Forthcoming in Vestiges_00: Ex-Stasis
Look to the Lowlands and the women there. Banished, all of them, to this neighborhood, this catastrophe of design, this frozen lake of whispers and half-finished thoughts, hidden from view. As you arrive in the Lowlands, don’t ask when or why the place was built. Don’t ask why the houses share no unifying architectural principle or why the neighborhood is hidden from the south by steep hills and from the north by a long-closed highway overpass. Don’t ask who the women inhabiting these spaces are or from where they came, or for their names. Some of them will not know how to answer even the simplest questions. Perhaps you too are unable to answer. And who are these women smoking joints and waiting by phones? Who are these women hanging the same white sheets on clotheslines, day after day? Who are these women without names or pasts? Ask the lady with the sad eyes and maybe she will remember. She will be your mentor, your friend, your caretaker. Maybe she will tell you she wasn’t the first woman to arrive in this place, but slowly became its central figure—unofficial mayor or mother, founder of the neighborhood watch, president of the garden club. She watches out for the new women as they arrive and busy themselves living. She visits most of them regularly. She will visit you, too. She cares for these women, offers them guidance. She watches them behave the only ways they know how to behave, fulfill the only roles they know how to fulfill. She understands the effort they expend just to exist and that the expenditure wears them down. She understands why the women sometimes whistle uncertain melodies to songs they say they have never heard. She understands these things when the other women do not. Hers is a unique perspective. The sad-eyed lady understands why the women here behave certain ways, why the Lowlands works the way it does, why news and information and television signals can enter from outside but nothing can leave, why she, herself, has no name, is known only as the lady with the sad eyes. And sad they are, indeed, peering out from a face both hollow and saint-like, a face like glass. Some nights, when she has finished visiting the other women, she sits on her porch and remembers the sound of an Arabian drum and the words of a prophet. He too had sad-eyes. What were the prophet’s words? The sad-eyed lady remembers something he said, though she knows the conversation never happened—isn’t a memory at all. The man’s words: “No man comes.” Real or not, the words rise and thrum in the sad-eyed lady’s memory.
Alison doesn’t like to stay at home. She can often be found frequenting the red light district, shooting pool at the community center, or visiting one of her neighbors. On nights when she visits the sad-eyed lady, she will start to say things then stop, unsure of herself. When she does finish a thought, it is usually something like, “Life is a bore,” or, “This world is killing me,” but she never seems entirely sure that the thoughts are hers. The sad-eyed lady believes that, for the most part, the thoughts belong to Alison. This is because Alison always seems tired and restless, as if the burden of living is too much. What the sad-eyed lady doesn’t know, however, is that when the wind rustles branches outside her window, when a raccoon or squirrel runs across her roof, the muscles in Alison’s neck tighten, her fingers curl, and she imagines someone watching her through a rifle’s scope.
Though none of the women in the Lowlands ever met her, they all fondly remember Alice. She was only sixteen when she died. The women remember the way she touched them, kissed them, loved them, and now they mourn her. For the women of the Lowlands, Alice is a memory with no source, a ghost who refuses to haunt. Still, the women feel her absence and weep for her death.
James Brubaker is the author of Pilot Season (sunnyoutside) and Liner Notes (Subito Press). His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Zoetrope: All-Story, Hobart, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Normal School, The Collagist, Web Conjunctions, Vestiges and elsewhere. He is also an associate editor for The Collapsar.