Jonathan Louis Duckworth received his MFA from Florida International University. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction appears in or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review, Fourteen Hills, PANK Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Jabberwock Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere.
On Clear Days I Can See Your Aura
Although she and Dan would only be gone from Atlanta two days, Janice had prepared for her friend Amy a twenty-item list on how to care for her cat. Janice was a comedienne, and comediennes are nothing if not methodical. Item number one was double underlined: “Mr. Marmalade is a bastard, but he will seduce you into thinking he isn’t. Fight it.”
Amy seemed less than concerned about taking care of the cat, and more worried about Janice.
“Maybe it’s better to stay home for a while,” Amy said. “You know, with friends.”
“I’ll be with Dan,” Janice said, patting her boyfriend on his shoulder. He was sitting quietly, his eyes on his shoes, allowing the girls to have their talk. “And you know my friends, they’re all monsters.”
When her comedienne friends learned of her hospitalization they texted her jokes. The best simply read: “Glad u survived. Ur shit at living so figures ur shit at dying too.”
Amy by contrast had shown up at the hospital in tears, demanding to see Janice. Amy and Dan kept each other company in the hospital for the duration of Janice’s two day stay.
The incident had happened at a cafe where she and Dan were eating. Severe food allergy. Ground peanuts in her salad. EpiPen not in purse. Face red like a plum, heart rate out of control, throat swollen shut. Of course Janice didn’t tell Dan or Amy that she’d known there were peanuts in the salad. It might have done the job if Dan hadn’t had the forethought to keep a spare EpiPen in his car.
“Are you sure this is what you need now?” Amy asked.
“It’s the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival,” Janice said, “what part doesn’t sound fun?”
“Dan, what do you think?” Amy asked, touching his shoulder.
Dan came out of his shoegazing trance at Amy’s touch. “Hmm?”
“Do you really think this roadtrip’s a good idea?”
Dan looked between the two women and flashed a sheepish smile. “Well, I asked Jan what she wanted to do to cheer herself up, and she said go back to Niceville for the festival.”
“Will you see your folks while you’re there?” Amy asked.
“Amy, I’m going there to cheer myself up, not subject myself to judgment.”
Janice and Dan left Atlanta and started down south on I-85. Niceville, Florida was more than four hours away, and Janice didn’t make it 20 minutes before she had to light up a cigarette. Because Dan hated the smell, she smoked with her head outside of the window.
“You could hurt yourself if I had to suddenly brake,” Dan told her.
“I’ll take my chances,” Janice said.
Dan didn’t say anything more; at this point he’d given up on little battles.
They’d been together six years now. They met in college, when Janice was studying drama. Dan was a particularly talentless tight-end on a particularly talentless football team. Janice and Amy would go to games together, not because Janice had any interest in the sport, but because seeing a whole team of people fail each week was comforting and relatable. Dan was big and beautiful with two bricks for hands, and whenever he’d drop a pass or fumble the ball, he’d have to walk back to the bench in frustration and take off his helmet so Janice could watch him pout from the stands.
It was Amy who encouraged Janice to introduce herself to him. One night she approached him on the field after a bad loss for the home team, wearing a sandwich board with her phone number and a message written in black marker. The message on the front read: “I’ve been objectifying your body for weeks now,” while the message on the reverse read “let me apologize by taking your sweet ass to dinner.” Janice had been with athletes before, but in bed they’d been excellent and boring. Dan by contrast was as clumsy with a woman as he was with a football. “Dan-handling” was what Janice called their sex, and she loved every haphazard moment of it.
As the highway rolled on, Janice would keep quiet for fifteen, twenty minutes at a time and then suddenly interject some nonsensical word or phrase like “Grover Cleveland” or “chevrotain” or “you can’t throw a chicken into the water, call it a duck, and then expect it to float.” Silence was important to comedy, pauses, ellipsis, that sort of thing. Even if she couldn’t make Dan laugh, she could always amuse herself with these sorts of games.
Sometimes he’d come to her sets, and sit far in the back so as to be inconspicuous. But Janice would make him conspicuous by pointing him out to the audience. She’d tell all the stories about their first time, their first fight, how bad he was at football and how hopeless she was as a theatre student. Dan would nod his head silently as the crowd laughed and his face caught fire. He was such a good sport about everything.
They crossed into Florida in the early afternoon, and soon after they were in Niceville. They checked into their motel, a ratty little eyesore off the highway, and then headed to the fairgrounds where the Mullet Festival (in honor of the fish, not the haircut, though there were plenty of those on display too) was set up. Once they found parking it was a long walk to the gates. The local color was out in force. Among the most priceless of sights was a stout old woman fanning herself with a greasy paper plate, her t-shirt proclaiming “I voted for Jesus” in big bold red letters.
