Saudade by Penn Stewart

Misfortune had smiled upon Nikki and left a thousand injuries. By the mid-90s she’d resigned herself to the dismal future that lay before her: living alone in a one bedroom apartment that smelled of cat urine—a remnant from the previous tenant—selling women’s shoes for a living, driving a car Ralph Nader condemned as a death trap, and an underlying feeling of not fitting into her own skin.

The phone rang and Nikki wanted to ignore it. God help the poor schmuck who tried to sell her a time-share condo in Florida. She decided to let the machine pick it up, but after the fourth ring her hands betrayed her and answered the call. Before the phone reached her ear she offered a silent prayer, hoping she wouldn’t have to yell, lie, or cry.

“Nick!”

It was Manfred, an old bandmate who’d moved to San Francisco in the late 80s. He relocated to California and moved into an ashram so he could find his Ch’i. She could still remember what he said before he left for the coast. New York has no soul and the music is all just plastic crap. Lou Reed would be rolling over in his grave if he were dead.

And now he was.

“Hey, Manfred. What’s shaking?”

“You’re moving to Cali.”

“I am?”

“Are you still selling shoes?”

“Naturalizers.”

“Quit that shit job, pack up your car and get the hell out here.”

“I don’t sing anymore.”

“Bullshit.”

He was right, but that wasn’t the issue. “I’m not the same person you knew,” Nikki said.

“I lived in an ashram for six months. Do you think I’m the same person you knew in New York? Fuck no. I found my center. Anyway, the whole retro thing is really big out here. Grunge is over and they’re looking for the next thing. I’ve got a band, gigs lined up, and all we need is you. We’ll make a splash. Now quit jerking me around and tell me when you’ll be here.”

This was the Manfred Nikki knew, always sucking people into his scheming vortex. But Nikki wasn’t ready to let loose, to fly through the air of determined uncertainty again. Her life was dreary, but it was also secure. The past had been neatly folded into a box and tucked away in a closet that had been bricked up with stone and mortar, sealed and best forgotten.

Manfred’s voice and the sound of his guitar played in her head like a well-worn LP. They were tracks and grooves she’d lived in for years, until things fell apart. Tantrums, finger-pointing, and bruised egos brought everything to a sudden end after the band was dropped by the label. Nikki left town one night, driving until the gas card was declined in Bumfuck, USA, or St. Joe, Missouri. Its main claim to fame was as Jessie James’ home. He’d ride out of town, rob stagecoaches, banks, and trains, and then return to his wife and live just like an ordinary guy, at least until he was shot in the back by some coward. St. Joe was big enough to become anonymous in but not big enough to get lost in. What was true for Jesse was also true for Nikki.

Manfred’s proposition wouldn’t leave her alone; the conversation ran on a loop in her ear. She had to get out of her head and the best way to do that was to drink with her friends. She was driving to Eric’s, one of those bars you could pass by a hundred times and never notice the inverted pink triangle, when she discovered a run in her hose. That wouldn’t do. She stopped at the drugstore out of habit more than anything else.

It was one near where she worked, one where they knew her as Nick the shoe salesman. She walked in, slowed briefly as she passed the cosmetics aisle, grabbed a pair of opaque charcoal pantyhose and brought them to the counter. Carla, the cashier, who had winked at Nick a time or two, scanned the pantyhose. Nikki handed her a twenty and then the cashier stopped smacking her gum and just stared at her. Nikki’s hope for anonymity vanished when she saw the tendrils of recognition creep across Carla’s face. The line behind Nikki began to grow. The fluorescent lights in the store hummed under a Muzak version of Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight.”

“Are you all right?” Nikki asked.

Carla abandoned the register and ducked into a door marked Employees Only.

“What on earth?” Nikki said to the man standing behind her. He shrugged, and then furrowed his brow.

A moment later the manager came to the register. He was tall and angular and wore a short-sleeved white shirt with a thin black tie that ran out of material before it reached a respectable length. He took Nikki’s money, the cash drawer opened, made change, and he placed it on the counter in front of her with the receipt.

