Ash Wednesday

A short story by Chris Campanioni

When Brandon Walsh says ‘Get in the car, Steve’ you listen.

Pulled into the waiting arms of an UberX which had pulled up at the corner the minute I began writing this. The minute before, or maybe earlier.

Maybe yesterday.

‘The catering has gone downhill,’ she says.

‘New York City has gone downhill,’ I say.

We circle our straws around the liquid still left in our low balls. Mostly ice, after all. Everything watered down in the hotel bar of The Rose Club; in every hotel bar in every city in the world. Watered down and the water won’t stop falling. Outside, the sky is ash. My view from the wall-length windows buttressed with red velvet. It’s the end-of-the-world Wednesday night you always dreamed of. You and me and everyone else. Secretly dreaming of the kingdom come.

‘New York City has gone downhill,’ I repeat, tugging at the velvet curtains, seeing how they feel in my hands. Ice crunches in the back of my mouth and I swallow before I smile.

She looks at me and rolls her eyes, rolling her ankles too, dragging one foot and turning her hip to the electric jazz reverberating from a DJ booth above our heads. Above our heads, I can see several different shoes: high-heels, loafers, slip-ons, chanclas, moccasins, slingbacks, ballet flats, espadrilles, plastic Velcro sneakers with an orb on the tongue’s tip, flickering faintly, extinguished. All of these feet without bodies, moving to the beat.

‘So it just comes out of you without warning,’ she asks, looking up from the folded-up napkin I’d just handed her, ‘just like that?’

I nod; she smiles. We were talking about poetry. We were talking about what we do when we’re not at events like these.

‘I work events like these,’ she replies, putting two fingers to her maraschino lips. ‘Shhh . . .’

I take her hand and move us below a chandelier. There’s three in the ballroom. It takes four steps and one last gulp of slush. Everything is better below a chandelier, including my profile: the way the light floods down and forms angles and definitions that would otherwise be lost in the candor of reality.

Padded leather interior.

And what I’m thinking about is not what came before – fifteen minutes of lush silence in the back of the UberX; a 2009 Cadillac Sedan’s live streaming ride from Atlantic onto the BQE and over the bridge through Midtown with two 5-ounce Evians at either hip – but what came before that. Hostage situations, relationships, racism, infidelity, HIV/AIDS, natural disasters, alcoholism, depression, drug use, pregnancy, suicide attempts, miscarriages, and sex, so much sex, which is a given, even for Fox’s nationally televised audience of the mid-Nineties.

13.2 million viewers every Wednesday night.

Before they trade in their flip-flops for full-time jobs, the friends of Beverly Hills 90210 dive into their senior year of college for a final lap.

The wheels are still spinning. They never really stop. All those bodiless feet, dancing above our heads. All that ash outside. All that ash inside. I remember that I am dust, I mouth, to myself or to whoever is watching, and to dust I shall return.

A murder is supposed to be occurring. That’s why I’m here. That’s why we’re all here.

I glance at my phone like a signal is meant to appear, a keyword or code word or just a key code: my mobile requesting the four digits which allows users access.

‘A murder is supposed to be occurring,’ I tell her, taking my free hand and bringing her closer to my side, both our heads shrouded in the golden refulgence of the three-tiered chandelier. One of a kind, I think, eyeing the two others beside it. Waiters in white tuxedos swoop in synchronically, raising trays of crab cakes and deviled eggs and truffle mushroom risotto puffs from last week’s event, or the one before that.

‘But whose murder?’

Gilt City doesn’t say. The host who greeted me at the lobby doesn’t say. The ash outside forming a cumulus through Fifth Avenue doesn’t say. The bartender who poured us the watered-down Manhattans doesn’t say.

He only asked for a tip, indicating my attention with two taps of his index on the porcelain bar.

‘Didn’t they hand you instructions?’ she asks, pointing to the lobby, the staircase I’d ascended, the banister I firmly gripped sometime before or after she walked through too. ‘Didn’t they check you in?’

‘When Brandon Walsh says ‘Get in the car, Steve’ you listen,’ I tell her.

I’ve endured temptations. I’ve endured such unbearable urges. She takes my arm and removes her mask. She asks me to remove mine.

‘What’d you say your name was?’

I’d forgotten I was wearing one.

Chris Campanioni’s ‘Billboards’ poem responding to Latino stereotypes and mutable – and often muted – identity in the fashion world was awarded the 2013 Academy of American Poets Prize. His novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards.

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