Posted in Writing

Fiction: Death in the Phoenix’s Nest

Here’s another scene from the story I posted earlier. Now that I am dusting it off, I am remembering the piece and liking parts of it. It’s got problems, I know. But, this was just a fun story to do . I hadn’t written anything in three years and the writer in me was smothering to a slow, painful death in long, violent convulsions.

This post is essentially the next scene, minus a couple of connecting paragraphs. The first scene that I posted a few days ago, is a sort of prologue, if you will, of a story told in flashback. This is the beginning of the actual story. Much longer scene. Enjoy.

________

Mandy Pierce was everything Phoenix Michaels was not. Shy and insecure, she  desperately fumbled for success. She had finished art school a few years before and now flitted through a series of miscellaneous jobs to keep the rent paid. Now and then, she consoled herself by making halting stabs at corporate artistry.

As the summer of 1998 began its optimistic start, she took a motivational seminar. They asked her to complete the sentence, “For me, life is…” She thought for a long time and finally, wrote, “For me, life is an endless pursuit of something, ending in nothing, resulting in a meaningless journey of disappointment.” The speaker stared at her, and then tried to sell her his book on positive thinking. She did not buy the book, but realized she needed a change in life.

She applied for an art show at a community center. It was an open-entry event, with only a few other exhibitors, but she thought it would help her get back out in the art world. That was where she met James Hinkey, a military reservist with no discernible inkling toward the military.

Mandy thought him rather odd. He was the only one not an organizer, artist, or friend or family member of one of the artists. In fact, in the drab room of a little over a dozen people, he was really the only attendant. He sauntered into the room wearing sunglasses at 8:30 in the evening, and appropriated a flamboyant entrance the common may attribute to drunkenness. Although the trained eye might notice it was, in fact, a calculated move roughly borrowed from ballet.

James was a man of “almost’s.” He was almost successful, almost funny, and almost hip. He had almost been married once, until his fiancée announced she was joining the circus to become a lion tamer and he could come or not. When he told her he had never really seen himself as a lion tamer, she told him that that was what she had decided to do. If he could not support her in it, he was a chauvinist keeping her from reaching her true feminine potential as a universal goddess.

“I am woman,” she yelled, “Hear me ROAR.” A somewhat awkward boy-man to begin with, he never really recovered from this bruise to his ego, and stayed in a sort of arrested development, and spent the next few years fumbling for eccentricity.

A mid-twentiesh man of no handicap, he carried a black metal cane. He periodically twirled it and repeated his ballet move, thinking he looked something like Sinatra. He wore flip flops, baggy jeans and a rumpled almost witty T-shirt, with a black tuxedo necktie around his bare neck. Mandy was intrigued by him.

He did not think Mandy was the most talented painter there and she was not particularly attractive, but she was not ugly either. The only exhibitor under forty, he was forced to contemplate her. He would not have noticed her elsewhere. She was dangerously slender, and slightly petite. Her light brown hair fell in subdued tresses at her shoulders. Her wide grey eyes seemed cloudy, searching and sad, even though she smiled beautifully. She dressed simply, but softly effeminate, in black shirt and pants, black flats, and a simple pendant necklace. At second glance, he actually found her quite pretty. He waltzed with confidence to her exhibit, twirling his cane in an off-Charlie Chaplin sort of way.

She displayed six paintings, and stood with her hands clasped in front of her, waiting. The first one he thought a rather laborious and intricate landscape that bored him with its commonness. He could not grasp the second piece, but nodded reverently as if he did.

“It’s called Fibonacci in Motion,” the voice behind him said.

He said nothing.

“I’m Mandy Pierce,” She said, after a moment. She offered her hand.

“These are mine. I-I mean, I am the artist.”

“Charmed,” he replied. He ignored her hand and attempted to affect the cool detachment he once saw in a documentary about Andy Warhol.

“And you are?” She asked after a pause.

“James Hinkey,” he replied, flicking at an invisible hair in his face.

“So tell me about your paintings, Miss Pierce. They’re quite lovely,” he said, still keeping his theatrical detachment.

“Well,” she said, trying not to laugh, “This is Fibonacci in Motion, it’s based on the Fibonacci Principle, which is a mathematical theory that has to do with symmetry in nature. The nautilus shell, like the one here, is a classic example of the Fibonacci principle. For this I used…”

He was not really listening. She captivated him as she spoke. Art to her, he realized, was not art. It was her love. He felt a vague sense of shame at his shallowness, as if he had in some way exploited a coital couple. But it did not stop him from asking her out.

Over drinks and burgers, he told her his new fascination with Charlie Chaplin, Gene Kelley, and the continental gentleman. She told him about art school, and her roommate the gymnast whom she would sometimes find hanging from the closet shelves. He told her he should find her the number for his ex-fiancée, Cristina, the lion tamer, currently hospitalized for depression, after her lesbian affair with the circus contortionist didn’t pan out.

“No kidding?!”

“Yeah. They found her huddled in a corner of the neighbors’ bathtub eating cat food, wearing panty-hose on her head, and mumbling the chorus to Lady Marmalade.”

They both laughed. “Wow. You got out just in time.”

“Nah. She used to eat cat food when we were together,” he dismissively replied.

She paused, pursed her lips, furrowed her brow, and finally asked, “And you wanted to marry this girl?”

His face turned somber, and he looked down at his food.

“She said yes,” he whispered.

They were quiet. She took his hand across the table and they shared a smile. Suddenly, that wasn’t enough for her.

“You wanna get outta here?” She blurted.

“Totally.”

They barreled down the Seattle highway with the windows down. She held his hand and let the midnight air massage her face.

“What kind of music do you have?” She asked.

“Uh…” he pulled a thin CD case from the driver’s side door. “Here.”

