Remember that strange story I started yesterday? Well, I finished a draft of it this morning. I guess this is what happens when you sit in front of an ocean during a storm, unsupervised. This is what happens when you allow your mind to settle in one place. I still don’t know if the story is just right (my gut tells me that I’m missing parts or lines), but I’m trying to walk that fine between giving enough and not giving it all. I don’t want you to have figured Kate out — that doesn’t interest me. It doesn’t interest me to give you backstory and scenes that sew up the story so completely, too acutely. I don’t want to give you the annotated map with voice-over directions — I want you to find your own way in.
But that balance, it’s tricky. I even felt the scene with Minnie (her name was inspired by the character in Rosemary’s Baby) pulled at me, and I had to rest and start the story again when I awoke this morning from a nightmare, and that nightmare was the idea of going back to New York.
One of my favorite lines is one in which Kate’s mother wants her heart to be a tidal. Don’t know if the line works yet, but I like where it’s going. As you can probably tell, I’m having a hard time with Kate and the father, which you’ll notice I keep calling “the husband.”
I like the bit about the barnacles, as that’s something I’m actually doing every morning. I find these creatures grotesque and fascinating, and the image of half of someone’s face covered in them excites me in ways I can’t explain. You see, I love the things that frighten most people, and I’m frightened by the things most people love (e.g. mushrooms, mittens, clowns, etc).
This photo was taken today. I was a bit of a voyeur listening to a girl plead with her mother to let her go in the water. The mother refused to acquiesce, and the girl threw her doll to the ground and picked it back up again.
So here’s the very rough draft of the story. Curious to hear your thoughts. Ping me in the comments or shoot me an email.
REMEMBER WHEN I SET YOUR HAIR ON FIRE?
There is a woman on a hotel bed and her hair is burning, Kate shouts into a payphone. The operator asks Kate whether she saw actual flames, or perhaps she made a mistake. Maybe she saw a woman smoking a cigarette, because this is Nevada, and this is what people are prone to do. No, you don’t understand, I’m talking fire here. I’m talking about a smell.
Come to think of it, the woman is smoking, or rather, swallowing a lit cigarette burning down her throat. Kate knows this because she put the smoke in her mouth, struck a match, and said: all you have to do now is breathe in. I’ll take care of the rest. The woman’s wrists and ankles were bound by rope, a balled-up sock lodged in her mouth. Kate dialed up the thermostat and drew the curtains. The woman writhed and thrashed; her face was a river – a flood of tears and black kohl.
Kate comes for the hair. The hair that is a constellation of stars, a map of white blond curls tumbling down her back. The hair she saw him run his fingers through. The hair he tucked behind a pierced ear. The hair he took in his mouth and let it rest there.
Tell me your name, Kate asked. Actually, forget it. I don’t want to know.
The operator makes inquiries about location and coordinates, room numbers and facial descriptions. To be honest, the operator confesses, I’m finding this hard to believe. Who just goes and sets their hair on fire?
From the payphone Kate has a terrific view of the room she booked and paid for with a credit card that was her the husband’s. Kate watches how the flames gobble up the curtains while she palms a lock of hair, a souvenir.
The hotel manager drives up in a pick-up, surveys the fire, shakes her head and calls the police. Murray, you’re never going to believe this, but my goddamn place is on fire. Again.
Kate imagines this is what her mother must have felt after they closed the curtains and slid her body, laying supine in a black box, in.
This is not Nevada.
Quit it with the story no one wants to hear, says everyone, always. Wife becomes a somnambulant. Husband lifts the sheets and checks for signs of life. Wife kicks the bears off the bed. Husband raises the sheet over her head as if she’s already one of the departed. Husband drives down the beach to collect his head and finds a girl listening to Tosca.
A month later, the husband will wrap a scarf around the girl’s neck and jerk her back, hard. You’ve got an equine scent to you, he says. She almost blacks out. Coughing out sentences in starts and stops, she speaks in staccato. It gets to the point in the game where it becomes difficult to breathe. The husband makes out the word, love, and he pauses and says, Let’s get something straight. That’s not a hand I’m playing.
The girl says, okay, her mouth all dry and scabbing.
