Chris Is Back
Ash stormed in the front door, kicked it shut with her foot; it slammed against the wall so hard the front window thundered against its frame. All her bags were brimming with clothes, the designer tags dangling from the swell of clothes like ornaments from a synthetic Christmas tree, each one swinging and singing out a different value, a discordant meaning: There was the new bikini top from Nordstrom’s for 29.95; the halter top from Macy’s that was on sale for 39.95, marked down from 55.00 even – quite a deal; and a sun dress, oh she just couldn’t do without that sun dress, which cost a bit at 74.95; but she did put back the Ray-Ban sunglasses that would have run her well over a hundred – damned shame actually, she thought at the time. So, she thought, she had done quite well, actually, compared to what she could have spent.
Paul came hustling out of the kitchen. Short, stout, maybe even pudgy by some estimates; he wiped his hands on his white apron to remove the grease of the meat he was butchering in the kitchen. Only when they were clean did he self-consciously rub his hands over his bald dome. “Jesus,” he said as he ran his hands nervously over his smooth pate; “I thought it was a home invasion.”
“And what would you have done?” Ash said as she struggled to amass her load on the kitchen table, the one her mother had given her before she passed away, the one she had sworn she was going to give to The Good Will month after month and year after year (just to get rid of the God damned thing), but it was also the one that Paul said was perfectly fine, and that there were other ways to spend money than on a new table when that one was just fine. Ash hated anything that was just fine, which she thought was horrible, just horrible since it wasn’t total ruin and it was fabulous, spectacular, perfect – just fine.
“I guess you would have just stood there wiping your hands on your apron, which is oh-so-cute by the way.” Dropping her load, Ash laughed out loud and went on: “Imagine a thief, or anyone, breaking in here, and seeing you. Jesus Christ, they’d know they could have anything they wanted, including me, probably.”
Ash laughed again.
“No,” Paul said. “I would never let them touch you. Don’t you know that?”
“I guess you’re going to slay them with dish soap and fend off their bullets with that cute apron of yours?” Ash slung back.
“Why are you being so mean today?” Paul asked. “What’s gotten into you?”
“The heat,” Ash said sullenly. She swept away the drops of sweat on her forehead. “God, it’s hot as Hell in here. Are you trying to kill me with this heat?” Ash went over to the thermostat and, as she dropped the temperature, she narrated: “Jesus Christ Almighty, are you trying to kill me with this infernal heat. It’s bad enough it’s burning outside, but now I come home and it’s an oven – a friggen oven.”
“Sorry,” Paul offered; his hands were wringing over each other in nervous anticipation. “I was just trying to save a few bucks. You know? Here and there. Everything adds up I guess.”
“Yeah,” Ash moaned sardonically. “The pleasures of the middle-class life, I guess. You get to scrimp and save and cut down on the air conditioning while the rich folks are out eating lobster and drinking vodka on their yachts, and we get to say everything is just fine.”
“Like Chris?” Paul said, throwing his wrist over his face so that Ash could not see his eyes welling up with tears.
Ash turned away. It was pitiful when he cried. He was raised by his mother and his first resort, his very first instinct whenever anything bothered him, was to put on the waterworks, to break down and to cry. Then, Ash supposed, mommy dearest was supposed to come along and fix his boo-boo.
That’s not what Ash was, and this was not supposed to be her life. It was a mistake. With one sentence – I want that house – she was doomed to this man, to this place, to this fate – a life sentence in these walls.
Finally, the cool air was coming through the vents and there was a measure of relief; she could feel it on her neck. It was a cool, unseasonably cool, breeze for that time of year, she imagined, like the almost-chill winds that crept over her on the sugar-white sands of Playa del Carmen, Mexico when Chris stood behind her, his thick muscular arms that seemed as if they were fashioned from twisted rope ensconcing her, holding her from blowing away in that out-of-season, tropical breeze. Her lightness and his gravity were in balance as she could she smell the elixir of the cheap cologne he bought in the hotel gift shop, the salty air and the powerful tequila he’d been drinking all day: She would have flown away had Chris not been there. She would have, she imagined as she turned away from Paul and walked closer to the air conditioning vent; she flitted away on the strength of sheer … what … what is it called … delight? But Chris held her and the delight lasted longer. In fact, that moment lasted forever; it couldn’t go away; she could never lose it, no matter how she tried, and there was always something missing after that moment, after Chris was gone, and there was nothing to fill that yawning void. Time, she always thought, was supposed to go from here to there, from one point to the next, and so it had. But after that moment when the scents of Mexican booze, cheap aftershave and the salt of the sea conspired against her, time had been nothing but a flood plain, like the crystal blue waves lapping up the Mayan sand, century after century, pushing the sand back one grain at a time while three more would escape to the sea – a hopeless task.
