23 January 2012
Laika – Mitch Cunningham
Laika by Mitch Cunningham (22)
So Julie went to see him for the first time in a year. The next town over, an hour or so on the new highway. Early evening sun caught in her eyes, the dust on her jacket shoulder. Stuffed beige files, stacked a foot high on her passenger seat – the deathbed pleas of a dozen small businesses. Took an ice-cold bitch to drop the hammer, but she’d been called worse. Wheat on the right, sheep on the left. She felt like she was going home. The idea made her queasy. She switched off, concentrated on lane changes.
They owed each other nothing. It wasn’t too late to turn around. It would never be too late to turn around. This thought made her unable to stop, so she gripped the wheel and watched specks on the horizon. She’d never been so well. She’d wrapped herself in the city, her run of good luck, her litany of opportunities taken, her sudden career. And she’d done it alone.
No one had heard from him in six months. A week ago, an old friend had asked Julie if he was perhaps staying with her. She’d nearly done a real spit-take. It annoyed her that, after so long, folk assumed that he was her concern. The last time they spoke, a year ago, he wouldn’t shut up about Superman. Now every time she tried to recall their three years together, her memory froze on that last encounter. It annoyed her that, when she’d called him today, his phone was disconnected. Incompetence, she thought, disregard for the basics. He was fine, surely. What annoyed her most, though, was the nagging impulse to check.
His new place was a small apartment off the freeway, surrounded by private acreages with half-built houses. Two floors of red brick rooms wrapped around a leaf-blown courtyard. Felt like a motel, but strangers smoked in corners, and washing hung from the second floor balcony. 11 Holiday Road or, to be precise, 13/11 Holiday Road. Julie’s heels clip-clopped across the square. She hadn’t seen his car. Though the fountain was empty, she heard the muted sounds of running water, late-afternoon TV chatter. She climbed the concrete steps, felt a dry breeze on her cheek. Her heart wasn’t racing. In fact, she felt a disquieting stillness. This is what it feels like to pay attention, she thought. The sun was low, and she cast a long shadow on the wall.
Room 13 wasn’t the thirteenth room, just the third room on the first floor. The apartment complex had a total of eighteen rooms, with nine on the ground floor and nine above. Room 13, then, was the twelfth room. Julie tripped over her feet thinking about it. The white door, with a gold plastic 1-3, stood slightly ajar behind the screen door. The window, to the right of the door, was covered from inside by taped cardboard. She knocked and listened for a heartbeat. She stepped in, gently closed the door.
The spinning fan and ticking clock deceived her; the place was unoccupied. Pale blue walls and wood floors. A short entryway joined three rooms – small bathroom to the left, closed door on the right, straight through to the living room. She walked in slowly, assessed his possessions. Cheap card table, buried in broadsheets, comic books and crockery. Sweat-stained shirts draped over a three-seater couch, kitchenette bench and coffee table. Familiar film posters across the walls – The Terminator, Magnum Force, Donner’s Superman. Hundreds of paperbacks, not enough shelves. And amid this debris an immaculate writing desk, bare but for a closed laptop and multiple copies of the same book.
Julie examined the cover. It startled her to see him in print. The soft cover featured the image of a hooded man pushing a pyramid. There was no photo at the back, the barest of biographies, and faint praise from an unknown literary critic. The book was published by MacGuffin Press, a fact she reflexively ignored. Glancing at the door, she opened to a story, one of the shorter ones, called ‘Laika’:
She was a slender synaesthete in daydream pink. She’d whisper and chuckle on hidden whims ‘til he or him or they or them lost track of space and times.
But the tiny town sunlight bore and pinched and clawed, said “Leather-strap roadhouse hag! Barren mug and pregnant puddle! Melted on the kitchen table!” Every left eye blackened, every belly sagged and every word was swallowed. Not me, not mine, she cried, not here!
So her parents locked her in a soundproofed garden bed, telling tall tales of submissive princesses and processions of snake-oil royalty. Outside her tended Eden were fertile paddocks ploughed by filth-encrusted musclemen in fuckoff leather, bursting buckles and knuckle-white grins.
The sudden clamour of the screen door sent a bolt through Julie’s spine. Outside, a muffled curse, the clink of keys. She stumbled from the desk, around and behind the kitchen bench, clutching her handbag and book. Her head spun. What was she doing here, in this town, inside? Clint Eastwood pointed a gun at her from over the counter. She noticed that his eye had been scribbled over with pen. The home phone dangled beside her head, wires neatly cut. The annotated newspaper pages beneath her. The orange sky behind the kitchen curtains, first stars appearing.
