THE LEAVES WERE CHANGING COLORS—or as Pinky liked to put it—losing their old selves. We were in the middle of autumn, 1971. In country. We were floundering. We were messed up. But we were gifted. We could change. We wanted to believe that we could believe. Our heads were full of other voices that said “We will die soon. Can you carry on?” Some teachers would pronounce us as beautiful. Beautiful misfits. Enjoy this time of your life, one English Professor said, it will never come this way again. Her name was Mrs. Darcy and she wore thick horn-rimmed glasses. She had to practically yell to be heard over the war protestors outside the window.
I drove my father’s station wagon that had tiny dents on its passenger side. It was the first car I learned on. The clutch slipped at the worst possible moments—before intersections or around tortuous curves—and the heater blew cold air. We were headed to see Corky, named after his corkscrew hair, an ex-instructor of ours at Small Mills College, an exclusive school for those who wanted to get away, to forget for a brief period of their youth. I wondered if any stage of youth, or of life for that matter, could be disposable. The college was located in the heart of Nowhere, Pennsylvania. Corky had invited us to a prairie-styled house where he was living with a girl I knew. Her name was Esmeralda. He had once tutored her. In something.
With the driver’s window open, I kept hearing a distant buzzing in the sky. A private plane? A rich boy’s Cessna with a mind of its own? Pinky said that it reminded her that they’re dropping bombs somewhere. She said someday the smoke would reach here and make all of us very sick. She never used the word—napalm.
She wore a peach-colored tunic shirt and a beige mini-skirt. A rhinestone seahorse glittered near the collar. She was lightweight, almost anorexic looking. She was in love with a chemistry professor. Rumors had it that he made his own Quaaludes and had gotten busted. Whenever asked about him, Pinky became flighty or tongue-tied. She tilted her head or made her cheeks bulge. Or she dodged my questions with her big brown eyes focused on the center of my forehead. She claimed she only dropped acid with him, once or twice.
She majored in dance, but had a slight limp from some childhood affliction. I dismissed the thought of polio. She never went into detail. “So I’m a clumsy dancer. They’ll find a fix for this stupid limp. Maybe I’ll be someone’s private dancer. Maybe I’ll tour with Martha Graham and I’ll be everyone’s dancer. It’s just that when I dance I am not real. I’m so far. This far. That far. I keep spinning away. I can get away from myself.”
Sometimes when she spoke, she underscored her sentences with the motions of one hand, fingers spread, her head rocking, as if conducting a symphony.
I reminded myself that Pinky was just another girl from college, only wispier and prettier in the sense of cute, in the sense of freaky. She would always be a “friend,” a girl I could only half-love and never fully forget. My attraction to her was 99% platonic. Sometimes, it made me sad. I liked to think of her as a star that hung close to my window at night, gone by morning. We met one another in a philosophy of religion class. In response to a professor’s question, she stated that Kant was weird, that he needed a woman with real curves. We hung out on campus and shared afternoons on a bus to the museums. We lived on ice-cream sandwiches and cold pizza. The only time we French kissed was in front of a bookstore in the rain. An R.O.T.C. student had just broken up with her. She said I was a sloppy kisser but at least I was a warm squeeze. She advised me to shave my goatee. Women would find me more attractive. Clean shaven, I’d look like Tim Buckley, she said, the folk singer, her dream man.
At times, she could read me perfectly. Like the time she stared into my face and said that growing up I experimented with homosexuality.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
She said, “You’re a Pisces, aren’t you?”
I did shave off my goatee. I was still alone at night.
We turned off on a narrow dirt road. We spotted the brown-and-white house with horizontal accents. It was past a valley and a long stream where ducks floated. It was perched at the top of a scree-covered hill. The buzzing overhead now alternated between loud and faint. Pinky squirmed in her seat, then turned and smiled sweetly at me.
She admitted she once was in love with Corky. It was not mutual. She said that he never had a thing for girls with too thin frames, with that Mia Farrow “needy” look. They fall down too easily. They reminded him of the Domino Effect, or of exotic butterflies he once kept in jars as a kid. Skinny girls, she said, imitating his starchy and authoritative monotone, never survive.
“I’m over it,” she said, “see?”
