STARS IN HER HAIR: A new short story
By Jesse Sublett
In those last seconds before her body imploded in the vacuum of outer space, did she think about him, or one of these other guys?
THE TRUTH isn’t always beautiful, and an ugly truth usually stays that way no matter how you try and dress it up. He was an artist and he understood. You’re not supposed to kill the messenger just because you don’t like the message. But what are you supposed to do when somebody rips your guts out, delivers them right to your doorstep in a Federal Express box and says, Here, sign your name next to the X to acknowledge delivery?
He kept seeing her face, the tricky light in her eyes and her long, red hair, full of glitter and sparks. Every night she floated through his dreams, using the Milky Way for a head scarf. She belonged to the sky now, but she’d always had stars in her hair, even the first time he saw her.
She was an astronaut, a crew member on the space shuttle. One last mission. They had an argument the night before. He woke up late, she was gone. Her cosmetics and all that exotic jungle of body care products and stuff in the bathroom, all gone. Her side of the closet empty as a bucket. A note in the kitchen:
I don’t love you. I’m not coming back.
So that was the day the shuttle blew up. Happened right after entering orbit. Probably about the time he was reading her note.
Quiet morning, but later, he remembered the walls shaking, magnesium flash, smell of sulfur, shriek of torn metal and bodies hurtling through space.
In those last seconds before her body imploded in the vacuum of outer space, did she think about him, or one of the other guys she’d been fucking?
He thought about her at night. He’d look up to the sky and say, Hey, how’s it going up there? Time passed slowly, like an infected wound, until it was the last summer before the end of the world. Everybody and everything was going to die, so a little thing like unrequited love shouldn’t be a big deal. Still, his heart ached like a motherfucker.
“Why’d she hate you so much?” asked Biff the bartender.
“No idea,” said the artist.
“It’s like a sickness with some people,” said Biff. “They hook up just so they have somebody they can treat like dirt.”
The artist stared balefully at the bottom of his glass, watching his distorted image drown in amber as Biff poured him another shot. When the whisky reached the rim, the artist raised the glass and tilted it toward his lips, nibbling his face, letting the whisky burn as it slowly seeped down to his heart.
Biff said: “You ever watch a cat kill a mouse or lizard or something? They’ll play with it for a while, let it try to escape, catch it and drag it back, torture it some more, bite the head off or something, then push it around, playing with it, pretending it’s trying to escape.”
“It’s cruel and weird,” said Biff, “but you can’t hate ‘em, it’s just the way they are.”
“She had these soft lips, I could kiss her all night long. I think maybe she sucked my brains out of my skull.”
“She never mentioned a reason for doing you like that?”
“Said I was an asshole.”
“Hmm. That could be a hint.”
The artist shrugged and drank some whisky. “At first she used to call me ‘an elegant loser.’ I thought it meant she liked me.”
“Elegant loser? What’s that mean?”
“She was taking notes on me, along with all the other guys she fucked.” The artist threw a little black book on the counter. “Check it out.”
The book was flayed open like an autopsy subject, the incriminating page like gut-shot entrails spilled out on the table.
ARTIST: fucked him twice, then moved in. Elegant loser.
REFRIGERATOR REPAIRMAN: fucked him on the kitchen counter. Hairy-chested romantic.
FOLK SINGER: blow job in back of Alibi Lounge. French kisses like no tomorrow. Paper-thin troubadour.
SOLDIER: fucked three hours straight in turnpike motel, beard stubble rubbed me raw all around the crotch. The face invader.
TAXI DRIVER: saved money on the fare from south side of Liberty all the way to South Town and back, all it cost was three minutes in the back seat. Alligator wrestler.
Biff skimmed the list, careful not to actually touch the book. “How’d you find this thing?”
“NASA packed everything up from her motel room,” said the artist. “There was a knock on the door, some asshole from Fed Ex. Blue eyes, good teeth, broad shouldered, boots that looked too small for a guy his size. Like a Spanish cowboy.”
