Girls in a Band
CONTENT WARNING: mentions of transphobia
The spark of my cigarette spiraled away into the darkness behind us, and I rolled up the van’s window. Next to me, Zoe was lying back in her seat, one chain-wrapped boot perched on the wood-grain dashboard. Sweat from the show still shone on her face in the teal and amber glow of the radio, and I loved her.
I started to brake but her cool hand found my arm.
– No, Annie, Annie, keep going. I wanna get something to drink before we head back.
I drove on past our turnoff. She sat up and started skipping through tracks on the CD, choking each song off after less than a second. When she started fucking with the bass levels, I reminded her I had more cigarettes in my bag. She settled back again, letting Placebo have their say. She pulled my purse onto her lap and fished for a cigarette. From the corner of my eye, I saw the flash of her lighter and her boot rising with the smoke, back to the dashboard like a crow to roost.
– Okay, so that mostly sucked, right?
– No way. You were fucking great! You sounded just like Courtney Love!
– Then why did they throw a bottle at us?
– It wasn’t even that serious. Like, it barely even shattered. I took it as a compliment.
– Shit. You might be right. They did seem like the kinda people who would throw bottles at Actual Courtney Love.
– Yeah, like honestly you killed it on ‘Bobbitt the Clergy.’ I swooned.
I could feel her smiling in the dark beside me.
– Shit, man. It’s thirty bucks.
The center of town was already mostly deserted at nine o clock on a Friday. A few cars idled in the drive-thru of the Arby’s and some kids sat smoking on the hoods of their cars in the parking lot of the Food Lion that closed last year. I slowed through a stop sign and one of the kids, her girlfriend’s big black jacket pulled around her shoulders, looked up at us. She was the only one of them not laughing. I tried to imagine what I would say to her – get away from here, baby, get away fast – and then someone tapped her shoulder and she looked away.
We started to move again, and Zoe’s face tracked the passage of the neon ten-gallon hat.
– They’ve got the meats.
The crenelated roof of the Beverage Castle came into view. We drove across a fake drawbridge and into a vaulted opening in the building’s brick façade, painted with jousting knights. A mannequin dressed in fool’s motley bade us welcome to the Kingdom of Low Prices. Every time we came here, I imagined the spines of the fake portcullis somehow becoming more than ornament, crashing down onto the roof of the van, killing us both. I rolled down the window and welcomed the dry blast of the store’s space heaters. A girl in a blue tunic approached the side of the van with a notepad, and I looked to Zoe.
– What do you want?
– Just a lot of something. Yuengling, I guess.
The girl in the tunic shuffled away and came back with the beer in a huge paper sack.
– Twenty bucks.
The ride home was slow and familiar, and we got into our own heads. It was Florida’s one week of winter, and strong winds buffeted the sides of the van as we drove, the lights of the main road dropping away behind us, the hills before us darkly tunneled by mossy oaks. At times, the road narrowed to the width of just one car, and I carried forth on faith that nothing lay beyond the next curve. How many times have I made these turns? Why haven’t I ever gotten unlucky?
There was this one hill on the way out to Zoe’s trailer where I used to floor it back when we were teenagers. It was just steep enough that I’d be airborne for a second or two, enough to make my stomach drop. But one time when we were at the state fair, I tried to get Zoe to get on a roller coaster with me and she said she hated that feeling of dropping away from things, of falling out of control, and I’ve taken the hill slow ever since, even when she’s not with me.
About a mile from home, a loud beep sounded from underneath the van’s dashboard and pulled us back to the world. Zoe sat up.
– The hell was that?
– This thing the insurance company made me put in after I got that last ticket. It goes off whenever it sees something in the road. It’s supposed to tell you ‘hey, you need to stop,’ but I think they, like, use it to figure out how shitty a driver you are, so they can charge you more.
Zoe turned in her seat, squinting through the rear window of the van at the darkness of the road.
– It goes off all the time around here and there’s never anything there. I think it’s just a scam. But they may as well not bother. Ain’t gonna get much more blood from this stone.
Zoe settled back into her seat.
– Maybe it’s seeing ghosts. Stop running over the dead, Annie. They’ve been through enough.
– Better ghosts than pig men.
– Oh girl, you’re still talking about the pig man?
