Sargas
by Amy Wright


the priests

(in dark cotton robes, and dirty,

their disheveled hair matted with blood, and flowing wildly

over their shoulders)

rush in among the people, calling on

them to protect their gods

                                                                                                                -Charles Olson



= Kick Your Ass Man

I saw a man today who walked as if walking could kick your ass. He looked homeless—maybe all he had was his walk, which looked like enough. It was that much of a walk, his head was high, his dark hair matted like a crown. His walking carried him, as if he was walking off the gleam of his own iron core. I figured he was mine, the current manifestation of the lie that’s going to save me. Like a shadow of algae going to rive me from this stream.

The first person I asked about him said Honey, whatchu want to know about Antares for?

I don’t know that many people, I told her.

She was ringing up my rice, which was when she noticed I had about seventeen bags of rice and that’s all. They didn’t have any ten pound bags, I explained so she nodded like I wanted. You know him or something? I asked her.

She looked at me close. Naw, he just known. Antares was born into trouble as sparks fly upward, like the good book says. Like a Greyhound bus made directly out of war.

Well, I could use a good war is the line that came into my head but I didn’t say so because I could tell she would start into me like a whole slew of hens. I just loaded the rice into my satchel, which she was looking at because it had a skull and bones and said POISON on the side. It was a medic bag in the army. I shrugged and told her I got too many plastic bags.

I’m on my way to the mountains. It used to be a story I told when things got bad, until I had it longer than I had myself. The mountains are the tonsils in my own psychic scream, like Walden or Gatsby. This land was made for you and me to escape from or to, but the mountains have just been there all along. I’m making my way to them on a hobo pilgrimage toward salvation, because I dreamed my soul was inside one of them in a deer.

Unless it was a metaphor. The deer was tinged at the tips with auburn, so it might’ve been a fire I have to burn off, like karma. I believe in karma, only I don’t think it has to carry over lifetimes. How connected people are. That grocery store clerk was my mother, sure as the mole on my face, springing up like a reprimand that won’t be put down, because her concern for me is something I have to carry for some fixed amount of time like my own dead weight.


= The Rice

The second person I asked about Antares I slept with because it was time. Her name was Kate and she was as pretty as a trust fund you didn’t do anything to earn. Right off she called me ladyfriend, as in What time does the bus get here, ladyfriend? She was on a bike. I didn’t know what time the bus got there, but it had just started to snow. She told me to get on her handlebars and I did because her eyes were the color of twilight if twilight had a gray.

Every time she tried to steer, looking around me, I almost fell off the bike. It was so much effort for me to stay on and for her to pedal, I should’ve just jumped off and walked, but she was laughing the whole time like she was made of glass and breaking, so I held on, holding my legs out of the way of the wheel. It was work. The thing that killed me though, the clincher, was how before I climbed on, she packed my rice into the saddlebags and started singing this song, all wavery with pauses while she made it up, patting the bags like thighs she was weighing out.

Rockstar baby

where have you gone

how could you leave me

here all alone

Was it the wedding,

can’t we make nice,

you just weren’t ready

to be flung with rice.


I liked that the rice came last. It showed she had foresight, which I lack. I knew she’d be good for me, which she started being as soon as she got me up to her apartment. She put a ski cap on my head and alpaca socks on my feet and stripped the rest of me off.


The thing about making love with Kate was that she knew how to run her fingers behind my neck and hold my head to her as she kissed me, like you think a man would do, but that men never do because it seems like something they should do and can’t live up to doing, so nobody ever does it except men in old movies, and Kate.


Kate knew Antares was a Scorpio. She could see horoscopes like some people see auras. She knew he lived out by Island Home and talked to himself. She said some part of me was going to rest when I found him, and some part was going to grow up. She said she’d keep raisins in the fridge so when it did, I’d bring the innocent part back to her.


= The Dream


Before I saw Antares again, he came to me in a dream where he was a door, or the absence of a door, so it was like talking into a hole in a room that opened up. I had fallen asleep in Kate’s bed with her hand tucked between my legs like kids do, because it’s warm.