Janice felt her face split with a grin as they paid their admission.
When she was at the hospital, the psychologist assigned to observe her said that one thing that made depression so difficult to treat was that it could disappear for long stretches only to reemerge suddenly, and that some depressed people could even trick themselves into thinking that a day’s happiness meant they were cured. The worst though, the psychologist said, was when people romanticized their depression and for that refused to treat it. Well, Janice was treating it now. Were the meds helping? She couldn’t say. All that had changed was that she had more energy, and sometimes she felt the irresistible urge to laugh at nothing.
She wasn’t suicidal, not really. Her little toe-dips into that pool weren’t about ending her life, just another performance, a gesture that—at times it seemed to her—was the only one that held any meaning.
Dan put an arm around her as they entered the festival. “Good to see you smile,” he said. “Is it like you remember?”
“Better,” Janice said. “My God, I could fill twenty sets just with what I’m seeing right now.”
At a vendor whose sign claimed half of all profits went to support veterans, Janice and Dan got overpriced beers in plastic cups. Janice drank hers in one big gulp and then crushed the cup on her head.
“Smell that, Dan?” Janice said, squeezing his arm. “That’s the smell of something deep fried getting deep fried.”
For a few hours she buzzed around the arts and crafts stalls and the food vendors while Dan followed her around, dutifully reaching into his wallet and its seemingly never-ending supply of fives and tens whenever something caught her fancy, only speaking up to ask the food vendors if they fried their foodstuffs in peanut oil. Janice’s comedy was an irregular profession—she was the warmup for the people who warmed up the crowds for the people who had real names and careers. By contrast, Dan’s job as the assistant manager of a clothing outlet brought in a safe, steady supply of money. What’s more, he didn’t have to deal with hecklers. Though to be fair, hecklers weren’t so bad. Mostly they’d just make catcalls, try to throw her off her game. Some would call her “dyke,” presumably because she kept her hair short and liked to wear a denim jacket.
She didn’t hate hecklers. She loved them. She’d imagine them going home after a hard night’s heckling to their roach-infested efficiencies to lie down in piss-yellow bedsheets and thinking of that made her love them to death.
Much worse were the backhanded-compliment guys who’d come up to her after sets to tell her some variation of “I don’t usually find women funny, but you’re hilarious.” Her response to these men was boilerplate, perfunctory: “Well I don’t usually talk to assholes, but here I am.”
Janice and Dan were standing at the back of a crowd watching a small-time country music act perform a song about an old pickup with a dying engine when Dan’s pocket started making noise. He swiftly dug into his pocket to silence the phone, but Janice heard enough to know it wasn’t Dan’s usual 80s pop-style ringtone.
“Did you change your ringtone?” Janice asked.
Dan didn’t answer at first. “Yeah,” he said. “Give me a minute—probably someone from work. I’ll tell them to leave us alone.”
“Sure,” Janice said, and watched Dan stalk off, disappearing into a crowd.
She waited for a minute, maybe two, and then boredom got to her. She got out her phone, found Amy (listed as “Good Amy” to differentiate her from “Bad Amy” from Saturday yoga, dispenser of useless, unwanted advice and owner of a heart made of rancid onions) in her contacts list and tried to call her. But Amy didn’t pick up—there was a busy signal. Interesting. Putting her phone away, Janice started to wander until a caricature artist sitting under a camo tent flagged her down.
“Hey there, darlin, you lookin to get yourself an old fashioned selfie?” he said.
He was an old, fat guy, about sixty years old. His little white mustache and big belly gave him a Naughty-Drunk-Uncle look. Judging from his wide grin, he must have been proud of what he thought was a clever pitch, proud that he knew the word “selfie.” Janice didn’t say anything; she just perused his sample caricatures.
“Miss?” the Naughty-Drunk-Uncle said. “Would you like me to draw you?”
“These are pretty good,” Janice said. “You should consider becoming an artist one day.”
And with that she left the old man to disentangle her most backhanded of compliments. She started wandering, until Dan appeared out of the crowd.
“So was it work?” Janice asked, coming up behind him.
He jumped just a little. It was always funny seeing a big man startled.
“Yeah, I told them not to call me again. I’m real sorry for leaving you alone,” he said, squeezing her shoulders. “I shouldn’t have.”
“Yeah, here I was about to buy myself some boiled peanuts,” Janice said.
“Don’t even joke about that.”
“Asphyxiating because of nuts—so unromantic that it becomes romantic again.”
“I’m just joking, don’t take it so literally,” Janice said.
“But see, if everything’s a joke to you, then nothing’s a joke,” Dan said.
“God, I love it when you sound smart. Come here.”
Dan hooked one thick arm around her waist and drew her in to kiss her forehead. She nipped him on his chin.
“I want to slide down the inflatable Titanic,” she murmured.
