Laura Mahal

 

Over The Rainbow

I’m in that place between cold and a-storm-is-coming. My hands are wet—not from gravy flicked in frolicking fun. My jaw moves methodically. To test for the ability to speak, I chew my tongue like rubbery gum, as if I’ll be graded on how well I do. Something drips from my forehead. Every bit of theology I ever studied is leaking out onto the floor.

We’d been partying because we could. Young, gorgeous, if you believe in such social constructs; rebels down to the last.

“Tanzania, sing us a song.” Mica had asked me with fingers clasped, a humble prayer.

I threw back my head not to laugh, like an obedient female, but to acquiesce to someone who never, ever demanded. My deep tenor still startled a few newcomers to the club. These were folks who had wandered in from the street, dressed in cookie-cutter clothing and sturdy shoes. Unaccustomed to our authenticity, they routinely revealed gender bias. So then I did laugh.

Arbitrary expectations were bullshit.

Morris joined in and we harmonized. My voice rose. His deepened. The room grew silent. Our adventurousness was acknowledged as the vulnerability it inevitably was. Queers and queens on movie screens. People did what they always did. Stared until their eyes bugged out.

Shoppers lined the sidewalk. Waiting for the good buys on iPhones and gaming systems.

The club had big glass windows. Any old asshat could look in. 

There were no bouncers or security on holidays. I mean, the place wasn’t really even open. Maggie or Tyke just forgot to switch on the ‘Closed’ sign. It didn’t matter. We knew the security code for the back door. Some of us had worked there in our previous lives, and Tea Cup still did. Maggie and Tyke wouldn’t mind us needing to forget ourselves for a while. 

I’ve mentioned strangers. Penny had waved a few people in to add to the fun, slipping them through with a Golden-Era-of-Hollywood smile and a magnanimous welcoming hug. How many of us were there? A dozen? More? Not to mention those extras who had pressed their faces to the glass at the front of the club.

“I’m Tanzania Twenty-One,” I shouted. “Hear me roar.” 

I beat my chest like Tarzan. Barrel torso, narrow hips, large feet with determined toes that could grip a vine in the jungle or a cock on the lookout. Talented toes you have, Mica used to say.

“We are They and the WORLD is OURS!”

This last part was in all-caps, like a Presidential tweet, and elicited a similar reaction. Some roared with approval. Some brayed as if I had lied for the thousandth time.

That’s what I remember.

Singing. Shouting. Laughing.

Confidence. What I oozed more than anything was the belief that I was beautiful and unstoppable and meant to be exactly the person who stood on the stage belting out sassy songs.

And then the world, so recently OURS by proclamation, blew up.

*

Earlier that evening, the Cat had nestled in on Cinda Lee, who, for once, did not shove her off.

“Silverstein is attracted to anger. Pet her a minute. She’ll draw it from you like a salve,” I said.

“I’m not angry, Tanzania. I point out the truth. Our President is a cocksucker.” 

Oliver quietly interrupted. “Now, be fair, Cinda Lee. He’s been accused of quite a lot, but I doubt he’s gravitated in that particular direction.”

Cinda Lee thrust the cat under the table and stood, smoothing the fabric of their plaid linen pants—too tight for polite society and too flair-legged for this millennium.

“The President doesn’t understand us. They, them pronouns are weapons in this country. He’s killing grammar, has ruined at least a hundred adjectives—‘huge’ and ‘tremendous’ have been banned from the dictionary—and he certainly couldn’t identify the difference between an antecedent and an antiaircraft missile on the ground in Pyongyang. He’s a damn bird.”

Mica chose that moment to swing in gracefully from the kitchen, golden brown turkey in his lean strong arms, making his way through the door butt-first. Mmm, mmm. What a view and the turkey smelled good, too.

“Come and eat, everybody!” Mica said in his warm alto, deepening by the day. He set down the bird in its place of honor at the center of the table. He gave it an affectionate nod, then threw his arms wide. “Happy Friendsgiving!”

In my rush to kiss him, I caught the edge of a scalloped bowl of cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes flew like pigeons into the air, rolling into the mashed potatoes and atop the pumpkin pie, leaving skid marks on the smooth ochre surface.

“Tansy, pansy, pussy, pie, kissed the girls and made them cry!” Cinda Lee cried out in a rare fit of joy as they elaborately plucked out tomatoes and sucked them clean, returning these spitballs to the bowl.

