It’s my fault I lost track of time and product. Six days late NG is proud to present the amazing former whiz kid, Jackie Corley–boss of Word Riot for over ten years.
Here is what she has to say about her grit
This is an excerpt from a novel I’ve been working on for awhile. Mild sadomasochism, drunkenness, juice bars and other assorted dirty Jersey behavior. But more than the content, the tone of it makes it the grittiest thing I’ve done. I was aiming for noir-y and desperate. I hope I achieved something of that.
Exit 117 by Jackie Corley
The cigarette should burrow through him. It should take his skin to butter and give me a rabbit hole on his skinny, hairless arm. Then I could pull up his shirt sleeve any time I wanted and admire it, that charred, empty well. It would always belong to me.
When I try to bring the coal down in the middle of a lazy map of freckles, he flinches again, laughing. His naked torso folds in on itself, like he’s blocking some probing, tickling hand, and he keeps giggling, high and sloppy and loud. He goes down to the floor, drink still buoyed up in the air by an extended right hand.
I clip the cigarette into the corner of my mouth, letting the ash pulse and glow and grow. I crawl to him and pin my legs on his chest. I get hungry for the cigarette and take my smoke in before reaching for his drink. I switch vices, flicking the gray feathers of ash out over his neck as I top off his finger of scotch. He closes his eyes and smiles. I don’t know if he’s too drunk to brush the ashes off of himself or if he’s just trying to be obedient. It doesn’t really matter. It won’t change anything.
“Jack, Jack, Jackie boy,” I say, sealing my thumb and index finger around his jaw line and forcing his limp head to troll the dry, wooden floor, back and forth. I hear the crack against his cheek before I feel the sting in my palm. His clear, wide face flushes red.
“Thank you,” he says, so I slap him again, same side.
I pinch my nails around his fleshy lower lip. “Open,” I tell him. He does it. He opens his mouth up, an eager baby bird. I knead my thumbs into the ridges of his larynx. “Wider,” I say. He tilts his head back, his neck up, and makes himself a Pez dispenser, the flapping, gaping empty of his mouth vulnerable to the world, to me.
I flick the ashes into the hole he’s made for me. He coughs and smacks his lips together and opens his mouth wide again. I grip the underside of his chin, my nails cutting these sad little parentheses into his cheek. I bring a leg up and brace my free arm against my knee.
I lean close to his face. I don’t whisper. I need him to understand. “I’m going to give you something,” I tell him. “You’re going to take it. You’re not going to give it back.”
He nods, mouth still open. He’s got these endless blue-gray doll’s eyes in this rubbery, translucent skin of his, thin veins crisscrossing underneath and hardwiring him back to the world. He wants to please me. He’s a child. He’s my child.
The blood pools and warms behind my ears when I see this game for what it is. He’s disappearing in this cheap room–shredding allegiances, letting his breath waste away. There’s nothing I couldn’t do to him. He wouldn’t stop me because none of this is about me anymore.
I hang the cigarette over his tender, twitching tongue and run my thumb over the coal, letting it fall deep into the well. I slam his mouth shut and keep one hand under his chin and the other on top of his head, latching my fingers around locks of his thick, matted hair, to keep him from opening up. He thrashes around on the floor and then goes limp. He blinks his red-rimmed eyes open and the corners of his lips rise up into a beatific grin. As I pull my hands away, he purses up the bow of his lips and spits out a charred pit.
He flutters his eyes around the room, shocked awake. There’s no more game. There’s me and him and he’s smirking up at false gods and I’m black and empty and lonely. He wraps his spindly fingers around my biceps and forces me to the side. Sometimes, when I’m lost, when I’m deep in the theater of us, I think I’m stronger than him. I think I can really hurt him; and any time I stop, it’s out of benevolence and restraint–never pity, you understand. I forget what we’re about. I forget that when we started up again I indulged him this so I could get warm by him, get some of his time.
His thin thumbs pinch at nerves, force them to the bone. Stings like hell. I shrug his hands off of me.
“Damn it, shitface. That hurt.”
He’s searching out a lost water bottle on the cluttered dresser. He coughs hoarsely, drawing up phlegm, until he finds it. He throws his head back and hurries to pour what’s left of the bottle down his throat. When he’s done, he lets the container roll out of his hand and bounce to the floor, forgotten.
“Lady can dish it out but she can’t take it,” he says. He’s eyeing the room again; trying to remember where he put the scotch I’m hiding behind my back.
“Where’s my red label?” He’s got this cut to his voice–irritable, childish. “Where is it?” he mutters to himself as he shifts around the piles of clothing left festering in this cave of his.
“It’s the last bottle I have in the house tonight.” He’s down on his knees now, crawling frantically into corners and sliding his hands into dust-caked crevices.
“Did you check the bathroom?” I say. He cocks his head and narrows his eyes at me. I think I’m caught, but he spins on his heel, slapping the doorframe as he rushes into the hall.
There’s three shots left to the scotch and I take them too fast. I choke and gurgle some of that piss color down my chin before I seal the empty bottle back up and roll it under the bed. I fumble to my feet and grab for his cigarettes. I prop my elbow on his sticky comforter and my hand is shaking some as I work my lighter. I manage though. My blood is pulling back from my skin and it seems like the first numb buzz I’ve had since college, which calms me and brings something cold to my breath. It’s nice, is what it is–being light and drunk. I crumple up the empty cigarette pack and throw it into the hallway; the sound will draw him back.
