As promised, I'm publishing on the blog those short stories of mine that have vanished into the cybersphere due to the collapse, disbanding, or simply disappearance of the zines in which they were published. Today, I offer my story "Princess." Special prize to the first person to identify the literary allusion!
By J. David Bell
It is impossible to avoid people you live with.
Chris would be waiting for me this morning, as always. Waiting, a hand on his doorknob, waiting for the telltale jiggle of my door beside his. When it came, he would fling his door against the wall, its noise so jarring I had to stop in my scramble for the steps even though I knew he who hesitates is screwed. The first few days I eyed his blank portal as I inched toward safety, thinking a watched door never yawns or maybe even I could will it to stay closed. But always the door would snap open like the maw of a toad while I, the fly, stood transfixed. The next thing I knew Chris would be in the hall, lazily fiddling with his lock or shrugging into his baggy blue letter jacket, carelessly cocksure. Then he would look up, snap sandy hair from his eyes, and begin his charge, one hand raised as if hailing a cab, the other out to stiffarm obstacles from his path. His grin would widen as he saw how I stood, the door bar half-pushed and the toe of my sneaker wedged in the inch-wide opening. Inevitably his momentum would loosen my hold and he would ride me into a tight corner. Trapped.
Another snap and the long lick of hair would fall into place. “Yo, Deberg,” he would pant, grinning. “How’s it goin’?”
“Fine,” I would reply, my voice strangled with defiance.
“Cool,” he’d say. “Hey, how’s the poems coming?”
My teeth would clench. “Fine,” I would breathe.
“Well, that’s good.” He would smile.
And I would explode: “Listen, Chris, it’s no deal! Why don’t you just leave me alone?”
“Awww, Cy, come on,” he’d say, laying an arm across my shoulders. “It’ll take you ten minutes, I’ll give you five bucks, you get me in the door. Everyone’s a winner. Aren’t we buddies?”
“Well, what’s that got to do with it? Listen, Cy--”
“Chris, leave me the hell alone!” I would shake free of his embrace and push past him.
“Well, if you won’t even do a guy a favor!” he would yell.
I would rush down the stairs, the hallway a long gullet convulsing around me, peristaltic panic as I struggled to escape. Then bursting out the front door, leaning against the brick, slimy mollusk feel of dew-wet ivy on my back, passersby staring as I gripped my books against my chest and drew long breaths. At last off to class, no sounds of pursuit, but behind me the baleen grin of the beast, waiting to strip my shell like a mass of krill.
Princess. . . . How oft have I staked thee out, watching thru orange filter of window shade thy ballerina silhouette, thy waist a needle-thin outline, thy upper and nether regions black tulip bulbs bobbing, thy arms and legs pirouetting thru windmill arcs to make da Vinci proud, thy tresses a soft pillow of cloud behind thee? How oft thy marble hand admired as with a motion as of a bird settling to roost it flicks the shade high, and there at thy window in thy nightgown have I beheld thee, thy head tipped as if listening, thy locks trailing o’er thy shoulder, thy dexter hand resting upon the curling tail while thy sinister combs and caresses? How oft espied thy upward gaze as if the moon holds the secret to thy loneliness? How oft composed the sonnets to banish the enchantment that holds thee, and longed for the guts to cry out, Princess, cast down thy golden hair? How oft. . . .
Actually, never. But that’s what imagination’s for.
Twice weekly for two months, though, had I seen her in the seat ahead of mine in Baby Bio, a class fully living up to its prefix in that the teacher had assigned us alphabetically to seats the first day of the semester and reprimanded us thereafter for absenteeism, tardiness, or any other mutiny against the seating chart’s rigid rule. My row, second from the left, doorway on the right, hence a long humiliating walk whenever I was late (which was oft) between black slab of chalkboard and brown pickets of seats garnished with red, yellow, pink and blue. Toothpick thin professor in tweed, with a gray goatee, sadly shaking his head and marking a broad X in my square on the chart; jeering rows of jesters parading their punctuality with freckle-faced grins. Halfway down the row to my seat I drop my notebook and the coils twang, ejecting my pencil like a BB pellet to clatter at the professor’s desk. More peer hilarity and pedagogical head shakes as I stoop to retrieve it. Then creaking into my seat at last and an involuntary, stress-induced fart, provoking yet greater mirth and wrinkled noses. Only Roxane Deli does not look, does not laugh, does not squirm in her seat; only Roxane remains impervious, her broad back repelling me like a wall. Though I don’t relish her scorn, it would at least prove my ability to trespass upon her consciousness. But I do not: to her, my epic trek before the class was the passage of a ghost, my projectile pencil the merest flare minus the acrid aftertaste of gunpowder, my gastric distress a dry whisper as insignificant as the shuffling of a dusty deck of cards. I open my textbook and though the breeze ruffles her hair, not the slightest shake of her head indicates that a single follicle was disturbed.
