Nine Weeks of Strange, Week 8: “The Tie”

This week’s story is about a woman named Adrienne who has recurring nightmares about a demonic woman after the death of her friend Martin. The excerpt is a selection from her initial nightmare sequences. The other half of the story follows a woman named Stella, and her struggle to get to a town hundreds of miles away, to find a grave. What do Stella and Adrienne have in common?

Excerpt from, “The Tie”, from Women in Strange Places: Stories

(c) Celeste Ramos, 2009

Stella

Today I decided to cut off all my hair after what happened last night. I slept outside by the warm back vents of the Palace. I was near the dumpsters so there were rats running around most of the night. Usually I’ve been lucky. They don’t fuck with me much. But last night it was like I was candy.

I was so tired. I was walking since seven in the morning, I only got fifteen bucks from a few people all together. I got some food and it hit my stomach like bricks, but good bricks. It was drizzling a little bit and I didn’t find much cardboard in time before it started to soak me. I was lucky. Right around the time I got to the Palace the clouds had quieted down. They were like moving sludge yesterday, all twisted in themselves. Sometimes I worry I can control the weather.

A couple of the fur and claw fuckers got into a fight over a wet burger in a dumpster some feet away. I hate that sound when they fight, that screeching, sounding like captured birds, and their nails like little metal balls down stone stairs. That sound always keeps me up at night. It’s like a timer, I have to be ready to fling one off me before I feel those cold stinking paws on my forehead, and I know that nose is angling toward my ear.

Ugh! Makes me jump thinking about it. When they were done fighting two of them ran up to me in the dark. The vents were making a nice gentle noise, the noise planes do on a calm flight. The alley was empty. I would have known they were so close to my body if it wasn’t for that sound but it was also kind of putting me to sleep. I felt the sharp pinch of one of those beasts’ teeth on my lower lip. And then the fat wet pressure of another one standing on my calf. I shook them off.

More came, a few moments later but they were scared of me or something. Then they left. I fell asleep thinking about Martin. If he was there he would have gotten rid of those fucking rats in a split second.

I woke up feeling this thing, almost like a sharp needle or something being pushed into my scalp. Two of them were biting around my head and had tangled themselves up in my hair! Those tails were like cords flinging around when I grabbed them. I yanked them out of my hair as fast as I could but it was hard. They were wound up in there good, I wonder what the fuck they were looking for, what they thought I was.

I got some change this afternoon and I called to see how Martin was doing out of force of habit. Habit is a ridiculous thing. I sat against the phone booth and cried. He’s been dead three weeks. It’s the second of July. That means I’ve been walking for almost two weeks.

Seems every building and lamppost is dripping a big old flag. I remember when I was little my dad would put up a nice one outside the house. Then there was a small parade down the main drag of town. To my little girl eyes all those stars were like glitter. Silk and cloth flags so clean. Me up on dad’s shoulders, looking down at the top of mom’s head and her crown of red, white and blue stars. Those memories are so clear, bright white. They smell of sulfur and bubblegum.

I wonder what my parents would tell me about Martin. I think he would have liked them.

Man if he could see my hair now. I tried to get it even. He loved my hair. He had a thing about combing it for me when I got out of the shower.

Martin’s family, on the other hand, ha! They probably would have wanted him to be on heroin or something more than being with me. He was so much better before me. That’s what they’d say. They blamed me for his dropping out of med school.

They wouldn’t tell me where he’s buried. I called my sister, who lives in the town over from them, and she found out for me. She had to do some good private-eyeing.

But even she doesn’t think I should go see him. I wish people could understand how it feels like my senses are fading without him, how it feels like everything around me is spoiled because he can’t see it, deflating like fruit when it rots.

All the memories of Martin are pacing my spine. I lost the tiny place I scrounged around to get for us, with his money, the little he had to get to me before his own debt choked him up. He couldn’t pay anymore since he’s dead, obviously. There was no one else for me, just Martin. Just and only Martin. My sister, my last familiar limb on this fucking planet doesn’t want to help me. She won’t, she’s jealous, I know that.

