Mike Lee: We Are Invisible People
Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/sc1Eoqpr0sQ) 8.1.2022.
The Halloween decorations are out, and the holiday is two weeks and two days away.
The party is at a two-story Victorian with flaking and chipped white paint, exposing the pine boards. I see the planks are uneven as we are on the cracked slate path. Unless someone finally buys the place from the family, I give it ten years before the house gets demolished.
This house stands on the hillside, overlooking the French Broad River. In class, they taught us that the river was one of the five oldest in the world. In flowing from one geological epoch to the next, from dinosaurs to bears, the river symbolizes an eternity. Unlike most rivers, the French Broad flows north. It takes a short turn left and ends in Knoxville.
It is like this--you may throw a beer can into the waters with a possibility of that trash traveling to the Tennessee River, briefly touching the Ohio, and floating down the Mississippi, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Of course, it is just as likely not, but the chance is there.
Though close to the spook holiday, the party at this aging house is for the hell of it. I arrive with Stanley Whitlow, taking the bus from his home in Oteen through the dead downtown.
The house is in the remaining batch of old houses huddled against the heights above the eastern riverbank. This neighborhood is an old part of Asheville, first built up at the turn of the 18th century when the settlers came over the Avery Trail, setting themselves on a plateau that then a Cherokee hunting ground. Later, after a cotton mill opened up, the managers working there built new homes. Many of the houses have gone to seed lately. After the mall opened, no one did business in downtown Asheville.
The smell of decay is ever-present.
We enter the foyer and take in the scene in the front parlor: mostly college-age people and I do not recognize anyone. Like Jimmy and probably the two girls, Stan and I are high school freshmen, and despite attempts, we look the part. The older partiers will ignore us.
We make our way to the kitchen and pull two Schlitz out of the metal garbage can. There's another can with ice and purple Jesus punch, but I remember my lesson from last summer and walk past.
My eyes fixate on the Lou Reed poster while making our way into the acrid parlor. Out of focus in yellow and orange, Lou is jumping in the air, the rock and roll animal, with lyrics from the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" in white print below, focusing on the line: "About all you Jim-Jims in this town." I know what he meant.
Remember being ten years old listening to Walk on the Wild Side for the first time on the radio. I saw things differently afterward, evolving toward new vistas as I hit my teens.
The music playing on the house stereo is low due to the neighbors. However, that would change soon enough as I see one of the guys coming over and turning the volume up a notch with a mischievous grin.
Jimmy came in with the girls. One is a washed-out blonde I only see in the hallways, but the brunette with them is in my fifth-period English class.
I wave to her when coming into the house but should have done more. Stacy sits two rows from me. She is quiet but smiles a lot. We work together in class on a short story critique of Ray Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day." Stacy spoke well of the concept of isolation and the guilt the children felt when they let out the little girl they had locked in the closet.
"What I learned," Stacy said. "Is through their cruelty the children discover their humanity in the end, and in that, I find redemption."
Her words rolled off effortlessly from tongue to air.
That stuck with me.
I assume Stacy is churched or born-again, which is getting big around town. You can spot the born-again when they wear their I Found It! buttons. Though she did not wear the button, Stacy usually dresses in the proverbial uniform of an Evangelical Christian: tartan skirt, white blouse with a gold crucifix dangling against the small triangle of her olive skin. Blue jeans only on Fridays, never a t-shirt, only buttoned blouses. I should write a poem about that, then fold it forgotten in a library book for someone else to find.
I never talk to her other than in class—I never approach someone too good for you.
I pop open the tab on the Schlitz, hooking it on the back. I take a sip of the sweet elixir from a teenage dream and remember why I hate Schlitz. But I have to look normal to everyone around me, even though they did not notice.
Stan fades to the porch to hang with Jimmy, Stacy, and her friend. I turn back to take a look around.
They were all Dwight's friends, likely from college and high school. Some I remember from fourth grade when they still allowed teenagers to ride with the younger kids before the school district wised up and ordered new buses.
