I’m a native Kentuckian currently riding out a purgatorial existence in the arctic Midwestern abyss. I catch glimpses of the bluegrass sometimes, when the sun is exceptionally blinding and making a rare appearance. I can still feel the cool Nolin River on my feet when I slip out of my snow-soaked boots. When I sink the shovel into the mounds of winter-refuse I can still–sometimes–imagine I’m actually just raking the burning leaves of my parents’ backyard trees.
I finished and acted like I was tuning. The guitar was tuned; it’s always in tune.
When I turned around, you were humming something else. Had been the entire time. You drank from the bottle–a full pull–cheeks puffing out like some drunken squirrel.
I let the G trail off until the feedback picked it up. A black crow swirling higher and higher until I flipped off the amp and let the guitar clang down onto the floor. At this point in the thing, I never care anymore.
I stood and watched you. You, oblivious, kept humming and drinking, humming and drinking. I tried to pick out the song but, although very familiar, couldn’t.
I tramped upstairs, opened the fridge, got a beer. I drained it then got another. After the third– maybe fourth–with you humming all the while, the song came to me: a Ramones song, “Danny Says.”
Myrtle Beach: 1997. Holding hands. A dream though it happened. Memories like dreams; creeping in without any conscious will or design. You were softly singing “Danny Says” and I joined in the chorus. I always messed up the verses.
Just back from the pier and the ice cream place. Walked by all the little souvenir kiosks and junk traps. Holding hands through it all. Our first vacation together. Just us.
God, I hope it was real.
I waited, swaying with blooming dizziness, for the chorus and screamed it down the stairs to you: toneless, heartless, defeated. You stopped humming. No sound from the basement.
I waited a few seconds then stomped out into the backyard. The night was crisp but somehow a still dampness hung there. I had to continually wipe it off my glasses. Lights from downtown, downhill, smeared with the moisture on my lenses until it looked like some childish Monet or finger-paint job. Finally, I stopped trying and let the colors run in the night.
Your hand eased onto my shoulder. I jumped, cussed, flung my glasses off and wiped my face with my shirt. I looked up and you had the saddest smile on your face. A pitiful thing. A pitying thing.
Your mouth moved but I couldn’t hear the words.
My mouth flapped and I couldn’t catch those either.
I dropped to my knees but your hand stayed. I couldn’t stop myself. I wept.
Eventually, I felt your lips on the crown of my head and you were gone.
I went back inside–when I could stand–but you weren’t there. You never are anymore. I went back to the fridge and drank what was in there, all of it, pacing through the house like you’d magically appear if I kept moving.
I took the bottle of bourbon to the backyard. Left the door standing wide open. I hopped the rusty, chainlink fence–bottle under my arm–and started down the hill. It’s not a far walk but in the dream centuries pass and I always get tripped up and fall in the mud. Always the mud.
There’s still tears despite the drunkeness.
“Oho-ho-ho, we got nowhere to go and it, it may sound funny, but it’s true.”
We came to the kids playing with the starfish some miles on; tossing it back and forth like it was just another trinket–easily gained, easily lost–in that junktown.
I was looking at the waves but you saw and let my hand drop.
“Hey,” you said, “what’re you doing? Give it.”
Your voice was soft but arresting. They stopped, their smiles disappeared. The little redhead hesitatingly held the thing out to you.
“Find something else to play with,” you told them. “This’s still alive. You’re killing it.”
They hissed and groaned but moved back towards the little motel up the shore, toys and drunken parents waiting.
“C’mon, Liz,” I said. “They’re just having some fun.”
You thrust the starfish into my chest and I took it in my hands. The little tentacles’ flailings slowed, seemed more pained; every bit the fish out of water.
“They didn’t mean any harm. Probably didn’t know it was living.”
You slung off your blouse, the sun catching the grains of salt and sand there, then ripped the thing from my hands and strode out into the Atlantic.
I found the sidewalk, turned the bottle up and didn’t make a face. I never do.
Nobody was out but one unlit taxi.
“Thinkin’ about you and me and you and me.”
I stumbled on the curb but didn’t fall. I never fall but in the mud.