Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet? The way the silence grows louder, I mean, the way a leaf rustling is a distant roar and you can hear every creaking door within a mile radius. That’s how it starts; we all sit here, lost in the dark. If you dig metaphors, I guess we’re all stranded in an unfamiliar world. In reality, though, it just means we’re all sitting around, high as you please, doing our best to function until the power comes back on.
There are four of us: me, a friend, Louise, and her friend. One of us has a portable radio, battery operated and long since obsolete, and sits it in the middle of the group, face up into the middle to deny the darkness. It works, I suppose, at least a little, and now I can see Louise as she holds out a pipe. The smoke rolls over her fingers like she’s got a handful of rain. She’s tempting me, but not with the bowl. Maybe I let the silence drag on too long. When she says, “You want this?” our eyes are locked and the marijuana has been reduced to a piece of the setting. I can’t defy her, I do want it, and so I take the joint and leave my eyes trained on hers.
Through the window we can see the lights across the alley flicker back to life from our view of the opposite loft, but the light in our circle was still just that radio. This room just stays in darkness and quiet, save for the bang of heat pipes and just the occasional cough. On the radio, a country music station plays a slow, soft tune.
I don’t know how long we sat like that but batteries don’t last forever and soon there’s nothing really playing on the radio, just dull static, and before you know it there’s nothing there to even turn off. The only sounds left, back in the darkness, are just Louise and her lover, who are so entwined that I couldn’t pull them apart if I tried. She doesn’t belong here but I look at her and all I can see are these visions of another woman, of Johanna. That image manages to conquer my mind and I excuse myself to leave.
Outside is cold and the chill is welcome. A little chill in your bones lets you know when you’re still alive. The empty lot near the apartment is where the ladies gather and put on the only play they’ve ever rehearsed for the neighborhood johns. They pace in the dark like it’s a game of blind man’s bluff, with each woman in the dark just waiting for the jingle of a key chain to point them in the right direction.
Sometimes there aren’t any keys jangling and no men to buy them. They are the last ones on the street, all-night girls, they who know each other’s stories intimately from whispers. They tell a whisper-chain of stories about their escapes and escapades. One will say that she got raped, another got lucky, a third got out, another just got mugged on the “D” train.
I know a couple of them. I rode the subway with Lily a couple times; we talked. Kitty bought me a coffee when I said, “hey, man,” to some guy who was giving her trouble. I wonder what she would have offered if I’d actually helped. She still jokes that I can cash that in anytime when I’m alone and I smile for her. The only other person to hear is the night watchman, who sits there just to click, click, click his flashlight off and on and wait for time to die.
I went to ask him something once but he was talking to himself and I didn’t want to interrupt. I want to ask if he thought it’s him who was normal or them. Click, click, click. All night. That’s the only reason I wanted to ask; I needed to know if he really was just insane.
I look up to the dark room of the apartment and when I glance back, there’s Louise, following behind me. We’re not an item, not really. I like her, she’s alight, but she’s just nowhere near what I need. She’s too delicate and always seems to be just on the verge of breaking. She’s like a reflection of another, the fragile image in the mirror. So, yes, I like her, but she just makes it hard for me, in whichever way you want to take that. All I mean, I guess, is that she’s too concise and too clear an example of the raw fact of the matter: that Johanna’s not here.
Louise could play the ghost of Johanna in a play but the electricity of life isn’t there. Johanna howls with it, settled down into the core of her being, crackling in the bones of her face, down where sex incarnate waits. I look at Louise and I can see these visions of Johanna flicker like a spark of static electricity. I have a few dollars now, the rest of my money rolled up and smoked, and I haven’t taken her out in a long time, so we go to get a cup of coffee. My seat happened to be the same place I’d sat with Kitty.
Now I’m here alone, like a little boy who got lost in a department store and is waiting on his mother. Louise’s current beau found his way here somehow. He takes two steps in the door and yells for her, making a big ass of himself and Louise. So I sit, wait, and view everything very seriously, just like the other onlookers.
He calls himself Transient and I have no clue what his real name is so I just shorten it to Tranny. He’s the kind who brags about all of his pain and misery. He likes to put on a show, look tough, live dangerously. He calls and when he does Louise is bringing herself to him, like he owns her. His name doesn’t matter; he’s a fuck-up. He says something but the language he speaks is sub-human. It’s some kind of a greeting or a farewell, perhaps both. They turn to leave, she blows a kiss to me, and now I’m alone.