Martin. I can’t sleep unless I can hear the sound of air. Those vents by the Palace last night were so nice. The last time I saw Martin he told me he was going to see me in a few days. I told him to go. He needed the break and I was feeling better then.

I found out he died because the cops called me first, before his family. I was the last number he called, before he got on the road and crashed.

Three hundred miles … His fucking parents won’t believe me when they see me. I’m walking the whole way, it’s the only way I can get there. I know where he is now, and I will bring him flowers and I will sit with him. I’ll lie there with him by his stone.

Adrienne

The shifting sun spread the hand-like shadows of trees across Adrienne’s bed. She didn’t want to move toward it because she felt like she was setting herself up to be hunted. There was little else, she knew, that was available for a place to rest. She had already tried the sofa, the floor, Celal’s apartment, her office, hotel rooms, her brother’s car, and all her other friends’ beds, floors and cars.

The woman always found her.

Adrienne walked out of the bedroom and into the living room, then into the kitchen, haunting her apartment, desperate for something to do that would keep her awake and interested. She managed to watch part of an action movie before she eventually passed out on the sofa.

In the empty room of a foreign house the woman found her, her body constructed only of veins, and her face had no features. Adrienne had dumbly pressed her male body into a corner and cried. The woman made her way across the bright white carpet to capture her. She left a disappearing path of crusted footprints behind her. And as the woman always did, with her arms outstretched, she gurgled, “come back!”

Adrienne often woke up before the woman could touch her. She was grateful for that much; that she only had to relive the gruesome sight of her, and not re-experience her grip.

She tried to stay awake but after twenty minutes fell asleep, this time on the floor underneath the window sill.

She dreamed of an expanse of white, rolling land. The grass and trees were white. There was a small lake off to her left, at the bottom of the incline of the land, where the water looked like milk. The sky was the pallid blue of winter but she sat warm in the light of the sun, in a male body. She looked at the width of her hands, the hair on her legs, the difference in the weight of that body that felt tight like she was wearing a rubber suit. This male body was the same every time. It was always confusing to her male self, why it never made sense that he was a man in the dream.

The woman came from around a bend, down at the bottom of the hill. Her skin was pitch black and this time her eyes were two ovals of glass, that reflected the light of the sun into Adrienne’s peripheral vision. When Adrienne looked she began to stand up, her heart racing. The woman moved up the hill at twice the speed of her stride. She was wearing some kind of black clothing but Adrienne thought it could easily have been her skin trailing behind her in the breeze.

She was chanting, “come back”, in that taunting gurgle, and Adrienne’s body couldn’t seem to move fast enough up the hill. When she looked over her shoulder the woman was right behind her, her face inches from her own, and she felt the hot, reeking breath on her cheeks and her eyelids.

The following day, Adrienne walked to Celal’s apartment a few blocks down her street. Everyone she passed looked well-rested and enjoyed the errands of the day. She watched couples holding hands as they walked into grocery stores, the mail man whistling to himself as he dug through his cart for the next building’s mail. People on their lunch breaks talked office gossip over forbidden mid-day martinis.

When Celal opened the door he looked at her with compassion.

“Still the same?” he asked.

She looked at him with heavy eyes.

“Come in. I just started some lunch. Have you eaten?”

Celal gave deeply comforting hugs that Adrienne had never experienced with anyone else. He was a tall man, with all the deep, romantic features of his Turkish ancestry, always clothed in shades of gray, red and black.

His eyes always saw right through her pleasantries when she was upset. They’d been friends since childhood; neighbors in a town full of transient military and technology families. Celal worked as a spiritual healer and therapist.

Adrienne decided to watch Celal enjoy his food instead of eating.

“Don’t be so quiet,” he said, after a few sips of wine.

Balled up on his loveseat, Adrienne rested her head on the upward curve of its back cushion.

