by Laurette Folk
I see a glimpse of my friend Donna in the passing street lights, her face flashing in a slow strobe, her eye makeup showing the boundaries of her skin. I am driving the Big Bomber to Denny’s because, according to Donna, everyone will be there. I’m not exactly sure just whom everyone includes, but I can bet they’re all good-looking, drunk, and play a sport of some kind.
The Big Bomber is my dead grandfather’s old Lincoln that was bequeathed to my grandmother, but she doesn’t drive anymore. I get to drive it, because it’s the size of a tank and according to my parents, it will keep me safe. I know Donna doesn’t like being seen in it, but it’s her tough luck because she doesn’t have a car herself. As we drive, Donna is going on and on about her excursions with boys and gives me insignificant details about their clothing, their bodies. He is wearing his favorite blue Izod tonight. We bought it at the mall together, she says to make a point that she is connected to a boy intimately. Donna bores the living piss out of me: why am I friends with her? Why can I not separate myself from her? I wonder about other girls, girls like Eve Simeone whom I befriend in art class, but ignore everywhere else because she is a burnout, because she is rumored to be a witch, because I am afraid of her, afraid of her cigarettes and her goddess pendants, her black scarves and the bruises on her arms. But I relish her delicate lines and drawings of crouching creatures with wings.
I know Stephen would like her, and perhaps he would choose her over me.
“Listen, Jackie,” Rachel Hammond says once we’re tucked in a booth at Denny’s, “that painting you did of the woman with the bees hanging up in the library is wicked awesome. You got talent,” she says making her fingers into a gun and shooting me. Rae is talking about St. Rita of Cascia, the patron saint of impossibilities. My grandfather taught me to pray to her when we went to mass at Saint Leonard’s in the North End where he grew up. He said, when she was born, bees swarmed her throat and passed in and out of her mouth without harming her. He also said, when she died, a rose and a fig bloomed in her garden in January amidst the snow. In the church, she is mournful, peering down at the crucified Christ in her hands, a dot of blood on her forehead from feeling the pierce of his thorns. I traveled by train to Boston with a Polaroid camera and took several shots of her for the painting. In art class, I made a collage of pictures of her with bees, the rose, and the fig and then painted it in oil. It was my first time with the paint, and I was tense, afraid to make a mistake, afraid of the canvas, afraid of the power of the brush. It was faith, but more so thrill, desire, hunger for the lusciousness of hue; the petals of the rose were blood, the folds of the cloth, milk, the black of the veil, night. Oil commands image, is a world onto itself.
Rae surprisingly resembles St. Rita, with blue eyes and light skin that blushes easily. She is often unbearably silly; I have a hard time taking her seriously, because she makes fun of everything. Tonight, however, I will take what I can get.
The waitress comes around wearing her soft brown shoes; her hair is in a bun, and at the end of various stray strands are black bobby pins dangling like fishes on lures. Jack Sommers, Mr. Hilarious, pipes up with, “Hey, I want the Grand Slam breakfast with blueberry pancakes and blueberry syrup and sausage, and tell those gimps in the kitchen I want my eggs over easy, not sunny side up. They always forget to flip ’em over, and then I’m left with all that orange egg gunk getting into the syrup. Gross, man. Tell those gimps I don’t want orange egg gunk, man. I like it firm, like a jelly, a nice bright orange jelly inside. This way, everything stays nice and neat.” Jack’s cohorts sitting next to him are in hysterics. Donna watches them laugh and laughs too. I picture the tolerant waitress writing down in long strokes, no orange egg gunk and wonder if the gimps in the kitchen can hear Jack’s big mouth.
The waitress ever so patiently succeeds in making her way around the table, and by the time she gets to me, I have already started to sink, allowing that strange, altered sense of consciousness to consume me.
“I am not hungry,” I tell her.