“Next,” he said with the grace of a DMV employee.

Nikki collected her change and the hose and left the drugstore, a mocking wolf whistle following her. She slammed the car door and drove until she didn’t recognize the street names, until the burning she felt inside cooled.

It wasn’t long after that day before things changed at work. Co-workers shared secret giggles, the regulars stopped asking for Nick and commissions dried up. Two weeks after Manfred’s call, she decided to leave St. Joe, to stop being the Nick who sold shoes to bitter middle-aged women with bunions, to stop being Nick altogether. The choice was made out of anger, or maybe despair or desperation if she was really honest with herself, but once it was made something replaced those feelings. She found her voice and began to sing again. At first it was simply with the radio, timid and more talking the lyrics than singing them, but then she drove out to River Bluffs Park and parked at a dead-end, just across the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the river. She stood on the crumbling banks of the Missouri and let loose, her voice coming back to her from across the river in the open spaces of the phrasing. A train blared its horn and the ground rumbled under her feet with the weight of tons of steel and cargo. She sung louder, raised her hands over her head, and kicked dirt clods into the water. Tenacious weeds of hope took root in her heart and then she couldn’t resist the idea of California—the idea of a new beginning, the idea of reclaiming a dream she had let slowly die in the middle of the country.

She was going. That was the plan. But with any plan there is always the unexpected.  Her name was Loraine.

Loraine was younger, maybe four, five, or ten years, and tall with braided auburn hair and pale, freckled skin. She caught Nikki’s eye from across the dance floor at Eric’s; she glowed in the black lights and her silver sequined dress shimmered like water in the strobes. She commanded attention, which irritated Nikki, but something mingled with the annoyance.

They ran into one another outside the restroom and Nikki felt a sudden wash down her neck and back, like the moment you slip on an icy patch and know the pavement is on its way. Loraine tossed a glance over her shoulder as she passed. Nikki saw the faintest smile and couldn’t move until the bathroom door shut. A line snapped, she blinked twice, walked back over to the bar, and rejoined her friend Oscar.

“Jesus, you were gobsmacked.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Oscar arched his eyebrows. “That hottie had you on a hook. I was surprised you didn’t follow her into the bathroom and do her right there in the stall.”

“Can we talk about something else?”

“You are smitten, kitten.”

Nikki stared at Oscar until he dropped his eyes.

“Fine! You can lie to yourself if you want.” Oscar poked at the lemon twist in his drink and then looked out at the dance floor. “So when are you going?”

“Not sure.” Nikki knew she was leaving the day after tomorrow but didn’t want to tell Oscar. He’d make a big deal of it and get weepy, sloppy drunk, or both. Besides, he was wearing his kilt and whenever he drank too much and “Round, Round” came on, he’d twirl on the dance floor until the non-bifurcated garment gave way to centrifugal forces and removed all mystery.

“Life is going to suck without you in St. Joe.”

She wanted to smile, and maybe she did for a moment. “St. Joe will suck with or without me.”

“Yeah, well” — Oscar paused as a buttercup walked by. He sighed and took a sip of his drink and looked back at Nikki. “What was I saying? It was something about sucking, but in a bad way.”

Nikki smiled and crossed her legs. She began to tell Oscar a story about Manfred when Oscar’s face changed, like he was watching a spectacle unfold behind her. Before she had a chance to turn around she felt a hand caress her shoulder. Loraine took a seat next to Nikki. The fine hairs on her arms prickled.

“So what’s your name?” she said.

Nikki didn’t answer right away and took a long sip from her bourbon and Coke, gazing at her over the rim of the glass, feeling the full weight of her false eyelashes when she blinked.

Oscar looked from one to the other and then jumped in. “Hi, I’m Oscar.” He extended his hand across the table and tilted his head. “This is Miss Nikki Farr, St. Joe’s very own Funky Cold Medina.”

Nikki narrowed her eyes.

“Pleased to meet you, Oscar,” Loraine said and then turned back to Nikki and eyed her with a sly smile. “You’re not really that tough,” she said. “I can tell.”

