I come home to find Carmen bleeding on the couch .The dusky pink mohair looks muddy and worn and dark viscous liquid pools glistening on the floor. Aside from her gaping head wound Carmen looks pretty much like she always has, with smooth caramel skin and flashing dark eyes.
Back in the way the world used to be, Carmen and I worked together in a Quonset hut on a hill .The Quonset hut housed a day care center for the children of migrant farm workers and it was made of a cheap corrugated tin that amplified the sound of summer rain. Sunsets were often beautiful at the migrant camp and sometimes I would sit idly on a swing after the center closed, watching as whisky was poured into bright red cans half full of coca cola. Silver harmonicas would be pulled from the pockets of dirt caked jeans while battered guitars were carefully tuned .The purple and pink sky would fill with song and Carmen was always the belle of this after hours ball, laughing and flirting with the fruit pickers who clustered around the splintered wooden steps of the other Quonset huts, as her husband Carlos glowered nearby.
Carmen’s sense of style has evolved since those sultry days. Gone are the cheap clingy dresses that used to wrap her like a second skin. Tonight she is wearing buckled pirate boots and a soft fishnet sweater in turquoise, black and orange that seems to be woven of clouds and air.
I frown at the stains on my art deco couch, a recent hard won acquisition .I picked the wrong time to buy a house and every pretty thing, every bit of paint and trimming has come slowly and at great sacrifice .I stare sadly at the crimson of my newly refinished floor. The sky outside is dark and velvet and I know that if I were to peek through the curtains I would not be able to see a single star.
“Relax ” says Carmen with an exasperated air as she shifts to an upright position. I turn my gaze from the windows back to her. She tilts her head so that I can no longer see the bloody mass of tangled hair and I am struck by how pretty she is.
“This will all be gone when I leave”, she says, waving a hand airily at the mess. She snaps her fingers.
“It’s against the rules to leave evidence behind”.
I collapse into the wrought iron chair with purple and green striped cushions that I rescued from some back alley yard sale. I stare hard at Carmen. I know I should be surprised to see her but I am not .I watch carefully as insolence curves her full lips into a half smile
“You have rules “?
“Well think about it”. Carmen’s voice is laced with just a touch of scorn.
“If I didn’t clean up you could bring in experts. There would be DNA analysis. Scientific reports .Our power lies in the suspension of disbelief. It’s so much more effective to just fuck with your head”.
I glance at the windows again, wishing I had the ability to walk through walls. I turn my attention back to Carmen. Given her punkish attire I suspect that her appearance on my couch has something to do with Johnny’s most recent nocturnal visit .She must have run into him somewhere. How else could she have gotten this address? I lean back in the chair and close my eyes for a second, half hoping that she will be gone when I open them .I am very tired. It has only been 3 days and 2 nights since I was last awakened by a great blaze of light in the living room and I have not been able to sleep well since. This incandescent glare was accompanied by a pop of noise and Johnny appeared by the side of my bed just as the light began to seep into the four corners of my bedroom. His long dark hair was tangled and he was wearing a black sleeveless t shirt that had Let It Rock spelled out across the front in chicken bones and bits of silver chain .I recognized the shirt from pictures that I had seen in magazines and knew that he’d worn it as a form of apology. I had always wanted one and Johnny was not the sort of boy who would ever be able to form the words I’m sorry and let them escape form his lips. He trembled slightly as he stared down at me with dark pleading eyes, watching my confusion with his arms folded tightly across his chest. Then he faded into nothingness as the eerie gold phosphorescence that surrounded him dissipated into the harsh morning sunlight of accidentally sleeping in.
“So where did you meet him”, I ask Carmen.
“At Seditionaries on Kings Road “says Carmen, referring to a legendary British boutique that’s been closed since 1980.Carmen smiles with pride and tosses her hair just like she used to, flaring her nostrils and shrugging one shoulder.