She leaned toward me. For a moment, I steadied my eyes on her brimming fake smile, her perfect little teeth.
She kept raising her eyebrows like Groucho Marx, and it made me laugh.
She also did the funniest impersonations of Mae West. I mean, for a skinny girl, it was hilarious with all the posturing and jutted hips and come up to see me sometime, big boy.
At the house, we hugged and exchanged greetings. Corky remarked that we all looked good, then offered to get some smoke: Acapulco Gold. Pinky said no pot for her. It made her too “transparent.” She faded into the large living room and danced by the stereo where Carly Simon sang “A Legend in Your Own Time.” There was the smell of sandalwood, and on a wall, there was a poster of Marlon Brando as an unscrupulous guru from the movie, Candy. A German shepherd puppy barked.
Esmeralda’s tone was soft, restrained; at other times, nervous. She wore a red wine polyester shirt with three-quarter sleeves and a short pleated skirt. Her long brown hair and gap-toothed smile sent a familiar chill through my bones. There was a twinkle in her eyes that could mean so many things.
“How’ve you been, Rick?” Her forehead was more creased and she looked more tanned than what I last remembered.
“Got accepted into grad school. A student for life.”
“Great. I’m postponing it. I think I’m pregnant.”
Her eyes inspected mine, performed subtle sweeps.
I felt as if I swallowed a large fly. I became very still. The fly buzzed inside my brain.
“I mean, I feel something. Going to get tested. I keep forgetting. I know. How do you forget something like that? I’m such an airhead.”
We all keep forgetting something is what I didn’t say.
Pinky changed records. Something classical. Maybe a Chopin polonaise. I noticed that around Corky, she acted like a little girl, averting his eyes, acting very polite and small. Esmeralda headed to the bathroom. Corky returned with the pot. We sat Indian style on the shag carpeted floor. Esmeralda was carrying dishes and utensils outside for the barbecue. Later, Corky confided to me that he wanted to become a missionary, spreading the word of peace. But it wasn’t feasible at the moment.
Everything was so not feasible.
“Esmeralda looks good,” I said, passing him the joint.
He thanked me and said that lately Esmeralda was complaining that he was becoming straight in the sense of white collar. Someday—he enunciated emphatically her accusations—he’d resemble the very bankers and executives whom he rebelled against.
At first, I thought he was only half-serious. His eyes scoured the floor, veered to the wall, to a reproduction of a Burt Shonberg painting of an alien sitting in vast space.
He brought up the old days, how he protested the carpet bombings in Vietnam, how he spent a night in jail with Jerry Garcia. How upon release, he must have smelled like shit.
“I hope the war is over soon,” I said.
“The war is within us,” he said. He reminded me of John Lennon giving an interview.
I gazed down at his Jesus buffalo-leather sandals. In his spare time, when he wasn’t teaching freshman comp, he painted. He painted women of all types and colors or combinations of. He painted women with white, off-white, with grey, with orange, with sandy gold, with sage green and brown. He painted them as victors and as victims. He said the war was killing our sisters.
A fly settled on his beard. He shooed it away.
Esmeralda entered and sauntered past us. She wore some heavy apple-orchard fragrance. In an adjacent room, she and Pinky spoke softly and giggled like two shy schoolgirls.
“What’s with the Twiggy look? You lost weight since I last saw you, haven’t you? I mean that as a compliment,” Esmeralda said.
“You remind me of someone whose name I keep forgetting,” said Pinky.
“Is she pretty?”
“Yes. She’s talented and has subtle curves. Tell you this much. It’s not Mae West. Her curves were not subtle.”
Pinky’s voice was full of musical highs, wavering plateaus. She always projected this sense of a funny little girl in boots too big.
We followed Corky out to the barbeque.
The buzzing circled over us. It was getting under my skin. I couldn’t make out a shape. Pinky said it was a plane sent from Indochina. She never used the words—North Vietnam or MiGs. She picked that up from the chemistry professor. She never mentioned his name. I believe he was half-Chinese.
We finished our hot dogs and cheeseburgers. We threw scraps to the dog. We discarded our paper plates streaked with ketchup or mustard. We talked about faraway places, about magic buses, about moving out to California, about people who never quite settle down. Corky asked if being a nomad was a curse or a blessing.
