ISSUE THIRTEEN | FALL 2019
Sometimes, the head of James Joyce appears in my closet and cockles against a garbage bag of half-completed quilts. When I want company, I take it out and set it on a corner of my work table. There, it wobbles, balancing on about three vertebras of blood-caked neck.
It speaks only in Biblical idioms, with the occasional buh, buh—maybe when it cannot think of a response. I’ve mostly given up trying to make sense of it. Today, I ask what color I should paint my fingernails.
Pride goes before a fall, the head of James Joyce replies.
I hold up a bottle. “Grey, then?”
* * *
My boyfriend calls himself Sasha. To be respectful, I do the same. He sometimes reminds me of a character from an Anne Rice novel. He seems to glide rather than walk.
Once, he said the most attractive thing about me is that we wore the same dress and trouser sizes. For me, it is his collection of magazine subscriptions.
His family keeps his mailbox heavy. When their plastic has been ripped away, Sasha skims the pictures and leaves the magazines in sacks for me to read on the coffee table. Relaying the material to him later gives me a voice, though he rarely follows my suggestions to read the articles I deem worthwhile.
* * *
There is a decrepit theater near downtown that offers free Friday night screenings of classic films. I make it a priority to attend, even when I feel ill or my table is piled high with fragments of costumes and prom dresses. In two years, I have yet to miss a showing.
The theater was originally a two-screen venue. In the late eighties, the young owners tore out the seating in the second stadium, built up the stage, and bought a liquor license. The workmanship of this endeavor is beyond me, as I can sense the slope of the original floor plan beneath my shoes. When I visit the bar after the films let out, I am still hovering between seats, always one misstep away from a tumble down the row.
Tonight, I am preparing to go out. My hair is in curlers and I have slipped into a strapless bra and high-waist underwear.
Sasha is playing a computer game on the couch. His eyes are glassy from watching the screen. He is wearing one of my shawls as a skirt.
“Sash? It’s almost seven o’clock.”
He lifts a finger, and I wait while he saves his place in the game. He puts his laptop on the coffee table and yawns with his long body. “What are you planning to wear?”
I explain that a client canceled a dress, and I have altered it for myself.
“It’s a bright blue satin halter with a white lace slip.”
“Adorable. What shoes?”
“I haven’t decided yet. Black pumps, maybe.”
Sasha leads me to his bedroom, which is neat and carefully organized. I take a seat at his vanity, and he pulls up in front of me. I’ve already applied a layer of foundation.
“Well,” he begins, fingering through bottles and around cases. “How about a smokey eye and soft lip. Peach blush.”
I never debate his suggestions.
“Yeah,” he went on. “Really nice.”
In the other room, I hear the head of James Joyce rolling around the bit of floor in my closet. Then, it is banging against the door.
Sasha asks that I look up and delicately applies eyeliner to my bottom lids.
* * *
I sit next to a goddess in the dark. Her eyes are gold and her skin is like twilight. Two huge pearls hang from her ears, reflecting the yellow of the screen.
Her date drank too much at the bar and has dozed off.
“I guess he isn’t much for Bette Davis,” I comment, leaning in.
She smiles, a little embarrassed.
“Listen,” I say more closely, so she can almost feel my mouth. “You’re beautiful, and I’d love to help you to feel good right now, if you’d let me.”
She starts. “What?”
I repeat my last statement. It’s a line I’ve memorized.
“Oh, I’ve never—”
I know exactly what she’s going to say. “That’s all right. There’s a bathroom on the second floor that no one ever uses. I promise not to do anything that you don’t want me to do.”
“I don’t know. I’m…” She looks at her date. The side of his lip twitches a little, but he is fast asleep.
“Normally, pick-ups don’t work on me,” she says finally. “But right now, I don’t care. My night isn’t going anywhere.” She takes her purse from beneath her seat. “Where’s the bathroom?”
Soon after, her thighs are hugging my shoulders, and my tongue tingles, swirling. I slip a finger into her. Moisture gathers between the webbing of my hand and pools into my palm.
The restroom has disappeared. The echo of her hot gasps and bucking movements complete my senses and give my skin meaning. As she comes, I become light. I lose everything.
“What is your name?” she asks after I have washed my hands and face.
Smiling, I only shake my head and wish her a good night.
* * *
Marc is in the parking lot, lounging against his car with a cigarette. When he sees me, he retrieves the pack from his breast pocket and offers me one. I accept and lean against him while he lights the tip.
A little over a year ago, I met Marc after a movie and had sex with him in the backseat of my car. We had finished, and I was getting ready to ask him to go, but he reached for my hand and requested to hold me for a little while. I obliged, and he snuggled against me, telling the back of my neck of his ventures in art and in life.