Later, Kate will watch her band aid the scab with coral gloss. On the floor of the room the husband has rented, he and the girl eat ceviche with their hands and talk about the Cubans –cigars, not people. On the television, a man shifts uncomfortably in his seat as he regales a now-infamous story about a former employee who didn’t quite work out. A perfectly normal individual, he says. Two barrels of a shotgun, he says. Stacked neatly in one of the hotel rooms, he says. Kate will watch them nod, as if they understand.
Years ago, her mother confessed, I’ve never been fond of the mollusk.
Kate thinks of the old artist gone deaf, who painted savagery all over his walls. There was a need to correct the serene and sublime, and the artist was something of a fakir bringing out the barbaric. A still-beating heart held in one hand and a scissor in the other. The artist made a mural of the macabre, replete with Viejas conjuring, a macabre Sabbath, and a mad Greek devouring the limbs of his newborn. The child is rendered in a chilling white, but all Kate could remember is the cavern that was the father’s mouth.
Kate watches the girl eat fish. The chewing, the picking out of bones from one’s teeth, the swallowing – it makes Kate sick to her stomach, but she has to see. She has to gather the evidence, do the maths, and make the case. All of them will inevitably beg for a reason, and she will hand over the woman’s hair and say, do you understand?
Later, the girl will sit naked in a chair, crossing and uncrossing her legs. I want to revisit the conversation we had earlier, she says, the husband’s tie a tourniquet on her wrist. The girl’s lip barely move when she says, remember when I talked about love?
The body isn’t even cold, the husband says.
I thought the body was burned, the girl says.
Remember the time when I set your hair on fire, Kate says.
Kate reads a book where the author has replaced the word die with complete. As if to say, we’re done with that now, let’s move on to something else. Let’s change topics. Let’s move to the next item on the agenda. Let’s muffle the tears of the grieving with a word that is at turns vacant and elegant. Why don’t we all gather over here and whisper?
There is no nobility in a body shuddering its last breath out, of a heart slouching forth to its final beat, of a hand that has grown cold and soft, like unworn cashmere. There is only a bottle that was full, and a bottle now empty. There are only the sentences: my mother is alive and my mother is dead.
Excuse us. Complete. Let’s be careful not to make a disturbance in one place.
At dawn, Kate wakes and selects her outfit from one of eight shirts, ten pants, fifteen socks, and twenty-two pairs of underwear, two bras and two pairs of shoes. She launders and folds her clothes neatly into drawers, with sachets separating the layers. Mostly, she wears blue.
It takes her thirty minutes to walk the 2.2 miles to the bakery, where she ties a white apron over her blue outfit and makes cakes in the shape of 80s cartoon characters. She makes and pipes the cakes by hand even though every shop in town now uses industrial mixers – giant machines that sift and mix ingredients. It terrifies Kate to think of a mass-production of buttercream Smurfs, tubs of rainbow dye for Rainbow Brite’s hair, and she indulges this lamentation with her boss, Minnie, daily.
Minnie makes her rounds about town, sniffing out her competitors and reporting back all the sordid tales of their mediocrity in excruciating detail. Sophie Kelly’s got an apple pie display in the window. Fucking amateur hour. That low-rent charlatan was making a butter crust before she met me. She’s gone fat, you know. Got high on the supply. Don’t get like her, Kate. Fat in all the wrong places.
Kate says she’ll keep that in mind. Sifting flour, creaming butter, and making vanilla extract from scratch, the precision of baking cakes comforts her. Right now she needs to follow an outline. She needs to color in the lines. This is how she gets through her days without screaming.
In a small voice, Minnie says, you know I’d kill her. I would. With my hands. That’s not right what she’s doing, feeding on a dead woman’s leftovers. I made the cake for their wedding, you know. Your mother was a terrible baker, bless her heart, but she had good taste. She was surgical about the things she loved. Kate nods, sifts, mixes dry ingredients. Funny how she wanted it blue, Minnie says, she wanted the whole charade blue, right down to the napkins and frosting. Look at you now, all freckles and red hair. You look just like her.
This is how Kate mourns her: she wears the color her mother was forever burned in. Lets her hair grow to her waist. Refusing to cut it. Kate grips the counter with her hands. Don’t cry. Don’t eliminate. Imagine a love so deep it threatens to complete.
