The Cloud of Unknowing

by Mimi Lipson

Meanwhile the Corinthians completed their preparations and sailed for Corcyra with a hundred and fifty ships. Of these Elis furnished ten, Megara twelve, Leucas ten, Ambracia twenty-seven—

Judy’s eyes slid off the page and up to the bleary halo of light surrounding the lamppost outside the library window. She was a slow reader. The syllabus for Humanities 110—Herodotus, Hesiod, Thucydides, mandatory for all Reed College freshmen—had defeated her last semester, and she’d taken an incomplete. Then, instead of reading The Peloponnesian War, she’d spent her break in a stupor watching Jack Benny reruns as 1982 wound down. It was February now, cold and green, and the bare branches of the cherry trees along the campus paths were dark in the Portland drizzle. In another month they would be swelling with buds.

Each of these contingents had its own admiral, the Corinthians being under the command of Xenoclides, son of Euthycles—

Her eyes slid again. The steam heat was making her drowsy. She resolved to finish the chapter at home.

Outside the library, she stood for a moment looking back at the vaulted windows of the reserve room. It was a beautiful building: turrets and ivy and gothic arches, everything she’d imagined when she’d fantasized about going away to college, but she was glad to turn from it now. She cut across the lawn, soaking her tennis shoes instantly. The air was saturated with something between a heavy mist and a light rain. A searchlight raked the low sky somewhere beyond the river, miles away. She walked in that direction, following the slope of Woodstock Boulevard.

It wasn’t until Judy left campus that it became real—the distance between Oregon and the New England town where she’d grown up. The streets to the south of Woodstock were wide, curving arbitrarily past low houses landscaped with strange conifers and succulents and gravel that glowed like moon rock under tall western streetlights. Up the hill from campus the houses were bigger and older, but not like the big old houses back home. They lacked ornamentation. The roofs of their wide porches were supported by a kind of column she didn’t remember seeing before: square and tapering, like a crude optical illusion. In her mind, those houses were closer to lumber than the shingled and gabled Victorians in her town. They made her think of the great trees that stood in every direction outside the city.

Judy had lived up the hill from campus for a few months. Midway through the fall semester she’d moved out of her dormitory and into a group house with some older students. She’d been infatuated with someone who lived there, but things had ended badly with him. She moved again, right before the fall break, into another big house—this one on a cul-de-sac off Powell Boulevard, a mile and a half north of campus: her third address in six months, each a little farther afield.
She crossed 28th Street at the bottom of the hill. From the 7-Eleven parking lot, she could read the big clock inside the store. It was only 11:40. Now she wished she’d stayed at the library until closing. She had a question for Jim, but he worked the graveyard shift. He wouldn’t be there for another twenty minutes, and she didn’t want him to find her waiting. “Don’t come too often,” he had said the first time she visited him at work. She hadn’t been offended, though. She’d accepted it as a kind of intimacy.

She walked home along 28th Street past small, temporary-looking houses, and apartment complexes that reminded her of motels, with their rows of parking spots and numbered doors. Turning onto Powell Boulevard, she left the residential streets behind. Two cars idled side-by-side outside the all-night bowling alley across the boulevard. She stood for a moment admiring the reflection of their taillights on the wet pavement. On rare sunny days she could see the snowcap of Mount Hood rising above the boulevard, but on a rainy night it could be anywhere.

Judy’s street dead-ended at the locked gate of a fuel company. Hers was the only house on the block, next to the drive-thru window of a Wendy’s that fronted on Powell. Sometimes she sat on the back porch and listened to the voices on the speaker box. Good afternoon, sir. Would you like to try our new baked stuffed potato? It comes in four exciting flavors. We have chili, sour cream and chive, cheddar cheese and chive, and ranch—over and over, until the flare and crackle of the speaker was a little like surf hitting sand. She got to know the voices of the different girls who worked there. When she had no classes and could stay home all day, she would go next door and buy a small coffee and sweeten it to syrup. She’d stuff some crackers and hot sauce in her pockets for lunch, and return for coffee refills until her cup was too soggy to use.

