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False Alarm

by Ross Taylor



Someone is crying in this room. It's Dan.

It can't be Dan. Dan's busy throwing a great party. It must be a stray sound.

Specifically, Dan is sitting on the floor with his arm around Betsy, yakkin' and smoking. Betsy is taking Latin to fulfill a language requirement at Georgetown University where she is second year. Dan is telling her about his old Latin teacher.

"She was rrreally into teaching Latin." For "really" he narrows his eyes like a panther. "She had this internal organ--or claimed she had. When we were in the hospital together and I was getting to know her there, I began to doubt lots of things she'd told us in class." He asks a question with his raised eyebrows. "She happened to be in the same loony bin as me. You knew about that--my being in the hospital? Right. Soon you'll know all my stories and you'll think I'm bo-oring. However," he drags on his cigarette, "Miss Giply had this organ that most people don't have any more. Sort of like an appendix, it doesn't do much but get infected and before penicillin people died from that. Apparently it's something human evolution has almost done away with--like tails. It was rare even in Roman times but it was significantly more common then and the Romans wrote about it. She was proud of hers. Claimed her Latin teacher had one too."

Dan was in the hospital for several months right after his senior year in high school--it made him miss the graduation ceremonies. He and his wife married as undergraduates at Georgetown. His wife is in the kitchen, fixing little crepes and trying to get their two-year old daughter to go back to bed. Dan has his arm around Betsy so she will relax and things can flow between her and Cole. Betsy and Cole are the covert stars of this party, the Dramatic New Couple, dancing out what is on the minds of all the unsure singles and the thoroughly attached. Cole stole Betsy from George recently and Betsy is still a little disoriented. George might even be here tonight.

Cole is in another room dancing with a woman who has a pearl nose stud. She seems to be dancing with another man as well, but none of them are worrying about it. Cole and Betsy arrived together but have not touched at all yet this evening. Cole is tall and thin and drives a white sports car. Tonight he is wearing jeans, a rugby shirt and a white baseball cap. He is in his forties. Two years ago he was dating the woman with the pearl nose stud. He has dated lots of women. Every now and then Cole comes wandering through with a smile to check on Betsy.

Andrew walks in the front door alone, wearing an awful lot of plaid. Andrew is an old friend of George, Betsy's recent ex, so of course Betsy is the first thing Andrew sees.

Several years ago Twyla Tharp made a dance that now reminds Andrew of Betsy. A girl, who looked like Betsy, danced with one man, then another man, then a third man, then the second man. All the other dancers whirled about some then left the girl alone on the stage. She danced a long, slow, sensuous, thinking dance. Then the three men came back and she danced with all of them. More men came on and she danced with all of them. They rolled her about on their shoulders, passed her back and forth as her arms and legs hung limp. When they left the stage she lay still on the floor. It was just her face that was like Betsy. Betsy is snuggled up against Dan and Cole is peeking at her through the door in a fatherly way.

Andrew waves to Cole, waves to Dan, waves to Betsy, waves to some others all the way around in a circle, waves to Cole again, Dan, faster now, Betsy, others, then spins around twice on his toes, his huge plaid jacket billowing, suddenly stops with his hands spread out and feet wide apart. He looks sick at his stomach. Betsy gets up and hugs him. Dan giggles "Not Michael Jackson--maybe Andrew Jackson?"

"Andrew?" says Sammy.

"Hi Andrew," says Rosemary.

Some of the others are coming forward to engage a new familiar person. This is the Dull Room, where people actually sit and have conversations, often beginning "So. How do you know Dan?" Shy or tired people. This is, after all, Friday.

"God, what a day," gasps Rosemary. "Jimmy Carter came through our office and I accidentally kicked him. How embarrassing."

"Uh, Rosemary, this is Sammy," says Andrew. "He's our drummer and the best musician in the group. Sorry Dan. You're looking very Mod tonight Sammy. And Sammy this is Rosemary, my knowing married friend. You don't count, Dan--sorry again. She sets me up on dates and actually tells me stuff about women. Their secret mysteries and stuff like that." She pretends to be annoyed and Andrew hugs her, then looks back and waves at Fred, her husband, too tired to get up.

Betsy is sitting apart from Dan now, hugging her knees. She taps Andrew's leg with her foot. "Is George coming?" she says almost without inflection.

