From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

COSMIC POWERS

Fiction

Union Falls

When the girl turned up for the job in her black jeans and cute haircut and no arms Deel just shook her head no. Girl wiggled her stumps and flicked her hair in that way.

Just give me a listen, she said.

Selwyn at the bar stared at her out of his good eye, pushed his glasses up on his nose even though they were up as far as they could go, and Deel waited but he just stared at the girl. And then Henry came out from behind the bar with beer stuck to his whiskers because he’d been drinking the slops again and went right up to the girl and sat on her shoes. Black Vans with pink trim. No laces.

Are you wet? Deel said, looking at the water seeping out from under the girl’s soles.

It was one of those blue June days, the air heavy with the smell of overheating asphalt and baked pollen. Deel fingered the neck of her tank top, pulled hot hair in through her mouth and felt like she was choking.

I had a dip in the lake, the girl said. Water’s so clear you can see right down to the bottom.

Under the girl’s bangs, fine strands of hair were stuck to her wide, pale forehead, but whether from sweat or lake water, Deel could not tell. She was wearing a t-shirt and the sleeves hung out over the smooth nubs of her shoulders and then sat flat against her torso.

You do realize that the gig’s for a piano player, Deel said.

So do I get an audition or what? said the girl, shrugging out of her satchel strap, stepping out of one shoe and catching the satchel in her lifted foot all in one motion. The boys stared. Deel caught a glimpse of something deep below the surface of the girl’s wet-stone eyes, and she didn’t like it. Fast-forward to an inside shot of Deel’s mailbox, a letter stamped from the anti-discrimination board vying for room with the bills and notices and empty offers.

Henry’s drunk, Deel said to Selwyn. Those slop trays don’t empty themselves.

The girl’s eyes flicked between Selwyn and Deel as if to measure what ran between them, and then down to the listing, slobbering dog. Then over to the unused Casio in the corner of the small room, wavering in reflected light from the bottles and glasses in the bar. Selwyn kind of shook himself off the edge of the bar like he just woke up and Deel glared.

Guess we better give her a listen, said Selwyn.

Cain’t hurt, said Pete, his Carolina vowels making Deel’s flesh crawl at this ungodly hour of the day. She could barely cope with his caints and aints and gee mahnour sayvenths after sundown with a couple of beers under her belt, much less in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon, but Pete was the bassist and Deel’s Yankee daddy had played bass in a blues group out of Jersey so she let it lie. Besides, they’d all agreed that everyone had to be there for the interview. The girl with no arms was the only one who’d replied to the small ad Selwyn had placed in the Pennysaver.

Deel exhaled, caught the girl’s damp-eyed gaze and wished she’d put on lipstick for godsakes. She sipped from her cold coffee for something to do with her hands, regretting it instantly.

Okay, she said, but—

But the girl was kicking off her other shoe and at the Casio before Deel had worked out but what. And what she pounded out with her feet was Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell.” Crashing chords and swarming riffs. Her smooth feet and long, black-varnished toes were stark against the keys, and every so often her head would shake to the side or nod back and forth. Because the instrument was so high relative to the reach of her legs, she played slightly hunched on the stool, but seemed to almost levitate above it while her torso remained motionless and her legs, impossibly limber, danced up and down the keyboard.

Afterward, she swiveled around to face them. No one said anything. Henry sniffed then started furtively lapping at a pool of his own vomit and no one stopped him. Selwyn’s good eye, the color of rain on the lake, just stared at the silent keys which seemed to all of them to have taken on a kind of conspiratorial nakedness, privates indecently exposed in the early afternoon. Beams of dirty light slanted in from the barroom’s western windows, and a cell phone bleated from downstairs, the smell of oil and exhaust sharp and cold from the no-name Gas and Lube.

What, said the girl. You did say it was an eighties cover band.

#

The girl put her shoes back on and waited downstairs while they talked it over. Deel pointed out how you can’t have an amputee keyboard player in a town like Union Falls. I don’t need this, she said. And Selwyn said, calmly returning her affronted gaze, that no one did.

