Cultural Archaeology

Unsplash RecordsSebastian Script

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

Unsplash Mussed BedBoone

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.

The Devil’s Work

Unsplash ClockOlivia Script

I don’t know how long I’ve been asleep. At some point while I’ve been out, someone—Sullivan?—has put a small table beside the cot, and on this table he has put a cup of water and three spotted bananas. I reach out for the cup and drink the water in one fast swallow, leaving the bananas for now.

The light is dim, and it’s coming from a small lamp on a shelf behind me. He called this place a storeroom, and that’s definitely what it looks like. A few metal shelves along the walls, some empty boxes in the corners. I won’t complain, however. At least it’s warm.

I pull back the blanket and see that I’m not wearing the clothes I came here in. I am in an oversized T-shirt and sweatpants, and I know that I didn’t put them on myself. I decide not to think about how I got into them right now. That’s something to consider later on.

It’s hard forcing myself to sit up. My arms and legs ache with the effort, and my spine feels as though it is wrapped in barbed wire. Is this what not freezing to death in the snow feels like? If so, I must make a reminder to myself to never try to do it again.

The floor is concrete, and it is cold on my bare feet. I wobble a bit with my first few steps, but by the time I complete the short distance from the cot to the only door in the room, I am feeling more steady. The door is metal, matching the utilitarian look of the rest of the room, and opens without a sound as I turn the knob and push. The hallway outside is as dim as my room had been, and dozens of boxes line up against the walls, making the corridor feel claustrophobic. One end of the hall ends in a closed door, and the other turns a corner which seems to be slightly brighter than where I am now, so I choose to go that way. Around the turn, there are stairs leading up, and I slowly climb them, my legs protesting with each step, but not giving out on me. I prefer to take this as a good sign. As I near the top of the stairs, I begin to hear voices.

“Doesn’t matter if you want it,” one is saying. Sullivan? I think so. “You have to take it.”

“I didn’t ask for it,” the other says, the words coming out in a harsh bark. “It’s not my problem.”

“It is your problem,” Sullivan says. “I don’t make the rules. I just hold the merchandise.”

There is a heavy drape hanging in front of me, and a sliver of bright light creeps around one edge of it. I hesitate only a moment before peering through the slit. On the other side of the drape is what looks to be a storefront, something like a pawn shop. A vast collection of items are scattered on shelves and racks throughout the store: typewriters, televisions, fur coats and hockey sticks. Sullivan stands behind the glass counter, arms crossed on his chest. On the other side is a young man with a Doc Holliday mustache and black hat, hands pressed to the countertop, looking distressed. Between them on the glass is a small ivory statue, a white giraffe, standing no more than five inches high.

“This isn’t fair,” the young man is saying.

“Nothing is,” Sullivan says. “Take it.”

“I won’t.”

“You will, or I’ll shove it up your ass and throw you both out. Rules are rules.”

The young man starts to say something else, but he bites his tongue as Sullivan puts both his hands on the counter and leans closer to him. Without another word, the man reaches out quickly and grabs the giraffe, puts it into his coat pocket, and then rubs his hand against his pants as though trying to clean something from it.

“That’s that,” Sullivan says.

“I won’t be back,” the young man growls.

“You will. Miss Keeper will see to that.”

The young man pales, and takes a step back from the counter. He lifts his hand and touches himself in the middle of his chest. “You do the devil’s work here,” he says. “The devil’s work.”

“That might be,” Sullivan says. “But I’m not the one leaving with that statue in my pocket.”

The young man says nothing. He holds Sullivan’s gaze for a few moments, then turns on his heel and heads for the exit. He pulls the door open, and the bell above it tinkles softly as he does so, then rings again as the door shuts behind him as he leaves.

Sullivan leaves his hands on the counter and stands quietly until the last sound of the bell has trailed off into silence. Then, without turning to look in my direction, he says, “You might as well come out from behind that curtain. I’ve got something here for you too, and you’re going to need to take it.”

Typhoid Magpie

Unsplash BookSebastian Script

From her bedroom, Rivi brings me a copy of a used book she’s picked up earlier in the day: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. “I found it at Green Apple,” she says. “It was mis-shelved in the poetry section.”

I turn the book over and look at the back cover. “I think I’ve read this,” I say. “It sounds familiar.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she says. She takes the book back from me and flips through the pages. Mid-way through, she stops, and I see that there’s something stuck between the pages of the book. It’s a photograph, a Polaroid. She takes it out and hands it to me. “That’s why I bought the book,” she says.

“Because somebody left a photo in it?” I look at the image. It’s of a woman, but the shot is framed so that all that is visible of her is her shoulder, which is bare, and her face from the bridge of her nose down. Curls of red hair twist their way around her neck and blow in a frozen breeze over her shoulder. “It was probably a bookmark,” I say. “It is a used book, you know. You’re not going to tell me it’s another ghost photo, right?”

“God, no,” she says. “It’s just an old Polaroid. It’s for my lost and found collection.”

“Okay, I’ll bite. What’s your lost and found collection?”

