This short is taken from two chapters of my novel Songs of Galilee, with the intent of making it available in The Library of Babel short story collection.
I moved to the American south, South Carolina to be exact, in 2244, at the age of twenty two. I lived with my grandmother for a while, and spent most of my time in seedy liquor bars with overweight truckers watching pool and wrestling on television and arguing over politics. The local colleges didn’t seem to offer much, but I’d suppose that college has very little to do with learning.
The first thing I noticed was the air in America. It had a different taste to it, like stale water. American air is different than any air on Earth. Another thing I noticed was the abundance of billboard signs.
When I moved to the outskirts of a small upstate town, Newberry, South Carolina, I lived in the middle of Sumter National forest, beside Lake Murray. Thick pines surrounded the house, blanketing it from the noise of industry and automobiles. It was a small town beside a lake, like my home by Galilee, but it didn’t sound the same. It was off-key; the songs rang out atonal, mixed with the hum of boat engines. Fishermen on Lake Murray eschewed sails and paddles in favor of the electronic motors and yachts. They said very little to me when I approached them on the shore for information about local plant and animal life. They weren’t rude or anything. It just seemed as though they didn’t know. They were good people, simple and pure, and reminded me of my mother in their quiet routines.
Main Street had a few small stores: auto repair, a Chinese restaurant that the locals called “The China Place,” a drug store, a drab tennis court and basketball court by an abandoned gym with boarded up doors. An old white church hovered above the planted palms at the end of the street. It was the first time I had seen a church. I had heard of them, of course, and their general purpose, but had never seen one. I made a note to check it out, but for the most part, I stayed out of town. People didn’t concern me anymore in America than they had by Lake Galilee.
The alien woods were delightful. Birds sang different songs, and different animals prowled the underbrush. Animals I had never seen: possums, different birds, white tailed deer, raccoons, cats, and wild dogs. I fed them and enjoyed their company, but it was a long time before I met my first friend: a fifteen year old girl named Casey who dated my great-aunt’s grandson, Daniel. I spent most of my time with him, playing video games, smoking cigarettes, and getting drunk. He lived with his grandmother. He had been adopted at age twelve after his real father hung himself over a car payment.
She was only fourteen. Daniel was a few years younger than me, at eighteen, but that didn’t seem to matter to him or her. They started dating and almost all of my time was spent with them that summer, before I met Chris, who would introduce me to Elise. We watched television, got stoned, and played video games. We were kids.
They started spending more and more time together and wanted privacy. I understood. I didn’t want to annoy them, so I decided to spend less time around them. Behind his house a small stream ran by a basketball goal without a net, so I sat there in the evenings by the brook with a drawing pad. There were occasions when we’d go to the movies together, but those were few.
I still talked to Casey when she came into the bar where her father worked. She was always friendly with me, but I could tell they were in love. He was the first man she had ever slept with and she vice versa. They had the rare kind of love, the rare type, the type that’s real, and pure. They spent a lot of time dancing in his living room to old Patsy Cline records.
When walking through the woods, we always had to jump over that little stream behind his house. Casey’s ankles were always sore from it, a car wreck as a child I believe, so Daniel and I decided to make a bridge so she could walk across it. We found an abandoned junk pile in the woods, full of old washing machines, stoves, toilet seats, and broken down cars. We went through the piles for a few hours until we found something we could use: an old car door could be the bridge.
We went back to Daniel’s before evening’s blanket fell to find screwdrivers so we could pry the door from the old car. It was an old thing, orange tinted, with paint stripped off the side. With his big tool box, we hacked our way through the tall grass to make it back to where the old car was. We took the hinges off, unscrewed the bolts that held it in place, and pulled it into the grass. It was tiring work. We sat there as the night crept in with sweat on our foreheads and cigarettes in our mouths. The discussion went from how to make the bridge, how much we’d like to fuck some of the young girls in town (I didn’t really want to fuck anything, honestly), and how drunk we were going to get. Of course we wasted time. It made us happy to waste our lives. We were good at it. We had online gaming clubs, chess sets, and exotic magazines. We had a secret handshake that only we three knew. To us the shake became a symbol of inclusion for three people of whom the world thought very little.
