This week’s story comes from Nebraska via Kansas, or possibly the other way around. It’s set in Houston though. Because Texas.
Shades | Steven Werkmeister
“You and Jerry smoking up on the roof again, weren’t you?”
My guess is that seven minutes and twenty-nine seconds separate the end of his question — the nanosecond his voice hits that trochaic question mark — to this moment, when I’m ready to answer. I base that guess on the fact that I’ve forgotten and remembered the question twice; I have formulated and reformulated answers in both the positive and negative; I have contemplated a long silence, as if I hadn’t heard the question or noted his existence; and I have dreamt many a wondrous dream. And I remembered the name of Iron Maiden’s bassist, though I can’t remember why I was trying (Steve Harris). The thing is, I’m a terrible guesser, so I’m not surprised when I take a surreptitious glance back at my watch and discover it’s only been like eleven seconds. At least I think eleven seconds. I think, just don’t know. Another VU. No, same old. Just a shade long enough for the question to be moot and the answer unnecessary. Story of my life. At least I hope it’s surreptitious.
So, eleven seconds later: “No. Not really. Just a couple hits. I’m alright.”
“I can’t keep covering for y’all. You’re fixin’ to get caught one of these days, and then I’m going to have to lie and say I didn’t know about it.” I don’t say anything. I’m not so stoned I don’t know he’s right. “Get your stuff and go over to the school annex and stay out of sight. I’ll clock you out when Andrew gets here, so leave your radio on the table in the dead girl’s studio. I’m staying to help pack up the space, so I can get it then. This is the last time, though, serious as shit.”
I head downstairs, nod to Mr Pete nodding off at his station, leave the museum and cut across campus to the school. A man without distinction—no age but old, no weight but thin, seemingly wrung of color—rides slowly by on a bike made unsure by the hanging plastic grocery bags full of last night’s bottles and cans. The morning has set in to that point where the shadows take on gray weight. Soon the Houston sky will be the color of a cigarette someone’s forgotten to ash. In the sculpture garden, a raccoon scoots its belly past the Rodin, full of night’s secrets.
I hate “weren’t you” questions, always have. I detest the idea that it’s not enough that the questioner already knows and you know he knows, etc. Cedric’s a great guy, keeps the ducks in a row, so to speak, but he has this bizarre need to force you to be an accomplice to your own fuck-ups. He has to rub your face in the idea that you helped him to the knowledge of your guilt, so your punishment looks like a reasonable response you both colluded on. You can’t put up much of a defense when you’ve been drafted to serve with the prosecuting team.
When I get to the school, I let myself in and disarm the alarm. I get to the second floor where the grad school residents have their studios, walk down the hall and get to her door. Her door, not Simone’s, not Jared’s, not Ysrael’s. Everything is still there—her name plate, an index card with her hours in purple Sharpie, the photograph of Susan Sontag she razor-cut from a magazine, the odd close-ups of chain-link fences and such. I put my hand on the doorknob, but I can’t go in. Not yet. It’s just an empty gesture, something I learned from the movies. I sit in the orange plastic chair next to her door, my back against her wall, dully staring out the bank of windows as the sculpture garden comes to life. When I get Cedric’s call, I’ll open the door just enough to slip the radio on her desk. Cedric’s not supposed to know about us but he does. This is my punishment, making me sit here. I’m stoned, but I’m not stupid.
I’m skirting the St. Thomas campus on the way home when I see Sharif sitting on a bench, pantyhosed feet on the dirty pavement and red heels flopped down next to him. “Hold on there, baby. I’ll walk with you.”
I wait as he squeezes himself back into his heels and primps his clothes—you never know, even this early in the morning. I admire that about Sharif—always prepared and always on the lookout. A horny professor, a bored textbook rep, another few dollars for rent or food or dope or whatever it is Shar-dine spends his money on. Probably make-up and clothes. It’s the American way, the circling flush of our economic life. Spend all your money on things you need to make more money.
“You’re out late.”
“It was a busy night last night, baby. A fraternity needed a few working girls. Their fathers would piss a blue egg if they knew what their sons were spending their money on.”
We walk on. The first time I met Sharif, I thought he was going to rob me. I had started working the overnight shift, and I had to be at the museum at midnight on Fridays. I wanted to stay out of trouble, so I figured I’d spend my Friday nights doing laundry. The first night, this youngish looking black kid comes walking in with a backpack. From the corner table near the bathroom, he keeps throwing over these glances, sizing me up. The washers are just hitting the final spin cycle, and I’m reading Dostoyevsky, probably The Idiot or something, but I’m cautious enough to glance over from time to time. He finally starts pulling stuff from his bag, and I’m taking stock of the exits, waiting for a gun or a knife or something. He starts fumbling around, and I realize he has a make-up mirror. He plugs it into the wall, gives me a last glance, and steps into the bathroom with his bag. Comes out dressed like a girl. “How you like me now, baby?” I just laugh. He sits down like my mom to put on his face and a blonde Tina Turner wig.