He didn’t say anything, even though he was all mouth, but I could tell a channel between us had opened. I talked, though—a torrent of questions that embarrassed me even in the dream. I kept telling myself to lay low, but I couldn’t stop. He was wrapping my questions in something cool and close, like a suitcase full of dry white beans. It made me want to go skinny dipping in pearls. Like it would wash off my soul. Is that possible? Can you shake yourself out like a rug? One after another I asked dumb questions like that until he started winding them around this wheel, like the miller’s daughter spinning straw into gold, I said, which made him smile so wide I fell right through the door.


I always wake up falling. It’s my only dream that recurs. When I was little, I used to fall off the bed.


When I saw Antares that day, it shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was 12° in the sun and I wasn’t sure which side of it I was on. It’s hard to pay attention to a world that clear. I pulled in back of myself as far as I could and looked across the crystal desert of the parking lot. He was wearing a parka with an eskimo hood. I couldn’t tell it was him at first because fur isn’t something you expect to see on a bastard, which I figured he was. But even from that distance, I could see his cheekbones were high and carved straight out of his skull. I looked at him so hard he almost met my eyes.


I raised out of my seat and tried to get off the bus, which was stuck behind a funeral procession.


Uh nuh girl, the driver said, Djoo see that cop car flashing up ahead? Even if it is some buzzcut nimrod, I ain’t takin one for you or nobody. Sit your wild hoss back down.

I watched Antares cut toward the woods and out of sight, pulling off my goddamned skin.



= Frances


I got off the bus feeling wired and shaky, like the last thing in the world I need is to hear a kid playing flute. Kate teaches flute lessons to rich kids whose parents are practically salivating all over themselves to invite their friends to the Philharmonic and brag how they recognized little Magnus’s gift when he was playing recorder in his crib. The names these kids come with! Like their parents condense twenty-seven years of suppressed creative energy into one terrifically off-handed name. If their own parents had given them names that came with their own personality, maybe they could crawl out from the microscope under which they live.

I needed to eat something, but I didn’t have any money, so I thought about slipping in and making cereal, but the kids always make the apartment smell like mustard and artificial grapes. So I went to Frances’ place. She wasn’t home but leaves her door unlocked for situations like this, and she almost always has tuna fish, the good kind, with oil. So I made myself a peanut butter and tuna sandwich, which sounded pretty good because I was running low on protein, and it didn’t taste half bad for the first couple of bites. But after about four bites I realized it wasn’t really that good so I squirted Tabasco on it and washed it down with sour orange juice, which I must have been complaining about in my head because right then Frances walked in and told me to buy my own juice if I wanted the ritzy stuff; she was poor.


Frances can read people’s minds, cause she drinks wheat grass and fasts. She taught me how, but I didn’t like it. Some people think things you never want to know. Like this guy getting on the bus had his hand in a brace. He’d been hit by a van on his bike. He talked alright, but I could hear him clear as a bell thinking, “slice slice slice slice” and the visual it came with was like fish gills full of bitters. I asked her how she dealt with stuff like that but she looked at me kind of puzzled like you don’t know? Frances is a guru and she’s only got about a toenail in the world. She said it just didn’t seem that different from seeing a river flood.

Frances is the mother I didn’t know I could need. My own should never have had us. We ruined her life. I mean amphetamines didnʼt help, but she wouldn’t have needed them if she made something other than kids. She should’ve been an artist. She knew people come into this world already made. You just give them a hamburger and make them wear gloves. She needed to make something she could call her own. Maybe everyone does, and what they make is math geeks or s’mores. But my mother needed something to take pride in. I mean, Hank and me weren’t something to be ashamed of, but she knew my being able to sing wasn’t something she did.



= Reno

I named myself Reno. My mom named me Roxanne after the song because, she said, It’s a bad way. She said it so often I thought it was her way of telling me things were going to be hard, and it took me more years than it should have to realize it was a line in the song. We never listened to it. Overkill, she said. I asked her if it would make me cursed because a girl at school said that song was about a whore. She asked if I felt cursed and I said no, and she said curses don’t exist, and besides, I liked being called Roxy-anne like I had my own adjective, and Roxy, like moxie and Rocks, like star.