The trickle of his voice won me over, so we have continued to see each other on the occasional Friday night. Often he declines sex, preferring to knot our fingers and talk. He doesn’t pry, though he has acknowledged my reserve.
Over time, I have afforded him details, including my name and the name of the place where I grew up. Now, he is the closest I have to a friend in this city.
“I painted your portrait,” he says.
I nod. He has been threatening to do so for months.
“You look wonderful.”
“You’re my Olympia, you know?”
“Is that how you painted me?”
“Yeah. I hope that’s okay.”
My skin flutters. “Of course,” I say, tapping my cigarette and shifting into the cradle of his ribs.
* * *
I have little exposure to the process, so when a client requests a tie-dyed prom dress for her daughter, I force myself to make a trip to a branch of one of the local libraries for research. Stapled step-by-step paperwork now accompanies me in the bath. A stick of incense burns in the sink. Its smoke dances with steam that lifts from my shifting limbs and the surface of the water.
I’ve shut the bathroom door to trap heat and stifle the noise from the hall, but I can still make out the knocks. The head of James Joyce is rolling back and forth along the small stretch of the hallway, its forehead and chin keen on the doorways on both sides.
Sweat prickles my hair. The papers drop over the lip of the tub so that I can scratch my temples and drive my fingers along my scalp.
With closed eyes, I count the raps in my neck and belly until it matches the thuds from the hall. Marc comes to mind, and I consider his face for a couple of minutes.
The rapping has stopped and when I open my eyes, the atmosphere is slightly blue with ripples. I have broken up and once I realize this, the bath shifts in color. My skin is dissolving and the growing spectrum of red is a shock. I sit up, coughing and surprising water onto the floor.
* * *
Sasha and I have sex in front of the mirror before he leaves for work. His face is squeezed together like a raisin. I watch with bored interest and think about what to make for dinner. I neglected to go grocery shopping the day before, so the contents of the refrigerator are questionable. There may not be beans, but there is plenty of long grain rice.
After Sasha has urgently pulled out to release on my backside, he lays back down to nuzzle my hair.
Plastic crinkles in my closet and something bumps the door. I feel the semen on my ass crackle as it begins to dry.
“How does soup sound?” I ask.
“Vegetable rice. I’ll look for some beans or lentils to toss in.”
He sighs and his breath is sugary and hot against my neck. “All right,” he says. Then, he proposes bringing a pizza home instead.
“We have pizza all the time,” I protest. “I’ve probably gained five pounds this week in cheese alone.”
“Well, then you eat soup, and I’ll grab a pizza for myself.” He pats my thigh. “Move, please. I’m running late now.”
I slink to the doorway but remain as he pulls on his clothes. The head of James Joyce has begun to fuss more audibly, bruising its forehead among boxes and bags.
“What’s up?” Sasha asks. He has paused to drape into the vanity’s mirror and quickly tweezes a few stray hairs from his brow.
“Nothing. I was going to say something, but I don’t remember now.”
* * *
Tonight, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is screening. It is my favorite film. Unfortunately, thick traffic collected around a concert hall holds me. I slip in just after Liz Taylor’s character Maggie has just been splattered with ice-cream by her sister-in-law’s obnoxious children.
The theater is bursting with bodies. I tip into the man standing in front of me to better hunt for empty seats over his shoulder. He notices my closeness, turns to look at me—and he is the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.
Slightly taller than me, he wears a leather jacket and thick, black-rimmed glasses. His hair is a wild brown thicket. His eyes are a bright vacuum.
When I feel myself lapsing into them, my guts seize and I cannot breathe. To avoid embarrassment, I flee to the restroom on the second floor. Once I’ve latched the door, I press into it, willing myself to wood.
The overhead light is off, but the space is draped in white shadows. I close my eyes and watch the capillaries pulse, embedded in their thin home of yellow flesh. I keep them shut and sigh when my shoes cease to hold the floor.
I levitate for about a minute before blinking and returning to the tiles. My chest has stopped aching, so I drink from the faucet and return to the theater.
I search for him in the aisles, at the bar, and in the restroom, but he is gone. I wonder if he had really been there at all.
* * *
At the bar, I gulp my orders before condensation has a chance to slicken the glasses. Even with a jacket and scarf, my skin is a spread of persisting goosebumps. After about forty minutes of drinking and pacing, I pay my tab and walk out.
The highway is a dark labyrinth, but the summer streets are dry, and I find my way without incident. Once home, I drop my keys twice before the right one kisses the tumblers inside the lock.
The head of James Joyce is restless. I hear its forehead bounce against the wood paneling, beckoning.
I lose my purse and scarf, throw open the closet door, and tug the string. The light comes on, and the head of James Joyce stops stirring and shouts, Mine eyes prevent the night watches!
