There's a knocking going on. I've tried to ignore it. Squashed a pillow over my head to suffocate it, but I can't get away from it. It taps through the threads of the sort of thing that an ex could do and that is follow you wherever you dared to flee. It's driving me crazy and even though I try to ignore, it insists on having its fun as it beats on my door.
It sounds like when the dice are thrown across the floor, kinda soft like that but then a little more louder and sturdier like knuckles on oak or the drop of a token on a polished bar counter. I guess what it amounts to is that no one else can hear it, so they've told me I'm little loose up there and there's nothing to fear, just to steer clear of hallucinogens and especially the old whiskey and the occasional beer.
I can still feel it thumping through my feet and the bottom of my padded seat, this tenderizing-meat-sound, that's all in the air and swirls around till I'm thinking there's just going to be nothing left…
Ah. So we finally meet, Death.
Photo credit: fieryn from morguefile.com
16 December 2010
Me and the boys suited up in civvies and strutted off the carrier in style, looking to find some fine dames that loved GI's. After taking a stroll to a pay phone, we split a cabbie to downtown where the dance halls smiled out at us in a blaze of neon and sidewalk callers, all touting a drink or two on sale--that one there had ladies' night, and this one here had cold beer on tap.
It was before the television set showed up in society enough to keep us from looking at each other and just stare at that boob tube, suckin' down Bloody Mary after dry Martini. My pals knew I had some crazy tastes, and that included girls. I liked them spicy and fast; smoky-eyed, red-lipped, leggy blondes, with their pretty little skirts and their carefully coiffed hair. I enjoyed the heck out of mussing that hair-do up time after time.
This girl was different. I almost tripped over my own tongue, even though she wasn't a blonde. She was a sultry brunette and wore her hair down over her shoulders, a blue ribbon in her hair to match her eyes exactly. Ivory skin, untouched by age.
I felt like all the air had been sucked out of me and replaced with furnace exhaust. She was a pretty girl, heck pretty didn't even scratch the surface of who she was. I fell back off of my stool, staggering around like a newborn calf, with hands comprised of all thumbs and a tongue as dry and swollen as last month's stockings. Somehow I managed to reach her side where she perched on the red velor-topped-chrome barstool. The bartender smirked at me and retreated to the opposite end of his work station, content to watch me bungle this meeting up from a safe distance, far beyond the potential fallout radius. I mumbled something not in the way of thanks and rested my elbows on the bar, my brain chugging in high steam, desperately scrambling for something smooth to say.
What would Frankie say? I mumbled to myself, unaware that it was also out loud.
“If you're gonna flirt sailor, best to start with talkin' to me instead of yourself.”
She turned her body towards me, uncrossing and crossing her legs again, a gay blue scarf tied casually around her swan neck, peering at me through the sweetest blue eyes I ever did see.
“Care for a drink?” I asked, smacking dry lips before she shoved her drink towards me instead. I hesitated, eying the twin, slim red straws poking up out of it.
“Go ahead sailor. I ain't got cooties. Not any you should be worryin' about anyway. You look like you need it more than me.”
I almost could hear my neck creak as I screwed my head up and down, grinding my teeth in anticipation of some crazy dame's drink. My smile must've clued her in. It was rum and Coca-Cola.
“It's been a long time since I've tasted that,” I said, and she waved it away when I tried to give it back.
“It's ladies' night sailor. In case you don't know, all my drinks are free.”
“All the girls get free drinks tonight?”
She shrugged and looked around us. She was the only dame in there, and we were surrounded by drifting clouds of smoke, and the sweet strains of jazz filtered in through a radio in the corner playing some late night show. I never heard it before, but never forgot it.
“I'm Doris,” she said and held out a delicate hand expectantly; it was the way we treated ladies back then, when they still wanted to be sweet delicate things for us to cherish and protect. I bent my head to kiss her cool skin, taking in a noseful of air to enjoy her scent.
“Is that Frankie?” she asked, jerking her hand out of mine to leave me blinking in surprise, a kiddish smirk spreading across her perfect cheeks, like she was up to something. She pulled me off my stool, suddenly on her feet.
“Dance with me sailor,” she said in a low purr close to my ear. I shook off a shiver.
“By the way I'm And—“
My words were stifled by her finger held against my lips.
“And I don't need to know. And you don't need to tell, do you sailor?”
“Do you do this often?” I asked in a rush of breath, pulling her hand away from my mouth.