But the Lake View’s taken all our trade with that open grill and fresh charr and so-called music, he said.

And in his eyes Deel caught a glimpse of her own ferocious pony tail and worried mouth but Pete just kept saying, chic is hot, chic is smoken, and so she said well didn’t anyone want to ask Jake—Jake being the sometimes-drummer—but no one did. So, in the end, Deel said she’d give it a month and hadn’t they better go wake Jake up and start rehearsing.

After the boys left, she called the girl back in and asked her name.

Ame, she said, and pronounced it Amy.

Deel asked for references, which the girl pulled out of the satchel with her teeth and waved at Deel, who gingerly took them from the girl’s mouth. Deel didn’t like this. Light from the grimy windows sliced across the girl’s shadowed face and dark eyes and Deel noticed tiny scars hatched on her jaw and one on her chin. There was a kind of insolence to her affliction. In the wrong light she could be just standing there with her arms held behind her back as if hiding something in her hands.

Boo! she said.

Deel flinched, a cold knot of rage tightening in her chest.

You were looking at me like you’d seen a ghost, said the girl, a wide smile instantly lighting her features. The scars are from falling on my face. When I was a kid.

Deel swallowed and started leafing through the references. She saw that the girl was from Albany, was twenty-two and had dropped out of music school but had been playing in bands since she was thirteen.

If you’re looking for the section that says how I lost my arms, Ame said, you won’t find it.

Deel put down the references. The girl was standing there in that way she had, as if her arms were locked behind her back, lips curved in that joker grin that did not quite extend to her eyes. For the second time this morning Deel felt her flesh crawl, but this time she hated herself for it. She felt momentarily frightened and wanted to call Selwyn back in but stopped herself. She needed time to think of a way to fob the girl off, no matter what the guys said. It was her bar, in the end, and her call.

Can I get you a cup of coffee? she said.

Sure, said Ame.

Deel backed off behind the bar and poured the girl a mug of coffee, telling herself that the whole thing was a bad idea, not just the girl, but the whole band thing, and maybe even the whole bar, just taking it over when she did, and what she should have done was sell the house and move on like everyone in Union Falls told her. Move on, yes, but then Selwyn turned up for the bar job, not a college boy, too old for that, but not a farm boy either, not exactly. Guitar in hand. And things just moved along from there.

How do you take it? she said.

There was no answer and Deel thought the girl had left, but then her voice cut across the shadows, an effortful croak.

With a straw, she said.

#

Deel put Ame on a one-month trial. She explained that the band played every Friday and Saturday night and the pay was ten per cent of the takings so she better rustle herself up a day job. Ame nodded, sipping her coffee from the straw. Deel would soon learn that the straw thing was just for show, give people a chance to get used to her—what she was capable of. Ame could hold a coffee cup in her feet, put her contact lenses in with her toes, even ride a motorbike with one foot on the throttle and the other on the brake, as they were to discover. But back then she held back and looked for all the world to Deel like a kid playing look-ma-no-hands. Enjoying herself.

Deel asked where she was staying, and Ame said she didn’t know and what about the Village Inn down the road.

Parents and visiting alumni, Deel said. Pretty pricy.

And this time it was her own voice that sounded strange and disconnected to Deel when she heard herself offering Ame the room above the garage. It had been shut up since the previous manager, Randy “Raccoon” Helmstetter, his scrawny arms and legs cross-hatched in self-inflicted knife wounds, had locked himself in with his precious raccoons, cuffed himself to the bed and eaten the key. When they finally busted down the door, Randy was not quite dead, his entrails flung around the room like silly string, and a ‘coon sitting on the floor chewing on one of Randy’s osteoporotic finger bones.

Room’s in the back, Deel said. So you can’t see the lake, but at least you don’t get the fumes from downstairs.

I don’t need to see the lake, Ame said.

