A short story in B-flat minor.
To wake to the sound of dragonfly wings is a rare pleasure usually enjoyed only by dragonflies. The insects were moving in. Great powdery moths like slivers of cake stuck upside down on the lights. Caravans of black ants. A cricket under the dresser. Creamy brown roaches dazed on the carpet, crawling slowly toward the wall. I saw a millipede slither down the bathtub drain, its legs as thin as hairs. The humidity had come and, with it, all manner of flyers and crawlers, web-spinners, egg-layers. I expected nothing less; the house had been built in the middle of an old riverbed at the bottom of a canyon.
Eventually, it would rain. A tide of thick, greasy mud would swallow the front steps and climb a few feet up the sides of the house, leaving curlicue hieroglyphics flaked over the chipped white slats when it dried. With every rain, the hieroglyphs changed. If only I could have read them, I might have finally learned something. But I didn’t know a thing.
Thankfully, dragonflies do not change like the weather. Waking to the sound of one perched by my head was a sudden moment of grace. I watched it fly to the ceiling and land upside down as my Swedish girlfriend, Elli, blew into the living room.
“I told you not to open the fucking screens,” she said.
She looked at me and dropped her purse on the carpet. “How do we live like this? We don’t. That’s how.” She began to blast the corners of the room with the palm-sized can of bug-spray she took with her everywhere, guaranteed to kill anything smaller than a mouse.
“Hard day at the office?”
She didn’t dignify that with a response, leaving me there on the couch under a cloud of pesticide while all the lesser carnivera rolled on their backs in agony.
I looked up, but the dragonfly had disappeared.
When she finished purifying the room, Elli did what she did every day when she got home from work. After long hours having sex in front of a webcam for money, she had to scrub every inch of herself under smoking hot water. She’d emerge from the bathroom with a vehement look on her face, her fair skin poached red and steaming, the burgundy streaks in her swept-up black hair like dim veins of fire in an ash cloud.
The emeralds of the world take flight and, with them, horseflies, fruit beetles, the slow flap of a pigeon’s wings, jeweled eyes with legs hanging down in the buzz of the early evening. I went outside, stood in front of the house, and looked across the canyon at a cloud of pale gnats churning over a burned-out car wreck so old it had no color beyond its rust—a sedan someone crashed years ago and left to cook on the canyon floor—and I wondered what died in it this time.
Having cleaned herself, Elli sat in the front window in her white bathrobe. She lit up and blew smoke at the back of my head through the screen. “Talk to me,” she said. “I hate it when you don’t talk to me.”
“In the Mississippi Delta, a dragonfly in the house is good luck. We had one today. I hope you didn’t kill it.”
“You’ve never been there.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s a hoodoo thing I read about.”
“Hoodoo? You don’t know fucking hoodoo. This is Oregon.”
I nodded, looked at the sky, and thought, once again, about leaving.
Above the thorn bushes and poisoned fir trees, above the cracked stones at the canyon’s lip like bad broken teeth that should never be seen, pigeons and ravens fought over the air. Behind them, gray sky and nothing but. There’s no outside world when you’re living at the bottom of a canyon in a house from 1910, quarter-sunk in the mud of an old riverbed.
A friend of mine once wrote a haiku and gave it to me as a going-away present:
Murmuring traffic’s so far from the sea,
Still, you go farther, friend.
I thought of that poem and of the sea—not here near the Oregon coast, but in the southern California of my childhood—deserted Huntington Beach on a workday, yellow-white sand combed smooth by the wind, not a footprint, just the folding and refolding of the surf, the water’s blue-green shimmer, a seagull hanging still on the air like a kite. I was 11 or 12. If I left now, that’s where I’d want to go—to that time, not just that place.
But the beach had changed. California had changed. My family, dead. My fortune, lost. Years, wasted. The moment I left Elli, I’d be a genuine bum—no place of residence, no legal tender. I had no job, no bank account to speak of, a suitcase full of clothes, and a $15,000 violin made by Sebastian Klotz of Mittenwald in 1743.
I played it for 5 hours a day—for free. I played to the canyon and to the wrecked car and the gnats. I played for the patronage of dragonflies and the largesse of cockroaches. The broken rocks looked down from the balcony and the poisoned firs in the third row suffered a little bit less, I imagined, with LeClair in the air, a little curative Handel, Mozart after a rain. Actually, the Klotz wasn’t worth a cent because I would never sell it. So come, dear gnats, a little later, and we’ll have a nice Passacaglia in G-minor for your digestion.
Elli walked up next to me and squinted at the old wreck. She’d put on a pair of cargo shorts and one of her tight T-shirts that had sassy, hep expressions across the tits. This one said, ROCKSTAR, with a big gold star underneath.
“You going to come inside or stand here all night?” She lit another cigarette off the remains of the previous one. She smoked long, thin cigarettes and never packed the tobacco down. A few unruly strands would sometimes stick out the tip. I hated watching her light a cigarette when it was like that, seeing the strands of tobacco turn orange and curl. I imagined them screaming in pain.
