Perpetual Smug

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“In my dream,” Rivi says, “I’m standing outside a blue house at the top of a big hill. There’s a black cat in the yard, and I try to walk around it to look at its face, but no matter where I’m standing, it’s always looking away from me.”

We are laying in her bed, with dozens of photographs spread out around us. She has been looking through photo boxes, pulling out some, transferring others from one box to another. I have seen myself in many of them, and more full of faces I don’t know.

“I can see my shadow,” she says. “It looks like my neck is three feet long, and curved like a question mark. I keep touching it with my hands, but even though the shadow looks weird, my neck feels normal.”

I sift through a stack of photos, stopping at one that is a close-up of Rivi’s face, covered in large pieces of glitter, like what you’d find inside a birthday card envelope. She is smiling in a mischievous way that I am very familiar with.

“All of a sudden, the yard is full of tiny green frogs, jumping on me, and jumping on the cat. Every time they jump on me though, as soon as they touch me, they turn into little green flowers. There’s a thousand frogs, and pretty soon I’m buried up to my waist in flowers.”

Another photo is beneath this one, of a nude woman wearing a crown of eucalyptus leaves, standing in front of a mirror which I know is the one in Rivi’s spare bedroom. She has a tattoo on her stomach that I think is a mariner’s sextant. “Who’s that?” I ask, turning the photo so she can see it.

“That’s Suzi. You’ve met her.”

“I don’t think I have.”

“You did. At the zoo. Last year, I think.”

I look closer at the woman. “Maybe if I’d met her with her clothes off, I’d remember.”

“We ate overpriced sandwiches with her by the old entrance by Sloat. That fucking seagull wouldn’t quit trying to grab things out of our hands.”

“The seagull I remember. Her, I don’t.”

Rivi takes the photo from me. “Maybe it wasn’t the zoo then. Was it the Asian art museum?”

“Again, I don’t remember her.”

Rivi turns the photo over to look at the back, which is blank. “Weird. I could have sworn you met her.”

“Nope.”

She rolls against me, reaching across my chest to grab a pen off her nightstand. She moves back to her side of the bed and pulls her phone out of her pocket. She scrolls through her contacts, and then writes a number down on the back of the photo, which she holds out to me. “Call her. I think you’d like her.”

“I don’t even know her,” I say.

“She has a sexy tattoo and she lives on a houseboat. What else do you need to know?” She abruptly pulls the photo back. “Unless you’re too hung up on Hannah.”

“We’re not dating.”

“Doesn’t mean anything.”

I reach out and grab the photo out of Rivi’s hand. “I’ll call her. But only because you’re starting to look smug.”

“Starting?” she says. “I never stop.”

A Whispered Insistence

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“Tell me,” Tina says.

She is in the easy chair in my living room, sitting sideways with one foot on the floor and the other propped up on the arm of the chair. Her dress rides high and her bare legs glow yellow in the light of the streetlamp outside my apartment. The light flickers off and then on again, the wiring faulty, strobing her once, then twice, then being steady once more.

“Tell you what?” I ask.

“About you and Olivia,” she says.

“There’s nothing to tell,” I say.

A lie.

She takes the hem of her dress between two fingers and raises the fabric another inch. “I want to do this,” she says. “With you.” Another inch of skin is revealed. “But I want to know about you and Olivia first.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because,” she says. “Just because.”

“We’re just friends.”

She leaves the dress alone, and raises her hands to her hair. She pulls out a pin, then another, letting them fall to the floor. “More than friends,” she says.

“No. Just friends.”

Another pin. “It wouldn’t matter,” she says. “If you were. Just that you aren’t now.”

“Not now. Not ever. I’m just worried about her.”

“I know you are,” she says. Another pin, and then another. “You seem to be the only one who is.”

“Someone has to be.”

She removes the final pin and drops it to the floor. She reaches her hands into her hair and puts her fingers into it, mussing it, letting it fall around her bare shoulders. “The only time I’ve ever been jealous of you is when you’re talking about her.”

“You don’t have to be.”

“You aren’t in love with her,” she says. It’s not a question.

“No,” I say.

“You haven’t slept with her.”

“No.”

“Have you kissed her?” When I don’t respond, Tina says, “You have.”

“Does it matter?” I ask.

“No,” she says. “Not at all.” She undoes the top button of her dress, just below her neck, then the one below that. “When was it?”

