By Dolan Morgan
The Peanut Gallery
I was going to visit Lucy at her school, had saved up some money and gotten a plane ticket. We weren’t dating anymore, but she’d recently been dating Charlie. And he’d really changed a lot over the years. He could pop twenty-four Coricidin pills – or poor man’s acid – in one night. I’d seen eight pills fuck people up so bad that all their insides were falling out, but Charlie multiplied that by three. He drank like a sponge and, according to Lucy, had some serious fucking emotional problems, real trouble dealing with shit. Broken up or not, he was flooding Lucy with love letters, splattering his heart all over the U.S. Postal service. He loved her. And he was big, tough, and ready to kick ass whenever a beer posse was there to back him up. So, when I went to visit Lucy, I feared what Charlie might do, considering our history.
Hard to believe, I know, but we’d dated for years – even though most of our conversations went like this:
“I wouldn’t love you unless you were the last girl in the universe.”
“Did I hear you say ‘unless?'”
“Now, now, I admit that I did mistakenly say unless…“
When we were that young, still just kids, eleven or twelve maybe, I abhorred Lucy and her squiggly mouth. But the more time we spent together, the more I liked her. Of course, I could never admit that I thought Lucy was wonderful, absolutely fucking wonderful. Instead, I stayed up all night in my house studying Beethoven, wearing the white off the keys (and my eyes). Meanwhile, I used up my days berating her with insults and derisions, as if I hadn’t gone the whole night trying to get it just right so that maybe, just maybe I could play it perfect for her the next day. Like Joyce’s idiot-ass Araby, I really thought this was all that mattered, that if I could do something perfect for this girl, even if it was as trivial as Fur Elise, somehow that would change things for me. Bullshit, of course, but I’m glad for it either way because I’m pretty damn good at the small-piano now.
In fact, one night, when we were both home for holiday, the same night that I sat parked in her driveway for hours, trying to leave while she watched from her bedroom window, I would tell her that most of the great things I have done in my life were done with her in mind.
I meant it, too – you grow up with someone so close and it’s hard not to have them involved. Add the fact that you adore them and they end up carrying some serious clout – which pisses the shit out of the practical, cold-hearted jerk in me, but dazzles the hopeless, piece-of-shit. The impetus for my work has always been not wanting to fall from her “Wall of Greatness” (she actually had one tacked up in her pink bedroom) – being afraid to fail her. She liked me, and I felt I owed her for that.
And I liked her too, so it was only a matter of time before we arranged a way to pay each other’s debts.
“My panties are all inky.” We had been kissing all night, one of the first times we had, one of those times when hours go by before you even touch each other because you’re desperately afraid of what the other is thinking, one of the nights when the first actual kiss punches you in the kidney. In her bedroom, quietly, while her parents tried to sleep, we were still too afraid to take our clothes off. Neither of us had ever seen what was underneath that thin layer of color. She took my hand and placed it in the shadow of her skirt, gently pulled it up to her panties. They dripped with ink. I leaned in and kissed her neck, letting my hand rest there in the wet shadow, feeling her arms wrapped around me. I felt her color run steadily down the side of her face, mixing with my own. As my fingers rubbed along the edge of her white underwear, Lucy’s hands scratched my back, pulling chips of black and red from my t-shirt. Our mouths drifted through each other. I brought my free arm up to her neck and then down her back, scraping away the blue, so it fell in opaque peels on the floor like coils from a sharpened pencil. She pulled her mouth away from mine and bit my shoulder, ripping pieces of color from my waist, exposing the bare paper underneath.
We didn’t have sex that night. We just lay there, half on a pile of clothes and records, half on the floor, and scraped the ink away from each other’s bodies until we were nothing but crumpled sheets of white, wrapped all around each other, soaked in sweat.