“I can go anywhere now. London, the 70s. You’re the one who’s stuck,” she sneers, zeroing in with psychic aplomb on my current struggles with an underwater mortgage in a collapsing economy. She extends one arm so that I can admire the intricate weave of a sweater that is now, like Johnny’s chicken bone t shirt, wonderfully rare and impossible to find.
“But you’re fucking dead”, I point out as my patience wears spider web thin. The thought that Johnny might be handing my number out to any ghost with an axe to grind is more than I can bear. Try as I might I cannot turn myself into someone who does not notice them .I put salt in the corners and lemon slices on the windowsills. Every night I set a cup of water by the side of the bed and in the morning I carefully toss it over my left shoulder into the kitchen sink. Sometimes Johnny watches me from the ceiling, laughingly pointing out that these tricks only work for your average wailing woman in white or the kind of 1940s ghost that you might see lurking about in a corn field with a fedora pulled down low. I try to ignore him but it’s hard.
Carmen’s smile vanishes and her eyes well up with tears. I am instantly sorry that I’ve brought this up.
Back in the camp Carmen used to wield her voluptuous little body like a weapon, regaling everyone with her take on the art of living as she sashayed around the room.
“When Carlos comes at me I always make sure that he hits me in the nose right away “she would say.” It bleeds real easy and Carlos can’t stand the sight of blood. He always buys me a new dress and takes me out to dinner at Taco Bell afterwards” .She would roll her eyes at my talk of shelters and sliding scale therapy and never once did she show up at any of the women’s meetings that I set up with Trina, the raven haired beauty who directed the day care center. One evening, not too long after I ‘d decamped for the east coast in pursuit of a degree in jazz composition Carlos went too far, bashing Carmen’s head in against the the kitchen sink.
“You always had options, ” whispers Carmen.
“You always will “. I cringe slightly as she wipes her eyes with the sleeve of the sweater and then I grip the arms of the chair so that she will not notice. It is not an early Vivienne Westwood piece worth thousands of dollars to Carmen .It is just a sweater purchased on the Kings Road for less than 20 pounds.
“Johnny told me what happened”. Carmen’s eyes turns crafty and just a little bit cruel .I grip the sides of the chair a bit harder now as I try not to drown in memory, Johnny dissolving into helpless laughter over a childish prank played on a friend, Johnny nodding out at a restaurant, Johnny playing guitar, his face completely obscured by a curtain of ink black hair and Johnny with his fist raised, blood dripping slowly from the 5 pointed star that had been carved into his arm by some demon he could not contain. I was a girl who could never be hit and quick as a kiss, Johnny had taken that notion away. Carmen’s triumphant smile suggests that gloating ghosts and bloody stars, clenched fists and ruined couches are somehow all my fault and on a night like this, I cannot help but wonder if she is right.
“No, you were right “whispers Carmen, suddenly subdued .I look up startled, then I relax a little as I remember that words are not always necessary for communication.
“You were right “, she continues, but I was always just some sort of project to you .You never really wanted to be my friend”
It’s true .The thought of Carmen in a sleazy red dress, laughing under harsh fast food light used to fill me with a despair that I could not even begin to understand or explain. Even now, I just want her to go. I am probably a better person now than I was when I rocked babies to sleep with Carmen in the migrant camp but most days I ‘d give anything to be the girl I was before Johnny blew his head off in the kitchen, leaving behind a note that said it was somebody’s else’s turn to clean up.
I close my eyes as the stereo clicks on by itself. I have gotten sort of used to this. Sometimes I recognize the songs and sometimes I don’t. This time I recognize the lyrics and melody as my own and I recognize the sound of Johnny’s razor sharp guitar. But the voice that wraps itself around my words is unfamiliar, husky dark and fiercely beautiful.
“Scream it like a whisper
Whisper like a sigh
Baby baby baby do you really want to die
Oh no I know
No no I know
Baby baby baby only wants to watch me cry” .
I open my eyes as the song starts to fade. Carmen is gone and couch and floor are shiny and clean.
“Damn”, I whisper softly to the disappearing midnight of the sky.” I never even knew she could sing”.