by Silver Webb
Originally published in Hurricanes & Swan Songs
Jenny Mandisi walks in a web of light. Spider-fine threads of sensation travel from her, over the parking lot of Loreto Plaza. Above the faux Spanish architecture of stores and restaurants, the palm trees turn to tarantulas in the dusk. Jenny maneuvers around people by estimation of threat, intention, potential pain.
A bald man glances up from an outdoor book table, staring at Jenny’s licorice black hair and dress, her spectral face.
“Is that your Halloween costume, honey?”
Jenny is not twelve years old, and this is not her Halloween costume. She is forty. In her Demonia platform Mary-Janes, she crests six foot four, her frame so spindly that she looks like a Gothic pipe cleaner.
A gust of wind whips the pages on the table, startling the man. Jenny slips past him, hurrying to the nondescript glass front of Cherry’s Grill, opening the door, and pausing to let her eyes adjust. Framed photos of celebrities hang in uneasy angles on the gold wallpaper. Deep booths of quilted red leather, wagon-wheel chairs, glass lamps. To the left is the mirrored bar, to the back is a moose head on the wall. No moose ever looked so happy to be beheaded, stuffed, and nailed to a wall, overseeing the kitchen doors swinging open and shut beneath his muzzle.
A cadaverous waitress, pinched stomach like a hermit crab, motions for her to follow. Jenny sinks down into Booth #2. From here she can see the whole room.
Jenny casts her lay lines, visible only to her, latching onto the walls, people, the moose. She takes the room in this way. The awkward blind date, an old cowboy looking lonesome in the Gold Room, writers hunched together like ghostly saboteurs at the bar. She judges their distance from her, their capacities, searches for any tremor of instability, and decides the room is as safe as any place can be. She takes off her black messenger bag and puts her phone on the table.
Sorry, late for dins. Rolando’s text appears.
When are you not late? Jenny types.
The waitress comes back with bread, and Jenny realizes she hasn’t eaten since breakfast. White bread smeared with butter, salsa fresca, and sour cream. Jenny takes a deep bite, smudging her black lipstick, the tomato juice dripping from the corner of her mouth. When she is short of money, sometimes the bread is dinner.
There yet? Vanessa texts.
Yes, Jenny replies.
You know the rules. No alcohol.
I’m a grown woman.
If I find you with a cocktail, I will karate-chop you.
Jenny has no intention of obeying her cousin. When the waitress comes by, she orders a Hurricane, the booziest drink in a bar already famed for its slutty pours.
Jenny has another bite of bread and stares at the last text Phil Fleischman sent her:
Great manuscript. The rewrite really works. I’d like to talk to you about printing this.
Jenny feels like she might sail out of her seat, a black-widow balloon filled with the helium of praise. After 114 rejections, she finally has a yes. For her book. The book. The one she’s been working on for years, a manic devotion that serves as friend, lover, and reason for existing. After her nightly shift at the Granada Theater, she threads through midnight streets, the ideas come to her, spinning, spinning. An hour on foot to her rented room in San Roque, and then hours of shadow-dreams dance across her computer screen. She writes a world in which she makes sense, the only place that she does. Except perhaps Cherry’s Grill, where tall tales are as common as framed photos of Ronald Reagan.
A feeling like warm honey runs down her spine, pooling in her sacrum. That means Alex is about to text her. She waits, and a second later, a message from him springs up on her screen.
What about artichokes? She hears the text spoken in his voice, a deep resin that rolls over her, like amber trapping a mosquito.
Artichokes? Jenny’s thumbs fly over her phone. Death thistles. Prickly, medieval, a rueful food that hides its elusive heart. And for a second Jenny thinks this describes her as well. She presses send.
So that’s a no on artichokes? The question is rhetorical. Alex doesn’t eat vegetables. This is a polite exchange of formalities before they decide which end of the cow to eat. Order me the burnt ends. Thirty minutes out.
Jenny’s heart sinks a little. If Alex and Rolando are both late, that means more time alone with—someone trips her lay lines, a presence behind her, sharp as the snap of a match—her cousin.
