by Leonard Schlenz
part 1 of 2
A bloodshot ball of a sun slinks low in a gray sky, and the little shops along 32nd begin to shed their neon onto the damp asphalt. There’s little pleasure in what I do, holding up the cardboard, Out of Luck Need $$$ God Bless.
As if I’d once had luck and lost it. I’ve had no peace for some time; the ex’s phantoms nag me and won’t relent. Until which time, I suppose, I say, ‘uncle’.
I can’t give in; wouldn’t be prudent. I breathe onto my bifocals and clear them with a shirt-tail, thinking I see the tarry little monsters approaching from the direction of the sewer, come in on those cats’ feet you hear about, with the fog.
I know they’re not real — except that they bite and kick, and scream foul curses at me. They’re my worst bad dreams come alive; stored in glowing mason jars, but hand-designed by my ex from fetid pools tucked away in the deep unused recesses of her Highlands’ mansion. She’s a witch. I’ve seen her workshop only once, before she kicked me out; me running like hell and her with not so much as a useful butcher knife in her hand.
Tucking my legs up under me, I peek over my knees and listen, perceiving it’s only my imagination this time, likely the gin’s slow pickling process. The real creatures will follow sure enough, so I wink at Jean-Marie, who leans against our dumpster dumbfounded at my alarm, “It’s okay for now,” I assure him.
I married adventure, in the body of a witch; a crazy witch; a mean witch jealous with potions, with means not of this world as most of us know it. People including me thought she was just Romanian.
Liquor’s low and I feebly flash the sign one more time letting the wrist do all the work: Out of Luck, Need $$$ God Bless. My reward is a condescending half-witted stare from a young woman with a cell phone stuck in her ear, dangling her dainty hand over her steering wheel. I don’t need this.
We’re a nation of victims; feel sorry for ourselves. So? Surely some of us are justified. Mother was a tramp. She saw I could paint but did nothing to encourage me. Papa was an ordinary guy but I didn’t know him; I only know he got caught up with the Jehovahs and got hit by a car when I was small. I was the classic four-eyed myopic who wore pop-bottle spectacles that turned me into a frog with bulging eyes.
I ask Jean-Marie about his life and how he managed to land a position so low in life, as I pass the secret quart bottle protruding from our brown paper bag. He doesn’t seem to know enough to be embarrassed by this low life.
And what are the odds? His wife’s a witch too, only he knew it, and that’s why he married her. He’s a Haitian from Miami, and now he lives in Denver like me, on the streets.
And you ask how I got here? It’s easy because I was born here. And how my ex, a Romanian, got here? It’s still easy. But how the hell does a Haitian get to Denver? You got to ask him because I did and I still don’t know. There’s not another one in the whole city that I know of. Jean-Marie says, “We moved to New Orleans and then there was this hurricane.” Like that explains it.
Haitians don’t bother with details, I suppose. He wipes off the glass lip with his thumb and forefinger, takes a rip and leans back to picture it all in his own head, sharing the bottle again but not the thought. It doesn’t really matter.
I nod and spit about four feet, away from our provisional living quarters. “Why you got a girl’s name anyway?” I only met him yesterday and there’s not much I know about the man.
Jean-Marie tucks his legs up closer and leans hard against the dumpster and sits quietly, gathering his answer. “Just because,” he says.
“That’s not an answer, Jean- Marie. If we’re to be partners I need a little more openness, okay?”
“Whatever. Creole people just use that name.”
A few folks, Mexican mostly, wander out of their shops to their cars which are parked on nearby streets where they don’t have to plug the meters, and I consider selling them some weed, but decide I’ve done enough hard work for one day.
The sky’s turned darker and wetter and a steam-iron sort of mist settles on Jean-Marie and me, and it makes the asphalt parking lot seem like dead-on summer which it isn’t. The wetness awakens in the dumpster a nasty, rotten smell.
I knock back another shot from the paper bag and hold onto it for comfort. Jean-Marie’s skin glistens like coal and we kill time spitting on the asphalt in between lies and half-truths, and hitting on a few whole truths that nobody else would believe; except we know because our wives are both witches who schooled together in the same discipline on different sides of this screwy planet.
Like others I’ve known, Jean-Marie thinks I have a propensity to feel sorry for myself and has said as much, “You are fifty-eight, my friend, so how come you not let it go?”
I tell him it’s because I could have been somebody; that I was born with awesome talent, and I offer Van Gogh as an example, but he only says, “No thanks I don’t smoke.”
His English isn’t so good and I suppose he thinks I’m offering him a cigar. As if I could afford a cigar. “I knew my Zsa Zsa used to read tarot cards and tea leaves,” I continue. “I was cool with that. It made me cool to be with her, I mean I was more than okay with all that, but she saved the bad part until after we were hitched and had her no-good hands legally in my pocket and on my paintings.
