They Hadn’t Yet
They hadn’t yet closed the churches or liquor stores, the pawn shops or community garden, the banks. The bars, they’d had their way with the bars, and that tapas place around the corner, the drive-thru donut shop, too. The earthquakes, they remained fey, twee, cuter than most. Sharp cheddar cheese was scarce. Handprints pressed grey against his bedroom walls. The night geese glowed silver-yellow as winged gas lanterns making their way west in a drifty V. And still, the ghost, she was living in his refrigerator and clothes dryer, now maybe his oven.
The sky above his walk-up had seeped toward the color of lilac. Like above that one maybe-real beach at dawn his screensaver enjoyed shuffling through relentlessly – lilac sky, canals of Venice, peaks of Machu Pichu, the long legs of a girl he once loved, lilac sky – impermanent but always returning, which meant permanent, or a version of it, right? He often confused himself, but…
Screensaver, what a word. Impermanentpermanent. What a repetition of sky, along with legs and steppes and striped-shirted gondoliers. A sky not unlike those bruises across his chest – three finger-tip yellow-grey ghosts – the ghost herself had been leaving behind each Monday night for weeks now.
It was 6am. Tuesday. Fresh bruises and too-long hair. And on top of it all he kept forgetting his middle name. But, but … he knew it rhymed with Helen – his mother’s first name – and that helped it come around.
This, he understood as a bad or medium-bad sign. He was after all just thirty-two, well-employed, a productive, thoughtful citizen of the world. Some people referred to him as handsome. Others kind. He worried about the silent other others because he, deep down, most mostly wanted to feel liked, admired, a necessity to anyone outside of himself.
His hair had grown an inch overnight again, and for some senseless reason the barber he’d known as a friend for years wasn’t – again, that morning at 6am – answering his phone in any form. There was a different someone in his bed, fully dressed and freckle-cheeked. His new phone was nearly dead now, too, and the only text coming through alerted him to pay the same bill he had paid the day before and the previous four days.
The mantra False Positive, False Positive swam about his skull, or that’s how he liked to posit it. The world, a false positive. Swim. Swum. Swaming. About. Swamabouting. False Positive. All of this swimabout swamabout swumaboutwas getting unnerving.
Lying in bed, watching the sky pulse, feeling the warm acrid breath of the freckled one beside him, he was quite certain, again this morning, he’d soon be writing a novel. A novel with the protagonist a man not dissimilar to himself, needing another haircut and a manicure, craving a further sense of dread, but meaningful dread, and plotting out the writing of a novel with this familiar title – False Positive – full of dread and love and the swumabout of Saturday mornings like this.
And how messed up was that?
This, he knew, was very messed up. Because, who would read said novel now? The old library boys and girls, dressed in their library best, smudged-up and gutted by poverty, donning frayed khaki fatigues and dinge? The emo children? The mothers in high-waisted jeans? Plus, the library, that was another closed and boarded-up thing. And somehow he knew, he had known, all those padlocks and chains were coming before they had. He knew, also, there were more padlocks and chains to come. He, like everyone who remained, had fallen in love with doom. With claiming ownership of said doom. Which was its own kind of doom. Yet. Also. Yetalso to be noted, a pleasure.
His refrigerator moaned and she clucked her tongue to say, “You’re finally getting it now, the mobius of cataclysm. Go forth, proselytize. I’ll keep watch. We’ll have a good day in here. Go Home for a while. Say hi to Kelner for me. Silvi, too. My recommendation is to tell them both all these things you’ve been telling me.”
He sat up in bed, touched the freckled cheeks beside him, whispered to the ghost, “As you wish. Good thinking. The comfort of a known Home, on a Saturday. It is Saturday, right?”
He spread his pale arms wide, shivered and yawned as the ghost, she whispered back, “You’ve always done your best thinking on Saturdays. You’ve also, I have to say, always been a smart, kind boy. Take a drive. Home. Old Home. Go Reward yourself.”
He leaned cheek to cheek against those freckles. “I’m going to drive south,” he whispered, and licked the cartilage frame of this perfect freckled ear before him. “Stay as long as you’d like. You two will have a great day.” No answer came, simply the rising and lowering of a t-shirted chest.
Yes. Take a drive. That’s what you do on floral, sun-dashed Saturday mornings like this, right? Drive. Drive Home. So he did, thinking all the while of the notion of Home, the explication of Home, and how Home manifest – in the past, in the what might be, in this tight coil of present – his warm hands on the smooth tack of the leather steering wheel, his striped bowtie tight, but not too, his jeans and button-down smelling of bright soap and citrus, his want for, and his essential distrust of, Nostalgia billowing as a wonderment.
