A Little Darling Cut

April 7, 2009

posted & written by Caroline Picard
What follows is the first chapter of a book I’ve been working on (and agreed to have finished) for way too long. I’m reworking it once more and this introductory chapter has been sacrificed for the good of the whole. Because I’m still attached to it, I thought I’d post it here.
The heads of pigeons bobbed, casting weak morning shadows over brick, they picked at fried chicken parts with awkward jerky beaks, tweaking as they pecked the cardboard box the meal had come in. The birds strutted, puffed up and bourgeois, they seemed proud of themselves if not a little hasty, indelicate in their desire for food. Limping in some cases where two birds had no toes, while a third disturbed the meal entirely with its endlessly flapping wings. This last was missing an entire foot. The birds had scattered the bones among themselves and grease lay, an indelible shadow, on the street.
Bridget smoked, a smirk on her face.
The morning cool but comfortable.
Neil and Bridget sat side-by-side, facing out, on the stoop of a bank on West Street. They smoked cigarettes. They were numb and achy. Neil bit his lip but said nothing. Absorbed in private thoughts. Thoughts he rarely shared. Bridget put her head on his shoulder. As the sky bore its prodigal light, the pigeons chortled on the ground by their feet. A regular chorus.
Ship masts clanked in the distance.
“You may not drink, but you suffer,” Bridget said, pulling away. She coughed.
“You’re a woman with a man’s slouch.”
“That’s a surly thing to say to a lady. And you’ve no excuse. You’re not drunk.”
“It’s disgusting the way they eat their own kind, don’t you think? I think it’s disgusting. Which reminds me, sort of. Not the pigeonry, but the man-slouch-thing. I don’t know what the hell that means, but it reminds me of when I went to New Carrolton with Malachi: did I ever tell you that story? We went to New Carrolton, and his hair was really long and he looked like Punchy from the Hawaiian Punch commercials—remember? You remember. Anyway this guy’s selling jewelry on the bus, and he sits behind us and he’s trying to sell us jewelry, this crappy chintzy jewelry, thin gold bands with little crosses and diamonds, and he starts telling Mally and I about this great billiards bar in Baltimore and we say, ‘Hey, that sounds pretty good, actually, maybe we’ll skip on the jewelry, it’s nice sir but I can’t afford it, my ears aren’t pierced,’ that sort of thing, ‘maybe we’ll skip on the jewelry, but we’re always looking for good bars in Baltimore.’ So Mally says, ‘Thanks for the recommendation’ and leans back to put out his hand and shake the vendor’s behind him only the vendor-guy says, ‘You got an awful low voice for such a fine young lady—sounds like a man’s voice, if you know what I mean’ and Mally says, ‘Well, I am a boy,’ and then this other guy gets all flustered and funny looking and then I can see the gears in his head working and all of a sudden he turns on me, and I think, oh no, Because he’s staring at me out of the corner of his eye, but really obvious—like he thinks I’m suspicious. ‘You a man?’ he says, you know, et tu brute, or some shit, and then leaps up, pulls my shoulders back, pretty hard too, to get a look at my chest, ‘feee—oof!’ he says, ‘I’s just checking. Fweeoof! For a minute I didn’t know what to think.’” Bridget lit another cigarette. “Man. I fucking love Baltimore.” Exhaled.
“Did you ever go to the bar?”

