Image of Joe

Joe

6 readings

1

I

Coagulate clouds hung in a thick haze over my eyes, floating lazily like a dense morning fog that follows a night of thunder. I forced myself to stand. Clothes were thrown shabbily about and my head threatened to burst. Whiskey and wine had bled through the carpet and left a gushing hole in my memory. Smoke poured from my mouth as the recoil from the night before sent tremors cracking through my bones. I was the grotesque visage of a clown, makeup smeared across a broken face and hair falling in a comical disaster.

The rumbling bass of a bubblegum party song pulsated steadily. It was a heart that continued still to beat, pumping blood though the body had died. My unsteady hands brushed gently against streamers that hung throughout the house, chromatic colors that shimmered from the ceiling to the floor. They seemed so out of place – glitter-laden jungle vines in the middle of New York City.

A massacre had taken place in the dining room. Bodies were strewn over tables and chairs and left lying in heaps on the floor. Broken shards of glass and shredded bits of confetti were sprinkled over them like pastries, frosted with pale-purple vomit. They would wake with familiar headaches and piercing blindness and congratulate themselves on a night well-spent. Laughing at their state while feigning delight and making plans to do it all again next weekend. I didn’t know any of their names and I didn’t know any of their faces, but I had seen them all countless times before. They must have thought the same of me.

I stumbled to the door with my money and my pack of Lucky Strikes and left without a word.

II

The apartment was a squatting box. Dawn burst through the windows as monolithic silhouettes imposed themselves upon the skyline, headstones in an unforgiving city. I slipped out a cigarette and a sigh of relief. A breath of poison and a cloud of fumes. It sobered me, reminded me that the world tasted bitter. My dreams were dead, buried beneath the asphalt and the steel, rotting in the sewers below.

My high-waisted miniskirt fell to my ankles as I shrugged off my crop top and leather jacket. I tore the wig from my scalp before catching a glimpse in the bathroom mirror. An absurd reflection, my personal looking-glass. I fell into Wonderland and discovered it all again. Zoloft, that’s for remembrance. Xanax, that’s for thoughts. I took the little bottles off the shelf. Eat me. It wasn’t enough to chase the white rabbit anymore. I’d spent years on his tail and I never came close – he was always just one more hit away.

The sun had risen, bleeding out across the sky and staining otherwise immaculate clouds. If it weren’t for the smog and the concrete and the noise, it would almost be beautiful.

III

Jonathan Afton had known me since before I moved to the city. We had both graduated from St. Matthias Catholic Prep and expected nothing less than transcendence. College came and went before we found each other among the swarming millions and rekindled our dying friendship. He treated me to expensive sandwiches every Wednesday afternoon at his favorite sidewalk café, The Plum.

“You know what I’d do, Flea?”
It was a regrettable nickname born from an unfortunate resemblance. I propped my elbows on the table.

“What’s that?”

He drank deliberately from a short glass of caramel-colored scotch, gently touching an embroidered napkin to his lips. A single drop of mayonnaise clung to his chin.

“I’d burn it all to the ground.”

I laughed softly at his absurd suggestion, but I smiled at the thought.

“Randolph Mercy, up in flames.”

“Don’t tempt me with a good time.”

We laughed like we hadn’t in years – rich, riotous laughter that infected and spread and demanded the attention of everyone around us. In that moment, I desired something more than a weekly editorial crushed between the classifieds and an advertisement for Florsheim shoes. I wanted the world, and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to have it. I pursed my lips and drank the last of my Manhattan. As I pulled the glass away, I noticed a faint, red stain around the rim. I snatched up my napkin and pressed it to my mouth, wiping as subtly as I could manage, praying that Jon hadn’t seen.

“Why do you stay there?”

I asked myself the same thing nearly every morning, clawing my way out of bed. Tying my throat shut. Holding my breath. Suffocating underneath it all. I had been fitted for a straitjacket with pinstripes and wore a golden chain around my wrist.

“I just – I don’t have any choice.”

The truth was more difficult to explain.

“We always have a choice, Flea. I made mine.”

“How do you know you made the right one?”

Our server returned with the check, which Jon signed in a flourish before raising his glass. His choice was simple – maybe not to him, but I would have left Hager’s Fancy in a heartbeat and never turned back.

“Burn it to the ground.”

IV

Randolph Mercy was a broken man too old and too stubborn to admit defeat, and The Daily Maine was no different. A newspaper with a bankrupt reputation fallen from the grace of yester-years. Rumor mongers making fantasies come true between the pages of a worn-out rag.

“Come again, boy?”

His overwhelming gut trembled as his salt-and-pepper moustache twitched with labored breathing.

“I’m leaving this all behind. This paper, this place.”

I looked down at the scuff marks along my faded leather shoes. The music was rising from my stomach, rising like a bird into the atmosphere, tearing through my heart and lungs and up into the back of my throat, where it paused just a moment before it burst above the clouds.

“I quit.”

And with that, the bird became a phoenix, whose flames ignited the world. The office, the city, the air itself was turned to ashes in the heat and blown away by the winds of a new summer. Mr. Mercy, that towering man with cholesterol choking his veins, loosing his grasp on the labor bound bodies that toiled and sweat beneath him, consumed by the ambitions of a freak.

I turned away from the desk and the office and the ink-stained man and left to pursue my life.

V

I slid open the doors to my closet and stepped into another world, populated with wild colors splashed on garments purchased from every thrift store. These were long-forgotten shirts of every shade, abandoned dresses, skirts, and jackets worn by heaven-only-knows. There were endless possibilities. The only absolute was that they were all worn by Felicia.

VI

A sharp wind cut through the air, biting at Felicia’s skin. She pulled her jacket close about her, brushed gently by its fur trim. Her heels clicked rhythmically along the sidewalk, a typewriter transcribing a new journey, the defining chapter of her life.

Felicia hushed the voices that whispered about failure and regret and continued down the street. She came to a burning neon sign that danced dangerously in the night, branded onto the front of a dizzying fortress. Felicia slipped unnoticed through the back.

She waited anxiously above the stage in a little Wonder Woman outfit. Other dancers crept silently onto the stage in the blackout. They took their positions as the lights came up and the frantic beat of Bonnie Tyler burst through the dark. The dancers surged into electric spasms under an arresting display. Lightning flashed amid swirling fog as Felicia dropped from the ceiling to the stage in a split, tossing back raven hair that curled in impossible ringlets. The thunder roared.

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