King, Queen, Ghost.
It was 4:30 in the morning when my roommate’s lover rolled out.
I heard him leave and padded naked into our living room to check that he’d locked the front door behind him, and of course he hadn’t.
So picture this. Our burbling fish tank, silent kitchen, everything blue in the dark. Moonlight slatted by blinds, and my shadow flying over the room like a sweeping hand.
The expectancy of silence, as if the room was waiting for something to happen.
The sudden, prickling closeness cupped around me like hands.
My heart racing for no reason, I turned on all the lights and went around the house, wrapped up in a fluffy blanket from the sofa now, double-checking all our locks and closets to make sure nothing from outside had snuck in.
Then I went back to bed, but couldn’t sleep.
I kept running from room to room in the house of my head, looking for a place to stop thinking.
But each room — I was dreaming by then — had something off about it. so I kept going until finally I was in the garage of my parents’ old place, sitting in someone’s town car, cradled deep in soft, black seat leather.
Finally sinking into sleep, and purest absence of thought.
Then. There was a sudden, blistering awareness of the garage door cranking up behind me.
I turned to see a small, red-headed man standing in the gap as the door rose to the ceiling. It was dark in their garage, but bright behind him, so I could see the man clearly. Thick features, small eyes, a blank cruelty behind them. He was terrifying.
Then he was coming for me.
I couldn’t move. My body was locked in slow gear. I tried to make myself lean on the horn, to slam down on the garage door opener, anything, but I was as paralyzed as a caterpillar stung by a wasp.
I could see the red man thumping around the side of the car- he had a limp- staring in at me with those dead eyes.
He reached for the door.
I managed to jolt myself awake, whacking the lampshade next to me in the process. My husband flopped over in his sleep, groaning.
But I had remembered something.
The troll was real.
I met him when I was fourteen, but not in my parents garage. This is my story, and this seems as good a place for it as any.
The Lizard King
The first time I saw Tyler, he was sitting on the other side of the coffee shop patio, sun basking while this woman poured herself all over him.
I could see even from my table that the woman was married, and not to him. But Tyler was lazy, confident, demonically attractive in that delicious, specifically gritty way of all poets and baristas. He had caramel-colored eyes that could charm the halo off any girl’s finger.
She’d been buying him drinks all afternoon while I scribbled, but as day sidled into evening he began singing to me from across the patio.
He’d caught me peeking.
I smiled, just a little. You’d have thought beautiful older guys sang to me every day.
The thing was, I was pretending.
Wearing a wasp-waisted 1950s dress out of my grandmother’s closet, dreamily sketching downtown passerby with a charcoal pencil I’d sharpen up from time to time with my pocket knife. Because this was a dive where the real artists went, and I wanted to make the right impression.
Mysterious, glamorous, powerfully in control.
I was fourteen.
He came over to sit with me. He was like the ponytailed bad dude in a movie, the one you’re supposed to like just a little bit. Immediately I had him in my head as the lounge lizard king.
I let him stay.
Before I left, Tyler made me promise to see him again. He wanted to show me his poetry, he said.
“I hate bad poetry,” I said.
“Are you trying to make me nervous?” he said.
“It’s working. You keep messing with your hair.” I reached out and smoothed it behind his ears.
We started seeing each other all the time.
“It doesn’t bother you how young I am?”
“How old do you feel?”
“Twenty-two,” I lied.
But Tyler was twenty-eight or something. The truth was, obviously, that I felt like a kid. Like I was fourteen. That’s why I was wearing my grandmother’s dresses. I wanted to learn how to be a woman, a real woman, like my grandmother.
You know, she was halfway famous once. When I was little she told me it was because her dresses were magic. “Black magic. You can have them when you’re old enough, you’ll see.”
I believed in those dresses. They made me feel like her—mysterious and remote, carelessly elegant. But I wasn’t.
I was only a girl. Abstract, unfinished. No match for the lizard king.
That summer one of our favorite things was to walk up to the the bridge to sit on the edge with our legs dangling over and throw mulberries at traffic.
Tyler was teaching me how to smoke. “No, no, you aren’t breathing in right. You have to breathe it into your belly, see, like this? And then hold it there.”