Those were unpleasant days, such as when the older boys talked me into pulling a girl's hair. When I did, it yanked off her wig. After that, she smacked the shit out of me.
They would bring records on to show off to their friends. I distinctly remember the silver dollar Grand Funk Railroad record. It fascinated me. When I finally listened to it, I thought it sucked. I already heard the real thing—again, Lou Reed.
All you Jim-Jims never understand.
The record on the turntable is Roxy Music, Country Life--the album has two women on the cover. "Prairie Rose" is my favorite song. I listen through while in a cloud of wafting smoke from cigarettes, the din of minor conversation points, and try to put myself elsewhere. Not an elsewhere in this rotting house, or back in the mobile home on a hill in the country part of town. Just—elsewhere. I have ambitions but never know what they are. Getting a girlfriend and a part-time job is on the list. Writing follows. Learn to play guitar.
My eyes wander back to Lou Reed and a nearby Roger Dean print of a polar landscape floating in the air. The parlor walls, I assume, reflect the three tastes of the three roommates. One is a rocker, another a freak, and the third hates art.
A permed-up dude sporting a tumbleweed mustache switches Roxy to The Youngbloods. "Four in the morning, and the water is pouring down." This song is a downer to listen to, but I like the voice.
After the song, I go to the porch and sit with Stacy on the swing.
I am hesitant. Stacy scoots over and smiles at me.
"Hi, finally," she says, tipping her head slightly to face my face in the light. "Do you remember my name? It's Stacy." Stacy crosses her legs, flared new blue jeans, and pushes the swing back.
I lift my feet. "Yes, I know your name is Stacy. Stay-see."
"You remembered! You never greet me with anything more than a hi."
"I'm kind of shy."
"Tonight, I will take that as flattery. I know no one except those that brought me here. And my friends are ignoring me at the moment. But, well, more than that."
I wonder why she is here. I did not expect this.
She pulls her hands out of her blue denim jacket. Levis, like mine, though not as faded. "It's a quite right October night; autumn is holding off for a spell."
Her eyes are the color of wood, reminding me of a painting of Diana the Huntress in the waiting room of the cardiologist my mother works for as a medical assistant. Her dark hair reflects the single light above us—stage lit on this porch swing, performing for ourselves alone—we push back hard and when swinging forward.
Stacy takes a breath, closes her eyes, exhaling at the highest point.
We swing, rising higher to the rhythmic creaking from the hooks in the ceiling, the steel chain links twisting slowly under the weight of movement. I put my beer between my legs, feeling uncomfortable about drinking in front of a born-again.
Stacy smells of soap and shampoo. Yet, even outside the confines of school and home, she remains the same, with no makeup, just comes as herself.
"Have you explored the house?" she asks.
"Just the parlor."
"We should go in and take a look around. Who knows what we may find."
Stacy grasps the chain, sliding her feet to the ground, slowing us down. I pull the beer from between my legs. Leaving the porch to reenter the parlor, I hide the beer on my left side.
"You don't have to do that," she says. "I know you drink."
"Okay, then." I hold up the can. "May I?"
"I may." She takes the Schlitz from my hand and takes a swig. Upon returning it, she makes a face. "Now you know I drink."
"Really? You don't look it."
She chuckles. "Well, I'm not a Baptist, but this beer is awful."
"It's what they have."
"I can get used to it." I finish the Schlitz in the dining room and pull two more beers from the garbage can.
"Oh, how apropos." Stacy smiles while popping the top. Pointing at the poster, she asks, "So who's Lou Reed?
"Singer. He was in a band called the Velvet Underground, who were good. Do you know that song "Walk on the Wild Side? He did that."
"I may know it if I hear it. What does Lou Reed sing about?"
"Being always at the bottom constantly looking up. The lyrics on the poster are from a song he wrote about shooting smack."
Stacy places her hand gently on the poster. Her fingers are long and narrow. "He understands anger, I think."
"He's honest about it."
"I like honest. I also know anger."
We wander the house, looking into the rooms on the first floor. In the back bedroom, we watch Stan briefly doing bong hits on a rickety old bed with a group of freaks.
