My Favorite Things
It was one cold evening in New Singularity. The skins of the oranges were bruised with chill, stacked deep in the vendor's iron bins. What was it, one degree outside? Still, it was evening. One evening to shoot straight, turn a heart towards mine, crack my knuckles one by one and laugh at perils, which usually took the shape of pearls, guns, and waltzes.
But not oranges. Not tonight. The vendor shook the frost off the bin and stamped his hooves. I was one of his few customers along the arcing Boulevard of Saints. Even his destitute wares made me happy. Buying oranges, one at a time, was one of my favorite things. Along with jazz, which was one good chord after another.
As I plumped the oranges, to find the right one, the vendor's tongue slithered out, letting loose a query scent. I knew his language well. Nearly everyone in the city did. Picking up languages here was easy street. Knowing floated in the air. The sky was a lullaby of blue light and ice, but looking beyond that, near the edge of sight, there was a fire, something soothing and terrible at once. Could drop at any second.
I held out one finger from my fingerless black gloves, driving the price down, sweetly down. The vendor asked about my hands and I told him a brief story about my horn playing, the golden instrument I needed to warm with my bare skin, like a newborn. One wise old newborn. The vendor understood. I had paid him for the orange, it seemed, with the story. One must know the customs of one's country. With my one orange in hand, I trudged down the Boulevard, humming. Glad to be eating.
A few gliders above the city chanced the weather and didn't fall. A child hopped on her one leg past me, dancing around the puddles, shrieking happily. I imagined that I would find a building tonight to sleep in -- or make one myself if I had to -- and play my horn for the listeners of New Singularity, the communion of dogged saints. It would be a good night.
One of the gliders started shouting at me from above, motioning to me to come up with her long swan arms. She was one beautiful woman, floating there. I came up, soaring through the crisp air until I was hovering next to her. Her friends had sauntered off, higher, closer to the arc of burn. Below, I could see the boulevard, and the statues of saints lining it, instruments in hand. The streets wound in various stages of building and beckon. She said nothing for awhile, staring at me and around me with her viridian eyes, as if I had a halo. Unlikely. So I peeled the orange to pass the time, watched the rinds floating down, catching in wind eddies like petals.
Then, breaking the silence and looking very afraid, she told me a story about a man who was alone for a long time, but had discovered a secret book inside of himself, one that would allow one to tap the stardust, the stars, one by one, into music.
I told her a story about a man remarkably like myself who knew that story. In the story, this man told a floating woman that the story she told was really a code, about the founder of the city.
But then the woman crossed her arms, trembled, and cocked her head at me. A trouble cock. In this motion she told a story about how fast trouble could come, that cities could die, that jazz could die, even though the secret book would live on.
I didn't like this story, and tried to tell a story about a man who didn't like a story a floating woman told him, but she gave out a little cry and darted away, swooping past in one big hush. Levitating there for a second, I contemplated the unmasked orange and bit into it.
Light from the fruit pounced out at me. From far away, I saw the woman moving away, telling a story about her name. I couldn't make out the details. The lullaby of blue light started to jangle into discord. The singeing behind the sky started to widen. Everything started to sear.
Then there was a flash -- one second, one saxophone caterwaul above me to contemplate, before New Singularity was ash. The skyscrapers and ice-crusted streets and vendors and saints melted and collapsed. The sky rained with ash.
In that one second, I saw that she was recoiling but intact, skittering away on the hot, repulsive tides of air, her green dress billowing in a horizontal parachute. Before I turned to ash, I heard her croon a story, the last I could hear but maybe the first one, a story about a love supreme.
Every Time We Say Goodbye
Two faces had I in my double dream of spring. The dreams intertwined, copulated. The child was a landscape, and I walked in that landscape, walking hard, trying to find my voice under the two harvest moons. Blue moon, silver moon -- both pretty much fit my mood as I walked through the twin cities.
Neither one could really contain me. I was looking for . . . someone, I decided. Who? The clues were dead, the trail was cold. The city was in spring but lukewarm. I wasn't sure what would happen if I solved the case. If it could be called a case. I would have cried, then and there, if I was strong enough. Too much of too little around me to call my own.
