THE STRAND HOTEL offers
ROOMS TO LET.
overnight or long-term. pets negotiable.
Ask for Yes Carson, proprietor--please use back door.
Naomi left me last night, and left her orange naugahyde sofa behind.
That's how it is.
It doesn't matter that just yesterday morning she was having breakfast in bath like always--a bowl of cornflakes perched on the side of the tub, soaking up vanilla soymilk while she lathered her legs, first one, then the other, her long blonde mermaid hair twisted up in a tea towel because I'd forgotten to go to the laundromat again. I brought her a mimosa in a jelly glass, the one with the goofy rollerskating Stegosaurus. And she smiled when she leaned up to kiss me, but I kept my camera quiet until she gave me the real go-ahead, that Venus on the half-shell smile, the one coyly revealing her readiness to let complete strangers see her the way I saw her right at that moment, her white arms splayed across her bare lap, surrounded by bobbing tangles of spent teabags and the off-blonde coils of her hair.
Nim said that tea was good for her skin, but I said she was too good for anything. Or something else like that, some other dumb clever-sounding crack that men make when they're too blissed out on pot and mimosas and love to have any semblance of a bullshit detector. And she was right there with me, I know it--her mouth tasted like vanilla and diesel when she slipped her arms around my hips, her skin soaped and soft and not at all suggesting that she was planning to leave me within the next 24 hours.
But that was yesterday morning. Today, right here, now, Naomi's candy-striped bikinis are gone. Her Ian Curtis poster is gone. Her bass guitar and laptop, the collected annotated Shakespeare I was borrowing, the black bra she tossed to the floor last night, tangled up and smelling like her--everything, every little scrap of Naomi is gone, except for her orange naugahyde sofa, which is odd, because she loves that sofa.
Of course, it probably isn't morning anymore. I've been sitting here staring at the sofa for a couple hours now, I bet. It's hard to say. See, for a long time, and we could be talking hours, I was too shellshocked to get past the color. Horrid dark vomitous orange. Fiestaware orange, the same color as the radioactive sandwich plate I saw back in Mrs. Nugent's third-grade class, when we all stood wide-eyed around her desk and heard what happened when the Geiger counter detected the trace uranium in the paint--that sickly, bleating beep-hiss-beep. She showed us the plate as a means of explaining why we had to crawl underneath our little metal desks and clutch at our heads whenever the "Severe Weather Alarm" went off. Mrs. Nugent let that Geiger counter hiss and beep for a good long time to get her point across, waving the wand over the sickly orange ceramic like she was casting spells.
But the orange naugahyde sofa holds no late Cold War paranoia for Nim. To her, it is a thing of transcendent beauty, destined for weighty captions in art history texts and dioramas in drafty museums, meant to get dragged out onto her old wraparound porch for mojito afternoons and kitemaking parties. It really is one of her favorite things in the world, her triumphant $40 Hampden yard sale find, the only furniture she insisted on taking along when we left Baltimore. She's probably on her way back there right now. That's where she'd go, the logical place, her natural habitat. Me, I didn't read Salon.com, or smoke American Spirits, or call movies "films" until she kitten-heeled into my life. I wouldn't have pegged her as the type to end things like this. I thought she had more class than a post-it note stuck to the Kelvinator, "goodbye," it says, just "goodbye."
I guess she thought that would be enough, but it doesn't help me.
Neither did Yes, even though he stood in my doorway for the better part of the morning--yes, it's definitely past morning--just staring at Naomi's sofa. He spent a lot of time scratching his salt and pepper beard and nodding a lot, even when I wasn't talking. But he's always been like that. It's the thing I remembered most about him after he left Mom--that he nods just like this Oriole Bird bobblehead I used to have, rickety and kind of unhinged, like his neck might pop off sideways at any second. Since coming to the Strand, I've discovered that Yes nods the most when he's not sure what else to say. He nodded at everything I said this morning--until I mentioned that I was planning to throw away Naomi's orange naugahyde sofa.
"You can't do that," he said, his voice suddenly hollow and grave. "That's a damn nice sofa. You don't just walk out on a sofa like that. Jane must have gone insane."
