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“Just Like Heaven” by Heidi Sterling

Just Like Heaven

Heidi Sterling

 

There’s really no end to this, the ice roads, the linty snow collecting on the windshield, the reverberation of winter, a song that keeps playing over and over. Driving slow and hunching forward, trying to understand where to turn the wheel.

I’ve missed the turn again. She said not to come over. Never call again (texted in all caps). My face is unwelcome. The key didn’t turn in the lock. All of my things were in boxes on the front landing, neatly packed. She even used tissue paper and bubble wrap.   I couldn’t stop crying. The snow keeps moving, another universe unravelling, and I am lost.

*******

Thursday nights at Drapek’s I would order an Old Fashioned and try to hide in the corner, but I was always rooted out. It was my hair—buzzed short—and my multiple ear piercings—my gender-neutral attire. Hanes T-shirts. Cargo pants. People didn’t know if I was a boy or a girl. I confused the women coming out of the stalls in the cramped restroom. I didn’t jive with the small-town, by-the bootstrap clientele. Bush/Cheney bumper stickers on the back of pickup trucks. I wanted to take it easy and have an open mind. Some folks were friendly and treated me like one of their own. Mostly women, but some men. They tried.

I could have gone anywhere else in the city, but I kept finding myself here. Every week. Because of her.

She would sing karaoke every Thursday, and her church-pure voice was worth the harassment I sometimes got as I nursed my Old Fashioned in the far corner—puffy seat, red and shiny, cloudy Formica table top.

She wasn’t what anyone would call beautiful, but she had large eyes that seemed on the verge of tears, always. That appealed to me on a visceral level. I couldn’t stop staring. Her face was uneven, her hair thin. Sometimes it was dyed blond, other times a garish red that made her features appear shadowed and ghostly. The night she talked to me, it was deep brown, like Midwest soil in the fall. At some angles, she looked very young, almost like a little girl. Others, she looked older, more worn down and wounded.

“You always order the same drink, sit in the same place.” She smiled shyly. There was years of pain behind the smile. Her skin was mottled. She carried herself small even though she was a rather tall girl. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick. Despite that, her hands looked royal to me, dainty and careful. I wondered what kind of childhood she had survived.

I had replied, “What can I say? I’m a creature of habit.” I took a sip of my drink and tried to calm myself down. Talking with her suddenly made me feel like I had made the right choice to stay in Brenton and continue working at the discount store. Everyone else left and went to college. I had no idea what I wanted or needed to do. I would paint until 1 am, drink, fall asleep, clock in at Scratch and Dent, start over. There was no real direction. My mom would call daily, crying. “What are you going to do, Amanda?” I never could figure out the answer.

I liked it when people called me Mema. It fit me better. My brother Ty gave me the nickname when he was a little tyke and couldn’t pronounce “Amanda.” He died when he was 16. Aortic aneurysm. I’ve never recovered. I still sleep in his Chicago Bears T-shirt. I still rage and cry. It’s been 4 years.

She got used to me coming Thursdays, and sometimes would sing my requests, usually Tom Waits or Nick Drake, and occasionally The Cure. She sang “Just Like Heaven” fervently. It was her favourite, and she would stand up tall and become more animated and girlish when I asked for it. I didn’t request it often, just so I could keep it special, like a memento you take out of a box every now and then to look at, savour, remember, and then put back. The old would always stay new.

***

Drapek’s had two levels. The second storey contained a dance floor, as well as a secret balcony that only the staff had access to.   She took me there one night after closing. 3 am. The snow was falling in white gusts and the streets were iced cakes, frosting and shimmer. She was wearing a pink coat with a fake fur collar—soft rabbit—and brown corduroy pants. She was shivering, her arms folded across her chest—the way I used to fold my arms over myself when I was in line for communion but didn’t feel worthy enough to receive. Arms folded—a signal for the priest to bless you instead of giving you the Host. I felt the blessings through my whole body. Hands gently placed on my head. Peaceful. I was rarely touched as a child—no contact. So little affection. The communion wafer meant nothing to me. The blessings became a habit, a need. I kept going to church just for that reason.

On the balcony she looked at me and said that I was “so different from everyone else.” We had talked a little off and on, but never for more than a few minutes at a time. The snow felt warm, cottony. I leant against the balcony railing and tried to appear composed, but my heart was wild and hot. She looked like a child again, quivering and sad. I attempted to take her hand, but she turned away and looked down into the street below. Cars were moving slowly, headlights glinting off crystal. “Mema,” she murmured. “No one here would understand that kind of love.”

***

Two months later I was walking to work. February, and the ground was brutally hard, dirty grey ice, sheets of cracked glass. She suddenly appeared, corner of Valley and Tyler. I hadn’t seen her for weeks. I had disappeared, retreating to dark spaces to paint, drink vodka, and wander in and out of uninviting taverns with no sweet voice or corner booth, no balcony and aching need.