Reno was where I thought I was headed when I ran away. I’d seen it on a calendar of discount hotels, and there was something about the mountains in the backdrop of the “biggest little city in the world” that I knew would look nice on a person, very steady and sedate. Plus, I figured I was about the biggest little girl in the world, so me and that name took up with each other like an old couple who buy each other cough drops and don’t have their own socks.


I was thirteen when I walked out the front door like every high school kid has wet dreams about doing when they’re not thinking about how to score. I was sitting in Geometry class and never has there been such a terrible useless fact as learning that no matter how you stretch sides AB and and AC of an isosceles triangle, they will always remain of equal length. I stood up and walked right out, which probably even I thought I was doing for a breather, go to the weight room and tip the machine for a Coke, but once I got out, I felt the sheer absurdity of it all. Like Mr. Harner could tell them about Pythagoras, or drop his kids off at the swimming pool or Vietnam, where my dad had gone and gotten himself killed—years before, so I wasn’t all traumatized or anything, but it did sort of rush together like a washing machine full of insight that all I had in the world was a mother who didn’t want me to see the bruises she gave herself and a brother who was trying to raise a little girl.


So I kept going because by then I’d worked up steam and I didn’t care about suspension or graduation or even my music collection, which wasn’t a tremendous collection, but it wasn’t until the bus was pulling out of Chauquahana that I realized I was going to miss that. Probably it was my karma to leave something worth going back for. But I got songs enough of my own now. Mine for the taking, like a skyblue pickup truck full of gold.


Kate was alone in the apartment when I got in, lying on the bed. I dropped to my knees and crawled to her. She folded me into her arms like a wave and started singing me one of my songs.


Firefly, firefly, Peanut went wrong

how can you tell me the castle is gone

fly now to the window,

sit upon the stones, shine your little light on

the darkness in the room.



= The Space Between

The river was my favorite thing about Knoxville. How you had to ride over it to cross the bridge and at sundown the light shone in the Sunsphere like copper. Something about a river makes a town flow through you, and you can ride off on the rainbow current with some boozy grubfish.

I didn’t want Antares to know I was looking for him, so I bought a skywriter, started twirling it through the square, which is how Kate said I would find him. Nothing. But I got pretty good at writing on top of clouds and making knockback bivouac rhymes. It didn’t even occur to me to write Antares until about the fourth day, and then I wasn’t sure how to spell it or what I wanted exactly. But he answered all the same. When I saw him, our eyes locked and I panicked, wondering what I was going to do now, but he walked right up and said, What?


What? I said back.


…do you want?


Uh, to learn to swallow fire.


Why?


I want to sing onstage and I figure thatʼs how Iʼll open my act. I heard you were a sword swallower in the circus.


How are your sphincter muscles?


Huh?


The first skill is suppressing your gag reflex.


Got practice at that in high school.


He laughed. I’ve got some tubes you can start with. But first you need to work on mind over matter. Come here, he walked over to a building and put my hand against the brick wall, his hand on top of mine. I want you to push about a centimeter into them.


Into brick?


Yep.


I pushed my hand against the wall. You can’t push into brick.


Who told you that, kid? Everything is made of atoms. What’s your name?


Reno.


There’s space between atoms Reno, find it. He wiped his free hand over my eyes to close them, held it there.


I pushed my palm against the wall, pulled back against his hand, pushed in until my hand began to sweat. I felt like my hand was an ear pressed against the wall, which was sounding something I could almost make out. He smelled like curry. My stomach started churning air, and I could hear a current like the ocean in a shell. I lost the feeling of separation. I tried to open my eyes and couldn’t. Shhhhh, he told me, how far in have you got? I had pushed in maybe a millimeter, so I pulled back into his hand, sank in maybe a centimeter before my body dissolved like pixie stix in acid. He leaned his body into mine against the wall, holding it there, which made me able to feel the wall again, him. He took his hand off my eyes. Well, it’s not going to take you years to master it, I’ll tell you that much.


You think I’ll be good?


I think you’ll be beautiful, which is better than good.


He took my skywriter, scrawled “Sargas” on the patch of blue above the building.