I reminded him that her name was Naomi.
"Well, what do I care, I'm going to Berkeley," said Yes. But he didn't go, not right away. He just kept leaning against my doorframe and digging through the pockets of his weird old clamdiggers, noisily clearing phlegm from his folded throat. Eventually he dredged up a greasy deck of business cards, bound together with a ponytail elastic. Little strings of hair clung to the ratty rubber band.
"Here," he said, handing them over. "In case that guy comes calling about Wyatt's snake. I took out an ad."
"But these only have the hotel phone on them."
"Shouldn't you leave a number for Berkeley?"
"Why bother? The snake's right upstairs," he said, shrugging. "I took out an ad."
"Okay," I said. It's no use arguing when he's like that.
"And remember, I don't want you hustling people while I'm gone, Frannie."
Yes waggled his pointer finger in front of his sunburnt turnip nose, like I should've already known what he was talking about.
"Talk business. Find me a renter for Wyatt's room, like I said."
He never said until right then, but like I said, it's no use arguing with Yes. The last time I disagreed with my old man, he rode my ten-speed down the hill in front of the hotel, crashed it straight into the ocean, and left it there, rusting, with long brown strings of seaweed twisted through its gears. No, best to use reason when talking with Yes, even if the concept's somewhat foreign to his drug-addled brain.
"Hey, why don't you take out an ad?"
"I don't know, kid, I gotta split," said Yes, smacking his palm against the doorframe and staring, like that was some kind of explanation. In his world, I guess grieving for Wyatt looks a whole hell of a lot like trying to replace him. He's always in a hurry to get back to Berkeley, where he can write new poems, toke fine collegiate grass, and screw wide-eyed philosophy students who are half his age. My mother was one of those, twenty four years ago. There are Polaroids--Yes looking like Jesus in a full beard and caftan, and Mom sitting in his lap, miniskirted, splay-legged, naively convinced that it was going to last. For me, the whole story's right there.
"I tell you, Frannie," said Yes, "I want to see this sofa here when I get back. In fact, I want a painting of this sofa. I'll hang it in the lobby. You hear me? Paint this goddamned sofa for me, and go get some fresh air. Get out, get hammered, just forget about what's-her-face, all right?"
I hate to say that Yes is right about anything, but he is this time, in a way. I don't necessarily have to keep on thinking about Naomi--these walls, this suite, this whole hotel possesses a checkered and fascinating history that reduces Naomi to a mere footnote, a stain on the baseboard, a mark on the wall. For instance, Yes once told me that my bedroom was used as a small motor repair shop. He also insists that a troupe of Hare Krishnas held satsang here, and had my thick metal paint shelves installed along the wall for them in lieu of beds, because they didn't want beds. Yes calls them gorilla shelves, and he claims that they'll support a gorilla. Once he climbed one to prove it--though he's nowhere near heavy enough--and stayed up there for a long time, talking about some sex-crazed German couple who used to do the nasty on my kitchen counter and watching me paint. Then he started asking me if I could paint something pornographic for him, to remember them by, and I had to ask him to leave, because he was creeping me out, making weird groaning noises, most likely on something.
The truth is, what Yes Carson wants from anyone changes every five minutes. He probably won't remember this morning's burning desire for a painting of Naomi’s sofa. Most likely, he forgot well before he boarded his plane, in his mad rush to burn three roaches before hitting the security checkpoints. I can see him there now, slyly shaking his mottled fist at the x-ray conveyor belts, dopey grin in full effect, having a fucking fabulous time, completely oblivious to every conversation he had today, including the one about Naomi's sofa. But I'll probably end up painting it anyway. The color's already burnt itself into my retinas. Chernobyl orange, lifejacket bright. In my mind, I've been sketching it for hours, testing every possible mixture of orange on my arms and feet and hands. I've been drawing it with pillows tucked into the corners, using complicated sugarlift techniques while rendering the brass studs that pin down the naugahyde.