“Shh sailor—it's my song.”
Want to know what happened next? "Before Sunrise"
Want to know what happened next? "Before Sunrise"
(Now if you read "Frankie's Girl", this is what happened afterwards...)
That Old Black Magic was playing on that radio and I could barely hear it, so she made a turn-it-up gesture to the bartender who couldn't stop staring at me, now that I'd broken the ice. Jealousy smoldered in his beady dark eyes. I almost stuck my tongue out at him, but Doris pulled me into a heated dance, and I was swirling her around me, her skirt blossoming over and over; the sweet smell of martinis and fancy Paris perfume, heady and bizarre, inscribing forever in memory of what a perfect girl could be. She was perfect, and she wanted me.
My pals knew better than pry me away from my new obsession and all but tiptoed past our huddled forms there in the darkest corner on their way out the door.
“You got someplace to be tonight sailor?” she said, breaking our kiss to light a cigarette, her azure gaze intense in the dying of a bent match. She offered me a cigarette, and I accepted, even though I didn't smoke. I was willing to do just about anything to make sure the night never ended. We smoked and drank, and we talked about me. I don't think I learned much beyond her name and the fact that I was in love with her.
She had a car outside, a long black car, shine on the half-moon hubcaps and another place to kiss and feel what I hoped would be mine before sunrise.
After an hour of heavy petting, me wearing some of that blood-red lipstick, we were chased out of the parking lot and she drove us down to the dock, my hand creeping up her slender thigh. She smiled and parked behind the service building, and we slid over the leather interior of her car, our bodies tangled and slippery with sweat.
“I have to ship out tomorrow,” I said as we shared cigarettes and whiskey from her compact silver flask.
“I know,” she said, cutting those limpid pools of the bluest damn blue I'd ever seen at me. “Sometimes you just take a moment, y'know?”
“But I don't know a thing about you,” I said, hearing a whine enter my voice. I wanted to keep her close to me for always.
“I travel a lot,” she said finally, giving me a half-roll of her eyes and an innocent smile. “Chances are, I'll see you at least once more.”
I bit my lip and nodded, squinting at the brightening of the sky, like a slow light reluctant to wake up, and I just wanted to turn it off, fall back in her arms, and stay there.
I didn't. Instead, I stepped out of the car, ignoring the faint creak of the shocks relieved of my weight, shut the door, and leaned into the window.
“Bye Doris. I hope I see you again.”
She lit a cigarette, releasing a delicate plume of smoke from between her lips, red as apples in Washington.
“It's time for me to go,” she said, and nodded at me. I backed away from the window and strolled back down to the carrier, whistling a gay Sinatra tune, hands stuffed deep in my pockets.
The day was long, and I did my duties with a weary smile on my face as we sailed farther and farther away from shore. Doris. Doris. Doris.
My mind was branded with those ruby lips. Her silken fingertips. Her smoky breath, sweet with citrus. A day passed. Another day passed, and another still. The light she ignited in me burned slowly, dulling as the years passed, to a burning coal deep in my heart.
I finished my stint with the Navy and returned home to the states, where I met a sweet girl from Indiana named Joyce and married her. We started a family and life progressed beyond slow dances to the tinny notes drifting from a radio, to the point of sitting in a recliner, slack-jawed at whatever crime-thriller happened to be on television.
Still, I always kept Doris in my heart.
At sixty-seven, my smoking habit caught up with me, suddenly and violently, landing me in the Sisters of Mercy hospital. I had less than a month to live. Joyce came to see me as much as she could, but with the kids still living at home, her course was set. I lay propped up by pillows, my ruined lungs struggling to support my system and supply me with oxygen, sucking as deep as I could on the aerator.
The sounds of my pulse beeping over the monitor annoyed me, and I called for the nurse to put it on silent so I could sleep for the night. But it wasn't Kathryn the nurse that walked through my door. It was Doris, not a day older even though fifty years had passed.
“I told you that you'd see me again,” she said, that kiddish grin bringing tears to my eyes.
“Don't look at me like this Doris,” I said, though I was convinced she was obviously an apparition of a desperate dying brain.
She stepped forward, and my eyes took in her modern dress: royal blue, wrap-style to match those radiant azure irises. “You're a mess sailor,” she purred and stood at my side, her cold hand talking mine. I couldn't help but gaze longingly up at her.
“How?” I whispered.
