8 January, 2016
8 January, 2016
8 January, 2016
7 January, 2016
My brother and I still reminisce about the year
we lived in another family’s attic.
For months we dreamt about playing outside
our faces pressed up like needy moths
against the window’s wintery pane.
Every chance he got, our stepfather
reminded us to pipe down, our mother
hinting for us to tiptoe along the attic’s floorboard
as it was still the Midwestern Muslim’s way
not to squander generosity.
Because we did not attend school
my brother and I decided to find stories
hidden between the attic’s cracks,
collecting dust. A story beneath a thimble,
an elbow propped up against a rusted bolt, a catwalk
taking shape along the sill, an epic tale about folk
no bigger than a thumb,
traversing this expansive landscape.
We told ourselves
stories, until the attic
growled with trappings,
our minds becoming little sail boats
drifting us into a tale,
where it didn’t matter
that my brother had forgotten
to bring toys with him the night
we moved into the attic, didn’t matter
that there was no radio or T.V.
We had an imaginary tribe
of people, their tooth-pick spears
glinting, their crumb sized loafs
of bread almost satisfying
our hunger to know
what happens next.
7 January, 2016
When I said I am doing so well these days,
what I meant is I will go back to a humble place.
I will get a job in manual labor, in rugged red
sand and plains towns. My book of instruction
will read, How to Clean a Steam Train. All this,
so I may live out my years to best suit your prayers.
I am working so very hard to be your own tragic saint.
Nightly, I will write you in pharmaceutical ink,
I am sorry for these and so many things. And I hope
you’ll take it like a pill, violet moving through
all of your body. When I say hello or goodbye,
I really only mean, Accept my sincerest apologies.
My penance: to exile myself to avalanche cold
and isolated form, to fall and come down so fast,
so hard, where I liked living near you there too.
And when I spoke silly of my love and awe for you,
please know all I really meant to say was,
I would burn down a city in your name.
7 January, 2016
Wednesday, 7:45 PM
They leave the car running and duck into Kwik Trip for what Nate insists on calling “necessities.”
He and Melanie walk the aisles slowly, trailing fingers over nonsense items: foam beer koozies, ping pong balls, flip-flops in the shape of Minnesota. Athlete’s foot medicine. Paper clips. Mints whose flavor is identified as “fart-taste.”
There’s an aisle of candy and an aisle of chips. They float down each, and Melanie is certain the man behind the counter, old and tough and sick of everyone’s shit, assumes they’re going to steal something. He raises to his toes to watch them.
Near the beer cooler there is a small display of remaindered clothing. The t-shirts would fit an obese person, yet Nate holds one to his chest as if to check its fit. The hem hangs by his knees.
“Breathtaking,” Melanie says.
Nate flips through the choices. John Deere. Golden Gophers. Minnesota State Fair.
“That one,” Melanie says. She holds the state fair t-shirt to her chin, modeling. It is poorly silk-screened with the words
Everything’s Better on a Stick!
Nate takes one of the Gopher t-shirts, and nearby finds a matching baseball cap and two pairs of heart-shaped sunglasses. All of this he deposits in front of the old man behind the counter, who frowns at the pile.
“You here to yank my chain?” he asks.
Nate shakes his head solemnly. “No, sir,” he says.
“Pete send you?” the man asks. “Is he behind this?” “No, sir.”
“Nobody wants this stuff.” The old man holds up Nate’s t-shirt then looks at Melanie. “You in some kind of trouble, Miss?”
He’s probably imagining the worst of what he’s seen on TV— tortured prostitutes, kidnapped ex-wives, human trafficking rings—but that kind of trouble isn’t the trouble Melanie is in.
Hers is a more usual kind: she’s flown here to be with a man married to someone else.
“No trouble at all,” she says. She smiles and hopes it looks convincing.
The old man touches a pair of sunglasses with the tip of his finger, as if he’s afraid it might snarl to life. “Something’s fishy about this,” he says.
“It’s all right,” Nate says. “I’m a cop. This is police business.” He digs his badge out of his coat.
The old man squints. “That for real?”
Nate hands it over so he can examine it. It’s for real, and just being in its presence makes Melanie uncomfortable. When Nate broke up with her at twenty-six, both of them fresh from graduate school, he cited his career as one of the reasons they couldn’t be together.
“Our life paths just don’t mesh,” he’d said as Melanie lay weeping on her bed. He stroked her hair. “Mel, we’re so different. A cop and a screenwriter? What will that be like in five years? We couldn’t ever have kids.”
“What does that mean?” Melanie demanded. “Why the fuck not?”
But he only frowned, as if the answer were obvious, and continued to comb his fingers through her hair.
Now he gestures to a rack of chips. “Do we need snacks?” he asks.
The two of them are already a couple of gimlets in, and they have a bottle under the front seat of the car. “We have the gin,” Melanie says.
“Okay,” Nate says. He looks back at the man. “We’re good on snacks.”
“Well, that’s fine,” the man says, pushing the badge to Nate.
He rings up the t-shirts, the sunglasses, the baseball cap. “It’s $17.95.”
Nate hands him a twenty and waves off the change. “Have a good night,” he says. He puts his hand on Melanie’s lower back— it’s the first time they’ve touched since he picked her up at the airport—and guides her toward the door.
Wednesday, 8:10 PM
They drive for a while, passing the gin back and forth, taking a tour of the blank land stretching between towns. She is careful not to touch Nate when she takes the bottle from him. She doesn’t want to confuse touch with something else, like decision. She still isn’t sure.
They’d taken pains to avoid promises or plans beyond the most basic: Melanie would fly to Minneapolis and Nate would pick her up. No one else would know. Melanie’s friends think she has a speaking engagement in Colorado; Nate’s wife thinks he’s training in Duluth.
Nate pulls into the parking lot of another gas station and cuts the engine. Melanie studies him. He looks different, like a slightly inflated version of himself. He’s put on weight. He’d warned Melanie about it before she came, breaking news with a bunch of fat cop jokes.
“Maybe it’s happiness,” Melanie suggested. “Maybe your life agrees with you.”
“Maybe,” he said, managing, somehow, to sound neither incredulous nor convinced.
