I wrote this story in 1979. Before this one, my stories were stuck in a genteel loop of trying to find my voice in the ‘longing for love’ and ‘love lost’ stories that rolled off my pen, stories that incorporated the tearjerker side of the underlying otherness and pain I felt every day into the kind of stories I’d been exposed to that I thought were special because they’d been published in popular magazines.
I was the oldest ‘kid’ in my household and I didn’t have friends — definitely none to help me expand my oeuvre. I had an acquaintance who I thought was a friend at the time, who didn’t really understand me, but she wasn’t drawn to art the way I was. We didn’t explore galleries or offbeat places together and I didn’t explore those places much on my own. But I listened to a lot of radio and ran out and bought Elvis Costello’s album “Armed Forces” because it did something to me. I loved Neil Young and understood the breadth of emotion he wrote about, but Costello woke me up to how different words could be while still expressing things I understood deeply. I loved the old school rat pack feel of his pinched vocals, his melodies juxtoposed with the lyrics and way the music sounded, and I loved going to the dictionary or encyclopedia to understand the words and phrases he used that had gone over my head. Mostly I reveled in the otherness in his work that made me feel like I did belong on earth after all.
One day I sat down to write something different from the stories I’d written that I’d come to hate. In the blank that took over my mind (which felt as blank as the paper) I got restless and scared that I’d been chosen by a nebulous something to do a thing I had no skill at. I sat for a long time before I challenged myself with this: What would Elvis Costello write?
Of course he couldn’t have written this. He wasn’t me. And of course I couldn’t know that he might have written this sort of thing. The point is that with one idea, I thought differently about my writing and the stories I’d lived that already made up my life and I thought differently about what my words could do. Other writers will understand what I mean. No one else needs to ‘get’ that part. With a little editing after rediscovering that story this week (much less than I would have thought after having learned so much this year) this is the story I wrote from the prompt that changed my writing life:
by Ré Harris
The city is never dark, he thought. Too many lights everywhere, staring in your face, assaulting you even through the windows of your own place. People are too scared, afraid of their own shadows — weaklings running through the streets like rabbits, squealing at the slightest sound. Why don’t they stay home, he thought. When the sun goes down all the little rabbits should stay at home in their little holes, nibbling cabbage and sleeping in the far corners, with one eye open.
He was angry. The world didn’t suit him and he had long before cultivated an attitude of perfect apathy toward everyone and everything except his own butt, but now everything inside him was shaking. He had feelings again that ran in more directions than he could name — all of them negative.
He tapped his cigarette with his thumb, letting ashes fall over the bed. Then he turned on his side and kicked her, a calculated move intended to wake her up and (although it fell short of this objective) to knock her to the floor. She shrieked and extended a foot quick to keep herself from falling. As she sat up in bed, that one long bare leg holding her steady, she shook her head, willing wakefulness into the remnants of a dream. She stared at him, seeming to hold her head in place with the back of her hand beneath her chin, the blandness in her expression unique to those who hold tight to sleep for as long as they can — two eyes, a nose, and a pair of lips saying nothing at all except ‘let me go back’, but he was smiling.
“Let’s go again,” he said, slapping at the knee she left curled around the sheet.
Incredulity crossed her face. “What is it with you lately? You crazy for me all of a sudden?” She yawned. “Or just crazy?”
He smiled broader. “Of course I am,” he grunted, stretching his arms out as if reaching farther than he ever had, making a show of reaching out to nothing and pulling nothing around him like an overcoat. He dropped ashes onto the floor and turned back to the lights. “But you knew that didn’t you?”
She rubbed one of her eyes and tilted her head back and forth like a ball between her shoulders. He grabbed at her with one hand, but she darted out of his reach. “I’m going home,” she said.
She slipped out from under the sheet and stood for a moment blinking before walking across the room to where she’d left her clothes on the floor.
He stared at her as she sorted through her things. The neon light flooding through the window, shone on her skin, giving it a luster that made her appear luminous, like an angel. At first that vision made him laugh. She was anything but an angel, yet standing there bathed in that blue-white light …
He found the thought unsettling. He decided he had never liked her, never cared what she felt or what she wanted. From his view, the only reason she drew breath was to take care of him, do his bidding and take care of all those unsavory little chores that were far beneath him.
He put his cigarette out in the ashtray instead of on the nightstand he’d pitted with scores of circular and oval shaped burns through the veneer down to the pale wood base. She had turned toward him as she shimmied into the lace-trimmed thong she’d worn for him, that she knew he hadn’t noticed and never would. She watched his expression cycle through spoiled, sneering little boy to something serious she hadn’t seen from him before. Her thin blouse was in her hands as she watched him come toward her, slow, deliberate, without humor — puerile, twisted or otherwise.
He said, “You’re not going anywhere. You’re not through,” the near whisper of his voice belying the command and the look on his face that struck her as strange. She thought it odd, but was still reacting to the kick. He’d kept her awake for hours that day after knowing she’d had a long night before, so she was trying to slip the blouse over her head when he came at her, punching her in the face and pushing her over the chair. He watched her fall to the floor on the other side of it, listened to the thud of her hip on the bare wood. For all his demanding, grabbing and little kicks, he had never hurt her that way. She knew to be afraid then, that she would have to get away from him or be devoured by his runaway sense of self, overblown now into an unrecognizable version of the man she’d never really known, but had been drawn to like insects around light bulbs.
