You are reading Fiddleblack #3
Lynn’s first photographs of him, taken in a diner unawares, reveal a sneering figure surrounded by a gang of boys hunkered in a booth, devouring sopping fries, wearing a stressed leather jacket and threadbare jeans, pouncing in his seat, blowing plumes of cigarette smoke into the air, goading the other customers.
In later shots, she lined up so his lank body just covers its own shadow. His mouth is open as if to squawk. His voice carried the deep lilt of a Southerner, not a New York sneer. He came toward her grinning, “You gonna pay royalties for those pictures you taken of me? I know I’m pretty.” Fingers stick out of his gloves, his chestnut bangs are tucked behind his ear. His long narrow nose and wily stepchild eyes beckon. “Why don’t you at least tell me your name, honey?”
“Lynn,” she said, a fluttering inside.
“Is this for, like, National Geographic or something? Look, you can put down there the name Eugene. Eugene Summer. Now you know something ’bout me.”
Once Eugene appears there are parties, sunrises, empty cans of cheap beer, skateboarders, her toppling from spinning blur. Fellow Vagabonds she titled one of the compositions – a circle of glassy-eyed boys filled with abandon. Her parents hunted her with questions about career goals, her brainy friends bombarded her with psychological hang-ups.
Autumn’s calm passed into winter’s greater stillness. Eugene grew restless, contrasting New England frigidity to Southern heat. He is speaking, his belt unbuckled and his long fingers tucked into his pants.
“What about Austin? South by Southwest will be soon.”
“Yeah,” he snickered, “there’s that. Or, there’s home.” He sits before the blank TV, his hand deeper under the waistband. She stood close enough to smell his familiar mixture of cigarette smoke and cologne. He said, “Can’t you let me alone for a gotdamn second?”
Backing into the bedroom, she mumbled, “Fine, do your thing.” She looked into the camera and captured several wide-eyed, gaping grotesque masks, each exhibiting a lost unconscious agony.
Eugene’s voice snarled from the other room, “You wanna see the shanties, the resurrection vine, the kudzu.” The television gave off a miniscule buzz until she heard him light a cigarette. He stood. “The blood red Appalachian floor, rivers running to nowhere towns, bottle trees, mystical rednecks. Don’t you wanna see raw life?” he asked, his hands tugging at the belt loops on her pants, clawing beneath her shirt at her breasts. His lips are parted over her neck.
TSA harassed him for that studded belt we see, those jagged rings. “We could have just taken a bus.”
“I bought the tickets,” Lynn replied.
In another dissolute pose, Eugene is passed out after draining a desertif bottle of Jim Beam and a can of Budweiser, the tarmac still visible through the porthole. Lynn gripped the armrests. The valium she took before the flight had no effect.
Outside the Knoxville airport, the midday heat sends radiant ghosts up from the pavement. “Well,” Eugene said, “now we can take a bus.”
“Not a cab?”
“If you got fifty to drop on it.”
A shuttle took them along what Eugene called the motor-mile to downtown Knoxville and the central bus station. In front of that building is a bone-dry mosaic fountain. Eugene huffed and lit another cigarette. Lynn had imagined there would be a welcoming committee. She gritted her teeth until she touched the button and the familiar mechanism released. Smoke roils around his scowling head. He has swiveled, posed in an instant, sticking out his middle finger, his head at a crooked angle. In a moment of reflection, the camera is at a low angle and Lynn is stricken with a beguiled grin.
“I guess we need a ride,” he said. His cigarette dangles on his lip. He has stepped over to a pay phone and dials from memory.
“Hello? It’s Eu-gene!” He paused. “I’m in Knoxville.” He holds the phone away from his ear.
He dialed another number, saying the digits out loud. No answer. He lifts a small black book out of his seat pocket. She zoomed in to take shots of this new accessory. His voice over the phone was lower, restrained, and he used curt sentences.
“Okay,” he said. “Thank you.” He hung up and the receiver clanged. “Lynn, can you do me a favor? Can you call this number and ask for Jordan?”
“‘Cause. Some people stay mad forever.”
“I don’t know him.”
