The Red Carpet

Jason appeared in the doorway of the living room with a long velvet sash loosely wrapped around his jeans and t-shirt. He cocked a hip, and the red fabric shivered in the glow of my reading lamp. Ridiculously fake diamond earrings flashed below the trendy fringe of his haircut. He held a small bolt from which the fabric hung slack.

“Wow, you’re dressed to kill,” I said, jabbing a finger in my book. My chair creaked with the sudden movement. “Which production is it for?”

“Hello, stranger.” His voice came out breathy and deep. He dragged a single finger down one page of the open book. “That isn’t by chance a Raymond Chandler novel you’re reading, is it?”

“No, it’s a different kind of pent-up love story. A Room With a View. Which Chandler is it for?” Jason volunteered as a costumer at the community theater.

The Big Sleep. I’m thinking this will be for the femme fatale’s first scene.” He tightened the fabric around his torso so it fit more like a bodice and brought a wrist to his forehead, which emphasized the bulge of his bicep. “I was up for that part, you know, but they decided to cast someone more manly.”

He sauntered across the room, rolling his hips and unspooling fabric across the floor. A stick of incense burned on top of my desk. He picked it up and held it like a cigarette. The transformation was complete.

“Miss Vivian Sternwood,” she said. Her emphasis on the last syllable made me laugh, which made her drop character long enough to explain that Sternwood was the actual name Raymond Chandler gave his femme fatale. She continued. “Charmed, I’m sure. And you are?”

These metamorphoses fascinated and unsettled me, as did everything else about Jason. Since he’d answered my Craigslist ad three years ago, he’d never mentioned friends or family. He never dated, as far as I knew. If it weren’t for the constant humming of his sewing machine, I’d think he disappeared as soon as he stepped into the small box of his bedroom. An actor waiting in the wings for his next entrance. The theater only needed him to deliver his finished costumes. His only weekly routine: a hushed phone call every Sunday night in his room. I made sure to be around for it in case he ever came out and wanted to talk; he never did.

I took Vivian’s hand and kissed it. “Philip Marhomo, my dear. You look ravishing this evening.”

She smirked and scanned the room.

“My, it’s dark in here, Mr. Marhomo. A girl might think she lives with a vampire.”

She was right; the sun had abandoned me. Incense smoke casted a haze across my IKEA furniture, across Jason’s second-hand television, across the red carpet of crushed velvet at my feet. I’d been reading a long time.

Vivian floated around the room, turning on anything with a switch. Soon, lamps blazed. Jazz from the stereo and a Bogart movie clamored for attention. When she finished, she pointedly faced me and dropped the velvet. She wasn’t naked underneath, but the effect was still shocking. My ears turn crimson. She closed the book on my lap, put both hands on the arms of my chair, and leaned in.

“So tell me, my vampire roommate, do you want to bite my neck?”

Her five o’clock shadow encircled her full lips. Each atom between us spun counter-clockwise. I’d never had the spotlight of his… her attention so fully. She lingered, awaiting my answer.

I swallowed hard. “Only if no bullet- or dust-biting follows.”

She slid into my lap, curving her arm around my shoulders. “And if I let you, could you forgive my rent again this month, detective?”

The room refilled with light and noise. Vivian became Jason again.

“You know you don’t have to do that,” I said. “If you’re running behind, I can cover. It’s no big deal.”

It was Jason’s time to feel uncomfortable. He thanked me as he stood. His door clicking shut felt like a rebuke somehow.

Velvet still pooled on the floor. I felt compelled to pick it up. As I did, the city hummed behind the Venetian blinds, the neon streets reached out, the rain fell.

I made a ritual of turning things off—the ceiling fan, radio, television, all the lights except for the one I read by. I tried to re-enter Forster’s tale, but I couldn’t focus. I wanted to be ready for the next show.

Early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.

PS: Reposted to fix funky formatting.

Drakkar (A Noir)

“Darling Jesse,” she says—her voice is a bassoonist playing in the back of a concert hall—and then she ashes her cigarette into a waiting urinal.  The wide brim of her sun hat and her five-o-clock shadow obscure her face, but I recognize the mole on her right bicep just below the hem of her puff sleeve. “Where’ve you been, lamb?”

Sleeping on dusty couches in basements. Imagining us on Jerry Springer: me with a chair raised above my head, you appealing to the audience, the cameras. “Around.”

The neon light from the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign in the window makes the sweat in the air glow cobalt blue, and the smell of stale cologne mixes with the smell of urinal cakes. Every kind of Lycra shirt slides by us on their way to the urinal or to hide behind a stall door, but my eyes stay on her mole.

“Mm hmm,” she says and blows smoke into my face. “You could have come by anytime. I don’t hold grudges.”

You stole money from me.”

“Borrowed. I borrowed money from you. I told you about it, didn’t I? You did get my IOU, yes?”

Yes. She’d only written four words to justify taking $1,000: MISS VEE HAS NEEDS. The block capital letters had reminded me of her past life as an architecture student.

“That was no IOU. That was a cry for attention.” The DJ punctuates my words with techno breakbeats.

“Maybe.” She slips the cigarette back between her lips. “Or maybe it was charity.” The beat of a Chemical Brothers song fades and a man’s voice rings through the building. Vee’s show was about to start.

“Right. Stealing money from me was an act of charity.”

“That’s right, lamb, because we both know you weren’t saving that money up to hand off to the nuns.”

“Still. You didn’t have to take my money and kick me out.”

She reaches an acrylic fingernail out to touch my collar bone, and drops her voice low. “You’re welcome back in my hive anytime you’re ready to follow the Queen Bee.”

The MC’s voice echoes down the hallway. “And now let’s welcome Miss Veronique Ahhhhhh to the stage.” The crowd roars. I hear the sizzle of embers hitting the water in the toilet bowl before she glides down the hallway to stand in a waiting spotlight.