TITLE: Old, Sweet Song
By Karen Boyd
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Bottles of Ink, or Dotted Yellow Line
Distraction is a slothful vice, and she knows it. But the stories don’t come like they used to. A year ago, when she was eager and vastly younger, the ideas cascaded, colorful and fantastic. They rushed from the air, through her mind, into the pages. Those pages. There they joined and mixed with incredible pictures in a big startling splash that soaked people. Tabloids.
She brings home the dwindling checks to fund her big dreams: her personal writing. Now even her affinity for that is fading. The passion is there, leaping in flames, but the fire is slowly shifting in hue; it’s changing color from love to hate.
The last car of a trolley ensnares her eyes: a loud, fast red. Her gaze races to catch up to the car in front, but instead trails behind the back windows before it absconds with its blessed passengers to the other side of town. She slouches until her head rests in her hand, and wishes violently to be atop such swiftly rolling wheels: to be merely moving. To sit simply, to be taken, covering ground, feeling wheels turning. Leaving and coming while staying. She dreads typing the next letter, she dreams of motion and being thoughtless. Empty plans, shedding traffic laws, resting.
She wants to sit and watch as the world runs laps around her and to finally, when she’s ready, get up and walk as the doors open to her a different world. Another place that cares about her presence, that applauds for her as she descends. She wants to race the sun through its time zones until she can walk on earth: natural earth that has been blessed with the change of each season. But she knows that the trolley only goes as far east as Santee, and that it will turn back on itself and abandon her there. From there she can walk and starve or climb in a car. Her car with its rules and stop signs, speed limits and carefully etched lanes. That car can’t take her anywhere that isn’t here.
“Sunny San Diego,” this broken record world. Somehow the natives share an understanding that these infinite sun rays raise them all to the most desired position, and that others’ envy of the makes them cosmically elevated; their rewards in heaven will be greater; they’ll reach nirvana quicker, the gods, mother nature, or this ambiguous, worshipped universe favor them above all.
She wandered into this California story. Maybe she hadn’t. Maybe a man had taken her hand and walked with her quietly into it. He was worth it; its just kind of strange now, its astonishing that there is life here. This was always a world that existed only in magazines and movies; fabricated for the glossy pages and glittering frames so that the world would have something to envy. Woven together from images and ideas, stereotypes and ideals by computers. Relaxed and so sculpted. Palm trees lean in, planted just so, framing the sunset. But it’s here, all of it. And she can’t hate it more.
“Georgia!” Her boss barks. Virginia looks up.
“Here’s your copy of your story I fixed. Lacks something. Dunno what.” He moves on while Virginia watches two of her coworkers. They are trying to date quietly in an office full of hungry lions whose jobs depend on gossip. The man suddenly changes the direction he swings his hand as he walks, trying to engineer it so he can slide his hand into hers. He’s tried this trick already today. She puts her hand in her pocket. They walk out of sight, and Virginia lifts her eyes to her boss, who is still talking.
“So I told him you’d do a piece on it. Here’s that list. And Georgia?” She takes the crumpled paper ball from him and looks up again. “I know times are rough for you, but don’t forget that quality is important here. We don’t want the big guy to think you’re losing your touch.” He winks. They exchange goodbyes and Virginia winces inside at the plastic smile commerce. She sits at her desk playing solitaire and musing about her precarious employment.
Long ago she’d seen Georgia’s name in bold letters, crowning headlining stories. Georgia was a shining example. Georgia had plaques on the wall. Supervisors loved her and her peers envied her. Virginia sighs as she scans the office: without demoting her, they created positions above hers and filled them with people who once admired her. She laughs at Georgia quietly, seeing her lost in a vast forest of these arbitrary job titles, both surrounded and controlled by them.
And he had been right: times were tough for her. Neither had she told him, nor had that silence mattered. She recognizes the thirst for gossip in him: the mutated thirst that drips slowly on every employee from their first day until it saturates their habits. The clock on her Mac reads 5:15. She sits for 15 minutes with a huge metal hammer, laughing and beating each thought that wanders through her mind into bits and oozing fragments.