#

They rehearsed through the week. As Friday approached word got out about the keyboardist who wailed with her feet. Deel knew what they were saying at the IGA and Post Office—all on the one street, a shotgun town—how she’d really lost it this time, and maybe she had. There were plenty of people who thought she should have moved on. Her daddy had been a successful songwriter and session musician. She could have moved back to Jersey or New York, started a new life for herself instead of reopening the Pump Bar, which should never have been reopened, folks said, and especially not by her after what happened. She knew nothing about running a business, and they were right. Her house, a three-story Georgian ruin slid into disrepair—there was a pulpiness to the floor beneath certain rugs, and a strange smell from the basement. The porch hung off the house by rusty nails and splintered beams that screamed in the wind. Jeni Sherwood, head of the HOA pushing for a condemnation order on the place, stopped Deel on the street and asked her about it.

A gimmick, Delia. Has it really come to that?

No, Deel thought, not a gimmick. Not exactly, not how she’d describe it. She watched Ame in rehearsal at the keyboard Selwyn lowered for her and listened to the whole new sound she gave the band with her lush keyboard strokes. And how she got Selwyn to move in closer to the mic and Pete to add in some slaps for a funkier rhythm. Too much flesh on her for tricks and more guts than the whole town put together. Besides, thought Deel, a gimmick won’t fix my house.

Over the next week the band rehearsed a bunch of new songs and Deel heard Ame running some synth riffs that she’d rearranged for the keyboard just to update the sound. When Pete drawled that maybe the sound didn’t need updaten, she drawled back no, but Delia’s porch needs fixen, and whinen doesn’t pay the bills. Deel felt her legs go cold and she wondered how Ame knew about her porch.

Friday night the place was more than half full and the band opened with “Rock Lobster” and by the time they closed with “Bat Out of Hell,” which would become their signature encore, there were more than thirty pairs of designer sneakers, steel-toed boots, and high heels stomping on the worn linoleum. And Deel had run out of beer. She barely had time to look up from the taps but when she did there was Ame in the shadows—she’d wanted it that way, she told Selwyn, this was no pity party—bathed in blue light and pretty feet snaking up and down the keyboard, and Selwyn singing his heart out and all but swallowing the mic every time he looked over his shoulder at her, smitten, Deel supposed, from day one.

#

At first the crowds came out of curiosity.

Everyone loves a creature feature, said Ame, her wide mouth twisted up in that same smile that never seemed to reach her dark, sad eyes.

And Deel conceded that it was true. Everyone wanted to see the amputee keyboard player. Everyone wanted to see the latest freak show going on at the Pump just like how they’d turned up in droves at first to see her, the merry widow, make a fool of herself. Well that got old of course, and then all that was left were the grease monkeys from downstairs and the occasional migrant worker or farm hand intimidated by the Village Inn or the Lake View, which took all the college kids.

So what with Randy and Deel, the Pump had had its share of freak shows, but Ame was different. Sitting there in the shadows with her phantom arms tied behind her back she seemed totally in the flesh, riding the keys with her feet so agile and free that you forgot they weren’t hands, forgot her affliction and forgot your own. The Pump Bar got so crowded on Friday and Saturday nights that the band started up on Thursdays, too. They’d all—Deel, Selwyn, Ame and the boys—stay back sometimes to unwind and Deel noticed how Selwyn brought himself new glasses and Ame beat Jake at pool playing with one end of the cue stick on the bridge and the other between her toes. One night, over tequila, they played Truth or Dare and Ame said dare because the truth about her was more boring than you’d think and Deel said dare because she didn’t know the truth anymore, so Pete dared Deel to let Ame give her another piercing.

Kill two birds with one brick, so to speak, he drawled.

