ALWAYS OUTSIDE, ANOTHER NIGHT
W. Jude Aher
Three a.m. in the cold of an oncoming winter's night. Sitting within the skin of an old and corner-frayed quilt, a quilt once painstakingly sewed and colored. Warmth roams from body to quilt, and in a slow curve, back to body again. Thoughts have not begun for an hour, or is it more. Wood curves her darkly-stained chair to rock her in a motion, returning motion. A clock from within the shadows of another room strikes gone another minute and sounds no echo from room to room. Quiet rides the currents of air from kitchen walls to a window-seated window. And without notice, each pane whispers its age, 150 years, to the ghosts of how many eyes.
Outside another window, in the kitchen still, moonlight is the question in this night. The graves of forgotten names, and maybe even places, grow shadows in homage to the moon's drift. An angel stands fallen in stone looking far away from that window, yet seeming to hear all the same. And a rabbit shadow-furred warm eats from free grass. Never do the deaths in passing even give notice. And the slight cold wind in its late autumn flight stops for its moment to take notice of stone-carved names. Stone to sand again, and the eyes of ghosts seem to blink in the night.
Small breasts and cold-hardened nipples, she would think to notice, but doesn't care. Nor does her subconscious sweep upon the dare of hormones held too long deep within the only and empty palm that holds all the space within her hand. Sand in her eyes, and what child cries alone and outside on a summer's night. Light, seemingly from within the breaks of waves. Her open window too near to that sound that even now could echo down to the echo of her soul. Down to the place where a man, too often with hate in his colorless eyes, died. Alone from this death, how safe behind her door, what tears could she cry, but it was only ocean sand in her eyes.
Unsuddenly, as in the motion of the rocker, her hands leave the warmth of her lap. Her bones are a notation of life in echoes as fingers move, still unspoken. A cigarette is the only notice of wronged rhyme that walks the wind of her body. Lips move and eyes flicker. A clock from another room clicks seconds from wall to wall, mating time to the lighting of a match. Her eyes notice flame as her lungs notice smoke. Exhaling smoke quickly with her first breath to extinguish this small shadow drawing flame, the eyes catch into the motion of smoke curls and wind moves. A touch of cold strikes the beat of clock echoes across an unnoticed open palm.
* * * * *
Jim watches Karen, a bundle in the dark, a motion so ever still. There is no effort and even less consideration set in his mind to disturb her. Too many years has he watched her thus. Too many nights have his hands wandered their bed alone. Turning the last Tarot card face down onto the table before him, Jim lays the deck aside. Taking a used joint from the ashtray, he relights it. Holding down the smoke deep, but never anymore seemingly long enough, Karen fades, so almost with the night kitchen darkness. Curtained windows hold back the light of a broken moon. Just an imitation Tiffany lamp casts circular light and shadows. And a reading of self-indulgent tomorrows lies in wait.
When flesh tires, how often now do silence and rage lose the power of their stage. Maybe it was the cigarette that broke the stance and empty peace of her mind. She could almost feel uncast shadows dark, carving unsilent whispers about her eyes. Jim turned back to his joint, playing with the smoke and not really reading his latest play of the cards. Her eyes heard all this without even moving from the window.
Her mind almost remembered Jim's hand resting of a sudden touch from the night upon her shoulder. His breath, a whisper uncarved behind her. Cold and warmth mingling in the motion of his fingers as they played down her chest, crawling slowly under the weight of blankets. His fingers reaching, but never quite finding, the curves of her breasts. Her nipples hard from the cold, but beginning to swell to the ache of the quick and sudden pain his fingers represented. Lying in wait and building a depth of reason from so easily ever far away, she almost dreamed of that moment as she sat alone and rocking still. Yet, which year had his fingers found the time to stop, to hold just above, or was it just upon, the upper curve of her breasts? They would lie there resting, just light enough to gain some warmth from her body, waiting, she had known, for her to move. But waiting all the same, and never breaking through her wall of silence. And with silence unbroken and pain unsatisfied, his hands would be just as suddenly gone. And she would continue on as if never touched or noticed upon his touch. And there he would sit, laying his Tarot cards down, one by one.
Karen suddenly feels disturbed by his silence. No music plays and no television whispers sharply from around corners. If only Kat were up, brewing tea and buttering rice cakes, running quietly in the small light across the kitchen, and seemingly ignoring Karen all the time. The smell of cinnamon drifting onto the tips of her senses, a motion she could ignore lovingly. But it is three in the morning and they are all growing old. A notion of sleep begins to warm her thoughts, unbidden. And Jim's silence begins to tick, as the seconds of the clock resting upon another wall.
It is time for bed, but would he come or would she find him curled in a large broken shape against the morning sun, how few hours from now.
* * * * *
Kat sat up in her bed. A single wide candle flickered its light in small disturbed jumps from shadow to shadow, back to her from across the room. An invisible line of uncalled winter shadow hung taut between the bedposts, past her red-socked feet. Her eyes played in that shadow of her mind, or could it really be a bind in this house. There was no reason for that shadow to exist, or even to seem to exist, but all the same, her candle light was drawing line into form. Its chill did not touch her but seemed to wander closer behind her every silent breath.
Memory was alive in the posts of this bed, as often was she caught before sleep eventually found her these days. Memories of youth and rage, of love and of the staging of every moment. Earth silent as earth free, so she strove all these years to be. A touch of black, a touch of white, and the echo of darker brown to void black eyes lying deep within every line change to the movement of her candle's light. Always in the night before morning light, yes always in the night before morning light. Her grandmother, memory or ghost, whispered again -- a touch, a flicker of warmth spotted between her small breasts.
Shadow line, but her mind drifted hard and slow into the echoes buried deeply into her bedposts. Puberty had been a quiet skin, wearing pain, trying to steal all the walls of reality from her body. And sometimes there were almost tears in the very corners of her eyes. But almost, now as then, never counted to her. She sat alone, but in the lingering whispers of her grandmother's stare. It was an hour before dusk and time was never so quiet. Her legs, crossed beneath her, never moved in all the hours she sat thus. An old oak rose continually in the night, a feeling behind the nakedness of her bone-lined back, touching eternally into the dark so close and above her. "You must remain thus until morning light breaks into the night of ever darkness. You are twelve and alone in this world. It is time you learned to walk as to talk to the moments you will come to breathe." And her grandmother's bone hard and cold hands had slowly undone the buttons of her blue and favorite dress. She had worn that dress all day while gathering herbs with her grandmother. She had been running between sun and tree shadow when Gram had called for a rest. Just running and looking for flowers to place in her hair.
Standing alone on the old porch just outside the closed door of Gram's house, her blue dress lying easily without her across her small bed, she had almost thought to reenter that door. The slight growth of hair edging the slit of her womaness, as Gram would put it, had been standing hard in the slight but cold breeze. Her young breasts had been touched with skin pain as she inhaled a deep moment of that cold night. And it had been the suddenness of her feeling naked that had called from within her, that had tried to turn her, to return through her grandmother's door. But somehow she had known that if she had returned through that door before the morning light, she would have greeted only hard laughter, and that of a woman to but a little child, a laughter she had never heard since she'd come to live with Gram. It was the laughter of a man hitting her mother so long ago.
Taking sand and dirt from the earth just below Gram's porch, she had filled both her small hands. Back in the yard, feet in front of Gram's oldest and favorite tree she'd bent close to the ground, her butt slightly open to the cold and the face of that tree, and drawn a circle large enough for her to sit within. As she'd sat, the warmth held in the earth had risen easily from skin to bone up through her body. She'd drawn the five runes of life, learned so long ago from Gram's patient hands, around the inner wall of that drawn circle. And then hesitantly, she'd touched a finger to her tongue, wetting its tip with gathered spit from her mouth, and reached down between her crossed legs to the earth to mix her spit with that earth to form a drop of mud.
What echoes of her, half-naked and five, up to her waist in a puddle of water and mud. And the look in her mother's eyes as she had stood just inside the kitchen window. Those large, hair-touched hands from behind grabbing, harder and harder, her mother's breasts.
Taking that drop of mud, she'd covered first one nipple and then the other, the mud's warmth first seeming to soften the cold pain within. But with the mud's hardening and colder touch, the pain to a dull ache had returned to remain. She'd then repeated the process, this time using four fingers, to cover her vagina and soften its hairs. And again the first moment of warmth had tingled a soft bite of pleasure that had seemed to reach up even to her barely breasts. Though as the mud hardened, it had bitten into her small moment of pleasure seeming to call forth a hidden wind that had inched quickly over her whole body. Goose bumps had risen and her vagina had begun to itch there where pleasure had so simply just begun.