“Just,” he bit his lip and cursed. He knelt and made a hoop with his arms under her ass, hefted her. His strength was surprising, skinny as he was. “Course you wouldn’t.” He let her slip to the ground again. He grins, showing his two buck teeth in front, larger than the rest. “You a pretty bunny.” His hands kneaded her ass. “Miss Snapshot America.” He has stopped and frowns – a scarecrow. “It means a lot to me that you came here, Lynn.”
A bus drove them along the motor-mile to open fields. He slouches in the seat, early evening through the window behind him. The other passengers study them with suspicion.
Lynn wrenched her bag onto the sidewalk to the side of the apartment complex. The bus heaved off into further emptiness. “This is where we’re going?” He betrayed nothing.
At the top of the stairs he offered to take her bag, apologizing that he hadn’t earlier. Then he set it at his side in front of a door. “Thanks,” she snarled.
The man who stepped out is thick and wears a tank top and jeans, his fat bottom lip hangs low. “Hi. My name’s Eugene. I used to.”
The man who whipped the door open until it hit the wall perpendicular is stocky, his jet black hair greased. His baggy, cellophane eyes glisten as if they house cataracts in his square head. He is not photogenic and nods at his own speech, “Gene? You piece of shit with wings! Where the fuck you been?”
“I’s just travelling up north.”
“I see you snatched yourself up a girl. From the North. All the Southern girls too fucked up for you?” Eugene coughed and gave a heavy sigh. He glares at the second man in one instant. The man squealed with laughter. He holds his hand up high, the thumb angled to hitch a ride or point out a good deal on a car. “My name is Jordan.”
Jordan pours shots in the kitchen, the thick man standing guard against the wall, most of which is blank, giving the assembly space feeling of a factory or film studio or gym. There is a television, of course, showing scenes from a horror movie – contemporary quality defamiliarized by the black-and-white. Then the whiskey bottle and coffee mugs stand on the stained countertop, consuming all attention. Later, Jordan herds them outside.
“Beefy here will drive,” said Jordan. The thick man, Beefy, maintains the same zombie expression. His car is a Honda, paint peeling, into which they climb – Jordan taking shotgun, and Eugene followed by Lynn in the backseat. The chassis creaked on each turn out of the lot. A strip mall is lit up even though its shops are closed: Pizza King, Mailboxes, Krazy Kuts, World’s Best Donuts, AT&T, Sprint, Liquor World – their only neighbors along the road beyond which lie vast fields of dead farmland and murky blue dusk.
“What you gonna do, Gene?” Jordan inquired.
Eugene watches the emptiness without reply. Then some vague bulb has switched on. “We’ll have to think of something. Lynn’s never been down South. We gotta show her a good time.” Her lens intuits Jordan’s doggy gaze trying to undress her. And Eugene has noticed.
“I never been up north. Guess that puts us on even ground,” Jordan said.
Eugene chuckled, “You ain’t on even ground with nobody. Ain’t a thing about you even.”
Hearing this, Jordan cut short his own grunting laughter. His teeth are gritted, making a pitbull’s bulge in his cheek. “Gene always did have a way with women. You fucking sicko.”
“All right, Jord,” Eugene said, his hand raised. He watches the fields again. He hummed a song to himself that Lynn leaned in closer to hear, smelling Jordan’s breath.
He has twisted his torso to see them. “You know what he’s singing? Knoxville Girl.” Jordan unwound and opened his chest to sing, “I met a little girl in Kno-ox-ville, a town we all know well, and every Sunday evening, out in her home I’d dwell. We went to take an evening walk, about a mile from town, I picked a stick –.”
“Jord,” Eugene interrupted, “who sings that song?”
“You know. Lots of folks. Louvin Brothers is one.”
“How ‘bout we keep it that way.” There was dead quiet. Then Eugene laughs and has just shoved the back of Jordan’s seat. “We love that song down here. You know, hometown pride, I suppose,” Eugene explained.
They have entered another parking lot, a one-storey building on a concrete slab in the center, the deep black of the foothills in the distance, faint city lights beneath the torn end of the horizon. Jordan said, “One day when Gene ain’t around, I can sing you the whole song.” His torso is twisted again, his hands grip the headrest.
Inside men are playing pool, their beer cans tipped high, sitting sullen and stoic under smoky haloes next to an empty glass. Their ragged, wizened skins make impossible textures.
