by Joe Deir
You could hear bugs quietly sneezing behind the curtains hung from the sidewalls of the darkened little theater. The curtains—thick, crimson, and velvety, like a bishop's cape, like something you'd see in a high-class whorehouse in some movie —vibrated, shivered, and rippled with the steady rattlesnake hiss of the ventilation system. Behind the curtains, every four seconds or so, you'd hear the mild kazoo-like sneezes of mosquitoes, flies, fleas and microscopic mites. It was pretty fucked up, annoying too. This was the FFADD (Firefighters Against Driving Drunk) presentation in our high school's little theater—“Catch the FFADD: Sobriety!” said the colorful posters and t-shirts featuring rosy-cheeked NHS twats with toothy asshole smiles and big thumbs raised aloft, looking like the stupid fucking fuckheads that they were.
It was called the little theater even though it was our only theater. The larger auditorium had been pummeled from outer space by a comet three months prior. You might've heard about it on the news. No shit, man. A fucking comet. What are the odds on that one? No injuries were reported, but it did leave a crater in the floor of the old auditorium the size of a small trampoline, and a vague sulfuric stench, not unlike that of the after stench of a lighted book of matches, throughout the school's halls for weeks and weeks.
So the little theater was dark, except for the exit sign to the right of the stage. Gruesome pictures in vivid color of nights gone wrong—a car smashed to shit, wrecked, ravaged bodies of teens, gored faces, torsos, necks, shattered glass, mutilated and bent stop signs bowed onto car hoods like subservients, cars and lives totaled, over, dead, gone, fucked, daddy's Beamer smashed for eternity—were shown on a large screen in front of us. The projection booth loomed behind us; you could look up and see the beautiful multi-colored stream of light loaded with dust motes swirling in minor chaos leading up to the hideous, screwed-up, bloody pictures. What a fucked-up slide show. I mean we get the point, right? Don't drink and drive—whatever. I get it.
I sat toward the front, in an aisle seat, next to Jamie Dee—pale, skinny-limbed, freckled, her black hair pulled back into a tight pony-tail, dressed in black denim and a faded blackish-gray AC/DC t-shirt. You should know that in my high school, no one's nearly as fucked-up as Jamie Dee. And I should know ‘cause she's one of my best friends, even though I'm a dude.
Jamie likes to wear faded G.G. Allin or Slayer t-shirts. She has small nickel-sized splotches of black, burn scars, on her forearms, ‘cause she abused what she claimed was nitrous oxide in its pure form. Which is, like, these rocks that are a little like dry ice, and what you do is put them in a Folgers's Crystals can or something, huff the fumes, then wait for the room to turn elastic. But what Jamie did was huffed too much and passed out and the shit got all on her skinny arms, burnt the fuck out of them—like frost bite. Permanent scars.
Her legs twitched rapidly while her thin fingertips typed on the armrest of her theater seat, as if there were an invisible calculator there and she was swiftly doing urgent arithmetic. She smelled like watermelon perfume. Earlier that day she'd bought some acid from this security guard at our school: Mr. Belvedere, a stout, middle-aged, no-necked, muscular black dude who wore pinstriped short-sleeved dress shirts and sold drugs to students.
“Don't be takin this fuckin shit in skoo',” he'd said, pointing an index finger into Jamie Dee's face like a gun with his left hand, while dropping two tabs of acid into her cupped paw with his right. Mr. Belvedere had a nasty scar shaped like a rugged ‘Z' on the back of his right hand. He looked quickly down the Lysolled, linoleum halls, paranoid, turning his whole body to look back and forth, left and right; cause he didn't have a damn neck, he had to swivel his whole body to keep an eye out for suits: school administrators. Jamie jabbed her middle finger into her cupped left hand that held the tabs of acid, picking one up with the moisture on her finger. She sneered, stuck the middle finger into her mouth, sucked on it, and then extended the slippery, saliva-veiled finger towards Mr. Belvedere's face, all like fuck-you-style. Then she burped, gently pounded her chest with a small fist, and said, “Pardon me,” in this Mary Poppins kind of way. The lights flickered; way down the hollow hall you could hear the echoey clang of lockers slamming. She handed me my tab and I took it reluctantly. It tasted like nothing.
