You are reading Fiddleblack #17
I remembered she was old. She sat in a narrow hallway between a wall blank save for its chart on emergency features and the back end of the receptionists’ area whereat two young women who were practically girls tapped on keyboards at computer screens and talked to the other patients who mingled around the intake. The woman wore a hat as most old women do and she held her purse just as so.
You know, she said. When I was younger there weren’t this many people going to the doctor’s office.
No? I asked.
No, she said. You would be lucky to find three in the whole building.
I can’t believe that, I remember saying, though it seemed plausible at the time.
You know, she continued. It’s because of all that going about in space we’ve done. We stirred it all up. Everything up there is dust. What happens when your fan is dusty and you forget to clean it. You turn it on and go to sleep and what? You wake up with your throat sore and your nose stuffed. Don’t you? That’s what they’ve done up there. They’ve gone and moved all that dust above us and it’s come down and made us all sick.
Well, maybe technology, I started to say.
They won’t be doing anymore of that, she said. That space interest is all dried up now and it should be. Do you know when I was a little girl I never once saw my mother go to the doctor?
Did you go?
I think maybe three times, she said. Three times I went when I was little and now what. I have a heart attack seven years ago and still I’m coming back here. Still I’m not well. My mother was killed by a steer. She was gored at the breast and trampled. She probably would have lived until she was ninety. Me, I’ve got these arteries. I’ve got this old body that’s been under the sun and stars too long. You can barely find a good reason to go outside anymore. All the crime on the news. When I was a girl, air travel was a leisure activity. We dressed to fly like we dressed to church. Planes flew into airports and people got off. Now they fly into buildings. These people and their religion. Those Mideast women and their covered faces. People in the cities. Breaking into homes. Those people on the border. They take jobs, they take our money. My grandfather came to this country from Europe.
What part of Europe?
The eastern part. I don’t know. We weren’t close. He came in and got his papers. But now these people don’t have time to wait. You think it was good in Europe back then? You can’t even buy eggs anymore. All the eggs come from different kinds of places. Different prices now. You have to buy eggs from a farm without cages. How can you get all the eggs if the chickens aren’t in cages.
Are you just here for a check-up? I asked.
Oh, I don’t know anymore, she said. They call and I come. I don’t know.
The woman stopped talking after a while and sat still with her purse while light from a window gleamed across her face. I looked at the floor, touching the tips of my shoes together. Nurses passed by. Children in another room laughed and there was the sound of the elevator gliding up and opening and descending again.
My brother was born the night Voyager 2 reached Neptune. I remember that. Probably most people don’t know about Voyager 2.
If you’re talking about a spacecraft then I don’t know, she said. The veins in her hands blued.
You know, I said. It could all just be the environment. Just things we’ve done to the planet ourselves. Through waste and industry and whatnot.
She laughed. We’ve been doing all sorts of things for years. Baloney. Baloney, she said. God never meant for us to do some things. Some people—God never meant anything for them.
Wonderful things come on the downbeat nights when we’re drinking. Maybe not for everyone. I remember getting lost all the time in my own town when I first learned to drive. I would go past girls’ houses and hope to see one changing in the window. I would drive around with all the windows down in the summer.
And now out on the only good bridge I know you can see down into the valley for miles. On both sides of the road a narrow walkway keeps you from walking on the broken glass and gravel-lined shoulder. On one end of the bridge is a bar and on the other end is a farm with sweet corn and at night not one of these places can see onto the bridge. Not one can see me standing here now and looking down and out and over the land. I have a few drinks and go walking sometimes like this. What matters most is being here in the summer and being with the air, knowing things like concrete or soil or creek water. I think there are a lot of times when I forget about here. I had a professor once who told me: You come before you. I have uncle who once had to clean up the impacted body of a man who jumped here. The cars that pass are all barflies at this hour. Crazies. Police.
Somewhere in the valley there’s this great old owl I’ve seen. Must of been six feet wide.
