Erin Lyndal Martin is a writer and visual artist. Her fiction has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Smokelong Quarterly, Atticus Review, and elsewhere.
by Erin Lyndal Martin
Who’s the Joker Now?
Someone had planted a bomb in the college gymnasium. That was forever ago, not that Amanda had stopped thinking about it, especially since she felt oddly guilty for having once made love to an arsonist who was not that particular arsonist but still troubled her. It was a strange version of the time years ago when she was broke and wanted to buy books anyway, and right then a bookstore in town went out of business and she got her books. She was convinced not only that she could make things happen by thinking about them, but that by wanting something good to happen she would also create whatever the icky flipside was of it.
And now, there had been a bomb right there in her hometown, the same town where she could still remember her arsonist-lover flopping around like a boneless chicken. Granted, she wouldn’t have believed anyone who told her arsonists were bad in bed, but in hindsight she would have preferred that to an act of domestic terrorism that killed a dozen people including an assistant volleyball coach and the first black attorney general in the whole state. She wasn’t sure what he had been doing in the college gymnasium, but she was still sorry. This was the first time she’d been back there since the bombing had happened, and she was kind of surprised that there was nothing to feel but sorry. She was sorry the whole time she stood with her hands in her pockets looking at the plaque that had finally been finished to commemorate the site. There had been a formal dedication of a memorial inside a while back, but she wasn’t sure what it consisted of, aside from a wall clock frozen at the exact time of the explosion. It would hang on the wall, permanently motionless, as if to prove how a day could easily be divided into before and after. The clock had been donated, Amanda read, by a local jeweler. It wasn’t the same clock from the gym; that one had shattered in the blast.
Amanda still felt guilty when Eric came out of the building. He was first looking off in the distance like he’d just been walking somewhere, and then he was looking at her and he couldn’t just be walking somewhere anymore. One time a tree had crashed in her yard when she was little and she grabbed a bird’s nest out of the fallen branches to take to the science fair, and she just threw it on her dresser and didn’t even notice that there was a baby bird still inside. Sure, she didn’t know for sure that the bird had been alive when she brought the nest in (Schrödinger’s sparrow?), but it was dead soon enough and she threw it all away and didn’t enter the science fair but that’s what seeing Eric was like and his hands were not in his pockets.
“I was hoping you would be here,” she said. There was a little-known movie version of this moment, black and white, and they hugged soundlessly and it was a metaphor for the lovely and austere healing power that tragedy can have. In the colorized reality, something bloomed near a public trash can and she didn’t really want to hug him at all.
“I thought I might see you at the dedication,” he said.
“Oh,” she said. “I watched it on tv.”
Stupid answer like a fruitfly on the back of a hand.
It wasn’t true anyway. It hadn’t even shown on tv where she was, just a blip on the news before she changed the channel. But there was more than that. For a minute, she'd seen the scene change from a newsroom to a cell phone camera's recording of people jumping out the windows. Amanda couldn't remember if you were supposed to jump out of
windows during an explosion or if that was what you were supposed to do for tornados, but the people who jumped walked away. The camera showed that much.
The video was small and grainy having been enlarged to fit the screen. The lack of detail rendered the escaping students into something gigantic and formless, a magnified filmstrip of an amoeba eating a paramecium. Amanda had watched a horror movie where the gimmick was that the movie looked like it had been shot on a nanny cam sewn into a teddy bear's belly. It was supposed to render the horror accidental, like she shouldn't be seeing it at all, but what is there more intentional than a camera?
That was what she knew of the dedication. That and a headline about the dedication on some online news site and clicked over to another website, one with weather forecasts because a huge drought had been underway and her hayfever was terrible.
Automatically they walked together. Neither brought up the memorial again, or the bomb, or any of it. They walked past the bombing site and the music building which stood unmemorialized beside it. Downtown they passed a pizza parlor with two signs in the window. One was new and read “Balls Not Bombs” (there was at least a basketball on the sign), and one was ancient and read “Stop In For a Little Pizza Heaven.”