Jamie Dee was self-destructive even for herself. But what do you want? What with the corpse of her dead grandma rotting in her trailer home and it being only a matter of time before the proper authorities found out and she, Jamie Dee, with no sane relatives left in this fucked-up world to become a ward of the state and who knows what kind of sick-ass deviants they'd stick her with if that happened, right? You see some crazy shit about foster families on TV shows and the news. Once that stench became noticeable some nosey-do-gooder would call the fuzz and it would be over. I was the only one who knew about it. Jamie Dee was my girlfriend. We were dating—sort of. Maybe. I don't know. We made out in front of my house in my Cavalier a bunch of times. We weren't like…going steady. It's not the fucking fifties, you know? But could you blame me for taking drugs with her? Really? If you can, well…then fuck you.
Being high during a presentation on random, grisly death ain't no big thing. Not for those of us who grew up on dancing raisin commercials and videogames. Hallucination's barely noticeable in our society. Besides those sneezing fucking insects behind the curtains, of course. Their sneezes sounded like far-off bugle calls. A little theater infested. I wished they'd shut the hell up already cause they were tweaking me out. Everything dark, dim, dark, not light, except for the stage and the busted-up cars and cracked open carcasses flickering on the screen like dehydration desert visions. My itchy theater-style seat inhaled and exhaled rudely taking in the sour-smelling air of wet dust, watermelon perfume and unwashed teenagers.
“My grandma's dead,” Jamie Dee said, then giggled. I knew this already. I'd seen the stiff, gray corpse earlier that morning when I came to pick her up for school. Jamie's eyes were red-rimmed and puffy. Yet somehow I couldn't imagine her crying.
“I knew that,” I said. Jamie had found her grandma's lifeless body the night previous, plopped down on the couch in the living room of her trailer—near where Jamie and I had first kissed—sprawled out with chilly drool on her wrinkled chin, cold, cold, freezing cold, and dead.
“How'd she die anyway?” I asked.
“Her heart stopped beating.”
“She got hit by a plane.”
“Burgundy, I think.” Jamie stared at her hands then raised her huge-pupiled gaze to me. She looked at me like a baby seeing its first mirror.
“That sounds logical,” I said. “But how did she die?”
“I shot her.” She pulled the trigger of an invisible revolver to demonstrate how one would shoot a grandmother.
“For mouthing off.”
I laughed. “Serves the bitch right,” I said. Jamie chuckled, and covered her teeth with two pale fingers, one of these high-pitched squeaky girly-type laughs. I could feel eyes on us, clawing at the backs of our necks; their stares itched.
“My grandma's dead and that fucking sucks,” Jamie said, then sighed deeply.
I kept forgetting to notice the guest speaker: a guy whose doughy flesh looked like wadded up bars of Irish Spring soap under the phosphorescent spotlight, a large lumbering man with ash-colored hair, gentle eyebrows and a bushel nose hair visible from ten yards away. He wore a “FFADD” shirt under his suit coat. He was one of these totally fucking perverted old guys, you could tell by looking at him. His voice boomed and kind of reminded me of a Molotov cocktail. But, remember: I was high.
“And you kids, I know how you are,” he said, gesturing wildly from the behind the plywood podium, then slamming a meaty fist down onto the wooden surface, authoritatively, dictator-style. “Let's go out listening to our rap music tapes and driving around drunk on forty ounce bottles of beer while having some premarital sex, right? Well here are a couple of kids who thought that way too.” I heard a click. A picture of a blonde girl in a white prom dress stained a blackish-red with dried blood was shown on the billboard-sized screen. The top of her skull had been ripped off. Everyone gasped. The poor girl. Her poor parents. So sad. You could see her brain. It made me cringe. Then I thought about how everything that defines your reality is really just a plop of noodle-textured flesh in your skull, a vast collection of molecules between your ears—reality dies with these molecules. So sad. But funny too, in a way. I laughed out loud. It was hilarious to think about. I looked over my shoulder and saw Mr. Belvedere shift. He shot me a scowl from the back of the theater where he stood—short and burly like an over-grown midget—with enormous arms crossed across his massive self. He happened to be on security duty in the theater. He also happened to be made of molecules. I could sense them swirling around his muscle-bound body—molecules on top of molecules—moving swiftly throughout his body like people orbiting about in densely populated cities.
“What are you looking at?” Jamie Dee asked. She pulled at her lower lip experimentally.
“He won't do nothing. Wanna see something?” Jamie opened her leopard-print purse and pulled out something metal. At first I thought: Jesus Christ! Giant metal insect fangs! Where'd you get those?
“What are those?”
“Pliers, fool,” Jamie said with an upper lip curled skyward.