I brought my own vodka. I brought my own Camels. I don’t even like scotch or his fay menthol fetish. But taking from him is this little revenge that keeps on giving.
He shuffles back into the bedroom slowly, kicking the empty pack across the floor. He doesn’t know it’s the same one he bought this afternoon.
“Nothing,” he says. “You took it. You killed it off.”
“I did,” I nod. “You could have my vodka.” I reach for the plastic handle and wave it out in front of me like Glenda’s magic wand.
He walks to the bedside table and takes up his shot glass. It disappoints him. “But I liked that drink. It was mine.”
“They’re all yours, Jackie boy,” I say, letting the vodka slosh out over the lip of the glass as I pour. “And you’ll take this one too.”
“Yes, I will.” He swallows the shot down and crawls toward the opposite end of the bed, swiping the vodka bottle from me on his way. He’s humming some low, solid bar, sailing away with it. He lies down across the bed and his body seems to cave into itself at the pit of his chest. His skin sags on his thin bones. All his muscle has been chewed up from the inside, turned into vapor and thread. His stomach is the only piece of him with any substance and it’s a bloated, uneven mess. A few more years and the rest of him will look like that.
I fall onto the other end of the mattress. “When did you go from a drunk to an alcoholic?”
“A couple years ago,” he says. “I got bored.”
What he should say, what he won’t say, is that he needed the scotch to come down off of the ski mounds worth of cocaine he was shoveling up that delicate slip of a nose of his. The alcohol was always there, but he started up on the cocaine just before we split. He thinks I don’t know about it. He’d be right, except these days I’ve got ears and friends in people somebody like me–somebody from my zip code, my street–should have no business being around.
I drag myself toward him and lay my ear on his belly. I graze my fingertips up and down his pale legs for a few minutes before I unbutton his boxer shorts and slide my hand inside.
“Don’t,” he says, grabbing at my wrist. “It’s too late. I’m too far gone tonight.” But it’s not just tonight and it’s not just with me.
I keep my head on his stomach and nod, chin rustling the waistband of his shorts. “It’s okay. I know.” I gently push his hand away from my wrist. “I just like remembering.”
We’re quiet for awhile and all I hear is the television warbling in the living room. It’s Nick at Night, I think. Roseanne and Darlene cracking husky lines at a whinnying Becky, the laugh track pulsing under it all like a war drum.
Jack hisses air in dully through his nostrils and dry, slightly parted lips. His snoring crescendos, takes over the laugh track, the bickering. A cool bed, his stunted breathing–it’s too familiar. This wounded nostalgia settles over me and I try to pull my thoughts into anything else–the job, the family. I work my mind so hard that I start fading in and out and soon I’m in this heavy, drunken sleep, which is the best kind because it’s black and empty and I’m not there.
“What time is it? What happened?” Jack is confused, yammering. He shoves me off his leg and gets out of bed, kicking a pile of clothes off the ground where the digital clock should be. It can’t be more than twenty minutes–the audience is cackling and cheering over the bluesy harmonica of the closing credits.
“Not so loud,” I say, adjusting to the light in the room, reclaiming my senses. I feel that last drink hazing over me; it hadn’t yet worked its way through me when I fell off to sleep. I’m all limp and cold now. I crawl out of bed after him, scratching a numb muscle along the back of my arm. “We weren’t out that long,” I coo. I rub my hand along his spine, but he shakes it off and keeps digging through the clothes.
Jack finds the clock bleeding out 12:38 and he sighs and kneels, relieved.
“When’s closing time for her? 2 a.m.? 3?”
“She gets home by 3:30,” he says, “unless she’s not coming home.”
The she is Jack’s fiancée, Dani. They live together. She dances down on the highway at the Go-Go Rama. It’s an all-nude juice bar, the poor man’s strip club. The owners don’t have to shell out for a liquor license, the customers get to see bush and grab all over the girls without getting manhandled by a bouncer–everybody gets their sin in peace.
I’ve been losing hours at Jack and Dani’s apartment for going on three months. I’ve never seen the girl. Every time I’ve come over she’s been on shift. When we got started again, Jack said it didn’t matter, that he and Dani kept things open. It seemed like one of those things he’d say that I’d pretend was true.
But lately, I’ve been thinking the whole fiancée thing is a story he’s been running on me. It’s a good story, though. How he tells it, she’s better at our games than I am. He points to scar tissue. He talks about black eyes, stitches, trips to the emergency room. Once, he showed me this belt he keeps hidden in a shoe box in the back corner of his closet. He rubbed his thumb along the coarse underside of the belt and red flakes floated down onto the soft, gray cardboard at the bottom of the shoebox. He said the night she used the belt was the only time the world got small enough for him to feel safe in it. He said he couldn’t get up from his knees so it seemed about right to ask her to marry him.
Maybe there’s a Dani and maybe there’s just a girl Jack wishes was around, but I’m thinking he wants me on my way tonight. “Give me an hour to get a pot of coffee in me and then I’ll get going,” I say, walking toward the bedroom door.
