From: The Inman Review Volume 1: Fall 2009

 

Fiction

Red Heart
by Henry Gasket  (Yes, we invented the contributors for the first issue of the magazine.)

 

I

Twenty-four channel board, sliders, finger tips.

Turning knobs, electric songs, silent linger kiss.

Fade it in, and trim it out, gunpowder fill the room.

Sit and stare, like stage light glare, louder than the womb.

 

Fooled again! I thought. The poetry is mine. They never ask me to turn that up or turn it down, or give them MORE in their godforsaken monitors. They don’t even know its there. It’s safer that way, safer in my head. You’ve got to protect what you’ve got.

“Hey! Hey you! Sound guy! You ready?”

I looked up scornfully. Didn’t he know I was busy? Did he really think I had nothing better to do than to plug in microphones and push buttons? He couldn’t tell from my face that I knew him. He was stupid and helpless. I heard the way he talked. I watched him bouncing around so excited for his thirty-five minutes under the spotlight. I looked down at my coffee and swirled it around. I didn’t want him to think that he could order me around.

I took a sip, lowered the mug and let it slip out of my fingers and wobble still. I reached deliberately towards the board and turned on the control room mic.

“Kick drum please.”

I leaked the words like gas from a severed pipeline, but there weren’t any matches. Not even a Bic gas-station-counter lighter. I couldn’t stall anymore, it was happening.

thump…thump…thump—he responded.

The drummer was the bloody heart of the whole mess. It always started with him. All night he would beat incessantly while the others ran out like veins letting it pulse through them. He didn’t even know what he was doing; he just went on pumping it through, one beat after another. He thought it was just a game.   He looked at me for approval and I pretended not to see.

thump…thump…thump—he went on.

The signal light on channel eight lit and flickered. I moved the fader up to five decibels and the pounding grew heavier. At ten my temples swelled with each thump. I left it there for just long enough to taste the headache then slid the fader back to five.

“Bass guitar next.”

 

By the time the sound check ended, the coffee was hot, black hot. From behind the bar, the room looked different, open, flashing, not like the foggy drab that I could see from the control room, but something different. I saw Aaron, the bartender. He was part of it. When the people came, he smiled and slid drinks across the counter. They asked him questions about Cambridge and about his favorite cocktails and what he thought of the news or their trendy clothes. Then, they left dollar bills wedged under their empty glasses, gulped and staggered, smiled drunkenly and told him that they hoped he’d be here next time. Once the show started, he worked all night. He knew what they wanted and he knew how to give it to them, sucking them in. Then, when they were vulnerable he bit. He filled their minds with booze and his pockets with cash. He didn’t try with me. I was too smart for that. When he saw me, he slithered away.

Aaron pretended that he was busy dragging that dirty white cloth across the bar while I poured my cup of coffee. He wiped and wiped. Maybe, he thought if he kept shining the bar for long enough that he wouldn’t have to talk to me. The soapy rag crept back and forth, again and again, then in circles, like it was pacing. I stared hard and he just pushed his long shiny hair behind his black-rimmed glasses with snobby nonchalance. He pushed two cards face down across the table. I turned up the corner of the first, just enough to read the suit. My bet first; I wondered who would last longer. It was a battle and I wouldn’t let him win, not again. I started to see Aaron’s reflection in the bar but he kept cleaning. It shined sharp and beautiful, even in the dark room, clearer and clearer. Then it broke, more than a reflection, two of him and one of me, all in.

“I fold,” I said aloud, no answer.

I climbed back into my booth and looked across the audience. On stage, the skinny clowns swayed back and forth as if they were on the deck of some beastly wooden ship.   In tidal swell, a barrel rolled down and slammed through the gunwale, the cymbals crashed. The guitarist lost his legs and line to safety. Unplugged, he held his instrument in the air and stumbled for footing. I was the god of the winds and the sea. My laughter was the thunder. I laid my fingers across all the sliders and inched them up, louder, louder. Another swell, and they stumbled helplessly down the inverted deck like marbles rolling over the edge of the stairs. The bassist slammed against the railing and pulled the keyboard overboard. The clouds over the stage crashed when the song ended. I pulled the faders down and gathered them all in greedily. The band bowed after the song was done, feeble, exhausted, tormented and the audience roared.