“How am I here?” She smiled, her lips the same color as when I'd seen them last; her hair was still dark as a raven's wing, but shorter, with less curl. “I guess that is a hard question to answer. I could ask you why you're here,” she said, her blue eyes cutting left and right to take in the sterile surroundings.
“I'm dying Doris,” I said, dark anger descending upon me, unbidden. “I started smoking after I met you, and here I am. A lifetime later, I'm dying, old, and used up while you stand there just looking as pretty as you did the night I met you. Leave me alone Doris. Let me die in peace.”
She appeared to think, cocking her head in curiosity. “Are you in pain?”
“Thanks to the morphine? No.”
“No need to get sore, sailor,” she said, that adolescent grin creeping to her cheeks again. Seeing her here, at this age made me feel old and perverted. We couldn't have been more than seventeen back then.
“My name,” I gasped, “Is fuckin' Andrew, Doris, but you wanted to keep that knowledge secret. You never wanted to know my name. Why?”
Her gaze dropped to my hospital-issue blanket, somewhere between the color of ash and a robin's egg. She picked at a loose thread.
“Don't make this harder than it has to be, sailor. Everything will make sense. Come with me.”
She tore the IV tube and needle from my hand with a protest of sticky tape. I rose from the pillows, strangely invigorated by that touch, and found my feet before stripping off the heart monitor. The machine protested at once.
Nurse Kathryn rushed into room 203 to respond to a request from an old WWII veteran to silence the beeping by his bed, so when she heard the error tone coming from his doorway, she wasn't alarmed. That easy demeanor changed when her eyes fell on an empty bed. With a startled gasp, she wheeled around on rubber-soled sensible shoes and rushed back to the nurse's station.
I rode in silence as Doris drove the long, lean Cadillac towards an unknown destination. It no longer mattered where I was going. My vision dimmed as the lack of oxygen set in. She patted my thigh and assured me we'd be there soon. 'There' ended up being a little no place down by the stream and the power plant.
Her hand grazed across my face, day-old gray stubble registering every last sensation of her youthful skin on mine. I saw myself in her eyes: an old man, paper-thin wattle draped below sagging neck, the wrinkles in my cheeks, deep lines surrounding my lips. Lips that once carried her name with dignity and grace. I wasn't anywhere near her in age, and as her plush mouth pressed to mine like pillows over hard horn, I startled.
“Shh sailor,” she said, cooing in my ear to assure me. My mind reeled with the very wrongness of all of this.
“You knew me once,” she whispered. “In the backseat of my Cadillac. No need to be shy.”
“I could be your father,” I said in a raspy voice that couldn't be mine, but it was now. She pushed me towards nostalgia. Tears spilled over my cheeks and sank to the underside of my chin.
“You're not my father,” she stated, as if it were plain truth, which it was, but I was not swayed. My wife's mouth hadn't felt like Doris's in decades. My eyes were drawn to the curves beneath her blouse. My hands itched to take them. Hands with tissue-thin skin, littered with age spots from too many days in the sun. She took my hands in hers, and put them there for me. I hissed and snatched them away as if her breasts were a hot coal stove.
“I can't be the man you're thinking of Doris,” I said, “What are you doing here with me? Find another sailor and steal his heart.” I licked dry lips and shook my head. “Mine doesn't have much longer to beat.”
I glared at her in annoyance, but changed my tune when she took my head in her hands and sank little pinpricks into my neck, like kitten fangs. Fangs. I struggled against the initial drain, but my weak heart and lungs couldn't persist in the conflict.
Resigned, I leaned into her, my fingers numb and my mouth dry, until warm fluid splashed across my lips. I opened my eyes and blinked. Her face hovered over mine and I drank from a creamy swell of breast, only it wasn't milk, but blood.
“Vampire,” I gurgled, rivulets of red rushing down my chin. I swallowed. Passed out.
The day passed. One more day.
I awoke in a strange bed, sitting bolt-upright to feel for Joyce, or the IV stand, or anything familiar. In the distance, faint but familiar, That Old Black Magic played from a radio in the corner. My eyes caught the sight of my hands.
Hands young, sturdy skinned, free of spots or wrinkles; hands like a seventeen-year-old.
The day that the United Nations decreed that the entire globe should have free access to the internet was touted as the finest achievement in history. Low-cost computing machines were delivered to villages and towns alike. The world rejoiced at the benefits of the Information Superhighway, but there were indisputable changes.