“Kitty?” I said. I think it was the first time I had ever spoken her name aloud. She nodded and burst into tears. I found myself pulling her into my arms, her thin form shaking, her skin touched with rose oil, her face wet and cold. I didn’t bother calling my manager to explain my absence from work. My apartment was two blocks away, worst part of town, bars on the windows, but she didn’t seem to notice.

It was warm inside—radiator heaters ticking, hot water gurgling. I made coffee, and she drank it down quickly and asked for another cup. Her eyes were rimmed with red, dark underneath, violet with lack of sleep and heavy emotion.

“Why haven’t you come to see me sing?” Her lower lip was quivering violently.

“I just thought that one night when you said—”

“I don’t care what I said. It was stupid what I said.” She began crying again, but waved me away when I tried to comfort her. “I pushed you away. It’s my fault for being so scared and cowardly.”

I approached her again, more carefully now, and this time she accepted my advance, my arms cautiously enfolding her, my hands touching her hair, now dyed pink with streaks of purple. I kissed the top of her head, then her cheeks, her closed eyes, her soft mouth. She had been drinking, some kind of sweet wine. I kissed her again, and she put her arms round my waist.

“I don’t know what to do.” Her voice was imploring.

It was so soft, so delicate. Her love. She was quiet and timid. Her eyes were calm. My room was cluttered, paint brushes and canvases everywhere, bed unmade. The sharp scent of oils and turpentine. Winter was cold, winter was warm. Snow and flannel sheets, blue walls, coffee, paint, and nights at Drapek’s. Her portrait—I was so careful, using only the finest brushes. She held my hand in public and ignored the stares. We had pie at Shari’s after she got off work. I drove her around in my old Buick Wildcat. She thought the interior was “swank.” No one ever used that word anymore, and I laughed. It made me miss the days before mobile phones and computers, even though I was born into the rush and clatter of it all. She made me miss things before my time, made me miss everything and yearn for it again.

***

A year later I was hardly ever at my place, always at hers. Downtown, a large flat above a trendy department store. We could hear the cars and people, a human stream, endless. The lights moved past her lace curtains and hardwood floors, made patterns over her searching face. I could sense her love was fragile. It could shatter at any moment. She sang four nights a week now at Drapek’s, and I saw her less and less. I took an extra night shift at Scratch and Dent to help pay off my credit card debt. My mom stopped calling. Stopped trying. I still got letters in the mail from colleges I had applied to years before, but had forgotten in the midst of my feverish love and confusion.

Kitty had followers, mostly men. One of them kept coming round, bought her drinks, spoke sweetly to her. He was older, had a moustache, talked real slick, was a fixed part of the ilk of the pub. I could see her mind working, wondering if she wouldn’t be better off with a more conventional set up, a big strong man with a cowboy hat and a clean, safe truck that ran decent, and money to spare. House out in the country. Kids one day. She was slipping away, and my rage for Ty’s death was slowly being supplanted by my rage for Kitty’s waning affections. I couldn’t sleep at night. She moved to the couch and let me toss and turn in her big double bed.

Cowboy hat talked to me one evening. “She’s a special one.” He was drinking whiskey and watching her sing with that leering glint that men get when they know they’ve won. His moustache was slightly wet. He had deep grooves in his cheeks and a stubbled square chin. He looked like he had done hard time.

“She’s mine,” I said quietly, but he didn’t notice and kept on drinking and leering. He smiled to himself, glancing at me sideways.

Kitty didn’t come home that night. Or the next. Her phone went straight to voicemail. She didn’t show at Drapek’s for a week. “On holiday,” the bartender said and shrugged.

***

Saturday I was ringing up a customer’s items at Scratch and Dent, throwing the items into the bag, hard and thoughtless. “Young man,” the woman said sharply. The top of the paper bag cut into my arms and wrists—all kinds cuts and scratches, like I was a junkie. Paper bags and sharp reprimands. “I’m not a man,” I mumbled. She took the bag and sneered. My manager called me over later and said I needed to work on smiling more, following the protocol listed on the sheet taped to the side of the registers: Smile. Ask if the customer has found everything they were looking for. Thank them for their business. 1-2-3. He squeezed my shoulder and tried to look concerned.

Midnight. The door to her place opened and closed softly, but the sound ripped me out of my sleep.

“Where the fuck have you been?”

I realised I had never really loved anyone romantically in my entire life. Kitty was the first. I was smothering her, possessing her, unable to stop the jealousy and fear. She looked startled and pale, shocked by my cursing. She was wearing a new dress—something tight and red and gaudy that clashed garishly with her fragile, unconventional ways—something that was someone else’s idea of femininity. The dress cut into me. It felt it like a knife pressed against my throat.

“I left a note.”

“It explained nothing.”

“Mema—”

“Don’t call me that.” I started to cry for the first time since Ty died. “Don’t call me that after leaving here for a fucking week with no explanation.”

