email: email@example.com | character & plot summary
Everywhere there were flowers and slow dripping clouds. Can anyone understand the whiteness amongst the color? True-tongued, the blue and purple and red spoke wild crazy love to the world. The unicorn chuckled and did not die from the sheer innocent beauty of life. And the crazy gnome? He picked up his pieces of trash, covered himself with bright cloth, and walked into the sea.
- — sketched in Ander's journal, Saturday evening
"Go on," Amba sang, her strawberry-Pez-colored lips close to the microphone she held.
The lights splintered, accelerating as strobes over the trippy-country guitar entwined with her voice. In glimpses like a sequence of photographs, I watched her sway and touch a hand near her eyes, brushing at the wild silver hair that fell on her cheek. The lightness of those locks mixed with their violet-black siblings.
At the stage edge she sat and dangled her legs. "Leap," she intoned. She smiled as her listeners shuffled closer.
I zigzagged forward and bumped into Bob as he bowed and ducked, trying to surf the rhythm. His movement was a lot faster than the music.
"Hey. I still have the frog!" he shouted in my ear. He pulled the plastic toy from his pocket.
I flicked the frog’s nose for luck and followed Bob for a few steps, letting my legs move and arms loosen, not taking my eyes from Amba. Her gaze swept the crowd, maybe looking for me. Or so I hoped.
When I pushed out from the press of people to order a Moon River draft, Tim tapped me on the shoulder. "Don't drool."
"You have no idea if she likes you. Be careful." Another of his wise observations uttered just for the hell of it. But he was usually right.
I swigged my beer and looked up to the shelf above the bar. Elvis's stern bust sat cheek to cheek with Buddha, Jesus, and a wooden naked woman. They reclined together, the girl's mannequin legs curving around Buddha's chin, her feet touching Elvis's throat. I know they whispered about us mortals.
"Pinball." Tim pointed with his beer.
I drifted to the back corner of the room. Drew hovered intense over the pinball machine, and wrists flicked the flipper buttons and zinged the steel ball into Dracula's hand. Points clicked beneath Winona Ryder's breasts, her red glare bleeding across the score glass.
Drew had the game far past its previous high score.
"What's up?" he asked, not looking at me. Pop, click, more points. He shunted the machine to the side after a near miss, his shoulder-length hair tossing wildly. Tilt, and the pinball lights darkened, the ball dropping away into the hole.
"What do you think of the music?" I asked.
"She's yummy," he said, pulling back the knob to launch another ball. "Don't go crazy."
I nodded, and stepped away from Drew. I watched her body sway and her thin yellow shirt sneak up her belly. There was something about Amba, a spark, like a dream.
She held her mike against her forehead as Silvergirl Moon's bassist plucked dreamily, mixing percussive tones with the hushed twangs of the lead guitarist. Overhead lights flooded the stage with soft blues and purples.
"This is called ‘The Universe Inside the Flower,'" Amba said, and she sang.
The music swept through minutes of tender quiet. When I looked around, even Drew was paying attention. Amba crooned, humming like a stretch of blackened road where wind riffles the hair with the sweet-spicy rot of southern swampland. A devastatingly forlorn, yet utterly ravishing melancholy feel.
I could barely tell where it ended and I took a breath. No one clapped. They were too stunned.
The bassist plucked low. The next song exploded, Amba's voice ripping past her band's sudden frenzied guitar with a shock like defibrillation. Tim whooped, and Drew and Bob grabbed his feet. Tim went aloft with a howl. Red and violet swirling lights smashed off his gleaming teeth and we heard his snarling cackle over the roar of the guitars—the speaker hiss and boom. Two more raucous tunes and it was over. No encore.
"What now?" Drew asked. It was only 1:30.
"We could go to Creole Red's," Bob said.
Tim grimaced. "Not there again. How about something different, like Tybee?"
Drew nudged me. He glanced over my shoulder and I turned to follow his gaze. The band was packing up their equipment and Amba was coiling a microphone cord. "Ask her to come."
"I don't know." I kicked at a plastic cup on the floor. "Maybe another time."
