Image “Comic Couple Kissing” Poster Art
Everyone has a role to play…
At the ballroom edge pink, yellow, and blue figures blur dim and frosty as drinks in tall glasses. Laughter tinkles like ice cubes in a tumbler.
Glenda presses her palms against the satiny fullness of the skirt. Conscious but unaware of having been unconscious, she is transparent as a spirit summoned and not yet materialized. It is the dress with the thin straps, blue the shade of memory and twilight. A pink corsage is pinned to her left breast.
A herd of boys rough each other up on the other side of the ballroom. One of them follows her with his eyes. Why? With a sinking feeling she realizes this must be her date, the perpetrator of the pink corsage. It begins to come back. It’s like coming back to life after a long death. Ah, yes. She is back to the world where nothing she wants to happen ever happens, and she is not human but merely dust. Dust: earth or any other matter so finely powdered and so dry that it is easily suspended in air; also, a cloud of such matter.
“I don’t believe my eyes!” Judy squeals. The girls turn to stare at Joe Cool. He stands in the corner staring back, hands in pockets, brown leather jacket, grease-slick hair . . . He knows what it is to be what you don’t want to be.
“Who invited him?” asks the girl with no name. The girls laugh and Glenda laughs with them.
“This is the prom, not a rumble,” Susie says in her glacial voice. The girls giggle and shiver.
“He looks like bad news to me,” says the brunette in the yellow dress. “What do you think, Glenda?”
“I think some people ought to stay on their own side of the tracks.”
And, really, what more is there to say? It takes about three minutes for the boys in their sharp new tuxedos to spot Joe Cool lurking in the corners. It is ten to one, and not in his favor, with Glenda’s date leading the pack. They whale on him, take him down for the kill, shove their shoes into his ribs and head until finally the Date and another boy grab him by the jacket and toss him out the door. They dust off their hands and slap each other on the back. The girls stop screaming and the music resumes.
Someone has spiked the punch. Perhaps this is the moral, or maybe it is something else. She can’t remember, but the next thing she is aware of is being swung giddily above the polished floor like a ballerina filled with helium and the soles of her feet have nothing but space beneath them and then she is upside-down with her skirt over her head; he throws her between his legs and everyone cheers, so hot you can’t stop, at the hop hop hop hop. The band cools it down to play “I am the great pretender, pretending that I’m doing well . . .”.
Ken the too-perfect is pulling her close, with his hand on her back between the shoulder blades where the skin is bare. A steamy belch tasting of hot punch and bogwater rises in her throat. “I think I love you,” Ken whispers into her zinc-tinted ponytail. His fingers are waxy against her back. She wishes they would start twirling again so she could spew all over his neat lapel rather than say it and seal her inevitable fate. But there are eyes, she can feel them, always – watching from some hole in the wall or from behind a screen.
“I love you, too.” Love you like the corpse loves the worm. The lights dim, pink steam hisses through the ballroom, smells like tropical jungles and unreasonable heat. She rests her chin on Ken’s shoulder and inhales his glossy magazine scent. On the dance floor the girls hang limp against their dates, heads tilted against the chests of blue and black dress jackets, as if they are being rocked to sleep. The air is tight as a shower.
“Oh, gosh, I . . .” Glenda says, sucks in her breath. She puts her hand to her bosom and flees across the ballroom, out the French doors, into the night. Blades of light cut drunkenly into the leaves of the hedge. She bends over, holding her stomach, needs to expel, has no power over the clean synthetic vista of the Country Club. The world is crazy, tilted and sad, like something that happened a long time ago.
“Too much?” says a husky voice. It is Joe Cool, leaning against the bricks. The hot end of his cigarette stabs through the darkness. Smoke blossoms around his head like mist from a geyser. She nods. She has no idea what she is saying yes to.
And then she sits beside him in the front seat and screams like a bloody idiot. She wants nothing more than to stop. After all, it was expected, to flee into the night with him as the black shop windows of Main Street cut the car into pieces and put it back together again.
“There is no going back. There is no going back.” She wishes it were true. The front end of a police cruiser protrudes from the abandoned lot between the bank and Russel’s Department Store. Glenda raises her arm. Joe Cool reaches across her chest and arrests the movement in midair.