Kitty cleared her throat and watched me dispassionately. “The people here keep talking,” she started to explain. There was no emotion in her voice. She was already a husk, scooped out, replaced with another version that fit into society nice and smooth.

“Shut up.” I knew what was coming. I grabbed my backpack, stuffed my wallet and keys inside, a few T-shirts, stalled for a moment pretending to search for something, hoping she would stop me, beg me to sit down, but she just watched me as if I were a flickering image on a screen. A passive image that you could turn off when you were done, ready to move on. The tears turned to silent sobs.

The night was deep blue. The Wildcat took 20 minutes to warm up. I scraped furiously at the windshields with a palette knife I found underneath the driver’s seat. My hands were frozen and throbbing, and I could barely hold onto the wheel. I drove for an hour, then parked at Scratch and Dent and slept in my car, turning it on periodically to run the heater when the cold became unbearable, using an old paint sheet for a blanket, and a wad of T-shirts as a pillow. I had no place to go. I tried calling my mom, but it was 2 am and she would never have her phone on this time of night. I dialed Ty’s old number, and it went to a stranger’s voicemail—a loud, perky girl with an airhead accent full of exclamation points telling me to leave my message at the beep. I hung up and wished I had taken my bottle of vodka with me. Somehow sleep, and then morning, and then remembering everything, and I just kept driving.

***

A few days later I went to Drapek’s and found my booth empty and ordered two shots of vodka. She was singing a Garth Brooks song. Cowboy hat was there watching her with an easy comfort. He was drunk and laughing loudly with some friends. I approached him during a cheesy Bette Midler request, grabbed him by the arm, spun him around, and hit him hard in the jaw. He chuckled, rubbing his face, and said he didn’t know a queer could pack such a punch. I found myself being carried out by two heavy men with plaid shirts and hard boots. One of the men I recognised—someone Ty used to go to school with. “Eric?”

“Yeah, Amanda, I’m sorry.” He blushed and lowered his eyes. “My manager—”

“I know.” I stumbled on the ice and waved him off. “Forget about it. I’ll never be coming here again.” He tried to help me up, but I pushed him away angrily. “I said I’m fine.” His face looked ashen, same as the wet snow crushed around our feet. He disappeared, and I sat hunched in the cold for many minutes, unable to move or feel or care.

Her all-caps text message ordering me to never call her again came shortly afterwards. All caps meant she had already forgotten the quiet words she had used with me, the slow days reading books or watching TV, the ice cream cones and morning sweet rolls, the hot summer skies caked with clouds, the necklace with the two stars entwined, the balcony, the brave nights we danced close in the crowd, the park, the hotel swimming pool after hours, the roses, the baths, bare feet touching, her picture in my wallet, her portrait, her face, her eyes, my eyes, my hands, my love, and everything else.

*******

I finally see the turnoff. A skinny dirt road 5 miles outside of town—a quaint name: “Knoll Brook.” Large white house with a wrap-around porch and a swing.. A Christmas tree glows in the window—all white lights. I see nothing of her here. I picture her as a ghost floating through the large house, unable to find her way out, weeping helplessly. I feel my heart clench. It’s been a month. I need to stay away, but I have to try one last time.

The doorbell is charming, a pleasant tune. For a moment, I can hear her voice singing “Just Like Heaven.” I remember she used to laugh at the clumsy way I danced. She liked my brown skin. She didn’t understand why I wanted to stay in Brenton. “You,” I would say. “You.”

I hear someone approaching, light feet, her feet. The cadence, the same way it sounded on her hardwood floor downtown. I suck in my breath and stiffen as the door opens. Our eyes find each other, hold on to one another for a second, then break away.

“Amanda,” she says unsmiling, but something in her eyes is moving, breaking. She looks older, more shattered. Her hair is platinum blond, cut short, exposing her sharp jaw.

“Kitty.” It’s all I can say. My voice is choked, there is no breath, no more words. I struggle for several moments, then finally, “This was a mistake. I’m sorry.” I hear a man’s voice from somewhere deep within the pristine universe of the house, and I turn quickly and break into a jog towards my car. The cold is alive, biting, sterile and absolute.   It freezes my eyes over, holds them open wide and fierce.

When I reach for the car door, I feel a tentative hand on my arm. “Mema.”

Kitty turns me around. “I’m sorry.”

“You love him?”

She doesn’t move or speak. Her eyelids sink closed and silvery tears slip down her tired face. “Will you still come watch me sing sometimes?” She doesn’t look up. Her tears turn to silence again. The blizzard engulfs us quietly.

The man’s voice calls. She moves her head slightly, a child being ordered home, turns back to me and says she has to go, then slips back into the house. The door closes, a slow shutting down of the world, and she and I become ghosts again. Just like we always were.

I climb inside the Wildcat and drive away, my tires leaving deep black wounds behind me in the fresh snow.

© 2015 Heidi Sterling

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