“You smoke like an old man in the park.”
“You think you’re funny,” she smirked, “but you’re not. Come inside.”
Elli was only half-right. I wasn’t funny. But I knew I wasn’t.
The night unfolded the way it wanted to unfold, with Elli as the sexy, affected, Swedish center of the universe, and me as a half-bystander who knows he is not funny.
We played our game of cutthroat Monopoly, in which she insisted, as always, that I double-mortgage every one of my properties. When I couldn’t make the rents, she offered me a one-time loan at 500% interest—and laughed. When my hand accidentally brushed hers, she recoiled. Tonight there would be no touching. I was unclean. Do not pass GO. Advance token to nearest utility, but do not touch the owner thereof.
Later, I went outside and played to the rocks in the heat of our portable floodlight. It immediately brought out the music lovers among the local moths and gnats, an occasional cultured mosquito.
Elli fell asleep in bed over her 2000-page fantasy novel, in which dragons with psychic powers take on human shape to save the world. I came in and sat at the kitchen table in the dark. Having opened every window screen, I felt things fly past my face, a sudden brush against the skin of my neck, the back of my hand. I stayed there, drinking beer until I fell asleep with my forehead on my arms. Sometime in the night, a coyote howled and I wished him well, one musician to another. But it might have been a dream.
Elli was gone before I woke up—gone to have sex with another woman in front of a webcam for the gratification of adolescents all across the internet. My friend Moe came by. We smoked a very large joint, and I listened to him bitch about his English comp. students, but I knew he came around just to catch a glimpse of Elli. Too late, Moe.
“I’m like, hello,this is not rocket science, you know? Fucking junior college students, man, all they want to do is smoke out and get laid.” Moe, with baseball cap on backwards, T-shirt, and beer belly, looked like the frat brother with the one-syllable nickname in all the college party movies.
“I should go back to school.” I held in the smoke.
“All my students work at Taco Bell. All of them. You want one of these kids making your tacos? That’s some crazy shit, man. They can’t even set their margins right. Too STONED.”
The trouble with Moe was that he had two masters degrees, a 3-page vita of academic honors and publications, and enough drugs in his body at any given moment to make him sublime—a pharmaceutical bodhisattva. I couldn’t do anything for him. I didn’t know what to say.
All that enlightenment couldn’t keep him from falling in love with Elli. And so the basis of our friendship had shifted from “we’re-two-losers” to “we’re-two-losers-but-you-don’t-appreciate-your-girlfriend-like-I-would-if-only-I-could-figure-out-how-to-let-her-know.” When Moe wasn’t around, she referred to him as “den smutsiga svin,” the dirty swine. When he was around, she didn’t refer to him at all.
“You know what we need? We need a road trip. When was the last time you took a road trip?”
“I think I was 19.”
“Exactly. Why don’t grownups take road trips anymore?”
“Maybe they do. I don’t know what grownups do.” I smiled at Moe to calm him. He was getting agitated, talking with his hands.
“You get married, right? Your wife pumps out a kid or three. You quit drinking and going to parties, lose all your friends, start clipping coupons. It’s sad. It sucks. You get a fat ass. You have to fight it.”
“Right.” I picked up his tweezers and used it to hold the last smoldering bit of joint to my lips.
“Yeah, just the 3 of us, just get in the car some weekend, say fuck it, drive to Vegas. What’s Vegas? 17 hours? 17 hours is child’s play.”
I nodded. “Just the 3 of us.”
Moe stopped gesturing, his hands in his lap, palms up, like two pale crabs that had died at the bottom of a tank. He looked down at them and blushed.
“You got any chips?”
“Let’s get a taco,” I said.
Parlance means a way of speaking, but nobody in Parlance, OR, seemed to talk much. Locals drifted the main street like old reeds traveling vertically on the wind. Fog in the mornings. Overcast with drizzle in the afternoons. Christmas lights on a combine harvester blinking a mile out every night.
Drive 28 miles east from The Dalles off the 84 and you hit Parlance. Actually, you don’t hit it. You miss it. It’s too small to hit. But, if you’re trying for it, if, for example, you’ve got good aim and a reason and a car that won’t get stuck in the mud, then you might succeed where so many lack the presence of mind to even fail: our town of Parlance. It seemed more like the collection box at church than a town, a few sad-looking bills crumpled on green felt, a destination that, one feels, won’t do the bills or the box any good.
Still, the town is there. Somebody went ahead and put it on the map. And, sitting in the Dixie Diner, contemplating the Russian sandwich I didn’t really want, I knew that Moe and I were two of those somebodys—two random fools supporting the local economy in cheap beer and Russian sandwiches, toilet paper, and sometimes a tank of gas.
