Emerald City and Other Stories
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Sisters of the Moon
Silas has a broken head. It happened sometime last night, outside The Limited on Geary and Powell. None of us saw. Silas says the fight was over a woman, and that he won it. “But you look like all bloody shit, my friend,” Irish says, laughing, rolling the words off his accent. Silas says we should’ve seen the other guy.
He adjusts the bandage on his head and looks up at the palm trees, which make a sound over Union Square like it’s raining. Silas has that strong kind of shape, like high school guys who you know could pick you up and carry you like a bag. But his face is old. He wears a worn-out army jacket, the pockets always fat with something. Once, he pulled out a silver thimble and pushed it into my hand, not saying one word. It can’t be real silver, but I’ve kept it.
I think Silas fought in Vietnam. Once he said, “It’s 1974, and I’m still alive,” like he couldn’t believe it.
“So where is he?” Irish asks, full of humor. “Where is this bloke with half his face gone?”
Angel and Liz start laughing, I don’t know why. “Where’s this woman you fought for?” is what I want to ask.
Silas shrugs, grinning. “Scared him away.”
San Francisco is ours, we’ve signed our name on it a hundred times: SISTERS OF THE MOON. On the shiny tiles inside the Stockton Tunnel, across those building like blocks of salt on the empty piers near the Embarcadero. Silver plus another color, usually blue or red. Angel and Liz do the actual painting. I’m the lookout. While they’re spraying the paint cans, I get scared to death. To calm down, I’ll say to myself, If the cops come, or if someone stops his car to yell at us, I’ll just walk away from Angel and Liz, like I never saw them before in my life. Afterward, when the paint is wet and we bounce away on the balls of our feet, I get so ashamed, thinking, What if they knew? They’d probably ditch me, which would be worse than getting caught–even going to jail. I’d be all alone in the universe.
Most people walk through Union Square on their way someplace else. Secretaries, businessmen. The Park, we call it. But Silas and Irish and the rest are always here. They drift out, then come back. Union Square is their own private estate.
Watching over the square like God is the St. Francis Hotel, with five glass elevators sliding up and down its polished face. Stoned, Angel and Liz and I spend hours sitting on benches with our heads back, waiting for the elevators to all line up on top. Down, up, down–even at 5 A.M. they’re moving. The St. Francis never sleeps.
Angel and Liz expect to be famous, and I believe it. Angel just turned fifteen. I’m only five months younger, and Liz is younger than me. But I’m the baby of us. Smoking pot in Union Square, I still worry who will see.
We’ve been talking for a week about dropping acid. I keep stalling. Today we go ahead and buy it, from a boy with a runny nose and dark, anxious eyes. Across the street is I. Magnin, and I get a sick feeling that my stepmother is going to come out the revolving doors with packages under her arms. She’s a buyer for the shoe department at Saks, and in the afternoon she likes to walk around and view the competition.
Angel leans against a palm tree, asking in her Southern voice if the acid is pure and how much we should take to get off and how long the high will last us. She’s got her shirt tied up so her lean stomach shows. Angel came from Louisiana a year ago with her mother’s jazz band. I adore her. She goes wherever she wants, and the world just forms itself around her.
“What are you looking at?” Liz asks me. She’s got short, curly black hair and narrow blue eyes.
“Yes, you are,” she says. “All the time. Just watching everything.”
“So, when are you going to do something?” She says it like she’s joking.
I get a twisting in my stomach. “I don’t know,” I say. I glance at Angel, but she’s talking to the dealer. At least she didn’t hear us.
Liz and I look at I. Magnin. Her mother could walk out of there as easily as mine, but Liz doesn’t care. I get the feeling she’s waiting for something like that to happen, a chance to show Angel how far she can go.
We find Irish begging on Powell Street. “Can you spare any part of a million dollars?” he asks the world, spreading his arms wide. Irish has a big blond face and wavy hair and eyes that are almost purple–I mean it. One time, he says, he got a thousand-dollar bill–an Arab guy just handed it over. That was before we knew Irish.