What’s that?


Name of a weapon of the God of War, it’s a star in the constellation Scorpius, same one I’m in. It should be your performance name.


Life’s a performance; it’ll be my new name.



= The Rockstar Kids

I want to go to the mountains, Ciara said, anybody have a car?

Reno didn’t know how Kate hooked up with the rockstar kids. She came home from work to find Mazz sprawled on the couch. His hair was lavender. All of them had rockstar hair, tinted every shade of a gasoline rainbow.


I got a Cherokee, Chris said tossing his keys.


I gotta get a bowl in me first. Mickey said. Herb comes before travel. Travel can cancel herb, he said, but herb improves everything.


Kate, read my horoscope, would you? Ciara asked.


You’re an archer, a Sagittarius, only you’re the arrow, a spark popped out of the fire. You’re the line on fire.


What about my future, can you see that?


I see a gypsy mothʼs nest, in a birch maybe, but real high up—


I got your climb right here. Mickey handed the bowl to Ciara. Ladies first.


Ciara took a quick hit. She didn’t like being watched. She fought the look of naïvety on her, had her lip pierced, painted black wings around her eyes. Reno could tell she wanted to tear into someone’s back about now.

C’mere a minute, Reno motioned to lead her to the bathroom.


Hold me into it, will you? Reno asked leaning against the shower stall.


What?


I’m testing boundaries.

Ciara looked at her, put her hands against her shoulders and pushed her into the wall. Reno raised up with her stomach muscles. Come on now. Ciara pushed against her hard, leaning with her whole body, digging her fingers in a little.


You’re straight, right?


Up to now, Ciara answered.


Whenʼs your boyfriend come in again?


James? Acts like he’s forgotten me. Three hours away, youʼd think Nashville was on the moon.


Reno grabbed a handful of hair at her neck, pulled. Mmm. She held it there. I’m pulling out the tension, okay?


Kate stopped talking to watch them come back in.


But....Chris asked, you can’t tell where it is?


No, just that you’re protesting for the environment, and I can see you in a crowd of people like a forest. But that’s enough—psychic line is closed. It’s fogging my buzz.


Chris was going to die for a cause. Kate was sure, but she knew if she told him, he’d start thinking of his bumper stickers as blazons. Nothing worse than vanity with a sense of justice. The only thing just about Chris was his anger—because his mother left them and his dad was a workaholic, because everyone had their own lives to live and no one paid attention to anyone else—Mother Nature was just the representative. Kate didn’t want some bullshit hero concept to cloud up his rage.


She creased his constellation into a dagger. Is this my art? She asked herself, folding another sheet of colored paper onto the burn pile of Cancer crabs. She rarely gave her readings even though she felt compelled to communicate them. She never felt so alone as after folding another origami scorpion to lay on top of the crowd.



= Holy Days

The third time I saw Antares was a Sunday. I get honked at less on the holy days, but not as seldom as you’d think considering the town is cinched tight with the rhinestone buckle of the Bible belt. The wind was blowing so hard it could peel aluminum sheets off a barn. It had caught a sheet of newsprint and was tugging it into the telephone wires like an obstinate child.

I was on the other side of a wide street when I saw him. He was walking the other way, arms swinging side to side like they rocked him and he was the anchor ship of his own row. His hair was long and black. I didn’t remember that, but he had something on his head before. Something about his bare head should have made him vulnerable but instead it made him fierce. His head was an arsenal his body was carrying around, and that walk crowned it.

He threw his arms back then and dropped his coat on the sidewalk like a robe. It was sunny and warm out, except for the wind. The thing was, it was February and we were getting a glimpse of the spring to come, but we still had the rest of the month and all of March left. He didn’t care, though. Wherever that coat came from there would be another when he wanted it. Even if he had to wait a couple maybe agonizing days, at least he wouldn’t spend them indentured to the terror everybody else had of the cold.



= The Trouble With Paradise

Ciara got her wish. They made a bonfire in the mountains. She walked around it, gleeful, holding a sleeping bag cape over her head. The stars are pretty, she said, aren’t they pretty everybody? That bright one is Antares. Reno looked up. It leads into the constellation of Scorpius.

