Quinton is a recluse with lifelong visions he calls wakeful dreams and is haunted by a moment from his past. An anonymous artist who, under the pseudonym Jay Walker, has seen success from two graphic novels and several ink sketches for contemporary magazines. When he agrees to take on a new project about a missing couple, Quinton is hurled into a story that could span more than a century, or not. Grayscale is a modern gothic mystery where the line between what is real and not is blurred.
I have really enjoyed posting my short stories and will continue to do so. Grayscale is my first novel that is published on Amazon. I am posting the first ten chapters for your enjoyment. If the story excites you, I have included a link to the novel.
© 2018 by Thomas R. Reilly
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
There were no words in Quinton’s debut graphic novel, aside from the title in white block letters on the cover. Not a single sentence to contribute to the narrative, or to give context to place and time, even to name characters. The story was told purely through Quinton’s illustrations, two hundred pages of imagery. The conflict, the character development, the meaning, could be unlocked only by studying the images and their relationship with one another.
Raking Light was the title, an art restoration term for using light at an oblique angle to reveal the imperfections of a painting. Some fans of Raking Light clung to those two words as evidence that it was autobiographical, that the mysterious artist was revealing his very soul and all of its ugly imperfections. And perhaps so much was revealed that the artist couldn’t bear to let it see light without anonymity.
The autobiography was one theory. The artist’s approach left plenty of room for interpretation. Raking Light was gritty and dark. Shadows hid so much that the viewer’s imagination was forced into filling in the darkness with his or her own perspective. What was in the light was explicit in every way. Scars were emphasized. Nudity was shown with every minute flaw accentuated. Violence was guttural – the vivid portrayal of a tragic car accident, and the self-violence that followed.
The faces and bodies of the two main characters, a young man and woman, were intensely realistic, with a concentration on the eyes to convey the polar extremes of warmth and pain. Yet the environments that floated around the characters were surreal, somewhere between the worlds within a David Lynch film and a Salvador Dali painting. The contrast between the two components was jarring. And everything was realized in rich black and white.
Who was the artist? Hidden behind the mocking pseudonym Jay Walker, fans and critics could do nothing more than suppose his intentions. What were his interests? His politics? His background? For some, discovering the identity of the creator was essential to understanding the meaning of the work.
For others, the identity was irrelevant. Some believed ambiguity was intended to allow each person to find his or her own meaning.
Apart from the ambiguity of the storyline, the meaning behind the emotions was clear, as was the sequence of emotions. The story began with infatuation, that fluttering state when the body is as light as air, when two find each other for the first time and the eyes open to revelation. Infatuation transcended to an experience that language is ill equipped to categorize, that state where nothing matters except for the other, where eyes reveal the soul and the connection that had manifested. Following, an abrupt atrocity, wicked and unjust, tore one from the other, and the eyes dimmed under the shadow of loss. Then madness set in and the eyes, unblinking, were wide and fixed like stone. The story ended with a sullen acceptance and the one left walking alone.
Quinton’s pseudonym helped him to detach from the buzz. He could be sheltered from personal inquiries about the meaning of Raking Light that would have surely been too much for the artist to handle. The conversations took place in universes far away from his nearly solitary reality and avoidable with the right measures. He could exist detached from the public buzz as if Raking Light never was.
After the first print run, the artist flipped through the pages of a copy that his agent had shown him; and upon returning the copy, it was the last time he ever touched it. Quinton didn’t own a copy and any versions of the original artwork that were used to create Raking Light were stored away with no intentions of ever opening the carefully sealed boxes. The only faint reminder was a sketch of a young woman hanging in his apartment that was drawn long before Raking Light ever had a reason to be.
Not too long after the book was published, the agent had broached the subject of the work’s meaning, but was met with a gaze that was completely vacant and against only silence where his client, his friend, seemed to go into a trance, the agent left the apartment unnoticed and never brought up the subject again.
Raking Light had remarkable success, but Quinton did not allow himself to benefit. Only from the second graphic novel that was just as dark but unrelated in subject matter, did he begin to take payment. Every penny of Quinton’s portion of the profit from Raking Light was donated to charity.
Raking Light was never meant to be and there it was. Quinton had created the work because he had to, because it needed to be evacuated from his mind the way an exorcism evacuates the demon. The fact that it was discovered was happenstance.
His agent, Troy, had stumbled on what would be Raking Light in the basement of a rowhome in Queens, New York. He was dating Quinton’s sister as he travelled between New York and Philly, paying his dues in a small music agency. The romance was long enough to be introduced to her brother. Quinton was living with his sister for a few months following the third stay in the hospital as he tried to piece his life together working as a freelance graphic designer. He was reclusive and would often leave the home when Troy stayed the night. His sister never discussed Quinton’s issues, only that he had always seen things differently than others, and he was trying to get over things from his past.
One evening, when the upstairs had suddenly gotten very cold, Troy went to the basement to check the heater, and there was Quinton on the floor putting together panels of art. In a near manic state, he didn’t notice Troy who watched, amazed by the work. Over the next several months, Troy got to know Quinton and eventually was permitted to see the artist’s work-in-progress. Their friendship strengthened as the romance between Troy and Quinton’s sister waned. Nearly a year later, Troy convinced Quinton to let him try for a publishing deal. Quinton’s reason – to make amends.
Part 1(Fall 2014), Chapter 1
He turned the corner onto a narrow, unlit street. It was a shortcut home, and his favorite place to walk at night because of its emptiness like a forgotten path, and the way it was lined with the backs of buildings so nothing could disturb the moment as he dissected the darkness.
Not true darkness of course. Not like those places far away from manufactured illumination like along a country road or in the middle of the woods, or in a bedroom at night with the lights off and drapes closed and head submerged in a sea of blankets. It was city dark. The kind that happens on the back streets well past midnight where stores are closed, seldom a car passing by, and broken street lights or none at all. The manufactured illumination still bleeds in because in the city, light is inescapable. But it is dark enough to allow the grayscale to find the extreme edges of its range in corners of walkways, in alleys and behind trashcans.
Quinton often defined his surroundings in terms of the grayscale, the artist's tool for making subtle variation or deep contrast between objects in a frame. Night was his favorite canvas. Outside along the cityscape, especially the back streets to track down the illusive city dark, and in bars and clubs where darkness was celebrated.
His eyes darted around the canvas looking for dark corners as he strolled along the wet sidewalk. Those journeys down the side street, the shortcut home, were exercises in how the cityscape interacted with itself – the shading, the curves and sharp edges, the objects blending into each other to emphasize the claustrophobic nature of a crowded and cluttered city.
On that street, he could hear the smaller sounds of Philly that were only audible when it was late and the bigger sounds shut off. The rustling of trash in the wind. Water flowing into the gutter. The back door of a refrigerator truck opening to unload the day's delivery to the market more than a block away. His own boots against the pavement. The sounds accompanied the imagery, as did the rank smell of urine and trash. But that was all they were to be, an accompaniment. The listening was passive, the visual observation a more conscious effort. Quinton always seemed to be drawing what he saw, even if only in his head, fixated on the surrounding visual stimulation.
The subtle movement of the street gradually muffled under the sounds his mind orchestrated as the volume was turned up slightly, the change barely noticeable until it filled the space. Quinton was caught up in searching through the shadows, the outlines of the architecture and other objects that compromised the street, and the perceived apparitions that the eyes conceived from interpreting the black spaces, that he didn’t realize the sounds of the city were being replaced by yet another apparition. That song. That undeniable sequence of notes. The one that evoked the most lucid of memories. The smells of places left behind. The vivid mental image capturing excitement and movement, and faces. The sensations of heat and breeze, and touch. Memories so real they could be felt at the fingertips, and deep in the pit of the stomach. It emerged in the brain and gradually escaped the frontal cortex as a hum. First a musical sound under the breath and growing in volume until it became noticeable, part of the consciousness, in the now, aware of the recollection as the notes left closed lips. Quinton was humming that song, the one he hadn’t listened to intentionally in years; the one that was to be avoided no matter if it came through on the radio or played in a crowded bar. That song, never to be forgotten but never to be heard, was there – why?
It could be heard, as clearly as if it were actually expelling from speakers within auditory range, but the experience was merely the fractured remembrances actualized unwillingly. Quinton pushed the song to the back of his mind, as far back as it would go so that it followed rather than led as he stepped in from the rain-soaked street and climbed the stairs. He chalked it up to the frame of mind that anniversaries induced. Anniversaries were times to reflect and so the soul was bound to be more vulnerable to infiltration from the most sacred of memories, like that song.
He unlocked the door to the loft apartment and found the light switch for the kitchen that was a few feet in front of him. The shadows were left to escape into the large room to his right. He opened the top cabinet over the compact refrigerator. Navigating the various items that filled the space, his fingers found a familiar shape, and he caressed the contours before gently removing it from the resting place. Cradled in one hand, he pushed a few loose strands of hair from his face and stared intently at the black label.
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Aged 25 Years
There were four marks cut into the label, lined up next to each other, just below the lettering. He ran his fingers across the small marks, touching each one and feeling the precise and deliberate incisions, surgical. The bottle was half full, or half empty. The amber color of the contents resembled honey and glistened under the crisp kitchen lighting. He placed the bottle on the counter and pulled the cork, brought it to his nose and inhaled the smokiness. Grabbing a glass from the sink, he poured two fingers and carried the glass and bottle to the couch.
The room next to the kitchen was dark, city dark. Faint light bled in through a bare window. Quinton was on the third floor and the building across the street was an old warehouse that sat dark against a back drop of lighted activity. Fishtown was filled with unused and neglected areas when he first moved in. He got a bargain on a completely renovated loft that would soon join a wave of gentrification and become more and more filled with activity that he knew would eventually drive him to look for another neglected and anonymous space in the city.
Quinton leaned forward, coat still on and huddled tightly around his lean torso, and he scratched the stubble on his face, staring at the glass and bottle.
“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
Quinton quoted James Joyce, eyes fixed on the amber liquid. It was the same quote he would say, to himself, to others, or inside his own head, before the first drink of the day, when those days existed not too long ago. And he said it on each year anniversary of his sobriety.
He leaned back and reached into the pocket of his jeans, retrieving a small knife. Opening the blade, he held it firm and steady as the tip penetrated the label on the bottle, next to the four marks. The blade cut into the label until the new mark was the same length as the other four. A smirk appeared on his face as if there were a humorous passage written within those five carved lines, a knife-drawn joke about what was represented on the scarred label.
His eyes looked up from the bottle and focused on the work that hung against the brick wall, all framed in black. The cover of his second graphic novel. The drawings he created for The New Yorker, Playboy, Harper’s and Rolling Stone. They were all gifts from his agent, Troy, when it was discovered the apartment was bare of décor except for a broken liquor bottle on the fireplace mantel that he carried to the hospital and home after someone smashed it over his head in one of his drunken stupors, and an unframed sketch of a young woman. He felt obligated to hang the uniform black framed gifts. He left the bottle from the squabble six years ago and the sketch from an even more distant time.
His eyes lingered on the sketch for a moment longer than the framed distractions. Quinton rarely looked at the objects on the wall no more than he looked at the rough corners of brick or the mortar in between, images that simply blurred into the brick. The sketch, however, would occasionally emerge from the blur on days when sentimentality filled the room. The glance would end with a commitment to finally take it down, but he never did.