That was a few years ago. Three? Four? Now we’re just walking.
“I heard about your girlfriend.”
“She wasn’t my girlfriend.”
“Well, hell, whatever she was, I knew y’all was close. I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I lost people close to me, too, especially these past few years. I know you’re hurting.”
“I just want to sleep, you know? It’s been a rough couple nights. I hear you, though. Thanks, Shar.”
“Horrible how they left her. I don’t know what’s wrong with people. Jesus, when I go I hope nobody does me that way.”
“Yeah. I’m not sure…I don’t know. Whatever, I guess. I know where you’re coming from.” We’re getting close to my apartment. The palm-tree fronds against the early morning sky, like shards of the moon. A moon for the fringe dwellers. Still not used to palm trees. Too much like exploding space shuttles. I need to hide.
“Look, I got to get to the washateria before the mamasitas get there and find my shit. I don’t want anyone swapping out my expensive make-up for some half-used Walgreens trash, you know what I’m sayin’? You let me know if you need me, though? Even if it’s just coffee and cigarettes, okay?”
He gives my forearm a parting squeeze before he walks on. All these years and he still walks on those heels like a newborn colt. Every evening, he stashes his bag in one of the washing machines at the Laundromat up on Richmond, covering the coin slot with masking tape and sticking an out-of-order sign to the lid. He says he’s seen those women counting their coins; none of them is going to take the chance of losing $1.75 on a bad machine.
I said I never told you I was a poet and she said you did that’s what you told me and I said no I told you I write poetry but I never said I was a poet that’s for other people to decide and she said you’re full of it you’re just posing and phony modesty is worse than pride just call yourself what you are no one will recognize you for what you are if you’re too chickenshit to say it yourself and I said what am I and she said I don’t know yet.
The night she died I was passed out in the backseat of a GMC Jimmy speeding down 45 to Galveston. Sonic Youth had played the Vatican that night, but like a lot of shows the past few years, I had a concert shirt and a ticket stub and almost no memories of the actual songs, just an aural blur. I remember talking about it very excitedly in the parking lot after and Travis saying we should go to this great pancake house in Galveston then go down to the beach for the sunrise and soon there were four or five of us flying past the endless Luby’s and McDonald’s and taquerias and Best Buys and car lots and the loud Tex-Mex restaurants and the loud seafood places and the boat lots and bondsmen and pawn shops and on and on and on. I put my forehead against the window and it was like being on a subway line without the blessing of tunnels, a subway line consisting of an endless series of stations spilling into each other, lights and images and posters flashing by and nothing so solid as the pane between you and the world but on a freeway cutting through the clusters of suburbs and its tangled and dense foliage of light there is no darkness to give you breath only the dark you carry inside. And I closed my eyes and was gone.
We were only together for a few months and that we were together at all was the sole responsibility of network television programmers. If network TV wasn’t so boring, or if either of us could have afforded cable, we would have kept hanging out indefinitely, sliding in and out of each other’s orbits, thinking in terms of possibilities that in no way ended up in us. We had met at the museum and would run into each other at a few bars and eventually started hanging out, but there was no design. Just one night she called and I went over and we smoked a quick bowl and flipped on the TV. She only had the one TV and it was in her room so we kind of lay on the bed and ended up getting stuck on A Different World reruns—it might have been a marathon—and we laughed about the clothes and the hair and wondered what happened to Lisa Bonet and then stopped talking altogether. My shoulder blades were brushing her wall and I noticed how her dark hair—that dark brown that is nearly black—had fallen just so that the part of her neck a breath below and behind her ear showed and I bent forward and kissed her there. She shifted slightly, but not away, so I kissed her again. This time she rolled back and slipped her hand up behind my head and after that there was only us.
