|I hear all of these people talking about "running away for a holiday
in the country, just to get away from things." Funny, when I want to get
away, I find myself in the city. Take tonight. This week has been utter
chaos Ė students demanding my time, my attention, my insight. Iíve had
no time to myself, no time to strip off the image and be who I am. No time
to even write a story or a poem. To tell the truth, Iím too burned out
to write much these days. So what do I do at the end of the week? I come
here to the city, put on a new image, and pretend Iím somebody cool, somebody
far more interesting and important than a teacherís assistant at Amberg
University. Somebody totally different from plain old Jessica Welch. Usually
I do what I did tonight; I get dolled up like a goth chick and go to this
little place I like on twelfth street Ė The Rim. I dance like a maniac
for a while, then find a little table near the back and sit there with
a notebook and write. I usually come away with a lot of verbal snapshots,
a couple of character studies, and an occasional poem. Itís not a lot,
but itís more of a chance to do what I really love than anything else I
do all week.
Then I do this. I haul my ass back to my car and sit here in the silence that all of the city noise makes in the private parts of my mind, and I light a clove and watch the moon drifting bleary-eyed over the lights and smog of the city.
Whenever anyone who knows me finds out about the fact that I do this, they flip out and tell me how dangerous it is. I keep trying to explain; I grew up in the woods, and I learned how to avoid and deal with wild animals and human prowlers. The city is no more than another forest. The rules are a little different, but the basic lessons still hold true.
My black leather pants pinch at my thighs, and I shift position to change where they are resting. In doing so, I catch a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye. I can feel my body tighten, and for a spit second my mind goes absolutely blitz-blank. Then everything is back to normal, and I take a second to look at the guy, even as I reach down through the shadows to put the key in the ignition Ė just in case. As if he can feel someone watching him, the guy freezes where he is, then moves out into the roundish pool of light around the streetlamp. I relax. Itís Benny.
Back in the back of the Rim, tucked between the DJís booth and the chain link that marks off the dance floor, is a pool table. Thatís where I met Benny. Considering the clientele the Rim draws, I could never imagine why a pool table would be a useful accoutrement. It didnít fit; most people seemed to ignore it; and it was crammed into such an unlikely place. But there were always a few people around it. After Iíd been going there a couple of weeks, I labeled them the Cue Crowd. They were obviously regulars; they were obviously a groupótheir membership never varied; and they were obviously not a group that anyone wanted to mess with.
I was on the floor one night when the DJ put in a Pigface song. I headed off the floor and was just working my way through the gyrating crowd, heading for my corner table, when this Henry Rollins wanna-be ran into the two guys trying to reach each otherís tonsils who were pressed up against the chain link. They ran into me, and I found myself unceremonially draped over the pool table. I thought I was going to die. The huge guy with his head shaved and seven or eight earrings pulled me back to my feet, and asked quite solicitously if I were all right. I was busy trying to breathe, and waiting for him to pull a large edged weapon from under the trench coat he habitually wore, so he had to repeat the question twice. By then I had decided he wasnít going to kill me; he smelled good; and he had a great British accent. I took a deep breath and said "hi." That was how I met Benny.
After that I had become an adopted member of their group, and I had to admit that I liked it. When I was with them Ė Geri with her spiked black hair and perpetually torn clothing, Thomas with his moon face and laughing blue eyes, Obi with his fetish for white clothing and hand-rolled cigarettes Ė I actually felt as if I had friends again. But I always ended up alone in the car with a clove.
Realizing that the mysterious watcher is just Benny makes a lot of difference, and I feel a sparkle of excitement zip up my spine as I swing the car door open and climb out. Iíve never seen Benny outside the club, but somehow out here he looks, if possible, even more imposing.
"Benny!" I call, being careful to keep my voice low even as I scuffle across the pavement to meet him. Silently he holds a finger up to his lips, demanding that I join his silence. The street is quiet, and I stand so close to Benny that I can feel the warmth of his body filling the space between us.
"Did you bring anyone with you tonight?" Bennyís voice is naturally low, but now it sounds like a well-oiled Indian idling in a back alley.
"No." I shake my head, "I came alone. I always do. Why?"
"Because someone has been following you since you left the club tonight. I thought someone was watching you while you were in there, but there were so many people I couldnít be sure.
Weird chills had begun while Benny was talking, and they have established a regular route up and down my back. I try to consider my options, but my gut instinct is overriding everything and tell me to run Ė to get away from Benny, from this mysterious "somebody" heís talking about, and go back to my dull, agonizing, safe image. But Benny turns to look at me before I can make a move. He asks,
"What were you working on in the club tonight?"
