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Jack Slay, Jr. teaches English at LaGrange College, a small liberal arts school in southwest Georgia. His work has appeared in publications such as The Habersham Review, Mississippi Magazine, Strange Days and Dark Planet.

 

Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-2000 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

Spirits

by Jack Slay, Jr.

 

1. Notes

On the last Thursday of March, a day that would soon become crowded with ghosts, Jeffrey Sleep walked into the Last Lap, a pantry-sized taproom on Baum Avenue. Less than a mile away lay the university from which Sleep had just been fired. In his front pants pocket, he could feel the note, crumpled, dog-eared, read and re-read, the venom of its words seeming to sear into his leg. Fuck 'em, he thought, and then again: Fuck 'em. He looked at the clock above the bar: three o'clock. Another hour, he thought.
His head still thrummed, a leftover melody from last night's drunk, and the world still had an irritating tendency to double and treble before his eyes. He'd been on a more or less steady drink since the note. An entire week had vanished into a frozen concoction of confusion and broken bottles. Sleep pulled out his wallet: two tens, two fives, three ones. Thirty-three dollars to mark time. He thought My life in a handful of dirty bills.
He rasped a hand over his face.
Nothing, he thought. I am nothing, nowhere.
Mid-afternoon and the bar was thick with the odor of stale smoke and beer. A lone patron sat in the back corner, hovering over a beer; one hand settled protectively over a plastic garbage bag that bulged with aluminum cans. He wore a faded army fatigue jacket. A bum, Sleep thought.
Sleep stepped up to the bar and waved a bill; the bartender, a stooped man with frizzy hair and bottle-thick glasses, wandered over.
"A beer," Sleep croaked.
The bartender pulled a draft and watched Sleep with magnified eyes. He asked, "You okay man?"
Sleep just looked at him. There was nothing to say.
The bartender shrugged and said, "Name's Zach Screws, everone calls me Thumb." He held up a thumb, the left one; it was grotesquely oversized and nailless. He grinned, his teeth a jumble of moldy headstones. "You need anything, call Thumb." He waggled the thumb.
Sleep straddled a stool. The note itched through his pocket, an irritant. His hand slipped into the pocket and fingered it lightly. He started to take it out again but Thumb popped a mug down in front of him. Sleep slid two ones over and Thumb returned a quarter. The bartender took a last look and then retreated, mumbling, to the far end of the bar. The beer sloughed into Sleep's brain, toning the thrumming down to a barely perceptible buzz, as if his head held a single, lost wasp. The second beer would squash that.
Someone brushed against him from behind, jostling his beer; when he turned, though, the Lap was empty, only the bum across the room still hunched over his cans. Sleep shrugged.
He'd been eleven years at the university. And in the blink of a gnat's ass, he thought, all gone. Poof!
The note -- on the department's best letterhead and scrawled with Iota Scurry's indecipherable signature -- rashed against his leg. What had led to the note began two years ago with his collection of poetry, smatterings of groans, complaints, and diatribes. He'd sent the manuscript to a dozen major houses and then to another dozen university presses. He got nothing, sometimes not even a rejection letter. Then he'd discovered Bricolage Press, a small subsidy publisher willing to give him 500 volumes for a fee described as nominal. Nine months later he had a book: Poems in Darkness and Disrepair. In fact, he found himself saddled with 500 books. It had taken everything: savings, moving to a smaller apartment, trading his mustang for a pickup. Now, four hundred and fifty-something of the books sat in cartons in the bed of his pickup. Sleep groaned and drained his beer.
Nothing, he thought. Nowhere.
His second beer, as he'd hoped, zapped the wasp and the fourth eased the tension between his shoulder blades. The bar took on an otherworldly cast, kiltered tables and chairs, dark shadowings. The minute hand finally crept past the twelve and beer dropped to a dollar a bottle for the next two hours. Sleep ordered two more. Students from the university, ghostlike, wandered in. Michael Stipe began to murmur through the stale air, something Sleep didn't recognize; then Toad the Wet Sprocket began "Something's Always Wrong" and Sleep laughed bitterly.
The bar quickly became crowded. In the blur of a passing pack, Sleep caught a glimpse of a bright yellow shirt spotted with blue contortions; something close to discomfort shrugged through him. He drained one bottle and picked up the next; sweat beaded the sides and he pressed it against his forehead, closing his eyes. Minutes later when he reopened them, he found himself face to face with the girl in the yellow shirt, a ghost she would later tell him. She drifted in like an unwanted song, one whose refrain circles round and round your thoughts for the rest of the day.
"Melody," she said.

 

Half a city away, Jason McNaught sat at his desk, thinking of Melody and shuffling through a stack of ungraded papers. Fresh out of graduate school, a PhD in American lit, he'd come to the university less than a year before, filled with the venom of pedagogies and paradigms. Thrown to wolves--how the department referred to the freshman composition courses--he'd been swept away by an avalanche of student verbiage, mostly incorrect and nearly unreadable. He sighed, ran his hands through already thinning hair, and uncapped a red pen.
The telephone rang, shattering the office silence.
"Hello?"
"Jason McNaught? Dr. McNaught?" The voice sounded distantly familiar.
"Speaking."
"This is Iota Scurry. Dr. Scurry."
Department head Jason thought and felt his heart dip. He'd never actually met her. She'd been off on sabbatical when he'd interviewed, and since he'd joined the faculty, she'd remained behind closed doors. Word was that some had never laid eyes on her, not once during her twelve years as department head. A ghost Jason thought.
"Iota! I'm delighted! I was hoping that we'd eventually cross hallways and --"
Steely silence ate his words.
"Dr. Scurry." Fingernails scraped across fine-grained sandpaper.
"Of course Dr. Scurry. I didn't mean --"
"The reason I called, Dr. McNaught, is because I've heard - -doesn't matter who, don't ask -- that there have been, on your part, some dalliances with students. Fraternizing perhaps, maybe more, I don't want to know."
Jason gasped and almost dropped the phone. His mind filled with Melody, a past.
Dr. Scurry continued: "We are a professional department, Dr. McNaught, and dalliances with students are strictly forbidden. We will not tolerate ineptitude. You know what happened last week. Gross negligence -- an abomination, an indecency -- will not be tolerated." She paused, breathing heavily. "You are a teacher, period, not a counselor, not a friend, not a shoulder to lean, cry, or rely on. I trust that this matter, this dalliance, will be taken care of before I hear more. Do you understand, Dr. McNaught?"
His words tripped over themselves getting out: "Of course, of course, Io-- Doctor Scurry, I--"
"I think you understand. Good day, Dr. McNaught." She was gone.
Jason returned his phone to its cradle. He ran his fingers through his hair and leaned far back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. With Iota Scurry's voice still ringing in his ears, Jason let Melody come back to him like an unwanted tune, its refrain like an annoying wasp.
It had been the first day of classes. He stood behind the podium, affecting an attitude of confidence. His palms were sweaty and his tie was too tight. He called roll, explained policies, handed out handouts. Briefly, he attempted to explain the purpose of his class, trying to encapsulate the twentieth century in a handful of minutes. The students, featureless, interchangeable, fidgeted in their desks.
"It's all about language, this age of poetry and thought. Its subtleties, its ambiguities. Take the opening lines of Stevens' 'Sunday Morning': when he writes of a cockatoo and its green freedom as being on a rug, as readers we have to ask, Is this a real bird, a genuine, touchable cockatoo, on a real rug? or is it only the pattern of the rug, a bird woven into the carpet? We don't know, we can't know. Language. It's too illusive, too eely for us to grasp. We think of identity, of certainty, of truth. We want, we demand, as readers, these things. In the end, however, these elements become the unthought, the unthinkable!" Jason felt himself flush with excitement.
The class yawned.
"Let me say it another way--"
The door blew open and someone stepped into the room.
"Is this American literature?" Jason looked up and drew in his breath sharply. She looked as firm as desire, her face aglow with summer afternoons spent by the poolside. But it was her hair that sucked his attention: whiter than blonde it swirled about her in higher and higher waves, impossibly, almost ridiculously high, teased and hair-sprayed, a tidal wave of hair.
"Is this American literature?"
"What? Oh -- yeah ... yes. American literature."
She took a seat against the back wall. She had neither books nor pens, no paper or pencils.
"Your name?"
"Melody."
Two weeks later, during which Melody had made maybe half of Jason's lectures, she appeared outside his office early one morning.
"You're here early, couldn't have anything to do with the test coming up, could it?" Jason smiled and Melody mirrored it. She wore faded Levis and a pair of bright white tennis shoes. Her shirt was bright yellow and imprinted with blue parrots. She had her hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her green eyes glinted in the dim light of the early morning hallway.
"Why don't we go inside." Jason unlocked his door and threw a stack of ungraded papers onto his desk.
"What can I do you for?"
Melody smiled, and her hand floated to the top button of her shirt, then floated back down; the button had disappeared. Jason's mouth ran instantly dry.
"I needed to ask you something about that story we read last week, someone named O'Connell, O'Canner, something." Her hand did its magic trick again and the second button vanished.
"Who?" His face felt as if it were on fire, his mouth filled with the metallic tang of desire. He forced his eyes away from the ever-expanding bareness of Melody's neck and chest.
"O'Connor, I think. Her story, something about looking for a hard man." The third time proved that she wore nothing beneath the parrots.
"Wha--" It was the only thing that would come from his mouth. Every button gone, Melody shrugged and the shirt fell to the floor in a bundle of whispers. She leaned forward and swept the desk clear. Pens, a calendar, his gradebook, paper clips, a stapler that didn't work, two erasers, and a picture of his brother's two kids all crashed to the floor. Melody climbed cat-like onto the desk and kicked off her tennis shoes. She was naked under those too. She grabbed his tie and pulled him forward.