But I'm not actually moving much. There are too many other distractions. Like the fact that I can't stop staring at my bookshelves, torturing myself with the black cavities between Kant and Sartre, and the peeling wallpaper where Naomi's Ian Curtis poster used to be. I'd grown accustomed to his face, as they say. It was almost nice to see him in the mornings, square-jawed, shark-eyed, and suicidal, while beautiful bed-headed Naomi plunked away at answering Yes's fan mail at a rate of two dollars per letter, and I stirred gesso, and everyone was happy.
We were happy in Baltimore, too, though--that's where I found her, sent by a friend of a friend to buy $100 worth of the hash I sold whenever my art wasn't moving at the G Spot, which was often. Like me, Naomi was still nursing a post-baccalaureate weed habit, most noticeable in her tendency to change subjects mid-sentence, like someone was shifting the furniture in her brain around. I can still see her sitting crosslegged on my studio floor, making my favorite bowl lipgloss-sticky, filling the room with smoke.
"Punk's not sexual, it's just aggression," she'd say, and I'd never heard a girl talk like that, like she had discovered ancient secrets through great trials and deep contemplation. "Oooh, you have Transformer? That's awesome. Can we put it on?"
"Little bunny foo-foo, hopping through the for-est, picking up the peep-peeps and bopping them on the head."
Sylvia always feels her way into a room, letting her hands glide down the woodwork, fitting bitten fingernails into brass lock plates and catches. If you didn't know better, you'd think she's blind or dumb. But she's neither--there's cunning in those yellow eyes. She always moves on her toes, like a cat reaching for birds. And no mother ever told her to lift the hems of her skirts, or cross her legs at the ankles--she does neither as she settles onto Naomi's sofa, a blue plastic Valu-Food bag dangling off her fingertips.
"Francis, lancets, pudding and pie--"
"Sylvia, please. I'm trying to work."
She's gotten much weirder since Wyatt died, which isn't to say that she's ever been normal, well, not while I've known her, anyway. The word is that she developed a nasty fascination with Robitussin when she was really young, like ten or eleven, and spent her childhood days in a dextromethorphan haze. She's supposedly brilliant or something, just a little damaged from all those heavy doses of preteen hallucination. Nik Kane-Kwe claims it changed her brain irreparably, made her different from the rest of us, maybe better, evolved somehow. But Nik Kane-Kwe is in love. Everything he says/does is suspect.
Sylvia likes to dip her hands into my palettes and water dishes, like she's doing now. I've also seen her snatch up paintbrushes and tap them against her teeth, her eyes glittering, her incisors kitten-sharp. And I've often wondered how Nik Kane-Kwe can kiss those gaunt ship's rib shoulders and bruised lips. Then again, anyone who makes coffins for a living probably wants a girl who looks like Dracula's favorite whore.
"Where's Nim?" she asks, swinging her long bare legs.
Sylvia stands up abruptly and goes to the back door, where she winds her arms into the mosquito nets and presses her face against the screen. It's almost like she's hypnotized by all the tiny black squares, or the fizz and hiss of the ocean beyond them, sucking sand away from the land. A warm breeze rustles Sylvia's Valu-Food bag, and she bites her fingertips, processing.
"Oh," she says. "For how long?"
"I don't know."
My useless answer satisfies her far more than it should. She whirls away from the door and drops onto the floor beside me, stretching her long arms toward the silk roses she's tied around her feet--frayed clumps of red-white-and-blue, like they've been plucked off a veteran's grave. She wiggles her toes and gives me a Christmas morning smile.
"Do you like my flowers, Frannie?"
"I was going to get some for Nim, but she didn't ask."
"They're nice," I say.
"Yes," Sylvia hisses, straightening importantly and rustling the bag between her knees. She's already started fishing around inside of it, fingers moving around behind the red Valu-Food logo, like strange, blurry white worms.
"That sofa has mice, you know," she says.
With a theatrical flourish, like she's been practicing all week, Sylvia produces three packets of Twinkies, a yellow box of rat poison, and two tall metallic cylinders of disinfectant, labeled with loud fluorescent banners that proclaim "Now Kills Hepatitis B!" in bold black print. Good news. Bright new future. A draft catches the empty Valu-Food bag and pulls it, ghost-like and rattling, toward my front door. I wonder if she expects applause.
