The Cormorant, Chapter 10: “The Sunshine State Can Go Fuck Itself”

All the way she’s been listening to whatever random radio stations she can get on the dial, and it occurs to her slowly (but surely) that music basically sucks these days. Hollow, soulless pop music, shallower than a gob of jizz drying on a hot sidewalk. Even the country music sounds more like pop – gone are the singular miseries of my wife left me, my truck broke down, all I got left is my dog and my shotgun and the blue hills of Kentucky and now it’s sugar-fed Barbies twanging on about ex-boyfriends and drinking Jack-and-Cokes and she’s pretty sure Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton are clawing out of their graves somewhere – though, wait, are the two of them even dead?

Shit, she’s not sure.

Once in a while she gets a station that plays something worth a damn: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Nirvana, Cowboy Junkies, Zeppelin, Johnny Cash, Nine Inch Nails, Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails. It troubles her that music from the 1980s is now “oldies” music. Hard to picture a bunch of geriatrics thumping their walkers around to 99 Luftballons.

Most of the time the dial just finds static. Whispers of dead air. Crackles of voices lost in the noise.

Sometimes she thinks they’re talking to her.

“–mothers don’t love their daughters–”

“– dead people – ksssh – everywhere–”

“– fire on route 1 – St. Augustine–”

“– wicked polly–”

“– river is rising–”

“– it is what it is–”

Now she’s on this hellfire-and-brimstone station. Some preacher hollering on about depravities and Leviticus and the ho-mo-sek-shul menace, suggesting that God is so squicked out by two dudes kissing that he’s willing to once more drown the world in another hate-flood. Which, to Miriam’s mind, suggests that God doth protest too much. Maybe that’s why he booted Satan out of heaven. Maybe they were blowing each other.

She waits for lightning to strike her in her seat.

It does not.

She cackles.

She finishes off her Red Bull and throws it in the back. It clanks against the other energy drink cans. Those things taste like cough syrup that’s been fermenting in the mouth of a dead goat, but shit, they work.

Eventually, her bladder is like a yippy terrier that wants to go out. And the Fiero – which she has named Red Rocket – hungers for gas.

She steps out of the car at a rickety podunk gas station not far from Daytona Beach, and as soon as she does, the heat hits her. It’s like a hug from a hot jogger. Sticky. Heavy heaving bosoms. All-encompassing. A hot blanket of flesh on flesh. Gone is the rush of air conditioning from the car and already she feels the sweat beading on her brow. Ew, gods, yuck.

This is winter? Thirty seconds in she already feels like a swamp.

Florida: America’s hot, moist land-wang.

Everything’s bright. She fumbles on the dash for a pair of sunglasses and quickly throws them on. She feels like a vampire dragged out into the sun for the first time. How long will it be before she bursts into flames, burns down like one of her cigarettes? A char-shaped statue of Miriam Black.

She hurries into the gas station – a round-cheeked Cuban dude watches her with some fascination, like he’s seeing Nosferatu shy away from the judging rays of the Day God – and darts into the bathroom.

Into the stall. Rusty door closed. Someone has peed on the seat, which always astounds her. Men are basically orangutans in good clothes, so she gets that they ook and flail and get piss everywhere. But women? Shouldn’t the ladies be better than this? Why is there pee on the toilet seat? Hoverers, she thinks. That’s what it is. They hover over the seat like a UFO over a cornfield, trying to avoid the last woman’s pee – also a hoverer, in a grim urine-soaked cycle – and then pssshhh. Splash. Spray. Lady-whiz everywhere. The cycle continues.

Miriam does the civilized thing – a rarity for her but in bathrooms she apparently reverts and becomes a member of the human species – and wads up toilet paper around her hands to make gloves. She cleans the seat. Scowling and cursing the whole time. Then she sits. And she pees.

In here it’s dark and it’s cool, at least.

Outside the stall, the bathroom door opens.

Someone else comes in.

Footsteps echoing. Little splashes as they step through water.

Then: clang.

Something drops. Metal on metal. A loud sound, a jarring sound – it gives Miriam’s heart a stun-gun jolt. A scrape. A splash.

She peers under the door.

The bent and bitten edge of a red snow shovel drags along the floor. A pair of muddy boots walks it along.

Miriam’s sweat goes cold.

No no no, not here, not now.

The footsteps approach. Slapping against the soaked floor.

Miriam feels her pulse in her neck: a rabbit’s pulse, thumping against the inside of her skin like a hard finger flicking. Her throat feels tight.

The boots stop just outside the stall.

Snow slides off their tops. Plop, plop. Melting on the tile.

Red runnels of blood crawl toward Miriam’s feet.

A twinge of something inside her: an infant’s fist twisting her guts. Then the woman outside her door drops something:

A purple paisley handkerchief.

The blood runs to it. Soaks through to it.

Fear transforms. A spitting rain into a booming thundercloud. It’s anger now, jagged and defiant, a piece of broken glass chewed in the mouth – and Miriam roars, kicks out with her own black boot–

The door swings open. It slams against the other door.

Nobody’s there. No woman with a red shovel. No boots. No snow, no blood, no gangbanger’s handkerchief.

Miriam sighs. Massages the heels of her hands into her eyes, pressing hard, running them in circles. In the blue-black behind her eyes, fireworks explode and blur and fade – no sound, just silent flashes of light from her pressing hard on her own eyes.

“At least you have both eyes,” comes a voice. Louis. Not-Louis.

The Trespasser, more like it.

She opens her eyes. A vulture sits on the lip of the sink in front of the stall. Bowing its featherless match-tip head. Beak clacking as it speaks.

“You’re the key,” the bird says, “but what’s the lock?”

“What?”

“Or are you the lock and someone else is the key?”

Miriam’s hands are shaking. “Speak sense, bird.”

“Are you going to see Mommy while you’re here?”

Miriam flings her keys at the big black scavenger.

The keyring rebounds off the sink, then the mirror, then lands in the well of a different sink. The bird is gone. One black feather remains, stuck to the grimy porcelain with a waxy bead of blood.

Miriam finishes peeing, rescues the keys, then hurries out.

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