 

"Dr. Sleep."
Sleep looked at her and felt the subtle tuggings of recognition. She might have been a former student. They all tended to blend together after a while, becoming interchangeable, featureless. For years now he'd hated the students, their incessant whining and limitless apathy. Someone once told him that students were the world's worst consumers, wanting everything handed to them, wanting nothing to take time or thought. He believed it. In time he'd learned to hate his colleagues as well, their incessant discussions on parking and poststructuralism. Fresh out of grad school he'd been full of toxin, delirious with the persistent shove and take of academe. Teaching had drained him, though, robbing him of even his imagination. He nodded at the woman next to him and returned to his beer.
"I could be that proverbial bad penny, your ghost in the machine."
He turned back to her. "What?" He felt again the slow tug of memory. He was fairly certain that she was someone from his pre-note ago. Her eyes were a soothing shade of green and her hair, a bright honey blonde, climbed amazingly above her head. He looked closer at her shirt and the contortions metamorphosed into a parade of blue birds traipsing in pattern.
Sleep thought of ordering another beer when she tilted precariously towards him. At first he was sure that the weight of her hair had resigned to the laws of gravity -- then he saw that she was leaning in closer to say something.
"--a possible future."
"What?" he shouted back at her. She smiled and pointed at the beer.
"Me?"
He shrugged, knowing he couldn't buy her one, even at happy hour prices. He drained his bottle and looked for Thumb. R.E.M. sang "Turn You Inside-Out," the jukebox jacked to impossible decibels.
"--sible future, probable past."
Her knee brushed his leg. She smiled and took a sip from a clear glass in front of her. She left a perfect lip-print, apple red, on the rim.
The beer swirled his thoughts. How many had he had? eight? nine? Wasn't enough, he thought Note's still here, life's still sliding. Remembered, the note again began to burn and itch. He traced its outline through his pants. Fuck em, fuck em. He started to pull it out when she nudged his elbow and said, "You have no idea who I am do you?"
"Not a clue." He didn't turn toward her, taking another hit of beer. He looked for Thumb, still gone. "You look familiar though."
"Aren't you going to ask?"
"Sure. Who are you?"
"I've been telling you all night: I'm a probable past, distant, obviously half-remembered. More importantly, I'm a possible future."
Sleep turned to her; he didn't like the half-smile that played across her lips. "What the fuck's that supposed to mean?"
She sat silently, her eyes sparkling.
"Gotta name?"
"Yeah, Sleep, I do."
"Gonna share it?"
"Melody, my name's Melody." She stuck out her hand and Sleep shook it. "And tonight you're going to kill me."

 

Jason's mind filled with Melody. It had taken little to fall into her. What he remembered now, almost two semesters later, was the sweat, all that sweat.
After that morning in his office, they met frequently, becoming a hothouse of carnality, their bodies wringing with wetness, slapping together, tiny droplets of sweat splashing across desks and beds and walls. It had been his first transgression as a teacher, a deliberate step onto a twisted path. She quit coming to class.
Jason shuffled through the stack of freshman essays, opening one and reading the first sentence: "There are many things in this world of ours that are alike, and there are many things that are different." Fuck, he thought Damn.
There were two mental polaroids he kept in the faraway nightstands of his memory, only occasionally dusting them off to relive the semester that was Melody.
One was of a small motel room, one on the far edge of town. He lay on top of her, propped on his elbows, lightly kissing her eyelids, the tip of her nose, the pout of her lips. A small puddle of sweat pooled between her breasts. A trickle ran down his face, beaded on the end of his nose, then splashed onto the seashell pink of her nipple. His tongue caught it and she smiled.
"Why are you here, Melody?" It was a question she had a hundred dodges for. She smiled and said, "I could be a future for you, endless and sunny, endless and dark." She laughed.
The uselessness of language, he thought.
The second was of some time later; she appeared crouched outside his office door. It was early, an hour before the first class of the day, and the hall was deserted. It was toward the end of the semester and Jason was tired, his classes having become huge boulders constantly rolling back on him.
As he sidled up to her, she grabbed his tie and led him down the hallway to a janitor's closet crowded with brooms and mops, an oversized pail, and bottles of a dozen different colored liquids. Within seconds Melody was propped against the basin and Jason was pushing against a thick broom handle for more leverage. The smell of sex and Mr. Clean filled his head, making him gag. Melody leaned into his ear and whispered, "Claustrophobia is hot." Afterwards, for the rest of the day and into the night, Jason could taste ammonia.
"Why me? Why here? Why now?" he would ask her again and again, and she would smile and turn his queries into putty.

 