Back to the kitchen, he dumped the untouched contents of the glass into the sink, corked the bottle and returned it to the resting place in the top cabinet. Feeling a vibration in his pocket, he reached in and pulled out his most reviled tool. Few had the number to ensure few would reach out. Those few individuals knew the connection should be used wisely or risk no longer being one of the few. A text.
Hey Quint: Got an interesting proposition today.
Not usually up your alley but you should consider this one anyway.
Just call me as soon as you can. Free all night.
Troy’s texts were always long, side effects from a profession that is built on constant convincing. Troy had been the agent of record since publishing the first graphic novel and had been reliable as much as Quinton allowed him to be. Still, every sentence from Troy reeked of a sales pitch. He dialed his agent’s number and left it on speaker while he washed the glass in the sink.
“Quint. Past midnight, the only time I seem to be able to get your attention. You are like a vampire, man.”
“What’s up Troy?”
“Listen – I have an interesting collaboration for you.”
Quinton turned off the faucet and grabbed a towel with a look that was trapped between boredom and annoyance. The very best thing about his chosen profession was the fact that it was a solitary pursuit. Aside from Troy, who interacted with the publishers, the editors, the promoters, Quinton was free of…
“I know, by Quint’s rules,” Troy responded. “You stubborn shit. This is different.”
He tossed the towel on the counter and headed down the short, narrow hallway to the bedroom carrying Troy. The last several conversations about work began in a similar way. Therefore, Quinton was only interested in doing work that excited him.
“It’s Jonathon Thomas, the novelist, another Philly guy,” Troy chimed in after radio silence. “He wrote – ”
“I know who he is.”
“Of course you do. Listen, I have been talking with him and his agent for a few weeks now. He is fixated on a disappearance that took place near a college. A professor and his wife. He has spent the last year neck deep in this thing.”
Quinton threw Troy on the bed as his own head collapsed on the pillow, coat still on, old leather boots hanging off the edge. The song was still faintly heard, calling him from a great distance, barely discernible. He tried to ignore it.
“True Crime? Seriously?”
“I know, but you have to listen to him talk about how he wants to approach it. And for fuck’s sake, it’s Jonathon Thomas. He is not interested in delving into a genre, he wants to write a story he is passionate about like every other story he has done. This one just happens to be true.”
Quinton was a reader. There were times he would be reading three books at once piled on his nightstand with dog-eared pages. He read everything – art history, politics, science, novels. He had only read one book from Jonathon Thomas and that was several years ago. But the story stuck with him. He was a really good writer.
“Quint, listen up. He wants you to illustrate it. Go figure. He is a fan, Quint. He has kept a photo of that piece you did for the Fringe next to his computer because he, I don’t know, envisions it or something in the manuscript.”
“He wants me to draw pictures for his book? Why are we talking about this Troy?”
“Do you do any screening?”
Troy’s voice elevated in both volume and pitch and it cracked at the high note like he just started puberty. Quinton smiled. He often caused this frustrated reaction from his agent.
“Am I screening? Are you kidding me? Is that a half-ass joke? You have turned down so many opportunities the phone has stopped ringing, Quint, I am bringing you what you want, something that is different, that could excite you.”
“To draw pictures for his book?”
“To collaborate on a vision in a medium you understand, a visual narrative.”
“I don’t collaborate.”
“Quint, you give me an ulcer. He wants to tell you the story, give you the manuscript, and give you complete freedom to interpret as you see it. Complete creative freedom. This guy talked about a creative experiment, see what happens when two minds come together without looking at each other’s work or providing input. Complete creative freedom. You won’t even talk until it’s done.”
He pushed his hair back and exhaled, looking at the ceiling and picked up the phone.
“What is the story about?”
“You’ll find out when you meet him on Thursday, 10 A.M.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Thursday, Quint. Don’t make me have to choke a client. I like you.”
Troy hung up, leaving more questions of his vague pitch than answers.
Quinton didn't need to work for a while, perhaps never if he continued the bare bones and solitary existence into old age. The loft was paid for. Other than eating out every night, albeit modest dining, and the occasional date, and not to forget art supplies, there were no extravagant excursions. When the monthly expenses for basic necessities were paid every month, most of his earnings from the second graphic novel and miscellaneous projects just sat in the bank. For over a year, no new income was generated. He lived off past accomplishments while spending the free time exploring whatever subject matter excited him in the moment.
But he kept it safe when it came to personal exploration. Quinton looked out, not in, unlike his first work, the one that took him down the darkest of tunnels inside him. All of his demons spilling onto the page in striking black and white.
That kind of honesty would be too much to expose if anyone other than a trusted few actually knew it was him. Because of Troy, he was an anonymous artist. No matter how hard journalists and fans tried to discover his identity, for now Troy managed to keep it under wraps.
Quinton threw the phone on the bed. Its screen created a green haze that dissipated in the dark bedroom. More city dark. He pulled his old boots off and stared out the window at renovated housing from old warehouses interspersed with dilapidated structures. He walked over to the window and leaned against the glass. Everything was wet, when the city was at its cleanest. Things were still, except for a police car that moved slowly down the street. The phone on the bed went black. The room was quiet - except for that song.
Part 1(Fall 2014), Chapter 2
Quinton cradled the small teacup with both hands. He avoided being burned by alternating fingers the way a musician would play the keys of an instrument. Thumbs traced the rim of the cup. Steam rose above the lip and dissipated. Attention drifted from the cup, and the steam, to the activity outside.
He was seated next to the window overlooking Tenth Street and its bustling morning activity. The window provided a view of the red ornamental streetlight poles meant to simulate Chinese lanterns, the brick buildings, the colorful storefront signs, and the regular flow of passersby. Quinton chose the meeting location out of familiarity and comfort. Heung Fa Chun Sweet House was near the ceremonial awning and entrance to Chinatown. It was a tiny place with an uninspiring storefront, but renowned for its sweet and savory. A woman he had dated briefly introduced Quinton to the spot and he had returned regularly, albeit without the woman.
Over the years, those two attributes, familiarity and comfort, were what Quinton gravitated to with more frequency. Places he knew, where he could control the experience. Where there was activity to witness and at the same time seclusion for himself. They were places he went to indulge in the essence of his city and yet be secure in the anonymity the urban setting provided if that is what was chosen – alone in a crowded space. He went as the audience to live theater, to see the human condition, as the voyeur. And he would often imagine the scene, the condition, on a canvas in stark blacks and subtle grays. Sometimes all or part of those scenes actually made it to the canvas from memory of what he observed. Faces mostly and not the happy ones. He searched for the ones that were tattooed with fears or insecurities, or pain, or misery. Sadness was the expression he was most drawn to. Deep, longing sadness.
His work had been described by one critic as raw and real; by another as honest and unapologetic. Rather than embellish or manufacture beauty, yet another explained, he painstakingly captured every line and pore and defect like a documentarian. There were plenty who panned Quinton but those who questioned his relevance did not question his pursuit of the vividly real.
If Quinton actually ever agreed to do an interview, he would have explained that he observed. That was his talent. He could sit for hours and watch paint dry, then find the bubbles, each having a subtly unique shape, and the spots where the original color bled through. While people around him raced through the city, always more focused on where they were going rather than where they were in the moment, or distracted by tiny screens and virtual conversations, Quinton breathed in the space. He studied the environment in its entirety – the beautiful, the repulsive, even the mundane. But outside, looking in. That is how he lived and how he preferred to be. Quinton was alone as much as the world would allow. He was the audience.
Of course, few are completely alone. There was his agent, who saw Quinton the most. There were a few, far off phone conversations with an old friend who had managed to stick around after Quinton had disappeared from the lives of the rest.
There were the fleeting moments when an intimate attraction would break the fourth wall while he sat in the audience, but the digression slipped away as quickly as it manifested. A flirt. Small talk when the stage had gotten too quiet. The occasional sex when it felt right. But it all dissipated like steam. The flirtatious glance vanished as soon as she passed by. Small talk ceased once the action on stage began again. Intimacy withered when the sex was over.
He found comfort in several places throughout Philly, making sure no single place was frequented too often to risk developing stronger, personal connections with the inhabitants. If he was up on 15th Street, it was McGlinchey’s. If he was in Old City, the Tin Angel. If he was in Chinatown, it was Heung Fa Chun Sweet House.
Quinton had arrived a half hour early for his meeting with the writer to clear his thoughts, consider the prospect of taking on a new project. He adjusted the dark sunglasses and let the hair fall in his face to obscure more features of recognition. He had deliberately not washed his hair all week to accentuate a very subtle disguise. Quinton had never met with anyone about his work in person except for Troy. His publisher had never even met him, as they would know him by, Jay Walker. It was a trite pseudonym but the only one he could think of when the first graphic novel was shopped, so it stuck. Troy had managed to be Quinton’s impenetrable firewall and was now assuring the recluse that Jonathon Thomas was not interested in finding the real Quinton, only his art.
Still, Quinton could feel the anxiety bubbling up like the unsettled surface of carbonated soda. Maybe it was because of the potential exposure of the meeting with the novelist. Any risk to anonymity always brought about that unsettled feeling. But there was also the other, the bubbling up that started like anxiety and slowly manifested. Quinton convinced himself it was only the circumstances that Troy had placed him in and pushed the possibility of the other aside, knowing it had started before the meeting was proposed, when that song penetrated his reality again.
‘Jonathon Thomas,’ the name drifted in Quinton’s mind. It was humorous, not the name but the presence attached to that name and the idea such a person wanted to meet with him. Jonathon Thomas and Quinton had some things in common, true. They both told stories, although in different forms. They both experienced success from their storytelling, although the novelist was far more successful than Quinton. But they differed greatly in their place in the world. The novelist was on the stage for all to see and seemed very comfortable with it.
Quinton opened the browser on his smart phone, keyed in a name and tapped a review from last summer.
True to form, the latest novel from Jonathon Thomas is sarcastic and dark. Like his other four novels, it relishes in the grim and leverages that state of being to comment on how we live our lives.
But unlike its predecessors, Here with Apprehension is oddly optimistic as the characters find hope within a collective search for purpose during a sudden reunion. Thomas explores the usefulness of the past and follows the lives of four adults as different as can be, connected only by a few short summer months as teenagers. Brought back together by a major news event, the characters are forced to come to grips with the choices they each made when they were unable to understand the full breadth of the consequences, and whether or not their choices shaped the present.
The reunion takes place in a small town in Southern New Jersey. The rendezvous point is the rooftop of the high school overlooking a large park in a town with blue collar roots, which now clash with the new where simple living is replaced by trendy restaurants and rising property values. The school, the town and the constant reminder of change ensure character reflection with much of that reflection rooted in guilt.
The writer has been accused of having a fixation on death. In the style of the Irish classics, death to Thomas is simply a part of the landscape, as normal as rush hour traffic. The place where he finds true literature is in the landscape’s reaction to death. Here with Apprehension is no different. It is a psychological profile, rather four profiles, of lives impacted by death. How the psyche reacts to the chaos brought on by loss is the question that Thomas’ writing begs.