Then she leaves, and the elevator door greets her. It tears itself down its center to receive her. She sits down in the corner of the elevator and throws pens and wads of paper at the buttons until one particularly heavy fountain pen pushes one in. That one usually wins this game, but it’s only fair to give the others a chance. She gathers her things until the door divides itself again to permit her exit. I watch and laugh at her intent expression as she rolls from the enclosure of the elevator.
“Hey, Queen G, need some help there?” I ask.
“Never do,” she smiles, “Need a raise?” Placing her hands on the tile beneath her and jumping a bit to get her feet underneath her, she almost straightens her knees and dusts off her skirt. Her toes stick awkwardly toward each other, and she takes off the one heeled shoe that she didn’t lose in the ordeal. She straightens up and walks to the door. I open it for her and we laugh our goodbyes as she hails a cab.
She can’t put the pen to the paper again. She is unwilling to push it along in its stumbling journey to the red margin line, only to see it expelled again--sent back to the starting line: lethargic, fruitless practice laps. Horizontal blue stripes are insurmountable obstacles, each requiring bigger pieces of her. The blue lines and their blood lust are part of her, and they call to her through the walls.
Hundreds of books paint her walls with the incomparable royal shades of the classics. Each one mocks her, and she has ripped each into its innumerable pieces. Over and over again she searches out their secrets. They sit flaunting the talent of geniuses, old and dead. Each one preaches a testimony of the glaring lack in her.
Every night she opens her notebooks, entranced by the scrawling black blood saturating each line. Jealousy over comes: envy of these victorious lines. Relentless, they continue. But then, the blank ones come. They ask only life from her. The compositions build a wall. The bricks stare at her: half taunting, half pleading. Irresistible. Each time she closes a back cover a miscreant eye alights on a begging book. Every passing day, one silver razor looks increasingly more appealing than thirty-three blue.
No words come. Her book sits; her pen stands, and her words remain in lofty dances. She lifts her hand and brings it downward slowly, threatening it with oncoming paper and tricking herself into following the natural processes, hoping to coax a word down to her paper. The pen hits and lets a little ink onto the page. One point. She tries again, and earns another dot. Again. Again. Frustration falls upon her, a light dusting of snow. Her paper is spotted, freckled, sown. Drifts emerge along the sides of her resistance and she throws her pen against the wall. She stares at the constellations of black on white.
The door opens and a man enters. The book she holds buckles and claps its covers together. She throws it at the opposite wall among its brethren, in doing so stopping the blizzard.
“Hey, you,” he smiles and walks toward her. She doesn’t respond and instead tries hastily to set the sun where it belongs. “Oh, I see,” he says, turning around and putting his coat away. He heads toward the kitchen, humming. Virginia knows the words, and they follow her thoughts as they scurry around. So leave Virginia alone, Leave Virginia alone, she’s not like you and me...
“Would you quit it with that song?” Her tears testify against her indignant eyes. He turns on his heel and steps forward to see her.
“What?” He cups his hand to his ear and keeps humming. He dances toward the CD rack. She takes a deep breath. He swings “Spanner in the Works” into the slot humming louder. He presses play and selects a track. Now Rod Stewart sings along with him.
“She’s not like you...and me...” He walks slowly towards her, and she glares at him. He bows when he reaches her and offers his hand. When she doesn’t take it, he jumps around suddenly and turns off the CD player. He grabs a vinyl album and throws it on the turntable. Dropping the needle, he sings along.
“Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through. An’ just and old, sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind.”
She closes her eyes and hurls a pen in his direction. It glances off the metal leg of the cheap entertainment center and slides silently on the carpet. It’s impotent but for its intent.
“Georgia, Georgia, a song of you comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines.”
She lets him go on for a while before she stands.
“What? Willie Nelson doesn’t do it for ya either? Y’always were kinda picky.”
