All the Blues in the Night |
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All the Blues in the Night

Second Place 2012 Short Story Contest Winner

My girlfriend Elena doesn’t sleep at night anymore. It’s been twenty-three days. I wake up to find her unraveling herself at the foot of the bed each morning. Her scarf, the wool jacket with its missing buttons, the layers that distinguish her from the other city sleepers.

“You want to know where I go?” she says. She snakes her way under the covers beginning at the bottom of the bed. Her fingertips brush my calves, my belly. Her skin is cool against my own. The blanket flutters above us, and then settles across our shoulders.

“Tonight I went to the convenience store run by that nice Hmong couple and then I walked to that little park with the statue of that poet you like and then I took a cab to the piano bar on West Ontario and now I’m here, back here with you.”

She presses her lips against mine so that I can’t answer.

• • • • •

When we first moved to Chicago three months ago, Elena’s sister Jasmine came to visit us.

“Louis doesn’t realize that we grew up in the worst part of L.A.,” Elena said to her.

“It was bad. The boy who took me to my senior prom was killed in a gang shooting the week after,” Jasmine said. “His name was Michael,” she said, almost as an afterthought. “Michael King. He bought me a red rose corsage and it clashed with my dress so I threw it away.”

“All I’m saying is that this neighborhood is like Mister Rogers’ neighborhood compared to what we dealt with as kids,” Elena said later that night after Jasmine had gone to bed.

“All I’m saying,” I said, “is that I’d feel a lot better if you took a cab at night instead of walking by yourself.”

• • • • •

“Stay home from work today,” she whispers. “I bought a bottle of merlot. We can take a bubble bath together and watch The Price is Right. I don’t have to go in to the newspaper until 2:00.”

“Elena, I can’t keep calling in sick,” I say. I struggle to untangle myself from the sheets and her bare legs, which are draped across my own.

When I get out of the shower, she is lying on her back with her eyes closed, but I know she’s not asleep. Her dark hair is spread out around her head against the white of the pillowcase.

“You’re selling your days,” she says.

I bend down to kiss her eyelashes. Before I walk out the door, I say, “Someone’s gotta pay the rent.”

• • • • •

Elena got it in her head that she was going to be the next Katie Couric when she graduated from college. She found a job right away working for the Chicago Sun-Times. They stuck her at the very bottom of the totem pole, writing the obituaries.

She talked about dead people over breakfast every morning.

“This woman starred in commercials for dishwashing soap in the sixties,” she said, jabbing her spoon at the newspaper spread in front of her. “And this man here, Joseph Reagan Warner, was a car salesman for forty years and then he sold everything and moved to Haiti to do mission work.”

“How’d he die?” I asked.

“Well,” she said. “There was a riot and he got hit in the head with a brick.”

“That’s too bad,” I said and tried to sneak the sports section out of the newspaper.

“I don’t think so. I’d rather get a brick to the head in Haiti than die in a nursing home here.”

I took a sip of coffee. “Duly noted,” I said.


• • • • •

I call her from my office at a little before noon. “I didn’t wake you, did I?” I ask.

“No, of course not!” she says with a laugh.

“Do you want to meet me at Jacky’s Bistro for lunch?”

She pauses. I can imagine her, still only in her underwear and one of my button-down shirts, sitting at the kitchen table with her laptop, drinking a glass of merlot. “I can’t, honey,” she finally says. “I promised Julius I’d walk his dog today.”

“Julius? Who’s Julius?”

“Our doorman, silly!” Elena says.

“Oh right.”

“The Bistro probably doesn’t allow dogs, do you think?”

“No, probably not.”

“Well then, why don’t we do dinner tonight instead? You can come down to the newspaper and pick me up. I should be done around seven. We can go wherever you want.”

“Okay, sounds good. Have fun dog walking.”

I hang up the phone and look out my window. The sky’s a kittenish gray, the same soft wooly color as Elena’s scarf. I wonder if it’s cold enough to snow today.

• • • • •

I woke up one night to find her typing furiously on her laptop sitting on the floor of our bedroom closet. I’d been lying awake in bed for about ten minutes trying to figure out where the clicking noise was coming from. When I slid the door back on its hinges to reveal her, she looked up at me with a wide smile.

“Do you want to marry me, Louis?” she asked.

I reached down and took one of her hands to help her up. She held the laptop close to her chest, so I couldn’t see the monitor.

“I love you, Elena,” I said. “And yes, I do want to marry you.”

“When?” she asked. “In two months, in two years, or in two decades? I need to know, Louis.”

We sat down at the end of the bed. She closed her laptop.

“What is all this about?” I asked. “Are you okay? What is so important that you need to write at three in the morning?”

