Lipstick

[I would hugely appreciate comments on this. It’s my contribution to an anthology of stories inspired (in any way) by songs. This comes from INXS’ Beautiful Girl. My fellow contributors are unanimous it is too fragmented and unexplained. I’d love to know what you all think – by all means forget that it’s based on a song – that’s by the by. Thank you]

The tip of her smoke flares red and fades, and rises again from the ashes, syncopated from the beat of the neon flickering above her. A smack-pulse drum and bass floats up the stairwell through the chipboard doors, slamming off against the rain. I’ve left London and landed in a world filled only with rhythms. And her.

She takes the dead roach out of her mouth and flicks it into the rain where it’s lost. She opens her mouth and moves her lips and out comes a trail of smoke and steam.

“What’s it like in there?” I ask, taking two steps towards her, leaving her room to make a run to my side so she knows I’m no threat.

“You didn’t hear a word of that, did you?” I hear.

“Not a word.”

“I said spend the night with me.”

I laugh, and start to turn away, and then I stop. Her voice hooks me back, and I look at her, at black hair turning a hundred shades in the diffracted lights and sounds of the darkness, at lipstick the unchanging black-red of blood.

“By morning I’ll be dead. Spend the night with me.” The last words so soft they merge with a bass line from a club streets away.

I feel my finger burn and twitch where my wedding ring used to be.

“It’s OK. I’m not asking you to fuck me. Not unless you want to.”

“I have a daughter. I’m seeing her tomorrow at nine.”

A mote of something bright breezes behind her eye, or maybe it’s just the reflection of her lighter as she sparks and draws. “What do I care what you’re doing at nine? By then I’ll be dead.”

I see Ruthie’s face. Or rather, I try to find her face and end up leafing through photographs in my head, pieces of Ruthie three, six months apart. Nothing that adds up to anything as seamless as a life. Maybe from tomorrow. But that’s what I always say.

I won’t sleep. Maybe not sleeping with someone else will keep me sober enough Emma won’t turn away and take Ruthie with her the moment she catches my scent on the wind.

“I’m Simon,” I say.

“OK.”

“You’re?”

“Nobody.”

“Don’t be down on yourself,” I say, taking my first hit of smoke.

“Who the fuck said I’m down on myself?” Not angry. Not upset. Just a question.

We smoke in silence, three puffs each, then she goes on. “You can ask me to put on a sharp diamond ring, and ram my fist inside your asshole. You can buy beer and smash the bottles and ask me to carve the fucking Mona Lisa on my arm. But you don’t ask who I am. By morning I’ll be dead and you’ll still be Simon and that’s the way it is, and why doesn’t matter and who I am doesn’t matter because the fact I’ll be dead before the conversation’s over makes me nobody. OK?”

When we’ve finished our cigarettes we leave the alleyway and head into the endless fractal streets of London’s night. Everywhere we turn the neon throbs the same blues beat half-lights. Every alley narrows to another that narrows to another that opens up to a garbage courtyard leading off to any number of alleys that narrow to other alleys, and in the background come drum and bass strafing the sky from turntable turrets we never see.

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” she says. “It’s all the same, but you can walk and walk and never get bored.”

“What about tired?” I reply.

“Sure, sometimes you get tired. But never bored.”

“I think I’d get bored if I traipsed around here every night.”

“Yeah, maybe you would.”

I don’t know how, but she makes me think of Ruthie. Maybe I imagine Ruthie being there in the night when I’m older so I don’t die on my own. Maybe I have nightmares of her telling some middle-aged man he can ask her to fist fuck him. Whatever it is, she makes me think of Ruthie, and I know it’s stupid but I tell her anyway. She says, that’s stupid, and I say I know.

She says we should get coffee and we take a few turns and head down some steps into a basement where a guy with bags under his eyes the size of his belly comes up and asks what we want. I look at the walls and the floors, the edges of the cracks and peeling posters gouting neon blood off the glass doorway at the bottom of the stairs; and I look at her and she says, two double espressos.

“So how come you have to come here to see your daughter?” she asks.

“I thought I couldn’t ask that kind of question.”

“That’s right. You can’t.”

“But you can?”