“Wait,” he says, fingertips straining at the edge of my shoulder. “You want to see her?”
“I don’t care.”
“We can go to the club.”
“We’re drunk,” I say.
“We can walk there from here. It’s about a mile.”
“It’s cold. It was raining hard before.”
“We won’t feel it. We’re drunk,” he says.
We search for our clothes, stumbling and falling over one another. We come up with items that seem to fit. I might be wearing Jack’s fiancée’s clothes and Jack might be wearing mine. It doesn’t matter. We look each other over, shrug and walk out of the bedroom. The floor is uneven, but really it just feels uneven, floating and crashing back on itself the way it does. I’ll need to vomit during the walk.
Jack stops by the hallway closet, pulls a giant plastic bag from the abyss and hands it to me. I shake it loose and realize it’s a poncho, a crumpled red poncho covered in white Canadian leaves. I pinch my eyebrows together and cock my head up at him, curious.
“I went to Canada with Dani,” he says, putting on a thin trench coat. “We were going to kill ourselves by jumping into Niagara Falls.”
“They have all the good parts blocked off,” Jack says, and I nod appreciatively. It’s bullshit, though. He’s never been to Canada. He probably stole the poncho from an IHOP coat rack.
He’s shaking his keys in the air when we get outside, letting them sing out along his dark, wet street. The highway is shimmering a mile down this flat line of homes. The blurred, blinking signal light on Route 35 slingshots red blotches of cars forward to the next mile marker. A dull drizzle pricks my face through the fog. My skin cools and my throat cools and my stomach settles.
There are half a dozen kids a few hundred feet up the road. One of them splits the air with a hoarse cackle. It rumbles down this narrow, hollow street, piercing through the slow, constant spill of salt-spray and choking exhaust coming from the highway.
I lift my arms out under the poncho and start running down the street.
I scream, “I’m Batman!” and flap my red plastic poncho wings, turning wide figure eights from one end of the street to the other as I wait for Jack to catch up. He’s riding heavy on the toes of his sneakers, lazy and lighting a cigarette from a spare pack he found in his jacket.
“Jack Guthrie Arison, you slow country cunt, we need speed,” I say, still screaming, heaving it through my throat. The kids down the street are watching me warily, like they’ve got something I could take from them and make trouble about. Probably a joint or something, maybe some Hennessey. It’s not like I’d want either right now, anyway. I stop in the middle of my wing dive, suddenly conscious of the kids, of how they’re looking at me. Their faces are drawn bony and long and nothing’s moving, not even the edge of a lip curling up as they watch and wait for me to pass from their blacktop. I’m an annoyance or a threat; I’m imposing on them. I forget that I’m an adult now, that I can’t be another curb kid cutting my eyes at somebody.
I remember the way I would have looked at somebody like me. Pathetic, desperate. I put my arms down and dig my hands into my pockets. I turn my back to the highway and lean from one leg to another and wait for Jack.
When we were kids and I was still a frightened, warm thing, I’d snake my hands all around his arm and lean up on him while we walked. The sidewalks and roads were so much easier on him than me, and I’d stare down at his deft little feet dancing the ground like they would. I’d take a crack in the pavement the wrong way, breaking that singing stride of his, and he’d always put it back together with some assured hop-step-slide.
I can’t stand near Jack now, but it’s got nothing to do with him. There isn’t anybody I’d want to touch in public now. I’m six feet to the side of him and his limp legs are faltering, jelly at the knees. I have to cut my stride in half to keep us even.
“Your blood’s poison to you,” I say.
“Yeah,” he nods. “They should give dialysis to every addict over 25.”
“Am I?” He stops in the street and lifts his eyes to a sweaty streak of gray clouds on the dark gray sky, puzzling the numbers out. “Yeah, I guess I am. Something to look forward to.”
And we’re quiet then and the only sounds rolling around us, claiming the street, are the kids’ voices. They’re laughing and shouting again, throats all greedy and sticky and thick. As they get louder, I smile and look to Jack for some hint of recognition, but his face is empty and his eyes are trained forward. The purple rubber skin under his lower lids falls into something darker the farther we get from the last live street lamp before the sharp fluorescence of the highway.
He’s all used up.
We’re waiting, courting the damp air. The juice bar’s green and pink neon sign hums thirty feet above us. I’m counting the seconds it takes the light at the intersection to change. Jack’s stretched out along the baseboard, which anchors the two poles that hold up the sign. His head leans against one pole and his feet are flat against the other like he’s resting in the scoop of a hammock. He’s got one eye closed and the other watching all that mutant color vibrating in the thick tubes of glass.
He says we have to wait. “Management doesn’t like boyfriends coming around. Too much trouble,” Jack says. “The bouncer let’s me sneak in after last call.”
Jack wags his finger toward the far end of the near-empty parking lot. A monster of a Harley is edged up next to the chain link fence. “That’s his bike. He’s been with the Pagans damn near 40 years,” Jack tells me, and I nod. This part of the county isn’t short on bullshit biker gangs, all of them filled up with ‘roid-retarded Irish pricks with a couple sleeves’ worth of gothic cross tattoos.