Nikki grinned but didn’t look at Loraine, preferring instead to focus on her highball.

“Where’d you get that outfit?” Oscar asked. “It’s like the sexiest disco ball dress I’ve ever seen.”

Loraine nodded at Oscar and sat back in her chair and crossed her legs. She pulled a pack from her clutch and lit a cigarette. She blew the smoke up over the table. “Well, Nikki.” She took another drag from her cigarette. “Tell me about yourself.”

Nikki took another sip to buy time. Her hose suddenly felt tight, the makeup on her face needed to be touched up, and a drop of perspiration ran down the middle of her back. She looked at Loraine’s green eyes and felt as though they were a color she’d never seen before. The sense of newness was a precipice she hung over, tethered by strands of dignity and fear. “What would you like to know?”

“Are you hungry?”

She wanted to say, “I already ate,” or “I’m on a liquid diet,” and hold up her drink, but the words wouldn’t leave her mouth. And then it occurred to her maybe she wasn’t talking about food.

She leaned in and said, “I’m dying for something gostoso.” Loraine smiled at Oscar and then turned back to Nikki. “This Brazilian kid at work taught me that; it means tasty, pleasurable.” She sat back in her chair and took a long drag on her cigarette, rounded her lips, and puffed out smoke rings. They floated over the table as if they were solid and then dissipated when a bull walked by, eying Loraine with hunger and something like motherly tenderness.

Nikki shifted in her chair and turned to face Loraine. “So how come I’ve never seen you here before?” She lifted her chin and crossed her arms. “Is this your first time?”

Loraine laughed. “Hardly.”

“I meant coming here. I think I would’ve remembered you.”

She smiled and took another drag. Nikki couldn’t help but look at the way her lips pursed around the cigarette and the deep maroon smudge they left on the end of the filter. She followed the cigarette and watched her tap the ash with a finger tipped with the same maroon color. “Come to think of it, I could stand to nibble on something.”

“I know a place that’s open late,” Loraine said.

            Nikki stood up and extended her hand to Loraine and smiled. “Show me.”

Oscar slapped his hands on the table, almost spilling his drink. “I’m starving. Can I come?”

“Maybe some other time, darling. Why don’t you go find that buttercup and show him what’s under that kilt.”

Loraine took Nikki’s hand and the two stood like dancers preparing for the music to begin. Nikki slipped her arm around Loraine’s waist and steered her toward the exit; she looked back and gave Oscar a half-hearted shrug as the two walked away. Outside, the night was cool and Loraine pulled in close to Nikki as they made their way to her little car. The music from the bar faintly echoed in the parking lot. She leaned into her new friend,  placing her head on the soft spot between Loraine’s shoulder and neck, inhaling the smell of stale smoke and something sweet and dull like honey and vanilla. Under it all was a cutting saltiness that made Nikki thirst for something she couldn’t name.

They reached Nikki’s car and Loraine turned to her. “So do you always leave bars with strange women?”

“You’re not that strange,” Nikki said and got in. There was a moment when she wondered if the passenger door was going to open. Being aloof was a part of her carefully cultivated bar persona. It hadn’t failed yet. But at that moment, she was ready to  swear off such games. And then she felt an uncomfortable emotion. Tingling bits of self-consciousness began to poke through the veneer she had carefully crafted. Just as her pulse began to race the passenger door opened and Loraine slid into the seat next to her.

“I can’t believe you drive a Pinto.” Loraine’s knees were pressed against the glove compartment. “Don’t these things blow up when you get rear-ended?”

“Honey, Nikki Farr has never been, nor will she ever be, rear-ended.”

They drove through the downtown streets of St. Joe looking for a place to land. Dark storefronts with glass display cases on either side of the entrance lined the street. Restaurants with green awnings were still open; a smattering of customers chatting over a post-dinner coffee lingered. Red, green, and blue neon signs glowed in the opaque windows of small dive bars.

“So where are we going?”

“Just keep driving.”

“I thought you said you knew a place that was open late,” Nikki said.