The differences were menial at first. Global social networking took the human race by storm, leading them to reveal things one couldn’t even tell the person they were sitting next to at work. Screen names became popular brands, with certain individuals quickly climbing the ranks of popularity. Every word was admired. Every link shared, enjoyed. Private videos of family outings were placed on public display in hopes that the number of views would exceed that of their neighbors.
The evening newspaper was the first victim of the New World, falling victim to the constant demand for news now, an impossible feat for a simple physical publication to fulfill. Television news felt the pressure next, and eventually armed their TV journalists with 24-7 webcams, issuing instructions to travel constantly, and switch off when sleep came. Prime-time television gave way to recordable programming, instant and on-demand to feed the hungering masses that desired a virtual library at their fingertips.
No longer were there longing glances, walks in the sunset, or just holding hands. Fathers no longer tinkered with the family car on Sunday, and moms no longer baked cookies. Lawns stood weeded and tall-grassed. No one stopped to glance at his or her watch, pause at a pay phone, or engage in idle conversation on the bus. Libraries and museums lost their funding and closed to the public. The theaters stood dormant and dusty, their props ghostly shapes in the gathering gloom of the empty stage.
Artificial insemination was the norm, convenient and sterile, for those who even desired the necessary distraction of reproduction. Increasing numbers of senior citizens roamed the streets in roving gangs, angry and senile, rabid and strong. Board games were discontinued. Music stores trapped in brick and mortar shut their doors for the last time. Book stores stood endangered, yet the publishing industry was voracious and growing, accepting anything with less than fifteen grammatical errors under the assumption that someone would buy it. Someone would understand it.
Eventually, they didn't need portable computers and desktop machines. The human brain was capable of receiving the necessary signal to assault their entire waking consciousness upon the online world. Soon after, dream records were broadcast at one's discretionary whim, after a group of dedicated individuals weeded out the more-explicit scenes.
Schools and universities were closed. Playgrounds and courtyards overgrew with vines and invited wild animals.
Electric vehicles replaced cars, but no one had the need to leave their homes. Work was done with an ordinary thought, education was acquirable by anyone with a lucid, dreaming mind, and wares were available at the blink of an eye at check out.
The remaining youth population no longer cruised the streets or hung out at the mall, and if they were actually seen outside their homes, were consistently sending texts and video messages to their hundreds of virtual friends to document their journey. Years went by. The population continued to age. Children forgot what was in them to grow into adults and find love. Sentiments were words. Words were text. Text was safe.
A Presidential decree went out. Bonuses were offered to bio forms reproducing and creating young to further sustain the species. Her words were lost between a mind-video of a kid dancing to the latest hit “Ina-Gadda-da-blah-blah,” and a LOLcat doing the impression of INVIZIBUL FELLASHEO.
Those That Did Not Have Internet erected billboards to drum up support in returning to the roots of human socialization, i.e., face-to-face. The majority of the species continued to ignore and even embrace the warning signs.
It would take thousands of years, they said. Nothing for them to worry about. But smoking and drinking interrupted brain waves and broke up the constant feed, and health improved. The Wii Fit was incomparable to any other form of fitness and lack of interest in fattening foods, such as McDonald's, or Hula Hut caused the weight/height ratio to drop significantly.
A species of long-living, slender and pale beings. Always connected. Always sharing. A perfect world.
One ripe for the picking, the sentient being thought as it opened a cyclopean eye to the blue-green jewel draped on the universal fabric. In the Great Disconnect, the humans felt no pain, only the soft intrusion of darkness as their minds slept alone for the first time in better than two hundred years.
Alison and I met by absolute chance while cowering in the same destitute FedEx truck almost a year ago. She looked so colorful in among the white parcels and brown boxes that I had to find out everything I could about her. Every so often she or I would run across another Normal, and we'd invite them back, but they rarely came. The last Normal to cross our threshold hung outside the attic window as a warning to any new thieves.
But he'd brought a blessing in his belongings: a simple solitaire diamond ring, and after Ali'd clobbered him and before I'd finally unloaded twin barrels of buckshot into him, we found some of our rations and this exquisite little ring. Well, I did. I pocketed it before she glanced up, pretending to take extreme intrigue in the double-knitted wool socks.
I wiggle my toes in those socks now and swallow hard. Can it possibly be called love, this thing we share? Enough to take her by the hand, get on one bended knee and profess eternity?
“Michael.” She comes in, closing the door with a smart snap behind her.
“They're coming. They've figured out that the bodies out front are a decoy.”
