This is published in The Rusty Nail
I remember sitting in the corner of a musty second hand book store downtown. Waiting. The walls were covered in stories. There were too many to tell. It was as if tiny bits of conversation were choked, caught straight in the throat of the old man book seller.
I was fifteen and never spoke. With short, dark, hair that covered my face, I hid from the rest of the world. Instead of talking, my voice was covered on slips of white paper. Mini spiral notebook sheets. The sides of flyers. The back of receipts. They were covered in strangled sentences that barely made it out. I had pockets full of stories. From the floor of the book store, I parceled out my receipts. I scribbled phrases, sticking words into books and books into cases so that the old man could find them. There were snip-its of conversation heard earlier that day as well as poems about people just outside the window. I hoped that he would read them and see glimpses of the lives that I wanted to know. If someone could read my writing, they would know the secrets of my mind and in that moment of reading I could feel them. Close and connected.
For hours during the mornings and afternoons I sat alone, half reading and half listening. I listened for all the topics the old man didn’t say. He never asked me ‘why wasn’t I at school’ or ‘where did I live’? He never questioned my existence or talked to me like a kid.
When I walked into the shop the old man guided me gently to the back where the fiction was. A hand on my back, hair in my face. I glided past the rows and rows of book shelves.
On the far corner near the mystery section, he fingered the spines of his favorite stories. Hands fumbled for the right flow of fiction. He was careful with his recommendations and when he looked at each book, he did so with an intense, but tired gaze. His face was sagging and his eyes were crumpled. Gray. Crinkled around the edges.
If only he would touch my spine. Take me home with him. Feed me tomato soup from a big black pot and read to me. We’d play board games and drink small glasses of liquor until our tongues loosened. I could almost feel our conversation bubbling up from my throat.
At last when the old man stopped running hands across hard covers, he pulled out a burgundy colored book with the name Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell scrolled along the top. His hands were trembling when he slid it toward me. The book smelled like the 1950s and I could feel the softness of its pages like slick white whiskers.
“It’s about quiet desperation,” he said. I could feel the words melting down the back of my throat. Just as good as soup. Almost as good as conversation.
by Rebecca Lee
“Let’s go downtown.” It’s the chant I hear every weekend. Downtown is where the lights are. It’s where the girls go. The makeup, the short skirts, the pot smokers, and the boomboxes. They’re all there.
“Let’s go downtown.” The teenage guy I have a crush on, Matt, is asking his friends if they’re going. His voice is slow, low, and slick like rain. They sit at the back of the bus and blast Sublime on a battery-powered radio. I’m twelve. He’s seventeen. It could happen if I wear the right clothes.
“Let’s go downtown,” I say to my neighbor, Laura, later that night. Laura’s four years older and has a license. She can borrow her stepdad’s car. She smokes cigarettes and listens to En Vogue. It’s hot out, and it’s close to summer. We’re getting older. I can feel it.
I grab the black pleather halter top with red lace stitching. Short skorts in spring tease the boys, but make me comfortable. I lace up my boots. Knee high and red leather. Just like the kind I see on MTV.
We go downtown several hours later. I sneak out of my house, and she sneaks out of hers. The suburbs are unnaturally dark with no streetlights or store fronts. The field of tall grass by our houses shivers from a dull wind. It must be coming from downtown. That’s where everything happens.
“Look.” We get out of the car and instantly see Matt’s friend from the back of the bus. Hacky Sack Boy. He’s the guy that she likes. He’s sitting on the ground playing guitar and singing lyrics he wrote himself. “He’s so creative,” she says. He looks just like Matt. If we each got married to one of them, we could wear matching gowns.
“Go talk to him,” I say.
The clickable comb comes out. She teases her hair up and then mashes her finger into a miniature lip balm container. Cucumber watermelon.
“I’ll be right back,” she says.
Downtown bars with neon lights twinkle across the street. Girls wearing all black with torn tights stand in groups together. A man with long blond hair is selling CDs at a stand across the way. Maybe he has the En Vogue CD Laura plays for us in her stepdad’s beat up Honda Civic. Maybe she’ll think I’m cool for buying it.
“Hi,” I wave to CD Guy. He has wrinkles around his mouth. If he speaks, I bet he will sound gravelly. When he stares at me, he looks for a beat too long. My pleather halter top. Bare shoulders in the dark.
“Hey,” his smile stretches. His voice is higher pitched and dented at the end as if lilting slightly upward. Even though he’s older, he has a boyish quality about him. “Those boots are pretty sexy.”
He thinks I’m older. He thinks I’m older. He thinks I’m older. I flash him a smile, the same one Laura wears except with braces. “Thanks,” I say, but I can’t look him in the eye.
“You look like a cool girl. What kind of music do you like?” He is all eye crinkles. Gazing down my shirt. Flat chested. I wish I had stuffed.
“You have En Vogue?” I try to hide the squeak in my voice. The volume gets caught somewhere in the top of my throat until words skitter at a faster pace than I’d like. It’s the thing that always gives me away. When I tried talking to Matt, my voice was so quiet and high pitched he called me a mouse. “Mouse meat,” he said. I thought of road kill.
“Of course. They’re my favorite.” His smile is almost feminine behind his long hair. He brushes it behind his ear. I see flashes of gray tucked to the side. A bald spot is poking out on top. “It’s in my van, a few streets down.”
I nod. That’s that. Moving on.
“Why don’t you come with me, and I’ll just give it to you. A gift.” Maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe we weren’t moving on.
He likes me. He’s old, but he likes me. I stare back at Laura, but she’s talking to Hacky Sack Boy.
“Let’s go to the van.” He is already walking. His hand is outstretched. I’ve never held a guy’s hand before.
The bar lights are flickering. It’s late. Past eleven. I can smell something sour on CD Guy’s breath. I take his hand, and instantly it feels too soft. As if he could dissolve if I touch him hard enough. He smiles and the eye crinkles come back.
“Hey!” I hear a girl’s voice in the background. It’s Laura! She’s running full speed down the street and coming straight for me. “I have to talk to you.” She grabs my arm and whispers loudly into my ear. “Hacky Sack has a girlfriend.”
Laura’s about to cry. Her eyes are glass. I let go of CD Guy’s hand, and his mouth becomes like two tightrope lines strung together at the corners. If Laura can’t be with Hacky Sack Boy, I don’t want to be with anyone either.
“I have to go,” I say to the man. His face closes like a window. He is shut down.
“Do you want to stay downtown?” Laura is now crying, but I can tell she doesn’t want to ruin our adventure. The tears fall freely. Her face is like a peach without the fuzz, and I wonder if she’ll stay soft forever. I look out at the bars and notice a couple in their twenties. She is tilting her head back, exposing her throat. Her voice slides out like butter. Someday that will be me.
“Let’s go home.”