They’re phenomenal babe, Mickey said. Anybody hungry?


There’s granola in the car.


Nah’s too far. I could use some waffles. Doesn’t that sound good?


Shut up man. You on your way down already?


No, I just forgot to eat. Lunch and dinner both probably.


Here, have a smoke.


Aw, thank you so much, man, I love that you have those. Like I needed them right at that exact moment and you have them in your pocket. That’s what paradise is, like when you really need a drink and the liquor is right there. Or you forget that you have a pizza in the oven until the timer goes off. That’s my favorite—like you found it. The pizza is there all along and thereʼs nowhere you gotta be.


You speak the truth brother.


The thing about the rockstar kids was how they were all still playing characters in their own lives. Ciara was wearing Gypsy Flats and Daisy Dukes. She named her outfits—Landmine and Growl, or Hillbilly Pearl. She got laid for the first time wearing Willie Nelson’s Daughter. She got fired from the bakery for Streetwalker’s Charon. It made you wonder what a whole population of people would be like if they never stopped creating themselves, like there was never any obligation to anything but cool. Something about having to make sandwiches out of ketchup and saltines made Reno unable to count on anything as unreliable as that.


They had a hangout in the forest where somebody had made a pit by pulling some rocks into a circle big enough to sit around. Every time they discussed bringing a sofa they could leave in the woods, but they always forgot. They had blankets this time though. Chris made sure of it; he wanted to sleep under the stars.


Anybody want to help me make up a song? Reno asked.


Get us started, Mazz said.


Inside my closet door, there’s a key upon a nail,

came from my Grandma Jack,

the one who’s putting up my bail

Unlocks my heart of hearts, like an arrow to the bow

All the trash of life’s got nowhere else to go


I got one, Ciara sang,


Once upon a time I had a love life

Once upon a time, I had this guy

took off in his jeep for music city

might as well have left me high and dry


Nice. Reno smiled. Her arm shot out like an antenna, from which dangled a sack of mushrooms:


Once upon a time I had some mushrooms

found ’em growing in this thrift store coat

put it on and wore it to the mountains

made me and a couple people so...


Oh man, Reno! What did I tell ya’? Mazz asked. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not going anywhere but here.


Live on drugs and Twizzlers? Kate asked, pulling a pack out of her pocket.


Aw Kate, where’d you get those? He said in honest-to-God, starry-eyed wonder.


Gas station on the way up.


The wilderness, Mickey said, is a place you can go without any Twizzlers, so when somebody brings them in it’s like they invented them. Unexpected Twizzlers man. That’s what it’s about.


I don’t know, if the wilderness came with a sofa, I think that’d be pretty rad, Chris added.


You never satisfied, you never satisfied man. Take a piece of the golden mother and shut your yap.



= The Sword-Swallower

The first week I spent with the tubes Antares lent me, I might as well have been working with a toothbrush. I got so I started practicing in the morning before Iʼd eaten so I didnʼt throw up food Iʼd gone to the trouble of making. My stomach clenched when the bar reached my back palate, but I found a little arc in the reflex where it becomes involuntary. I could hover there, which I guess is what vertigo is. Only I never get vertigo because I just take a flying leap. Except in my dreams—falling is always an accident in them.


I practiced holding that tipping point in my hand like a rabbit. I had to train it. It jumped out of my hand twenty-seven times, but on the twenty-eighth, I breathed deep and it stayed awhile. On the twenty-ninth I noticed how my nasal passage was getting crushed but if I breathed slow, air could get around it. On the thirtieth try, my mind had a fit—I should get a gig or write music instead of this useless crap—but the picture had hold of me, of being onstage. I knew if I swallowed a sword it would quiet the audience for the sound of my voice coming out.



= Plasma

This calls for a celebration.


Like what? Kate asked.


Like this, I say, pulling a box from under the bed.


Kate’s eyes get wide as street pigeons. What have you done?


I sold a little plasma; it’s fine. Open the box.


Reno! She grabs my arm and looks at the bandage like an accusation. Are you okay?