What I’m thinking is that people in small towns, suburbs, the places far out of cities, these are all people who’ve gone some distance from civilized and refined society. Sure they commute, work in the cities and they even travel to Chicago or New York or DC. But there’s some kind of thing with the long highways between. When you’re an astronaut and you want to reach a place that’s so many light years away, you have to travel above the speed of light to get there. When you go faster than the speed of light then all of us who aren’t going that fast will see something different. The clocks won’t be the same. Going four years for you is like fifty for us. And maybe that’s what happens to these small town people. Living that far into the sprawl introduces aberrations. People know little and want to know less. People are scared of things. There’s only one or two kind of men in many small towns and a few kind of women too. There’s a way to get eggs and there’s a way to be and to work and to do.
I remembered that woman’s face again one time. There was this sickening way that she had painted on daubs of blue eyeshadow. I woke up in my own bed. This girl from the bar beside me.
What was her name. Buckley.
Buckley lay with her stomach and breasts pressed flat against the mattress. One hand raised against the headboard and one hand at her side in some downward pagan pose. The sheets moved and her body spray wafted up and it reminded me of a girl I met at a concert. Cotton candy. The most weird, most innocent smell. Her cotton candy body spray wafted up. I could smell her vagina. I could smell my sheets. I saw that old woman in the dark that night, just her face. I remembered it exactly as it was before she left with the nurse. Pronounced as it was. Maybe she was just getting a check-up or maybe she was told she was dying. I don’t know. But there I was smelling this girl’s cotton candy and her vagina and seeing this old woman’s face in the dark.
I see a light bounce down from the sky and just above the valley. It looks like a globe. Like it’s flying. The light moves in a kind of angular way. It isn’t otherworldly but from a bridge on a good night of drinking, it looks like more than a star. I walk to my car and start it. I have fast food wrappers everywhere. I’m not fat but I don’t have a lot of time. I pull the car in gear and head down one of the park roads and down a ravine. The car rumbles over splits in the road. I fumble for my cell phone. Who do I call. I look at Buckley’s messages. Haven’t texted her in over a year. I call her number. While the phone rings, I remember her small soft breasts. I pass two signs telling me to keep out after dusk, and I pass a ski store where I sometimes buy acid. What looks like a giant raccoon is perched atop the roof. Buckley answers her phone.
I thought I’d try you tonight, I blurt. Not knowing what else to say.
I was sleeping. Are you okay?
Absolutely, I say.
Want me to call a car for you?
No, I say. It’s just that I’m seeing this weird thing.
I don’t understand.
I’m seeing this weird thing in the sky.
Okay, she says. Alright.
I put down the phone and drive up a long foothill to a lookout point where I once went with my father to sled.
James, she says. If you don’t need anything then I need to get back to sleep.
Do you want to meet up sometime, I say.
I don’t think so, she says.
I leave the phone on the driver’s seat and stand on a picnic bench that overlooks over the point. There was a bench just like this in Boston where I used to live.
The light is no nearer than it was before. It darts, still. It gathers itself at the top of the sky and it fades out of sight and flutters back in motion and it whorls at one point like a clock arm in a cartoon.
The thing about these kinds of small towns or simple people is easy. A lot of them just want their church on Sunday. That’s about it. They like a good steak. A paid mortgage. Quiet streets at night. It’s the great reason I used to always go around town with this guy PK. He and I would drive out after midnight to the nice prom queen neighborhoods. Sometimes I’d try and match up the houses I’d thought I’d been in before. Farmer’s daughters or whatever. PK’d laugh and drink a beer. We’d toss our bottles up in the air and catch them. Throw them away in the trunk of my car. I was always recycling. We went out a few good times. Just trying to get a hold on life. PK’d met a woman he thought he could be with for a while. His father had just died from some kind of heart problem. His mother smoked a lot of pot. PK thought she was bipolar. The woman he’d met worked out at the corn stand in the summer. He told he she got depressed a lot. She was one of those farmer’s daughters with good hands. Not one I’d been with but still a known one, nonetheless.
