“Nostalgia Season”: First Chapter Excerpt

Here’s the first third of the first chapter of “Nostalgia Season”, “I Don’t Know Your Name, So I’ll Call You…” The hardest part was writing when the two main characters meet because the rest of the novel depends on how well I write it. Hopefully, you all think I’ve done a good job. It was a lot of fun writing the two together, once the pen started agreeing, so I foresee a lot of giddiness throughout “Nostalgia Season”. Well, giddiness for me. It’ll get damn dark for most of you. Damn dark.

Tears stain the sidewalk of Desolation Row. Feet drag across the wet spots like slabs of stone. Both belong to a woman. A wounded confection of Godiva. She holds close to her, as apathetic eyes pass her by, her only friend. She meows before licking her owner’s damp cheek. The woman doesn’t react. She can’t. All she can do is grip, is cry, is amble to a silver box most have forgotten about.

It’s nine in the morn on this November Wednesday. A woman pulls up cautiously to an apartment building. “Cautiously” might be too strong a word. She’s not familiar with this part of Andilana Park. She usually spends her time in the town just below it, South Holland. A job presented itself in Andilana Park and she’d like to live in the town she taught at for a change. She checks the address she wrote on a notecard: 14615 Motor Way. Yup. She then laughs at herself for not writing down the building’s name. Barbet Place would’ve been easier to spot. She maneuvers her blue ‘99 Chevy Cavalier into a parking space and gives herself a once-over before stepping out. She checks her watch and sees that she has more than enough time before her therapist’s appointment.

The trees are a dying orange and a light breeze picks up. She’s glad that she wore the black sweater, but not so much the gray business skirt. She stops to brush off a few strands of cat hair, then clip-clops in black thigh-high boots toward the glass door. She glances to her right on the way and is slightly confused at the sight.

She pulls the locked door, then checks her palm. “2B”. She presses the button with the number attached.

“Yeah?” The voice is distorted but obviously female and nonthreatening.

“It’s Caryn. Caryn Shea?” Caryn’s voice has the clarity of someone who deals with teenagers from 8-3, Mondays-Fridays. “I’m here for the interview about the extra room.”

“Oh, cool beans. C’mon up.”

A buzz and a tug and Ms. Shea makes her way to Room 2B. The tiled floor of the lobby has stray leaves from outside, but the steps are carpeted and the dark brown makes up the floor on at least the first two of three levels. The walls are beige and have two doors per side. The usual morning stirrings can be faintly heard through the thick wooden doors. As Ms. Shea passes Rooms 1B and 1D, she looks to her right. Broom closet. She takes the stairwell to her left and up to the second floor.

Room 2B is the first door she sees and straightens her skirt before knocking. Actually, she’s slightly taken aback by the sticker of a strange logo on the door, then knocks.

“It’s open, Caryn!”

The first thing that Caryn notices is that the lights are on the floor. Or rather, in the floor. Two long strips of light sit lengthwise in the hallway’s floor, a black-carpeted floor that seems a little higher than the carpet outside Room 2B. Next, her eyes go to the white walls with red trim, and the framed posters on them. She can tell that they’re film posters, but doesn’t recognize them. One seems to be many different posters torn and arranged behind a frame.

“Caryn, down here!”

Caryn’s eyes dart to the other end of the hallway and sees the body that owns the voice. Or part of it. The lower half is covered by the leopard-print couch she’s resting on the back of. She thought about turning it around for interviews… but “it’s too much of a bitch to turn back around.” Caryn passes the kitchen and bathroom.

“Did you find the place ok?”

The body belongs to a woman who looks like a scuffed Gil Elvgren painting made flesh. With a long mess of ginger barely held by elastic. She wears a white thermal shirt under a black t-shirt. Caryn doesn’t recognize the design on it. Or the music playing on the widescreen TV behind her hostess. Behind the TV is a heavy black curtain. She can tell that the music’s rock, but it manages to be mellow and powerful at the same time. The ginger would be able to tell her that it’s the Silversun Pickups’ album, “Swoon”.

“Yes, I did. Thank you.” The two shake hands and Caryn continues, “I have a friend in South Holland, so I sometimes pass through this town.”

The ginger smiles and says, “Let’s see about you maybe staying, then.”