It was in an almond orchard, the trees in bloom, and Olivia was drunk and crying. She kissed me, and I did nothing to stop her. She told me things she didn’t want repeated, secret histories best kept hidden below the black stones. She didn’t swear me to silence, but she didn’t need to.

“Last year,” I tell Tina. “Just once. It wasn’t a thing.”

“I know it wasn’t,” she says. Another button. “I know you. I’d know if it was.”

We’d left the orchard and I’d driven us back to the city. Olivia, sobered by then, had me stop at the beach before taking her home. She was still living with Christopher then, and I understood why she didn’t want to go back yet. We walked the shore for an hour without the need for talk, and when at last it was time to leave, she refused my offer to let her stay the night at my apartment.

Tina moves in the easy chair and sets both her bare feet on the floor. Her dress is unbuttoned down to her navel and hangs open slightly, not enough to allow the light from the streetlight in, but the shadows reveal more than they hide. “Do you want this?” she asks me.

“Yes,” I say.

“Tell me you want me,” she says.

“I want you,” I say.

She rises from the chair and steps over to where I sit on the sofa. She bends at her waist and puts her hand on the back of my head, then brushes her lips softly against mine, like a summer breeze slipping across my skin. “I’m a rainstorm,” she says. “Against your window.”

I don’t know how to respond to this, so I try to answer her with a kiss. She moves her head back out of my reach, but keeps her hand on my head.

“I’m a crown of daisies on your head,” she says, curling her fingers in my hair. “A field of wheat dancing in the wind.”

“I want you,” I say again.

She lowers herself to her knees in front of me, and with her hand still against my head, pulls my lips down to meet hers. Her hand slides down over the back of my neck, and her breath runs like a current into my lungs. She pulls me forward as she lowers herself further to the floor, until she is on her back, and I am half on top of her, my hip against the hardwood, one arm and leg draped across her.

“Tell me again,” she whispers.

“I want you.”

She pivots beneath me, moving me onto my back, and she is on top of me now. Her hair falls across my face as she leans her lips in close, kissing me again, before pressing herself fully against me and putting her head against my shoulder.

“I want you,” she murmurs. She puts her hand on my hip, then slides it up and under my shirt. “I want you.”

“Tell me again,” I say.

The streetlamp flickers again, once and then twice.

“I want you,” she says softly, a whispered insistence.

The light goes out.

It doesn’t matter if it comes back on.

A Library of One

Books UnsplashOlivia Script

“What is this place?” I ask. “What do you do here?”

Instead of answering, Sullivan turns away from me, there on the other side of the glass counter, and reaches for an item on the shelf behind him. He sets it down between us and folds his arms, not speaking. It’s an old wooden fishing lure, an eyelet at the top where the line would be tied, and a barbed hook at the bottom.

“Is that for me?” I don’t pick it up. I’m afraid to touch it.

“No,” he says. “It’s not yours.”

“Whose it it?”

“A madwoman,” he says. “I don’t know her name. I don’t know when she’s coming for it. But she’ll be here eventually.” He leaves the lure on the counter, and beside it sets down a small spool of blue thread. “This one belongs to a smoking man. He has a cancer in his liver, but he doesn’t know it yet.” Another item goes next to the others, this one a swatch of yellowed wallpaper the size of a playing card, and Sullivan’s hand shakes slightly as he pulls his fingers from it. “This one belongs to a woman on fire. I don’t know anything else about that.”

“What is this place?” I ask again, the words escaping my lips in a ghost of a whisper.

He still doesn’t answer, but from under the counter, he brings forth another object, which he gently sets on the counter between us: the Japanese coin I found inside the envelope Arthur gave to me, a thousand years ago. As I watch, the glass beneath it begins to cover in frost, an inch-long halo of ice surrounding the coin.

“This isn’t yours,” Sullivan says. “But you gave it to yourself.”

“I wrote myself a letter,” I say. “Or at least I think I did. The coin was in the envelope.”

“I don’t know who this belongs to. A woman, I think. Made of smoke and shadows.”

“In the letter. I told myself to find someone named Penelope. Is the coin hers? Does it belong to her?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know names. I just know who belongs to these things. Names mean nothing.”

“Penelope,” I say again. “Rum and molasses.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. It was in the letter.”