We take the stairs to the second floor. Stacy leads ahead, hands sliding over the banister.
On the landing, we spot Jimmy making out with Stacy's friend.
"Oh, that's Cindy. You don't know her. She goes to Asheville High. I'm staying over at her house in Montford."
"When do you have to leave?"
"When we want to. Cindy's parents don't care, and we lie well."
"When do you have to go home?"
"The latest I can. Staying with Stan, so I'm kind of on his clock."
"It looks like his clock has stopped."
"Do tell. But we'll be fine."
She pauses. "Un, I am not so certain about that. I'm afraid you'll end up walking home."
We come to a room smelling of incense in the back corner. It is dimly lit, with silk curtains hanging from the ceiling.
We enter. The bedroom is richly decorated, with a large canopy bed with throw pillows. An ornate dresser and wardrobe are beside the bed.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor is a woman wearing tight red pants and a silk blouse knotted intricately at the waist, leaning over cards spread in front over, studying them while referring to a book open on her lap. We watch her place another card on the floor. Finally, she places a finger to her lips and flips through pages.
She looks up. The woman has a moon face with freckles.
Our interruption does not faze her. Instead, she smiles at us.
"Hey, you guys got any dope?"
It always seems to be the question of the moment to ask about beer and cigarettes.
"That's all right. I still have a bowl left." She picks up a brass pipe beside her and pulls a butane lighter from her leather-tooled bag on the floor.
"My name's Alexa. Come on, sit down."
We sit across from her and she lights the pipe, puffing deeply, holding the smoke in until she chokes.
"Damn, this shit is skunk weed." Alexa coughs again. After clearing her throat, she adds. "This sucks. I'm sorry."
"It's all right," Stacy says.
She points to the cards spread on the floor. "Learning to read Tarot?"
"Yeah," Alexa said. "Started a few days ago. Why, do you read?"
"No. Just curious."
"It's tough, but I am beginning to understand it," Alexa said. "What I like about reading is that it offers pathways of understanding. It gives you a glimpse of an outcome if the situation remains unchanged."
Stacy leans forward. "You mean nothing is unavoidable—you can change the outcome afterward?"
"Ever read for someone else?
"Try me. I am curious."
Alexa pushes the cards together, adds them to the deck and begins shuffling.
"I will keep this simple. Three card reading. Is that okay?"
"It's all right."
"Hold the cards and think of a question."
After Stacy returns the deck, Alexa places the first card on the floor. It is Ace of Swords. Stacy reaches to touch Alexa's wrist.
"You don't have to go to the book until you finish the reading."
Alexa places the second card to the left of the first card. It is The Lovers.
"Wow, this is pretty cool," Alexa said as lays down the final card.
It is The Tower, upside down.
"Ill-defined," Alexa said. "Let me look this up."
As she begins going through the book, several freaks walk in. Leading them is a burly guy with flaming curly red hair and beard, wearing a Black Oak Arkansas shirt, holding up a dime bag.
"Fire it up, Lexie! Look what I got! I have us some shrooms."
They stumble stoned out of their minds. We jump up and scramble into the hallway and down the stairs, knowing we did not belong there.
Leaving the house, Stacy and I walk down the hill toward the river. We pass the old cotton mill, red bricks blackened against the cloudy sky.
After passing the mill, Stacy reaches to take my hand. Her touch is cold, and I hold tight, her fingers wrap around, nestling in my grasp.
As we made our way downhill, we converse, grasping at the shared.
Like how much we love seeing the morning mist in the mountains when we wake up. How it puts us in a different place, reminding us why no matter what, we have meaning to our existence.
We talk about writing, the books we read, poetry.
I tell Stacy I live in a trailer park. She reveals she lives in Kenilworth, one of the exclusive neighborhoods in town. We conclude this does not matter—deciding what is in common is what matters most.
"I have this thing I say a lot to myself," I tell her. "To rebel against the rebels."
Stacy looks at me appraisingly and nods. "I like the sound of that. I get it."
"We all wear masks," she adds. "We only drop them when we find someone I trust to listen. That is why you don't talk much in class. I hardly see you outside of it."