I’m fine, you can sell it like twice a month or something, you just have to stay hydrated. I’m hydrated. I want to see you in it, open it up.


I found a boa, white, at Reruns, had little threads of grey that matched her eyes. It reminded me of a coat I saw in a museum once—belonged to a Native American chief, made entirely of feathers. I wanted one. What I do with art I remember is make it. Like singing someone else’s song, I can see what they mean.


Since I saw the coat, I’ve been picking up feathers no matter where I am. I had a juice carton full, so when I saw that boa, I knew it was where they should go. I stitched the smaller feathers onto larger feathers and the larger feathers onto patches of cloth. Took forever, but the finished product looked like a snow drift shagged with birds. Probably what I should be is a seamstress. Kate says I’m good with my hands, although she’s not saying much right now.

I don’t know what to say, she says. Don’t make me say anything, okay?


Not a word, I tell her. But wrap it around you because we’re going out on the town.


Now?


Yeah, I got us tickets to Gillian Welch.


Reno, I don’t deserve this.


Don’t tell me that Kate, you deserve me.


How do you love someone so much you get jammed in the arm by a noob who practically breaks the needle off in your vein, and you can’t feel anything but the swell of your heart aching into the bruise? Kate starts pulling her hair down, stepping out of her shoes. “I guess I shower first, since you’re treating me like a queen?” I’d have given the teeth out of my head for a necklace to string around her when she left the room.


Gillian Welch sang like a moonshine sundae on a coffin made of cake. David Rawlings wasn’t bad either. They weren’t two individuals playing it out, but artists thrumming on the heart of a Siamese people.


The farther I pushed the kris down my esophagus, the more frustrated I got with Antares. Bastard was making me figure everything out on my own. You donʼt got to do it, heʼd say. Nobody making you, and nobody gonna pat your backside either, even if it is as sweet as white flour.


It got so I wanted to cram that pipe down his windpipe instead of mine. At this rate I would never see it lit.


My chest ached all the time. My lungs were raw. My sternum shrank to the touch, but I didnʼt let up. Slow down, he told me, so I went faster, pushing against his advice in my head. When will it be enough? I wondered. When the tube touched ground in the bottom of my stomach and came barreling back out as a flame of sound, I figured.



= J.T.

I hear Marley’s needs a singer, Frances says. It’s not Blue Cats, she adds, but it’s better than another table waiting job.

Frances knows I wasn’t raised with the social niceties of skipping off to get somebody a clean spoon. My first firing was from waiting. A lady complained because I wiped steak grease off her water glass with my shirtsleeve. But I knew I put it there because I hadn’t had time to wash my hands in the lettuce bowl. It’s all just so much dirt, I told her. You’re not getting it here, you’re getting it somewhere. She was appalled; it was beautiful. I didn’t do it on purpose, but once I saw the shock on her face, I started collecting finales. It’s still one of my favorites because I didn’t expect it. The beauty is not knowing when they’re going to be.


I got dolled up to go see J.T. like Frances suggested, but I left my hair down and tangled, which is how it looks best anyhow, white blond and thin as a suicide angel, my mom used to say. I wore my boots too; nothing a pair of shitkickers won’t help. It was a Wednesday night, so there weren’t many people in the place, but it was nice and dark and had a purple couch. I always feel good about a place with a purple couch.


J.T. wasn’t out front or behind the bar, but a skinny bartender named Shawn with a chain on his wallet said he’d be right out. Shawn was riding the silverplated eagle up the crystalcoated stairs, drying glasses off and shaking rocks into my whiskey, like diamonds, he’d say smiling every once in awhile. I sat for long enough to think probably Shawn wasn’t the best person to know about time passing, so I got up and started looking for a greaser in the bowels of the place.


J.T. had a ponytail because every balding male restaurant manager in America has a complex about what he thinks of as the monolithic divide between the short and long hairs, like as long as he can pull his hair back, he’s got his grimy fingers on the fluttery pulse of cool. Delusion is a powerful thing. Wish I had more of it.


How old are you sweetheart? he asked me with a twinkle in his eye like some barstool pedophile Santa.


Nineteen. I knew it didn’t matter if I lied, and honesty really is the best policy six times out of ten.