Ash leaned on the ledge by the front door and ran her hand over a ceramic turtle that Chris had won in a contest by the pool one day when they were in Mexico.
“Why don’t you just get over it?” Paul whimpered.
Ash said flatly: “It’s hot enough in here as it is without you filling it with more hot air; with you pinching pennies all the time, so I have to swelter in this Hell. See, you pinch a penny and you end up in Hell.”
Paul composed himself and walked across the living room toward her, looking back at the kitchen every now and then as he approached. “But, it’s like you can’t forget about him. I know he’s on your mind – all the time. I know he is. Look. That damned turtle. I know when you got it. Damn it! I feel like smashing it sometimes, I swear!”
Ash came alive with rage, silent though it was. She pointed one sharp finger at him, warning him, “Don’t you ever … ever threaten me with anything like that again. If you ever touch that … just don’t ever touch that.” She turned away.
Paul threw his wrist over his eyes again. He knew how much Ash hated and feared weakness. She hated a weak man and almost feared a strong man. If she had to choose, though, Ash certainly would choose that tremulous anxiety of being around a volcano-man who could erupt with slashing violence, unrelenting dominance and the most severe pity rather than being in the charge of a man, who, well, preferred an apron and putzing around in the kitchen, breaking down in tears all the time.
Turning to the table, Paul saw the bags full of clothes and the tags dangling off of them, each one a new sign of debt. “I, uh, guess,” he began, trying not to anger her any further, “that you went shopping?”
“Yes,” Ash said, “I was out and I needed some things so I got them.”
“But you know,” Paul started to explain, “the restaurant, we’re having a bit of a hard time right now. Ash, they were talking about closing it the other day. Now I don’t think –“
“Yeah,” Ash sauntered toward him a little closer. “All your dreams, all your hopes, all your aspirations – all in that damned restaurant. All the promises you made me. All the things I was going to have. Everything was going to be mine – absolutely everything!”
“It still will,” Paul murmured and ducked his head slightly.
Knowingly, Ash patted Paul on his head and said, “Of course, sunshine. Of course. You’re just one bet away, right? The economy just has to get a little better, right? Your friggen partners need to stop skimming off the top of the till, right? Yeah, don’t’ worry, you reeled me in. I know what happened. I did it. I fell for the bullshit – hook, line and sinker.”
“I didn’t mean to – I mean, I didn’t mean,” Paul stammered an apology.
“I know,” Ash confessed. “Well, now I know. Now I know you didn’t mean anything, but it’s way too late now, I guess. It’s almost over anyway.”
Paul stood there, defeated as always, wringing his hands on his white blood-stained apron. “I don’t know what to say,” he admitted.
“Say you’ll get me a drink,” Ash commanded as she pressed her face into the stream of cold air coming from the cooling vents. It was that cool draft of unseasonably cool winds again, blowing in off the Gulf of Mexico again, that moment again, carrying little bits of sand that whipped her skin and the taste of the briny sea that flavored her margaritas so that the drink would never taste the same again, not anywhere, no matter how good the bartender was or how perfect the weather. She heard the five-piece mariachi band playing their strings in harmony and singing in Spanish a song that all lovers long for, if all lovers could ever lover for eternity. She couldn’t understand the words, but a Mexican lady, who saw her held down by Chris’s weighty flanks, said in broken English, “It’s besame mucho. In other words, they just keep saying. Kiss me again … kiss me more. Is a very a romantic song for lovers, ay?” The lady threw her elbow onto Ash’s side and winked. “He cute,” she added. Chris and Ash kissed all night and when the sun came that next morning, Ash felt full, more full than she had ever been, as if something had suddenly grown within her and there would be more. When Chris woke up shortly after she did not tell him how exactly she felt; instead, she just pressed her naked being against his and kissed him again and heard that Spanish song named Besame Mucho in her own private way. She had never felt so full.