If the reader is hoping for Thomas’ signature ambiguity, Here with Apprehension will disappoint. One could consider the work a flirtation with the formulaic sentimentality of mass marketed fiction influenced by Hollywood idealism. If Thomas was tempted to conform a bit for the sake of broadening his audience, the conformity is very little. Here with Apprehension resolves in a way that no other Jonathon Thomas novel has, however, the reader witnesses the pieces left behind, regardless if hope bleeds into the narrative for the first time.
The story begins with the main character, Grace, hiking in the forest near her home in Colorado after receiving news of a death. There is anger and frustration in her face as the character climbs the steep trail. The body is disconnected from the expression as she moves with deliberate action as calculated as a programmed robot. Grace reaches a point in the hike where she drops to her knees and eats dirt. It is a ritualistic moment that speaks to a cleansing.
Thomas explores several examples of ‘the ritual’ in his latest work. Some blend seamlessly into the frame as they originate from common American cultural and religious practices. There are a few rituals, like the eating of dirt, that are striking against the suburban American landscape.
Here with Apprehension takes the reader to a normal place and pulls back the curtain to show the shadows that lurk behind the normal. Perhaps the most unsettling moment is when the story ends and the reader is left to contemplate the personal similarities.
Looking up from the small screen, Quinton surveyed the street. The old man dragging the trash cans from the curb, an aching body hunched over and every movement seemed to be anguish. The twenty something young woman with jet black hair and short skirt, exaggerating her movement so that her body swayed like a flag in a steady wind as she checked her make-up in the reflection of her phone. The stains on the sidewalk, representing the activity of the previous night, food or vomit. The discarded magazine, torn and wet on the edge of the gutter. The overweight, middle aged man in a suit hurrying along the sidewalk with an expression of anxiety.
Five minutes after ten, a tall, older man in a sport coat and jeans holding a leather satchel walked through the front door. He was a large man, with a full face, shaved head and thick plastic framed glasses. He looked around and attempted to identify Jay Walker from what he perceived an anonymous artist would look like. Quinton recognized the writer from his book jacket. After watching the exercise for a few minutes, he motioned to the man who smiled and walked over.
“Should I call you Mr. Walker?” extending his arm. “That seems kind of silly.”
Quinton shook, making note of how large the writer’s hand was. “How many times does a name actually get used in a one-on-one conversation. The beginning? Maybe the end?”
“Good point. I have to admit, I have never had breakfast at a Chinese restaurant.”
“I guess you could say I am a fan of your work. I don’t think anything else could have gotten me here,” Quinton said.
The author sat down, looking around the restaurant, the gaze of unfamiliarity.
“Thanks for saying that. And I am a fan too, of you, which is why I called your publisher.” He kicked the satchel under the table and opened the menu. “It was gratifying to hear that they don’t know who you are either.”
The two ordered a fresh pot of tea and a tofu dish called douhua and talked about each other’s work for the better part of an hour without once bringing up the proposed collaboration until the dishes were cleared.
Jonathon then reached under the table, grabbed the old satchel and placed it on his lap.
“Have you ever read a newspaper article and wonder about the people? Not the story but what led to that circumstance? What happened after? Not just wonder, but can’t get it out of your damn head?” Jonathon laughed, then paused and surveyed Quinton’s expression.
“Sure,” Quinton responded, not eager to provide any more of his perspective on that scenario until he knew where the conversation was going.
“I have always been more interested in the lives behind the stories than the stories themselves. Based on what I know about your work, I have a feeling that you feel the same way.”
The two stared at each other for a few awkward minutes, Jonathon looking for more interest and response from his new acquaintance, Quinton unsure of whether to be curious or annoyed. Jonathon wrapped his large hand around the tiny cup and gripped it as if he were holding a fragile insect, firm enough to keep it from escaping but gentle enough to keep from crushing it, and sipped the hot tea with eyes fixed on Quinton.
“Do you remember a story about a poet and his wife who went missing a year ago?”
“Can’t say I do,” Quinton replied.
“It went by in a flash. Reed Mitchel and his wife, Allison. He was quite a writer in his twenties and early thirties and critics were putting him up there with Frost and Merwin, similar courage of a forgotten age. Then he just stopped writing, for twenty plus years. I hadn’t heard anything from him, and I keep up on the literary world or try to. It’s the profession. Then a news story about his disappearance. He was teaching at a small college in PA.
“So the story is about the disappearance of a poet?”
“Well, probably death. They found enough DNA to support that, of his at least.” Jonathon placed the satchel on the table. “And on the surface, yes. But what I am interested in is exploring Allison as subtext.”
Quinton nodded with interest, watching the novelist through big sunglasses and strands of greasy hair.
“In this bag is the first draft of my manuscript, some other things that were part of my research and...” Jonathon rummaged through the satchel and pulled out a leather bound book… “Allison’s diary.” He slid the book across the table to Quinton.
Quinton picked up the book with the care of an archeologist examining a rare and valuable relic. “How did you get this?”
“I bought their house.”
“Reed had no living relatives. Other than a few mentions of the town Allison was from, her origins or any familial connection could not be discovered. There were no claims to the house. It went to Sheriff sale, so I bought it and all of its contents. The diary was in the bottom drawer of a dresser.”
Quinton thumbed through the book, feeling his stomach knot, as uncomfortable as if he were watching her undress without her knowledge. Parading naked for all to see was one thing, but to steal a glance of the unwilling is something entirely different. Quinton was certainly a voyeur in his own right, but he collected images in his mind that inspired a finished product. He never committed theft verbatim. He never announced to the world to look at Joe Somebody at Apartment E who sits at that bar drinking his paycheck away while his family suffers at home. People around him inspired his work, no individual was his work. Except one person, but she was safe as long as she was a secret.
As Quinton flipped through the pages, Jonathon was watching. The pages passed by Quinton’s eyes in a blur, deliberately, with the intention of not reading a single word. He arrived at the end where pages were torn out. “Missing pages.”
“One of the many interesting facts we have here,” Jonathon remarked.
Quinton closed the book and pushed it across the table in the direction of the writer. “I have never been much into the exposé. It is the exploitive factor that doesn’t settle well with me.”
Jonathon leaned forward, his elbows on the table, his face resting in those enormous hands, the plastic glasses peeking out like the periscope on a submarine.
“I hear you. And I am not sure I have a defense. All I can say is I had to. I have never attempted nonfiction, but I just had to write about this one.”
Quinton gave a nod of acknowledgement. Obsessing over a subject was hardly something he could criticize.
“I am committed to giving the absolute most care to this story, and to the people,” Jonathon continued, “for their sake, and my own reputation.” He leaned back in the chair and pulled a scrunched, half-smoked cigarette from the inside pocket of his sport coat and gently rubbed it between his thumb and index finger.
“It is crazy for me to stray from what I know. I write fiction. But I can’t get this story out of my head. It needs to be told. Read my manuscript, read the other materials – her journal. If it doesn’t speak to you, send it all back to me. But if it does, please, draw what you see. This story needs your pictures. I can’t explain why I feel this way, it just does.”
Quinton looked down at the journal and back to the writer’s eyes, gauging his sincerity through plastic frames.
“Not going to make any promises. I will look through it.”
Jonathon smiled and put the used cigarette between his lips. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys, sliding them across the table. “Keys to Reed and Allison’s house. The address is in with the other materials. Feel free to take a ride out there. Stay if you want, as long as you want. There are no deadlines here.”
The two men stood and shook hands. “I am grateful for your consideration,” Jonathon Thomas concluded and left the restaurant. Quinton watched him pass the window, smoking the used cigarette.
That evening, Quinton sat on the floor of his loft and emptied the contents of the leather satchel. There were newspaper clippings, photos of the couple together at various events, brochures of the college where Reed taught, two collections of Reed’s poetry, a flash drive wrapped in a paper that read research, a copy of the police report, Jonathon’s manuscript, three manila folders filled with the writer’s notes, and Allison’s diary.
Quinton lay down on his back and held the diary in the air, feeling the worn leather with his thumbs. It wasn’t particularly old; however, it was handled often. Every page was filled with hand written words. Quinton flipped to the back and counted the torn edges at the end twice, determining that four pages were missing.
As he thumbed the torn pages, he noticed the binding of the diary was cut along the outer edge of the inside of the back cover. He gently pulled the fabric from the leather binding and slipped his index finger inside, far enough to feel the hard edges of a concealed paper product of some sort. He reached into his denim pocket to retrieve a small pocket knife and used it to slide the concealed objects to the surface. Placing the diary on the floor, Quinton studied the new discovery – five black and white photographs of porcelain dolls.
They had miniature Victorian dresses, realistic hair with ribbons, hauntingly pale faces and big lifeless eyes. The top photo was all of them on a shelf, about thirty dolls, lined up in a seated position. The other photos were close-ups of their individual faces.
He closed the diary and examined the spine that was littered with doodles, all the same image. Spirals, in threes. Two atop one, the same configuration, the same basic image, over and over.
Quinton placed the doll photos next to the diary on the floor and randomly picked up the other photos of the missing couple, studying them, unsure of what he was trying to learn in that moment with the contents of their lives and the summation of a writer about their lives spilled in his living room. Quinton stared up at the high ceiling, at the old rafters that were left intact from the original warehouse that once occupied his address. He made mental notes of Allison’s face from the photos, concentrating on the distance in her eyes, almost vacant, and the glowing pallid skin. He wasn’t sure exactly what Jonathon had experienced that had drawn the novelist into the story so intently. For Quinton, if he decided to take Jonathon’s offer, the cause would be those seemingly harmless photos in big rooms with other smartly dressed people, Allison on Reed’s arm supporting her husband. He had yet to take in a single word from the young woman’s diary. He had only studied for a brief moment the photos, and they said a lot. In Allison’s eyes, he saw escape.
Quinton sat up and grabbed the satchel. He opened the flap and sunk his hand into the leather body to open it up so he could return the contents. But when his hand reached the bottom, he felt a stabbing pain and immediately withdrew his hand from the bag. Blood trickled from a small gash on the edge of his palm. Quinton gently reached back in with the other hand and retrieved the final object that managed to remain in the bag when he emptied the contents – a single steel hairpin, sharp, with an ornate handle made of some kind of bone.
Part 1 (Fall 2014), Chapter 3
It was an unseasonably warm evening for a Philly Autumn. Quinton abandoned his jacket earlier and strolled along a crowded South Street in a blue tee with the words Velvet Underground across it. The tattoos on his forearms exposed, his right hand wrapped in a bandage and kept close to his front pocket to protect it from the pedestrian traffic. His eyes were partially hidden by a tattered, leather, wide brimmed hat that he found on a stool at the North Star Bar after hours back in college.
Sounds flooded the senses from everywhere. Music faded in and out, different songs expelling from the open doors, as he passed the stores and bars. The songs were as varying as the faces that made up the crowds. Conversations bled in from along the sidewalk. Quinton caught a few sentences of the teenage girls in front of him, shifted attention to the couple walking by, and shifted attention again to the homeless man asking a group of women for change.
South Street was bustling with activity. The bars were packed, while teenagers gathered against nearly every brick wall or storefront. Costumed bodies accented the evening’s population. Quinton took note of the many costumes inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Faces decorated in ornate and colorful skulls. They stood out from the other Halloween goers: the zombie, the vampire, the slutty nurse. Spiders, fake webs and gaudy orange lights hung in the store windows. A man in his early twenties walked by with a fake Mohawk on top of a rubber skull cap and Quinton smirked. He thought about the South Street that once was, a center point for the creative and the outcasts, where Repo Records, Zipperhead and J.C. Dobbs were places of congregation. Now it was filled with tourists and hipsters.