“My lassies,” he calls out, and we get the hug of those big arms, all three of us. He inhales from Angel’s hair, which is dark brown and flips into wings on both sides of her face. She’s still a virgin. In Angel this seems beautiful, like a precious glass bowl you can’t believe didn’t break yet. One time, in Union Square, this Australian guy took hold of her hair and pulled it back, back, so the tendons of her throat showed through the skin, and Angel was laughing at first and so was the guy, but then he leaned down and kissed her mouth and Irish knocked him away, shouting, “Hey, motherfucker, can’t you see she’s still a child?”
“What nice presents have you brought?” Irish asks now.
Angel opens the bag to show the acid. I check around for cops and catch Liz watching me, a look on her face like she wants to laugh.
“When shall we partake?” Irish asks, reaching out with his cap to a lady in a green raincoat, who shakes her head like he should know better, then drops in a quarter. Irish could have any kind of life, I think–he just picked this one.
“Not yet,” Angel says. “Too light.”
“Tonight,” Liz says, knowing I won’t be there.
Angel frowns. “What about Tally?
I look down, startled and pleased to be remembered.
“Tomorrow?” Angel asks me.
I can’t help pausing for a second, holding this feeling of everyone waiting for my answer. Then someone singing “Gimme shelter” distracts them. I wish I’d just said it.
The singer turns out to be a guy named Fleece, who I don’t know. I mean, I’ve seen him, he’s part of the gang of Irish and Silas and them who hang out in the Park. Angel says these guys are in their thirties, but they look older than that and act younger, at least around us. There are women, too, with red eyes and heavy makeup, and mostly they act loud and happy, but when they get dressed up, there are usually holes in their stockings, or at least a run. They don’t like us–Angel especially.
Angel hands me the acid bag to hold while she lights up a joint. Across the Park I see three cops walking–I can almost hear the squeak of their boots. I cover the bag with my hand. I see Silas on another bench. His bandage is already dirty.
“Tally’s scared,” Liz says. She’s watching me, that expression in her eyes like the laughter behind them is about to come pushing out.
The others look at me, and my heart races. “I’m not.”
In Angel’s eyes I see a flash of cold. Scared people make her moody, like they remind her of something she wants to forget. “Scared of what?” she says.
Across the square, Silas adjusts the bandage over his eyes. Where is this woman he fought for? I wonder. Why isn’t she with him now?
“I don’t know,” Liz says. “What’re you scared of, Tally?”
I look right at Liz. There’s a glittery challenge in her eyes but also something else, like she’s scared, too. She hates me, I think. We’re friends, but she hates me.
Irish tokes from the joint in the loudest way, like it’s a tube connecting him to the last bit of oxygen on earth. When he exhales, his face gets white. “What’s she scared of?” he says, and laughs faintly. “The world’s a bloody terrifying place.”
At home that night I can’t eat. I’m too thin, like a little girl, even thought I’m fourteen. Angel loves to eat, and I know that’s how you get a figure, but my body feels too small. It can’t hold anything extra.
“How was school?” my stepmother asks.
“Where have you been since then?”
“With Angel and those guys. Hanging around.” No one seems to notice my Southern accent.
My father looks up. “Hanging around doing what?”
“They’re in biology together,” my stepmother explains.
Across the table the twins begin to whimper. As he leans over their baby heads my father’s face goes soft–I see it even through his beard. The twins are three years old, with bright red hair. Tomorrow I’ll tie up my shirt, I think, like Angel did. So what if my stomach is white?
“I’m spending the night tomorrow,” I say. “At Angel’s.”
He wipes applesauce from the babies’ mouths. I can’t tell if he means to refuse or is just distracted. “Tomorrow’s Saturday,” I tell him, just in case.
We spend all day at Angel’s, preparing. Her mom went to Mexico with the band she plays violin for, and won’t be back for a month. Candles, powdered incense from the Mystic Eye, on Broadway, a paint set, sheets of creamy paper, Pink Floyd records stacked by the stereo, and David Bowie, and Todd Rundgren, and “Help Me,” of course–Joni Mitchell’s new hit, which we worship.