Vanessa Mandisi plops down across from Jenny, wearing a white suit and a Tiffany necklace, her ginger hair curled tight like fusilli pasta.
“Rolls is late. Alex too,” Jenny says.
“I heard. Drunk driver on 154. Alex had to rappel down the side of a cliff. Whole family of five is toast.”
Jenny blanches. Alex didn’t mention a cliff. But then, Alex rarely tells her anything.
“Do we have to eat here every week?” Vanessa picks up a menu. “Is free bread that sexy?”
“We can’t all be lawyers.”
“District Attorney. And if I’m footing the bill, I want to pick the restaurant.”
“Fine. We can go to Vegan Green. See if Alex will eat Satan tacos.”
“Seitan. Sayyy-tawn. Like I care what Alex thinks, Jennifer.”
It’s not a good day if Vanessa is calling her Jennifer. On a good day, Jenny is Jewels, Vanessa is Vans, Rolando is Rolls, and Alex is still Alex because he won’t answer to anything else.
Jenny sees a flicker on her phone, and her adrenaline starts to shimmer. It’s a text from Phil Fleischman:
Do you have time to talk about the book? I’d really like to move on it.
Sure, she types.
Great. King’s Road?
King’s Road is a pub that gets a little rowdy at night. It’s already 7. Maybe he means tomorrow.
I like King’s Road. She’s not sure what else to say.
Great. Tonight, 11 o’clock.
Jenny blinks. There isn’t even a question mark after that 11 o’clock.
“What is it?” Vanessa asks.
“The guy from Chapala Press.”
“Phil Fleischman. Why would you call him a wiener?”
“I see him at the courthouse a lot. Owes alimony all over town.”
“I didn’t know he was married.”
Vanessa’s eyes narrow. “What does he want with you?”
“He’s considering my book for publication.”
“He’s considering your ass for penetration, and that’s all.”
“Your mind is a morass of ugliness.”
“So why do you look like someone just stuck a machete in your black heart?”
“He wants to meet at King’s Road.” Jenny’s face colors, although under her zombie-white foundation, it may be hard to tell. “At eleven. Tonight.”
“Eleven, King’s Road. Sure. Totally normal business stuff. Carry on.”
“I’m not his type. I can’t be. He drives a Lexus. And wears Italian leather shoes.”
“Maybe he collects oddities. Bored, rich guys are like that.”
Jenny sees her book in print, a world split open in the hands of others, her life somehow less lonely for it. How badly does she need that? Maybe Phil Fleischman is a nice guy.
“He isn’t,” Vanessa says, picking Jenny’s thoughts from the air.
“You don’t know that.”
“I do know it. And I will shit my kidneys out my asshole if I eat any of this.” Vanessa slaps the menu down.
“Have a drink then.” Jenny’s mouth curves. “That’s gluten-free. Probably.”
“Celiacs is not a joke. Don’t start with me. If you think this guy just wants to talk about literature, you are hell and gone from Cartagena, Angel.”
Jenny almost smiles. It’s a good line. From Romancing the Stone. One of Vanessa’s few redeeming qualities is her quotes.
“I’ll show up,” Vanessa says.
“Are you Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse? No, don’t come. I can handle myself.”
“My god.” A deep crease appears in Vanessa’s forehead. “Is this another PigSwine McDickFace? You don’t like this guy, do you?”
There is a downside to cousins. They know all the dirt. Vanessa has a good memory and therefore good reason to worry. Jenny falls in love silently, glows so violently that she ignites, burns herself to ashes with the pain of the unrequited, and then crawls away, her light dimmed for years after. But she knows who she loves, and it isn’t Phil Fleischman.
“I look up to Phil, that’s all. He publishes good books, and he teaches great courses.”
“Where, city college?”
“Quit talking at me.”
Fine, Vanessa changes tactics and thinks at her. It’s taken years for you to get your life back together. Don’t blow it now on some poser who’s stringing you along.
Quit thinking at me. Jenny clicks her black nails on the glass tabletop.