 

Then I saw her and I felt like a lightning rod, skinny and exposed. I looked down and the ground seemed too far away. I wished I could move past unnoticed, but there was nothing to hide me but my steaming ceramic skeleton. I held the cup of coffee against my lower lip and slowly turned it towards me, pouring the scalding liquid down. I could feel my tongue and the roof of my mouth and all the tubes that connected them swell up like tomatoes. The heat burst into my chest and I gasped for breath, but I kept pouring and pouring. I wished she would disappear. It burned all the flesh away, down to teeth and jawbones. Empty. The cup was my empty, ceramic skeleton. I couldn’t hide behind it anymore. I slipped back behind the bar.

As I measured spoonfuls of black powder grounds, I watched her from the corner of my eye. That was all I could bear at once. She was golden, regal, like she should have been a statue, but she shimmered in and out of the people, in water, like a ghost. I let my eyes slide down her sides and back up her milky arms. I knew that I shouldn’t watch her like this, but I couldn’t stop, nothing else existed.

She leaned against the bar and looked at Aaron. She knew him, that son of a bitch. I wanted to tell her who he really was, that she wasn’t safe. He would pull her in and bite. Her eyes were emerald and her lips moved fast, too comfortable. She was singing probably, some haunting mermaid shanty. I couldn’t hear the words, but I knew that if I could that they would linger in my ears all night. I wanted to stop him, to save her. He didn’t deserve her song. Then it ended; she smiled and I couldn’t stand it. I held the glass pot under the tap and filled it to ten.

 

The show rolled on and I couldn’t watch or rhyme or stir up the winds and throw the band overboard. I could barely even keep the levels straight. My power was gone. I was fixed, screwed down, I couldn’t even squirm and it was all too loud.

When the storm had passed, the tide broke and the people flowed out. Two at time mostly, then in schools with cell phones and winter scarves, swimming with cigarettes. They pulled together and pushed away, through the only door. I dragged my eyes across the crowd, then turned and ran upstream with big steps so my shadow tip-toed behind leaned up and crept over my shoulder. I wrapped the cables and broke the set, cut the power and killed the lights. It was over, another night.

For twenty minutes I was distracted. I had a job to do and knew that something different was at the other end of it.   I left everything ready for the next show. I looked at the red, digital stage monitor clock. It flashed twelve-fourteen, on and off. The overtime helped, but it never stopped the pounding. Half an hour after the last chord crashed, the sound was still throbbing in my head.

thump…thump…thump—it bellowed.

I turned around in the sound booth chair nervously and checked everything again. I set the headphones carefully on the left side of the board. Then, I drank the last half-cup of bitter, lukewarm coffee, twisted off the light and inched down towards the bar. It was the beginning of the total darkness that would last all night. I had waited to leave all along, but when the time came, I trembled and I wanted them back. I clutched the empty mug for all its life and reached my hand out into the dark for the railing. I was alone. Down the stairs…

When I touched the ground and slid my foot forward to prove that I wasn’t descending anymore, I felt one second of relief. Then in an instant I turned the corner and it hit me bright and blinding. She was still there, shimmering and golden. How I could have been so careless, I thought. You thought you were safe and you let your guard down. I pulled back around the corner as if a shotgun had kicked at my shoulder and I fell to the ground. I threw back my hand to break the fall, but missed and landed, sprawled out on the stairs. Even though she didn’t see me, my pride was stripped away.

Up on my hands and knees, I crept forward and bent my head around the corner just enough that I could see them. I should have expected it. Aaron was leaning down across the bar, hiding his fangs and dirty dish rag behind his back, bar top shining. He leaned in and smiled, stood up and held his hands out straight. He flung the rag to the sink where it swung over the faucet and danced side to side like some frightful Vaudeville show. He straightened his top hat and adjusted his glasses, threw the cane aside, and leaned in again, to her, closer.

She curled under him, glowing. She didn’t know that she was more than him. She didn’t know that she was in control. People never know how strong they are. If she could have seen from here how small he was, standing, balanced behind the bar on a plastic milk crate, tip jar clanking, claws concealed, flashy black glasses covering years of theft. He was a wolf and I couldn’t let her be his prey. Aaron pushed two drinks across the bar, locked the register, and slid around the end of the bar and onto the stool next to hers. I couldn’t watch anymore.

 

Outside, the air was cold. It stung my cheeks, cut through my coat and wrapped around my waist. I felt real. I turned the key to the stage door and leaned against it and let myself slide down to the sidewalk. The bottom of my coat slipped up a little and I felt the metal door against my bare chin. The night was not still, cars and taxicabs and night walkers rushed around frantically and stumbled back and forth across my sightline. The storefronts all the way up Mass Ave still buzzed with neon. In Boston, the winter is redeeming. I knew that it was time for change.