He felt the phone in his jeans pocket vibrate. Undoubtedly, it was Troy getting antsy. Ten minutes was late enough to start the texts and phone calls rolling in. Quinton ignored the vibrations as he got closer to his destination. He tried to ignore the throbbing in his hand. The gash was deep, but it shouldn’t ache after four days. The healing process was virtually stunted.
As Quinton approached Lorenzo and Sons, he saw Troy standing in front of the red awning and pizza maker mural. Troy was holding a pizza box and a six pack of beer. He could hear his agent friend over the crowd before he made it to the other side of the street.
“What the fuck, man. Pizza’s getting cold. My beer is getting warm.”
Quinton took the box. The two turned the corner onto Third Street and sat on the curb. Troy pulled a bottled of iced tea from his jacket, handed it to Quinton, and popped the cap on one of the beer bottles using the edge of the curb.
“Can’t we ever have a normal meeting? Like in my office, or lunch at a table in a restaurant? It’s almost midnight and my ass is on a filthy sidewalk.”
“Best pizza in Philly,” Quinton replied, sipping the iced tea.
Troy put the beer bottle to his lips and guzzled while Quinton opened the box and handed out slices. The two sat in silence for the amount of time it took to inhale a slice, both taking in the activity around them. A police officer looked over from the other side of the street, at Troy’s six pack, then at Troy who was finishing off the first beer. He smiled at the officer and held up the bottle.
“It’s O.K. I have a prescription.”
The officer shook his head and walked toward the crowd. He obviously had more important things to monitor in the midst of a South Street Halloween night than a few beers consumed on the street.
“Jonathon’s publisher sent me over the contract,” Troy told him pulling a folder from his backpack. “It’s generous.”
“Not ready to sign a contract. Not sure I want to do this.”
“Fuck, Quint. This is a great opportunity for you.” Troy took another swallow of beer. “You are going to need to take on something new at some point. Trust me when I tell you if you don’t continue to produce, people will forget. And the public brain is filled with so much other shit, so over stimulated, forgetting is quick. Trust me, Quint. You are too talented for that. Not to mention I work on commission, so stop being so damn selfish,” giving Quinton an elbow to the ribs.
Troy was pushy but loyal to a fault. Not only was he the conduit for much of Quinton’s success, he was also the impenetrable gate keeper, creating a complex array of checks and balances, locks and booby-traps, to ensure that his client and friend’s identity remained a secret. It was not without the occasional prodding that, after maintaining anonymity for five and a half years, a coming out would be momentous, not to mention lucrative. But no matter how pushy Troy could be, he would never betray that trust and would work just as hard to keep him out of the spotlight as was his desire to put him in the spotlight.
Quinton half listened to Troy while watching a couple walk across the street, focused on how the woman rubbed the man’s back as they walked, and wondering what the gesture meant to both of them at that very moment. Flirtation? Compassion? Reinforcement? Insecurity?
“Did you know he met her in his class?”
“Who?” Troy asked.
“Allison, his wife.”
“Reed Mitchel. The poet? The project you have me working on?”
“So, you are working on a project now? Not without getting through this contract.”
“He was about 30 years older than her. They met in his class. Jonathon interviewed some of his colleagues.”
Troy stared at Quinton with a look that said he didn’t get the significance, and didn’t much care for the specifics. “Not the first professor who took advantage of an impressionable college student.”
“That’s the thing,” Quinton replied. “She wasn’t a student.”
“You said she was in his class.”
“But she wasn’t registered, not in that class, not in any class. She was never accepted to that school. According to Jonathon’s notes, he checked the records. She wasn’t even auditing.”
“Never was a big mystery fan, but if it inspires you, consider yourself Sherlock fucking Holmes.”
Quinton stared up at the sky that was manipulated by the lights of the neighborhood and the other tall buildings that polluted the darkness. His eyes looked upon the pollution as if he were a cinematographer looking at his scene through a lens filter designed to blur reality so a dreamlike feeling could be conveyed. But wasn’t everything seen through one filter or another?
“I read interviews from three professors at the college,” he spoke to Troy without taking his eyes off the diluted night sky. “They were all consistent in their assessment of that relationship. It was bizarre. It came out of nowhere and suddenly was. He treated her like an object and she acted more like a mannequin than a human being.”
The words from the pages of Jonathon Thomas’ notes scrolled before his eyes. The amalgamation of sentences depicted a relationship that at the very least was an imbalance of power, the objectifying of gender, the acceptance of roles that are rooted in centuries of exploitation and dominance. What could she possibly gain from being his trophy?
Troy’s disinterest was as straightforward as any of his feelings, comments or actions. Such a contrast to Quinton, the agent lived completely exposed. He said what he thought, regardless if the words were funny or offensive, heartfelt or hurtful. His life was meticulously chronicled on social media. Troy was the quintessential example of modern life, free of the desire for privacy.
Quinton signed the contract while they finished off the slices and Troy drank a third beer. Troy handed the other three beers to a group of teenagers walking by and checked his pocket for cash.
“I need to get some sleep. Some of us actually have to get up in the morning and head to an office. You know, actually work. Love ya, Quint.” Troy headed down Third Street.
Quinton opened Wikipedia on his phone, finding the page for the poet.
Reed Mitchel (born May 9, 1961) was an American poet whose work has sold over 5 million copies and has been translated into twelve different languages. The poet is most known for a collection entitled In and Through the Dirt, which was published when he was twenty-three years old.
Mitchel was the youngest writer to receive the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and the Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Award. Prolific in his twenties, he published his first novel at thirty-four years old with lackluster response.
Quinton punched in Allison Mitchel, then Allison and her maiden name Loingseach, then Allison Loingseach and her home town. Nothing. Not even in the social media universe. Quinton smiled and thought, ‘she was more of a ghost than me.’
He set the phone on the curb. The throbbing was like a heartbeat in his hand and the aching rhythm pulsated through the veins to the elbow. The gash felt bigger under the bandage, like it was expanding, like a crater opening in the ground from an earthquake. Maybe it needed a stitch. Maybe it was infected. Maybe he should head to the hospital tomorrow and get it checked. Quinton looked down, passed the crow tattoo on the inside of his forearm, to the bandage on his hand, and resisted the temptation to tear it open to see the gash. Better to undo the bandage when he got home.
He imagined the crow tattoo coming alive and chewing on the bandage to get to the open flesh. Then picking, little by little, eventually finding the soft, meaty part. Then devouring, stopping only to push its beak to the sky to swallow. Then picking on the bone.
Quinton stared deep into the black ink of the tattoo. The space around him seemed to darken, as if every building shut the lights off at once, along with the lights that lined the street, and the car lights, and any other residual illumination. As it faded, so did the sounds of South Street – the music, the voices, the traffic. Even the autumn breeze dissipated and left the air still.
Quinton stopped breathing for that moment, his eyes not leaving the black ink within the bird, submerged in the colored skin, the shadowy stillness on the periphery. Not blinking, his eyes began to water.
Breaking through the silence, subtly, like someone was gradually turning up the volume on one track only, Quinton could hear pecking and chewing. He raised the bandaged hand to his ear and listened. The sound was coming from underneath. He began to feel the sensation of two small, bony objects sorting through the flesh inside his hand. Tweezers with surgical precision. A beak.
Quinton closed his eyes and forced himself to take a deep breath. He held it for as long as he could and when he felt that it was right, he let it go. The sounds of South Street followed behind a long and controlled exhale. When his eyes opened, the lights of the city returned.
Anxiety crept in with a rapid heartbeat as he sat there on the curb facing an old woman and her pint sized dog. She stared back from the other side of the street. Quinton took deep breaths to relax the inner workings of his body, and counted to ten, three times, until the body calmed. He looked down at the crow tattoo. It was again nothing more than a carefully crafted drawing on the skin.
The experience was not foreign to Quinton. But it had been some time since the wakeful dreams had paid a visit.
Part 1 (Fall 2014), Chapter 4
The street was lined with cars, parked so close together that barely a body could slip between them to reach the sidewalk. It was like nearly every other street, parked cars, one behind the other, obscuring the view. If not for the parked cars, more of the nuances of the cityscape and its inhabitants could be seen. Instead, it was like looking at a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces missing.
Quinton sat on the cold, concrete steps in front of his building with Allison’s writings opened to the first page, thinking about the words that he would undoubtedly delve deeper into as he surveyed the street and tried to determine what his eyes were missing behind the parked cars. At least it was assumed that the book Quinton held on his lap was the work of Allison because it was found concealed in her dresser drawer. Nowhere in the book was there a name to confirm ownership.
The streetlight a few feet away provided some support for reading, enough to make out what was on the page yet too dim to see it all, to decipher the handwriting of a stranger. He shined the flashlight from his phone toward the page and the first entry.
Initially, Quinton was looking more at the handwriting than the actual words. Allison had a style that was flowing with big loops and curves. It felt old fashioned, from a time when penmanship was important because there was no other option for communication.
When they first met, Jonathon Thomas referred to the book as a diary and Quinton immediately accepted that assessment. After all, the book was handwritten and the cover was clearly marked by the company that manufactured it as Journal, the sort of item one would buy for the purpose of cataloguing one’s experiences and musings. Perhaps the collection of words was autobiographical. It was hard to tell.
From what Quinton had gathered from skimming the pages the first few times he handled the book, it could have easily been a work of fiction. Perhaps it was a rough draft of what would eventually become a more structured and cogent story. Allison’s husband was a poet, so why wouldn’t someone who was attracted to such a man have a similar fire inside for the written word. Diaries were typically written in first person. The stream of thought on Quinton’s lap was written in third person. The people in the book were identified in ways that would suggest fiction as it would be strange to refer to kinship in that way. There was the Girl, the Man, the Admirer and the Solace.
The more Quinton considered the book, the more he was convinced it was not a diary, that Jonathon’s insistence was merely wishful thinking.
Quinton returned to the first entry and began to read.
A tiny blue dot trapped underneath the skin. A spot of ink. A tattoo, small and unassuming. Harmless. A permanent mark in the center of the palm, too insignificant to notice. Just a spot of ink, underneath the skin, forever trapped.
A stain. A blue stain. A beautiful flaw. Pain, an abrupt awakening.
The Girl welcomed it and let it sink in and warm her body. Was she awakened from a deep slumber? Was she lifted from the emptiness that swept over? Pain. The Girl breathed it in. She swallowed it. She let it burrow under the skin, into the tissue.
“Pain is the instrument that bridges the senses and confirms human existence,” the Man told her once when they discussed a poem she was fond of. It was from a poet who seemed to, as the Man put it, “excavate words of pain from the very bowels to depict the ugliness.”
Pain makes everything real.
The dull point was buried into the flesh. Blue corruption - blue surge - violent and deliberate.
Pain. A sweet, naked throbbing. It was hot and took hold of the Girl who sat all alone in the house and tore the quiet apart.
She pulled the Man’s fountain pen from the hole. She cupped her hand to stop the tiny blood streams from diving to the carpet.
Blue corruption. Blue surge. Violent and deliberate.
The pain continued to dig its way through the Girl and excited her. Dare she feel aroused by this pain, by the utter violation. She smiled.