Fine. Vanessa gives up.
Jenny checks her phone.
A text from Rolando says, Bus is late. Almost there.
A text from Alex says, Vanessa cheesing you off yet?
Massive cheese, Jenny types. Camembert. Gorgonzola.
There in ten. Order milk.
Now Jenny feels bad she ordered the Hurricane. She usually listens to Alex. Even if he doesn’t understand the terms of light and dark that define her world, the way she lifts and tilts and can’t find her feet, the way she falls. Still, she listens to him.
I ordered a Hurricane, she types.
DO. NOT. DRINK. IT, Alex replies.
“You ordered a Hurricane?” Vanessa frowns, eavesdropping on Jenny’s thoughts. “No. Absolutely not! I’m still paying Joe’s Place back for what you did.”
“That was your fault, not mine.”
They stare at each other, eyes meeting mid-table in siege. Jenny’s fingers curl a little, and the napkin by Vanessa begins to lift upward.
“Really?” Vanessa raises an eyebrow, and the candle flares. “In public?”
Jenny relents and the napkin stills. Something about Cherry’s Grill makes her forget the rules of the mundane world, the imperative to feign normalcy.
Jenny’s lay lines jingle. Rolando walks up behind her.
“Hay girlzs.” Rolando is wearing white jeans and carrying a Hello Kitty! clutch on his wrist. He sits with the delicacy of Lady Bird, like he is cradling a bon-bon between his butt cheeks and is afraid to crush it.
“You look like death, Jewels. Something wrong?” Rolando’s lips glitter at her. “Wait, you always look like death!”
“It’s that guy,” Vanessa says. “The wiener.”
“Wieners aren’t so bad, Vans. Maybe you should try one,” Rolando says.
“I’m vegan. And this is guy is a poser. He teaches adult ed, okay?”
Jenny fumes silently, and the edges of Vanessa’s hair lift and move like snakes.
Vanessa cocks her head at Jenny. “Leave my hair alone or I will rearrange your doll collection.”
“Soooo,” Rolando says brightly. “What’s the problem?”
“He wants Jenny to meet him at King’s Road. At eleven o’clock.”
“Booty call, Jewels, yaz!”
Jenny’s face heats. She doesn’t believe in booty calls. She thinks holding hands is a big deal, like a K-O big deal.
“You want this guy to help you, better give him some sugar,” Rolando says.
Jenny imagines trying to take her clothes off in front of Phil Fleischman, trying to act normal, like she isn’t scared. The edges of her inner landscape darken, time closes in on her, a muddying of what was and what is.
“You’re supposed to be the empath.” Vanessa flicks Rolando on the shoulder. “Stop with the shit that upsets her.”
“You’re getting a parking ticket.” Rolando smiles.
Vanessa flames her eyes at him. “I don’t feel that.”
“You parked in a handicapped zone, right? But you don’t got no handicap sticker. There’s a meter bitch out there clocking you.”
Vanessa springs up and sprints out the door. Rolando unclicks his purse, takes out his tarot deck, and spreads the cards into a fan on the table.
Jenny shakes her head. “I don’t want to.”
“Pick a card for this guy.” Rolando slides the deck closer to her.
“I’ll pick the devil. Or death. I always pick death,” she says.
“Tarot don’t lie.” Rolando shrugs.
Jenny sees the card she’s supposed to pick. Of course she does. It has the resonance of blue dust hovering above it. Phil Fleischman. She flips it.
Rolando’s upper lip curls. “You got the worst luck, girl.”
It’s the death card, a skeleton cackling and pointing at her.
“Damn it, Rolls.”
“It’s not, like, literal. No one is gonna die…probably.” Rolando pulls Jenny’s phone toward him. “What did this chalupa say anyways?”
She is distracted by the waitress coming to the table. But then she sees that Rolando is typing something on her phone.
“Rolls, no,” Jenny hisses.
“Here’s your drink.” The waitress sets down a massive curved Hurricane glass, glowing pink, topped with a speared cherry.