Can you sing?

Does Bettie Page have wings?


She got a devil’s pitchfork.


Same thing.


You gonna sing something for me honey?


No, but you’re gonna let me come back and belt one out next Saturday night and audition properlike.


And it was done. World was made in seven days, and it didn’t take four minutes to convince J.T.


Antares could care less I had a deadline. You got no sense of the scope of what youʼre opening up to, he told me. You donʼt rewire a reflex to become a circus freak, collect a few ahs and rounds of applause. You want a can of it? Iʼll buy you a case.


What am I opening? Itʼs just a divebar. I gotta start somewhere. You want me to buy a tourbus, call up Neil Young?


I want you to recognize the body is a window and your glass ainʼt clear yet. He put his hand to my chest. I flinched. Whatʼre you wearing a turtleneck for in April? How you gonna sing when your throatʼs sore?


Iʼll skip the act at first. I need to practice in front of people, see if I get stage fright. I can add it after I got a bigger venue.


You donʼt know the first thing about performance. Wherever you are, itʼs the same, you lift your voice to the rafters and swing from ʼem. But I canʼt tell you. You might could tell if you werenʼt so busy getting that hard cold proof down your gullet.


I donʼt need proof. I know I can sing. I can carry a tune up to a 747. Why you want to make me wait?


Not me, cat. Iʼm just pointing out the signals.


Antares crawled under my skin and itched like chiggers. I started digging around in my restlessness for a picture of Sargas. I found one on the flag of Brazil under a banner that translated: “Love as a principle and order as the basis; progress as the goal.” I liked the notion of progress well enough, and that day the scabbard I was using to prepare for a blade slid down without a hitch, and I did love that.



= A Sweet Spot

There were probably thirty people in Marleyʼs on that Saturday. Shawn had been replaced by a blonde who slid Reno a shot like a brochure. Katy wanted to come, but Reno told her no. Whatever it was she was opening to, she wanted to do it alone.


When the dark lights dimmed and a stage light came on, J.T. came bounding upstairs with a mike and said “I got a special treat for yaʼll tonight. Weʼre gonna have a little contest. I got three lady singers in the joint who are going to try their best to bring this place to its knees. I want you to make ʼem feel welcome, clap hardest for the one you like most, not the one with the biggest titties, ʼcause Iʼm trying to run me a serious music theater.


A woman in a purple dress that plunged to the whitewater of the polar caps took the stage and the lights dimmed again. When they came back on she was accompanied by Tammy Wynetteʼs bouncy number, “Your Good Girlʼs Gonna Go Bad.” When she threatened to learn to like the taste of whiskey, the crowd roared and threw their hands together with such enthusiasm, Reno knew she didnʼt stand a chance. But she wasnʼt going to let Antares be right. Before the woman, who called herself Colleen Parker, took her seat, she volunteered herself.


The song she had chosen was not the right one for this crowd, but Melanieʼs “Brand New Key” did have enough rhythm to get them clapping along. When Reno broke into “Some people say Iʼve done alright for a girl,” she drew enough hoots not to hang her head when she strode back to her stool, yellow flicker feathers at her earlobes turning like wings.


When the third singer approached the stage, a wave of applause moved over the crowd like gossip. Every part of her was shiny—lips glossed like a piece of hard candy, dress glinting with zirconium mirrors, heels polished as a stockbroker. When she appealed to them with “If I Were Your Woman,” the crowd slammed their mugs against the bar and smacked their thighs and shouted out promises of what they would do if she were theirs.


A learning experience, Reno told herself, inevitable and well under way. But J.T. liked the competition and held off announcing a winner, inviting all three to come back the next week for a tiebreaker. If she came, she thought, sheʼd sing Cowboy Junkies, “Cheap is How I Feel.”


But how did you sound? What were the acoustics like? Antares had no interest in Colleen or J.Tʼs business plan or Whipgloss, who was apparently a regular act with a not unwarranted following.

The speakers were backed up against the stage, but there was a sweet spot if I turned a little to the left and leaned back to get my spine straight and line my vocal chords up.


