R eality starts like the migraines Jeorgia used to have before the accident. A little throb behind her left eye, a hint of nausea. There might be visual distortions; It’s hard to tell, because one second Jeorgia’s gone, and the next she’s here. This time she’s sitting on a man’s lap, running her tongue over the contours of his ear. In a moment, she’ll remember his name, because her body never forgets even though her brain is broken.
Sexual arousal thins the fog. This probably has something to do with biology or psychology, or something else Jeorgia should have learned in high school way back . . . when?
Bits and pieces fit themselves together, but not enough to understand what she’s doing on Jack Winston’s lap. She never really knew him. Never really liked him much, even though he’s tall and strong and kind of cute. She remembers speaking to him once, a two-word conversation at her senior prom.
“Okay Jack,” she told him, when he asked her to dance. But that dance never happened because someone better came along and drove Jeorgia away in his BMW 328i sedan with the leather interior and the new car smell. Zachary Taylor, quarterback, homecoming king—may he rest in peace—took Jeorgia to a place with lots of trees and privacy, and promised to change her life forever. Which he did, right after she lost her virginity and a pair of garnet earrings in the back seat of his Beemer.
The sex was messy and a little painful, and over with just when things were looking up.
She told Zack, “I don’t think we did it right.”
He didn’t seem to care; just doing it was good enough for him. A notch on his pistol. A story for the locker room. Done and done.
He said, “Maybe next time,” and gave her what he must have thought was a dramatic look—the kind James Dean used in East of Eden, just before he said: “Only the gentle are ever really strong.”
Or maybe that was in Rebel Without a Cause. Or maybe something else, because those old black and white movies all run together in Jeorgia’s mind. So does all the time that past since Zack crossed the center line and ran head on into a pair of headlights that were too far apart to belong to a car.
Zack said, “Shit,” right before the crash. Maybe that was the last word he ever said. Jeorgia can’t be sure, but “Shit,” is a better thing to say than, “Okay Jack,” which was mainly what Jeorgia had been saying ever since the accident.
She’d tried to say other things, but they all came out, “Okay Jack,” until recently. Now that she thought of it she’d been talking quite a bit lately, and even though she made no sense, anything was better than, “Okay Jack.”
“Shit!” Maybe swearing was a sign of things to come. Better things. Although from the look on Jack Winston’s face, it definitely killed the mood.
“Shit!” She said again, exactly the way Zachary had. A touch of surprise, a touch of fear, the touch of airbags swelling out of hidden compartments in the steering wheel and dashboard.
Jeorgia can almost see Zack sitting next to her in his brand new car that will be junk in a matter of seconds. His face is perfectly symmetrical with two sad eyes the color of India ink. His hair is that color too, and so are the shadows below his cheek bones, because the face in Jeorgia’s mind is a black and white photo of James Dean, and he’s just about to say, “Only the gentle are ever really strong.” She can’t remember Zach’s real face, or his real voice, or anything about him except the way he fumbled with her prom dress and the funny way he breathed when they were doing it wrong in the back seat.
Jeorgia says the James-Dean-thing out loud. She hops off Jack Winston’s lap and he doesn’t try to stop her because he’s so shocked to see her acting like a real live girl instead of like an animated sex toy—a Stepford wife. Jeorgia saw that movie on the Sci-Fi Channel once, but never thought she’d be one.
Right after the accident she was a Stepford daughter, then her parents handed her off to Jack Winston, who knows a lot more about sex than Zachary did.
Jack knows how to move and how to talk and how to make sure Jeorgia finds her way to “orgasm land,” even in her mixed up state of mind. He’s really good at it because that’s all they have between them and because Jeorgia won’t judge him. Because Jeorgia’s brain won’t do judgments anymore.
Jack Winston is gentle—at least with Jeorgia—even if he isn’t really in love. A man can’t love a girl without a brain. Can he?
“Only the gentle are ever really strong.” There’s nothing left for her to say.
Jack looks nervous, the way he did in high school, so Jeorgia climbs onto his lap again and moves around as if she has no idea of the effect she’s having on him. She puts her lips onto his.
Her tongue finds Jack’s doubts, and steals them one by one, like a clever pickpocket. Kissing leads to other things, and Jack is just as good at other things as Jeorgia remembers. But she doesn’t remember very long. Fog settles in, and everything she says comes out, “Okay Jack,” no matter how hard she tries. It will stay that way until she has another headache.
Being out of it is like watching a giant flat screen TV while someone else has the remote control and insists on running through all seven hundred channels. Some of the programs look pretty interesting, but the channel surfer won’t stop, so there’s no point paying attention.
The battery must be running down in that cosmic remote control, because Jeorgia has a familiar little pain behind her left eye, and the channels fly by slower and slower until she’s in a room where she’s been a few times before.
