The Good Stuff

052. Purple Rain. Andrew Martin

A pound coin clatters down the slot. I scroll through the song choices of the old jukebox, and punch in 624. A seven inch of Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ moves into position. The tonearm slides across and there’s a crackle as the needle settles into the grooves. A melancholy guitar chord erupts from the speakers into the hushed pub. The familiar steady rhythm and haunting vocals begin, stirring my gut.

I’m in The Angel, a pub Siobhán and I frequented in the early nineties. Tonight though, the heavy snow’s left it empty. It’s a lonely place to spend my thirtieth birthday. I go back to my seat, undo the top button of my shirt, remove my Anglican clerical collar and place it on the table. I’m twenty again.

The place hasn’t changed. It still has the same decor: oak beams, lead windows, black walls with torn posters of The Charlatans and The Stone Roses, the smell of ale and stale cigarettes. I glance at the door and imagine Siobhán walking in. It’s been eight years since I’ve seen her.

As ‘Purple Rain’ plays on, I take out a photo of her. There’s a white fold line across the middle of the picture but it’s the only one I have. It’s from her student house in Leeds. Her eyes, wild and dark, stare back. Her skin is unblemished with naturally pink cheeks. Blonde, cropped hair hangs long at the front, blunt cut to her jaw-line on one side. I place the photo on the table next to my dog collar.

Out the window, snowflakes tumble in ever-changing courses. Fleeting shapes fall and disintegrate on the glass before my eyes can catch them, and I’m lost in memories of her again.

***

Sitting outside the tent, a short distance from here, under the cloudless blue sky, we took in the endless moors and breathed the sweet summer air.

‘Purple Rain’ came on the battered stereo that I had brought along. Siobhán pulled me to my feet and we danced, close. She looked into my eyes. “When you hear this song, think of me.”

I wanted to ask her to marry me, but I was scared she’d turn me down. Instead, I asked, “Do you think we’ll still be together when we’re in our thirties?”

“Maybe,” she smiled, amused at my question.

And then, to ensure we didn’t lose contact, I came up with this ridiculous idea: “Let’s meet back here on my thirtieth birthday, no matter what. At midnight.”

“Okay.” She smiled again.

***

A glance at my watch tells me it’s ten past twelve. I place my collar and photo in my pocket and step outside into the cold night air. There’s no sign of anyone. It’s stopped snowing and the wind has died down. I pull my coat collar tight around my neck and look towards the hills where Siobhán and I camped. A warm tear rolls down my cold face.

051. The F in Free Enterprise is for Friendship. Maggie Walton

“What’s the worst time to get a cold?” asks the Walgreens ad on the radio and I rack my brain furiously. Fall? No, summer. Yes, that’s it, that’s my answer, it’s gotta be. 

“There’s never a good time,” the voice continues. Oh sweet lord! I howl at the ceiling and the lights flicker in the apartment next door as tears of mirth roll down my cheeks. They really had me going, I think, and boy oh boy is it true. I wipe my eyes with the hem of my Fruit of the Loom t-shirt. They really got me, I think. They really had me going. I’ve got to get to Walgreens. I google maps it. 13-minute walk. Sweet. 

A fake salesman tries to sell McDonalds a flame grill. The employee informs them that they don’t do that here, that maybe they should try over at Burger King. I am incensed. McDonalds doesn’t care what they shove down our throats, we’re faceless gluttons to them. I paw the carpet with my crisp Reebok, like a bull preparing to charge, and all the faucets in the building turn on. I carve “BK” with a fingernail into the arms of my plush La-Z-Boy as rubenesque burgers stack, slide, dance across my TV. Oh, how desperately I crave one of those tender, juicy flame grilled burgers from Burger King! They’re in the business of people, I think to myself. I can feel the pillowy bun, feel the trails of oil dripping down my chin as I sink – no, fall – into a whopper. I wipe an errant strand of drool with the hem of my Fruit of the Loom t-shirt. I gotta get me one of those burgers. Flame grilled, jesus fucking christ… life ain’t so bad. 