We invited her over the following Friday to check out the bridge. She wore short shorts with frayed ends, a tucked in polka dotted shirt, and her curly hair in innocent looking pigtails. She smiled when she saw it. She walked back and forth across it, jumping lithely. She was happy. Embracing Daniel, she told him her young girl thanks and you shouldn’t have. Daniel looked over at me with a shrug. I shook my head. I didn’t want her to know I helped; it was his glory, and I didn’t want to come between them. I wanted them to like me. They did.
It was after five that Thursday when she parked her bicycle outside the bar. The bells chimed on the door as they swung open. Light from the street outside filled the darkness of the bar for a moment, and then faded as the door swung shut. She ran to her father, embraced him as he dried a glass, and kissed him on his wrinkled cheek. He could tell she wanted something. Father’s can always tell when their children are strangely kind. She got some money from him and told me to come by the night after to watch a scary movie. I lied and said I’d already made plans to see a new movie that came out. Sounding sad, she protested that she wanted to see me before she started working at the local grill. They would go to the movies with me. Their new found enthusiasm forced me to find a movie to go to.
I showed up at seven or so. Daniel said he didn’t have the money to go that week. He said that if I waited until he got his check, he’d pay for my way and we’d all go together. Instead he suggested I spend the night with them and watch the scary movie.
It was three in the morning when his grandmother, a paranoid old lady with too many superstitions, shuffled into the living room. I was sitting on the loveseat; they sat together, cuddled on the couch. She asked if we heard anything outside. A prowler had been seen in the neighborhood, she tells us. She suspects that he’s trying to get in the backdoor and tells us to listen out, lock the door, and stay inside. After that, she scowled at us and closed her bedroom door. We heard her digging around in her bureau drawers for a while, but she finally went to sleep.
As planned, the next weekend we met to go together to the movies in Union, South Carolina at a tiny little theatre with sticky floors and raucous audiences. Casey didn’t feel good that day and protested when I begged and begged and begged some more for her to come over to Daniel’s to go to the movies with us. She didn’t want Daniel to pay her way, she said. Her head hurt, she said. My persistence finally paid off and she showed up in her mother’s jeep, kissed her mother goodbye, and walked up the walkway with her head in her hands. Daniel lived just short of a block from my grandmother’s house on the lake, so I met them there at eight in my best clothes.
Casey sat on the couch with her face in her hands when I came in with a pink cloth over her face, made of silk; it reminded me of the dancing girl’s in Syria with their silken veils. Daniel was in the bathroom shaving, so I went in to ask him if Casey still felt bad. He ran the electric razor along his chin, lining up his newly forming goatee, and told me that she still had a bad headache. Though she had a headache, she still planned to go because she promised me. I went into the living room to talk to her while Daniel finished dabbing on bits of aftershave that I couldn’t smell.
I sat beside her on the couch. Daniel came in the room with an old shotgun slung over his shoulders. That old gun was never loaded. We used it to pretend to be hunters sometimes in the fields behind his grandmother’s house. It was never loaded and we doubted that it even worked. He sat down in front of her with the shotgun in his lap. We didn’t think anything about it. He always threatened us with it in jest. It didn’t work. Why should we be afraid of it?
Casey sighed a tired sort of sigh, and reclined on the couch with the cloth over her face. It glowed a hollow pink because of an antique lamp in the corner. It gave off a dingy sort of light, yellow and muted. He put the shotgun beside the couch, put on his shoes. He ran a comb through his hair, saying, “Casey, you still got that headache?” she groaned behind the cloth. She got it from his grandmother’s sewing table in the dining room. Daniel sighed and turned on the television.
“You sure you wanna see the movie tonight, shithead?” he asked. “We can always go next week. I could take Casey home now so she can get some sleep. You know she ‘a be cranky if we don’t let her sleep.”
Casey laughed. The air of her breath made the cloth float above her face a moment.
“We have to go tonight if we want to see that movie,” I said. “It won’t be playing next weekend.”
He buckled his belt with a sigh, but doesn’t lose his smile. I could tell he was concerned about Casey’s headache. She had frequent migraines because of the car wreck in her early childhood. It had shattered all of her front teeth and broken the bones in her ankles. Only the pain remained. The pain and the memory of it followed her around like a shadow. If you didn’t know any better, though, you could never guess that she wore false teeth. She sat there groaning on the couch beside me. In my head I could see her car slamming against the milk truck, sending her forward into the dash, shattering her teeth like a wicker basket against the hard plastic upholstery. Daniel rises, drawing me from my imagination, inside my head the image shrivels up; he grabs his car keys and shifts through the dim light of the small living room like a shadow. Patsy Cline played on the television, the music channel for golden oldies that they always danced to. Her sweet voice sang such sublime melodies, so quietly in the yellow glow.