"Nope. He's in San Francisco tonight."

"Oh. Doing the town?"

"Visiting family. He says hi." Andrew is trying to cheerfully shut the topic down.

Dan has been acting restless. "George. The qui-et Bea-tle," he sing-songs, exaggerating Liverpudlian speech. Betsy looks away. George is sometimes very quiet and it can snowball to the point where he can only respond in monosyllables. Dan has pushed him to this point many times. George also listens mostly to noise music and is embarrassed about liking the Beatles.

George and Betsy have continued being pleasant to each other despite breaking up and the fact that George hit Betsy. Andrew is still not sure how hard he hit her. Her face didn't seem marked when she came back into the bar alone, but Andrew isn't sure what it looks like after people hit each other. Rosemary believes it was a real punch, and she is reliable. Dan believes it was a punch but he is biased. Weeks after the event his jaw tightened as he told Andrew, "I asked Betsy if she needed any assistance in the matter." George claims it was a punch and he is extremely reliable, except when he--rarely--becomes emotionally aroused, and then he becomes extremely unreliable.

"She can go get Cole if she wants, but if she treats me like that again she'll get another knuckle sandwich," George had muttered to Andrew in the parking lot, outside the bar where Betsy and Cole and Dan and their friends were sitting, perhaps staring at their beers, perhaps drinking them. Andrew had gone to find George and found him sitting in his brother's black Land Rover. George matched it. He was wearing his perpetual long black leather jacket over his perpetual black clothes. He had long black hair and a Fu Manchu goatee. He usually carried tapes in the pockets of his jacket and often plugged them into any convenient deck, often without consulting the owner. They generally sounded like an automated factory bashing itself to pieces with some poor British person moaning in the background.

"Did you really hit her?" Andrew had trouble imagining this of George.

"Yes."

"Why?" Silence. Andrew began planning the series of "Yes--no" questions he would have to ask.

"She can--do--whatever she wants if she's--doing it--for herself, but she was doing--this--just to get a reaction out of me."

"Maybe she just wanted your attention."

"No." Pause. "She doesn't know any other way to end the relationship." Pause. "She doesn't. Know. How to. Talk."

Andrew was silent in agreement. Betsy could say more of nothing in five minutes than anyone he knew.

"Maybe it's for the best. You two have been on the skids a while." They were silent and motionless for the count of ten.

"I hate cars." George cranked the ignition. "Bubbles of steel and glass." They zipped into a "y" turn and out of the lot. "The sur)rounding ego." They tore down a deserted suburban feeder road towards a big exchange.

"People feel invincible at the wheel. Or maybe they just get numb. Driving only requires the reptilian portion of the brain. Cars sit close to the ground, for their size, like modern reptiles. Dinosaurs had avian hips which suspended them better. Cars are like alligators or lizards. I have to commute to work now, and people are ASSHOLES." They turned onto the entrance ramp for the Beltway and George put his foot down in one motion. There was a pause, then the car got it and they rocketed towards the NO MERGE AREA sign. As always the Beltway was bright with headlights. There was a brief flurry of honking around them, then they were in the middle lane. "My solution? Walk and metro as much as I can, and on the road be the worst thing on it."

* * *

Andrew is dancing with the woman who has a pearl on her nose. Almost everyone is dancing. Cole and Betsy are dancing, even Fred is dancing with his wife, Rosemary, who has two other guys sort of dancing with her as well. It's James Brown, "Get up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine, Pt 1."

Dan and Sammy are sitting in the Dull Room, talking band stuff, going over what they might play in two weeks at their next foreseeable gig. One of Dan's favorite songs was written by George. It's called "Aregato Sensai," which means "thank you, teacher" in Japanese. It's a vignette about a martial arts class which witnesses a bad car accident and neither the teacher nor the students can do anything to help. The melody is similar to Sam Cook's "Chain Gang."

"George is hard to talk to but he has a great sense of irony," Dan says into his glass. "He's also apparently really talented as a zoologist. He found a baby owl in the mountains in Maryland, just a hatchling, and he brought it back to his brother's place here and raised it. That, apparently, is very hard to do."

"And he goes in for all that industrial rock black clothing," Sammy chuckles.

"I know. Thinking of him with that baby bird, it's like Darth Vader as the Easter Bunny."