I stare at the plastic geraniums that hang from the ceiling, dusty and fake and sickening; just as sickening as the dirty brown aprons on the waitresses, just as sickening as the stained napkins, just as sickening as beer breath and coffee breath in the same air, just as sickening as bland conversation, bland people, bland existence. I’m up to my neck in the bland whites of Jack’s eggs over easy, and I am beginning to panic.
“Wake up! C’mon, come back to earth! Hellllooooo!” Jack says as he tosses sugar packets at me.
“Leave me alone,” I say, snapping at him, my energy transforming now quickly from panic to anger.
Jack is stunned. Everyone is stunned. I look at Donna, “I’m going home,” I say. “Can you please move so I can get out?”
Everyone shifts and makes way for me in an awkward silence. Just when I am free, Jack takes another bite out of me.
“What’s the big hurry, Jackie?” he says, “don’t want to associate with us low lifes?”
“What? No, I just don’t feel well, that’s all.”
“Sure. Listen, why are you such a priss? Sit your ass down.”
“I am not a priss.”
“Yes, you are. You think you’re better than everyone.”
“No, I don’t. I just want to go home,” I say.
“Cunt,” Jack says under his breath. The boys around him laugh.
Everyone looks at me, waiting for my response, but I am weaker now, ready to cry, ready to give in. The quiet around the table kills me. I am killing me. I stand there looking down at the napkins and dirty, spotted silverware and think of how they lashed at Christ.
I replace it with a memory. I think of my father grabbing the scruff of the elder Dugan’s neck when he was ready to bomb our house with eggs.
Donna leans over and casually asks Rae for a ride. Through my peripheral vision, I can see little smoke swirls rising from cups as the waitress hands out coffee to the truckers at the next table. Her tray is in reach. I grab the handle of a cup and envision tossing its contents into Donna’s face, but instead throw it all over Jack’s hockey sweatshirt. He jumps back in horror, screaming, the burning coffee splashing.
“Out!” the waitress screams. “Out! Out!”
I turn away from them, shaking, and head toward the door. The boys are screaming obscenities at me. The patrons have stopped their chatter and look my way. I notice one of them in a booth. He has Stephen’s face. I stop. He recognizes me. “Out!” the waitress yells again. I pass through the door watching the face watch me from the window.
For our art midterm, we must copy a masterpiece using pastel or gouache. We peruse waxy photographs of paintings. I choose John Singer Sargent’s Venetian Passageway because it appears to be relatively simple to recreate with pastel. Eve Simeone chooses Danae by Gustav Klimt using gouache. I am immediately envious of her choice; it is courageous. We work quietly and intently. I am very curious to see whether Eve will achieve the seemingly monumental task of capturing the correct golds and blacks, whites, pinks, the swathe of purple with its strange circular symbols, the elusive skin color, the proper orange for the tangles of hair; if she’ll be able to recreate the mouth and the nose without making Danae look like a pig.
I am tense while I work, worried I will not properly reproduce the dark burgundy color of the doorway. Eve is humming. She successfully creates the red tussled hair, lips, the sleeping eyes, and the pink nipple. But Eve can’t help herself. Instead of the prodigious thigh, she substitutes a scorpion tail, curling inward toward the breast. She skips the purple swathe; Danae is sleeping inside a translucent eggshell, enveloped in gold. For the gold, she uses oil when Mrs. Pizzo isn’t looking.
Eve Simeone says spring makes animals go so crazy wanting sex that they do stupid things, like get themselves run over. Today she rescued a sparrow flopping about with a tattered wing in the middle of Main Street traffic. Eve stopped the cars, picked up the bird and put it in her pocketbook, a large leather sling where she keeps her cigarettes, her purple eye shadow, her black nail polish, her dollar bills, her brush filled with long strands of her hair. She brings out the bird in the middle of art class to check on it, and it takes flight like a bat, fluttering haphazardly around the room. Classmates scream and duck; paint spills as the bird tries to find refuge. Eric Laylor raises a book to swat at it, and Eve tells him if he hurts it, she will kill him. The bird lands in a corner by the window, just above the heater that bangs and clangs loudly during the coldest days. Eve tracks it and recaptures it, cooing to it as if it were a child, folding its broken wing carefully into the cup of her palm.