Buttoning my overcoat and hustling through St. Saul, I went around listening for music. It was there, hidden in crannies, but I needed passwords to find the nooks -- living rooms, basements, meat lockers -- and I had no passwords with me. Just silence. The row houses in this part of town had two shades of paint that alternated, for tens of blocks. Silver and blue, silver and blue, just like the moons.
A kid reached out his hands and asked if I could spare him a dream, and I said, no, I didn't have any dreams to spare. He clenched his hands together, towards his tiny face. Like he was in a two-bit opera. I kept walking. I wanted a cigarette and whiskey more than anything. The perfect duo. Peeking in windows of St. Saul wasn't getting me anywhere, so I decided to take a shot at Misericorde. I hopped the #2 train, which took me over the river-bridge. Below me, the river forked into a pair of equal streams. Patterns cloaked the cities. I tried my best to figure out what they were trying to tell me, these patterns, but they hushed up for the most part.
In Misericorde, the air and sky were brighter, flintier. The angles of sight were cleaner. I could see the spring budding around me more cleanly. I hoped this meant I could see the music, too.
I jumped the train at Second Avenue and, on a whim, craned my head upwards. Looked like a double eclipse going on. Both moons were obscured by black discs. No one on the street paid attention much. They jostled and hustled and went along with their days. A couple of people floated past me. A man and woman sped through the intersection on a tandem bicycle, singing a song I couldn't make out, in a strong waltzing beat.
As I stood on the corner, trying to decide what to do, I saw her. She didn't seem to recognize me, not at first. But when I began trotting behind her, she started running. Ducked into a squat gray building without a door. The winding hallways didn't smell like spring at all. I followed the sound of her two feet. Soon, there was noise spiraling to me, a heavy dirge of the same two notes on a tenor sax.
She turned out to be a good password.
The club was like no other place I'd seen in the twin cities. Dozens of blue rice-paper lanterns hung from the ceiling, hung two apiece from silver wires. The low round tables each had a pair of backless chairs. The bar was green zinc, and she sat at it. Her dress was different this time. Both of her eyes were different. Green instead of viridian. Two scarves laced around her thin neck. Her skin was butternut. It was still her face, her body.
I had no idea how I knew this, but I sat down anyway. The saxophone was coming from behind a shimmering curtain. At first I thought it was a holo-fall, but then saw it was just silvery linen, blowing this way and that from two ventilation shafts.
She told the bartender that she'd dreamed about ordering a special, and he gave her a special. A special turned out to be a can of Twomoons Beer and a shot. A shot of something. I told the bartender about a dream I had about ordering the same, and he gave me the same. The beer and the whiskey made a hot double helix in my stomach. I gasped, and the woman laughed. She rested her elbow on the bar, and leaned her head against her hand. A snare drum behind the curtain mixed with the sax. Once I thought I could have played. The sounds I made could have made two blood enemies swear their lives to each other.
Those days were over and yet I didn't know where they began. . . .
As if in answer, she told me a dream she had as she was walking, about the moons extinguishing, about the stars imploding, and the universe starting over to the beat of a different drummer. She didn't know what anything in the dream represented.
I thought of the eclipses. What is the dream, I asked. Does it dare die?
She closed her eyes and said, I'm dreaming now, very lucidly, that you're speaking out of place.
Maybe so, but--
I'm always dreaming that dreams don't die when threatened, she said, but merely move to another place. Sensing fear, they move.
There was a rumble above me. No, not so soon. This woman wasn't afraid, though. The jazz behind the curtain became more frenetic. The scales and the curtain both shimmered. I grabbed her hand. Our two hands interlocked. Her skin was white hot. Her dress was translucent; I could see both of her breasts, her brown areolas. I wanted to taste them, though she would never allow such a thing.