Now he passes her a t-shirt and a pair of sunglasses. “We’re nearby,” he says.
During the first round of gimlets Melanie decided she wanted to see his house. This was a concession; what she really wanted was to meet his wife and two year-old daughter. But how could that happen? What would she do—pretend to be a Jehovah’s Witness stopping by to preach the Good Word? A local politician glad-handing for votes? A lost courier? Ridiculous. There was no way. But at least she could see the house, see the place where Nate lived. Maybe that would help her, one way or the other.
Melanie shoves the shirt over her head. This isn’t anything like how she’s imagined an affair to be. Movies, television, other people’s stories—all so sexy and dramatic. Those scorching looks. Those dark alleyway kisses. How does anyone decide so quickly?
If only she hadn’t written the movie, that stupid film she’d first imagined as post-apocalyptic with a twelve year-old heroine but, in a side-tracked, wine-soaked fit, had actually written as a dark, dreamy movie about what would happen if Nate came back to her. Wine was also to blame for her sending the script to her agent when she should have stuck it in a drawer. But before she could truly process these events, the movie was cast and shot. Then came the Oscar buzz and, later, the Oscars themselves— two for the lead actors and another for Melanie’s script.
During all of this, Melanie never told Nate about the film. She’d never called to run it by him or ask how he might feel seeing a version of himself on screen. She convinced herself it wouldn’t be a problem because it wasn’t a movie he would ever see. There was a lot of crying in the movie, a lot of drawn-out lovemaking, and a subplot involving a mother with Alzheimer’s. Nate would rather die than pay to watch those things. Plus, they hadn’t spoken since his baby was born, so he had no idea what she was working on. Melanie figured there was a good chance the whole thing could be released and go through its press cycle without Nate knowing a thing about it.
But at three A.M. the night of the Academy Awards Nate called just as the hired car dropped Melanie off at home. It had been a long night of champagne and tiny appetizers that, despite her best efforts, Melanie couldn’t cobble together to stave off bone-shaking hunger.
When she answered, she knew immediately he’d been drinking. “That actor was really good-looking,” he said. “You must have had a handsome muse.”
She slammed the car door and watched it pull away. The night had turned chilly and somewhere along the way she’d lost her wrap, so she shivered, teeth chattering. Her mind felt slack from champagne and terror, and she scrambled to find something to say. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I hope you aren’t mad.
“Did you like it?” she asked.
“I did,” he said. “Stephanie too.”
It seemed terrible, the idea of Nate’s wife—a dental hygienist from Nebraska—gazing up at the screen and thinking how romantic it was, how beautiful, how lovely—when the story was about her husband and what could have happened if he’d come to his senses.
“Does she know?” Melanie asked.
“No,” Nate said. “She’s doesn’t know a thing about you.” Melanie slides the heart-shaped sunglasses up the bridge of her nose and consults the mirror. It is dusk. The empty bowl of Minnesota sky is flooded pink and purple. There is no need for the glasses anymore, but the anonymity feels appropriate.
How could Stephanie know nothing about her? After all, Melanie and Nate had been together for three years. And surely Nate and Stephanie must have talked about their own past relationships. Wouldn’t they have compared notes? Revealed the sorry state of affairs that had led them to each other? But apparently not. Nate had made it so Melanie never existed at all.
Nate plucks at his giant t-shirt, blousing the fabric around his waist. “The house across the street from ours is for sale,” he says. “We’ll park there. It won’t be suspicious.”
He drives them through subdivision after subdivision, each of the streets named after a fruit: Persimmon. Peach. Lingonberry. But there is no fruit to be found, only scraggly saplings bending in the wind.
Nate turns onto Crab Apple Street and slows, easing the car to the curb in front of a palatial Colonial. A for sale sign sprouts near the edge of the lawn.
“That’s my house,” Nate says, gesturing across the street. “Steph’s SUV is in the driveway.” His own is sitting in the Hertz lot at the airport; the one they are in now is a rental, another disguise.
Melanie turns slowly, taking it in piece by piece. Tiny tricycle in the driveway. Purple ball on the lawn. Rocking chairs on the porch. Melanie leans closer. The edges of the dusk sky have dimmed to black, and it’s easy to see inside the lit-up rooms. At the far end of the house, Melanie sees movement near one of the windows and then the tip of a bushy tail as a dog snuffles by.
“There’s your dog,” she says.
“A Pomeranian,” Nate says. When they were together, he had fantasized about his future dogs, retrievers and setters and pointers, smart dogs with aristocratic faces and lust for blood. “A fucking Pomeranian,” he says. “Can you believe it?”
“What’s its name?” “Dog.”
“Come on. Dog?”
“The toddler’s choice,” Nate explains, shrugging. “When I write it out, though, I spell it D-A-W-G. Thug him up a bit.”
And then Nate’s wife is in the room, perfectly illuminated and glowing. She is the basic nightmare: slim and sylvan, a Shakespearian wood sprite.
“Don’t turn around,” Melanie says. “Your wife.” She leans closer and puts her hand on Nate’s thigh, a move she regrets immediately. How long has it been since she’s touched him?
“I’m getting out,” she says and steps outside before Nate can protest. To keep up pretenses, she nudges one of the pamphlets from the cylinder near the for sale sign. It’s partially waterlogged, but she glances down at the home’s selling points: indoor lap pool, game room, stainless steel kitchen. She raises her eyes and makes like she is taking in the home’s possibility, then turns to examine the neighborhood. Would anyone notice her gaze lingers longest on Nate’s house and the woman inside, bending to heap her arms full of toys—both child’s and dog’s—before leaving the room?
Melanie ducks back into the car. Nate’s face is frozen in an odd way, as though he’s had a minor stroke.
“This was a mistake,” she says. “We need to get out of here.” “Yeah,” he says and has the car in drive before she can get the door fully shut.
Wednesday, 9:38 PM
Another bar. That’s what they decide they need. Nate drives through the suburbs—Edina, Eden Prairie, Chanhassen— and stops finally somewhere in Chaska. The bar is a hastily-constructed clapboard structure lit with a Leinenkugel’s sign, its Indian princess logo poorly translated into neon. She looks lipstick-smeared and demented.