She watches the doorway. Her eyeballs hover, strobing, following the flicker of the lights. I wonder if she’s taken something but that’s not it. It’s like something inside her is beating the rhythm of the city, and it’s pushing its way to the surface, and out of her skin. Like it’s shedding her. I wonder if that’s what she means when she says she’s dying.

“My wife left me.”

“That’s not hard to figure.”

“There was an accident.”

“An accident.” She nods to the waiter who sets the coffees down with his huge hands so quiet they don’t make a sound.

“A man was killed.”

“A man was killed.”

“No.” I take a sip, look at the cup, and see it’s empty. “It wasn’t an accident. I killed a man.”

“A man was killed. You killed a man,” she says, her eyes still pulsing side to side and not stopping in my direction.

“I was late at a meeting. It was my daughter’s birthday. Emma was going to be so mad. I didn’t see.”

“And you were later than you ever thought you would be.”

“I made it home on time. That’s all I was thinking. Make it home on time. And I did.”

“And Emma was still cross.”

“Yes.” I put my hands to the corners of my lips to steady them, but the caffeine and the memory’s working against me. “But not that night. Not on Ruthie’s birthday.”

“You made her birthday,” she says. “And you missed all her others.”

She says we should get Danish to soak the caffeine or we’ll sit here and drill holes in the floor with our feet. We eat them in silence, and the waiter brings more, leaving the plates and forks on the table around us, and I think it must be morning and she’s not dead, and soon I’ll be with Ruthie and this toxic neon night’ll be gone. One more coffee, she says, and I say that’s a good idea, and she says,

“Turn your mobile on.”

I look at her. Her eyes go still and look back into mine, black and blank.

“Turn your mobile on.”

I put my hand into my pocket for my phone, and at the same time she reaches into her bag and takes out a thick, grubby fold of paper, and puts it by her coffee.

I press the button.

“This is what he was delivering,” she says.

The screen lights up.

“I was in the café, drinking guava juice and picking blueberries out of a muffin.”

I feel the buzz on my palm.

“I took it from his pocket before anyone came,” she says, sliding the paper towards me.

The noise in my ear makes no sense. It sounds mechanical, only it’s not. There’s something human. A click click clicking like heels in a corridor only over the top there’s the rush of wind.

“To protect his wife.”

It’s. It’s the echoing, gurgling, hollow tapping of a death rattle. I drop the phone to the floor.

“He was on his way to give her divorce papers. We had a flight booked. And a taxi. I stopped to cancel the taxi, to protect his wife. Because it was the right thing to do. I cancelled the taxi, and I walked two miles home, and I bolted the door, and then. And then I cried.”

The phone jerks on the floor like a cockroach flailing on its back, and London goes quiet except for the sound of the screams crawling up from the concrete, as though the only thing that exists in the whole world is Ruthie’s name.

Quiet.

I look at the cutlery in my hand and at the floor and at her face, and in the thousand sheening neon pulsebeats the only thing I see is the unchanging black-red of lipstick.

~ by yearzerowriters on February 22, 2010.

15 Responses to “Lipstick”

  1. I don’t know the song so I can’t comment on the tie up to that.

    But I think their comment says more about them than anything about you. My instinct is that the majority of the entries will be very conventional and they ought to be proud & grateful to have something that is a little bit different and raises its head stylistically above the parapet.

    I’m involved in a song-inspired anthology over on YWO – 1 song of our choice (Holiday In Cambodia – I think you can guess the piece) and one inspired by David Bowie’s song “Heroes” that each contributor has to to.

    marc

  2. I don’t know the song, so this may be a good thing because all your readers won’t.
    I drew in a breath when she took the roach out of her mouth. That was brilliant. However, I lost the imagery when she opened her mouth again and the steam came out. I took me away from the story a bit, because I’m thinking the steam would’ve come out the first time she opened her mouth.
    It’s hard to find where we are at the start of the story. It’s raining, but we must be indoors because he runs from her room.

    The entire story is extremely breath-taking, but the end is not fulfilling. I think also that it’s too fragmented – not so much the middle, but towards the end.
    One has to go over the entire story to see what you’ve missed when she says, ‘this is what he was delivering.’ I think that bit needs some more explianing.
    Is there a word limit? Is it supposed to work if the reader does not know the song?