The best days were like the time we dropped acid and saw Fantasia at the River Oaks Theater, or flipped through the used records at the Salvation Army, or just sat under the trees at Menil and drank wine and argued about Juliana Hatfield vs J Mascis (better songwriter) or Joey Santiago vs James Hetfield (better guitarist). There were no bad days. Sometimes we would walk around for hours, her with her camera and me with a book to have something to do when her eye was suddenly enchanted. I would tease her about photography not being an art. It’s not like you’re creating anything. Really you’re just putting borders around something already done. When it comes down to it, you’re plagiarizing God and she would say what’s the last word you created? All of your poems are just words that already existed and you just rearranged and I would say that’s been said before. Foucault, I think. See? You’re out of control. You’re a serial plagiarist and she would say you should keep quiet. Go read your book and I would say you should look into a twelve-step program and she would say would you shut up and let me think and I would say it’s a disease I understand and she would say in her faux-Southern accent boy-o-mine, you don’t understand anything.
Cedric knows I love the paintings more than the people. I think that’s why he pushed to get me on nights with him, even though I was jumped over a lot of other guards who wanted it. Cedric knows I don’t believe the administrator’s line, the mantra that our employees are our most important assets and in case of an emergency, unlock the door, follow orders, survive and be a good witness. Cedric once said I’d let Jack the Ripper kill my grandma before I let him throw a covetous glance at a Van Gogh. Cedric said that’s an admirable quality, so long as he’s not my grandma.
I have all the codes and keys. My job is to lock and unlock, to check and recheck, to escort curators and residents in and out of buildings if they are working overnight. If an alarm goes off in any of the buildings, the drill is simple: Cedric locks down the security station and mans the computer system, Mr Pete hides under his desk next to the one access door, and I go to the problem to assess and advise. Mr Pete doesn’t really hide under his desk. He’s supposed to sit there and do his usual thing (crossword puzzles and pressing a button when an authorized person comes to his door), but he has a habit of suddenly wanting to inspect the caterer’s station or walk back by the freight elevator when we have an alarm. Usually it’s nothing—a student who left a lit cigarette on his desk, a drunk pissing in the garden. There’s a security manual, but Cedric showed me where the answers were for the test. I had only two rules: take care of it and if you do something stupid, you’re on your own. Cedric says if we ever get hit, like professionally, though, he would open the doors, let them do their business, then after they left, shoot Mr Pete himself. Cedric says this with a laugh, half-heartedly.
Cedric says if I get my shit together, quit using my body as a chemistry lab, go back to school and get a degree in Criminal Justice, I could be head of security in ten years. I tell him it’s hard to think past ten weeks. I walk out of the security station. He tells me to keep my radio on, but I’m just going up to the galleries and he can see me on the cameras the whole time. I’m going up to Corot’s oil. It’s not Orpheus and Eurydice that draws me to Corot—they’re too obvious and anyone could have done them. It’s the crowds of shades, the witnessing dead across the river and in the trees, indistinguishable, mushy, blurred. People melted to suggestions, washed-out souls. Part of me wants to be Orpheus, to love so deeply I would descend into hell to lead her back, but that’s cheap romanticism, as Turgenev’s Bazarov would say. Besides, we descended together, side by side. We weren’t Orpheus and Eurydice; we were the watchers, the shades.
The news anchor said Greasy Mike’s a dealer, but he isn’t. Greasy Mike is a user who always has some extra that he would sell off if you were in a pinch. Say if your regular guy was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras or something, Greasy Mike would get you through the weekend. Greasy Mike is as much of a dealer as your cousin with a pick-up is a furniture mover. He’s just the guy you call when you need a favor.
Greasy Mike isn’t terribly smart though. He’s the one-brain-tied-behind-your-back when you get stuck with him as a partner during Trivial Pursuit, which, for some odd reason, Greasy Mike loves. However, I guess I can see what he was thinking, and I can see why he thought it would work, but Greasy Mike is in jail now thinking about how he should have called someone with brains. Or maybe just driven to the hospital.
Her death is boring and stupid as most deaths are. She has work to do so I go to the Vatican without her. I forget to leave the key and she’s jonesing but she can’t get to my stash. Usually she’d just go in, top off, and turn on the tube or throw on a record. It’s not like she’s addicted but she’s been working hard and needs a break. I mean, who doesn’t? You know? So she stops by Greasy Mike’s and something goes bad—probably just got excited and shot too much. Who knows. All I hear is something went bad and Greasy Mike panicked. They say Greasy Mike and his girlfriend carry her out the back, put her in his Sunbird, drive up the alley a couple blocks, and leave her on a urine-colored, stuffing-popped divan that the garbage truck hasn’t picked up in the two months it’s been sitting there. Greasy Mike’s assuming the cops will see just another dead junkie. It’s Montrose, after all. He drives to the ice house up the street and uses the pay phone outside. He reports a body and beats it home. Within a few minutes, it’s obvious to the cops someone dumped her there. Not forty-five minutes more, they’re knocking on Greasy Mike’s door.