Mica pulled me close, his scent full of sage and cinnamon. “Ignore them, love. You’re my Tanzania. Let our love be an example, all right?”

I nodded, but couldn’t resist flicking a nail full of gravy in Cinda Lee’s direction. They were turned away by now. No doubt bitching about something, but Oliver the Kind would absorb the bullshit and meekly wipe his delicate mouth with a cloth napkin.

Morris, Penny, and Tea Cup were there, too. “Lucky seven” of us at the table, with an eighth spot set, in case. A hungry person might ring the doorbell any second. Let them in, let them in.

Just as we were seated, and I was to break into a song in lieu of grace—(probably not “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” out of respect for Oliver’s peanut allergy)—the door burst open.

With the image still imprinted of an adorable backside attached to my smiling boyfriend bearing the main course of dinner, I was prepared to expect something happy to enter the room. Maybe an angel who would promptly agree to participate in a two-part harmony.

It was no angel.

It was my mother. Angry as a castrated ram finding itself in the center of a circle of hungry Vikings. The picture wasn’t far from the truth, as at least half of us had already raised our forks in preparation to eat. Horns were about to emerge from her furiously knitted forehead.

Before I had a chance to speak, to ask why she wasn’t at Cousin Bonnie’s playing bridge and drinking highballs, before I could explain why I’d volunteered the use of her rather large and empty house, soulless but with a smashingly upgraded kitchen, she gave me dagger eyes.

“Out.” She pointed, as if the exit were not obvious.

“Tommy Tree,” she pointed at me, her finger as crooked as her soul.

Me and Tommy Tree were one and the same in case you missed that part. But don’t say it out loud. That name is dead and so is Tommy Tree. You say it and your tongue will swell—wreck your breathing real good. Or eat at you from the inside until you ulcerate like my mother.

It’s a dead name and if you don’t know what that means, I may not be the one to teach you.

“Your,” she coughed, “friends are not welcome here. Neither are you, as long as you’re wearing a dress and lipstick. May the devil take you, or the Lord save you.”

Quite clearly, Mother had no particular preference toward either option. She’d be sanitizing the room the moment we stepped out. No doubt reminding me of my wasted degree in theology and how I’d fooled her for years into believing I was on a firm path to sainthood.

Bless Mica for his charm and cool-headedness. He picked up the platter of roasted turkey and nodded at my mother.

“Happy Thanksgiving to you, Mrs. Tree. May the New Year bring you the joy of discovering the true beauty of your daughter.”

I grabbed the gravy, spilling only a spoonful or so, and Morris, Penny, and Tea Cup lifted the pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes, and stuffing. The mashed potatoes remained behind to congeal into lumps. Maybe Mother would eat the picture-perfect cherry tomatoes, not realizing Cinda Lee’s spit was the secret sauce that made them so shiny.

Oliver quickly stacked plates, because he was like that. Considerate that our hostess should not have to clean up after house-crashing hooligans. Not reading our minds, he reached for the potatoes—one less thing for Mother to have to deal with—then set the bowl down with quiet resignation. Sensing the enormity of her wrath, Oliver fled with an instinct for self-preservation.

But Cinda Lee always had to have the last word. They fired tomatoes at my mother until she hid her face behind florid arms. Therefore, Mother most assuredly missed Cinda Lee dropping their plaid drawers in a display of pure juvenile delinquency.

*

“Where to, Captain?” I asked, hooking my arm through Mica’s elbow, he being thus engaged in carting a twenty-pound aromatic feast.

He shrugged slightly.

“Dunno. Where thinks you, Admiral?”

I tittered. Admiral Tanzania Tree was a halfway decent name. Though these days, a tree was something to piss on after one had had too many drinks.

I still possessed a projectile pisser. One day, I’d save up to have those swinging sacks removed. They were uncomfortable and got in the way of a nice fitted miniskirt.

My newest name, next time I took the stage, would be Tanzania Twenty-One. I just hadn’t had a chance to tell Mica yet. Twenty-one kisses for twenty-one missus, Mica used to tell me as he planted his lips from my wrist to my elbow, pretending to wink at other girls. But I wanted all twenty-one kisses for myself. Mica was meant to be my soul mate; mine, all mine. I am his woman and he is my man.

“It’s almost Black Friday. There’s gotta be a pub or a club open to satiate hungry shoppers. Let’s knock on some doors.”

Our traveling troupe traipsed the streets in search of a warm welcome.