“What are you typing?” Jenny kicks at him under the table.
“You’re not no 7-11, so we’re gonna tell him that.” Rolando clears his throat and reads what he’s typed: “Do I look like a banjee ratchet ho?”
“No, no, oh my god, no, Rolls, don’t you fucking send that!”
Rolando’s grin dissolves as he catches sight of the Hurricane. “Alex told you not to have no alcohol, right?”
Jenny lunges for her phone and then hears it. The whoosh sound that a text has been sent.
Do I look like a banjee ratchet ho? Sent. To Phil Fleischman, head of Chapala Press.
Jenny’s lungs tighten. A second, ten seconds, a minute, two. There is no reply. Nothing. He is not going to text back. Jenny shoves the straw in her mouth and inhales five shots of rum, vodka, and triple sec. She drinks it so fast her eyes burn.
“He didn’t text you back?”
Jenny shakes her head and inhales more booze, her throat napalmed, her brain going thin from the fumes.
Her phone finally pings, and her eyes swan dive onto the screen.
I thought you were more mature than this. Too bad, Phil Fleischman’s text says.
Jenny finishes the Hurricane in a numb fog. She wants to spear Rolando in the eye with her fruit toothpick. She wants to run away before Vanessa comes back. And she wishes like hell that Alex was here.
Rolando starts in. “Mercury is in retrograde, that’s what it is. Don’t say nothing important to nobody—” The fork next to Jenny flies across the table, puncturing the red leather near Rolando’s head.
Rolando side-eyes the fork. “Maybe just don’t drink no more.”
But Jenny is not listening to him. She has even stopped drinking. Because she feels something behind her. An energy signature she knows. It’s not Alex. And it’s not Vanessa. Blue dust and the death card.
Phil Fleischman walks by her booth, wearing camel-colored slacks with a Gucci belt, his hair domed in a pompadour that almost hides his thinning front section. He is putting his phone back in his pocket. He does not notice Jenny.
“Sorry about that,” he says. “A writer giving me trouble. You’d be surprised how unprofessional they can be.”
“But not me, right?” The woman next to him laughs. She is petite, with soft auburn waves of hair, D-cup cleavage, smiling, well-adjusted. Rita Hayworth in a plum-blue silk dress. Her face is airy and guileless, like gravity has never given her reason to look down.
Jenny watches them sit at a table under the moose head. He pulls out her chair. She places a manuscript on the table. Phil Fleischman was planning dinner with Rita Hayworth at 7, and then drinks with Jenny at 11. She wonders if he is telling Rita the same thing he’s been telling her.
Jenny scrambles to salvage any hope of being published.
Sorry that was a joke meant for someone else, she texts him.
She watches Phil glance at his phone, the lift of his eyebrows, the cold planes of his face. He taps at his screen. A moment later, her phone pings with his text.
Is there ever any hope with an OK?
I can’t meet you this evening. But I could have coffee tomorrow, she texts.
Something has come up. Maybe next week.
But the expression on his face tells her there will not be a next week.
Rejection 115 has an air of finality to it that breaks her in a way the other 114 before this have not. Jenny can’t breathe. The floor is rotating. She grabs the edge of the table as the pictures begin to rattle against the wall.
“Jesus take the wheel.” Rolando slides under the table.
Jenny cannot stop what happens. She tilts off balance, everything blurs, her future churning in lonely spirals that only run parallel to others, never crossing, never meeting. She will spend her life writing in her room, alone. The photos fly off the wall into a cyclone, diners drop their forks, their drinks, photos of priests and car salesmen hurtle around the room, bottles of liquor from the bar, Rolando’s tarot cards, all converging above the table in the back.
There is an inch of air between Jenny’s rear end and the seat now. Under the table, Rolando clamps onto her ankles, trying to stop her. Jenny shoves her messenger bag back on, thinking to weigh herself down. But she is unmoored, her lay lines tangled. She is cast into her own storm, her skirt billowing out, strands of black silk, her hair spreading out around her by centrifugal force, arms reaching for ballast and finding none.