“I need to get some food,” Eric said. “I gave blood this morning and I keep feeling faint.”
“Oh,” Amanda said, not sure what the proper response was to someone who had let a complete stranger stab him and suck out him circulating tissue without even getting paid for it. “I watched that movie about the teenage witches and had a bloody mary,” she said.
When they walked into her favorite place, she knew it was kind of wrong because he wasn’t one of her favorites anymore. Now she wished she’d directed him to the nearest franchised casual dining experience with the stupid, embarrassing names like Loco South of the Border Pollo and pitchers of Locoritas that Eric would pay for and she would drink.
“So,” she said, sitting down. “Did you ever finish that short story?”
“The one where that guy eats his sister’s dog.”
“He didn’t actually eat her dog. He just loses the dog.”
“He just so happens to lose the dog when he’s starving in the woods?”
“He wouldn’t lie about it.”
“Of course not. None of your characters ever lie.”
“He probably should have eaten the dog. It didn’t end that way though. I couldn’t bring myself to have him eat her dog.”
“Of course he ate the dog.”
“Of course he did, but nobody likes a guy who eats a dog.”
Eric was staying with his parents. Probably. Unless for some reason he’d suddenly moved back to his townhouse, which was not his townhouse anymore. His personal washing machine? Gone. The sink that her toothbrush stayed on top of? Gone. She imagined him missing her so much he brushed his teeth with her brush. Then she pictured his teeth falling out and his gums bleeding for a year like some freaky side effect cheerily mentioned in birth control commercials. And then she remembered that she was trying to be less violent in her thoughts, what with her arsonist-sex causing as many deaths as a small plane crash. It was hard to get rid of her violent thoughts, but everything seemed like some double entendre of black comedy. One day, back when they both lived here, Amanda was at her parents’ house when the flower guy delivered some flowers for her mom that weren’t from her dad, and Amanda called Eric. It’s like a bomb went off, she remembered saying.
That night, to cheer her up, they had ordered pizza and he let her put pineapple on it even though he thought pineapple on pizza was a Hawaiian economic conspiracy. They rented a movie, this Japanese horror movie called Honeymoon, and it was one of the best bad movies ever. In it, a lover’s lane happened to be near a junkyard that happened to be near a toxic waste dump site, so all the local teenagers started birthing robotic zombies out of nowhere and a virgin had to fight them off in a video arcade. What Amanda remembered was a slow metallic claw reaching out from the body of this teenaged girl who was now a mother, at least until her spawn shredded her and spooned her entrails into its rusted orifice-mouth. And in that moment, the movie made perfect sense to her. It was real.
“The pizza places in Syracuse are great, but I still miss coming here,” he was saying. “I came here when I was a kid and I would see the college kids who played all the pinball they wanted, and they were so good at it. It seemed like the coolest thing about being a grown-up. I never thought I’d be that big or have that many quarters.”
Amanda thought about telling him that there was something wrong with the pinball machine, and if you pushed in the coin return slot as soon as you launched your third ball, then you could get three whole new balls, and you could keep that up all night if you wanted.
She noticed that he was wearing a little pin to commemorate the bombing. She didn’t even know they made them, or where they sold them or how she would look it up to buy one on the internet. It was only when she saw his little pin that she realized that this was him hometown too. Of course she’d known it before, but it hadn’t really sunk in that when he watched all the broadcasts for the same reason she didn’t. And then she started thinking about what would have happened if he had been in the gymnasium that day. Had he been, she vowed to love/hate him in spite of his death, not because of it.