“What’s it going to be, Gene?” Jordan chorused.
Eugene and Jordan walk abreast and close Lynn out. There is only one other woman in the bar, and she sits over a cocktail smoking a cigarette. Lynn has approached them, Eugene yelling at Jordan, who grinds his teeth again.
“How long you in town for?” asked Beefy, standing too close behind her.
“We’re not sure. We bought one-way tickets.”
“Not sure,” Beefy laughed. Behind her Jordan is shoving Eugene out the door.
“They’re not gonna fight, are they?” Lynn mewled. A cackle broke out from the bar.
Sniggering echoed across the lot. The car’s trunk is open, Eugene is fiddling with his hair, between his fingers is something the bright color and size of a cigarette lighter. “This fucking maniac’s gonna wear hairclips in there,” said Jordan.
“I lost a bet.” Eugene struts, wide-hipped, into the bar.
“Whose hairclips?” Lynn asked, smiling as hard as she could.
Jordan started to speak. Eugene has stopped in the dark doorway against Jordan’s smirk. “I’ll tell you when Gene ain’t around. You sure like to take pictures.”
Eugene’s holey jeans hang low on his hips, and he approaches a group of men in baseball caps, those close enough to the lens displaying racecar drivers’ names and numbers. “Y’all interested in a game of pool?” Through one of the holes his leopard print underwear shows, his “tiger britches.”
The men eye him up and down, as if they know his game. “You queer?”
Eugene shakes his head no, hairclips clacking, pointing at the lens. “Right there’s my girlfriend,” he said.
Lynn waved helplessly. One man, the looming figure with left hand on the stick and his right in his pocket, strolled past Eugene toward Lynn. “You really with him, honey? You’re beautiful. He looks like a scallywag.” The men laughed at the word scallywag. His knuckles pointed toward her around the pool cue.
“Hey,” Eugene barked.
“Can’t you let her do the talking, son? I figure that’d be the best thing right now.” Lynn clicked the button on her camera and simpered as it went off. A burnt auburn face with gaping nostrils and a toothy smirk is visible from beneath the chin. “Naw. I ain’t gonna play pool with you. I don’t wanna embarrass you more than you already have yourself.”
Eugene sits at the bar, one finger raised to order a whiskey. He is ashen, hangdog, his tongue sucking back and forth behind his lips. Lynn asked, “Are you okay, honey?” Sullen, Eugene raises a shotglass to his mouth, mumbling into the rim.
Back in the apartment, Eugene drinks more, reels, hovers over Lynn to kiss her. Jordan and Beefy are missing. Lynn kissed him, and he rasped, “This is it. Southern culture. Up all hours drinking.” Bowing over her, his hands twisted in a towel, he overshadows all the good light. There is a shot in which, spurned, he scowls at the camera. “Keep that fucking thing aimed anywhere but here!” he barks, poking a finger at his nose.
Lynn obeyed and laid the camera in her lap. He circled, then flopped down on the floor. His voice softer, he asked, “What do you think so far?”
“It’s crazy. Just like I thought.”
“That place tonight – just a sample.”
“I already got some great shots.”
“I thought that dude was gonna start something.”
“The tall one? That was kind of awkward. It’s best just to leave those types alone.”
“Actually, I was kind of hoping he would start something.”
“You were?” Lynn balked.
“Sometimes a good bar fight just – hell, you know.” His voice sizzled. “If you hadn’t had that camera, I might have jumped his ass.”
Lynn tucked her chin and saw her camera in her lap. Eugene slipped back and sprawled across the floor. “Come here, girl,” he grunted. He jostled her, crushed her against himself, squeezed her hard once, then his breath broke into a snore.
When she woke, she couldn’t find a clock. Her camera lay next to her. The moonlight on the ceiling gives the room an underwater appearance. Eugene’s arms and one leg restrained her. His breathing was heavy. She struggled under his ropy limbs and finally came free with a loud gasp.