The room: wooden chairs with hinged desks, minor incline, high terraced ceiling, fluorescent lights. My row, back to front: Stuart Crowell, Marybeth Deacon, Cyrus Deberg, Roxane Deli, Ruth Dorf, Jason Eisenson, Elaine Eckridge. On my right, Beatrice Adams; my left, Fiona Gallagher. Capsule critiques: Stuart, loud and always wrong; Marybeth, wispy and black-haired and seemingly alcoholic; Ruth, cool and sharp, with a voice like an electric shaver; Jason, red-haired and pygmy small; Elaine, stringy blonde and lost in her hockey-star boyfriend’s letter jacket; Beatrice, black and sarcastic, with purple nails; Fiona, three hundred pounds if she’s an ounce. Shrewd observer of humanity, Cy Deberg, floundering amidst the sweltering mass of accumulating details. Today I will observe how Fiona scratches her cavernous armpits beneath her rainbow-striped tank top; the next I will note how Stuart’s hand-raising takes on a strained and desperate quality as his wrong answers mount; the following I will register how Marybeth totters to her chair and catches only the lip in sitting, but remains poised for some seconds as she tries to decide which way lies solid matter. Each day more and more pressure from details I can’t help attracting; they crowd me like an angry swarm. Each day more and more of the world’s people press upon me in rude entreaty, seeking to unload sorrows as if I could free them from their grotesquerie. I’m so sick of people. I want to spring to my feet, spread my arms and scream, “I can’t help you! Now go away!” Instead, I turn to page sixty-five and see a picture of a child with cystic fibrosis.
And Roxane, in the seat before me, nibbling absently on a pencil, sporting a sunny yellow sweater, a tight black leather belt, and a flowered skirt which her legs, in crossing, have thrown over her dumpling thigh, exposing razor-sharp shiny shins. By a great act of charity one might describe her figure as hourglass; actually it is more wasp, two unwieldy orbs tied by the tiniest thread. Her hair, golden and kinky and disclosing dark roots, hangs mere inches from my seat. Lamenting the lost art of inkwells, I can do nothing but watch as she shakes her head, fluffing the snaky curls. Her smell: cigarettes and perfume, stale and sweet, like mildewed roses. Her complexion: marathon-runner red, the outcome of a makeup orgy calculated to conceal pockmarks as numerous as those on an orange rind. Her eyes: presumably brown, though lost in such a fecund overgrowth of mascara as to make any attempt at taxonomy highly speculative; her nose, long and fleshy; her lips, glossy slick, pumped beyond capacity and threatening to explode. She wears glasses with thick dark frames and says very little. When she does speak her voice is--how does one put this?--ugly, not merely deep but flat, slow, thick, like day-old coffee. Her hand is not the graceful bird of my imagined nighttime vigil; when occasionally it rises, heavy and hesitant, fingers flexing and unflexing timorously, it puts me in mind of worms groping for the surface. And if it is not called upon, it shrivels instantly and nosedives for her lap, where the tremor in her forearm tells me it is still fidgeting nervously.
