She had a bike-chain necklace and a pair of wire cutters hung from a belt loop that were dangling at her gorgeous hips. I’d never seen someone who was so profoundly not anyone’s type. Her lips were pinched. Her eyes like stalactites. And the way she chewed gum was the best sight this side of 6th Avenue. Everyone knew her walk and her nickname and the stodgy crowd she never ran with. I had one of her handwritten poems on my refrigerator door.
I was strolling through Civic Center. Some part-time drug dealer dropped a crumpled dollar bill onto the sidewalk. I thought it was a candy wrapper at first. The wind was really having at it. I reached down to get it for him, and he kept mumbling, “Hey, hey ,hey, hey…” softly towards me as it rolled and barely kept eluding my reach. Finally, I knelt down and nabbed it, and then quickly handed it to him with a very kind smile. He was incredulous, but happy.
She palled around with drug dealers and OTC thieves, but she never got high or stole. I wanted her autograph, so I brought a pen with me everywhere, just in case I ran into her. She could spell “rhododendron” and “sincerely” without having to look it up, and she never split her infinitives in conversation. With the world’s bluest hair and blackest lipstick, she had every album and paperback that you’d ever wanted to own. Nobody knew her middle name.
Purpose had its mitts on me early but not often. Then, certain as saffron, I got nailed into uncertain patterns, making up names for people I was too scared to speak to in person, only through the secondhand blabbering going on in my head. But there’s always a seat to be had in some bar on some godawful street corner with no windows and only one door. I mouthed the word “wow” and found out about an aging lady barkeep’s personal habits of grooming and dressing. The flies found their way to me.
Daylight reared its beastly visage just as I found out my secondhand courage was slimming. I didn’t have any quaint notions about the time, and I’d been nodding in the direction of hot water for the duration of my stay in such close quarters with desperate doorway sleepers. Most unpleasant surprises and all, nothing’s dodgy doing in the place of cuts that won’t scar. The bartender kept pantomiming slashing her wrists to me. I just wanted a little more of her time between setting down bottles that were currently out of work. Daylight gushed. A man tripped over a tortoise that was inching along the floor. It’ll be sucked down the alley with your last cigarette. Roughed up. Lasting until the carpet’s close enough to pet. All of it, whatever “it” just so happens to be.
I decided to quit making an absurd Carthaginian peace with myself, and so downed a beverage that was in line for a promotion and trod off to play supple with a Dolly Parton pinball machine.
She had the wit of Rodney Dangerfield and the face of Marlene Dietrich. Anyone who told her to stay only got a snotty, “Get lost,” for their trouble. The B movies all based their scripts on her gushing monolgues. Nobody ashed a cigarette like she did. And her silver and yellow boots were made for dancing.
Nothing was getting swept. And me, I didn’t even own a broom. I opted for some seizure of reassurance, telling myself, “This is what falling out of love looks like,” as I gazed, conundrum seeking, over the marble tabletops. A click of high heels. A dash of cognac on the palm. Then there were flowers to cut and days to not recognize. I sat around. I made up things to talk about with commiserating boasters.
“Don’t you know the date, even?”
“Haven’t had one in a pregnancy.”
“Lapped you on that. Something for the dog to down.”
“I am not so cool anymore. I maroon my understanding on the isle of my disenchantment. I slap myself dazed to a contented haze. Call me Ishtar.”
“Too often bade without compensation for the rights to an uncommon purchase.”
“Mitochondria lacking purpose.”
“Look, but never listen. It’s all looks. Look.”
“Buy a new one, please.”
“Let’s overthrow the government.”
“Talk like that is just talk. Nobody’s ever going to stalk you. Your name will never be in lights. I’m moving on over to the next stool, partner.”
I was in the midst of holding in my bladder’s limit of collected urine, and so made the inevitable stroll over to the bar’s most un-palatial room of rest. Nowhere better to manage the tempers and spikes amassing in my cadaveric spirits than an otherwise unoccupied space of urinal falls and stall retreats, porcelain-tiled walls lined with a few two-faucet sinks and the splendid sight of an overflowing trash receptacle. The buzzing lights and calming drone of the fan put me at ease in a respite from the crash and thrum of the outside world. I was stirred to troubled peace.
With toothpaste stains on her t-shirt and splashes of coffee on her crusty black jeans, she powered ahead under the galaxies of delight swirling in her mess of half-dyed hair, telling chance acquaintances, “Even spring can kill you sometimes.”
I made up things to relate to her in my head: “Well, I just happen to think that you’re quite magnificent, overall.”
