Volume 27, Number 2

Unfinished Business

Amber Mikell

You can break a window pane with the single tap of a hammer, or you can delete thirty-eight pages with the tap of a finger, or you can delete thirty-eight years of life and one tumultuous love affair with one shot of heroin. From the window you are left with shards of glass, from thirty-eight pages you are left with a ghostly afterimage of nouns and verbs, maybe the tortured echo of bad grammar in your ear. You are left, also, with something when the life goes. Something. Unfinished business. You are left with the question of what to save, what to discard, for one thing. Names, faces, innocence. To write a story you have to have a language. To tell a story you have to have a language. A story can tell itself for years inside of you. A story that will not stop telling itself until someone hears it. Pages made of glass from a book of glass, words that jingle for years, jingle on and on like glass jars tucked side by side up on the top of a refrigerator. Once upon a time upon another time… And then, and then… Ringing bells as you go about your business, making cake, breaking an egg, sipping coffee. Ringing bells. 
You need someone who understands glass. You need to make the story stop, melt the story down, make a vase. If you could, you would tell the story in glass flowers. In tchotchkes. He’s thirty-eight, dead, handsome. He was handsome in jail, a polaroid in front of red paper, buff from working out for five years for fear of becoming some cellmate’s soulmate. Blue soft cotton work-release pants, white shirt, cigarettes in his sleeve, one out of three innocent men. The one. Just because something is instinctual doesn’t mean it’s right. She wanted him. She wanted Glass Houses, PBS afterschool special turned Jerry Springer, turned grainy documentary about the deleterious effects of daily heroin use on intimate relationships. Every instant that hunger was there; the hell of addiction is that never-change.
The car window rolled up on her neck, the typewriter dropped on her back, the way he swung her head into walls by the hair time and time again. I told you, right? She always loved him. They did love. This was passion. Passion rested on and was torn from her, torn in a line through flesh with a bloodiness that shocked both of them. The balletic interchange, the deliberate and accidental exchange of bone, blood, meat and hair. They ran and returned, the violence too quick to hold. They ran out and in. They ran. Remembering only the way they were held, the way they fit length to length when the violence was done. Blue, shooting heroin. Blue from lack of oxygen, truly blue. Blue lips, blue at the corners of his eyes. She didn’t know if his heart still beat that time. She did not save him; someone else did. Someone with less to lose. He came back angry. Weak. 
She turned blue more often than him, though no less dramatically. Sometimes he brought her back. It was bound to happen. Somebody was going to die. Somebody was probably there the last time he turned blue. Somebody did not lock the door. She wasn’t there; it was another life and another. Her tendency to replace lives was innate. She retained something like genes post-metamorphosis. A blue-eyed darner, maybe, passing from phase to phase, habitat to habitat. From wormy water-breathing nymph to flying sex machine. If she ever stopped moving you could see the world through the paper-thin glass of her wings, the world as she saw it, blurred, cracked, dim. They were a couple of Smurfy, raggedy kids wearing some Smurf-tinted glasses. She had the naïve, round, blue-lidded eye of an adolescent. They were children, really. She was a child dancing with a mirror, and he was a child dancing with a mirror. A child and another child dancing on death’s edge, forgetting the fall out, the screams, remembering what it had felt like to climb a tree up to the thinnest limbs and let the wind rock them to peace. They recalled for each other what it was like to love, and this reflection was as close as they could get to loving. In the blood and filth her tears were few. She was not connected enough to life to cry.
He called her the last time they spoke. All she had was that scrap of soul that belonged to him. A spun-glass tatter, a rag. She pressed it to her face. Her skin burned. She breathed in, lungs itching, heaving. She would not let go. She did not have a soul of her own. She said it would not be her this time. She would not be going home. This had all happened before, is still happening. Still happening all the time with different names, different faces, different degrees of guilt. And it is all still the same. This time he went home. He died. The back of another man’s head moved to the door. The blue sin, the golden anniversary clock gazed serenely out at another death from its dome. Dying had happened in that house before this. Dying happens in houses that live long. Stories within stories, she said. We are stained glass. He pushed her to the other side, dying like that, left her alive, drugless, alone in a world that felt like Fat Tuesday. People threw candy and oranges. She wandered through the endless parade with her painful pitiful scrap of soul like someone back from the dead, which of course she was.