Inside, the crowd is sparse. A few men play pool in the back corner, and a few more grimly watch the History Channel. The only woman in the place is asleep on the bar, snoring in the nest of her folded arms.
Melanie finds a table in the back, partially obscured by dart machines. Nate comes back from the bar with a tray of drinks: a set of shots, a couple gin and tonics.
“I think I arrested one of those guys,” Nate says, settling in next to her. Her jerks his head behind him, toward the guys playing pool.
“This is probably reckless,” Melanie says. “Us being out in public.”
“Nah,” Nate says. He leans back to grab a bowl of peanuts from a neighboring table “For all he knows, you’re my wife.”
Melanie closes her eyes and tries to let that remark slip into nothing. Away, away. But it doesn’t go.
They sit quietly for a while. Melanie can’t figure out where to put her hands. She tries her lap, the table, her chin. Every pose she makes feels like crappy stage direction: Girl fidgets, unsure of herself.
What are they doing? Aren’t they smarter than this? Between the two of them, they have degrees and awards and accolades. Nate even received special commendation from the governor after pulling dozens of people to safety when the 1-35 bridge collapsed. She’d seen still shots of him in the national coverage— Nate dragging screaming children out of the water, one under each arm. It seems to her that people capable of such bravery should also be capable of restraint, though, really, what does one thing have to do with the other?
“Your house is lovely,” she says finally.
Nate sets down his drink. “You don’t have to do that,” he says. “We don’t need to do niceties.”
Across the room, one of the men playing pool makes an impressive shot and the rest cheer and clink glasses.
“We have to do something,” she says.
It is strange they suddenly have nothing to say after so many months of late-night phone calls, conversations that ended as the sun came up, first for Nate, then for Melanie. Melanie felt breathless those mornings, her chest cracked open from the pressure of her longing.
“What are we doing?” she asked once, afraid of the answer. None of the ones she came up with on her own were very good.
“Just remembering,” Nate said. “That’s all.”
Melanie is warm from the gin and shifts, uncomfortable, in her chair. Nate won’t look at her. He pretends to study the dart machine’s instructions for Cutthroat Cricket.
“You can go,” Melanie says. “At any time. I can get a cab.” Nate shakes his head. “No,” he says, “I’m not leaving.”
They are quiet again, and the noise of the bar overtakes them: the crisp click of a pool cue hitting its mark, the television’s chatter about Nazis, an amber trail of whiskey snaking into a glass.
The night’s momentum has faltered. Another bar, more drinks—it had seemed logical, but, really, what are they doing? Somewhere, somehow, the night had split along it seams and left them in a place they didn’t belong.
“I’m going to splash some water on my face,” Melanie says.
She heads for the hall, which pulses in the flickering light of the emergency exit.
In the bathroom, she stares at herself for several long minutes, until the door swings open and the only other woman in the place—the one who’d been napping on the bar—comes in. She pauses near a stall door, appraising Melanie.
“I don’t see a lot of women in here,” she says.
“No?” Melanie asks, smiling, trying hard to look like she hadn’t been seconds from crying.
The woman shakes her head. The dress she is wearing—a cheap black shift, sequined and feathered—rustles against her skin. “Do you have a cigarette?” she says. She holds out her hand before Melanie can respond.
Though she has never smoked, Melanie pretends to look in her purse for a pack of cigarettes. She shakes her head. “I’m out,” she says.
“Maybe a mint?”
Those she has, in spades. At LAX, Melanie killed time before her flight standing in front of the personal hygiene wall of the kiosk near her gate. She’d bought everything that seemed even vaguely associated with adultery: lotion, mints, mouthwash, Excedrin, a beard grooming kit, wet wipes.
She hands a whole package of mints to the woman. “Keep it,” she says. “I have plenty.”
The woman clutches the package under her armpit and swings open the stall door. “He’s handsome,” she says, turning to look again at Melanie, who can, out of the corner of her eye, see her own reflection in the mirror, and it is stricken. “Your man out there,” the woman says. “Handsome.”
“Oh,” Melanie says. “Thank you.”
The woman changes her mind about the stall and lets the door swing shut. “You two having an affair?” she asks.
Melanie isn’t sure what happens then, but it feels like what she imagines a stroke to be. A jumble of words explode soundlessly in her head and jagged lines of lightning cut across her vision.
“No!” she says. “God, no! Not at all!”
The woman removes the container of mints clutched beneath her armpit and pours out a handful. She crunches into them savagely. “Honey,” she says, and the room is awash in spearmint, “you need to get better at lying.”
Melanie’s heartbeat careens into a desperate, militant rhythm. “It’s obvious?” she asks.
The woman smiles. “Oh, sweetie,” she says. “But how?”
The woman tugs at her hemline, which is far too high for her age. She smiles again, extra sweet, the way you’d smile at a baby or a dumb dog.
Melanie’s cheeks burn. The woman’s dress, the nap on the bar. It’s suddenly clear: she’s a prostitute. A working girl waiting for business to pick up.
The woman comes over to the sinks next to Melanie. “Is this your first?” she asks.
Melanie nods. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” she says. “You’ve got some guilt?”
Melanie isn’t sure what she’s got, really. Stephanie was a fixture in Nate’s life a mere seven weeks after he’d ended things with Melanie, and because of this Melanie had spent years planning elaborate scenarios in which she would exact revenge. But for a while—at least before the baby came—Nate tried to keep in touch, to keep things friendly, and this way Melanie learned things about Stephanie that made her seem less hateful. Melanie knew, for example, that Stephanie had lost her virginity in the parking lot of a Days Inn. She knew Stephanie called Nate “Pickle,” something he’d vehemently tried to dissuade early on. She also knew that Stephanie had crippling anxiety and sometimes Nate came home to find her in the car, still in the garage, weeping and paralyzed, never having made it to work.
Melanie sort of liked Stephanie, or the character of Stephanie she’d built from these details. And Melanie definitely liked the idea of the little girl, Opal, who liked to ride the dog like a horse—yelling yee-haw! every time she clutched his scruff and clambered onto his back—and slept each night in the shadow of a giant stuffed armadillo. Shouldn’t knowing these details make it harder? Shouldn’t they override the stupid, brutish argument that keeps clattering around her head: but he’s mine.
