Damsels By Christina Robertson
Robert stood outside thinking, watching the trees. It was damn windy out there on the landing but it was the only place he could smoke since the whole co-op had lilified and gone smoke free. All men know smoking and thinking just go together. But he had to admit it gave him a reason to be out here where the trees bowed and swayed like servants before a king. He liked to think like that, servants and kings, damsels and regimental officers. He liked to imagine himself a kind of Kipling’s Gunga Din; a respected lower echelon hero, one whose true worth would perhaps be discovered posthumously. The cigarette tasted good. He had been trying half-heartedly to cut down. Convention said he must stop. He hated convention. A powerful late June gust rushed in and tried to strip the leaves from the old elm, maybe twist off a limb or two, then went calm in the overacted way of summer weather. Robert connected with the drama around him, was moved by the hugeness of it all and the sudden sun slicing through those roiling clouds. He took a long drag off his Kent, squinting as his lungs filled. He stared into the gun gray sky and its Jesus beams and his heart ached with beautiful melancholy, his mind drifting away on ancient star-crossed quests.
He smoked his cigarette almost to the filter, then rubbed it out on the brick wall and put the butt in the pocket of his vest. He lingered, feeling the baritone wind toss his hair, watching dervishes of garbage and dust in the alley below. The wind was pushing the boundaries of time and place, making him remember that which he’d never seen, only dreamed or read. Tales of dark heroes and bleak moors. He thought too about his own past; the impossible journey, the chain of errors that had made him, and had delivered him to this moment. He examined the ink stain on his middle finger, then shoved his hand into the pocket of his trousers.
He preferred to consider himself, whenever the mood made it possible, as a sought after, prolific artist, raw but patient, a sharp, benevolent, successful man. All the things he was not. He liked to visualized Aggie too, young and doe-like, smitten with him. Bottom’s up and he slipped further back into a drinker’s labyrinth. Things would get confused. Phantoms of a desolate youth tried to steal the scene. Indulging them never did him any good, so he’d force them out of his thoughts. The wailing wind could carry them off. He fought the urge for another smoke. Good thing he had left the pack inside.
The apartment was always lonely when he re-entered. All that existed of their living room was the crunchy old olive colored wall to wall, an upholstered armchair which he had draped in a sheet after having spilled coffee all over it, a brass floor lamp from his bachelor days, and piles of books. The walls were empty white with a few dusty outlines here and there betraying the existence of framed paintings and a large mirror that had gone with Aggie when she left. He supposed he could do more with the place, but why.
Robert slept in Pauline’s room. He had turned their old bedroom—his and Aggie’s—into his studio. His drafting table occupied the space where their bed had been. That was deliberate, even clever, he’d thought when he dragged the huge thing upstairs and into the apartment piece by piece and reassembled it there. Aggie had left the bed, but he’d tossed the mattress down three flights of stairs into the alley. He scrapped the metal frame for a few bucks and stored the headboard in the basement. Aggie had taken the bedroom rug with her. She had chosen the rug, New Zealand wool, for Christ’s sake. Of course she had chosen him too, but left him behind with the other unwanted things. Worthless things. He was fine with linoleum. He was fine alone.
He’d laid claim to that pathetic contraption of a fold out couch (no argument there). He moved it into Pauline’s room where he could still smell her and see her toys in his mind’s eye. He never hung his smoky clothes in her closet or let anyone else enter. He occupied her room, but it would always be hers; the beloved girl he had sacrificed for her own good. The loss of her pained him greatly, and greatly satisfied his need to feel pain. He hadn’t been a very good father. He’d stood, bewildered, on the sidelines. Aggie was the one that was there for her.
Robert couldn’t help but listen to the lonely moan of the wind as he scuffed back to his table to work. In their apartment building wind like this had a habit of pushing up the hall stairwell and sneaking beneath the front door with haunting fingers. It was a sad sound, and insistent. As if he was being visited by the ghost of Christmas Past. He snapped the little radio on. Thank God for the inane friendliness of these radio personality idiots. They were annoying as hell, but they filled up space. They told you everything pleasantly. Everything was presented in nice, small pieces, and was to the point. Anytime he heard a news item in depth it made him angry–at the world and all its useless occupants and their never ending needs, at himself. He’d praise the tyrants, envying their menace. They really did something, not just talk, or wait or pray. They would calculate and carry out body slams, and then take a bow before the gasping world.