She had seen her mother through the crack of the bedroom door, lying naked and face down away from her. Kat had barely reached to the height of the door's knob, and her eyes had been tiny in the shadowed hall, tiny and unseen as she'd stopped before an earlier cry from her mother's room. Her mother's face had been buried down between the man's legs. And she'd seen those large hands in reach down between her mother's open legs. His fingers had been unseen but those hands had been pulling her mother open down there, hard and wide. Staring at a drop of blood there on the sheets, she'd thought for a moment that she could see his cold blue eyes staring, seeing her hiding in the hall. A tear in her silent eyes.
And the night had worn on. And grown more naked with each further hour into the night.
Something had hardened in her during that night. She had never since been sure whether she had been freed from her earlier memories or whether she had been bound into something she could never quite see over the following twenty-seven years. She wondered over this memory as she had rarely returned to that night. Maybe because of its closeness in time to her grandmother's death.
Her grandmother had died two weeks following that night. She could still distinctly view the moment of her death. She had been sitting on the edge of Gram's bed, this bed, and she barely noticed her hand coming to rest flat down upon the mattress, as if reaching for. Kat had held her grandmother's hand in both of hers, every few moments rubbing it between hers, with the cold growing from seemingly deep within Gram. Gram's eyes had been closed and Kat had listened to the ever-slow but ever-even breaths that had drifted as the only sound but for her own quiet breathing. A single candle, made by her Gram's own hands, had stood alight in the far corner of the room, stood as if waiting for dusk to fall to full night. As her grandmother had requested, Kat had called no neighbors to lie in wait with her on that final evening. She'd just sat holding onto Gram's hand and watching the slow climb down of the sun. The mountains to the north had been well lost in their own shadows as the sun had just suddenly fallen to the night there behind those forever hills that rode westward out from Gram's valley. And there Gram's breath had just stopped, her hand moving not even the slightest jerk. And Kat had met death for the second time in her young life. Death, the silent collector of moments from the sun that lived every day about her, death leaving nothing but cold memories in its wake.
Now Kat, in a moment that jerked so slowly into her awareness, quickly drew with finger and air upon the paper of her mind's eye, a circle before herself and a soft five-pointed star within. And she almost thought to see the shadow line between her bed posts widen into a grin, real as lost from a face so long ago forgotten.
Sleep came to Kat easily as it often did. A cold moon's light and a small graveyard's night were held to still just beyond her curtained windows. Sound was an echo sweet in the sad rhythm of the wood-to-wood rocking from the kitchen.
Late Friday morning found Kat driving her older-than-she-dared-to-notice VW Bug in its rust and its totally familiar soul, south down the Saw Mill to New York City. Her illustrations all complete and held in black leather. The sun was held back behind a cold, clouded sky. If she hadn't known the season better, she would have thought of the touch of snow ice crystal and soft falling on her nose. The traffic was fairly easy to live as well as drive with until she traveled below the George Washington Bridge. And in passing under the bridge and quickly at sixty-five miles an hour into a growing rage of traffic, she thought of Jim. She always thought it funny to imagine him at work. That lost poet of years gone and never quite a witch, spending his days adding the numbers of other peoples' money. She thought of the novels, all twenty of them, begun, unfinished and gathering dust. She thought to see him, was it twenty years ago, standing up there on the bridge, his thumb hard into the wind and his eyes wide with pain and a dream. His long hair giving him rides which were normally kept for females only. And she had met him so long ago on that road above that at the time seemed never to end.
* * * * *
Jim sat with his legs pulled up to his chest just across the street from where he thought he should be, listening to the closeness of the Rockies held in the summer warm sun of Denver. One police car passed him unnoticed that morning, so he felt to relax. Besides, he had a place to sleep that night. When he finally noticed her sitting cross-legged and alone in the small park across the street, he had the feeling that she had been there for hours and unmoving, but of course he would have noticed her before. Looking down to the open steno pad in his hand, he gazed upon a half-written poem. Rereading, his words whispered back to him of much more than just that silence he sat within. And suddenly he thought to allow her to find a place in the next line of his poem. And so it was that he wrote, carrying both moments and pictures. Though, for a moment he thought it strange that he wrote her not sitting in a small park but sitting and naked from the waist up on a large outcropping of boulder staring down upon an old wooden-porched house. And he wrote of drops of blood, hidden by a long skirt, dripping a slow stain down the rock face. But she was no longer sitting alone or at all in the small park across a black concrete street from him.
* * * * *
Kat had seen his sad eyes soft and unlonely lost behind an occasional car passing. She had felt the slightest moment of fear creep into her fingers in the bare of a second before it was gone. She'd almost wondered about his eyes lost easily in their own shadows and in the dream of his pen moving, but the sun had been strong and fine, touching easily through her thin clothes. She'd thought of the mountains in such a rage of height lying just beyond this concrete city's edge.
And she'd known her ride was due for her any time now. Sweet summer snow, the thought always reminded her of her grandmother's morning smile on cold winter mornings.
Kat had been tired from a day of diving into cold river waters and from climbing hard sided mountains. And, of course, she'd been smiling all the same. She'd felt her friend's hand, a little too large, reaching up and under her wrap-around skirt to grab a little tighter than she cared for as they entered his house there in south Denver. She'd already been hearing the music and noise of people, the many changing faces that always seemed to occupy his house. One reason why she'd been able to stand being with him had been this tendency of his to share his house with the many kids that he'd found wandering on the road. Another was that he'd seemed to know every beautiful spot in the Colorado Rockies. She'd been able to put up with an occasional squeeze harder than she liked. But in the quiet of her mind she'd pushed away the whispers that echoed in those bare moments of pain. Easily his grab had turned into a caress, a touch of pleasure that she'd found easily held to a long moment in the warmth of his large hands.
She'd read through some of his poems, whose wording occasionally and almost had reminded her of some of the almost silent soul-to-earth chants she had learned from her grandmother. She'd almost been able to see a drift of smoke rise from the pages as she read, like the smoke that rose from the earth when she plied one of her grandmother's spells. Almost. Looking into his eyes watching her as she read, she'd wondered if he had known. But his eyes had been distant, even when they seemed to open and close. She'd wondered what had carved into him deep in his short past. Jim was a funny name to see scrawled at the end of those poems, but he'd seemed too comfortable with it for her to try a spell of the unnamed.
Weaving in and out of the traffic with a seemingly erratic skill that any passenger in her small VW would never trust, Kat smiled as she remembered her first night-long conversation with Jim. She had always wondered where she would be, in this time now, if Jim hadn't been there that night. Almost morning and she had awaken, how recently had she just fallen asleep. Her other friend had been there, his head buried between her open legs. She'd almost been able to smell the varied drugs running through his blood, as his lips had nibbled slowly into her sightly too dry vagina. She'd been able to feel the wetness from his lips a slow trickle down her crack to the carpet below. Down his back and across a pair of red underwear, his butt taut with right hand down and moving between his own legs.
Kat had seen Jim just staring as he'd sat with his arms wrapped around his chest-drawn legs. There had been the distance of maybe a poet in those eyes. Kat's body had wanted to push this man away from her, but their sex had always been private before this night. Was it that she had spent the night talking with another man while he spent the night smoking the night away. But even though she'd been comfortable with this man and his house, or almost so, she had known in that moment, while his lips had moved deeper into her, that she would be out of his life in a moment if she pushed him away in this moment. Had she known this feeling all along, since that first night she had crashed there, so tired from the weeks of hitchhiking. She'd wondered why she had never spoken of her grandmother to him, even out in the mountains and sunlight where he'd seemed so loving and free. Was it funny that he'd only touched her in the dark of night.
Suddenly she'd felt a moan rise in his body and his teeth bite sharply into the depth of her. Her scream had been silence lost to a moment of shock, her legs wider even still she could feel the touch of his tongue on her blood.
* * * * *
Jim's eyes were wide open in a moment when he saw the look suddenly ride in her face. Earlier that night he'd found himself very drawn to her ever-sharp though sweetly-soft voice as they talked. As sister or lover, he almost wondered at the lack of or at the overreaction he had to her. But he never thought to share more than words, as he had seen her enter with, was his name Paul, his hand quickly leaving the depths from beneath her skirt as they'd entered earlier. And it was his house. How crass his voice held when compared to Kat's.
With her face still caught in that frozen depth, Jim watched nervous energy growing down to his fingers, as that man rose before this girl, holding out his prick hard and wet. He watched her face, tears suddenly falling from the bottoms of her eyes. Caught in this man's hands, she was turning and trying hard to break away. But he managed her still before him, digging his fingers deep into her arms. Suddenly, he kneed her painfully in the crotch and allowed her a gasp of breath before he pulled her head down to his swollen prick. Kat's face held in Jim's mind, and without a knowing volition, he found himself pulling at this man, trying to dislodge this horror.