Let me tell you my dream, I said, clenching her hand harder. I keep having this dream that you don't die, that you keep floating along while everyone else dies. The dream goes like this, woman: I'm buying oranges, and you're floating above me, and you call me up--
I dream that every time we say goodbye, she said, leaning over and kissing my cheek, it gets a little harder to.
The rumbling got louder. The ceiling was on the verge of splitting in two. The bartender shouted and ducked away through the double doors, but the music kept playing, reaching a fever pitch of two-notes. The woman wrenched free of me, climbed and skipped on some of the tables, and dove through the curtain.
The walls started to shake. I stood up, walked to the curtain, and pulled it back. Two men sharing one body, both sharing a stool. Siamese twins, in perfect double symmetry. On my left he played the saxophone and on my right he slapped against the snare drum. Back to back, they shared a back. They had identical faces -- haggard, long-eyed, wearing a frayed black suit that nevertheless looked perfectly contoured to their form.
They paid no attention to me, but kept on playing, faster and faster. If I weren't going to die, I would have danced.
When the flash and ash came, there were a couple seconds of comprehension past my body. I could see the blackness around bubble and spin. I torqued and turned like a melody. I tried to remember the woman's face as stars bent and melted around me.
The stars joined together, and broke again. Two becoming more than two, and then less.
Then my thoughts dissipated, like the improvising was over.
Too rich for my blood.
There were three trees in the field, and each one knew my lover's name. . . .
Wait, what was this field? Why were the trees on the slight knoll surrounded by yellow trilliums? Why was I walking towards these trees?
No one tapped me on the shoulder and answered these questions for me, which was just as well. I needed to figure things out for myself. Even though there was bright summer light around me, there wasn't a sun to be seen. Didn't stories like this always end with the third? Thesis, antithesis, synthesis?
I was asking too many questions. I didn't know the beat. My fingers hungered to play something, so they tapped against my jacket pocket. When I reached the trees, I caught my breath. It was more humid here. The ash trees quaked from unseen wind. Each had three main branches. A little girl was stringing rope around them, making a cordon. I was about to step inside, but she shot me a dirty look, and I waited. When she was done, she motioned me forward and I ducked under the rope.
Maybe this was the first time I'd seen her, but it wouldn't be the last. While she was ten or eleven outside of the rope, she was a full grown woman inside of it. My back flinched, as if I expected something to fall on it. She crouched and wrote in the loose dirt with her finger, And this one was just right
I erased that and wrote, Don't believe you
Smart, she wrote, smiling.
Where's the music, I wrote. This was getting slow. All summer could have passed as we wrote each other messages, and I wouldn't find out anything.
Inside of trees, she wrote, hastily. Stamping these words out, she scribbled, Just listen, ok
So I listened. I sat in the dirt and closed my eyes. There were sounds coming from the trees, but not what I expected. No instruments, only three voices. And the voices didn't actually say anything. They merely hummed, or scatted nonsense, ricocheting off each other. Still, the noises were muffled since they were coming deep within the quaking ashes.
Winding through these voices, I could hear the woman scribbling in the dirt again. Though my eyes were closed, I could see quite plainly what she was writing: Blind and deaf we stammer through our lives giving the most paltry parts great significance and the most wonderful pieces of ourselves no great matter at all
Yes, I said aloud.
The trees hushed. The woman was quiet. I opened one eye. She was looking crossly at me.
Can't you just sit still for a few seconds of time, she wrote with fury. Enjoy the summer why don't you
But I was on a quest and I couldn't rest until I knew, I knew, I knew--
YOU KNOW, I wrote, in big caps.
Go on, she wrote.
Pausing, considering what I could and couldn't say, I wrote: The man with the secret book inside of himself
Very good, she answered. The trees started a low, distant scat again, in trinotes. The rope was beginning to fray. God, the Son, and Holy Ghost, I had no idea why.
And dreams moving to another place when they're afraid, I continued. My arm was getting tired.
You're onto something, she wrote, and then: Everything is jazz and everything is a pattern but not all patterns can be seen. . . .
And then finally she added: Except by the third eye, the jazz eye
Did you love me, I wrote suddenly, afraid of her reply only after the words were on the dirt.