"Come on," Drew said. "If you don't ask, how do you expect to get some?"
I sort of resented that. He knew he had more ease with women than I did.
"How about you ask?" Let him play out his bravado.
Drew eyed the other guys. "Why not?" He poked my stomach and made me follow. "Just don't freak if she goes for me instead."
As we reached the foot of the stage, Amba saw me and smiled. I was grateful. "Hi," I told her.
"Hey." She was taking apart a mike stand. "What's new?"
"This is Drew."
He stepped forward. "Great show." I was surprised, knowing he hadn't watched much of it until the beautiful song before the end.
"Thanks," Amba said.
"We have an idea," Drew began, glancing sidelong at me. "Tybee beach for a couple more hours of craziness. We were wondering if you'd like to accompany us."
"Accompany, huh?" She placed the mike stand pieces in a box. She flashed a look at her band mates and shrugged. "I might."
I was sure my heart thudded audibly.
"Just let me finish putting these things in the van."
Drew and I sauntered back to the others. I bought him a beer.
While we helped her load up, we were introduced to the rest of Silvergirl Moon. The names went by so quickly that I forgot all of them except the drummer's. The bassist's white stringy hair flew out in every direction and I jotted her down as sprite girl, as if a living faery had stepped from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
None of the other band members were excited about a drive to the beach. It would be just Amba and us.
We piled into Drew's Monte. She, Bob, and I sat in the back. I tried to situate myself so she had more room.
"Hey, it's okay," she said.
The drive to Tybee late at night feels like a wild carousal ride. Sometimes we even see the demons.
Tonight, outside, the water crested about mid-tide, glittering black across the marsh in every direction. I smiled at the turtle crossing sign. Drew didn't slow. There were no cars, no other people, just us for the long drive to the south beach.
We pulled onto Tybrisia Street, and Drew stopped at the far end of the parking lot. Dim lights shone from Fannie's, but otherwise the area was deserted. Bob prompted Drew to pop the trunk, grabbing a twelve pack for the beach.
The lowering tide exposed the breakwater. Upon its cold rocks crusty with the shells of dead life, we stood or sat drinking by the sea.
Lights blinked in the water, both distant and close, and I wondered what they were. Stars in the ocean, souls of the lost, or the more mundane buoys that lit the path of seafaring folk? The water lapped at the stone beneath my feet, whispering of an ancestral womb ready to claim any who dipped beneath its dark waterline. I love the ocean, its buoyancy, its world dream of warm and cold, but it also scares me. It reminds me how frail we are.
Lowering my head within the circle of my friends, I wished for something other than alcohol. I wanted to fly away, float in the wind, dance on a sun-warm stone, drink the water unafraid, and swim, far out far.
I looked at Amba. Her mouth was pursed as she stared out into the night. I licked my lips and tasted salt.
Drew tossed an empty bottle into the sea. It broke the trance.
Amba hopped down from a rock and stood on the sand. "I may never have seen so much sky." She spread her hands over her head and spiraled them through the air from the wrists, out, her eyes bright with the vastness above.
Tim howled and leapt to the ground, followed by Bob.
"Wolfboy," Bob crooned, but he was not a match for Tim's odes to the moon.
Amba was laughing and Wolfboy circled her and kicked his head way back, howling deeper into the wild space. He began to chase her and she ran from him, but our Wolfboy was quick, and soon had hold of her.
She squealed as he picked her up.
"Whoa, wait," she said, but it was too late. Launched aloft, she fell into Drew's arms. Drew spun and pitched her to Bob, who in turn tossed her to me.
"Ander!" she said.
"We're just playing." I whirled her away from the other guys, and began to run.
The sand was hard, damp, and I headed toward the waves. A salty spray swept across us, and a sense of wonder thrilled me that I was holding her.
Amba tensed and struggled away just before we reached the water.
"You think you're funny, don't you?" she said, somewhat out of breath.
I doubted she meant that so I smiled. She ruffled my hair and ran back to the others, pushing Bob and kicking sand toward Drew. Drew rushed at her, and held her still while Tim tickled her. She flung an elbow and Drew leapt back, while Tim got a knee in the stomach. She ducked away from them and crouched low, ready.