Rita Hayworth screams, looking up as if Jenny is a winged monkey in the Wizard of Oz.
“Jenny Mandisi?” Phil Fleischman’s voice slices through her delirium. “Is this some kind of stunt? Are you that desperate to be published?”
The drop is like the quiet of high altitude. Freefalling, ground reaching up to sock her in the jaw. The photos drop, the bottles too, exploding in a glitter of glass. Jenny lands a few tables away in a heap.
She forces herself up, aware she is bleeding where her legs hit the glass. People are running, limping, and using their walkers to get to the exit. She stumbles to the bathroom, into the stall, sliding to the floor. She stabs at her phone to text Alex.
Please come get me. Bathroom. I’m in trouble.
She searches her bag for the emergency pills. The ones that Dr. Lex prescribes. The ones Rolando calls horse sedatives and says she should slide up her rear end for faster effect. But she refuses to try that. Her hands shake as she twists the top, then grinds it the other way, unable to open it. With a pop it leaps off the px vial and a spray of blue pills arc up in the air, clatter off the rim of the toilet, plopping in the water. Her peace of mind sinks to the bottom of the bowl.
Jenny can’t breathe, her lungs clamp, her stomach is being hit with a baseball bat. She knows this is a panic attack, but she can’t stop it. Her phone beeps and she fumbles for it. She sees a text that doesn’t make sense.
We are done, freak.
Alex wouldn’t say that. Jenny peers at the screen. Of course she didn’t send a text to Alex. Of course not. She sent it to the last person she’d been texting: Phil Fleischman. Please come get me. Bathroom. I’m in trouble. After she told him she wasn’t a banjee ratchet ho and then floated to the ceiling and made his date piss her silk dress and then landed in the glass like Carrie at prom.
There is nothing Jenny can say to fix this. She forces herself to concentrate, to press the call button to Alex.
“Hey.” Alex picks up right away. “Where are you?”
A minute later, black shoes appear on the tile floor, and the stall door swings open. He assesses her fleetly, his thoughts undistracted by emotion. “Scale of one to ten.”
“Six,” she says. As bad as this feels, she knows there is worse.
“Where’s the diazepam?”
Jenny flaps her finger toward the toilet.
Alex bends down and picks up the empty bottle, reads the label carefully.
She is embarrassed to be seen like this. She tries to think of something to distract him. “Did you really rappel down a cliff today?”
“Yes.” He doesn’t look away from the bottle.
“Why didn’t you say?”
“You have panic attacks.” He checks something on his phone and then opens his EMT bag.
Jenny sees the silver watch on his wrist, hands unshaken. She can almost breathe.
“I’m not crazy,” she says.
“That is correct.” He swabs Jenny’s inner arm. “You’re psychokinetic, you can’t handle alcohol…” He trails off for a moment as he draws clear liquid from a small vial into a syringe. “And you have the worst case of PTSD I’ve ever seen.”
He slips the needle under her skin, finding a vein.
Jenny’s teeth stop knocking together. Her chest unclenches. Her lungs sigh. She can breathe again. The baseball bat that has been bludgeoning her stomach stops. Her muscles go soft.
Jenny is like pudding now, unable to censor herself. The honey travels down her spine, filaments of light extend from her, wrapping around him, spinning a space where only they are. She knows that Alex cannot see it or feel it, that he is bound by inscrutable rules that govern him just as surely as Jenny’s nightmares govern her. Perhaps this is as close as she comes to another. Maybe anything more is impossible. Still, for a moment she feels safe, feels the solitary core of iron that runs through him, something she can’t pierce or understand. She only knows that she comes to ground when he is with her.
Her words leave her easily now. “Rolls took my phone and texted the book guy, the one I told you about. Total disaster. Must be Mercury in…something, I forget.”
“Retrograde? Rolando is full of shit.” Alex picks up Jenny’s phone and scrolls through the screen. “You told this guy you were in trouble and needed help?” The tile under Alex’s foot cracks with no warning.
“I thought I was texting you.”