“You’re dreaming again? You look exhausted. Why are you dreaming this way?”

“There has to be a reason?”

“Dreams especially have reasons. There is a very, very old theory, you know. Every person’s energy, living or long gone, is connected through knowing one another. It’s like, if someone were to be able to see us now, as forms of energy, there’d be a little red thread connecting the two of us. Because, we are friends.”

Adrienne’s eyes were drifting along the spines on his bookcase, his pride and joy.

“And what’s that got to do with dreams?” she asked.

“Well. It’s been three weeks hasn’t it? Since Martin’s passing.”

Adrienne scratched her head. “Martin’s dead. He didn’t pass anywhere. He’s underground. What’s that have to do with a demon-woman chasing me everywhere I go?”

“The dreams started after he died. Come, Adrienne. Don’t play stupid with the spirit world; he must be trying to tell you something.” As he finished his wine Celal rose and crossed the room to sit with her. “You remind me of my sister. You think so hard about what something must feel like you don’t even know you have it in your hands.”

Adrienne shifted her legs to give Celal room. When he was settled she placed her calves across his lap.

“I’m so – fucking – tired – yel-al. I can’t keep missing work.”

“When you came by Monday you just wanted to sleep, you barely slept, and you left. You haven’t even told me what’s going on. Just that you have nightmares. You have to remind me. About Martin – I only met him once at your birthday party. Tell me about him. There has to be something about this that’s disturbing you so badly.”

Adrienne had never had to describe a friendship to anyone, let alone her best friend. She struggled for a few moments to build Martin up in her thoughts, with all his movements and his voice, facing the realization that she now had to take him apart in her mind in order to describe him – maybe to finally make him fade away.

She instantly thought of punk rock when she thought of Martin.

“He was a punky guy. You remember. And he was dating that girl Stella. The one that was older than him and would sneak him into bars.”

Celal nodded with a faint memory of the couple.

“We were friends, you know, just bar friends. Me and Lydia and some of the other girls would give him shit because he was always the baby of the group. And they were nice at first but then the bullshit with the money started.”

“Oh, yes. That you had to keep giving them money.”

Adrienne nodded. There was a mild guilt that rose in her for complaining about a dead person. She knew he never meant her harm.

“Those two became like a monthly expense for me. Patch up the rent for them here. Help them with groceries there.”

“I kept telling you. Didn’t I tell you?” Celal said. “Just leave them be because they’re going to break your account.”

Adrienne shrugged. “I couldn’t. You remember how I was when we moved to that neighborhood in Ohio. And your family had to go back to Ankara for a while. Remember my letters? About the teenagers. I was what, thirteen then? They traumatized me! Those poor kids. Beating each other up. Drinking themselves into diseases and all this shit, things they could have avoided, and mom always said they didn’t want help. She tried to help one of them and he ended up robbing us. I don’t know. I just wanted to help. They all had the same miserable eyes.”

“Martin wasn’t a kid off the street – he was a man, with his woman. They’d made their choices. He was twenty when you met him wasn’t he?”

“Yeah. And I got pissed off at him because it wasn’t clear to me he was using the money the way he said he would. I found out he was drinking it or giving it to Stella for something because she was sick or some shit. But she looked like a junky to me, do you remember her? Real skinny.”

Celal noticed the sneer that came over Adrienne’s mouth at the thought of Stella. “You look like you have a lot more contempt for her than you realize.”

“She never made sense. Every time I’d come to see them in that tiny little hole of theirs she’d say how much she loved Martin, and that they were so close that if they ever spent time apart from one another she’d die. Meanwhile, Martin kept driving down to his parent’s place in Fulton! He’d get his dad to come get him. He was working for his folks’ business in Fulton and then he got his car. He’d already dropped out of med school because of her.”

“According to him,” Celal said. “Was he really working?”

Adrienne sighed.

“I’ll take that as a no.”