“I’ll show you,” she says. She goes back to her bedroom, and returns with a Tampa Nugget cigar box. She sits beside me on her couch and opens the box. “I found all these inside of used books around town.” She reaches in and pulls out a small pile of things, spreading them out on her coffee table: receipts, photographs, bits of thread and paper.

“So you’re buying books just because of the stuff people leave in them when they toss them out?”

“It’s like I’m curating a museum,” Rivi says.

“It’s nothing like that,” I say. “It’s like you’re collecting trash.”

She picks up one of the receipts and holds it up for me to look at. It’s from a 7-Eleven, for a purchase of a soda and a magazine. Rivi turns the receipt around, and on the rear of it, someone has written in blue ink: think for your fucking self.

“Inspirational,” I say.

She puts the receipt down and takes up another photo: a young girl in a blanket fort, reading a copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The girl is reading by the light of lamp with a stained glass shade, which she has stashed away inside the fort with her.

“How much of this stuff do you have?” I ask Rivi.

“Oh, a bunch. Dozens. I’ve got a whole shelf in the bedroom full of the books these came out of.”

“And how many of these books have you actually read?”

“None, of course,” she says. “Why would I do that? I just want the stuff that’s inside them.”

“Well you know, you could just take the pictures and junk out of the books and save yourself some money. You know, if you’re not going to actually read them or anything.”

“I can’t do that,” Rivi says. She takes a candy wrapper out of the cigar box and gives it a looking over. “It wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t buy the books too. It would be like breaking up a matching set somehow.”

“You’re killing me,” I say. “Absolutely killing me.” I peer into the box. “Is that a piece of dental floss?”

“Oh yeah,” she says. She reaches in and removes the floss.

“How do you know that hasn’t been used?” I ask.

She shrugs. “Probably has.” She holds it up to her nose and sniffs at it. “Smells like peppermint.”

“That’s absolutely disgusting,” I say. “You’re like a magpie. Anything shiny, you have to pick up.”

“Look, nobody is going to use dental floss for a bookmark if they’ve had it in their mouth already. Also, magpies don’t actually like shiny things. That’s a myth.”

“It’s still disgusting,” I say.

“It’s not disgusting. It’s art.”

“Disgusting art.”

“That’s what they said about Warhol,” she says.

“I don’t think Warhol saved used pieces of other people’s dental floss,” I say.

“It’s not used. It’s as fresh as the day it came out of the packet.”

“Totally not. If you look close, I’m sure you can see little bits of food stuck to it.”

“It’s fresh,” she says, and to prove her point, she wraps the ends of the floss around her fingers, sticks them into her mouth, and proceeds to slide the floss between her teeth. “Thee? Totally freth.”

“That is the nastiest thing I’ve ever seen you do,” I say, but I can’t look away. “You are going to contract some horrible flesh-eating disease, and your skin is all going to slough off of you like a burned marshmallow.”

She pulls the floss out of her mouth and runs her tongue across her teeth. “Minty,” she says. She leans closer to me. “Wanna make out?”

“Never and never. I don’t really even want to be sitting next to you right now.”

She puts the floss back into the cigar box. “Liar. You always want to make out with me.”

“It’s like you just ate a piece of gum off the bottom of a table in a restaurant on Market Street.”

“Hardly,” she says. “Unless it’s peppermint.”

“Ew.”

“And not too hard.”

“I’m leaving now,” I say, and I stand up from the couch.

“Does it have any teeth marks in it?” she asks. “Like could the police use it for evidence in an unsolved cannibal murder case?”

“You need to go to the doctor.” I make for her front door, and she gets up to follow me. “You need some antibiotics. Actually, you need all of the antibiotics.”

“One little kiss,” she says. “For the road.” She puckers and makes kissy noises at me as I open the door and step out into the stairwell.

“Never again,” I say. “Keep your Typhoid Magpie lips to yourself.” I start down the stairs.

“I taste like candy.”

“Goodbye, Rivi.”

“Just like Peppermint Patties.”

“I’ll miss you when you’re dead.”

I turn the corner at the bottom of her stairwell, and from above me, I hear her cry out in a sing-song shout: “PEP-per-MINT PAT-ieeeeeees!”

GOODBYE, RIVI!” I shout back.

Just another Sunday.

I don’t know how we live through them.

Pancakes and Plans of Attack

Pancakes UnsplashBoone

Olivia’s apartment is empty.

“You’re not her mom,” Tina says. “She doesn’t have to tell you when she leaves town.”

“I know,” I say. I feel weird standing in Olivia’s living room, afraid to touch anything, like I’m intruding on a crime scene. This concern for her is completely irrational, but after the idea that she’s connected to the ghostly photo Rivi took in her bedroom, it’s something that I’m unable to shake free from my mind.

“Did you try calling her?” Tina asks.

“Yeah. And texts.”

“This is why life was better before cell phones,” she says. “If you were out of touch for a few days back then, nobody had a hissy fit about it.”

“I’m not having a hissy fit.”

“You so are,” she says. “You might think you aren’t, but trust me. Complete hissy.”