“How about a tequila, huh?” Paul offered.
“No,” Ash shot back quickly. “Never. I can’t stand the smell of it.”
“Okay,” Paul demurred. “What then?”
“You know what I want,” Ash said. “To drink anyway.”
“Vodka?” he asked.
“Straight up,” she told him.
“Are you sure?” Paul hesitated. “It’s a bit early.”
“Just …” Ash almost lashed out but she held herself back and Paul, knowing not to question her again, scurried off to the kitchen, poured her some vodka in a tumbler and brought it to her. He had poured himself one.
“Here you go,” Paul said cheerfully and held his own glass up to hers for a celebratory touch of glasses, but Ash turned away, and, quite without ceremony, threw the hot spirits down her throat. She liked that burn of the liquor. It seemed to wash everything away, if for just a moment. Sometimes there was this hollow, fiery feeling in the pit of her chest, something as vacuous as a summer morning with no children playing or the silence of a hospital ward when all the procedures are done and no one has any more compensation for you; there is only the silence that has to be faced in the dim, electric light of your hospital suite, thinking of the blood, the blood, the blood and knowing that there could have been something there but that there would never be anything there because something was the matter so you took care of that matter and you knew that Chris didn’t matter anymore, and the cool, unseasonably cool winds, didn’t matter anymore, and that sweet cactus taste of tequila didn’t matter anymore because you were truly empty and every scent, every taste, every sight associated with it will no longer matter unless the matter was longing and there was no matter for longing. Not anymore.
Ash held the glass out to Paul and said, “One more. I’m almost cooled down.”
“Really?” he implored. “It’s still kind of early.”
“Early? Late?” Ash quipped, throwing her hands up in the air. They flailed loosely. “What does the time matter?”
“It matters, Ash,” Paul proffered.
The front door bell rang. Ash startled, almost spilling the remains of her drink. She took a deep breath, slugged the rest of the drink down and then shook herself into a pose. Who would dare enter? She stared at the door with animus and then turned to Paul, who cowered and wiped his hands nervously on his apron and said, “I’ll get it.”
“You do that,” Ash said with contempt.
Paul opened the door and began to bow, but, as he noticed Ash watching, he stopped himself and thrust out his hand for a good, masculine shake. “Judge,” Paul said with what passed for sincere enthusiasm. “How have you been? Please come in. You’re just in time.”
“In time?” Judge Bann asked with his trademark witty tone. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in time for anything in my life. I’ve been lucky enough but I’m not sure I’ve always been in time.”
The judge removed his brown fedora and cradled it gently in his arm. His brown blazer must have been stifling him in this heat, Ash thought; he must be burning up in that damned blazer. The speckles of sweat on his forehead seemed almost red in the afternoon glow. The judge put his hand right beneath his ribs, winced just a bit, and said with an almost ancient, European flair: “Well, aren’t you going to invite me out of this hellish heat?”
“Of course,” Paul fawned. “Come right in, judge. We were just about to have a bit of a – you know – happy hour, if you’d like to join us?”
“Of course I would,” The Judge accepted, stepped in and shut the door. Ash could see him holding his ribs and marks on his hands. The Judge patted the last of the sweat bursting from his forehead away with the back of his hand.
“Oh, Mr. Bann, I mean Judge,” Ash began, “are you alright?”
“Yes, my dear,” The Judge said with his normal old-school charm. Ash had known him for as long as she had known her father; he and her father were one in the same. They both came from the same place. The best of friends. Judge Bann was there when her father suffered his horrible fate; he was there when the coroner came out of the autopsy, shaking their heads; he was there to press the issue when the official investigators wouldn’t say exactly what happened “for everyone’s best interest.” She had known him in every way possible, actually, and always would, she supposed. Explaining his wounds, he said, “It’s just what happens when you take on too much, you know? I took on took much, and, foolish old man that I am, I thought I could handle it. Guess I took a bit of a fall, ay?”