Clumsily, I pick it up and put it on my desk. “What’s wrong with me?” I ask. “Why are you happening to me?”
Every heart shall melt, and all hands shall be feeble!
Lubricated with gin, I feel every ounce of patience and good humor rush to the tips of my fingers and toes and escape into the atmosphere.
My knuckles bite the top of my desk until they begin to bruise. The head of James Joyce loses its balance and flops into a pile of gingham.
“Do you think I’m a coward?” I seethe, shouting. “Do you think I’m a fucking coward?”
It stares, now fish-mouthing without sound.
“Why don’t you ever say anything helpful? What fucking good are you?”
I want to kick it out the window, to run it over with my car.
Instead, I grasp the head of James Joyce, only to let it slip to meet the desktop again. The lips have stopped and now the single eye watches me, creased in disappointment.
Finally, I am ashamed. The carpet catches me, and I lie there for a long time before I manage tears. Then, it seems that there will be no end to the sobbing. I blow my nose on my skirt.
Once all of the moisture in my face is exhausted, I splay myself over the floor. I hope if I stretch and push my limbs and skin far and hard enough, I will be absorbed by the fat, scratchy fibers, the foam, and the wood slabs below me.
Maybe then, I will change.
The head of James Joyce rolls off the desk. It bumps my knee and lands awkwardly, its eye patch wrinkled, staring.
A low, spent shrug parts my chest. I groan at the head of James Joyce and reach to correct its line of incomplete vision. Its face remains haunted, lips static.
“It’s okay,” I tell it. “I’m done now.”
It twitches. Fruit of the mouth . . . The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
“Whatever.” I lie back on the carpet. The room, furniture, and my stomach are spinning.
My fingers touch the head of James Joyce, and I comb the oily locks. “I’m sorry. I am a coward. I’m sorry—it’s so stupid. I have been so stupid.”
It listens to my drunken murmuring without interrupting. When my hand falls limply at my side, the head of James Joyce is gone, and I go to sleep.
* * *
The slamming of the front door rouses me a short time later. A thread of drool binds the corner of my mouth to the carpet, and I brush it away as an unfamiliar laugh emotes from the kitchen. I am still lifting into a sitting position when the door shoots open and light spills into the room.
Sasha stops mid-sentence and his face seizes. “Oh shit! I—I didn’t think you’d be home.”
I tilt my head to regard his company. She is bird-boned with bleached hair and blue eyes. One of her hands is tucked into Sasha’s back pocket.
“I didn’t think I would be either,” I say, soothing the carpet’s imprint from my cheek.
“Why are you on the floor?”
“I guess I fell asleep after yelling at James Joyce.”
“Who? Are you drunk?”
“Not as much now.” I stand up. The young woman removes her hand from Sasha’s pants and takes a step back.
I smile at her and ask, “Who’s this?”
“Oh, this is—she’s just a friend from work.”
“It’s okay. I’ll just go.”
Sasha and his lover press themselves against the hall to allow me an exit. They remain flaccid and unsure, until I’ve looped my scarf over my shoulders.
Sasha aims. “Where are you going?”
My answer is in my jacket’s rustle and the soft scrape of the closing door.
* * *
The gloom of the evening seeps through the car into my ears and mouth. I pick at the steering wheel, pulling tape and loosening chunks of nail polish. Inside my purse, my phone vibrates. I retrieve it, only to disregard it in my lap after taking Sasha’s name from the flashing screen.
Above me, the sky encompasses. I curl into the wheel and scour for stars in the chunk of blackness framed by the window shield. The night is unseasonably chilly and clogged by clouds. Sparkles are impressions I imagine, yet do not see.
There is only one option, really, and I hate knowing this. My hand trembles, reaching for my phone again. It is a brick, weighing me into the car seat and further, into the pavement and crust below. I clear my throat twice before he answers.
“Marc,” I exert. The relevance of my body, of this moment, disturbs me.
Simultaneously disbelieving, concerned, and delighted, he says my name. From him, it is a song in three syllables.
“Is this a good time?”
“Yes, absolutely. How are you? You’ve never called me before.”
“I know; I’m sorry. I—”
I have to steal a long, black breath to continue. When expelled, the sigh lingers above my face as an unfamiliar, yet warm, pink glow.
Marc says my name again, questioning, but I am now. I am present.
“I’d like to see that portrait now, if that’s all right,” I say. As he gushes in response, relief carries my key into the ignition, and I’m stunned by the feeling.
Cal Louise Phoenix is a yidishe tokhter and writer from Kansas. Her first book, Tracing Ghosts, was published by Spartan Press in the fall of 2018. She is currently working toward a license in substance abuse counseling.
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