The Violet Hour
ART BY PYOTR JANECEK, MADMAN
MUSIC BY GOODMAN CARTER
We're four stories up, lying on a West Side roof sipping wine from a bottle in a bag. Our talk is small and stuck on Manhattan. She says the subway tunnels are full of rats and roaches. I ask about cock-rats, the hybrid offspring of both, because I want to say cock again for the laughs and maybe to get her thinking about mine. Her eyes are the color of wet baseball dirt and it's hard to decide if they're pretty. Her face is pretty, if you like noses. She showed up in heels but she lost them to follow my lead out the window. Her toes are curled monkey-style around the edge of the slanted roof. She says, stonefaced, that there are all kinds of cocks in the tunnels. Her voice has a nifty way of wrapping itself around hard Cs. Her fingers are long and elegant. They belong on a pianist, or maybe a strangler.
This roof belongs to a dorm on the main quad; it's good for first-date sunsets if you can catch them. Our arrival tonight was mistimed, her fault. Her heels took too long on the stairs. Instead of sunset, we have the violet hour: the library, the statue of Jesus' nail-pierced hand in front of the library, the quad, the hill, the wall at the bottom of the hill, the city beyond, all backlit in purple.. Soon downtown will throw on its lights and landmark the streets with neon signs. Green shamrock will be an Irish pub. Pink woman-in-champagne-glass will look like a strip club, but it's not.
She points to the Jesus hand statue: look, from this angle it's giving us the finger. She takes another drink from the wine. Tattoo parlors on every corner and she almost got 3 on her wrist, right here, she says, and demonstrates, tracing 3 over the place where the veins show through.
So now you, she says. What's the most interesting place you've been lately?
I freeze; there's nothing. The last place off campus was the pink woman-in-champagne-glass bar. I drank too much and threw up in the tank of a toilet.
Um, I say.
Fortunately there's a scrape at the window. An ass in jeans pokes through, legs sliding down the roof toward the stone lip edging its bottom.
She watches the stranger. Down across the quad a lacrosse player spits on the courtyard as he carries his gear in his arms.
The ass backs out the window and a torso and head follow, breech-birth style. It's some kid, clutching the windowsill until he's sure his balance is stable. I have hazy memories of him getting kicked out of English 132 for text messaging. He pivots on the ledge so his back is flush against the slant roof and he begins to inch over.
Oh shit, he says when he notices us, and: oh hi. Didn't know anyone was out here.
He offers to go someplace else. She says no, too fast. That nose of hers is gonna be my deal-breaker, I can feel it. For her it'll be the sloppy line of my inherited weak chin.
The text messenger smiles and settles back against the roof. He pulls a silver flask from his sock and offers it around. She smiles and shakes her head no, holding up the wine bottle. It comes to me next. It's filled with something mouthwashy that feels terrible going down.
God, it's awesome out here, he says, and even though he's dead wrong about the atmosphere he's not wrong about the view. The moon is up and lit orange by the remaining streaks of post-sunset sun. The city's neon has come on; we can see stars and the shell of a burned-out warehouse miles away. From up here it looks like the ruins of Cair Paravel and not the firemen's deathtrap it actually must have been.
Text Messenger sighs and looks at his watch. He says, you know what, I think I will leave. He re-situates his flask in its sock and slides back toward the window.
She watches him go. I take the wine bottle to hide my frown. The tip of the neckhole chinks against my tooth. He gets to the window, pivots, and reaches for the sill. He says something like see ya or maybe just a wordless sssss.
She scratches her right ankle with her left toe. She's thinking bad thoughts about my chin.
There's a thump. We turn in tandem. Text Messenger is sliding down the roof.
It seems he lifted his leg toward the window instead of using his arms to pull in; his hands are scrabbling for purchase, and now he's let go, slipped his hold. He knows he's in trouble and he starts to make sounds I can't translate into words, so instead I just move, heels mincing to the side, arm outstretched. This is what I expect to happen over the next sixty seconds: hand on sleeve, clutch, pull, winch up, stabilize, back inside for everyone, tears from her, thanks from him, play a few rounds of Wouldn't That Have Been Awful.