“Is this the guy?” said Biff.
“No,” said the artist.
A man walked into the bar. Tall, wearing a uniform. Badge and a gun. The other two waited by the door.
The artist grabbed his drink and threw it down his throat. He raised his hands, tilted back his head and said, “Baby, you’ve got stars in your hair.”
In a small room at police headquarters they asked questions.
“How many did you kill?”
“Just four,” said the artist. “Bought a snub nose 38 for fifty bucks. It came with five bullets. That was all I needed.”
“So you went and killed the guys on the list who fucked your girlfriend?”
“Basically, yeah. Except for one. The cab driver, the alligator wrestler. I couldn’t do it.”
“Why’d you let him off?”
“I guess I started feeling bad about killing everybody.”
The detective nodded and called for an assistant to transcribe the artist’s statement. While he waited, he took another look at the list:
REFRIGERATOR REPAIRMAN/ Hairy-chested romantic …
FOLK SINGER/paper-thin troubadour…
TAXI DRIVER/alligator wrestler …
“Wait a minute,” said the detective. “You’re the artist, and if you didn’t kill the cabbie, that’s only three victims. You said four.”
The artist shrugged. “The last guy isn’t in the book. I found a note she wrote about him in the trash.”
“Some random guy she fucked or what?”
The artist turned his face away, not answering. “I don’t feel like talking about it anymore.”
The sound of the detective’s open hand hitting his face rang like a snare drum.
The impact of a closed fist.
A tooth ejected between torn lips.
Blood painted a map of a red country on the artist’s white shirt.
A girl wearing an eye patch appeared and began reading from a pink notepad:
“Remains of Fed Ex driver located. Identification verified despite rodents having eaten victim’s face.”
“So that’s number four,” said the detective. His lower lip swollen, a smirk that wanted to become a grin.
“Excuse me.” The girl with the eye patch held up the note as if it were a penalty flag.
“Cause of death loss of blood gunshot wound region of genitalia 38 caliber.”
The detective let out a low whistle. The smirk was gone. “Well?”
“She used to fuck him on Friday nights,” said the artist. “I had a weekend job at the carnival in Pallettville. She always said she was taking care of her sick mother.”
The detective bowed his jowly head as he scribbled some notes, a stubby yellow pencil scratching in a little pocket notebook. When he finished, he put the book in his pocket, then put both hands in his pockets and, still looking down, cleared his throat.
“Uh, one more thing,” he said.
It was probably unnecessary, but the question loomed there between them, like a stranger in a dark room or an unidentified smell.
“Let me guess,” said the cop. “Overnight delivery?”
The artist looked up, his red-rimmed eyes meeting the cop’s dark gaze. “No.”
“Well.” The detective sighed. “Doesn’t matter, anyway.”
“Oversize package,” said the artist. “Deliveries use rear entrance.”
The girl interrupted again. “Affirmative, Lieutenant, having viewed the body of the deceased and I can describe victim’s penis as abnormally large, estimated length being approximately–”
“Luisa,” said the detective, “how about getting Sgt. Reyes down here with a typewriter so we can get this young man’s statement filed?”
As the sound of her footsteps receded down the hall the air pressure in the room slowly returned to normal.
The detective sighed and stared at the floor. He wondered how he ever ended up with such big feet. Shoes like a pair of tug boats. Vaqueros and bull riders would’ve laughed at him.
“Kid, I’m sorry,” he said. “Let me get you some ice for that lip.”
The End… but more to come. If you like this story, let me know. If you don’t, oh, well.
[Note: This is actually a new chapter in the novella serial I’ve been writing this summer called Grave Digger Blues. So, until we decide what to do with the novella, here’s a little teaser, from the POV of one of the second tier protagonists. Big thanks to Mona Pitts and Ricardo Acevedo for letting me use their incredible photos.]
Follow Ricardo Acevedo, photographer/artist/poet, dangerously talented, floats like a butterfly stings like a bee.