"Melody? Sounds familiar." Sleep watched her as she swung her legs around and faced him fully. Her miniskirt, already improbably short, inched upward, but Sleep felt himself beyond anything resembling desire. He looked back up the bar; Thumb was bringing a couple of longnecks, his grotesque thumb wrapped around both bottles. Sleep slid him two ones and before he could react, Melody scooped up one of the bottles and said, "For me?" She took a healthy pull and set it back on the bar, never taking her eyes from his. "Next ones are mine."
Sleep shrugged and lifted his own.
"So why am I going to kill you?"
"A possible future, tonight, late."
"You keep saying that."
She picked up her beer and took another swallow. She wiped her lips with a finger. Her make-up looked splotchy, as if she'd been bleary-eyed when she'd applied it. A smudge of lipstick trailed slightly off the corner of her mouth.
"Heard you had some trouble last week."
He looked at her, the memory, even a week later, still a surprise. "You heard."
"All over campus. News travels fast."
"That a part of my future too?"
"Past mostly, but your future'll feel the shockwaves."
He grunted, taking a hit from his bottle; without thinking, he pulled the note from his pocket and unfolded it, smoothing it out on the bar. His eyes fled over the words and his brain felt the electric jolt of shock as if he were reading it for the first time. The lines of type slithered like black snakes.
"Your position is terminated immediately," he read. Kiss my terminated ass Iota Scurry, he thought.
He read "Your act is an indecency and an abomination not only to this department, not only to this university, but to all academicians." No one ever confronted him; there had been no hearing. The note appeared in his department mailbox a week ago. He read it on the way to his office, shock like an ocean drowning him. At his office he discovered the locks changed and his books piled high in boxes beside the door.
He stormed up the two flights of stairs to Scurry's office but it too was locked; he pounded on the door and thought, for a second, he heard the sound of furniture being dragged across the floor to blockade the door. "Fuck you Scurry!" he'd screamed. Fleeing, he smashed into Bill Gill, the department's seventeenth century scholar. Sleep hadn't thought much of him since opening one of the restroom stalls to discover him whacking off to a moldy edition of Barthes' Pleasure of the Text. Gill smirked and said, "Ah, the follies of--" Sleep didn't hear the rest of it, already running for the nearest beer.
Looking at the note now, he felt the rage growing again. Not even a letter, he thought. Only a fourteen line note. A sonnet of dismissal! Fuck em fuck em.
The next days had been dark. He plunged into a binge, a kind of pre-binge to the one he was on now. When he had slowed enough to let his head begin to clear, it was Saturday and two days had been swallowed into a black hole of beer. He eventually returned to his apartment to find more changed locks.
Apparently when you got fired from the university you also got booted from their apartments and everything he owned piled high: several pieces of furniture, a small box of clothes, hundreds of books, and two cartons of Darkness and Disrepair.
Half under one of the boxes was a small, cheaply-framed picture of his brother and his family, a wife, two pig-tailed girls. They were out in Dallas somewhere; Sleep hadn't seen them in ages. Seeing their faces made the wave washing over him saltier, colder. It had rained the night before and everything was wet. He lifted a book from the carton, its cover warped and blotted. He threw it and the cartons into the back of the pickup and grabbed a handful of clothes. A mile from his apartment his truck had run out of gas. Not bothering to lock the truck, he headed for Baum. Days and nights passed in a blur of suds and empties and alleyways. Most he couldn't remember, the rest he didn't want to.
"--not here Sleep, an apparition, partly memory, partly need, mostly past, some future." Melody's words washed over Sleep like dirty, cold waves.
"Wait, wait, wait," he said, grabbing her arm. "What did you say? You're not here? an apparition? What the fuck you talkin bout?"
"That's what I'm telling you now." Her emerald eyes were serious. "I'm a need, a ghost you can't say, and if you don't listen, don't pull up from this spiral, you're going to kill me tonight, another seven or eight hours."
10,000 Maniacs began "Trouble Me," an old one.

 

So it went with Jason on Melody.
The semester passed in a whirl of flesh-toned images: Melody impossibly contorted, her face a rictus of pleasure; Melody proposing some new bedroom game, smiling lasciviously; Melody introducing kink and swerve into his stasis. Later, he remembered little else, certainly not his classes. He occasionally asked why -- then she appeared and all questions ceased.
Classes drew to a close; exams came and went; he posted grades. Melody missed the Am Lit exam. Close to midnight in his office, Jason trawled through his grade sheets, hesitated, and then scrawled beside her name an A. Leaving his office, he decided to stop by the Last Lap for a quick beer.
Half an hour later, standing at the bar he saw her. From behind a crowd of students, the rounded, perfect curve of her bottom backed gently into a table; the table wobbled and several drinks toppled over. Melody laughed and the sound climbed above the bar noise. She mopped at the spill with a handful of wadded napkins and Jason watched her mouth apologies. He waited for her. Cigarette smoke burned his eyes and his head began to throb. He felt drained, as empty as he'd ever been. Eventually, her eyes lit on Jason and he felt his heart skip a beat--then they passed on.
His beer bottle slipped from his grip, spun off the bar, and shattered on the floor. The bar noise immediately fell and students around him paused long enough to see what had happened. Somewhere off to the right he thought he heard someone say, "Dr. McNaught?" He smiled weakly and gave what he hoped passed for a professorial salute. "Cheers," he mumbled and turned back to Melody.
Her eyes found his again and this time she seemed to look through and beyond him as if he were a ghost. She drifted away from the table and back to her small crowd. Her back to him, she saddled up next to someone, a guy, his shoulders lean and muscular; her hand tracked down his back and nestled in his back pocket. Her hair was magnificently high and she was laughing, her mouth arched wide, swallowing the world.
Now, some seven months later, Jason sat at his desk, watching his phone and turning Scurry's words over in his head. He picked up the essay again and reread the first line: "There are many things in this world of ours that are alike...." He looked at his watch. 6:15. He tossed the essay aside and shrugged into his jacket. If he hurried he could catch the last of happy hour at the Lap.
Locking his door, Bill Gill, the department's Elizabethan man, came storming around the corner.
"Hey McNaught," he said, his breath coming in short, frantic bursts, "you seen Sleep since--well--since, you know."
"Not looking for him Bill." Jason turned and headed down the hall; he'd avoided Gill since catching him in the jakes last semester masturbating to Derrida's Of Grammatology. He headed for the Last Lap.

 

II. Milk Dud Blues

"So spill." Sleep refused to look at her. The beer had him floating in a warm glow. The world looked not so bad. He took a pull from his bottle and waited.
When she finally said something, her voice was quiet, as if she were singing some strange lullaby: "You're crashing Sleep, a long slow hard crash. I can't stop it. I can't pull you up but I can turn you in a new direction, maybe veer you toward something better."
"So you're an angel, that it?" Sleep smirked and began to peel the label from his bottle. The paper came away in long wet strips. He rolled them into small balls and flicked them into the bar noise. "Aint that a bitch--a guardian angel."
"Not even close. I could be your first transgression--that freshman you took for an A some ten, eleven years ago -- remember her? the hair? the smile? the broom closet?--and I guess I could be every transgression, every dalliance, every fault along the academic way. I'm what haunts the note."
She paused, then added, "I'm your probable past, your possible future."
Melody fell quiet, tilting her bottle in a long swallow.
"So whatta you want me to do?"
"Change, veer."
"Tonight? A single night and I change my whole past, my entire life up to this single fuckin moment?"
"That's the ghost of it." She finished her beer.
Sleep looked at her. A small smile played across her lips. Her make-up, Sleep noticed, was all but gone and her right eye had cocked off to one side. He started to say something, another denial, and snapped his mouth shut, his teeth clicking together. Behind her, across the bar, he saw her, this Melody, same tsunami of hair, same smile, same bright yellow shirt, same eden-green eyes. This other Melody, though, seemed somehow more there.
"You're her?"
She looked over her shoulder and came back smiling again. "Something of her, yes, something of others too."
The second Melody faded into the crowd.
"But that's the one you'll take out, she's the one you'll kill--and in that, you'll take me as well."
"Man, this is too much. You keep saying possible future. That means it might not happen?"
"Maybe. But is that a chance you're willing to risk?"
Melody--
--the ghost of a future Melody--
--a possible future--
--laid a five on the bar and slid off the stool. Again her miniskirt rode high and again Sleep found little interest. The parrots, he noticed, had taken on a sickly hue, the color of moldy cheese.
"I may be back," she said. "One way or another, Melody will be." She slipped into the crowd, her hair, like some hirsute shark circling through the mill of bodies, the last to disappear. A minute later, Melody, the real Melody Sleep assumed, came through the crowd from the other side of the room; she settled against the bar a couple of bodies down. He watched her, same hair, same curves and miniskirt, same parrots but brighter; for a second their sights crossed and Sleep saw not the slightest flicker of recognition. For her, this Melody, he was any other terminated English professor. He looked up at the clock above the bar; it was 6:40. The crowd thinned as students left in search of happier hours.
Sleep pulled open his wallet and counted the bills: seven ones, a five, the last of his life's earning. He drained the suds from a bottle and thought about Melody.
What was that all about A possible future, a probable past?
The air wavered like the heat above a charcoal grill, and the bar began to slowly loop around him. Sleep rubbed his eyes, noting that the wasps had decided to renest inside his head. Somewhere faraway Live sang "Lightning Crashes." The music and the beer lapped over him, gentle waves, and Sleep lowered his head into the crook of his arm. Just close my eyes for a second, sort all this Melody the Ghost shit out, he thought.
White noise engulfed him, a mental shade pulled shut. Through dreamfog he watched the gray shape of his life; in the background, Melody waltzed languorously, waiting. A second Melody appeared and joined the dance, Melody Now and Melody Sometime Tonight. Sleep stepped toward them and the world began to tremble, shaking as if it were being pulled apart by some inebriated giant.
Groggily, reluctantly, Sleep's eyes opened and he found himself looking into a strange face. Wha?
"Hey, you okay? You all right?"
As with Melody earlier the face looked uncomfortably familiar. He strained and pulled the face into memory. Slowly, he remembered: Jason something, the guy in the office down the hall, Jason McNowell? MacNone? McNaught.
"Sleep? Can you hear me?"
"Jason McNaught, right? The new guy." Sleep stretched, yawning.
"Yeah, that's me. Been here almost year a now." Jason pulled Melody's stool over.
"Whatta doin here." Sleep felt very drunk.
"Came in for a night cap. Been grading essays up at the office." Jason shifted uncomfortably and turned away to look around the bar. He seemed to be looking for somebody. Turning back to Sleep he said, "Looks like you've been here awhile."
"Coupla days I'd guess. Feels longer."
Jason squirmed awkwardly on his stool and said, not looking at him, "Hey, sorry to hear about all that shit coming down last week--"
"Don wanna talk it. Fruck em, I'm over it."
"Yeah okay." Jason pulled out his wallet. "Wanna split a beer or two?"
"Sure. But I gotta piss firs." He slid off the stool; his knees buckled and Jason caught him under an arm. Sleep yanked it back and said, "Not decrepid, just frucked. I'll be back." He lurched through the bar, the few people there moving irritably out of his way. Just let someone shit with me now, he thought.

