is going.”
“Is it going well?” I asked. I played with the napkin ring.
“I guess it is if we’re here celebrating it. Also, I don’t drink alone, so I suggest you cease this teetotaling crusade you’re been on and have a drink with me.”
“Someone will come along and join you, I’m sure.”
“I don’t want someone to come along and join me. I want you to come along and join me. Why won’t you drink with me?”
“Because I won’t stop until all the fireworks are over.”
“I like fireworks.”
“I wasn’t talking about fireworks.”
I put the napkin ring down and looked at Sue’s low neckline, the motion of her small muscles and her long, upright neck.
Eyebrows returned with our drinks on a silver tray, alongside two waters. Sue ordered salmon in a honey mustard dill sauce for the both of us, a couple of salads, chilled lemon and dill soup.
“It probably would have been cheaper to buy a fisherman,” I said. I parted the curtain. The guy in denim was sitting miserably on a divan in the waiting lounge.
“Tell me who Harry Jome is,” she said, handling the beer.
“Sure, but first tell me who the guy in the jean suit is.”
Sue dribbled beer on her chin.
“I don’t know him,” she said.
“You didn’t even look.”
“I don’t know anyone who wears jeans. Now drink your Scotch like a good boy.”
I touched the snifter and released it and while we ate I kept touching the snifter and releasing it.
“Go ahead,” she said. “I won’t tell anybody.”
“I haven’t had a drink in a while,” I said. “I don’t remember how to do it. I want to drink bad. But I know how bad I am when I drink. And so the answer is, not right now.”
I knew I was going to drink that night, and I could have chosen a moment to do it, but her game was inflating her interest, and so I waited until I couldn’t wait.
She smiled at me and then she winked and I capitulated hard and fast, and the liquor was redemption on the back of my throat, washing me with warmth, the earlier pricks of fatigue draining away.
“My first drink in a while,” I managed to say through the wonderment. The feeling in my body was the equivalent of wearing a glorious wool shirt.
“I’m sorry,” Sue said. “For making you do that.”
“No, you’re not. And neither am I.”
I was so soothed by the booze that I didn’t need to have Sue there at all, however nice it was. It was mostly like a mundane revelation you’ve been expecting for years, and I welcomed it, feeling a small amount like myself, whoever that was, like being an extra in the movie of your life, and so having none of the pressures or awareness of the main character.
Sue was studying me like an experiment at the zoo. Around us the restaurant wasn’t so fast-paced.
“I forgot how much I like drinking,” I said. I sipped to the bottom of the snifter and we ordered more.
Clarity was smeared everywhere when I pulled the curtain aside. The meeting of businessmen at the next table, swearing confidentially under their breaths, undoubtedly on the verge of bankruptcy; a family eating in silence across the room — the wife not even glancing at the husband or at the kid in the high-chair, a family that soon wouldn’t be a family; waiters scampering with trays and beakers too busy to have any emotions of their own.
“You look nice with a glass in your hand,” she said.
Sue was missing that ridiculing expression I knew so well, relaxed now into a curiously erotic gleam I hadn’t noticed before the drink, but assumed had been there always.
“You look nice when I have a glass in my hand, too,” I said.
She reached out her glass and gently clinked mine.
“What shall we drink to?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said earnestly.
“To nothing, then.”
In fifteen minutes I had her filled in on the history of the Longtrees, some of which she already knew, and also all the facts of the case so far. I couldn’t stop talking and I couldn’t stop drinking.
The last time I parted the curtain the guy in denim had his head back sleeping.
Two and a half hours later, five or ten glasses of Scotch in my gut and head, I’d babbled everything I knew to Sue Longtree and I didn’t even know what I had said or didn’t say. She paid a tab that amounted to the gross domestic product of a small South American capital.
I stopped when we were climbing out of the seat, peering at a table near the exit, where Carol Bergen was peering starkly back over the flame of a candle. She was alone. She saw Sue immediately and started to get up, but gravitated back into her seat.
Carol was as drunk as we were. The collar of her black polo shirt was wrenched underneath the collar of her black sweater. The two women stared at each other horrendously as Sue and I approached. Some of my drunkenness fell away just watching the hate stirring between them. Then Sue put a hand out and straightened Carol’s collar. Carol slapped her hand away, but Sue showed no indication that her hand had been slapped away and walked, grinning and sauntering, past the maitre d’hotel, who for some odd reason did not look in the least surprised.
“Sorry,” I slurred at Carol. “She’s having it rough.”
