By: Jon Carter
“Get up! GET THE FUCK UP!” she yelled. There was pain shooting through my head. There was the sharp sting of her little palms slapping at my face, her jagged nails dragging into my skin.
I moved under the sheets, covering my head, rolling away from her.
“You son of A BITCH!” she yelled at the top of her lungs, shrieking it as if she had been shot. She was slapping at my back, which I’d turned to her. I sensed last night’s liquor hanging around like a rancid whirlpool in my stomach and in my face. I leaned off the mattress and threw up on the few empty bottles that were laying there.
“Hey, hey, get a GRIP!” I screamed back, wiping my face. Now infuriated, I whipped the sheet off me and wrapped it around her head and torso. It seemed like Claudia always woke up like this. I was tired of it. I got on top of her and held the sheet around her. I could see her mouth working under the sheet, gasping for air, trying to scream. I held her arms down at her sides. I enjoyed it a little. Her black curly hair spilled out from below the sheet onto her spit-stained pillow. Slowly, as she struggled, I began working the sheet over her hair along with everything else. I was making her into a mummy.
“GODDAMNIT I CAN’T BREATHE! I CAN’T BREATHE!” she ranted, followed by a glass-shattering scream. Good, I thought. Her body was shaking and shivering underneath me and I ripped the sheet off her before she could scream any more. I didn’t want the neighbors to call the cops on us again.
As she gasped for air I stood up off the mattress. The midday sun cut through our broken blinds and into my eyes. Hungover, I shuffled out of the light and into one of the shadowed corners of the apartment, kicking empties out of my way with my bare feet. A little piece of broken glass wedged itself in my heel and I hissed and picked it out. Some blood shot out of my foot and I threw the glass somewhere else on the floor to be stepped on later. Claudia caught her breath, now sitting up on the mattress. As I stared at her I knew my eyes were bleeding red and wet by how heavy they were in my head, the hangover still had the world swaying in front of me.
“What now? What the fuck?” I whispered, standing in the corner away from the light.
“I dreamt you were screwing around on me again. WITH 6 OTHER WOMEN!” she shrieked. Her eyes were black and crazy, glinting in the afternoon. Despite her anger, her hair fell in an oddly peaceful way over her shoulders, catching little pieces of sunlight and bouncing them around. This was the routine about every time we woke up together, whether it be the morning or in this case, by the look of the sun in the blinds, the afternoon.
“Please, no more yelling,” I held my palm toward her and waved it, trying to dispel her psychosis with a simple dismissal of the whole ordeal.
“You’re not screwing anyone else, are you?” she asked, pouting her thick red lips at me.
“Fuck. No. We go through this almost every day,” I said. I was sleeping around on her, though. And I knew she was doing the same. We were ruthless fucking drunks with no loyalty. But we had gotten comfortable lying to each other, for some reason. The difference was that I never asked or berated her. I only wanted the same treatment in return.
“I’m sorry, baby. The dreams, they just seem so real…” she trailed off, staring up at the dead light fixture hanging in the middle of the ceiling.
“Well, what the fuck?” I said. I realized I was standing there naked and so I started picking through broken glass, looking for clothes that weren’t too grungy so that I could get dressed.
“Hey. Wait. Why don’t you bring that over here to me?” she asked from the mattress, holding the sheet tight over her bare breasts so that her dark nipples showed through it.
“Too hungover,” I grumbled.
I started to get dressed and she sighed, then stomped off to the bathroom. I could hear her pissing in the toilet as I got my shirt on. Dust floated in the pale yellow from the window. I kicked the trash around the floor, looking for that magick bottle with a little juice left in it. Nothing doing. No booze left. Claudia came out just as I was getting my shoes on.
“Oh, so you’re going to see HER again, huh?” she asked, folding her arms over her small breasts. I grabbed my bag and threw it over my shoulder.
“Goddamn you. I’m going out for a bottle, we’re out. Some food, too. We don’t have anything to eat. Why don’t you pick up in here a little, huh?” I asked, waving at the mess.
“Go to hell. It’s your mess,” she said, and she turned and went back into the bathroom. I heard her crying from behind the door.
I shrugged and left the apartment, locking up before I headed out. I noticed there was a neon orange eviction notice on the door. I was between stories, writings, paintings. None of the editors or the art snobs had been liking my business lately. I wasn’t getting paid. Everything was going to hell. I ripped the eviction notice down and threw it in the hall, then went outside into the sun.