Once, maybe I loved you more. . .
Dot dot dot had to mean something, right?
Thrice? I prodded.
Perhaps thrice. . .
I leaned over to kiss her, but she pulled away at the last second. The three trees rose in their pitch. The bark started to vibrate with three words over and over: the woman's name.
Supernovas, tempos, tetrarchs, she wrote. Remember these three things of me
I seared them on my memory, never to be forgotten. For the time being, at least. She looked at me, but it didn't seem like she had any more to say. Not wanting to stick around for the trees to explode with their triangulated psalms, and the heavens to fall, I left her. Her eyes were wide. Was she surprised or pleased? Didn't matter at the time. I wandered out into the golden trilliums, rising with fire and the triple staccato blast of countless horns. I shouted something blue into the contracting summer air.
But Not for Me
I was entwined with some people, arm in arm in Alphabet City, maybe it was Fourth Ave., we could have owned the world, at least until the missiles decided to make love to the fallout shelters. There was Indigo, strung out, he would die in a couple of months, but that night he was radiant with the four-stringed bass he'd just played down at the Quarterstaff. There was a man whose name I couldn't remember wearing a purple hat in the shape of a square obscuring most of his face, whose hands just a couple of hours before had flitted over piano keys as if his fingers were made of God, and he was saying something rapidly in Spanish to Indigo, who pretended to understand. The other person, closest to me, was a beautiful woman. It always ended up that way. Me, scared out of my mind, trying to make myself sound more clever than I actually was. Me, hoping for someone to curl their music next to mine. Her eyes were violet and her cheekbones were high, and her skin was like ivory shot through with butterscotch. Her flat was on B Street; I offered to walk her home. A few Navy men, walking in march step, scoffed at the four of us, but Indigo and the piano man scoffed back and gave me a long wink. They seemed to know this woman, Mary was her name, better than I did. Maybe I would discover a trick or two of hers before the night was over.
Easy for me to say. She took my arm. Our four arms swinging in time. I felt like I was reprising a role.
"You played good," she said. The Quarterstaff was low-slung, cheap as its drinks, a patchwork stage made of several large orange crates. I loved playing more than my life.
"I had a good audience," I said. We were at the bottom of her stairs. A couple of dockworkers leered at her as we stood there, and then she decided something. She told me to come up.
Her efficiency was small, but larger than mine in Queens. Less bugs, too. She had a semicircle of a velvet couch in the center of her living room, and pictures of players from jazz magazines, mostly saxophonists, tacked along the cracks of her walls. There was a mattress in the corner. I sat down. It didn't seem like she was going to offer me something, but I wasn't thirsty. Well, not for liquids.
Mary sat down next to me, tilted her head back. "You played a lot like him." A finger uncurled, pointing at a young, intent saxophonist.
"Who is that?"
Not wanting to offend her by lying, I told her the truth. "I've heard of him. Haven't seen him. Where does he play?"
Her face relaxed, because she knew I wasn't bluffing. "At the Tangiers Club. With Sonny Rollins."
This woman was becoming more familiar to me. The lines of her face, her four-square jaw. She started humming an unfathomable tune, as if a nervous bird had alighted on her shoulder and wouldn't stop flapping its wings. And yet the sound of that flapping was itself angelic. "Who is that?" I inched closer.
"Trane." It was a statement not of preference but of belief.
"And what is it you do, exactly?"
"I take quantum physics at the New School. But I write, too. Here." From underneath her sofa she pulled out a black notebook, large as an old family Bible. I flipped through the pages. They smelled like Burma-Shave and trillium petals.
"O so this horn of quattro folios is nevertheless a statue of what I was entreated to become and yet I evaded dice flingers and spleen throwers to mount this holy city and impregnate the juttings of rock, and the people watched me, from terraces and temples, and all the wrong people were in all the right houses, with vestal notes and hair unclothed and the backward-beating vanes pointing in all the cardinal directions at once--"
I closed the book and wiped my brow. I was an ordinary man, easily overwhelmed.