* * * * *
Barely out of that moment of pain and shock, struggling as if it had been death that had been trying to drown her with its heated semen, Kat felt Paul's body pull, or had it been pulled, away from her. Then she'd seen him turn to backhand that so-thin boy she had been talking to earlier. Watching Jim fall back and hard against the wall, she'd begun trying to move away from this hard man before her. Suddenly, she'd felt his hand hard into the skin of her cheeks, and heard him moan sharply to himself. Warm and wet falling to her hair, she'd drawn close into a fetal dream she had never before known, or had it been remembered. And then she'd heard that man's footsteps fade down a hallway and into another room. Run, she'd wanted to run, but had found that she couldn't move. Memories, no better than her present feel, had threatened to swallow her and tighter as she'd tried to wrap into her self. Somehow she hadn't fought the thin hand that had pulled her to her feet and led her out into the night. And led her away from that man and his house, forever.
It was almost funny to her sometimes, how easy it was to love Jim, friend and brother, how easy it was to listen to the silence deep in his eyes.
How lucky she was to have found a parking place, down here in the village on a Friday night. After spending the whole afternoon working with that idiot at the publishing house, she knew she couldn't face rush hour traffic out of the city. Kat walked through Washington Square Park, heeding nothing of the crowds and changing lines gathering there. Out of the South West entrance to the park, glancing easily at the few chess games still running, her mind was slowing itself into the focus of a dark glass of wine, and maybe a little food.
Strange that the cold late autumn winds waited until she was out from the park’s open spaces to reach up into her waist-length woolen jacket. Had she been barely ten when she'd walked alongside her grandmother, walking the evening winds, what autumn night, and not really so long ago. She'd been practicing her changes, her focus with word and breathing. Gram easily correcting her when she'd missed a word or turned a phrase too quickly. Her grandmother had stopped, holding onto her arm to bring her to a halt also. A thin cold wind had seemed to come from nowhere and crept up under her jacket awaking onto her skin. Her grandmother had silenced her unspoken question with a twist of her lips. And to the silence she'd been able only to listen. Gram had turned to the face of that sudden wind, she'd then turned one step left and smiled, "Kat, no matter how much you have to say, no matter how much you have to do, always listen." Gram had walked a few steps forward to reach into a thick bush. From the bush she'd pulled a racoon, almost dead from the loss of blood. The racoon had been missing a foot. She'd smiled as she'd told Kat how the racoon had gnawed it off to escape a trap.
(Did that racoon live?) Kat stopped in the wind and turned to face into it. Then turning left, she closed her eyes for a moment. She thought she felt again that long ago racoon bite that hadn't quite broken the skin of her hand. Her grandmother had jarred its mouth open just in time, "Even goodness is rarely free, child." Did she see Jim sitting quietly before an unread Tarot reading.
"Are you alright?" And Kat opened her eyes. A young girl of maybe fifteen, short dark hair thick and falling across, her face stood huddled in the shadows of a shop closed for the night. She wore jeans torn at both knees and a light sweatshirt too large for her. The girl left the shadows to touch Kat's arm when she didn't immediately answer. For just a moment Kat thought of San Francisco, North Market Street and another shadowed doorway.
"Do you have a home child?" she whispered with almost her grandmother's voice.
The girl turned behind her, then turned her head back. "I just left it. I guess I left the door open, too." And the young girl laughed easily to herself. "I call myself China. Would you happen to have a quarter to spare?"
Across a dimly lit table, just inside from Sixth Avenue, Kat watched China shoving another piece of Irish soda bread into her mouth. Just trying to smile through an open mouth full of bread, China watched while Kat bent over a menu to order dinner for two.
Dark eyes, brown and color even eyes, sitting astride their own body separate silence. China felt the strength of free bread in her mouth, as she watched the woman at the table across from her. It was Kat's fingers which came to hold onto China's stare. They twisted the air as if of smoke rising from a candle lit between them. A free meal might be worth a story, but never necessarily the truth. So was the drift of China's mind as notice she didn't the slow edging of shadow into her sighs.
Kat sipped at her Bloody Mary, savoring the sharp touch of the vodka hiding there behind the blood of whose Earth. Tomato juice had never been a favorite of hers, no matter how often her grandmother had spouted on its psychic softening properties, even when made from those home-grown tomatoes, ah so sweet on her tongue. This girl, she seemed almost to be a memory in Kat's thoughts, elusive and yet? Kat's fingers, unbidden wove in sign. Runes of echo spoke to the voice, to quickly whisper out to earth again. Moments laid caught between fingers and eyes. And never stopping in her eating stride, it was of this moment, Kat easily noticed that China could never hide. Stories of youth, stories of the years, a drift of dust from her grandmother's grave, were the only memory of her last goodbye. And waitresses they come and go, never noticing how easily time stops.
China stopped in mid chew to pick up and stare into her Coke, or is it Pepsi, and who the fuck cares! China giggled to herself while seriously wondering if the woman could have snuck something into her drink. She was thinking too clearly, the edges of her mind were too sharp, memories were beginning to echo in the opening corners of her thoughts like an open window dance. These memories, she had months ago come to soften with the edges of yesterdays gone, like a song come and gone. But all in the same moment, China was suddenly sure that the Coke was but Coke.
In the start of whispers
shadows cross the wind
ice born - in light
so the river's cry
winter lives a moment
frozen in tomorrows
and yesteryears but
walk the blues
Feeling the crumpled paper in the back pocket as suddenly as memories they come and go, China tried to lean into its voice. She didn't believe in poets, all those silly words going nowhere, now music, there was real rhyme. And yet his voice, tied to words she wouldn't imagine really having any meaning, walked in such a hard contrast to the scarred and older body that was his. It was but another whisper of yesterdays gone. China thought it funny that this woman's eyes, though her face was turned toward China's from behind a half-finished dark drink, seemed to stop just across the table from her, just before that candle, smokeless and burning. Colorless? Could someone sit looking into nowhere at all?
"So, China, did you have a home? You know, bedroom, parents, school, teddy bear and such, before you moved into that spacious doorway? No, you don't have to answer. Am I an aging woman, just playing at Girl Scout in my boredom? Really, I was deprived as a child. My grandmother would never allow me to join the Girl Scouts. She believed that they would teach me evil ways." Handing over a food-stained menu to China's suddenly still from eating hands, "If there is any room left after all that bread, why don't you order." Seeing a sudden coming back from somewhere else in China's eyes, Kat smiled and went rambling on, "Why don't you try the prawns? I don't eat them myself, but I've heard good things about them."
"What do you want from me?" China found her voice and maybe herself again. Last night's alleyway sat snug in the pocket of her coat. Her previous moment's or even minute's muse became just that, as a name was given. Her mind didn't register the three empty glasses, tomato-stained across the table. And Kat smiled unseen at the play of chance, in the play of selves.
Kat, putting her drink easily down to the table, looked straight across the candlelight and into China's eyes. "Do you mean, 'am I going to offer you a small part in a porno commercial for a few moments of your favor?' Truthfully, you looked hungry! I know that it's a silly reason for someone to have walking the streets of New York City, but if you think about it, I'm sure you've heard stranger stories in your short time on the street." China with that slow growing street edge back in her eyes, caught that cut in this woman's words. "How did you know how long I've been on the streets?"
Kat, taking another sip of her drink, almost indulged herself with the memory of her days in San Francisco. Oh yes Jim, if only I cold allow you to remember. "With a name like China, presuming that it is your given name," noticing the slightest nod of China's head, "I'm sure that you have some acquaintance with those old hippies, beads, and their stories. You see, I might be aging, though slightly," catching China's smile, "but as a hippie or whatever I was, I haven't quite retired."
Silence settled to the table as China relaxed into the edge of herself. Pushing the menu aside, "What the hell, I'll try the prawns. You've paying."
* * * * *
Karen sits, still at four in the afternoon, though it was a Friday afternoon, in her evening cotton as to the laced floor pajamas. It had not crossed her mind, though it has, to dress. Her legs are crossed less beneath her than was possible fifteen years ago. Jim will be late. He doesn't even call on Fridays anymore, as nine times out of ten, how rare if anyone is there to see, counting Karen herself was her thin quirk of a smile. The book lies closed to the front of her as the shadow of cool air unfanned as unheated just drifts as if aware of all the hungry candles who wait.