There was this horrible, twisted elm there right in front of the building. Its roots slowly broke up the sidewalk beneath it. It was powerful and persistent and ugly. I walked a block to the bus stop and caught the number four downtown. I got a cheap bottle of Sailor Jerry’s at the liquor store at the East Riverside intersection and walked down South Congress to mingle with the summer people. The summer people all wore short-shorts and sunhats and expensive sunglasses and sandals. A lot of out-of-towners. Being local, I looked about homeless. My dirty white t-shirt and ripped jeans and Chuck Taylors all seemed too big on me. And under the merciless sun the stale alcohol from the night before still ran a river forth from my skin. I normally enjoyed this walk to the grocery store from Riverside but this time it seemed a lot like hell. I took a sip from the bottle for strength enough to put the one foot in front of the other again and again.
On the way I stopped by these stands they had set up along the sidewalk. The few aging and desperate vendors made pretty well off the summer people selling trinkets and candles. The tourists, with their vacations and their money, were suckers for the shit. Glasswork. All the trinkets. When they saw me they watched me but didn’t offer to show me anything. I reeked of locality. I poked around until I found an old Indian man sitting calmly in his lawn chair, getting shade under an umbrella he’d propped up. He was working, twisting twigs together into a circle as he sat there. His whole stand was nothing but dreamcatchers, feathers, strings and beads and other dreamcatcher accessories and materials.
Still, I stood and watched this man with his tanned stone face. He was something out of a better time, maybe an older time. A time when maybe people could really be loyal. And of course, he crafted all this stuff by hand. There were certainly some old-timey vibrations. He noticed me lingering, soaking it in- in some sense.
“See anything ya like?” he asked casually.
“Just uhhh, admiring the craftsmanship,” I said.
“These things really work, ya know. Catches bad dreams right out of the air,” he said. His arm whipped out like a snake as he snatched at the air with his hand. His eyes were wide and serious.
“Uh huh,” I said. Then I thought about Claudia and her insanity, and an idea sparked up in me.
“Do you have like, a really huge one of these?”
“Say no more, say no more,” he said. He stood up from the table and shuffled away. I waited forever, dying under the sun as he searched through all his materials. Then finally he came back, emerging with this huge sack of things. One crazy long stick, folded over, rose out of the bag of items into the air. He grabbed some more beads and shit that were hanging in view and tossed them in as well, then he put it all on the small sales table between us.
“It’s unassembled,” he said, “but a lover works for a lover, isn’t that right?”
“Love?” I was having second thoughts. “I don’t know. Is it difficult?” I asked. “I just don’t want her to scratch and smack me every morning.”
“Oh yes. It’s hard as hell. But you can do it, and no more crazy girl…” he scratched at the air like a cat. “Stay up late and hang it while she’s sleeping,” he continued, slapping his hands together, shaking me from my half-drunk daze. “Peaceful mornings,” he concluded.
“How much?” I asked.
“Twenty-five,” he said.
“Oh um, I only have a ten,” I said.
“Twenty,” he said.
“Are you deaf? I said I only have ten,” I said.
“Twenty, final offer,” he said. He didn’t like the way I negotiated. I could tell.
“Fuck. Fine. Goddamn.” I handed him the twenty. He handed me the sack of random materials with the one crazy long stick poking out of it.
“This will work?” I asked again.
“You and your red hair,” he said, “get the fuck out of here.”
With the transaction over, I left and went down to the store for some meat and noodles and a bottle of cheap wine. I caught the number seven bus back. I looked ridiculous carrying around that sack full of nothing with the one long stick flailing about, slapping other passengers as I walked by them. At a point I just stopped apologizing. They could see me coming or not, for all I cared. I could hear the beads and feathers shuffle around the bag as I took each step… twenty dollars that I didn’t have any business spending… now it was gone on this dumbass shit.
This better work, I thought. I sighed and got off the bus, walked past the demented elm tree, went upstairs to the apartment. I got inside and quickly stashed the sack in a not-often-visited corner of the apartment. I don’t know why. I probably could have left it in the center of the floor and she would have been too drunk to notice.