“I drank too much, no secret there. Thing is, I could paint sober or drunk, day or night. They say I’m a genius, Jean-Marie, can you believe it? And then she went to work on me.”
“Me too, my friend. We are all geniuses in our own heads.”
If only he knew who he sat next to. “No, no, don’t mock me. Here’s the deal, Jean-Marie, she wants me dead. The body of my life’s work sits in her house like the gold at Fort Knox and, well, it’s maybe not so valuable if I’m alive but if I’m dead, well, that’s a different story. She wants me gone, on her conditions. She’ll torment me until I give in. She wants me to die! Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“But her ghosts aren’t strong enough and she knows it... They can only ruin my life, not take it from me. Maybe she thinks I’ll die from lack of sleep or a heart attack or something. I don’t know, more likely I’ll cough up my liver. Her witch faculties only go so far.”
“Maybe you should just kill yourself.”
“Don’t be sarcastic, Jean-Marie. I’m just saying. Don’t think I haven’t considered it. She says I’d be better off dead, and she’s probably right. I just don’t want her to have the satisfaction. She only married me because she thought I was interesting, a painter and all, and for the paintings too. I think she knows they’re worth a pretty penny, but all the more pricey if I die, and better yet if I kill myself, you know, that old trick, all that tragic alcoholic genius nonsense.
“Nobody knows what I’m talking about, Jean-Marie. Except you. You understand these things. She’s a dream-peeper, a dream-stealer. Whatever. Keeps your private thoughts, part of your soul, in jars like a kid keeps spiders... to use against you.”
“I don’t know nothing about dream-peepers; I don’t think my woman does those tricks. I only know about real dreams, like dreaming about crab legs and beans and rice, Cajun food and some of those mamas in the French Quarter with their big eyes and beads and shiny skin. What are these dreams of yours, my friend?”
“Jesus, Jean-Marie, I don’t mean those kind of dreams, it’s not what I’m saying; I mean what’s in a man’s head. It’s not what I’m talking about at all. I don’t know why I’m even talking to you about this stuff.”
“Why can’t you just answer me these simple questions? You think you are so smart, smarter than Jean-Marie.”
“Whatever. I mean, I suppose, look, I suppose I want to go to movies again like when I was a kid, see Lawrence of Arabia for the first time, all over again; go to the old Egyptian theatre down the street and... Jesus, I can’t believe I’m talking like this.”
“You can’t go back, my friend, but you can have a better now. How does she know your paintings will have value? If they are so good why do you not sell them yourself?”
“For one thing, she has them and I don’t.”
“You are so afraid of her?”
“Damn right. Besides, I’m not that well-known now. I mean I used to be. And Zsa Zsa can put her voodoo on the buyer, stuff like that. She knows people in New York, but you have to understand, the paintings have to be good to begin with. Her magic at making money is only so powerful; it’s important to those easterners, those rich Croatians she deals with, that my genius grow from the ashes of my suicide. Nobody likes a live artist. Don’t ask me why.”
Jean-Marie nods in agreement, but I don’t think he understands. I feel I have to convince him, or maybe I have to convince myself, “God has given me a great gift; I know it and Zsa Zsa knows it. She says my name will live on. At least that’s something. I’m really good, Jean-Marie.”
“And you are not shy about your greatness.”
“My art is greater than her magic, I’ll say that. If only she didn’t plague me with these damned ghosts... I don’t know if I can take much more.”
“Why doesn’t she just kill you? It would be easier.” Jean-Marie looks sleepy, and bored. The cloud-veiled bloody sun has disappeared, called it a day, leaving a muggy dampness.
“It’s a fair question, I suppose. She wouldn’t go that far. No, even Zsa Zsa wouldn’t go that far. She would have me die, but I don’t think she could pull a trigger or anything like that. I don’t even think she owns a gun.”
“Maybe she should poison you. She is a witch.”
“No. You don’t understand.”
“Then why don’t you kill her?”
The naked honesty of his question startles me. I feel a chill run up my spine and back down again. It’s never even passed my mind. “It’s not so simple,” I say, my words treading softly before unclear thoughts. “I’m not a killer. You can’t just go and kill another human being, Jean-Marie.”
“You like these ghosts that stomp around in your head, stealing your sleep?”
“I mean, well, I admit my life is a nightmare. She is a danger I suppose. The hag’s monsters come every damned day. You’ll see what I’m saying. You’ll see at seven; it’s when they come, when the monsters come out of the sea.”