The smoke burned. “I’m going to swoon,” I said.
“Swoon?” He laughed, holding the joint cupped in his hand so it wouldn’t go out. He took a deep hit. “You read too many books. Come here. Breathe in.”
He exhaled, and I sucked in, holding the smoke down like he said, until something lit and flared at the end of my spine, making me tingle.
I glowed at him happily.
Tyler smirked back. “I feel like we just kissed, Paula.”
“Kiss me really,” I wanted to say, huskily, like an old-time movie star— but really I just sat there, smiling around.
Tyler laughed, and helped me stand. “Paula, Paula, Paula,” he said. “If I say your name a fourth time, you’ll belong to me.”
But he didn’t, of course, so I was free.
Our hands lingered. Then he had to go away somewhere.
I wandered home alone, high as a bat. I teetered at stoplights, waiting for the light to change, and men in their cars honked crazily.
I was seeing halos around all the streetlights and this got me thinking about how I used to believe in angels.
For some reason, when I was really young, I used to believe the Virgin Mary was my angel. I had dreams about her coming to me in my sleep and everything. Probably in some other age people would have thought I was having visions. But you learn to be secretive in Catholic school, at least if you've decided to not believe in all the parts they teach, so I kept Mary my secret.
Stoned and alone in the dark, I tried to remember what it felt like to believe. I couldn't, and felt ashamed.
Because I was the kind of girl who was still trying to see angels, or because I no longer could? You tell me.
Another night, Tyler and I were out walking. We’d spent all day together. Now it was dusk, and lights were coming on in all the houses. People’s windows were open, so from the sidewalk we could hear them setting out for dinner while their kids played on the carpet, televisions babbling blue in the backgrounds.
“Electric light takes away all the mysteries,” Tyler said. “Anytime you feel like it, you can just flick a switch to see what is really there, and what isn't.”
“Huh,” I said.
Tyler was always saying things like that, practicing how he sounded. I knew he didn’t care what I thought because I was too young to really count. So when he started talking like that, I’d just smooth down my dress and relax, letting his voice trail all over me. I didn’t even need to listen to what he was saying. I felt like we were inside a beautiful painting. That was all I cared about.
“What do you think?” he said.
I looked at him.
“Well, I like to see things as they are,” I lied. “Not the ways I’d imagine them, if everything were dark.”
“I bet you’d believe in God if we didn’t have electricity.”
I shrugged. “He’s the best bedtime story I know.”
“Maybe you need a new bedtime story then.” We were standing close. “Watch this.” Tyler swept his hand out in front of us. Just like that, all the lights in town went out.
Tyler pressed against me in the dark. “Do you believe in God now?” he whispered.
Shrieks and laughter lifted up from inside the houses. Kids squealing off to find candles, the adults looking for fire. Soon dots of candle light showed behind the curtains of people’s living rooms.
“I love the smell of matches,” I said.
Tyler came closer.
I was aware of the warmth of the asphalt, drifting up beneath my dress. I wasn’t wearing any underwear, just dabs of my grandmother’s perfume. The scent slipped out from under the warm fabric, coiling behind my ears. Ask him to give you a bedtime story, it whispered.
“No,” I said.
Tyler walked me home. All the way home, he didn’t turn the lights back on, and I was glad.
Because I was embarrassed. For all my bravado, even in my grandmother’s clothing, I still couldn’t figure out how to be a woman.
What was my body supposed to do when it was kissed? I was aware of my posture, my movements, but I did not live inside those lines. My body was something separate from me.
Where I was actually located, I didn’t know, but I knew that a kiss, a real kiss, required for me to meet Tyler halfway, which I could not do.
I liked the idea of him, and the ideas I had of sex and forgetting, freedom—but suppose you did give yourself over. What if you lost yourself forever? I wanted to learn to live inside my body, to live in the moment, but I was so terrified I’d be taken.
You can’t ever really trust someone else, especially not with yourself. My secret self was safer where I kept it—in a place unknown even to me.
And Tyler could swallow women whole. I’d seen him do it. Women he introduced to me and then discarded within days, replaced within hours—women who adored him, who gave themselves to him. They trusted him because he was beautiful. But Tyler ate them whole, like fruits, and then threw their cores away. Each one of them probably thought she was going to be the one to change him, but Tyler was insatiable.