She shared the house with three other Reedies, but she had her own entrance: a side door opening into the basement. Her room was partitioned off by a plywood wall. It had been built as a practice space for a band whose members had lived in the house at some point. They’d cut Styrofoam inserts to fit into the narrow windowsills. She pulled them out, but she could do nothing about the spray-on soundproofing that hung like dust from the ceiling. The lighting, too, was ghastly: a double fluorescent fixture. One tube was strobing. She kept meaning to look for a replacement in the basement clutter outside her room.

She hung her coat on the pipe running along the ceiling, took off her wet tennis shoes, and went upstairs. A light-gray cat was on the kitchen counter, licking at a stick of butter.

“Come on, Windex. We can do better than that,” she said, shaking some dry food into the cat’s bowl. She’d found the little cat on the back porch a few weeks earlier and taken her into the house, and so far, none of her roommates had said anything. It was possible they hadn’t noticed. They weren’t around much. The name, Windex, was her private joke, an answer to the campus dogs that lounged on the floor of the Student Union: Wittgenstein, Antigone, Mingus. Windex purred while she ate.

Judy put a saucepan of water on the stove for oatmeal. It was all she had in the house besides cat chow. She dressed it with some extra cream and sugar packets she’d stolen from Wendy’s and carried it downstairs, Windex close at her heels.

She sat at her writing desk and pulled the books out of her backpack. She opened The Peloponnesian War, then put it down again and picked up Dionysius the Areopagite instead. She’d taken an incomplete in that course too—Western Mystical Philosophy. She still had to write the term paper. The reading was denser, but there was a lot less of it. Lately she’d found that she could become immersed if she read closely and tried to follow the arguments. Maybe it was the effect of her new room: monkish and cell-like. There was a thrill of secret initiation that, had she been raised in a religion, she would have recognized.

She took an index card out of her desk and copied out a passage. “For if all the branches of knowledge belong to things that have being, then that which is beyond Being must also be transcendent above all Knowledge.” She read it over and added, “C.f. Cloud of Unknowing.” She’d made a pile of notes already, but she didn’t know what to do with the ideas as a group. That was what she’d wanted to talk to Jim about tonight. He’d mentioned something to her the last time she’d talked to him, some theory that God is a sentence without meaning, or maybe a grammatical formula for making all the sentences of the world.

* * *

The first time Judy saw Jim was on a sunny September afternoon just a few weeks after she’d arrived on campus. She was still enjoying a kind of automatic popularity with some of the older guys. She sat on the steps of the student union with someone she’d just met, a Chemistry major from New York City named Conrad. He was telling her about Renaissance Fair, a campus-wide “bacchanal” that marked the end of the school year in May. He used the word as though it were a neutral term, like “prom” or “social.” She was only half-listening, though. While he talked, her eyes followed someone walking across the lawn. He wore a red and black checked hunting cap and work pants and a matching jacket, like a TV repairman’s uniform. He took long steps, swinging his arms almost comically. From where they sat, a hundred feet away, Judy sensed a coiled energy.

Conrad noticed her looking. “That’s Jim Frank,” he said. “He’s a real wild man. Do you want to meet him? Hey Jim,” he called, “do you want to meet my friend Judy?” Judy got the impression he was showing off a little, pleased with himself for knowing this person well enough to make an introduction.

The walker stopped and pivoted in their direction. “ No! ” he called back, flashing a wide grin. He continued on the path, disappearing into the campus radio station—which was in the basement of Judy’s dorm block.

Half an hour later Judy was sitting on the toilet in a bathroom stall on her dormitory floor when Jim Frank’s face appeared between the door and the frame.

“Pleased to meet you, Judy,” he said. He stuck his hand through the gap. His gray, unblinking eyes met hers directly, and she stared back until her pee stream stopped.

“I’ll be right out,” she said.

She found him in the hallway, bouncing lightly in his black service oxfords. “I apologize,” he said. “About before, I mean. I don’t like that guy. I didn’t want to talk to him.”

“Conrad said you were a wild man.”