"Working on?" This isnít making any sense, and my brain is scrabbling for any sort of a grip at this point.
"In the club," Benny explains, his attempt at patience looking somehow ludicrous on his rangy 6í2" frame. "You were sitting at the back table writing. What were you writing?"
I squint up at the moon in hopes of guidance, drawing in a deep breath of air laden with city smells to fill my lungs. And I try to think. To sound intelligent. Obviously this is important to Benny, even though to me it seems as if there is no point. But Benny has never struck me as exactly frivolous. I shrug.
"I was working on a story. Itís a dark little thing. Kinda a funky fairytale. But itís not something Iím going to keep. It turned out very dark, and I donít like the direction itís going. The villain is the most interesting character so far, and thatís just not the kind of story I feel real comfortable writing."
"Well then," he rubs a big hand over his close-cropped scalp, "we know what it is."
"Itís the old stained glass window principle." He gives me a lopsided grin, and, through the fog of fear and confusion beginning to mist over my brain, I remember that Benny smells good.
"Stained glass principle. Okay. What the hell does that mean?"
"Back in the middle ages men built great cathedrals."
"Most of those men were Platonists at heart. They believed in ideal forms and the sacred nature of light as a type of knowledge and purity."
"Their stained glass windows were a reminder of that. They drew
in the light, allowing it to be passed through the glass without changing
the glass, and giving the light a new form without changing its nature."
"You are a stained glass window."
"Um." I shake my head. "Benny, you are going to think that Iím a real dolt, but I donít get it."
He grins down at me. "There are vast forces seething out there, just beyond most peopleís reach. They were orderly at the moment of creation Ė but they did not stay that way. Different people tap into them in different ways. Some people Ė most in fact Ė canít tap into them at all. A few do it through ritual. Most of those who DO tap into it do it the same way you do, they tap into it though art. Your writing gives tiny bits of that "force" Ė if you want to call it that Ė a path into this world by creating a form, a pattern, a character for them to fit into. Thatís why I called it a stained glass window principle; you are like a stained glass window Ė you allow them to come through without changing you or altering their nature. But this one is different. Itís looking for you."
"So." I hear my voice shaking, and swallow hard to try and stop it. "How do you know all this shit?"
Benny shrugs and shoves his hands into his pockets. "You donít wanna know."
"If all that other crap you just told me is true, then hadnít I better know?"
Benny shrugs again, looking uncomfortable for the first time since I have known him. He looks at the toe of his docs, then at the moon overhead.
"I live on the same side of reality that they do. Iím not one of them." He shrugs. "The gang and I are more like what you would call faerie." The silence lies heavy under our feet for a moment, then he asks, "So, does that bother you?"
I dig in my pocket for a clove, and my fingers find the box squished flat between layers of leather. Empty. Just my luck. I take another deep breath and join Benny in squinting at the milky disc of moon, "If I believe everything else you said about the stained glass, then I have to believe it. Itís all part of the same thing. But I donít know, Benny, thatís a really big difference in the way you look at the world. Andó" I giggle, "you look nothing like a fairy. Gay or otherwise."
Benny laughs. And it is a rich, hearty sound. Thinking to myself how full it sounds, I realise that I have never heard Benny laugh before, and I like it. The sound rings down the street, and I jump a mile when someone touches me on the shoulder, because the sound of laughter had hidden all other sound on the street for that moment.
The man beside me is tall, probably around six feet, and more wiry than muscular. He has shoulder length black hair, and I canít see his face very well because of it. He asks me for a light, and I dig in my pocket, trying all the while to figure out why this guy looks and sounds so damn familiar. I find my lighter and give it to the guy. He lights his cigarette, returns the lighter, and moves off down the street, disappearing into the shadows that line the sidewalk as far as I can see. He is far enough away that I can barely make out his outline when the thing that was bugging me hits home. The man. His conversation. The lighter. The whole thing was exactly like the opening of the story I had started in the club tonight. The story Benny had asked me about.
I turn to ask Benny if that was the "someone" he had warned me about and find myself talking to an empty street. Frustrated, I stand here for a moment trying to figure out what to do. Nothing brilliant comes to mind, and so I walk back to the car, open the door, snag a few bucks from under the registration in the glove compartment, grab my notebook off the seat, and set out in search of a pack of cloves. Chances of finding a tobacconist open at this time of night are slim, but I figure that I have to do something, and besides, nobody knows what you might find on the nighttime streets of Amberg.