She referred to one of the most curious spectacles of the Mullet Festival: a sixty foot high inflatable model of a half-sunken cruise ship which children could slide down into a bouncy blue pit that represented the heart attack-inducing chill of the North Atlantic. She loved it because even a century after the sinking of the Titanic it was still in epically poor taste, but no one at the festival seemed to realize it.
“I don’t think they’ll let you in,” Dan said.
“I can be persuasive.”
As it turned out, she couldn’t be. No matter what argument she used, no matter how she begged or threatened him, the pimply teenager in charge of the ride wouldn’t let Janice use the slide.
“It’s for kids, ma’am,” he said.
“You know who also made arbitrary rules? Joseph Stalin.”
“I’m not Joseph Stalin, ma’am.”
“You’re right, Joseph Stalin had a sexy mustache at least,” Janice said, and then stormed away, Dan close behind her.
“You didn’t need to be so harsh with the kid,” Dan said.
“I wish I were more pleasant, really I do,” Janice said. “I wish I were more like Amy. Wouldn’t that be better for you, if I were sweet like Amy?”
Dan scratched the back of his neck. “Babe, what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing, I’m just being a sad bitch is all,” Janice said. “Maybe you better apologize for me—if I go over there I’ll just insult him again.”
Dan sighed. “Be back in a second. Wait here.”
If he hadn’t told her to stay put, she probably would have. Instead, while he approached the young carny, Janice wandered over to a nearby shooting gallery.
“This is rigged, right?” Janice asked the man running the gallery.
The man said nothing, but his face darkened.
“It better be,” she said. “It’s not a real carnival game if it’s not rigged.”
“Now listen here, young lady—” the shooting gallery attendant started to say.
“I ain’t young and I ain’t a lady, jackass,” Janice said.
Stunned, the shooting gallery man put his hands up. “No need to get belligerent, ma’am,” he said.
Janice laughed at that. Mid-cackle, she felt Dan’s big fingers settle on her shoulder.
“I think we should go back to the motel,” Dan said, soft but firm.
“Sure, sure,” Janice said. “The local color’s getting on my nerves anyway.”
They didn’t talk during the drive, but when they arrived in their motel room, Dan suggested that Janice might want to ask her doctor about switching medicines.
“But I’m just starting to get to like these ones,” Janice said. “On clear days I can see your aura.”
“I’m being serious.”
“So am I. Yours is orange right now, it means you’re feeling guilty.”
“Jan, please, I love you. I just want—”
“Your problem is you think I’m crazy or something,” Janice said. “I’m not.”
“And that’s what scares me,” Dan replied. “Sometimes I think it’d be simpler if you were crazy.”
There was no Dan-handling that night. Instead they simply spooned in bed, Dan’s big arms enfolding Janice like a straight-jacket. Eventually he fell asleep, and eventually he rolled away from her to the cool, empty side of the bed. She lay next to him, wide-eyed and wide-eared, listening to each car passing on the highway and the silences that followed. The parking lot lights sliced through the room’s curtains, illuminating everything in awful gray light. Her eyes fixed on the piled lump of Dan’s pants. She looked to his nightstand, where he’d put down his keys, his wallet, his phone. She looked back to his pants, the suspicious fullness of them. Quietly, carefully, she crept out of the bed to where Dan’s pants lay. It didn’t take her long to find it: a simple pre-paid phone, the kind criminals and philanderers use and then throw away. She went into the bathroom with the phone. She flipped the light-switch for a second but turned it off because of the noise the shower’s fan made. So she sat on the toilet seat, illuminated only by the low glow of the cellphone’s screen. There was, as she’d suspected, only one contact. No name given, but she didn’t need a name to recognize Amy’s texts: she was among the very few people who always took care to text with proper grammar. The last text message: “Ok, we’ll talk when you’re alone.”
Janice’s fingers moved over the keys. “Jan’s sleeping now.” Send.
She did not hate either of them for this. She understood perfectly why such a thing would happen between them. A half minute of silence passed before the phone vibrated with a response: “How is she?”
“Awful. Pretending like she’s not a wreck.” Send.
“I feel terrible.”
“About what?” Send.
A long pause. “U know.”
“Don’t we deserve happiness?” Send.
Another long pause. “We’re horrible people.”
Janice smiled in spite of everything. Sweet, wonderful Amy.
“We make each other happy. Try to make her happy, but she can’t be happy.” Send.
A very long pause. “What if she finds out?”
Janice almost typed “She already knows,” but then deleted it and thought about her next response for quite a while. Both Amy and Dan had to believe the same thing—that they loved Janice, and that what was happening between them was nothing “real.” So Janice would make it real for Amy. The words shaped in her head, as simple and as direct as a dagger.
“I love you.” Send.
Janice watched the screen and waited for the long silence to come.