My fiction piece in CCC’s Bitter Cherry Review – About a Shack in the Backyard of a House in Southeast Portland, Oregon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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For the third week in a row, Sage slouches in an uneven chair listening to stoners pluck thrift shop guitars and howl covers of songs from obscure folk singers in a basement bar on Southeast Belmont Street called the Blue Monk. The youth huddle around the front of the stage shaking, laughing, and moving with the nervous energy of high-schoolers. Sage tips her pint toward her letting the beer almost spill over the lip. She asks herself silent questions. How are those kids 21 years old? She tells herself things. It’s an open mic on a Tuesday night. Of course it’s going to be filled with a younger crowd. They don’t have real jobs to get to in the morning. She sits on the other side of the room, but she’s still thick in their reek of body odor and pot. Thirty-six is not old, she thinks to herself. I’m in the responsible stage of my life. I’m a home owner, a phlebotomist at OHSU, and kind of married. Sage hopes Jaine is next. Then she can leave.

There’s this tall, half-black guy walking behind her talking to a woman who may have been Asian, Vietnamese maybe, but she’s tall too. The tall, half-black guy wears a straw fedora halfway back on his head like he casually threw it on. He also has this red leather coat even though it’s still in the high 70s on this summer evening. And this red leather coat is the soft kind of leather and the soft kind of red. He has self-satisfied eyes and a kind smile, the type of smile that gives you its confidence, but he’s not looking where he’s going and on his way to join the other musicians at the front of the stage he bumps Sage’s table knocking her beer over.

“Damn. Sorry about this,” he says without looking up at her, instead he’s watching the spilled beer branch off and pool at the table’s edge before flowing over.

Sage jumps up to avoid getting her favorite pair of jeans beer-soaked and it works, mostly. “Come on.”

So he’s embarrassed and a little angry and she’s angry and a little hopeless, but when they look at each other some of those feelings fade to a mutual attraction. It’s just natural. She’s probably a decade older than he is but she’s taken care of herself. She bikes to work every day and has long, naturally curly brown hair. She sees him as a different kind than the rest with that giant white smile, and the way he moves makes her think he’s mature beyond his years, but in reality, like most men in their early 20s, he’s probably just horny as hell.

The tall, half-black guy introduces himself as Abraham and he buys Sage a PBR even though she was drinking an IPA and they pass the rest of the night talking about human sacrifice. Neither knows how the topic was brought up and neither are experts on it, but that doesn’t stop them. They laugh about the different ways people thought to stab, burn, smash, and violently kill others for an abstract idea. Why would people sacrifice so much for something they can’t prove exists?

Abraham brings up the Persian god Mithra and how she slew the world bull and gave birth to the universe while good and evil in the shape of a snake and a dog lapped up the blood. Sage had no idea if this was the correct creation myth or he was making shit up, but this was the best conversation she had had in longer than she could remember. Speaking about killing and blood gave her many opportunities to tell Abraham what she did for a living, but she never brought it up. They say casual goodbyes around midnight. Somewhere in there Jaine had played her set.

 

In some states Jaine would be Sage’s sister-in-law, but only the states with common law marriages. Sage had been with Jaine’s brother Zack a long time. During the first couple years, Zack would joke how Sage never nailed him down with nefarious marriage plans, but only when they were around friends, like at a house party, or when a whole group of them headed up the Gorge to kite board at Hood River. The next couple of years Sage would joke back about how she didn’t want to marry his type anyway. She’d laugh and say he was too selfish. She’d laugh and say he wouldn’t make a good husband. He’d laughed right back and say, “Good. See? We’re perfect for each other, babe.”

They bought a house together. They remodeled it, started a beautiful garden, remodeled it again. The fight over the shack in the backyard started when they first looked at the property. Sage imagined a sacred little spot with a rectangular shaft of light pouring through the window where she could sit on a nice cushioned moon chair, drink coffee, and pick up a constructive hobby like the guitar. She even went out and bought a Fender Malibu Acoustic with a rich, all mahogany body, and a 20-fret rosewood fret board. Zack wanted to work on a 1962 Plymouth Valiant his grandfather left him after he died. Five years later parts of the Valiant are still spread across the grease-stained floorboards.

Jaine had an internship out of college that didn’t turn into a job so she decided she’d start again in Portland if her big brother would let her move in. As soon as she found a job at some lead-certified non-profit she’d pay rent. Sage didn’t mind. In fact the thought of having someone else in the house gave her an unexpected sense of happiness.

The first thing Jaine did when she moved in was ask if she could use the old mahogany acoustic guitar she found in the guestroom. Sage said yes thinking Jaine would forget the next day and the three of them stayed up late into the night laughing, eating lamb vindaloo and flat bread while drinking red wine. That night when they went to bed Zack slid close to Sage to let her feel he was naked. Sometimes his caveman foreplay was cute. His softest part grew and stiffened when his mouth kissed her breasts.