"Let's go," Drew said. I gathered some of the beer bottles lying around and dumped them in the trunk of the Monte while everyone piled in.
The door of the Quarter Bar & Grill was wedged open when we walked through. It was an incredible scene, island people, a traveler or two up from Florida, all eyeing the few females in the room. One or two glanced at us and locked on to Amba.
The redneck bartender broke away from the TV and strode over, his shoulders slumped, his head bobbing beneath an Atlanta Braves cap. "Need something?"
For beer they only had Miller Lite and Busch. We chose the Lite, and ordered four dozen oysters, both steamed and raw. The bartender gave us a look about the beer.
"Add six shots of tequila to our bill," Drew said. The man blinked, nodded.
We walked through to the pool room. No one else was in that part of the bar.
Tim racked one of the tables, while Bob waited eagerly to break, and I challenged Drew to a game on the other.
Amba sat, resting her elbows on one of the yellow dining tables. Tim joined her, sucking on a cigarette. I hiccupped as I set up the balls. In the first half hour Drew slid two games past me, before the oysters came out with the tequila. I was more than ready for a break.
We all munched on oysters for a while, generously dipped in horseradish and cocktail sauce. "You know what this does." Drew grinned, as Amba touched a half-shell to her lips.
She swallowed the oyster quickly. "If you mean it's an aphrodisiac, then it's only in your mind."
"Isn't that the same thing?" Drew laughed.
Bob was mumbling. Absurdly, he had bought a bottled Miller Lite, and was swigging down deep swallows from the thing. We still had a three-quarters full pitcher.
It was late.
We began another pool game, Tim, Bob, Drew, and I—and Drew offered Amba his place.
"How about we switch off?" she said.
I wish I would have asked her. I wasn't thinking. Smoke drifted over the pool table. I picked up my glass, set it down. The beer tasted bad. I'd had enough.
The pool game seemed to go on forever considering none of us could play. Amba was talking to Drew about some trivial but important point while the rest of us shot haplessly at balls numbered 13 and 4, bouncing them out of every targeted pocket.
I slumped against the wall.
Drew's attention to Amba irritated me. But I didn't know how to stop it; I didn't have anything cool to say.
As a loopy, warbling blues tune cycled through the jukebox, he leaned into her. Damn! He didn't kiss her though, instead pushed past her with a cue, brushing close. He smiled his smoldering grin.
She laughed and slid out of the way.
"It's your shot." Tim handed me a stick.
I sank the hated purple ball, then the eight. Bob whistled.
"Finally." Tim clapped his hands.
"I'm going to the bathroom," I said. "You guys can have the next game."
I tried not to look at Amba.
The small bathroom was semi-clean and didn't stink like bar bathrooms usually do. The graffiti on one wall was a sick joke about pine trees and dead girls.
Drew came in.
I glared. "Why are you doing this?"
"What?" he asked.
I knew he knew. I didn't answer.
"What makes her yours, Ander?"
He was right; nothing made her mine. I said the next words anyway.
"I found her."
"So?" Drew chuckled as he crushed tight the brown napkin he'd used to wipe his hands.
I couldn't speak. He kept smirking and tossed the napkin, bouncing it off my chest.
"You are so naïve." He shook his head in his patented, infuriatingly superior way, and walked out.
Fuck. I hit the steel wall above the pine girl graffiti. Drew was my best friend, why did he have to rape me this way? My hands curled into fists, but I couldn't make myself hate. I knew it wasn't his fault. Amba scared me. Every girl I've ever liked has.
I thought of all my conversations with Drew about the way I approached girls. He said I didn't treat them as real.
Could he be right? Amba must have some weird tangle in how she thought of me. Most girls thought I was… off in some way.
I stared hard into the bathroom mirror, wiped my hair from my forehead. I felt like an idiot. I liked Amba. I wanted to be her friend.
I didn't want to bother her.
I followed out after Drew. The pool game had been abandoned and everyone was set to go. Amba looked at me, dark makeup from her show earlier in the night clotted beneath her eyes. I don't think she knew anything was amiss. The expression on her face where she stood with the others was clean and beautiful, but I thought of her by the pool table, the dandelion play between virgin and whore.