I snatch my boots up from beside the little fire and stomp my feet into them. “Pack what you can into that big bag, and I'll go have a look—“
“No Michael,” she says, slapping a hand over my arm. Her eyes are intense and 120% serious. “They're too close. If you go outside, you'll just give them something new to sniff out.”
The barricade, as she called it, is a cattle gate-style assembly of plywood and scrap-metal fencing, cultivating a virtual maze around the Victorian-style three-bedroom house. I know whose house it was, but my old fifth-grade teacher wouldn't need it now. She's probably still out there somewhere, chewing on the principal's face. She hasn't been in the population we've already taken down.
After weeks of fighting them off, we retreated into this house, building the fence as we could inside. I took it outside by armed escort. At night, we huddled up in the basement, the door locked and bolted with a gasoline-soaked rag crammed in the crack under the door.
They wander around top-side relentlessly, growling and chewing and occasionally attacking each other over a particularly-tasty morsel. They lap like dogs at oil-slicked puddles and meander off in packs of a dozen or more, one always assuming the alpha position of each little pod.
Ali and I were the last of the group of nine, as no one could handle the pressure as well as we could. Some shot themselves, wasting precious bullets, others were caught out after sunset gathering supplies. The sun slowed them down considerably, and heat seemed to infuriate them further.
“I was about to ask you something,” I say, snapping myself from reverie. She frowns at me, that delicate cleft in her sweet little chin deepening as her bottom lip rolls out and her cerulean eyes question me.
I take her hand in mine, slipping the ring on just as smooth as I've rehearsed it in my head, over and over. She snatches her hand away.
“Be my wife,” I whisper, my hands hanging at my sides like counterweights in a grandfather clock's glass belly.
“Before you object, keep in mind that I'm all you've got now. Unless there are more out there, somewhere.” I pant, the asthma kicking in as it hasn't since I quit smoking over six months ago.
“Michael, of course I will, but right now? You really want to think about marriage right now?”
I hand her her shotgun, together we load our weapons in silence. I pull her close, and her hand goes to my hair. We gaze into one another's eyes.
The door blows inward in a starburst radius of splinters. We don't look. We can't look. It's too hard to see the faces of those you used to know, coming to eat your flesh from your bones and make you just like them.
Not taking my eyes from hers, I position my shotgun under her chin, and hers under mine. Our lips meet tenderly, hesitantly, then fully as the dozens of the Others file into the room. Hairless and some missing limbs, eyes, noses and parts of ears, they sniff the air and lick their teeth in anticipation of something not dead.
“Now,” I say, breaking the kiss to pull the trigger, hoping she does the sa—
I think part of him wants this. He accepts my tenuous invitation quickly, perhaps because I haven't requested anything of him in a very long while. Agreement is struck, location established as the lake we used to go to.
In his hand, a bottle of cheap merlot; I can only think it's because he never took the time to know me, else it'd be white or even blush. A pinot. A chardonnay. I sip at the offered glass and smile.
Conversation ensues. His breaths distract. The pier creaks beneath us. Ducks quack in sporadic babbles behind the cattails. He talks in circles. I smile.
It's cold outside, but I take off my sweatshirt. I'm not wearing a bra. His breaths are more distracting. I suggest a swim. He doesn't hesitate and starts to unbuckle his belt. I press my fingers over the buckle. He asks about my warmth. Where I am headed, it is always warm. The Bible tells me so. Our eyes meet and I smile.
Bubbles blossom like pearls pushed out from his lips; his eyes, huge in their deepening color. The bottom never seemed any farther away than now. Fingers spread and paddle against the cold. The jacket comes off, increasing buoyancy. Arms like oars, not fins. Feet encased in weighty boots make no good rudder. The air expels again. His body thrashes and curls in on itself. The spine curves; movements quicken.
He’s got to be breathing in by now. An eruption of bubbles, small like spray, tickle my nose. He’s still so strong. His hands find mine atop his shoulders. I turn my face away from the splashes. The surface is a frothing torrent, swirls, and one big bubble.
It floats on the surface for a few seconds, in defiance of the act. One last breath held by thin miraculous walls of saliva. It pops, leaving only silence and ripples. It makes me smile.
Tin cans in a lightning bolt.
A distant cadence
but a little better
That much bloodied
A ten-thousand watt grin
I stomp my feet
and call out the passes
You bring the wine
I've got the glasses
In fact I might just
maybe might not
Need you after all...
Now that's original sin.