Our teacher Mrs. Pizzo, who is normally calm and in control, exhibits a flushed face and places her hand on her breastbone. “Let it out the window, Eve, you cannot have that filthy thing in this classroom.”
“I’m not going to let it out the window. Its wing is broken. Have some fucking compassion,” Eve tells her.
This is the first time Eve swears at Mrs. Pizzo, who ordinarily champions all her efforts.
“Either the bird goes or you go,” Mrs. Pizzo says.
Eve grabs her purse and leaves the classroom. She walks out the door and across the front lawn, the bird secure in her sling, a cigarette in her mouth, wielding a middle finger at all of us.
Eve does not return after her second suspension is over. In homeroom, the rumor is she overdosed on Quaaludes, and is in Memorial Hospital in Worcester. By second period, she was beaten so badly by her father, he broke her collarbone. By fourth period, she is in a coma. By fifth, her father had nothing to do with it and her boyfriend, a 28-year-old Hell’s Angel who likes to ride on the wrong side of the road for kicks, crashed his bike down by the Wachusett Reservoir, and she went flying through the air into a tree.
By sixth, she is pregnant and having an abortion.
Mrs. Pizzo hands back our art midterms. My grade is an A-. Eve is not present to accept hers, so I take it for her. Her grade is a B-. I tell Mrs. Pizzo I will see Eve and will give the painting to her. I don’t know why I say this; it just comes out. Eve and I aren’t friends. We don’t hang out. I place a piece of newsprint over the painting and roll it up, taping it so that it stays secure. I feel as if I have some sort of prize.
It is Friday night, and I decide to go find Eve. Maybe I am going to do what Stephen would do: find out the truth. I tell my grandmother I need to borrow the Big Bomber. I tell my mother I am going to the movies. I tell myself I am just going for a ride.
The seats of the Big Bomber are leather and slippery. I drive sitting on one of my grandmother’s pillows to give me some leverage. I drive with the steering wheel in my lap, holding on tightly to the car.
“How do you drive like that?” my uncle has asked me.
“It makes me feel secure,” I told him.
It is May, and the clouds are clearing. There are pink patches over the firs along Lake Quinsigamond. The sun dances on the wet asphalt of the road. I leave the safe haven of Shrewsbury, where I live, and fly over the bridge toward Worcester. The cross that hangs from the rearview mirror sways and dips. The song “Who Are You” blasts from the radio accompanied by a hiss; one of the speakers is blown. I note the contrast and see my selves from above: the younger me, trapped in the backseat, watching the cars line up behind us as we float to Perry Como, the older me, clutching the steering wheel, flying over a bridge, blasting The Who.
I arrive at the hospital and slow down. I lower the radio. I wonder what the hell I am doing. The garage is dark; the wheels make a screeching noise on the concrete floor when I turn. I need to go to the last level to find a place to park. I get out and see the sun set over the city. It is a scattered city with no real skyline, nothing to define it. It is just a gathering of people going their own way, to work meaningless jobs, to buy groceries to keep themselves alive, to huddle in corners, to buy drugs, to drink in dingy bars. I watch over the ledge at the people walking in and out of the hospital. I think of the last time I was here, when my grandfather was a helpless waif, wrapped up in white sheets with tubes in his face. I take the painting with me.
I ask about Eve Simeone at the front desk. She is in room 270A. I wonder how many Eve Simeones there are in this city. I ask the young woman what this Eve Simeone looks like. She gives me a look like I am some smart-alec kid fooling with her, tells me she does not know; she only has a name. The hospital is crowded, and I move toward the elevators. I take the elevator with a Puerto Rican family. The girl, who looks my age, is pregnant; her mother is wearing leopard skin tights. A boy speaks to the girl in Spanish, and she smiles at me. The mother presses the number for the floor they need. I get out on the third floor and search for the room. When I find it, there is a sign that says, “All visitors must wear a hair cap and gloves upon entering.” I immediately shrink away. I am too afraid to go in for fear I will catch a disease.