She flipped through the pages, and settled on Morrissey. She turned the volume, and the warbled voice through the speakers rendered them needless of words. The Light that Never Goes Out...Neither of them cared where it took them. They just wanted to drive, and drive and drive….

 

Somewhere outside Seattle, she leaned over and let her breasts gently brush his arm. She murmured in his ear.

“I have an idea.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Let’s keep driving, we’ll just drive and drive and drive….until we reach…the ocean.”

“The ocean?”

“Yeah, you want to?”

He smiled slyly, reached behind the seat and pulled Tequila from a backpack. She laughed mischievously.

He floored the accelerator. “Let’s go.”

She closed her eyes and concentrated on the freefalling sensation of speed and the warmth of the liquor hitting her stomach….She listened intently to the lyrics…the tale of a lonely drifter with no one to go home to, no one to care…

Shortly after dawn, they reached the foamy ocean. They drunkenly stumbled into all-night department store and bought bargain-basement swimsuits, cheap sandals and ridiculous hats, garnering disapproving stares from the graveyard clerks. She giggled incessantly, nearly knocking over a display. She apologized to it, and offered it some of her slushy. James rambled incoherently about capitalist America and freedom. The clerk stared at them and shook his head. When the young couple finally calmed down, they found a quiet area on the beach to park.

“I don’t do stuff like this,” he told her.

“Me neither.”

“With you, I just feel, so free.

“Me too. God, I needed this.”

He discovered a boulder against the water. They sat and let their feet dip. They held each other on the rock, and listened to the sound of the waves and the seagulls. In the distance, a ship’s foghorn sounded. The roar of traffic hummed in the vague background, remote and hazy. They sat, suspended, with only each other.

“Nothing is real, Mandy,” he whispered, his warm breath tickling her ear. “Nothing is real but this moment, and you and me.”

She smiled as he kissed her hair. He took in the scent of her strawberry shampoo. They watched the gentle rolling and crashing of the waves.

“Hold on.” She jumped up suddenly.

“Wait, where are you going?”

“Just a second.”

He followed her. She went back to the car, and pulled a camera case from her purse.

“We must capture the moment,” she answered and unpacked the Canon Rebel.

“Wow, girl. Now, that’s a camera.”

“I kinda do photography,” she answered shyly.

She grabbed his arm and dragged him back toward the rock. They snuggled together, with his arm around her waist. She leaned into his chest. She clicked the shutter, and the camera flashed and whirred. She stood and draped the camera around her neck, her inner artist awake and critically scanning the scenery for the hidden beauty of all things.

“Come on,” she gestured toward him, “Let’s walk.”

“So, you do photography?” He asked as they walked along the beach.

“A little bit. It’s not my strong point. I took a class on it, but it was so technical. F-stops, shutter timing, light properties, chemical composition…I was just interested in the aesthetics. I barely passed the class, and that was only because I went to the professor and begged him.”

He nodded.

“On occasion, I’ll try to take a really great photo, something that’s a piece in itself. But mainly, I just take pictures of things I want to paint—which is why I carry this everywhere.”

They walked in silence.

“Like this. This is beautiful,” she gestured toward a young mother, squatting in the ocean, holding an infant upright. The child stared in slight doubt as the cool foam licked at his tiny feet and the sand under him shifted. He turned to his mother wide-eyed and cooed with ecstasy. The mother laughed, as if suddenly she too, felt the ocean for the first time. She kissed his cheek.

From a distance, Mandy snapped a picture of the moment.

“Life can be so beautiful, if we stop and look,” she editorialized.

“So, that’s you, huh? The observer?”

She shyly blushed. “Yeah, I guess. I don’t like being the subject. I just like to record the moment. People by nature are very vain creatures. They like to talk about themselves, analyze themselves, express themselves, think about themselves, look at themselves, immortalize themselves…if you indulge them in that, they will love you for it.”

“What about you?” he continued after a pause. “Do you indulge yourself in your own vanity?”

She laughed, and turned her face to the cool ocean wind, letting it invigorate each pore.

“No. I’m the only truly humble being on earth,” she quipped.

“Yeah.” In one fluid motion, he twirled her around and pulled her to his chest. She felt his breath hot on her face. He whispered. “You’re perfect.”

The sensuality of the gesture momentarily caught her. But she quickly recovered and tossed him a wry look.

“You’re full of it,” she told him, laughing and pulling away.

“No I’m not,” he insisted vehemently, his eyes flashing, “Whatever short-sighted corporate head wants to stick you in a tiny cubicle to rot is full of it. You’re an artist, Mandy. The real thing.”

She bit her lip, both embarrassed and flattered by the compliment and his intensity.

“I-I’m sorry, I just, I didn’t mean to say all that, or I did, but well… ” he stammered, embarrassed that he had embarrassed her.

“No, no it’s—it’s sweet.”

“You hungry?” She finally asked.

“Starving,” he answered.

They walked until they reached a boardwalk strand. The first of the deserted shops yawned and stretched, reluctantly flicking neon signs awake. A vintage diner piped Frank Sinatra into the dead morning air. James’ eyes twinkled. He threw his green fedora hat in the air, and debonairly danced around a light-post. He caught the hat with a comical flourish. She laughed and softly applauded.

“Come, dance with me,” he offered his hand.

She nervously scanned the empty beach.

“Come on, there’s nobody out.”

She took his hand, and they walked into another decade–one where he was the perfect gentleman, and she was the perfect lady. He twirled her. She saw the deserted beach fade into a slick ballroom, electrified by music and the sound of fancy shoes scraping the wood floor.

She wore a flirty skirt and sexy heels. He wore a black tuxedo with a necktie, had a coiffed mustache, and faintly smelled of cigars and brandy. They swayed gently to the music. She leaned against his chest and closed her eyes.

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