So maybe you are learning something from all this useless crap? Antaresʼs comment surprised me so much, I wondered afterward if he said it inside my head or out.


When can I try fire?


You want to stick a fondue forkful of Colemanʼs fuel down your ripe throat for the show of it, go ahead. Could be youʼre not learning as much as I hoped.



= Hank


You don’t talk about Hank, Kate says over dinner.


Not much to say really.


You loved him though, right?

I love him.

So why don’t you talk about him?


I feel he’s always here, seems redundant.


You were that close?


We watched our mother go down like our child. What was there to say? Nothing to do but get through it. The thing is, your house burning down is just like anything else, all you can do is say no. I saw a dog walking down the sidewalk in front of me once, alone. Maybe he’d gotten under the fence at his house or broken off the chain; he’d gotten loose from his owner anyhow. Had this jaunty walk, like what are you going to do, call the humane society? By the time you get the number dialed, I’ll be gone. This is what freedom looks like on a dog. Think it looks different on you? That’s what I think, Kate. There’s only one answer, to anything really, one question. You want cream with that sugar, are you running from your fate... yes or no? The current’s going to take you. Build a boat to row against it or get in and ride. So alright, I said yes, hell I was tired of saying no. Life pulls into a station, you wait for the next bus to come along, or you take it where it goes. I don’t keep Hank in the past, because a couple years and he’d wash away.


Could we call him?


You want to meet him?


Yeah, someday.


To admit you’re not in control and meet it with both fists hanging by your side is pretty brave.


You think?


I know.


I did swallow campfire fuel. Nobody was around to see me, which was chancy, but it would have been more dangerous to have Kate there. She would take on responsibility for it; itʼs just how she is.


My voice rooted further than I thought—past my stomach. A good four inches lower, heat licked up to meet the naptha. If I’d left it there, they would have met and burned me up, but I pulled it out, satisfied, for maybe the first time. Content at last.



= The Audience

Marleyʼs drew a sizable crowd for the tiebreaker. Whipgloss had an entourage of sirens, and since J.T. hadnʼt specified our accompaniment, was allowed to keep them all. They were dressed to the nine-inch heels, pouting because he wouldnʼt comp all their drinks but made them nudge and flirt for them like the other customers. I figured it was a sure thing sheʼd take the dubious honor of official bar singer, but Iʼd give her a run for it nonetheless.


Kate was wearing black coconut perfume and the rockstar kids were looking especially bright-eyed under their Lucky Charms dye jobs. Ciara sat at the bar in an A- line, her foot propped high on the stool and her knee bare. I leaned down and kissed it. Her skirt was royal blue and could have been an altar. I closed my eyes and kissed it again.


For the rest of the night Kate made herself scarce. Whether it was to give me space or what, she vanished. When Colleen started singing, I thought sheʼd return, but she was nowhere to be found. I started thinking during the closing bars that sheʼd miss me. Funny I wanted her to hear me now when I wouldnʼt let her come the first night, but I realized I didnʼt need my attention for something else. What I am opening to is right here, including the fear that she might miss me and the fact that I need her and she might not be able to provide.


Whipgloss took the center spot. The shine of her voice began to dawn. When the backup singers rose and fanned around her like a cloak, it was like a sunrise of music ordaining this dark little basement bar, a gleaming catch pulled fresh from the ocean. Woodgrain walls and ceiling bare, absolutely nothing in here to see it but us.


I took the stage humbled. A wide arc flashed across the shadows behind the spotlight. Kate was waving her boa back and forth. Catching my eye, she pointed. She had brought Hank and he had brought Emeline. She was twelve now and shimmering with the look of a rockstar girl. Her hair was white with a streak of green running through it. On the front of her t-shirt read in big block letters: “Money.” It was probably a costume she created for tonight. Ciara was going to love her.


Everything was ready to shed. Just like that, I knew I could drop the weight of the past like a coat, forgive Mama everything and the whole goddamned world we were born into, wash us off in a wave of flames, let the current carry us to another shore. I burst into song then—one of mine instead of a cover—the air around me like it would never stop breathing, and me a horse standing in the mountains hitched to a frost-burned, empty cart.

 

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