The plane to Nebraska University was small, maybe twenty eight seats. Cramped up against the window, watching the stewardess show me how to die, I thought about Linus. He’d hung himself with his security blanket two years earlier. Most everyone had come back home to do whatever it is you fucking do when someone dies. I don’t know what I was doing there. I mean, yes, I was crying, and saying, “I’m sorry,” and enduring silences with people I barely knew, out of respect, or empathy, or homage, or instinct. I was attending the funeral and the wake, and cocktail parties. But what the fuck I was actually doing there – what I was trying to accomplish – is beyond me. Linus left a note pleading to be buried in the Pumpkin Patch, the symbol to him of all his “unrealized hopes, dreams, and ambitions”, “the penultimate example” of his “failure to deliver something worthwhile.” This was completely disregarded by his family, and Rerun’s suggestion to at least etch a pumpkin into the headstone also went unheeded – everyone said it was “stupid.” This really fucking ticked me off. I kept my mouth zip-locked, but stupid? They thought the pumpkin shit was stupid? Jesus H. Christ, wasn’t that why he killed himself in the first place?
At his wake, I got in line and had my turn to kneel at his coffin. His lines and paint were different. I wanted to smack the undertaker – he’d done Linus’ eyes like crayon scrawls instead of dots. I thought about him sitting up in heaven, sucking his holy thumb, and looking down at us – looking down at me. Fuck. It was a humbling moment. What if he could see me kneeling over him, not standing up for his burial wishes? See me not buying pumpkin stickers and wearing them in silent protest? See me whining like a little bitch about my own problems, setting goals and making promises, then breaking them, not living up to half the man he thought I was, turning this funeral fucking Hallmark moment into my own self centered psychotherapy session?
Linus was a good guy – that’s the point. I promised him I’d be a better person, there at his coffin. Or maybe I promised myself, but it makes me feel better to pretend I promised him.
And I needed to be a better person, believe me. I was pussy shit. Stuck in a cycle, falling for it every time. My mother used to trumpet that the definition of insanity is “the continued repetition of an action that always leads the same bad result.” And so it goes. Lucy and I used to be a team, arguing on Sundays and resolving our differences in black and white on Monday, then the next Sunday back with our hands around in a strangle hold around each others’ full-color necks all over again, one of us having tripped up bullshit, in ways that seemed scripted. The arguments got worse over the years, the tensions more painful than the flirting we’d started with. Yeah, but we loved each other, Lucy and I, so, we stuck it out, forgave each other. Franklin called me pussy-whipped, but it was more pussy than he was getting, so he usually didn’t take it much further than that. I won’t go into how this Sunday-to-Sunday bullshit really seemed to be happening in other parts of my life, too: the Elk’s Club, my work schedule, etc. The problem was that I was still a little boy, wasn’t being responsible enough. I couldn’t seem to grow up. Twenty-something years old and I was still a little kid. Literally- my body had barely changed.
So that’s what I promised Linus – to grow up already.
Behind the curtains on that Christmas with the floppy tree, we fell backwards onto my piano, trying desperately to keep our tongues in the right places, our shoes slipping off onto the wooden floor. Her skirt hiked up, her legs wrapped around both me and the little piano, Vince Guaraldi’s rendition of “Herald Angel’s Sing” washing over us from the auditorium. We were together again, our Sunday argument forgotten and the snow falling silently against the window, the colors of the walls waxing and waning to the music. We melted all over each other, an oil-slick rainbow covering the ground beneath us, and Lucy’s black bobbed hair all over me, leaving streaks of black across my face. I lived for this, died for it. Getting her back was a sinking, a winning, the sex an award.
One whiff of Pigpen, though, and we halted the production. His dirt peeked around the corner and we were on the floor, trying to dress. Ink and paint everywhere. But we managed to play it off. Pigpen seemed to be placating us by not saying anything, but we placated him in return, and we all went back to singing out front with everyone else.
Since then, Pigpen has cleaned himself up, but only so much. He smells all right, but his body is ravaged by VD.
Lucy was diagnosed with herpes once. I can barely believe my memory of her, lying naked behind her therapist booth, throwing nickels in the air as she threatened to cut herself with a Swiss Army knife.
We would later learn the diagnosis was incorrect, but the cuts are still there.
