FICTION FRIDAY: “Gaslight”

I thought it would be fun to occasionally post some of my short stories on here just to keep things fresh and to potentially spur a little creativity. If you like this story, there are plenty more, and I would love to hear your thoughts. Drop me a message via my contact page!

Our gaslight district is a single, mile-long street that runs through the east side of town that has a reputation for attracting the eccentric. The strip is a cocktail of one part small, novelty businesses and one part 1950’s style housing. Interspersed among the gastropubs and coffee shops, one can find myriad of tiny shops whose continued residency and operation boggles the mind if you think too hard about it. Take the Gourmet Bacon Co. for example. Year round the GBC is churning out nothing but fancy strips of pig ass for quadruple the price that it takes to make. Want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with pork instead of bread? Neither does anyone else, but they got it.

During the day, I look out my window and watch people scuttle about their business. Men with messenger bags and fixed-speed bikes, women with dyed hair and facial piercings, dogs with ironic names like “horse”: they all mill around up and down the strip with the earnestness that only someone with nowhere to go knows. Looking through my window is like looking through the glass in an aquarium; the subjects flash colorful lures at one another, gorge themselves on convenient morsels, and perform desperate mating rituals completely unaware (or unconcerned) that they are being observed.

Yesterday at seven o’ five she strolls past in a sundress, brown hair draped over her shoulders like a theatre curtain. A mandolin held by a leather strap is slung around her neck; the name “Loretta” is sprawled on its body in thin, white paint. She’s tiny. She’s a tiny bird in a big, big tree. A gentleman in a polo approaches her with a pamphlet in his hand, and she declines it with a wave of the hand and a peach tea smile. Flames within gas lamp domes grow and cast dreamy radiance on the puddles left by that afternoon’s drizzle. Once they all grow to full illumination, she knows to begin the show.

The woman sits on the curb and tunes the instrument with delicate, calloused fingers. Pedestrians slow their gate when she catches their eyes, and she does catch their eyes. It’s how she is. When she is done, she cracks her neck, strums a single G chord, and begins to sing:

“My home’s in Rockies

But I’m looking for more.

Got a dollar in a jar that’s

just a penny short.”

She takes a breathe and smiles again when a stranger throws a bill at her feet.

“I laced up my boots

and packed up my clothes.

I’m leaving on Sunday

But nobody knows, where I’m goin’ to.”

I’m never ready. She’s not ready either, but she doesn’t know that. She knows music and songs. She knows what it feels like catch the sun or sleep in the stars. She knows the dance of fireflies. She knows how to skip a stone and whistle to jays. I’m never ready.

“The road is a rabbit

and I’m slow and steady.

I don’t say goodbye ‘cuz

I’m n-“

A car, blue, chrome hub caps, a bumper sticker of a paw print, a broken headlight, and a driver too fucking drunk to button up their own shirt clips over the curb. I can only see the back of her head, but I like to think her eyes were closed when it happens. The left wheel catches her leg that wraps around the tire like rubber. Her torso snaps against the bumper as the driver attempts to break. A piece of her flies under the car and into the street, and she is smashed, pinned between an immovable object and a nearly unstoppable force.

Smoke pours from the engine and open windows as the onlookers stare in horror. A child screams. Then everyone screams. Everyone is just screaming and running and screaming, and I am just staring through the window at the battered corpse that has been embedded into my apartment. Hours tick away to the sound of sirens and the flashing of lights. The scene clears quickly once all the suits arrive. The comatose driver is taken away and her pieces are thrown into a body bag.

One would assume that someone would clean up all the blood in a situation like this, but once the street was quiet and empty, coagulating pools dusted with broken glass and chipped paint still littered the sidewalk. I step into the night and listen to the lamps hiss at me as I inspect the street. The outline of their bulbous heads shimmer and warp behind a filter of their small, scorching atmosphere.

I think about gathering up the mess, but I’m not ready. I’m glad it’s about to be over.

The next day passes like nothing happened. An emptiness fills my guts as I watch those on the outside act as if one of their own wasn’t just plucked away. The stage is the same, but the show to come feels wrong, not because something is missing but because something has been replaced. As always, the costumes are vibrant and vain, meant to be seen all the way in the back row. They pace like normal. They know their lines and blocks. No one booked an understudy for the mandolineer, though, but they figure they can make do. The show must go on; it always does.

I stay at my open window all afternoon and wait for the lamps to take their watch for the night. Then, as gently as always, she flutters down the sidewalk to the curb in front of my stoop. She sits, slipping a lock of hair being her ear, and begins to tune a few strings that are, undoubtedly, as unprepared for her arrival as anyone else.

She plays a G, and her voice lists into the waves of a melodious current.

“My home’s in Rockies

But I’m looking for more.

Got a dollar in a jar that’s

just a penny short.

I laced up my boots

and packed up my clothes.

I’m leaving on Sunday

But nobody knows, where I’m goin’ to.

The road is a rabbit

and I’m slow and steady.