I rubbed my eyelids. I knew she was neither and I was sure of the innocence in her. But I was drunk and tired.
We paid up and left the bar. Bob lay on his stomach in the gravel, sleeping, a beer bottle clutched spear-like in his fist.
"Where are we going?" he chattered as Tim and Drew loaded him into the car.
Amba sat in the back with me again, and I was very quiet. We dropped Tim on Wilmington Island, then drove down Victory Drive, went north on East Broad, stopping outside Bob's so he could stumble up to his broken house.
Drew turned onto Habersham. When I glanced into the rearview mirror I spied Amba staring back at me. We were close to my home and I was getting restless. Drew steered around a city square, unconcerned.
"Drop me by my car," I told him.
"I'm not ready to go home yet." I thought about my house, the stillness of my room, the things I had there. I didn't want to be that alone. Not yet. Not with Amba so near, yet so far, right there in the backseat of Drew's car.
"Suit yourself." Drew pulled in next to my blue Pontiac. Amba leaned between the bucket seats.
"I'll see you, Amba."
She frowned and touched my arm. "Where are you going?"
"Across the river. A place I know."
Drew shook his head. He knew where I meant.
"Can I come with you?" she asked.
Something tickled my chest, thickened my throat. "Sure."
I swung the swivel of the seat around. Amba gave Drew a quick hug and climbed out. "Thanks," she said.
Drew dug into his pocket.
"Check this, Ander." He held up the 13 ball. "I nicked it for you."
He yanked the shifter into drive and sped away.
I chose not to answer the bewilderment in Amba's eyes.
As I drove along Habersham to Oglethorpe, I tried to forget about Drew. It wasn't difficult; Amba was there. My despair was flipping to excitement so fast that I had more than the usual trouble starting a decent conversation.
"What a strange night," I tried.
"Your friends are a lot of fun," Amba said.
"Yeah." I picked at something on my jeans. "They usually are."
"Crazy though." She grinned.
I laughed too loudly.
"But there's more to you than that. I wouldn't have went with you guys otherwise." She rolled her window down a little. "I mean it."
"Thank you." I shivered, trying to rid myself of ill feelings, to release my anger with Drew. He was my friend.
I looked at Amba and she stared back—a wonder, and a mystery. I didn't know her but I wanted to.
"I want to show you something," I said.
I took her away from Savannah, across the Talmadge bridge and into South Carolina. Not far along Highway 170 the headlights of my car swung across the church, its white frame tarnished from black dust and yellow pine pollen. It was quiet. I followed the gravel path and parked by the cemetery gate.
Equipment for taking care of the small, old graveyard was stored within the church, though the building hadn't been used for a religious service in years. The back door was never locked. I held Amba's hand, and she allowed me to lead her inside.
Silent pews contemplated our interruption. We ignored them, and stepped up creaky stairs into the steeple.
A heavy, rusted bell hung in the small room on top. A bench hugged one wall, and Amba sat while I fidgeted with the wooden slatted window, opening it to the night.
Frogsong drifted into the tiny room. The smell of damp dust. With the window open we could see our footprints scattered across the scratched hardwood floor. The stars and the thin sliver of moon were bright enough.
"This is incredible," she said.
"I know. It's one of my favorite places."
We talked, and I grew comfortable. I felt brave.
"Can I read you something?" I asked, pulling my small green notebook from my back pocket.
I skipped over the first few pages and found the poem I wanted.
you dare to sing for me
and I listen
tossed and tumbled
a fragile string,
a single breath
the tone just right
your dream holds me,
it holds me to this life"
My voice was scratchy and my hands shook when I finished. The window light illuminated the wood walls like bone where it touched. On Amba's face it lay soft. Her eyes were black in the light, no reflection.
"I like that."
"Thanks." I looked down.
Her fingers touched my chin and I trembled as she lifted my eyes to hers.
"Want to trade questions?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's sort of a game," she said. "We each ask one question, about anything, and the other person has to answer."
"Okay. Who goes first?"