As I said, Greasy Mike is stupid. It’s a big city, but the neighborhood is tight. Everyone knows Greasy Mike and they know his car and for chrissake he drank beers at the ice house three or four days a week for the past god-knows-how-long. Sure, the pay phone is hidden in the shadows around the corner, but when Mike pulls up, makes a call, then speeds away, people notice. If he had gone in and had a few beers and lay low when the cops showed up and started asking about who called 911 on the phone outside, maybe the cops drop it. Or maybe if he hadn’t felt guilty about leaving her there and had just gone home, no one comes knocking. Someone would find her eventually. Nothing lies hidden forever. And by this time, she’s already gone. The thing is, everyone knows him and Greasy Mike forgot—just because nobody cares it don’t mean nobody’s watching. And not volunteering information isn’t the same as refusing to answer when asked.
She came from Minneapolis and when she told me I was like seriously? You left the city of Prince and Hüsker Dü and The Replacements for a place so boring even hurricanes avoid it? and she said you’re from here and I corrected her I’m from Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s only goal is to be better than Omaha and she said well you’re far away from that now. I actually like it here; it’s not as southern as I feared. People aren’t as judgmental and hung up on all the usual shit and I said it’s just Montrose I wouldn’t confuse it with a Cameron Crowe movie and she just sighed and smiled.
And now it’s now and now she’s dead and I want to tell her maybe we don’t judge because judgment begets responsibility. It means you have to do something. Maybe what you take for caring is not caring at all.
When the cops come by checking on stories and looking to hang more shit on Mike, I’m hung-over and a bit stoned and I don’t feel like talking but I know I’m in the clear. I have a ticket stub and a concert shirt and about a dozen others who can say where I was that night. They ask if I knew her long and it’s confusing so I say no, not really. They ask if she was an addict. I say no, I don’t think so. I don’t know what they’re going to tell her parents, so I add anyway, she was planning to quit. I think she wanted to move back home. The one cop says maybe I should dry out, she knows a place, and I say I’ll think about it and she gives me her card and I say thanks and close the door.
At the eastern end of the European wing near the bank of windows is a marble of Aphrodite. The artist was an early 19th-century German named Matthäi. The public doesn’t get to see her like I do, with the building lights out and only the streetlights coming through and shimmering off her. Sometimes I’ll take off my jacket and lie on the cool floor and watch her. She’s so perfect she could only disappoint if she ever came to life. Stone yet delicate, cold yet makes you melt inside—you feel unworthy of breath when you see her.
The day after she dies the phone rings. It’s early afternoon, and I’m supposed to work that night. The phone has rung a few times already, and I’ve ignored it, pushed it away, put the extra pillow over it, the one she uses when she stays, but now I finally give in and pick it up. Andrew from work. I hang over the edge of the bed and start fumbling around for my bong and a lighter as he talks.
“Just seeing how you’re holding up. You doing all right, man?”
“I’ll be fine. I need to clear my head and get a Mountain Dew or something. I’m not sure what time we got back.”
“You just getting up?”
“Am now. Hell of a night. My ears are still ringing. I’m getting old. Hold on.” I twist the lighter around in my fingers and take a hit. As the smoke rises up through the glass, I realize he’s fumbling through an apology for saying what he goes on to say anyway and it takes me a few seconds to catch up.
“They found her in the alley off Mandell. There’s even a news truck here. Everyone at the museum is talking about it. They’re afraid there’s going to be some fallout, a student and all that. She’s dead, classic OD. Dude, I’m so sorry. I thought you knew. They busted the dealer.” He keeps talking—just wanted to know if I needed any shifts covered. His thirtieth is coming up—he’s been talking about it for weeks—and he needs the extra money for the bash he’s throwing. He thought maybe if I want to spend time with her family when they fly in to get the body. I want to say it wasn’t like that but can’t.
“No, it’s fine. I’m going to have to get back to you later.” My legs are tangled in the sheets and I’m still hanging over the side of the bed so I have to reach to hang up the phone and I feel like I’m reeling and all I can think is how she made fun of me for keeping a bong right next to the bed. I told her nothing clears the head like a couple breakfast hits. She said you know how sad you sound and I drop the bong to the floor and grab the edge of the table and when the receiver hits the cradle she’s dead.
Steve Werkmeister grew up in Nebraska and is now an Associate Professor of English at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. He squeezes in time to write between classes, family, and pets. He has recent poems in Silver Birch Press’s All About My Name series and in JCCC’s Mind’s Eye.
Learn more at stevesofgrass