But it is her back that confronts me, disdains me, reviles me. Roxane’s back, spread out like a picnic blanket before me every Tuesday and Thursday, will always be a source of shame. I know she considers me disgusting, because I sneezed on her back once, by accident--it just came out too fast. It was, in all fairness, her fault, for she was hyper-perfumy that day, physically perfumy in a way that plucked painfully at my nostril hairs. I am allergic to anything artificial, which includes perfume, Popsicles, polyester and most people. By merest bad luck, however, the incident had occurred on a sweltering fall day, and Roxane had been wearing a halter top exposing her freckled, ice cream white back--thus my nasal geyser had been particularly offensive. Compounding my ill fortune, it had been the first day of the term when my nose got the better of me, so such had been our introduction. She had said to me that day--or not to me, and not really said, but more to her lap, and mumbled--the only words she ever had, or would, and they were this: “Fucking asshole.”
Chris is waiting for me, striking a casual pose by the water fountain, his eyes roving the hallway like a john scoping out the local meat. Broad-shouldered and swaybacked, with the beginnings of a beer belly, he reminds me of various trolls and ogres from bedtime stories. But oh, is he cute! Ask anyone. That almost-military haircut with the single unruly smear across his forehead, those ballpoint blue eyes, those prominent, big-veined hands, those gunslinger bowlegs, that powerful physique enhanced by his padded jacket and his own inflated opinion of himself. His entourage doesn’t hurt either: those swooning steamy girls so eager to lap up his frat-mentality rantings about his gridiron glory days, to whisper the answers to the Chem test in his ear, to open wide and let the slimy worm crawl in. I fear I am beginning to lose my composure. I leap for my door, but Chris sees, tosses me a gesture halfway between a wave and a salute, and strides over. His boots stomp the carpet.
“Hey Deberg,” he says. “Given any more thought to my little business preposition?” Snicker, snicker, wink.
“No,” I say.
He spreads his hands. “Deberg. You look like the kind of guy who knows a quick buck when he sees it. Look. I’ll make it ten. Final offer.”
“No deal,” I say.
“Deberrrrg,” he whines. “One letter. That’s all I’m asking. Look, I’d do it myself, but I can’t write that romantic shit like you.”
“Just one letter,” he says. “I’ll never ask for anything else. Hell,” he pulls himself up, hands on belt loops, “that’s all I’ll need. I just--man, I don’t know where to start. She’s like . . . ah, like a princess. . . .” He nudges me in the ribs to make sure I caught the simile. His face is red, whether from embarrassment or the effort of cerebration I don’t know. “Just one letter. . .” he concludes feebly.
“You don’t need me,” I say. My voice grates. “You need a pimp.”
“Awww, Deberg, don’t be like that.” The duck of the head, the carpet-kick are impressive. He scrambles for his wallet. “Fifteen,” he gasps, shoving it in my face. “You’re robbing me.”
“A hundred,” I say. Saying it, I feel a strange mixture of power and dread. I begin to tremble, wondering if I would take it.
“A hundred!” He gapes. “For a lousy letter? Hell, she’s not worth that much!”
“Then no deal.” I can barely get the words out.
He stands silent for a minute, biting his lip. “Twenty-five,” he says heavily. “And you don’t have to write the letter. Just gimme one of those mushy poems of yours. She’ll eat it up.”
For a moment I stare at him, praying for the strength to commit murder. Then I push past him and race for my room.
He catches my arm. His paw grinds into my skin. “Deberg,” he says. “What is it with you? You’d think I was asking. . . .” Then a new thought strikes him and his voice changes. “You like her, is that it? Hell, just say the word. I’ll lay off.”
I look at him. The greedy, feral grin is gone; his features have softened. Can he be serious? Would the knight relinquish the princess for the frog’s sake? And if so, what then? Frogs don’t get princesses anymore. “Let go of me,” I say.
He drops my arm. I fumble for my keys and enter my room. I leave him standing there limp, drained, alone. Something clutches my chest and won’t let go.
A frail princess slept atop a tower of mattresses, and underneath was a rusty coat hanger, a lead pipe, the transmission of a Toyota Tercel, a sack of gravel, a thermonuclear device and a pea. She awakened with multiple compound fractures of the tibia and fibula, a lacerated scalp, a deviated septum, third-degree burns over ninety-five percent of her body, arteriosclerosis, breast cancer and an aneurysm. When asked how she had slept she replied, “Not bad, except for that damn pea. I should have stayed at Holiday Inn.” She was immediately recognized as the true princess, but she died the next day. There was great lamentation and rending of garments until the court wise man said, “Princesses is a dime a dozen. Rig up them matteresses again.” And thus it came to pass that a lowly serving wench, resting her tired bones atop the pile after an exhausting day of catering to the whims of a fickle royalty, complained subsequently of lower back pain and was crowned Princess. The frail one’s bones were pitched in a pauper’s grave and her name forgotten. She was too sensitive for this world, alas.