– You saw him too. You were as fucked up about it as me that night. You just forgot it the next day.
– Who wants to remember a pig man running around out in the woods at night? I’m happy I blocked that out.
– He wasn’t running around. He was just standing there at the edge of the palmetto bushes, watching us with his pig eyes.
– Standing there in his business suit.
– It wasn’t a suit; it was a winter coat. I told you that.
– That’s right. I mean, look, you should probably just smoke with me more often, you know? You’ll forget the pig men and everything else you want to. It’s a good way to live.
I turned onto the gravel path up to Zoe’s trailer. We got out and opened the back doors of the van and just stood there for a moment in the cold, looking at the pile of cases and cables we’d packed in a hurry back at the bar. Zoe groaned, the case of Yuengling balanced against her hip with one arm.
– I don’t wanna carry all this shit inside tonight.
– Just the guitars. We’ll get the rest tomorrow.
I crawled into the back of the van and grabbed two black cases marked with a spray-stencil of our band’s name – TEEN WITCH – and a decade’s worth of peeling stickers, a genealogy of mine and Zoe’s emotional standing in the world, running all the way from a fading grey alien in a Dr. Seuss hat to my newest addition: the leering head of a black goat beseeching you to ‘Destroy Your Cock for Satan.’ I took a case in each hand and hopped down from the van, my Docs crunching in the gravel, and Zoe closed the doors behind me.
We were halfway across the drive when a light came on from the trailer on the other side of our lot. We froze. In the glow of the porch light, I saw the two German Shepherds dive from the edge of the porch and hit the ground running, coming for me, low and swift. Don’t run don’t run. You’ve done this before.
Zoe yelled across the lot.
– Get your stupid fucking mutts back inside, you drunk old fuck!
A man had appeared on the porch. He raised his bottle in greeting and nearly fell over from the violence of his own gesture. He yelled, words slurring:
– Well shoot, I didn’t know anyone else was still livin here. Seein as I ain’t got a rent check for a coupla months now.
I closed my eyes and stood with my arms stiff at my sides as the dogs circled me. I felt their hot noses working at the hem of my skirt, the rips in my leggings, at my crotch. One of them tested my hand with his mouth, teeth scraping my knuckles, and I felt the electric crackle of adrenaline flooding my body. My cheeks flushed hot against the cold air and I started to shake. They aren’t growling. I can do this if they don’t growl. The dogs barked and backed away and whined and then came forward again.
Zoe took a step towards our landlord.
– Just call your fucking dogs already!
– They’s raised to set on strange men.
My eyes were still closed but I heard the laughter in his voice. I heard Zoe start across the yard.
– Okay, well, guess I’m gonna have to come stab you in the fucking face!
The landlord made a low whistle, and the dogs ran back to his porch. I opened my eyes but stood still, watching them go, not moving until he opened the door for them to slip inside. Before he followed them, he yelled back at Zoe:
– You n’ him best be doin some work that pays. Hate to see two homeless dykes. Break my heart.
Zoe took my hand and the two of us walked up to our trailer together. She sat down the beer and fiddled with her keys.
– It’s alright. We’re home now.
I kept glancing back at the landlord’s house until the light on the porch went out. She got the door open and held it for me as I carried the guitars inside and sat them down on the floor in the middle of the kitchen. I stood there among the scattering roaches and the yellowed linoleum and the magnet poetry and told myself to breathe.
– We’re home. You alright?
I wanted to be okay for her, for the night to be about something else other than my bullshit again. I nodded and tried to say I was fine, but she could see I was still shaking, and she took me and pulled me close.
– It’s okay.
She kissed my cheek where the tears had already started rolling.
– Come on.
She led me to the couch, still carrying the Yuengling. She sat down, tore a can from out of the box, cracked it, slurped up the ensuing foam. She leaned back and patted her thighs, but when I started to sit down, she stopped me.
– Hold up. Shit. Do you have your cigarettes?
I realized I was still wearing my purse. I shrugged it over my head and dropped it onto the coffee table. I stood watching as she flipped through my eyeliners and lipsticks until she found our pack of Camels and the lighter emblazoned with pentacles. She lit one and at last sat back and patted her lap again.
– Come on.