“Let me see your hands,” Ash demanded, put down her drink, and pulled his arm away from his ribs. The judge winced. She twisted them and inspected them. “How did you cut them like this? This is horrible. Paul! Bring me some clean rags – wet.”
“I appreciate your service, my lovely,” The Judge began, “but I am absolutely parched from that heat out there. It’s just hellish out there. I could use a little something to drink, you know? Something to quench the old pallet?”
“And bring The Judge a cold drink,” Ash yelled into the kitchen as she fussed and fretted over his hands. Turning to The Judge, she asked, “What would you like?”
“I wouldn’t want to be too particular, my dear,” The Judge demurred. “After all, I’ve barged into your house unannounced and here I am a medical catastrophe and then I’m supposed to dictate my demands? But, come to think of it, a nice merlot might do – or any nice red wine you have lying around.”
“Paul!” Ash yelled again. “Bring the judge a glass of the Sineour Valley merlot.”
“Ah,” The Judge admitted; “you spoil me as always, Ash.”
“Oh, no, of course,” Ash said with unusual sincerity. “Sit down on the couch. You were limping. Let me guess. You hurt our feet too?”
“Please don’t make anything of it, Ash,” The Judge insisted as he made his way to the couch and lowered himself until he was even with Ash.
“No,” Ash insisted, “you were my father’s favorite.” She pulled off his loafers and then his socks which had slightly stiffened with blood, sticking to his skin. “Ugg. What did you do to yourself?”
“What did I do?” The Judge parroted. “I just took on too much for one man, that’s all.”
“In the future,” Ash told him, “you shouldn’t do that. You’re getting on in age, Judge.”
“Sic transit Gloria, my lovely Ash,” The Judge commended. “Thanks for taking me down.”
“Paul!” Ash yelled again. “Bring a bowl of water and some towels, fresh towels.”
“Coming,” Ash heard from the kitchen and then saw Paul hustling out with a bowl of water in one hand, towels draped over a forearm and a glass of red wine in the other. “Sorry, I took so long. I was just waiting for the wash to finish. Here, the towels are nice and fresh. Here’s your wine, judge.”
Ash took the old man’s feet off the floor and placed them at the edge of the large bowl. She took one of the fresh, white towels and dipped it in the water. Then she wringed it so the water dripped over his feet. “Ahhh,” the judge ejaculated. “You’re too good to me. Better be careful, Paul, someone walks in now and there might be a scandal.”
Paul and The Judge had a laugh.
Ash dropped The Judge’s feet and they fell into the water, splashing it all onto her new carpets. Ash stiffened as quickly as she rose, turning quickly to the ledge where her empty drink was. Grabbing the empty glass, she shook it in the air. “Where’s my drink?”
“I … you didn’t ask for one … I didn’t know,” Paul said rising from his knees.
“I asked for one,” she said softly and full of scorn. “This one is empty. Why wouldn’t I want one?”
“I’m sorry,” Paul spit out and bowed his head. “I’ll go get you another one.”
“Hurry up,” Ash chased.
“Sorry, my dear,” The Judge said with his trademark charm. “Did I say something to upset you?”
“No,” Ash snapped back.
“It’s just that when I mentioned a scandal, you seemed a bit … agitated.”
“Who wouldn’t be?” Ash went to reach for her glass but remembered it was gone and paused, in mid-air. “Where’s my drink, Paul?”
“A person who is without scandal doesn’t worry about scandal, that’s who,” The Judge cautioned her, pulling his feet out of the water and sitting erect.
“Where’s my drink?” Ash exploded and slammed her hand down.
The Judge rose and stiffened. Then, after a deep breath, he composed himself and walked up behind Ash. “What’s really bothering you, Ash?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Ash peeled away from him and made her way toward Paul who was coming out of the kitchen with her drink. She took a long, deep swig and breathed heavily. “I think it’s just this heat. This God-damned heat. It’s making me all kinds of crazy, always sneaking up on me. Killing me.”
“Some more wine, Judge?” Paul asked.
“Yes,” The Judge replied without taking his eyes off of Ash. “Perhaps just a spot. Having a bit of a party later. Wouldn’t want to show up to my own party totally useless, you know?”
“Right away, Judge,” Paul scampered out of the room.