Taking careful steps toward the bathroom, she spotted Jordan through an open door. His ivory skin reflects the drained blue light folding and unfolding on the computer screen. His jet hair, earphones, and black collar contrast to make his appearance unreal. On the screen are body parts with female curves bent in cartoonish positions. He is surrounded by piles of soiled laundry that Lynn could smell. When he looked, Lynn bounded into the bathroom, her feet sliding along the dank carpet and the linoleum. After easing the door shut, the toilet’s stench filled her nose, and she masked herself with the collar of her T-shirt.
Outside the bathroom the screen was off, the room dark. A rustling came from there. Lynn rushed back to her makeshift bed. Eugene has his back to her, lying under moonlight. He appears like a baby, his features subdued. His heavy breathing had ceased, and a fingernail scratched against skin. Lynn set her camera aside and collapsed alongside him.
The next day, Eugene has stepped out the front door onto the passageway to smoke. Or he flips through channels on the washed-out television.
At night Lynn lies asleep, her T-shirt stretched to expose her breasts. An erect penis protrudes over her washed-out face, the brow furrowed, obviously troubled in her dreams.
The next day consisted of only a few shots taken through the door to the balcony, the sky grayed by undefined clouds – the South is plain.
It was still dark when Lynn woke, having dreamed of Eugene sucking her toes. The front door had just slammed shut. She lay down and tried to sleep more, the funk of the rug beginning to dissipate into the warming air. We see Eugene framed by the sliding glass doors, leaning over the railing of the balcony, smoking, the foothills climbing up in the background, the sun brimming the horizon. The sun burns off the fog and the sky becomes a raw blue.
Lynn stepped onto the balcony, the air was warm and damp. A panorama shot, the South is copses, clearings, trails – a bordered miniature. A gauzy haze passed and left a fragrant scent, a tree the name of which Lynn couldn’t remember. “That smell. I know it.”
“Callery pear,” Eugene said. Then, with added lilt, almost a yelp, “My dad knew trees, at least. Right there’s a live oak. They never have dead leaves. They’re always alive. Always beautiful, all year round. Always moving forward.” Ignoring the live oak, Lynn craned her neck and leaned to view more of the periphery until, her waist folded over the railing, she stopped at the perfect angle.
“You mind if I take some pictures?”
Eugene grumbled, “It’s like taking pictures of a person while they’re asleep. This ain’t nothing to take pictures of.”
From this angle, a beam reflects off one of the cars below and lights across the lens, underscoring the entire scene. She could hardly stop to tuck her hair out of the way behind her ear – there are several shots with these obscuring tentacles. “Goddamn, this is great.”
Then Eugene is swatting in the direction of the camera, his hand gigantic in the foreground. “Can’t you stop for a second? You don’t have to say the Lord’s name.” His mouth is clamped, his head bowed, his bald pectorals twitch, his fists are balled. The next shots are leveled within the balcony railing, the photographer clearly standing on flat feet. “Don’t you fucking get it?” he growled, filling out the curse with his breath.
“You say that to me. Jordan says ‘fuck’ every other word. And you get mad about goddamn? I’m pretty sure you’ve used that word before.”
Eugene pivoted back to the landscape. “Jordan’s nothing but a pervert. He’s liable to say anything. Me? I don’t like blaspheming.”
Standing there, wincing out at the bright hot South, this composition could have the title Lousy Piece of Trash. Under her breath, Lynn said, “It’s just a goddamned word,” and ducked through the door. She began to gather her strewn possessions, catching glimpse of the balcony now and then. After she’d packed everything, she sat down and rotated her camera, inspecting for damage, tucked it away, and zipped the bag shut.
The door slid closed and Eugene passed by. She heard the bathroom faucet running and the sounds men make over the sink. She called to him, “I’ll leave the camera if you promise we can go out tonight. I wanna see the real South.”
“I swear to god.”
“All right now. I told you to.”
“I won’t use any blasphemy.”
“What do you think is the real South?” Eugene asked, his voice turning nasal.
“I don’t know. It ain’t here in this apartment.”
“The real South,” he mocked, his voice even more nasal.
“Maybe I should start looking at tickets back to New Haven.”
There was a long bout of silence. “All right, Miss Gotdamn-it-all Northern Snapshot.”
Lynn read Larry Brown. Eugene pawed at his crotch and shifted around too often, jabbed the remote to flip through the five channels of soap operas, cooking shows, and reruns of Dukes of Hazzard. He stepped out for a cigarette, fussing and slamming the door.