I didn’t know I needed a car. Now I know I don’t need a car…I need a Chevrolet. The salesman wears jeans, his beard is uncoiffed. I could drink a beer with this guy. These are my people. There’s no pretense here, no hidden fees. These cars are made for me and you, by me and you. I let my head fall back, staring at the ceiling, eyes at half mast, as warmth floods my limbs. My heart slows, thuds gently, and a soft wind slithers underneath the carpets in my home, lifting them as though they are breathing. This is what it’s about, this is what it’s been leading to. A man who owns a Chevy is a man who is loved, who can love. Overwhelmed, I cover my mouth with the hem of my Fruit of the Loom t-shirt, moistening it with my breath as tears well in my eyes, and a sharp joy tightens my chest. 

I am cared for. The eleven Chobani Mix’t Berries Low Fat Greek Yogurt Drinks in my Frigidaire nod in agreement. 

050. Jenny’s Game. Linda McMullen

I’m supposed to be making my next move in our Scrabble game, but David’s phone auto-locks after three minutes, and he left its face aglow two minutes and twenty-eight seconds ago when he remembered he needed to drop off the rent check.  I treat the phone like I treat David (still, two years into our marriage) or like an eclipse: I avoid looking directly.  But I can imagine its rectangular heft nestling into my palm, as I… 

As I what?   

I read Carolyn Hax, Dear Amy, Dear Abby, Dear Prudence…  Many times, in these cases, a woman has turned her back on a smoldering dumpster’s worth of red flags.  Or she possesses more finely honed feminine intuition than I could ever hope to boast.  My accumulated evidence consists of rampant personal insecurity, minor mentionitis of Kira-from-the-office, and one night of cancelled plans due to a work emergency.  That’s it.  No lipstick stains on the collar, little-to-no diminution of affection, no whiff of another woman’s (Kira’s?) perfume. 

It’s not breaking and entering if the door stands ajar.   

“Ajar”: my best play in our previous game.  I had placed the “j” on a triple letter score, above the word “ail,” simultaneously forming “jail”; David had excused himself to go scream into a pillow. 

At the two-minute-and-fifty-eight-second mark, I touch the phone face. 

Texts from me, “ICE Jenny”, of the please-pick-up-a-half-gallon-of-milk-and-I-love-you variety.  Texts from his parents and his brother Sam; texts from his boss, Carlos; texts from Verizon… 

…and messages from “K”. 

I hear the elevator ding, so I’ve got fifteen seconds or so to scroll through a series of about three hundred blue-and-white bubbles.  To watch my life go “pop!” before my eyes.   

Can’t wait to see you.   

I miss you. 

I’ve never met anyone like you. 

I lock the phone manually and slam it down in its previous location – just as its owner re-enters the scene.  The only thought in my head is that overused Facebook meme of Ron Burgundy: 

Well, that escalated quickly. 

Quickly: 25 points right off the bat, 75 for playing all seven letters at once… 

I have 0.3 seconds to rearrange my face and to consider my next move.  I have a couple of options.  One of the hanging words is ‘pose’: I can make “expose” or “impose” – both excellent choices, although neither really grabs me. 

“You haven’t gone?” he demands, glancing down at the current game, which appears unchanged. 

“No?” I offer.  He glances down at me and frowns endearingly.  We met similarly, at the library, in college, when he found that I had the book he wanted.  We ended up reading it together, our paces remarkably similar.   

There wasn’t anyone else, after that. 

“I’m always waiting for you,” he complains.  And the tone is wrong, but the words, I think, are real.  I use my i, m, e, and x, and add a d, creating ‘mixed’ and ‘posed’, the d on a double word score.   

“It’s worth it,” I murmur, offering a pillow. 

049. One Last Kiss of Sun. Jeff Ronan

Ten

Every day I dream of the sun.

