Sometimes, we forget our words. Sometimes, we don’t remember how to mourn. Silence stands between us, a leviathan of unspoken grief. We linger in its shadow, waiting for the delicate whisper of rain.
This garden promises solitude. The water glitters with koi, crimson sparks stolen from the sunset. Down from the house drifts a faint melody, some etude or nocturne. Soon there will be dancing. His hand will press against your back; his fingers will pluck the lily from your hair.
It’s raining outside- that heavy Chicago late-summer rain that ruins shirts and hairdos, knocks down branches and floods gutters and sewers.
All along Belmont, folks huddle in doorways, pressed against buildings and hopping from shelter to shelter. A hat rolls by in the street, with a young man in skinny jeans chasing it. Inside, The Pink Mink is full of the usual crowd; Hazel sneaking out from the kitchen for a quick kiss-and-grope with Andi whenever Andi finds time between shaking those arcane cocktails, Jen telling no-shit-there-I-was stories about the U of C parties last night, purple-haired Mariah in swooning over some girl she probably hardly knows.
I’m feeling pretty flush myself. I just got paid, rent’s not due for two weeks, and I picked up a little side work for the weekend fixing a car for a friend of a friend.
All of which explains why there’s a bottle of Scotch on our table instead of the usual pitcher of beer, half paid-for by tips from the drag show and half comped by Andi according to some arcane formula. And the bottle of Scotch, well, that explains why I don’t pay much attention when the door opens and closes a few times, letting in a gust of sodden leaves each time.
The Mink is one of my favorite bars, especially on nights when I’m feeling at the top of my game. The show went great and I’m finally feeling like one of The Boys, for real, not just the ringer they called in one night six months ago when their guitarist flounced off over some imagined slight.
Something Jai says makes everyone laugh and I join in, even though I missed the joke while I was pouring. It doesn’t matter, really. What matters is being here. I spill a little, laugh, lick the Scotch off my fingers. “Not gonna let it go to waste,” I tell Mitch, and pour for him.
“Daaaaayum,” Tay says appreciatively. Ze’s not one of the Boys, not officially, but ze’s a good hand with electronics. And George — Georgia, in her street clothes — laughs that smoky-deep laugh that drives me almost nuts enough to in and ask her out, except I worry, sometimes, that she might be a keeper.
I set the bottle down, wiping a stray drop off the neck. Pick up my glass. Lean back in my chair and follow Tay’s gaze, because Tay has an eye for beauty.
Apparently Malibu Barbie just blew into town, tanning-bed tan and blonde hair and high heels, tiny waist, pink pencil skirt and all. She doesn’t even look at the crowd, not really. Just sashays up to the bar and waits for Andi’s attention like she’s used to getting attention wherever she goes.
On second thought. I want to describe it as a sashay. But there’s an off quality to the walk, a sort of broken-marionette stiltedness.
I raise an eyebrow, catch Tay’s eye. “Little girl lost, y’think?”
“Tch. Maybe she’s on her way to Grandma’s house, you big bad wolf,” Tay chides.
I grin. “What? She might need someone to help her find her way home.” I swirl the Scotch in my glass, watch Malibu Barbie settle onto a stool and sip gracelessly at her drink. She doesn’t look like the type who normally does anything gracelessly. She grimaces at the taste, then gets that “maybe it’s medicinal” look on her face and takes a longer pull.
She’s wearing pink slingbacks, totally impractical for the weather. But damn, the way she’s got one leg crossed over the other, shoe dangling like she doesn’t give a crap, and her skirt riding up like that. Well. Girls like that don’t generally just wander into the Mink.
“Technically, Tay saw her first,” Jai slurs, almost slopping Scotch over the edge of their glass.
“You’d fall on your face before you got there,” I say, downing the rest of my drink in one swallow. The burn is pleasant, and I give Jai a lazy smile.
George puts a hand on my shoulder. “Hey. You be careful. Straight girls’ll break your damn heart every time. I should know.”
I hold up both hands in mock-protest. “I’m just gonna buy a girl a drink. Nothing wrong with that, is there? She looks like she could use a friend.” I grin again, straighten my collar.