Zack may have been selfish in some ways, but he did try to be a good boyfriend in the adult sense of the word: flowers on certain holidays, chores around the house, paying bills on time. His traditionalism and his pride made him practice at being a good lover, especially early in their relationship. The first couple years he would pace himself and make an effort to satisfy Sage. Many times he did. Sage wasn’t a passive lover though. Over the years her aggressive nature began to be mistaken for a sign to let him finish first. She would do things like grab his ass and pull him deeper into her and he would take this as permission to release. This wasn’t all bad because he would kiss her neck and use his fingers until she screamed into a pillow.

But on the night the three of them ate lamb vindaloo and drank red wine he didn’t last five minutes, but he tried to make it up by doing what she now called the safecracker: he put his head on her stomach and used his index and ring finger on his right hand to go through the motions until he found the right combination.

She stopped him almost immediately. “Jesus, that stings,” Sage said.

“What?” Zack said.

She turned her hips away from him, sat up, and turned on a lamp on the bedside table.

Zack squinted. “What?”

“Did you wash your hands after dinner?” Sage asked.

“Come on, babe.” Zack moved over and lay back down on his side.

Sage slid out of bed to go to the bathroom. “Hot sauce, Zack. Stick your finger in your eye and see how that feels.”

“What?”

She urinated, walked by the mirror, and saw her hair matted up in the back, took a minute to straighten it, and opened the bathroom door. There was Zack asleep in the rectangular shaft of light.

Six months went by since Jaine moved in and everyone was so impressed with how quickly she picked up the guitar. Rough but pleasant enough acoustic melodies filled the house late into the night when she went sleep and in the afternoon when she woke. Her nonprofit focus had widened to include non-franchise coffee shops that sold only single origin coffee from farm co-ops in South America. She worked swing shift about twenty hours a week.

It was a cloudy Tuesday afternoon when she came home asking Zack and Sage if they’d go to support her at her first open mic. Sage had just gotten home and really didn’t have any plans that didn’t involve sitcoms.

“Then you’ll go?” Jaine asked excited.

Zack laughed and said he would be working on the Plymouth.

That was the night Sage barely escaped having a beer spilled in her lap. Jaine played Lay Lady Lay by Bob Dylan, the second rendition of the song that night.

On the fourth Tuesday in so many weeks Sage was just getting off work and thinking about human sacrifice when Jaine texted saying she was going to stay that night at a friend’s house to test a possible roommate situation and oh yeah this will be her one-week notice if it all went right. Sage erased the text right away and biked home to get ready.

She pushed the door open and walked her bike in. Zack was slouched on the couch with his Macbook open on his lap and the television on. Jitters filled her arms when she hung her bike on the hooks at the top of the basement stairs. When she started moving pots and pans around Zack got up and walked to the counter that separated the living room and kitchen. “What’re you making?”

“Huh? Nothing. Something quick. Open mic night.” A flutter moved in her chest and made her arms feel empty, but it wasn’t unenjoyable.

“Right. You know, I was thinking about going with you guys this time.”

Sage turned her back and looked out the window. The weeds in front of the shack were so overgrown she could tell no one had opened the doors for at least a month or more. “Sure, but I thought you liked this time to work on your old car.”

“I don’t know. We could call it a date. We haven’t had one of those in a while.”

This made her blush but not with embarrassment, “I wanted us to hike Raweena Saturday.”

Zack sighed. “The wind was too right to not get out on the river.”

Sage opened a cupboard and found a bag of bulk Jasmine Rice.

Zack let go of the counter and took a couple backward steps into the living room. “Where is my little sis?”

“She’s going to meet me there.” It came out without her thinking about it. She turned to look at him to see if her words sounded as awkward as she thought they did.

His face pulled to the middle, his eyes closed tight, and his chin doubled into his neck. With a sideways fist he pounded a couple times on his chest over his heart. His eyes opened and he gave an exaggerated exhale. “Heartburn. I have to stop eating those food cart burritos.”

Sage ran water into a pot.

“Do you mind making a little extra for me, babe?”

“No problem.”

Zack walked back to the couch and put his computer on his lap. The television played the news.

 

Sage walks down the stairs to the basement pub of the Blue Monk and her eyes take longer to adjust to the dark than she had ever remembered. She walks through the people and tables only seeing rough shapes. Her breath pushes against her lips. Both in and out. She’s lighter on her feet. Gliding. She finds a small, open table near enough to the stage she can hear the coffee-can stage lights buzz.

Five singers in, Sage is on her third pint of IPA. She usually doesn’t like to drink this much, but it gives her a nice enough buzz to almost ignore the swirling bloat in her stomach. The kids talk at the tables around her even when people are on stage. Every couple minutes someone’s phone illuminates their face as they text. Abraham hasn’t shown up.

She sighs, wonders if she’ll ever want to listen to Bob Dylan again, and heads to the restroom. On the way back she orders another strong beer. Not even a step from the bar she sees him talking to the doorman and holding his guitar case at the foot of the stairs. His hands, she decides, she loves his hands the most. They’re big, strong hands but capable of strumming just the right strings when he plays.