Nine

Sometimes, I’m on a cool, endless plain suspended in air, the bloody fingernail peeking over, flooding me with heat. Other times, I’m buried within the wet earth then push-push-push, slowly sprouting towards her light. Or I’m forever falling, suspended between planet and star, spinning – whirling – faster and faster as the flames lick my bleached bones clean. Always different. Always wonderfully, deliciously final.

Eight

Pollution…fallout…conspiracy…

Whichever you blame, no one has seen her through the dead leaf sky in over a century. Most people have never seen her at all, except in pictures and videos. But I, of course, am not most people.

Seven

The first time I worked up the courage, I forced myself to wait until noon. I crept out of my cave, papery flesh stretching and snapping back with each step. A gaunt nightmare of muscle and tendon. How long did I death march through the shade before I finally realized she was gone, the sky replaced by a muddy canvas, stretched taut? How long had I stood there, translucent eyelids blinking dumbly? How long had she been gone, without me even noticing that she’d left?

Six

I’ve drowned.

I’ve starved.

Even self-immolated, the closest I’d felt to her in ages.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve not died.

Five

When you don’t need to breathe, you’d be amazed at the places you can hide. Twenty identical containers, nestled together like fat robins under a rain-swept awning. I didn’t worry when they cracked mine open. I knew they couldn’t see me, buried deep within the grain.

Four

I remained frozen, even after we were loaded onto the ship. How long had I waited? Decades? Centuries? I could wait a bit longer. Ten months until we reach the colony. Ten months until I could feel her again, one last time.

Three

The last time I saw her, walking back home to my cottage against the setting sun, I’d shielded my eyes from her glare. Soon I would welcome her like the old friend she is, inviting her embrace to devour me whole.

Two

Everything starts shaking, and I can hear a booming voice begin the countdown. I slide within the grain as the world reverberates through me.

One

See you soon, old friend.

Blastoff.

048. Below the East River. Karen Schauber

We submerge below the East River in a deep dive connecting Brooklyn with Manhattan, the subway car agitating like a front-load washer. En route, I hold my breath trying for the full three miles—a test of my endurance and prowess. My lungs ballooning a little more each trip. I imagine I’m a brilliant artist inflating a polychloroprene poodle, yesterday it was a two-headed giraffe, tomorrow is still a surprise. It helps to pass the time, eccentric, maybe, but I’d rather conjure an interior circus mêlée then confront the crazies that travel this route. It’s jam-packed when the glass doors slide open and she sashays in. I inhale sharp, my heart pounding like pistons. Squeezing my eyes narrow, I effect a chiaroscuro haze. She is awash in dreamy grey tones of a Chinese watercolour landscape, her body curving like a willow. The connective tissue between morning and afternoon, now and then, her world and mine, almost tethered. I suck in deeper, holding my pose like Polykleitos’ Doryphoros, my hand going alabaster white as it grips the centre pole. She inches nearer as the car lurches forward and sideways in its tracks. We stand close like barnacles. I can smell hints of pink iris, white peony, fluffy musk, and jacaranda wood. Her fingertips lightly brush soft fallen bangs from across her eyes. We almost touch—every little thing she does is magic— every little thing is more than I deserve. She’s traveling without her guard dogs; the boys in skinny jeans, bare ankles and burgundy loafers. It’s my moment. I wonder if she sees me—artist extraordinaire, auburn corkscrew hair, clad in biodegradable Qualatex. I start to mouth hi except my lips cave like Xylocaine from full-on dental work. I’ve tried before to tell her of my feelings, but I lose my nerve as I have right from the start; my menagerie of inflatables taking up all the precious space between us. It’s mile two, and the time in between the seconds is shrinking. My breath is on the edge of collapse, ocular veins bulging from lack of 𝑂2. Mid-town coming up fast, and my stomach screams fail as I watch her slip away —and all I do is e-x-h-a-l-e; my veneer collapsing into a dysmorphic Francis Bacon portraiture.