Alice

Her smile.  It comes to me before the hammer falls.  It’s crooked, like a picture hung on a wall, the wire sliding around the nail.  It’s all I have time for, a memory like the flash of a bulb, leaving only the ghost of an image burned on the back of my eyes.  The hammer falls, metal on metal, the tip dinging into the end of the bullet.

This is the point where you hear nothing.  The bullet is faster than the report.  Somewhere, on the other side of the wall, a young couple is post-coital sleepy and watching TV.  The girl will jump.  The man might investigate.  Maybe she pushes him to, maybe he gets up and looks out the window, twitching the curtain to the side before returning to bed and nuzzling in.  It’s the manager’s problem, he tells himself.

            There is the sound of metal on metal, and I jump.  Nothing happens.  The pistol is suddenly heavy, and I lower it until it lies in my lap.  I look at it, small and black and mean.  I think of Alice and the way she looked in the end, skin and bones, the way her ribs would show even under her shirt, the way her cheeks had fallen in, like sails without wind.  I lift the pistol, its barrel an idiot eye staring blindly.  I close my eyes, and pull the hammer back.  Next door, someone starts the shower, the sound like heavy rain.

Summer.  Lights from the city hang in the air, dew-hazed halos of reds and whites.  She stands under the overhang where the rain drizzles down in thick ropes, the edge of the concrete apron dark and wet.  She’s looking out at the city, and I step behind her and light a cigarette.  The smoke drifts into the mist, raindrops tearing it to tatters.  I watch her for a moment, the set of her shoulders, and the curl of her hair.  She turns to me and smiles and steps backward into the rain.  It plasters her hair down and turns her clothes dark.  She raises her arms, and I throw the cigarette away and step to her.  She wraps slick warm arms around me and stands on tiptoe to kiss me.  I close my eyes and can feel my heartbeat in my lips.  I hear the rain, ticking against the metal roof.  Tick, tick,

            TICK.  The hammer falls on the bullet, and nothing happens.  For the second time, I lower the pistol.  Something itches in the back of my mind, and I frown in concentration, but nothing comes.  Next door, the shower is silent, and I think of the couple over there, in love and bliss and unaware of all the things that lurk on the threshold, threatening joy, threatening life.  I think of Alice’s eyes, rheumy before their time.  I lift the pistol and draw the hammer back.  Lights flutter on the other side of the gauzy curtain over the window, and hazy globes of light travel down the opposite wall, top to bottom.  I think of falling leaves and close my eyes.

Fall.  The air is crisp and brittle, the promise of ice in the air.  We stand on the concrete apron of the driveway, the sun creeping downward, and talk of little things.  I can see the circles under her eyes, the exhaustion in her movements, and her breath.  She’s wearing a coat, russet-colored wool, with the big wooden buttons that fit through loops, and a stocking cap of the same color.  We’re talking, but I can’t remember the words.  She smiles, her teeth white, even whiter against the backdrop of orange and red and yellow, and pulls me in.  Her kiss, like mint after heat, and then she leans her head on my shoulder and we dance to no music.  I feel my heart beat, and keep time to it.  Tick, tick,

            TICK.  For the third time, the hammer falls on a dud.  I sit, my stomach trying to do one of those loops like you see planes do at air shows, and then rage wells up, fast and hot, and I throw the pistol at the wall.  It hits the plaster and leaves a dent, then clatters to the floor.  Next door, there’s the sound of bedsprings.

He’s looking out the window now, too scared to actually bang on the wall.  What if the man next door has a gun?

            I snort at this and rub my hands over my face.  I wait another minute, to see if the tears come.  When they do not, I stand and grab the room key and a jacket.  I shut off the lights and leave the pistol laying in the dark.

*

            Winter.  She’s lying in a hospital bed, one of those impersonal gray ones with the word Stryker labeled on the side.  The thin white hospital blankets aren’t enough, so I brought a couple from home, big quilted things with sunflowers and birds.  She would look like a child if it weren’t for the wires and lines snaking from beneath the covers.  I hold her hand, and it feels like bird bones under parchment.  I’m afraid I’ll hurt her and afraid to let her go.  She sleeps, her breathing barely stirring the quilt.  I watch her eyes dart back and forth beneath lids that are almost translucent, blue veins snaking across the skin.  I choke on my tears for her sake.  Inside, I am cold.

            I shove my hands deeper into my pockets and pretend I’m not cold.  There is a tree in the park downtown, an old oak whose branches spread out like a longhouse roof.  I walk there, the sidewalk slippery where one person or another hadn’t had the time or the energy to clear it.  The city is quiet this time of night, only the occasional car whispering past in the slush.  Lights dot the houses here and there.

The park is abandoned in the winter, only the infrequent tracks of a cross-country skier or squirrel denting the snow.  The tree is in the center, and I make my way through drifts, the cold wet soaking into my jeans, numbing my ankles.  I stop at the oak and run a hand over the gnarled bark.  I look up, and see the branches bare and skeletal reaching to the sky, a hand holding the moon in winter.  My fingers touch a gouge in the bark, and I look back down, to a heart cut into the tree, CH + AE dug into the black bark.  I trace the letters.  I remember thinking how cheesy it was, how cliché.   She just smiled and punched my shoulder in that playful way, and did it anyways.

I feel the bark for a moment more, and turn away.

*

            Unlike the city, the highway is always busy.  I stand at the crosswalk, where Main becomes 96, and watch the trucks and cars and vans whistle by.  I close my eyes and lift a foot.

Winter.  She’s awake.  Just barely.  She squeezes my hand, and her strength is pitiful.  I break a little inside, thinking of the way her arms would wrap around me, hold me tight, and now the best she can do is flutter her fingers against mine.  She looks at me and takes a breath.  It’s a struggle just to speak now.

            “Do you think Dante was right?  Heaven, Hell, Purgatory?”  She asks.

            I shrug and try to think of something comforting to say.  She goes on without me.

            “I hope not.  And I hope so.  I mean, the bad people – maybe they need that.  But I hope there’s something more for me.  I’ve been good, right?”

            She smiles, and it’s crooked and wan.  I stroke her hair, and push the plunger on the little syringe I’d smuggled in.

            “Tell me I’ve been good.”  She says.

            She closes her eyes.

            I take a step and hear a horn.  Behind my eyelids, the world gets brighter.  The horn seems to blare for eternity, a thousand angels playing a thousand trumpets, and the world turns white behind my eyelids until it’s all I see.  I hang in the white for a minute, and the world washes out.

*

            Her smile.  It comes to me before the hammer falls.  It’s crooked, like a picture hung on a wall, the wire sliding around the nail.  It’s all I have time for, a memory like the flash of a bulb, leaving only the ghost of an image burned on the back of my eyes.  The hammer falls, metal on metal, the tip dinging into the end of the bullet.

This is the point where you hear nothing.

            Dante was right.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Alice

  1. Such a sad story. I like it! You’ve really got the ‘showing’ part down, creating some beautiful visuals in my mind as I read. The only critique I’d give is a note on your gun jargon: The hammer strikes the primer at the base of the casing, which holds the bullet itself. Personally, I think you could simply say “The hammer falls.”

    Liked by 1 person

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