 

Jason had walked the mile or so from his office to Baum Avenue. A neon signed gleamed before him: The La t Lap. As he walked into the bar Melody shoved past him coming out; she wore the shirt with the parrots, something he hadn't seen since their first encounter. It seemed faded now and the sleeves and collar looked raveled. Passing, her arm brushing his chest, she looked straight at him with no hint of recognition. All the hurt six months had partially healed came tumbling back. He followed her outside, but found the street empty. He walked around the corner and the alleyway there was empty too.
Back inside there weren't more than a couple dozen people. In the back corner a man in faded fatigues slouched over a plastic bag. A bum. Another one lay crashed out on the bar. Jason stood just inside the doorway, thinking that he might go somewhere else, when Melody passed him again, her hair flowing in magnificent waves above her head. This time she did recognize him. Her eyes widened and a small "oh" escaped her lips.
"Melody," he said.
She shook her head and put up her hands as if shielding her face. She stepped back, looked frantically about, and then dodged into the women's restroom.
"Melody!" he said louder as the door swung shut behind her. A couple of guys in matching sweaters turned toward him and then back to their beer. Damn. He walked over to the bar. I can wait it out. The bum asleep on the counter mumbled something that sounded like "Fruggem fruggem." A shock of recognition jarred through Jason. Sleep. It was Sleep! He reached over and gently shook him.
"Hey you okay? You all right?"

 

The john was nearly empty. It stank of piss and old beer. The bum in the army jacket washed his hands at the sink. He looks shittier than I feel, Sleep thought. On legs that felt incomplete, Sleep went into the first stall. Someone had ripped the seat from the toilet and hung it from the paper holder. Sleep pissed for a long time and when he turned from the toilet the army jacket, his face haggard, his beard matted, stood there, blocking his way, his eyes locked on some other plane.
"Whadda fruck you lo--" Sleep's back slammed into the stall wall. His feet slipped in a puddle of urine and beer and he sat down hard enough to have the wind knocked out of him. He watched stupidly as the army jacket loured over him.
After another languid waltz with Melody's ghost, Sleep woke for the second time in an hour to a shaking world.
"You okay man?"
Sleep's sight focused slowly. Two students, frat monkeys in matching sweaters, stood over him.
"You okay?"
Sleep was wedged into the space between the toilet and the stall wall. One of the guys was pissing, a stream gurgling just inches from his face, the ammoniac stench fully waking him. Fuck. It felt as if someone had wedged a tire iron between the fissures of his skull. The two monkeys watched as he struggled to stand, his feet slipping in the puddle.
"Looks like," one of them started, "someone beaned you with the toilet seat," the other finished.
Sleep looked at them and his vision clouded with red mist. Looking down, holding his head in his hands, he saw the ring, broken neatly in two, both halves lying at his feet. When he looked up, the monkeys had gone. Sleep gripped the side of the toilet and sluggishly boosted himself up. The pain flared for a second and then eased back into a steady drone. The wasps are happy here he thought.
He staggered out of the stall and over to the sink. Cold water brought more of the world back. In the mirror, water dripping from the stubble of his face, he could see where the psycho had cracked him. A small gash just above his hairline. There was surprisingly little blood. He thought, How many more beers can I buy?
He reached for his wallet -- and discovered it gone. Frantic, he felt for the note and relief washed over him when he found it still there. He pulled a paper towel from the dispenser and dried his face. When he looked back into the mirror Melody stood where his reflection had been before. Her image was frayed and tired looking, like she'd been on a barbed-wired bender. She's falling apart, he thought. He looked behind him but knew there would be no one there; there wasn't.
"Your possible future," the reflection said.
"Yeah yeah we been through all this before."
"But you're not doing anything about it. You're not even thinking about it!"
"In case you haven't noticed I got other things on my mind." He dabbed at the cut and winced. "Why me?" He looked into his own reflection, Melody gone. A mirrored door opened and a mirrored Jason McNaught walked in.
"You're taking awhile in here, Jeffrey, thought I--Man! What happened to you?"
"Got rolled, some bum in a army jacket. Took my wallet."
"Aw man--"
"Some tough shit to swallow. It's not been my week."
Jason shrugged his hands into his pockets and said, "Maybe we should get out of here."
"Yeah, good idea--maybe one for the road?"
"Why not?"

 