Pinky said it was both. She offered no further explanation.
Esmeralda smile politely.
Watching Pinky’s poker face, I stifled a laugh.
Then, Pinky, who hardly touched her potato salad, stated that she was full. She had to keep her lithe figure as a dancer or else she would be kicked out of the program. Corky smirked. He adjusted his wire frames, then smoothed his beard with long, finger strokes.
From the corner of one eye, I made out a large shadow. Or maybe I was just imagining one. I looked up and saw a flash of it before it disappeared. The plane. The metal bird. Was it playing some kind of game with us? And who was the pilot? And from where?
Pinky also looked up and squinted. She stood before us as if about to give a performance.
“Imagine, Rick, if I were the pilot of that plane. If it is a plane, I mean.”
She glanced at Corky, perhaps to see if he was listening or to arouse some imagined jealousy, since she was addressing me and not him.
She outstretched her arms and began to twist around and around.
“And you and I, Rick, would fly all day and night. We would broadcast our private dreams from this plane that we stole from some fat-ass captain who stinks of cigar smoke. We’d drop love notes all over the Midwest and beyond. We’d skim the top of clouds and drink from the rain whenever we become thirsty. They will try to shoot us down. You know that, don’t you, sir?”
“Excuse me, I know this might sound weird,” said Corky, “but what happens when you run out of fuel?”
Pinky stood absolutely still for a moment, arms at her sides, eyes closed, face lifted upward as if in the grips of some mystical ecstasy.
“Then my plane will perform a beautiful swan dance. A beautiful death. An elegant death. Not messy. Not the way people die in wars. We will crash into the ocean. We will be reborn as flying fish. Nobody will ever catch us. We will be like gods. Immortal.”
Pinky swung one graceful arm before her as she took a ballerina’s final bow.
Esmeralda applauded. “Pinky, you’re a real head.”
Corky rolled his eyes. “Some people never fail to amaze me,” he said.
“Yes,” said Pinky, “I am a most amazing person. I am the amazing wire-girl. I am an illegitimate daughter of a tight rope walker.”
Corky slouched down in his seat, dug in his pockets, jingling some loose change, and said he’d drive to town for more beer. I offered to chip in; he waved me away.
Pinky went back inside to stretch. She said her bad leg hurt.
Under an arched pergola-latticed roof, Esmeralda and I sat in patio chairs, facing each other. The air smelled of sweet pipe tobacco, of burning leaves. We couldn’t locate the source.
“Pinky made me laugh,” she said.
“She’s still the same old buzz fly I remember. You know what she said? She said that up close, she’s too real. That’s why she always wants to dance. Can’t be caught. I think she wants to cheat life.”
“Why is that funny? I think it’s sad.”
She shook her head and shrugged.
“It just struck me as funny. That’s all.”
“I think that if you try to cheat life, you get cheated in the long run,” I said.
We lingered in each other’s face. She blushed slightly.
“You’re beginning to sound like Corky,” she said.
The muscles around my eyes tightened.
“It bothers me, Esmeralda.”
Her face turned soulful.
“That I keep thinking about you.”
Her lips pinched at the corners. It seemed she could look through me. My mother always had that kind of look, whenever she caught me masturbating.
“It’s always complicated, isn’t it? You wanna hear a secret? Here’s a secret. I’m not in love with anyone. I’m trusting you, Rick. But I do love this old house and the seasons. For now, I love the shelter and the dogs sleeping at my feet. Tomorrow I might change and maybe you. It might turn winter.”
“I hate the cold.”
“By the time I reach thirty, I’ll know who I really am. And by then, it might be too late.”
“Who am I, Esmeralda?”
She gave me one of her trademark quizzical looks. Her eyes grew small and distant.
“You’ll have to find out for yourself. I think you cling too hard to people. I told you when I first met you—I have a short attention span. You became obsessed with what you couldn’t have. Your loyalty borders on pathological. I’m sorry. Didn’t mean that… Don’t take me seriously. I don’t even take myself seriously. I’m a stupid witch. A devil’s child. My head can turn all the way around.”
“I spent a lot of sleepless nights waiting for you to return my calls. You could have been kinder.”