"In it," hisses Sylvia. "There are mice in it."
She's stacking the Twinkies on top of the rat poison and putting an aerosol on either side, like towers on a sand castle.
"Inside the sofa?"
I barely manage to sound out the question mark. My hands feel strange, like my fingernails are trying to slide up into my knuckles, and all the skin's curling tighter somehow.
"Nim didn't think so either, not at first, so I showed her the droppings."
Sylvia pats the Twinkies gently, the way she greets the cats. It's too hot for the cakes--they're already sweating, coating their cellophane wrappers with thin, gluey beads of sugar water. I slap a fly off my arm.
"Don't worry, the instructions are in the box," she explains. "Just make sure you keep your room shut while you have it out. I don't want the cats eating any."
Sylvia leaps up abruptly, knocking one of the disinfectant cans halfway across the room in her rush to grab my hands. She's a very excitable girl, Pippi Longstocking-crazy. Nik Kane-Kwe spends a lot of nights following her across the beach, trying to keep up as her attention skips from conch shell to fishbone to crab carcass. So I'm not surprised when she drags me bodily off the floor, spins me right around, and marches me into my kitchen.
"Yes!" she giggles, her yellow eyes shining like beetles as she guides me toward the bookshelf, the drysink cabinet, the thick dark slit where the Kelvinator meets the kitchen counter. It's the same every time--she shows me turds like coffee grounds, glistening stark black turds, turds gathered in loose piles among the dust. They're so much like coffee grounds, I find myself dabbing at them with my fingertips, just to make sure. They cling to my skin like rice, oily and hard, and I'm picturing all those probing, pointed noses, all those mange-ridden tufts of hair, and my skin squirms so hard, I practically fly to the sink and squirt the antibacterial soap pump with my clenched wrists, orange soap everywhere, I'm that desperate to get it off me.
Sylvia laughs and claps her hands.
The droppings trickle away reluctantly, washing down the drain in murky rivers of rehydrated paint and dirt. Sylvia leans over my shoulder, wincing.
"You don't wash your hands enough," she says.
"How do you know that the mice are in the sofa?"
Sylvia whirls away laughing, like it's really fucking funny that I want to know what the fuck's going on.
"I saw them go inside," she says. "The other night."
I glance over at my mattress, piled high with crocheted granny afghans and torn cotton sheets. I picture Naomi tangled against me, asleep in my arms, and Sylvia creeping past our unconscious bodies, through an obstacle course of shiny silver paint cans, her eyes egg-white and wild in the dark.
"You came in here the other night?"
She shrugs, scraping her pale fingertips along the back of Naomi's orange naugahyde sofa.
"The last one, yes yes."
I bite my tongue. Theoretically, there's no real reason to get upset. Yes's house, his rules, which means that every suite in the Strand is subject to a solid open-door policy. It's one of the things that Yes gets really insistent about. He's written about it, even--it took up a whole chapter of his seminal novella Jellybean Metempsychosis, so half the kids who drift through here take it as gospel. A few months ago, some pixie-cut girl made it her sacred duty to race through the corridors, flinging open all the doors, yelping one of Yes's favorite mottos: "Shut door, shuttered heart!" I don't know if the girl really believed it or not. Probably she was fucking him, it's hard to say. Anyway, the point is, Sylvia comes and goes as she pleases, and it genuinely gives me the creep.
"The poison might taste sweet, like antifreeze," she coos. "We'll have to shoo the cats away until it's all used up, and keep Tiger out of your room."
A few dog tags jingle lazily on the porch. He likes it when people say his name, but he won't move more than a neck muscle until the sun goes down. Tiger, it seems, is rather set in his ways.
"What were you doing in here last night?"
Sylvia twists the strap of her tank top around her fingers, her mouth an innocent O.
"Following Magdalena," she says. "She was showing me mice."
"You were here while we were asleep?"
Sylvia's too engrossed in her groceries to pay me any mind. Apparently mouse poison comes ready-loaded in yellow cardboard wedges, four to a box. She folds her legs and scoops the poison into her skirt one wedge at a time, like she's gathering deadly eggs.