A note on the ghost: She was a kind ghost, but stern in her kindness, not frightening, but not unfrightening. Her voice was full of lilt of a liltingvoiceheloved. She liked to talk about the old days, his boyhood, the people he thought he’d be. A father, a husband, a caretaker to his aging parents who’d died some years ago now in a plane crash featuring poor timing and mythic catastrophe, a world traveler, a novelist, a magnate, a fisher of men, of women. All those things he now, the ghost was quite sure, would never do or be. She also talked, more rarely, about her own life, the one before she came to live with in his refrigerator and stove and maybe the microwave. She had run hotels and stage stops off spurs of the Oregon Trail. She’d lost her husband early. She’d sat nude for portraits in the velvet-curtained back rooms of tavern. She’d taken lovers often. Her only child had died in his sleep when he was just ten months old. She missed him. His name was Harold. She missed what could have been.
Nostalgia. This was something the ghost set into his arms most nights and some pitch-black mornings – Nostalgia – in dreams and in not dreams, as if there were a difference any longer.
In his arms Nostalgia was weightless. In his mouth and mind, not so much. He hadn’t been Home in years. But, he trusted the ghost. Plus he needed witnesses in times like this, and he felt Home, it was its own kind of witness. Just to prove he was real, that his life was and had been real. Provehewasreal. A real boy with teeth, sharp white teeth and a few laugh lines now. Real, with the worm-like shine of scars across his left knee, his right shoulder, his neck just above the collarbone.
The side streets, highways, interstates were nearly empty, mostly semis and Sprinter vans. Sometimes boys delivering sandwiches on black and yellow fixies. Essential services included fresh-baked cookies, hemp shampoos, half-mast books of poetry, sourdough and salami, gilt-framed youthful photographs of his mother and father on their honeymoon. Smilingandinloveonthierhoneymoon. The delivery of handwritten letters from old girlfriends who all conveyed the same kindnesses and worry.
“Hi,” the letters began. “Hope you’re safe and well. Just wanted for us both to take a minute to remember that day in the school yard or on that cold empty beach, naked in that stairwell or Little League dugout, alleyways and smoking Canadian cigarettes behind our now-closed-up bars where the jukebox lifted songs we swayed to, leaning into each other thinking nothing like today could ever come to pass. Hope you’re feeling happy sometimes, or feeling anything, really. Hearts. XOX.”
People were desperate to feel something. Other people were desperate to deliver that feeling of something to your doorstep, front porch, the green metal bench outside his apartment that was not really, truly, Home, but a stand-in.
Home, that was one-hour south. Another world from another time.
He’d felt, these last years, fortunate to live in his bustling bigger city – close, but not too very close, to the mid-sized suburban town where he’d grown up. Maple trees and wrought-iron fences, very few weeds seeping from very few sidewalk cracks. Very few folded-up beer cans, spent condoms, needle casings, cigar butts left behind on the high school track. And most certainly many, many station wagons and suited men clutching briefcases pedaling their way to any number of offices.
Down the nearly empty 415 his sedan’s tires whirred, the stereo eased sentimental power-pop, and he let his mind drift and do some of that good Saturday thinking the ghost was kind enough to encourage.
He thought of Kelner, his one-time best friend, a husky boy with white-blonde hair and a propensity for mischief and derring-do. There was a brave charm about Kelner, a sense of assurance, always jokes and riddles tucked into his pockets. Kelner, who as they grew older got into some fairly serious trouble for chronic shoplifting, who’d been sent to Santa Barbara by his juvie officer to attend a private military school. Kelner, who one midnight his senior year took a machete to a homeless guy living along the train tracks a half block from the Santa Barbara pier.
He knew they’d given Kelner life, though he didn’t know where that life was being lived, or if it was even being lived at all now, and he’d never once tried to track Kelner down, which had often made him feel angry, confused, sad or just disappointed, cowardly. He’d always thought that if he’d been the one who hacked up an old drunk along some train lines and was subsequently sent away forever that Kelner would have tracked him down and come to visit, tell him from behind thick, scratched-up plexiglass how sorry he was that something dark had cracked opened within his friend, letting a brand of evil out into the world. Kelner probably would have told him a joke, delivered a riddle or a proverb, something to comfort. Kelner would have pressed his own palm to the plexiglass so they could nearly touch – hand to hand, friend to friend – in solidarity over all the mysteries in this strange world.
Years ago now. Manyyearsagonow.
The 415 shimmered grey, shivered crooked. The smell of baby powder, raspberry lip gloss, and that baseball-card bubble gum in those wax-wrapped dayglow packs filled the cabin of his sedan.
He thought of Silvi H, the first girl he loved loved. Silvi came around Sophomore year, surprising and overjoying him in his nascent boyish sexual adulthood. Silvi had long legs and wore sundresses printed with daisies or petunias, wore her straight brown hair in a pixie. Silvi’s green eyes flecked straw-brown and gold, and she looked at him like no one ever had – then, or now, or forever more – with kindness and desire and what he believed was necessity, a needing of him, aneedingofhim, before he at least kind of understood how men assigned the wrong meaning to this sort of thing.
Some mornings his mother stood above him, her head cocked, smiling, staring as he woke in an almost similar manner to Silvi, though never quite. Silvi. Her pale skin so soft against his index fingertip as he spelled out their names in cursive across the bare curve of her hip and stomach in the quiet TV room of Saturday nights when his parents were out to dinner, at a potluck, holding hands at the drive-in.