“Take your sorry ass and that woman somewhere else,” she said, her voice so loud in its whisper that the candle’s flame was blown out. I tried talking to Carol for a minute, my words inarticulate and probably mixed up. Carol didn’t look up. “I don’t know what you think she is,” Carol said. “But whatever it is I hope it’s at least half of what she really is. Because if it’s that much, you’ll smarten and find another someone.”
I waited for her to go on, but Carol Bergen simply ignored me.
And then Sue and I were on the sidewalk, arm in arm and I was swaying wildly in the warm rain, trying to find the car parked seven feet away.
The radio was playing Body and Soul, and the singer’s husky, haunted voice slyly hinted that perhaps there was a bottle of rye stowed somewhere that could make all despair seem like a summer jubilee. I believed her.
I was drunk and the yellow line weaving in the road was flying toward me as we drove the sordid streets, throttling uptown. Through the rain and the fog rising from the pavement, figures could be seen. Everybody looks the same in a downpour. I was concentrating on the road, how it veered when you least expected it to. Yes, I was very drunk and my head lolled side to side, like a marionette’s in the wind.
“Richard and the Boys used to play this all the time,” Sue said, turning the music low. “It’s a terribly sad song if you listen close. When they did it it sounded joyful.” She grimaced and was more attractive than ever. Some women are better looking the more grim they feel. “Those goofy cocksuckers,” she said.
Sue sped up, plowing through the pockets of fog and periodically sideswiping a pile of trash bags. Few cars were on the road; those out flashed their lights and sat on the horns. She was jerking the wheel back and forth, once onto someone’s lawn, where a sprinkler washed the windshield as we passed. My brain was sloshing around in my head like a tiny man in a large rain slicker and every pothole felt like an invitation to explode from the inside.
“You want to keep me company tonight or should I grab my toothbrush and bubblegum and come over to your place?” she asked. I made out three words and left the rest to logic. I was so plastered the idea of forming sentences was the same as the idea of forming a republic.
Then I said something indiscernible and brazen.
“You’re so sad, Harry. What’re you so sad about?”
I tried explaining and realized I wasn’t saying anything.
Ahead of us a patrol car coincidentally spun around and turned into a side street. Hands that had once belonged to me clumsily wiped moisture off my face.
“You’re a fun drunk, Harry,” she said, tickling my forearm with her fingertips. Had hair not been growing out of my gums I would have leaned over and undressed her thoroughly and quickly and got down to business. As it was I could barely talk accurately.
The slanted lights of a small car had been in the mirror since we’d left the restaurant, and I kept checking. Soon, however, I couldn’t even manage that.
For a second I thought I was going to be OK. Then I wasn’t OK. When I closed my eyes I saw a buzzing, monochrome structure tailing me in a shade of red that can only be called frantic. I snapped my eyes open. She was peering at me and ever so negligently eyeing the yellow lines ahead of us.
“Nice night for a drive,” she said. Her voice was low and there was sadness in it.
“Where are we anyway?” I asked.
We were passing an old factory, and beyond the factory there was only the sheet of rain that was filling in for the sky, ambiguous fields, moving south with no vehicles around.
“I’m stuck, Harry. That’s why I got you. I’m really stuck. You like mystery stories, Harry?” Sue jabbed a cigarette into her mouth and offered me one. I declined, but she was looking at the road and so I had to push her hand away.
“Is this a mystery story?” I asked.
“I wish it was a love story. You know about love?”
“I read about in a dime-store romance once.”
“Then you know all about love.”
The darkness was far away and too close. Pinging on the roof of the car the rain sounded like gunfire. There was a smell and it was licorice. We passed a large dog with his paws on a guardrail and a field of refuse where corn had once been. There was a deep gulf right behind my eyelids and a nausea that roamed freely over my body and acrid cigarette smoke and the girl smoking beside me, the one who needed a friend to lick the arctic bitterness off her mouth. We were south, just outside of town, and when the city limit sign appeared Sue cut a U-turn on a dirt road lugging off into the hills, and we drove back toward the unsettling lights of the city, a blinking cosmos of heat and waste.
“Harry, what are you thinking about?” she asked.
“Nothing much. The road. The hills. The rain.”
“Why? You don’t like me?”
“I’m not so sure if I do if we’re being honest.”
“We’re not being honest.”
“In that case I do like you.”
“You’re very ambivalent,” she said.
“A lot of people have told me that.”
“A lot of people are right.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But maybe everybody’s wrong about everything. And then where are we?”
“We’re right here.”
Sue smiled and then the smile fell off her mouth like it had been borrowed.
“You’re just sad,” she said. “You need to be less sad.”
“When was the last time it wasn’t raining?” I asked.
Sue turned to me as we went around a bend.
“I don’t know,” she said with an awful gravity in her voice.
“I don’t either,” I said.
