On the Evenings of November 18th – 19th, 1924, From the Eyes of Shelly Griswold
Swimming back and forth my drunken eyelids my pupils blistered with red ribbons of red red color red god everything, everything is red, gather the color from the basement of a Mr. Holliday or a Mr. Hickory or a Mr. Holly and grab the coat and move out into the knee deep white shredded with copper footprints. Grab my senses wrap myself up from the wandering men grab my fists in my fists and move along the sidewalk toward Apt. 1 at 1802 Little St. in this city, this wind writhing wriggling through hair thrown up out of my hat. First snow sobriety check.
The door to the lobby creaks open as I fall inside to flickering lights in the new construction. They got the wiring all wrong; the strapping blink, blink, blink would make my father roll in the dark deep ground. He’d be on a ladder reworking the guts of the ceiling trying to get the lamps to set their luminescence right. He’d be telling me to climb up there with him, take my gloves off, work with him, learn from him, work. I stare foaming in my stomach at the lights and almost allow them to take me away to a different spot or country or life before I stagger and my flask drips to the floor, nearly draining itself. I right it in my pocket, take a snag, take a sip, take a bite, my hair is in my mouth and there are no suitors to get it out, nobody touching, nobody, I chew the hair, feel the tender stalk of that curly blond my husband liked.
My husband liked a lot of stupid things, like my hair, like my skin, like…
I like the bourbon from the bartender down the street who stops by with the password every week.
I like the way an empty bottle looks on the floor and I like it when I wake up next to my bookshelves.
I like the way this one-bedroom creaks with every step, like it knows it’s old and good despite, in spite of, its age, its youth. The furnishings are new and shiny and made fresh from my cousin in New York but the walls crawling from the singing floor to the paint-chipped ceiling are already in their hundreds, haunted.
I stumble to the table with one chair in the little kitchen and toss my coat aside, light candles scattered through the place, notice how I decorated this in my sobriety like some housewife who’s afraid of the mud and the dirt, may as well be empty, the chairs don’t even look real, they look like they belong in a picture book, they look like something my mother would drag me to gawk at and feel with long nails and rub up against as if it were the last sensation on earth, I notice this: this apartment was a mistake from the beginning, and so was my husband’s accident. I feel sick for both and because of both can only stand to be in the bedroom away from both where there are no lights or heat only a mattress I have never slept on and an oak floor stained with my chamomile vomit.
The flask gargles itself. Bubbles pop from the tip of the rim and drip down to sting my cracked knuckles. The flask and the bourbon inside throw themselves into my body. There are pockets of my coat in which I hide many secrets, all of them are filled with blood and tufts of men’s hair; there are bourbons I have not yet tried in this world. There is always hope that something better will come.
I lie on my back and spin and listen to the early snow footsteps of women with men they either love or hate. Trees sway on the street. Mud cakes the only window which is too high for me to see out of. It is cracked open so my cigarettes don’t suffocate me before I need them to. It is cracked open so I can hear people talk without talking, so I can hear people laugh without making jokes. It is cracked because I am.
Somebody talks about a war.
I lift my feet up off the ground and keep them and their heels suspended in the air to let all my blood collect in the middle. I prop my head more toward the pillow, and with this movement brings a small wheeze of air which tosses aside the smoke from the ashtray and rooms my nose for something scented much like my friend’s herb and spice cabinet; the lavender, the cloves, citrus yellow citrus orange citrus green, cinnamon, oh the cinnamon! Herbal hearts waving right in front of my face, blasting potency up inside my head. I swing myself up, wobble, steady, wander to discover the scent. I lift my nose up to the corners of the ceiling, down to the dusty cracks, open the empty cupboards and move the dirt around, pick it up inhale it. I wrangle furniture cushions off parts beat against my knee releasing dust but no smell. I exhaust myself sweaty and sit down at the edge of the bed and feel myself falling asleep to the sound of the owls’ hoo.
♦ ♦ ♦
I wake halfway off the bed. Sunlight crawls through the smattering of dirt on the window. My mind is clear of all will and my flask is empty and there’s not a single bottle of booze in the house. Straying outside in my nightclothes, I must look like a mad old woman or an opioid freak. I must look like my twenties hurt. I must be hurting.
I wait and smoke outside of the speakeasy tapping my foot like mad. Sweating in the cold wind. It would freeze against my body if I stood out here for too long, but barkeep comes around the back corner into the bushes and to me and the cellar door.
“Shell,” he says. A lock clicks, the bolts crack back, the doors swing and slam and the trees above us smack against each other, hardened.
I say nothing. We are led inside by the dark until a slip of a matchstick ignites the oil burners propped to the beams. The bar lights up in surrounding loath. Everything is broken and smeared with crust and sticky bourbon leavings. Empty unlabeled bottles lie hollowed on the dirt floor, whistling in the draft’s whine.
“Welcome home, Shell.”
I wish I knew his name, where he got his timepiece swinging from a battered rag of a vest, why the rim of his boiler cap is in such tatters. His life has been broken somewhere, somehow, by somebody. Sadness in his eyes, drooping and blue, tells me this. Wrinkles line every inch of his otherwise perfect skin as canyons of age. He is only twenty-three.
His wife, assistant, partner, comes inside minutes after and begins polishing the rocks glasses. I sit and stare at her short nails, her callouses. She trims her hair every week so it keeps under that ridiculous feathered hat.
“Shell,” a nod of her head, small smile.
“You’re a little late today,” into my first drink.
“Police on every street now. I have to walk slow. And anyway you’re the only one comes in here in the first few hours. Nobody else knows we’re even active before eight.”
I hold my drink up to the light. Lipstick from nights and nights past rides the rim of the glass like bloodstains. “I like to keep up on things.”