Loraine didn’t say anything; she just gestured forward with her chin. The two drove in silence for a bit and doubts began to seep into Nikki’s chest. There was an unfamiliar ache when she breathed in, which wasn’t much better when she exhaled. And then something happened. Loraine gazed out the passenger-side window and began talking. At first she didn’t think she was speaking directly to Nikki. It seemed like a strange monologue from an off-off Broadway play, but as Loraine kept talking she was swept away in her words.

She talked about working at Friday’s and how much she hated the manager who leered at her with lust and disdain; she called him Fat Bastard. She spoke about a litany of crappy schools and boyfriends. Then she went on about her mother and how she acted more like a big sister than a parent, and how she stole her best clothes and shoes while Loraine was still in high school, and how she had run off with some guy half her age and left Loraine behind with a sad and broken man who had been her father at one point. And then she got quiet.

“I was raped for the first time when I was thirteen,” she said. The number hung in the air. “It was my older brother’s friend. I thought he was cute so we went for a walk in the woods. I told my mom about it and she said some boys are just like that. She knew his father and didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.” She paused for a moment and looked out the window. He had one of those chins that looks like God pressed his thumb into the middle. You know, like that actor.”

“Kirk Douglas?”

“No. Michael.”

“They both have the same chin. It’s hereditary.”

“That explains a lot.” Loraine said. “Where the hell are we?”

“Maybe I was wrong. You are pretty strange.”

Loraine smiled and reached over to the stereo. “We need some driving music.” She flipped through the preset radio stations. Three were static and the other two were college stations.

Nikki reached into the console and pulled out a cassette and popped it into the stereo.

Can’t stop now, don’t you know, I ain’t never gonna let you go. Don’t go.

“Damn, girl. And you think I’m strange. You’re living in the 80s.”

Nikki smiled at Loraine and drove east, past a high school and golf course and onto the interstate, and then south toward Kansas City. This, she thought, is how it feels to be leaving this crap town.

And then Loraine got quiet again, almost like she’d heard what Nikki had been thinking.

Loraine lit a cigarette and exhaled. “I was outside the other day, having a smoke at work. I was just sitting there, not thinking, just looking at something. I don’t remember what. Anyway, that kid from Brazil I was telling you about earlier —eyes like black stars—comes and says something. He sounded like a drunk Frenchman trying to speak Spanish. I must’ve had a funny look on my face because he smiled and said, ‘There’s a Portuguese word for that feeling you have when you catch yourself staring off into nowhere. It’s saudade.'”

            Nikki glanced over at Loraine. It seemed that she was trying to show what a person would look like in such a state. She caught herself and smiled at Nikki. “He’s the dishwasher at the restaurant and he’s teaching me all these weird little phrases. I know he just wants to get into my pants, but he’s a lot of fun to talk to, and God, he’s easy on the eyes. That skin, it’s smooth and brown like — Shit, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen or touched.”

Down in KC they drank, danced, and argued with rednecks at a convenience store; it was a full night. It was after three when they got back to Nikki’s place. She hadn’t asked; she simply drove herself home and Loraine came along for the ride. Nikki tossed her keys on the counter and walked into the bedroom. Loraine followed.

Nikki looked over her shoulder. “Help me with the zipper.”

“Would you leave it on for me?”

Nikki’s head tilted slightly.

Loraine walked behind her and pushed her toward the wall. Nikki put her arms out and braced herself. Loraine wrapped her arms around her from behind and kissed her neck and let her hands ran down the front of her dress to the hem and then pulled it up to Nikki’s waist. Her fingers found the waistband of her panties and she peeled them down mid-thigh. Her hands ran up Nikki’s thighs, over the Ace bandage she used to strap herself down and found the clips and popped them off. Nikki took a quick breath, like she was surprised, and then spread her legs a bit. Loraine caressed her and whispered things in her ear until she was hard.

Nikki awoke tangled, the morning sun cast upon the bed. She looked at Loraine and stroked her cheek, jealous of her smooth skin. It was early, and her head pounded a bit, but she smiled. It felt foreign; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt such easiness in her chest. Nikki ran her fingers along the auburn eyebrows and watched as her eyelids fluttered.