“I don’t know if it’s guilt,” Melanie says.
“You’ll have to get out there and figure it out,” the woman says. She leans in to examine her own face in the mirror. It’s heavily made up, the foundation at least two shades too dark for her. “That’s the only way.”
Melanie washes her hands. Despite having turned only the cold knob, the water comes out painfully hot but Melanie keeps her hands beneath the stream, watching them turn red. She begins to cry.
The woman reaches over and turns off Melanie’s water. She yanks away a paper towel and wraps Melanie’s hands tenderly, almost like a bandage, and presses them between her own.
“I’m going to tell you what I think,” she says. “You’re here. That means you’ve already made up your mind. Don’t pretend you’re waiting around for permission. You already gave it to yourself.”
Melanie cries harder.
“Your makeup,” the woman says. She unwraps the towels and blots until the tears stop. Melanie blows her nose and wipes her eyes.
“You’re all right,” the woman says. She opens Melanie’s purse and digs until she finds a small pot of blush and a tube of mascara. “Hold still,” she says. She blows her minty breath across Melanie’s face to dry it. She works quickly, feathering the blush across the apples of Melanie’s cheeks and applying two coats of mascara. “There. You’re good.”
Melanie turns to look at her reflection. Her skin is puffy, but her makeup is back on and she looks marginally less terrifying. She can’t remember a time she has felt more grateful. In this moment, her love for this woman is immense. “Thank you,” she says.
“Now we’re even,” the woman says. The mints stay tucked in the crook of her armpit even when she waves Melanie out the door.
When she steps into the hallway, Nate is there, leaning against the wall, waiting.
“Have a good time?” he asks, grinning. “Make some friends?” He reaches over—slowly, as if she is a skittish horse—and lifts the purse from her hands. “I think it’s time to get out of here,” he says.
Melanie nods. “Yes.”
“Let’s go to the car,” he says, moving his hand to the small of her back. He leads her down the hallway, which seems longer now and darker. The light from the exit sign beats erratically, matching perfectly the cadence of desires in Melanie’s dark heart.
Wednesday, 10:48 PM
While Nate drives to Melanie’s hotel the radio plays quietly in the background. “Silver Springs” comes on, seeming like a sign, Stevie Nicks’ ragged voice howling You’ll never get away from the sound of the woman that loves you.
At the hotel, Nate puts himself in charge of Melanie’s bags and loiters near the elevators while she checks in. They ride to the fifteenth floor and say nothing. They haven’t said much since they left the bar. Nate made a few offhand comments about restaurants or galleries they passed, but other than that it was quiet.
“You still have time,” she says. He has her large suitcase in one hand and her carry-on slung over his shoulder. “To back out,” she says. The key registers and the door opens loudly, the lock sounding like teeth unclenching.
“I know,” Nate says.
While she shoves her suitcase in the closet, Nate fixes them a drink. He fills the ice bucket and pours the gin. From his pocket he produces a lime—boosted, probably, from the last bar.
They sit on the bed. The room is nice, expensive—she’d sprung for a suite, thinking an affair would be better suited to a large room.
Melanie sets aside her drink and curves her body toward his. He turns off the light, and comes down next to her. They are bathed in the beatific glow of the city, a light silver and forgiving.
“You’re sure?” she asks him. She doesn’t want to be presumptuous about his choice. Hers, she knows now, was made long ago. It feels ancient and heavy, something she’s been carrying since the moment he told her they could no longer be together. Her choice was always—will always be—yes. She can sense other choices, smarter choices, moving around the periphery of her brain, dragging their reasons—the wife, the girl, the disaster that is sure to follow—but how can they be expected to compete with the choice that will bring her back to where she’s longed to be?
Everything about them had, right from the start, felt fated. They met in line to get ID passes that allowed graduate students to stay in academic buildings long after undergraduates had been shooed elsewhere. They’d exchanged only hellos in that line, but then, over the course of the first month of school, they ran into each other everywhere: the bus stop, the coffee shop, the sculpture garden, the laundromat, the Ethiopian restaurant at the edge of town. Then one night they found themselves in line for the bathrooms at a damp, disintegrating townie bar that occasionally brought in good bands, and Nate stuck out his hand.
“This is getting ridiculous,” he said, and they shook. “How many people are at this school?” “Forty thousand,” she said.
“And here you are,” he said. “Again.”
When she came out of the bathroom moments later she found him waiting for her. He bought her a drink, and they spent the rest of the night huddled in a far corner, trying to be heard over the band. After last call, they were herded out, caught in the crush of the crowd, and Melanie lost sight of the friends she’d come with. Nate called a cab for her, but by the time it arrived she and Nate were hidden in the alley, pressed against the cool brick of the building. He kissed her in a way that made her feel savored, known. He bit her, catching her lower lip in his, but gently, and Melanie moved closer, memorizing the feel of him. Back on the street, the taxi beeped once then drove away, its lights washing through the alley, illuminating them, throwing languid shadows against the wall.
“This is exactly what I knew it would be like,” Nate said. He framed her face with his hands and pressed their foreheads together.
“Oh, you knew?” Melanie asked, teasing.
He smiled and kissed her, lightly, on the cheek. “Hoped,” he said. “Really, really hoped.”
From then on it was easy. Their relationship was insistent and steady, right up to the day Nate left. Afterward, Melanie’s friends badgered her. Weren’t there signs? Surely there were signs! He must’ve given some kind of indication. But he hadn’t. Melanie had a stack of dog-eared wedding magazines under her bed, and they’d recently spent an entire Sunday touring each jewelry store in town—his idea!—discussing payment plans and the virtues of asscher-cut over square.
But. That word—but!—so small and terrible. It invaded her life, became an echo, a litany in her head: He loved me. But. We were so happy. But. We made plans. But. Everything hinged on that one word.
Now she moves even closer, pressing her forehead into his. Up close, his eyes are remarkable, great pools of icy, Nordic blue, but it’s difficult, suddenly, to look at him. There’s so little left to say. In a moment, they will be kissing and it will be just like it always was, and the room will light with different colors— blue, red—as outside sirens wail down the avenue. And there will be another sound too, one only Melanie can hear, subtle, a different kind of wail. It will roll toward her across the prairie, gaining speed, gaining momentum—the sound of exquisite misery coming her way.