“You aren’t concerned at all?”

“No, I’m not. Like I haven’t gone away before without telling you?”

“That’s different,” I start to say, but I know that it isn’t. Tina once went to Europe and I didn’t know about it until she came home, beating the postcard she had sent me from Amsterdam. I take another look around the empty living room. “I’m being crazy, aren’t I?”

Tina holds her hand up, finger and thumb held an inch apart. “Just a tiny bit.”

I exhale heavily. “It’s Rivi’s stupid photo. I thought it looked like Olivia.”

“Rivi’s a lunatic,” Tina says. “It’s why I love her. But there’s reality, and then there’s Rivi. You have to leave a little wiggle room in between them there. Now come on.” She holds out her hand, and I take it. “I’m going to buy you breakfast.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Well I am, and you drove, so you have to come with me. You’re also going to have to get the check, because I forgot to bring my purse.”

“You said you were buying.”

“I’ll owe you.”

“You already owe me.”

“Shut up,” she says, “and let’s go already. My stomach demands pancakes, and it will not be denied.”

I lock Olivia’s door, and Tina goes to wait in the car while I slip into the small yard behind the apartment and put the key back into its hiding place by the jasmine plant. When I come back and slide into the driver’s seat, Tina takes one look at me and says, “Let it go.”

“Okay, okay.” I start the car. “Where are we going?”

“Anywhere. I don’t care. Long as there’s pancakes.”

“Let’s just go back to my place. I can make you pancakes. Won’t cost me as much anyway.”

“Fine,” she says. “But don’t expect me to leave you a tip.”

“I’ll leave myself one,” I say. “Since I was going to have to pay anyway.”

Traffic is strangely light for a Thursday morning, and it feels as though half the city has decided to take the day off. I wonder to myself if it’s a holiday and I’ve missed it.

“Look at her,” Tina says, pointing at a woman walking on the sidewalk on our side of the street. She is holding an oversized coffee cup up to her lips, using both hands to raise it. “Ever notice when you’re desperate for coffee, everybody else seems to have some?”

“Thought you wanted pancakes.”

“And coffee. Don’t be a peasant. You have to have both.”

“If I’m a peasant, that makes you..?”

“Queen, of course.”

“What makes you the queen?”

“Because I haven’t got shit all over me.”

“Hah,” I say. “Funny funny.”

“It’s what I do,” she says. “It’s my gift, and it’s my curse.”

When we get to my apartment, Tina disappears into the bathroom, and I head straight for the kitchen. I take the coffee from the cupboard and scoop it into the machine, then set about gathering the ingredients for Tina’s pancakes. I’m still not hungry myself, but perhaps the smell of them will get me interested as I cook.

“Cook faster,” she says, walking into the kitchen. “I’m dying here.” Her hair is wet, and she has taken off her shirt and wrapped it around her head like a turban, leaving her in a gray sports bra and jeans.

“Why..?” I start.

“Your towel smells like a wet dog, that’s why.”

“No, I meant why are you washing your hair in my sink? I’m used to you wandering around in your underwear.”

“I didn’t wash it,” she says. “Just got it wet. And don’t worry about it. Just bring the cakes from the pan.” She goes to the cupboard and gets out a cup, then fills it with coffee.

“Nobody understands you as well as I do,” I tell her. “And just so you know, I don’t understand you at all.”

“The way God intended it,” she says. She sits at the table and sips her coffee, watching me as I pour batter into the pan on the stove, preparing breakfast: one pancake, then another. As I am flipping the third, Tina says, “I changed my mind.”

“I’m sorry?” I say.

“About Olivia. I changed my mind. It’s very weird, her not calling or texting back. That’s not like her.”

“So I’m not crazy?” I ask.

“Maybe,” she says. “Jury’s still out.”

“So what do we do about it?”

“First thing we do,” she says, “is eat pancakes.”

“After the pancakes, I mean.”

“Call the cops, obviously.”

“Seriously?”

She shrugs. “Unless you know any psychics, I’d say that’s the most logical course of action.”

I put the third pancake onto a plate with the other two, and set it on the table in front of Tina. “I know a few psychos, but psychics are out of my area of expertise.” I take the syrup—pure maple, no artificial syrup in my kitchen—from a cupboard and hand it to Tina.

“Then there you go,” she says. She uncaps the bottle and drowns the pancakes in syrup. “Step one is the official channel. After that, we go to step two.”

“What’s step two?” I ask.

“We have Rivi take more pictures in her bedroom.” Tina stabs her pancakes with her fork, tearing off a chunk and shoveling it into her mouth. She chews noisily for a moment. “Oh, these are really good.”

“Secret family recipe,” I say. “Bisquick.”

“If I didn’t know you so well,” she says, “I’d have to marry you.”

“And then murder me in my sleep.”

She puts another oversized hunk into her mouth, nodding as she chews. Around the pancake, she says, “Oh God, yes. Within the first week. Smother you with a pillow, bury you in the backyard.”

“You say the sweetest things.”

“Of course I do,” she says. “I’m the queen, after all.”