Robert worked on a panel for the next installment of his weekly adventure cartoon. His boss hadn’t been pleased lately. His mind groped vaguely for something, he wasn’t sure what. Inspiration, perhaps courage. This was how it went. Robert thought endlessly about what to do. If he called upon himself to rise up, he only settled deeper into the armchair. He read, read a lot, fell asleep reading. In the mornings he leached heroes and maidens out of himself at the drawing table, amalgams of brave, historic figures he admired. He mulled over an idea for a graphic novel and how to pitch it to the agent his boss had introduced him to. But he hated the idea of sharing the world of his creation—a better world–with some son of a bitch on a marketing team. He also thought a lot about Pauline, wondering if she was happier, satisfied that she was better off without him. Or, after he’d had a scotch, thought about how there was in fact no one better for her, the planet being as it was, populated by ignorant slobs. He often watched the clouds out the bedroom window, or smoked and waited for the God he didn’t believe in to show himself.
He wasn’t mad at Aggie. She had put up with a lot of shit. Years of it. It was almost a relief when she finally closed the door. He’d waited for it for a long time; for her to figure out she could do so much better. He suspected she had only stayed the last few years out of pity and a sense of duty. Loving an alcoholic isn’t exactly a valentine card.
He supposed he didn’t really want to be married anyway. His adoration for Aggie had long since been replaced by a different adoration. The bottle was like another woman, one who never criticized or complained or pinned him down with big brown eyes. He couldn’t have taken that distraught look on Aggie’s face for one more day. It filled him with shame, a weight he wasn’t strong enough to bear. Booze had become like an old war buddy who carried your pack when you were feeling weak with the shits.
He was getting restless. Memories were taking pot shots at him. He went out and smoked another cigarette on the landing before giving in to the urge to have a drink.
The bottle winked at him from the open kitchen cabinet. It was almost empty. Oh hell, he thought, this wisp of a nip will do me. Don’t need to go overboard. It isn’t even three, Pauline’s not even out of school for the day. But the wisp left him aching for more. Drink had become his comforting mother, his beckoning woman, his forgiving friend. With bleary fantasies shoring him up, he gladly relinquished reality, yet couldn’t shake the self-hate for long. That’s when drink became a mercy killing. Why not? Why not let himself go, he often thought. No one would give a rat’s ass if I drink myself into oblivion. It’s not exactly as if I have any love for my fellow man either.
He grabbed the car keys. He’d make the trip over to the big Walgreen’s across town. He was sick of the young know-it-all at the neighborhood store, sick of his idiotic greeting, “Hey Bobby-O, how’s it hangin’?”, and his ridiculous, hipster “soul patch”. And his inevitable suggestions! The moron fancied himself a connoisseur of all that lame booze on the shelves, some of it no better than cough medicine. Robert wanted a quick, anonymous business transaction. He needed no guidance, no banter. He wanted no reminders that he was a person, a father, a sad middle aged man.
Walgreen’s had some Irish whiskey on sale. He grabbed a bottle, paid, and left, throwing the brown bag on the seat beside him. He headed out along the boulevard toward a spot he knew at the river’s edge where, hidden in an overgrowth of weeds, was the remaining half of a forgotten bench. He’d spent a little time there in the days after Aggie left. Hidden, undisturbed, he could allow the elixir to expand him. He could fill in the details of a life only traced, never completed; a life that should have been. But before he reached the turn in, he had to slow for a disorganized clutch of cars, honking their horns and swerving erratically. What the hell? They looked like tumbling blocks at the hands of a giant baby, spilling across both northbound lanes. This mess might hold him up longer than he wanted to be held up…and he’d left his pack of Kent 100’s at home. Shit.
There was some detritus on the road–a box or a backpack. The cars were trying to get around it, maneuvering in a cautious way. A box wouldn’t warrant this kind of confusion and delay. Robert was all but stopped in the middle of the road now and he was irritated. Hell, why don’t they just drive right over the thing! He fished around his pocket for a butt he might be able to get a puff out of. The car in front angled away and he could finally see what the goddamn thing was. Jesus Christ, it couldn’t be! A turtle? Unbelievable. A large turtle was placidly, painstakingly making its way across this car happy metropolitan roadway.
Something distilled in Robert. All the noise in him and around him stopped. All the regrets and recriminations and excuses and fantasies became smoke. All the sounds of the cars, even the clobbering wind was filtered away and he was left with nothing more than pure reflex. Annoying as it was to delay his gratification, he had to rescue it.
Right there in the confusion of traffic he put the car into park and the hazard lights on.