That gets his attention, changes the subject, and gives me time to sit on his disquieting question. He fixes a look on me. We are two drunks, long past the admission stage and more into the so-what stage, equal in our poverty, so long in the gutter we no longer smell it. He says, “My friend, there is no sea in Denver.”
I smile. It’s nearly time for show-and-tell. “The sea is her dream. She comes from near the sea. The monsters are mine, they know my name, but the sea is all hers. It’s meant to scare the hell out of me. And it does. Every time. It’s the setting for her little play, her little extortion.”
“I am still confused, why doesn’t she just kill you?”
“Zsa Zsa has her ethics I suppose. I don’t even know if she knows where I am, and I think only my monsters can find me since they’re my own sins and know the dark places in my mind, and then, you know, I suppose there are lines some witches won’t cross, codes of honor.” I feel my words becoming thicker, my mind starting to buzz. I’ve had too much to drink, thankfully.
The damned things do indeed come at seven, a reunion of collected monsters, my worst nightmares, in the landscape designed by Zsa Zsa, my foreign-born ex, but Jean-Marie is there as my witness. We have splurged, and sit behind wooden slats and broken window glass sipping Starbucks coffee from paper cups.
I smell the sticky fishiness of seawater, and Jean-Marie says he does too. Denver has no fog to speak of. Fog’s not common here, nor normal; this fog’s demeanor is mean and pregnant with Zsa Zsa’s ghosts. And Denver has no fog horns, but we can hear them clearly, as well as seagulls squawking.
Through the splintery slats I see their tarry substances approaching out of the fog, storming the beach; there’s the crackling of light behind them that turns the world before us into a firefight, a jerky Charlie Chaplin movie, a gut-wrenching ear-popping event I know too well as Lyndon’s Asian War and which they had told me no no you can’t go your eyes are pop bottles too poor for soldiering but they had lied and there I was, not meant to die in battle but to paint great works of art, and there in the frenzy of combat I... I... I... ran. All my companions died that day. I saw it all as I looked back. In the little hamlet, Duc Lo.
Duck Low to me forevermore.
No one knows but me and Zsa Zsa, who reads my dreams. And now from my ex’s fogpools of gooey tar the rotted bloated bodies rise and approach and begin to beat on this abandoned residence in the old Highlands of Denver, and as I know they are not real I take a sip of my Starbucks, spilling it on my plaid Goodwill shirt.
Jean-Marie’s eyes are wide and unblinking, so I know he is with me, covering my flank. We watch, our brains curdling, the silent flickering behind the soupy darkness and the phantoms that beat on the door and try to crawl through the broken glass.
Please, God, not me. Please, not me. One phantom is my sergeant, another my bunkmate from basic, a gathering of refused memories from that decades-old war, and the dishonorable thing I did. The same faces keep beating on the door.
I don’t know what Jean-Marie sees, maybe mine or perhaps his own ghosts. Those same abandoned faces confront me every night since the ex’s obscene offer.
One phantom opens a window and looks inside. He’s as tall as ever, his clothes tattered and bloody, and they fit him like a scarecrow’s. His eyes are gone, having fully rotted away. Please don’t, please don’t, please don’t, he mocks, and adds, Why don’t you want to be our friend?
Another has entered the abandoned house unseen and walks up to me and hugs me, putting his bony arms all the way around me and kissing me on the cheek like a Frenchman, saying I forgive you, and, There’s a way out, you know.
I’m thinking as I do every such night that Zsa Zsa’s plan, it might be a dandy plan.
I’m on the floor and they kick and scream and berate me, kicking me in the head and ribs, and Jean-Marie is yelling, “Stop it! Stop it, Leave him be!” It gives me slight comfort, and my proof is painful but at least I know he believes me now.
And then eventually as always, like the lights coming on in a theatre, everything returns, dull and normal. There’s no fog, no ocean in Denver. My ghosts turn to steam and my hands push against air.
Jean-Marie is standing above, my expensive coffee is cold, and he says, “What say you and me go together, go see your ex and take care of business?” His coffee is spilled on its side, wasted. He’s clearly rattled and pushes around through old, abandoned cupboards for bottles he knows aren’t there.
But it’s not such a bad night after all. A friend who likes me. A friend for whom I could someday give my life. The cold sugared coffee tastes good going down.
Jean-Marie is convinced at last. “Kill her,” he says. “Kill her and break the spell. Empty the jars that hold her powers, and then just kill her.”
“I can’t. I’m an artist, not a killer, no matter what, I could never take a life with my own hands. Even in the war I never took a life. No, I could never kill.”
“I could,” Jean-Marie says. “I could and I would. And I carry a knife, you know. Yes, I want you to know this thing about me.”
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Leonard Schlenz