“You only like to keep up on this, Shell,” she says. “Can’t blame you, though. Wouldn’t want to go around making a name. After the thing, I mean. The incident.”
She winks at me like it gives me shreds of pleasure anymore. I inspect stains on the bar.
“Anyway, Shell, you should know that we’re closing for Thanksgiving. Both of us have families.”
“That’s not for weeks, I’m going to forget by the time it’s important.”
“Thanksgiving is in just about one week, thank you.”
Flashes of Husband tossing bottles at me, flashes of his dry arms flaking from his Hard Work flashes of these so close to my eyes when they slept over my jugular.
“Never was a fan of Thanksgiving anyway.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Fucked fucked god I’m slawed walking out of here walking with men in both arms both arms and leaving them pissing on the sidewalk when the coppers come to take them away but not me not me I’m too fast too much for them I struggle toward the night crowd I bump shoulders say watch out look out say out loud I am almost home and then I am home.
I am home.
And it never looks any better the more I drink. Never. Never seems any less suffocating and small, never less like some insect prison for me. I am a roach. I am to be exterminated. I am nowhere to be found. I have already disappeared.
Bed unmade. There are no sheets I threw them away. I’ll throw the bed away too. Pantyhose line the floor like a carpet of slipping death. They are the only clothes I own, I feel. My blouses are all stolen and I need to give them back. Dresses taken from strangers when their eyes blend into the watercolors of any simple summertime scene. I steal I hate I drew my cards long ago.
Stripping to my knotted muscle I ghost past the closet and get a whiff of that candle shop again, that herb wagon again…it comes back so strong I throw up the nothing I ate today onto the wall. I hang back, stare at it, look at the way it spreads down the wall, it is acid and I am a bucket of horror; the smell from the closet, the smell!
I open the door, crack my fingers, move in and bend down past the coat hangers to be faced with a handle of pig iron bleeding all rusty red orange on a white trapdoor. The spice wave can only come from there. Touching the handle feels greasy, invalid and inescapable and the door is heaving with such weight. Grinding wood edge against the floor I manage to lift the thick thing all the way up and over to reveal nothing but the blackest place with iron rungs built into concrete wall moving down past the border of my sight. I look back at my home. Empty, dead before I got here. If there’s anything I could have given this place it wouldn’t have been life. The city knows me too well, which is not at all. I hear pattering of freezing rain on my one window. Lonely, all of it. Devoid of things for me to take without guilt anymore. My bare feet touch upon the rungs and from there it feels as if I cannot go back up. There is something down here for me. Just for me.
♦ ♦ ♦
Hundreds of feet I fall when I slip. Rungs wrought with urgency they let me go and let me fall and I swear when I fell I felt the foolish center of the earth pass me by. I land on my ass and something cracks instead of pain I feel relief and instead of blood I see a glittering upon the wet, wet soil crawling with pillbugs or maybe the pillbugs are my blood or maybe I have died already. Forward. The ceiling is not a ceiling but an end and the walls crunch against me and the floor is squishy. I am inside a cylinder, maybe 4 feet in diameter. Breath cannot find me here, but neither can the cops and neither can my friends who do not exist. Crunching against the insects my knees propel me against a draft through the dark. Light also escapes here. Light dies here in the night and the dark. Light is dead here. I am alive in the death of luminescence.
Nocturnal spending is thick and profitable. Air becomes my enemy and the farther I go the less of it I need. Gills I grow for the lack of oxygen; oxygen has been reinstated as a dark woman with a mask just like my face and she is composed not only of herbs and spices now but the incantations of herbs and spices, like when I said there was cinnamon in this line of grasping lungsweets now it’s transposed over an olfactory triptych that looks like
and the like. And I follow that, each scent beleaguered with such nuance that I can’t help it can’t help but move forward toward the lack of light the dark dark deep.
Yet in the dark there are visions. Things happening. Others.
I start smelling vanilla but not just vanilla; vanilla like in bourbon or scotch or vanilla like the smell of Mother like vanilla that is too nuanced now, too much. Light’s demise brings up a ringing in my ears.
“How’s your Hubby, little Shelly?”
I stop. Who are you?
“My the knife passed through his work shirt like workhorse horsey horsey you said amen amen jesus amen thank you lord for the no-longering of this evil evil thank you lord!”
I go to talk. Speak. Shout. And yet there are nails in my throat I cannot do these things much less, swallow, I gulp fire and gag and throw up in the crawlspace.
“My the knife sure stays sharp,”
The blade, that thing, appears as if vivisected from reality in front of me it hovers, it swirls around playfully jumps, hops and skips and my heart sinks.
“in your drawer it sure does it gawks for the taste again do you have another man did you remarry or did you accept your appearance as some greasy whore some spunkfilled dirtbag whore did you accept this reality?”
“You did and you will accept this one.”
This voice it changes it is the voice of everyone I have ever known or fallen in love with or loved or liked or hated in general and in this way, it is filled, to the brim, with meaning. Meaning; it means nothing, anymore, to me.
“You accept you are a useless slut. You accept this, that you will be destroyed by your cowardice. You accept this.”
And I nod without meaning to.
“And you accept this without love.”
And my eyes blur and water without meaning to.
“And you are without love. And you are a killer. And you will leave this place. A killer.”
And every shot of booze I have taken since my husband’s blood sloshed all over our kitchen floor revisits my insides, recoils through my throat, and reveals itself in a single flood from between my teeth that takes everything within me and forces it out into the open dark.
THE END OF PART ONE.
Part two coming soon, perhaps sooner than you think.
Alec Ivan Fugate is some guy sitting in some swamp in some city in northeastern Indiana. His work is floating at Occulum, Burning House Press, Bending Genres, and other darker, spookier ponds.