|Chagrin River Review
The Red and the Black
Ruby’s eyes were skinned with a kind of plastic that she could not peel away. Every day she scrubbed their slipping surface, but there was just a blur, as if she’d tried to clean a windshield with milk. Even lathering with Lux until tears burst through their ducts did nothing to wash away the coming blindness. She shattered the bathroom mirror with her compact to double her bad luck. Then with a spear of glass, she stabbed her etched forearm. Her Bloodline ink tattoos were supersaturated color but now even the glue that seeped from her veins was gray. Mirrored glass littered the sink as she would leave her eyes shattered there.
In her bedroom she traced where needles had scrolled gloriously across her arms though she could no longer see any of their Technicolor. Each arm, like a cracked geode, was a depiction in crystallized colors, so that each facet of the jeweled image shone in gradient. On her left arm, deep in a labyrinthine rain forest, an extinct macaw snatched an emerald tree boa twined through hanging vines. Around the right, a sinuous pinup, Hawaiian hibiscus starring her scarlet hair, almost immersed in the iridescence of a waterfall gemmed with hummingbirds in flight. For all Ruby could see of the detail now, they may as well have been prison tattoos pixilated by sharpened spoon and Bic pen. She flung her arms around the pillow where her boyfriend had lain his greasy hair, and breathed in the reeking remains of his Axe “Cool Metal” body spray.
Justin had sent her a venomous cocktail of bourbon and pineapple juice the night he discovered her at a bar known for its televised biker clashes with cops. Ruby’s jet hair was done up Silver Screen style, but her bust was strapped into an Easyriders bodice. When the maraschino cherry had been sucked between her even redder lips, Justin shoved the other molls aside to growl: “I could go blind from looking at you.” He traced her fantastical tattoos with his finger, but his own massive arms were strikingly bare. She studied their expansive canvas as if she were the reincarnation of Dali’s paintbrush.
Late that night, before his operational PsyOps turned tactical, she exhibited Escher-like mazes stacked upon her drawing table, the most dizzying tacked to her walls. But away from the glow of whiskey lighting, Justin thrust aside her color-shocked interpretations of Dürer engravings. In particular, the impotence of the trampled sinners in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse incited him; did he think he could outrun the pale horse on the day of judgment? He offered his arms to her colleague who drew like a Pokemon animator. Still it was only Ruby who Justin wanted to clean his cartoon heart with alcohol.
Not long after the Vaseline had dried, Justin claimed Ruby had stolen his class ring right off his finger while he was blind drunk from glasses of Gasoline. “You wanted a ring from me,” he kept accusing her as he staggered along the sidewalk. She dodged his bare hands as she swerved him back home. Inside her house he raged, seizing and tearing designs pinned like Morphos and Nymphalidae. Delicate wings of drawings confettied her bedroom. She cocooned herself in a quilt until the sound of ripping paper ceased, and the vandal had snored himself back into a tequila and Southern Comfort coma.
Ruby found his high school ring in his Levi’s pocket weeks later. The ring had been stuffed inside a napkin with a phone number scrawled on it, along with a still-stinking roach. She crushed the ring in her fist. The year he graduated was the year she’d turned to The Pharmacist of Ampurdan in Search of Absolutely Nothing in a gilt-covered book she’d won in a county art contest. This is what blue sky looks like to me too; she wanted to whisper to Dali when she faced his stark desert landscape. Justin’s ring was blood-red in commemoration of the football injuries he’d inflicted. Ruby smiled through her own concussion when a pawn shop clerk born without hands tossed Justin’s beloved class ring onto the pile of wedding bands, then slid her twenty bucks. Ruby spent it on tattoo skin.