One turned into two and then, as quickly, a half dozen. Somewhere during the interlude between the third and fourth, Jason looked queasily around the bar and swallowed hard, as if he were choking something grainy back down. He grimaced and asked, "So why'd you do it?"
"Do wha?" Words were jagged objects in his mouth. "Do wha?" he repeated, having forgotten his first answer. A fifth and then a sixth beer came and went.
"Enough?" Jason said.
"Never enough." Sleep belched resonantly and said, "But I'm ready t'go."
Stumblesliding from his stool, his arms and legs suddenly oversized and misaligned, Sleep took a clumsy step backward and tripped over something. Looking up from the concrete floor, he found a bearded face glaring back at him from the seat of a wheelchair.
"What's your problem?"
"No pro'lem t'all, jus drunk b'yond yesterday." Sleep pushed himself up and slipped again, this time falling face first into the wheelchairer's lap. The man screeched and lifted Sleep above his head with rough hands. The taproom flashed by in a series of black-and-white images and Sleep had time enough to think of ordering another beer. Then the floor came up hard and he thought he might have bounced twice. Been here way too often tonight he thought fuck. The floor was cold and wet, then warm hands, Jason's, lifted him again.
"You okay, Jeffrey you okay?" Jason gently shook him.
"Okay, okay, I'm here." Sleep brushed absently at his shirtfront and stepped around Jason. "Where that madderfrucker? Where he go?"
"Sleep, listen to me." Jason's hands gently slapped his cheeks, a blind man playing bongos for the first time. "He's in a wheelchair for crease's sake, let it go."
Sleep pushed away from Jason and stepped into the path of the escaping wheelchair.
"Where a fruck you goin?"
The wheelchairer laughed and shook his head. He armed his chair into another direction and Sleep cut him off again.
"Listen man you're out of it, I'm over it, let's shake and call it an accidental draw." He stuck out his hand.
Sleep looked at the hand and felt his own moving toward it when Jason's voice drifted over his shoulder.
"Kick his ass man," he heard Jason say, "kick his ass."
Sleep smiled and swung mightily, his fist passing a yard in front of the wheelchairer's face. He did a drunkman's pirouette and fell. As he dipped past beard and chair, two smashing jabs bounced off him, one just above his left eye and another square on the chin.
Blackness.
Through a mist of red pain came a swelling of music, something from the sixties. Bob Dylan. Jefferson Airplane. Then Sleep found himself outside the Lap, Jason propping him against a telephone pole.
"Quite a left he had, huh?"
"The right's what frucked me."
"Here, how many fingers?"
Sleep squinted and could see no fingers, no hand. He shook his head and closed his eyes again. Pain lay in his head like a bassline of throbs. He stepped forward and the sidewalk fell fast away. His stomach, hot and all liquid, rose. Again he felt arms slip around him, holding him until the heaving stopped, his stomach falling into motionlessness. He felt Jason haul him up from his knees and away from the puddle, and lean him against the telephone pole. The night spread loopily around him, a cacophony of car horns and shouts providing the sound track.
"You're fucked past belief Sleep. Stay here, I'll get my car."
Sleep watched him grow smaller, Jason's gait unsteady across the unbalanced beam of sidewalk. Then he was gone and Sleep settled against the curbside. He flinched and threw his arms up, half expecting another toilet-wielding psycho to materialize before him. Nothing came. He closed his eyes and the world spun lazily away. When he reopened them, the Lap was empty, its neon sign dark. He shoved a hand into his pants pocket, the one without the note, and fished out a dollar bill and change. He stood clumsily and lurched into the alleyway that trailed behind Baum Avenue. It was darker there and he could hear the busy squeaks of nesting rats. Some minutes later Melody fell in beside him; from the corners of his eyes he could tell that she was less there, her yellow shirt now threadbare, her hair matted around her face.
"Me again."
"I see."
He stopped and turned to face her, but when he looked full in her direction, she was gone, or had never been there. Sleep shook his head and rubbed his hands across his face. Again he started down the alley and again the figure took up beside him. She remained there, his steps her steps, until the pale glow of another neon sign bled through the night. It was a quick store, what he was looking for. The shadow beside him lagged.
"Your future is me."
"Yeah, so you said." Sleep kept going, a minute later tripping through the doors of an all-night quick store. The clerk, something large and mooselike, gave Sleep a disinterested glance and returned to her gameboy and what looked to be a halfgallon cup proclaiming itself a Squeegee. A radio emitted, between machine-gun bursts of static, the Gin Blossom's "Lost Horizons." Sleep blundered to the back, batlike dots darting before his eyes. The store disappeared and Sleep found himself lying face down on the floor, an avalanche of tomato sauce cans cascading around him. The clerk yelled, "Whatta hell you doin boy? I think you better leave, get on outta here."
Sleep said something that even he didn't understand, his words like flypaper in his mouth.
"I'll call the cops, swear I will boy!"
"Jus a minute," Sleep said, straining to form every word. "Jus one min." He heaved himself up, cans raining from his back, and staggered against the refrigerator cases. The clerk retreated to the front of the store.
Sleep pried open a door and found a pack of Bud. Beyond my dirty change, he thought. In the back behind the imports he found two Black Labels. He stumbled back to the front of the store. The clerk waited, her hand on the phone.
"I told you I'd call the cops, they on they way."
Sleep plunked the two cans down. With her free hand she rang it up, her eyes mean and narrow. Nothing like Melody's, he discovered himself thinking. He was way beyond seeing the cash register's readout so he slid the one and change over to her. She fingered through it and shoved several coins back at him. He looked down but couldn't tell the pennies from the quarters.
"Wha I get t'eat wi this?"
"Nothin here, boy."
"Nothin?"
The clerk bared her teeth, small yellow notes, and slid a tiny box over the counter. "Here," she said and scooped up the last of Sleep's money.
Back in the alley Sleep popped the top off the first can and drained most of it in a single pull. It wasn't good but Sleep felt safely past taste. He looked at the clerk's box: a small carton of Milk Duds, marked down several times. He sang softly to himself, "yeah I got dem milk dud blues babeee."
He looked up the dark alley and saw lying ahead of him a small bundle, torn and bloody. It was a woman, or what had once been a woman. She wore a faded yellow shirt; tired blue parrots danced among the splatterings of blood. He blinked and the bundle disappeared.
"Change," Melody whispered.
His hands shook and even the second beer didn't stop them.
He began to walk, fumbling open the small box of candy; the Milk Duds were hard as small rocks.

 

Sleep's fucked, he thought, insane with grain and hop. Jason downshifted the truck and slowed in front of the Lap. Sleep, of course, was nowhere to be seen. Baum, too, was deserted.
Taking on the guy in the wheelchair should have been too much. Jason had tried to rein him in, yelling at him "Let it pass man, let it pass."
But it'd been like a charge for Sleep, egging him on in some drunken way. Jason knew he should have bolted, left him wanting on the curbside. But he felt somehow led on, as if some irresistible force dragged him into the autowreck that was Sleep's life.
Jason wheeled the truck across Baum and into the small alleyway that ran behind the Strip. He cut the engine and sat in the dark, wondering what to do, listening to the rustle of passing rats.
Halfway back to campus and his car, Jason had stumbled across Sleep's pickup, skewed drunkingly into a parking space, its front wheels humping the curb. Someone had smashed the passenger window out and stolen the tailgate. Spray painted down the driver side in black, dripping capitals was "TRUK FROM HELL." In the bed sat two cardboard cartons. Opening one Jason found it filled with thin blue books. Poems in Darkness and Disrepair he read Poems by Jeffrey D. Sleep. He closed the carton and climbed into the driver's side; Sleep's keys hung from the ignition. He tried to crank it twice before noticing that the gas gauge was far below E. It had taken him only minutes to run across the street to a quick mart to buy a gallon of gas, empty it into the truck, then return to the mart for a full tank. Filling the tank, he flipped on the radio. Someone sang "drunk drunk drunk" and Jason snapped it off. The tank topped, he headed back to the Lap.
He cut the lights, then thumbed the switch so the parking lights came back on, filling the alley with a ghostly orange halo. He thought about Melody. That strange doubling, he thought. Passing her going into the Lap and then remeeting her inside. Must have slipped around me, he thought. Her bolt to the john had been the latest of a hundred dodges this past semester. He'd see her across campus, and, like an apparition, she disappeared. It had taken him a while, but he eventually realized the game. She roped him easily, and he'd fallen off numerous wagons and lecterns to please her. It'd been his first transgression, his first dalliance. Suddenly, the teaching fields looked ripe with possibility. His heart rolled over and stirrings lower stirred. Jason McNaught, in the soft glow of dashboard lights, smiled.
A shuffling sound came from beyond the penumbra. Jason flicked on the headlights and Jeffrey Sleep fell again into being. He squinted into the brightness. He threw an empty can into the darkness and then fingered something from the small box he held in the other hand.
Jason stuck his head out the window and shouted, "Jeffrey! It's me, Jason."
"Bout time. Where a fruck you been boy?" Sleep came around to the passenger side and climbed in. He brushed a handful of safety glass from the seat and sat on the remainder. He looked at the smashed window and knocked out an asymptote of remaining glass with his elbow.
"Someone got in. Didn't take anything though, don't think." Jason started the engine. "And your books, they're okay, still in the--"
"Don't give a crock Naught."
Jason ground the TRUK FROM HELL into gear and eased back onto Baum.
"Where to?"
"Nowhere to go. Let's go there Naught, nowhere." Sleep laughed. "We need a stop fore we get there though." He tossed an empty bottle into the street where it bounced against the curb and shattered. Sounds of splintering glass followed the truck.