“Take the coin,” Sullivan says. “It’s not yours, but it doesn’t belong here either. You need to carry it to where it needs to go.”

I put my index finger on the coin and slide it across the counter toward me, but I don’t pick it up yet. The coin doesn’t frighten me like the other objects here do. I’ve held it for weeks now. I am used to its oddness.

“There’s something else,” Sullivan says. From beneath the counter, he produces a small black leather book, thin in width, and tied shut with a red ribbon. He puts this down next to the coin.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“That’s for you,” he replies. “You have to take it.”

I don’t reach for it. It rests on the glass between us. “You made the man in here before me take the giraffe statue.”

“I did,” Sullivan says. “But I did him a favor.”

“A favor?”

He nods. “People who don’t take what’s theirs… Miss Keeper sees that they come to bad ends.”

I glance down at the little book, and then back up at Sullivan. “Who’s Miss Keeper?” I ask.

“She one of them. The Uninvolved.”

“Like Mr. Middlemost,” I say, thinking of his handsome features and fine brown suit.

“Yes, just like him. Beautiful and sly.”

“They aren’t uninvolved at all, are they?” I ask.

“It’s better if you don’t ask that question,” he says. “Much better.”

I don’t pick up the book, but I do reach down and untie the ribbon holding it shut. I open the cover and flip slowly through the pages. The text is in a language I can’t read, something from eastern Europe perhaps, full of crowded consonants and curved accents, but I have the feeling the words are not what’s important about this book. There are photos pasted to the front of every other page, some square with smooth edges, some with jagged sides and looking as though they have been torn out from larger images. Each photo is of the same woman, thin, light brown hair, eyes that hold something below their surface that I can’t quite identify. I don’t know her, but there’s a familiarity to her that unsettles me.

“Who is she?” I ask.

“It’s not for me to know,” Sullivan says.

“Will I find out?”

“Doesn’t matter if you do or don’t. You still have to take it.”

I trace my fingertip along the edge of the photo the book is open to. The woman in the picture is holding a trio of balloons, and walking along a foggy roadside. She is barefoot and unsmiling. A pair of headlights shine dimly in the distance, but the car itself is invisible in the fog.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” I say.

“You’re taking the book,” Sullivan says. “Then you’re going to have to leave my store.”

I look up from the photo and at Sullivan. My eyes are warm and I feel as though I am going to start to cry. “I’m so lost. Completely lost.”

He leans forward on the glass counter and puts his hand over mine. “Outside my shop is a road which goes two directions. If you turn left and start walking, you’ll reach a white house with a wraparound porch. If you knock on the door, a woman there will give you food and shelter, though she might ask for something in return that will be a devil’s bargain. If you turn right from here instead, you’ll pass through a haunted place, full of pieces of things which shouldn’t be, and they’ll demand a price for your passage. Not your little coin. Something much more precious than that.”

I slide my hand out from under his, and he pulls his arm back. “I want to go home,” I say.

“The way out is in,” Sullivan says, and I remember when Middlemost said the same words to me, back in the dim light of the shed. It feels like months ago, but it was only days. “It’s always in.”

Without giving myself time to think about it, I close the book and take it in my hand. I pick up the coin in my other hand and feel the familiar coldness from it making my palm tingle.

Sullivan bends behind the counter for a moment, then straightens and sets a small blue backpack on the glass. “Your things are in there,” he says. “Clothes, keys, the things from your pockets. You can’t come back in here once you leave, so you’d better take them with you.”

“I need my shoes,” I say weakly. I don’t want to set foot outside the store.

“In the pack. The clothes you have on, you can keep those. If you’re going to the woman’s house, put your own clothes back on first. You’ll need your own skin on to be safer there, not mine. But if you’re going through the haunted place, keep on the ones you’re wearing now. The things there are clever, but not very smart, and a little bit of a disguise might help you get to the other side faster. In there, faster is better.”

I open the backpack to take out my shoes, and find a plastic packet of white socks on top of everything else.

“You’re going to be doing a lot of walking,” Sullivan says. “I thought you could use them. They’re a gift. You don’t have to take them.”

I take my shoes out of the backpack, but leave the socks inside. Before I zip the pack shut again, I put the photo book inside as well. “Am I supposed to thank you?” I ask. “Not for the socks. For the rest of it.”