“I don’t know what he was doing. All I know is he was doing it and drinking. Because some friend of his yelled at me at a bar and told me that I was keeping the bottle in Martin’s hand with the money I was giving him. I didn’t know he was a drinker, that he was that bad at least. I confronted him about it.

“He told me he thought I was his friend. Guilt tripped me for an hour on the phone. I told him if he came back immediately I would help him get straightened out, but he had to leave that bottle, he had to stop wasting his life on Stella too … Then he said he was going to drive back up the next day to talk to me in person …” Adrienne looked away from Celal’s face.

“Oh. You hadn’t told me that part.” Celal set his hand on hers.

“He died in a wreck driving drunk.”

“Not your fault, Adrienne.”

“I know. I don’t blame myself for that. I just wish – I hate not having the right words for people. Do you know what I mean?”

Celal nodded. “Very much.”

“I just wanted to help. Some people are made of hooks. Other people made of latches I guess.”

“You did more than what a lot of people would do.”

Adrienne began to cry.

“When did the nightmares start? How long, after Martin’s passing?”

Adrienne shook her head. “Um … the same day, I think.”

“And this woman just follows you around?”

“She chases me! It’s like she’s trying to scare me to death. In all the dreams I’m a man.”

Celal rested his head back against the cushion and looked at Adrienne. “And you’re getting worse now, it seems.”

Taking her legs off of Celal, Adrienne sat up straight and looked down at her hands. They were cold and dry despite the season. All those cold showers to stay awake were taking their toll on her skin.

She walked around Celal’s apartment and gazed at the things she’d gazed at dozens of times before. Among his family pictures and scented pillar candles, Adrienne was always drawn to the image that hung on the wall, central to the collection of the odd things Celal had gathered during his thirty years of life.

It was an “accidental” photograph that Celal had taken somewhere in India, of smoke rising from a friend’s cigarette that looked like a question mark.

Nine Weeks of Strange, Week 7: “A Drop in the Mercury”

Are we born good? Bad? Inbetween and we just eventually go one way or another later in life? Or are we always walking a fine line between the light and dark sides of ourselves? Such are the themes this week. Get ready for plenty of blood. 

Video and text excerpts, for your voyeuristic, twisted pleasures:

 

Excerpt from “A Drop in the Mercury” from Women in Strange Places: Stories. (c) Celeste Ramos, 2009

Thelma was a wonderful intimidator. She hadn’t worked in over a year because she managed to bully a few people in her building into giving her money. Eight-hundred dollars a month came from four apartments: 9F, where Lee the speed-metal heroin punk lived; 10B, where a recluse named Therese lived; and 6D, her favorite – Harry and Lorna’s apartment. It was directly above Thelma’s. Harry liked to beat Lorna. Lorna sat there and took it. Thelma saw Lorna one day in the hall and told her that if she didn’t leave him she would start to collect tax from them for making so much noise upstairs when they fought.

Lorna said, “Talk to Harry.”

Thelma could see something in her eyes that could go either way. That lady would either kill Harry or kill herself. She was stupid if she did the latter. So Thelma collected, and waited.

The fourth apartment was next door to Thelma’s, 5E, where “Porno Diane” lived. She was a former porn star that ran the all-too common track of being popular, falling into drugs, losing her looks and ending up a forgotten “whore”. Diane was living proof to Thelma’s conscience that she had a tiny molecule of goodness – she wouldn’t put Diane out of her misery. And all she needed from Diane was two dollars a month, in exchange for being Diane’s “ear”. The woman had more problems than there were cracks in that building’s walls.

Thelma went off to start her rent collection. She dragged her hands along the walls as she walked toward the flickering stairwell. Her palms were wet with the humidity beading on the walls by the time she reached the door.

At 9F, the usual way-too-loud-for-human-ears metal blared from the apartment. The ninth floor was so shady that Thelma always brought her gun up there. The hall lights were always out, except for the two red exit signs at either end of the halls. In the red light, the graffiti on the walls looked like animals watching her in a dark jungle. Cockroaches were moving lumps under the old carpet on the floor.