Fumbling hands find their way around a payphone’s receiver. The cat made of patchwork fur sits at her owner’s slippered feet. Doing what it can to guard and comfort as the busy street moves past them in indifference. The only payphone that still exists in the area is attached to the outside of a liquor store. The broken woman tries to calm herself down enough to press “0”. Her world a watery haze, she manages to find and press it. An operator asks if she needs assistance, and the wreck falls to pieces as drunks stumble to and from their next fix. The wreck strains to whelp two words: “suicide hotline”.

Caryn tries to take in the shelves and shelves and SHELVES of DVDs and Blu-rays surrounding them in the living room. She still stands in the hallway and her hostess still kneels on the couch. Two floor lights are parallel to the front and back of it.

“Are the lights too bright,” the ginger asks. “They’re on a dimmer switch so I can—”

“No! No, they’re fine,” Caryn says. “I’ve just never seen lights in the floor before. And on dimmers? Are all the apartments here like this?”

The ginger smiles and replies, “Nah. Just here in Room 2B. So tell me about yourself, Caryn. Do you want something to drink? I’ve got cans of Canada Dry.”

“No thanks, I had breakfast before I came.”

“Spiff.” The ginger leans forward and says, “Tell me about you.”

“Well, I was a teacher— am a teacher— I am a teacher but I don’t work for the school I used to.”

“Layoffs? Damn bailout.”

Caryn hesitates, “No… shooting.”

The ginger drops a little, “Shit. What was it like? I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked. Are you sure you don’t want anything? I’ve got stronger stuff than—”

“No, it’s fine. Besides, it’s a little early on a Wednesday to start drinking.” Caryn rests a shoulder on the wall and continues,”Anyway, I could’ve stayed there but how could I? I saw that the high school here is hiring and I thought it’d be nice to live where I worked for a change.”

“Where’d you live?”

“I still live there but I’ll be putting my notice in soon. If nothing else, I can continue living with my friend in Soho. Oh. I live in Crete.”

The ginger pushes herself up and says, “Crete? And you worked at THAT school? That’s a two-hour drive both ways if you’re lucky enough to dodge traffic.”

“Heh, I wasn’t always lucky. But yeah, that’s where I’m at right now.”

The ginger nods and her eyes drift to the shelves, then to Caryn’s eyes to see if she followed. Nein. She asks the teacher what she does when she’s not working.

“Not much of anything, really. Being a teacher is more of a full-time job than I’d like sometimes, but I love being a teacher so that’s fine.”

A light goes out behind the ginger’s brown eyes as she says, “Oh. What do you teach?”

“Astronomy. I love stars and space.”

And another light goes out. “Oh.”

The pressure one puts themself under to reach the point where taking their life makes sense could turn wood into oil. Some people dangerously flirt with the idea. Most pull themselves out of their miasma, either because they found a better life or because they’re too afraid. The ones who reach their final end… is it braver to live or die? Do the intentional dead wear a badge or a mask? Those on their way to find out would love help, to either be saved or to the grave. Not everyone looks for help, though. So it should be celebrated that, even though she’s being ignored by the world, the woman gripping the phone is desperately trying to get help. But her hysteria’s getting the best of her. The helper on the other side is getting a barrage of words and emotions. The only things that can be figured out are that she feels betrayed and wants control.

Caryn asks her hostess, “What sort of things do you like?”

The ginger gestures around the living room and replies, “Well, obviously films.”

“Heh, obviously.”

“And music. I have a band, actually. Soda Pop Moon.”

“Oh, that’s neat. Who’s in it?”

“Just me. It’s an electronic band, but it sounds pretty heavy metal.”

“Heavy metal?”

Yet another light goes out for the ginger. “Yeah. Like Black Sabbath, Slayer, Metallica, Jethro Tull…”

Caryn lights up and says, “Jethro Tull? I love ‘Aqualung’.”

A city block goes off behind the ginger’s eyes. “Jethro—” She tries finding something else, anything else to talk about. “Do you like poems?”

“I love poems!”

“Well,” the ginger perks up, “the name ‘heavy metal’ comes from something written by a Beatnik. Burroughs, I think.”