“You’ll have to decide that later. Some people thank me. Some curse me. Nothing for you is clear at the start.”

I put the pack over my shoulder and step away from the counter. “This isn’t the start,” I say. “This is definitely not the start.”

The bell over the door chimes as I open it.

However long it rings after I shut the door behind me, I have no idea.

Cultural Archaeology

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Rivi and I are waiting for the BART to arrive. The low hum of distant trains hovers in the air of the underground station like the thrum of surf against the shore.

Rivi pokes at the back of my neck with her fingernail. “You got sunburned,” she says.

“Is it bad?” I ask.

“Not really. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, it’s bad, sure. Sunburn is just one step away from skin cancer.” She pokes me again.

“Okay,” I say. “Is it cancer?”

“Nah,” she says. “It’s just a sunburn.”

We had spent the afternoon at Amoeba in Berkeley, poking around the old LPs, looking for nothing other than a day’s distraction. Neither of us owns a turntable, after all. It was an exercise in cultural archaeology.

“I don’t understand how you can have a sunburn on your neck, but every other part of you is pasty as a mushroom.”

“Genetics,” I say. “Fine Scandinavian stock.”

She pokes me once more. “Seriously. Usually you look like you’ve been living in a cave. Gollum!” she croaks. “Gollum!”

“That’s so hot,” I say. “Maybe you could lick your own eyeball while you’re doing it,  really spice it up.”

“Boys dig me,” she says.

“Without question.”

“Girls dig me too.”

“That’s what I read on the internet,” I say.

“It’s hard being so popular.”

“I don’t know how you live with yourself.”

“Self-medication and alcohol,” she says. “It’s all about the chemical balance.”

“It’s probably the only thing balanced about you.”

“I’m like a Picasso,” she says. “Or a Pollack.”

“You don’t really have any idea what you’re talking about, do you, Rivi?”

She shakes her head. “Nope. Not at all.”

“You keep that up. It works on you.”

She touches her hand to her hair. “I don’t need to know anything. I have a side pony. That speaks volumes.”

“Now I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Of course not,” she says. “College boy.”

“You went to college,” I point out.

“Sure,” she says. “The school of hard knocks.”

“No, you went to SFSU.”

“See? Hard. Knocks.”

“You have a degree in communications.”

“Communicating the hardness of knocks, yes.”

I squint at her. “Sometimes you worry me.”

She tugs on her ponytail absently. “I get that a lot.” She lets go of her hair and stands up. “Train’s coming,” she says, and it is. I can hear the low hum increasing in volume, and feel the air rushing toward us from the tunnel as the train pushes it forward. I stand as well, and together we move closer to the edge of the platform as the train pulls in and slows to a stop.

“Not everything is a portent, you know,” Rivi says as we step inside the car.

“I’m sorry, what? Non sequitur much?”

She takes a seat by the window, and I slide in next to her. “I know you,” she says. “I can read your mind.”

“I’m not thinking about portents,” I say.

“You might think you’re not, but you totally are.”

“I’m thinking about dinner. How is that a portent?”

“You might think you’re thinking about dinner, but in reality you’re thinking about portents,” she says. “Which not everything is.”

“If I just agree with you, will that make you stop talking about it?”

“Possibly,” she says. “No promises.”

“You’re even more weird today than you normally are.”

“‘When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.’ Although I’m not being paid for it, so it’s not really a pro thing. More of a talented amateur.”

The BART doors slide shut, and a moment later the train begins to move forward down the tunnel toward San Francisco. We sit quietly for a mile or so, and then I lean over to Rivi. “Get out of my head,” I say.

“Portents,” she says. “Totally portents.”

The train descends and begins its trip below the bay, and I do my best to not think of the millions of gallons of salt water above our heads, waiting for a crack to appear, and come crashing down upon us.

Endless December

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Tina is asleep on the bed, turned away from the window, the morning light soft around the edges of the motel curtains. She is snoring softly, which I won’t tell her about when she wakes. She likes to pretend that she is a delicate flower.

We had gone south for Easter, driving along the coast until we ran out of stamina, and stopping at the first motel with a vacancy. Tina had fallen asleep before I’d gotten out of the shower, sprawled on her stomach across the top of the bed nearest the window. I’d covered her with a spare blanket from the closet, and slept alone in the second bed.

We haven’t heard from Olivia in months.