Then there was the way her lips popped softly while she mouthed plosives and talked slugging percentages with backyard wiffle-ball umps. The grass was never patchier. A head full of OCD and hands like a triple deadeye rigger, she coughed so mildly that you’d think a butterfly had a cold. Her socks never matched.
We met in the blasts of sand between corroded steam trucks and rusted industrial fan blades. Just an insurance adjuster from Milwaukee’s gimmick that she wasn’t buying with her surest post-shock-treatment gaze.
“I have these habits, you know, and they come and they go.”
“Brush your hair until there’s blood in the bristles. Look into the mirror until only a stranger’s staring back. This stuff?”
“And then you run out of words. You repeat things over and over. You clamp down on the seizure of your personality. A roughed-up play of dying phrases. Pitching a shutout for a losing effort. The best time you never had.”
“Can you get this lock off from around my neck?”
“Sure. I got some bolt cutters around here somewhere.”
We rummaged through the limelight of her patience, and then the carousel housing of who we were came crashing down all around us. The maintenance of motion seemed obscene. We hid what we could manage to drum up in a leaning shed of recycled aluminum.
“One of these evenings I’m going to leave you in my sleep.”
“That makes one of us.”
I washed my hands in the grimy sink. There wasn’t a thing in there to dry them on, just a scuffed mirror and a dented soap dispenser that jangled when you knocked on it. The only thing left to do was leave the way I came: coupled with doubt, less lost than lonely, arriving gone and away, counting my steps in the squares between the sidewalk’s lines as I smoked what was left of my life down way past the filter.
It’s no good: this way things always end. My life dribbled down the chin of some extraneous VCR mechanic while I fumble for my keys and wait for that one perfect martini: one with just the right amount of just the right brand of vermouth poured gently to an opaque sheet over the top of the best ice-cold vodka in the universe and a couple of ripe brine-soaked olives plunked in the bottom of a shimmering glass with a diamond-and-Doric-column stem — the one that keeps eluding me every time.
I shoulder know better.
I never do.
Disappointment’s the glue that holds my slumped mind to its cagey tasks. The simple, nondescript doldrums of life, here, presented in a puce-to-celery-tinted collage of what’d rather not be said, or go without. Because me, I never say stuff like, “You really put the purr back in purpose, baby.” And no girl’s currently in the profession of fighting her way into my car. There are no more pictures to show you in the glove compartment. They will know me by the holes in my clothes.
I can do my worst beneath these curling opportunities of cloud, these half-toned blues that only clump to a split-end standstill, treasures spilled to a scaly burlesque of pampered notions about the way sapphire leaks to a drab mucus-like pallor plunged into a deafening blind of swamp greens. I’ve got nowhere to stay and everywhere to go. Scrap the floorshow. I’m putting on the most unpleasant act in all of Dunceville.
She had the nerve to cut other people’s nails for them, right there on the street, her business lacking only a license and maybe a sign in a window somewhere where drapes were no longer necessary. She kept a Casio by her mattress in case of inspiration. She had a smile like an out-of-service satellite floating aimlessly around and around the world. She quoted long-dead women filmmakers with a snarl and squint: “I really hate slick pictures… They’re too perfect to be believable. I don’t mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music — everything. The slicker the technique is, the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.” Sometimes she clapped for herself. Sometimes she just said, “Rats.”
She scribbled stories on diner napkins, tiny imperfections of bundled courage, like this:
“Blind in his right eye and deaf in his left ear, the Cantaloupe Man sulked along with cheap pop songs and cheaper vodka. It was another splendid (if not delightful) morning for buffalo hunting. And here he was missing it. Again. As he tipped his glass back and forth, rocking it ever so lightly like a chair he’d never get to relax in anymore, he thought, ‘There’s nothing natural about any of these causes of life. And this, this, while all the dope-sick girls comb the vomit from their hair and spit teeth into the gravel. Roadblocks and soft voices. Damn the damn gendarmes. I’m moving to Bulgaria.’”
Sometimes I still think about her, like when the mornings fill with cufflink cusps of cloudy disarray and the moon’s fading faster than a temporary tattoo, like the one she left for me, the one I keep in my wallet, the one I’ll never use, just a skull without any crossbones or a moth with the most dangerous and embarrassing wings you’d ever imagine hovering over a 40-watt bulb, or just the delicate blink of lasting dripped from the lost cabooses sleeping in the long-gone railroad yards of her eyes.
Sometimes I still think about her.
But not often enough to be of note.