Karen almost wonders if the pictures in the album just across to the front of her are the only real memories, that ever saw her and Jim, in their moments. Had they ever been in love? Or had it been just those beautiful times of rage and love, of peace and death. Closing arm to arm to herself, echoes of ice warmth, and later nights, of a rocking chair and cold wood. Of last night, of four in the morning, and how alone and so easily. Night after as into night. And how easily. The book remains closed and Karen rocks what rhythm marking what pace. The book remains closed but what memories stir. The book was a gift from Kat all those sharp years ago. And its cover design, as Kat once told to Karen, was also a memory. And such should the door of this book be. A memory of a quilt, and a memory of her mother. It's a memory rare, as it holds in her mind a picture just of her mother, quilting design into design. Just of her mother and no one else. Hers had been the eyes that felt something, or had they simply been eyes that were touched and human? Karen had thought that they might have been eyes that might have loved Kat, eyes that had been alive before a man was allowed to kill them. Karen holds warm to that remembered thought. She loves Kat, it seems the only love she dares anymore. The only warmth that doesn't seem to leave trails of chill in the air, as Karen slowly rocks on bed and silent blue quilt, as memories and pictures can but wait. Her fingers drum against the intrusion of something seen and remembered seen in Kat's eyes long ago, when that design was given. And foretold? Is Kat's mother really alone in that memory?
Irritated, Karen suddenly opens her book of photographs. That memories might hide memories. Jim, his hair so long, just a boy. Could just a boy ever have loved her? And the next picture over. Who was that pregnant girl? She wore Jim's coat, long black and fuzzy. Ah, that coat, which had died long before Jim had stopped wearing it. Karen wonders if that coat might be in the attic. Even old, how warm that coat had kept both her and Jim on those cold San Francisco nights. Turning the page, her thumb lying over a funny red circle design, Karen sees herself young. Her eyes were laughing and her hand was held. She was young and that was years ago, whatever could she remember, but would she even want to.
* * * * *
Again China tried to wander to the limits of her wonder, at self, at this woman with whom she rides. The sweet honey taste of dinner still drifted from where within her to whisper its contentment as a lingering taste across her tongue. A radio played rock song into rock, but her ears still lingered with that Irish folk song, jukebox strong, fields of four and death so soulful and true. Her eyes laid lost in the quiet black shadow of the Hudson River, stumbling from New Jersey reflection to the lighted bridge growing ahead. Rhythm, she easily drifted with the rhythm of this car, as she had on her run to New York City, was it but months ago. Her mother had never driven, and so China had ridden the slow Seattle busses or, more honestly, remained within the confines of her schools and her home. And still, and still. Maybe it was a year ago. Just a year, and yet the memory brought China that soft feel of childhood.
And Kat somehow knew to glance over at this young dark-eyed girl. Feeling the rhythm of travel herself, Kat held no notion to extend her glance to anything more than just that. The touch of river reflected light, or the moment past the break of a tear. Kat had to break from some silent breath moving in those eyes. It was in soft and empty moments like these that China could almost dream of returning, to her mother's lap and sip of tea, warm and sweet late into the night, while some black & white movie played on and on, seemingly forever. Where had her mother gone? But China knew that child's voice, a child she no longer allowed to walk alongside her. China knew where good-byes came from. Her friends couldn't understand, but China could even now, in this stranger's car more than three thousand miles and months away, see the hate behind her mother's eyes.
If China had been paying attention, she would have noticed a slight change, her body leaning closer to an edge, tired and caught in the silence, in the rhythm of the car. Her head leaned back, her eyes were lightly closed. A drift learned during her hitch hike to New York City months ago. Her toes just barely tightened while her fingers also came to relax. Songless, so comes the drift.
* * * * *
A carless street in the Village east of Sixth Avenue and three a.m. had found her eyes at rest and her body at ease in the shadows of an iron-gated yard. And rows of doors had echoed just beyond her sight. And before she had drifted off, her mind had just hoped no early morning jogger would beat her to the sun. Dew had held close, held in wait, for her body to sleep. Tired jeans and soiled feet, how easy the street. So, comes the drift.
The car swerved sharply, and she was able to hear under their feet the motor surge as this woman accelerated around a slower-moving car. But China's body didn't lose pace. She learned fast and three weeks on the road had taught her lessons not carried below her skin. She would survive.
So, comes the drift.
* * * * *
She'd been just fifteen, and warm rain had run patterns of sound across a closed window in the warm spring night. Her mother had been late. But China in the past few years had grown to enjoy these extra hours of space, from the growing weight of her mother's sighs. Tom, her mother's most recent boyfriend and China's favorite had arrived an hour earlier. China used to think it funny how she'd always heard whispers in her head around her mother's boyfriends, never words but tones of love, hate, fear and, in the last year, want. The want she had still been unable to understand, even though her friends at school had told her to watch out for those men. But she'd known it was their mothers' talking. Her friends had envied her the extra clothes those men always bought her, and not one had ever been weird to her. She used to watch them closer when her body had started changing. But since her period had come, and later than her friends', she hadn't been able to take that thought all that seriously. Anyway, her mother might have changed men too often, but they had all, so far, been nice to her.
But Tom had been her favorite. China had known he wanted to marry her mother. She had even heard him say that he would adopt her. She remembered the night he’d told her mother too well. She had pretended to be asleep and waited it seemed, for hours, for the creak of her mother's door, hoping for the sound of footsteps to follow. Her friend, Sally, had given her the idea. She had never seen a naked man before and hoped she might sneak a peek into her mother's bedroom. The men who had come to visit had always been gone in the morning before she woke.
China had known that her mother would freak if she were caught. She'd rationalized to herself that it was a teenager's right to do the odd. Funny, she'd thought that she would be grossed out if she caught them doing anything, like sex or such. She had seen a porno magazine once when she was eleven. That boy, Bobby, had brought it into school. All of her friends had thought it gross, except the boys, of course.
China had thought it funny. She had even started to giggle when realizing that she could really see through the keyhole in her mother's door. What she saw made her uncomfortable, though still she'd watched. She had seen a naked man now. She'd known that she would never tell her friends. They had both been naked. His body had looked a little like the men from that picture, but what she really remembered was the look on her mother's face, that happiness. She had never remembered seeing her mother looking really happy.
Maybe that was really why Tom was her favorite. He'd been real nice to her, but that smile on her mother's face. The rest of what she'd seen was easily lost in a child's memory.
China had made Tom tea. He never drank coffee. She'd then gone to her room to change for the night. Listening to the rain, she loved the rain. Her period had just finished days before and her body had felt clean again. Naked, in her panties, she'd thought she almost felt sexy, almost touching her small swelling of breasts, which barely hurt this night. Her panties had been beige and, looking in her bathroom mirror, she had almost been able to imagine that she was once again hairless and perfect. Looking at her small hips, she'd wondered if Tom would think she was sexy. But her mother would have killed her if she'd let him see her almost undressed. She'd wanted to run through the room just like she was and see if he would really look at her. But her mother, her mother, sometimes she felt so ugly.
China had sat on the edge of Tom's lap after shutting off the television and asked him to tell her a story. She'd known that she was too old for that but that Tom wouldn't' mind. He'd always liked talking his stories. He'd written them and even sold some. She'd still had a copy of Atlantic Monthly under her shirts in a drawer, with a story he had written inside. His fingers had stroked back a few stands of her hair, so softly as he began. She'd always wondered at his ability to remember his stories. She'd barely been able to remember what she'd read the next day for school.
As he'd talked, as the rain had whispered songless rhythms on the window, China had leaned further into his lap. So warm she'd felt. Maybe he would become her father, and he would hold her like this again. That had been the first time she’d ever sat with him, her mother wouldn't like it. But he did say he wanted to adopt her. A Father? Her mother never held her anymore, had said she was too old.
She'd felt so safe as he read. When she'd moved back her body to lean against him, breaking the mood slightly, she'd heard him grunt. "Sorry," but he'd known that she'd been smiling.
He'd kissed her head, "You did that on purpose." Tom had moved his body and held her arms easily, or so it had seemed to China. And on went his story. And on went the rain. If only he would stay. Did he think her sexy, even cute? She couldn't ask him, but why else would he want to adopt her. She'd brought her legs up, putting her naked feet on the arm of the chair trying to quietly lean into his arm. China had watched her shift slide slowly up, showing off her long skinny legs. And as he'd spoken, she'd been able to just see her panties as her shift rode just high enough. Had he been looking as he'd spoken his story? He'd brushed her shoulder and she'd felt she could sit with him forever. She could even have slept there as the rain, sweet rain had run forever, a river across her windows black, ever black.