“Now that we’re alone,” The Judge began, and Ash startled again, becoming rigid, pulling her arms close to her chest. “Just relax my dear. I didn’t mean anything like that, now. Not at all. Just relax.”
“Yes,” Ash replied, remaining perfectly stiff, “that’s what you told me back then, too. Just relax, my dear. It’ll all be over soon my dear. Remember that?”
“I was just trying to be encouraging, my dear,” The Judge made light. “After all, you were so young, so new.”
“I guess it would be different if my father were in the other room and not … not…, “Ash stammered, failing to recall his name.
“Paul,” The Judge jogged her memory,
“Yes, Paul,” Ash fell upon the word.
“Would it really?” The Judge incited.
“I doubt it, really. Not in the greatest sense, if you think of it.”
“You were his friend,” Ash reminded The Judge.
“His best friend, I suppose,” The Judge admitted. “Only the best of friends can share the most precious things.”
“Then I don’t know how you could do it,” Ash objected.
“I’ve spent my life in the law. Judging it. Discussing it –“
“Breaking it,” Ash interjected.
“Avoiding it, shall we say?” The Judge proposed. “Anyway, I didn’t come here to open up old wounds –“
“Or to heal them,” Ash objected yet again.
“Perhaps neither,” The Judge conceded. “But I do have a new development in your case. Quite an interesting development, indeed.”
Ash spun around quickly after she heard “new” and “interesting – anything was better than this. She sipped her vodka, swished it around in her mouth to savor the warm, burning spirits and then let it flow down her throat, warming her interior the whole way. “What ‘development’?” she began, “and how ‘interesting’?”
“From what I remember of you, and the men – the many men – and uh, others, in your life,” The Judge teased, “this may be one of if not the most interesting one to you.”
Ash licked the residue of the vodka lingering on her lips the way a lover may lick the gloss off the lips of another. She could feel the warmth of the spirits welling up inside of her, getting thicker and stronger, pulsing from her mid-section up through her chest and steaming into her head until she was almost dizzy with the idea of a “new” and “interesting” thing, some fabulous “development” in a life of worrying about how much the balance on one credit card is versus the total of another, how much air conditioning costs in the hottest season of one of the hottest states in one the hottest part of the world. “What is it?” Ash asked after a moment.
“Not what, my dear,” The Judge teased again, “but who.”
Ash slammed her glass down carelessly on the ledge behind her and threw herself at the mercy of The Judge. Grabbing his shirt, she asked, “Tell me who.”
“Yes, who?” Paul asked as he stood in the entryway from the kitchen, a new bottle of merlot in his hand – even holding a fresh glass for the judge.
Ash went limp and fell away from The Judge. Paul had ruined her moment.
“Oh,” The Judge turned to Paul. “You didn’t have to go to all that trouble for me, but let me see there.” The Judge walked over and grabbed the bottle and the fresh glass. “Ah, you’re too generous, Paul,” The Judge smoothed over the situation with his compliments. “This is quite a year you’re offering me, here. I can only imagine the bouquet.”
“Well,” Paul fawned, “after everything you’ve done.”
“Yes,” Ash almost seemed to gloat. “After everything you’ve done …”
“You’re completely welcome, my dear,” The Judge whipped back at Ash, and then, turning to Paul, he gloated, “Yes, this is quite a vintage, quite a grape you’re offering me here.” The Judge removed the cork and wafted it in front of his nose. “Yes, almost a faint hint of strawberry there. I never knew how they got that faintest illusion of strawberry in this particular wine. Here, my dear.”
The Judge held the cork out for Ash to sniff.
She swiped his hand away. “Get that away from me,” she spited The Judge. She swung the empty vodka glass around and turned toward Paul. “Why would you offer that wine?”
“I –“Paul began to stammer.
“Get me another drink,” Ash commanded him and he ran off. Fury ran through Ash’s eyes as she peered at The Judge who stood there before her with his imperious grin, that all-knowing, ever-calculating grin that creased his face at every wrong moment in Ash’s life; he stood there mute holding the bottle of wine with the faint trace of strawberry that it left on one’s lips. “What is it?”
“What’s that, my dear?” The Judge responded.
“What is it, this ‘new development’ in my case?” she pressed.