“Casey, you want a Tylenol or somethin’? Maybe a drink of water?”
“I already took four already,” she said.
“I’ve already taken would be a better sentence,” I said. “’Already took’ just sounds wrong.
Daniel laughed and hoisted the shotgun against his shoulder, putting aside an unfinished origami windmill he had been working on for Casey. This was what brought her to him in the beginning, his flare for origami. He made her frogs, turtles, planes, and roses. That one would have to be finished later. With his origami secure on the stand beside the chair, he pointed the shotgun at her head. “This will help a headache,” he says, and pulls the trigger.
The gun worked. It took me a few moments to realize what happened. The living room was full of smoke, above the couch where Casey twitched the smoke alarm went off, marring the beautiful music on the television, and a terrible ringing filled my ears. The gun had worked. Drops of blood dripped off my face as I sat there dumbfounded, trying to see Casey through the smoke.
Daniel panicked. He dropped the shotgun and ran to the couch. Daniel grabbed Casey by both sides of her face and lifted it to his own. Bubbles of blood trickled from her mouth. The left side of her face was splattered against the dingy couch behind her and the little pink veil above her face was torn to pieces. He started giving her mouth to mouth and each time he pushed on her stomach more blood bubbled from her mouth. He shakes her and shakes her and screams for me to call an ambulance.
I ran into the other room to find the phone. My ears were still ringing when the operator picked up. I could see her little feet kicking against the floor when I leaned into the other room. On the other end of the phone, a burly sounding woman assured me that help was on the way. We should keep talking to her, feel her hands, and make sure she didn’t gag on her own blood. I ran back into the living room. Her feet thrashed against the floor and made soft thuds against the carpet. The ends of her fingers twitched a moment, and then they stopped. Her arm fell limp across her face.
Five minutes later the ambulance shows up with the police because a neighbor called about the gunshot. They found me in the bathroom vomiting, Daniel still in the living room trying to give her mouth to mouth. His face was covered in drying blood, around his mouth like a clown would paint his face. They pull him away and take him outside, four or five of them together, and slam him against the cop car. It took them a good bit of time since he fought them off to run back in the house to her. I stood there in the bathroom doorway. The shotgun smoke had settled and the smoke alarm had been turned off, but the same song played on the television. It was surreal to see a person die. It’s not the same to see it in a film. Her mother showed up before they carried her body out of the living room. I had never seen a woman lose her control so fast. In the doorway she stood a moment shaking, with urine running down her legs, and then she rushed into the dim light of the room to find Casey silent under the yellow lamp. Her now pale body had fallen over the arm of the couch in front of the television where the glowing notes of the sad song, sung so many years ago, scrolled over the side of her face.
I sat face down on the sidewalk when they brought her stretcher out. She was zipped up in a long black bag. Daniel starts after her again, punching one of the police officers, and they throw him to the ground and cuff him. He hears the squeaking wheels as they wheel her to the ambulance behind the cop car. That’s when he realized that his Casey was dead. She was gone. She was inside that zipped up bag and she was gone. Daniel slammed his face against the police car repeatedly, then fell onto his knees behind the cop car, and slammed his face against the cement until they managed to pull him into the backseat. They took him to county and charged him for murder in the first degree.
They questioned me about what happened. Had they ever talked to my mother, they probably would’ve decided against asking me anything.
“Where you from, towel head?” asked the first cop. I didn’t respond, as towel head wasn’t my name.
“You got a name or don’t you?” asked the second cop. They both had the same sort of beard, overlapping gut, and shifty eyed glance. This is apparent in larger primates.
“Tell us where you from or you goin’ to spend the night.”
“I grew up on the Sea of Galilee,” I said.
“Whar’s dat?” the first cop asked. “Some sort ‘a towel head village?”
They laughed amongst themselves a moment, then swung their guts to face me again.
“It’s where Jesus walked on water,” I said. “Don’t you love Jesus?”