I imagined those discarded women drifting like ghosts in the streets, Tyler turning the streetlights out after each of them, one by one.
After somebody you love throws you away, you’re never whole again. The part of your soul you gave them becomes a ghost.
My mom was like that after my dad left. She was helpless, a ghost. Grandmother had no sympathy for it. After a while she didn’t visit us anymore.
THE VIRGIN QUEEN
Maybe that was why I used to feel like the Virgin Mary was hanging around me all the time. I needed somebody. I’d feel her touching my back when I was asleep. I was aware of her still when I woke. She was feathery and pale, and I felt her beside me all day, no matter if I was sucking dog kibbles or terrorizing my little brothers. She was my secret superpower.
At Catholic school we put on two masses a week. On Sundays, we had a third mass, and afterwards my mom volunteered my brothers and I to work at the L.I.N.K. kitchen, which was this
free slop line for the homeless. She’d drop us off and go run her errands, and then there we were, with a bunch of nuns and other volunteers. You chopped up stuff and prepared it, and then you stood behind folding tables and doled food out to the bums.
All kinds. Scary ones, junkies, drunks. Once even a bunch of hippies. You didn’t see a lot of hippies running around in Kansas back then.
The hippies walked like they were dancing, their eyes shining. Some of them were singing. Their happiness was sunshine, and I told one his scarf was very beautiful.
The hippie didn’t miss a beat. He dashed it off and tied it around my neck with a flourish, so that I looked like some kind of Parisian. I couldn’t believe it. The scarf was black silk with red and orange tie-dye in the middle. I’d never met somebody who just gave you things, but all I could do was look at him with this big stupid grin.
“Wear it in good health, girl,” the hippie said. I looked for him after we were done serving but I never did see him again.
Mostly, though, it was scary there, but with the Virgin’s hands on me, I could do anything. When the hungry people would smile or cough, their mouths showed black with desperation. My brothers would duck down under the table to hide when someone really scary came through, but because of the Virgin, I could take up my brothers’ ladles and serve for them, too.
We could have hidden upstairs in the church until mom came back for us, but we were too young for that to occur to us. That’s the funny part about being a kid. You haven’t figured out how to protect yourself yet. We all just figured we were stuck there until she came back, and that was that.
Anyway, one Sunday I had to go into the outer room for some reason, I think to get more bread. They kept the bread in the outer room, where the bums ate. This was so that if any of them needed to take a bag home they could take it without having to ask anyone.
As I walked out into this room, the little redheaded man grabbed me. He and I were smaller than everyone else, and well below the sight line of the crowd.
We were the same size, but he was old. He stuck his face right up to mine. His was terrifyingly blank and emotionless, a face from a nightmare.
In some people curiosity is cruelty.
In him it was poison.
I’d seen him before. Lots of places downtown gave him free coffee and food, like he was this mascot or something, but now he clamped his hand over my face and started to drag me into the men’s room.
He hobbled; one foot was clubbed.
I felt everything like it was happening far away, in slow motion, like in a dream. And no one stopped him.
You can’t imagine how strong a troll is until you are caught in its hands.
I screamed and screamed, but only inside. My angel had vanished.
I felt like one of those baby gazelles you see when a crocodile has it by the neck and the gazelle understands that it will die, but then somehow my mom came from out of nowhere and grabbed me out of the bathroom. There were streaks from my shoes all over the floor.
She hustled me away. As soon as we were alone she shook her finger in my face.
“Nothing happened. Do you hear me? Nothing happened, nothing ever happened.” She stood next to me the rest of the afternoon until we finished our shift, and then she never took us back there again.
We didn’t talk about it either. I forgot about my angel Mary.
Many years after that, and three years after I’d met Tyler, I took to wearing the silk scarf wrapped around my hair. I still wore my grandmother’s magic dresses, even though I’d worn them ratty by then. The rattiness made me like them better. I was seventeen, and I believed in Jack Kerouac, too, besides her dresses. A fraying black ball gown seemed like something he would have liked.