Selwyn said no, but Deel waved him off. As Ame moved in close to Deel’s ear with the needle, brushing Deel’s hair with her toes, the boys grew silent with maybe a last titter from Pete when the needle pierced Deel’s upper lobe. She met the girl’s dark, depthless eyes, smelt the lotion on her skin and felt a tight sweet lick between her legs that reminded her of Larry, of breastfeeding the boys; of any number of caresses she’d known, for the past five years only in her dreams.

#

Randy’s room had stayed closed off even after Deel took over the bar. She went in it once and felt something, an absence that shouldn’t be there but was. It was as if, in the place of what was gone, a terrible presence remained and had grown hoary over time. But Ame settled in just fine. Deel brought her blankets and pots and pans and helped her clean it—the walls slick with fungus, a strange sandy debris across the linoleum—but still she felt ashamed of keeping the girl there.

One Sunday morning a few weeks after Ame started with the band Deel was in the bar cleaning the fridges and when she looked up the girl in her bathrobe was standing in the storeroom doorway. The sleeves of the short robe hung empty, like some kind of prank, and looking about twelve years old without make-up and her hair wet from the shower, Ame seemed like just the kid to play it.

You want some coffee? she said.

She was smiling, but Deel thought she looked unusually pale. She wiped her hands and smoothed down her hair in the bar mirror, followed Ame into the narrow hallway between the storeroom and Randy’s tiny studio in the back. The hallway canted down and oddly to the left as if knocked out of kilter by some subterranean event so that the front did not line up with the back. The little studio was bereft of decoration. No photographs or posters or knickknacks, nor even, surprisingly, any music. No computer, CD player or iPod, at least that Deel could see. Just scattered souvenirs from the long walks Ame loved— fossils, lake stones and dead wood, a squirrel skull the color of vanilla ice cream. Deel watched Ame move around the kitchenette taking things down and putting them away with one foot, her black nail polish gleaming and defiant in the morning gloom. After a while she pointed to Deel’s cooling coffee with her toe.

Too strong? said Ame. Would you like some hot water?

Deel shook her head, her throat bunched in a painful lump. She would move Ame into the house, she thought, after the weekend. Three floors of emptiness—the girl could have the second floor all to herself. Deel was amazed she hadn’t thought of it before; she could practically see Ame in the big corner room, the one with windows looking out onto her precious lake.

Ame was always down by the lake, and she’d often come to rehearsal damp although Deel never saw her swim, never saw her hanging out on the dock with all the other college kids, and she guessed that Ame was more self-conscious than she let on. Deel sometimes saw her down at the rocky shore, mostly with Henry, and from a distance with those long smooth legs of hers she’d look just like any other beautiful young girl in cut-offs. Sometimes Ame and Henry would take off into the woods and Deel would watch them go and wait for them until they returned, falling all too easily into those old habits of secret care, imagining the girl groveling in the dirt with her teeth, digging with her toes for treasure. It would be dark when they returned, Deel frantic and Ame damp and exhausted and starving for the supper Deel left wrapped in foil for her and for which she asked no thanks.

#

The crowds at the Pump Bar kept up over the summer. The band got a write-up in the Falls Post, and Deel introduced a basic snack menu—burgers and sandwiches and small pizzas. She was a good cook and they never had to throw anything away. And Selwyn invented the Happy Hour Special—some poor excuse for a cocktail he cobbled together out of cheap vodka and supermarket fruit juice. It all helped, but it was mainly the music and the music was mainly Ame. She sped some songs up, slowed others down, lowered the key by a half tone, added a dance backbeat. And although she stayed in the shadows, slender as a brush stroke, she changed the look of the band, with her look-ma-no-hands stance and the blue lights playing across her varnished toes.

But a couple of weeks before Labor Day, the band was on its final stretch for the season, and, just past midnight, its final set of the night. Selwyn changed the order of the songs from time to time of course, but what happened next had nothing to do with changing the order of the songs. Deel watched him step up to the mic and felt a queasy tightening in her belly.