I think the thing about getting old is that you just find out that everything’s real. You know? PK said. It’s like I took acid with Leah and I saw a lot of weird shit and I felt paranoid and all of that and somewhere in the middle of it I kept asking her: Is everything real? Yeah, she said. Yeah, PK. Everything’s real. I thought about that for a while, man.
That makes a whole lot of sense, I told him.
We went out and fucked up Leah’s father’s hot tub cover after PK thought it would be cool if we uncovered it. That guy had his tub set on a little deck away from the house a ways where I guess he could sit and relax and look at all of his corn. PK texted Leah to come out and soak with us but she didn’t reply and all we could hear from the house was a lot of yelling.
You know what else makes a lot of sense, I said.
Everything is real. Like you’re real and I’m real and those people in that house are real people. But what about everywhere else? Up there? I said.
From over at the silo there was this hoot, then.
Up there? I said again.
That’s an owl, man. PK said.
I know, I said.
But sometimes you have to make sure it’s not you.
This light in the sky, like a big light—like a saucer. It kept going and I began to wonder if it was drawing symbols or letters or something with itself. Like tracing sparklers in the air. I squinted and focused. I heard my phone ringing in the car. The light didn’t seem to make any useful shapes. Wherever I thought it had slowed greatly, it sped up again. I got the phone and answered it and it was Buckley calling.
Hey, she said. I didn’t mean to sound like a bitch before.
I didn’t call you that, I say.
I know. I haven’t talked to you in like a year though. You can’t just dial up girls.
I know, I said. I remembered we had some times.
Yeah, she said. That was okay. I mainly want to make sure you’re not jumping off a bridge tonight, or anything like that. Like I can tell you’re outside, and I’m pretty sure I heard you driving before. Are you fucked up right now?
A little, I say. Nothing I can’t fix with an hour or so.
I don’t want my number to be the last one you called on your phone, she says.
It isn’t, I say. Won’t be.
Oh, she says.
I get distracted by the light and drop the phone to my waist for a moment. It doesn’t do anything differently, but it does start to seem dimmer. Hey, I say. Let’s just meet up then.
I’m dating someone now, she says.
Oh, I say.
I find Buckley at her same place. She still has wood panelling. She has a bunch of chairs and tables she painted herself. They look bad. Bright colors. Messy color on the moulding.
I know a few things about Buckley from the four or five times we went out. She’s not like a lot of other people where she needs something like PK’s girl needs a lot of attention or a lot of handholding or whatever when she’s sad. Buckley is the kind of girl that will look around a room at watch people instead of asking you to tell her about yourself or about your friends. She went to high school with PK. He told me that she had hairy armpits in the ninth grade. PK said he saw her get into an argument with some girl’s mom at a party. I mostly find her easy enough to be myself around.
We sit on her futon where she has me recount my evening. She has brown hair. Freckles. A round face. She’s wearing a terrycloth hooded sweatshirt like a robe. She has long white socks on. I’d say she looks British if that means anything to you. I tell her: before I saw the light over the valley I took some acid with PK. But that was like at least ten hours earlier. But after that I worked on this drawing for a client and he bought me a beer. I have a few good clients now, I tell her. I’m working on some decent illustrations for an environmental magazine. Really radical guys. After I had beer with the client, I drove back to our town. Buckley smiles at this and I can tell she had a few shots before I came over. She paws me with her bare foot, and I remember she has those really jagged looking feet that just move quickly from small toe to big toe, without any guided ascension. Yeah, our town, I say. But I have no idea what this means at this point. In our town I had several beers by the valley bridge and then I walked over the bridge for a look.
Are you still drunk? she asks.