I don’t say goodbye ‘cuz

I’m n-“

She looks down at her hands then at the sky. As she sits there, real as anything has ever seemed, I want to reach out and ask her. Obviously, that’s not something one can just do. What is one to say? What is one to not say? Perhaps, nothing. Perhaps, everything. I close the window on the gaslight theatre and leave it for another night.

In the morning, I feel a dry pit in my throat like I swallowed a plum core, and I choose to take my post at the window early instead of breakfast. There is something uncannily comfortable about being just a little empty. As I look out through my vista, the weekend crowd has already begun their day without me. The pottery shop directly across from my apartment has its bay-doors open wide for the summer air and summer patrons. The owner, a woman in her sixties, is drinking tea from one of her own clay mugs, this particular one sporting a painting of a rooster. A cyclist stops when she waves at him, and the two exchange niceties for a couple minutes before they part ways.

I won’t admit it, but I’m waiting for her, all day. I have nothing else to do but watch the stage. Admittedly, the show is usually dull, the visual equivalent of white noise, but that doesn’t stop me from punching my ticket. The open acts are barely worth commenting on, and just as I am beginning to think that the main event won’t show, there she is.

Initially, I’m exhilarated, but the excitement sours into dread. I am an untrusting person by nature. I can’t find the energy or reason to trust virtually anyone, including myself. More so than her being there at all, I’m concerned that I believe that she is there. Maybe it was the violence, the gore of the accident that would lead me to build a fiction where she is alive and well. What is the harm in that? I’m fine.

I think about calling my doctor, because I emptied the pills. I’m really fine though. I would just pick up the phone and tell him that I was fine and that the pills were empty and that that was fine and everything is fine and okay. I don’t call him, though. He’s surely busy.

She sits on the curb, right in the same spot and begins as soon as the sun hits the horizon. Unsurprisingly, everyone else ignores my fantasy. They pass right through her and she doesn’t seem to mind. Periodically, she takes a break to watch the unsuspecting crowds that amble into and out of the assortment of shops. The lights have filled up the strip completely when she rises to her feet. She knots her hair into a ponytail and turns.

Our eyes lock, and I see channels of fresh tears drip down her cheeks. That familiar dread strikes me again in a sharp burst, and I back from the window. I can almost feel the outside pouring in, invading. My brain is starting to float when three sharp knocks pulls me back down to earth. No one is at the door. It’s not real, and I am fine. I try to find my pills, anyway, but I know the bottle is empty.

Three more knocks. I’m so nauseous. Every percussion makes my head feel like it’s going to explode. I was doing so well for so long. Color seems to evaporate from the room around me until everything is a dull, guilty grey. I back myself into a corner; I don’t have it in me to shut the window. She might be there. She might see me, and I’m not crazy.

The knocking stops, but I don’t move. I don’t know if I can move. I wonder why everyone else gets to decide what is real for me. They have been doing it my entire life. Things are real, because they feel real, right? I feel scared. That has to be real.

Hours tick away as slowly as possible, until the world doesn’t seem so mean. That’s how it goes with me. Waves of panic that settle into a placid sea of confusion. In the morning, the sun bleeds red across the sky. It rises and begins to fall, and I sit in my corner watching the shadows grow into long bands across the floor.

The lights flicker on. The mandolin plays, and fury races laps in my veins. She doesn’t belong, and if a lifetime of pills and tests can’t kill her, I can. I lurch at the window, rushing past the little voice that ever only asks for some stillness. She flinches and clutches the instrument tightly in her arms. I stare, and she stares back. A calmness drifts between us like a melody from plucked strings.

“Are you real?” she asks.

The question stops the normally unending chatter that burrow through my brain like termites through a block of rotting wood.

“Am I real?” she inquires again.

I give her the only answer I’ve known, “No.”

“Oh,” she looks at her boots. “Why… why do you think that is?”

I had been asking myself that same question for days. I step to the side and to the door. It swings silently on its hinges, “You died.”

She doesn’t look surprised, “I figured so.”

“A car came through and… and yeah. Then it happened.”

With a soft strum, she plays the open strings, “So, I guess you are too?”

I can’t find the words to reply.

“I lived here my entire life,” she says, “I feel like I should be going somewhere, but I always wind up coming back here. Sometimes, I felt like you were the only one who listened. Kind of funny in a way, everything considered.”

“Can you leave? Please?”

She thinks, “I probably should, right? I think you should too; you can come with me. There isn’t much left here for us, anyway.”

“I don’t think I’m ready for that.”

“I don’t think you ever really will be,” she starts to play as she orients herself toward the south. “You sure?” I nod, and she offers up a melancholy smile. “Okay.”

As she walks away, she sings to herself, hitting familiar chords in a familiar order, and even though I wasn’t ready, my feet moved towards the pull of somewhere else. We trace the cobblestones together, and I know that we won’t be coming back.

She flicks a squinted smile my way, “Where are we going?”

“Out there,” I say, “just past the gaslight.”

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