Something stabbed deep inside. She’d already mapped out her trip and she was leaving tomorrow. The big cities—Denver, Grand Junction, Vegas—were easy markers, but she’d decided to focus on the little in-between places—Searchlight, Virgin, Parachute, and Kanorado. They were just like St. Joe, little flyspeck towns on the map that no one gave a shit about but somehow managed to suck people in. If she could get through those places, avoid the quicksand of nowhere, there might be hope for her.

She caressed Loraine’s cheek. “Sunshine.”

Loraine opened her eyes and yawned.

“I can’t believe I’m kicking you out of my bed, but I’ve got the early shift this morning.” She lied with ease and rolled out of bed and said, “Come on. I’ll take you home.”

“I left my car at the bar.”

They rode in silence and when they got to the nearly empty parking lot Loraine looked over at Nikki. “Your mascara is a mess. You better fix those raccoon eyes or those truckers are going to run you over.” She leaned and kissed Nikki and held her by the back of the head. Nikki looked down at the sequined dress; it shimmered yellow in the morning sun. She started to say something like have a good day, or I had a good time, but choked it off and the two sat there for a moment.

Loraine picked at a sequin on her dress and it came off in her hand. She dropped her eyes and looked at the silver disc. She shook her head and inhaled through her nose. “I guess I better go.”  She reached over and punched the eject button on the stereo and held up the tape. “Can I have this?”

Nikki nodded. She opened her mouth again but Loraine was up and out of the car before she could say anything. The door slammed shut and the little car shook a bit. She sat in the silence of the car and watched her walk away. What the hell am I doing?

Nikki spent the rest of the day packing up her things. She stuffed her clothes into suitcases and jettisoned all of her Nick clothes into the dumpster. She didn’t really give a damn what Manfred was going to say. She imagined his face. He’d pretend to not recognize her and then after a moment or two he’d put his hands on the side of his face and say, “Oh my fucking God. That’s brilliant!” If the whole retro thing was back, then glam-rock should be an easy sell. David Bowie, The Tubes, The New York Dolls, it wasn’t anything new. And in L.A. she’d fit right in.

By mid-afternoon she was dragging the last boxes of crap to the dumpster when she saw Loraine’s hoopty pull into the parking lot. Something shot through her gut when she saw the car and the smile on Loraine’s face. She stepped out of the car, her auburn hair loose over her shoulders. “What’re you up to?”

Nikki shrugged. “Are you done for the day?”

She shook her head. “Fat Bastard’s got me working a split.” She pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “I’ve got about an hour to kill.” She smiled.

“You can come up, but the place is a mess.”

“I’ll fit right in.”

They walked up the stairs to the apartment and Nikki’s legs felt heavy. There was no reason any of this should be a big deal. They met, had some fun, and that was that. She opened the door. Loraine stopped short when she saw the boxes.

“Are you all right?”

“You’re moving?”

Nikki nodded. “Tomorrow.”

Loraine’s shoulders fell and she flicked the cigarette off the balcony. “You weren’t going to tell me. Were you?”

“I’ve got this thing out in L.A. It’s been planned for weeks.”

“Fucking prick.” She turned and walked away, thundering down the stairs. Her shoulders heaved up and down as she made her way to her hoopty. She slammed the car door and squealed her tires in the parking lot, and as she drove away Nikki saw a cassette tape fly out of the window and spin across the pavement.

The next day she left St. Joe and headed into the West. Her clothes filled the hatchback area, everything else fit into two cardboard boxes in the backseat. She’d gotten them from the grocery store. They were bleach boxes, not Clorox, but some other no-name brand. They had that vague clean laundry odor that reminded her of a summer morning and clean white cotton socks, of running in the brightness of youth. She wanted this memory to be real, but it reminded her of a commercial she’d seen.