I take a moment. Wonderful things come on the downbeat nights when we’re drinking. No, I say. I feel kind of spaced out. I notice that Buckley put on some nice silk thing that lets her legs run on for miles. But I kiss her shoulder and smell her skin and she just smells like plain soap and a restaurant behind her ears where she forgot to wash. She holds my hand against her stomach. It’s pretty flat. She runs my hand over her chest. I look out of her window from over her shoulder and I wonder if maybe I had that weird old lady vision here, once. Or maybe I had it a few times and I don’t remember. But I could have had it here. Voyager 2. Challenger. Astronomy. Astrology. Blank black sky. Lights in the sky. Old lady eyes. I’m going down on Buckley now. I see the same dark space. Aliens. Vigils. Stars. PK. Acid. Hot tubs. Drinks. Drinks. A chicken with its head cut off. I always think of a chicken with its head cut off when I want to think of something hard to imagine.
Buckley slides up away from me and checks her watch on the nightstand. I slide off the bed and slump at the foot on the floor. I hear her get a glass of water. It’s almost daylight and I start getting dressed. She smiles when I leave, eyes closed. She’s dead asleep when I closed the door.
You know what? the client, this Navajo guy named Jim, asks me. I don’t know that we’re seeing the same thing. He looks down at some of the concepts I’ve drawn for him.
I can make any changes, I say.
His lips are really dark and I can tell that we don’t have any of the same interests. When we went out for a beer he joked about his ex-wife for a while, and I felt pretty sad for him. He drank half of his second beer that time and he started to seem kind of tipsy. I thought it was pretty funny until he launched into another story about his sister and how she died when he was a kid: she was eleven and I was eight, maybe. We’d just landed on the moon. I couldn’t believe it. I barely understood what it meant for the country, for anything. She did. She sat so close to the TV. Our parents were out at some party. She told me that the moon was thousands of miles away and when I asked her what was only one thousand miles away, she wasn’t sure what to tell me. Russia, she said, was probably a thousand miles away, and they were probably closer to the moon and that’s why it was so important that we got there first. We’re even farther from the moon. The farthest. But we made it all that way and we’ll get back just fine. My father wasn’t an astronaut or anything, I should tell you, but he did practice law and he smoked a lot of pot and sometimes, I think to balance the stress, he’d just start off on these long rants to us about anything he knew, and he’d pace around the room in a cloud of smoke in the most lawyerly way he could. We moved here from Attleboro and back East it was a lot more competitive. Especially for an Indian lawyer. But anyway, we saw that moon landing and my sister went crazy. She thought that my father was pretty much infallible after that. Every kid hears their father say something or do something and they just grow to think their dad is always right or whatever.
The client looks around the coffee shop. Tell you what, he says, pointing to one of the concepts. Go and draw this forest again but draw it like your best friend just died. Think hard about that and then start drawing it. I think that’ll get you somewhere good.
I look down at the concept. There’s a little woodland. A pink kind of sunset. A few polar bears living in a parked car. It’s kind of sharp, I say. The polar bears are homeless.
I get it, he says. It’s very easy to get. But it isn’t very upsetting. What upsets you?
I’m not sure, I say. Death maybe.
You’re afraid to die?
I’m afraid of other people dying.
What do you think happens to them?
The TV just shuts off, I guess.
That isn’t so scary, he says. That sounds pretty quiet.
I suppose not.
You know what’s scarier, I say. I saw this light out over the forest last night. It was quick. Like a big flashlight shone over the whole valley. What when we die it isn’t that there’s just nothing and it isn’t that we go to heaven, but what if it’s just something like that. What if when we die we’re just lost balls of light and we fizzle out when our energy is ready to be consumed by the universe?
Ghosts, he says.
Kind of like ghosts, I say.
That’s a good angle, Jim says. Go think about that some more. Do another one with the polar bears ready to be consumed by the universe. Make yourself ready.
Okay, I say, feeling really good. Okay.