“Do you mind if I indulge in a bit of a figure of speech, perhaps a bit of a parable by way of explanation?” The Judge offered.
“Just tell it,” Ash fumed. “Just say it like it is.”
“The ancient Greeks believed that the world used to be whole. Everyone had his or her ‘other’ half, you see? For every lover there was another. For everything dark there was something light. For everything good there was something bad. But that all changed one day and the world was shattered apart, leaving the whole world jumbled up among right and wrong, good and bad, and light and dark. It was a mess.”
“Is this your explanation?” Ash lashed out. “Paul, where is my drink?”
“I’m getting there, my dear,” The Judge insisted. “You see, according to those old Greeks, we – all of us – every last stinking one of us – have spent our lives seeking our other halves. Sure, we settle on this one or that one. We say we love this one or that one, but, in the end, there’s that one other half to what you are.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Ash asked. She clutched at her throat and pulled away her top two buttons. She stormed over to the thermostat and was just about to lower the temperature when the Judge spoke.
“I say this, my dear,” he enunciated with a haughty tone, “because Chris is back in town.”
Before she could lower the temperature, Ash paused and remained frozen in a still relief. Then, she slurred the name, “Chris?”
“Yes … yes.” The Judge seemed quite proud of himself. “The one-and-only Chris. The most beloved and most reviled of them all. The most beautiful and, as we all know, the most fallen of them all.”
“Fallen?” Ash whispered.
“Ah,” The Judge inspired, “but risen again, you see. Totally reformed as it were.”
“And he’s in town?” Ash rushed toward The Judge as if she had never known him in any way, throwing herself against his chest.
“I suppose the bloom hasn’t fallen off the rose quite yet?”
“Don’t be cute,” Ash pulled herself away as she remembered. “Is he here or isn’t he?”
“He is indeed,” The Judge went on record as saying.
“Where … I mean … when did he get in,” Ash stuttered.
“Seeming so anxious, Ash?” The Judge chuckled. “That’s never the best opening move. You can’t give it all away at once. At least not at this point in your life. You’re not fifteen anymore.”
“Paul!” Ash yelled. “Where’s my drink?”
Paul scampered out with Ash’s drink in one hand and his phone in the other. “Here,” he rendered apologetically. “Sorry. I was just getting this text from Penny. She wants to come over.”
Ash took a long, deliberate suck of her drink, set it down on the ledge before her and let out a deep gasp filled with spirits. “Penny?” she asked, her head mellowed with the sting of vodka. “What the Hell does she want?”
Paul scrolled through the screen of his phone quickly, expectantly. “Ummm,” he delayed, “I don’t know. She just said you wouldn’t respond, but that she had to talk to you about something really important.”
“I’m done with her,” Ash spilled. “I told her that. No more of her.”
“But,” Paul began, “she was your sister-in-law once, wasn’t she?”
Yes, she was, Ash remembered and then there were those days when they were alone and her lips tasted of a faint trace of strawberry from that fine vintage of wine she had been drinking, and Ash knew she wanted to taste that vintage, but not from the bottle and not from a glass, but she wanted that particular brand to be sweetened by coming right from Penny’s sweet, puffy, pouting lips – the lips her brother had so often ignored ; and then there Penny was, with those enviously large breasts, right before Ash: They would be hers. All hers. No one else’s. Just hers. That milk. That fertility. That freshness. All Ash could say, though, was, “Yes, she was.”
“Well, she just texted,” Paul said as he looked up from his phone. “She says she’s coming over. She just has to talk to you.”
Ash threw her elbows on the ledge, facing The Judge, the glass of vodka limply held in her hand, and she said, “Well, Judge, I guess you have to face it sometime.”
“Indeed, my dear,” The Judge said as he washed down the rest of his wine and reached over Ash’s shoulder to place his glass behind her. As he hung over her, The Judge leaned into Ash’s ear and murmured, “Remember what the Romans used to whisper into the ears of the conquering heroes. A slave would whisper ‘Remember you are mortal. Remember you are mortal.’”
The Judge pulled away and Ash bristled.
“I’ll be off then,” The Judge offered his hand to Paul. “That was a fine vintage you offered.”
“Did I hear you right?” Paul asked. “Did you say Chris was back in town?”