7 January, 2016
Jessica Smith grew up just outside of Buffalo, New York (which explains her eternal love for chicken wings and bleu cheese), and has lived and taught in Minnesota and Maine. She currently teaches writing and literature at Central Maine Community College and has had work published in Ruminate, The Louisville Review, Berkeley Fiction Review,The Portland Review, and Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place.
7 January, 2016
Sam: Male, 25-30 years old, African-American. Jill’s husband. He’s in the third year of a four year prison sentence.
Jill: Female, 25-30 year old, white, Sam’s wife. They have a seven year old son that she’s supported while waiting for Sam’s release. She’s a strong person, not a whiner or whimperer.
All the set really needs is a bed. Takes place in a small mobile home or trailer inside the prison yard. This trailer is used exclusively for conjugal visits. In the trailer are minimal, spartan furnishings, basically a bed and maybe the counter of a very minimal kitchen.
There is an exit to a bathroom.
Jill has visited Sam many times in prison, however, this is the first conjugal visit. A conjugal visit is an overnight visit by a prisoner’s husband or wife. These generally take place close to the end of prisoner’s sentence with the goal of providing a controlled/safe environment for the couples to get to know each other again. Also used to reward good behavior in prisoners. The play opens with two monologues, one by Sam, one by Jill. I see these pieces as being spoken in a sort of limbo. They are not audience address pieces but rather letters that might have been written and never sent. I picture Sam and Jill on opposite sides of the stage. Jill speaks first in a spotlight, then Sam. Whether the person who is not speaking should be doing something is left to the director. Sam might be smoking, Jill might be packing. The idea of these monologues is to reinforce the idea of their separation/isolation.
(Spotlight up on Jill)
I never take a book or magazine on the bus with me. I do it on purpose so that I spend that time thinking of you. It’s a good time to do it, think about you, gone. First thing in the morning on the way to work and then afterwards, going home. So I spend time each day with you, so you’re part of everyday. It’s a good place too, there on the bus, cause I won’t cry in front of all those people. And the week of our visit, I plan what I’m going to tell you. What Donny said, and how your Mom came over, and about painting the backporch. I make a list in my mind of all the outward things that make up our lives. That pass the days and nights, and weeks, and years.
I almost never cry anymore. I’ve gotten way better, but sometimes something will set me off. Like last last night I was laying in bed and it was real hot. I had the sheets off and was just laying there in the dark, listening to some talk show. They’re the best for putting you asleep. Anyway, they said something and it made me remember the first night we met and you came home with me. I was never like that, you know, and I thought, “Jesus, he’s gonna think I’m like that.” But we sat up in bed and it was hot, just like this, but I had all the covers pulled up cause I was nervous. And you talked, god you talked. You told stories all night. Just held my hand and told stories. I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. it was like you’d saved up everything you’d ever done just to tell me that night. And it wasn’t till the next morning that we did it. And I was glad, you know? That we waited till it was light cause I could see the way your skin looked against mine, black on white. Then I went into the bathroom and I remember my knees were shaking. I thought to myself, “I better sit down before I fall down.” And I cried just a little there on the toilet, just a little. Just like I did last night and like I’m doing now.
Anyway Donny came into my room, he must’ve heard me and you know, he’s real good about it. I mean he’s getting old enough to understand. It still scares him though, I mean to see his Mom crying like that. So I stop myself. I think of words that don’t mean anything. Unimportant words… like aluminum… or powdered sugar. Wool. It almost always works. Pepper. Lemon Pledge. And I picture each thing in my mind, I mean really concentrate on each thing for like five seconds. Sometimes it even makes me laugh, the different things look so damn ridiculous just sitting there in my mind. Casserole. Corned beef. And I think to myself…” I’m going down to the store for a squash… or a gourd. The only time it doesn’t work is when I think of how many unimportant… how goddamn many unimportant words have somehow got into my life since you’ve been away.
(Spotlight dims on Jill, then comes up on Sam)
Thing was big, man. I mean it was a big damn ship and I was all the way at the top. I remember’d coming up through the decks, all these stairs up. They was after me and I was runnin’ and now there was nowhere else to run to. I looked out the window and it was white everywhere, snow and ice. Flashin’ in the sun like off glass. Glitterin’ like some giant parkin’ lot covered busted glass. I haul ass out on to this balcony. And way down there, solid fuckin’ ice. Sheer white. I start panickin’ man, cause now I know what’s that’s comin’ after me. The ice-monster. He’s down there coming for me. I gotta get outta here. Someone comin’ up the metal stairs. Tryin’ to close it, somethin’ to block it up with. Then I see it’s you comin’ round the corner, up the stairs. “Honey, you’re here, we gonna make it out ok,” But you pointin’ back sayin’ there’s two men comin’, “gonna help us, gonna save us.” They two guards from the prison. I know they helpin’ the iceman. They got you fooled. I slam the door fore you get in. I slam it, tears streamin’ down my face. I lock you out Jill honey, cause they tricked you. You screamin’ at me. I run across to the other door. Wood splinterin’ behind me. He’s comin’. I can’t let him get me. I’m through the other door and slam it, smashin’ his ice hands and ice fingers, but it won’t close. I run to the rail of the balcony and he right behind me. I dive off and try to fly. I flap my arms but I’m fallin’. The solid ice comin’ up fast and it’s all on fire, white flames lickin’ across it. I’m gonna die. I know I’m gonna die, but then I realize, just before I hit, that it’s better. It’s better to die than let the ice monster get me. Way better. I think to myself, “I choose to die. I want to die than let the ice man get me.” Then I hit. I wake up and look at the springs, the stained mattress above me, dirty white sheets caught in the steel mesh, ripped. it’s still kind of dark and I lay there. I think bout that dream and look at the top bunk. Outline of the guy’s body pressin’ down through the foam and I remember last night a couple hard-timers slappin’ this new guy around. Hasslin’ him for some smokes. They don’t even want the cigarettes. Just want to break in the new punk, cause he been outside free while they been in here. They leave and I hear him cryin’ in the dark…and I was happy. Happy it ain’t me. Happy they just leave me alone.