Now that the cause of the chaos was revealed, he was amazed by the ignoramuses behind the wheels of their vehicles, still trying to beat it around this noble, solitary creature. He got out, waving at the other drivers and pointing dramatically to the weird migrant on the road. They stopped. The road looked immense from this vantage point, Robert thought, standing alone in front of everyone. With everyone stalled, he took a step closer to look at the crazy devil.
The thing was ugly as all hell. It was positively primeval. Like Frankenstein’s Monster it seemed an unfortunate mistake. Maybe, more accurately, a brutal twist of Nature; an Elephant Man. Part turtle and part what looked like lizard, it had a rough, ridged carapace and a leathery, serpentine neck, huge scaly paws with thick claws, a ragged beak, and a substantial tail. The damn thing must have been two feet long and was as wide as a large hatbox. Robert stared at it from above, reining in his restless imagination, which at the moment was dying to run free. Where had he seen this monster before? He wanted time to sketch the glorious, disgusting audacity of it! But now that he had brought all the traffic on the boulevard to a standstill, he had to do something. Panic set in. He rubbed his jaw and started shaking.
“Damn you.” He muttered down at it, and at his own burdensome sense of responsibility. Undeterred, the monster turtle continued plodding, agonizingly, mechanically, following its cockeyed internal compass. A car honked impatiently. “Damn you too, you heartless son of a…” He said a little louder, shooting a disparaging look at the closest windshield. He’d like to see any of these lightweights get out of their climate controlled sedans to take on this awesome Godzilla. That’s right. No one.
He reached down, instinctively avoiding any scaly, spiky, nasty parts, and far enough from the head, and picked up the turtle from the edges of its ridged shell. Immediately it withdrew into itself, then, in a shot, reached out aiming for Robert’s fingers, open beaked, eyeballs rolling. Luckily it just couldn’t reach, but the jolt of the surprise attack almost caused him to drop it. The thing had to weigh thirty pounds. He lifted it to show the candy-asses in their cars the holy grail here, the one they were too lazy to liberate. Then he slowly crossed, deliberately taking his time—as much for dramatic effect as personal safety—before reaching the park where a narrow branch of the river all but stagnated. He deposited it there and watched for a moment, the grass parting as the magnificently repulsive beast lumbered toward the water’s edge.
Snapping turtle. He remembered home, Indiana, his mother telling him not to swim in the pond beyond the Olberson’s because the snapping turtles would bite his toes off. Robert shivered. He might have lost a bloody hand! And they were carriers of all types of heinous bacteria, as he recalled. He exhaled. Now he’d have to find somewhere to wash. Certainly not in this cesspool, he determined gazing down at the sheen of green scum upon the water. The thing must have been journeying away from this shithole to find a place to deposit her eggs.
Still shaking, he walked back over the lawn that stretched between the river and the road. Traffic flowed around his car again. His weathered blue Toyota, had replaced the turtle as the spectacle in the road. Some nice people slowed enough to allow him to jog over and get in. He knew he shouldn’t really touch anything, so he used his elbow to turn the hazards off, and grabbed an old gas receipt to turn the key with. He drove using the ball of one hand, not quite remembering where he had been headed to begin with.
After a few blocks Robert pulled into Demos’ Charburgers to wash his hands. Jittery with adrenaline and inexplicably hungry, he ordered a burger with mustard and onions. And fries, what the hell. He remembered he used to like vanilla milkshakes. He ordered one. He brought his food in a bag to the car. He felt excited, like when he had a good action sequence going for his strip. Like when he read tales of Lawrence of Arabia, or Lord Mountbatten, or the bloody histories of Viking conquerors. He wanted to tell Pauline about his adventure, his mission–the great turtle rescue. He pulled a pen from the breast pocket of his vest and began sketching the monster in different poses, using the back of a Jiffy Lube flier he’d yanked off the windshield. When he ran out of space, he tore open the brown paper bag from Walgreen’s Liquor and smoothed it out. He added himself into the scene, saving the turtle and battling a hoard of oaf-like assassins in cars. He drew himself in the chain mail of a knight, adding in his thick-rimmed glasses at the end, a humorous touch. He couldn’t help chuckling. She would like this story, Pauline. He would make her a poster of her old dad saving the snapping turtle…that turns out is a beautiful princess under the cruel spell of the horrible Green Scum Queen. Yes!
He set the car in motion and sipped on the vanilla milkshake as he drove. It was flavorful in a phony way, but satisfying. His mind was alive with beautiful and horrible possibilities. He turned east and headed for Archbold’s Art Supplies to get the right materials and colors: India ink for the sky and the creature’s dark shadows, metallic gold for the gown of the princess restored.