I lay in bed. The toad crouched on my chest, its mucosa tongue idly darting in and out. Princess. . . . You sit alone in your room, watching yourself in a hand-held mirror, the glass scarred and spotted, the plastic frame chipped. Your breasts, freed from the constriction of underwire and yellow sweater, sag gratefully; your posture, no longer under public scrutiny, would shame a hunchback; your stomach, girdleless, sinks into folds you are helpless to control. You swab pigment from your face with a white cloth and discard it next to a dozen rags bloodied by the same pink powder. You reach for a medicated pad and siphon grease from the creases beside your nose, the hollows beneath your eyes, the folds to either side of your mouth. You pick a clot from your hair, shake your head and scoop dandruff off the dressing table into your palm. Slowly, you begin to brush out the tangles, your hand moving in practiced rhythm, zombielike. At last you lie down, feeling the weight of your body settle, still but never satisfied. You roll onto your stomach, you clutch your pillow, you shove your face into its suffocating folds, you shake your head fitfully: finally sleep comes. You dream you are trapped in a tower, short-haired, mute. You plot revenge against the time you will be free.
Inside Roxane sleeps, innocent of the dirty designs Chris would have me accomplice to. And outside, a frog in the moonlight, I attempt to scale the tower. I spit on my suction-cup fingers, press them against the stone, but the mortar drips oil, and down I fall in a puddle, my pants wet again. I stand, hurl myself against the wall, but it repels me with a comical sprrooiiing! I rant and leap, splashing in the marsh; I shake my fists. Lilypads dance, exposing their pale green bellies; cattails snap erect and flat with metronomic frenzy; smaller creatures scurry for safety, zigzagging blindly, tapping the water in brittle ripples then off again. Inside, Roxane rolls over in her sleep, beating her arms over her head and whimpering. Outside, the frog collapses, spent.
But she saves her sorrow for night; night, shut in her tower, immune to my advances. In two days she will be back in class, aloof, her beautiful barbaric back reminding me of the time I defiled it. Fluff from her sweater will loosen as she rubs against her seat; it will float upward, sucked into the vortex of her scent, swirling, finally settling in her hair. My hand will flinch to brush it away, and I will know I can’t. I can’t touch her. I can’t--I can’t! I began to tremble, rage and frustration gagging me. And then I thought of Chris and his filthy plans, and as in a vision I knew what I could do. Springing from bed, I crouched over my desk and began to write.
You don’t know me, but I’ve been watching you. My name is Chris Newville. I see your every detail before me now: your hair like licorice, your tits like ripe nectarines, your buns like buns. I want to clutch you, sink my teeth into you, have you for lunch. So far I’ve controlled myself, but I can’t trust myself to do so much longer. Please help. Don’t make me do something I’ll regret. I’m too shy to say these things to your face, but believe me when I say that I find you irresistible and will be watching you, waiting for my moment to have you.
I ripped the page from my notebook and, handling it like a rat that’s likely to bite, folded it in half. I wrote her name in loopy, frilly writing, then drew a flower that was really a coiled-up snake if you looked at it hard. I crept outside. The hall was dark and quiet; no doors popped open at the sound of my exit. I laughed. I imagined Chris alone in his room, condemned to a lifetime of meaningless encounters, futile gestures, danger he was too bland to recognize. And Roxane. . . . I could hear the scream when she looked under her door and read the note, see the fearful glances from those black-choked eyes and thick frames, feel the clutch in her throat when a man at night crossed the street to her side. I foresaw that there might come a time, if I could engineer the circumstances, when she would welcome my gentle company; yes, me. There might come a time when she would be happy for what she could get, when Her Majesty wouldn’t be too high and mighty for a frog anymore. She might need me. After all, there are a lot of scary creatures out there.