Moe looked like he fit in, but he didn’t. Once you got past his belly, his Harley T-shirt, the Orioles ball cap with the curve he’d put in the brim, all the drug talk, and the lewd comments about assorted women, you started to see the edges of his personality. You started to see that all this stuff was only a smokescreen he threw up so people wouldn’t realize how angry he was with just about everything.
He should have been sitting in the faculty lounge at NYU in a half-buttoned Brooks Brothers with a world-weary expression on his face, listening to some over-privileged student pitch a line of bullshit. I should have been back in southern California, 10 years old in my uncle’s little pink stucco house with a tree outside my window and the Klotz singing in my hands. But I didn’t have the Klotz back then.
Moe was saying something about how happy he was that we forewent Taco Bell this time so he didn’t have to see his students, and I was nodding, but I was thinking about how life could have turned out differently if I’d owned the Klotz when I was young. Would I have been sitting in the Dixie Diner? Would I have ever polluted myself with a Russian sandwich?
Moe said something inconsequential, yet another thing. I looked at the watery depth of his eyes, at his own inner-self—which was also far away, thinking about something else—and tried to forgive him for all his anger and horniness and desperation. I thought about Elli, wondered if she was home yet, killing insects and scalding herself back to goodness, then picked up the Russian sandwich and examined it from various angles.
The question, posed: how does one live at the bottom of a canyon in Oregon?
The answer: an access road.
It wound down the side of the canyon and had enough boulders in it to support Elli’s Jeep even after a rain. The trouble was that after a rain—like the one that had just swooped down two hours ago, disappearing as suddenly as it came—thick, greasy mud formed instantly. Elli had to drive slowly. There was no other way. Her Jeep had to creep down the rocky slope like the water beetle currently vacationing in our sink. Maybe that was what frustrated her so much: she had to drive like an insect.
“Ha-ha,” I said to the large white cat that had come to clean its fur while I tuned up for the day’s practice. It wore a sky-blue collar that had a metal tag underneath shaped like a heart. The cat scratched itself and the heart jingled.
“Don’t you see the irony?” I asked no one in particular—maybe the air or the cat. I decided either the whole insect-killer-becoming-an-insect-metamorphosis-thing was lost on the cat or it had no sense of the absurd. It looked up at me and blinked, then went back to its grooming. It kept itself pure white while everything else, including my shoes and the cuffs of my jeans, was covered in dark mud. How did it accomplish this? Practice, I thought.
I drew out the opening to Spohr’s Duo Concertante in D-major as a warm-up, violating the phrasing but enjoying it. I’d learned both parts; though, the prospects of getting a second violinist down through the mud were no doubt very slim. Elli drove too far to her left and the left rear wheel of the Jeep spun, fanning ropes of mud into the air. The cat looked at her, then at me, and blinked. Elli needed more practice.
I nodded: “My thoughts exactly.”
The cat and I had an understanding. If it had had opposable thumbs, I’d have taught it the violin.
It took Elli a shower and a comprehensive house-purification before she was ready to speak in non-cusswords. Later, I sat on the couch and smirked as she strafed the corners of the room and stomped whatever tried to reach the cover of the hassock or the old floor-heater. There was something enticing about motherfucker said in a Swedish accent that I couldn’t explain. Occassionally, she’d shoot me a dark look.
“I saw the swine at the market and had to talk to him. It pissed me off.”
The white cat stopped in front of the screen door and stared in at us with a wary look on its face. Elli had scared it earlier when she’d gotten out of the Jeep, cursing, half-covered in mud, and tried to give it a kick.
“There’s something wrong with him,” she said. “I don’t know—he’s weird or something. I hate him.”
“Let’s not talk about him, okay? He is who he is.” If there were a composer named Scales, he would have been the most famous musician who ever lived. “Know who wrote this piece?”
“You’re playing a scale, you idiot.”
“Ha ha ha, I make joke,” I said, letting B-flat-minor roll up two octaves and back down, playing legato, making sure each note caressed the one after it like perfect little cushions all in a row.
“But can you say what do you get being friends with him?”
I looked over at her. “What does anybody get? What could anybody ever get? What do you get hanging out with me?”
Elli raised an eyebrow, looked away. “That’s a good question. Somebody asked me that a few days ago and I didn’t know what to tell him.”
“Is this where I get sad and withdrawn?” I felt myself smile and I turned my attention to the scale.
“I’m moving out if you don’t get a job.”
“You say that every week.”
“You have to be a man. I mean it.”
I shrugged and stood up, still working B-flat-minor. “It’s your house.”
She did mean it. But the thing that kept me from getting a job was the same thing that kept her from leaving. It was a thing, an invisible force, a blanket of inertia. It wasn’t the house.
“You’re the worst part of my life,” she said.
“Worse than your job?”
“Fuck you, asshole.”
I opened the screen door with my foot, having transitioned to D-major. The white cat gave me room, blinked, looked away.
I went for days without seeing another dragonfly.