I wake up from the dream and I know right away where I am. Used to be that I think I was still dreamin’ when I see that damn bunk over me and look over at a window got bars on it. I lay there thinkin’ if maybe that dream come part out of a book I read. Tryin’ to remember the last time I read a book. I’m layin’ there and I suddenly think about you and I remember what day it is. You comin’ here to the prison, to stay overnight. I close my eyes. It’s been so long. I been through so many changes now. It all seem like another dream.
(Spotlight dims on Sam. Sam, then Jill enters the trailer space as the lights come up. She is carrying her overnight bag and a bag containing food, gifts, etc.)
God Sam, is that really you?
(They move into each other’s arms and kiss.)
I mean is this real? We’re really here.
I’ll show you somethin’ real, you put this stuff down, sweetheart.
Jesus, I’ve missed you.
Ok, ok. Just hold on.
(She pushes him away and puts the bags on the counter. She surveys the room.)
So this is it? I mean the place we’re staying?
Yeah, not too damn bad, hunh? Lemme give you the grand tour.
(Sits on bed and pats it invitingly.) This is the bed.
(She walks around the bed, hesitant.)
I mean is there even a bathroom?
Damn girl, I give you the rest of the tour later. Come on over and at least say hello.
(Jill approaches bed and smiles.) Hello.
Come over here, lover.
(Sam pulls her into an embrace which quickly escalates to more than just a kiss and a hug.)
(Pushes him back a bit.) hold on a minute… wait.
Wait for what?
Just give me a minute. Least tell me how you are.
How am I?
I’m three years worth of horny for you girl. (He tries to pull her in again.)
No, come on… honey… Sam. Stop… come on…
You come on.
No, I mean, wait a minute. Ok?
Wait a minute.
What’s the matter with you? First time we been alone in a room for three years and you tellin’ me wait a damn minute.
I don’t know. It’s just that…
What? Just what?
I just want to… just give me a minute. Talk to me first.
I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Just hold me and talk for a minute. Ok?
(He holds her.)
I love you baby. I just missed you’s all.
I know. I love you too. I miss you so much.
Damn, I’ve missed you woman.
(She pulls away.)
I know, I know. I’m just nervous or something. I don’t know. It’s just not… I mean this isn’t how I pictured things. You know?
Ah, Jill honey.
(Reaches for her hand.)
I think that search just upset me.
What d’you mean? They do somethin’ to you?
No, no. I mean I knew I they was gonna search me and all but it was just so… dirty. The room was dirty and this woman smelled like… I don’t know… sour. And I thought, “Oh god.” And she pulled all my stuff out and held up the new nightie I got, like maybe she was thinking of buying it or something. Like it was merchandise, like I was merchandise at some cheap sale. Hold my arms out.
Spread my legs. Her fingers on me. Touching me. And then she said to get dressed and go into this little trailer out in the yard, all surrounded with barbwire. I thought it was just another waiting room and I came in and saw you but I wasn’t expecting you… and I… I… I don’t know. It was just so dirty.
Hey, it’s all right, honey. It’s ok. hey, I get searched everyday. It don’t mean nothin’.
I know, I know…
What’d you ‘spect? They gonna search you in a doctor’s office or somethin’?
No… I didn’t know.
Hey, come on now. It’s just us here now. Come on…come on over here. It’s my turn to search you.
Can I take a shower first?
You just got here.
I know. I just feel dirty, that’s all. And I want to take a quick shower. It’ll calm me down.
I don’t want you calmed down.
You know what I mean. Just get freshened up.
So I guess I make you feel dirty.
No! Come on Sam, please. It was just that woman and…
this place and I feel like… I just want to get clean, change my clothes. Start fresh. I know I’m being silly.
What’d you expect here? This is all we got babe.
I know, I know.
You know what they call this place, you wanna feel dirty? They call it Motel 69. Yeah. Motel 69.
(Not shouting, sad and bitter.)
They be after me all week, “Hey Sambo, you gonna get a little off your wife? Hunh? She able to swallow the whole thing?” Yeah, and I got to just take it cause I say one word and I’m down in the hole and you ain’t comin’. I got to lick ass for months to get here and now it makes you feel dirty.
“Hey Sambo, how come you got a white woman? You don’t like dark meat? She as good as everyone say she is Sambo?”
“Think she forgot how to do it or maybe she been practicin’ while you been inside. Maybe she got some new tricks she…”
I ain’t goin’ nowhere.
Go on. Take your damn shower.
SAM… please! Stop it.
Not for another year I ain’t going nowhere. Go ahead on, wash it all away.
Stop it!!! (Pause)
I’m sorry! I wanted everything to be perfect. I just want to be clean and put on my new things. Let’s just start over. Calm down. I’ll wash my face and it’ll be all right. Ok? Please?
Sure… like I say… I ain’t goin’ nowhere.
(She’s hurt, starts to say something but then just grabs her bag and goes toward the bathroom. He stops her.)
Just don’t be gone too long or I’ll come in to get you!
(He jumps at her and she slams the door. He lays down whistling. Then he gets up and listens at the bathroom door. He undoes his pants, opens the door and flashes her.)
(He laughs and backs out. Sam goes over to the bag of food and starts rummaging through. As he does he sings a little song to himself that he makes up as he goes along. The bluesy/ jazzy lyrics may go something like this “My baby does it in the morning, my baby does it at night, etc.” He dances and sings and sorts through the things in the bag, unwrapping things, tasting and smelling. Generally making a happy mess. He finds the dessert and takes a bite or two. Jill comes out dressed in robe and negligee. She is clean, calm, sexy… strikes a seductive pose…)
Well, what do you think?
(Sees Sam with mouthful of dessert and the general mess.)
Oh no, Sam!
Hey, this pretty good Mama. Almost tastes as good as you!
That’s supposed to be for dessert.
Darlin’ you my dessert and I’m gonna eat you all up.
Sam, come on, stop eating that.
So you’re hungry, you eat? You can’t wait for me? You can’t see I’ve got something special planned.
Hey come on now, a man’s hungry he got to eat.
I was gonna make you dinner. A nice dinner.
Shit, the way you actin’ I thought you just come to take a damn shower. I thought maybe the shower facilities at home busted or somethin’, so you thought you’d…
Stop it and stop eating that.