Had she been asleep? No, her eyes had just been lost in the rain, in that sweeter rhythm. Never so warm. The front door had opened. Her mother had entered. She'd turned toward them, easily shut the door and stopped. Not a word! In that split second, China had hoped her mother would come over to sit with them. So like a real family? Her mother hadn't moved, she'd just stared. Not at either of them, she'd seemed to stare only at China's crotch, and her lazy unnoticed legs opened apart, the sight of her panties showing, more than she had noticed before and a bit of dark hair seen. And her mother's eyes. And China had been ugly again. Not a word spoken. Not a second passed. Tom had been tense. His story stopped. And winter geese flew no more. Had even the rain gone? China had nothing to say, she'd only felt ugly again. Hair was growing where hair should never be.
She'd wished Tom would hug her. She'd felt cold in the summer rain, cold. But Tom had seemed to move away from her. He'd also seen her mother's eyes. So, China had risen, feeling every inch of her shift's fall back to her feet. She'd kissed Tom for his story and good-night, it was a beautiful story and kissed her mother who still seemed not to move. A tear in her eye, but not until the bedroom door was closed behind her. She'd heard their voices, but shivered in silence beneath her covers, waiting for sleep.
Had been morning like any other morning. Her mother alone across the table at breakfast. Tom, not there as they never were. But something quiet in her mother's eyes. China's legs had pressed tightly together, trying to remember the rain and Tom's voice but only came silence, a silence to become uniquely hers. She'd felt ugly again.
And again as the year had worn on, and some night when the rain would fall and she knew her mother asleep, China would leave her bed to sit alone in the living room chair. Listening to the silence. Looking for a story. A story she would never write or hear again. And Tom or any others were not to come visiting again. Her mother mentioning nothing. And life had continued for mothers, as if all remained the same. Her mother's eyes and the ugliness inside.
* * * * *
The car stopped and China looked up, to see a red light blazing sun-like in the darkness. A tear in China's eyes, so wet, the rain the nothing rain.
"We should beat the rain." The light turned green, brighter even still in the blackness. Where was she? China tried and slowly returned to this car, New York City and this woman driving her home. If she was lucky. China thought. To forget her yesterdays gone, love, it never lingers on. A place for the winter. What does this woman want?
And the car moved on, through a nameless black and headlights lazy.
Kat turned the key and the car went silent, quiet into the tree-shrouded darkness that is a country's night. Thinking for a moment of all those eternal city lights, staring unseeing eyes, noticing barely the car itself, headlights still shining brightly, the South China Sea carved into a thousand leaves, a thousand shadows. A ghost with something to say, what held her mind. Kat always seemed to notice herself the more so when these moments came. But she couldn't smile, these moments were always too strong, so deep was the touch of nothing and shadow. So deep was the night beyond those headlights, and into the silent echo of death long gone, into the aging earth of the graveyard, lying how warm into itself or how cold, held just beyond those bushes in front of her car.
"Are we sitting here for some reason?" China sat easily in the hard imitation leather seat beneath her. She had been just watching Kat for what seemed like five minutes. Kat, her thin fingers gripping tightly onto the steering wheel, lines of bone and blood rising to skin. She watched her eyes. Should she be wondering if this woman is some escaped lunatic? No. What instinct had she developed in the last, had it only been six months? Oh, that early spring day, where and long ago. The sun had burned off the clouds early for a Seattle morning, almost a gently hand pointing east. What instinct? Did she dare rely on it? But, of course, her instincts were, as always, stronger than whatever fears she could hold. Fears, what a funny feeling she had so easily left behind with her mother. Got to stop hanging about older women, what a waste to keep thinking about her mother. Good-byes are good-byes. Maybe having never had a father, just a mother, no family like most of her friends, was that why it was so easy? Should she miss her mother? No she had said good-bye long, or maybe not so longer? but before China had left.
"You're going to run down your battery. Besides, shouldn't we be getting out? I presume we are wherever here is, you know, being that we seem to have parked." China reached to touch onto Kat's shoulder, receiving no reply from her quirky remarks. This was something China tried to avoid, the touching of other people. It always seemed to cause them to react strangely. But this woman, no threat. But a cold wind through the closed windows of the car, was it blowing through her shadowed hair. How far away were her eyes in their dashboard shadows? And no response. China pulled back her hand, thinking to herself or out loud. "Dashboard shadows, I've been in Greenwich Village too long."
But seconds gone, Kat seemed to remember almost hearing someone talking to her. Had someone touched her? What moment gone? What was she thinking just before? Kat pushed in the lights to the car, and the darkness fell even heavier, but never complete, complete darkness was for the realm of death only. Her Gram, her phrases would probably come walking through her mind forever. A light softened by red curtains lit the kitchen window.
"Are you alright, though I did think that you lived in something larger than this car. Do you pass out the blankets now?" Feeling more comfortable with Kat's sudden movement, China felt some of her old wit returning, glad that her passing poetic urges, were just a slip.
Kat turned to China, glad that her sighted moment hadn't lasted any longer. It was too late for visions. Yes, a cup of tea and the wind on the other side of a window, closed, something simple. Something of her life. "Sorry China, or not really, but what the hell. You might feel better that you can't really see the house. It's a lot older than this car. It's just through the trees, this side of the cemetery." Kat left the car, listening to the other door open and close. There was something she had forgotten, her mind strained just for a moment, as she barely stumbled through the darkness to her house. No front light was left on. Kat wondered if Jim had gotten home yet. Could she see Karen through the kitchen window? Was she still up? "Shit!"
"You could use a little light out here," China's voice strode through the darkness behind her.
As Kat searched fingers through fingers for the key to her front door, as China could be felt coming to a halt behind her, the vision that had not come in the car, came. It passed so quickly, so fast that it barely interrupted her finding the right key. And yet, it was clean. And that in itself was very rare. And as Kat opened the door, it was a memory. To be carried for another day. (Over Karen's shoulder, and the rocking chair still. A photograph held in Karen's lap.) China's breath seemed to whisper silence in her ear. But too quick, the moment was too quick to see who or what was in the picture. To Kat, it was just another meaningless experience, but she could see the smile in her grandmother's eyes at that thought. Any memory can always be remembered. But it was too late to start getting deep. All she wanted was a warm cup of tea.
* * * * *
Karen hears the voices downstairs. Did she hear the door close? Was Jim home yet, not that it really mattered. He wouldn't come up to bed if he was. Had she been sleeping? A candle still burns across the room. The light is so soft, she won't even move. The small curtained windows, so small they seem to give off as much warmth as the solid walls about them. No, she won't move.
Jim sits alone in the kitchen, taking a slow drag from a barely lit joint, his Tarot cards still lying in their box, still unopened from since he'd come home two hours ago. Not tonight, he knows, but isn't really paying attention to the thought. He knows that Karen is either asleep of just lying in bed in a state that to him is little different from sleep. And Kat, well her car is here, so she must have gotten back from the City. He hopes that they paid her on time for this job. She always put too much time into her work, would probably do better working for an hourly wage. Though it would be hard to imagine her working any job from nine to five or so. No not Kat. He can still imagine her, or remember her, lunchtime San Francisco, almost a statue amongst the crowds, holding still into her drawings the running faces of the crowd. Her thin body so at ease within the frenzy. So out of pace and yet still capturing those other faces so true. He had first seen Karen in one of Kat's pictures. And something in that drawing had reached out to him. But, of course, Kat couldn't remember her at all. Had it been luck that Kat had happened to draw in the street sign. Had it been luck that he'd been drawn that one afternoon to wait at that corner for her to come rushing by. Oh! Her rage, it had burned him deeper than his own poetry those years ago. Would Karen even know herself now? He doubted that she would even remember.
Yes, ever since that kid back from 'Nam walked he’d into their protest, back in '72. In a uniform so ironed. Jim remembers that uniform, and all its perfect creasing more than anything else on that day. The sun had been bright and clear, but had seemed to cast no shadow anywhere onto that boy. He had just walked slowly into the crowd of protesters, walked straight up to Karen, as if he’d been looking just for her. Jim remembers having wondering later that night if Karen had possibly looked like a girlfriend of his, lost or even given up because of his tour of war. This boy had held onto Karen's shoulders whispering something to her, something Karen would never tell, and had kissed her hard on the lips. Her lip had been cut from the force of his kiss. Then the boy had just walked away. He'd been able to see Karen's eyes. It had been like they were wondering where she was, what she was doing in this crowd of people, this too colorful and too loud crowd of people. Jim knows that her parents, so normal could never have prepared her for what happened next. Jim hadn't seen the boy after he'd walked away as he'd been caught up in the stranger's look there upon Karen's face. But he'd heard the shot. He’d heard guns before, and had seen guns before, and sometimes they'd been pointed at him. Turning to the sound, and to the sudden silence, but that was him, wasn't it? The boy had fallen to the ground and his blood had met protesters all about him. And the boy had become nothing. There had been a girl on his arm, it had been her scream that had brought back sound. With the silence gone, he'd grabbed a hold of the girl with whom he was with, her dark hair pulling from the sudden tighter hold of his fingers. He rarely thinks of her anymore. Isn't he remembering Karen. He knows that he had turned his eyes away from the boy, while holding that girl tighter to him, had turned back to look a Karen. And that look on her face. Whatever he had said, even the boy's bloody death hadn't altered the look on her face. But Jim sits alone, elbows on kitchen table, remembering not Karen's face, her look. He remembers the pull of, wait, she had called herself Autumn, he'd called her Autie. He'd almost been able to feel the fear that had run through her body, as if the war had finally been brought home. Had it been that he was just eighteen, not really old enough for that war, that he'd felt the boy's death, but just as a death. As his father's and brother's in a car how longer ago? He'd felt what he'd felt.