“Hey, take it easy. Just cool it.” He glances in the rearview and slows the car, but the cruiser remains in the empty lot. It is two-dimensional, made of cardboard.
The car jolts across the tracks to the East side of town, where lopsided houses lean in the direction of the last big wind. In some yards there are cars in all stages of repair and disrepair at rest on cement blocks with their innards strewn randomly around them; in others swings hang in dim angles from trees or a single rusty bicycle lies overturned in the dust.
“Bet you’ve never been to this side of town before, have you, princess?” he says, although they both know this isn’t true and the line has grown so old it wears a groove in the road.
Past the city limits it begins to rain. She sobs, cheap mascara tears punctuate her cheeks, throat as dumb as a mime’s because the right words never come. She rubs at her arm where the purple shapes of his fingers remain.
“Here, put this on, you dope.” He takes off his jacket.
She slides her arms into the sleeves, still warm from his heat, and sniffles. “Why are you doing this?”
“To teach you a lesson.”
“My parents will be looking for me. The police . . .”.
“That’s tough, ain’t it?”
He turns on the radio and twists the dial until threads of static unwind into song. Hold me. Thrill me. Kiss me. Rain slashes across the windshield. The wipers slice back and forth in a mad tango.
“Why don’t you just let me out? I won’t make any trouble.”
“No way, baby. You’d miss me too much.” He slides a cigarette between his lips. “Besides, your pretty dress would get all wet.”
Glenda lets her head fall back against the seat, neck exposed at ninety degrees like a tree felled by this endless circle without meaning.
“We’re going to have a lot more fun than you would cruisin’ around with a bunch of richie snobs, baby.”
Cruisin. The word is as strange as the bruise on his cheek that is an exact replica of Maine. She tries to imagine cruisin – cars full of necking teens like slow meteorites easing down the boulevard, honks and exhaust and rock and roll. It might be something she would like to do, if she could feel real for once in a real world and the stars weren’t just so much bullshit pasted in the sky. Her eyelids droop, cutting away a little more of the world with each blink; she dreams of roads that go on forever. She dreams of dark rooms full of silent people watching her life. She raises her lids and they are crossing a bridge; a hazy sun rises behind them; the mist is damp white sheets on a clothesline.
“You cut out on me, baby. The royal shaft.”
“How bout some eggs? Then we’ve got to get you dolled up. Maybe some sunglasses, and you’ve got to lose that mane, princess.”
Glenda shields her ponytail.
He pulls into a roadside diner and orders bacon and eggs with toast and coffee for both of them. Glenda stares at the food like a half-wit. She is ravenous, but her wrist with the hand at the end of it makes no move toward the fork, waiting for his signal. He shovels the food shamelessly into his mouth. What is behind that rough façade, if anything? Does he sense the same lack of freedom in his movements, his speech?
“You better eat. It’s gonna be awhile,” he says, mouth grinding the toast.
“I’m not hungry.” She eats, slowly, and only half.
The waitress comes over with coffee to refill their cups. She has a striped uniform, puffy overworked eyes and a nametag – Sally. She looks like a woman who really knows what’s what. Sally has become, in a way, like a mother to her. Glenda longs to call out her name every time she enters the diner. Sally! Dear Sally. But she dares not do it; the woman would not recognize her, damned as she is to be eternally unfamiliar in familiar places. Sally tips the pot over Glenda’s cup and the coffee, burnt-smelling and muddy, lunges into the cup.
“Anything else?” Sally slides the check onto the table.
“No, thanks, babe,” Joe Cool says.
She looks from one to the other. “You kids aren’t from around here are you?” A few locals have been staring at the couple; now they look down and read the morning news in the eggs.
Joe Cool reaches across the table and picks up Glenda’s hand. Her insides warm, whisky set aflame. “We just eloped this morning,” he says, giving her hand a squeeze.
“Congratulations,” Sally replies, not believing a word. Joe Cool pays the check, which is good because Glenda has no money except for a single dime in her shoe, the purpose of which she has never yet discovered.