I’m not sposed to eat this?
Then what did you bring it for? Hunh girl? What in the hell did you bring it for?
(He drops the dessert on counter.)
Sam! What’s the matter with you?!
Me? Woman, what d’you think’s the matter with me?
What are you thinkin’ bout? We finally alone together after three years, I want to and it make you feel dirty, you gotta take a shower. I’m hungry but you say “no, you can’t eat.” What the hell’s the matter with you?
I don’t know! I’m just too nervous and it’s making me upset.
So now I make you feel nervous.
No! It’s not you. I’m just scared it’s not gonna work out. That everything’ll go wrong, and now it has. I just wanted… I just want tonight to be perfect. Just the two of us alone. Shut out everything else. Just us two. I guess I just imagined something different.
What? You think this was gonna be the Garden of Eden or somethin’? Cause it ain’t. You understand? This is prison baby. Inside! We lucky to have this!
No. I know it sounds dumb but I thought maybe we could act like, well… pretend we was at home. Like maybe we sent Donny over to your Mom’s and it was just us two having a nice quiet night at home. A normal evening at home. Like everybody else.
Hell, why not pretend we at the Hilton Hotel? Then we cold just call up the damn room service. “Bring us up some strawberry daiquiri and be damn quick about it.” That ok with you baby or maybe we can get some of them maitais, “Yeah, two double maitais and don’t forget the umbrellas.”
I… just… wanted… to give you one night… at… home. The way it’s sposed to be, should be. Just for one night to act
like we was at home together. Just one night. That’s all I wanted. That’s all.
You talkin’ crazy woman.
I don’t care if it is crazy. It’s better than being in prison. Isn’t it? What’s wrong with just wanting to feel like you’re at home for one night. I mean you aren’t getting out for another year. For now this is all we got. If that’s crazy I say fine, so what. You just sit there and I’ll cook dinner and we can talk… or you can read the paper. I brought you the sports.
Read the paper.
You just sit and relax while I get dinner ready. Stay there, ok?
For me please? It’s all I’ve asked for in all this time. You just do it.
Ok, ok… crazy bullshit though. Ok.
I got us a nice big porterhouse steak. You should’a seen the look on the man’s face when I asked for it. I mean, like I was the first person in ten years to order one. He got real excited and started telling me all about how porterhouses was the best cut and you could tell people that knew good meat and stuff like that. I made his day.
Yeah… and you know what’s wild? I didn’t even know what one was. It just came into my head while I was standing there. Just a word. I wanted something special for you and it just came out of my mouth. Porterhouse. And then he gave me this. I mean look at it. It’s huge.
And then you know when I got home I was in the kitchen talking to Donny. Oh Sam, you should’a heard him. he wanted to come along with me. To stay here overnight with you. He couldn’t understand how come he couldn’t come and I was trying to explain, but I mean he’s only seven and well I couldn’t tell him that we was gonna be, well you know. Anyway, it was kinda sweet and funny.
You bring that picture of him?
Yeah! I had it blown up. (Gets picture out.)
Don’t he look cute. With his little bat and all.
Darlin’ he look just fine.
Oh yeah. Anyway, what I started to tell you was that while I was talking to him, our neighbor, old Mrs. Holstein?
You know, that really big woman that lives next door? I told you. TV addict. Anyway she comes running out her back door chasing her dog. And you should see this dog, it’s like a little swelled up sausage itself. It’s got one of her slippers and she’s chasing it in her housecoat and curlers and wearing the other slipper, and she’s going (country accent) “Candy Cane! You bring Mama’s slipper back you hear me? You bring Mama’s slipper right back here.” Can you believe it? The dog’s name? Candy Cane. I swear me and Donny bout had a fit.
(Flat) Candy Cane.
It about killed us.
All right. How bout bringin’ me a nice, cold Colt 45 out the fridge.
Come on Sam, please?
Oh, I thought this was sposed to be like home.
Yeah, well then bring me a cold beer and turn on the stereo. I think I just listen to some relaxin’ music, or maybe we can catch somethin’ on the TV. How bout that?
Why are you doing this?
Cause this ain’t our fuckin’ home. You understand that? You standin’ there tellin’ me bout things that don’t make any sense. Porterhouse. And I sure don’t know anythin’ bout your damn fat ass neighbor. I never even lived in that house. You keep talkin’ bout things that I don’t know nothin’ about. And I ain’t gonna pretend that this shithole is our home. So don’t talk like it is.
Well, you tell me something then. I don’t care. I just want to talk to you. You never tell me anything about your life here. We gotta talk Sam. We got to. We don’t got anything else left.
My life here? You don’t even want to know. You wouldn’t believe it, cause it’s real. i feel like I was walkin’ round with my eyes closed till I got here. I thought life was somethin’ good till I got here. It ain’t. Life ain’t no pretend Candy Cane bullshit! It’s black and white and this place here, this is the black. It’s so black, you can’t remember that there is anythin’ else.
You want to hear bout my life? I’ll tell you. How bout a couple weeks ago there was this white boy, worked in the kitchen with me. He an all right kid and he bout to parole. Anyway, there these three brothers and drinkin’ some homebrew and gettin’ fucked up. They gettin’ drunk and mean thinkin’ how they in the joint and this here white punk gettin’ out. You know, and they get pissed off, gonna give the boy somethin’ to remember, for when he get out. They come and haul his ass out of the bunk and the boy start yellin’. So they stuff his head in an old laundry bag and tie it shut, start beatin’ him. He still making noise so they drag him down to the toilets. And these are brothers I talk to everyday. I mean I know these dudes and I know this kid and I couldn’t say nothin’. I just lay there. I mean it, I just lay there and never said a damn word. They shove this guy down in one of the stalls, start rapin’ him and you could hear his head thumpin’ into the toilet bowl. They bend him over so that every time they ram it in, his head get crammed into the toilet. You could hear that thud every time they shove it in. Wham, wham, wham, and every time he struggle, they kick him down.
(Jill starts to get up and come to Sam.)