I also had this idea that I needed to get away from the safe life my mother craved so badly for us, and was always trying to create with each of her new boyfriends. After another bad day at home, I decided it was time for me see the world instead.
Tyler could take me, I figured.
We’d been in and out of touch since that first summer, but when I called, I pretended it was otherwise. The way I always did with him.
“Remember how you told me anytime I needed you, you would come get me?”
If Tyler didn’t recognize me right away, he played it off beautifully. His voice was more wonderful than ever, low and intimate. There were people at our coffee shop who called him The Radio, because Tyler was such easy listening. I loved the nights we used to talk until dawn — patios, park benches, rooftop sofas — until, eventually, always, I fell asleep with my head on Tyler’s shoulder. His radio voice slipping even into my dreams.
“Where in the world are you, Paula?” he said, sounding like he was already beside me.
“I’m under the tree,” I said.
He would know the one. It was an old tree, easy to climb. We used to do that sometimes instead of going for walks. I waited for him for what felt like ages, daydreaming about skittering around the world with the lizard king.
Then he was there, and nothing like I remembered.
Tyler’s voice didn’t match him anymore. He was too skinny and pale. He’d stopped writing - “everything’s been said, anyway”- and the ponytail I loved was gone.
But I decided to believe these things made him a true poet. That Tyler was too pure to care about the conventional trappings of success and competence.
We took off in his car, a hatchback that coughed. You had to hold the ceiling upholstery up or it touched your head.
Tyler squeezed my thigh shyly. “Watch this.”
He waved his hands, and all the stoplights flickered out.
“Seen it,” I said.
Still, it was nice, driving all the way out into the countryside without having to stop once.
We camped three days. The plan was to live on fish and flowers, but that didn’t work out, so we’d go back to town to pull donuts or pizzas out of the dumpsters. Tyler knew all the places.
“I live outside the system,” Tyler said, pulling out a spotless long john maple donut. “See? Live free or die. None of that J-O-B stuff, not for me.”
But while he said this, he was watching me carefully, like he was worried I didn’t believe him. He took a huge bite, and I noticed the skin under his neck had become loose, deflated, like an iguana’s.
All I could think of was that old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?”
I thought we were going on this great adventure, but instead I’d become just another bum. I wondered if this was where the red troll ate, too.
I was still a virgin and wanted to wait, although I didn’t understand why. Catholic school gives you these knee jerk responses.
“No,” you hear yourself saying, to everything. “No, no, no.”
Tyler said he understood. At night he’d kiss me and spoon me tight, even though I knew he thought I owed more to him. Sometimes, he’d grind on me from behind, kind of softly, maybe hoping I wouldn’t notice or maybe hoping I would, and this made my heart turn cold.
I started to hate him.
It was only when he went into the trees to take care of himself that I’d think anything nice about him at all. Maybe we were spending too much time together, I don’t know. But I couldn’t think of anywhere else I wanted to be, except inside a book. I wondered if it would have felt different with a real artist, maybe, instead of somebody who just looked like one, talked about being one.
But at least he had a car.
“We should go,” I said on the third day. “My parents will have called the police.”
“They don’t know about me, though, do they?”
I chewed on my thumbnail. “I forgot my journal,” I said.
So we drove all day and night to Monahans, Texas, where just about everybody is hiding from something and they know better than to ask any questions. We got ourselves jobs at a steakhouse. Everybody there stole food all the time, so we always had plenty to eat.
We skipped out on rent all over town for months before people caught on. Our last night, with nowhere left to go, we hiked into the sand dunes and went wandering into the shifting land.
Oil pumps heaved up and down under the moon like they were kneading something shameful back into the ground. Scorpions scuttled all over the place.
“Put on your shoes,” Tyler said.
Things had changed between us. His voice was bright and hard and flashed in the air.
“No,” I said. “I don’t need to.”
Even after my feet started bleeding, I wouldn’t put on my shoes. Everything was fine.
Finally the sun roared up on the horizon, and Tyler said he thought maybe he’d go to Mexico. The way he said it, I knew that I wasn’t invited, even though by now he’d said my name plenty of times.
The magic didn’t work unless you said it four times in a row.