He nodded vigorously. “That’s it, right there. That’s why I don’t like him.”

They went outside and fell naturally to walking. Jim clasped his hands behind his back. Judy sensed that he was concentrating on matching her pace; that he would be walking faster if he were by himself. He was from the Bay Area. He’d dropped out a year earlier and he wasn’t sure if he was going to stay in Portland. He told Judy he was writing a novel, and that he found inspiration in California: the tiki torches at night, the smell of barbecue.

“Listen, Judy,” he said, “can you do me a favor? I need something from the library. The Thief’s Journal, Jean Genet. I don’t have an ID anymore. I was going to ask my friend who works at the radio station, but he wasn’t around.”

“I mean, I’d like to help, but—”

“I’ll give you my driver’s license as collateral. I only need it for a day.”

She brought the book out to him and he handed her his driver’s license. He had a beard in the picture.

Judy took Jim’s license out and looked at it a few times that evening. When he met her on the library steps the next day to give her the book, he didn’t want it back. “It’s expired anyhow,” he said. And that was the last she saw of Jim for several months.

* * *

Judy saw Conrad all the time. He always seemed to be hanging around the Student Union or the coffee shop next door. She liked his rapid way of speaking and his Converse high tops and his hair—long and kinky and black, like Jimmy Page. They hung out together all night at the first social of the year. Judy was wearing an old dress of her mother’s—burgundy rayon with a square neckline and short, puffed sleeves that made her look like a cigarette girl. They danced until their clothes clung to them, and then Conrad leaned in to be heard over the band, enclosing her in a curtain of kinky hair. “Let’s go to the rhodo garden,” he said. His lips brushed her ear.

What? She asked with her eyes.

“The rhododendron garden. Down the hill. I’ll show you.”

She followed him down the steep campus driveway, across 28th Street, and into the quiet park. The path wound among bushes and over a little footbridge. Something is about to happen now, she thought as they sat down on the bank of the pond. She felt a pulsing in her throat and between her legs. Without hesitating, Conrad kissed her, forcing her down onto the grass. Thinking of duck shit, she pushed him away and pulled off her mother’s rayon dress. He stood up and straddled her while he undressed, then knelt down and wriggled her underwear off. His face loomed close again, and then he was lying on her. She wrapped her legs around him and memorized a patch of sky over his shoulder, and the rhododendron branches framing it.

And then he was inside her and she was moving with him, her arms pinned on the spongy ground. All of him felt smooth and hard. She smelled his hair. Prell, she thought. He jerked forward suddenly and gasped, and then they were lying side by side. He slid his hand over her shoulder, down into the dip of her waist, and up over her hip. She still throbbed everywhere, but it was over.

Later he told her he’d been tripping on acid.

* * *

The next day, Judy went with a group of people to the coast in Conrad’s car. They took LSD and sat on a beach of little black stones, smoothed by the ocean and hot in the sun. Judy rolled around and dug her hands in the pebbles. She threw them in the air and felt them fall on her legs and stomach like fat, warm raindrops on the surface of a pond. She wandered down the shoreline and sat for a long time, watching the surf churn, until she noticed the tide coming in. She was unsure for a moment how fast it was moving. It suddenly came to her that she would be trapped in her isolated cove if she didn’t get back to the others. The cliff behind her, she saw, was steep and greasy—too slick to climb. She began running and didn’t stop until she reached Conrad and lay next to him on the pebbles. I have a lover, she told herself.

Conrad lived in a big group house up the hill from the campus. It was boxy and white, and they called it “The Westinghouse” because it looked like a dryer. The common rooms were decorated with trash-picked couches and shopping carts. A smell of ether drifted up from the basement, where Conrad made drugs that Judy had never heard of: MDA, DMT, bromo-mescaline. She felt brave and tried everything. They went to the movies tripping, or to video arcades, or just wandered around the mall. Conrad smuggled sodium out of the lab at school, and they threw chunks into the Willamette. It exploded on the surface in yellows and oranges, like waterborne fireworks.

