Every Wednesday, I?m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I?ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one?s a prequel to the sixth story in the collection, ?Little Fingers?, originally published in Hawai’i Review.
?Be careful up there.?
The voice just appeared, as if from God. If God croaked like a frog. I looked up from the catwalk, the studio?s roof just three feet above my head. I looked around and down. Nobody. Up here was a honeycomb of black X?s and me in my big yellow shirt, the worker bee rebulbing a lamp. The casing was stuck, and I tugged and tugged and wrenched it off, falling back into the railing, which jattered from my weight.
Dragged out this time, like a schoolyard taunt.
?Who is that??
Who was projecting his dumb fears and anxieties on me, a woman who could readily pas de bourree down a catwalk, three gins deep?
Vince was the guy who did all the show captions. He sounded the most like a frog.
I gripped the rail and dipped my body down under the rigging, and I scanned the whole studio from above and couldn?t see a single person. I righted myself and then I saw him, sitting Indian-style between me and the ladder to the floor. As narrow the catwalk was, with my hips I had to shimmy down it at a kind of angle, so how he got his akimbo knees to fit there was a mystery, until I saw they were also where the railing?s support posts were, like they occupied the same space at the same time, and that?s when I backed up a few steps.
?How are you doing that??
He stood and fizzed in and out a bit, like a hologram. His face was young, semi-cute, but mostly he was just a lot of ugly greys and beiges.
?I didn?t think you were being careful.?
So he was just another dead man telling me what to do. I said I was as good at rigging lights as he was at being a creep. Then he giggled like a fruit.
?I didn?t mean to scare you.?
?Then what was with the spooky voice??
Shimmering, he shrugged.
?I used to work here. I died taping Mr. Rogers? Neighborhood.?
So it was true what I was dealing with. He pointed down to my left, where the big tree from the Land of Make Believe stood at the ready.
?Heavier than it looks. Gave me an aneurysm. Died on the spot. He spoke at my funeral, though, which I heard was nice.?
He had a smile like a boy in the bathtub. Was he fucking with me?
?So now you just haunt this mid-market PBS studio? Like Phantom of the Opera??
I trusted people a lot more in those days than I do now. My Pittsburgh years, when I look back on them, were just a record of my being stupid and acting stupid.
?Look, I?m not an asshole, my life is over. This is the only kind of fun I get to have now.?
The red-digit clock on the wall read 11:50, which meant lunch. I took the opposite ladder. Had he ever watched me go to the bathroom?
Once, I split my lip in a fistfight with a fat-breasted girl who called my boyfriend a jagoff. For a week I looked like a teased-up ghoul and couldn?t smile without pain, so I took a break from that boyfriend (who was, in the end, the Marc Jacobs of jagoffs) and listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell. I kept my bedroom blinds drawn and journaled about starving African babies. Mom slipped my phone messages under the door. I didn?t cry once. But when I came back to be, as she?d put it, among the living, I felt I could control my moods the way I could control which side of the pillow I slept on. Just flip the thing over, and sleep like a baby, I said to my boyfriend as we broke up, packing his Merits in the palm of my left hand.
?Who were you talking to??
David was suddenly there in the kitchen with me, like a fart I hadn?t dealt. He was sweating and frump-faced?tuckered out, I imagined, from his squash game with Chris.
?My mom. She?s getting lonely. I can tell.?
It was a lie, but if he knew I?d been on the phone with Mr. Davidson he?d roll his eyes and mumble something about father figures I wasn?t in the mood to hear right now. I asked him how work was, and he told me someone had stolen his lunch again. A sad sack. He rubbed his belly in the doorway.
?I like that shirt. Not a lot of girls can pull off yellow.?
?I feel like a bag of piss.?
Maybe I was being a bitch, but that guy from work was still in my head.
?I don?t want to get into an argument about something I never said.?
I loved David, but the problem with him is that his whole life was about being right all the time.
?Let?s go out. They?re showing The Wizard of Oz on Flagstaff Hill tonight.?
?I need to shower. You?re not going to complain about all the kids there??
I found us a place up the hill in the back, far away from all the running grassrats. Probably I wanted a baby one day, but today I wanted permission to have fun. I didn?t want to give this feeling up, David and me snuggled with a winejug like newleyweds?and weren?t we? Our marriage license wasn?t yet two years old. Way down the hill the screen turned to color, and I remembered that the thing about Dorothy was that she?s given that road to walk down. Her job was the easiest one in history. Down every path I?d ever walked, a hundred different brick roads branched, and if I woke up with a prayer in my head each morning it was this: There?s no good witch for you. There?s only you.
If anything I wouldn?t be afraid.
?Want to give me a handjob??
Thank God he whispered it.
You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.