J u n e   2 0 0 4

Guest Writer

The street was full of words
Science fiction
by Edward Morris Jr.

o you believe in ghosts? The question became academic for me the second the phone rang.

"What?" There was a hand-rolled cigarette in my teeth. It was still early enough that I couldn't see straight through the remnants of last night's dream. Somewhere in the world, there was coffee.

"Ed-ward Mor-ris." The mock-lackadaisical singsong voice kneecapped me. I had to sit down fast on the gray carpet. Jessica sounded tired and yet beside herself. "You'll never guess where I'm calling from."

"What ... what ..." I had come utterly unglued.

"No, sweetie, I am not calling from What. I'm in grad school now," she told me matter-of-factly. "At Portland State. Already got a supe post at the Northwest Film Center. Good morning."

She paused. "You don't know everything. It's been a while. We'll talk."

"Um ... where does Mike fit into all this?"

The snap in her respiration sounded to me like breaking glass.

"He doesn't."

I looked over at the opposite wall and saw a roach the size of a Milwaukie fireplug being nonchalantly and methodically wrapped up by my volunteer spider where he spun his solitary web high in the opposite corner. You live, you learn.

"I'm at Broadway and Main, downtown," she continued, as if I hadn't spoken. "At the movie theater. Get your country ass down here. I'm lost."

I heard myself reply, "Yessum." The bottom dropped out of my cheap room.

here is an indefinable beauty to Portland in the spring. Six months of Oregon winter shrugs itself off in an eye blink to reveal verdant park blocks of trees with clover-honey sunlight breathing out through their branches. Everyone talks to you like they know you. Street musicians with improbable instruments sing the sun up and down.

Anything can happen here, and very often does.

Total recall seemed imminent. Petals were falling from the trees in March snowstorms. The city wavered in front of me ... and for a very short while I was actually standing outside the art department at Mercyhurst College, at Governor's School for Writing, in the dear dim days of 1993.

I could smell Lake Erie on the wind. I could actually see Jessica sitting at the top of the hill, at the rail of the little gazebo, waiting for me above the vast lawns outside the English department where we met after class. For a moment, the present day made that greater bit of sense.

I hadn't heard from her in a while. We'd tried to start up again after Governor's School, when we were both in Philadelphia, but we had outgrown each other. We were still friends for a while until her fiancé, Mike, got jealous. She had put me in a studio to read "Howl" on DAT the night Allen Ginsberg died. We cried. It was a good session. Neither of us walked away mad.

The timelessness had already begun to repeat itself from 11 years, 3,000-miles-and-change away. Every cirrus cloud above me was a smoky streak. The light of the sky bled frosty potlikker over mossy branches. Every raindrop burned white with the sun. There was a double rainbow over downtown. I barely noticed.

My head was slamming shut. Every ounce of obsession from the past 11 years, every stored-up last word ... had evaporated. There was only the rain and the light. The wind rose up. The theater marquee read only "LORD OF THE RINGS." The big lines for the matinee hadn't really started yet.

Every part of my day up to that point sloughed off with the chaff of those past years. It all seemed as cheap, desperate, angry and false as any B-movie I ever sat through, because there was nothing else on.

All around my feet, demons were dropping out of the sky like poisoned pigeons, smoking as they died. Homeless people nonchalantly stepped over them, poking the carcasses with sticks to search for petrified rubies of infernal blood to haul down to the hockshops of Third Avenue for beer money. The street kept going. But I could not even blink.

The last time the sunlight had looked like this had been the day I realized all too briefly that the one I loved was something within me, a twinkle on the surface of the deep, another voice grown hoarse from years of singing in the dark. I knew Jessica so well ... because, back then, I knew who I was.

We blew it, of course. We were young and I was stupid. Everybody sing along, you all know the words. And yet ...

And yet I saw her sitting there, dressed in stagehand blacks and high boots, her trench-coated back to the wall and her calm, beatific face turned toward the sun with her heavy-lidded eyes closed and a small smile that solved its own equation. The sunlight of that day had been my best-kept big fat secret for 11 years. And I had waited for it to return ever since.

I took a deep breath and stepped before Jessica at the second she opened her eyes.

"You haven't aged a day."