Lee never locked his door. Thelma came in and found him on his more-bedspring-than-mattress of a bed.

He held his arms up and said, “Thelma! You look extra kick-ass today!”

But Thelma didn’t hear anything except music.

Lee shoved his hands in his pockets and gave her a crumpled bunch of money that totaled $266.

On the sixth floor Thelma ran into a gang initiation. Nine guys were on one guy on the floor, beating him with brass knuckles and other things. They looked like a pack of dogs descended on meat. When they saw Thelma coming they made room for her to pass. She stepped over the newbie and pounded on Harry and Lorna’s door.

Lorna was mid-scream when she got there. Harry opened the door. He was a man about Thelma’s height who never wore shirts when he was in the building, like he had something to his 57-year-old torso he needed to show off.

She looked over his shoulder at Lorna, standing half in shadow wearing a lovely green and white dress.

Thelma looked back at Harry while speaking to Lorna. “What a nice dress, lady. Where’d you get that?”

“She don’t have to dress nice for nobody,” Harry answered. He reached into his pocket and handed Thelma a wad of cash.

As Thelma counted the money she said again, “What a nice dress, lady. Where’d you get that?”

Lorna didn’t answer. Thelma counted the exact amount and then looked at Lorna.

“Still not budgin’, huh?” Thelma asked her. “Very well.”

“Don’t you know when you’ve interrupted a conversation?” Harry asked.

Thelma smiled as she walked away saying, “Oh don’t worry, Harry baby, we’re going to have us a long talk one day.”

At 10B Thelma got no answer from Therese. She pounded on the maroon door. The hallway was dim and empty.

10C opened up. Mr. Cordo came out. He was a sweet old man who was about to retire from being a teacher. The nicer residents in the building called him “Grampa.”

“That girl doesn’t live there anymore,” he said lowly. “Moved out yesterday. End of the month and all.”

Thelma came to him with her aggressive energy, saying, “And how do you know?”

“She and I started talking a couple of weeks ago. She told me she was leaving. She gave me a card and everything before she left.”

“Where’d she go?”

“She became a flight attendant, she said. Off to see the world, bless her heart. She didn’t tell you?”

Thelma was a little surprised the old man hadn’t backed away from her, considering how she was standing over him.

“No. She owed me money.” She looked up and down the hall, thinking. She knew who was home at that time and who wasn’t. Anyone else she could get money from wouldn’t be around for a few hours.

“Lucky for her she left now. Did you hear? The new landlords? Damned mob bought the place, that’s what they’re saying now. A lot of people were going downstairs to pay their rent nice and early this morning.” Mr. Cordo shook his head in dismay as he turned and headed toward his small kitchen. “I remember when this was a lovely building. Oh, twenty years ago. Bright. The people were good people. Oh, well. I was just going to have a snack, some nice cool fruit. Would you like to join me?”

Mr. Cordo turned around again. Thelma was gone.

She ran down to her apartment, where she found Diane about to knock on her door with two dollars in hand. She was dressed in a pencil skirt and a mesh-sleeved blouse. Diane always looked older and older to Thelma. She was only thirty-one but looked like a woman who had survived all her children.

“Here. Sorry. I almost forgot,” she said.

Thelma took the two dollars. “Hey, is it true about the landlords?”

“I guess. Why?” Diane combed her nails through her red hair as she chewed her bubble gum lunch.

Thelma resented the feeling of worry inside her. The mob was the only group she had to worry about, yet it was the only group she envied and wanted to be a part of. They were organized chaos. In a matter of a handful of years they had grown into a network with many arms, strangling the city from the inside out. But they were very much a boys-only club.

“I’m short,” she said.

“Oh that’s no good. I heard they beat some old lady up like an hour ago cuz she didn’t have her cash. The ambulance was just here, didn’t you hear?”

“No. Give me money.”