“You don't wanna know. It's not the time to speak on it.” I had thoughts: recalling that all these years my face had been composed of molecules. It made me smile. Then I thought about those pliers again.
“Wait. I do want to know. What are they for?”
“Well, Grandma has jewelry.”
“So?” I said. Jamie looked me in the eye. Her pupils were the size of dirty dimes; her freckles pulsed like far-off stars or airplanes in the night sky.
“So, I ain't gonna steal her wedding ring. That's immoral, Jimmy. She should be buried in that. I'm just gonna yank a few diamonds out of it and pawn them so I got enough money to get the fuck out of town.”
“Will you write me?” I asked. Jamie exhaled deeply.
“Probably not, you're better without me. Look at you.” I looked at myself: my faded K-mart-bought jeans, my red pocket t-shirt, then I concentrated on my hands. I looked at the gray floor, the rippling red curtains. I looked and looked but I couldn't see myself being worse off. If I left town my parents would be sad, but I could write them. They might understand.
“The floor is sort of freaking me out,” I said. The floor hummed at me in an off-key sort of way.
“No, Jimmy, look at you, not your body but your life. Like, you got a good thing going. You don't have to leave.” She touched the backside of my hand with chilly fingers. It gave me goose bumps.
“You have a chance to be good, man. You're lucky, sort of.” I thought about my older brother being murdered—shot multiple times in the chest and head (liquor store robbery gone horribly awry)—for no good reason when I was six-years old whenever anyone said I was lucky. Jamie Dee knew me well enough to know this. “I mean, your parents are okay…and…well, I think you're gonna do great things, Jim. I mean it. You don't need me around. I'm bad luck. One day, when you're doing great things, years from now, I'll track you down and say, ‘I told you so.'”
“What are you gonna do?” I asked. Some jackass shushed us a few rows back.
“Work at Denny's, maybe,” Jamie whispered, then shrugged. The guest-speaker trudged towards us down the carpeted aisle; he carried a cordless microphone and walked with good posture and precise robotic movements.
“But where are you gonna live?”
“On the coast maybe." She didn't say which coast. I didn't ask. It didn't seem important. My spine tickled when I moved around in my seat. My stomach felt crazy, the way stomachs feel when you reach the top of a very tall roller coaster.
"Remember when Slash goes outside the church and plays his guitar in that ‘November Rain' video? He misses Axl, cause that chick stole him and married him. He's sad. Then the girl is killed by raindrops and the cake gets ruined."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"I feel like that right now."
"You're high. That's why." There was a long silence between us. The speaker sounded like adults in Charlie Brown cartoons: there were sounds coming from his mouth, they just didn't feel like English or even human for that matter.
"I don't want you being a virgin too long, Jimmy. I mean. What the fuck? I'm leaving soon. Do you want to do something about it or what?” She clawed at her eyebrow and looked swiftly around the theater. I wondered what she was seeing, hearing, feeling. Where this was coming from?
“With your grandma laying dead on the couch?”
“We won't do it on the couch, you goofball. We can use the bedroom, close the door…you can't really smell her…yet.” That was the least romantic thing you could hear any girl say who wanted to take your virginity. This wasn't how I thought it would happen. It seemed wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Evil and wrong.
“Okay,” I said. Then the guest speaker was on us from out of nowhere. Tall and smelling of English Leather cologne, gum disease and coffee breath, on us with his big porous, stupid, perverted face and cheap-ass, shit-brown Sears suit coat.
"And you, young lady. Do you know the end of this sentence: Boozers are _____?" he asked, as he shoved the microphone underneath Jamie Dee's nostrils. She looked at this guest speaker of ours with utter contempt, gray eyes burned into his soulless fucking face.
"You don't know, honey? The answer is: Losers. You didn't know that, little lady? Oh, jeez, you better marry rich, sweetie pie," he said. Some people laughed—most cringed, embarrassed for him, for Jamie, for humanity in general. You could feel the room clench like a sick stomach. I wanted to fucking kill him. She lived her whole life poor and unlucky. Why does she need to hear some jackass guest speaker giving her life advice? Didn't he know we were all fucked up on acid? Didn't he know that she had to leave town? That her grandma was dead?
