“PURPLE HEART, 1990” by ALICE FLORIDA XU

The motel room window––thick reptile house glass––shows green and dark, a highway paved over flat land. A crash-gouged wall pokes up between lanes. Shot full of white in headlights, streaks of automobile paint go seeable for parts of seconds, so brief really only seen in after-image. A rhythm of dying flashbulb memory. Then, endless pine trees, true black against the night sky of pale dark.

I thumb a tissue-soft page, little and dirt-veined and framed in four lacey tears. A list of names and times. Everything is Ray’s handwriting, a pointed r, that tiny y. Good clients are underlined. (Treat ‘em sweet, he always begs as he wraps fingers round my neck.)

Ray is in room twelve, above me, television on, in the center of that gnat and moth swarmed hallway with a worn brown carpet, thin and holey like the hide of some long dead dog. A railing held up by black bars twisted like my arms. You would hate to see my arms. Like someone took my wrists and spun the white skin till they turned to bleached candy canes, purple spotted. My arms are a mystery. I have to fuck with my shirt on. My memory is a flooded house, everything washed away. Still I feel everything goes back to Ray. Everything is something Ray did, something Ray gave me.

I met Ray in eighty-five or six, after the commune collapsed into the desert, after our house in California burned to black posts. The years before I met Ray were better. You’ll learn that every year is better than the next.

I was fourteen at one time and clean and pretty and loved and lived in a big white house surrounded by hundreds of reaching trees that I watched go brown in October and fall to bareness and bud and brown and die again. I had a diary and a brother. Even then I knew I wanted to be here some day, far from all beautiful things and all people who love me, in some little girl dream of dirt and sorrow worthy of all the world’s pity. I knew it when Mom would sit me in the oak chairs of the kitchen of hanging black skillets and gilded forest-filtered light that beamed in through the window, splattering in black and gold kaleidoscope on the wall. I would pretend it was like some place of spirits where Grandpop went. Mom would sit me before it and tell me of biblical things I could not will myself to listen to. I would study her hair of gold and silver and the afternoon glaze that drew a fair line around her and I would think of the black snake I watched climb a bush and eat three blue eggs I swore would choke him. In the rain I watched a copperhead bite our golden retriever. The dog swelled but lived. Mom would tell me things and I couldn’t listen. I wish I could have found a way to make myself.

I couldn’t make myself listen to the things being said at that school either. I would stare to my right or left and watch blue skies for birds. The teacher said: “Kathy! Pay attention!” So I would pay attention, then my head would turn so slow I couldn’t feel it moving and before I knew it they said “Kathy! Pay attention!” and this spell of birds breaks and I’m listening and I fade and I’m turning as slow as a desert sunrise you can stare at for an hour and never watch the sun flinch and you can be sitting by a cactus and the sun is falling imperceptibly and all you can see moving is cactus shadow creeping over still waves of sand reaching for your toes like a black ghost that crawls. By the time it’s got you round the ankles everything else goes dark.

Everything is stillness. Then, Where’s my date, I whisper, and everything in me is stillness but the gilled radiator churning and clicking against my bare ass. The window––that monkey house window––is holding still my eyes. The motel parking lot: everything is spread out from left to right, cars are gleaming mounds, neon-spotted in LETOM sign green like blotches of phosphorescent algae blooming in a world of poisoned stillness and dark and nothing. I unfocus and see a face, my face, in the window, some hanging face bigger than cars and in black and white and staring down, an ancient lady-god watching all that her incompetence has wrought.

I look away from the black motel window and I’m caught in the mirror above a table with a bible and a brown ice bucket and my face is a witch’s face with bleached hair the color of dog piss, a face with hard lines like pale scars and white gouges with black shadows that reach to my chin like the desert sunrise at its lowest point, a oceanic force perpetually surging, fading inexorably to darkness.

Douglas was my brother. He was drafted and died. I don’t remember a funeral or tears or anything. I just remember him in blue summer shorts when he was ten spraying our dog in the face with cold water from the hose. He put his thumb on the flow and tried to hit a bright red robin that nested in the gutter––redder than red and redder than undried blood––but he missed and it just flew.

I couldn’t pay any attention in high school so I talked to kids who were growing their hair long and buying pot and smoking joints and listening to rock music in cold basements with the back door open and letting in the shrieks of squealing breaks and sirens followed by the fury of all the neighborhood’s dogs. We felt so old––but ageless and unlimited––those kids we were, always moving and laughing and running, our youth, a godliness.

I worked in a pharmacy that had a counter where children sat and watched the colored guy with a white paper hat work the little grill. That was a nice place but I got caught stealing some aspirin so that was that. I didn’t work then. I would just go to the dark drive in with Robby or the tall guy with a blond mustache and I would drop acid and crush up pot and mix it with Top and smoke it and watch it, watch it rise and spread across the inside of the windshield clouding the screen that towered over us, everything at once making the pictures of bare breasted kissing or zombies or masked burglars with knives that gleam some kind of confusing dream seen and obscured through haze, real and imagined, thoughts and pictures and options bursting off into any direction, all our pale child expectations gone missing. Once a week or so I would have sex with one of them. In Robby’s blue van or laid across both seats of the blond guy’s white truck, hard cold metal things spearing my back, my ass, and the windows would fog and I couldn’t see the movie so I would reach over and leave four mouse-squeaking fingertip claw marks big enough to see the picture through.

I met Russell in a place of green bushes and trampled brown leaves spread across endless wood-colored ground, covered in little mossy rocks that look like how an eagle would see just cut grass and he was in there, and I was smoking behind a bush and drinking a beer with the old kind of top you pull off and throw. Don’t remember what kind of beer it was. He walked up to me in I guess nineteen sixty-nine. He said come with me, I’m a pagan, baby.

That was a nice time and a very different time.

I turn and My date, I whisper and I’m watching him walk through black murk beyond that fish tank glass and everything inside my head recedes to self and shrinks to right again. And I wipe my eyes and move for the door and the door opens and all around him everything is dark.