Alex scrolls further up the screen. “He wanted to meet you at King’s Road. At eleven.” The crack in the tile runs up the wall and hits the ceiling.
“I didn’t say yes.” Her blurred brain can’t formulate why Alex is angry. Instead she says, “I’ll never be published now. One hundred…fifteen rejections.”
“Just keep writing,” Alex says firmly, like he is done with the topic. He lifts Jenny up by the arm, and they move slowly out to the restaurant. She sees a swirl of red leather, broken glass. And Vanessa, blazing with fury.
“You pussy-mouthed mother-fucker!” Vanessa points a finger at Phil Fleischman.
He is still seated at the table. Rita Hayworth has disappeared. Everyone else has run out. Jenny can’t understand why he is still sitting there, except maybe Vanessa is blocking his way. Jenny wonders how her cousin noticed him at all, but then realizes her own thoughts made a map to him that Vanessa could not have missed.
“Have I done something to offend you, lady?” He smirks. And it is a really bad idea to smirk at Vanessa.
“How about not paying alimony? How about screwing my cousin over!”
“Your cousin? To whom do you refer?”
The moose on the wall bursts into flames, its eyes melting, beloved moose smile ejecting sparks. Fur that is over fifty years old burns with an acrid, oily stink. Cocktail napkins erupt into fireworks, the remaining bottles of alcohol go Molotov. A few seconds later, the security cameras light up like Olympic torches.
Phil Fleischman shrieks as the chair behind him starts to burn, and his smirk vanishes.
Suspended above him in the air, slowly spinning, is one of Rolando’s tarot cards. The death card. Phil Fleischman catches sight of Jenny, and his face mottles. “You! Fucking freak!”
Alex’s foot comes down hard on the floor, and it fractures with a deep groan. A seismic shaking cleaves the carpet, the cement, the dirt and stone below. The fracture line shoots straight toward Phil Fleischman’s table.
Alex loops his arm around Jenny’s chest, like the safety bar on a roller coaster ride, pressing against the underside of her breasts, his palm and fingers under her arm, resting against her ribs. With no warning, Jenny is a million miles away from caring about her book or Phil Fleischman or the brimstone raining down on Cherry’s Grill. Joy bubbles in her chest. A floaty feeling tingles in her toes, a sensation of lift.
“Nope,” Alex says under his breath and squeezes her tightly, forcing her feet back on the ground. But the bubbles radiate through her, murmuring in a pleasant profusion of warmth. She looks at the scene from a distance. Her asshole cousin wielding fire in her corporate power-suit. Alex cracking the earth in two, pulling a hurricane of a Goth girl behind him. Rolando, the lousiest empath ever, leaking water under the table.
For just a sliver of a moment, Jenny smiles at Phil Fleischman, and she imagines that her black lipstick is smeared on her teeth, down her lips, that she must look like a specter of hell. Maybe she is. And she has friends you really shouldn’t fuck with.
“Mandisi.” Alex’s voice clips the air. “Out. Now.”
“Fine!” Vanessa throws her hands up like he’s ruining her fun.
Alex pulls Jenny behind him, her legs languid. She watches as the table Phil Fleischman is sitting at slides into the fissure, the fire growing brighter. He claws at the air trying not to sink down with it. His hair-sprayed coxcomb bobs above the floor, and then she cannot see him at all.
The carpet recedes from Jenny’s feet, then there’s a bump, then she feels the smack of night air. The sky is dark now, inky black palm trees reaching for her. She hears Vanessa swearing and Rolando crying. There are police sirens approaching. Fire trucks too. Smoke the color of quicksilver snakes above Cherry’s Grill.
Alex deposits Jenny in the ambulance passenger seat and walks around to the driver’s side.
“I told you that guy is a wiener!” Vanessa yells, disappearing into her BMW.
“I told you Mercury is in retrograde!” Rolando cries, limping toward State Street.
Alex starts the engine and shakes his head, eyes crinkling at the corners.
“I told you to order milk.”
Hurricanes & Swan Songs is available on Amazon.