Claudia had managed to get herself dressed, however, and she was laying over the sheets on the mattress, staring up at the ceiling as if she didn’t notice I’d come in. I started the beef in a big pot full of water, then cooked up the noodles.
“Do we have any beans?” I asked.
“Beans! Can you not fucking hear?”
“I don’t know if we have any fucking beans!”
I sighed and checked the cabinets. No beans. I kept on with just the noodles and the beef.
The mattress lay right on the floor with Claudia stretched across it. She did nothing while I cooked. She only up at the ceiling, catatonic. I brought her the bottle of wine with a bowl of noodles and ground beef chunks.
“Here you go,” I said. She sat up and ate reluctantly. Then she started on the wine. I ate alone in the kitchen, taking nips at the rum, thinking about the dreamcatcher I stashed in the corner of the room, giving the bag side glances when Claudia wasn’t paying attention. I wondered how long it would take, or if I could do it at all. And even if I got the damn thing put together, there was no guarantee it would help Claudia with her insanity. I was probably ripped off. Just like a tourist. I thought about maybe going back downtown and demanding my money back but I knew I wouldn’t. I checked the cupboard for spices and found a half-bottle I’d hidden for myself. And some salt. I used some for my meat and noodles and didn’t tell Claudia that that there was any.
Soon we were drunk and fed enough. Better days ahead… possibly. After we were done eating and drinking she passed out, snoring deeply on the mattress and leaking drool out of her soft lips.
I got the bag out of the corner and slowly cleared a space on the floor. I moved each glass bottle one by one, carefully so I didn’t make any noise. Claudia of course had not really picked up anything while I was gone and I wasn’t surprised or upset by it. I never really cared either way.
Then the materials. First, it was the incredibly large stick. It had some bend to it. There was some string too, but it was thick like rope. And there were these huge multicolored beads the size of my fist and giant feathers plucked from some massive eagle or peacock or flamingos or something.
I started with the giant stick. I knew instinctively that it served as the ring, the main structure of the dreamcatcher. It stretched over the entire floor. I worked at it, pulling and bending, then got it situated into one massive circle, tying it off with the rope. I was six foot tall myself and when I got on the ground and lay next to it and the ring was as just about as tall as me.
Then I got the rope and began to wind it around and around, sliding on some beads intermittently. I worked and I worked until my fingers were sore and bleeding at the tips. More rope, more beads, crisscross. Crisscross. Winding and winding. Cursing. Tying the ridiculous giant feathers all around. They were the worst, and they kept slipping off.
I had this fucking rope dangling down from the ring. The feathers were a pain in the ass and I needed a break. I had all these beads and knots but how the hell was I supposed to work the feathers onto this thing?
My hands were cramping. I was sweating all over the place. I took a break and hit the bottle and sat there staring at the mess for a while, drinking. Then I got back to it.
After a while I figured out how to get the feathers on and after about another hour I was done. Then there the damn thing was. I stared at it on the floor. I was drunk and to me it was beautiful. Just this huge wild dreamcatcher slapped together on the floor. I sucked at the blood spilling out of my fingers and noticed the sky outside becoming brighter. The sun was on the rise.
I wondered about how to hang the son of a bitch. Then I remembered- a few months back me and Claudia stole a bunch of railroad spikes and tried to scrap them in for cash.
“No. Actually, I need to make a report on this,” the guy at the scrapyard had said. Something about federal law… etcetera, etcetera.
“Hell no. Someone will buy these fuckers!” I yelled back at him. We gathered as many as we could as quick as we could and ran out of there. We never tried selling them anywhere else and they ended up scattered around the apartment. I found one of them and got a hammer and I got the dreamcatcher up on the wall, pounding the spike up through the top, having to reach up so it hung high enough not to let the large flamboyant feathers touch the floor. It didn’t work. The feathers fell down to the floor and all over the mattress. Some of them tickled Claudia’s nose and she moved around then fell back asleep.
I beat that damn spike into the wall until my arm started to burn, then I stood back and admired my handiwork. It was magnificent. A work of art. Then Claudia, mostly passed out drunk throughout the whole ordeal, began to stir, so I slid into the mattress real easy and closed my eyes and went to sleep.
I woke up peacefully some hours later. Claudia was rubbing my back affectionately. I rolled over and the sun was coming through her hair and her brown eyes were lit up fire orange.