The pain hummed. She laughed. How in sync it was with her own pulse. Her body was a song. She opened the window and looked to the bright sky. Blue like the ink.
In one week, the Man will return to the house. The Girl will sit by the window and listen for the car’s engine. She will wait for the Man to walk to the front step and she will scurry to take her place where the Man expects her to be standing whenever he returns. She will stand tall, back straight, shoulders even, hands against her sides. Was she a statue? Humorous thoughts. The Girl will smile because the Man expects her to smile. Misleading thoughts.
He will say, “Let me get a look at you, my perfect thing.”
Is she frozen in time? Never a flaw? The Man tells the Girl that her skin is like porcelain, like a porcelain doll. Does he want her perched on a shelf? On display?
They will walk together to the dining room where she will serve him dinner. They will sit together. The Girl will listen to the Man talk about his trip and she will have nothing to say because all she has done is wait for him, in his house alone, out of reach. Deceptive thoughts.
After dinner, the Man will lean forward and take the Girl’s hand the way he always does and gently rub his fingers against her palm. He will notice the blue mark. The tiny insignificant spot of ink. Barely a freckle on her palm. To the Man, it will be repulsive. She will not be perfect anymore. Inquisitive thoughts.
Will he lick his fingers and rub the mark? Try to erase it? Humorous man. Will he yell and bang his fists on the table? Childish man.
A flaw to last forever.
Quinton rubbed his tired eyes and images of Allison flashed like stills interspersed between frames of black on a film reel. Her hair was familiar to him from another time he could not forget. It was long, soft, chestnut in color, and it laid over her shoulders. Quinton supposed that it was probably pulled back most of the time, perhaps as a quick convenience, some strands escaping and touching the young woman’s face – another familiar vision.
Quinton rubbed his eyes again. He was so tired. The act of reading brought about a drowsiness that often ended in slumber. That was the reason most read at bedtime. It had been two nights since he had slept, each night reading helped to bring about the drowsiness, but could not deliver the slumber.
The description of the fountain pen incident in Allison’s diary, or fiction, made Quinton think of his own wound secured in a fresh gauze wrap. The doctor at the hospital had given him three stitches, the kind that dissolve after a few weeks and they were almost completely gone. The doctor was surprised that Quinton simply placed his hand in a satchel and received a gash from a hairpin deep enough to require stitches. Quinton was surprised that after two weeks, the pain was still so intense. He was given a prescription for painkillers, which he threw away. What was it Allison had written about pain?
Quinton stared out into the street, trying to see beyond the parked cars blocking his view and thought about the idea of a perfect thing. He remembered how taken he was with Allison’s skin when first viewing the photos that Jonathon had provided in the satchel – so fair it seemed to glow, like porcelain.
He closed the book and started inside, and for the fourth time or more in as many weeks, that song he had managed to keep from burrowing inside for so long, had eaten its way in again, and he gave up trying to push it out.
Part 1 (Fall 2014), Chapter 5
Philly taunted him. It was the ever-present reminder of things that were. The familiar places filled with memories. There were many and they were everywhere, always waiting, the blurred background that could be brought into focus with the slightest shift of attention.
Until recently, the memories kept to the blurred area. Quinton worked hard to co-exist. After years of dysfunction, there had been a long duration of inactivity. They were always there in the blur, but the last few years they seemed uninterested in presenting themselves in a more obstructive way. Each memory, a little scene, a vignette that played itself out next to flesh and bone vignettes with real people in real time, both in the same blur without seeing each other, because memories are personal. Quinton went about his life, eating and sleeping, growing older, functioning as normal as he could, living inside a bubble of recollection.
Philly and Quinton – it was a complicated relationship, like two lovers who after time, hatred had festered between them, yet an underlying affection remained that kept the connection afloat, however waterlogged their vessel. Love. Hate.
Philly had been Quinton’s home since the first day of college, and after that pursuit had come to an abrupt ending, he stayed. He remained because there was no leaving. There was a force that kept him there, and even when he managed brief exits meant to be a permanent escape, when at a point he had the fortitude to do so and did so often, he was always pulled back. Sometimes, travelling across oceans to get as far away as possible, then without much notice or clear thought, he was making arrangements to return to Philly and as quick as he made those arrangements, he was reunited with the bubble. Eventually, he stopped trying. His fate was to live beside the memories. He was to be where the joy once grew, and where it expelled from the atmosphere.
Quinton walked a lot - all over the city. It helped to clear his mind and make room for creative indulgences. Walking, people watching, the constant changing landscape, constant changing thoughts, the freedom to not focus on any one thing for any length of time, briskly moving past the memories helped to minimize the reversion to the things that lingered everywhere.
There were some places that held none of those phantoms. They were void of any memories. Quinton called those places limbo – neither heaven or hell. They were places for him to sit without worry of thoughts creeping in, rest for a bit, and sometimes sketch the images.
30th Street Station was one such place. Quinton would go and sit on one of the many wooden benches, always closest to the stairs. He enjoyed watching the hordes of people move hastily across the shiny floor, down the steps to the trains. Their footsteps echoed in the capacious structure. Its big, art deco features and an amazing coffered ceiling that was nearly one hundred feet from the ground made him feel tiny. Sometimes, he would sit very still and look up to the ceiling and let his mind clear to nothing.
After the second trip to a physician to check on the hand wound, Quinton walked to 30th Street Station. It was a busy day. The wooden benches were packed with commuters waiting for the giant voice to call out the next train’s arrival. Everyone seated was staring at a tiny screen and that made Quinton smirk. So much happening around them, dozens of people walking past, each with separate lives and fears and pain and joy. But the tiny screen watchers saw none of that. The clock was ticking on their tiny screen lives and they were missing the show.
He sat on the edge of a wooden bench, the only free spot to sit in the entire station, next to an elderly couple who were smartly dressed with hats to complete the ensembles. They were holding hands. Quinton wondered how long they had been together. Was it a new romance late in life or was he next to a couple who had lasted generations together and after all those years their desire to show affection was thriving?
Quinton’s hand was throbbing. It felt like it was infected. The physician did not concur and told Quinton the wound was healing nicely. He felt weak, with chills, like a fever was creeping in. The physician did not concur with that diagnosis either.
Before Quinton left the physician’s office, Troy sent a text about the contract with Jonathon Thomas.
Hey Quint: Paperwork is all wrapped up. Your new partner will keep his distance, just wants to check in once a month to see how you are progressing.
Not too much to ask for--so be cooperative!
Quinton remembered that he had never responded and thought it strange that Troy didn’t text again to make sure Quinton received the text and was ready to work on the project.
Thinking about the text reminded him that he had the photos of the porcelain dolls with him. Early that morning, while organizing the new project, he couldn’t put those photos down. Allison could have chosen any photos to slip into the binding of her diary and she chose photos of dolls. It was a strange choice. There had to be significance. Before he left for the physician, Quinton put the photos of the dolls in his jacket pocket. Unsure why, he just wanted them close in case he needed to look at them again.
The artist looked up at the high ceiling and waited for his mind to be cleared to nothing. Nearly one hundred feet up. Thoughts slowly disappeared, one after the other. The mental canvas cleaned itself of any remnants of the world outside of the station. Thoughts were falling away. A one hundred foot drop into the crowd below where they would be gone like puffs of smoke. The last image to disappear, the eyes of one of the porcelain dolls staring back at him.
Part 1(Fall 2014), Chapter 6
City dark. Philly bled in from the windows and drifted through the dark room, revealing the outlines of what inhabited it – glimpses of the couch and coffee table, and the mounds of paper neatly stacked and aligned in rows on the floor. The windows of the room were cracked open, allowing the chill of the night air to penetrate. A crisp, fall chill laced with the scents of car exhaust and roasted cashews from the vendor on the corner, the air as corrupted as the diluted darkness of the room.
Quinton sat naked on the cold, hardwood amid the piles of paper. Hours before, he had dismembered the Jonathon Thomas manuscript into parts relevant to the artist’s visual interpretation and paired those parts with the various sketches he had created over the several nights since he agreed to try out the partnership proposed by the writer. The sketching, the dismembering and the cataloguing eventually consumed the entire floor and the artist was immersed.
He perspired despite the cold temperature of the room and felt a sick, inner heat, like a flu, that drove him to disrobe. As he sat in the darkness, his unprotected body reacted to the combination of sweat and cold and he trembled, and the trembling exacerbated the throbbing in the palm of his hand. It all pointed to a serious infection of the wound, the sort of malady that was accompanied by rot and oozing. But that was not so. The wound was nearly healed. A crusted scab protected the flesh, the stitches consumed by the body, the healing process undertaking its normal course. Still, the throbbing persisted and so did the fever heat.
He was afraid to look at the scab and kept it concealed in a loose fist. The night before, it opened like a deep, fleshy cavern. Skin flaps pulled apart to expose the hollowness, emanating from its depths a faint breeze that smelled earthy. The wound pulsated and sputtered bubbles of blood from the very edges of the skin flaps, the hole wide enough to encompass his entire palm and was an impossible depth given the size of his hand. It was like looking into an actual tunnel with no definable endpoint.
When Quinton lowered his head for a closer look, horrified by the gaping hole, he saw skin flaps pulled together in defense like closed lips. As he did every time he needed to make the dreams go away, Quinton closed his eyes and forced himself to take a deep breath and held it for as long as he could. When it felt right, he exhaled. When the fleshy cavern was still there, he went through the exercise again, and again. Eventually, the scab returned to normal.
Quinton was twelve the first time a wakeful dream came to be. That is what he called it.
It started as shadows. Similar to the voids of light that appeared against walls and under feet. Except Quinton’s shadows had mass and they weren’t tied to a master that must block light for them to exist. They were independent of any object and moved freely at the periphery of Quinton’s vision. Eventually, the shadows moved from the periphery into the open and interacted with the boy.
The shadows were just the beginning. Soon after, other elements entered the wakeful dreams. The sight was paralyzing, the unnatural invading the normal, the way it should happen only in slumber. One moment normal, the next bizarre. When a break in the norm would happen, it could be as pleasant as neon flowers emerging from the pavement, or as horrific as an H.P. Lovecraft monstrosity. They were infrequent but when they came, they swept in with no warning.
At first, he told his parents, and teachers, and concern surrounded the boy, which led to tests and counseling, and eventually he stopped talking about it altogether so others would lose interest.
Quinton’s imagination. Those wakeful dreams. He drew what he saw, and by finding a way to process the manifestations, the boy discovered a love of art.
The wakeful dreams stopped by the time he reached high school. It was not until his third year of college, when the thoughts in his mind were too much to handle, the wakeful dreams re-emerged and seemed to feed on the thoughts he tried to repress. The more he ignored both, the more they penetrated, the stronger they were. The darker, the more wicked. So he drank.
Quinton could barely make out the sketches that rested atop the piles of paper in the darkness, but he knew them by memory and was disappointed with each one. They were flat. They lacked substance. They didn’t capture the essence of the characters. It was the first time Quinton had ever used photos as the source of his art and they didn’t provide the same visceral experience as being part of a real scenario like the bars or the Philly streets; or being in the unreal like his wakeful dreams. Something was missing; an understanding of the characters, the way he understood the people or manifestations that floated around him. Quinton knew their faces now, Allison and Reed, but he didn’t really see them in those photos. He didn’t understand who they were. Drawing from photos was like drawing on drink, the world sedated and two dimensional, a plastic rendition of what is real. Plastic. The dilemma amused him. If only he could have lived through the pain of the past in two dimensional photographs, he never would have drowned in drink.