“Sorry. I just gave my last grip to Daisy after I paid my rent. She was scared of getting beat up too.”

Thelma grumbled.

“Oh come on, T, she’s my aunt!”

Thelma went inside and called Paul.

“I need four hundred bucks.”

Paul laughed. “Jesus Thel. Some girlfriends call for a twenty. Maybe a hundred.”

“Shut up. I never ask you for money. I’m short on rent.”

“Why?”

“I just am. And now the mob went and bought my building.”

“Is that right?” Paul said with wonder. James had never mentioned to him anything about picking up a building. “Yeah, sure. I’ll bring it over. Just meet me outside? I can never seem to leave your place without getting into a fight. I got a meeting later. I have to look right.”

 

Thursday, 98°

 

            Paul looked at his watch. 6:40. Thelma was due over in twenty minutes.

            He finished counting the cash in the black boxes in a hurry. Twenty-one thousand dollars sat in front of him in dirty hundred dollar bills. He had nine thousand dollars to go.

            He put the money back in the boxes and put them in the closet where they belonged.

            Paul lived in the industrial district, also known just as “the industrial.” He lived in one of the four newly renovated living spaces in what used to be a sugar factory. They were stacked together in one part of the rusty waste of the building. Renovations had stopped a long time ago. The downstairs was left as a hollowed-out factory, with scrap metal and glass, dimmed with age, strewn all over the vast main floor.

            Paul had the stealthy walk that his profession commanded, and he always wore white. It brought out his evergreen eyes against his black hair. He never smoked aside from the nights he had to work. He was the only person he knew that had addictions that were genuinely healthy: he was addicted to loving Thelma and he had to have four glasses of apple juice a day or else he’d get moody.

            The only thing Paul hated was his talent. He had just gotten off the phone with his mother before he sat down to count the money. She told him he was so handsome; when was he going to get a proper girlfriend? He imagined all mothers said that to their sons. He wondered if somewhere, some mothers hoped their sons would grow up to be the perfect hitman he was on the job.

            Probably none.

            He’d told Thelma he just ran cocaine and that’s how he made his money. And he did run cocaine from time to time. He couldn’t bear for her to know the truth – that he loved the precision and the seamlessness of killing people from distances. It was like he was God’s own eye when he caught the person in the crosshairs, and God’s own hand when he fired.

            He wanted Thelma to believe that goodness didn’t equal perfection and the strictness of the rules of society she perceived. Goodness could be something as simple as minding your own business, and going to sleep at night without a gun under your pillow, or having a sore hand from a fight. Paul hoped that if Thelma could believe in him as an example of how anyone could be “good”, despite their imperfections, they could start a life somewhere else. And besides – she couldn’t have been as bad as she thought she was. To Paul she was just an angry woman.

            Paul had his own problem, however. He was shaving money from the drug deals he made. His hitman pay wasn’t enough to leave the life behind. And it wasn’t like James, the mob boss, also his best friend since they were kids, was going to let him go.

Paul needed to buy a new life from people that helped mob folks disappear when they didn’t feel like dying. They were expensive of course. Fifteen grand per person. And that was just for the basic “disappearance” stuff. Full-out relocation cost an extra ten grand. But Paul could handle relocation. He just needed to make it so that James could never find him again.

            It was a bet – his hope that Thelma would agree to go with him. He worried about how Thelma would react to his being a hitman. Nine thousand dollars more and Paul could cover her disappearance too. He was sure the guys would charge him for her just because she was mob by association with him.

            Thelma was at the bus stop on Almore Street. She slept the night before but again, her dreams were full of Edward. Her mind was full of questions too: why didn’t she just earn her money? What lasting result came from slapping people around for it when she needed to?

She told her conscience to can it. She did what she did because that’s who she was. It was impossible for a person to train themselves out of being who they were.

            She stood outside the bus shelter and felt cool rain drops on her shoulders. She looked up and smiled at the grey clouds above, bloated with water and static. They came alive with lightning.