I didn’t have to wait long. They came out quickly, stumbling predictably. She swayed towards the street and Aaron grabbed her arm possessively and reeled her towards his body. She let her cheek press against his chest with her whole weight and they moved slowly up the street. When they got to the end of the block, I pulled my body up off of the door. My back was stiff, and I let my shoulders creep up around my ears, squinted and shivered. My throat was dry and my eyes watery and I couldn’t stop the howling. All the wolves were out.

It took them half and hour to walk all the way down the bridge, and I followed closely. It was dark, and I knew that they were too numb with drunkenness to know they were followed, so I didn’t try too hard to hide. They stopped at the top of the bridge and looked out across the water. That’s when I saw it for the first time, reflection rippling over the water, red and blue, weaving in and out.

Citgo, it proclaimed, the giant billboard heart beating over the city. I looked at the heart and it started to beat, enormous, pulsing red and it pulled me in, over the river. I couldn’t stop it now.

thump…thump…thump—it beckoned.

 

II

When I woke up it was eleven forty-two, still too early. My head was in a vice, metal clamps fused to my temples cranking tighter and tighter. Everything was black and covered in fog. I looked at the window and the sun burst around the edges of the plastic blind like an apocalyptic eclipse. I tried to close my eyes, but it wouldn’t stop. It was too late, I was awake.

It must have been a long night at work, I thought. I wish I never opened the fucking door.

 

When the vice loosened and the darkness started to lift, I was riding a subway train. I had walked from my apartment on Prospect Street down two blocks then over one and underground to the station, and I was headed to South Station.

I was reading, but I closed the book at MGH since last time I had missed my stop. I looked out the window when the train came out from underground.

black…

black….

black… then flash! The train heaved up onto the rickety bridge. Outside, the water wasn’t dark like it was supposed to be, but sharp and white. It came in the window circled round and smothered me. Then, from the middle of the blitz, something less divine emerged.

Citgo, it flashed, scrawled in blue blood over the huge red prism jetting out of the light. I knew I had seen that billboard before, but I didn’t care to remember when. I wanted to forget it. I wanted it to die. On and off, on and off, I ducked my head and put my arm across my face and pretended it was gone. I waited, and when I knew it had disappeared I looked up again. Buildings, apartments, bricks flew by, then the hospital, full of people on stretchers being rushed down the hallways, flat on their backs, blood pouring from their chests. Then, the train dove back into darkness on the other side of the river.

“Park Street,” the conductor announced in monotone. I always wondered if he actually said it every time or if he played a recording. I have to assume the worst: He says it out loud. He pushes a big red button on the dashboard and says it, every time. I thought that I should have recorded all the names of the T stations and brought him a CD. There is nothing worse than monotony. I knew that too well. Maybe he would appreciate a little help, something to stop the empty blur. Maybe I could save him from it. I could stop it.

Most of the audience changed at Park Street. When I’m working, I’m supposed to count the audience.

“For booking,” they say, “It helps to know.”

So, whenever there’s a big crowd around I think about counting, but I never get around to it. I get distracted, stuck on one person and I can’t look at anyone else, let alone count them. The audience after Park Street was worse than last night at the club. They watched attentively; I wanted to disappear. I crushed the empty cardboard cup in my hand and held it nervously, drips of coffee leaked through the cracks and the plastic cover cracked abrasively.

Across from where I sat, a heavy set woman with a plaid purse over her shoulder and under her arm was reading one of those grocery store novels with a mildly pornographic cover. She noticed me looking at her and bent the book in half at the spine and sighed, irritated, and I heard the sound of the breaking paperback cover right through the roar of the subway car. Down the bench, a man was looked at this romance novel woman steadily, but she didn’t notice him. She looked back at me as she turned the page even though it was hard with the cover folded over. I liked this woman more than the others. She was only thinking of her own guilt. Not mine.

Further down the bench, another man was propped uncomfortably against the pole near the end of the section. Then he leaned forward. He stretched his fingers first, then his arm, then deliberately pulled himself off the pole and laid his hand over some scattered newspaper on the ground. Then, as if something had changed and the desperation of the situation increased suddenly, he gathered all of the papers together with both hands. He looked at his new acquisition like he owned it, then quickly folded it and hid it under his arm. He felt threatened by me. He was glad that he got the paper first before I did. He was sure he had seen me eyeing it greedily. He shifted his weight to the right pulling the tails of his jacket up from under him, then, leaned back against the pole, satisfied.