The front door opened, while the screen door whistled. Footsteps, coughing, and a small thud. Another door closed, and… pissing? Julie peered over the counter. Grocery bags by the open door. She slipped off her heels, dropped them and his book into her handbag, and ran barefoot across the room. She was outside, breathing heavy, less than fifteen seconds later.
Julie booked a room at a nearby Best Western. There was no point in seeing family, old friends – she’d never intended to stay the night. But she’d messed up, been a trespasser and a thief, and found out nothing. The blue shirt and track pants from the back of her car had that faint sweat scent, but made great pyjamas. The room had that private, quiet glow she’d often felt in motels – amber lamplight bounced off the buffet mirror as she washed her face in the sink. She found jazz on the clock radio, crackling so far from the city, and sipped a strong coffee.
She stared into the muted set, collecting herself. She’d go tomorrow, maybe play the “in the neighbourhood” card. Just passing through. It’s nothing, really. Something told her it wouldn’t be like that. She tried to picture his silhouette as he’d walked in the front door, but it made her anxious. Today, she’d been terrified of him, the sullen tomb on Holiday Road, the figure in the door frame. There was a man selling God for five easy payments of nineteen ninety-five. Ninety-nine seventy-five, she clicked. A distant Lester Young cracked saxophone jokes, and Julie lost time.
She woke around two AM, cold coffee beside her. There was a sitcom on the TV, and Lester had been replaced by Dizzy Gillespie. She paced for a minute, back and neck aching. Still half-tranced, she opened his book and sat at the table.
She strutted into the village, moonlit, sparkling and sixteen. Found the loudest townhouse, blew a kiss to the doorman. There was a barrel-chested, pump-action man named Buckshot at the back of the hall, simmering on his throne. She walked right up, past the local lads, past the old bastards, past the greasy hoodlums. She wrapped herself around him and bit his ear, whispering, “Get me out of here.”
They went out back; he tied her up and shoved her in his trailer, next to shovels and chainsaws. They flew east, then north at the ocean, for weeks and weeks. At night he’d tear her to pieces while she thought of old films. Past the state border she was allowed to sit up front. She loved him with all her heart.
It felt like something you ought to find scrawled on a wall. Julie felt the room get bigger, the traffic get louder. Her finger and toenails began to itch, and she curled her hands and feet til the blood drained out. It actually hurt her that he’d written something like this. The creature Buckshot grinning, eyes white. She pictured him at the door on Holiday Road. Her heart beat faster.
The buildings of the city twisted above her head, sinewy minarets of blank-faced business. He took her to a hideout under a pool hall, padded-couch roaches on yellow mattresses, shotguns in the cupboard. His comrades eyed her, licked their own faces and whimpered, but Buckshot beat his chest and roared, and there was stillness.
He was killed in a card game, pinned to his chair by disguised waiters and shot in the face. She felt it happen, and crept out over drunk bodies by the cover of day. The big city sunlight didn’t give no fuck, muttered “Picket shell by dirty river… Withered under bridge and alley…” She clutched her potato sack dress a little closer.
Julie remembered his stories better than she remembered him. She used to giggle at stories of time travellers and thinking robots, and he used to get so proud of himself. She looked at the black between the window curtains, listened for footsteps. When she slept, she dreamt a crocodile chased her off a cliff.
She didn’t go back straight away. She woke early, and found herself driving in decaying orbits around the suburbs. She kept the windows up, the radio loud, as if to avoid contamination. Once she saw a man she recognised, a first chair violinist with curly hair and a scarred face, but the light changed and she drifted on. Julie bristled at the thought of old acquaintances. She couldn’t bring herself to indulge them. Do you still play? You were so talented! No. To the folks back home, she must be nowhere, no one.
That’s enough, she told herself, harden the fuck up. She weaved through the shady streets until she reached the main road, which took her past the weekend markets, football fields and two-storey office buildings. It all passed in a muted blur, like a dull, familiar headache. Damn it, let me give up the ghost. Main Street became the freeway, and the freeway became Holiday Road. The clouds gave way to the midday sun, and she stood at the gate of the complex, pausing for a moment.
There was a young boy in the courtyard, three or four, riding a tricycle in circles while his dad smoked a cigarette on the staircase. The man looked up at Julie as she approached, grinned a little too broadly.
“You looking for someone?” he leered. She didn’t reply.
His door was locked. He didn’t answer when she rapped on the door. Nobody answered when she hammered on the door with both fists, when she uttered foul curses through the keyhole. She banged on the window, possessed, until she left a crack in the glass. Still, nothing. It wrecked her, over and over. She could barely leave a mark.