I dropped onto the couch and leaned into her. She draped one arm over my shoulders, cradling me against her. I looked up at her and she kissed me again. I was still breathing heavy.
– It’s okay, sweet girl.
– I just hate that you saw that. That you heard him say that again.
She looked as if she would say something, but then she picked up the can of Yuengling from the table, turned it up, and drained it in seconds.
– Hey, slow down.
– I need an ashtray.
She sat the empty can back down on the table, flicked her cigarette into it, and opened another one. We stayed like that for a little while, her petting my hair with one hand and smoking and drinking with the other, the two of us listening to the wind across the tin roof.
– I gotta get you out of here, she said at last.
– Where we gonna go?
– I dunno. Somewhere the dumbfuck alcoholic landlord won’t set his dogs on you?
I could hear the anger in her voice, and I took the hand that was draped around my shoulders and kissed it.
– Just like heaven.
She went on.
– Maybe the beach. I could see you living at the beach, you know?
– I hate the sun, baby.
– You like the water, though.
I heard her crack a third beer and I snuggled deeper into the warmth of her, dragging a knit blanket down from the back of the couch and wrapping it around the both of us.
– I just wanna be somewhere quiet with you.
– Alright. I’ll save up and get us some place off in the woods where we can be alone. We can have a sick-ass witch garden out back. Close enough to some town where we can still play shows.
We basically have that now, I thought. And it’s still like this. But I said:
– That sounds nice.
– Then even once we make it, we can always go back there to get away from everything when we need to.
– I’m gonna hate the paparazzi so much.
– I know.
I felt her kiss the top of my head. Her voice got softer.
– But you know, until then, when you’re here, you don’t have to think about any of that stuff, right? Like all of that bullshit doesn’t even exist when you’re in here with me, okay? You know that, right?
I knew that she believed this. She was trying so hard. I craned my head back so that I was looking up into her face. It had been long enough since the dogs that I was able to smile for her.
– I know. Hey, you hungry? You should eat something.
– I’d eat.
– Let me fix you something.
I got up and headed for the kitchen, stepping over the guitar cases I’d left there. There’s this one movie where they’re interviewing Townes Van Zandt and he carries on for a while with this old man he’s friends with, the two of them bickering about who drinks whiskey the most irresponsibly. And in the background of the scene, there’s his wife or girlfriend, I dunno which, washing some enamel coffee cups. She’s got on a flannel shirt and you can see how the cuffs look huge on her thin wrists. Everything was relentlessly, permanently fucked. And still Zoe really did make me feel better. I wanted to make her pancakes, but money was one of the fucked things, so I ended up throwing a Mexican Fiestada-style Totino’s Party Pizza into the oven and went back to snuggle against her. A few minutes before the timer would have dinged, the lights went out.
I looked up into Zoe’s face, just perceptible in the dark by the light of her cigarette. She shook her head and I slid off her lap.
– The fuck. Did that fucking shit-stain cut the power? I’m gonna cut off his fucking dick.
She was already standing up and reaching into her boot for her knife, and I grabbed her wrist in the dark.
– I think it was just the wind, baby. Listen to how strong it is out there.
I eased her back down onto the couch. She flicked her lighter while I opened the drawer in the coffee table and rooted around through the incense, tarot cards, old bills, batteries, and pre-approved credit card offers until I found a half-spent black candle. I held it out for her, and she lit it off the flame. We sat there for a few seconds in the sudden silence to see if the power would come back, but it never did.
– Well. We may as well eat.
I carried the candle into the kitchen with me, pulled the pizza out of the oven, hacked it into quadrants with a knife from the dish drainer, and slipped it onto a plate. It was still cold to the touch, but it resembled pizza at least approximately. I brought it to Zoe and watched her take a bite. She immediately reached for another Yuengling.
– I’m sorry, I said.
– It’s done enough. Who doesn’t like cold pizza?
I sat down next to her. She popped the beer and slid it across the coffee table to me. I started to take a drink but suddenly realized I hadn’t been breathing. I could feel her watching me, and I was trying to act like things were okay.
– Hey, she said.
I looked up at her.
– Ya know what we should do? We should eat pizza in bed. Like we used to do when you’d stay over. You know, when we were teenagers.
– Your parents never let me stay over.
– Let’s go.