“I can’t tell you,” she said. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”

“I already think you’re crazy,” I said, reaching for the laptop.

She pushed the laptop farther out of my reach. “Seriously, it’s crazy. You don’t want to read it. I’m just, well, I’m just writing myself a tentative obituary.”

I lay down on the bed, my feet dangling over the edge. Elena lay back with me. We turned our heads to face each other. I didn’t say anything.

“I’m not suicidal,” she said, “if that’s what you’re thinking. I was just wondering, you know? If I died today, what would someone write about my life? What would fill up my two inches of space?”

I reached out and tucked a strand of her dark hair behind her ear. She closed her eyes and continued.

“I’ve got nothing to write. There’s nothing on the screen.”

“But I heard you typing,” I said softly.

“I was typing,” she said. “But it was worthless, so I deleted it.”

“You’re only twenty-six.”

“I’ll be twenty-seven in April,” she said. “I’m not married, and this is the first steady job I’ve ever had. I’ve never been outside the country. I barely graduated from a community college. What are they going to write, Louis? What are they going to write?”

“Give it time, Elena. By the time you die, you’ll have lived enough to fill a book.”

She kissed the bridge of my nose. We lay side by the side in silence for the next hour. I fell asleep, and when I woke up again, she was gone.

• • • • •

“Aha!” Elena says when I pick her up from work. “We’re going to Carmine’s.”

“How did you know?” I ask with a grin.

“It’s the tie. You always wear that splotchy red tie when we go there, so if you spill sauce on it, it will blend right in!”

“That’s not true!” I say. “Besides I was wearing this tie all day at work and I just made reservations for Carmine’s two hours ago.”

“Well, you must’ve been in the mood for Italian this morning when you picked out what you were going to wear.” Elena leans over and gives me a long, firm kiss. “Thanks for picking me up. It makes me feel like a movie star.”

Over dinner she tells me about Elvis, the doorman’s dog. “He’s a mutt,” she says. “A little of this, a little of that. The only kind worth having.”

“Was it snowing then?” I ask. “I was in a board meeting most of the day.”

“Yes!” she says gleefully. “The best kind of snow too! The kind where you can see how each individual snowflake has a different shape and pattern. They used to tell us that in school, but I never believed it until I saw it with my own eyes.”

“That sounds wonderful,” I say.

“You should come with us sometime,” she says. “Sometime soon. The poor thing’s being eaten up by cancer. I don’t think he has long to live.”

The waiter brings us a bottle of wine and we make a toast.

“Long live Elvis,” I say and Elena’s eyes shine in the candlelight.

I wind my spaghetti around my fork, my eyes never leaving her face. In the shadows of the restaurant, I can see the effects of her sleeplessness. There are no dark circles under her eyes, but they look sharper and blacker somehow, as if they’ve stayed open so long that they’ve absorbed all color.

• • • • •

I found the gun in her purse two weeks ago. She forgot to take her birth control pill at breakfast and asked me to get the compact out of her purse for her. I found the little pink compact of pills right next to a tube of mascara and a semi-automatic.

“I thought you wanted me to be safe,” she said.

“I meant pepper spray or something, not a handgun.”

“Louis, I’ve been carrying since I was eighteen. I know what I’m doing.” She tossed back her head as she swallowed the pill with a swig of water.

“I guess I just don’t know you very well, that’s all,” I said.

Elena set down her empty glass on the coffee table. “When I was in high school, there was this girl who lived on my block named Faye. She was about four years younger than me, still in junior high I think. One of her older brother’s friends tried to rape her. She sprayed him in the face with mace and he was so pissed, he cut her throat open and she bled to death.” Elena dropped the birth control pills back into her purse and zipped it up. “When my dad heard about it, he said, ‘A bullet would’ve stopped him.’ He bought me a gun after that. Taught me how to use it too.”

I didn’t know what to say to that and I told her as much. She pulled me down onto the couch on top of her and gently held my face in both hands. We looked at each other like that for a long time.

Finally I asked, “Have you ever used it?”

“No,” she said, but I couldn’t tell if she was telling the truth. I wasn’t sure I cared to hear the truth.

• • • • •

Elena wants to show me something, but she doesn’t think it’s a good idea that we drive there. I try to press her for more details, but she grabs my hand and insists we walk to the Metra station a few blocks away.

We sit across from a snoring old woman. Her snoring is almost louder than the rattling of the cars. Elena watches her with interest, and I imagine that she would like to go sit beside the woman, lay her head on her breast, and sleep there as well.

A group of teenagers, all on cell phones, gets on at the next stop. One of the girls looks a little like I envision Elena must have looked as a teenager. Lots of dark eye makeup and jeans that would make any father cringe.

Elena catches me watching the girl. “The next stop is ours,” she says. She reaches out a gloved hand and takes mine.