In that moment she was quiet, and near their table she could hear a couple that maybe was or wasn’t on a first date but definitely didn’t have anything interesting to say to each other. The boy was trying to start conversations and the girl was just saying things a hairdresser might say like, “well, if it’s meant to be then it will happen.” And Amanda wondered if she and Eric sounded like one of those couples, and she almost told him that she had miscarried his baby just to have something interesting to say. But she hadn’t, and Eric would know it, and even though he was so paranoid he would wear two condoms and pull out before he ejaculated, she thought he couldn’t be fooled. Into what? Gingerroot tea to curb her nausea?
There’s this picture of them, somewhere, taken ages ago. It was one of those pictures at the end of a roll of film, the kind that may or may not turn out. They were standing at his townhouse in front of a blackberry bush, only they didn’t know it was a blackberry bush then because they hadn’t seen it in full fruit. They held the camera out at arm’s length, each of them with a hand on it, and took a picture. She bit on his earlobe right before the flash, so you can see him looking amused and only slightly pained. He called it the vampire attack picture, and it was his favorite. Or his only one. Amanda wasn’t sure if there were other pictures of the two of them.
Amanda thought about her womb and the baby she hadn’t miscarried, the love child that never was. She tried to imagine that it was strange and new to be without child, but the closest she could get was the sign in some bars that reads A Pregnant Woman Never Drinks Alone.
“So I told you about my story.”
Amanda arched one eyebrow, a skill that had taken a long time to practice after she read about a girl in some adolescent novel series that could do it. Now she did it without thinking.
“The dog story. I brought that up. How about you? That Great American Novel of yours?”
“The one where the girl’s parents light each other on fire on her wedding day?”
Eric kept a straight face. One time he’d suggested that the concept was a little bit, too, what was the word, blatant and jejune? Or he hadn’t said jejune, he was softer than that, but she was always afraid of being called jejune because she didn’t know what the word meant.
“That one. Did it ever find a home with a publishing house?”
“Not yet. I’m taking a break from it at the moment.”
Amanda was secretly proud of the infamous scene of human combustion, or not so much combustion as just them lighting each other on fire. With matches! With ordinary, bought-at-the-store matches that different presidents on each package, and Gerald Ford was on the one responsible for their deaths. That was the part that she liked the most.
“Did you ever decide what was going to happen to the girl after she got married?”
“She eats ice cream on a bean bag chair.”
“I remember that. But I don’t know what else.”
“What else what? What do you mean?”
“Well, what happens to her afterwards?”
Amanda drank some beer and looked at him. “The bean bag chair is covered in cow-print.”
Later they didn’t walk anywhere near the memorial and the darkness obliterated any signs of the bombing. In darkness, the town was almost as it was before, which made Amanda feel like she and Eric what they were before. They walked until they arrived at Eric’s parents house. The lights were out except the porch light. Amanda had been there only once, and his parents were away then. She’d always been fascinated by them because of that, and tried to will herself to memorize everything on the porch: a spider plant, a doormat with nothing written on it, an empty mailbox. It was bizarre to be entranced by parents, the most boring detail of anybody’s life. She didn’t need to know anything about them anymore, though. Or then, come to think of it. Everything in this house was something she’d been denied once she was inside, she kept glancing down the hallway at a closed door. She was tempted to run inside and look at his sleeping parents just to see them. She had an image of an older, grayed-out version of Eric in boxer-briefs fidgeting in his sleep, maybe mumbling something when Amanda opened the door. Who’s the joker now, Amanda thought. Eric had said that one night in his sleep. It was one of Amanda’s favorite things about him.
Eric went into the bathroom, and Amanda looked around the kitchen. There was a postcard for an interfaith cookout on the refrigerator. It showed a blooming white lily and said If we constantly ask ourselves what a good person would do, we will all become good people. Eric’s parents were apparently trying to be good people.
Eric emerged behind Amanda, taking a Tupperware cube full of cantaloupe out of the refrigerator.
“Do you want a glass of water?” he asked.