When Quinton strained to see, Reed was the clearest of the two. The photos were a barrier but he understood the poet’s vulnerabilities, like so many he had drawn before. A celebrated poet who peaked at a young age and was never able to live up to his early work with anything that followed. Abandoned at a small college in rural Pennsylvania, no family, no connections, and the pursuit of a woman far too young for him in what could be an attempt to re-capture whatever had made him special when he was younger. Quinton knew where Reed was born, that he was the son of a heart surgeon, that he lived a childhood of privilege. He knew where the poet went to college, every place he ever lived, that he was married once and had no children, that he had asthma, that he was arrogant and not very liked by his colleagues. He was what Quinton had drawn before. Insecurity. Unfulfilled. Failure. Desperately clawing to hold on.
Jonathon Thomas compiled pages of notes on Reed. For Allison, there was one page of notes. It listed the town she claimed she was from, although no trace of her roots could be found. The address where she allegedly grew up was a vacant lot where a house once stood but burned down before she would have been born and the previous owner had a different last name. There were no past employers, no social security number, no friends. She was merely Reed’s wife for less than a year.
He picked up Allison’s diary from the floor, fingers finding the cloth bookmark that identified the next entry. Such bizarre entries that begged more questions than provide answers, the thought made him strain a closed lipped, jagged smile in between the shivering and the pain. Quinton remembered several critics using those same words about his own work.
He read the handwritten words on the page.
The Man. His face close to the Girl. Does he sleep? She hears him breathe, in and out. The sound of his breath, then her own. It is rhythmic and reminds her of when she used to dance, when she was someone else.
They share the same space, but it is his space. Does he believe he has control? Don’t they all? The Man. He sleeps and she watches. His breath brushes her nose. He is unguarded the way a hungry mouse is in an open field when preoccupied by hunger. Is that love?
Now the Girl’s eyes are closed and she pretends to sleep. She feels him watching her. Is he admiring? Examining?
She parts her lips slightly so he can better hear her breathe. Her body, her skin, on exhibition. How deep does he want to peer? The Girl feels as though she could be dissected. If he had the right instruments. If he had the right light. If he had steady hands. Could he cut a straight line? Could he then reach in and pull out her insides? Such a messy proposition.
The air is hot and humid. Skin is moist. Nightgown clings to her body. Eyes are closed but she knows he examines her skin. The sun's rays have left their mark on her fair complexion, ever so subtle, but he needs the Girl to protect her skin.
His perfect thing. She is a softness that leaves him weak and stupid. He called her a poem that he saw in his head. Every stanza was as clear as daylight that he considered himself not worthy to write.
The entry ended with the three spirals, two atop one. The same spirals that riddled the spine of the diary.
Quinton tossed the diary aside and grabbed a blanket from the couch to cover his sweaty, trembling body. If only he could sleep. He wrapped himself in the blanket and traversed the cluttered landscape, avoiding the mounds of paper, feeling the chill slither into the opening of the blanket before he managed to close the windows.
His brain zoomed in on the various pictures of Allison, like a telephoto lens, zoomed far enough to examine her skin. So fair, like cream. It reminded him of…
He passed by the sketch on the wall, the one he had drawn so long ago and as he tried to focus his brain on the images of Reed and Allison, there was the sound of a sigh on the periphery and a forgotten scent of flowers with a hint of vanilla. Tears instantly formed in Quinton’s eyes. Thinking of the sketch where the sound and scent originated but not daring to look back, he mouthed the words ‘no, please’ over and over as the tears fell. Quinton disappeared into the black of the hallway.
Part 1 (Fall 2014), Chapter 7
On Friday, Al left a message on Quinton’s voicemail, followed by a text. On Saturday, there were two more texts and another voicemail. Sunday night, the phone vibrated on the kitchen counter next to Quinton as he ate a bowl of cereal and stared at the name on the screen – Al.
It was the typical pattern, to allow months to pass without communicating, partly because life got in the way, partly because there was an unspoken understanding that Quinton needed space. And it fit Al’s personality, to go from being in park to fifth gear with no steps in between. Radio silence, then a barrage of calls and texts until Quinton finally surrendered.
Al was determined to keep the two in touch. They were best friends in college and the only connection that was left for Quinton from that time. Through all of life’s ups and downs, and despite the fact they lived hundreds of miles apart, their friendship’s duration was fueled by Al’s determination.
Quinton rubbed his tired eyes and picked up the phone. His voice was shaky. The throbbing in his hand had become so overpowering, touching every single nerve in his body, it was difficult to concentrate on anything else. It was as if the appendage had become a separate lifeform feeding on the rest of him, the throbbing like a foreign heartbeat. Quinton struggled to smile and keep his composure, reciting a phrase that only Al would understand.
“Alejandra. I miss the rooftop talks.”
Few people called Al by her full name. Her parents, the occasional customer service rep or telemarketer, and Quinton.
“I miss Friday night cheesesteaks at Jim’s,” she replied. The weariness in her friend’s voice was obvious, but Al continued their usual exchange, knowing Quinton was averse to concern.
She insisted every call begin with a pleasant thought or memory that included the both of them. She started the tradition after the two resolved their worst fight during their second year of college, the idea inspired by something she read in one of her psychology textbooks. Al called it part of their marriage counseling, a sarcastic description of the closest of friendships void of romantic inclinations.
Al was a family therapist in private practice. She lived in the suburban Midwest, in a five bedroom house with an unnatural green lawn in a cookie cutter development. She was married with two kids, commuted two hours to work, and coached little league.
Her life was the polar opposite of Quinton’s existence. She would joke and say the only reason she stayed in touch with Quinton was to keep her brain from fully assimilating.
Quinton was single. His profession permitted him isolation. He was an artist. He hid in plain sight and left the days from college far behind. Al, on the other hand, partook in social media daily, viewing it as one big experiment and enjoyed diagnosing psychosocial conditions for fun based on what was shared. She found virtually everyone from the past and enjoyed telling Quinton what so and so was doing now, despite the listener’s disinterest.
After nearly a half hour of probing her friend’s life – are you getting sleep – are you dating – she slipped into the latest social media news. But it was different, as Quinton heard it, as he interpreted what escaped the phone’s speaker, his eyes swimming through the darkness of the room, straining to see the sketch on the wall when the words were spoken. Were they spoken?
“She contacted me.”
She? What did Al say? Quinton felt his organs begin to separate and float to his sides as if gravity had ceased to exist within his body. A blackness formed as a pinhole and grew, starting inside his gut, filling the gut. He could picture it, the complete absence of light. He could taste it, a dryness in his mouth that was antiseptic. And he knew it would engulf him until every organ dissipated and his body was an empty vessel. Quinton knew this sensation, the black emptiness, as well as any vivid memory.
It had been years since it felt this strong, but it was always there, that emptiness that took his breath and made him tingle and weak. He leaned over to more closely examine the illuminated screen lying on the kitchen counter.
What did Al say? Sarah contacted me… Sarah contacted me… Sarah…
He put his index finger on the screen and rubbed to see if the text would smear or vanish, but the screen was resilient.
“You know you were the apple of her eye,” Al said sarcastically and laughed. “Remember how she followed you around freshman year?”
She couldn’t have said Sarah.
“I know you hate hearing about this shit,” Al continued. “I don’t know why I enjoy sharing skeletons that I unearth. You would rather they stayed buried.”
Not possible. Sarah… is it yesterday? So confused.
Quinton listened to every word Al shared. Normally he tuned her out when she rambled on about re-connecting with history, but that moment…Sarah? Most of the words that passed through the phone were from Al’s lips, he knew. The words travelled on the sound of his friend’s voice. But others, like that name, sounded different, like a generic female voice filtered through a tinny mono speaker.
“Yesterday. It’s Facebook, man. Once upon a time, a person could hear a song, smell a fragrance or experience something visceral that sparked a memory and maybe a momentary, ‘hey I wonder where they are now, kinda thing.’ Today, you don’t have to wonder. You can find them.”
Quinton took it off speaker and put the phone to his ear and walked into the living room. The Philly lights from the window touched the edge of the sketch on the wall, the one that was hung there when he needed inspiration, the emptiness being his greatest muse that fueled the dark work he created, the one he couldn’t make himself take down.
“Yeah, man. Facebook is the ultimate time machine,” Al proudly stated. She took great pleasure in demonstrating the philosophy behind the science. “I have told you that. I have a working title, F.I.R.S, or Facebook Idealism Regression Syndrome. When you think you can go back, as if you could ever be what you were.”
“She is in a reflective place at the moment. She doesn’t say it, but you can tell, besides, she is reaching out to me about you after all these years. When you are married with kids, you don’t look up old flames if reflection and self-doubt are not the drivers. If I were an old school poet, I would call it longing. I am sure her F.I.R.S. will pass. All us married people go through bumps in the road, some survive. Hell, I have been married for 10 years. Gotta let it pass.”
Quinton sat on the couch, eyes locked on the sketch. A young woman on the floor under the window sill had long brown hair and dark eyes. She wore a sundress, legs covered to the knees, barefoot. She didn’t smile, her eyes to the floor, shy, self-conscious of the attention.
The last time he heard from her…when? It seemed so violent in his mind. Was she real?
“Don’t worry, I didn’t give you up.” Quinton listened to his friend, words that floated, like riding on the never-ending waves of a vast ocean and he drank it in without questioning the origins or intent. She said what he believed he heard.
Quinton held his hand close to his chest. There were tears in his eyes, from the pain, from the things he lost, from the unravelling, the song in his head and the shadows that swirled around the sketch. Shadows, black and formless like spilled ink.
Al tried to analyze the silence. She always expected the distance and occasional pushing away that came with being Quinton’s friend, confident of the relationship between them. But she walked cautiously in her friend’s world, keeping her eye on signs that would demonstrate more than the usual pushing away. Something more. Distress.
“I am always here, Quinton.”
“Friday night cheesesteaks, Alejandra. I will call you soon.”
Quinton hung up the phone and let his head fall back with eyes shut tight. He could hear the shadows that swirled around the sketch pull away from the wall. How? What does a shadow sound like? The sounds were a combination of radio static and whispers. Eyelids clenched tighter, he could feel the shadows brush against his hand.
Part 1 (Fall 2014), Chapter 8
Quinton shuffled into the car of the Broad Street subway line and nestled into the bright orange, plastic seat next to the window. Other passengers jockeyed for position down the aisle, most choosing to sit by themselves if not accompanied by a riding partner or if left with no other seating option. A symptom of city living – cluttered and crowded yet a collective desire to remain separate, the others may as well be figments of the imagination or images on a TV screen.
The doors closed and the filthy concrete pillars that lined the track began to pass by in succession, first at a slow pace, then gradually faster as the train picked up speed. The screeching of the wheels against the rail, the banging of the loose handle against the door that divided the cars, the conversation of the elderly couple sitting across from him, the swish of a toddler’s nylon coat against the plastic seat as the boy squirmed next to his mother, the incessant coughing of the transit officer standing by the door – each its own instrument making a soundtrack for Quinton’s fluid thoughts.