Dan is somewhat in awe of Sammy because, programming computers, he makes big bucks for someone his age, and because he is a very good drummer. Also, Sammy does pretty much what he wants but he has never offended anyone the whole time Dan has known him. Dan is in the sales department of an independent newswire and is always "yakking for a living." Sammy works in silence, except for occasional little beeps from some keyboard, and is rather reserved socially. He loves dressing up, riding a motor scooter and being a latter day Mod. He also likes bird watching. When he and George are together they radiate respect for each other, but generally rely on an intermediary--such as Dan, Andrew or Betsy--for any conversation.

Dan's daughter, Molly, is sneaking down the stairs again. Betsy sees her while dancing and starts playing peek-a-boo. After a minute someone knocks down a mask from Dan's cupboard and Betsy picks it up and dances holding it in front of her face. It is a cheap red and green dragon mask from Chinatown. Molly sees Betsy in it and screams bloody murder. Dan jumps up the stairs calling, "Hey Babe," to see what the matter is. Betsy hides the mask fast and follows him.

Rachel, Dan's wife, is third in line, calling, "What, what? What is it?" from behind Betsy.

Dan is as quick to reassure the guilt-stricken Betsy as he is to comfort Molly. "She's just in a phase where they don't get masks, and find them terrifying." Betsy looks awestruck to see a cool dude who knows so much about kids.

Rachel goes and finds the mask and brings it back to the stairs where a small crowd has gathered. "Was it this you saw Moll? You know him, he's Puff. Yes, Puff the Dragon." Molly is OK if it's in Mom's hand. "You want to touch him?" Rachel can't reach, so she hands it to Betsy who holds it while Molly fingers the papier mache and smiles. Then Molly points questioningly at Betsy.

"You want me to put him on?"

Betsy gets the mask over two-thirds of her face before Molly's eyes get huge and she starts saying "No" and backing up stairs. Betsy pulls Puff back down, smiling, and Molly giggles. The crowd laughs at the quick turnaround, so Betsy can't resist doing it again. Then Dan starts motioning Rachel to squeeze around Betsy and join him.

"OK, let's all hug, then back to bed." The three of them hug, Dan's face above the other two, blissfully staring at the ceiling.

The house is full of noise and smoke. The mongrel cat they have taken in crouches in the coat room on a bed by an open window above the porch roof. It is on this bed that a year from now Dan will deceive Rachel with someone he met at a bar, in the mid-afternoon. Cole will look through the house, see the closed door, and know from intuition to open it a crack and whisper "Dan, Rachel is getting Molly out of the car right now." The illusion of safety. Lightning.

The thunder will come rolling in slowly after, and eventually Dan and Rachel's sky will fall in sheets. They will remain in the house for some time, but the parties will end and the musicians will disband. Molly will regress, rarely talking. They will begin their own cold war, which none of their friends will see the end of. Their friends will scatter from here in D.C. to the far corners of the United States.

* * *

Cole and Betsy are getting ready to go. Almost everyone else has already gone. Rachel has gone to bed with Molly. The sky is beginning to lighten. Betsy is leaning against Cole, looking dreamily at the window. Dan is sitting in a giant chair looking at them, his mouth drooping like a horseshoe with all the luck draining out of it. He has been looking at Betsy and Cole like this off and on for the past hour. Rosemary does a little skipping dance in front of him, returning for something she forgot. She does it again on the way back out, but still no response. "Oh well. Bye Dan."

Andrew is pacing around. Partially this is to keep from stiffening up after athletic dancing, partially this is the only way he can keep himself awake now. Sammy is sitting, peacefully smoking a cigarette. Sammy and Cole are not great friends but they are alike in some ways. They are both self-confidant but somewhat taciturn. When they party, they both like to see the dawn, and this is not a strain for either of them.

Andrew is scanning Dan's records, tapes, and CDs with a big grin on his face. "Ah, guilty pleasures," he chuckles. "OK if I play this, Dan?"

Dan looks up, squints, then smiles. "You like Joni Mitchell, Mr. Funk Metal?"

"Sure. Do you mind?"

"Naw. I'll probably cry, but I'd like to hear it again."

"Sappy stuff, huh?"