“Welcome to Squaresville,” Joe says when they pull up to the barbershop on Main Street. Tidy red brick lines the storefronts; the sidewalks gleam smooth as bone. It might be the exact same town they had come from. “When we get to California, and baby we’re gonna show up dressed to kill, you’ll see what living really is. Paradise, I tell you.”
Fingers of hair fall to the floor, blond and fine, protective fur shed for warm weather. The barber is bald, and wields his scissors as if he has been in the War. Gleaming tools behind glass marinate in blue liquid.
“There, baby, you see? I told you it would suit you.” Joe spins the chair in circles.
“They all end up cutting it off eventually, when . . . “ and the barber scans the front of her dress. He thinks they have run off because she is pregnant. She imagines it, her ankles swollen with the weight of baby Cool.
In the car Joe smokes and touches her knee where it joins with her dress. She flinches – she is supposed to be furious with him for disfiguring her hair and hiding her behind the cheap dark cat eye glasses with fake diamonds around the edges; but looking at herself in the side view mirror is akin to holding hands with an imaginary friend one had as a child. Her hair is messy around her face; one straps slips off her shoulder, there is a brown stain below the dip of her neckline. She could be anybody. An actress on her way to Hollywood. A farm wife who has run off with a salesman. A woman in a white slip leaning out of a window to smoke.
“Come on, princess. You gonna tell me you ain’t been rolling around in the back seat with that flat-top nobody? A stacked girl like you? Look, you don’t have to play nice girl with me . . .” . He reaches for her leg again, skims the satin hem of her dress before she cringes away.
“You’re a real wet rag, you know that?”
Her tongue is dumb, lifeless, out of her power while the tongues of flame from his hand lick her thighs. She can’t shake the feeling that there is something bigger out there somewhere, a world of clarity that encases this world like an egg cradling a yolk, someplace where time and event moves forward and does not stop only to begin again. And with repetition has come a certainty that he feels these things, too, and is unable to speak. Because if he doesn’t, then she is completely alone.
Five miles out of town the car shudders and grinds and he pulls over and raises the hood. Glenda pushes open the heavy door and runs. She abhors the futility of the gesture – any sane person would remove heeled shoes, and. besides, there is nowhere to go except wide open fields of waving grass and a stunted tree. Her ankle goes on its side with a twist and a crack and sends a bolt of pain up her leg as she pounds against the ground, and then he stands over her, grabs her wrist and jerks her to her feet. He spits into the grass.
“Nice try, princess,” he says, but past the coolness she can smell fear. It is a misunderstanding; surely he knows she doesn’t want to run. If she runs she will fall off the edge of the earth.
It’s a hell of a life to have no past and no future. Out of one Dullsville and into another and always making tracks from point A to point B and back to point A – well, at least there is the car and the music and the girl. The girl smells like moonlight and brickyards. It feels broken. Everything is broken and skips like a jukebox. His voice is broken because it never comes out the way he thinks and his body is broken because it never responds the way he wants. It just does its own thing. The car is broken, on the side of the road in the middle of the night, but he can’t think what might be wrong with it or think anything at all because he never sleeps. But he could kick the tires. Yes, he could do that.
Glenda is twisted into the back seat like a seashell. Her short hair is messed up all goofy and one yellow piece of it sticks to her cheek; her cheeks and forehead are slick with sweat; her skirt has ridden up above her dimpled knees and she looks like sin. All that pink-white skin is so soft it scares him. He messes around under the hood until he hears her skin brush against the upholstery. She sits up and stretches. She yawns and the sun goes behind a cloud because she has sucked all the light into herself. The car rattles; there is life in it yet! He slides into the driver’s seat and speeds off down the road while Glenda sits in the back hunched over; he glances in the rearview. She rolls her stockings up her damp thighs and he grows clammy, imagining the damp soft curls of blond hair between her legs.
“No more funny business. You hear me?” says the boy who is him but not him. He always says the wrong thing.
“I don’t see a thing funny about this business,” she replies. Her eyes in the rearview are slitted black pupils, yellow circles. Were girls supposed to have yellow eyes?
