At the Book Reading
Petals of light from the disco ball lick the author’s forehead. The venue double-booked, a velvet rope is all that separates the reading from a junior high school dance. The men and women of the audience sit in folding chairs, the men on one side, the women on the other. No one can hear the author’s voice over the headache-throbs of the music and the keening of rejected girls deflating on the bleachers, flowered corsages blooming from the train track scars on their wrists. The kids dance by rubbing their tiny adolescent genitals together through dry cleaned church pants and dresses postmarked to mildewy thrift store bins of the near future.
No one here will buy his book, this much the author knows. He could be at home, bathed in the blue glow of a computer monitor as he refreshes his Amazon.com author page and watches his sales rank sink into a sea of eight digits. One man crosses the aisle to the women’s side and takes an empty seat next to a cartoon-eyed blonde. When he leans to whisper something in her ear, a chaperone, a woman with an Easter Island brow, measures their distance with a ruler and pushes them precisely twelve inches apart. Meanwhile, bra straps inchworm off shoulders and erections break out like acne. A boy and girl are horizontal on the floor, her skirt tulip-blossomed around her waist, his finger hooking the elastic strap of her panties. A flock of black latex balloons, driven by the static charge of their dry humping, swarms them like crows in Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Fog machine smoke stings the author’s eyes. He slams his book closed and looks out at the audience. They file their nails, nod off and snore, pull their hoods over their heads to cover ear buds. They guffaw into cell phones, blow their noses like vuvuzelas, hide issues of Mad Magazine in copies of the book they pretend to read along with. They kneel and pray to their gods, masturbate under hulking Gore-Tex coats, yell “Freebird!” even though no one thinks it’s funny. “Look,” the author says and forces a smile, black tobacco peppering his gums. “There are candy bars under your seats. You can eat them on the ride home.” He waves his arms, not a little desperately. It was his agent’s idea. “There are candy bars taped to the bottoms of your chairs.” They drop their heads between their legs, duck-and-cover-style. But they’re only Mars Bars, unwrapped and covered with dust. Everyone leaves without taking one, even the author, poor and starving, whose tweed elbow patches are not an affectation but a necessity. He can’t afford a new jacket.
After the dance, one of the junior high kids, a pimple-headed punk named Keith, who has been sentenced to clean-up duty as punishment for wearing mirrors on his shoes, will pluck them by their scotch tape stems and carry them in the fold of his shirt to the pool room. He will toss the chocolates one-by-one and laugh at the turd-splash sound they make. The image of the candy bars floating in the chlorine-blue water will move him so deeply that he’ll write a poem describing it. It will never be read, nor burned in tear-streaked shame in the fire pit next to the rusted, swingless swing set in his backyard. Years later when Keith is a sophomore in high school, it’ll still be there, with a rolled up Hustler and a plastic baggie of marijuana, sandwiched between the stained and too-small mattresses he’s slept on since he was a baby. And if Keith had a mom who cared, if he had a mom at all, she might find it one day while stripping the bed and seal it to the refrigerator with a magnet image of the Grand Canyon.
But Keith has never been to the Grand Canyon, his sheets are still dirty, the refrigerator broken, the milk spoiled. Try to remember this when he slams you against a locker and calls you a faggot, when he blackens your eye and breaks your finger. Try to forgive him.
Dismembered Girl Group Singers of the Mid-1960s
Benjamin Bussley was never a Beatlemaniac. He preferred the chirps and timpanis of girl groups, productions layered like American split level homes, to the curled, Brit-accented harmonies of the Fab Four. Towering walls of sound built by Phil Spector, the precise stereophonic keening of Lesley Gore, wailing strings threading mournfully through the Shirelles’ sha la la’s, that sort of thing. As a boy he collected the magazines: Teen Screen, Tiger Beat, Dig, Fifteen, Sixteen, Bravo, For Teens Only, Modern Teen. He cut out photos of his favorites, tracing their shellac-stiff bouffants and sharp leather boots with an exacto knife that made slits in the carpet, for which his mother would slap him, so hard that the room quivered and a triangle’s chime hung forever in his left ear. It was not such a hindrance in the age of monaural recordings. At night, in the dim light of his bedroom, he sliced the arms and legs from the clippings and stirred them in a flat newsprint soup, reattaching them Frankenstein-style with glue onto colored pasteboard. A Supreme shimmied in a Buttercup’s heels; the wild watusi-ing elbows of an Angel shivered below the ice-cold street-stare of a Shangri-La; Little Eva and Peggy March, on one Siamese neck, blew melodies across each other’s lips.
You know now that he grew up and became one of America’s celebrity monsters, his dead-eyed grayscale visage haunting gruesome headlines that soon doubled as titles of movies of the week and dog-eared novelizations. Victims’ limbs plucked out like the plastic appendages of Barbie dolls, read the caption to a photo featured in one of the less scrupulous tabloids.
The songs were like movies in audio. “Pocket melodramas,” the DJs called them. “It’s My Party,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?,” “Leader of the Pack.” Tragedies, every one of them, grisly deaths and aching hormones, the pain of bereavement no more potent than that of a rejected kiss. Who wouldn’t want to live in those lurid little worlds, to smell the burnt rubber of motorcycle wheels, to taste the briny tears in the birthday cake, at least for two or three minutes at a time?
Luke Geddes’s fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Mid-American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Washington Square, and others. He also writes for The Comics Journal and Electric Literature. His short story collection, I Am a Magical Teenage Princess, was published by Chômu Press in 2012. He has a PhD in comparative literature and creative writing from the University of Cincinnati, and lives in Cincinnati.
Photo credit: kconnors, morguefile.com