Angel lives six blocks from Union Square in a big apartment south of Market Street, with barely any walls. A foil pyramid hangs from the ceiling over her bed. All day we keep checking the square for Irish, but he’s disappeared.
At sundown we go ahead without him. Candles on the windowsills, the white rug vacuumed. We cut the pills with a knife, and each of us takes one-third of all three so we’re sure to get the same dose. I’m terrified. It seems wrong that such a tiny thing could do so much. But I feel Liz watching me, waiting for one wrong move, and I
swallow in silence.
Then we wait. Angel does yoga, arching her back, pressing her palms to the floor with her arms bent. I’ve never seen anyone so limber. The hair rushes from her head in a flood of black, like it could stain the rug. Liz’s eyes don’t move from her.
When the acid starts to work, we all lie together on her mother’s huge four-poster bed, Angel in the middle. She holds one of our hands in each of hers. Angel has the kind of skin that tans in a minute, and beautiful, snaking veins. I feel the blood moving in her. We wave our hands above our faces and watch them leave trails. I feel Angel warm beside me and think how I’ll never love anyone this much, how without her I would disappear.
The city at night is full of lights and water and hills like piles of sand. We struggle to climb them. Empty cable cars totter past. The sky is a sheet of black paper with tiny holes poked in it. The Chinatown sidewalks smell like salt and flesh. It’s 3 A.M. Planes drift overhead like strange fish.
Market Street, a steamy puddle at every curb. We find our way down alleys, our crazy eyes making diamonds of the shattered glass that covers the streets and sidewalks. Nothing touches us. We float under the orange streetlamps. My father, the twins–everything but Angel and Liz and me just fades into nothing, the way the night used to disappear when my real mother tucked me into bed, years ago.
In the Broadway Tunnel I grab for the spray cans. “Let me,” I cry, breathless. Angel and Liz are too stoned to care. We have green and silver. I hold one can in each fist, shake them up, and spray huge round letters, like jaws ready to swallow me. I breathe in the paint fumes and they taste like honey. Tiny dots of cool paint fall on my face and eyelashes and stay there. Traffic ricochets past, but I don’t care tonight–I don’t care. In the middle of painting I turn to Angel and Liz and cry, “This is it, this is it!” and they nod excitedly, like they already knew, and then I start to cry. We hug in the Broadway Tunnel. “This is it,” I sob, clinging to Angel and Liz, their warm shoulders. I hear them crying, too, and think, It will be like this always. From now on, nothing can divide us.
It seems like hours before I notice the paint cans still in my hands and finish the job. SISTERS OF THE MOON.
We make our way to Union Square. Lo and behold, there is Irish, holding court with a couple of winos and a girl named Pamela, who I’ve heard is a prostitute. Irish looks different tonight–he’s got big, swashbuckling sleeves that flap like sails in the wind. He’s grand. As we walk toward him, blinking in the liquidy light, an amazement at his greatness overwhelms us. He is a great man, Irish. We’re lucky to know him.
Irish scoops Angel into his arms. “My beloved,” he says. “I’ve been waiting all night for you.” And he kisses her full on the lips–a deep, long kiss that Angel seems at first to resist. Then she relaxes, like always. I feel a small, sharp pain, like a splinter of glass in my heart. But I’m not surprised. It was always going to happen, I think. We were always waiting.
Angel and Irish draw apart and look at each other. Liz hovers near them. Pamela gets up and walks away, into the shadows. I sit on the bench with the winos and stare up at the St. Francis Hotel.
“You’re high,” Irish says to Angel. “So very high.”
“What about you? Your pupils are gone,” she says.
Irish laughs. He laughs and laughs, opening up his mouth like the world could fit in it. Irish might live on the streets, but his teeth are white. “I’ll see you in Heaven,” he says.
On the St. Francis Hotel the glass elevators float. Two reach the top, and two more rise slowly to join them. They hang there, all four, and I hold my breath as the fifth approaches and will the others not to move until it gets there. I keep perfectly still, pushing the last one up with my eyes until it reaches the top, and they are, in a perfect line, all five.