"I think it's great stuff, but--that's Hejira, right?--that's from a real weird part of my life." Andrew pauses, reviewing what he knows about Dan and Dan gets up and puts the record on for him. Dan sits down and rattles his drink. Cole sits down too. Betsy looks at Cole, then sits as well. "Could you play this Cole? Are you as good a bass player as Jaco Pastorius?" Dan, his old teasing self, throws a leg over the arm of his chair. The music seems to soar, then drift, miles above the house.

"Sure. I mean no, I'm not that good, but I can copy notes off a recording," says Cole nonchalantly.

On the stereo, Joni Mitchell begins singing about lostness and lost love in a song addressed to Amelia Earhart. She starts with an image of jet fighters scrambling. The end of the world. Romantic love. Amelia, it was only a false alarm...

"You don't joke around, do you?" Andrew has been staring at Dan's copious tears trying to think of what to say, and he lays a hand on Dan's arm. "Want to listen to something else?"

Dan's wet face grins, still getting wetter. "No. This is a great album and I haven't heard it in ages." His voice sounds more cheerful than it did an hour ago. "This," he jerks his shoulder, "is like, probably physiologically tied in to the music and the memories of a time when I was really messed up."

"Flashbacks to the hospital?" Andrew murmurs, patronizing.

"Well, it's really about this girl I knew before I went in. I loved her, but she couldn't deal with me having a crack-up and I totally lost touch with her afterwards." He grins, wet-faced, at Betsy. "You've already heard about this."

Betsy smiles wanly and Cole grins. "And I've heard about it from Betsy."

"And you know about it Sammy, and Andrew you're digging Joni so I'll tell you another time." Dan, Sammy and Cole laugh. Tears are running down Dan's neck or falling off his face onto his shirt. There are a great number of drip marks already.

"You ran into her after I knew you," Sammy muses, his erect posture the only sign of nervousness, "back in the days of the Derivatives, our punk band. You really gave her what for," he chuckles.

"Oh right, you were there. That was a really important moment, when I decided I wasn't going to be dependant on anything. As soon as she was out of sight I threw my lithium pills all over Wisconsin Avenue." Wet-faced laugh. "I've been off it ever since."

Sammy grins. "And people were scrambling for them--figured they must be good."

Andrew thinks Dan ought to change his shirt. He's beginning to be amazed at how much liquid those little tear glands can carry, or get a hold of in a hurry when they want it. Cole has been bristling physically, elbows and knees out, in the way he does when taxed. He has been whispering to Betsy for the past minute or two. Andrew can hear that it's just about where they might eat, but it's distracting. Betsy is really bombed. Suddenly she says, "Oh, Dan," with a painful halt in her voice. Cole stands straight up and brings her with him.

"I vote for the Waffle House."

"I think we need different music," Andrew stammers, and rushes over to the CD player. He switches the sound system to a different mode, selects a disc, and punches up some numbers. A row of red dots marked "volume" marches far over to the right. Public Enemy starts performing "She Watch Channel Zero?!" at the volume Andrew has selected, and everyone jerks.

His eyes still weeping, Dan laughs and jumps up. "You'll wake Molly and Rachel." He pulls the level down.

She goes channel to channel, looking for some hero.

Cole and Betsy have disappeared. Sammy stands, makes eye contact with Dan, looking serious, then smiles, nods and leaves. "You've really heard all of the story," Dan says to Andrew, grinning and dripping. "We just wanted to make it sound mysterious."

"Sure you're OK?" Andrew looks around the empty room. "I guess I'll try to catch up with them. Thanks for the party." Andrew walks stiff-legged out the door.

"Channel Zero" has ended, and Dan has put Hejira back on. The album finishes as he idly cleans up. It is light outside, but the sun isn't up yet. There is still time to notice stray sounds.


Ross Taylor lives with his wife & daughter in Falls Church, VA. He has printed
poems in Antioch Review, Greensboro Review, Northeast Corridor, Pavement, Situation,
Southern Poetry, Virginia Quarterly Review, Western Humanities Review and other
small magazines, as well as printing two stories in the Washington Review. He
is just completing a narrative/digital images collaboration with painter Joseph
Barbaccia (http://www.paradisestudio.com) He currently manages the web site
for the Washington Review Online(http://www.washingtonreview.com) and plays
bass in a jump blues/swing band, Blue Cat Seven (http://www.bluecat7.com).

 

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