She had gotten high and drawn blacklight paint hallucinations for days after that. She hypnotized herself with Kelly and Mouse posters, Pink Floyd’s “Arnold Layne,” and the LP version of “In a Gadda da Vida.” The ribbons of sound and color and smoke knotted together into visions she could only try to draw, into patterns that no one would want to buy; for no one else could follow them, let alone tattoo them. She could drown Justin out even when he was a heavy metal hulk arranging the affairs of his chop shop by cellphone from her bed. Holes from American Spirit flare-ups charred her sheets. Later, when he’d left her the echoes from a gunned shovelhead engine and the dregs of a breakfast six-pack of Bud, she would hide her contraband drawings in a suitcase in the attic. And even when sheltering from a tornado in her storm cellar, while he anchored her on his lap beneath the converging Midwest winds, she sighed to think that her drawings locked two flights up were safer in a tornado than within his grasp.
It was during this illicit artistic existence her eyes started to deteriorate. It may have been a needle-borne infection, or intoxicating paint fumes, or the marijuana clouds she smoked through. Her eyes teared and swelled, then bled the color of the ring she had stolen. Justin wouldn’t let her look at him after a while, and that was fine, because she couldn’t: Guilt had weighted her stomach like she’d swallowed the ring. Before he could kiss her, Justin had to wrap her eyes in a black bandanna as if she was going to face a firing squad. He was so much bigger that she didn’t mind falling into him blind stoned. But when he mocked, The Hills Have Eyes, she didn’t feel like playing any more.
Her slick leather boss demanded she keep her sunglasses on now that the only tattoo machinery she could work was a cash register. He didn’t want her congealing eyes to terrify any jittery clients. She paged through the studio book of designs, tracing them with a nail that could scratch its laminate. But she could no longer immerse herself in art when its colors were gone. She wondered if the sunglasses had hastened their departure, as Justin had hastened his. He was now living vagrantly with a girl more starry-eyed than she. Tricia could also drink him under the table, a capacity essential to live with a paranoid alcoholic. Yet even without Justin’s razor bleeding in her sink, Ruby’s guilt metastasized.
Now she escaped from her house, her purse over her clotting arm. Justin’s junk Harley was gone from the driveway, the one object in black she might have been relieved to see. It was morning bright as she crossed veins of Indian grass and wild rye, weaving through flowered arteries of firewheels and bursting raspberries. With hair curled but colorless, she sulked at the bus stop. The clear Lifesavers she pulled from her purse were flavored only with sugar and citric acid; she spat each to the curb. Her slumping companions were shades of despair draped in Wal-Mart vests. Their blood had already turned gray, and she had no pity for anyone else today.
It was rare tattoo clients appeared immediately after a tragedy; it was weeks or months or years later that a tribute could be inscribed with fidelity. Ruby testified their tribal submission to a graveside God. Without being able to render memory into Melancholia she was just a printer of obituaries. She trailed plastic bags onto the roar of the waiting bus to hide her eyes against the window. Her phantom reflection glared back at her, brows arched like Ava Gardner. She needed no color to perfect them.
The bus driver’s hate-radio demagogue castigated all their collective catatonia as if he knew each of their nametags. Defeated by his denunciation, the passengers rifled through their newsprint coupons, seeking discounts on new lives. Though their Ohio landscape was summer colored, bright of sky and flower; toiling inside a windowless warehouse, it was all gray to them too.
It was a sprawling exposition across an asphalt parking lot that attracted her artist’s fading gaze. As the bus lurched toward the canopies and carousel, she knew there would be no ringing up sales today. She jumped off the bus. The hurricane-fenced traveling carnival had the emptiness of a day when children were still in school. Blowing fans and sparking generators polluted the air. She held her breath rounding the front gate, the bus coughing its own black lung to the highway.
The entrance booth was unmanned, strips of tickets flittering in the wind. Merry-go-round horses, manes flying and hooves raised, rose up and down in a confined circle. She stared at the silent horses, trying to guess their colors. Beneath a tent striped black and white a man folded himself under the canopy, quick as the cut of a card deck. Her purse swung at her elbow as she followed the target with her eyes: not the man who lounged, the roulette wheel he hawked.