They went out late at night in search of food. Their favorite place was a diner downtown where the waitresses had gingham uniforms. One waitress wore a stiff yellow wig and only had teeth on one side of her mouth. She recited the litany of pies on request:

“PeachappleDutchapplecherryblue- berrypecanstrawberryrhubarbpum-
pkinbananacreamBostoncreamlemonmeringue.”

“What was that third one?” Conrad would ask, winking at Judy across a table of half-eaten food.

It was Conrad who suggested she move into the Westinghouse when the room next to his opened up. The first night he stayed with her, and the next night he didn’t. The night after that, he still wasn’t home when she finally fell asleep. It bothered her, but she kept it to herself. After all, he had never said they were a couple. “It’ll be convenient” was all he’d said. A few times she crept abjectly into his room without being invited. She craved him, but she always left him still craving.

Judy turned her recriminations inward when she came home and found Conrad on the living room couch with someone on his lap—a girl named Holly, who’d hitchhiked up from Eugene in her bare feet. Later that night, after Judy sneaked downstairs and confirmed that Holly was not sleeping on the couch, she lay awake in her room and imagined them on the other side of the wall: Conrad’s hand moving over Holly’s shoulder and into the dip of her waist, across her belly, between her legs.

Holly did not leave the next day, as had been her plan. She stayed for weeks. Judy’s pride dictated that she be nonchalant. She, Holly, and Conrad went together to Sodium Beach, and to the diner with the gingham-wearing waitresses. She let Holly pull her hair into a French braid and walked around campus with her and was bitterly relieved when she moved on.

One day, Judy woke feeling sick and decided to skip her morning lecture. It was afternoon when she got up again, and she was hungry and lightheaded, so she took some Spaghetti-Os off Conrad’s shelf and ate them out of the can. A sudden thirst for orange juice came over her. She put a coat on over her flannel nightgown and walked to the Thriftway, where the bright lights and the muzak hit her like a wave. Before she felt it coming, she’d vomited Spaghetti-Os all over the waxed linoleum tiles.

When Conrad found her in bed later that afternoon, she told him about the Spaghetti-Os, and throwing up at Thriftway. “Feel my forehead,” she said. “Am I hot?”

“No,” he said, climbing in next to her. He reached under her quilt for a breast.

“Ow.”

“That hurts?”

“Yeah. Ow, don’t touch them.”

“Hmm. You didn’t miss your period, did you?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t really keep track.” She considered for a moment. “I don’t remember having one last month.”

“Well, there you go,” he said. “C’mon. You can’t get any more pregnant.” He pulled her nightgown up. “Don’t worry—I won’t touch your tits.”

It was the last time she had sex with Conrad. She woke the next day and found she couldn’t stand him anymore. She didn’t tell him when she confirmed her condition. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing something so consequential had come of their adventures.

Judy skipped the last lecture of the semester and took a bus to the clinic. A small group of protesters lined the sidewalk outside, but they didn’t look at her or even pick up their signs as she walked past them. Inside, she changed into a gown and accepted a Valium from the nurse. She worried that it wouldn’t work, that somehow all the DMT and LSD and MDA she’d taken in the last few months would neutralize it, but after a few minutes a drowsy feeling came over her. The rest she met calmly: the donut of fluorescent light, the stirrups, the doctor with the port wine birthmark on his cheek, the sucking sound of his machine and the cramping pain. She tried to think about what was happening but she couldn’t hold it in her mind.

She told her roommates they would have to get someone else, that she wasn’t coming back after winter break, and packed up her trunk and her suitcase and a cardboard box of books. She didn’t even own the mattress she’d been sleeping on. After paying for the abortion and losing her security deposit, she was lucky to find something she could afford: the basement room in the house on the cul-de-sac, with its Astroturf and bad lighting and its damp chill that reminded her every day of hard-won self-sufficiency.

* * *

After the break and the three weeks of torpor and Jack Benny reruns, Judy came back to Portland ready to start again. She stayed away from the Student Union and anywhere else she was likely to run into Conrad, and went to work on her incompletes. She was downtown, browsing the table of Reed course books at Powell’s, when she saw Jim Frank for the second time. He seemed genuinely pleased to see her.