He’s sure that he’s a genius and that he’s got everything women want. It’s a lot of bullshit, is what it is. It takes some gall to act so important and be so completely useless. And the strange thing, I don’t really care about Tranny at all. I don’t care about his muttering half-language, his small talk, any of it. He’s at the wall, the end of his evolution, while the rest of the world continues to develop.
One more cup of coffee later, I’m on my way home. It’s not far. I wave to the ladies as I pass. Most of them probably think I’m a creep. A couple might actually recognize me and think I’m nice. Personally, I’m undecided. The trek is short and I’m no sooner past the call girls than I’m in the hall, then in my bed, hoping for sleep.
Well, I suppose, another disturbingly boring night. I’d explain better but I don’t think I know how. Can I explain the way time moves when you don’t have what you need most in life? Oh, sure, it moves in seconds and minutes and hours, just like the rest of the time, but it’s so hard for each second to get into the past from those moments. So I lay on my bed and let these same visions of Johanna haunt me, until they kill the seconds for me and have kept me up past the dawn.
I kept my eyes open all night but sometimes dreams aren’t only a thing of sleep. I dreamed for a moment, a brief moment that stretched and twisted into a whole scene, that I was inside some monolithic art gallery, the ultimate maze of museums. Artists have attempted to capture her beauty everywhere. Infinity makes room for the works dedicated to her. The moment all of the artists have waited for is coming to pass; each work is brought before me, the judge, and goes up on the stand to be put on trial. One by one I dismiss them, seeing not one rendition from all the most talented artists of history and the future, working forward into eternity.
Each one is beautiful in its own right, just like Louise, so I feel bad when the voices around me echo disbelief. I hear them say, “This is what salvation must be like,” but they’re wrong. After a while, it’s more like hell, always shown that cool glass of water and never tasting it. But screw them, even the Mona Lisa is a fraud. She must’ve had some shimmer of that electricity but it isn’t something that can be caught. She looked like Johanna with the highway blues. She looks like she’s as bored of two-dimensional life as I am. You can tell she is by looking at the way she smiles.
Then I see that the voices are not artists. This is a museum; the artists are all dead. Like a primitive animal or an obscure wallflower, I freeze. When I look around are the paintings, the statues, but also the patrons. There are mustachioed men casting their judgments with me, sticky jelly-faced children, and high class women all in dresses.
Then I sneeze. For a moment, everybody is looking at me, the asshole who sneezed on the Mona Fucking Lisa. I hear the one with the mustache say something stereotypically snobby, something like, “Jeeze, kids these days just don’t have any darn manners!” My legs grow wobbly and slack, I can’t find my balance, and my knees give out. Suddenly I’m lying on the ground, rendered immobile but the overwhelming prevalence of her face.
Oh, the other people are still there, still watching me. Women in jewels and rings are peering through tiny binoculars that hang from the necks of each. They’re like the paintings, too, all painted up to look as pretty as they can; I see each one with a foreign head in place of anything human, the big face of a mule staring. I want to shield myself but each of these paintings and faces bring more visions of Johanna, and they make it all seem so cruel.
I still haven’t slept but I’m not quite awake, either. The sun is getting ready to break the horizon and I’m thinking of a peddler. I’m seeing him walk into a grand room, now speaks up to a beautiful woman, the countess, who’s pretending to care for him.
He’s huddled at the hem of her skirt like a child, saying, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him.” I want to look but it’s pointless. Just like Louise always says, “You can’t look at much, can you, man?” and she’s right, as she frequently is, but she herself prepares for the next as she prepared for him. I see it all there, in half-dream, and I look for the holy Madonna, but she still has not showed.
We all sit here, stranded, and see this empty cage around us as it now begins to corrode. The dream crumbles. A dream without Johanna is not a dream. It’s a thought left behind where her cape of the stage once had flowed.
I dream that I am the fiddler, the singer of his own song and teller of his own tale, as he now steps to the road. I dream that I am him as he writes, “everything’s been returned which was owed.” It’s a black felt-tip pen on the back of a fish truck. That truck is gone as soon as it loads, taking my message with it. It drives away while my conscience cries at me for mercy, screams, shrieks, explodes.
In the wreckage of the explosion, I can hear the sound of harmonicas in the distance as they play the skeleton keys before the sound is lost in the rain of debris. Then the crash is over, the music silent, and the whole world is still and these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.