The Pagans aren’t bullshit, though. The month before, my boss at the paper told me to lay off a story about a girl’s body washing up in Port Monmouth. All my sources–even a couple of the cops–were saying she’d been a Pagan’s old lady, that it had ended badly.
I tell this to Jack and he frowns, says some of the guys he works construction with are Pagans. “Most of them aren’t like that. Pagans don’t kill girls. I’m not saying one of them couldn’t have had a meth freak-out on his girlfriend. Just most of them wouldn’t go that far.”
“It doesn’t really matter to me,” I say, and I don’t like myself for saying it but I don’t know how to make it untrue. We’re quiet then and the wind’s petting the side of my face in slow, heavy gusts. I get this cold at the back of my throat and suddenly I vomit at my feet. Jack laughs and I look away from him, out to the highway, and hope for him to close his eyes so I can be alone with this feeling, this wet-walled empty of me.
I don’t care about the dead girl who floated up bloated and blue on the beach, her skin melting. I’ve already convicted her for her mistakes, for ending up a victim. If I had written that article I would have told her story and made it sing. I could have fought to tell it and I would have won. My editor owes me. But I’ve been bored by the world for a long while. There isn’t much I’d trouble my sleep over–I wish there was. I know there used to be.
The clouds part over the bay long enough for a loose, pearl string of stars to cut into the open patch of sky. The neon sign goes out overhead and I can see the stars clearer and Jack’s saying, “It’s time.” I back peddle toward the bar, giving my eyes over to the sky. The heavy jeans fall under my heel and I manage to drag through my mess. I shake the excess off my pant leg and turn away from the highway and the cracking rush of the gray, stormy bay sitting out a quarter mile past it.
Jack shies back from the entrance, grinning softly at the tops of his shoes.
“Oh, please, monsieur–allow me,” I say. The heavy wooden door is stuck, sunk just below the frame so I have to lift it to get it open. I struggle to pull the handle up while Jack laughs behind me. The door swings open and I’m forced back with the musty draft of air from inside.
Several dancers file out as house music from the bar’s speakers reverberates into the parking lot. They’re these fine-spun, endless creatures with tensed, long limbs untangling over and over again out the door. They tower over us, glowing gold. We have to tilt our heads up to see their sharp faces, taut and glittered and pouting. Girls like that belong somewhere we aren’t–behind locked doors to private clubs and Atlantic City penthouse suites. You see girls like that walking past you and you disappear, become some phantom whimpering underneath the persisting tide of nymphs.
The beehive storm of strippers splinters, spreads across the parking lot as each makes her way to her car. Jack’s gray-bearded, burly Pagan bouncer lingers behind the last of them and eyes the fence-line dutifully for any foul freak or player.
The drink is breathing in me again and I start laughing. I hop from foot to foot and then spin furiously, arms outstretched and chopping the air. Jack’s watching me tip toe back to him, my wrists bent back delicately, thumbs pinched to middle fingers like I’m carrying my tiny secrets back to him.
I fall into his chest and cup my hand to his ear. “Know something?” I say. “Know something? Not a one of them is real.” I slide backwards and throw my arms into the air, reaching my hands wide until the webbing between my fingers strains in the damp air. I let my head roll along the top of my spine. “They’re not real,” I scream. “They’re ethereal.” My voice catches in the air and bounces back to Jack and me.
Her painted nails look like purple bullets. She runs one along the rim of her cloudy water glass, letting a couple gray flakes slip down from the lip of the glass and float onto the surface of her drink. She leans an elbow and a heavy tit against the damp laminate of the bar.
“What are you looking for? Money?” she asks, taking the unlit cigarette Jack’s offering. Jack pats down his pockets for a lighter but a business suit has already leaned in from a stool behind her with an open matchbook and a flame. The suit calls her Dahlia. She’s Dahlia here. It’s a fine thing, a hiding place in a name. Everybody should have some foreign skin to crawl into. I wonder if she’s Dahlia or Dani for Jack. I wonder if he gets to keep his name or if she makes him give it up. Mr. No Body. Clean and reborn for Dahlia or Dani or whoever she is.
She cups the suit’s hand for the fire and thanks him in a flat, disinterested voice that he leans in to hear. She pulls back from the bar, her pale skin gummy and stretching at the gloss of the countertop before it peels off slowly, leaving her pink.
She walks past us, past the door of the Rama Room and the private stalls, past the rows of round black tables edged up too close to one another. Jack follows so I follow. An Indian in a button down dress shirt and khakis, Lucent ID tag still clipped to a belt loop, grabs her ass, begs her for something. She keeps walking and the edge of her dark red hair sways at the small of her back, waving goodbye to him. She leads us to a far corner where a bulb in the track lighting has burned out and all we can make of each other is outline and shadow. Jack motions for me to follow him into the booth.
“She doesn’t look like the other girls,” I whisper to him. It’s not an insult. She’s Bettie Page, Jean Harlow—round, fierce, full woman. She doesn’t fit this place.
“She doesn’t have to. She’s a fetish girl.” Jack tells me. “The freaks are everywhere. Some are just cleaner about the masks they wear in public.”
