Rock Salt Blues
Peg Leg Howell jogs along the record player—the one time I’m not immersed. It’s 5:58. 5:58 in Aurelie’s parents’ basement, to be precise. I know the time for a fact because there’s a dusty clock radio beside the chesterfield. “Hello, Dominic Bader,” the clock beams, “welcome to the realm of the unfathomably good. I hope you can unhook a bra.”
These are my peak years I’ve been wasting. This is according to my friend Sam, but he would probably pull that carpe diem shit to justify dry-humping a telephone pole, so what do I care. I have enough to care about, thank you very much, like my best friend since junior kindergarten yanking off her clothes and mine Armageddon-style, like it’s absolutely and biologically imperative.
It’s like crashing a party I’m not invited to. “Who’s this fuckin’ guy?” the gods must be asking each other with a thumb and a shrug. I’m the guy robbing existence of a sliver of time that shouldn’t even be happening, that’s who. It’s me and Aurelie, after all.
And in the frenzied thrill of actual bodily contact I convince myself that if the clock changes from 5:59 to 6:00, Aurelie’s parents’ basement might actually cave in on itself and then everything in the house will be absorbed into a swelling black void: the chesterfield, my clothes crumpled on the floor, Aurelie, her records and novelty t-shirt collection, her dog Boz pawing at the door to get in… everything that’s safe and familiar will be unraveled into the black hole, gone for good. Nope, it’ll just have to stay 5:59 forever, and Aurelie and I will have to just keep having sex forever. You’re welcome, fabric of the cosmos. Glad I could help.
I wish. That doesn’t happen, of course. When all’s said and done, we put our clothes back on like doctors dressing raw wounds. Playing doctor finally. Aurelie turns on the TV to some generic cop show with car chases and cocked Glocks and swaggering renegade douchebags. Aurelie loves cop shows. Don’t ask me why. I can’t wait to be out in the world, owning a TV and not watching generic cop shows. It’ll be great. But until then I’ll still hang out in her basement and watch them with her. Every single time.
The basement smells like pet dander and dried mud. Aurelie rescued it about a year ago, convincing her parents that she needed a getaway from her younger brothers and sisters. I don’t really understand why; her bedroom’s way nicer, but go figure. I suppose it’s worked out well. The family uses the basement to store everything that’s supposed to be forgotten, and Aurelie uses the basement to forget all about her family. And here I am, using the basement to forget all about my family, or my mom anyway, and her boyfriend Brian. Everybody needs a bat cave, I guess.
But now the basement’s this surreal place vibrating with the possibility of things finally becoming what they’re supposed to. Aurelie and I are lying on the chesterfield, our clothes still sticking in a sweaty residue. My skin’s marbled pink and white from the humidity and I wish I could cool the red away. The summer’s already started burning me, just like Son House’s charred voice all the way through “Dry Spell Blues”. Aurelie and I nudge feet back and forth and talk about my band.
The Shatter Effect is a name that Sam and Kurt came up with when I was in the middle of explaining photophobia, a condition resulting from my albinism. The gist of “shattering” is that my eyes have problems adjusting to bright light, especially if I’ve been in a dark room beforehand. The guys thought we should use the name for our band, like the sonic assault of our music would produce a shatter effect, blowing the ears off of anyone listening. It has potential.
“Dude, that name is so beyond terrible,” Aurelie insists. She straightens her back and pulls her feet up underneath her, the way she does when she’s in the middle of saying something really important.
“Besides, it’s just Sam and Kurt’s sad excuse to earn street cred for the band because you’re albino. They’re using you, Dom. It’s like your ability to actually play guitar counts less to them than having a complexion like Nostradamus.”
“Nostradamus was that guy who made predictions. You mean Nosferatu. The vampire.”
“Right, Nosferatu. I always get them confused. Anyways, don’t be such a chump. You can come up with something way better than The Shatter Effect. For that matter, you can do way better than Sam and Kurt.”
“You haven’t even heard us yet.”
“Like I need to, you big loser. I just don’t like seeing people take advantage of you, and you always let them. I’m gonna get a popsicle, you want one?” She flicks me playfully upside the head the same way she has since forever ago.
“No, I’m good.”