    • That’s a very good point. I was thinking of her lips staying together as she removes it, that’s how I say the scene – but it needs to feel right to the reader.

      Yes, it’s supposed to work if the reader doesn’t know the song – in this case the song has very little to do with the story other than the neon. The fragmentation is meant to represent the intercutting of a pop video, and I *thought* I’d left enough clues to what was going on – but the jury is well and truly out on that so I’ll remain open🙂
      Thank you!
      Dan

  3. I liked this, but I don’t think its ready yet. I gave it a line edit, something I haven’t done since leaving authonomy. If this helps, your welcome. If not, ignore it.

    “You didn’t hear a word of that, did you?” I hear.
    This line seems awkward. I had to read it a couple of times to understand. I would change I hear to she said, or she asked. That will make it clearer, and avoid the repetitive use of hear.

    Her voice hooks me back, and I look at her, at black hair turning a hundred shades in the diffracted lights and sounds of the darkness, at lipstick the unchanging black-red of blood.
    I would drop the at’s at the beginning of each phrase here: black hair turning… lipstick
    It reads smoother.

    Nothing that adds up to anything as seamless as a life. Maybe from tomorrow. But that’s what I always say.
    Something seems missing here. What maybe from tomorrow? It needs to be explained better.

    Maybe not sleeping with someone else will keep me sober enough Emma won’t turn away and take Ruthie with her the moment she catches my scent on the wind.
    Do you mean ‘Maybe sleeping with someone…’

    I take one before I crumbles in the rain.
    before it crumbles?

    By morning I’ll be dead and you’ll still be Simon
    He doesn’t know her name but she knows his?

    When we’ve finished our cigarettes we leave the alleyway and head into the endless fractal streets of London’s night. Everywhere we turn the neon throbs the same blues beat half-lights. Every alley narrows to another that narrows to another that opens up to a garbage courtyard leading off to any number of alleys that narrow to other alleys, and in the background come drum and bass strafing the sky from turntable turrets we never see.
    great paragraph.

    “What about tired?” I answer.
    delete the tag

    if I traipsed around her every night.”
    here every night?

    two double espressos.
    Might as well make this into dialog with quotation marks. There is a little too much telling instead of showing in the paragraphs previous to this. Maybe that is due to length considerations.

    “I thought I couldn’t ask that kind of question.”
    Why can’t he. Unexplained.

    This is what he was delivering,”
    opening quotation mark

  4. Look at me, can’t even spell you’re correctly. It’s been a tough week.

    • Thank you! Gosh, some of those edits should’ve been taken care of already – I must have an oput o date version. The others I will take a very close look at
      Dan

  5. No problem.

  6. Thank you! Typos all taken care of and the crumble line excised. May I elaborate on the other points? It helps me to think what I’m doing🙂

    “You didn’t hear a word of that, did you?” I hear.
    This line seems awkward. I had to read it a couple of times to understand. I would change I hear to she said, or she asked. That will make it clearer, and avoid the repetitive use of hear.
    – yes, I hadn’t noticed the “hear” repetition. You’re right – I wanted a verb that describes him – it’s about the sense-picture HE’s building up, which is why I had “hear” – hear can’t stand but I want to keep him the subject if there is a verb

    Her voice hooks me back, and I look at her, at black hair turning a hundred shades in the diffracted lights and sounds of the darkness, at lipstick the unchanging black-red of blood.
    I would drop the at’s at the beginning of each phrase here: black hair turning… lipstick
    It reads smoother.
    – for me the rhythm’s wrong without the “at”s – would it work better if I changed the comma after “look at her” to a semi-colon & keep the “at” or maybe do without it – I want to make it clear that “black hair….” is not merely qualifying her, but each is a discrete sensation – it matters for the last line. Yeah, semi-colon and cut the “at”s will work