One day she took a bus. It felt like riding a tornado that was lying on its side. She was not high or drunk. Just riding. Her mind came and went. Face against the window, she woke. Pulled the cable. The bus stopped. She stopped the bus because she woke up, not because she got somewhere she wanted to be. She stepped out. Concrete, trash piled like leaves in corners. Familiar scent in the air. The old familiar run, the run of her nightmares, the run through the streets from him and toward him. The key to survival, the ever changing biome, out of one life into another just ahead of death. A breath. Remember, remember. Walk, don’t run. And she started to walk like this. She walked the old way. She breathed like she used to. Hard, fast. Her eyes opened as wide as they would go. A sea of fear washed over her. Her legs churned water. She was going to die. Something she could do. Well, yes, there was something but she did not have the strength to readapt to the old way now. The old way was tough on old bones. The old way turned young bones old. She did not have what she needed to go back. She had something else. She had liked the parade after all, after some of the fear had worn off. She had begun to enjoy the costumes. She had eaten an orange. She desired to stay.
Never alone, they said in meetings. Bullshit. The bus driver was gone. The parade was marching down another street. Even rats were hiding today. Pray. She remembered... How? Not to a shiny new god with her nasty old self. To Whom it May Concern… she began. No one cares. No one cares. Pray for pretend, a tea party, dolls… Have an amen, dear? Please, thank you. She passed an amen sometimes just in case but she didn’t believe in it. Bus stop shelters slid by. She covered ground. A look of having somewhere to go. Eyes touched her back from behind shattered windows, darkened doorways. Something in her mouth. A distaste. Something in her mind was waking. Bad news was waking. If she did not hurry it would take care of everything. Badly. Walk, don’t run. Pray… how? Teacups, party dresses. Street flooded with dirty fear. Fear her religion. Needing a new religion. Some shining good new god probably did hang in the sky but she could not get high enough. She never could get as high as she needed and now again the same problem. Climbing as far up into the sky of her soul that she could, she extended herself beyond any distance she’d ever gone. She reached as far as she could until she got to him. He was there. Not an angel, not god, but Jimmy. His bad self. He was up there, a little below god, but closer than she was. There was a light around him. Closer to clean than either of them had ever been. Jimmy, she cried, Jimmy, help me! I’m in trouble, and I’m not going to make it!
The strangest thing happened. She could suddenly feel him. If she closed her eyes (she would not, but if she did) she would see him. A very difficult story. Later she could never get it right. Vintage glass. The glass corners of its glass pages dog-eared and scarred. Parts missing. Not magic. No, not magic. Not even special really. She felt him. He was not angry. At last, he was not angry. How bad it had been! Blankets nailed over windows. Bugs in food. Bugs in their hair. The grinding hunger for more drugs, for the parts of each other they could never have. Fights over food, sex, catshit, fire, garbage, bugs, drugs, bottles. Here was Jimmy in the light. He came because she called. He came from a good place where a new god was. Maybe he was a hallucination. If he was, at least he helped. His arm brushed hers, a beam of sunlight. A church feeling. The feeling she got as a child in church when no other people were in there.

I missed you, she said in her mind. 

I love you, he said, the same. 
She felt the scrap of soul she still held adhere to the place in her heart where she lacked a soul. She felt its sting ease, its stem fill with life, its roots find purchase deep within. Her feet pressed more firmly on the ground. She and her unfinished business walked like they had walked before things went bad. They walked as they had been meant to walk, as they had been before either of them had come down to earth. When they were just spirits in spirit school, looking down, wondering what they wanted to learn. They walked side by side through the mean street, stop to stop. A bus would come. Keep moving. Walk, don’t run. The terrible bad waking in her mind relaxed. The eyes behind windows and doors saw him. They saw him not in the body but in the way she walked, beside him, like when you go to pour something from a large, heavy glass into a small glass and you don’t hesitate at all and it goes right in. She walked in a thick, confident stream. A bus would come. They would meet a bus at the stop if they just kept walking. She could get back on then. She could leave this place. He walked with her until a bus did come. She didn’t realize he had left until she was on the bus, until she had already talked to the driver. Found out where they were headed. She didn’t realize that she felt uncoupled. That she felt uncustomarily free. She didn't realize, until she pressed her face against the window and looked out at everything she was leaving behind, that he was gone.