Caryn smirks, and sheepishly admits, “I don’t like Beat poets. They write about being high and gay and not much else. Not that I have anything against either, you know? I just feel that there’s more to write about. T.S. Elliot’s pretty great.”

The ginger tries going back to a topic that worked. “What were you like in college?”

“I went to be a circus performer, actually.”

The ginger tilts her head to one side and asks, “There’s a such thing as clown college?”

“Heh, yeah… but that’s not what I went to! I went to an actual college downstate here in Illinois that had an actual circus program.”

“There’s a degree for being a carnie?”

Caryn gets slightly offended, but it’s an offended that’s caused by well-meaning people, so that she easily blows it off. “The carnival and the circus are two different things. Carnivals have Whack-a-Mole. Circuses have rope acts. Circuses also have more fun behind the curtain. I’m not sure what goes on in those port-a-potties, but we got pretty shameless backstage.”

“Get the fuck outta here. What, like a lap dance on a unicycle?”

“Ha! No.” Caryn gets lost in a memory and a smile grows on her face. She lets out an amused groan and says, “No… I miss circus.”

“Why’d you stop?”

“Not everyone needs a Diablo act. I was always interested in stars and a professor I knew helped me transition to teaching.”

“Oh… do you still know any tricks?”

“Nah. I haven’t seen a trampoline in years. I still hear from some of my old circus gals. One of them works a Cirque du Soleil show.”

“Sirk duh wha?”

Self-consciousness gets the better of the suicidal tendency and she hangs up the phone. She hasn’t formed her final solution, for better or for worse. She slides to the sidewalk, black hair covering her bloodshot hazel eyes, and cuddles her only friend in the world. Callousness passing her with brown paper bags.

Caryn and her hostess, sadly, couldn’t find a middle ground. She was looking forward to living in Andilana Park, but South Holland is only a ten-minute drive to her new job. Beggars and choosers.

As she opens her apartment door, the ginger tells Caryn that she likes her peroxide-white hair. Ms. Shea thanks her and goes to her car. She calls her friend and tells him that she didn’t get the place, and reminds him that his cat slept on her clothes again. She hangs up and drives to wherever her day takes her.

The ginger shuffles back to the couch, almost tripping over her baggy blue jeans. She puts her back to its back, then flips backwards, sighing loudly, so that her head rests on a seat cushion. She stares at the inverted TV for a while before reaching for the remote, deciding that she’s had enough of SSPU for a while. Resting in silence for a few seconds, she continues her flip with a loud thud as her knees hit the floor. She rolls over in pain and rubs her owies, then sits up.

She looks over to the couch’s right, at an empty room save for a desk. She gets up and stands in its doorway. She thinks about a promise she made to herself during a stupid moment in her life. She then takes out a sheet of paper from a pocket and crosses off a name.

Caryn Shea.

There are other crossed-off names before hers, and since the ginger keeps her promises, it looks like she’ll have to add more to cross off eventually.

She sighs, her tummy gives her a rumbly, and she groans. She shuffles to the kitchen and is greeted with a fridge full of Canada Dry and not much else. She pulls her flipphone from her back pocket and scrolls through the address book. She can’t choose between three restaurants, then remembers that it’s too early to get anything from them. The earliest any of them open is noon.

She groans as she accepts that she’ll have to go to a grocery store. She thinks about driving but settles on using her tootsies. It’s not far and it doesn’t seem that cold. Caryn just wore a sweater and a skirt. She throws on her red Converse high-tops and her black frock coat, then pops on headphones and presses “play” on her CD player. The first song on Dragonforce’s “Ultra Beatdown” gets her adrenaline going and she sets out for the nearest grocery store.

The ginger kicks what dead orange she can out of the lobby before stepping out onto the 1-4-600 block of Motor Way. She immediately looks to her right, a muscle memory by now. When she moved here years ago, she was desperate. When the contractors built Barbet Place decades ago, they were stupid. As was the mayor. Who puts an apartment building next to a graveyard? The ginger doesn’t like facing true mortality on a daily basis, hence her muscle memory and her heavily-curtained windows. As she walks to the grocery store on this overcast day, she thinks about her spare room and the issues she’s had finding a roommate. About how Caryn would’ve been great if only she didn’t have to bring stars home everyday. She thinks about how much better it would’ve been if Caryn was still part of a circus because she could’ve heard heard some damn awesome stories. Heck, she might’ve even been a part of a few. She assumes. She then wonders how “fun” being in a circus could be. Slapping each other with balloon animals doesn’t sound fun. Neither does getting squirted by an elephant.