“Besides,” I say, getting to my feet and shoving my chair back with one foot. “I’m not the type to get my heart broke.”
I didn’t know what I was expecting when I broke into Grandma Marie’s old house with my girlfriend, but the man falling out of a hole in thin air to land at our feet wasn’t it.
“Look, man, I’m sorry, we thought the place was empty.” It sounds inane. No, mundane, like men fall at my feet every day. At Barbi’s maybe, but not mine. I don’t even bat for that team. I don’t take my eyes off of him.
The man looks up at me through long strands of dark hair that are escaping a neat braid at the nape of his neck. He’s wearing faded jeans and nothing else that I can see. He’s got the roundish face and bladed nose marking him as a descendant of the Illinois peoples, though I might have missed it if he wasn’t also dressed like a goddamn stereotype. He blinks a couple times and sniffs the air, then rolls back up onto his haunches and inspects his knees ruefully. Blood smears under fingers still dusty from his tumble.
“Bastards.” He’s not just taller than me. He’s really tall. “You’re Marie’s grand…. She never said anything about you being one of us.” He frowns, rubbing one hand over his opposite shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t think we’ve met.” I try to say it like this happens to me all the time, like people just pop out of the air in a regular basis covered in blood, like my girlfriend summons light with her hands.
“No, I was just a little’un the last time you were here. Why are you back? Did she leave word?”
I shake my head. “I haven’t been back since Gran died.”
“Okay.” He doesn’t sound so much disappointed as resigned to the inevitability. “Can you hand me Nina’s cell phone, then?”
“Who? What cell phone?” I’m getting more confused by the second. “Who are you?”
“I’m Danny.” He pronounces it dah-nee and I wonder if I’m spelling it right in my head. “Nina is my sister, and her cell phone is right behind you and I need it if you’re not going to help, because the Lonely Ones are active tonight, and there’s only three of us.”
I look where he points. The phone’s on a chair. “Lonely Ones?” I’m off balance again, in a way that should be feeling pretty familiar by now.
“Wanaghi,” he says impatiently. “Look. Are you gonna let me get the phone, or fight me or what, because my sisters are stuck on the other side right now and I don’t have time for your shit.”
“Do I need to fight you?” I hold the phone out. It’s an old one, a flip phone. He opens it and thumbs the power button, then starts cursing.
Barbi glares at me. At me, not him. “Can we help?” she says quietly, in her talking-the-girl-in-the-school-dance-down-from-the-bathroom-ledge voice.
“No, there’s no fuckin’ batteries and I don’t know where anyone is, and fuck fuck FUCK THIS!” The phone explodes into component parts when it hits the wall.
“No, really,” Barbi says again. “Can we help.” I feel that dizzy flexion of the world around me that means she’s powering up.
I tense and give Barbi an are-you-sure-about-this? look. “I have a phone,” I tell Danny. “You can borrow it. Or you can tell us, quickly, what the FUCK is going on and maybe we can be, I dunno, useful.”
“It won’t have the numbers in it,” he mumbles through his hands. “Fuck, I’m useless. Come on, then, if you’re coming.” He holds out his hand.
Well, dammit. I look at Barbi, who’s still glowing like an angel. I can’t exactly back down now, not in front of her.
Danny clamps down on my wrist harder than I was predicting, and pulls. There’s a brief pressure like being underwater, like pushing through one of those hanging curtains on the freezer case at the supermarket. My ears pop, and suddenly I’m… standing in the kitchen.
Well, kind of. If I squint. There’s a bush where the sink should be, and a big rock for the fridge, and the brittle late-summer grass changes color where I think the wall is. Past that, where the bathroom was added onto the house, there’s a little wellspring of fresh water. I can see the big tree that marks the start of the driveway, off there behind Barbi.
And all around us the plains stretch out to the faint glow of the horizon.
Before sunset, I light a fire.
Word after word I feed into the flames. Words like stay, and more, and please. The air is full of them: embers striving to be stars.
I feed your name into the fire as well, every syllable a promise. The trees thrust grasping fingers into the sky to draw down night’s blanket over us.
The ashes fall lightly on me. They stain my clothes, my hair, my skin. The ashes fall lightly, but they fall.