Before I left for Nebraska, Snoopy busted into the bar like he owned the place, smacked some bitch’s ass, and grabbed a beer. The dog had done well for himself – he was writing for a paper in the village. Woodstock wasn’t far behind. It was a Monday morning, and when he saw me the dog got a knowing look. I said, “Yeah, I’ll win her back, don’t worry.” He downed his beer and I missed class. I have no idea how many times we’ve had that conversation.
When I finally saw Charlie in Nebraska, he was great. I was on the porch talking to this girl, some townie, and I saw him coming up the walkway. He stopped and threw up in the shrubbery, then stuck his head up and said, “Good grief, gotta get rid of the enchilada to make room for more beer. “
I smiled. My kind of guy. “Remember when you used to try and kick that football, and then you’d fall down, every time?” I laughed, resting my Heineken on the porch railing.
He cracked up, too. “Oh man, last time I did that, fuck, that was like yesterday.”
“You’re still doing that?”
“I can’t help it.”
I wasn’t sure if Charlie really liked me, or if he was just playing polite so he wouldn’t piss off Lucy. Later that night, talking to Jane, I caught him looking at me strangely.
“Yeah, and quantum frame mechanics are fucked up, man!” Jane was talking about her major, her face twisted into an excited knot.
“Yeah, it’s pretty freaky stuff.” With Charlie looking at me, I was ashamed to be having this conversation.
“I mean really, to think that we all just, like, shit, like we’re all made up of fucking… fucking frames? Shit, man. Like, time is passing in this fucking system? Crazy! And we all just fucking go with it.” She was stoned off her ass. “I mean, have you ever seen someone move too fast?”
Charlie shook his head and walked back inside. But it really was something, to see someone run, their legs moving too fast to communicate visually, knees and thighs skipping frames. Jane lost all interest when she fell into the arms of some man who started making out with her eyes.
Earlier that day, Lucy had taken me to see her friend’s recital, a quartet of musicians on piano, trumpet, clarinet, and drums. Her friend was the star, showing off his horn skills. I knew he was good when he belted out the first note. It reminded me of the best math lessons I’d ever had, the rhythm of the clarinet and drums giving charge to the trigonometry pouring out of that instrument. He was a pro. He played the harsh notes of discipline that could knock us over when we talked behind the substitute’s back, and he played the soft minor arpeggios of our parents’ guidance. This guy had it down, and it fell out of him like that horn was his mouth. The clarinet sounded like Uncle Ed, and as we walked through the practice room in the back after the recital, it was Thanksgiving, a slew of aged relatives chattering away, ricocheting there muted wisdom scales against the walls. I felt so young – the piano didn’t have that brassy wah wah of middle age, just the taught strings of adolescence.
The clock struck midnight and it was officially Sunday. We were on a bench talking about who we’d slept with since we last saw each other – which was not going well – and I told Lucy that Charlie seemed like a hell of a guy, that she should be a little nicer to him, maybe lay off the football trick.
“Who the fuck are you to tell me how to treat Charlie?”
“What? I’m just saying I think he’s nice.”
“You’re lucky I’m not sleeping with him right now.”
One of these arguments again. Should have seen it coming.
“I told you I was fine with that.” I wasn’t.
“You’re fine with it?”
“Fuck you.” She got in her car and drove away, leaving me on the side of the street in the middle of nowhere. I slept on some hick’s front lawn for a while, but I didn’t want to wake up there covered in dew. So I walked back, asking drunken strangers how I might find a blue house about yay big with a tree.
We took a trip to California, right before college. Patti had moved to San Francisco, claiming it was for the temperate weather. Her screen name was carpetliquer – she says it’s a brand of moonshine. Lucy and I stayed on her couch for a week, using Patty’s car while she was at school. We learned to drive the coastal highways, and under the bleeding watercolor of sunsets, the oily red and orange shimmer mixing slowly, we held hands on piers, reveling in our ability to be cheesy, walked barefoot on beaches. Her hands were cold. They never got warm, but I would spend hours trying to heat them up. Then she’d kiss my whole face and laugh.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you,” I said.
She turned around in the bed, to look at me as I stood in the doorway, and I had never seen her so faded in my life. She started screaming and I knew the whole house could hear us, knew Charlie’s room was right below ours.