"I bet you beat off to those fucking slides, don't you?" Jamie Dee said, leaning into the microphone. The speaker's face blankened. The theater gasped as one. There were some broken half-laughs from the back aisles. Then, like a blur, Belvedere was on us. All at once he grabbed both Jamie Dee and me by the forearms with his ice-cold hands, lugged us up from our seats with a quick jerk, and then dragged us out of the theater. Down the aisle. Past the cheerleaders and honors students, skaters and fuck-ups, ticking time bombs and potheads. The sweaty and greasy, cologned and calloused, collective hope of America: not giving a fuck in unison. Some people clapped, probably the fuck-ups or idiots, or maybe that one retarded kid. It didn't really matter. Some looked teary-eyed from watching the slideshow. They were all made of molecules, I thought. All the same. All the same. We're all the same cause we're all made of molecules. I could see their ugly molecule-laden faces. They were all the same and I hoped to God I would never see them again even though I knew I would.
Mr. Belvedere walked behind us down vacant halls, past gray lockers that looked like vertical metal caskets, and crappy water fountains that hardly gave you any water and even if they did, you didn't want to use them cause you'd probably get Mono or some shit. His wingtips clacked behind us, sounding vaguely horse-like.
"I tole you notta be takin that fuckin shit in skoo'." We were quiet. Then laughed hysterically, laughed so hard we almost cried.
"Come on, you know it was funny, Belvedere," I said. He laughed in a wheezy, hopeless sort of way, and then looked down at the floor like he'd just then suffered some great personal loss; he held his thumb and pointer finger on opposite temples. His Z-shaped scar looked awesome as it pulsed in the artificial light of the hallway. He lifted his head up and looked at us with cancelled bloodshot eyes, resigned.
"You lucky they weren't any teachers in there. Sheeit…I'ma give you anotha chance. You gonnuh be awn early dismissal today. Got it? Go home. Say whateva you want. I just don't needa be gettin my ass fired."
"Okay," Jamie Dee said. She turned to me and said, “Such a noble, kind-hearted drug dealer we have.”
“I concur,” I said. I saluted Mr. Belvedere who stood before us shaking his head as if thoroughly disappointed.
“Get the fuck outta here ‘fore I change my mind,” he said.
“Affirmative,” I said. I could feel his stare bore into us as we walked away.
We strolled outside, squinted our eyes at the brilliant sun burning behind blockish brick apartment buildings. All the cars in the parking lot shone, even the ones that shouldn't. Everything more defined. Being on acid doesn't make you hallucinate so much as make everything super-real. I drove Jamie Dee home. To her dead grandma lying on the couch. I drove her home to give her my virginity while her grandma lay unconcerned with everything and we still tripped—-high and scared. While I drove, Jamie grabbed my thigh and did this tickling thing with her middle finger, right near my business. I could still hear the sneezing of bugs but didn't care anymore.
Dead bodies smell like dumpster juice, cough syrup and vomit. She hadn't been dead too long—like a day. But that's too long for me. In the trailer she lay: gray, rigid, a wrinkled right hand dangled from the plastic-covered couch. She wore a nasty brown button-up sweater with lint balls all over it and moth-eaten gray pants. Her wig was off and you could see her blue-veined skull underneath the translucent fuzz of hair she did have. Her eyes were closed—thank God. This is how we die. All of us made of molecules. This is how we leave. Looking at those mismatched eyes—one eye sky blue, one emerald green—would've sent me over the edge. I would've gone crazy forever: one of these guys covered in filth and eighty layers of clothing, jabbering to themselves on city streets at dawn. I closed my eyes and imagined her jumping up, resurrecting, gripping me by the t-shirt with a vice-like grip and saying, "I know what you're doing, and I don't approve…don't you worry, sonny. You'll get yours one day, everyone does." This is how we say goodbye to open eyes and broken hearts.
Jamie Dee's hips swung gently as she sauntered to the bedroom, directly to the right of the living room. I followed in a slow soft-footed way. I was terrified. The walls of the bedroom were wood-paneled. She closed the door and sat on the edge of the bed. Then she sighed. The bed had all these colorful hand-knit blankets on it. There were also dozens of embroidered pillows with kitty cats on them at the top of the bed. This was her grandma's bedroom. It smelled like a grandma. Behind the bed was an ancient, garage-sale-bought painting in a wood frame of an old time ship doing battle in turbulent seas. Jamie Dee had slept in this bed the previous night cause Grandma had rudely went and died on the couch where she usually slept. How did she sleep? How could she sleep? I wondered. I really did.
I plopped myself down on the opposite edge of the bed. Nervous. My heart pounded bongo-style against the inside of my chest. My lungs felt full of unknown juices. I had cool sweat all over my body.