We emerge from the Metra station into a poorly lit street. I can tell we are close to gang turf by the graffiti coloring the buildings around us.

“I love the sky this time of night,” Elena says. “It’s a blank canvas.”

“I’m not really looking at the sky,” I say. “Do you come here often? By yourself?”

“Only once,” she says. “It’s okay. We’re okay, Louis. I want to show you something. It’s not far.”

I let her lead me down the street, past storefronts with electrical tape holding the glass together, past a huddle of boys smoking under the eaves of a building, past the body of a dead cat that looks like it was run over. Its gray fur is crusted with dried blood.

Elena isn’t a cat person, but she makes the sign of the cross as we pass it anyway.

She stops so suddenly that I step on her heels. Our bodies collide and she feels small and fragile against me.

“This is it.”

It takes me a moment to figure out what she’s talking about. At last I look up and see a small beige house with aluminum awnings sheltering the windows. It looks totally out of place here, like someone rolled it up neatly in its little grass mat and then plopped it down here in the middle of this street.

“This looks almost exactly like the house I grew up in,” Elena says. “Except our house was yellow. And we didn’t have grass. I can’t explain how it got here, but here it is.”

I stare at it some more, not sure what to say. I reach for her hand, but she’s not paying attention. She takes another step closer to the house, the tip of her shoe touching the dead winter lawn.

“I wonder who lives here,” I finally say. Elena looks like she’s going to walk up the front pathway and let herself into the house at any minute.

Behind us in the street, a black SUV comes to a screeching stop. I wait for gunshots, but none come. The passenger side door slams shut, and a large man in a black hooded sweatshirt climbs down and strides toward us.

He angrily shouts something in Spanish, his hands flailing as though he’d like to strangle us. I wonder what it would feel like to have his hands around my neck. I wonder if Elena still has her gun with her and if she really knows how to use it.

Elena says something back to him with a gesture of her own. Her voice is low and calm, as though she’s explaining something to a child. The man turns from her and looks me up and down. I am suddenly very aware of my trench coat and wing-tipped oxfords. With a look of disgust, the man returns to the SUV. The vehicle lingers for a moment and then peels away down the street.

“What did he say?” I ask Elena.

“He said he thinks we’re a very handsome couple,” she replies with a low laugh. “I think we’d better get going.”

The displaced house from Elena’s childhood grows smaller and smaller behind us, until I can no longer see it, and it’s just a speck on the smudged black and blue horizon. Elena does not look back at it.

“Hey, Elena,” I say. “What did that guy say for real?”

“He said we don’t belong here. That we need to get moving on.”

She closes her eyes on the Metra ride home. Her head bobs gently back and forth on her neck. “It feels like we’re going downhill,” she says at one point. “Can you feel that?”

I nod a little even though the tracks feel perfectly level to me and with her eyes closed, she cannot see me.

Julius the doorman is waiting for us at the glass doors.

“How’s Elvis?” Elena asks as we brush past him into the warmth of the foyer.

“He’s gone on to a better place,” Julius replies. “I decided to have him put down after your walk with him today. The pain was just getting to be too much for him.” I can’t tell if his eyes are wet from crying or drinking too much. “He enjoyed his last walk with a pretty girl like you,” he says to Elena.

When we get upstairs, I reach to turn on the lights of our apartment, but Elena’s fingers cover my own. “Leave them off,” she says. “I want to be in the dark with you.”

We carefully undress each other at the foot of the bed. Scarves, gloves, coats, pants, buttons, zippers, clasps, and hooks—we unravel the mystery of each other piece by piece and tumble into bed.

Elena’s dark hair sprawls across the pillowcase and tickles my face. My mouth slowly and gently opens her own. Her lips move from my mouth down my neck, to the hollow place in my chest where my collarbones meet.

I wrap my other arm around her shoulders and hold her close to me, breathing in the scent of the winter night still clinging to her, sweeping my fingers through her long hair. She is so still, I turn my head to her lips to make sure she is breathing before I slip from bed.

The kitchen is eerie in the darkness. I find her purse on the counter and fumble through its contents. Pills, makeup, hairbrush, wallet, clipped columns of newsprint, receipts. It is there at the bottom.

My cold fingers curl around the handle, careful not to brush the trigger. The gun is somehow both lighter and heavier than I imagined. I raise it to shoulder level and experimentally take aim: the toaster, the freezer door, the wine rack. Adrenaline, bitterly overdue, courses through me as I look out the window at the shadowy world outside our high-rise.

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Andrea Lochen is an alumna of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She earned her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan, where she also received the Hopwood Novel Award. Her debut novel, The Repeat Year, is forthcoming from the Berkley Publishing Group in May 2013.

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