The pole was one seat from the end so that with someone leaning on it, it was impossible for anyone to sit in the last seat. A man in a suit standing above looked aggravated. It could have been about the seat, but more likely it was his wardrobe.

The man by the pole adjusted the newspaper carefully as if he had been assigned to guard it and see that it made it safely to the other side, wherever that was. The man above him reached shuffled around in his pocket and fished out a shiny cellular phone. He nervously squeezed the outside of this metallic creature with his thumb so that an obtrusive blue light carpeted his face.

The blue light reminded me of a place I had been. It seemed far away and I didn’t recognize it. I was sitting, outside late at night, close to the ground with my shoulder up against a metal dumpster. I was in an alleyway looking up. In front of me, there was a window blinking on and off, in that same electronic blue. Only here, it meant that the television was on, but somehow I doubted they were watching it.

I must have spent an hour crouched outside by the dumpster. It was cold, but it didn’t matter. There was a greater urgency about it. Then in an instant, the light flashed on, the window filled with gold and someone walked across the window frame, a stranger, a beautiful woman with bliss-like light rushing out all around her, then someone followed her in blacked out silhouette. When he turned towards the light, he seemed familiar, but my eyes were foggy and adjusted to the darkness and before I could decide who it was, he turned away. Then, right in front of my eyes he closed in. He walked closer and closer then grabbed her. They sunk into each other and the light was gone.

thump…thump…thump—it echoed.

The newspaper guardian adjusted the paper carefully and the man above him checked his phone again, then he bent down and pushed his briefcase under the bench at the side. The man on the seat leaned away irritated that the briefcase had invaded his space. The ensuing tango sickened me. Luckily the doors slid open then.

“South Station,” the driver announced in painful monotone.

I climbed up two flights of stairs to the newly tiled station lobby skipping steps. Then I stopped to catch my breath and went on more slowly. In addition to my apparent lack of physical conditioning, I was afraid that moving too quickly would make me look suspicious. I gasped for breath.

I passed another newsman, this one selling copies of The Globe from a plastic milk crate. “Bus Explodes in London,” he screamed, “Two Dead in Beacon Street Apartment.” Then, I passed a cart with a popcorn machine and a flock of candy bars. A Milky Way bar took flight off the metal cart like some kind of gull flapping its wings at my head or a hornet buzzing incessantly in my ear, but I swatted it away. It fell to the ground and the attendant chased after me and bent down to pick it up screaming something in a language I couldn’t understand. English probably.

I didn’t look back. I walked down the tunnel and up the first escalator. Then I weaved in and out of the people with less urgency than me, until I had made it across the food court and outside to the bus terminal. I looked at a big sign full of times and places as I inched up the escalator. Then I turned around and looked up to the top. It was getting longer and longer. Every second that I rode on the damned machine, more stairs appeared. If I just stood here and let it happen I would never make it to the top. I couldn’t afford to wait. I pushed someone aside and ran up to the top.

Nine-twenty four.

The bus to New York left at nine fifteen, so I bought a ticket to Albany instead.       “Nine-forty-five,” the ticket man said, “twenty minutes.”

I sat down and slid my bag under a bench. Then I stood up to go to the bathroom. A voice came over the loudspeaker.

“Please do not leave your bags unattended, all luggage left unattended will be removed and searched.”

I went back to the bench and pulled my green duffle bag over my shoulder and turned back, towards the bathroom and held it in front of me to push the door open. I knew they were watching now.

I washed my hands, and splashed some water on my face. The paper towel from the industrial plastic dispenser left a light brown paste across my cheeks and forehead. It stung my eyes. I couldn’t see it in the mirror, but I could feel it. I washed my hands again and tried to wipe away my face with my sleeve. It didn’t work. I looked in the mirror. I was sure they would recognize me. I looked at my hands. They didn’t look like mine. Something was wrong with them. I hid them in my pockets.

I smelled coffee, dripping and pouring, scalding black. I could hear it drip across the room.   The donut franchise kiosk stood looking at me, appropriately impersonal and I inched closer. Step, step, step, and then I stopped. The man in line was too familiar. I couldn’t risk getting too close. He might talk to me. Do you ever wonder if that woman sitting across from you reading cheap grocery store fiction or the man in line to buy coffee at the bus station is going to recognize you, and for no other reason start talking to you, and things will escalate, and you’ll meet again, on purpose this time, and then, before you know it she’ll become somebody important, someone that you can stand to lose, and then when she walks off down the street and the wolves will run after her frothing at the mouth and you won’t be able to save her?

“I couldn’t save her,” I mumbled. I couldn’t.