She’s on her feet now, and he leaves Willie to sing solo. Still in peaceful dreams I see, the road leads back to you. Georgia, Georgia, No peace I find. He goes on as the two face each other, circling as boxers in the ring.
Both songs have beckoned her childhood, and a younger ghost of herself takes intangible wrenches to her mind, tightening her face in turn with each line.
“Why do you tell them that you’re Georgia?” He needn’t ask. She hisses in reply. He goes on, “You don’t have to be her! Virginia, you are good enough.”
“What’s your problem? All you ever do is attack me!”
“I didn’t do anything, Ice Queen! I just walk in here and you give me this look like the next time you want to see me is in a casket! I just spent 8 hours slaving away at work, and I come home to this.” His face twists into a hyperbole of hers.
“Right, like you’re the only one who works around here? I just got home, too! You think you’re the big man, bringing home the bacon. Well, I earn my keep!”
“Oh, that’s right, I forgot. You sit in a cubicle all day writing, just like you do at home. That’s not work, Virginia, that’s a joke!”
“Yeah. I might not make a lot, but what I do is for the good of people. I help others, and they know me for what I do. The closest you ever got to prestige was the front page of the tabloids. ” They stand there, staring, while Willie Launches cheerfully into “Uncloudy Day.” Virginia puts two hands on top of the entertainment center and pulls it to the ground.
The resulting cacophony is sudden and short. All at once, the TV screen is shattered; the DVD player has lodged its corner into the top of the CD player; the cable box has spilled its guts into the record player. It all lies across the carpet.
“Fuck you. You and your stupid job, and your haughty looks, and your shiny shoes, and your nice coat, and your damn bottles of ink.”
Virginia grabs “Spanner in the works through the broken plastic of the CD player and hurls it against the wall. Grabbing Willie Nelson’s record, holding it tightly to her chest, and running to her bed, she doesn’t see the CD sitting unbroken on the carpet.
Dawn’s emerging sun slashes with narrow knives through her midnight. Her dreams rip through their own seams, and she is left alone cursing the sun and the half closed blinds. Memory invades and she turns over, allowing the sun to stab her in the back. After a half hour of stubborn rest, she wrestles weighty eyelids.
Her toes are pioneers of the icy morning air. Despite her unwillingness, a militant commander shouts mandates to her stiff limbs. Shoved out of bed by desires to forgive and make amends, she marches to the living room. A quick survey of the area reveals no one. No one? The room holds its breath like one visited by a burglar.
Her furniture is all in place, the kitchen is in order, and the pictures on the walls are straight. But his closet is empty, his CDs are gone, there are gaps like missing teeth where his movies should be. Timidly, she turns back to the door she had come from. Opening the top dresser drawer, she looks through the contents. His knife, his class ring, his money, and his bottles of ink: all gone.
She runs back through the door and stares at the wall. Last night’s mess is clean: broken plastic, metal cage, unseemly fury all gone. In their place, three things stand in a perfect line. The pen. The CD. A note.
I Love You. Virginia, Hot as Georgia asphalt. Do you listen? Nothing wrong with you, nothing wrong with Virginia. You want her more than money: Cadillacs can rust, Diamonds and dust. You were more than I could handle, always.
A Vagrant Angel cries. Sitting at the bus stop, sobs strangle her. Tangled, indecisive hair lies simply on thin shoulders. Greasy, dirty strands catch inside dented silver hoop earrings. Now strangely shaped, the metal catches the sunlight and throws it angrily back at us as we wash past her. I pause behind the glass bus stop cage, watching her under the cover of her blind focus. Her attention is so incarcerated by her thoughts that the bus, after waiting a few lonely moments, folds in its doors. The mechanical aspects of the bus protest loudly as the driver urges it to a slow roll, coaxing it to the next stop.