Amanda looked around the kitchen, hoping there’d be a stray six-pack or re-corked bottle of wine. She’d heard that this was something alcoholics did, make sure they can spot the booze to know where it is just in case. She imagined stewardesses indicating bottles of vodka during some sort of pre-flight demonstration for the plane crash that every night with an ex was sure to be (Another morbid thought. She would pay for that later.) There wasn’t anything to drink there except some old cooking sherry. Amanda kind of wanted even that but couldn’t think of a way to ask for it.
“No thanks,” she said.
For a few moments more, they stood in the kitchen in that way that made the pattern on the linoleum seem like it was ten times bigger than it was.
“Maybe there’s another bad horror movie on somewhere,” Eric said, going to sit on the sofa before Amanda had a chance to answer.
Eric sat, remote in hand, folded faux Indian blanket behind him. From where? A family vacation out west? Had his sister once lived in Albuquerque, or did Amanda just make that up because of the old Bugs Bunny joke? They watched tv in the dark, Amanda micro-focusing on the space between them until he picked up her hand and said, “You’ve been so kind to me tonight.”
Amanda couldn’t think of a single kind thing she’d done that night.
“Not just tonight, but I could always count on you to be kind. I feel like I took advantage of that and hurt you. All I could think for months was how sorry I was. Am.”
There’s this other picture, somewhere else. A girl he dated who always wore this stupid necklace with an umbrella on it. He dated her after the first time he dated Amanda and before the second, and Amanda knew he sometimes had nightmares that he had to fight off strange men who were attacking her. There was one picture of Eric with her, that girl, and they’re at a baseball game. In the picture his teeth are on her earlobe, and it’s the other girl who’s looking amused and slightly pained.
Amanda looked at him, waiting for him to apologize for taking the vampire attack picture with someone else.
“You told me that before.”
“I know. But it’s all I can do.”
Amanda wondered if he were waiting for her to say she accepted his apology, whatever that meant, or that all was forgiven, or that she was wrong too and it was kind of her fault that he met someone else and told her about it over a long-distance call that she was paying for.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said, moving his hand to her face.
“I know,” Amanda said.
He touched her the way people touch groceries when all they want to know is if the bag contains lemons or bread flour and they don’t want to look inside until they feel like unpacking.
She couldn’t decide if she should take her clothes off with nonchalance (was that possible?) or with gusto, so she kind of pulled up her skirt to give the illusion of gusto. He held her and even fucking smelled her skin before her took off more of her clothes and touched her for real.
“I’m on my period,” she said.
“That’s okay,” he said. He parted her legs and licked all the blood off. He used his whole tongue like a whale, and she wondered if whales felt like their tongues all over. And if Eric thought this was just another way to say he was sorry. Or did this have something to do with the frozen clock at the memorial, the one donated after the fact by someone who hadn’t even been there? Eric took his wallet out of his discarded pants, and for a terrible half-second Amanda thought he was going to pay her. But he took out a condom instead, only one, and she heard the foil tear and felt the latex stink enter her. For a moment she pretended she was just making love to the condom. Then she wondered what a good person would do and made all the right noises, only not at the same time as his.
She tried to look at his penis afterwards just to see how much blood she’d gotten on it, but she couldn’t tell. Everything was that same skeptical color, blood and blackberry bush and bitten earlobe. When he got up to go to the bathroom, Amanda knew he’d flush the evidence and wash himself and she would never see. He didn’t shut the door all the way and she could hear him singing “Happiness is a Warm Gun” just under the running water.
She was alone in his parents’ house. The filmy eye of the lily postcard started at her, unblinking. She shut her eyes and tried to make out the lyrics Eric sang. But the postcard wouldn’t budge, its cartoonish platitude stubborn: Goofus plants a bomb. Gallant does not plant a bomb. That was easy. But what about afterwards? Does Gallant stay gallant when Goofus plants a bomb? There was no cameraphone to show this, or what the survivors did after they jumped from the windows. They walked away as the camera morphed their bodies into a single amoeba, mutated but alive.