 

III. Crescendo

"So why'd you do it Sleep?" Jason fought the gearshift into third and then back down to first as they hit the first grade into the Smokeys. It was dark, sunlight some four or five hours away; mountains loomed like fists against the night. Just out of the city it started to drizzle. Jason flicked on the windshield wipers.
They'd headed nowhere at first but nothingness soon turned into direction. They avoided the interstate, chancing on a small back highway that snaked out of the city. They stopped once at an all night roadside mart for an armload of six packs and a bag of ice.
When they were back on the road, Jason asked again, "So what made you do it?"
Sleep pulled at a beer and said, "Nothin made me do it. Just did it, had to. Between a fuck and a hard place."
Jason thought on that, sipping his beer. He wedged it between his legs, the can cold against his jewels. "Can't say anything Jeffrey. Been there myself." He paused and Sleep tossed his can from the window. It caught the slipstream and smacked against the carton of Darkness and Disrepair. He cracked open another. "There was, last semester," Jason said, "this girl, blonde hair like--"
"Aw Christ, you aint seen shit, a girl my ass. Look." Sleep gulped long at his can and continued, "Look. Pull over into one of these roadsides. This winding shit is makin me sick. Can't drink straight."
Jason slowed and banked the truck into a roadside park. The pickup shimmied through the ruts of a disused road, finally settling between two rotting picnic tables. Jason snapped it into park and the truck lurched forward to knock over an already leaning charcoal grill. Inside, beer slopped from both open cans.
"Tell me about the girl." Sleep fished into the ice bag and hooked another; the dashboard lights gave his face a haunted glow.
Jason cleared his throat and spat. "Not much to tell really. She offered and I accepted." He shook his head and smiled sadly. "Cept this one snagged me, hard." Sleep gazed out into the dark, the beer can pressed against the welt over his right eye.
"Sleep with her?"
There was a long pause and then Jason said, almost a whisper, "Yeah. A lot."
"Counts."
"Counts?" He turned back to Sleep, setting his can on the dashboard. "As what?"
"Your first time?"
"My first time? My first time to--"
"No, not your first time to have someone, your first time with a student, your first time to cross the uncrossable, your first time to head into--"
"Yeah, yeah, that, my first time." Jason found his can and took a swallow. After a while he said, "I always thought of it, even when I was with her--I mean with her--as a transgression, some great disobedience of some sort. It never felt right--but it never felt wrong either." His words trailed off. Sleep still gazed out into the dark; he'd switched the can to the other lump.
"My first time felt like that, a trespass, a tearing in the fabric of right. Mine was a girl too, bout eleven years ago, my first semester at the university. Took me by storm and then left me dangling. I got over it -- you will too. The second is easier, the third a breeze. You live."
"Guess I will."
Sleep laughed. "Think I met part of mine again tonight."
Several minutes later Jason said, "You think I'm all right then, that I didn't do too wrong?"
"Kid, you're human, you did human. Humans are fucked from the beginning, they fuck up." Sleep belched loudly.
"Yeah, okay."
Darkness swallowed them. Some time later, they split the last beer, passing it back and forth, until Sleep killed it. Sometime before dawn they slept, dreaming beer dreams.

 

Just after dawn Sleep stumbled from the truck and relieved himself. The first timid tendrils of morning crept through the sky. He climbed back into the truck, fumbling with his zipper. "Damn," he muttered, and then "Fuck it." He settled into the seat, his pants gaping like a chuckhole. "Let's roll."
"We're gone," Jason said, cranking the truck and looking back over his shoulder. The engine whinnied and coughed. The truck strained slowly backwards and then slid forward, rocking.
"Oh shit," they both said.
Jason knocked the gearshift into first and tried again. The pickup edged forward, then slipped back. He tried again and the truck refused to move. He tried reverse and the truck still refused to budge.
"Wait," Sleep said, opening his door. He stepped down and his feet lost traction instantly; he found himself treadmilling wildly on a carpet of pine needles and mud. He went down hard. His teeth snapped together, catching his tongue. He yelped and spat pink spittle; a metallic taste bloomed in his mouth.
"Hey, you okay?" Jason's face loomed from the passenger side.
"Never better." Sleep saw the back tire then, up to its axle in mud. He spat again. "We're stuck, throw me a beer."
"I figured and we split the last one some time back. What now?"
Sleep smeared a handful of mud from his pants and slapped it into the dark. He cleaned his other leg the same way. Standing up--the world tilting with him but not as badly as he would've expected--he leaned into the bed and tore off a piece of cardboard to wipe his hands.
"What now?" Jason repeated.
"How a fuck I know?" Sleep scraped at his hands with the cardboard and stared at the box of books. He thought The flotsam of my life. Then he grinned. "Believe it or not, I think I do know."
Sleep leaned into the bed again and pulled one of the boxes closer. It bulged with Darkness and Disrepair. He caught up a handful of the thin books and looked at Jason. "This'll do us."
He dropped the handful and took another two, then three. He dropped them all at his feet.
"Need some help?"
"No, this pleasure's all mine." Sleep dropped to his knees and began to wedge his books into the mud that sucked at the rear tire. He hammered books with other books, driving them deep into the muck. Take that you mudders he thought. Each book was a brick tossed from his back, a letter erased from the note, a rotting albatross cut free. When he finished, the tire surrounded by a library of Darkness and Disrepair, he ran to the other side to traction that tire. He tripped around to the front and stacked books under those tires for good measure. When he finished he had emptied one carton completely and dipped healthily into the second. As he climbed back into the cab, his clothes mudcaked, his face spattered with thick droplets, the night had given way to a deep grayness.
"Fuck that albatross," Sleep beamed. "Let's roll."
"I guess you did." Jason snapped the pickup into gear.
"Wait--let me. My books." Sleep was already out the door and coming round the front. Jason slid over as Sleep climbed behind the wheel.
"Just until we're on the road, then me. You're way too fucked to drive."
"And you're not?"
Sleep gunned the engine. The pickup slipped forward, then back into its mudnest. He revved, pumped and cut the wheels one way and then back. The truck shot forward, a spume of warped cardboard covers and mud-clotted pages sweeping up from the back tires. In the rearview mirror Sleep watched pages fill the morning.
A howl filled the cab and Sleep ground the truck into second. The backend fishtailed, clipping the bench off a picnic table.
Sleep left the roadside park in third gear. When the tires found the road they screamed, sending smoke boiling into the sky. The pickup fishtailed again and Sleep fought it back into his lane. Grinning, he turned on the radio; Alice in Chains blared "No Excuses" through a single rotting speaker.
He turned to whoop at Jason and saw on his face only horror. Jason's mouth worked in a grotesque yawn, shouting something Sleep couldn't hear. Smell! Smell! he seemed to yell. Smell!
Sleep turned back to the road and Melody filled the windshield. She straddled the yellow line of the small mountain road, her hair--no longer an ultrablonde, closer now to a jaundice--plastered to her head, her eyes wide and no longer green but a gray, the damp color of fog. Her shirt hung in rags, the miniskirt gone. She looked at Sleep, her eyes smoldering, asking.
Sleep had only time to wish: for strength to turn the wheel, to stomp the brake; for time to stop; another yesterday, a dozen past days to see and turn; for life, hers and his. His wishes evaporated as soon as he'd wished them and the grill of the pickup ate her. There was a single whuumph, then the sound of metal crumpling, of glass tinkling as her shoulder shattered a headlight. Her body flipped over and past them, her contorted face filling the windshield. The body bounced once on the roof and then fell into the bed, catching the remaining carton of books. For an instance, her remaining eye--the other gouged out--locked with Sleep's in the rearview mirror and he watched her mouth I told you I told you so fuck fuck.
Then she vanished over the edge of the bed. A split second later the carton went over, hitting the road in an explosion of books.
Sleep and Jason screamed, their voices climbing into the grayness of dawn: "MELLLLLOOODEEEE!"
The long slow shriek of brakes filled the morning, then the acrid smell of burnt rubber. The truck slid around in its skid, facing where they'd just come from, rocking on mud-crusted tires. Some hundred yards before them lay the crumpled form of Melody. The body was face down, straddling the yellow line, one arm and leg tucked impossibly under her.