Dani puts a knee to the foam seat with her shin dropped down behind her, leaving an imprint in the maroon plastic cover as she rolls from one side of her ankle to the other. She rests her arm along the top of the booth seat and leans her torso back so that the bare span of her hips juts out toward us. Her bush is bright red, wild–not a hair trimmed. It crawls across the lower half of her stomach and brushes against the top of her thighs. I want to ask her how she gets away with it, especially in a place like this, but I just ride my tongue along the inside of my lower rack of teeth.
I fidget in my seat, pushing my ass deep into the booth and resting my chin on my forearm on top of the unsteady table. I watch my fingertips drill the counter rapidly.
“You’re going to get me fired if you keep coming around like this,” Dani says. The ash tray is at her side of the table but she flicks the end of her cigarette at the ground.
Jack says, “You can’t get fired.” Then he smiles and laughs, and Dani smiles back without any teeth, nodding. There’s something passing there between them, some secret, but I don’t know what it is. I’m not all that interested in knowing.
They’re still talking but I’m not taking any of it in. I dig my thumb under some duct tape covering a gash in the booth seat. I twist my fist into the foam under the cut, pushing it back down to the wood as I survey the room.
The Indian’s gone and the leather-faced bouncer is teasing the bartender, running these slow, unassuming lines on her as she wipes down the counter with her thick-veined hands. She’s laughing and fixing loose chunks of dirty blond hair back behind her ears. His voice keeps coming, steady and deep and wet–rusting out her armor. The crystal of her eyes is wearing out; they’re tearing up, she’s laughing so free and hard.
The suit is the only other one left in the place. His glass is empty and he’s chewing on his ice. The bartender and bouncer are working each other over just behind him, but the suit’s watching Dani.
When I turn back to us, our scene’s changed. Jack isn’t next to me anymore. His face is pressed up against Dani’s thigh. He’s whimpering into the pink fuzzy dice tattooed on the side of her hip. I wish I’d noticed the tattoo before. I’m wondering what numbers she has facing out to the world.
I can’t make out what Jack’s saying. His words are all mashed up and drowned in salt and snot and saliva. Dani takes the lock of hair at the top of his neck and measures it out between the scissor of her index and middle fingers. She ashes her cigarette onto the ground again, twirls it up and, glancing across the room, waves it at the suit. “One minute,” she mouths to the suit, still signaling with the cigarette.
Jack swallows his mess down a few times and the words are cutting clear now. “Come home, would you? Just come home,” he’s saying again and again and again until her thigh tenses and he knows she’s hearing him. “I can’t take this anymore. I don’t want to do this anymore. I want you home. You listening to me? I want you home.” Jack grabs her hard at the hips and stands up. His jaw is solid and he’s pushing his whole body up against her, breaking into any personal space she was keeping from him. But nothing about him could look hard or threatening next to her–she’s got half a foot on him, even without the heels.
Dani rubs a thumb along his sideburn and shakes her head “no” at him, clicking her tongue into her cheek.
Jack isn’t persuaded. He starts his chant again, “Come home, come home.” He’s getting louder and the bartender and the bouncer are watching. So is the suit. He’s got his jacket draped over his lap and one of his hands is in his pocket.
I’m watching them watching us when Jack’s voice cuts out all muddled and hissing. The table under my arm kicks up and wobbles back safely onto the floor with a tinny rattle, sending the ash tray rolling along its edge to the floor.
Dani’s made a dove of her hands and collapsed it on Jack’s neck, crushing it against the wall. Jack’s skin is pulsing out in folds between the rows of Dani’s long fingers. She doesn’t do it like I do it, joking like. She’s systematic about it, easing up a few seconds for him to catch a breath before cutting off his air again. Jack’s spit is caked white at the corner of his mouth and his eyes are gelled over and misshapen in the middle of that flat red face blooming from the stem of Dani’s hands. I get to thinking he could be some flustered sun in the middle of a baby’s mobile, sending grinning, absent faces of spoons and moons and cows spinning above a captive audience.
He starts kicking his heels wildly at the wooden base of the booth. I don’t want to be here anymore. My shoulder tugs up to the back of my ear and I hide into it, turning my face away after Jack’s foot sounds several dull thuds against the baseboard. I bend down to pick up the ashtray and light a cigarette, hoping they’ll tire of their show.
The granddaddy Pagan bouncer is done with us. He’s off his stool and his steel-toed boots are cracking along the floorboards toward our dark, dusty corner.
“That’s enough,” the bouncer says, humored but tired. “Let him go.” The bouncer doubles Dani’s body–arms on top of arms, the denim trunks of his legs bowed along the soft lines of her powerful thighs. He wraps his hands around Dani’s forearms and breaks her wrists away. He pulls her back a few steps and hugs her down to the ground. He guards over the heaving, damp pile of her until she stops struggling against his grip.
“Call it a night,” he tells her. The red shroud of hair above her white, hunched body bobs up and down in reply and the bouncer eases up. As his thick, knotted fingers go soft she wrenches her arms free, spiteful in the face of this kindness he’s offering her. The sound system cuts out in the middle of the Steve Miller Band chug chug chugging through some lazy guitar work. The lights flash on, white and blinding, exposing each of us in a frozen, awkward posture.