I ask one of the nurses why the sign is there, and she tells me the patient has head lice. She is busy with file folders and charts and leaves me standing wondering what to do.
I go back to the room and stand in front of it. There is a piece of paper blocking the window. I decide to not go in if it means wearing a hair cap and looking like a moron. I think about leaving the painting at the front desk, but this seems too risky; it could get dropped and stepped on. I go to the elevator, ride it down; I leave the hospital, go to the parking garage, and get in the car. I put the painting on the front seat. I drive around the hospital, find Eve’s room from the outside. There is a girl hanging her hand out the window, smoking. I stop the car. I shout her name. I wave. She waves back. Someone comes from behind her and pulls her back into the room. Just when I am about to leave, Eve returns to the window.
“Wait!” she shouts. “Wait!” She disappears a second time. When she returns, she slides the window open and then looks behind her. She calls down to me, cupping her hands around her mouth, “I’m going to jump!”
Then I see her spread eagle in the sky with her hospital gown billowing out in front, exposing naked legs running in air. Eve lands on one of the arborvitaes below her window, and it bends readily to break her fall. I am stunned, unsure of what to do. I get out of the car and run to her to see if she is okay. She is laughing.
“Holy shit, did you see that?” Eve scrambles through the branches. “Ow, fuck. Ow.”
I grab hold of her elbow and help her; her skin is cold and white. She is not wearing makeup and is a regular girl with freckles across her nose and her hair pulled back in a ponytail. I quickly glance around for witnesses. There is a man on the sidewalk standing and watching us, incredulous.
“Hey!” he shouts.
I am suddenly filled with exhilaration, with the prospect of getting away with something. Eve and I stumble to the car, laughing and breathless. I peel away, and Eve hangs out the passenger side window, waving goodbye to the witness. She high fives me when we are safely away from the hospital grounds then pulls out a mirror from her purse and applies the coal black to her eyes. She pulls the elastic from her hair, and it pools at her shoulders.
“What were you doing at the hospital?” she asks.
“I was just out taking a drive. Figured I’d stop by. See what happened to you.” I am especially self-conscious when I say this, but determined to sound nonchalant. “I have your painting. It’s in the back.”
Eve turns around, grabs the painting, opens it, looks at it briefly then rolls it back up.
“You’re a good person, Jackie,” she says. “I always knew you were a good person, despite those stupid friends of yours.”
We stop at a Cumberland Farms store so Eve can call her boyfriend. She stands in the phone booth with one hand holding the gown together in the back and the other holding the phone. When she gets back in the car, she tells me her boyfriend is working the third shift tonight at the Polar Seltzer Company, where he drives a forklift.
“Let’s go to the reservoir and kill some time,” she says.
It is now near dark and the Big Bomber lights up the woods like a search party. I shut off the radio to concentrate, because I am nervous. Rocks and sticks pop under its wheels as the Bomber negotiates the potholes in the road like a boat in the waves. I park near the shore and shut off the engine and the lights; we disappear into the darkness. Eve lights a cigarette. In one moment, her face is illuminated from below and I see her softened features, her high cheekbones cascading sharply to the curve of her chin; in the next she is in shadow. She puts her feet up on the dashboard, asks me if I want a cigarette. I hesitate a moment before I decline.
“Why don’t you try it? It’s a Virginia Slim. Go ahead. It’s not going to kill you,” Eve says.
I think about looking cool, cool as Eve, the cigarette dangling precariously between her fingertips and the slender swirl of smoke ascending out the window. She offers the cigarette to me, and I take it, put it to my lips and inhale ever so slightly; this pinches the back of my throat and sends me into a coughing fit.
“You have to get used to it,” Eve says. “Everything takes getting used to.”
Above us, a silent army of fir trees stands at the perimeter of the lake guarding the night sky. It is quiet and still, save the call of ducks huddled somewhere nearby. I feel a resistance in my body; the exhilaration I felt during the getaway is starting to wane, and I’m not sure about being here in the dark with Eve.