"Look here, you can't just--"
"Shhh," Sylvia hisses, crossing herself before she punches her thumb through the cardboard and scatters dusty turquoise pellets across her lap, her legs, my floor. She picks them up with flattened palms, pressing down until the poison sticks to her skin.
"So pretty," she murmurs, rolling the pellets between her slim white fingers. "I didn't think they would be pretty as antifreeze. Here now, Frannie-Fran. Just you watch."
I follow her around as she positions the bait wedges, tenderly sliding one into the crevice between the Kelvinator and the wall, slipping others underneath my gorilla shelves, behind a pile of half-used canvases, beneath Naomi's orange sofa. She has to lie belly-down on the floor to shove the poison past the skirting, and her shirt shimmies up her spine, showing every knuckle, round and firm and just soft enough to be beautiful.
I drum my fingers against the naugahyde and think about death. Naomi was into it, to an extent--Ian Curtis and all that, but she always winced her way out of parties when people got drunk and morbid enough to talk about famous suicides and accidental deaths, Hemingway, Cobain, Buckley, Mama Cass, Thompson, Plath.
Wyatt, on the other hand, was always the last to leave such parties, always the giddy smile in the corner, still passing spliffs and talking about Burroughs. Nothing ever fazed him. Maybe that should have tipped us off somewhere along the line.
Everyone keeps saying that lately.
"Naomi told you to get this stuff?"
"Can kill with one feeding," says Sylvia, clutching the box to her eyes. "Yes, she did. And Twinkies, because you like Twinkies. Would you like a Twinkie, Frannie-Fran?"
She slits the cellophane neatly and peels back the corners. Some of the powder on her fingernails sticks to the sponge cake. Yellow and blue make green. I'm not hungry, but it feels heroic to eat these Twinkies, these forgotten, poison-laced Twinkies that Naomi left behind. After all, they might kill me.
"When's she coming back?"
Mmm, greasy creme filling.
"When's Nimmy coming back?"
"Didn't say," I say, and it's true, and my mouth's too full for talking.
"Hmm." says Sylvia, rattling an aerosol above her shoulder.
"Look, Sylvia...I appreciate it, and I'll tell her you came by with this stuff, but I was actually just going outside."
Sylvia doesn't look up. She's too busy spraying the disinfectant into a chemical smile on my hardwood floor, foamy and clean.
"I guess I'll just leave you to it." I tell her, because I don't give a fuck.
The beach behind the Strand Hotel is empty, but the sun is incredible, licking the water like an angry oil fire. I wish there were two or three long-legged hippie girls lounging between my room and Nik Kane-Kwe's, but instead there's just Sylvia, following me down the deck steps, the rest of the Twinkies cradled in the folds of her skirt, like Easter peeps. Me, I keep on thinking about hippie girls. Sometimes they're really out here, pretty ones who spend their whole lives tanning and braiding each other's hair. Someday I'll walk up to them, talk about my art for a little while, and point out my deck, which looks awfully inviting in the late sunlight. And we'll sit out there, drinking Coronas and continuing our conversation about my brilliant future as a famous artist, and they won't know that Naomi ever existed, because I won't mention her, not even when we start getting hot and heavy on her sofa. I kiss my hand and blow my wishes out to sea. I want some long-legged rebound hippie girls. And some money. And my girl.
Naomi and I used to blow kisses at Nik Kane-Kwe whenever we went swimming. We'd see him waving down the beach at us, a smudge of blonde dreadlocks and flashing power tools. He's known throughout Vista as the Ghanaian Coffin Man, even though he's a bowlegged white boy, and Kane-Kwe isn't really his last name. It was given to him by real Ghanaians, though--the same ones who taught both him and Wyatt how to carve, plane, and paint spectacular wooden coffins shaped like birds, vegetables, animals--even Elvis Presley, if the occasion demands.
I suppose Nik's Ghanaian mentors thought that a new last name would help him get business in the U.S. They weren't wrong. With the aid of the Internet and Yes's tight connections to the aging hippie population, Nik Kane-Kwe and Wyatt managed to score five or six commissions from rich freaks who thought it sounded heavy to spend eternity in cabbages, leopards, and the like. Naomi and I used to flip through their coffin portfolios whenever we came over.
