Joyland

a hub for short fiction

GORILLA PAINTING 26" x 32" ACRYLIC ON CANVAS

Present arrives from brother for 29th birthday.

Painting of Gorilla with hands raised, palms-up, sitting in marshy field. Dead and disemboweled Gorillas peppered around swampy landscape, half-sunken into mud like the beaches of Normandy.

Note attached: When are you gonna quit MONKEYING AROUND and GROW UP? Saw this and thought of you—perfect fit for the house. Francis.

See message as commentary on inability to settle down and find high-paying work or meaningful relationship. Carefully crafted jab about failed engagement with ex girlfriend, four exes ago. Note mention of the house, not your house, as if house purchased cheaply from parents doesn’t count.

Painting is monstrous, not even funny in campy way. All gorillas dead or in pain, main gorilla overcome with emotion: horror or pain or madness.

Large party gathered for birthday celebration, looking at picture over mantel. Painting immediately evokes feelings of loss and horror in self, girlfriend, and houseguests. Asks someone: Is it a joke?

Tell her yes, it’s a joke. No one believes. Nervous laughter. Girlfriend points out that painting is not only disturbing subject-wise, but also poorly-painted. Scale is off, colors are ugly and not well-blended.

Did he paint it himself? She asks. Dislike this interjection. Girlfriend is former fine-arts student, still holds elitist values about low-art.

Tell her no, don’t think so. Back of painting credits no artist. Stand around, staring into blurred black eyes of main gorilla. Realize “main gorilla” may not be in pain at all—slight curling of mouth points to joy or even pride. “Main Gorilla” may have orchestrated entire scene of destruction. May be raising hands as if to say LOOK WHAT I DID.

Girlfriend insists that party go upstairs, tells someone to turn on music. Tells me to come upstairs too. Snaps her fingers as if I am employee. Had planned on break-up before party, but plan fell through. Girlfriend still here, with presents, with friends and sister in tow, also with presents. Don’t want presents but too late to make move now.

Tell girlfriend to go on up without me. Smoke joint while looking at painting. Bad idea. Main Gorilla definitely pure evil, possible ape-tyrant or ape-demon. Head upstairs for drinks feeling superstitious and cowardly. Drink vodka shooters with second cousin. Call brother for more information on present but receive no answer.

Avoid girlfriend, smoke second joint, end up in basement again, now occupied by girl. Girl refuses to give name, sitting on couch, smoking cigarettes. Beautiful in weird kind of way, scar on upper lip—possible hare-lip or bad fall on ice at early age.

Figure skater?

No

Tell her my name again in hopes of priming her for information.

You already told me your name

Tell her we should at least get to know each other. Think, but don’t ask: what if we are soulmates and tonight is crucial first meeting? Says young woman:
I’m not telling you my name because I’m not from here

Tell her I’m not from here either.

Yes but you live here; I don’t. I’m leaving tomorrow

Tell her this is my house.

So I have to tell you my name?

Tell her it would be nice to know who is at my house on my birthday.

Happy Birthday

Ask what if her and I are meant to be together and tonight is when we meet?

Girl shrugs. Decide girl is Young Woman; not girl. Woman despite bubblegum pink backpack, matching dress, pink converse sneakers, earrings. Slight pouching under eyes points to age, wisdom, trauma. Deep lines around mouth from too much frowning. Face reminiscent of ex girlfriend, four exes back.

Says Young Woman: What if we’re secretly brother and sister what then?

Tell her if we are brother and sister she should come out to family barbecue in August. Young Woman produces pink cell phone, fiddles with buttons. Checks calendar.

I’m busy in August

Frown. Unhappy with response. Check upstairs, wade through people. Everyone drunk. 10 pm roughly: fireworks unrelated to birthday celebration exploding outside. Demand someone throw Young Woman In Pink out of house or give her name or something. No one knows said woman. Guests too busy watching fireworks to really care.

Return to basement, young woman gone. Cigarette sitting on beer can sitting on phonebook, sitting on floor.