Autie, had she been, what, twenty-four? He could never understand why she'd loved him so much. But she'd been so warm in bed. She had lost to Karen, or had she simply lost him. Yes Dylan, they do break like a woman, like a little girl. Had he been too young to see through the poetry running rampant during those years. She hadn't been home, and had never come again after that night. He'd always thought that she'd left too easily. Just because he had spent the night with Karen. Autie couldn't even have known that he had slept with Karen, pulling her back from that look, that look given to her by just a boy, just back from Vietnam, from war.
Had he forgotten her too easily because of her having left so quickly and so quietly. So, he had stayed out all night. Karen had become a friend of Kat's. Wasn't that what those years had been all about.
Yet Jim, sitting at a kitchen table so many years later knows of all the illusion those years carried. That loss was something he had always wanted to cry for. Autumn, listening to the wind and the dying leaves, he loves this season, so cold and warm all in the same. Funny how this wind now suddenly reminds him of Autie so suddenly. We move along, not a poem, just a thought. A thought learned from how many roads traveled. Lighting again the joint still in his fingers, he inhales, for memory, for feel.
* * * * *
Lying in the dark of Kat's room, trying to listen to the sound of the dead and the wind just out the windows, China begins to wish sleep will come. How long since she has had a real bedroom to sleep in. Funny how she can almost feel young again. Waiting for scratching to begin on the window. She could sleep on cold sidewalks unafraid of what might come lurking out from the shadows, her mind knowing she would always deal. And yet here an aging graveyard, as Kat described it, could keep her awake.
For two weeks China has been with this, she tries to think of them as family. She sits alone in Kat's room, in the middle of the floor. A reading lamp is lit on Kat's art board, casting light and shadow. China is dressed only in Kat's quilt, so warm it is. She doesn't really want to put on her clothes. It is as if she can feel that warmth across every inch of her skin. She feels that if she puts any clothes on, this quilt might decide to retract said warmth. Another silly thought these people seem to bring out of her. But China isn't going to chance the loss, the warmth holds her too tightly.
Within her fingers is a piece of paper, a poem Jim had given her? Is she still reading the poem, or simply staring at the lines. Words that run through her mind, is he too easily with her. Something draws her to their talks late into the night. His wife never there somehow, and that she can’t figure. She treats her well, when she speaks at all. Though she seems to spend a lot of time just sitting and rocking in the kitchen. She does go off to work three days a week, but so wordless that woman is. Is she jealous of the time Jim spends with her. No, Kat had told her that Karen had been having some inside problems the last couple of years, and was working them out her own way.
And there is something about this poem Jim had given to her. Some feeling, wordless like the quilt, no different but still? So again she reads the poem, half listening to the night, half waiting to see if Jim will come home before she falls asleep.
"The child grows older
the snows of Christmas
no longer is the magic
so, what silence holds us all
my arms ache
so, what silence holds us all"
* * * * *
Sitting, warm in her floor-length flannel nightgown, colored in shades of dark and light, Kat watches the night about her room, held still tight against a coming dawn, still hours away. She also watches this girl, China, stir still again in her sleep. Long, thin legs form to that of a woman fall out upon the floor from seemingly within Kat's bunched quilt. Fingers are clutching and still. Pubic hair is just visible as China's thighs fade into the quilt. A mound, like that of an old Indian's silence, thick and warm in contrast to the pale fading moonlit color of her legs. Kat's fingers almost ache to move to reach within, while her grandmother's whispers walk an edge to the silence.
Sleepless nights, Kat can only wonder at this sudden occurrence. Almost since China had arrived, Kat had found whispers in her grandmother's voice seeming to reach to her in the night. She would wake after only a few hours of sleep, was it every night, to find Gram's only legacy still unopened lying on her night table. How old, in carved oak, with the almost worn figures seeming to move in any early light. Kat holds the box gently within both hands while her fingers seem to struggle across each naked figure, male to female. And Kat had vowed never to open that box, never forgetting the look in her Gram's eyes when she had held that box herself.
Kat wants to believe that she is dreaming, yet really knows that she is back, as her Gram had put it, in a drift of time. Her feet feel cold earth, with morning's dew still frozen in as she stands, her back to a mound of cloth and down, looking out into the later night. With the moon gone, the old graveyard out her window holds shadow falling into shadow. China stops just past a stone angel first, to stand upon and before a second grave. A cold white marker seems to shine for a moment, almost breaking against Kat's drift up there in the darkened window.
China, standing naked in a winter's almost morning, turns back to the house. Looking up into a darkened window, can she see Kat, or is it just wind in her darkened window? Kat is been sleeping when she silently leaves her room, taking that old box just as quietly with her. Her small nipples are hard and on the edge of pain, so what the hell is she doing out here? She tries to look down at her body, feeling the cold like ice running lines hard down her skin. She tries to look but finds her eyes coming to rest on that box taken from Kat's table. Is she really as cold as she feels? All Kat would tell her about this box was that it was the only gift left to her by her grandmother. China had thought she had done some weird things in this past year since she had run away, but this. Standing naked in a graveyard, and in winter too. The weirdest thought, China is suddenly glad that it wasn't snowing.
China knows that she should go back into the house. Why is she out here? She wants to think of Kat, Karen and Jim all sleeping warm and normal back in that house, and the song? "You can't always get what you want." Instead, she thinks for a moment only of Jim. The warmth of his hands idly stroking her head, his fingers touching, barely touching, the skin behind her ear. So warm and naked she had felt, sitting there next to him as he'd stared at a Tarot reading he'd been doing for her. Shifting her knee unnoticed in its slightest movement, watching in her warmth as her robe fell just enough down her thigh, that line of her black panties so sensual to her eyes, hoping that he would notice, that he wouldn't stop stroking her. To keep that moment, her mother could never have walked in here, not this time. China had heard steps going up the back stairs, knowing that Jim's wife had finally gone to bed. She'd tried to lean just a little closer to him.
His fingers had stopped, and he'd turned to look at her, his eyes flickering for but a second down to black, and warmth, would he kiss her? Jim's eyes had suddenly had the most distant look China had ever seen, and though they had never left her, if only she could have known who he'd seen in that moment, so deep into her. Had he known? Quick soft lips brushing hers, and his voice telling her that she should be in bed this late. Funny that China had felt afraid to move. Where was she? She'd seen her mother standing on those stairs just across the room, but with such a blank look in her eyes. No, not her mother. It had been Karen. Jim had looked at Karen real strangely in that moment, as if he couldn't figure out why she had been standing there. He'd just watched her turn around and just as quietly walk back up the stairs.
Jim had returned to gaze at China's cards laid out on the low table before or between them both. He'd laid out her last card, the High Priestess? Had he forgotten about his wife? China had felt a chill for a moment, remembering past and present as Jim's hand had fallen for a moment, resting to touch just above her knee in its nakedness, running sweetly up her thigh to her panties black and warmer than before. His fingers squeezing for a moment, seeming to touch her deeper than the soft warmth of moments before, and then his hand had just as softly as before released. Jim had picked up the High Priestess and smiled. Funny how that smile had seemed to complete his reading. Brushing China's hair, she'd felt only warmth this time, and had wanted laugh at the chill of moments before. He'd kissed her forehead and whispered good-night.
China sits on the cold hard ground, her body shifting in the cold, her eyes still trying to remember Jim. The box lies open between her and a small white stone. China's pubic hair seems to grow hard and stiff, hurting within her skin. China knows that she should go back into the house, take a warm bath, maybe go back to New York City. This is ridiculous, sitting out here in the mid of winter, and naked. Why is she naked? But as she stirs to rise, she can feel her thoughts of Jim begin to fade, strangely almost to seep into the cold earth upon which she seems to sit. Easing down in a moment of silent anxiety, China finds herself looking in that small open box, her mind struggling between the cold here and the warmth of the other night, to be taken away so easily? China feels the cold earth pushing up against her vagina, the cold so warm reaching so deep into her, as if Jim were raping her from within.