"I will, since I know my question." She smiled, her lips wet and mischievous. "Tell me your most perfect memory."
"That's not easy." I said.
"I know. It doesn't have to be your best, just one that has stuck with you."
I thought, and remembered something from a trip out west as a kid. I started to tell her, and a lop-sided grin spread across my face as the leaves and the green grass and the ropy white-blue sky came alive all over again.
There had been a buffalo and my dad had stopped the car. Astonished, I had gone up to the fence, not listening as my mom called me back. The huge creature had breathed saliva into the air, and a waft of wetness across my face. It had snorted in recognition, and nodded its head.
"Amba," I said, "it was as if I kissed a mammoth. You might think this is weird, but it saw me, the real me, I'm not sure how or why, but it did."
"You know, that might be even more beautiful than your poem." Her mouth was half-open, her eyes alight.
"Thanks." I shrugged.
She nudged me. "Okay, your turn."
I tried to think of a good question. Several I discarded because they were stupid or trivial, and it seemed too risky to ask her if she liked me.
Then I had one. "What is the most horrible thing you can think of?"
Oh no, wrong question. She looked skittish for a second, then answered almost right after. Maybe not so wrong.
"The worst…" she paused. "I think the truly horrible goes beyond the imaginings of evil and its wants, to complete nothingness, blind rockiness, and terrible unbeing."
The moonlight slanted through the window and shined across her cheeks, the shadows of her lips. She shuddered. "In that place you would hear screaming and not know what it means, just feel complete, soulless, silent confusion. But without thought. Unbeing. And nothingness."
I swallowed. "That's incredibly stark."
She hugged herself. "I'm hoping it never happens to me. It would be a place without love."
We were quiet for a while. I almost wished I could take my question back, and ask a different one.
Amba stared at her hands and rubbed a finger. She had leaned forward and I noticed a silver crucifix swinging idly before her breasts, catching the moonlight, back and forth like a pendulum.
"You know," I whispered, "sometimes it freaks me out that it's not just you or I sitting here, but our spirits inside our bodies sitting here." I moved a finger before her face. "Think about it, your spirit is looking out at me through your eyes."
She gazed at me, and then she laughed. "It is more than that. Our bodies are connected, like light is, like fire."
She stretched out her legs and reached a hand into a pocket. Out came a match, which she struck against the wooden window sill.
The match caught, and she held it up to me.
"See? It burns, hot. Destroys yet lives. Entirely alive." Her hand shook only slightly.
I watched the flame flicker, the red, the orange, saw past it to the silver tresses framing her dark black hair. The heat before her moved, swaying back and forth like belly dancers will. Mesmerizing.
Her lips formed distracted words, her eyes shifting focus on the flame.
"Ouch!" She dropped the match to rub her fingers against her jeans.
"Are you okay?"
"Of course." Her head shot up, her eyes still filled with fire. She dug in her pocket and pulled out a matchbook, her eagerness to light a new match knocking two more books to the ground. She knelt, gathered them up and slid them back in her pocket, then swiftly lit a match and shifted to sit directly across from me.
"Why do you have so many matches?" I asked.
She bent forward and moved the match close and I felt the heat drying my eyes.
"Can't you see?"
I looked, and shook my head. "I only see you."
She laughed. "That might be it exactly."
Her eyes flickered with her true meaning but I thought about the times when I cared only for myself or the intensity of the moment.
"It is easy to burn up," I said, hooking a thumb in my pocket, pulling it out.
"Yes, but to radiate love and respect the process—to have the feeling pulsing out of you." She sat back and touched the floor, drawing a little ‘o' in the dust with one finger. "To live in love with everything, to live by fire." She leaned close again. "It's like a thousand hugs."
Every word she said was amazing, so beautiful I knew I would never remember them. I think I loved her and Drew was probably right and I was naïve and my innocence I enjoyed so much would probably get shattered. But what she said was more than anyone ever had.
"Is that how you are?" I asked quietly, not sure of anything thing except the words tumbling out of my mouth.
"Yes," she said, and kissed me. Twice.
Which maybe was all I needed to hear.