"I make myself one with the wallpaper."
"I hide pretty well, too, but I see you in the patterns."
"We are invisible people."
"We are not Jim-Jims. I wonder what he means by that."
I swung my thumb behind me. "The Jim-Jims are at the house."
"They are everywhere."
She pauses again, her shoulders hunching up.
"I wear a mask. I have a thing about not wanting to be seen. Do you understand what that means?"
"Maybe. Also, for someone who knocked on me if I remembered your name, you haven't called me Larry all night."
Stacy's onyx eyes sparkle under the streetlight. We stand close by the pole, a foot apart, staring at one another. She looks at me with a thoughtful expression, moving her head slowly, taking in what she sees of me under the light. I follow the topographical lines leading from eyes to nose to lips. She has full lips, slightly upturned. I lower my gaze to her chin, and the neck exposes the skin above the line of her top.
Her throat shadows the gold cross. I am still holding her hand. I slide mine over the top of her palm to rest on her jacket cuff. Stacy responds by turning her arm over and grasping my wrist.
"I will do this," she says and darts her face to mine.
In a minute, a second, life became clear. For now, at least, kissing under the lights down near the fifth oldest river in the world.
We push into each other, arms wrapping arms tightly, until we hear a car coming down the hill. We stop and move to the curb. As it passes, Stacy sighs.
"We better go back, Larry. Or Lawrence. I'd want to call you that. Lawrence is a nice name. It's romantic and a little bit dangerous."
A sudden gust brings the leaves up from the ground, swirling around us. An oak leaf blown by the wind drops in Stacy's hair. She pulls the leaf out and slides it into my jacket pocket.
She kisses me hard.
When she pulls back, she says, "Starting now; I want you to see me."
When we return, the party transforms into an old movie depiction of an opium den. Zep is playing, the volume so loud we hear it from the corner. Most of the people in the parlor were conversing or zoning out throughout the room.
Stan is on the floor, asleep. A fly drops on his nose.
I try to wake him. Instead, he groans and rolls on his side.
Hands-on hips, rolling my eyes. "Now, how the fuck am I getting that home?"
"I can help," Stacy says. "We have the dial-a-ride man picking us up. When he drops us off, he will take you and Stan home."
Jimmy holds Stan up until the driver arrives. The blue Ford Econoline with SUNN'S DIAL-A-RIDE in garish red and white paint on the side pulls up to the curb. We lay Stan in the back. I sit in the middle seat between Cindy and Stacy.
"We are going to 21 Bearden Avenue, Montford," Cindy says, slurring.
"After that. 19 Oteen Park," I add.
The driver, a middle-aged redneck, points to the back seat. "Only if you promise that asshole doesn't puke up." Shaking his head. "How the fuck old are you kids? No, don't tell me. I don't want to know. Fucking shit."
Stacy reaches into her pocket. "Here is twenty dollars, sir."
"Your momma taught you well." He says, taking the money, folding the bill into his shirt pocket. He pushes in the 8-track, and the bass line of a Janis Joplin song begins. "Try Just a Little Bit Harder," from Kozmic Blues. I heard when in the back seat while Mom and her boyfriend drove around. I always waited for that song to start during our long outings to nowhere. They do that often. Sometimes without me, which is always a relief because they usually drive while drinking.
I ask her. "What are you doing tomorrow?"
"Counseling at church camp. Sunday is the church."
"Monday, it is then."
"Monday. Smoking area. Bring your notebooks,"
We pull up to the house on Bearden. I open the sliding door. Stacy and I quickly embrace.
Reaching into my jean jacket, I tell her, "I have something for you."
I pull out The Lovers card.
Stacy smiles. We kiss again.
I step back into the van.
She grasps the handle while I hold the latch.
About the Author: Mike Lee is a writer and editor for a trade union in New York City. His work appears or is forthcoming in Ghost Parachute, The Quarantine Review, Drunk Monkeys, and many others. His story collection, The Northern Line, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. Website: www.mleephotoart.com Twitter: @lml1962