She sat in her car, pulling the lever beside her seat and pushing on the dashboard with her leg to give herself some room. The dry vista outside her windscreen, empty houses on enormous poorly-watered lots, seemed to invite and deny at once. She turned up the air conditioning before the midday sun baked her alive and, against her better judgement, began thumbing through his book. Her frantic jumps from page to page revealed nothing. Individual images jumped out at her and, divorced of context, disappeared in the shadows, fugitives in the marketplace. Was she being trapped? Tricked? She couldn’t say for sure that her thoughts were her own. If she hit the freeway right now, would it just spit her out at his doorstep?
They found her outside a grease-trap diner, thin hand against the window. They were Ransom and Ernst, entrepreneurs who dressed like senators. Ransom spoke sweetly while Ernst lit her up: “We got a show,” he said, “We got a show on a stage in a club. Nothing like that, don’t be silly! Girl like you doesn’t stoop to that level. Get you a burger?” The lights on the top floors died, and the buildings fell closer to earth.
They wrapped her in a tight red dress, caked her once-young face in rouge and kohl, and threw her on the stage, backlit by constellations. An orchestra swelled from unseen speakers. She didn’t know the words, she didn’t know the melody, and all the doors were locked, so she just wept. The gentry ate it up; every night was a full house. They changed the song, changed the dress, but night after night she was sacrificed, suffocated on the starlit altar.
Decades passed. Ernst died of a tumour and Ransom, devastated, took his own life. Freed from her contract, she took the old train south with the money she’d saved. Worked the rest of her life at a sun-bleached roadhouse, cooking eggs in grease and pouring coffee for truck drivers. She never married, rented a small house in a small town, lived alone. In the evening she smoked on the front porch, watching the orange sun set without a word.
One night, when she was fifty-one years old, she took a navy-blue pen to virgin paper. In crackling lamplight, she wrote a small poem which she called ‘Laika,’ after the Russian dog:
there once was
oh lord –
On the night of May 1st, 2009, police found the otherwise empty book at her bedside. She had passed away peacefully at the age of seventy, in a room surrounded by flowers.
She became an inexhaustible star at the galaxy’s centre.
She sped towards the town, crying softly, as if she were a warhead and her second-hand Mitsubishi the missile. The time was 2:30pm, her speed 135, she was 22 years old and the city centre was 15 minutes away. She would break orbit or kill herself trying. She flung herself to the same motel, to the same room, and sprawled on the bed like a crushed bug. She dreamt of losing a ring in the sand.
When he was eighteen, she’d dragged him to a concert. The old red curtains split, and she stood front and centre, like the clouds had parted. She wore loose army fatigues, with a small cap on her short pixie’s hair, and held her clarinet just over her heart. She played Benny Goodman. It was easily the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
Julie woke around 2 AM, numb with cold. She turned on the TV to scare off intruders, left it on a Japanese film. Calm now, seated at the table, she tore a page from her beige work folder and wrote on the back, feeling the ink bleed out of her pen:
once upon… there once was… and she… but then… and yet… so… oh Lord –
Nothing changed. She folded the page in half, then quarter, placed it in her breast pocket. Still dressed, she stepped into the night outside.
She always mistook distant cars for howls of wind. Finding the lock of her car by the light of her motel window, she pulled out into the streets that had scared her as a teenager. Beneath every streetlight, she’d pictured regular people making pacts with drug dealers, mobsters and the devil. Private security lights lit up odd fragments of random buildings, the top of a Scout hall here, the edge of a corner store there. They used to walk these streets, listening for unfamiliar sounds, kicking rocks.
She thought of the man pushing the pyramid, Clint Eastwood’s eyes, the coughing Buckshot at the door. The streetlights melted into empty country road, before springing up again in the outermost suburbs. She pulled up beneath a tree on Holiday Road, slammed the door, and stepped across the courtyard. Her heels echoed like gunshots in the moonlit air. Not a single light peeped from either floor of the complex. She stumbled briefly on the dark staircase, made her way to the twelfth room.
“Let me in,” she muttered to no one, banging her fist on the door. To her surprise, it opened with ease, revealing once more the interior of his home. The moon hung bare in the kitchen window, filling the living room with blue-black shapes. It wasn’t too late to stop. It would never be too late to stop.
She knew where he had to be – behind the bedroom door to her right. Hands shaking, she pushed the door open, revealing darkness, and felt behind the wall for a switch. Wake up, you fool.
“John?” she calls. The light globe flares.
Prickly lights crowd the corner of her eyes as she stumbles in the dark. Adrift. She drives with the lights off until she hits the freeway, the moon and sparse stars overhead. She thinks of electrons splitting, and drives on, free and alone as a loose end.