Silvi H, she broke his heart through no fault of her own. It was her father, his getting a new job, back east, a promotion in the airline industry, high-level management. It was end of Junior year, a crucial year, an essential time of year, a make-or-break fulcrum in the space-time continuum of Them, when he and Silvi had made plans for university life, for a small apartment in married student housing, for a long life to be witnessed by each other. But. But family. Opportunity. Capital. This is life, his mother said. This is the sad poor nature of life, my son. He thought about, then actually did, ask if Silvi could stay with his family senior year, in the basement room where the cats slept. Just nine months, that’s all. Then they’d be plenty old enough to get hitched, go away together. College, love, children soon enough. But, her father and his father conferred and decided sorry, no. Declared, “We love you too much for this to come to pass. You’re too young, innocents. You’ll thank us, years later, believe us.”
But. He has never thanked them, nor has Silvi, as far as he knows, though now, after those first several months exchanging phone calls, letters and emails, photos of lives far from each other, he has not seen or spoken with Silvi in any number of years. This, he understands now, was his fault and remains to be. Simple boyish jealousy. Silvi had mentioned in an off-hand manner, a boy, or maybe a man, who was tutoring her in Linguistics and Literature. He was a senior at the local University, and all she said was that he was really helpful and smart and her grades we A-level once again. The tutor came to her house, sat with her, spoke gently of language, of symbolism and rhetoric and pathetic fallacies. The tutor breathed the same air as Silvi, was paid to. The tutor’s name is a name he still cannot mention, though he mentions Silvi’s often in stories he tells, or used to tell, to new girlfriends when they would talk of first true loves.
Jealousy of a nameless, faceless no one.
He never again wrote Silvi another message or letter, never phoned even. Though she wrote him several more times. Though she pleaded with him to contact her. For a time at least. Three or four weeks. Then, nothing, the thread of their connection – the hours spent tracing their names across the turn of each other’s’ hips, the days of hand-in-hand and end-of-time – was snapped with this slightest, stupidest tug. And it had been he who’d done the tugging, the snapping, the losing of Silvi.
Which sucks. Which sucks hard right now, driving back Home and most certainly thinking about driving to the last place he saw her – a picnic table above the dried-out grass abutting the high school courtyard, on a Sunday afternoon when she wore his favorite lavender sun dress all painted-up with lavender blooms, and they kissed and cried into each other’s necks like you’d expect young humans in love and soon to be displaced from each to cry and kiss and pet.
He drove on, the empty interstate gently rising and falling like a breath, the trees and warehouses lining the asphalt leaned to loom above him as he thought of stealing baseball cards from Bergmand’s and 7-11. Of soccer practice. Of riding his silver Huffy BMX with his gang of friends down to the Varsity Theater on Main to see Caddyshack for the thirteenth time. He thought of smuggling firecrackers into elementary school to sell on the sly. Of fishing for Bluegill and Sunfish and the occasional bass up at Foothills Park where the sun always shone and the dank heft of mud, fish scales, and lake-grass held in the air all around him. He thought of his father in his dark-blue suits and wingtips riding off to the train station to be whisked north to work in the city where he himself now lived, the city that was not Home. He thought of his mother holding Tupperware parties and environmental action parties in their gold, shag-carpeted living room. He thought of the muni golf course where he’d worked his first real job, of the hours padding those fairways, greens, sand traps, clubhouse, driving range. He thought of the joy all these jobs, people, thefts, stories, have brought him. Comfort, familiarity, Home. And that’s where he was headed, Home, if just for a day. And that’s just what he needed Comfort, Familiarity, Joy, Solace, Home, now, then maybe in the next moment, the next, the next.
In the near distance the yellow-green City Center Exit sign lurked and encouraged and he followed her instructions and took said exit when it presented itself a ¼ mile south.
The second installment of this story will be published on Wednesday, April 29th.
“Why? The language is terse and magical at once, and the dual narratives — one set in post-soviet northern Russia, one in suburban Louisiana — are woven together beautifully and brilliantly, slowly peeling away layers of the mysteries surrounding two brothers losing each other. It’s a poetic, character-driven, page-turner, and as a writer and reader I love and admire what Lydia has accomplished with this novel. Can’t wait for her next one! She writes amazing short stories as well.”
Christian Winn, the 2016-2019 Idaho Writer in Residence, is a fiction writer, poet, journalist, and teacher of creative writing. His fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, TriQuarterly Hayden’s Ferry Review, Greensboro Review, Chattahoochee Review, Gulf Coast, Bat City Review, Every Day Fiction, The Pinch, Santa Monica Review, Handful of Dust, The Strip, Story Houston, The Masters Review, Revolver, and elsewhere. His short story collections of, NAKED ME and What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me are out from Dock Street Press. He teaches fiction and poetry with The Cabin. He has written for The Boise Weekly, Thrive, The Idaho Statesman, and Idaho Magazine. He is the founder of the Writers Write fiction workshop series, co-founder of Storyfort, and curator of Modern Campfire Stories and the Couch Surfer Artist Series.