“What happened to you? Why have you been absent?” I ask.
“My appendix burst. They took it out. See.” She pulls back her gown to show me her scar. “They shaved my pubes,” she says. “My boyfriend is going to be psyched.”
Eve tells me that she also contracted lice while she was in the hospital and her boyfriend painstakingly picked out every bug with his fingernails. He washed her hair in anti-lice shampoo while she recovered from her operation and bought her a dozen long-stemmed roses. She feels shitty about leaving the roses in the hospital, but she just couldn’t take it any longer; she was bored and the nurses were nincompoops. Twice they forgot to give her the pain medication, and she woke up in the middle of the night screaming. Luckily, her boyfriend knew one of the orderlies, and he got her a private stash.
“He takes care of me,” Eve says. “We’re going to get married and move to Maine and raise goats. You can make a fortune selling goat cheese, you know. People love it.”
When we’re done talking about goats, we talk about Stevie Nicks, whom Eve adores. She’s bought several of her outfits–black bodices and velvet-hooded capes–at the witch stores in Salem. She tells me she only wears them on Sabbats and Esbats. Sabbats are days when a natural phenomenon is celebrated, like the arrival of spring or the harvest. Esbats are celebrations based on the cycles of the moon. Eve tells me all those stories about witches stewing frogs and chipmunks and putting hexes on people are false. Witches have a great reverence for nature, are herbalists, and don’t believe in harming anything.
“Let’s go outside and build a fire. It’s a perfect night for one,” she says.
The moon is three-quarters full, and once it pops up over the trees, the night becomes visible in ghastly blue light. I think of Stephen’s letter about the Hubble telescope, how he said it could stare into other galaxies. I sleep with the letter and read it four or five times day. “No point in giving you the hotel’s address,” he wrote. “I will write again once we’re settled in.” But he never did.
We rummage about the shoreline for rocks and sticks and work quietly and intently building a fire, just as we do in art class. Eve lights the dry pine needles at the bottom of the layered pile of sticks, and we huddle about it because it is getting cooler; we can feel the heat across our palms and faces. In the firelight, Eve’s features are dramatized. She is an Egyptian pharaoh or a reclusive sorceress. Her hair is not cut into any type of style; it is wayward and aberrant and curls at the temples. Donna would say she is unkempt, a freak, but I don’t see this at all. I see her as primitive. Archetypal.
Eve stands above the fire now, looking into the soft, temperate flames. The fire cracks and sizzles. The ducks squawk and sound like they are laughing, as if they are telling jokes to one another. Eve rummages through her sling again and takes out a packet of something. She sprinkles powder in the fire, and a form rises up on its hind legs, a pink dragon. She does it again, and I see a flock of flamingoes and the dwindling heart of a crepuscular sky.
I realize that being with Eve is different from being with friends like Donna. With them, parts of me are shut off, dormant, unnecessary. With Eve, a prominent part of me is engaged. Curious.
When it’s too cold to be out, we throw dirt on the fire and leave. I drive Eve to her boyfriend’s house; the Bomber illuminates a small, nondescript ranch with potted pansies on the front stoop and the polished chrome of a motorcycle leaning on a kickstand in the driveway. Eve opens the door and then blows me a kiss; she leaps out of the car with the painting rolled up and tucked in the sling. She spreads out her hands and spins around in circles on the front lawn, like a child. The painting falls out of her sling, springs open, and the wind blows it across the yard and onto the neighbor’s lawn. When a light is switched on from inside of the nondescript ranch, I pull out of the driveway then stop to fetch the painting. Somehow, I know it was meant for me anyway.
Laurette Folk ‘s fiction, essays, and poems have been published in upstreet, Literary Mama, Boston Globe Magazine, Talking Writing, Narrative Northeast, among others. Her novel, A Portal to Vibrancy, was published by Big Table. Ms. Folk is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing program and editor of The Compassion Anthology.