“You didn’t end up going to California?” she asked.

“No, not yet,” he said. “I think I will, though, sometime soon, but I just got a job at the 7-Eleven on 28th Street. I’m living on Hawthorne, in my own, my very own apartment. Listen, I’m going to Singles Going Steady now.”

Singles Going Steady turned out to be a record store across the street. Inside, they paused for a moment. “You know, you look like a Shangri-La,” Jim said. “That is, you look like one of the girls in the Shangri-las. I’ll show you.”

She followed him to the Oldies section and stood by while he flipped through a bin, frowning. He pulled a record. On the cover, three girls posed in matching outfits.

“Mary Weiss—the lead singer.” He pointed to the one in the middle. “It’s your hair, the way you have it parted. That and those kind of pants.”

“Pedal pushers.”

He looked up at her with surprise. “That is such a good word! Pedal pushers! And your name, too: Judy. ‘It’s Judy’s turn to cry.’”

“Is that one of their songs?”

“No, that’s Leslie Gore,” he said. “But, um, it’s a good name. Yeah, you remind me of Mary Weiss: sad and tough like that. A tough, sad teenager.”

He led her to the listening station, where he put the record on and fitted the headphones over her ears. She recognized the first song—“Leader of the Pack”—as soon as it started, but Jim quickly picked the needle up and moved it to another track.

This one began with a somber piano figure in a slow waltz time. Three girls, in hushed unison, spoke a single word: Past. Then a lone voice took up the recitation in an amplified whisper: tender, but burred with experience and studio reverb and a trace of a New York accent. Well now, let me tell you about the past. Past is filled with silent joys and broken toys. Jim watched while Judy listened to that song and the next, then carefully lifted the headphones. “Let me buy this for you,” he said.

“I don’t have a record player.”

“I’m going to buy it anyhow, and we can play it at my place.”

Jim’s building was not like the complexes on 28th Street. It was brick and old, with a wide, dusty hallway that reminded her of her grammar school. Following him into his apartment she peeked at the bedroom, to the left of the entryway. There was nothing inside but a typewriter, sitting on the floor in a sea of scattered pages.

“Is that where you’re writing your novel?”

“That’s good, that you remembered that,” he said. “Yes, the novel.”

Judy wanted to go in and pick up a page and read it, but she stopped herself.

“What’s it like, writing a book?”

“I don’t really know how to answer that. It’s great, I guess.”

There was no furniture in the living room either, except for a rug with a sleeping bag on it and a boombox and a lift-and-play record player. Next to the sleeping bag a picture, torn out of a magazine, was taped to the wall. Judy bent forward to look: a girl with short hair and thick false eyelashes in black tights and a T-shirt, posing atop an expensive-looking leather footstool shaped like a rhinoceros. Her arms were gracefully outstretched with one leg extended behind her.

“That’s Edie Sedgwick,” Jim said.

“Who?”

“From the Factory.”

“What factory?”

“Andy Warhol’s factory.”

“Oh.” Judy had heard of Andy Warhol but she didn’t understand the part about a factory.

Still wearing their coats, they sat down on the floor across from each other, each leaning against a wall, and Jim put on the Shangri-Las. The record had an echoey sound to it, as if it had been made specifically to be listened to in a room like this: a cold room with no furniture. The tough, sad girls were Out in the Street, they were Walking in the Sand, they could Never Go Home Anymore. It was dark when the record ended, but Jim didn’t turn on the light. Judy had a strong desire to tell him about Conrad and Holly and the abortion, and about how she was worried that she still felt some pain from it. But she could sense that he would not want her to, so instead, she talked about Western Mystical Philosophy, and how, now that she’d finally started to do the reading, she felt like everything related to it—even the record they’d just listened to.

“Relates how?” he asked.

“Well, like, Plotinus. I read this thing last night that keeps going through my head: ‘The Soul, different from the divinity but sprung from it, must need love.’”