“Hey,” she said, “what’s that thing on the wall?”
“It’s a dreamcatcher. I built it for you,” I said. “Did you have any bad dreams?”
“Oh. No. I guess I didn’t,” she said. She seemed somewhat disappointed by this, and she had this look of concern or confusion on her face. Then she got out of bed and got dressed and left for some wine.
“Well, I guess it works then,” I said, lighting a cigarette, still laying in bed, enjoying the apartment alone.
The days passed. There were no more dreams. They were very peaceful days for me. But then the sex became less frequent, less passionate. She started spending more time away, out for drinks for friends or meeting up more with her other guys. And one day I came home and found a note:
I’m sorry. Things are not like they used to be. I saw the eviction notice.
I opened the bottle and sat on the mattress and drank. I stared up at the dreamcatcher and drank some more until I passed out.
A little while after that I sold a painting. It was a big one of a town and townspeople doing town things in the center of a flower and its petals. Then a magazine took a story I’d written about a mob of people in white shirts. It was a random string of luck, answers to questions I’d asked months ago. I bought a used car and drove it all over the place, found some other women, kept sleeping under the dreamcatcher. It had been a month since Claudia bailed on me.
Then one night the phone rang. It was a number I didn’t recognize. I answered.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Jonny. It’s me. Can I come over?” It was Claudia.
“Uh. Okay. Sure, I guess,” I said. Then the line went dead. I don’t know why I said yes.
I regretted saying yes and having to wait up. I sat there for a while drinking, thinking of how to turn her away. It was my own hard work that allowed me to be somewhat comfortable like this, at least for the moment. I didn’t want her helping me spend it all after the way she left. I had a feeling she was trying to ride the wave of my minor success, and I was having too much fun spending all my time at bars with women who thought that one day I’d be famous.
Then there was the infamous knock on the door. I got up and opened it. There stood Claudia. She looked a little heavier than before. Her lip was busted and her eye and cheek were bruised up real bad. Her eyes were black-and-red from crying so hard and there were still tears running down her cheeks. I sighed. “Come in,” I said. She came in and sat on the mattress and stared at the massive dreamcatcher on the wall.
“You built that for me,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, standing there with the bottle in my hand. I closed the front door.
“He’s a mean son of a bitch, Jonny,” she said. She put her head in her palms and started bawling so heavy that she was shaking. I stood there and drank and waited for her to be finished. I didn’t know what else to do. It took her a while to settle down.
“This fucking guy, real-estate agent. I’d been seeing him and tonight…” she trailed off and started shaking and began to slow sob again.
“A lawyer did that?”
“Real-estate, Jonny. Fuck. You never pay attention,” she said through her drying tears and snot.
“Oh…,” I said.
“I heard you’re on the up, though. Got another story sold,” she said, trying to smile.
“No. No, you heard wrong,” I said. I stood there, she sat there. It seemed like a very long time staring at each other. She knew I was lying but she didn’t know why. Then the realization struck over her face like a bolt of lightning: I wasn’t inviting her back with me. The line was being drawn and I didn’t care about her lawyer friend or much of anything else.
“You lying son of a BITCH!” she yelled. She started picking up empty bottles and hurling them at me. I bobbed and weaved throughout the apartment, drinking from my own bottle as I danced, hearing the crashing glass splashing all over the apartment. I didn’t know why this interaction would have gone any differently, but she had bad aim. Finally, she gave up. There was broken glass everywhere and she was breathing heavily from exertion. I took another hit from the bottle.
“I HATE YOU!!!” she yelled, “AND I’M TAKING THIS!” she ran to the wall and ripped the dreamcatcher down. I watched as she struggled with it. I held the door open for her and laughed as she left.
I closed the door behind her and sat down on the mattress. I opened the blinds and stared out the window, watching her as she hauled that damn thing away. She looked ridiculous. Then she eventually disappeared into the darkness around the corner, with the dreamcatcher in tow.
I stared out the window for another second, watching the elm tree out there, its leaves open and wicked and screaming into the blue moonlight. I took another drink from my bottle. Then another. Then it was gone.
It was another slow sad scene in my corner of the world, the railroad spike still hanging limply from the wall. I lit a cigarette. It was another card I’d learn to play carefully…
I gave up on sleep and went for a drive through the city.