“Jesus is our lord and saver,” said the second cop.
“Welp, it’s not nice to call Jesus a towel head,” I laughed.
“You blasphemer!” they yelled in chorus.
“You’re the one who called me a towel head,” I said. “I assumed that was a racial slur, and since I’m the same ethnicity of your lord and ‘saver,’ whatever that means, it is a slur against Jesus to call me a towel head. Now, don’t you boys have something to say?”
Their pleasant smiles had dripped away.
“What?” their eyes seemed to say.
“Tell Jesus you’re sorry,” I said. “What are your names?”
“My name’s Jeremiah,” the fatter of the two fat men said, “and this is Kent.”
“Well, Jeremiah and Kent, it’s not nice to call Jesus a towel head, is it?”
“No, sir,” they said.
“Now tell Jesus you’re sorry.”
“We’re sorry Jesus.”
“Good boys,” I said. “Anything you’d like to ask me now that we know I’m not a stereotype?”
“What’s yer name, mister?” Kent asked. “We could get ye some cawfee.”
“My name is Roger,” I said, “I don’t drink coffee; it makes me tense up.”
“Then can we get ya somethin’ else to drink?” Kent asked. Jeremiah was on the phone lying to his wife. Maybe these guys were all right after all.
“Vodka,” I said.
“We don’t have any vodka,” Kent said.
“Then I don’t want anything.”
After pursuing my opinions for an hour or so, they agreed to find a bottle of orange juice and some vodka for me. I tell them that from what I knew, Daniel had never even slept with another girl. He would never have hurt her, I said. He was too meek and passive, eager to please, and never seemed to have any sort of aggression in him. I told them that we’d all played with that gun before… in one way or another. It had never been loaded around us. We didn’t even think it would work.
If not for that girl, Daniel would have never gone to work at a warehouse distribution factory just so he could buy her cheap jewelry and second rate clothes. He never hurt her or raised his voice at her. They thanked me for my time, had me sign my confessional release forms, and helped me to my feet. I stumbled out of the door as Casey’s mother strolled in. Tears and mascara snakes ran down her face, stained her lips, which twitched at the corners when uncovered by her knotted handkerchief.
They try him for murder at first. Then Casey’s mother testified on his behalf. The trial was a matter of formality. Daniel’s lawyers convinced him to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter, a plea bargain that would have been impossible had Casey’s mother refused to testify on Daniel’s behalf. She told the judge and jury that Daniel loved her daughter. That he just wanted to do anything that could make her happy. But how did the gun get loaded? The prosecution wanted to know. Casey’s father was not as forgiving as her mother. All he saw was his fourteen year old little angel headed for a hole in the ground.
His senile grandmother—hard of hearing, going deaf—loaded the gun the night before because she thought she heard prowlers picking at the mesh screen of the door on her back porch. The prowler later turned out to be a starving cat. I took her to my home on the lake and named her Galilee. She would be the waves to me, my comfort in America.
Daniel was sentenced to five years in prison, suspended to three, with ten years of probation.
They left the couch, on which lay Casey’s drying life blood, out on the side of the road for weeks to wait for when the garbage men would come to take it away. The pale cushions, once bland yellow stitched with white, had blood red stains on the side where Casey sat. Buzzards often sat atop the telephone pole and streetlights in front of the house, drawn in by the false promise of a meal.
I baked a cake for Daniel on his nineteenth birthday. Prison officials received me in the main lobby to search me for contraband before allowing me in the visitor’s hall, spotted with circular tables and plastic chairs. After they cleared my wallet, cigarettes, and cake, a female guard waved me into the bright room where scruffy prisoners talked to their loved ones and children. Daniel had his head propped on the butt of his palm, staring at the chef’s behind a buffet table on the far side of the room.
He wore the typical orange jumpsuit, with one black stripe around the cuff to signal his prison job where he helped load heavy equipment in and out of the textiles factories where the prisons made socks. A purple welt stuck to the side of his face like he’d been hit by something. Behind the bruise his eye was swollen shut.
For a moment he stared at his cake. I had designed it to look like his favorite singer, Patsy Cline. Because of such protest, they allowed me to put a candle on his cake. The candles burned away in front of him.
“I can’t believe you got that cake in here,” he said at last. “They normally don’t allow food in the visitor’s area.”
