Reconciled Among the Stars
In the early morning the hotel lobby smelled of the street outside: oily and wet. Jones sat reading a three-day-old paper and ashing his cigarette in the general vicinity of a potted plant. The porter hovered over him for a few moments before clearing his throat and calling him Sir. Jones, a man quick to irritate, looked up at him, squinting through the smoke.
‘Sir. You have a message waiting for you, Sir,’ the porter said.
Jones crossed the lobby to the desk, where the clerk, a short man with comically large and full whiskers, handed him a slip of paper, moist with the morning’s humidity.
McGarrity would be through town on the fifth. ‘What day is it?’ Jones asked.
‘Tuesday,’ the clerk told him.
Jones exhaled heavily, the smoke plashing and dissipating off the slip of paper he still held in his hands. ‘No,’ Jones said. ‘The date.’
‘It’s, um, the third, Sir.’
Two days. McGarrity would be there in two days.
In the afternoon Jones crossed the street to buy hard-tack, cheese, canned beans and canned peaches, a bed roll, a cast-iron pot, and a razor with a strop and a lump of soap. The girl wrapped it all carefully in white butcher’s paper as her father looked down at them from atop his step ladder. ‘Could use a break from all this rain,’ Jones said.
‘Aye-uh,’ the old man said, his voice descending on Jones as if from on high.
That night Jones went over to the place where the barmaid worked, the one they said McGarrity spent time with when he was around. He sat at the bar and ordered a gin.
‘You from England?’ the barmaid asked him.
‘No, ma’am, I’m not,’ he told her.
‘Some men from England came in the other night,’ she said. ‘They were drinking gin too.’
‘Lots of American people drink gin,’ Jones said.
‘All the people from England I’ve ever met drank gin.’
Jones pushed his empty glass toward her and she filled it. ‘You got it wrong,’ he said. ‘If all the Englishmen you know drink gin, then you should expect the next Englishman you meet to drink gin. It doesn’t mean the next gin drinker you meet will be English. It’s called deductive reasoning.’ The barmaid lighted a cigarette and looked at him, exhaling. ‘What you’re doing is inductive,’ he went on. ‘When what you want to be doing is deductive.’
The barmaid ashed her cigarette and began wiping down the bar, lifting Jones’ drink then setting it down again. ‘All I’m saying,’ she said, ‘is that every English person I’ve ever met has drank gin.’
On the second night, the night before McGarrity would be through town, Jones locked himself up in his rented room. The waterbed chugged and slurped beneath him as he ran the straight razor’s edge along and back the length of the strop. Something happened to a room when you put a waterbed in it, and no matter how many lamps you lit or windows you opened you just couldn’t get enough light in, it brought in a kind of pall, a kind of gloom. The hotel walls were thin and the other guests’ conversations, their adulterous moans and yelps, came to him buglike, as if through wax paper.
In the morning the sun rose like a shock. Jones watched McGarrity cross the street to the place where the barmaid worked. He knew the barmaid to be putting herself up in a room at the hotel and he climbed the fire escape and let himself in through the window and waited there underneath the bed. He stared up into the even-spaced mattress springs, coiling above and away from him, like funnel clouds, like columns of smoke holding up the Heavens.
Around mid-morning the two of them returned. He could smell the burned sweet-rot smell of whiskey coming off them. He listened to them undress and run their rough hands along one another’s loose-skinned and heavy bodies. He heard McGarrity’s voice, ‘You lay down there.’
‘Mmmmm,’ the barmaid said with a kind of half-giggle half-gurgle, a sound at once sinister and lascivious.
Jones watched the shape of them toss and writhe above him. Flecks of rust loosed themselves from the mattress springs and sprinkled down onto his face, getting in his eyes. Their shape grew large and small, moved as one then separated into parts. Jones rolled out from under the bed, rose on his knees, the straight razor opening, cutting a blue arc through the air as he brought it back to strike.