Aurelie comes back with her popsicle and laughs out loud at some dipshit on the cop show blowing up some other dipshit. The way she always does. I pick at a snag in my t-shirt. Picking at the snag seems easier than watching TV and pretending that we haven’t just had sex in her parents’ basement. For the first time ever. Well, the first time ever for me, anyway. I endured months of listening to the saga of Aurelie and John Francis during our senior year. That’s a whole other issue, though. Was the t-shirt snag there half an hour ago? I don’t think so. Did it happen when she pulled off my shirt? And why are we talking so normally now? I mean, not that I’m expecting it to be all sexy Nina Simone need-a-little-sugar-in-my-bowl sort of talk, but definitely not this…ordinary. The snag suddenly becomes the one pathetic scrap of evidence that anything’s happened between us at all.
My eyes drift to the basement walls lined with metal shelving units stocked with old board games and choose-your-own-adventure books puckering with mildew. It’s all I can do not to suffocate on the smell of dog fur and moldy boxes. How is it 6:23 already? My fear of black holes is total bullshit; I’m not scared of the black hole sucking away the novelty t-shirts and Boz the dog, and everything else familiar; I’m scared of everything staying familiar forever.
Sleepy John Estes bleats “Someday Baby Blues” on the record player. I fold my arms across my chest. I need to do something. I need her to realize that she needs me.
“So I found out my mom’s pregnant.” I fold my arms across my chest casually.
“Holy shit, Dom, are you serious?”
“Yeah, I heard her and Brian talking about it this morning.” I keep my eyes trained on the mildewed children’s books. What the fuck am I doing?
“Christ, Dom. Is Karen, like, ballistic right now?”
“No, she’s really quiet, which is kinda worse.” In my panic, I try to think about Muddy Waters and the measured cool of his voice that, unless a person is listening carefully, belies the extent of the fever underneath it all. I can do that too. I can be my own Muddy Waters, my own Nathan Beauregard. Just keep talking and keep her listening. It can be just like a song. A song about my mom and Brian in the kitchen. This morning. Not knowing I had come back home to grab a guitar pick from my room.
It would be an A chord—or wait, an E chord—as I overhear Mom telling Brian about the pregnancy test. How the test is positive. The E chord plods along as Brian swears in response and exhales deeply. He’s on board but needs a minute, he tells my mom.
The E chord keeps strumming in my mind, like it’s propelling Mom and Brian’s conversation forward. Like it’s forcing me to listen, the eavesdropper, stuck in the hall next to the kitchen. They talk about the two o’clock feedings, the teething. Mom says those bits are the easiest compared to the rest.
And then, a switch to A7 when Mom mentions me. It’s the chord shift that’s like a sudden dip in the road when my head drops to my stomach and my stomach flips up to my head all woozy-like. A7’s got that same twinge. Mom tells Brian about how hard it is raising a teenager and no longer being able to fix everything. My problems at school. The other kids. She calls me sensitive. Fucking sensitive. She says she doesn’t know if she can go through it all again. A7’s a pretty easy chord, but even as I speak to Aurelie, I can feel my fingers cramping on the imaginary frets of the guitar neck, feel the imaginary vibrato of its body against mine. Of course, I leave out the bit about being sensitive when I tell Aurelie. Back to E.
Mom brings up Sam and Kurt. She doesn’t like them and doesn’t want to see me get burned, which is a primo choice of words given my photophobia and everything. That doozy definitely warrants a shift to B7. And then Mom tells Brian she was happiest when I was a baby, if she’s going to be really honest about everything. But those days are long gone. Slide back to A7. And that she loves me too much to go through it all again.
The story ends back on an E chord, the way it started. Only everything’s changed now; the chord sounds familiar but the listener feels different hearing it.
And that’s it. The twelve-bar blues.
“I think she’s thinking about not having it,” I say to her.
“I know. It doesn’t seem right.”
Aurelie shifts in her seat uncomfortably.
“No, I just meant that’s gotta be a difficult decision for her to make.”
“You really think it’s what she wants?”
Aurelie hasn’t put her bra back on, just her tank top. The fabric’s faded, see-through, and I can see her nipples. I’m not staring or anything, but she absently picks up a throw pillow and hugs it over her chest anyway.
“I don’t know, Dom. I guess I can understand, in a way. She’s doing it out of love. If it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel right. You can’t fault her for wanting to leave things the way they are.”