It’s a small concrete room without windows. There’s a metal table in the center, and the smell of men who don’t shower very often. One of those men is sitting at the metal table talking to Jack. He has crude tattoos all over his hands, and probably on his arms too, but those are covered by a blue jump suit that has Oklahoma Dept. of Corrections stenciled across the front.
The man has chains around his wrists that attach to a metal loop on his side of the table. The words White Power are inked across his forehead in backward letters, like he put them on himself while looking in a mirror.
“Sure is a pretty girl.” He’s talking about Jeorgia because she is the only girl in the room.
“How’d you get a girl like that, Jack?” The man drums his fingers on the metal table; the chain noise doesn’t bother him.
“Brain damaged,” Jack tells the man, as if Jeorgia isn’t there.
Because usually I’m not. So Jack doesn’t know how cruel it is to talk about her that way. Even if everything he says is true.
“She’ll be there when you kill me?” The man runs the tip of his tongue over his lips, tasting molecules of Jeorgia like a snake.
“Always bring her to the executions,” Jack says. He stands several feet away because the man looks too dangerous for his chains. “Got nowhere to leave her.”
“Sure is pretty.” The man drums his fingers again, but this time he flinches at the chain noise and stops.
“Never had me a girl as pretty as that,” he says. “Would have killed her if I did.”
Jeorgia turns away but she can still feel the chained man’s eyes—clear and cold, like little vials of refrigerated poison She doesn’t mind when the cosmic channel surfer starts up again and takes her out of this little room.
“Theater in the round,” Jeorgia says as soon as the little pain behind her left eye subsides. It moves back like the ocean at low tide and leaves her in another ugly room with fluorescent lights that won’t stop flashing. She stands behind a gray concrete wall with a one-way mirror at eye level that gives her a perfect view of the dead man on the gurney.
Done and done, just like Zack.
Three sides of the execution chamber are walls of Plexiglas. Jeorgia can see the witnesses sitting in the double row of cinema style chairs watching the man be dead. She wonders if they can read the backward White Power tattoo on his forehead.
Jack pushes a button and black curtains slide into place. The show is over. Nothing left to see.
“You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,” Jack says to no one in particular.
He always says that. Every time he kills a man. Four times now. Jeorgia looks into his eyes to see if it bothers him.
No one home in there.
“Medical Examiner will take it from here,” Jack says. “Shouldn’t be too hard to determine cause of death. You think?”
He’s trying to be funny. Telling execution jokes to his brain damaged wife. It doesn’t matter what he says, because Jeorgia’s sense of humor went down a neurosurgeon’s suction along with the piano lessons, and the names of all fifty states.
For the moment, she remembers everything in crisp detail, like a fresh ice sculpture. Her perfectly balanced state of mind won’t last long, but while it’s here she’s angry. Because Jack Winston made her kiss a condemned man goodbye, just before the curtains opened so the witnesses could watch him die.
The taste of the man’s last meal lingers on her tongue. A foot-long chilidog with sides of potato salad and onion rings. Robert David VanGorder ate his final meal in three minutes flat. Like a hungry dog. Like a man who couldn’t wait to kiss the prettiest girl he’d ever seen right before he died.
Just like Zack.
Why do they all eat chilidogs? There had been three of them before, and Jeorgia kissed them all.
“Soul kisses,” she tells Jack. “Their souls all taste like Wolf Brand Chili.”
Jack says nothing.
After every goodbye kiss, the old Jeorgia comes back to life a little more—a few new words, a bit more coordination. Memories of things that might have happened to her, or someone else, because when a mind returns from nowhere, nothing is for sure.
What had she given the condemned men? What had she taken from them in return? Was it a fair exchange? She puts her arms around Jack Winston and pulls him toward her. She puts her lips over his, and pushes her tongue into his mouth.
Cilantro and onion from the luncheon special at Adelitas Cafe—and something sweet and satisfying that Jeorgia can draw out with the slightest effort. But she lets it go, because Jack meant no harm when he brought her to his executions and let her kiss the men he was hired to kill.
Jack is sweet and gentle in his ignorance, and Jeorgia loves him just a little, the way she loves the headaches that bring her out of nowhere.
Jeorgia’s mother doesn’t come around much any more.
“Too hard,” Mom says. “Too painful. Too many memories.” She drags the back of her right hand across her forehead to show how broken up she is about having a brain-damaged daughter married to an executioner.
“How are you sweetheart? How is my little girl?” Mom brings nutritional supplements and best wishes from her prayer group that is keeping God abreast of all the Jeorgia news. She talks about Jeorgia’s high school friends, who wonder how she’s doing, and her old male admirers, who are all a lot more successful than Jack. She talks about her husband the judge, and being president of the Junior League, and the famous relatives she’s found on Ancestry.com® since her last visit.