A point in the distance approached them. As the point became a boy, the streetlights shut off. Malachi.
“Good morning,” Neil said. He patted Bridget’s knee. “It’s official now.”
Drawing nearer, the point gathered features, becoming distinct. The buildings, a backdrop, were burning under the growing expanse of clandestine light, and looked like flat facades, a street in a theater with buildings facing one another, the road narrowing to a pinhole where perspective made it so. Aside from a vagrant with a shopping cart, Malachi was the only thing that moved on the other side of the street. He crossed towards them.
“Malachi brings the dawn, look,” Neil waved. Malachi waved back, startling the quorum of birds.  The strophe. Their wings sounded like shuffling cards.
“You’re a point of reference,” Bridget slurred when Malachi was close enough.
“And you’re drunk.” Neil hit her across the chest with the back of his arm. It wasn’t hard.
“Malachi is still in his bathrobe.” Neil nodded at Malachi, who stood in the way of the sun. His face a shadow with the sun just behind him.
“Hey fellahs.” Malachi put his hand in a terry cloth pocket, keeping his eyes on the mirror of his stature where he saw it in the window of the bank.
“You’re still wearing your bathrobe—” Bridget said.
Malachi cocked his head, “Yes, that’s right. It’s my fancy bathrobe,” he stooped to examine his hairline. Then his profile. His long chin. His largest feature.
Bridget laughed.
Pigeons settled on a nearby telephone pole. They didn’t care about the plastic owl hanging on the wire underneath them. They chuckled only, shat on its head.
“You need to shave,” Bridget scoffed. She pinched Malachi’s chin, where it was within reach.
“It’s my morning exercise,” he shooed her hand away, “my growth needs a stretch. Go. Take a shower. You’re a disgrace.” He pointed towards home. “You smell like wine.” Punching her chest bone with three fingers, three short times in a row. She glared. Pulled her hand back in a fist.
She never hit Malachi. Neil giggled, watched as Malachi pulled a dollar from his pocket and held it by her forehead. “You can take the bus if you like, it’s on me.” The tail of the bill flopped in front of her nose. It was damp. Limp from where he had been clutching it in his palm. “It’s a blessing,” he assured.
“It looks soggy to me. It must have drowned in your pocket.”
“My pocket is very dry.”
“Put it in your palm. It’ll tell your fortune. It’ll turn over like a Swedish fish fortuneteller. Do you remember those? See-through plastic fish? We used to get those every Christmas when we were kids—every Christmas. Stupid stocking stuffers. I was always ‘Amorous.’ That’s when the fish curls in on itself. Nose to tail.”
Above them the pigeons flew in intuitive arrangements, swooping in aerial cul-de-sacs between the gas station, liquor store and barbershop.
A milk truck honked behind them, pressing them out of the road.
“It’s the milk.” Neil raised his chin.
“Coo-cuk-cuk-cuk-cooooo,” some pigeons said.

It was their senior year. They were best friends. As a unit, they set themselves apart from the world, regarding everything else as Other, and ultimately less impressive than the collective world these friends had carved out.
They found themselves very funny.

“Beastly is a British word, I wouldn’t say beastly,” said Malachi with italicized hands.
Bridget tripped. The milk truck passed. There was a girl in a cow bathing suit reclining on its silver side. She smiled with a milk mustache.
“That truck makes me thirsty,” Bridget said instead of cursing.
“We’ll get coffee.”
“Mother’s milk, morning milk. Coffee is both, I guess. Now anyway. My grandfather used to drink Moose’s milk. The greatest hangover cure in the world, he said. Whole milk with a shot of whisky, but you better drink it quick because otherwise it curdles.”
“Wouldn’t it curdle anyway?”
“Did you ever try it?”
“No.” Bridgett coughed. Scratched her head. Her hair was shoulder length and snarly. “Gramps was in WWII. He was in the navy. He was kicked out—not kicked out, whattayou call it? When they release you? Anyway, he was losing too much weight, so he got to go home. Before they dropped the bomb. He had what we call ‘depression.’ I don’t know what they called it then though.”
“I thought you said you were tired.” Neil jabbed her in the side.
“Ow.  I am. Don’t be beastly.” She hit him back.

The pigeons cooed and clucked. Floating down with a patter of wings.
Faraway, a plane flew into a tower.
In the café on on the waterfront, a woman leaned over in the back of the room in order to question her neighbor. “Excuse me, what was that?” She pressed her face close to the kid sitting next to her, obstructing his view of the paper he read. An overgrown kid. A young man trying to be something else. She smiled with repressed though unrelated ferocity.
The kid blinked. He touched the corner of his mouth with the tip of his tongue, finding a few stray hairs.
“Did you hear what they said?” she asked again. “Excuse me young man, what was it that they said?” Her eyes were narrow-set. Her look too concentrated. He looked uneasy. He blinked. Looked at the table. The nape of his neck burning.
Still warm, a bag of tea sat on a napkin between them. The humid stain underneath it extended in topographical patterns, telling a fortune that would never be read. When he picked it up, they saw a well of tea underneath. A puddle on the plastic table. The napkin had been challenged beyond capacity.