But somehow he's sliding faster than I can move. His body hits the jutting stone lip that I'm standing on and he slows, kind of catches his ass on the edge–but it only puts him into a sitting position, suspends him for a bare second. Then momentum takes him over the edge and he disappears so quickly it's like something sucked him down from below.
In the space between the disappearance and the crash there's nothing but the moon and the light from the city. The golden arch is McDonalds. The pink woman in the glass still looks like a strip club. I look at the lights and the moon and wait for a splash; nobody falls like that without water there to catch them.
Four stories below there's this mundane domestic laundry thud on the flagstones of the courtyard, this subtle little sound.
Something unlocks and I just scream, or try to, because it's the only logical thing left to do. I'm going to scream and lean and then fall in that order, and that's okay; my fall won't be any more real than the ridiculous one seconds before. The liquor from the flask shoots back up; I drool mouthwash and the scream won't come but the shakes do, vibrating my arms like the limbs of an overbred dog. There's energy building in my muscles and in a few seconds I'll rocket up, swallow the moon whole, vomit it over the courtyard.
She grabs me, digging her strangler's fingers into the thickest part of my arm; triceps on top, bicep on bottom, or maybe it's the other way around. There's this hissing noise coming out of her mouth and it's soothing, in a snaky kind of way. I lean back, try to press my skeleton through my skin and meld it to the roof shingles, which will not fall. Down below they're still doing our screaming for us.
We wait, eyes lidded, we pant out more panic, and when our breathing syncs up she decides it's time to move. She tells me, through her skin on my skin, to look at the sky and I do; she tells me to move for the window, and I do. She says it out loud–don't look down–and I tell her that speech is redundant, that we've become like conjoined twins. She is the head who drinks a glass of juice. I am the other head who tastes oranges. Maybe this gets through to her, through our hands. Maybe that's why she goes back to breathing her orders through her beautiful giant nose.
Here is the sill beneath my fingers. Here are my shoulders halfway through. Here I am in the empty classroom, falling headfirst against the legs of a desk. My vision starts to pool but I get back up (that's what she tells me) reach out the window, and take her carefully by the wrists. I pull and she comes through. We fall on top of each other, my heart between her breasts. Here is a siren, and here are the flashing red lights.
I start to cry, listening to the sirens. I heard them last three months ago on the night the warehouse burned. Guys ran through the dorm hallways shouting: city's burning down, y'all, and I looked, and it was–just the warehouse, one of those old abandoned buildings filled with paper and office furniture and barrels of flammable things, five stories going up in red. I had climbed out the window that night too, to watch the fire from the roof. I saw when the thing caved in on itself, going down in slow motion from left to right like the fall of a dying dinosaur. Eight firefighters died. The chief told the press later, unable to stand straight, that pairs of them kept going in after buddies who were screaming over the radios that they were lost, they couldn't find the exits. I didn't know anyone had died, at the time. I was just struck by how pretty it was, grateful I'd made it in time to watch.
Fire trucks in the courtyard. Clanks of equipment against metal siding, the air-farts of big rig brakes. I'm still crying, and her strangler fingers are on either side of my face. Her tongue presses against my own. This makes perfect sense. It would make sense to Text Messenger too. It's not him that stops me; it's not her I push away. It's the fire trucks with the men inside them going to scrape the body off the ground.
I run to them, and now it's her turn to make sense of me. I'm pretty sure she does. I'm pretty sure she'll come find me later, and when I ask her: did you taste oranges on the roof? -- she won't need me to explain a thing.
MK Laughlin teaches in the English Departments of Western New England College and Westfield State. Her short stories have appeared in print and online literary venues, including MonkeyBicycle,FeatherTale, NANO Fiction, Six Sentences, and Farmhouse Magazine. She is currently at work on a novel.