I wait for a few hours after the meeting before I pick up my pens but once I do I just can’t concentrate. I call Buckley and she doesn’t answer her phone. I think about going to see her at the restaurant where she works but I’m not even sure why I want to see her in the first place. I keep thinking about PK’s story from ninth grade, Buckley’s hairy armpits. I start to think about her body and I think that maybe a woman’s armpits are a very sexy place that I’ve never really considered looking before.
PK stood in the woods with his legs on either bank of the small stream and he pissed into it. So what else did you talk about, he asked.
Nothing, I said. She didn’t want to talk that much.
I thought maybe about telling her about my brother.
What about him?
Well he died.
No. He was sixteen. Some girl hit his car.
Ever talk to her?
She live around here?
Oh. Why tell Buckley then?
Well I called her and she called me over.
She called you over to eat her cooch.
I’m your friend, man. You can tell me stuff.
I know, man.
He zipped his pants. He said: I’m a fuckin good friend, you know. PK walked to the opposite side of the bank. He pushed a dead sapling over onto the forest floor.
I know, man.
You know, Leah’s family’s kind of fucked up. Her dad’s crazy, man. Hit her mom when Leah was little. Doesn’t do it anymore but you never know with a guy like that. I’m pretty fucked up too, he said.
How are you fucked up?
I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid, man. I don’t know how to swim. My folks sleep in different beds. You ever been to one of the clambake’s here? Remember all that shit you heard about people eating the bad clams? I ate like half a dozen of those. I know what it feels like to feel bad, man.
The problem with drugs is that when you’re doing them, and when what you’re doing is good, profound even, no one else is on them. And when no one else is on them, then no one gets it. When no one gets it then it’s like you saw an alien or something. Would believe that. An alien. Who would get the significance of seeing something great or worth living for. Definitely not when you attribute it to drugs.
And if I hear one more person tell me that they don’t like wine just because it makes them sleepy.
Sometimes it’s good to be sober. You feel afraid sometimes. It’s refreshing. But sometime late that night, when the acid had reached some kind of plateau, I experienced something very incredible. One the whole I felt very good. Good, and happy, and happy to be with PK. He felt good, going on about an owl he’d heard or seen. I heard the owl too. I saw its face in the sky. A big egg-shaped thing with big black owl eyes. But it was a featherless bird and it spoke to me in a thin kind of voice that sounded like it came through a tin can. There were no words. Only shapes and some memories I had of sound. Electric guitars.
Somewhere between Polaris and Vega I saw you. It wasn’t a real place. You stood on a red beach—a beach that was red as if it were film, as if someone had graded the color of that scene to look steeped in deep blues contrasted with hazy summery oranges, and you stood there in the beach in a yellow bikini. Your breasts were wet from the water, I could tell. You’d just been in. Sand clung to the crests of your thighs. Your toenails were unpainted. I thought it must have been somewhere in between. Washed on some ways down the shore were a pair of dolphins. Dead ones that had beached themselves for no good reason. You said how much it hurt you to know that a living thing would end its own life, and I asked you why it mattered to us. Why should we care what thing died and what thing did not, and you didn’t have an answer. You scooped cool water onto your legs, washed the sand off. We sat there on the bar and looked out at the horizon. Who’s on the other side, I asked you. You didn’t reply. Who’s watching us? Everyone asks that, you said. Everyone on every beach is asking who the other person is and were there not oceans between us we still would not care, would not want to talk or even acknowledge the other person. Because there’s no reason. What does it matter if one thing dies and one thing does not.
We walked to the cabanas that lined the beach and ordered drinks from a red-skinned man who wore a thick black mustache that covered his whole upper lip. He served us two drinks, coladas I’d bet, and we turned our backs to him and watched the sun again. There were so few bathers. So few beautiful women. The dolphins must have had them all scared. And when was someone going to wash away those dolphins? Would they bury them right there in the sand? Would they be buried somewhere in the earth? Would they go back to sea and wash up on the other side. We looked at each other and connected somewhere in one another’s stomachs: We had seen the dead dolphins of the other people on the other side of the sea. These dolphins had not died here, for us, but elsewhere, for others. For the people who wanted nothing but to speculate on our existence and gesture out as to who we were, really, and why we had not bothered to make ourselves known to them. These dolphins that were there, dead, they were perhaps not suicides but sacrifices. With that thought we both slunk low on our stools and sipped our drinks.