Bridget, Malachi and James walked into the same café. They stood by the front door, waiting in line.
“Hey look, it’s James!” Bridget said, pointing at the boy with the newspaper.
“Want more coffee, Jim?” Neil called across the room.
“Fuck.” James put the napkin down, glaring at his neighbor. “Fuck!” It was the first thing he’d said so far, and he left his tongue where it was, wiggling still. He turned to the Siamese, “I don’t know. I didn’t hear. I was reading.” He held up the Baltimore Sun. “See?” He was annoyed. “That’s where I live.” Pointed to the paper. On the cover a burning brownstone. He called across the room, “Will someone get me a scone, Bridge? Christ, Do you have any money? Will you buy me a blueberry scone?”
“Here he comes. Handsome Jim.” Neil grinned.
There was a shudder. The towers shivered, twins.
Aguirre stood with locked knees on the deck of a lonesome boat in the deepest part of the Amazon. The only accompanying noise was the sound of some fifty chirping monkeys. They bounced from beam to beam with petty undulations of grace. Aguirre barely saw them, but stared instead at the landscape, resolved and stern.
Credits rolled over the surface as the screen reviewed its actors for an April living room on Colonial Avenue.
“I’m going to audition for the Baltimore Opera Company,” Bridget said, drunk with a fresh drawl. “Herzog is running the show and they need extras, you can come with me if you want. I’m going anyway, but if you feel like coming, you can. If you really want to come, there’s room in the car. I could use the gas money.” She spoke to the credits, with a can of Pabst on her stomach. She was lying on a couch they found in an alley on bulk trash day and the smell was beginning to recede. Neil sat next to James on the floor. They were almost touching on one another. Neil leaned on the inches between them.
“Operas love fresh blood,” Malachi said. “I’ll go. I’m fresh.” He hovered in the doorway with a glass of water.
“How long have you been watching?” Bridget asked.
“Since they carried the boat over the mountain.”
“That was two movies ago.”
“I want to meet Werner.”
The College President cleared his throat in the cafeteria. Students assembled before him, staring. “I assume you all know by now that there were two acts of terrorism this morning. Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, and the buildings have since collapsed. Another plane hit the Pentagon and a third plane has just landed in Pennsylvania. It is recommended that you all to sit tight.”
Herzog was distracted by the company midgets. The opera company had hired them on his recommendation. Anytime any one of them made a dirty joke everyone laughed. The midgets milked their social successes and Baltimore gave them benefits.
“They’re such divas,” Bridget spat, outside the Opera building. The way they smoked: pretending they’d been smoking their whole lives.
“It’s true.”
Neil shrugged, “Herzog is good, though. He’s pretty good.”
“He’s always trying to frame reality,” James tossed his cigarette into a withered tree planted in trash. “It’s impossible.”
“Midgets aren’t real.”
“Can they reproduce?”
Someone jumped. A tie pointed up, a spear against gravity. Arms and legs waved, a little wild before the body hit ground.
Meanwhile, the college cafeteria smelled like bell peppers and chicken and chipotle.
“All airports are closed. I strongly discourage any travel plans. The roads will be congested and most likely dangerous,” the President said with two Chinese tapestries at his back—depictions of an emperor and an empress from the Ming Dynasty. Framed separately, only the Beijing wall crossed through the frames, from one picture to the other.
James stood with the blueberry scone in his hand. As the butter melted from his body the scone grew soft. When he shifted his weight he left patterns of breadcrumbs on the floor.
“Herzog is so sexual, he’s homosexual,” said James in the eaves of opening night.
James with the medium stature.
Bridget was looking out the window. The sky was a waning blue and when the college bell struck, marking the ten-minute interim before one o’clock class, she thought the blue might break. She looked at James. He was chewing. Crumbs in his moustache. Even though he’d graduated a year ago, he came to campus anyway all the time, spending most nights in Annapolis. Avoiding his job as a roofer in Baltimore.
It was his posture that was so charming. It was his way of showing both ankles, of which he was quite proud, and the man-shoes, old Red Wings, scuffed and worn from red leather to grey to calfskin, where finally he’d rubbed the dye off from too many years of use.