The vagabond sits. Still I stare, perplexed. Her tears do not slow. Instead, her frame starts to shake, trembling with the effort of restraint. Soon her cries become vocal and elicit glances that leap from the mass of pedestrians. Her hands strain the pockets she has thrust them in. My curiosity is irrepressibly evoked. Drawn, I walk around the glass shell and sit in the center. She slams herself against the glass.
Pressing herself against it harder with each of her ebbing sobs, she drops a small black parcel. Its no more than a couple inches square, tied with black twine. It looks like it may have been everywhere she had: the paper corners are crushed, dirty smudges and spots cover its surface. It is evident that she had been clutching it until it fell, tears like polka dots and intricate fingerprints wrap it. She gives no indication that she notices its absence. And it strikes me as something holding her world’s worth of importance.
A strange fear wraps its bony fingers around my wrists chains them to my sides. I cannot explain myself: compassion and terror are so finely braided. My vision falls on the shoes. As the people, uniform water in a black pinstriped river, walk by our haven, their shoes parade by as well. So many freshly shined, perfectly tied couples take enormously threatening steps. So close to the small square runaway: I can’t let it be.
I am reaching. Two fingers, one on each side, move it carefully to my other hand. Offering it to her, I feel like a fool: She doesn’t see my outstretched hand. I tap her twice on the shoulder: staccato. She turns to me, growling, with the eyes of a ferocious dog. She screams. Shoes halt. The river stops and washes back on itself, as if suddenly dammed. Her face absorbs an animated expression: The edges of her eyebrows arch up high until their centers, and as they meet they race down in a radical curve. The eyes, shaded beneath them, are venomous. She keeps screaming. Her cries go on for an unnaturally long time, especially after such crying. She slowly turns to the fascinated crowd. Finally taking a hasty breath, she forms words around her screams that motivate great movement in the crowds. She turns back to me and all the violence has flown from her countenance. She speaks with fluidity.
“You’ve got to open it now,” she informs me. “Yes. Unfold it.” I finally look at it; my hand is still offering it to her. I bring it back to myself and look to her again. She assures me with a tiny nod, but she has an expression I cannot recognize. Her eyes are glassy and red, her shirt is covered in teardrops and dark stains, her breathing is heavy.
I pinch one end of the cord, anxiety leaping through my fingertips. The bow slips out and I unfold the paper. She begins to laugh. Working her way to hysterics, tears coalesce in the corners of her eyes. Worrying that the tears may usher renewed sobs, I delicately hurry. After a few layers of paper, the prize slides into my hand.
A necklace. An impossibly thin gold chain makes a pile crowned by its pendant: a class ring. Bulky and masculine, it contrasts rudely with the graceful chain. I slowly pour it into my other hand. Before the ring falls, the chain drips steadily into my palm; dark flecks interrupt the purity of the gold. I look to her in question, clinging tightly to the silence I’d held since I noticed her.
She removes her hands from her pockets and I quickly set the black wrappings on the bench beside me, I drop the pendant on it and let the necklace slither after it.
She swings it around her neck with quick hands that abscond after fastening the clasp. The ring rolls down her collarbone. Fiercely, she covers the pendant with her whole hand.
“I thought I’d lost it.” She quietly declared.
A lonely drop draws a dark, strong line from her hand. It lands on her neckline, soaking a small patch of her shirt in a nearly black blue.
She looks across the street to a building. Her hand flutters up like a school child’s. Slowly, she gets to her feet. Gaping, I sit. She just less than chants as she turns to me.
“Need some help there?” She kisses me on the forehead.
Turning, she is heavenly again, walking toward the building. I stand. She takes each step toe first, and the river parts for her. I follow, drowning as it resumes its flow behind her. She steps down from the curb and the doors of the building fly open and hit the walls with their handles. Loud.
A man rushes out and meets the angel in the center. On the dotted yellow line. He holds a bottle of ink in his hands. They baptize each other. Joining hands. Finally, slowly, sobbing, she follows his lead in a waltz following the dotted yellow line. As they dance out of my sight, I can hear a wailing, stilted melody.
“Leave Virginia alone…”
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