“Hey Dorothy,” he grinned at her swaying gingham. “You got Emerald City tatted on your arms.”
Ruby shrugged a color-drenched shoulder at him. “Looks just like newspaper to me.” He was blocking her numbers. “I’m going blind.”
He laughed as if she were joking, incredulous at her tattooed scriptures. Confronted with a straight line of lipstick he stopped. He bent to examine her eyes. She was used to gasps and waited for his. But it didn’t come, not even a Jesus Christ. She spit her last flavorless Lifesaver to the asphalt where it spun like a contact lens. If her badass boyfriend hadn’t been able to look at her without sunglasses, this carnie couldn’t either. She snapped open her purse and pressed a dollar bill into her palm. “I went colorblind first.”
He squinted before he diagnosed her. “It looks like your eyes are growin’ something. Like a scab over a knee.”
Justin had gagged at her when he found her bare-eyed in the bathtub.
“Doctor of roulette?” She let a single float on her dead father’s lucky number.
“Red or black?” he jeered back.
She snatched the single to tear it in half: “Green.”
He unfolded himself behind the betting counter, which had been worn smooth from dollar bills raked from its surface, night after night, from Clearlake to Columbus. She expected him to trash her bets, but he only stretched his arm high enough to spin the wheel into a hypnotizing click. Pin after pin bent under its nail.
“I’ll just pay you half.” His eyes slanted when he smiled.
“You think I’m gonna win?”
“Only the wheel knows.” A radio twanged as if this rockabilly conjured it as he commanded fortune. Her eyes may have been closing in on her but her ears only opened the more, and the insinuating bass mimicked the track of the roulette wheel as it ticked its way red and black.
He snatched both halves of her dollar. She snapped her purse open again. The music switched from a strut to an echo, a song written by a man likely buried with his guitar. She studied the numbers in front of her, unfolding another dollar bill. She must find red again in all its bleeding glory. She bet a whole dollar bill on her age this time. Not that she could consider herself lucky.
“Red again,” he informed her.
“That’s the color I’m looking for.”
Vertigo tilted the asphalt under her feet when she scanned the spinning wheel to the midway beyond. Cotton candy swirled color thin as cloud. The carnival seemed to stretch to the horizon, unfolding its map of machines designed to race upwards, hurtle sideways, plummet downwards, all studded with incandescent bulbs of a color she could see only as white. Her curdled wax eyes switched to the stopped wheel, to another slide of a bill into his pocket.
“Luck’s just around the corner,” he echoed like his radio.
“But your hand’s on the wheel.” She unsnapped her purse again.
He ran that dealer’s hand through hair that might have been washed with a fistful of Boraxo inside the week. A swing-dance faded into a wind blowing south to Texas. She twisted another dollar bill. He jackknifed back against the wall with a restlessness that would have gotten him fired from a casino. He had the busted-looking bones of a man who’d been thrown from bulls; clear eyes, though he’d been sipping bargain bourbon, and a glorified belt buckle that had been honestly won. He was as black and white as a Robert Mitchum character come to life. Though the scenery was flat, his smile was twisted.
She squinted from the board to the wheel. She bet on the number of fingers her diabetic mother still had. Stuffed animals of dubious zoology loomed over her as they swung from their hooks. She did not want to win one; it was no prize to be as sightless as a marble-eyed panda.
He snapped the wheel with a flourish of his Old Crow cologne. The radio howled next to him, and kept howling when the roulette wheel spun by a number she knew well. Somewhere above an invisible span of numbers launched its way from the wheel, past the sun to other stars she might never see. She dismissed the infinite and unsnapped her purse. He slapped his hand on the counter. She jumped inside her sundress as if Justin had snuck up behind her.
“What’re you tryin’ to win?”
“I want to see red again.”
“What does everything look like to you?”
“The Twilight Zone.”
Did he finally shiver? Or just flex his cowboy shoulders? She could still distinguish motion, but not at such a fine gradient.
“There’s a doctor here.”
“A carnival doctor?”