The hell she had sought had changed her shape, but in a weird way that I liked. She was small and lithe, and her hair was much shorter than I remembered. But there was still a beauty mark under her left eye, and she still lit the whole street brighter than floodlights up and down the front of the Schnitzer Hall across the street on any given opening night. On the God-lined avenue of stars over there, the brass statue of Anansi the Spider seemed to rear up on all eight legs and grin like Morgan Freeman.

The wonder had not left the black, dancing depths of Jessica's eyes. She was paler. She was still flying the anarchist colors of my red-and-black glass bead necklace. I was fibrillating with every heartbeat.

"And you never stopped being full of shit." She popped to her feet like a marionette. "You look good. Where is your house from here?"

I pointed north. "Couple blocks that way. You got I.D.?" When I asked, she looked at me funny.

"St. Francis Hotel," I explained. "Where they filmed 'Drugstore Cowboy,' only they rebuilt the building. You gotta sign guests in with I.D. because security's so tight, on account of–"

She turned her head right. The way her wavy black bobbed hair moved in the wind made me stop breathing for a second.

"Is there any place to get good Japanese around here?"

"Should we–" My voice was two inches tall, wavering and trembling. "Should we hit a couple of thrift stores while we're out? This place ... this place has as many as Erie did. More, actually. You should check out Ray's Ragtime–"

Jessica threw up her funny, endearing e.e. cummings hands. "You said in that one old email that you were reading the Stoics," she smirked. "You'll always be a Romantic, Edward Morris. You're too sensitive to be a Stoic. You're funny."

I could have argued, but my bouncer instincts were already directing her to Kojii's on Broadway. The lunch rush would not have fully come to fruit. There would be time.

"It's better than you know to see you again. I've been in a rut with my writing, lately," she said moodily as we started walking down Broadway. I couldn't stop laughing. She looked puzzled.

"Which part of that was funny?"

"The one that sounded like me." I looked at the sky and winced. "I'm working on ... well, on the sci-fi novel you always told me I could write. It's called 'Eve of Destruction.'"

"Cool." I could see her drinking in every new detail of what was for her (and still for me) this strange new West. An old street guy in a long, flowing skirt flitted past us with two carry-on bags full of cans. That day, he could have been Epictetus.

"So where are you hung up?"

I sighed. "It's like building a cathedral. I have a lot of help, but it's still very overwhelming. Bouncers in the future. They always say in the trade that you have to take a step back before you solve any issue, which is what I'm doing. But ..."

We paused at the crosswalk just before Pioneer Square. In the square, two black men in Tommy Gear windbreakers were putting plastic buckets and hubcaps through drum solos that raised all Portland's jazz-war dead in a sea of thunderous applause for blocks around. (On the other side of town, the great percussionist Mel Brown had no idea why he was sitting up and clapping.)

"You're a bouncer?" Jessica looked at me like I had grown another head.

I grinned. "Yep. Just took the state certification test last weekend. But ..." I thought a moment. "... as far as the writing ... I need something fun and liberating off the clock. I need to write something truly cathartic. And short. Something that would be sci-fi to me, in my own life. Physician, heal thyself. Whatever."

"Well, I can understand that. Why don't we collaborate? Maybe we can work security on both sides of that street."

For that I found no ready answer. Jessica seemed to accept this. As we walked past Starbuck's on the square, the outdoor speakers began playing an old Laurie Anderson song about a storm, called "Progress." For the first time, I noticed the T-shirt Jessica was wearing beneath the coat. She'd had it on the day we first met. It was the Sex Pistols' album cover for Never Mind the Bollocks. The neck of the T-shirt was ragged now, but the logo had held.

Jessica reached in one pocket of her famous black trench coat, producing a pack of Djarum Supers and a tiny Bic lighter that could not have, after so many years, looked familiar ... and yet it did.

"This is all really happening," she announced. "Remind me, if I look like I'm having a hard time processing that."

The street was full of words and I could barely even talk.

"Can ... can I get one of those?"

Without a word more, Jessica put two of the clove cigarettes in her mouth, like Marlene Dietrich in an old movie, and lit them at the same time.

E-mail Edward at locutuspdx@yahoo.com, and don't miss his previous work.

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