Jeorgia looks her mother in the eyes until Mom stops talking.
The quiet helps Jeorgia cope with the world, which is spinning just a little. Her heart rate increases slightly as interesting new mother-thoughts take shape inside her patchwork mind. Jeorgia’s salivary glands go on high alert, like they used to do when she opened a box of See’s Chocolates.
Not quite hunger, but close.
Not quite hypoglycemia, but very close.
Jeorgia doesn’t know exactly what comes next, but she can hardly wait.
“Louise.” She’s never said her mother’s name before, not in Mom’s presence. The word hangs in the room like a bad odor.
“Louise.” Jeorgia smiles, like a child who’s uttered an obscenity.
“Call me Mom, sweetheart.”
Jeorgia says, “Louise,” again—the goofy sounding name that belongs to the president of the Junior League, the wife of a prominent seventh district judge, the mother of a daughter who used to be something special but now is special needs.
“Sometimes she gets like this,” Jack tells his mother-in-law. “I think it’s a sign she’s coming back.”
Coming back from where? Jeorgia doesn’t know, because a girl who comes back from where she’s been doesn’t bring memories. When she’s there, she can’t remember here. When she’s here, she can’t remember there.
Jeorgia adjusts the angelic expression she’s practiced in front of the bathroom mirror. Some angels are good and some are not so good, but they all have the same face.
“You’re very pretty,” she tells her mother, without adding, “for a woman your age,” as people sometimes do.
Mom smiles at the compliment, but keeps it insincere, in case her brain damaged daughter has remembered how to make cruel jokes.
Jeorgia brushes a hand through her mother’s hair, artificially colored blond to match her senior high school picture. The same style too, stiff with spray, shaped by a stylist from Dallas who charges five hundred dollars for the effort. He’s muscled Mom’s hair into a shape that’s shiny and stiff and completely out of place, like the chrome bulldog on the hood of a Mac truck.
“Pretty, pretty, pretty,” Jeorgia tells mom as she leads her to the sofa in front of the entertainment center that’s been dusted and turned off in honor of her visit. Louise hasn’t been called pretty for a while, so she follows without a struggle, and she sits besides her daughter and listens while Jeorgia tells her: “Never had me a girl as pretty as that.”
Jack starts to say something to Jeorgia’s mom. Tell her where Jeorgia heard those words. Tell her to get up and walk away. But he can’t think how to put it without sounding crazy.
Jeorgia places her lips over Mom’s and doesn’t stop when Mom tries to pull back. And she tries to pull back pretty hard, because kissing Jeorgia like this is way too lesbian and incestuous for the president of the Junior League. But what is a mother to do when her addled daughter tries to kiss her on the lips and includes tongue in the bargain?
Jeorgia has a memory that might have once belonged to a white supremacist, a serial murderer, who liked his girlfriends dead.
When you’re making women do what they don’t want:
Keep them guessing . . .
About your plans . . .
Until it’s much too late . . .
Mother Louise’s soul doesn’t taste like chilidogs, but Jeorgia finds other flavors:
From Mom’s college years—the ecstasy, and the sex that followed, and the abortion no one knows about.
From last week, when the judge wasn’t at home. The pool boy was Hispanic and illegal. Here today and gone tomorrow, so it wasn’t really cheating.
From yesterday when her lover bound her wrists with silk ropes and told her what a naughty girl she’d been, even though she hasn’t been a girl for a very long time.
Mom’s secrets taste like Citrus Altoids—sour and curiously strong.
There aren’t many left when Jeorgia pulls away.
Jack shakes his mother-in-law’s arm gently and asks, “Are you all right?” like the American Red Cross says you should when a person’s been struck by lightening or fallen off a ladder.
It’s a silly question, and when mother Louise doesn’t answer, Jack asks Jeorgia: “Is she all right.”
“She’ll come out of it in a little while.” Jeorgia savors her newly acquired Junior League vocabulary. She kisses Jack on the cheek; pleased to see he doesn’t pull away.
“I saved plenty of room for desert.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Biggs is a relatively new writer with about a dozen stories published online, in small circulation magazines and in three (soon to be 4) anthologies. His first novel, OWL DREAMS is under contract with Pen-L Publishing and should come out some time in 2013. He’s had some success with regional and national contests, the most notable of which are: 2011 grand prize winner of the Writers Digest annual contest and third prize winner of Lorian Hemingway short story contest, 2012 finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award, Creme de la Creme Award at the Oklahoma Writers Federation Inc annual conference, best of the net nomination, People’s Choice Award 2nd quarter for The Storyteller Magazine.