Sunday, September 30, 2012

Draft II, "The Thing With Feathers" (1,425 words)

Hope is the thing with feathers 
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all. 

--Emily Dickinson

The Thing With Feathers

Jorge told me Joyce the Dane was a little more radical, even by our standards. But we were in a hurry to get to the hotel, so his description was left at that, and my imagination didn't have a lot of time to pick up where he left off. In my mind, I got as far as a nose ring and tattoos of cats humping.

She perched her boulder-sized butt on a pointy rock oddly situated in the Colorado field.

I was right about the nose ring--silver, big as a quarter--and I liked the butch Mohawk, black like her tank top that shamelessly showed her chubby but strong looking left arm covered in tattoos. Even as we got closer, though, the tats were hard to distinguish, color running from neck-nape to thick fingertips in a blur of black, red, purple and yellow, too-closely etched to illustrate anything more than rebellion.

But that was nothing compared to the other thing.

Dark, peacock blue, fan shaped, layered rows from shoulder to wrist on the outside of her right arm (so at least the inner arm could lay naturally flat against her side) descended in a plumbiferous pattern of shiny half-circles like no bird clothing I'd ever seen.

"Implants," Jorge said. "The quills are stuck under the skin on either side, so she can get that round look."

"Feathers?" I asked. "Seriously?"

"I told you she was a little different."

When she called to us, I expected some kind of caw, but her voice was just that of a woman who had smoked more than cigarettes for a long time. "You're late, hairbag!"

"Yeah, yeah," Jorge said. "And you never are."

The seamless skin of her cheeks, nose and chin were pale, her lips young looking, her dark eyes aware and naked of makeup.

"Is this the bitch?" she asked.

I answered for him.


"What's your name again?"


"No fucking way. Janet? That's it? Janet? The one I've heard so much about?"

"I guess. What have you heard?"

"Jorge told me you're not mainstream, someone I'd like at least a little." She ran her eyes over me so fast, I couldn't tell if she was even seeing me. "You don't look like much."

"Well," Jorge came to my defense, sort of. "I said a little. You don't like many people anyway."

"Point taken."

"Why the Dane?" I asked.

She tilted her head like a curious raven, probably not expecting a question from a forgettable someone named just Janet.

"Viking invaders. Tenth century or so."

"No horned helmet?"

"Shut the fuck up."

I didn't apologize. You don't apologize to people like Joyce the Dane.

"You need a real name. But I don't know. Not a lot here to name."

She lit something funny smelling. "Try this," she said handing it to me.

"What is it?"

"Just try it."

I took a drag, hating to inhale anything burning, but did it anyway. In spite of Joyce the Dane's assessment, history and reputation said I was intrepid, among other things, and I didn't want to disappoint.

It was sweet and somehow familiar, something I'd smelled in my grandmother's house when I was a kid, when I'd cared about things a little more.


"Herbs. Non-carcinogenous. Hard to get, but I found a dealer."

I started to hand her back the smoking stick, thinking I could probably break it up and make one hell of a pasta sauce.

"Keep it."

"No thanks."

"Do it," said Jorge under his breath.

I shrugged, rubbing the tip against the side of Joyce's rock.

"Don't waste it. They're not cheap."

"We better get going. Check-in was an hour ago," Jorge said.

I sometimes call him Jorge the Frugal. He doesn't like to waste a single penny on things he pays for, and that includes minutes for hotel rooms.

We were probably twenty feet away before Joyce the Dane yelled.


I looked back.

"Janet the Vague."

I didn't respond.

"Janet the Vague. That's your name."

She lit another herbal cigarette and raised her face to the sun.


My forehead was crying in sweat before we'd gone twenty feet more. I was in khaki shorts. The tall, tan and pale-green weeds cut my calves. Joyce the Dane must be cooking in those black parachute pants she's wearing, I thought. But maybe the feathers had helped her build up better heat tolerance.

"What happens when it rains? Does she use a hair dryer?" I was half kidding.

"Shakes them dry. And keeps them oiled so the wet doesn't get in. Cuts down on replacement costs."

"Do they ever pop out?"


"Does she have to go somewhere to get them fixed?"

Jorge shook his head. "Sticks them back in herself."

I pondered that for a minute. Then, "What did you tell her about me?"

"Just the usual."

The room was bland, two queen sized beds, one already claimed by some ignorable blond guy I didn't know who was making out with a prep-school girl. I guess Jorge didn't know them much either, maybe not at all. The room rate was right was all he'd said.

Jorge and I dropped our flimsy duffel bags on the other bed. I stripped down to panties and wrapped a big, yellow towel around me.

Jorge pulled up his Speedos, making him look skinnier than his already emaciated self.

The pool was warm and filled with hyper little kids, which is what makes pools like those warm.

Jorge and I swam underwater, challenged each other to breath-holding contests, did a breast-stroke race.

It took about thirty minutes for a lady dressed in a miniscule bikini and reading a fashion magazine to notice me. "Oh my God! You! You!" she screeched. "You can't come in here like that! This is a family pool!"

I was in the shallow end, stood up and gave her my signature stare, the one that usually silences people when they see the scars.

"I'm calling security!" She bounded out of her plastic lounger, big boobs bouncing.

"What's the difference?"

I had to yell it twice to be heard over the acoustics.

She paused, mid-horrified-haste. "What difference? What do you mean?"

"Your nipples are barely covered and you got a string running down your ass crack. I'm mostly underwater. And my underwear covers more than your bikini bottom."

It was true. I wear white, cotton briefs. Keeps away yeast infections.

"What I'm wearing is legal," she said, like she was some kind of pool priestess.

"Oh," I said. "Well, I guess that makes a difference, right?"

I floated on my back, my small breasts poking through the water's surface, my thick thighs rising enough to reveal the body-length fossils of what I'd started to call "The Big Burn."

"I'm calling security!"

The man in the burgundy blazer showed up faster than most.

"You need to leave, lady," he said. "Now."

I looked at Jorge.

He shrugged. "Guess we better," he said, swimming to the ladder, reaching the top rung, a solid erection under his tiny suit, more obvious than the guard who kept his eyes on me.

Bikini-lady gawked at Jorge's crotch.

"Hurry it up," the guard said. "Cover yourself."

I picked up the towel. It was a little damp from the kids, who'd actually stopped splashing for about five seconds during the drama, but only to watch the screaming lady. Young kids don't obsess much over topless swimmers the way most adults do.

Jorge wrapped the towel around my shoulders, leaving most of my legs exposed.


The call came from a suntanned boy with dark curly hair. He was sitting on the pool's edge, swinging his feet, skimming the water with his toes.

"What happened to your legs?"

"They got burnt," I said.

"Your face, too?"

"Yeah, a little. And my arms." I shifted the towel and showed him the mess of dense scar tissue.

"How? I mean, what happened?"

"Fire. Fell asleep with a lit cigarette."

"Can you fix it? Your skin, I mean?"

"I guess," I said. "I don't know. Costs a lot of money."

He nodded in that way kids do when they understand but adults don't think they do.

Weirdly, the image of Joyce the Dane's feathers popped into my head. What did they feel like, those smooth pieces of color she'd made part of herself?

"Yeah...I guess...I guess I could do something about it," I said. "Maybe I will some time."

Yellow, though, I thought. I really like yellow.

Katherine Gotthardt 
September 30, 2012
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