Jim exhaled. “Yeah, that’s great, just all by itself. I don’t even want to know what it means or where it comes from, you know? Sometimes I’ll just open up a book in the middle and get some great phrase, or a good, technical-sounding word that I can drop into my novel somewhere. That’s where my head’s at.”

Later, in the hallway, it occurred to her why the picture of the girl in the black tights had been taped to the wall, at that height, by the sleeping bag.

The next time she was at the library, she remembered what Jim had said, and she looked up The Thief’s Journal—the book she’d checked out for him in September. She opened it up at random and read.

Picturing the world outside, its shapelessness and confusion even more perfect at night, I turned it into a godhead of which I was not only the cherished pretext, object of so much care and caution, chosen and superlatively led despite ordeals that were painful and exhausting to the point of despair, but also the sole purpose of so many labors.

* * *

Judy started dropping in on Jim at the 7-Eleven when she stayed late at the library. Sometimes, if she was at home in the evening, he would come by her house and they would wander around for a while until he had to go to work. They walked along the median strip of Powell Boulevard, past vast, sparsely stocked thrift stores. They watched some firemen put out a practice blaze in a hollow cement structure in the middle of an asphalt lot. The factories by the river were dark and quiet, except for a few that glowed with swing-shift lights, their exhaust fans humming in the night. Mostly, Jim and Judy walked through wet, foggy emptiness. Portland was a lonely city, a place where drifters reached the edge of the continent. Jim showed her a hobo camp under the Burnside Bridge near the downtown soup kitchens.

Once, they went to the diner with the pies and saw the waitress who only had teeth on one side of her mouth. Afterward, walking home, Judy started to tell Jim about Conrad. He looked straight ahead while she spoke, nodding, but he stopped her before she got to the Spaghetti-Os and what came next.

“I want to tell you something, Judy,” he said. “This is important. Any guy will fuck you if you ask. Don’t ever worry about that.”

The milder weather came. Judy saw Conrad around, and her other old roommates from the Westinghouse. It would have been impossible to avoid them entirely. She made a point of being friendly but she still kept away from the Student Union. She got a B on her paper for Western Mystical Philosophy, reduced to a C for lateness. That was okay—she’d cleared up the incomplete. It was a struggle, but she was keeping up with all her current classes. Thucydides and Herodotus were still giving her problems, though.

And something else: she still had pain. It had moved upward, spread out, gotten duller. When Tylenol didn’t help, she stayed in bed with Windex and a hot water bottle. She knew she should make another appointment at the Women’s Health Center, but she remembered the morning at the clinic and the doctor with the port wine birthmark, and she kept putting it off.

She was at home under her electric blanket when Jim knocked on the basement entrance. The bright April sun blinded her for a minute when she opened the door.

“It’s really dark in here,” he said. “You should change those bulbs.” The other fluorescent light tube had started to burn out, and now they were both strobing.

“What are you doing up so early?” she asked.

“I wanted to bring you some things on my way out of town.”

Judy’s stomach dropped. “Where are you going?”

“California. My sister said I could stay in her garage. In Mountain View.”

“But—when are you leaving?” She hoped she didn’t sound whiny.

“Now,” he said. “Well, tonight. I wanted you to have this.” He gave her a thick manila envelope on which he had written, in large block letters, “Real Life in California, by Jim Frank.”

“Your novel?”

“Almost.” His shoulders went back a little when he said it. “I’ll send you the rest when it’s finished. And I wanted to give you this, too, since you don’t have a radio.”

He had brought her his boombox. She took it from him and set it down on her writing desk. “I didn’t know you were going,” she said.

Irritation flickered across his face.

“I mean, I forgot,” she added. “I forgot you said that.”

“Here’s my address.” He’d written it down for her. “And my sister’s phone number. But don’t give that to anyone. And don’t show anyone my novel.”

“I don’t have a phone,” she said. “Write to me, okay?”

“Isn’t there one upstairs?”

“No. Well, yes, but it’s not mine. I don’t use it.” She had stopped paying her share of the phone bill. “Okay. Bye, I guess,” she said, anxious for him to leave. She felt tears coming and she didn’t want him to see them.