“Is that all you have to fucking say to me?”
I imagined Charlie waking up, still drunk but starting to get hung over.
“I just can’t believe you left me there.” I heard someone move downstairs.
Then she smacked me. Which was okay, sometimes people do that. The second smack came down on my neck. That one wasn’t okay, and I put my arms up to protect myself. She hit me again, square in the head, hard, this time knocking the sweaty color of my blond hair loose, yellow ink splattering against the wall. I jumped up off the mattress and moved quickly to the other side of the room. She hit me the whole time I was within range.
“You’re fucking hitting me. That’s – you’re fucking hitting me.” I couldn’t believe it, couldn’t even begin to process what was happening, the sight of ink dripping from my body. A toilet flushed. “I’m not going to stay here, I’m sorry.” I was apologizing and I felt like an idiot for feeling like an idiot about it. I picked up the phone to get my parents to wire me money so that I could get a room somewhere, a motel maybe.
“What the fuck are you doing? Who the hell are you calling? Put that phone down!” She was across the room in seconds, her bobbed hair uneven and flapping.
I was nervous, but I tried to be direct. “I’m just calling to get some money wired to me so I can get a room and we can deal with this shit later when we’re both – “
“Shut the fuck up.” She started kicking me in the shins, small bits of paint and line careening off me. It was the silliest thing, like some made-for-T.V. movie, getting kicked and hit, and also absolutely horrifying. I barely managed to tell my mom what the situation was. Lucy smacked at the phone and my face, her limbs skipping frames, and as she moved like that I briefly thought of the wonderful dance we used to do together, shaking our feet and arms all around, bobbing our heads. I dropped the phone.
“What the hell are you doing? What’s wrong with you?” I was crying.
“There’s nothing wrong with me – what, you can’t stand up for yourself?”
“What the fuck is going on?” I looked at the curtains and the carpet and the bed and the dresser and motherfucking damnit. Fuck.
“Shut up. So I hit you, so what? You gonna call your mommy again?”
The carpet and the stairs and the painted texture of my sweater. “Can’t you see what’s wrong with what you’re doing? How can you possibly give me a reason – “
“Shut up. You’re just a little pussy like Linus. Where’s your little security blanket? Huh?”
She was insulting her dead brother. “That’s it, I’m leaving.” I bent to pick up my shoe.
“You’re not going anywhere, because I can kick your ass.” I actually laughed at this point, not because I thought she couldn’t – Lucy is really fucking tough – but because I couldn’t believe she was actually trying this tough-guy shit on me. Also, she had called me a pussy – what I’d been calling myself for weeks. I laughed and tried again to get my shoe. She punched me so hard in the face that my color flew all over the room. I had to grab the dresser for support.
I don’t remember how it ended, but I never did leave. I sat against the door and fell in and out of sleep, trying to talk and not understanding a damn thing – trumpets and horns. Then there was quiet. Quiet, and I wasn’t strong and determined anymore, I was in her bed trying to sleep. It didn’t matter where I slept if it was going to be over anyway. Before we drifted off, I held her like a security blanket and cried – wept at her like she was a dead body.
The next day we barely mentioned what had happened. It was the best day we ever had together. We held hands and sat on couches without talking. We looked at each other and knew exactly what the other was thinking. We had nothing to do, so we ate. We ate a real fucking lot. We rented Who Framed Roger Rabbit. We laughed and knew each other, knew each other all day. And then, looking at her on the couch, under the blue-red moonlight of the television, her short little dress riding up her thighs, her smile a gentle pencil scratch, I knew that, if my mind lapsed – if I somehow forgot everything – I’d fall in love with Lucy, all over again, and let myself break on her fists because she asked me to.
Dolan Morgan lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. Previously, Dolan’s stories have been featured in Cricket Online Review, InDigest, Broken Plate, Litterbox, Prick of the Spindle and the Lifted Brow. One Story, Cells, received an Honorary Mention in 2008’s Italo Calvino Prize for Fiction. He has a dead (?) twin brother and makes PowerPoint presentations about you, among others.
[i] Schultz, Charles. “Peanuts.” July 18th, 1959