I make it down past the darkened windows of the obscure little bookstores and the glaring lights of a few late night coffee shops obviously catering to the yuppie portion of the college crowd. A movie is just letting out as I wander past the Cinema 16, and for a moment I am caught up in the press of the crowd. Almost all of the people have passed me when I feel a hand on my shoulder, and a soft voice asks me for a light. I jump a mile, landing facing the direction of the voice, and feel as if Iíve just been gut punched as I recognise the same guy I ran into in the street outside The Rim standing to my right. hand shaking, I peel pit the lighter and offer it to him. He takes it and flicks it with practiced ninchalance. I swallow hard.
"Not to be smart or anything, but didnít I just meet you back the street a bit?"
He doesnít even look up, just extends the lighter as if he knows that Iíll take it. And Ė like an idiot Ė I do. A black jacketed kid comes out of the movie theatre and bumps into me. Remembering that I still look like a punk, I snarl an obscenity in his direction and look back to Mr. Weird. Of course, Mr. Weird isnít there any more. I could have called that one. If we were going to play fairy tales, I could tell what was going to happen. Only this fairy tale doesnít exactly match up with an Aarne Thompson type, and I doubt it is going to end up with an "and they all lived happily ever after." At this point, I would be grateful for it just to end.
The neon lights hurt my eyes, and I turn off onto Lassiter, following it down to where it crosses Elm. There is a huge church on the corner here, clawing at the sky with a crenelated steeple that looks like a black cut-out against the grey of the backlit sky. In front of the place is a big lighted sign announcing the name of the pastor, the time of services, and the quote of the week. I love old churches, and this one has fascinated me since I hit this city, but Iíve never taken the time to go into it. Moving past the garish sign, I lean my head back, squinting through the city-dark twilight to try to catch the familiar outline. And someone taps me on the shoulder.
My mind goes on blitz. Blank. Sensory overload 101 Ė no response, no data registering. It takes a good five seconds for me to even to see the man I at some point turned to face.
"Got a light?"
The question hangs heavy against the distant rumble of cars a few blocks away, and I study the man in front of me. His leanness is accentuated by the black clothing and the way he shoves his hands into his pockets. Everything Benny told me earlier tonight flashes through my mind, and I realise that I have to work for the saliva to swallow comfortably. Then another thought pops into my mind. If Benny were right. . .
I shrug deliberately.
"Sorry, I left my lighter in the car." And I wait, half expecting my companion to disappear in a puff of smoke. But all he does is shake the dark hair away from his face and fix me with a pair of eyes as dark and lucid as any I have seen.
"That isnít the way you wrote the scene."
"Shit." It is the first word that comes to mind. It seems appropriate. But it elicits no response. So I try for something a bit more coherent. "So, why are you here?"
"Because you are."
I try again. "Why are you following me?"
"You havenít finished."
"I have a lot of stories I havenít finished."
"You donít intend to finish this one."
"Whatís it to you?" Stupid question, Jess, stupid.
"You offer me a place here in your world, a character defined by your own hand, and then you deny me a story; a paradigm, a place from which to start other stories. You are cruel."
"But the story didnít come out the way I meant. I realised . . ." I find myself again talking to empty air, his outline having faded into the dark silhouette of the church.
"Shit." For a moment I stand there, staring at the pavement, and waiting to see if anything else is going to happen. I feel numb; Iíve had one too many shocks tonight, and nothing is really registering. Without really considering what Iím doing, I keep walking, my mind busy with what Benny told me, and with the implications of what Jarrod had said ( I realised that I was using the name from the story for my visitor and shrugged Ė why not. Things couldnít get much weirder). My feet find familiar ground, and looking up, I find myself just outside Alís.
Alís, for all that it has one of the stupidest names I have ever heard, is an awesome coffee shop. A lot of intelligent and unusual people come here to share ideas and ideologies and just talk. The yuppies donít like it Ė or they havenít discovered it yet Ė but itís one of my favorite places to come. Granted, I donít usually arrive looking like this, but at this time of night I know I wonít be the only one looking as if they were newly arrived from the edge of the pit.
Opening the door just enough to get in, I slip into an atmosphere packed with voices layered over Silverchair and the smells of fresh ground coffee and cigarette smoke. Occasionally the dull roar is punctuated by a bang or moan as the rubber sleeved feet of a chair slide over the wooden floor already marred by a good deal of similar abuse. Trying to be inconspicuous if fairly pointless, as the room is so small and so full of cigarette smoke that whether or not people notice you is entirely dictated by whether or not they are looking for you. I know that, but I take a shot at inconspicuousness anyway.