Minnie wonders aloud if she’s gone too far? Said too much? I can be an asshole that way. Not knowing my limits.
Kate steadies herself. No, I need to hear this.
Minnie lays a hand on Kate’s shoulder and says, you don’t need to be here, kid. You can go home.
Kate says, No, I need this.
Come nightfall, Kate visits the barnacles. They’ve set up shop on the surface of a giant rock in front of the ocean, and this is where she stands most evenings, watching. She runs down to the shore and the trees shake from her velocity, never quite resuming their former shape. She can’t explain why she does this, but something about uneven surfaces and permanent attachments pleases her.
The sun settles into the horizon, painting the waves an ominous green. Once, Kate spent an hour watching a public television special on the feeding habits of barnacles, enthralled. The barnacles are tricky, sessile, set on feeding on anything in motion with their spindly, sticky legs grabbing at things. Determined to drain every bit of life from their host.
Kate observes the multiplication.
Consider this: Imagine trying to make a life for yourself and there’s some faux mollusk, trying to leech it away. Survival is now predicated on discipline — how you notice the drift and cleave, and how fast you’re able to cut it off and push it away. If you don’t, you’ll become lost in the barnacle forest, unable to locate any semblance of your former self.
A seduction based on legs wrapped around a body, tight. A life boxed in, a constant suffocation, and a realization that there’s no way out – Kate thinks this is what marriage must be like.
The husband sits in a car, cuts the engine. His face is a mess of pain. Holds his neck in his hands, presses down hard. Kate shakes her head. You can’t die that way. She wants to tap the window and say, give me the keys. Let me turn on the engine. Let me let it run.
This is day one.
The day her mother dies, she is in the kitchen making toast. Kate places her palm over a hot cup of coffee, feeling the steam rise and warm her hand. We can talk about it, if you want. Or not, if that’s what you want too, Kate says. I never made a good Gillian, her mother says, slathering cold butter on bread, breaking it, not noticing it. But I would have made a brilliant Kate.
You’re breaking the bread, Kate says. So I am, her mother says.
I made a mistake, her mother says. I asked for too much, loved too little. I thought I could get away with it. But in the end you always end up with so much less than with what you started.
This isn’t your fault, Kate says, you didn’t make him fuck that woman. Her mother’s wrist shakes, never regaining its former shape. Mom, can you stop buttering the fucking toast?
Kate’s mother balls up charred bread in her hand. Stands there, feels the crumbs rain down from the spaces between her fingers. She’s gone, now. Never coming back, now. All the life drained, now. Sessile, now. Finally in love, now.
My heart should have been a tidal.
The husband makes an attempt, places his hand on Kate’s shoulder.
Kate‘s body is a house that collapses inward, caves in. No survivors. Just a slice of light from the window above. You’re touching me, she says.
I just wanted to see how you are, the husband says.
Complete, Kate says.
Kate is not going to talk about what it was like to find her mother. Cold cheeks, hair shorn with the scissors in her drawer (no one will understand why she cut her hair to the nape), lips parted from when the contents of the bottle pulled the last vestige of air, out. Traces of crumbs in her palm.
Keep moving. Go on, there’s nothing to see. The motley lot slouches past, with their popcorn and binoculars, their suppositions, theories and their endless talk.
The curtain closes. It’s the end of the show, folks. The coffin glides in.
However, Kate will scream.
When Kate is five, the husband will tell her that teeth are accidental stars God drilled into her mouth. Thanks, God.
When Kate is eleven, she walks in on her mother punching the Northern lights out of the husband’s mouth. The surgery will be painful. The recovery will be riddled with obligatory blowjobs, about which Kate overhears her mother complain to a woman that is not her friend.
When Kate is thirteen, the husband purchases a wire cage for those stars. Her mouth is suddenly a chicken coup.
When Kate is eighteen, she watches a pigeon nip at its wing until it can no longer fly.
When Kate is twenty-nine, she leans into the woman’s hair, the mistress who drew a line between the husband and the departed, takes a bite of it, and says, do you understand?
Kate leaves a room blazing.