Dani’s blotched moon face rises from under her red veil, and her illusion rips away. At least in the drunken darkness you could pretend she was somebody. Now she’s just a dirty, ruined prom queen. Her mascara has turned into a greasy web glued to her brow bone, and the glitter of her pink eye shadow has spread across her face, settling along the flat oily plain of her cheeks where her foundation has melted away. Dani’s got a crass, filthy anger pouring through those wide eyes she’s tightened up on the bouncer. He raises his hands palms up, defensive, and walks away mumbling, “Get going, Dani. We’re closing up.”
Jack’s coughing into his fist and sliding down the booth toward me. His face is pointed up at the ceiling because under his fist he’s hiding a smile in that loose mouth of his. He snaps his fingers twice and points toward my cigarette. I hand it to him and he takes two slow drags, nods, and gives it back. His lips are still pinched in that lousy grin when he looks over his shoulder at Dani.
“I need some money or some scotch,” he tells her.
She stands slowly, leaning against the seat of a chair as she regains her balance on the glass stilettos. Dani’s chin is resting on her chest, eyes to the ground, and her hands are on her hips, but barely. Her fingers are folded in, her purple nails settled in the hollow cup of her palm. Her knuckles block out enough of the tattoo that I still can’t make her numbers.
“Come to the back. I’ll see what I have,” she says, turning away and stroking the backs of her hands down the face of her thighs.
He takes the peach schnapps down sloppy. It leaks out from a corner of his mouth. His small fingers probe the sticky rivulet crawling along his chin. He flattens his hand against his face and slurps up the remainder from the meat of his palm.
“Pass it along, brother sir,” I say. His wet lips shine back the light angling in from the highway and he nods and tilts the open bottleneck my way. I don’t know if I really want what’s left of the bottle, but it seems about right. There’s not much else to do.
The air’s drying out and the highway’s quiet. “It doesn’t make any sense,” I say. The trees are all wrong and the storefronts rising out from behind the road medians are all wrong. I can’t remember any of it. The whole scene looks refracted and distant. I eye up the parking lot, grasping for something familiar, something taking a shape to right. “Which way did we come in?” I ask, keen on the sound of my own voice cutting into the silence.
Jack grabs me gently at the elbow and leads me across the lot. I can make out our road and it warms me.
“How’s your little brother doing, anyway?” he asks.
I lick the lip of the schnapps bottle then wrap my palm around the it like we’re shaking hands. I lift it back over my shoulder and throw high and fast at a fat tree trunk at the edge of the parking lot fence. The bottle spins base over neck and explodes against the bark.
“He’s fine,” I say. “How are your people?”
He shrugs and works a hangnail off his middle finger, spitting it into the road. “They’re okay.”
We shouldn’t be asking about all of our others—it’s a savage business. They’ve been beyond repair for months, years. What’s nice, though, is that we’re at that place past being sore about them. With these years we’re wearing, memory takes those first lumpy baby steps into the haze. Neither of us mentions the fathers by name, though. We owe each other the courtesy.
I squint down the block, searching out my pack of kids. A frosty sheen has started capping off the brown-gray blades of grass in the thin, overgrown patch running the length of the curb. The cold chased my kids away. The pussies.
In high school, Jack and I never skipped out on any black, holy night we had free. The cold months were best because the air conditioner in Jack’s Trans Am was broken and the thing would overheat if you farted too hard.
We’d drive to the other end of the county and speed along the dead part of Route 33 that cut through hundreds of acres of flat, open farmland. We’d pull off into a dead end that ran just parallel to the highway. You had to exit sharp off 33 and ease your car down a steep slope. The thing was a quarter mile long and hidden in thick brush. Best we could figure, it was supposed to be a resting place for truckers. We never saw any, though.
He’d turn his lights off as Elvis Costello crooned and we’d crawl up into the backseat, lying on our sides, chest to chest, hands gripped on hips. It’d been a long time since I remembered that.
“Hey,” I say, voice low and careful, “you think you could use your hand on me when we get back?”
He winces and I turn my head to the ground quickly because I don’t want to know any more.
“I’ll put my mouth on you if you hurt me. Make me worship you,” he tells me.
“That’s not what I want. I want to see you when I’m close. I think that’s what’s been missing,” I say.
“A mouth is better than a hand.”
“Not for me.”
“I can’t give you that. It’d be too strange going back there. I’m past that.”
I breathe in deeply, slowly and let it out without any sound.
He stops and hooks his thumbs into the waist of his jeans. Nodding, he takes his tongue over his lower lip, letting his mouth rise into a smile. The fog is starting to creep back from the slick, cold road. He stares through the fog, far back there, confident in a memory.
“What are you about?” I say and he just shakes his head and laughs, starts walking again.
His steps are lighter, more assured, and he lets the weight pour into his shoulders, lifting his thin chest and exposing the underside of his distended belly. This time of night he’s a slothful sort of drunk, eager to slip into some easier version of himself: someone younger, less compromised.
“Here I was thinking you’d turned to stone,” Jack says. “It’s all made up. You’re as raw a recruit as ever.”
He tries snaking his hand through my arm but I turn sideways and amble ahead, letting his hand slide back out.