It was possible that the shore we had been to was not a place where bathers came for the sun. Nor a place where dolphins came to die. Rather it was a clear end point. Not by any means one bank of a very long and arduous channel. It could have been the soft edge before the snow globe’s glass. It could have been the farthest we’ll have ever gone together. In fact, I’m sure that it was. I’ll tell you that I don’t want to go back to that beach. I don’t want to see those dead things. I don’t want to see that bartender. I don’t want to share those drinks. I’m not even sure I want to see that bikini. Those legs and the way that sand clung to them. I want nothing of that. Not ever again. Not for as long as I live, if I’m even still living at all.
Remember that time we went to the beach at night. Combed through the sand with our shoes. Found things, unsightly things a kid shouldn’t find. Condoms wrappers. Beer cans. A knife. Maybe a needle. We left and walked to Gay St. Remember that? Fuh-king faggots, they’d have said about us. No one around here says that in public anymore. On account of television and the media, I suppose. But that’s what they’d have said. Hey, I say—and before I do, I think, what a nice bikini top—then I say it: Let’s just drive down to Polaris. Let’s shop and eat out. Like we did for my birthday. It’s not over, this thing we had. Let’s cross under the bridge. Run to Indianola. Run around the college streets. See the kids out on their porches drinking. Fuh-king faggots, they’d probably shout at me. Not you. God knows what they’d say about you. They’re the people on the far end of the lake, those guys. Let’s go into the city. Let’s get a cab. Let’s go to a bar and then another bar. Come on, I say. You just sit there drinking. I admire the way you can take getting drunk and make it seem like musing.
The red beach starts to go, the orange sky, the color-graded everything. Someone buried those dolphins. Bathers are coming back. You’ve hit the bottom of that drink. Taste the ice? That one night in Polaris, before I really knew you, we stood out on the fire escape of your building. It was Earth day, something like that. Everyone had shut off their lights.
Sometimes when I sit alone in the living room I see the sun reach its day’s peak and shine in greatly through the window and in those rays I first see dust. But after the dust I see many things: There are images of my parents, a time when things were so normal, so pure; there are glimpses of the careers I’ve wanted and dreams I’ve had; there are flashes of the breasts of girls with hard nipples as light; there are brief pangs of effort, longing bursts that I feel—a momentum that keeps in me. A wish, a want. A trust, even.
The other thing I remembered about that old lady and maybe any old lady in general: they have these cavernous places where their eyes rests, and you know it’s just because they’re thinning out and wrinkling and whatever. But that old lady in particular had some dark, deep-set eyes. Just like I said. If I’d seen her here in the dark instead of under the bright fluorescents at a doctor’s office then they’d have been big black beetle shells. Scarabs or whatever. I don’t know.
After we spoke in the office I thought about her old face for a while. When you’re young, there’s a certain way you look at old people. You see your grandparents one way. They seem cast in stone. Overgrown versions of the images you have of them from your first recollection. And then the old people who are much less close. You look at them with a sort of leer. Every person is expiring from the day you’re born, if you want to look at it that way. Sometimes we say growing instead of expiring, but if you think long and hard about it then that stops to make much sense. Milk is kind of the same way. Trees. Even cars. This is how you look at old people who are not related to you. As a sort of warning. Take care of this. Take this and care for it. It’ll be you one day but you tell yourself it won’t.
Elias Marsten is a lifelong Midwesterner, writer and hobbyist hacker. He briefly attended classes in the Ohio State University’s creative writing program as an academic auditor.