Two o’clock had gone ashen and significant, like an old man’s face or his body. The sky promised worse things soon enough. Amber pushed a blond lock back behind an ear, the hair glancing a row of steel studs driven like garden stakes into the cartilage of her helix and lobule. Her free hand rested lightly on the un-taped glass. The cool of it radiated into her. She thought of the racing seconds of quiet after a promise or—incidentally—during a hurricane’s eye.
She wore pre-faded jeans and a small tee shirt. Stylish, but not quite in fashion, the wardrobe alluded to punk rock, outlet malls and other holdover habits from high school. It defined her succinctly, but incompletely. A year later, when you saw her in her new skirt (the plaid one so short you kept catching glimpses of her white white underwear) it seemed like someone else altogether, even though you knew it had to be her. You were all wet from having jumped into the aboveground pool. She gave you an old Misfits shirt and a pair of JNCOs to wear while your clothes dried, and you thought oh, I remember Amber now. You had seen her naked a million times.
When she smiles it turns her cheeks to waxed apples but she wasn’t smiling right then there at the window. She was thinking: not about storms and their raw energy, or the oak tree with its rigid labyrinth thrust skyward, how she might soon witness her ceiling broken thereby: wood obliterating other wood fast as a miracle running backwards.
The glass revealed a ghost of herself, but she knew how to handle ghosts and stared past the strained, translucent creature to a petty expanse of grass that fixed her building to the deserted street, its shuttered shops and condemned strays.
Beyond that was only the storm. It was really going to happen and you weren’t there. Your name was Nick and you were still in China, maybe studious by the dim light of a bad bulb or jerking off in some bathroom thinking about Michelle, whom you never told Amber about and whom, you should never forget, I had before you did. I always wondered what you saw in her that I couldn’t, what made her off-ness on for you, but mostly I was just glad she started stopping at your bedroom door and left my end of the hallway alone. (Except that she would have switched back in a second.) She was an ugly drunk and that was part of it; I already had one of those in my life – but this isn’t about Michelle, it’s not about you, and I refuse to let it devolve into another damn sculpture of Maggie. It’s about Amber, and the unconsummated waves of affection that wore away at us until one broken levee of a day I kissed her and she liked it. We didn’t tell you; it was ours. We could have fucked maybe twice before the regret caught up with us.
She was a weather freak and crushed on every forecaster. Even the fat ones. Late nights would dissolve into early mornings while she waited for her favorites, their toupees and full-color satellite imagery. Sometimes I’d find her in the living room appraising the weekly forecast with a sexualized eye not unlike the one I cast on her or you cast on whatever you weren’t ignoring just then. When hurricane season really got going, the predictions were always of landfall and dire consequences. The animated projections were repeated with slight variations, over and over, as if a DJ were scratching them on vinyl. She followed every named and unnamed storm.
I was eager for the city to be pelted and drubbed. She knew from all her watching that this one would be the worst and stay the worst for a while. That’s why I picked it to talk about, whatever its now-forgotten name was. A new worst always comes; only tenures vary.
But I wasn’t there either. By the time it came I was away on sudden business. This picture of Amber at the window in hurricane season is a kind of second-rate vision. The hills of Tennessee shielded me from broken windows, power outages, and Amber, whose nipples I had only ever seen when we all went skinny-dipping and the night she got them pierced. She was so drunk and proud she walked around topless for an hour. The ointment on her tenders gleamed in the yellow hall light.
We had nothing that summer but our own untapped potential. We’d draw from our well of safe pleasures, filling vases and basins and ice cube trays. We’d sip rum-based drinks so sweet they were almost sour and talk about how we were the people who did not listen to Jimmy Buffet. We listened to everything else, but especially the birds that haunted the meager throes of oak jammed between duplexes and low-rise apartments like the one Amber hadn’t moved into yet.
Our life was scored by poverty and a righteousness which charged the air like static electricity until our hair stood out straight and we began to believe that we secretly owned everything: our house, some bar we cared for; the whole state from the Alabama border over to St. Augustine, down past the Rat Kingdom all the way to the Hemingway house and the queer-strewn beaches down by Cuba. It was early summer and the weather was good. Hurricane season hadn’t started. Every night was balmy. Amber would sleep in your bed, smelling the residual you in your sheets until she had smelled it all. Only her signature musks remained. We’d make ridiculous breakfasts, and wonder how you were doing making a start of things in China, if you would ever send for her or if you’d wash back up here – which of course is what you did. She never did the laundry. Sometimes I wouldn’t sleep for days.
Misty was the one who took Amber to get pierced. You always wanted Misty and I actually undressed her a couple times. I had Ileana first too. The only thing you ever had on me was Amber. But damn. Okay. This is fucked up. I see that now. But let’s get back to it, and end with what Amber was thinking as she looked out the window, which was supposed to and could – has to – still be the point. So what was Amber thinking?
Amber probably stood there thinking how there was enough time to tape the window, but no tape.
Justin Taylor is editing an anthology of Apocalypse-themed short fiction for Thunder’s Mouth, and a celebration of the life of Donald Barthelme for McSweeney’s; both are due out in early 2007. See all his work at justindtaylor.net.