Yesterday, we stopped for lunch at a diner along the highway. We sat at a booth by the window, and watched the cars speeding along the highway between us and the ocean.

“We could just keep driving,” Tina said. She turned her coffee cup slowly in her hands, not drinking it. “Not go back.”

“We have to go back,” I said. “Somebody has to feed the cat.”

“We should’ve brought her with us.”

Now, Tina mumbles something in her sleep, and she rolls over, facing the window and the chair where I am sitting. She fumbles with the blanket covering her for a moment, and pulls it back from her bare leg. Sometime during the night she has taken off her pants, although I don’t see them on the floor. Perhaps they are as tangled up in her blanket as she is.

She does not wake.

I unlock my phone and scroll through the photos there that I’d taken yesterday on our drive: blurred scenery as seen from the highway, shoreline landscapes from where we’d stopped to walk the waterline, Tina’s profile as she had taken her turn driving. There’s something missing from these photos, but I can’t decide what it is. It’s like I’m not looking at actual photographs, but rather an artist’s rendition of the images, hyperreal but achingly false at the same time.

I get up from the chair and go to the motel room’s sink, where the coffee maker sits on the counter. I expect the coffee will be horrible, but I need something to do, and I am hoping the smell of coffee will wake Tina from her sleep. I am not in a hurry to leave the motel, but I am feeling uncomfortably lonely, and having her awake will help alleviate that.

The police took my report on Olivia, filing the paperwork, assuring me that anything that needed to be done would be. I have heard nothing from them in two months, and I doubt that I ever will.

“I need a shower,” Tina croaks from the bed. “I feel like death.”

“I made coffee,” I say.

“Motel coffee is shit,” she says. “Pour me a cup.” She kicks the blanket completely free, letting it fall off the bed and onto the carpet, and lays on her back on the mattress. “Where are my pants?” she asks the ceiling.

“No idea,” I say. “I didn’t take them off you. Maybe you ate them.”

“Would explain the cotton mouth. Coffee. Now.” I pour her drink into a plastic motel cup and bring it to her, black. She sits up and crosses her legs, taking the cup from me and sipping at the coffee. She grimaces. “Terrible.”

“Going to want more?”

“Obviously.” She sets the cup onto the nightstand and slides onto her back again. She grabs one of the pillows and puts it over her face. “Where are we?” she asks, muffled.

“Don’t know. Motel. Somewhere.”

“Did we go to a carnival last night?”

“What? No, no carnivals.”

“Was I drinking?” she asks.

“Not that I saw.”

“I feel like I was drinking.”

“Maybe in your sleep,” I say.

She tosses the pillow onto the floor with the blanket. “Do we really have to go home today? I don’t want to.”

“I have to work tomorrow. Pretty sure you do too.”

“We’re going to the beach. I refuse to go home until we go to the beach.”

“You have to find your pants first,” I say. “You can’t go like that.”

“It’s almost the same as a bathing suit.”

“It’ll be too cold for a bathing suit. You need pants.”

“You’re not the boss of me.”

“Someone has to be,” I say. I kick at the blanket on the floor, twisting it until I see a bit of her jeans within its folds. “There’s your pants.”

“Forget it,” she says. “I brought a dress. I’ll wear that.”

“Guess you’re the boss of you,” I say.

“Damn skippy.” She sits up again and has more of her coffee. “Seriously. Where are we?”

“Around Carmel.”

“Is Clint Eastwood still mayor?”

“I don’t think so. I think that was just in the nineties.”

“Huh,” she says. “Time flies.”

“Get up,” I say. “Get dressed and I’ll buy you breakfast.”

“Bacon,” she says. “And coffee that isn’t shitty.”

“Promise.”

She sets her coffee back on the nightstand and gets up, walking atop the blanket on the floor and heading for the bathroom. She pulls her shirt off over her head as she goes, tossing it onto the counter by the coffee maker. A moment later, I hear the shower turn on.

I’d like to go out into the ocean this morning, to feel the water envelope me as I move further and further from the shore. It’s too cold for that, though. Winter may be over, but the shadow of it lingers still. I am certain that spring will bring no relief.

On my phone, I have the photo that Rivi took of the ghost in her room, the one which looks like Olivia. It is burned like the afterimage from a flashbulb behind my eyelids.

We are in an endless December, and there is no end to the chill in sight.