He walks right up to her and with his wide smile he says, “Sage. Good to see you.”

Sage smiles and with that smile she is more beautiful than she has been in a long time. There is no plan for tonight in her mind. She has no idea what she thought would happen, but in this moment she is happy. This happiness doesn’t all come from a handsome, young guitar player, nor does it come from the numb beer high. This happiness is a result of time folding in on itself, in this little basement pub, allowing her not to care about what had happened before she descended the stairs or think about what would happen when she will walk back up.

Right now. Right now. That is all and that is nice.

Abraham signs the playlist and then sits at her table and they talk only a little between watching the musicians. During the next five or so singers he orders three beers and she does her best to keep up. When the MC calls him up he sits with poise and his voice is loud and practiced. The fingers of his big hands touch the entire scale, not with masterful precision but with naïve purpose and sometimes that is as beautiful. He sings with his eyes closed but the rest of his face cycles through all the big emotions at all the right notes.

A landslide of applause startles Sage. Her focus sloshes from person to person and now her arms are weighed down, her hands clumsy when she claps. There is one more musician after Abraham and he only sings two songs. The open mic ends, but the two of them stay at the table. After a few stumbles with her words Sage decides it would be better to listen and nod. Abraham says he’s writing a song about the bodies found in Scottish peat bogs. He read an article on how scientists found a perfectly preserved body over two thousand years old. The noose they used to hang him still around his neck. Sage laughs, but she’s not sure why.

This is when Abraham leans over and reaches out his big hand to touch the right side of her face. His big, soft lips cover hers and she shouldn’t be but she’s surprised how different they are from Zack’s. She can’t remember the last time she kissed with tongue and she feels every stroke in the warmest place on her body. Her breath is hard through her nostrils; it bounces back off his cheek. She slides her hips forward to the edge of her chair.

The kiss is long enough for them to scissor their heads. When it ends they sit smiling at each other. Sage’s happiness doesn’t end. Abraham puts his hand over hers and they stand up. A joint falls out of his shirt pocket and Sage picks it up. With that wide beautiful smile Abraham tells her to hold on to it. They’d smoke it together later.

Later. The word seems foreign to her ears, but she sticks the joint in her shirt pocket. He picks up his guitar and they head to the stairs. She stops at the bar and asks for a book of matches and mouths the word again, later.

 

A ring of the night’s musicians stood smoking right outside the door of the Blue Monk. They welcomed Abraham into the circle but closed around him making Sage stand a step back. Abraham didn’t seem to notice. The girls giggled in their tiny denim shorts and torn T-shirts that reveled elaborate and ornate tattoos of a trees with large root systems, or a key and lock, or something with a nautical theme. Abraham lit a cigarette and casually tilted his straw fedora to the exact position it was when Sage first saw him.

 

An hour later she’s kneeling on the bed with her legs apart in only black panties and her shirt unbuttoned down the front. She sees the shadow of his feet breaking the light under the bathroom door. It opens and Zack stands there surprised.

The bike ride home killed most of Sage’s buzz, working in the shack in the backyard killed a little more, but she’s still in a beautiful place. When she slinked into the bedroom she was happy to find Zack in the bathroom; it gave her enough time to undress. Zack steps closer and for the first time in years Sage pulls him onto the bed and slides his underwear all the way off. She straddles him and smiles when she feels him hard between her legs. Her shirt slips off her shoulders and she reaches down, moves her panties to the side, and easily guides him in. Her hips slide forward and back at her pace. She throws her hair back and puts her hand on his chest to brace herself. She thinks about momentum and a phrase crosses her mind that makes her smile. Fucking like a wrecking ball.

Fifteen minutes later they roll and Zack’s on top. He’s hitting the right spot and Sage wraps her arms around the small of his back. His breath turns to a low moan and Sage grabs his wet hair and pulls his ear close and says, “Not yet.”

And he doesn’t. He doesn’t until she wants him to.

Afterwards they strip the bed of the sheets and lay side by side on the bare mattress. Sage reaches down to the floor and searches her shirt until she finds the joint and matches. She lights it and sits back propped up by the pillows. Zack’s eyes open with the smell.

“A joint?” he asks.

She nods and her lungs spasm but she doesn’t cough. She hands it to him.

Outside the clouds do their best to bunch and maybe spit a light drizzle over Portland, but there aren’t enough of them to fill the sky completely. When a hole big enough for the moon to peek through floats by, the pale light falls down on their twice remodeled house, their garden, and the shack in the backyard, the shack with both doors open wide like an autopsied chest. The parts of a Plymouth Valiant have been vomited out on the dewed lawn, each thrown a distance according to its weight. Sage had even pushed out the frame of the car leaving nothing but a few tools inside the shack, a few tools and an old, mahogany guitar reflecting the moon in a rectangular shaft of light.

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