And the box sits closed before her and Jim had never come home last night, his poem echoing as just paper for a moment across her eyes. He couldn't say good-bye! China's voice seems to wake her from a funny dream. Her eyes blink, and she looks around. Naked in the graveyard at what, four in the morning. Is she sleeping? Walking? Forgetting the box, China returns to the house shivering in the moonless shadows.
China remains wrapped in Kat's quilt until she feels slightly claustrophobic, while waiting for Kat to finish dressing and leave her room. Her mind upset because of what she had done last night, her fingers clutching the poem Jim had given her. She had felt so alone when she had woken this morning. She knows that she had been out naked in the graveyard last night, and it makes no sense. Is she losing her street edge, is this what being with a family does to you. Her mother had made her feel ugly, feel an intruder in her own house. Would the same happen here? Hearing Kat leave the bathroom just across the hall, China finally rises. China feels she needs a bath, just a bath to feel warm and clean. Maybe it had all been a nightmare. She thinks of that priest for a moment, who had wanted her to move into a halfway house for runaways. He had said that she was too young to be so alone. And then she had laughed silently at him, she'd be getting a free lunch. Just a nightmare, she should laugh now, and at herself for the same thoughts. A warm bath and some breakfast, Kat will make some tea and crepes, it was a Saturday ritual for Kat.
* * * * *
Jim stands in his unlit living room just below and beyond a not quite silent clock echoing seconds. Four-thirty, he should be in bed. He thinks of Karen, of lying next to her, of wanting to touch her, and of not wanting to touch her. She is almost like death, not even a mirror to give back to him, and yet Karen is there still. Empty nights, empty nights. The opening of the kitchen door in the doorless next room breaks his thoughts away from Karen and his endless loop. China walks into the kitchen, closing the door slowly behind her. Jim almost speaks, simply in reaction to her presence so late in the night. But she isn't his daughter, just a runaway, passing through? Thinking for a moment of the High Priestess, the only major card, standing so alone in her reading, had is been last night?
And then Jim notices that China is naked, as she has stopped for a moment in the dim light of the stove. Her small soft breasts, hardened nipples seeming to reach out to him, in pain? What is she doing, this stranger girl? Jim finds himself not moving, not making a sound, but wanting to hold China to hold her and warm her against his body. So alone, almost an echo in that light. But Jim finds himself suddenly aroused as she turns towards him, and still all he wants to do is to hold her. She feels so cold. China seems to whisper his name, "Jim."
Jim walks into the kitchen, noticing now that China is shivering as he comes closer to her. "China, are you alright?" China turns toward his voice but really doesn't seem to notice him. Jim feels his gut shift with worry, but before that feeling can form, China moves her body close against his. She is cold, like snow packed frozen into the earth, hard earth. And so Jim, unsure of what to do, holds her close. China first just stands as Jim holds her, her arms down at her sides, not moving in the shadow night. And then Jim suddenly feels her hand move for just a moment, just a quick moment between them at crotch level. Jim becomes suddenly irritated that this sudden movement again makes him hard, she just needs warmth. But just as quickly, her hand moves from between her legs and up to his face, seeming to touch his cheek to look for his eyes. Her fingers come to move across his lips, tasting of cold dirt and is it blood, sweet and musky. But just as suddenly as her other movements, China raises her head up to him and kisses him. Her tongue reaches deep and wet into his mouth. A little slow to stop her, and aware of this, Jim pushes her away and still wanting to hold her, "China."
Jim just watches as China turns and walks up the back stairs not saying a word. He can hear as Kat's door opens and closes. Not saying a word, Jim goes back to the living room, walks through its sleeping shadows to the front stairs. He stops for a moment, listening to the house and to some creaking noises, which he hopes are from China settling in to sleep. Drugs? Sleepwalking? Will she remember in the morning? Jim feels too much in that moment. He finds a joint in his pocket and takes it upstairs to his almost empty bed.
All week Jim had listened, and at four every night he had heard March 24, 1996 China get up after everyone had finally gone to sleep, everyone except him. The first night after his encounter with China in the kitchen, when he had been lying awake slowly smoking a joint, still again trying for sleep. Karen lying next to him with just enough distance to keep them from touching. He had heard someone moving downstairs. Still unable to find sleep, he had risen to go downstairs. At the foot of the living room stairs, he had stood, just standing, as China sat on the couch wrapped in Kat's quilt, sitting as she had for how many nights. He'd been afraid to say anything to her and so had just stood half hidden in the shadows of those stairs watching her. China had just sat, his box of Tarot cards held in her lap with one hand covering its top. Her other hand had held onto a piece of paper. She'd rocked slightly but hadn't said a word or made a motion to him. And finally, he'd gone back to bed.
* * * * *
It is Friday night again, three weeks since she had come here. It is still early and, as she sits on the couch listening to music at the lowest volume level, she thinks again about her conversation with Kat. Kat is worried about Karen. Karen had started spending almost all of her time in her room this week. She had even skipped work. She didn't blame China and even thought it might be good that Karen was finally going past the edge. All the emptiness that had grown between her and Jim in these last few years had seemed to stabilize these last few months, stabilize into an emptiness that could go on forever.
Kat reaches out to hold China's hand and China withdraws hers in reflex, suddenly wary of Kat as she had been of her back when they'd met in the Village. What did she want of her? And yet another part of her seems to want to tell her not to worry, as mother to daughter. But making no sense to her, China just pushes this thought away from her mind. Kat ignores her hand as easily as she had reached out for it. And Kat has continued to speak of Karen. Always Karen, China wishes she would talk about or that China could, Jim. They still talked at night but he hadn't touched her all week. Had this been because of Karen? Were they all really like her mother and Tom? Can one really ever run away from anything?
And Kat continues to talk of Karen, with a strange almost remembered longing in her voice. Kat would take Karen with her into the City that night. She would take her to a female friend who was also a psychologist. She had asked Jim if he wanted to come with them, but one knew that Kat had been relieved when he'd refused. He'd said maybe at another time, when there was some reason to go. What a strange family, China thought, all so distant. And yet, they were usually so close in their words. Yes, about Jim. Kat had said that he wasn't really being uncaring about Karen by not going, he just knew that he couldn't help. "By the way, China, have you seen that little box, you know, the one I showed you last week, the one left to me by my Gram?" China says that she hasn't, still not wanting to mix her dream of last week with any reality. And so, China sits alone in these almost strangers’ house, thinking for a moment of Jim. She watches dusk settle, wishing for a cold rain to fall. Suddenly homesick for Seattle, for a soft dance of rain on a window. China thinks of that box of Kat's. She wonders if she went out into the graveyard, whether she will find it there. And with that thought, China shivers with a remembered cold. Yet in the same mental motion she feels a touch of warmth up in her crotch. For a moment she thinks of Jim. Old James Taylor, "You've Got a Friend" sings in the background. And instead of Jim, China thinks of Pat. Funny that she hasn't thought of him since that night she had sneaked out of the motel. Why is it always songs from her mother's times that seem to stir memories. Somewhat irritated that it isn't Souxie and the Banshees that stirred her memories, though good ones they aren’t, though not really bad, just memories. Shivering, but not noticing this time she still thinks of Pat.
He'd been just eighteen driving his old Chevy as he'd called it. He had picked up China just outside Kimble, Nebraska. She remembers that town so well because it held a full-size model of a missile in the middle of town. She remembered Pat telling her that it was there because the people were proud of all the hidden missile bases that were buried in the area. Pat had felt like the boyfriend she had never had, or even brother. He had driven her all day to the other side of the state. They had talked of things that kids talk about -- music, dreams and whatever. When he had offered to share a motel room for the night just across the border, she had never even thought about sex. They both were so tired that after a boring hamburger and fries she knew she'd fall quickly asleep, safe with her friend. He had offered her some coke, he had said to help her sleep, but she wasn't that stupid. She may have been a runaway, but she wasn't going to get started on drugs. Sitting on these strangers’ couch, she thinks maybe she should have taken the coke.