She let herself cry for a while after he left. When she was done, she plugged in the boombox and played with the antenna, but the only station she could get through the thick basement walls was a sports talk show. Then she noticed a cassette in the tape player and hit play. For a moment it was just hiss and guitar feedback and thick bass notes dragging a beat. Then the voice came in: male, angry, but as naked and sad as Mary Weiss’s. Turn away, turn away from the wall. Face me now. Face me now. She took the tape out and looked at it. The label said “FLIPPER,” in Jim’s handwriting. She put it back in and hit play again. Show me, show me all your tears. Your pain, your pain makes me burn.

She opened up the manila envelope and began reading. Someone was driving around in a van looking for someone else. She didn’t understand it, but she felt like she was being shown something almost unbearably intimate. She realized she was shivering.

I saw you, I saw you shine.

When the tape ended, she put Jim’s novel down. Now her face was burning. She went upstairs and found a thermometer and took her temperature.

* * *

The fever went away, but after a few days it came back stronger than before. She was home from school when Jim’s first letter came. He had typed all across the back of the envelope. “I am now the only, sole, exclusive warehouseman at a furniture store,” he said. “I make $5.65 an hour.” He described his sister’s garage, and said he was going to buy a car from her neighbor when he got his first paycheck—a 1968 Plymouth Valiant. Gray. The envelope itself was empty.

Judy kept the thermometer by her bed, more out of curiosity than anything else. She stayed in her nightgown all week while her fever spiked and abated and spiked again. The pain was intense at times, but listening to Jim’s cassette tape helped. The sound traveled over a secret frequency, from a different basement room in a place she’d never seen. The hum of the bass and the cymbal’s tinny crash answered the dull and sharp sensations in her abdomen and organized them into a kind of music. On one song—a long one that she played over and over—the synthesizer dropped notes around her like falling stars.

Mail came every day. Jim sent lyrics, dreams, a letter to Dear Abby that he had copied out in his own handwriting. She burned with fever while she read them. Sometimes the words ran together and re-formed into other words. At the beginning of the second week, she got a letter in response to one she had sent, apparently, answering questions she didn’t remember asking. “There are several schools of thought as to what the last word of “Real Life in California” will be,” he wrote. “A note exists in which I determined to end with the word “Oh,” which is used throughout the book to denote moments of special grief—just that word on its own. Oh.” He said he had borrowed money against his first check and bought the Valiant, and that he was tuning it up. He said he thought she would like California.

Later she remembered standing in the kitchen, talking to Windex. “Oh Judy,” the little gray cat said. “You’re moribund.”

“What does that mean?” she asked. And then she was being helped into an ambulance. A roommate had found her passed out on the kitchen floor. At the hospital, a nurse said they were going to test her blood pressure lying down and then sitting up. Judy watched the cuff inflate and dimly felt it tighten around her arm.

“Good news,” the nurse said. “You don’t have to sit up.” She put an IV needle in the back of Judy’s wrist and taped it down.

* * *

“Pelvic inflammatory disease,” explained the doctor sitting by Judy’s bed. He clasped his soft, pudgy hands in his lap. A crucifix hung on the wall behind him. Judy imagined an assembly line: factory workers in hairnets nailing little Christs to their crosses. The bed next to her was empty. Someone—one of her roommates, probably—had brought her some things: pens and a notebook and Jim’s boombox.

“You’ll need to stay here for at least four or five days,” the pudgy doctor was saying, “so we can give you antibiotics and fluid. You were very dehydrated.” He stood up. “You should be feeling a lot livelier in a day or two.”

"Can you plug that in before you go?” She pointed at the boombox. “And close the door?”

When she was alone, she pressed play and listened for a minute with her eyes closed, waiting to see if the tape worked on her like it had under the heavy blanket of fever, then picked up the notebook and started a letter.

“How is the Valiant running?” she wrote. “Come get me.”

 

—Mimi Lipson lives in Kingston, NY. Her first collection of short stories is forthcoming from Yeti.

Tags:
Fiction
BOMB 124
Summer 2013
The cover of BOMB 124
Share