No!… just sit. After while all you heard is that head thuddin’. After they all finished with him, they come back through the room laughin’, get in bed, go to sleep. An’ I just lay there awake, searing to god I’d get those fuckin’ bastards. Do somethin’. Next mornin’ no one got outta bed, we all just lay there till the guards come in and find that boy still wrapped over that toilet bowl, red blood all soaked through that bag. And he dead. Suffocated in that bag. Then the guards start carryin’ him out and one of them guards slip on the blood that’s all over the floor and fell on his ass. I remember that place was dead silence, nothin’ moved, nothin’. And then this guard explode, ripping up beds and shit and screamin’ that we was all fuckin’ animals, over and over. Finally he run out and the other guards carry the body out and say we better have the whole fuckin’ place spotless by the time they get back. I never seen people clean like that in my whole life. I scrub that floor till my hands bleedin’ and I feel like I’m gonna cry any second. Me! And I keep tellin’ myself “you motherfucker, you fuckin’ chickenshit, coward-ass motherfucker.” I scrubbin’ up this kid’s blood cause I ain’t got the guts to help him. I ain’t man enough to help him. I ain’t human being enough to help him.
What could you do? They would’ve…
Standin’ on my head pissin’ my pants been better than what I done. I done nothin’ cause that’s what I’ve become, nothin’. Nothin’ but a fuckin’ animal.
You’re not an animal. Nobody can say that!
Society say I’m an animal! That’s why I’m locked in this fuckin’ cage! And they right!
I say you’re not!
Oh yes, they right.
Listen to me…
Yes, you will. Listen! You’re not some animal. You’re my husband. You’re Donny’s father. That boy!
(Points to picture.)
That boy right there! You think that’s what he wants to hear you say after all the faith he puts in you? You’re the man we love and need. We love you so much it hurts! Don’t you understand that?
That’s all I do is hurt you.
You stop it. You hear me. Stop. You listen to me. (Tries to force her way into his arms.)
I wanted to do things for you so bad, give you things.
I wanted to give you so much and…
I need you.
Stead you got no one to take care of you.
I just want you.
I wanna do things for you, but I’m stuck here. I can’t get out.
Then do something here.
Yes, you can! Listen to me…
I can’t. I’m ashamed.
Just love me and hold me.
(She forces herself into his arms.)
I’ll hold you baby. I’ll hold you.
7 January, 2016
Tom Coash is a New Haven, Ct. playwright and director. Prior to New Haven, he taught playwriting at The American University in Cairo, Egypt. Coash has won numerous playwriting awards, and his plays have been produced worldwide. His new full-length play VEILS is the Winner of the 2015 M. Elizabeth Osborn Award from the American Theatre Critics Association, Winner of the Clauder Competition for New England Playwrights, and the recipient of an Edgerton Foundation National New Play Award. Many of his plays are available online at: www.indietheaternow.com
7 January, 2016
We had never been inside such a place. We didn’t know why the owner was so angry. He yelled at our buddy Rob to stop filming. Rob slid the VHS recorder off his shoulder, swinging the bulky video camera like a lunch box, and stepped outside. He shot different footage. Once we left this city, we were headed southwest to Memphis, and then on to New Orleans. We wanted to drink as many Hurricanes as we could.
The owner smiled at us now through his speckled beard.
“The rest of you can look around.”
It was our cue to begin moving through the aisles. We looked back. Behind the counter, a warped pegboard wall was lined with packaged dildos. They ranged in size from the small, “C” battery-shaped to the long, curved swords with grip handles. It was so democratic, we thought, how all the colors of flesh were represented.
The owner held up his pinkie finger and twirled the air.
Part-carnival barker, part-shaman, the man kept saying, “Look around, boys, look around.” The store was a hypnotic swirl that closed in on us like a confessional. Rob stood outside, nodding at strangers who passed on the sidewalk. We kept scanning the shelves. We were discovering new things: bright red plastic ball gags with black leather straps and silver fasteners; a squat, brown rubber butt plug the shape of which was a cross between a dog’s chew toy of a cartoon fire hydrant and a fake spiral of poop.
A young woman’s voice clipped from within the frayed beige cloth of the one wall-mounted speaker. She was probably our age, though in that moment, she sounded younger, with her Tennessean accent. She was a point on a map, an attraction to see and register, like Graceland.
“Hey, boys,” she said, “why don’t you come back here?”
Gone from our minds were the dildos and the ball gags. Our heads swiveled in unison. There was a slender entrance by the store’s far corner. Rust-colored gingham curtains, long like a librarian’s skirt, draped from a shower rod wedged in the doorway.
“Hey, boys,” the lilt came again, but the rest was lost in static.
It was the static that lured us.
We brushed aside the curtains and to find a wall of Plexiglas. Behind this wall a figure sat with splayed toes on the top rung of a long-legged stool. She was younger than we initially thought. Maybe nineteen. We decided she was ordinary, as if that could be an actual thing.
We were naïve and cruel.
We expected someone different, someone more like the actress Julie Newmar from our boyhood afternoons of watching episodes of Batman. We could even imagine her suddenly appearing, lithe in her curvy, purple latex bodysuit, the triangular feline ears lost in a sensuous fluff of styled hair.
(Years later, in graduate school, I would read the poem “Oaxaca, 1983,” by the late Larry Levis, and I would find these lines:
Two small holes drilled through the glass by which men can
money through, &
I would let the words twirl inside my head like the bearded owner’s pinkie, his caterpillar-sized digit scraping at something invisible, a film formed over the memory of the store and the girl in the backroom.
There were holes drilled into the Plexiglas, just as there are holes in the wall of the Levis poem. In each space, the circumference is enough to cradle a nipple.)
In New Orleans, we heard a man call to us. He was standing at the end of an alley, his pants gathered around his ankles. The way they had fallen formed a small boundary from which he emerged.
“You want some of this?” the man yelled, grabbing at his dick.
Behind the counter, someone pushes on a button. The button sends a signal to the backroom, where a bulb flashes and a young woman starts reading from a prepared script, whispering the words into the microphone.
Why don’t you come back here?
We walk through the aisles that vanish like strangers on a sidewalk.
We reach for the curtains.
If we had wanted, we could have gone over to the glass and felt for the holes. The wall was just a boundary that kept us from going any further. Then it disappeared.