Folks, before we bow out for the night—and I know I’ve already introduced the band (rowdy applause)—I’d like to close with a specially arranged number from our keyboard player here (tumultuous stomping), who rocks the eighties, rocks the night, and rocks my freaken world (roars from the crowd, a sea of white hands in the air).

Selwyn stepped back from the mic with a strange smile on his face and picked up his guitar. Deel froze, icy panic needling up her spine. The blue spotlight penciled in on Ame. Jake counted them in, and Ame hit the piano intro and Deel recognized the famous synth riff from a song she’d never heard them play.

What the hell, Deel said under her breath, but what it was, was “Bette Davis Eyes” and what the hell, was that, after the intro, Ame took her feet off the keys and put them on the floor and began to sing. Her voice began in a whisper, swelled to a croak then to an off-key keening but it wasn’t that. Not her voice, or that she was off key or out of time—it wasn’t the what of anything. It was the how, how her sitting there so in the flesh, so naked and far from home—how it spoke to needs and hurts that could not be spoken and could not be sung except badly and made them think about everything that had been amputated from their lives. Pete’s head was bowed in embarrassment, a line of drool bungeeing from his bottom lip. Selwyn’s back-up vocals had degenerated to a sustained ooohh, and Deel knew that he was thinking about the fight with his soldier brother that had cost him his eye. What Deel was thinking, beer from the tap waterfalling over the mug and down her knuckles, was about Larry and the children gone in the blink of another eye. The band shambled on, their faces blurred, everyone in the audience lost down some private hallway knocked out of true, dancing alone or throwing up the Happy Hour Special in the toilet. And still Ame kept singing, that terrible, needful croak, sitting there with her hands tied behind her back like a human sacrifice, a virgin led to the slaughter.

By the end of the song the bar had emptied, and then the band packed up and finally it was just Deel and Selwyn left. He offered to finish up, but Deel said no. She was abruptly gripped by the shakes and then it was her turn to throw up into the sink.

Selwyn came around, knowing what she was thinking, what she always thought about this time of the year. She waved him off before he swooped down to offer her one of those hugs she’d never from day one known how to take or what to give in return.

I’ll be fine, she said, wiping her mouth with the bar towel. What the hell happened?

She’d asked, Selwyn said. Said she wanted to do a song and that it was one of her favorites.

Deel put down the towel and glared at him. Anger had been her cloak for so long now that she slipped into it without even thinking.

Unrehearsed? she said. I should fire your ass.

He shook his head, miserable but not for himself.

We rehearsed, he said, gently. I may be a sucker but I’m no amateur.

She looked down at her hands, ashamed. All the lights were off except for a dull glow spilling out from the fridges. The edge of her wedding band was a circle of fire in the darkness.

I know. So what happened?

She sounded okay in rehearsals. Not brilliant, but okay, and we figured after everything she’d done for us—

For us?

For you.

The fridge motor ground through the silence and Henry padded in from the stairs where he must have been skulking, Deel figured, the whole time.

I don’t know, Selwyn said, taking off his glasses and wiping his eyes. She seemed to need it.

Deel felt the corners of her mouth pull down; tears needled the back of her eyes.

Have you seen her?

Selwyn shook his head. He looked scared. Scared not for the absence of the girl, but of it. And Deel too, suddenly terrified of the stranger from Albany whose references she never checked, whose police record she had never verified. Scared she’d gone and scared she hadn’t. They both looked across at the storeroom door and Selwyn said he’d check but Deel said no. He looked at her, hurt at being shut out but it wasn’t the first time. Suddenly, and maybe too late, Deel knew she hoped it wouldn’t be the last. He picked up his guitar, tucked his hair behind his ears, and walked out. She waited until his footsteps had died away and then she waited some more. Then she got up and went into the storeroom and down the zigzag hallway, its walls almost brushing her shoulders. She knocked on Ame’s door, waited, and then let herself in with the spare key.