“Good. I’m glad we understand each other.” If only it were true. There is music playing; it comes out of the fields or composes itself between the tires and the hot asphalt. That happens sometimes. The air in the car is wet with her perfume, heavy powder and sweat mixed, and he wants to drive himself inside her without touching her, not really wanting to but it is like this California that is pulling him though he doesn’t really want to go there. His throat is dry from the cigarettes and his eyes are dry from never closing; the world is a watercolor stain, smearing. He squeals into a filling station and honks the horn.
Two little boys are bouncing a red rubber ball to each other behind the pumps. They start to argue over the ball, one pushes the other and they fall to the ground, rolling and punching. An old man in jeans and cowboy boots hobbles towards the car. He is thin, and the face beneath his hat is wrinkled and brown from too much sun.
“Mornin’,” he says, sliding a toothpick out from between his lips. “How you young folks doin’ today?”
“Hey, Pops,” says Joe Cool. “Fill er’ up. And grab me a pack of those Lucky Strikes while you’re at it.”
“Sure thing,” replies the old man quietly. He gnaws on his toothpick and looks at Joe Cool with a kind of sad desperation and, shielding his eyes with his hand, peers into the car and nods at Glenda. She sits with her arms folded, her usual position, her expression blank behind the cat eye sunglasses.
“Look here, now, Pops,” Joe says, handing him a wrinkled bill. “We don’t have all day.”
The man shuffles around the car and fills up the gas tank. He disappears into the station and returns with the cigarettes and the change. “Let’s lay rubber, baby,” Joe Cool says and he squeals out onto the highway, leaving the old man standing in a cloud of dust.
“Dumb hick,” he says, wishing he wasn’t such an asshole and knowing there is nothing he can do to change it.
“I want to go home,” Glenda says. Still whining one thousand miles later. As if she wanted to stay in Missouri for the rest of her life. A diner comes into view as if it has just been born out of the plains, silver forceps tugging it out of the tunnel into a wheat-colored noon.
“Let’s stop for a little re-freshment,” he says. There is no stopping the frames from rolling onward. He parks the car and vaults across the hood to open the door for her.
She trails behind looking at the shape the leather makes against his back, the curl of hair folding over his collar. It is such a shame to be cut off from the big picture like this – if only she could hold out for a few more seconds it might change the course of history. But there is no stopping her feet in the dirty satin shoes as they follow him across the parking lot. If she were to call out . . . but there is no strength in her voice, it falls into the world dead silent.
The ill sunlight shudders across the metallic front of the diner. In the window a pink neon sign – EATS. He pulls open the door and a bell tinkles overhead, music from the jukebox spills out. Ain’t that a shame… My tears fell like rain.
A greasy hamburger smell stings the air. She stares at the blue rounded toe of her shoe as she crosses the threshold, waiting. She is not a real girl, no, only a cloudy vision in somebody’s crystal ball.
Crack! She screams and averts her face just as his body thuds against the checkered tiles. The sound of the shot echoes through the diner.
“Darling! Oh, my baby, what has he done to you!”
The breathless woman rushes over and removes the rhinestone cat eye glasses, placing her moist palms on either side of Glenda’s face. She throws her arms around Glenda. The man in the brown suit and derby hat strides over, cool as a cucumber, and joins in the embrace.
“Calm down, Margaret,” he says. “Everything is going to be alright now.” Glenda allows the strangers to squeeze the breath out of her as the grim officers look on. One of them still points his gun at the body, as if it might jump up and revolt.
Her parents synchronously move apart to allow the tall, broad-shouldered prom king to take his place. He throws his arm around her and grips her shoulder; it is the final anchor dragging her to the bottom of a filthy sea.
“Come on. Let’s go home,” he whispers.
He steers her past the dark shape on the floor, her parents shuffling dutifully behind, through the glass door that tinkles when you open it, past the neon pink EATS sign, to the car that has been left running, awaiting her capture. So sure were they of success.
She slides into the back seat with her arms folded across her chest in that straightjacket pose, just waiting for unconsciousness and the placebo of memory.
She will sleep. She will forget. She will wake to the sound of ice cube laughter and that twilight song.
He will sleep. He will forget. He will rise from the dark and look for what he forgot.