He stops again, heavy on his heels, thumbs back in his waistband. I’m not waiting on this. I’m bounding ahead with my chin slinking down my chest. My ears are hot and my throat is dry, splintered.
“Hey,” he shouts behind me, “remember that time, that one winter you were back from college? All of us were in Red Bank and we were coming out of the Broadway Diner and there was a homeless guy sleeping on the bench there, remember? We all wanted to go smoke a bowl in Marine Park and we started walking ahead but you just kept standing by the homeless guy’s feet, like watching him. Do you remember that? We were all the way down the block before somebody noticed you weren’t there and I had to go back and get you. I was standing right next to you and you didn’t turn. You just kept in this trance, watching him. Then you mumbled something about ice forming on his mustache, remember? You were so pretty and affected by the whole thing that I couldn’t laugh at you.”
I pop the collar of my jacket over my neck and break into a jog as he continues shouting at me.
“And remember that ugly, legless kid we saw waiting outside some skee ball arcade on the boardwalk? I thought you were going to run up to his wheelchair and offer up your open veins.”
He starts laughing, a filthy, rusted cackle. And the closer I get to his apartment building, the louder the cackle splits into this fine, violet sky until it stops abruptly. I settle into the doorframe and slide to the ground, pulling my legs into my chest. I fold my arms on my knees
His feet clop along the sweaty concrete. He slows around the corner, taking softer steps the closer he comes to the door. He settles on the faded, gag-gift doormat. The perfect script reads “Go away” where the “Welcome” should be.
He turns to face me or, at least, I watch his legs turn to face me. I won’t look above his knees. If I caught a glimpse of Jack’s smooth mouth or his head cocked whimsically to the side, I might soften. I’d regret that.
He nudges my shin with the toe of his shoe, waves my leg back and forth gently. I don’t look up. I’m not strong, understand—I’ve just played this out a few too many times before. Drama can warm up somebody else’s groin. Me? I’m Goddamned tired.
Jack unlocks the door. I crawl through the hole and stumble to my feet in the darkness.
Warm drops of water are beaded down my exposed neck when I wake up. Jack’s standing at the toilet next to me, finishing up with his tired trail of piss. The top button of my jeans is loose and my hand is limp, clamped between my thighs. I fell asleep on the rim of the tub.
“Morning, lady,” he says, smoothing back thick clumps of greasy hair.
I wipe the urine from my neck with the back of my hand. “You got the time?”
I slide out of the cramped corner, the muscles along my neck strained and burning. I try to slide behind Jack but he grabs my arm and pulls me up against him. He nudges my damp cheek with his chin, nodding at the mirror on the medicine chest.
“Look,” he says. “It’s us again.”
Years and years ago, when we first started having sex, we used to stop each other in front of mirrors–bedroom mirrors, bathroom mirrors. We’d put our flushed faces together, skin all lit to a slow burn underneath, and we’d sway and stare and smile, knowing something.
I scratch at the gloss of the memory, trying to get the taste of the live metal tinge back under my tongue. My mouth is dry and my reflection is yellow and thin and dull. I feel awkward, numb in the pose. I smile briefly at our worn faces in the mirror.
“It’s us dirty and hung over,” I say, patting his pale chest.
He grins, eyes falling down to catch mine. “Okay,” he hums irritably and lets me go.
I walk out of the bathroom and trip into the kitchen, one hand grazing a hallway wall for balance. Dani’s sitting at a square folding table. She stares over the torn cover of People magazine through thick framed glasses as her spoon clinks against the edge of her ceramic cereal bowl. She’s got on jeans and a white, button down blouse. Her dark red hair is wet from a shower and tied back into a neat knot. The foundation spackled across her face is a shade lighter than her pale skin. A naked bulb peers through a cracked lighting fixture hanging from the kitchen ceiling, cutting alive every bump and crease she’s tried to hide.
She raises her eyebrows above the edge of her glasses and glances at me. I’ve been acknowledged.
“Hey,” I say, flicking my hand up in a lazy wave. She lowers her gaze and I disappear into the safety of the open refrigerator door.
I grab the orange juice and crane my neck toward her. “You need anything from here?” I say and stare and she stares and doesn’t say anything. “‘Cause the door was open and I didn’t know… if you wanted anything, I could…” I mutter softly until my voice disappears altogether.
Her spoon keeps tap tapping at the bowl like a high-pitched violin note, stretched thin and faltering. I pull a short, chipped glass from the sink. A shallow, clouded pool of liquid has settled in the bottom of the glass. I think it’s the remains of one of my early screwdrivers. I think I don’t care.
I finish pouring the orange juice and when I look at my hand, a slight tremor is pulsing through it. I hold the rest of my body still, watching the flutter. It’s barely there – just a thin wing dragged into the current of a dying swell of wind. I can’t even feel the tremor is what bothers me. I turn my hand over and back in front of my eyes, willing the twitch away. It levels off but won’t stop completely. It’s a new defect to play with.
I sit at a diagonal to Dani and watch limp flakes of pulp float in my drink. I can’t touch it yet. There’s this constant puddle of acid sloshing around in my stomach. I’ve been bored by food lately, disgusted by it. Everything tastes like piss-soaked sand and goes down my throat in knots. I wouldn’t bother with it if I didn’t have to.