"We don't have to do this," I said, fidgeting—yanking my thumb, then cracking my knuckles. I reached into my pants pocket now and then to feel at this condom my cousin Dirk had given me, what seemed like an eternity ago, but was really only a few days ago, after an in-depth lecture on lesion-covered genitals and dicks rotting and falling off.
"I want to," she said.
"Oh." She put a hand on my thigh. Her gray eyes looked beautiful—like thunderstorm clouds.
“Don't you?” Jamie asked as she stroked my leg, from my knee up to my inner thigh.
I paused. “Yeah, I guess I do.”
"I'm still leaving, Jim. Just so you know. I don't want you trying to come with me. You have to promise that you won't and you have to mean it when you say it…mean it like you mean it." I imagined her grandmother's jumping up, creeping to the door and peeking in the keyhole. But even with the acid still churning through my brain, I knew that wasn't possible. We're all just made of molecules. The pile of molecules that made up her grandma just happened to be dead. I paused and sighed. I loved Jamie Dee. I had a feeling the sky was made of velvet. Youthful realization flowed through my veins. The worst realization of a young man's life: you can't be doing it, fucking I mean, all the time. And the girls that don't drive you mad, but instead make you glad to be alive for the brief time that you are alive, even between rigorous bouts of doing it are few and far between and that, that's what's called love.
"I know. I won't," I said. She looked at me, tilted her head to an angle, staring at me like she'd just discovered me. I looked at the frostbite burns on her thin arms. I held the condom Dirk had given me in my hand. I forgot it was there. Then I leaned in to kiss Jamie. The closer she got the more I could smell her watermelon perfume, like Jolly Ranchers.
I don't like to kiss and tell except to say that it was awkward and beautiful and horrible and perfect. That you forget all along that girls are made of flesh and bone. That they have a heartbeat you can feel when naked torsos are pressed together and things are real and clear and infinite and death isn't even thought about. That being naked and in motion with someone else feels a little odd. It felt weird, her cold thin fingertips tickling up and down my naked spine, goose bumps up and down my backbone. Eye contact was made. Her eyes were sad and happy, scared and fearless. In the end you're just doing it because. Because, that's what people end up doing. And I'm no different: just a batch of molecules doing what molecules do. Until I'm a dead collection of molecules gone to wherever it is molecules spend eternity. The condom felt alien on me like some sort of surgical equipment. It's supposed to be this big deal, doing it for the first time, but all I felt was sorrow. There are things in this world more embarrassing than sex—tons of things. Like thinking of Jamie Dee alone in the world on the road to God-knows-where, and me knowing that she ain't tough. She ain't weak. She's just vulnerable. Like everyone else. Including me. Including you, even. Thinking how she didn't have to be alone in this world.
Later we were clothed, seated at the edge of the bed. Someone in the trailer next door was barbequing. You could smell it. A quiet was heard that wasn't awkward, just there. Just enjoying being near someone for the last time and knowing it was the last time. Jamie Dee leaned in and kissed me tenderly on the cheek. It felt more beautiful than sex. It really did.
"You're the only one who was ever nice to me," she said, softly. Her eyes were gray and wet and sad. Her hands shook. The ceiling fan batted around the raw stench of sex and death. "Be good, okay, Jimmy?" I nodded. "I know you will. Goodbye. I love you, dude," she said. Her voice cracked. She looked out the rectangular side window at nothing and sighed. Crows cawed. Cars beeped and burned rubber outside on the near-by busy street. Next door someone's TV was playing a show with canned laughter.
I wanted to say I love you, I'll miss you or some lame-ass soap opera shit like that. I wanted her to understand. But instead I walked out the bedroom door, past her grandma's corpse, and out the squeaky side door of the trailer. I felt like a factory cloud in the cool blue sky. The people you love are always leaving. The people you love are never reliable. Nothing's as real as unreliability.
It's probably the last time I'll ever see her and I'll probably spend the rest of my life justifying her loving me, picking me of all people. I mean, just cause I'm a no one, really. A fucking loser. But I shouldn't be telling you any of this. It's none of your fucking business, really. I guess I did cause I thought you should know. Jamie Dee, she's not the type of person people make TV shows about. I think I should just stop talking now. I think I will; it hasn't helped me out too much. So this is it. I'm probably done talking now, forever, I swear. I mean, she's gone now, and maybe I'm just lucky to have gotten to know someone that most people just look at.
All rights reserved.
Originally published in Columbia College's Fiction Writing Department's Hair Trigger. I'm putting it up here because that is a print mag and I've had friends and friend's of friends ask for copies of it and, well, it's just easier this way.