“They must be afraid it’ll taste good,” I said. “Murderers they can handle. Rapists, pedophiles, and bank robbers are fine. But damn if they’ll let a cake come in here. Maybe their no tolerance policy applies to baked goods, too.”
He smiled a silent smile, no teeth, just a small curling of his chapped lips. Stubby hairs grew thick under his chin, wrapped around his face up to his ears. Casey’s poorly inked initials lined the under side of his left wrist. It took some courage, but I finally asked what happened to that pretty kisser of his. He paused a moment while the candles burnt down before his face.
“How you holding up?” I asked.
“This is a prison, Roger,” he said. “This isn’t a weekend in Cancun. People will kill you here. Dying is a lot worse than being overcharged for a beachside hotel room.”
“What happened to your face? That isn’t a friendly looking bruise, paison.”
“I was in the shower,” he said. “I’d just finished washing my hair and some people came in. I thought those cats were my friends. How could they hurt me? Next thing I know, a combination lock, stolen from one of the bathroom lockers. Guy taps on my shoulder. I turn around and try to ask what he wants. That’s when he swung the lock into the side of my face.”
“Behind you,” he said. “It’s time to go, Roger. It’s time to go.”
“Wait,” I said. “You forgot to make a wish.”
The candle flames had dwindled to little more than sparks. He leaned down again, his face in front of them; eyes closed, he blew them out. Small trails of smoke went into the air as he rose to his feet.
“Hey,” I called as he walked away, gray cap in hand. “Do you remember our secret handshake?”
He paused a moment, stopping in his tracks. “Yeah, Roger,” he said. “I remember.”
He extended his hand and walked toward as the times over alarm bell sounded on the high-treble PA system. “If you ever get the time, put some flowers on her grave. But no tulips; she’s allergic to them.”
I nodded and walked away. Upset criminals bid farewell to crying children with extended arms, reaching out for their father locked away. In defeated lines they tromped off for their tiny cages. That was the last time I got to see my brother. One of the prison guard’s came to escort him away. I sat at the table for a moment alone, to think, to collect myself and give my nerves a chance to relax. To my surprise, Daniel hurried back to my table. He ran his hands in his pockets. As his fingers thumbed the paper edges of his surprise, he smiled. He smiled and placed his origami windmill on the table.
“Finish it,” he said. “I can’t do it.”
He disappeared into a locked door on the other side of the room.
2 / One Last Dance
Sometimes I dream of them. The blood on his face always reminds me of clown paint around his lips. Things are different in those dreams. It always comes back to the movie. But in some dreams I call to tell her that I have a headache too, and that we’ll stay home. It is okay, I would say. We could wait on the film to come out in stores. She always tells me thanks, tells me I’m a good friend, and I tell her to sleep well; Daniel and I will visit when she feels better. Afterwards, I go to Daniel’s. His old grandmother shuffles through the living room, dragging her feet in purple slippers, and tells me Daniel is getting ready to go to the movies.
I must make up my mind today. What to have, what to hold—
He comes out of the bathroom to the same sort of music they played at the orphanage at lunch. Clown paint covers his face. His eyes are darkened with the same color that showed up when they slammed his face in. He tells me that since Casey is at home sick, and we wouldn’t be going to the movies, he had something he wanted to show me.
After numerous promises, he leads me into his grandmother’s bedroom. There’s a giant unmade bed in the center of the room with flannel quilts and lint covered throw pillows. A bureau drawer is to one side, with a television on it, bunny-ears and everything, and a dresser at the foot of the bed rises to the ceiling with a giant mirror. Daniel kneels before the mirror, digs around in the clothes for a bit, and then takes out a music box. From the looks of it, it seems to have cost him thousands of dollars. Inside the music box, beside the ballerina’s feet, a golden ring, plain-looking but exquisite, gleamed in the yellow room. Thousand bucks, he tells me. The low music of the box rolls out, high pitched and soft, a Chinese melody.
A poor man’s roses or a rich man’s gold.
It’ll be worth it, he says. I’m going to marry that girl and give her the world, he says: fancy clothes, jewelry, and cars. Then there’s the wedding present. It’s an antique jukebox, almost two centuries old. It’s stocked with Patsy Cline, Casey’s favorite singer.