Close to five-thirty a car pulled up and there was a ruckus outside. Jordan stomped in and snorted like the cock of an air rifle. He hefted a case of beer onto the counter along with a bottle in a paper bag. The seal on the bottle was broken and it reeked of whiskey. Beefy lurched inside and slammed the door to his bedroom. “Pay day. Party time. Y’all ready?” Jordan asked.
“Actually, Jordan, we were thinking of going out tonight. We been in this apartment now all the time for the last couple days,” Eugene pled.
As Lynn nodded, Jordan began unscrewing the cap. “Gene, Gene, just as pretty as he is mean. You get all the lookers, Gene.”
Eugene snickered, “All right, Jord.”
“That’s my boy. You want some rye?”
“Sure. Sounds all right,” said Eugene.
Lynn couldn’t help herself. Behind the counter, Jordan hurries to pour a drink. “Love me some rye! Just like old Gene.”
Eugene has sat down next to Lynn and laid his head on her shoulder. “You’re my New Haven girl,” he whispered. Having noticed the presence of the lens, he has sunken deeper into the seat.
“Yessir,” yelped Jordan, “always did want to be like Jesse James Gene Summer, huh. You remember when we were in school? I always walked with Mean Gene.”
“Back in the day,” shouted Eugene.
“Back in…,” mumbled Jordan. “Here’s to you and Beefy.”
Eugene sees Beefy’s shut door. He raised his glass, “Sure.”
“You looking at her door?”
Eugene glares at Jordan, about to throw back his whiskey. Jordan has done so, and now his gaze is buried in the corner.
“There was a little girl from Kno-ox-ville, a town we all know well. Now you know a little about Knoxville. But there’s a lot more. Where’s it you’re from again?”
“New Haven.” The Southern lilt had invaded her voice.
“I never been up north,” said Jordan somberly. He’s looking at the carpet – wasted film. “Not like old Gene here,” he wheezed. “You see, Gene ain’t even from the South no more. He’s been all over. Hadn’t you?”
Eugene has meandered behind the counter to pour another glass. “You been all over. All over the fucking land. Laying all the poon you can. Hadn’t you? I bet you laid a hundred women by now. But you had to come back for the one.” Jordan snorted. There is one picture in which he has wiped his nose with his whole forearm, wrist to elbow.
“All right, Jord,” chuckled Eugene. He watches the whiskey level rise.
“You know,” Jordan spoke to Lynn, “he’s a killer when it comes to females.”
Lynn set her camera in her lap and asked, “What happened to Phina?” Her teeth sawed at her lips. At the counter Eugene cursed. Spilled whiskey dribbled off the side and onto the floor. He hovers down to sip from the brim.
“Phina? Josephina? Hell, I thought you’d never ask,” Jordan shouted. “She, Phina, was our friend. She and Gene had themselves a relationship. They came in here one night, riproaring.” Jordan touches his forehead, as if recalling this episode. He is sipping again, licking his teeth with his mouth shut. “She told him she was gonna kill herself. And he just said…well, what did you say, Gene?” Eugene was carefully pouring another glass. Lynn shifted in her seat to face Jordan. “He just said, ‘Fine.’”
Jordan stares into his lap, sulking. Next he has lassoed his arm out within a few inches from the lens. “She took off sprinting, right out that open door, right out there onto the pavement. She fell three floors. But she’s alive. She’s still alive. They put her in a mental hospital. She’s only half-dead. She gave up on life, but it hadn’t given up on her.” He throws back, finally a worthy subject.
“Man, Jord. You gotta bring everyone down,” Eugene grumbled.
“I didn’t bring no one down,” Jordan retorted. He stares at Eugene, who faces the wall.
“Fuck,” Jordan shouted once, “Y’all don’t still wanna go to the bar, do you?”
Hours passed until Lynn set her camera on its bag next to her and lay down to sleep. In the morning, she would take a cab to the airport, find the soonest affordable flight, and return to New Haven.
The camera was broken, but we salvaged the film. What happened was an accident.
The first time she woke Jordan was fiddling with her camera. “What are you doing?” she howled and snatched it from him.