 

The face was the worst, the mud filling first the hole of the empty eyesocket, then the yawn of her mouth. It slid across her cheeks and clumped in her hair. Her remaining eye, glazed dull and still cocked, would find one and then the other, their hands throwing the mud over her, covering the fan of her hair, her cheeks, her nose, and finally the eye.
Once they'd covered the face, the rest wasn't so bad. They worked together, burying her legs, her arms, the soft yellow glow of her shirt.
They had sat wordlessly in the truck, staring at the tattered bundle in the road. Some time later, Sleep stumbled out into the rain-slicked road. Panic was like fire on him. Not thinking, he started for the body, a slow walk that turned soon into a trot and then a blind run, Melody's body looming irrevocably nearer. Then he was over her, panting, stitches like barbed wire in his side. He tried to see the Melody who had sat beside him some thirteen or fourteen hours ago and couldn't, her body smashed and twisted.
She floated in a viscous pond of blood. Sleep stepped around her, circling her, going first one direction, then the other. He squatted beside her head, cutting his eyes too late not to see the grayish-yellow slug of meat climbing from the crack that ran along her hairline. He looked away, at the pale sun slipping over the mountains.
"What're we gonna do omigod what're we gonna do," Jason mumbled, tugging at Sleep's sleeve.
Minds a blank of terror, they'd backed the truck to her and loaded the body--heavy and shifting between them, Sleep's arms under her shoulders, Jason's around her legs. Before stepping back into the cab, Sleep took one of the last books and tented it over her face.
Then they'd driven in silence, their hearts hammering as one. "Melody oh Melody oh Melody," Jason chanted.
"You knew her," Sleep had said, more to make him shut up than to know.
"Yeah," Jason said after a long pause. "The girl I told you about."
"Oh fuck, man, I'm sorry." Trees, mostly pines, slender and green, dashed past the window. Sleep clutched the steering wheel, his knuckles white, and drove, thinking only of driving. Jason rocked gently, every minute or so announcing, "melody."
"I met her tonight," Sleep said, "in the bar. Gave me some strange shit about tonight."
Jason didn't say anything and some miles later, they turned onto a jeep track that quickly narrowed into a deer run. They followed it until it gave out, the woods like hunger around them.
The ground was soft, and it took them no time to scoop out a grave. The body seemed lighter, less there when they lifted it a second time and dumped it into the pit. They stepped back, breathing hard, the mountain air full of needles. Jason knelt beside the body and pushed a stray matting of hair away from her face. He touched her cheek and buttoned the top button of her shirt. He stood back up. They began to bury her.
"This is wrong, this is wrong," Jason muttered once, shoveling up handfuls of mud and dead leaves and throwing them over the feet, the legs, the stomach, an arm impossibly twisted.

 

They sat silently, each nursing a cold beer in the parking lot of a roadside mart. Without speaking Jason went into the mart and returned with a double six-pack. They each drank one quickly and eased into a second.
"What happened?" Jason said, talking around his can as if he were afraid to let it get too far from his face.
"Didn't see her, she was just there--"
"No not that." Jason's voice was sharp. "Why'd you get fired, what'd you do to piss off Iota Scurry?"
Sleep breathed in deeply and drained his can. "Okay," he said, "I guess you deserve to know after ... well, everthing." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the note, ragged and tearing along the folds. "Here." He released the note. "Says shit like 'abomination' and 'indecency' and shit. Close enough to right I reckon." Jason took the note and ran his eyes across it; his expression never changed. When he finished, he refolded it and handed it back to Sleep.
"So."
"Yeah, so." Sleep took a deep breath and began his story, slowly at first. As the tale and note unraveled, he picked up speed, as though anxious to get rid of the words.
"I took off last year, a sabbatical. I'd done some poetry, a coupla stories, the book. But there was a novel inside me, something better. Scurry and that asshole Gill putting pressure on me to publish something substantial. I was still crawling out from under the wreckage of Darkness and Disrepair and I thought I could get away from it by doing something else, a novel. Some plan." He shrugged and took another swallow and looked at the note in his hand.
"So I sat down to write a novel. Sharpened my pencils, straightened my desk, got out a battered electric typewriter, even bought a dozen of those yellow legal pads, figuring I'd write in longhand first, then type it up as I went along. I sat there for what seemed days and nothing came. Nothing. I turned on the TV, I listened to the radio, the college station, nonstop, songs of ennui and nowhereness. Then, toward the end of my sabbatical, you know what I had?" Sleep took a quick, sharp look at Jason who met his stare. Both took a drink.
"'It was a fucking dark and fricking stormy night.' That was actually a sentence that I'd brain-vomited onto the page. Christ! Can you believe? Another night, many beers into the legal pad, I actually came up with this: 'There are many things different in this world and many that are alike.'"
Jason grimaced.
"Teaching had ripped the thoughtfox from my mind and crucified it. My best was something like 'On the last day of March, a day that would soon become crowded with ghosts....'" It took me a while but I eventually realized that I had reached a used-upness...
"In the end I surrendered to the tube, filled myself with beer and soap operas. I wasted."
Jason pulled the last two beers from the ring and handed one to Sleep.
"And that was it?" Jason asked. "You came back without a novel and they fired you?"
"Not exactly." An edge of a smile played across his lips. He took a swallow and continued. "I came back with nothing. I wasn't bothered so much, it was something that I could live with--but Scurry was pissed. Scurry called me everyday telling me that this would be my last semester, that she wouldn't support a freeloader. Just when I'd decided to give in, my savior appeared: a student. He'd been in my class a coupla semesters ago and had written a fairly interesting take on Joyce Cary's Horse's Mouth, something about the use of alcohol and debauchery as modern symbology, something too about the language, its instability. I'd suggested the topic to him, guided him through the drafts. He made an A on it." Sleep trailed off.
"You published it," Jason finished for him.
Sleep shrugged. "Yeah." He finished his beer. "Found a copy of it in my files, cleaned it up a bit, gave it a fresh typing and title. Put my name in allcaps top and center. And mailed it to one of those journals Scurry and Gill kept telling me about, something like Modern Pretensions or Fiasco: The Journal of Drunken Academe, I forget exactly. Hell, the kid was a business major, he'd never've done it himself, it would've rotted in obscurity. I did us both a favor."
Sleep fell quiet for a long time, then said, "Scurry didn't think so. Don't ask me how but she found it when it came out a couple, three weeks ago. She apparently tracked the student and got an original from him. That was it, all she wrote. I got my note the next day--and here I am. Fuck em, fuck me."
After another long pause, Jason said, "You know, Barthes announced some while back the death of the author; Derrida went on about the inevitable absence of the subject of writing. So it's all nothing: no writer, nothing to write about. It's all fucked. Everything."
Sleep nodded, grunted, then said, "What's all this got to do with what we just did, with Melody?"
"Maybe nothing, maybe everything. If I were deconstructing a literary piece, I'd say that in remembering her, sharing her, we've destroyed her; in giving her presence, we're ensuring her absence--"
"Wait, wait, Jason." An idea emerged from the shadows and stumbled across his brain; he pieced it together as he talked. "Everything you said, everything you're thinking right now is probably true for me, Jason, but I'm really, you know, not so sure about you. Remember earlier when I told you that your--what'd you call it, a transgression?--your transgression with that girl--with Melody -- was not so wrong, was not so off kilter, that it was only human. Maybe I was wrong, maybe I should've jumped your shit bout that, told you to get your song together, to avoid the transgression."
As the words flowed from him, something broke within Sleep. For the first time in days, possibly even weeks and months, words felt right in his mouth. He saw, in his mind, Melody again on the stool beside him, her green eyes wide. An unwritten song began to flirt through his thoughts. It grew louder, more powerful; then he recognized its tune, a melody of release.
"If I'd told you all that, if I'd verbally smacked you back into a non-transgressive direction, we'd be somewhere else right now, somewhere not so bruised and bloodied."
"So. What if you had?"
"I don't know. But look at me, Jason, you wanna end up like this?" Sleep touched first one forehead knot and then the other. He wrenched the rearview mirror to face Jason. "Look," he said. "You're me some ten, fifteen years ago. You're me: and it ain't no fun man, it ain't no life."
"Where do I start?"
"With her, Melody."
"We go back?"
"Yeah." Sleep cranked the truck and pulled it into gear. The pickup bucked forward and Sleep quickly found the brake. He snatched the note from Jason's hand; he balled it up and tossed into the roadside grass.