“Who even re-soles shoes anymore?” he would ask, defiant and prideful, revealing subtle intuitions of lust and violence. If you weren’t attentive you’d miss such things, diminished as they were by his impeccable row of small clean white teeth. He smiled, “These shoes have been re-soled five times. I was practically born in these shoes.” He walked like an old-timey boxer. Lean, he carried himself with a lilting kind of primitivism, something a little unnatural, something he’d copied from Marlon Brando. It was an old-fashioned posture, childish and brutal.
James kept his head shaved close, a handlebar mustache, grown red and occasionally, when he was particularly hung over, waxed, and always he wore a cap—this item, he’d sought after for years and years, when first he saw it on Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath. And he wore his shirts, cotton plaid, and worn to transparency in just the same way, with just the right cuff. He swallowed and smiled at President Nelson.
In the balcony, lights grew dim. The audience hushed and a middle-aged woman pulled out a pair of binoculars. She was wearing a dress that her husband had bought her eight years earlier. He came back from a business trip with a yellow silk dress. The silk had been scrubbed in the Yangtze River.
There was a cough that came from below. It announced the beginning and red velvet curtains began to lift at the center. They stopped unexpectedly in an inverted “V” above center stage. Tanhausser sat below in his canopy, weeping. The lighting was red and soft. It made the red curtain buzz like wet silk and caught the rim of fabric in a dusky blaze of lavender. Tanhausser was writhing, curled in the folds of a giant womb.
A naked midget came out on stage with a summersault. For a moment the line of his spine drew the eye of the audience up to Tanhausser’s morbid prostrations, but over-familiar with the hero’s build, curiosity drove a roving focal point. Carnival intrigue drew the eye back to the small bounding body whose back slapped above the sound of strings. With guarded anticipation the audience waited to see the crotch: wondering.
Another midget pulled the focus when he appeared on stage left. Rolling in similar proportions, momentum became its own chorus. A third midget descended from the ceiling on a rope—it had little wings on its back and quickly the three of them clasped hands and began to dance around Tanhausser, leaning in over turns as though to bite and kick him. They wore silk headdresses, masks of toothy demons with huge nostrils, and their hands fluttered in miniature menace like the wings of a moth. Small fingers cast giant mothra shadows. In an effort of extraordinary height one naked bottom sprang up, smacking the ground with a clammy slap that made the people start.
Their smiles were overgrown.
“Does anybody have any questions?” the President asked. He wiped his brow with a linen handkerchief. His tone was contrived.
Bridget was looking for signs in the sky. She sighed. Disappointed in the onset of sobriety, the rest of the room disappeared, falling prey to the volume of a new clarity. She was still looking out the window and sometimes muttered.
“There are ghosts that come and nip in the night. Sometimes ghosts come. Just between waking and sleep disembodied voices pipe up. Disembodied voices drift through the night looking for earth to fall to and rest in. Premonitions fall to the earth.
“Dandelions catch the light softly with translucent and fibrous spokes. They boast no body but instead the potential of body. They gleam over a meadow, hovering without wings, without faces, without smiles or yearning; they drift in the medium of the air, waiting with rewarded patience to alight and spawn.”
Although she sat upright on a wooden cafeteria chair, she felt paralyzed. She felt like she was lying on her back looking up at the sky in a meadow without noise. The dandelion spokes passed above her, reflecting varied shafts of light before the unbroken sky. At first there was only the sound of refraction.
She imagined a chirp; it was not a monkey. She frowned.
“Cicadas burrow deep down for seventeen years before they return to the world of light.” She could feel the withered chirps, soft sounds of ancient sleep as delicate as the winnowing of horses in a stall at dawn when breath and dew are culpable. The cicadas were in the earth at her back. She could hear them sucking roots.
She thought of her father. The man who bought her mother the dress for the opera. The man who made his fortune overseas—a banker in what had been third world countries. A banker with an Olympic medal. She felt sure he would die soon, even though he lived in California. The world was full of symbolic occasions. A great field of syncopated music; he would die because the world was changing.
“Tod ist ein langer schlaf. Schlaf ein sehr kurzer—”


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