Finding a table by the wall, I slide into the chair sideways, and lean my head against the wall, draping one arm over the chair back. Closing my eyes, I listen to the buzz of conversation, letting my ears drift in and out of the widely varied conversations that are going on around me. I hear a chair near me scrape across the floor and the sibilant slide of fabric against the wooden seat as someone sits down.
"Youíd better drink that before it gets cold."
I jerk upright, pull my hair on the rough plaster of the wall, and almost fall off the chair, my eyes snapping open. There is a creme-topped latte on the table at my elbow, and Benny is straddling the chair opposite me, his arms crossed on its wooden back.
Heaving a deep sigh, I realise that I have a pounding headache.
"So, where did you go?"
Benny lowers his head, resting a stubbled chin on his hands and shrugs his massive shoulders. "It wasnít a good place for me to be."
"Like it was a great place for me."
"Itís not the same for you." Benny stretches and rubs his eyes. Unconsciously I find myself wondering if itís past his bedtime. Then I wonder if fairies have bedtimes, and freak out because Iím actually buying into all of this shit. "Heís not going to hurt you. He canít afford it/ If anything happens to you then heís stuck where he is."
"So where is he?"
Benny shrugs. "Somewhere before the beginning of the end. And itís a tenuous place to be."
"Why the hell is he following me around?" I mumble into the foamy top of the latte.
Benny leans toward me across the table, his eyes intense, "You can change his position. Remember the stained glass window?" I nod. "He wants his own story, his own place here. You started to give it to him, then realised your error and stopped. He wants you to begin again."
"You mean all I have to do to get him off my back is finish the story?"
"I mean you should destroy it."
"You stopped writing the story because the main character was too dark for you, right?" I nod again. "Then you certainly donít want him out roaming the streets "Do you?"
A puddle of silence collects around the table as I stare into the muddy depths of my latte and Benny waits for me to say something. I donít know what to day. The logic behind what Benny says is good, but logic never was my guiding light. How do I explain to Benny that every author writes from what they know Ė no matter who or what Jarrod is, or was, or whatever, he reflects no more than my own darkness. And how do I explain to a self-declared faerie that Jarrod isnít just a character in a story. Hell, I talked to him tonight, touched his fingers, smelled his cologne Ė he is real. What gives me the right to just "destroy"? Who made me God?
I glance up, and Benny is still watching me. I take a hasty sip, wondering how long Iíve been zoning. Licking the foam off my lip, I shrug.
"I dunno, Benny. Give me some time to think things over, huh?"
Benny reaches over and rumples my hair. "Take care of yourself, kid." He smiles at me. You had a lot of shit laid on you tonight. You need to talk, come up to the city here, you can probably find me or one of my mates."
My head is pounding, and I shiver the whole way back to the car, partially from exhaustion, partially from paranoia as I constantly expect to feel a hand touch my shoulder. But none does.
It is a week later when I come back to the city, and the night us clear as I turn my steps back to the fenced -in court in front of the church. It looks just the same as it did the week before Ė steeple and hunched nave silhouetted against the city-lit sky, He is there too, just as I expected him to be. He doesnít tap me on the shoulder this time, doesnít ask me for a light; he just stands next to the lighted signboard, the black of his jacket blending with the dark frame.
I reach back and pull a bundle of pages out of the back pocket of my jeans, and feel the fabric relax as the extra bulk is removed.
"I brought something for you.í
"Oh?" I can hear the black leather rasp against the rough brick of the marquee as he shrugs himself free of it and walks toward me. He takes the papers from my hands and squints at them in the light of the sign.
"Thatís the only copy of the finished story." I shiver in a nonexistent draft. Now youíre in the same boat as the rest of us; your fate is between you and God."
The pale sheaf of papers disappears in to an inner pocket of the dark jacket, and he shrugs. "Thanks."
Sticking his hands into his pockets in that characteristic gesture, he moves way into the darkness, and I watch his outline blend into the cityscape, nothing more than one more wanderer out on the streets tonight. I catch a whiff of a familiar cologne, and Bennyís deep voice sounds from behind me,
"I thought I told you. . ."
"It was my story, wasnít it?"
Turning, I find myself staring at the NIN logo on Bennyís chest. "Now itís his." Looking up, I smile at him through the twilight and reach over to take his arm. "So, can you teach me how to play pool?"
Benny shakes his head and laughs softly, not quite covering a note of uncertainty; he reaches down and covers the hand curled around his elbow with one of his own. And we walk away through the shadows toward the flickering purple of the neon sign that marks the Rim.