She laughed. "You don't know how right you are, boy." I hadn't said anything. She tapped her pants leg. A police siren screeched by on the street below. Red and blue light bled up from the street level. My eyes felt pierced; the perspective in the room shifted. Everything was the same, except everything was different.
"Wait," I said. "Where's my saxophone? I was carrying it." Was I? Did I leave it at the Quarterstaff?
"It's not here," she whispered.
I opened my mouth and closed it.
"Go on," she said.
"Do I know you from somewhere?"
She crossed her arms, revealing bare skin. It was sultry. Her lone lightbulb flickered. "You might know me from a lot of places. I tend to get around. You do too."
After I read from the book, things began creeping into me. More like sounds than things, abstract little floaters behind the eye that I couldn't pin down.
"Wasn't there a club called Tetrarchs where we used to hang out?" I asked. She pulled away slightly.
"No, no. That place burned down four years ago. The very day Kennedy won, do you remember?" She wanted me to remember a lot of other things, I could tell.
I stammered, almost looked ready to cry. Why? She stood up from the couch with a sigh, stamped out her cigarette in a four-cornered ashtray, and moved to her corner to put on a record.
"Listen. Listen good." She showed me the record sleeve. John Coltrane, My Favorite Things. I leaned my head towards her and listened.
"It's such a sweet, tender, almost foolish record," she said, almost to herself, sitting back down.
Pieces flooded back into me, flotsam and jetsam of sounds, notes, chords caught on waves of tempo--
"Supernovas!" I said, loudly, as if I were drunk. "I think someone told me to ask you about supernovas." Was it Indigo who gossiped with me about that, about this woman's physics fetish?
She bent close to me. At first I thought she was going to kiss me, which I wouldn't have minded at all, but she was only going to bear witness to something very important.
"Listen good." Coltrane's saxophone, sometimes tenor, sometimes soprano, washed over me. "The book you read from is a very secret book." The book was still on my lap. I ran my fingers along the spine.
"It comes down to four beats, right? Tetrarchs. Each beat rules its own little parcel. The notes keep changing, though. The time we measure by. The beat goes on, but the landscape's always changing."
"We're changing," I said. I didn't mean this in an abstract or conceptual way, because her room, her tiny room in Alphabet City, was beginning to elongate and brighten. The lightbulbs, like pixies, began to push against the street-side wall, pushing it out at a quicker pace. After about a minute I couldn't see the horizon on the other side of the room, just a few flickers of light.
"Come on," she said, extending her hand. I took it. "I'm trying to hunt down the truth." She led me to the record and had me stare at it, the black disc revolving as Coltrane started to rip through the old Rodgers and Hammerstein standard. "The truth is on that record, all of those records," she said quietly. The room darkened. "I could tell you straight out . . . everything. But you wouldn't believe me."
"Believe what?" My hands started to shake. I wanted to play.
"That our histories keep repeating. That . . ."
The record's edge turned white gold for a few seconds, and then cooled. It might have been a trick of my eyes. Old four eyes I was.
I said the only words in my capability: "I don't understand."
"I didn't think you'd understand. I just want to say it. Say it now, before it ends again. One day I'll find you in a state where you're not like this. I'll have things to tell you, as if you're another person."
"But not for me," I said. She had to have heard the disappointment on my voice.
"No. But not for you." There was sadness, and the glint of tears, in her eyes, which were turning from violet to blue. So blue. "Everything starts in the blues," I said out loud, and then I kissed her. A four count of kisses. Her tongue tasted sweet, like honey from a honeycomb as large as a world.
Deep down, in my heart's four chambers, love kept its staccato beat. I knew, I knew, that even if I never saw her again, I'd see her again.
Tetrarchs illustration by Carole Carmen
Copyright © 2004 Alan DeNiro
Illustration copyright © 2004 Carole Carmen
Alan DeNiro's fiction has appeared previously in Strange Horizons, as well as Trampoline, Polyphony 3, Talebones, and elsewhere. He is a member of the writerly collective the Ratbastards. For more on his work, see his website. To contact him, send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.