“I did, Paul,” and as he finished an ambulance siren ripped through the air. Ash wretched and twitched slightly at the thought of death in the ambulance.
“Are you okay, my dear?” The Judge put his hand on Ash’s shoulder.
“Yes,” Ash said and she braced herself with a deep gulp of vodka. “It’s just that damned sound. You know, Judge, it just reminds me.”
“Of course I do, sweetheart,” The Judge patted her back. “Of course I do.” Cupping his ear playfully, The Judge pretended to listen to the wind. “See, the sirens are gone. The nymphs have departed. Nothing to worry about any longer, pumpkin.”
Faintly trembling, Ash’s hands moved the glass of vodka towards her lips again. “Those damned sirens,” Ash concluded as she licked her lips. “Those damned sirens.”
“Well,” The Judge offered, “I feel as if I should be going. I’ll let things sort themselves out here as they should. Oh, Paul, are you still coming to the soiree tonight?”
“Oh, jeez, Judge,” Paul tried to collect his thoughts. “I forgot all about it. I mean, I’d love to, but I’d have to see.” Turning to Ash, who still hung limp on the ledge Paul asked, “Would you mind?”
“Definitely not,” Ash spurted.
“Will you be okay with Penny?” Paul asked.
“Yeah,” Ash let slip. She turned around as the spirits made her feel loose again, more relaxed, throwing up her elbows. “I’ve always been okay with Penny. Don’t worry about that.”
“Great,” The Judge said. “Then, I’ll come back in a bit and get you for a bit of a boy’s night out, ay?”
“Yeah,” Paul said as he rubbed his hands together. “That should be fun. I’ll go start getting ready.”
Paul ran off upstairs towards the bedrooms.
“Quite a man you’ve got there,” The Judge quipped.
“Yeah,” Ash slurred out. She went for another suck of vodka but found her glass was empty. “Hmmm,” she moaned. “Always running out of the good stuff, Judge.”
“That’s life, my dear,” The Judge told her flatly. “Yet, you can always take solace that Chris is back in town.”
Ash put the glass down. It was empty. It didn’t matter anymore. “Yes,” she chanted, “Chris is back, isn’t he?” Ash turned, almost trance-like, and put her hands against the wall in front of her. It was brick. She had noticed it was brick, sure, that was fact, but she had never felt the cold, hard surety of it – the fact that it was brick and that brick blocked things, kept things in. Brick was cold, uneven and rough. She thought about playing kick ball when she was young and tripping on the cobblestone roads of the Village; she remembered the sting of those scrapes and her mother pulling away the skin from around the raw red bleeding spots from where the brick stopped her from sliding. That’s what brick does.
Then, she thought of one day in Mexico when she held Chris’s hand and they walked through a Mayan ruin. All the walls had crumbled and they had to step over the ruins. “Imagine how beautiful they once were,” she heard Chris’s voice again, and she felt once again the same warm rush that vodka would have given her from those words, “when they were new and the stone was polished and beautiful.” Ash remembered holding his hand and running her hand over his thick bicep that flinched with every step he took; every muscle was at his command. “It’s so sad now,” she heard Chris’s voice again. “They just lay here like this. All of that beauty – destroyed.”
And Ash remembered thinking how much more beautiful it was strewn out through the sandy fields, vying for the attention of space with the budding pines and sprouts of grass. She remembered how things die and scatter about and then come back, and now Chris was coming back.
“I’ll see you a bit later, my dear,” The Judge said and gave her a perfunctory kiss on the cheek. “Do behave with Penny, okay?”
“You have my word,” Ash forced out.
“And stay away from the old spirits,” The Judge admonished Ash; “they may taste good but sometimes they end up burning you right down to the ground.”
Ash defied him with her glare and then lightened her challenge with a smile. She giggled girlishly and then said, “Of course, Judge. I’ll try something new tonight.”
“Outstanding,” The Judge replied. “Tell Paul I’ll be back for him in a bit.”
“Of course, I will,” Ash mustered another infantile giggle, which put a smile on The Judge’s face. Then, just before he stepped through the door, out into the heat, The Judge went to speak, let his mouth hang open for a moment but, just before he spoke, he gasped smiled and walked away.