The ginger depresses herself with her imagined boredom and skips the CD to the third song. She decides to go to Walgreens instead of a grocery store because she doesn’t wanna deal with the crowds. Plus, general stores have batteries. For her CD player.

As the song gets to her favorite part, a guitar solo that sounds like a waltz, she reaches Walgreens. She does a little spin to the music in the parking lot and looks across the street. Seeing people being miserable outside of a liquor store is part and parcel of the location. As is, unfortunately, the unpracticed apathy of others walking by. Still, it takes a special person to cry with a cat outside of one, and special people to ignore them. The ginger shuts off her music and stares at the crying woman at the payphone. Then those around her. At first, she’s astounded, but that quickly develops into a more baneful a-word. She watches as the crying woman hangs up and slumps to the concrete, holding her cat. She counts how many “people” flit by. Her eyes match her hair before she can get to 30 and she blazes across the street, her gaze stabbing daggers at the “people”.

“Excuse me. I saw you across the street and— Are you ok?”

Bloodshot hazel eyes meet caring brown eyes. The melancholy maid’s voice cracks, almost a whisper, as she says, “No… not really.”

The ginger kneels down, “Did someone steal your car?”

“No. I w… I walked.”

“Do you live around the corner?”

Tears begin to stream. “No…”

“I do. Well, around the corner and three blocks that way. Wanna go there until you feel better?”

The melancholy maid holds her cat tighter.

The ginger holds out her hand and says, “C’mon, let’s go. All of us.” She takes off her coat and drapes it over the teary woman’s shoulders, then helps her up. Putting an arm around her, she leads her and her cat to Room 2B.

They get to the apartment and the ginger continues her careful escort to the leopard-print couch. She guides her guest to a seat and attempts to take back her coat. A gentle head-shake and a tightened grip tell her to do otherwise.

At a loss for what to do, she’s never picked someone up off the street, she looks around the living room as if she’d find the meaning of life. She hears a stomach gurgle but is so flustered that she doesn’t know whose stomach it came from.

Clearing her throat and playing it safe, she says that she’s hungry and asks her guest if she is as well.

“A little,” the melancholy maid whispers.

“Oh, good! I mean, bad! I mean… I was headed to the store for something to eat before I saw… I’m gonna get some food. You want some food? Food sounds great.”

“Yeah…”

“Great! I mean, good. I’m gonna get some, and you and your cat—”

“Björk.”

“You and Björk can relax. I’ll get it—”

“Her.”

“I’ll get her some food, too, and— Are you a vegetarian?”

“No.”

“We’ll all have a good breakfast. You should take a shower. Wash away some of those bad feelings. The bathroom’s the first door on the right in the hallway. Just go in there and… yeah. I’m gonna go and you stay. I mean, wait. I mean—”

“I get it. Thanks. Really.”

“No problemo.” The ginger leaves, sans coat, but not before doing quick checks in her head. About what to get, about her guest’s safety, about if she handled the situation ok. These things continue through her head as she says, “Be right back.” She’s about to close the door when her guest says, “Hey. Thank you,” and Björk meows in kind. The ginger nods, closes the door, and heads to her car.

The grievous woman sits in silence after she hears a car start up and drive away, then lets the coat go slack onto the floor. Björk wriggles out of her arms and lies on the outerwear. Her owner watches her go to sleep, then looks at the door that should be the bathroom’s. She goes to it and looks across to the kitchen. She looks in the fridge and takes out a can, then puts it on her face. It feels so soothing as she goes to the bathroom door.

She feels the wall of the dark room until she finds a knob. Twisting it too far, the checkerboard tiles become a nuclear explosion to her aching eyes. She quickly adjusts the floor-born light, then steps inside the room and closes the door behind her.

The sink is to her right, where she sets her cool can, and above it, a mirror. She’s afraid to look at herself because of all the crying she’s done. She hates that someone was able to make her feel so horrible, which is also a reason she hesitates. She doesn’t want to see the consequence of that bitch, of heartache.