The kiosk worker looked at me suggestively. I was at the front of the line.

“Small coffee…black.”

The man in line was the man from the T, the one with the cell phone. He must be following me, I thought. I set down the coffee on the floor between my feet and pushed my duffle bag under the bench and took out my book and bent the cover back so that he couldn’t see.

“Albany, gate 12.”

 

When the buzzing floor crescendo peaked, my ballpoint pen slipped nervously from the cup holder on the back of the gray, uncomfortably carpeted seat and the empty water bottle that had wedged it in place rattled back and forth. The sun stiffly slid a diagonal line down the isle as the long window moved past the sun. It was too hot to breathe, but I had already unscrewed the vent above my head and no air was coming out. I put my forehead against the window and the thin layer of sweat chilled to frost. It must be cold outside. It helped my headache.

Ludlow, Chicopee, Springfield. Only two hours out of Boston, maybe less.

I stumbled to the back of the bus leaning heavily on the headrest of every seat along the way. The floor rushed towards the front of the brush and I drove my knees up over it. I was swimming up stream. I swayed back and forth. The bus pulled in the opposite direction.

I bumped someone’s elbow and he woke up startled then looked at me scornfully. His cell phone buzzed and the blue light swept across his face, then behind me, towards the front of the bus another phone rang, then another and another. People stated talking loudly, uncomfortably loudly, and all their faces were glowing blue.

“Be quiet, I’m trying to sleep!”

“No cell phones.”

“Park Street,” the voice said.

Citgo,” it flashed.

thump…thump…thump—it pounded.

Outside the windows, the sharp white light came back, knocking at the windows. The light knew everything.

 

“Go away,” she said, “I don’t know you.”

“You have to let me in! Don’t listen to him,” I screamed, and I gasped for breath at the top of the stairs. “He’s a wolf, he’ll bite. Why don’t you know! Run, okay! Get out of here! Aaron, I won’t let you do it. Not again!”

Aaron pushed her aside and stepped forward, chest in the air. He swung the door in my face, but I pushed forward so it couldn’t close.

“How did you get in here?” He interrogated. “Nobody invited you!”

“Just make him leave,” she whispered.

“I will,” I screamed, panting, “I’ll save you!” She didn’t hear me.

“I will,” he said calmly, looking her straight in eyes. She believed him.

The white light burst into yellow flames, the same color as the kitchen window, then red like the beating heart over Boston.

 

“Black…small coffee, black.”

They were all strangers. The woman from the T looked up and shook her book in the air like it was some kind of brimstone Bible and her eyes rambled on about Hell. Then, the man with the cell phone threw his coffee on the floor and they were all glowing blue. Blue like TV glow in living room windows. Blue like sirens on the top of racing police cars.

I fell through the door into the claustrophobic bathroom cell and the door slammed itself behind me. Alone, I turned on the water. It was cold and it came too fast. I scrubbed and scrubbed and the water flowed out in all directions. It was too cold to stand, but I couldn’t stop, not until it was gone. I scrubbed my bloodstained knuckles and scarlet palms, I scrubbed my eyes to make it stop beating, but it went on and on, the billboard heart pumping high over the city and the endless pounding in the foggy club. There was barely room to breathe in this little box. The floor was moving and the water was cold. I shivered violently.

It was coming up, up to my knees, then my chest, then I was drowning in it and the door flew open. I stumbled out into the hall outside her apartment. She lived on the fourth floor and I ran around the stairs taking half flights at a time. I lowered my shoulder and pushed through the door at the bottom, cradling something in my arms and I was running. I ran towards the sign. I ran with a beating heart, to the beating heart. My hands were hot and wet, pouring red. It was pounding, and squirming and pulsing on, but I clutched it tight. I held on. You have got to protect what you have. It was mine. He’d never take one again. He’d never take anything again. The wolf was dead. I ran up onto the bridge and stood for just a minute.

thump…thump…thump—it moaned.

I held her heart high up in the sky and showed it to flashing prism above, then I pulled back my arms hurled it into the river and ran.

I ran for the train. I ran for the bus. Then the bus peeled away and I was running, alone, in the middle of the highway looking at my bloody hands and their blue faces and their beating hearts, strangers.

 

Henry Gasket is an audio technician at a Cambridge rock venue. He is an avid reader of Dostoyevsky and drinks copious amounts of coffee from 1369. As he was evicted from his apartment following a series of legal mishaps related to the incident described in this story, he has no official residency. He has since spent many a night in the living room of a certain house on Springfield Street.

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