Phonebook open, face-down on yellow pages. Letter T for Taxis. Look outside through ground-floor window. Cab arrives. Young woman gets in. Cab leaves. Not wearing contacts—can’t see cab company logo or name.

Look to Gorilla, palms raised, as if asking question. Question clear: who was she?

Cycle through re-dial on phone. Reference last numbers called with ‘T’ yellow page. No match. Dial last number. Man picks up.
Yeah?

Put on best call-center customer service voice, practiced five times weekly, 11-7. Ask who I am speaking to. Man asks:

No, who is this?

Phone says Restricted Number. Man sounds maybe 50 or older. Ask if he knows Pink Woman.

Man hangs up. Call must have been placed through pink cell phone.

Examine cigarette butt—DuMaurier. Smoke last puff despite having quit. Slip outside through basement door, buy whole pack at corner store and have first full cigarette in over a year. No new information gained from smooth tobacco taste.

Hail down cab just as girlfriend locates me from second story window. Girlfriend makes what are you doing motion with her hands, pointing to my smoke. Get in cab just as last firework explodes overhead, huge and green and deafening. Realize direct relationship between girlfriend’s physical movement and gorilla’s ‘who me’ bullshit.

Ask driver if young woman in pink was recent customer. Driver refuses to give out information about customers. Answer is indication that yes: she was in cab.

Explain that young woman is fiancée. Need to find fiancée before she leaves for airport tomorrow, like in Hollywood movie. Driver says: New Jersey she was going to New Jersey tomorrow

Exactly.

Driver says yeah alright. Says I seem like I’m on the level. Drives to bar off downtown strip, around the corner from popular area:Ron’s. Old men are milling about out front, smoking. Give rat-driver ten dollar tip directly out of birthday card from father. Four tens remain, dad’s birthday message remains under that:

Happy Birthday Allan

I hope you find happiness in this 29th year on this planet
Love Dad

Text arrives from girlfriend:
Wut are u doing everyones looking for u

Close phone. Go inside. Bar covered in mementos, photos, stickers, taxidermied water birds, beer posters. Great spot for gorilla painting.

Bar virtually empty. Maybe thirty people. Small man playing piano.

Ask about young woman, vodka shooters.

Young woman wasn’t in, vodka shooters are 3.50.

Drink vodka shooters. Describe woman in terms of facial structure, scar. Bartender says: Sounds familiar

Drink more vodka shooters, put Dad’s birthday card on bar.
Cartoon father with plaid shirt and moustache on cover:

SON, I TAUGHT YOU EVERYTHING I KNOW…
Open card:

WHICH EXPLAINS WHY YOU DON’T KNOW A DARN THING!

Realize both brother and father’s senses of humor largely dependent on cruel teasing. Realize both insults primarily focused on lack of life-skills or experience. Sister’s lack of birthday greeting points to whole other kind of disappointment. Am in no mood for this kind of passive bullying, even in note-form.

Bartender attractive. Not young woman but full-on woman. Maybe thirty-eight, wide hips, nice smile, too much makeup. No ring on finger, possibly single mother. Reads card, smiles, hands it back: Happy birthday Allan

Wonder if pink woman is actually sister—why else bring it up? Father known for promiscuity in capacity as tenured history prof. Or is young woman manifestation of Gorilla painting’s dark energies, bomb in form of woman, sent from evil brother to wreck life. Fraternal mindfuckery—Cain and Abel shit. Or even worse; what if pink woman doesn’t exist—pink woman is manifestation of grief, loneliness. May explain resemblance to ex-girlfriend four exes ago. Begin to feel sick, insane.

Suddenly feel drunker than usual, sinking into some kind of mire. Imagine vodka actually heavy sedative, bartender in cahoots with others: gorilla, girlfriend, taxi driver, man on phone. Pink woman may or may not be part of it—or may be involved without knowing.