She stood up, took another two cans of beer, and balanced them on the plate, then picked up the candle and led us into the bedroom with it. She sat the candle on top of the television in the corner of the room, and it pitched its light across our mess of sheets and blankets.
– Don’t you remember? We’d eat pizza and I let you wear my Marilyn Manson t-shirts, because your parents wouldn’t let you have any.
I sat next to her on top of the comforter. I didn’t know what to say. The candle put a faint little pinprick of fire in each of the hundreds of inert fairy lights we had strung around the room. BOYS DON’T CRY, one of our posters said. She went on.
– And that one night you snuck in and brought me pizza because I had gone on a date with that Jordan guy, and you knew it was going to be bullshit and I was going to come home crying, which I did. The first time you kissed me.
– You know my memory isn’t as bad as yours, right? None of that happened.
– Yeah. But it shoulda. Eat with me.
We laid together and ate. I bit into a green pepper that was still frozen solid and spit it into my hand and caught her smiling at me. After the pizza was gone, I finished the Yuengling she’d gotten for me while I watched her roll a joint. We got under the blankets and she laid on her back and patted her shoulder, and I curled into her side. We stared at the ceiling together, and she lit the joint. I felt her exhale and watched a cloud of smoke rise to the ceiling. At some point she spoke:
– Ya know my memory’s not all fucked. I got pig men myself. Stuff I can’t forget about.
– Like what?
– Like back when I was a kid, before I moved out on my own, there’d sometimes be shadows in the house.
– Like people made of shadow? I’ve seen those too.
– No. Not like shadow people or anything like that. The fuck, Annie? Just like sometimes I’d be sitting in my room or whatever, and I’d get to feeling nervous, like something was just wrong. And a couple of times I found a shadow. Just like, a shadow in the corner of the room, or on a wall, or on top of my bed, or whatever, and it wasn’t cast by anything at all. I could move a lamp right next to it and nothing would change. It was like the shadow of something I couldn’t see or touch or hear. But whatever it was, it just wanted to be around me, I guess. I never knew why. That used to scare the hell out of me. No amount of herb is gonna smoke that away.
I nuzzled into her neck.
– Stop! You’re gonna get me freaked out.
– Fuck. I got ashes in your hair, baby.
– It’s okay.
– Don’t be scared. I think it’s one of those things where it’s the house itself or a time in your life that’s haunted. I haven’t seen anything at all since we moved in here. Maybe because we’re together?
– Yeah. Sometimes it’s just the place that’s haunted.
She passed me the joint, its trail of smoke drifting serpentine through the candlelight. I hit it and passed it back to her.
– Did I ever tell you about the witch’s house from when I was a kid?
She shook her head.
– No, I don’t think so.
– So, when I was a kid, my dad used to take me with him to this drive-in hamburger place out near town.
– The one with the girls on roller skates?
– Yeah, that’s it.
– God, that’s so hot.
– It was weird because, you know, that part of town is mostly all built over, like they have the Dollar General, all those other stores. But right next to the burger place, just up the road from Wal-Mart, there was this one house with the yard completely covered in weeds and stuff, and the windows were always dark, and it looked about a million years old.
– Yeah, I think I know the place you’re talking about. I mighta saw it myself as a kid.
– I dunno how you wouldn’t have, living around here. But anyway, when I’d fuck up or something back then, my dad would tell me that there was a witch who lived in that house and that she was going to break into my room at night and take me away. He said she was constantly watching me in her crystal ball. And she’d know if I fucked up.
– The thing is, I kinda wanted her to? Take me away, I mean.
– Yeah, I can see that.
– I always wondered about the house. So, when I was older and we got the internet around here I looked into it. And it turns out it really was an old crone who lived there. And she just, like, refused to sell her land. Apparently, she got a bunch of offers from businesses and stuff, like close to a million bucks or whatever. But she never would sell it to them.
– Fight the power, girl.
– Yeah. But then she died, and they got it anyway. I think there’s a Popeye’s there now.
– Fuck. So, she really was a witch.
Zoe passed the joint back to me, and I shook my head and watched as she stubbed it out in the ashtray beside our bed. She rolled towards me, pulling me into her arms.
– I love you. You’re so fucking weird.
– I love you too.