“I imagine there were times you wanted to kill me. You didn’t understand the nature of the beast that was me. I have stripes under my clothes, you know. I have strong jaws. I love men who give me warm clothes when it rains. And then, it no longer rains.”
“Next time, leave their hearts intact. I spent my last quarters in phone booths.”
“Don’t go short on me, Rick. Learn to forget. You and Pinky are a nice pair. Even if only a friendship. It could last a lifetime. It could be so much. She’s cute and funny. She’s precious. She has something that we all lost along the way.”
She uncrossed her legs, stood, and strutted towards the center of the huge yard. Her tight, flared pants accented the curves of her legs. She lit a cigarette and turned towards me. She spoke, jabbing the air with the hand that held her cigarette.
“You ever think about the war, Rick? About something that seems so far away, but isn’t. My brother is on his second tour there. He stopped writing.”
She paced a few feet, back and forth, her head drooping.
“Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night. I feel like I’ve been shot with a stray bullet. And I just sit there thinking my baby will be stillborn. My baby will be nothing.”
“Do you bleed?”
She offered a Mona Lisa smile. She looked past me.
“No. Just a hole inside me. But I hurt.”
“And what do you do?”
Her eyes met mine. They took on this seductive, mysterious glint.
“I do what everyone else does. I go back to sleep. Or try to.”
She threw down the cigarette, kissed me on the cheek, and brushed past me.
This much about her I knew. Esmeralda could never live alone. She told me that when we slept together as freshmen. One day, she was gone. She was always in love with someone else. Or at least in her fast-food version of love. She was always absent-minded. She always forgot who she last burned.
The buzzing grew louder.
I spotted Corky coming up the drive in the red Volkswagen. He had this sloppy grin and gave a peace sign from the window.
It came into view.
The plane growled and fumed. It seemed to drop from a cloud, spun, then leveled off, brushing the tops of trees. It was something gigantic and strange and unstoppable.
My stomach knotted. My feet turned numb.
“What the fuck?” yelled Corky. A six-pack of beer dangled then dropped from each hand.
The monster sputtered toward us. Did it know our names?
We leaped from our patio chairs, knocking them over.
I screamed for Pinky.
I screamed for Pinky to get out of the house.
The shadow blinded us, overwhelmed us.
The plane’s left wing hit the pergola roof, then the body crashed into the house. The orange and red explosion, the thunder of it, would make my ears hum for years.
I scrambled for Pinky.
I had visions of carrying her in my arms from the wreckage, of being her hero, of returning her life. And in the process, I would be refunded with a gratified ego.
Corky pulled me back. Standing over my shoulder, he was a grunt in civilian clothes. He wanted to save someone. I believed it then, and I still do.
For a second, I couldn’t decide whether the fire horrified or mesmerized me. Maybe both. I wanted to hear music, to see some signs that she was alive, maybe that glittering rhinestone seahorse she wore. I would keep it in a jar. I’d never give it away.
I watched the undulating smoke, the shape-shifter, the outline of a girl who danced and flailed and disappeared. From that day on, she had gotten too close. We would go on with our half-guarded lives. We would crash and burn and recover. We would be reborn in some way or another. We would love and forgive. We’d learn that the pilot was a young man our age who flew without a license. Maybe he was jilted or was tired of losing. Maybe he was on some wicked drugs. Maybe he felt he could do anything or nothing. Maybe he wanted to die. He must have been wounded in some way.
And Pinky, with the limp that was never fixed or explained, would live inside our private rooms and spaces. Our private dancer. It would be her way of not forgetting us.
Kyle Hemmings is the author of several chapbooks of poetry and prose: Avenue C, Cat People, and Anime Junkie (Scars Publications), and “Tokyo Girls” in Science Fiction (NAP). His latest e-books are You Never Die in Wholes from Good Story Press and The Truth About Onions from Good Samaritan.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH BUZZ FLY:
Kyle Hemming’s wonderful literary piece caught our attention in the first paragraph and didn’t disappoint us. This beautifully crafted story weaves its spell by transporting the reader back to a time many will remember. Even though it’s about the particular characters in a particular period in time, its strongly resonant ending is universal and invites us to ask how we remember those who have left our own lives.