I turn to show Angel and Liz, but they’re gone. I see them walking away with Irish, Angel in the middle, Liz clutching at her arm like the night could pull them apart. It’s Liz who looks back at me. Our eyes meet, and I feel like she’s talking out loud, I understand so perfectly. If I move fast, now, I can keep her from winning. But the thought makes me tired. I don’t move. Liz turns away. I think I see a bouncing in her steps, but I stay where I am.
They turn to ghosts in the darkness and vanish. My teeth start to chatter. It’s over. Angel is gone, I think, and I start to cry. She just walked away.
Then I hear a rushing noise. It’s a sound like time passing, years racing past, so all of a sudden I’m much older, a grown-up woman looking back to when she was a girl in Union Square. And I realize that even if Angel never thinks of me again, at some point I’ll get up and take the bus home.
The winos have drifted off. By my Mickey Mouse watch it’s 5 A.M. I notice someone crossing the square–it’s Silas, the dirty bandage still around his head. I yell out to him.
He comes over slowly, like it hurts to walk. He sits down next to me. For a long time we just sit, not talking. Finally I ask, “Was it really over a woman?”
Silas shakes his head. “Just a fight,” he says. “Just another stupid fight.”
I straighten my legs so that my sneakers meet in front of me. They’re smudged but still white. “I’m hungry,” I say.
“Me, too,” Silas says. “But everything’s closed.” Then he says, “I’m leaving town.”
“South Carolina. My brother’s store. Called him up today.”
“Had enough,” he says. “Just finally had enough.”
I know there’s something I should say, but I don’t know what. “Is he nice,” I ask, “your brother?”
Silas grins. I see the young part of him then, the kind of mischief boys have. “He’s the meanest bastard I know.”
“What about Irish?” I ask. “Won’t you miss Irish and those guys?”
“Irish is a dead man.”
I stare at Silas.
“Believe it,” he says. “In twenty years no one will remember him.”
Twenty years. In twenty years I’d be thirty-four years old, my stepmother’s age. It would be 1994. And suddenly I think, Silas is right–Irish is dead. And Angel, too, and maybe even Liz. Right now is their perfect, only time. It will sweep them away. But Silas was always outside it.
I put my hand in my pocket and find the thimble. I pull it out. “You gave me this,” I tell him.
Silas looks at the thimble like he’s never seen it. The he says, “That’s real silver.”
Maybe he wants it back to sell, for his trip to South Carolina. I leave the thimble in my hand so that if Silas wants it he can just take it. But he doesn’t. We both look at the thimble. “Thanks,” I say.
We lean back on the bench. My high is wearing off. I have a feeling in my chest like feathers, like a bird waking up and brushing against my ribs. The elevators rise and fall, like signals.
“Always watching,” Silas says, looking at me. “Those big eyes, always moving.”
I nod, ashamed. “But I never do anything,” I say. And all of a sudden I know, I know why Angel left me.
Silas frowns. “Sure you do. You watch,” he says, “which is what’ll save you.”
I shrug. But the longer we sit, the more I realize he’s right–what I do is watch. I’m like Silas, I think. In twenty years I’ll still be alive.
On one side the sky is getting light, like a lid is being lifted up. I watch it, trying to see the day coming, but I can’t. All of a sudden the sky is just bright.
“I wonder what people will look like in 1994,” I say.
Silas considers. “Twenty years? Probably look like us again.”
“Like you and me?” I’m disappointed.
“Oh yeah,” Silas says with a wry grin. “Wishing they’d been here the first time.”
I look at the blue bandanna tied around his wrist, his torn-up jeans and army jacket with a Grateful Dead skull on one pocket. When I’m thirty-four, tonight will be a million years ago, I think–the St. Francis Hotel and the rainy palm tree sounds, Silas with the bandage on his head–and this makes me see how everything now is precious, how someday I’ll know I was lucky to be here.
“I’ll remember Irish,” I say loudly. “I’ll remember everyone. In twenty years.”
Silas looks at me curiously. Then he touches my face, tracing my left cheekbone almost to my ear. His finger is warm and rough, and I have the thought that to Silas my skin must feel soft. He studies the paint on the tip of his finger, and smiles. He shows me. “Silver,” he says.