Her Pinto came up on a semi, and she flashed her blinker and slid into the fast lane. Driving Kansas from east to west was going to be an all day affair. There was something about Kansas that made her stomach ache and her head hurt. Can’t says, she thought, too damn negative. And Missouri—the great state of Misery—had the same effect on her, so she let her mind race ahead to the next state and the hybrid border town of Kanorado over 400 miles away. She didn’t know what was in Kanorado, or if it was in Kansas or Colorado, but she knew it was a marker, a place on the map she had to cross for the next thing to happen in her life. She imagined herself alone on the Front Range, the eastern side of the Rockies in Colorado, filling her gas tank with the mountains just a notion beyond the horizon. There’d be grizzled men in rusty pickups and grungy granola heads wearing down vests driving Subarus with kayaks strapped to their roofs. Some would look, smirk, and walk away. Others might even venture a proposition. There’s always a party somewhere. The thought made her smile and she forgot her state.

She was heading south on I-435, the loop around Kansas City, and had just crossed into Kansas when she saw the writing on the highway overpass. It took her by surprise.

I love U Nikki Farr—

            The letters were stumbling into one another like bridesmaids at a wedding. The blue spray paint had dripped until it dried, giving Nikki’s name a tall, anorexic look. She liked that. The words from the overpass were from Loraine, she was certain. Nikki imagined her at this moment: 10:20 a.m. She’d be sitting in her car, smoking a cigarette, looking through the smoke, through the windshield, through the thick air of the morning. Looking into the nothing that is there, waiting for the back door of the restaurant, or something else, to open.

Nikki checked the rear view mirror, flashed her blinker, and moved over into the right-hand lane. The trucker behind her flashed his lights. She was already going over 70 mph, but her thoughts made her accelerate. The road couldn’t pass beneath her wheels quickly enough. She drove a few miles, not thinking and trying not to feel. If someone were to pass her on the highway and look at her face, they might describe it as a vacant stare.

She couldn’t get the image of blue fingertips out her mind. She could see Loraine picking at the stubborn paint stains while cursing Fat Bastard under her breath or flirting with the Brazilian dishwasher. She could see Loraine serving an order of potato skins during the lunch rush, doing her best not to let her customers see her blue fingertips or the blueness that had crept into her soul. Nikki went to pop a cassette into her player but the console was empty. She settled on a classic rock station and sang along with Joan Jett. I hate myself for loving you. Can’t break free from the things that you do.

Nikki clicked her blinker again and veered right onto I-70. Full on west meant it would all happen soon. She tried to remember the exhilaration she felt the other night when she and Lorain left St. Joe to party in Kansas City. In that moment she felt the need to move forward, almost like she was freefalling. But now it felt as though she was tethered with a bungee cord and it was going to snap her back at any moment. She sung louder and drove faster.

She thought about Loraine toting bus tubs of dirty glasses, wiping down tables, and standing in the alley behind Friday’s smoking a cigarette. And then she thought about her on the overpass, late at night and twenty feet over speeding long-haul truckers blasting their air horns while she spray painted her message. It didn’t matter how fast she drove or how loud she sang, the images in her mind wouldn’t go away.

Nikki approached another overpass and saw something in a familiar blue. The words were tucked over to the far right, as though they had lost their nerve and didn’t want to be front and center anymore. As she got closer something turned inside her. She was moving forward with her life. This was the right thing to do. She’d just ignore whatever it was on this overpass, but at the last moment her eyes betrayed her.

4  ever

It was in the same dripping blue paint. She couldn’t help but wonder if there was going to be another message at the next overpass, and a message on every single overpass between here and L.A. She imagined Loraine, in her sequined mini dress, shaking a can of spray paint, hurriedly writing a few words, and then jumping in her hoopty and racing to the next exit. Staying just ahead of her, all the way into the West.

 

Penn Stewart
Penn_StewartPenn Stewart lives, works, and writes in Macomb, Illinois. His debut novel Fertile Ground is scheduled to be released by Knox Robinson Publishing in 2014. Penn’s most recent short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Prairie Schooner, A River and Sound Review, Word Riot, Hippocampus Magazine, Fringe, Dogzplot, Union Station Magazine, Fresh Yarn, The Meadowland Review, and elsewhere. To learn more about Penn, visit his website: www.pennstewart.com