 

"So this is it, huh Slee--Jeffrey?" Jason McNaught leaned into his door to push it open; it did so with an obnoxious groaning. He stepped out onto a carpet of pine straw and mud, same as the night before.
"Yeah, fraid it is." Sleep opened his own door but remained seated. The music still played in his head, a soft trilling of realization. The drive back into the mountains had taken them a little more than an hour. They'd found everything the same. The only sound was the pat-pat-pat of leftover rain falling through the trees. A single set of bald tire prints led directly to the low mound of Melody's grave.
"After we unbury her," Jason said, "what then?"
"Haven't thought that far," Sleep said, stepping from the truck, a rain of beer cans falling out behind him. "At this moment there's nothing but now. Fuck past, fuck future, there's only now. We'll burn other bridges as we get to em."
He walked to the mound of earth and Jason trailed behind him. Beside it was the last copy of Darkness and Disrepair, the one Sleep had used to cover Melody's face.
"Could we have made this more obvious?"
Dropping to his knees and using the warped book as a shovel, he began to rake away the mound. Jason stooped beside him, their shoulders just touching, and began to shovel with his hands. The mud fell in the brush like thick rain.
In minutes they leveled the top half of the mound and in a few more the book hit something soft and malleable.
"We're there," Sleep said and kept shoveling. Jason withdrew, settling back on his haunches, watching the methodical, near automatous motions of Sleep. Jason whispered once "Melody" and moved opposite of Sleep. His mind was a slow burn of fear, a jumble of nausea and panic, of what next and the Melody he'd known and caressed hardly a half-year ago. He dug, trying not to think, thinking all the more, his mind aroar with Melody.
Sleep watched Jason, recognizing his restrained fright, admiring him all the more for reining the hysteria that had to be welling within him. During the second drive up, Sleep's dread had all but abandoned him. He'd resigned himself to whatever lay ahead, whatever new abomination lurked just ahead. Jason, he knew, was blameless; he wasn't. He hummed the newfound melody to himself.
"There," Jason said.
In the center of the grave, in a small hole the size of a fist, was a clump of hair, matted with mud and dead wet leaves. The hair was brown.
"Why's it brown, not blonde?" Jason said, digging the hole bigger, exposing more of the brown, clotted hair.
"Mud?"
"No--it's brown, and shorter."
"Don't know," Sleep said. He flung the book away and began to pull out mud with the double scoop of his cupped hands. "I noticed the last couple of times I saw her tonight that her hair was fading, turning away from the ultrayellow I'd first seen."
"That doesn't make any sense."
"Has anything tonight?"
They hollowed most of the top half of the grave, leaving the outline of what had to be the body. They worked around the head, the part they least wanted to see. Only when the next handful would show something more of Melody did they pause, leaning back on their heels and butts, looking through the skeletal branches of the woods, at the truck, toward the road, not at each other.
"Wish I had a cigarette."
"Wish I had a beer."
"Wish I had a cigarette and a beer."
Jason leaned forward and slowly scrapped away a handful of mud below the clot of hair. He looked at Sleep and said, "Here goes everything." He pulled the fistful away and threw it into the woods behind him. Below the hair was a small, hairy flap. It looked as if something had chewed on it long ago and was about the size of a small change purse.
"What the fuck is that?"
"I never saw that on Melody."
Sleep reached in and scooped out more mud and leaves. A stick poked into his hand, drawing blood. There was more hair, then even more hair.
"Christ, Christ," he said, "what is this?"
Together they dug frantically, carefully, uncovering finally a bearlike head, but not a bear. They dug on, their palms grimed with filth that would not wash completely away for three or four more days, their fingers, raw and in places bleeding, the nails broken and caked with mud. It was covered in hair, more like fur they decided. It had a snout with a rubbery wad of dry nose at the end.
"A fuckin' bear, did we bury a fuckin' bear?"
"Not a bear."
They revealed a broad, apelike brow and beneath it two pinhole eyes. One stared at them in fixed resignation, dull and lifeless; the other was gone, gouged out.
"It's a dog, a madderfrackin dog," Sleep said, falling away from the grave and onto his seat, his eyes bright with astonishment. "Can you believe?"
Jason continued to take the lower dirt away, digging out below the head. There was something around its neck, a collar, something attached to the band of leather. He moved closer, a mad archeologist on some haunted find, and took out more mud. A couple of minutes later he shook his head and backed out of the grave. He sat beside Sleep, still shaking his head.
"A St. Bernard."
There was a small barrel cradled in the dog's neck, a small row of xxx's printed along the side.
"I'll be damned."
"I'll be fucked."
They grinned at each other.
"Man what happened here?"
"No idea," Sleep said, his head buzzing with a new tune, something even freer, lighter. "Melody I guess, somehow."
"My Melody, the one from last semester?"
"In part, yeah--but mostly the one from last night, my Melody. Somehow she did it, she made it change, made it right."
"How? Why?"
"No idea--except that maybe the late veer into new directions was enough, maybe not good enough, but enough. She made it right." Sleep grinned in amazement.
"I guess so." Jason stood, his limbs creaking. He held out a hand and pulled Sleep up. "A second chance, huh?"
"A second chance." Sleep's grin broadened, as wide as the grill of his pickup. Standing there, their hands still clasped, Sleep felt the tune pass in a buzz of static and warmth into Jason; he smiled in his turn. They walked toward the truck, Sleep stooping to pick up the last copy of Darkness and Disrepair.
"What time you think it is?"
"Not sure," Sleep said, looking up at the clouded sky. "Three o'clock?"
"Yeah, about." When Sleep climbed in, he said, "So what now?"
"Me?" Sleep paused and leaned on the hood. "Guess I'll follow Melody's path. I've got a brother out in Dallas. He could put me up for a couple of weeks, maybe I could get part time somewhere they haven't heard of me yet. But right now--" he looked off into the woods. "I've got this novel inside me, something loose and comical." He looked back at Jason and grinned. "You know?"
"I'll bet you do." They slammed the doors. Sleep placed his book on the seat between them.
"What about you, what now?"
"Like you, follow Melody's path, your Melody. I'll keep teaching--I was tired before but it still feels somehow right. And I've got a couple poems in me I'd like to spit out. Who knows? Maybe another Darkness and Disrepair will come along." He tapped the mud-crusted book.
Sleep coaxed the truck into life. He put it into reverse and backed up the rutted trail, away from the grave. If they had turned on the radio, they would've heard a song, "Convalescing in Spain," neither had ever heard, by a group, the JudyBats, they'd never heard of. Instead, each hummed his own quiet tune, each surprisingly similar.

 

THE END