We held onto each other. I stared out the window at the outer darkness lit by the moon and tried to will myself to see an aberrant and untimely snow falling, to not see the shadows.
– Sometimes it’s not the place though, Zoe. Sometimes a person has a ghost that goes everywhere that they go, like it’s attached to them. Or maybe it even is them.
Zoe didn’t say anything. I realized her breathing had slowed, and she’d fallen asleep. It always seemed to be such an easy thing for her. I don’t know why but I smiled. I kissed her shoulder and pressed my thigh against hers and wiggled in her arms. I really was happy, I think.
– Promise me you won’t buy me a beach house, I whispered to her.
She didn’t stir.
– Promise me morning isn’t going to come.
In the morning, I woke up to her rushing around the bedroom, pulling on clothes. I blinked until she came into focus.
– What’s wrong?
– Nothing, baby. I just fuckin’ overslept. I was too drunk last night to realize no power meant no alarm. Dana’s gonna fuckin kill me.
I propped myself up on my elbow and watched as she buttoned up the top of her uniform and clipped a nametag to it. She knelt down on the bed to kiss me goodbye.
– Hey, I’m you.
I pointed to her nametag.
– You accidentally put on mine.
She looked down at the little black slate that said Annie and pulled it off and unceremoniously tossed it onto the dresser near the door, clipping on one of hers instead.
– Ya know, you should come back to Dana’s. She’d take you. I’ll make her. It was fun when we worked together.
– I will, baby, I promise. When I can.
– Okay. See you tonight.
After she left, I stayed in bed for a while. The candle we’d left burning as we fell asleep had dripped down the front of the television, leaving purple-black streaks across the dusty glass. I wondered if she put it out when she woke up, or if it had burnt out at some point during the night. I put cleaning up the TV on my list of things to do for the day.
Eventually I sat up and scooted to the edge of the bed. I was still wearing the torn leggings and skirt I’d had on last night at our show, and I dug a hoodie out of the pile on the floor, slipped it on over that, and laced my boots onto my bare feet. I dropped my electric blue estrogen under my tongue in front of the bathroom mirror, got my cigarettes from the coffee table where we’d abandoned them, and left. I wasn’t afraid of the dogs, because the landlord would still be sleeping this early.
I made my way around to the back of the trailer and off into the oaks at the edge of the lot. It had rained at some point overnight, and it was almost unbearably humid. I gave in and unzipped my hoodie. I hate the sun, especially at this time of morning when it comes at you hard and obtuse, burning away the dew and turning the world into a kiln. Light always seems to have an agenda. It always wants to show you your edges and shape you into something.
I watched the ground as I walked, my boots sidestepping now and then when I came across an insect or some plant that I liked. I began to whisper to myself:
– Wild cherry, juniper, dogfennel. Lizard’s tail, black root. Tall man’s whiskers.
Soon I came to a stream, one of the little branches that fed the chain of lakes, and edged myself onto its bank, sitting down in the driest spot I could find. There was a heron not far off, and I smoked and watched it go after fish.
The longer I sat there, the more I noticed a stench like sweet, nauseating citrus. At first, I thought nothing of it because half the people who live around here have let their septic tanks rupture rather than pay to empty them, and besides that, the morning always smells bad to me. But soon it became too much, and I stood up to leave. When I did, I caught sight of something pink and bulbous at the edge of the water, wedged into the weeds by a log of cypress. I walked to the water and knelt down and saw that it was the carcass of a wild pig, dead several days. Flies crawled in its open wounds and its eyes had been eaten away. I held onto the fallen cypress to steady myself and reached out to pet the pig, running my hand down her bloated side in long strokes, her hide cold and rough and dry beneath my fingers. I stayed like that until my thighs started burning and then I stood up, my knees cracking aged protest. I was very tired.
I still had thirty bucks in my hoodie from the night before. I decided I’d head back and drive to the store. I wanted to make Zoe pancakes. I wanted her to come home to something great.
Caoimhe Harlock is a southern trans woman writer and artist. Her work has been published in The Evergreen Review and Gathering of the Tribes, and she has a comix project forthcoming from Diskette Press. She's finishing up a Ph.D. about transness and the supernatural in American literature and lives in Durham, NC with her partner, two pups, a cat, and an altar to the goddess Hecate.