    Nothing that adds up to anything as seamless as a life. Maybe from tomorrow. But that’s what I always say.
    Something seems missing here. What maybe from tomorrow? It needs to be explained better.
    – it’s meant to be that from tomorrow he intends to be a continuous part of his daughter’s life; but he realises that he always says that to himself just before he sees her. I think I assumed that was obvious so I could go with what sounded best, because it’s sucha stereotyped emotional response – but that’ll teach me for using stereotypes🙂

    Maybe not sleeping with someone else will keep me sober enough Emma won’t turn away and take Ruthie with her the moment she catches my scent on the wind.
    Do you mean ‘Maybe sleeping with someone…’
    – he’s not going to sleep anyway. Given that he’ll “not sleep” he might as well “not sleep” with someone else. It may be a British idiom

    By morning I’ll be dead and you’ll still be Simon
    He doesn’t know her name but she knows his?
    – “I’m Simon,” I say.

    “OK.”

    “You’re?”

    “Nobody.”

    When we’ve finished our cigarettes we leave the alleyway and head into the endless fractal streets of London’s night. Everywhere we turn the neon throbs the same blues beat half-lights. Every alley narrows to another that narrows to another that opens up to a garbage courtyard leading off to any number of alleys that narrow to other alleys, and in the background come drum and bass strafing the sky from turntable turrets we never see.
    great paragraph.
    – I’m in love with London. Which you can probably tell🙂

    “What about tired?” I answer.
    delete the tag
    – the pacing doesn’t work without a tag. I’m using it as the equivalent of a musical “breath” – I know it’s an idiosyncracy of mine, but I often use tags like that. Because I don’t know how to convey a breath otherwise. That’s why I had that awful crumble line – it was an exaggerated breath to make the pacing work. I often wonder what people would think if I just wrote “beat” because that, essentially, is all I mean ?

    two double espressos.
    Might as well make this into dialog with quotation marks. There is a little too much telling instead of showing in the paragraphs previous to this. Maybe that is due to length considerations.
    – youmay be right. Let me think. the paragraph feels the wrong length with that line taken out. But you have a point.

    “I thought I couldn’t ask that kind of question.”
    Why can’t he. Unexplained.
    – You can ask me to put on a sharp diamond ring, and ram my fist inside your asshole. You can buy beer and smash the bottles and ask me to carve the fucking Mona Lisa on my arm. But you don’t ask who I am

  7. Okay, you pretty much addressed everything. It’s hard reading on a computer screen. You can miss so much that you would pick out on paper. That’s why I print and then proof and edit.

    The one suggestion I would have for the above is for the line
    “What about tired?” I answer.
    It sounds odd because he isn’t really answering directly.
    So I would change it to something like ‘I asked in turn’ or ‘I answered rhetorically’.

    Just my personal opinion. You don’t have to pay it any mind.

    As I said, I enjoyed the story.

    • yes, I see your point – answer actually has the wrong meaning. Maybe “respond” works.
      Thank you immensely!!
      Dan

  8. Respond would work.

  9. I know the song. And I like the story. I like broken fragmented, slightly discordant things, for life is composed of such.

    The surprise towards the end was cool. Would not expected it to fall in so abruptly.

    • thank you! I didn’t really know the song before I was asked to write something after listening to it – if nothing else, this has introduced me to the softer, more thoughtful side of INXS
      Dan

  10. I like this, although it reads like a first draft – spontaneous and alive but with rough edges. Unexplained and ambiguous is fine, from my point of view – though not where it’s unintended, resulting from problems in construction. That can stop readers engaging with the Unexplained in the story, because they assume that the whole thing is ill-considered. I have trouble with the sentence: “I ask, taking two steps towards her, leaving her room to make a run to my side so she knows I’m no threat”. I can’t picture the action, don’t know which person is running. Should it be her side?

    Also: ‘ “By morning I’ll be dead. Spend the night with me.” The last words so soft they merge with a bass line from a club streets away.’ – I thought he was asking her, but that’s because I tripped over the use of ‘hear’ a few lines back, and lost the sequence of who was speaking.

    The second half fits together better. As a dedicated abstainer from mobile phones, I couldn’t follow what was happening at the end, but that’s not something that will trouble 95% of your readers.

    Despite these quibbles, I love the way you keep pushing the boundaries and developing as an artist. Overall, this piece has that haunting quality I associate with your work.

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