Of course, we ended up at Maggie and Tyke’s Studs and Spikes. The Japanese cherry blossom sign flashed: “Open to all who are open.” 

Inside jokes were kind of our hallmark.

*

Tanzania was born at the age of twenty-three.

My Tanzania is an uninhabited plain in the wilderness, in search of fresh pasture and migrating wildebeests. Where leopards change their spots and zebras refuse to be limited to boring old black and white, the mongoose isn’t banded and the hyena isn’t forced to scavenge but can share a plate with a friendly giraffe. In my world, not all hyenas ravage carcasses. They like tofu and leaves from the evergreen tree. 

“Tansy, pansy, pussy, pie.”

I’ve been called it all—bugnut and boof puss, kitty and sleaze.

I sang my way out of anything that could have weighed me down. Outsung the blue-ribbon winners from the County Fair. 

Outsung the heroes of reality TV. Outted my talented self until Tanzania was a household name—like Keurig, Disney, or Mercedes. The latter two were the names of my singing partners. Disney was a baritone who loved Ariel best of all. Mercedes a bass who preferred electric cars.

But that part you probably know. It’ll all be in the eulogy, in case you forgot.

Here are the friends you almost missed. Catch them while you can.

*

Mica.

My heart pumps full throttle, ejecting painfully—expanding the veins in my for-fucks-sake masculine arms. My blood spurts, but his is cold, coagulated, frozen in a history now past tense. Full Stop.

His kiss yet impressed on my cheek. Lacquered there. Art craft glue holds it in place.

Musical Mica. Who couldn’t sing but lived to listen.

Mica my man.

Mica flew with the geese at the front of the ‘V,’ giving the rest of his flock a graceful rest.

I leave my love where he lies, sprawled on the floor, limbs akimbo.

That can’t be Mica. It’s gotta be a body double. If I were to shake the thing on the floor hard enough, confetti would burst out like candy from a pinata. A New Year’s Eve surprise. Mica was the windowpane to our souls, the see-through glass made of a soft-hearted mineral, who loaned us every book from his bookshelf until the shelves were bare, who stayed home from the beach trip to feed our cats and take them on walks. He joked that black mica was the most vulnerable mineral, and now, my Mica is gone. 

The man with the explosives still stands by the door, dressed all in black like a buzzkill with a buzz-cut. His eyes are beady and narrow. Narrowed, that is, in unblinking focus.

Pointing an accusatory metal cylinder toward the lot of us.

*

We’re frozen in a tableau not unlike the Nativity scene that sits in front of the church down the road.

My legs are wooden.

Mica is a lamb who was sacrificed on the altar, but that came from a different part of the Bible. We’re in the hopeful season now. The baby was born who will unite us. 

He went by a lot of names. Emmanuel. Jehovah. 

Changing names isn’t a sin.

I knew all these things once, but can’t form logic, with something seemingly embedded in the front of my forehead. Something sharp and hot.

I’m fixated on the number thirty-three. Jesus got to live that long. What about the rest of us?

My hand rises to my temple, which pulsates, Little Drummer Boy.

The touch of my fingers, wide and strong, lifted the flap of whatever was holding back the blood. It streams and courses, a gravy boat, and I drop to my knees next to my man.

Bleeding out.

Come out, come out. Come out to play.

I close my eyes.

Who is left?

*

Oliver.

Oliver the Kind was our Clark Kent, a skinny, gap-toothed guy who never discovered his telephone booth or his red cape, who never even looked for a Lois Lane because he loved all of us equally and fervently.

He was no artist, but he aspired to be a writer, and he recorded our antics in his journals. Thank God for Oliver because his notebooks are now our flesh memory.

Oliver is in parts and pieces. I can see him, even with my eyes closed. I can’t unsee him, for that matter. The boy who loved yoga, shavasana—corpse-pose—should have been allowed to reside in it, at the last, if there was any truth at all to the light in me sees the light in you. Oliver saw the light in everyone, and he Namaste’d the hell out of us. 

I’m drifting out, but that reminds me of something.

Mica is gone. Oliver is gone.

Tommy Tree is long gone but that was a good thing. Not like this.

These were my friends.

*

Someone is moving.

Hurtling, in fact. A shooting star turned meteorite also known as a human cannon.

Cinda Lee.

I hear them, bellowing. Bellowing like the earth has opened to swallow what is evil.

I see them through a glaze, a shimmery haze, red like cherry tomatoes. Red like wrapping paper. Red like birth, bloody and ripping.