She'd been asleep in minutes, thinking of her mother and maybe even of Tom. She'd awaken it seemed like minutes later, and it probably was. She'd felt hands trying to push down her jeans, and her eyes had opened to black pupils staring down hard at her. Pat had been half above her, naked and she had suddenly been very afraid. She'd wanted to just lie there, let him do what he wanted, but had found she couldn't. Legs pushing tight together, she'd pushed this boy away from her. His skin had felt cold, his hands like ice. Had this been because of the coke? He hadn't been warm like Tom, fingers soft on her skin. This boy had been trying to reach into her, and with fingers of ice. Finally, she'd pushed him off of her and jumped up from the bed. Standing against the wall of the motel room, shadows painting the room just dark, China had only been able to look at Pat. She hadn't really known what to do. She really wouldn't have been able to stop him. He’d been a boy. Also, he'd been on drugs. But the boy hadn't gotten off the bed. He hadn't come after her. He'd just rolled over and started playing with himself. How like a cousin she had once walked in on, he looked. Her cousin had only been ten.
Still a virgin, China thinks. Maybe she should have let that boy have had his sex with her. Maybe she wouldn't feel so like a child sometimes.
And again, her thought lead her back to Jim. Does he want to have sex with her, she suddenly wonders. She had never really thought of it before. She knows that he thinks her sexy sometimes and she has even seen him get hard in his pants as she had sat near to him, was it last week. He'd been reading from some story he had written long ago, and she'd just been touching his leg with hers. But that was normal, China seemed to be questioning herself, it wasn't really sex? And China remembers Karen's empty face that night Jim had kissed her so lightly upon her lips. But no, he hadn't touched her, just a kiss, like a kiss good-night. China closes her eyes to feel the memory of Jim. His warmth, and maybe his love. Yes, his love. He hadn't let go when his wife had come and stood on the stairs.
China could stay sitting with her eyes closed caught in the memory of Jim on that lost night?, forever, or so she wants to believe, when she hears a car pull into the drive outside. Opening her eyes, China's street sense taking over her need to feel, China suddenly notices Kat's old box sitting on the table in front of her right next to Jim's Tarot cards.
* * * * *
Kat sits in her car next to Karen, double parked on Twelfth Street. Karen doesn’t really want to go to her friend's house. At least she is talking. Kat thinks it funny that Karen should open up to her here in a parked car. And of all things she would talk about, not Jim or what he wanted or didn't, but about a girl called Autie. About how Autie could have given Jim a child. Kat had never thought that Jim had wanted a child. Kat sits there listening to Karen trying to remember who Autie was. "You know Kat, Jim has never really loved me."
* * * * *
Jim asks China if she wants to go see a movie and then he seems to notice Kat's box. China feels a little guilty when Jim turns to her, "Where did you find it? Karen thinks Kat is perfect but I think she is a bit off, personally. And I've known her longer." Not waiting for an answer, Jim takes the box to look inside. "You know, China, I've seen this box for years and always wondered what was inside it. Kat said that her Gram said never to open it." Jim pulls out three very old and stained looking joints. All he says is, "It figures." Knowing that China doesn’t smoke, he lights one of the joints while putting the other two back into the box.
China thinks that Jim has closed the box, but the lid still remains open. And China thinks of herself suddenly as being a child, somehow not pleasant at the moment. Remembering some kids she had known from the City sharing some pot, she turns to Jim. Quickly, before he can exhale, she leans over to place her lips on his and inhale, forcing the smoke from his lungs into hers. When China stops coughing, "I'm not really a child, you know." Bending over to kiss him again this time as she'd seen the same kids doing without pot. Looking into Jim's eyes, a sudden urgency in her voice, "Jim, please love me." China suddenly thinks of Karen, of her getting better, and with the smoke quickly growing in her mind's eye, she can see her again standing on the stairs. Only this time Karen is telling her to leave "You're not my child." And China looks again, but this time the stairs are empty.
Turning to Jim, China sighs and speaks again, "Maybe I've been here too long. I don't know why I said that."
Jim reaches to the table, moving aside Kat's box to grab his Tarot cards. From the deck he rifles through it until he comes up with the High Priestess. Giving the card to China, he remains silent for a moment. And then, "I wish you were my child. Did I know you in another life? Who are you?" There is longing, but not sex in Jim's eyes.
China feels that Jim just wants to hold her. She takes the joint, still burning, from Jim's fingers. She is a child no more. Inhaling, again she feels Karen standing on the stairs, wishing her to leave. Putting the joint down on the table, not noticing the slow burn on wood. Leaning forward, she kisses Jim again, this time feeling her tongue reach into his moth, warm, wet and holding. And Jim responds, his warm hands reaching into her shirt, warm across the easy pain of her breasts. She pulls as close to him as she might, thinking of Tom and of the father she could never know. "Love me," China whispers, "love me."
Jim, more stoned than he can remember ever being just wants to hold China, to feel his love for her, to feel something real. When she kisses him, he remembers the other night. She wants to love him, and how else can she do it. (I live in a house without children, how else could she love me). And so Jim lets go of the child and kisses the woman back.
Holding China close, Jim walks her from the couch, up the living room stairs, to his bedroom. Funny how he had never felt this close with Karen. China's shirt falls to the bedroom floor and she slowly opens her jeans. Funny, she thinks that she should be scared as she watches Jim, his hands running smoothly down her back lower still to her butt. Naked, China suddenly feels so cold, the headboard lies white like a gravestone. And leaning back, she opens her legs, her thighs hoping to dispel the child's fear. And smoke drifts across her brain (just a child's fear!). Jim sits next to her on the bed, saying nothing. China thinks she can see love in his eyes as well as the bulge in his pants.
Moving over on the bed to make room for Jim, China feels something hard beneath her. With Jim's hand holding warmly upon her knee, hoping somewhat to dispel the ice chill in her skin, she reaches under herself to move whatever she has sat upon. Jim laughs, "It's Karen's scrap book." Taking it from China's hands and laying it open between her legs, Jim whispers, "I'll show you a picture. I'm almost as young as you." The picture, a picture of Jim and another girl, a pregnant girl, both much younger, lies there between China and Jim. Jim lets go of her knee as he comes to notice that picture. China, noticing the suddenly strange way Jim looks at her, looks down at the picture. Pulling the picture from the book, not even thinking that it might be glued on, China brings something almost recognizable from out of the fog of her mind. A chanting, almost music-like, seems to enter the room, even though China knows that the tape had earlier run out. She reaches out to Jim, but does not drop the picture. The picture, slow to form in the sudden mist, thinking she must really be stoned.
Suddenly seeing, "Where did you get this picture? Jim . . . this is my mother!"
* * * * *
Karen sits in Kat's car leaning on her shoulder, wondering at the lack of feeling for Jim, suddenly released inside of her. Karen feels warm within Kat's touch, and wants to stay like this forever. She has always loved Kat. But she has always thought that Kat, well, needed no one, like a mother, comforting and distant. Karen feels stoned on good grass, though she hasn't smoked in what, five years. She might never know what prompted Kat to suddenly kiss her, not that she cares as she too easily kisses her back. Not really sex, Karen thinks, so suddenly released from the weight of Jim, not caring to ask who or why. Finally able just to feel.
Kat is not sure why she kissed Karen, nor why she now thinks of that last night with her grandmother. But Kat is thinking about Jim. Are they still friends, or have they ever been. All living together all these years. All the cold seems to be shattering around both herself and Karen.
* * * * *
China sits alone in the living room. She is again dressed. She wonders how she would have felt if she and Jim, no her father, had not found the scrap book. If they had both had sex? He was her father, after all these years, to meet him in this strange house. She isn't really embarrassed that they had kissed, tongues and even a little more. It wouldn't happen again, China knows, remembering Jim's look when they both had come to the truth. Finally, China had found her father, but she really didn't feel at all like a child anymore. And China sits on the couch, no longer worried about Karen, nor about Jim loving her. She had seen the love in his eyes just before he had left. He'd said that he wanted to pick up some beer and then they would talk. But she can see that he needed to push aside what they had almost done. Silly, but most adults were, even her father. China feels warm just thinking that thought.
* * * * *
Jim drives, for a moment trying to think nothing, trying to feel nothing. A few miles further and Jim's thoughts finally really slow to reality. Shaking his head, Kat sure has good grass, Jim finally thinks of China. But they hadn't made make love, still tasting her upon his lips. Beginning to forget what almost happened, Jim just thinks of holding China. Shaking his head again, he is suddenly very high again. Wanting to turn the car around and go hug China, Jim curses Kat. "You couldn't have normal smoke in your stupid box, like a normal person." More stoned than before, he goes to brake the car. And his foot hits the accelerator, pressing hard. A strange almost chanting music seems to come from the radio. (I thought that was off.) As Jim begins to wonder about the music that shouldn't be there, the car accelerates to 70 miles per hour. Losing the curve, Jim thinks he hears his name called from beside him. He turns to an empty seat. "China?" and the car accelerates even faster. And as the darkness shudders at his sudden death, an old worn wooden box closes.