He stared at the graffiti on the back of the seat in front of him. It was done in a black, Sharpie marker, a woman shown from behind. She had long, black hair that was blowing off to the side. The skin and flesh on the woman’s back was pulled apart evenly so you could see her spine. Above the drawing was the tag, Farce. The drawing was intricate, the use of thick and thin lines, the accents of bone and musculature, the shine in her hair. Quinton studied each subtlety, finding the flaws but more often finding the potential as his mind continued to race along a course of randomness.
Probably an art student, maybe taking the train from Temple, or to University of the Arts from North Philly. Could be either gender. Misogyny, but it could also be defiance. What stop are we coming up to? Probably will be hungry soon. Stop by the deli and grab a meatball parm. No, too much meat lately – a veggie hoagie. Could do without meat, could go vegan again. Too much work. Can’t give up fish. Why don’t I feel hungry? He wrote ‘Farce.’
Quinton thought about the conversation with Al the night before. He saw Sarah’s name over the graffiti, projected in front of him from a lens in his brain. The lettering was bold and crisp like a typeset headline in a magazine.
Sarah contacted me.
Did she say Sarah? Why now? What does she want? After all this time. Why don’t I feel hungry? I haven’t eaten all day. I am losing track of the stops.
The projected lettering transformed to mimic the tag on the back of the seat, clustered and messy with jagged lines. He focused back on the drawing of the woman as Al’s message faded. Farce.
The train came to a stop. The doors opened, and in rhythm people exited followed by people entering. Quinton’s mind danced between the mundane of the day and the past. The graffiti drawing reminded him of a mural he created under a bridge when he was still in college. Sarah and he had just started dating and he wanted to show her a part of himself few got to see. He pictured her standing in the middle of broken bottles and other debris, studying his mural, that of a boy cowering in a dark corner, and he smiled at the thought of how her eyes were bright with enthusiasm for his work and then sad at the possibilities of what the work meant. The image of the memory was perfect, as vivid as any of the strangers around him in the subway car. He could see the small mole on her left ear, her olive skin, the permanent look of exaggerated wonderment and fear molded together as if every moment was a thrilling adventure.
He thought about Sarah’s lips. Besides her brown eyes, her lips were the most striking feature on her smallish face. Her lips stood out the way she held them when she was in thought or being deliberate in action, the way a small child would exaggerate a pout. But for Sarah, the way she held her mouth meant so much more, lips pushed out led her to the next moment of her adventure.
The train made a high pitched screech against the tracks, jarring Quinton. The train screeched again and it merged with the sounds of crushing metal and breaking glass. He closed his eyes tightly, and all he could hear was glass shattering, and he pictured the blood on the passenger seat of his car. The flashing lights of the emergency vehicles were harsh and intrusive.
Quinton opened his eyes and the subway car was completely black, at first, and all he could hear was a soft hissing sound. He blinked and light returned to the subway car along with the muddled sounds of the passengers.
The avant-garde sounds of Coltrane's Om filled in the spaces around him, a perplexing cacophony of instruments blended with Eastern influence wrapped loosely in the amalgamation of traditional jazz. It was loud, chaotic, and accented Quinton’s feverish expression.
On the floor was a large sketch pad smeared with the grayscale, a figure seated at an old typewriter, immersed in the darks and lights as Quinton's charcoal stained fingers refined the edges of the figure. Scattered around the canvas were other sketches on paper, in ink, in pencil, all various forms of that same figure, the poet, behind the typewriter.
Quinton pulled his hair out of his face and sat back against the coffee table, eyes not leaving the fractured man, searching for the haunting or tormented expression that charcoal stained fingers were attempting to replicate from the canvas in the artist’s mind. Quinton’s eyes, to the poet’s eyes, who looked back from the sketch and the two stared at each other until Quinton looked away in dissatisfaction and kicked the sketch pad with his bare foot.
He paged through the diary, searching for other thoughts that provided comfort, or at least digression, but all he could muster were mental reproductions of Allison, the missing woman, and they were interchangeable with memories of Sarah. The differences were diluted by the potency of the little things that demonstrated likeness. He tried to shake away the images as his fleeting concentration shifted to the handwritten entry. He read it silently, but heard Allison’s voice as the narrator. The Girl, the Man, the Admirer and the Solace.
History of Boys. Their cruelty hangs around her neck. It hangs heavy like a dead weight and pulls her head to the floor. The Admirer, she mopes. They are all around, boys, holding up a mirror. They spit on flaws. Boys.
Men. They are the stuff of comfort. When you have been sold the idea. They are the warmth. They are the reward. More. They are the lie.
The Admirer’s first kiss was age eleven. It was an innocent peck with the boy next door the same age only a foot shorter, behind the big tree in the backyard. It was a mere fraction of a second, when the boy was not expecting it and had no interest in girls. It was a loud smooch, both lips catching his upper lip. It was quick, and she ran from his backyard, and hid in her room. The boy didn’t speak to her for the rest of the summer.
The Admirer’s next kiss came at fifteen. The moment was just as awkward – not romantic the way she had seen it in the movies or her dreams. The boy was a year older. He opened his mouth like a gaping hole and laid his tongue in her mouth, motionless like a slimy dead fish. They were at a party when the lights went out and everyone was supposed to kiss their date, so she did. Perhaps it went on for 5 minutes, although it felt painstakingly long. It was awkward. While she dreamed of fireworks, she only felt a dead fish.
She didn’t kiss another boy until the following year – again at a party. There was drinking and she could smell the liquor on the boy’s breath who was eighteen and a senior at her school. She had admired the boy, strong and good looking and popular. Word of her infatuation had gotten back to the boy, so he approached her, drunk, as she stood outside in the crisp fall air. They spoke. He complimented her dress. She smiled. He kissed her soft, at first, then forceful. It hurt. She felt his hand grab her breast the way a boy would grab a baseball. She pushed against his chest and he pulled her back. Boys. She tore herself from his arms and ran. All night, she cried in her room.
She didn’t kiss another until college. The next time was a girl and her name was Allison.
Quinton stuffed a handful of aspirin in his mouth and chased the tablets with a cold cup of coffee. He had consumed the pain reliever every hour with no relief from the throbbing. He grabbed an open notebook and pen from the coffee table. He had made two columns, one for Reed and the other for Allison, and had made several notes under each. In Allison’s column, he added the Admirer with several question marks.
Part 1 (Fall 2014), Chapter 9
Worn and weathered. Old and familiar. Right and unapologetic, and comfortable. Once a deep black, faded to a charcoal. Its skin bore creases like tattoos that connected to each other and branched out in several directions the way a sturdy tree would reach for nourishment. The laces were frayed and two lace holes were missing metal eyelets. They were boots with character, broken in, the sort of look and feel that can’t be imitated. It comes only from years of wear.
Quinton stared at his boots from the bench, head down, elbows on his knees, eyes to the leather and concrete. He owned four pairs of footwear: sandals for the occasional trip back to the Jersey shore, sneakers for the Saturday night run along the Schuylkill River, Oxfords for the days he reluctantly needed to throw on a suit, and his boots which he wore for nearly every other occasion.
His eyes moved from his feet, to the concrete, to the legs of the bodies that walked passed. The day was bright and everything in focus was vivid, as though Quinton could count the threads in the pants of the passersby.
He breathed deeply and closed his eyes, and pictured deep water, murky and filled with bubbles, warm and soothing like bath water. The footsteps, the conversations in front, the traffic behind, and all the sounds muddied in his ears and fell under the sound of moving water. He stayed under for as long as he could, for as long as his lungs could hold the air.
When he was a kid, Quinton could hold his breath under water longer than any other kid in the neighborhood. He never felt more peaceful than under water. Calm and alone. Quiet and safe.
His body floated to the surface. Exhaling slowly, Quinton opened his eyes and he was back in the cold air amid the sounds of the city.
He willed himself off the bench, and with every movement, he felt a fluttering queasiness. The walk down the sidewalk was interrupted with stops, and slows, and pauses, breaking the flow of activity along a crowded street. He turned the corner to escape the crowds, then another turn down an alley and at last he was alone. Large dumpsters sat next to doors. All the doors were employee entrances at the back of the building until he reached the end of the alley just before it intersected with the next street over.
The last door was unlike the rest, equipped with a green awning and mahogany wood frame. There were two small windows at eye level on the door in green stained glass with pale yellow etchings of barley against the green, and three spirals, two atop one. Quinton placed his hand on the large brass knob and turned it. He pushed the door open, stepped inside and was faced with a maître d’ who smiled and motioned to the dining area on the right.
The door shut behind him and Quinton waited for that moment of auditory buffer when the inside gets sealed from the environment outside, one of the many things that amazed him, how easily the noise of the streets was prevented from infiltrating a quiet room. The quiet brought with it a clarity that was less possible when so many loud sounds were attacking the ears at once. Quinton needed the noise and chaos and activity that only a city like Philly could provide. Still, the quiet moments were welcomed and that much more profound when pushing away from so much sound.
He tried to make eye contact with the man before him, but was distracted by a river of shadows on the floor, racing away from the door and into the dining area. Quinton followed the shadow current into the adjacent room, eyes on the floor until the shadows dissipated into nothing.
When he lifted his head, Quinton spotted Sarah at a table near the center of the room, nose in a book. Her hair was different, shorter. Her face was older, not old of course but giving way to the subtle changes that years of maturity bring. Girl to woman, he supposed. Those distinctions Quinton took notice of as he walked toward the table and it made him feel strangely more at ease, at least for that moment. A decade and change had gone by. Far more time had passed apart than they had spent actually together. Three years versus over ten. The math made the anxiety, the sensation in the pit of his stomach seem ridiculous. Time made everything from the past blur. The more time, the blurrier, with some images and memories completely indistinguishable. Not Sarah.
She looked up from the book and Quinton swallowed hard, realizing at that moment how parched he was. Her eyes, unchanged. The darkest brown, like shiny stones. She still crinkled her nose and pursed her full lips in that familiar childish pout before transforming into a smile.
“I wasn’t sure you would come,” Sarah said, rising from the table, her hand nervously gripping the side so tightly that knuckles went white.
Quinton gave an awkward smile. He wondered if Sarah could possibly be feeling anything close to the anxiety he was feeling.
They took their seats and the waiter brought two coffees.
“It’s good to see you Quinton. It really is, I am happy you came. I was surprised to find you are still in Philly. I mean, I hadn’t heard anything about you and figured you moved far away. Like Antarctica.”
“Too cold,” he tried to smile less awkwardly the second time. “Besides, it’s more fun to disappear in your own backyard.”
For the first time since they sat, Quinton looked away from Sarah’s eyes and turned his attention to the book on the table – an old hardback with tattered binding. A red cloth bookmark rested close to the end of the pages. The cover was badly beaten by time. The title could barely be read, but the author’s name was clear.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
“The Great Gatsby?” Quinton asked.
Sarah smiled with such warmth and looked down at the book. The first year they were together, Quinton spent his entire savings, seven hundred dollars, on the first edition by the same title. Even in poor condition, he could barely afford it. One in mint condition would go for a small fortune. He bought it because it was her favorite story.
Any change in her that Quinton had seen when he first entered the restaurant began to melt away with every subtle nuance and expression. If the waiter had told him the date was a decade ago, he would have accepted that truth without hesitation.