“Tyler, Tyler, Tyler.” I said. And then, for no reason other than I wasn’t sure I was ready to be out on my own, “Tyler.”
He looked beautiful all of a sudden, with the sun coming up behind him.
I felt bad about how things were turning out. Also he’d seen me grow up, and I knew the little-girl part of me would go with him the moment he left.
“Okay,” Tyler said.
“Listen,” I said.
This guy had tipped me with an old vintage watch on my last day at the steakhouse, and I’d kept it in my pocket. It was the kind that you could hear ticking.
Tyler didn’t wear watches because they stopped the moment they touched him. Tyler was the kind of person who could have turned everything off in the world if he’d wanted to, but I guess he was afraid.
Neither one of us was quite all the way shaman. I bet you my grandmother was, though.
I held it up to his ear, just far enough away that he wouldn’t hurt it, and he listened to the watch’s polite ticking and smiled.
The watch had a picture of a penguin inside, and the man who gave it to me had taught me the word “penguid,” for somebody fat who waddles when they walk.
“It’s for you.” I strapped it to Tyler’s wrist and listened to the watch’s heart drop silent. “Don’t forget about me.”
“What will you do now?” he said.
I was as surprised as him when I heard myself say, “I guess I’ll go to college.”
“Oh, honey,” he said, and that meant something, because he'd always called me Paula.
I wouldn’t let him kiss me goodbye. I saluted him and went off in the opposite direction. I didn’t look back until I was so far away I knew he couldn’t see, and then I sat down and cried. You might think two near-shamans might have made a whole person between the two of them, but you’d be wrong.
Now there was even less of me than when we started.
My body felt different. There was less of me for the sand and the wind to push against. But instead of blowing deeper into the desert, it was easier to slip away.
Sometimes I dream the red man finds me. I dream my mother does not save me, and the man takes me down, all the way to his darkness. But the Virgin follows me there. She stays beside me the whole time, feeding me dreams within dreams, so that I look the other way and my heart stays safe.
I wonder about what I remember. Maybe it didn’t happen that way — maybe I only wish it did. I’ve asked my brothers about it. They don’t remember our mother ever coming into L.I.N.K. to pick us up, much less working beside us on the line.
So I wonder if time has scabbed across the truth, and it is hidden inside me where I cannot get at it. Black under the skin like a broken blade, my body healed tight around it.
My family has a bonfire every November. We come from all over, my brothers and aunts and uncles, all the cousins. There’s lots of us. The fire is mostly for brush, but sometimes we burn old chairs, bad photographs, or court summons. When my grandmother was alive, after her third divorce she threw all her jewelry in. The fire burned blue for hours.
I hadn’t been to the bonfire for a long time, but a few years after Tyler left me for Mexico, I showed up out of the blue.
My family and I were strangers by then, but they seemed happy to see me. They let me stand in their circle to watch them burn up their pasts. We ate gumbo and they sang songs and asked what had happened to my pretty dresses. They seemed pleased I was in school, and it was nice to see my brothers again, although there wasn’t much to say. Nobody knew where our mother was. I guess I wouldn’t have known what to say to her either.
After a while, I walked back to my car. I had parked a ways off in the dark, to make sure I didn’t get trapped in case I wanted to leave early. I couldn’t see well. The fields waved around me in slow currents and it was like crossing a river at night. The whole world stretched out wide and dark, but I wasn’t afraid.
It occurred to me I was part of it. I was part of everything around me.
I belonged to it. The prairie, the darkness. Even to my family behind me, still huddled around their vanishing pasts.
And this vastness, it belonged to me, too. My grandmother’s magic, still alive in her dresses; my mother, lost ghost, saving me when even angels couldn’t. I felt Tyler somewhere inside me, too, small as he wandered across the desert, looking for the place that would love him.
I hope he found it.
Writing is excruciating, but somehow I can never keep myself from it. Revisiting this story last week at Harbinger reminded me why I keep throwing myself into the fire, and always will. Earlier draft, if you're curious, here.
I'm including this in a softcover collection of stories coming out later this year. If you'd like to know when the collection is out, please email me at mygoodnesspauline at gmail dot com. I'll be looking for advance readers, and would love your help.
Pauline West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
Pauline West's books on Goodreads
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