"And here's me with Moon Fairchild. She wanted to be buried in a giant bunch of grapes," Nik would say, smiling through his gap teeth.
Sylvia's hurling her Twinkies at the seagulls, who shriek and kree and stab each other in their rush to swoop fastest and swallow hardest. Sylvia laughs as loud as they do, tripping over her skirts as she whirls, whooping, through the throng of birds, mashing Twinkies with her fingers and flinging the sticky lumps heavenward, ecstatic that what goes up doesn't always come down. The gulls divebomb her, snatching huge chunks of cake from her outstretched hands, their mouths always open, always screaming. I follow Sylvia more silently, a few paces behind her wake of footprints and soggy sponge cake. Nik Kane-Kwe is up ahead, but he's drilling something, and when he's drilling, no amount of shrieking girlfriends and seagulls and airborne Twinkie scraps can distract him from the hiss and grind of metal on wood. He stands braced between twin sawhorses, watching the wood peel away from the bit like yellow cheese curds, his gap teeth grinding into his wormy lips, his sunburnt brow creased and sweating behind a pair of clear vinyl safety goggles. He shuts the drill off when he sees me, and Sylvia crashes into him, her eyes half-closed, her hands roaming through his massive, sawdust-frosted hump of dreadlocked hair.
"Hi," says Nik Kane-Kwe, nodding at me.
"Hey," I reply.
"What's going on?"
Before I can answer, Sylvia lifts one leg onto Nik Kane-Kwe's sawhorse, and hikes her skirt up, well past her thigh.
"Do you like my flowers?" she asks, grinning.
He kisses her forehead.
"They're all wet, baby."
"Yes, like jellyfish."
Nik runs his hands down her arm, pressing his thumbs into the crook of her elbow.
"There's half a bolt of satin on the bed for you."
"Enough for a dress?"
"Maybe just. On the bed, kitten."
Sylvia squeals and almost trips over the orange drill cord in her rush to get inside.
"The satin's left over from lining Wyatt's box," he says, sheepishly scratching his elbow and kicking the cord away from the steps. "I couldn't tell her that."
"Wow," I say. I don't know what else to say.
"Here, I'll show you."
I follow Nik up onto his deck. He keeps all his coffins outside once he's started working on them, wrapped up in long sheets of blue tarpaulin and tied with baling twine. Wyatt's is waiting beside the gas grill, his name scrawled across the plastic in black magic marker, no last name. The tarp flaps in the breeze as Nik cuts the twine loose. I can tell he's proud by the careful way he handles the wrappings, and the gleam in his watery blue eyes. I guess he has a right to be. Wyatt was his business partner, but more than that, he was a friend. They shared a car and a frying pan. Wyatt even inked the tattoos on the insides of Nik's arms. One of them says "Kane-Kwe" in blue-black Gothic letters. The other arm has shitloads of Japanese work--goldfish, Hakkosai waves, and geisha dolls, all shot through with a prickly blue-green vine, one of those stock flash designs that doesn't really mean anything.
Nik Kane-Kwe yanks the tarp away with a flourish and steps back so that I can get a good look at the coffin. It glints gold in the sun, obscuring itself.
"Here it is," he announces proudly, while I blink the light away.
Wyatt's going underground in the belly of a giant wooden lion.
"I took the design from that tattoo on his left leg. Do you remember?"
I nod, because I do, almost, vaguely. I'm sure I saw it when he went swimming or something. Then again, Wyatt had a lot of tattoos. He did most of them himself, carving symbols into his skin with shaky black lines, then punctuating their weird geometries with a whole jungle's worth of hand-drawn animals, forced to overlap at their knees and wings due to lack of space, or to stand half-finished where he ran out of room--tailless snakes, birds without limbs and beaks, and a wide-eyed rampant lion, if Nik's gotten it all right.