He held onto the strap. “I was gonna take some pictures,” he croaked. She pointed at him and clicked: his head droops, then he is awake, unfocused.
Lynn brought her camera into the bathroom, where Eugene splays passed out against the wall next to the toilet. In the mirror, whipped cream dapples her face. She wiped it off with a towel and, wide awake, examined her camera. There was no visible damage, but the inner mechanism clicked. The shutter sliced, then it sliced again, even though she hadn’t touched the button. It was triggering itself. The bathroom light softens Eugene’s painfully twisted posture.
In the living room, Jordan has disappeared. Her camera bag lies on the floor. She removed the battery, placed the camera inside, zipped it up, and lay down, hugging the whole apparatus against her stomach.
The second time, Eugene woke her by shaking her shoulders and hissing her name. “Lynn, let’s go. Get up now.” She smelled char. “I gotta get out of here. Let’s go someplace else. Jordan’s getting to be a drag, know what I’m saying? We gotta escape.”
Lynn shook her head, yawned. “Where’s my camera?”
“What? You gonna take some pictures? You don’t wanna leave this shit nest?”
The camera remained in its bag next to the bed. She lay back and moaned, “We don’t have any money.”
“You don’t have any more?” Lynn tucked herself tighter in the blanket. “I got a hundred sixty out of Jordan’s wallet. I know where his car keys are too.”
“You wanna steal his car?” Lynn asked in deadpan.
“Sh. No. C’mon. Don’t wake that snake up. Gotdamn.”
In Lynn’s neck, the joint cracked. She had wondered if this was all a dream. In her best Southern accent she drawled, “You’ve taken the Lord’s name in vain.” It will all be over soon, she thought. Eugene was moving, rifling piles of clothes, plastic bags.
The third time she woke, she grabbed her camera immediately. Eugene sits on a crate on the balcony. The sky near dawn is the azure color of moonlight. On the floor is a morass of sundry items. These are some of the most breathtaking pictures she ever took of the South. She swept from left to right, capturing every foot of the landscape. Here the lunar surface of the empty parking lot, there the glow of a strip mall’s vibrating fluorescent light. Tree leaves move in waves, one gigantic aching ripple.
Eugene came up behind and embraced her. “I don’t have enough film for how fucking beautiful it is,” she said. “It’s just…stunning.”
He said nothing, his chin rested on her shoulder. The stench of alcohol laced his breath. He was still enough that he could be sleeping. Here is the grand sky, next she focuses on each small place, each moment: the sinister lone car in the parking lot, a millworker slamming an old truck’s door, semis hurtling along the freeway. A mourning dove or perhaps a thrush sang to her while she took these pictures. Her father used to list birds from a book, spotting them from the window of their timeshare in Litchfield. The view is overwhelming, and the witness is daunted seeing these pictures.
She faced Eugene, he clutched her hips. He lifted her onto the railing. She giggled and reached out with her free hand to cup his head behind the ear. There is a side view of the balcony, much like the one taken on the day when Eugene swatted at her. His hands slid down to her ankles and upended her torso before she could grab hold. “Eugene, stop,” she shouted, her voice empty of any Southern accent. The camera must be pointed straight up at the balcony above – underneath it mold has traced a halo in the painted concrete. Lynn imagined she heard Eugene saying, This is it. Southern culture. “Stop! Pull me up.” His hands clutched her ankles. There is a layer of milky blue sky, the light around each projecting object smeared by a pendulant motion. Lynn tasted her stomach flipping. “Pull me up, it’s not funny.” Did she hear him laughing? He lunged and the laughter ceased. His grip loosened. He grunted.
From the tibia of one of her dropped arms the twisted camera strap hung. Her final picture of the South displays a cloudless sky, the sun descending under the upturned world, and the viewer can approximate the concord of birdsongs, the earthy scent and grease rising from the kitchen vent below, the touch of the droplets of dew.
Ian Singleton is a working writer. His work has appeared in Asymptote, Prick of the Spindle, Midwestern Gothic, qarrtsiluni, and other journals. A story collection, Cussing, is forthcoming. He won a Hopwood Award from the University of Michigan in 2004 and is a graduate of the MFA program at Emerson College.