She crawled across the floor as fast as she could toward the door, but he stepped in her path. “No,” he said. “You’re not leaving.”
He punched her again, pulled her up by her hair and tossed her on the bed. She rolled over the side and tried to crawl under it.
She attempted to yell, but her voice cracked as she felt her jaw swell. “Stop it … what are you … why are you doing this …”
He ran around the bed and pulled her out from under it with one of her legs. She swung at him and kicked and tried to dig her fingernails into his angry face, but he was much taller and heavier than she, and in his crazed, violent state could do her more harm than she could do to him without a weapon. She fought him anyway, flailing and jabbing, accumulating battle scars and inflicting as many as she could until he slammed her against the nightstand on the side of the bed he slept on when she was there. She closed her eyes tight while anticipating another blow, and remembered something from the week before while waiting for him to hit her again.
“See this?” he said to her, loading the gun, then holding it in his hand and pointing it at various objects in the small dark room tinged with the neon he hated. “Loaded and ready.”
She tried to stifle a giggle. “For what?”
He dropped the hand with the gun to his side and turned to face her long-legged body sprawled sideways across the easy chair. He barked at her, “What the hell are you laughing at?”
“Everybody’s scared of you already, so what d’you need a gun for?”
He lifted it until it pointed straight at her face. She stiffened and he began to sneer.
“Come on … stop that,” she said. “I mean, hey, come on …” She sat up in the chair. “You know, everyone else thinks I’m crazy, putting up with you. You know? But, like, aside from getting paid on time, I really like you.” She looked into his eyes and tried to ignore the gun. “I don’t think you’re as different from everybody else as you want us to believe. I think you got real deep feelings. Lot’s of ‘em. So come on … you’re okay with me. Why do you want to play with me like that?”
He came a step closer, pointing the gun so deliberately at her that she got angry. “You want me to be scared? Okay, I’m scared. Put that goddamned thing down and stop it, okay? Shit.”
He lowered his arm with a triumphant smile, walked over to the nightstand, opened the drawer slow and placed the gun inside. He watched her watching him as he closed the drawer, and as she wiped sweat off her neck, she couldn’t help wondering what the whole scene had been about. If there was anything she was sure of about him, it was that he always knew what his twisted doings were about. He didn’t care if he made sense to anyone else. In his own head, in his version of reality, his actions were fully thought out and sensible.
In hers, he paid her when he was supposed to, tossed her extra for food when she was hungry, and never asked where it all went. He never bugged her about other johns and hadn’t put a lasting mark on her, even when he was rough. In her mind, that was a version of love that got her through the day and brought her back when she wasn’t on the clock. Once he put the gun in the drawer, she wanted to smack him, but she was fine so she forgot about it.
She opened her eyes now and reached up to the drawer above her head. She expected another blow as she fumbled for the pistol, but when it was in her hands, she pointed it at arm’s length toward his chest. “I’ll kill you,” she spat out at him. “I’ll do it.”
He’d been close enough to knock it out of her hand before she could focus, but he stared at her, taking heavy breaths, his heart pounding as though he was sick and close to sinking down with something like fever. He eyed her, but the rage she’d seen had dissipated. He took a step toward her, but there was no malice in the movement. If not for the beating, she would have accepted him into her arms, but she was bruised, maybe cracked, her shoulders scratched and aching, face bleeding. She could no longer take her chances with this strange man. Being hurt that way wasn’t what she expected from him and she couldn’t take the time to figure out what she’d done.
“I know it’s loaded,” she said. “I remember from when you were playing with it. So don’t come near me. I’ll shoot you.”
“Yeah?” he said.
“I’m not playing … I’ll do it.”
“So do it,” he said, soft like when he wanted her to do something she didn’t think she had time for, like when he wanted her to rub his back for an hour or suck his toes.
She began to cry from the confusion, and he came toward her, head cocked, elbow raised in the air, fingers clenched into a fist and angling down at her.
She shot him in the chest, but he didn’t seem to feel it. He was almost knocked over by the bullet’s force, but his fist was still hovering over her so she shot him again as his figure blurred behind her tears. She was sure he would kill her because he had become invincible, shot twice in the chest (through the heart, she was sure) but still standing. She blinked and waited for him to move, but he didn’t.
She slid across the floor, around him to her clothes, dropping the gun and gathering most of her things in a sloppy scoop as she barreled toward the door. He didn’t try to catch her. He dropped his fist and stood where he was, waiting for her to leave. She had served her purpose and he no longer had any use for her. He listened for the door to slam, then went to the window and looked out at the street ablaze with a thousand lights. He sneered at the sight and sank down to the floor.
At least half the neighborhood had heard the shots, he thought to himself, but no one would come. Chances are no one would even call the cops. They would just run and hide and pray they wouldn’t be next. He’d be long gone before anyone discovered him.
In a few minutes, he felt the two burning holes in his body, looked down and touched the blood running out of his chest faster than he thought it would. Then he closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the wall, and waited for death.