I’m not quite sure what we’re talking about anymore.
“I don’t know. I guess not. I just think she might really want it, you know, subconsciously.” I say.
Aurelie ruffles my hair.
“God, Dom, you’re so fragile I’m surprised you don’t walk around in your own portable incubator.”
She rubs my arm and tells me not to worry about my mom. I start to get an erection and feel like the worst person on the planet. The only person I hate more than myself right now is her. Except that’s not true at all.
Kurt has a song for the band that’s trying insanely hard to be a Marc Bolan rip-off. “Abort Mission Abort!” I had suggested some changes—the title, for starters—but the guys didn’t seem that interested. I can’t remember if I’ve told Aurelie about that song or not. And like some sick joke, that song keeps playing over and over in my head as she strokes my arm like Florence Nightingale tending the wounded. I should be kissing her right now but I stay where I am.
Abort mission abort, indeed.
We sit on the chesterfield a while longer. I repeat our conversation in my mind, as if by repeating it enough I can travel back in time to the point of us having sex again, which now seems preposterously made-up.
Aurelie finishes her popsicle and sits up on the chesterfield, licking the last dribbles of juice down the stick. She smiles at me.
There’s a pause.
I look back at her.
Then she stands up.
“Well, you should probably go,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to be the cause of Brian hemorrhaging if you weren’t home in time for dinner.”
“Right,” I reply, feeling my chest tighten. “I should probably go.”
“Shit, I’m gonna be pretty busy for the next little while. I’m doing tons of shopping for dorm stuff with my parents and then John Francis is taking me out on the boat. I’m sure I’ll see you soon, though. We’ll hang out for sure.”
“Uh huh?” It’s meant to sound casual but comes out sounding like a question, which makes me want to slit open a vein right there in front of her.
Aurelie pulls me close into a hug. “I love you Dom,” she adds.
“I love you too.” I hug her back and try to keep my eyes fixed on a strand of hair that’s sticking out of her ponytail elastic at a weird angle. Her hairdo always looks a second away from falling apart completely, but maybe that’s just me.
The sun sears my eyes when I open the front door. The shatter effect—razor light dicing my eyes at every possible angle and burning into my skull. The sun, throbbing on the horizon, is a giant pulpy mass of pain. Like a Buddy Guy howl. I left my sunglasses behind in the basement and can’t go back. No way.
But the sun has to set soon.
Shepherd pie at home tonight and the whole kitchen smells like ground beef, which is so beyond sick I can’t even begin to discuss it. But my mom and Brian are waiting for me so I probably shouldn’t complain. There isn’t much to talk about at the dinner table. My mom’s a little quiet but more or less herself. She does this thing where she piles food on the back of her fork with her knife. Like, this balancing act. It’s almost like she wants to make it a hundred times more difficult to get the food from her plate to her mouth. Apparently that’s how people use forks in England but I don’t know why my mom does it. It’s not like we’re British or anything. Normally it drives me nuts but tonight I don’t say anything and can barely watch it. She’s wrapped my plate in tin foil, so that my dinner will stay warm.
I think about what I blabbed to Aurelie. When a person shares a secret for such ridiculously wrong reasons, it’s like the secret stops being real. It turns into a cartoon version of reality that you don’t have to feel bad about because you’re only using the secret in the first place to make the girl you just had sex with want to be with you as badly as you want to be with her. A truth, when shared for a total dickhead reason, that becomes a lie. But the secret’s real now, not a secret anymore. I think about what Aurelie said to me. About putting an end to something but doing it out of love. I think about my mom and I feel responsible for just about everything.
And then I think about Aurelie again and how we left things. Those three words. Those words are like being fed a spoonful of rock salt—so coarse and strong and unbearable that it leaves a person completely eviscerated—cleansed on the inside, but hollow and sore.
After supper I go to my room and shut the door. The dark and cool eases my eyes. Leadbelly looks down at me from the poster on the wall. Downstairs, I can hear my mom and Brian doing the dishes together. It’s nice that they have each other, I guess.
I pick up my guitar and write “Rock Salt Blues” in less than half an hour. When I meet with the band, I’m going to have to figure out how to fit in bass and drums but I’m not sure I want to; it kind of sounds better on its own. I play it over and over. It’s a good little song. I think I can really do something with it.
All rights reserved to Kate Millar.