Puddles glistened in the street, and all the shops were closed. Still, the city was lit up like it was a magnificent and sunny morning. The houses started to hurry by and I knew we were in the city because I could sense myself vaguely hating, though I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly. I watched the rain flitting down the windows like it would not pause, enervated by a thought I could not place on the very tip of my mind.
“I can’t find it, Harry,” Sue suddenly whispered desperately. “I can’t find it and I don’t know what I’m looking for because it’s gone and I’ve never had it.” Her forehead was on the steering column, hands still clutching the wheel. Maybe she was crying. Maybe after a while all that’s left is tears and you drain out and wash away from yourself. Maybe I didn’t care about her tears because I had my own. And maybe I cared more than I would have liked to care. The car swerved, and she picked up her head.
“I can’t find it anywhere,” she said, yanking at her dress and neck. “Goddamnit, Harry. Where is it?”
“What?” I blurted.
“I don’t know what.”
And then she broke apart and started taking off her clothes while she was still driving. The car bounced onto a curb beside an abandoned, fenced-off lot. Some tall lights shone on an unpainted carousel in the middle of the lot. The grounds were where they plunked the circus when it came to town.
“Dominic Early wouldn’t have written it this good,” she scoffed through her sobbing.
She needlessly pumped the brake and removed the rest of her clothing, except for her heels and stockings, and piled herself on top of me. Her sweat smelled fresh and luxurious if sweat can smell that way. After a moment of groping and kissing and tearing at one another she stopped and I was eating the iodized water of her tears.
“I just want to tease you,” she said. “I’m not good enough to do what I want to do and what I want to do is die. You ever feel that way?” She climbed back into the driver’s seat and nodded at my lusting face.
“Is this what this is?” I asked her.
“More or less,” she said. “No matter what, you’re a good man.”
“I don’t feel like a good man.”
“The best ones never do.” Wrenching the door back she got halfway out into the rain and turned back to me. “Harry, I’m sorry but I can’t be here with you right now. I just can’t right now.”
She loosed the car door and fell onto the sidewalk. In my stupor I only gurgled. The door slammed shut and the radio was just a mess of sound. I sat and obtusely regarded the headlights and the enticed mosquitoes shifting in and out of the rain and the digits of the dashboard clock. A car parked alongside and a man’s shape was scrutinizing me, his chin barely appearing above the bottom of the window. Whether or not he was a delusion he was nonetheless wearing a blue sweater and he was worried. But the head jerked away and the car’s brake lights glinted.
Partly craning around I looked for her in the brake lights. She was nowhere on the street. Not even the street was there with all the buckets of rain that were coming strong. The warmth of the car was like an embrace and I couldn’t imagine disentangling myself from it. I started smiling at Sue, but with a woman like that a smile isn’t something that stays around.
Clumsily I thumbed at the radio but it wasn’t working and I noticed that it wasn’t because the volume was down and I was in no condition to turn it up. Listening to the rain I languished there on the comfortable seat, drifting into intermittent sleep.
It was quarter to two in the morning.
And finally dawn.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10.
Longtime THE2NDHAND contributor Patrick Somerville (author of Trouble, The Cradle, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, a couple of T2H broadsheets — 24 and 32 – and, most recently, This Bright River) was on NPR’s Talk of the Nation today telling the story (and more) of the bizarre and hilarious and sad and terrifying consequences of his latest book’s panning in the New York Times. If you’ve missed his “Thank You for Killing My Novel” essay, published on July 5 at Salon, go read it.
Then tune in to his segment on Talk of the Nation that aired this afternoon. It’s well worth it.
After reading the thrashing the Times gave River, Somerville couldn’t help but notice that the critic had misread a character’s identity in the first few pages of the book, and which in some senses colored her entire reading of it. At once, after the book review had been out for a couple days, Somerville logged into an email address he’d created for the character she’d misidentified (and which he’d been encouraging readers to email questions to, etc., having gotten just one) to find an email from a Times editor seeking to clarify the mistake, which a Times reader had pointed out to him. (How’s that for after-the-fact fact-checking, eh?) In any case, definitely check out the Salon piece, which details some of the email conversation that ensued, with Somerville writing in the voice of his character with the Times editor to the point that the two developed a “ghost friendship,” the subject of the NPR segment.
And hey, I don’t believe the Times. Pick up Somerville’s new one — though I haven’t read it myself yet, I’m certain, from everything I know about him and his past work, that you won’t regret it.
You can find three rather long-ish shorts of Somerville’s (some of my faves among work we’ve published) — among them the exclusive-to-the-book “The Tale of the Time I Accidentally Fell in Love With a Girl Across the Bay” — in our 2011 All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10 10th anniversary collection.