Once, Denny had been one of us, a collector of soft things: sweatpants and chambray, fleece koozies, and bean bag chairs. Hummus and acoustic music. Leo Kottke and Ben Hansen from the small canyon.
Ben Hansen no longer lived here. Neither did Denny.
But he was back to show off.
I tried to, slamming the medicine cabinet shut, but a slouching piece of cotton killed the sound.
Denny just stood there waiting for my next move.
Soon he would remember that we still moved in the same ways we always did, still dressed in stretchy baby clothes–our hoodies and tees. They way we ambled trying to fill a day too long for our lives. All of our hard things are rigged up out of easy reach in the canyons arounding, “like in Cottonwood where jutting rocks can help in helping you achieve your trail goals.” I read, my red pen hovering over what I was faced with all semester–this stack of student papers.
Denny had pulled up this apartment, once half his, trailing a little glory. Even his jacket now had a slight fashionable fringe along the seams.
I moved the cotton and tried slamming the door again. “Hear that?” I said.
“Ikea?” Denny said.
“Yes,” I had to admit. “But it annoys them.” I pointed at the ceiling, the girls renting above me, their thuds absorbed by the carpeting I told the landlord they needed up there.
Denny had already moved out of the bathroom and found the hook I’d reserved for him in the living room. This hook was difficult to get to–you had to open two doors at the same time in a jagged way–but Denny did it easily.
He had also figured out how to leave Utah and stay out when so many like him had drifted back, dandelion puffs of people.
“Don’t go,” Kathy and Keith were always telling their customers at the cafe. “But if you do go, take one of our See You Later muffins.” They had been the ones to reach out to Denny, shooting him a postcard that slowly ambled over the desert, before being stuffed with impatience into his San Francisco mail box. He used the phone to confirm. “It’s just so much faster,” he said. Kathy and Keith sighed softly and then made flyers for Denny’s return that I saw them duct taping to light poles all around town.
Denny blazed back in a new car that could make it across the desert without the breakdowns we had come to expect. His new bag featured an outside pocket–a little cloth cabinet with vintage brass fasteners. From a hook, it hung expensively over my futon, pounded down and stained–I had recently bled all over it.
January had been rough.
After the break between semesters, I was having a hard time getting back into my teaching, my courses, my readings, my personal hygiene, finding things to look forward to, bits of hardware to treasure. While Denny was in the bathroom, I jiggled the fancy parts of his backpack, but they made no sound at all.
In December, Denny’s Xmas postcard had felt like a knifing. On the front, Denny’s new girlfriend was thrust like a futon between us. Her arms, like his, had full sleeves of tattoos. Attempting to trace Denny’s arm back to Denny, I got lost in the maze they had used to mark the season.
I had one tattoo–a dot I’d given to myself accidentally when handwriting a paper on Nicholas Nickleby into a yellow legal pad.
Later, when I tried to word process the paper, I could not untangle anything. I had brain rot from the ink, a polluted ring around my permanent dot.
“Remember when I did this to myself ?” I held my tattooed finger close enough for Denny to see.
If Denny remembered, he did not show it. He crouched on my futon over his duffel bag and arranged an outfit. Over that, he placed his body.
“I’m hoping to get dressed by osmosis,” he said.
My stains no longer had the power of staining.
Years ago, I had tried to slam the door of Salt Lake City’s first tattoo parlor, but the heavy glass door had been caught dramatically in a cloud of cold conditioned air.
“What I want is something that will tell the story of us,” Denny had said on the way there. “Start here,” he told the tattooist, who already had my arm. “Just a line to start the story.”
“But what is our story?” I had muttered in the car. “Crazy Bread deliveries from Little Ceasar’s? Crazy salads from that other place?” I waved my arms around irritably. In the mountains there were still thin veins of snow. Sometimes we hiked them like everyone else around here, but really all we had ever done together was eat. I had thought we were going out for a breakfast of pillows of poached eggs on toast. It was my birthday, and that was how I wanted to mark it.
“You go first,” I said, thrusting Denny in front of me, and when a fringe of his blood reached the tattoo guy’s sponge, I drifted outside and walked a little, eventually ending up in front of a fellow grad student’s building, where I stretched one of my unmarked arms to knock on his window.
“I have some poetry for you,” I slid a chapbook out of my back pocket and held it up as proof.
“Saddle stitched,” my poet friend noticed, his head against his casement, a word so important to his work.
For the next three days I lodged and ate very little with the poet, who had never liked Denny’s watery brand of folk music that Denny played in the Mediterranean restaurant where students went to to try hummus for the first time.
“Mark how silent hummus is,” the poet remembers trying to observe, but Denny’s easily sardonic observations about the Salt Lake Valley–its “red state politics” and “little, closed minds” kept getting in the poet’s way.
When I finally returned home, Denny had left a note over-explaining where he’d gone. “Ugh. Such a bad writer,” I remember observing, all those thin dependent clauses.
But his recent songs were taut, as if written by his and his girlfriend’s ropey arms. He sang about arms, theirs and others worthy enough. He sang of his fogged-in flat, the full breasted windows he left uncovered, the bare bulbs he stood under “naked and ugly,” his “sardonic coffee.” Meanwhile, here, everyone in Salt Lake City walked around a little hoarse and tired. Porch swings left unhung, bills fluttering. Our lives were the dependent clauses of the unevolved Denny. Above, a futon of smog made the days slur into night. It was only a little brighter, a little darker. Five am or five pm, I really had no idea.
We sat there in silence for a minute, while the car warmed up. Not that it needed this. The smog kept the cold air in the mountains, the valley air as thick as a pullover fleece.
Beams from passing cars played over Denny’s arms, where his new story was embedded. The name of his record company clung to a cluster of fog that became a cape on a full blown girl in flight, her hair both behind her and in front of her, was concealed and revealed as Denny played. The kid swabbing the table behind him swabbed a little slower, paying attention. How could Denny’s music be both straightforward, yet oblique? Whole, then making you thirsty for more?
The standing room only crowd had all these questions, during the question-and-answer period that Kathy and Keith had insisted on. “We need to get all we can whenever we can,” Kathy told him. “We gave you a muffin, and you didn’t move back.”
She waited for him to make a sound.
Others around us looked similarly dismayed. Betrayed.
Denny wanted no music in the car on the way home, the way people don’t want to be touched after sex.
This was one of the things I had heard, but not yet experienced, this kind of thing.
It’s how Denny, muffin or not, left easily.
At 25, I was still waiting to know about some of these things. There was a religion in this valley that had clung to a lot of us, our inheritance and legacy.
“Let my peers have their orgies,” I used to say, my own little song, “that kind of sliding around.”
I had no idea about what people did with their pubic hair, or private organs.
After the gig, Denny tumbled onto my futon and fell immediately into sleep, his tattooed arms positioned as if making space for me again. He wanted me to crawl in, didn’t he? Instead, I carefully pushed in one of our soft things–not because I still loved him, but to anchor his stories so I could read them at last, the colors thrust forward from the white case. Finally, I traced everything.
Much later, the first time I did have sex, the guy’s penis dangled like a necklace of welded nails–a one-of-a-kind piece called “Tetanus” that I had ordered on Etsy. In fact, when it was happening, I wore that piece, kept it on the entire time.
Julie Turley is a fiction writer and librarian. Her short stories have appeared in Gambling the Aisle, Phantom Drift, North American Review, Star 82 Review, Digging Through the Fat, and Western Humanities Review, where she won its inaugural Utah Art’s Council fiction contest. While she writes fiction in cramped spaces on the lower east side of Manhattan, her main inspiration continues to be the American West.