One’s as wealthy as a king inside a palace. Though he’s callous and he’s cold.
Five children, he says. Three boys, and two girls, and the oldest boy will be Daniel, Jr. The youngest one will be named Roger. It wouldn’t even have happened if not for me, he says. All of his children will owe their lives to me. Then there’s music in the other room, always the same: low like the ballerina’s song. Daniel doesn’t hear it. I rush into the other room. Casey’s sitting on the couch, now dead for years; her pink socks have frayed, unraveled on her feet. Her eyes are hollowed out and black. I turn around and Daniel’s there, wearing the clown paint again. Daniel looks at her and tells me he always wanted to take her to ballroom dancing lessons, or just take her out to dance, but he never could afford them. In the living room she rises from the couch, with her arms in the air, and spins around on her tiptoes, like she’s in that music box. Each time her face swings by me, the left side, above the eye, is empty. But she can still dance.
He may learn to give his heart for love. Instead of buyin’ it with gold.
Daniel goes into the living room. He asks her to dance. The side of her head is normal again, regenerated, and then things go in reverse. She falls to the couch. That piece of cloth is hanging on her face again. I’m gone, but I’m watching it happen. She tells him that since I never showed up, they should lay down a while. Maybe watch some television, or listen to some music.
Then the poor man’s roses, and the thrill of when we kiss—
He says that’s fine by him, but why not dance a little first? He dusts off an old time Patsy Cline record for the jukebox, moves the boxes out of the center of the living room, and extends his hand. She grabs it. He hoists her to her feet. Just me and you, he says, taking her hands, and don’t worry about Roger. We can always go to the movies. We’ve got all our lives. Are you worried about Roger? I’m sure he just got lost in the woods. He does that a lot. Who knows what that boy is looking for? But don’t worry, you know Roger. He’ll come around. He always does. And he won’t be mad about the movies. He’ll understand. He’s a smart fella.
Will be memoirs of paradise, that I’ll never miss.
In the corner, the yellow colored lamp gets brighter, and then shines in the center of the room. They walk there together. Time goes by, lots of time. Sol rises, Sol sets, and they stay together, never moving. Her head is propped against his shoulder. They dance around the center of the room as their faces age. Casey turns into a beautiful woman. Daniel’s face gets harrier. The goatee he always wanted is trimmed and proper on his face. A big beer belly hangs over his leather belt. Pictures of children line the room. The children smile and laugh, and run in and out of the living room as they dance together. They pull little wagons behind them, full of toys and tiny racecars, but Casey doesn’t hear them. Her head is on Daniel’s shoulder. Patsy Cline sings on the stereo. Everything is fine.
Their children began to grow as well. They come into the room with dolls and puppies. They ask mommy to come and play, or daddy to go fishing, or ask daddy to fix their toy airplanes. Daniel laughs and asks them if he can have one more dance. One more dance, and he’ll fix anything. He’ll read their favorite stories, about knights and dragons and the boogeyman, and everything will be fine.
They have their entire lives. It will only take a moment, and then they can sleep their happy dreams. They’ll throw the baseball after school, and Casey will braid her daughter’s hair. They smile and run into the other room. In their beds they wait for their parents to come to them.
And yet the hand that brings the rose tonight,
The world grows up around them. Casey’s long black hair begins to fray. It turns gray, wire-like, and tangles at the end. Daniel gets wrinkles under his eyes. Gray spots crop up in his beard. They dance as they did in life, in the center of the room, in the same circles for eternity. They never move and the record never skips. I’m never there to bother them. I’m outside with my face against the window, looking in.
Is the hand that I will hold.
Then I wake up and remember the couch and how it looked on the curb, with the restless buzzards above it squawking. I remember trying to scare them off with twigs and sticks. There were occasions when I could scare them off, but they always came back. They waited for their meal. That’s all the lifeblood of the young girl signified to them: a meal.
For the rose of love means more to me,
In the end, they hauled the couch off to the dumps on the outskirts of town. Every time I passed it, I realized there’d be no more dancing. Daniel was in prison, Casey in the ground, and all that survived their brief lives together was a rose on a plot of grass, in front of a rock at the cemetery. That’s all there would ever be. They had their dance, their time together, and I had an incomplete origami windmill to finish.
More than any rich man’s gold.