“I wanted to see you. I don’t know, to see how you are.”
They both, as if agreed upon, let minutes pass in silence. It wasn’t an awkward pause, rather one of reflection and a chance for them both to take each other in. He watched her hands fidget nervously on the table the way she did when they first met, at a party in an old apartment near campus.
That night, at the party, they talked about literature. Too shy to express how she was feeling about that moment when they were thrown together by happenstance. That night was so long ago but he could picture as vividly as the present. The young Sarah smiled. A little smile, the kind that hides much of what could be revealed. Lips parted just enough to see teeth. It was a cautious smile, guarded, the expression of someone bashful, or even slightly insecure with her surroundings, herself, of being that close to him.
They had been talking for nearly two hours while other moments happened around them. After a while, they didn’t seem to notice the other activity at the party. The conversation started the way many do when two people meet for the first time and there is that initial interest. Two lines intersecting. Gradually, the words deepened. They learned personal things about each other. How strange it is that strangers can elicit the personal when the right lines find the point of intersection. There were breaks in the conversation when they both remained silent. It wasn’t an awkward silence, it was a chance to reflect on what was happening without being obvious they were taking each other in.
During one of the silent moments, he pulled a fine tipped drawing pen from his pocket and began to flesh out a likeness on a napkin that startled her. She thought it was beautiful and almost immediately after the words left her lips, feelings of modesty and embarrassment slipped in. He captured her eyes, and the warmth of her reserved, little smile.
After midnight, her friend entered the conversation to say it was time to go. She took the fine tipped drawing pen and wrote her phone number on the inside palm, something she had always wanted to do, something so cliché yet so cinematic. And she did it. Then trying to stretch the moment a bit longer, so their skin would still … she wrote a few lyrics from her favorite Depeche Mode song on his wrist. As her friend was pulling her away, she grabbed the napkin portrait without asking and they left the house.
“Tell me all about your life.”
“I am thinking of running for Mayor. I think Philly can use a former anarchist.”
Quinton dodged the question about what he was doing in life and the many that followed. Sarah didn’t seem to mind, laughing at his witty deflections while firing off more questions. When she spoke about her life, Quinton listened attentively, but the words never reached his ears. Did she say she was happy? Is she married? Kids? Nothing was clear. Sarah’s words were muffled like she was trying to talk to him from the surface as he was submerged in deep water.
“Are you OK?” Sarah’s voice suddenly clear.
“What was that?”
“I asked if you are still doing your art? I still have sketches you gave me, and the painting.”
Quinton couldn’t answer. He couldn’t be there. He couldn’t look at Sarah’s eyes. He couldn’t sink into the memories. He had gotten so good at pushing them to his periphery, letting them float just out of sight like the tiny specks that move across your vision and away after looking at the sun. But everything was moving to the center of vision all at once.
“You were never one to talk a lot, or to express yourself with words, but God you could say so much with your sketches. I still look at them sometimes,” Sarah continued.
He could see a scar above her left eyebrow where she collided with the windshield, the only visible evidence remaining from that night. So much blood.
“You should burn them.” Quinton stood.
Sarah’s dark brown eyes grew wide. She grasped the old book as if it would give her some kind of security as she watched the love from her past rise from the table, brushing the hair back, out of his eyes.
“I’m sorry. This was a mistake.”
“I am happy you are doing well.”
Sarah stood, her eyes glassy with the start of, or resistance to a tear. “I’m not. I mean, I just wanted to see you.”
He turned to walk away but his legs wouldn’t move. Quinton never wanted to move. He wanted to hold Sarah the way he used to, so close that she felt like she was part of him. He could smell that familiar scent, flowers with a hint of vanilla.
When he turned back, Sarah was gone. Water flowed like a waterfall over the edge of the table onto the floor.
Quinton turned and walked out of the restaurant and as he moved down the street, his footsteps felt heavy as if weights were tied to them. Even his eyelids felt weighted like he could stop, lay on the dirty sidewalk and drift into a deep slumber. He felt the heaviness in his stomach too and it brought about a sick, queasy churning.
His eyes flooded. The lids held the waters for as long as they could, the way a dam stands firm against the water until it rises above the sturdy wall, but streams broke free to find paths down his face.
He tore apart the bandage and scraped his hand against the rough exterior walls of the buildings as he passed, re-opening the wound. A blood stream found its own path the way his tears did, dripping onto the sidewalk.
After walking several blocks, Quinton turned into a tavern. He didn’t bother to look at the sign. He didn’t need to. Entrances to bars have a similar impression. Stepping through, and pausing to let his eyes adjust to the dark, he found it empty except for the young woman behind the bar. Quinton grabbed a stool. “Scotch. The best bottle you have.”
Tracing his fingers on the old bar top, he recited the words under his breath. “History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
Part 2 (Winter 1984), Chapter 10
The artificial tree in the corner leaned dramatically to the left, partly because of its cheap frame, partly because of being overloaded with ornaments. Cheap tinsel littered the fake pine needles while strands scattered like wisps across the shiny floor with the breezes of activity. Adults and children scurried by, close to the outstretched wire branches. The slightest jostle would bring it crashing to the floor, fake spray snow and all.
A Connie Francis holiday melody spun on the turntable in the stereo console. Grandpop played the album every Christmas Eve while the extended family gathered in the finished basement that was equipped with a full bar. Relatives sat on barstools, and clustered in small groups dispersed throughout the room, carrying on separate conversations that merged into aural chaos. Grandpop mixed drinks, occasionally stepping from behind the bar to interact with the herd of children in their church clothes, sprawled across the linoleum floor, cushioned by mounds of crumpled wrapping paper. Before returning to mix drinks, the old man would move the needle on the turntable to the beginning so Connie Francis performed all over again. The music could barely be heard under the laughter and conversations in the packed basement with wall to wall faux wood paneling draped with gold tinsel garland, cardboard cutouts of snowmen and reindeer, and a giant popcorn plastic Santa.
Gerald sat scrunched on the edge of the flower print couch sipping a rum and coke. His holiday sweater, pulled snuggly over his round belly, itched. His big legs were tucked close against the couch, avoiding too much contact with his boisterous cousin Jen, who was a few years younger than him and whose entire body seemed to act out every sentence she spoke. He felt claustrophobic, awkward, and a stranger in a room full of people he had known his entire life.
The room was filled with cigarette smoke, the smell of beer and his grandmother’s homemade Christmas spices that warmed on the radiator heater in dangerous proximity to the artificial tree. There was plenty of laughter, a few elevated voices from the most intoxicated, the sounds of toy wheels scratching against the linoleum floor as the younger cousins argued over a game, and a few of the older relatives broke into a sing along with Connie Francis. All these sounds would rise collectively to drown out his cousin Jen’s voice and fall to allow her stories of the first semester at college to seep into his disinterested ears.
Aunt Peggy, who sat across from them in a folding chair too small for her pillowy torso, reached over and patted Jen on the knee. “You make the most of this time, honey. We are all proud of you.”
Gerald looked around the room at his extended family: Uncle Phil telling dirty jokes to his stepfather; Grandpa holding court at the bar; nearly a dozen children of various ages with names he had forgotten or never tried to remember scattered around; his mother consoling her recently divorced sister. Gerald began to perspire, causing the sweater to itch even more. He could see the snow piling up against the small basement window, but inside it felt like 80 degrees. Grandma had always kept the temperature in the house warm, even in the summertime, and with the body heat of the party goers crammed into the room, the temperature was slowly rising.
He checked his swatch watch, the thin plastic band and equally small face looked like a child’s toy on his big wrist and he strained to see where the hands pointed in the low light. Only nine o’clock. Gerald let out a quiet, shallow sigh as he lifted his head to lock eyes with Aunt Peggy. She was smiling at him. Who knows how long she had been staring and the attention added to the awkwardness of the evening.
“So how are you Gerry?”
Clearing his throat and checking the tiny watch again, “It’s Gerald. I go by Gerald now.”
Aunt Peggy’s smile expanded, her big teeth framed by dark red lipstick. She was a heavy woman, early sixties, and took great liberties with make-up. She had always reminded him of the round, exaggerated faces decorating the exterior of the funhouse at the annual fair. He hated the funhouse.
“Gerald, right. Your Dad preferred Gerald too. How is work at the video store? I haven’t gotten one of those players yet.”
Gerald downed the last of his rum and coke. He hadn’t seen his father since he was 10 years old, a fact that always seemed to escape her. The rest of his family had stopped talking about the man years ago, but Aunt Peggy could find a way to work it into conversation on every occasion. ‘You have your Dad’s nose. You have a big appetite like your Dad. Your Dad had trouble in crowds too.’
“I don’t work there anymore. I just - I finished school,” standing to head to the bar and Grandpop’s mixology.
Jen’s eyes got big with eyebrows raised. “School? What school?” She looked up at her towering cousin from the old couch.
Gerald glanced at her before turning his attention to the tight, itchy sweater, pulling it down over his gut.
“It was school, not like what you are going to. Correspondence school.”
Jen leaned back on the couch and crossed her legs, Jordache jeans hugging her firm thighs. “Like those commercials for VCR repair?”
“PI,” Gerald responded, taking a few steps backward toward the bar.
“Yeah, private investigator.”
Jen snorted. “Like Magnum PI?”
Aunt Peggy grabbed Gerald’s hand, excited. Her large, plastic earrings jumped erratically and tapped against her chubby cheeks. “How exciting Gerry, Gerald. You are going to be a detective.”
“Private Investigator,” Gerald corrected, freeing his hand and returning to the journey to the bar. Jen walked closely behind him and motioned to a short, balding man.
“Uncle Kev, Gerry is a detective now.”
Gerald felt the blood rush to his face. For the last two hours, he tried to blend into the wall paneling or become furniture. He hated family get togethers, or any get together for that matter. At age 25, Gerald was growing more reclusive by the moment, choosing to hide away in his childhood bedroom at his mother’s house watching a vast collection of movies on VHS.
Uncle Kev, into his fourth gin and tonic, cracked a few jokes about television show detectives as Gerald passed by on the way to retrieve a fresh rum and coke. He smiled politely at his Uncle before catching the expression on his mother’s face who was still consoling the sobbing divorcee. The look was one of concern, and disappointment.
He hated the familiar and wanted so desperately to change the situation, perhaps to leave altogether, go far away. But Gerald had a hundred reasons why he couldn’t or why he would pack up and go at a later date.
When his mother looked at Gerald, she saw his father. It was always that way; however, the similarities for the woman had become more apparent as her son got older. Now in his twenties, she saw the man who amounted to broken promises and heartbreak. Disappointment. So, he always wanted to go away.
Gerald grabbed his fresh drink and managed to slip by the various groups of relatives with barely a notice, up the basement stairs, through the kitchen and to the outside air. Freedom, cold and crisp.
Sitting on cement steps, Gerald looked down the street at an array of gaudy lights that decorated the small houses. He could faintly hear celebrations from the closest residences and wondered if anyone in there was desperate to get outside, away from the activity.
Fuzzy snowflakes landed on his itchy sweater. He watched a few remain like white moths on a screen, then melt from his body heat. A few more hours until he could go home and the Christmas Eve celebration would be behind him for another year. An entire day tomorrow of hosting the neighbors who would pop in to spread Christmas cheer – another loathed tradition. Then he could get back to training.