Cinda Lee still is, though they are no longer beautiful.

Cinda Lee looks like they were in a fight with a cat—not one so soothing as Silverstein.

Not a cat that draws out anger like a salve.

Half their face hangs off but they are hurtling, sprinting toward the man by the door. 

The man holds something over his head, like a jacket to ward off the rain. I feel as if it is important to understand this, but I cannot make my mind decipher. He is holding a shiny thing, a star for the top of the tree. 

But wait. It isn’t time for Christmas. 

It’s Thanksgiving. We are thankful for our friends. It’s a Friendsgiving party—with turkey and pie. Fire, not frost, nipping at my nose.

What about Black Friday is small and shiny?

*

Cinda Lee hated pretty much everybody and maybe isn’t the best representative to bear witness to what went down. They liked to say they were “sin, sin, cynical.”

Long before I discovered my inner brave, Cinda Lee sat as cool as a cat in a warm place and said they were going to catch the President and dye his hair trans green. I mean, that’s a nonviolent threat, right? 

There were never supposed to be shiny bomb stars involved.

Nobody was ever supposed to die.

Cinda Lee had a Ph.D. and they damn sure knew the difference between dye and perish.

They pummeled the man and then they threw the bomb into the back room, where it blew up beer bottles and squeezable cheese, condiments and frozen burger patties.

Bomb number two blew up burgers and beer but bomb number one had our names on it.

Cinda Lee saved what was left of us and then turned to look straight at me.

Not straight. Never use that word in a sentence with Cinda Lee or they’ll haunt me to my dying day.

Today.

Today is that day.

*

I’ve got to go.

You’ll have to fill in the rest of the stories yourself. My head hurts bad. I’m gonna take some rest, right here next to Mica, and the parts of Oliver I can reach.

Be sure to look up Morris, Penny, and Tea Cup. Plus all the rest who never got to sit in that eighth place we’d set at the Friendsgiving table, just in case.

Their lives—our lives—were valid and interesting. But most of the names you’ll find on headstones won’t be the right ones. Without Oliver’s journal entries, you’d have to take your best guess as to whether Morris was named after Jimi Morrison, or Penny after a Beatles’ song or an overcrowded street in Liverpool. We weren’t all musicians and some people chose names that meant a great deal to them, but nothing at all to anyone else. Tea Cup chose that designation because their grandma invited them over for tea every Sunday and loved them more than Royal Doulton or Limoges. Morris was the name of his childhood Bearded Collie. Penny never told us why, and that’s okay. 

My mother will have the stone chipped to read, “Tommy Tree. 1996-2020.” Maybe a dove or some bowling pins or a football will lord over the inscription. Mother’s unpredictable in her artistic predilections. My guess is she won’t pick a rainbow to arch over the name of her long-lost son and never-found, never-acknowledged daughter.

I put my trust in scrappy Cinda Lee to scratch that out and highlighter-pink-in the words, “Tanzania Twenty-One. She was sizzling and she was fun. Sadly taken before she was done.”

One piece of advice: Always set an extra place because you never know who might need a spot of kindness or a warm meal.

Happy Friendsgiving. Today and every day.

*

The flag is hoisted back up—per Presidential order—all the way to the top of the pole.

Three days of half-mast is what we were worth to our nation. 

I’m partial to the idea of thinking we were worth a few more days of flapping the old red, white and blue, because every one of us exercised our right to vote and we were proud Americans. The kind of proud that means full of pride. Messiers Merriam and Webster threw together a dictionary that is not static. The people they’ve passed the torch to add to it every so often, and trust me, pride means so much more than “displaying excessive self-esteem.”

Look to the sky right this very minute.

We’ve sent you a rainbow.

Aren’t we beautiful?

 

Previously published in OyeDrum online literary magazine in June 2020 for Pride Month.


Laura Mahal splits her time between writing and copyediting. Her work appears in various literary magazines and anthologies, including Fish, DoveTales (Empathy in Art: Embracing the Other), Still Coming Home, Sunrise Summits, Veterans Voices, Across the Margin, Flash!, OyeDrum, Charlie Mike, and The Road She’s Traveled. She’s a two-time winner of the Hecla Award for Speculative Fiction and received the Gladys Feld Helzberg Memorial Award in 2019.  A 2020 Lit Fest finalist and an upcoming Lighthouse Book Projecteer, Laura was part of the editing team for Rise, which was recently awarded the 2020 Colorado Book Award in the anthology category.


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