shuffling the deck + visiting the places you thought you’d never go {new story}

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To be honest, I don’t even know what this is but I’m playing the hand. A few weeks ago, I started thinking about a family flashing no vacancy signs all over the place. I was fixated on how a single act of familial betrayal could undo so many. In my mind I was seeing a wildfire, a forest of trees smoked out, and a land scorched and barren. But then I started to pick at the scabs, think of the events that happened before the burning and after the remains, and found a whole layer of darkness underneath. For days I left the page cold, and started to think about this family (and by way of the story, a whole other family), my own impenetrability, and how I can show people skinned to bone without too much clutter.

It occurs to me that clutter is distracting, slowing me down.

So this half-formed thing has emerged. For now, it’s a series of stops and starts {a word stuttered?}, with a desperate need for some detail. A need for me to color in and around the lines.

For a time, I had the brother be a meat-packer, a drug-addict, and then something happened where it was interesting for me to make him dangerous, ill. Again, I don’t know where this is going, but I like something about this shape.

Status: Deck reshuffled.


THE WOMAN ON THE HOTEL BED

We prefer you blond, rich, and on the verge of expiration. You were someone before your face caught on fire: a woman with a pedigree, who so glamorously slummed it, the owner of black diamond earrings and forever bruised knees. A daughter whose heart once broke in four places when your father called you a vacant lot, trash taken out on Wednesdays. Even after the strange woman with the butter breath and wild eyes tied your ankles so tight the slightest movement made your skin scrape and burn, even after the flames singed your white hair black –even then you never considered an apology, a final cinematic plea for forgiveness.

You weren’t the woman who barged into their house and rearranged the furniture. The house was run-down and flashing no vacancy long before you pulled up in the driveway and made your demands.

When the woman (is that frosting on her collar?) yanked the sock out of your mouth and said, “Tell me your name,” you coughed through tears, “You…” Mind changed, sock shoved all the way in, lights out, door locked, and the woman soft-knuckling the window, saying her goodbyes.
You weren’t always this way. You weren’t always the light bulb hanging over a man’s bed.
*

You’ve gone and done it again. Out cold. Gone silly. What am I going to do with you? A man should be able to handle his smoke, work a needle. But the arms all bloody and purple, the tar hair, it’s sloppy. It’s loud. You’ve got to be clean about being vacant. You’ve got to be fucking quiet about your absences. This isn’t a church or a hospice, Jonah. You don’t preach out your pain. You keep it close, inside, like a house where you lock all the doors.

But he’s not a man. He’s a boy with scabbed fingers and uneven arms from a car accident we never talk about. Shut down for renovations, Jonah’s a one-way ticket, a boy who never wants to return from where it is that we’ve come. I don’t blame him.

Jonah has to be considered. Factored in.
“Quit playing Jesus,” Jonah says. “That’s not your story.”

*
A year later, the needles disappear, and turn into bottles of colorful pills not taken. But no one knows this. No one’s been keeping up, making the calls, and unscrewing the caps. Everyone’s living as if the tape’s in permanent rewind. Mornings, Jonah scrawls the world terrible using some woman’s lipstick.

Current state of woman: unknown.

*
“Tell me about your life, about the friends you’re making,” Gillian says.
“I thought we’d talk about you. About the friend you made.” The way Jonah says friend. And then: “About the car he drives, that house he lives in with that two-toned wife and the daughter in the window. Never thought you’d be a woman who goes in for stucco. I like to watch her sometimes – the daughter, not the wife. Mostly, I just like watching my sister and the married man sleep, wondering how the story’s going to play out. You shouldn’t do that, Gillian. Covet someone else’s property. It’s not good. Karma and all.”
“Jonah, you live in New York. Across the country.”
“I did. Before the bus, the car and the apartment down the street from his house where you play house.” Jonah pauses, and his voice drops to a level that reminds her of her mother before the shackles and shocks and the clean white hospitals with dirty beds. “But I’ll tell you about friends. I’ve got this friend, Lionel. Only he’s invisible. But he’s smart, he’s been teaching me about evil. How to find it and carve it out.” Jonah laughs in a way that’s foreign to Gillian, in a way that’s not her brother.
“What are you talking about?”
“Maybe one day I’ll tell you about it,” he says, laughing. “You’ll help with the acquisition of pillows of sharpening of knives.”
“Jonah, stop it. Stop this shit right now. You’re scaring me.”
“I’ve got to go. They’re calling me back to the dream.”

*
Two planes to a taxi to a floor in an abandoned building off the expressway, Gillian starts in with the questions.
“I’m about done with this shit,” Norton says. He lights a cigarette, smokes it. Lets it ash all over the table.
“Calm down. Just give me a minute to figure this all out.” Her hands are an earthquake.
“Do I look like I have the word Sanitation tattooed on my back? Look,” Norton says, lowering his voice. “I’ve been patient; I let things slide. You heard about that poor girl he messed up? She couldn’t have been more than fifteen, and in she walks, all ten fingers intact. Hours later, she crawls out my window, crawls, face a balloon, with fingers missing. And there’s your brother sitting on the couch, watching cartoons like some kid fresh out of diapers. When I press him on it, you know what he says? Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime. Doesn’t look up from the TV, not once.”
“We need to talk about commitments,” Gillian says. The world feels large to her in a way that it hadn’t been.

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