Nik Kane-Kwe slides his fingers across the wooden cat's broad back, showing me where he screwed in the hinges--one set fitted just behind the coconut husk mane, and another down beside the tail. He swings the coffin open gently, touching the satin that lines the lion's hollow cushioned gut, hand-stitched into soft blue ruffles. That used to be one of Wyatt's jobs--that and the sanding. I stand beside the head while Nik adjusts the pillow. The lion glares through eerie cold, white eyes, broken shards of seashells standing in for fangs, tipped with bright red gloss paint. I shove my hands into my pockets.
"It's good to have it done," says Nik Kane-Kwe, slowly lowering the coffin's lid.
He tucks the tarp back underneath the lion's paws.
"I don't know," says Nik Kane-Kwe. "It's one thing to carve a Mercedes-Benz for a dying rich man that I've never met. It's another thing entirely to make Wyatt's lion."
"It's really great," I tell him. "I'm sure it's what he would have wanted."
"Wants," murmurs Nik Kane-Kwe. "He won't be finished until he's in the ground."
Nik wipes the sweat from his brow and rubs it off on his tattooed arms. The waves are fizzing into the sand, peroxide white. Nik Kane-Kwe can be absolutely silent for long periods of time, barely even breathing. Maybe he learned this in Ghana, where they taught him how to carve lion's tails, or during university peace vigils, when he was just another art student in Berkeley, trying to make the cut.
"I know," says Nik, finally. "They've probably never seen anything like it in Maine."
That's where we had Wyatt's body sent--up North, where his family lives. I don't remember knowing that before he died. He always seemed more exotic than that, with his tattoos and coffins and dark, sunburnt skin. But I like the picture Maine conjures up just now. I like imagining old lobster trappers in camouflage coats and fingerless gloves, lowering Wyatt and his wild-eyed Ghanaian lion into a frosty plot of earth.
"It would seem wrong to bury him in anything else," I hear myself saying. "I mean, he loved your coffins. It would be insulting if he didn't get one."
Nik laughs a little, showing his gap teeth.
"You think so?" he asks, sliding open the screen door. "That's sweet of you to say. Beer?"
I crash into a beanbag chair and dust the sand off my toes. Nik Kane-Kwe's rooms always smell like incense, the cheap Indian kind that comes packaged with a rice paper trading card. You get a different Hindu god in every pack, and Nik tacks them to the kitchen doorframe. He's collected Krishna, Shiva, Kali, Ganesh, and Hanuman so far. I know this because he labels them with markers, writing right on the woodwork, pressing hard enough to let the letters show through the gauzy green batik that hangs across the doorway. Its lizard print shivers, kissing Krishna, and a cluster of Japanese paper lanterns spin slowly in the breeze. Half of the decorations in here are Sylvia's doing, Dumpster-salvaged or sewn with scraps from coffin linings, but she won't move out of the attic, no matter how much Kane-Kwe begs. Yes says it's because she and Wyatt used to sleep up there when the three of them first showed up, strung out and lacking gas, and Nik Kane-Kwe gave his pickup truck to Yes in exchange for a place to stay.
It's a strange idea for me, the thought of Sylvia and Wyatt together-together. I don't think I ever saw the two of them in the same room until Wyatt's wake, where she tore petals off the tea roses I bought for him, and cried her sleeves wet.
Nik Kane-Kwe's dreadlocks look chlorine green through the curtain. He's hovering over the kitchen counter, next to the compost colander. The sun's still coming on strong, throwing itself across the clear varnished wall paneling, making whole corners gleam flashbulb white, and it's all so beautiful and blinding, I almost forget about everything that's been getting me down, remember why I stay.
"Naomi left me yesterday," I say.
Nik Kane-Kwe scratches his heel against the back of his leg like a wading bird, and doesn't answer me. He's being awfully quiet, shoulders hunched in concentration--whatever he's making, he's really working away at it, bent tight against the counter and rubbing his fingers together. He's probably already forgotten about our beer.
"It was sudden," I tell him. "Real sudden."
Nik steps out of sight. I hear the refrigerator open and close, and a few kitchen drawers rolling on their greasy tracks.
"Fuck it," he says. "I don't know where the bottle opener is."