She takes off her oversized gray t-shirt and slides off her black woolen tights. She doesn’t bother with the underwear and keeps her eyes averted as she walks to the shower in front of her.

It takes her a while to close the curtains as the warm water flows over her sepia skin. She lets the water run on her back for a minute or so, then turns around and puts her face in the path of the showerhead. Then she lets the water fill her mouth and makes a sound that goes from gargling, to screaming, to laughing, to nothing. She stands with her mouth open for a while, soundless apart from the hush of the water. She closes her mouth and turns around again. The water feels like a hundred tiny fingers gently massaging her back. She almost falls asleep, but her legs remind her that she’s standing.

At last, she feels like she’s showered enough and, for the first time, notices the designs on the curtains. Faeries. She reaches for a towel near the sink and pulls back a long, black one. It’s probably the most expensively-made towel this side of Downtown Chicago. She wraps herself in it and is amazed at how soft it is. So amazed that she doesn’t notice she’s looking at it on her with the mirror. Then she does and gets a foggy view of her gone-lover’s consequence. She wearily wipes the mirror and pushes her black hair back, making it trace her tense shoulders. Her eyes are the puffiest she’s ever seen them. She then picks up the still-cool can and places it on her brow as she walks into the hallway.

“Feeling better?”

The melancholy maid almost drops her can, then sees the ginger standing in the kitchen, and Björk in her arms. “Yeah, thanks.” Her voice still sits twixt a crack and a whisper. Her eyes drop to her cat and she continues, “She usually doesn’t let people hold her.”

“Heh, I bribed her with tuna. Wait, is she allowed to have tuna?”

“Yeah, it’s fine,” says the maiden as she walks to them and scratches Björk’s head. The ginger notices a bandage at the top of her right ring finger. Björk lets out a sleepy meow, then wriggles to the floor and goes to the open can of tuna, her blue, handmade bell jingling all the way.

The ginger asks, “Did you make her bell?”

The guest answers, “Yeah. It’s something from a show I like. A TARDIS.”

“’Doctor Who’?” The two smirk the way geeks do when they share a moment. The hostess exclaims “Oh!” as she runs to the counter behind her and rushes back with a warm TV dinner and a small bouquet of flowers. “You were in there for a while after I threw this in the oven so you might have to reheat it. And you were in a bad way before I left. Flowers always cheer me up so…” She hands both to the smiling, embarrassed woman, then asks, “Are you homeless?”

The presentee tries wrangling her presents before giving up and placing them on the counter before replying, “No, I live on the other side of town. Are you this nice to everyone?”

The ginger nods, “I try to be. Someone has to in this fucked-up world, right? So, if you have a home, why were you—”

“What’s up with these posters? Are you a movie geek?”

The hostess puts on a mock-charming demeanor, “Film geek. And, heh, yeah. Have you seen any of them?”

“I didn’t get a good look at them because…” The maiden turns around and sees a poster near the bathroom door. “I’ve seen that one. ‘Batman Returns’.”

The ginger does a little bounce and says, “People give it shit but I love how subversive it is. A kids film with the line ‘unlimited poon tang’.”

“Who said that line?”

“Max Shreck. The guy with the crazy white hair. He says it to Penguin by the stairs. During the mayor thing?”

“Oh yeah. Weren’t there toys for kids meals from this?”

“Yeah! And Batman gleefully kills a carnie.” She flashes to Caryn disapproving. “I mean, circus performer.”

“With a bomb!” The maiden looks at the bathroom. “Where’d you get those curtains?”

“Custom-made. I had a great painter, Amy Brown, make ‘em for me.”

“I see. What other posters ya got?”

“Six more.” The hostess takes her guest on a tour, through “Versus”, through “24 Hour Party People”, through “Some Kind of Monster”, through “Punisher: War Zone”, through “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”—

The maiden asks, “Isn’t that the one that made a bunch of religious people angry?”

The ginger replies, “In a knee-jerk sorta way.”

—through a poster that seems to be made of a bunch of torn posters.

“What’s the deal with this one?”

“They’re bits of posters from all the films I hate. Fuckers.”

“Awful spiteful of you.” The melancholy maid sighs, then inhales and says on the exhale, “My girlfriend left me.”

Thanks for reading!

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