He witnessed them there in all their carnality: McGarrity on his knees in an undershirt and nothing else, the woman sprawled on her back before him, her flesh pooling in odd places and quivering.
‘Jesus fuck!’ the barmaid said. Her eyes met Jones’ and, mid-act, the barmaid kicked out at him.
For a moment, the barest sliver of a second, her foot felt soft, warm, welcoming against his face, the salty-scent of it awakening something dreamlike inside him. Until her heel-bone connected with his skull and a meaty thud rang dully through his thoughts. The room went white and Jones swayed upon his knees, the razor held dumbly above his head, as a boy might hold aloft a whippering fish he’s just pulled from the water bare-handed. ‘Cocksucker,’ he heard McGarrity say.
‘It’s the Englishman,’ the barmaid said.
‘He ain’t English,’ McGarrity said.
Jones’ vision returned in time to see McGarrity, about to lay into him with the bedside lamp, its black cord trailing parabolically through the air behind it.
Jones woke once more. He’d stopped trying to keep count. The room, the same room, smelled of copper wire, of vinegar and ammonia. It smelled of him, of what had once been inside him. He lay bound and sideways on the floor, the floor boards leading away diagonally from him, like exaggerated sight lines on an exaggerated plane, a fantastic otherworld perspective. The straight razor lay underneath the bed half-opened, its blade the color of rust. Wads of tissue, stiff and brown. A glass. They’d gotten stone drunk and hit on him and cut on him and had a good time of it until he fell off into darkness. Then they woke him, the barmaid throwing rye liquor on his wounds, and made him watch their carnal acts. It had got dark and now it was light again and he was alone.
He could hear in the other rooms of the hotel a man coughing, the scrape of a chair across a floor, an alarm clock. While he’d been out he’d had a vision of cities toppling, of fire so hot it turned men into shadow then nothing at all, of slippery milk-white rain, of snow in the tropics: the apocalypse. They say that man is a cannibal cockroach, or someone said that to him once anyway, and he didn’t doubt it then and he didn’t doubt it now. A long time ago in another room in some other city, he remembered his bunkmate said to him, ‘Let’s not forget what old King James wrote: When ye shall hear of wars and commotions, be not terrified: for these things too must come to pass; but the end is not by and by.’
‘Does your King James say anything on the brotherhood of man,’ Jones asked him.
There was a pause and Jones could hear his bunkmate breathing in the dark. ‘He does,’ the man said after a time. ‘But there I have to say King James got it wrong.’
Eventually, Jones would come into possession of his bunkmate’s book, and read aloud from it as its former owner stood upon the scaffold, trying to hold back tears. And later still he went out into the wild to spread James’ word. At night, when sleep failed to visit him, the book would sometimes speak from the darkness in a reedy and tremulous voice.
The door swung open and he could see now that the barmaid wore no shoes. Her feet were big-boned and sturdy and gray with dust. The little toe on her left foot was dead and lay piggy-back across its neighbor. And they shall turn to you for testimony, James said to him. Settle it therefore in your heart.
He had. Long ago.
For I will give you a mouth and wisdom.
McGarrity stopped in the doorway and the barmaid strode ahead of him into the room, making her way around the bed, making her way around to Jones. ‘I like to watch you walk,’ McGarrity said. The barmaid wheeled around and returned to McGarrity, pressing herself up against him.
‘You like that?’ she said.
‘I like that too.’
‘Come on now,’ she said. ‘Let’s have some fun.’
McGarrity laughed, a slow and slurry chuckle. ‘Girl, you got appetites don’t you.’
The barmaid squealed and purred and ran her bare leg up along McGarrity’s side and hooked it around behind him. Jones lay bound on the floor. He lifted his head as far as he was able, cast his eyes to the veined and flaking ceiling and waited. He awaited wisdom and the fig tree he was promised. He awaited his own voice, the words which would not pass away when all else had come to pass. He held his breath, and inside of him welled up a scream.
Bayard Godsave (Bio coming soon)