“Treats tweakers, mostly. Good with pigs too.”
She shook her head. “Meth ain’t to blame.”
“We got a reverend here.”
Was he a fortune teller too? “He good with pigs?”
He pointed to a distant tower, its gyrating arms. “He runs the Kamikaze.”
“So he knows about God.” She floated her dollar on the fewest words in a suicide note.
As if he could read minds, he crossed his arms with wrists tattooed with wreaths of barbed wire, a common prison tattoo. Blood or tears, for no red or blue could she determine, dripped off their points. She wondered for what he had been imprisoned until he asked what her eyes felt like.
“Like a spider wrapping them in a web.”
“Were your eyes pretty?”
“They wouldn’t make a pretty girl any more so.”
He pushed off the back wall, his fingers twitching as if seeking a harness. The sky over them was strapped with spotlights and signage. Were there ropes anywhere? She would have liked to climb up to where it was so blue she couldn’t help but fall into it.
The midway seemed to tunnel in either direction. The invisible numbers decreased this time, fractioning into dust, shrinking the games of chance and the rides of terror to a grain of sand.
He rubbed his eye clear, considering either the enucleation in her future or the electromagnetic spectrum in her past. “Bet on black this time.”
“I can’t tell the difference any more,” she confessed.
He pointed to the year she should have graduated high school.
“If I win, what do I get?” The sky splayed across the width of the midway. If she stretched her arms up she could almost touch blue.
He met her eyes, ready to read her his verdict. “Play it and see.”
So Ruby slid the dollar over to the year that Syd Barrett died of cancer. Her bones rattled inside her like Justin’s beer bottles on her bedroom floor. He reached for the handle on the wheel. She watched it spin alone; his eyes, asteroid dust from the sky, were on her. He stalked across the stretch of booth, narrow shoulders and boots, the radio playing music of a country long gone. The wheel ticked and ticked. And landed on what could have been black but was definitely her number.
As if it were a written prescription, he handed back her dollar bill. Then he vaulted over the betting deck like he was switching horses, vacating the red and the black. She gasped as if he had jumped out of a TV. But she could smell him, his crap bourbon and smoke. “So you’re looking for colors?”
“Why’d you want to help me?” She glared at the sunlight that lit up his indeterminate hair.
“I like girls who can only see me in black and white.” He waved at her to follow.
Jumping over cables and around trailer hitches, he led her past a pool of water on which plastic ducks trembled as they awaited sudden drowning by baseball. The stripes and bells of the midway baffled the men and women who wandered after wakening from nightmares of pig racing. He led her to a ragged circle of trailers where there was no smell of sugar and peanuts, just Porta-Sans and Char-broils. At the threshold of three aluminum steps to his door, he stopped and offered his hand. “Cole.”
“Ruby.” She shook his. It had the warmth of a man who lived mostly outside. “You a bullrider?”
“Rodeo clown. More dangerous.”
“That why you’re running a wheel now?”
“I ain’t scared of any bull.”
She twisted a purse strap around her finger. “It’s pretty damn scary to dodge a pissed-off bull.”
“Two thousand pounds of fury.”
Ruby didn’t want to think about Justin again. “Do you wear red?”
“Bulls can’t see red. Rodeo clowns trick ‘em by their moves, not their colors.”
“So why do the riders get the glory?”
“They ain’t wearing makeup.”
“Why’d you leave?”
He elbowed the door. “I had to. A cowboy cracked this lock.”
Bosch’s bird-headed demons prodded her closer to the disembodied mouth of Hell. “Thief?”
The grinning grotesques circled on every Vault of Horror cover taunted her: WE DARE YOU TO READ. She faced a blackened fire pit in which she thought of smothering the conversation.
His voice dropped though they were alone. “When I bought this chunk of turquoise off a Navajo, he told me I had two spirits.”
She checked his neck for verification; it was no cross. “Is that what you believe?”
“They both feel like smoke inside me.”