She stood in the kitchenette, its surfaces blank and laden in the moonlight slanting in from the window over Ame’s bed, and her satchel slung over a chair and all the dead souvenirs on the shelves. The moon fell on a flat silver skipping stone on the windowsill. Deel felt drawn to it, went to the bed, reached across, and picked up the stone. Felt the ancient dusty heft of it. She looked through the window at the woods up on the hill, at the moon thrown up from the lake, and when she turned around, Ame was standing in the doorway. Deel’s heart hammered. The wavering shape of the girl seemed formed out of the darkness itself.

I was born this way, Ame said. She didn’t move.

I guessed, said Deel, a cold drop of perspiration worming down her ribs.

I’m sorry about tonight, the girl said. It won’t happen again.

Deel swallowed, didn’t think she was going to cry and was ashamed when she did.

I know, she said. I’m sorry too.

Only the gleam of Ame’s eyes and the flash of the buckle on her satchel broke the darkness of the form in the doorway.

Deel’s legs gave way and she sat down on the bed. Ame didn’t move, waiting.

They were coming home from camp, Deel began. The week before Labor Day. Larry and the boys. They were ten. Twins. I hadn’t wanted them to go so young. I thought it was a bad idea. A Dodge pickup with a dead doe in the back and three drunken hunters in the cab hit them head-on at ninety miles an hour on Route 90. Larry and Lucas died instantly. Sam lived for a week up at Tompkins County Hospital. But he never woke up. His eyes opened once or twice, and I thought. I thought I saw myself in them.

Still the girl didn’t say anything, her form motionless as the pier down at the dock, the night washing in all around her.

He’d be fifteen this year, said Deel, through her teeth. What does that make me?

Ame then came over to the bed and as she came closer, Deel was struck by her pallor. She sat down beside Deel. Her skin felt cold and clammy—as if she’d just come in from the lake or the woods. She leaned her head into Deel’s neck, and Deel froze. Then slowly, awkwardly, she reached an arm around the poor, abbreviated torso and pulled her close. She could smell the lake and the woods in the soft-cropped hair, felt it tickle her chin. She hadn’t touched a soul since her family was killed, not really. Oh, Selwyn bent down and tried to give her one of his awkward smooches every New Year’s Eve, his arms out like windmills, and she’d shared a few stunted couplings with customers over the years, but nothing like this. This melting one being into another. Deel tried to give the girl some of her warmth, and Ame inched in closer. The moon shone through the window and they spoke occasionally and in torrents broken by long silences. It seemed once to Deel that Ame had fallen asleep, a subtle shift in the weight against her, and later she must have dozed herself, curled up freezing on the bed and dimly aware of Ame getting up and moving around the room, collecting her belongings and packing them into the satchel.

When Deel woke again just before dawn, a blanket had been thrown over her, and the girl was gone. Apart from the flat gray rock she still clutched in her hand the room was empty, empty of Ame, of the ghost of Randy Raccoon, of all the dead souvenirs.

#

Deel ordered a keyboard book over the Internet and began to teach herself how to play. The guys joke about how they might even let her join the band one day. Business isn’t as good as it was when Ame was there, but better than it was before she came. One late night after closing, Deel offered Selwyn a partnership in the business and his gaze flicked past her as it often did to the storeroom door, or the outside steps, his good eye coming back to stare into Deel’s face.

What on earth for? he said.

She met his gaze and held it.

Hell Selwyn, she said, it’s a living.

He stared at her awhile, knowing there was more and that maybe she’d tell him one day. How that night in Randy’s room when Ame turned back once from the doorway, Deel had sat up on the bed to wave.

And Ame had waved back.

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J. S. Breukelaar

J. S. BreukelaarJ.S. Breukelaar’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Opium Magazine, Retort MagazineDogzplotLegumeMan Free Press, Le ZaparogueAntpodean Scifi, and others. Her first novel, Blue Moves is being sold in New York City, and she has a collection of short stories and poetry out in April 2011. She is a regular contributor to The Nervous Breakdown. You can also find her at www.thelivingsuitcase.com.