Nik Kane-Kwe gets tangled up in the lizard tapestry on his way into the front room. The gauzy fabric sticks to the sweat on the Coronas, but he spins himself free, holding his right hand aloft to protect his treasure, his freshly rolled joint. He fits it into a shallow crack in the floorboards for safekeeping, and sets his teeth against the beers, snapping off each metal cap with a quick, well-practiced motion. Just watching him makes my gums ache.
"You're still thinking about Naomi," says Nik Kane-Kwe, putting his bottle down to spark the joint. "You should stop doing that."
There's a nice coffin photograph beside the deck door--a picture of a giant cigar with double-hinged doors, the top one slid open to reveal a dead black man tucked inside. His ashy hands dangle out over the edges, half-covering the cigar's giant band, while a smiling boy slips an unlit cigarette between the corpse's pallid, parted lips. It could be the grandson of the deceased, or maybe coffin-making apprentices are young in Ghana, younger than Wyatt and Nik were, anyway, when they went. When I refocus, Nik Kane Kwe is gazing meditatively at me, waiting for conversation. A half-smile drifts across his mouth.
"I'm sorry," I say.
"Take your time."
He offers me the joint while he's waiting.
"She just left," I tell him. "She didn't even give me a reason. That's a little weird, don't you think? I mean, how long would it have taken to explain herself?"
Nik Kane-Kwe pauses to exhale.
"Well," he says, "for many people, life is about encountering new environments. Maybe she just bled this one dry, you know? Maybe she got everything she could out of the Strand. I mean, I know I never will. You know what I'm saying, right?"
Nik reaches up under the sleeve of his t-shirt and scratches his shoulder. Smoke drifts out of his mouth and coils inside the red lampshade, somehow attracted to the glow. He often has strange ideas.
"This place that just turns some people on, you know? And the good ones always stay, Frannie. You've been here, what, three months now? That proves you know what I'm saying. You, me, Yes, Sylvia, Wyatt--we've all felt it. We're a tribe. We're family."
He grunts and pulls a magazine off of the shelf behind him, and spreads it out on the floor. It's some kind of meditation catalogue, but he flips through the pages far too quickly to actually be reading any of them, racing past prayer bead collections, dribbling ash over glossy photographs of bronze Buddhas, pausing only to lick his thumb.
"Right," I say, "but I--"
"Naomi just didn't feel it. I mean, what happened to Wyatt is still hitting us all pretty hard," He chews the skin behind his lower lip for a moment. "She couldn't handle it, so she had to go."
I feel like saying something mean, but I don't think Nik's in an arguing mood. And anyway, this is what I need to hear. Indictments and insults for Naomi are a good thing. Wyatt killed himself. Naomi left town. Bitch. I follow Nik's logic for a second, testing it out in my mind. Wyatt killed himself, so Naomi left town. If I say it aloud just now, Nik Kane-Kwe will nod sagely, crushing his lower lip between his crooked teeth. And he'll be dead wrong, because Naomi and Wyatt never got along.
"There's something off about him," she'd say, her shoulders bristling at the casual way that Wyatt moved through the Strand, slipping in and out of rooms without saying goodbye to anyone, doing whatever he pleased.
He came to my room just last week, struggling under an armload of clunking calabash gourds, their necks linked together like fishing hooks. It was pretty obvious that if he dropped one, he'd lose them all, so he was swaying unnaturally on bare tiptoes, being careful not to spill. This wasn't strange. I mean, it is strange, but it wasn't with Wyatt. He was always carrying odds and ends around--stones, gourds, egg cartons, not to mention pieces of coffins he was working on, crazy scroll-cut heads, legs, and arms. That afternoon, he swayed over to Naomi's orange naugahyde sofa and let his gourds fall into its lap. Wyatt liked to talk with his hands, and he stretched them across his wide forehead after he unloaded his burden, rubbing his temples and asking if I had any spare chalk.
"White and strong," he murmured, tapping his fingers against the back of his neck. When I explained that I didn't have any, and I never do--because I use pencils to sketch my paintings, not chalk--Wyatt started pacing wildly. He muttered and massaged his back, twisting his t-shirt around his fingers and asking for grease pencils, pastels, anything--
"Anything that'll make a mark," he kept saying, he just needed something that could "make marks."