A hologram skull floated inside his eyes like the Escher mezzotint. Despite her shiver, she wished she had a pen. “You miss the rodeo.” Her voice echoed against the aluminum panel upon which he leaned.
“I’d miss my freedom more,” he said.
Prisoners entombed inside a phantom Ohio Penitentiary catcalled to her. She wondered if he heard them too. She ground her teeth to stop their chatter.
But he just turned what she guessed was a key in his pocket. “Are you a thief?”
“Not most of the time.”
“That’s why you got the face of an angel.”
“I don’t think God took too kind to it.”
Bluebeard did not open the door for his wives; he tested them with a magical key that bled when the forbidden door was opened. Their own medieval curiosity damned them. Her heels clanged up the steps like a bell tolling for her.
Inside she blinked at the dim and closeness. Except here were no windows to the sky and plains, but walls close and tight as a rag stall. Walls were shelved deep of cloth and sparkled with sequins. She turned from left to right just as he switched on a bulb with a string, and she couldn’t see for a second, and then all she could see was spangled. Cole sank upon a couch layered with stacked patterns. Metallics shimmered like nights she had dreamed through.
"You look so good with your hair done up so high.” He uncapped the bottle she’d been smelling all morning, pouring it into a tumbler that gas stations used to give away with a fill-up. His mouth folded against the glass, and he swallowed, his eyes slanting again. “You’re like a page out of a country music magazine I wanted to be in.” He outlined her shadow as if she’d appeared like Galatea from the recesses of his hoarded wardrobe.
“I started with a pair of red boots a cowgirl got tired of before she got tired of me.” He seemed to be reaching for the memory from his shelves, pushing back shining fabric. “A lot of rhinestones in barrel racing,” one of his spirits smiled. “On the circuit for years, green pasture turning gold, one blonde prettier than another.” When he ran his hand over a fall of feathers she could almost feel the softness in her own palm. “But when I saw bolt cutters at my door, I knew the torches couldn’t be far behind.”
And even though he’d left the radio playing back at the roulette booth, Ruby could swear she could hear it now, the same snaking bass line, the same slithering guitar.
“I thought I had enough time to steal a horse.” Cole clung to the edge of the couch as if he was next to drop upon a bull bareback; the same tension in the biceps. “I rode that quarter horse flat out like the devil was chasing me.”
Bosch had prosephied the price of the deadly sin ira. After death she knew her beast-headed boyfriend would smoke her out for eternal payment. Cave, cave deus videt.
“Turned out the devil drove a Dodge Challenger. Equal to four hundred twenty-five horses. I would’ve needed NASCAR to escape. They took my horse, burned my clothes, and locked me up for theft.”
Superbia, luxuria, avaritia. She did not want him to burn as she would. He did not worship the same god as she; he did not see the price survivors paid for the sins of the dead. She drew their memorials as she was bid, through the eyes of artists whose greatness was a testament to their religion. She saw a broken mustang led away by its bridle, its rider in handcuffs.
“I was lucky,” he contradicted, as if he read her mind again. “Horse theft ain’t a hanging crime no more. And I just found more hot girls, in and out of their clothes, after they set me free.”
He did not lie. This dank and shadowy room must have been beautiful, its walls of color and softness, glitter and charms. She pressed against a wall that could smother her with its density and velvet. There was nothing so soft as this, and she didn’t feel her skinned eyes, nor see the barbed wire at his wrists. Her purse dangled at her elbow, and she let it drop, filled with not-cried-in Kleenex and not-lost-yet dollar bills.
Cole stood up, tall as his ceiling. “If only men could be beautiful too.” He slid his hand over the smooth colors of her shoulder.
“In pictures they can be,” she whispered.
He twisted her a smile, then offered her a swallow from his glass of Rebel Yell. It had been stolen from a truck stop, along with a tin of Skoal and possibly the tube of lipstick he now pulled from his jeans pocket. He blindly inked his mouth luscious and shining.
“Red,” she breathed.