Second text arrives from girlfriend:
U asshole where did u go

Old man touches arm, nearly fall off stool. Ignore urge to run, ignore old man. Focus instead on iridescent water-bird hung over bar, dark and green, reassuring. Understand that duck is both polar opposite of and image missing from gorilla painting. Simple addition of soaring duck in painting would suggest hope, various ‘rise above’ metaphors. Understand also that Gorilla painting would be terrible addition to bar; would cause unbridled madness and suffering among patrons.

Make for bathroom, only to end up in weird dusty back-room with boxes of liquor, broom, and obsolete beer posters. No sign of antidotes for either vodka sedative or brain-tampering.

Old man grabs arm again, tells me to leave. Realize old man is not old at all, is huge denim-clad bouncer. Unable to explain anything of situation to him.

On street, text girlfriend back:
GO DOWNSTAIRS. TAKE A LEFT THEN GO INTO THE DEN LOOK ONTOP OF FIREPLACE WHAT DO YOU SEE?

Struggle through busy street, aimless. Wade through endless stream of sailors. Fleet week; city overrun with angst-ridden young seamen. Run afoul of English sailors, sleeves rolled up, smoking cigarettes. Get pushed against building, into trashcans. Remember buying cigarettes. Start smoking and looking around, head up to really busy street in heart of bar district. More sailors. Feeling unsure of footsteps, thoughts, and feelings.

Manage to get into busy club, partly because of new birthday clothes and birthday haircut, partly because of careful downplaying of alcohol level. Drink more vodka, manage to climb up to high balcony overlooking dance floor. Phone buzzes again with message from girlfriend. Don’t read message. Write new one instead:

LOOK STRAIGHT AHEAD ON THE MANTEL WHAT DO YOU SEE? DESCRIBE WHAT YOU FEEL AND SEE.

Locate young woman in pink almost instantly, realize she isn’t sister, but actually ex ex ex ex girlfriend, down on checkered floor, dancing with self from other timeline—one running parallel to this one. May or may not be physically here, dancing couple may represent things which could have come to pass but did not; the ghost of good ideas gone bad. Am aware event is not likely happening, but find solace in possibility that it is. Parallel self is kind of man who would not throw engagement away for the pursuit of cheap thrills and sex. Has nice clothes, modest hairstyle.

Imagine different circumstances where ex and I are together, find lasting happiness, meaningful work—then watch dance floor for visual display of ideas. Watch several different outcomes to life, including one where, through pure cunning and verbal skills, am able to subdue attacker at last bar; or rescue little piano player from sewer; or fall in love with single-mom-bartender and adopt her prone-to-fits-of-rage problem child. Heroic dog, newly furnished house, private detective firm all displayed below balcony in neat rank and file according to catalyzing factors.

Know immediately returning home is not option in current state. Dread returning home to find bodies strewn across floor and couches, girlfriend and girlfriend’s sisters and friends. Plans form: Will stay in club until lights snap on and bouncers materialize. Will attempt to hide under booth or in closet, or toilet, or back room. Once ejected, will smoke full pack of cigarettes and wander streets. Visit Ron’s again and look inside, try to catch glimpse of smooth, green water bird. Once home, make way to Gorilla painting, collect from wall without opening eyes. Destroy painting in barrel outside with gasoline and wads of Halifax’s weekly paper THE COAST. Breathe in and out fumes from crackling paint and wrecked frame.

Or: collect father’s toll-paints from basement, search out dried paint-brush. Paint bird directly onto canvas, directly above gorilla. Visualize both outcomes on dance-floor. Unable to decide.

Tell skinny Arab sailor standing nearby that things have to happen a certain way or else they wouldn’t happen at all: you’d have to be a different person otherwise.

Excuse me?

Tell him that life is made up of a number of decisions that appear to be decisions but are actual predetermined outcomes that cannot be changed or managed.

Skinny Arab frowns and shakes his head, and continues to scour the dance floor for something only skinny Arab can see. Tell him, without taking my eyes off the people below us, that he has to get over it. Tell him this with raised hands, palms up, as if to say WHAT CAN YOU DO, or WHAT ELSE DID YOU EXPECT, or maybe even YOU DID THIS TO YOURSELF.