My head is nodding away from me, tripping on empty blood. I was the same way last week and I passed out on assignment. The fire chief I was interviewing tugged me into the station house and called the first aid squad over, made something out of nothing. It ate away at my whole afternoon and I wound up having to stay late at the office to finish up two stories and a police brief.
I will drink this orange juice.
Pour that murky, thick mess into this empty belly. Rot me straight through the skin.
I will drink this orange juice.
I grind the edge of my palm into my chin and bite down on a dead, fleshy piece of the inside of my cheek. I cough and grimace and throw the drink into the back of my mouth. It tries to come back up with the rest of my stomach but I dig my heel into the leg of my chair and swallow down against the gag.
A familiar, high-pitched beep squawks out from the living room, reviving the tremor in my hand. My cell phone is hidden in a backpack in some corner of the room, calling me to my voicemail.
I look over at Dani. This awkward, insistent part of me hopes she’s joined me in some conspiracy, some understanding. I snub out the worming want and lower my eyes to the floor before she can see me.
“Hope that wasn’t going off long,” I apologize. Nothing.
There’s a wide gap in the hallway but I press my body against the wall, tucking my thin limbs back so as not to touch or disturb her as I slide past the table. She doesn’t raise her face from the magazine cover and all I get of her is the side of her pale, glazed mask.
Jack’s wide, bare feet paddle the wooden floor into the kitchen just as trip into their living room. “Hello, my lovely lovelies,” he says.
I’m squatting behind the couch, elbow deep in my bag. I’m pushing around council meeting agendas, press releases, half-filled notebooks, micro cassettes, sharp plastic shards of broken pens and a couple of used up car fresheners. My phone screeches out again from an undisturbed side pocket and the excavation is over.
I brush crumbs and pencil shavings from my cell phone’s screen and blink. Twelve missed calls from the weekly newspaper office I work at, the first at 6 a.m. Six voice mail messages left. Before I realize what this is, I can taste the cool, copper tinge of blood coated over the hole I had gnawed into my numb cheek earlier. Air cuts sharp against the wound and I realize that my mouth is open and I’m smiling, showing teeth, tongue at the corner of my lips.
I’ve fallen into a crack in time. Worlds are dying, worlds are being resurrected. I’m being called in to ride on the vulnerable, tattered edge of it all and bear witness. I’ll get to rein-in a clawing, mouthy bitch of a story. My eyes are blurring over, my skin on fire. I dial into my voicemail.
Major corruption bust. Three of our mayors taken away in cuffs before dawn. We’re tearing up the front page.
Jack’s kneeling in front of Dani’s open lap. She’s swung a leg out from under the table so her torso can face him.
Jack takes Dani’s folded hands and forcefully plies them apart like he’s peeling the skin off a stubborn orange. He stares up at her intently, coaxing her approval. He strains his neck down, keeping his eyes glossy and wide on her until the soft parting of his lips presses against the shallow cave of her palm. He crushes her hands against his cheeks and starts tracing his tongue along the pale underside of her forearms. He gnaws at her skin with each stop.
When he pulls his mouth away to move further up her arm, a layer of her makeup is left wet and smudged. Thin, purple welts emerge from the caked mess, threaded up from her wrist to the inside of her elbow like railroad tracks.
I wonder if it’s Dani or Dalia who fit her with those marks. See, now I know something about the two of her. Neither of her has the stuff to follow through.
I shut off my phone without deleting the messages and start throwing my belongings into my backpack.
Jack’s got Dani’s palms pressed to the back of his neck as he looks over to me, a grin eating away at his face. “I’ve got something in mind, ladies,” he says. “The two of you could help me with it.”
Jack locks onto Dani’s eyes, posing the question a new way without having to repeat it out loud. She shrugs, indifferent but not disagreeable.
“How ’bout it, Annie?” Jack says, tonguing the tips of Dani’s fingers.
I shake my head at him like I’m confused about what he’s asking. “I have to get going. I’ve got work. It’s been a time, though. Hell, if it hasn’t been a time.”
Jackie Corley is a journalist, writer and book publisher based in New Jersey. She developed the monthly online literary magazine Word Riot in March 2002. Word Riot Press, an independent publishing company, evolved out of the magazine in January 2003. She established Word Riot Inc., a nonprofit benefiting literary culture and small press writers, in July 2011.
In recent years she has published Baby by Paula Bomer, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, and praised by Jonathan Franzen; Look! Look! Feathersby Mike Young, which was featured in Nylon Magazine; What’s Your Exit? A Literary Detour Through New Jersey edited by Joe Vallese and Alicia A. Beale, which was named a 2010 Beach Read by New Jersey Monthly; and Midnight Picnic by Nick Antosca, which won the 2009 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novella.
In her capacity as a journalist, Jackie currently works in Central Jersey as an associate regional editor for Patch, AOL’s nationwide network of hyperlocal news and information sites. As a community journalist, her reporting has run the gamut of business features and police and fire coverage to politics and government and breaking news, including detailed coverage of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the Jersey Shore.
She runs a lot and plays guitar badly.
10/7 Matt Potter
10/21 Steve Glines