|C. Abe Gaustad
The birthmark on my nose is mosquito-form. My friends are always slapping at
it, saying things like Let me get that! and Mosquito! Then they get embarrassed
and blush. But it scares me too, in the mirror on a morning after a night with
no sleep, or poor sleep because I'm a security guard and prostitutes and
crackheads keep waking me up in my booth at the Vanity Fields apartments. They
ask for change for a hundred, or they tell me to give them all my money. I tell
them I'm a goddamned security guard and I don't have any money and please leave
me alone so I can get some sleep for tomorrow at the cereal factory. Then they
too get embarrassed and blush.
But that's not humiliating. Humiliating is having to borrow money from your
barber. He tells me it's five-fifty. I can't give you five fifty at the moment,
I say. He says, Why do you want a haircut and you don't have any money? I tell
him my kids like Happy Meals. Happy Meals are expensive, he says. Yes, but
they're my kids and they deserve a Happy Meal every now and again, for dinner on
Thursdays for instance. Okay, he says, pay me double next time. Okay, I say, but
then I ask him if I can borrow twenty. He asks why. The IRS. They're bastards,
he says, and he hands me two tens. Thank you. Thank you very much.
I borrow a lot, but I pay everyone back.
Max is my oldest and he's going to be a genius. He's five. He can tell you
the capital of Montana. Helena, he says. That was his mom's name, before she
died, from methadone, which you don't hear much about. She took too much
methadone. Some people think you can't take too much methadone, that you piss
out whatever your addiction doesn't need. It ain't so.
So they (the criminals) call me Mosquito Nose and they sell drugs right under
my mosquito nose. And sell sex. And steal things. But the paychecks keep coming
in from Wakenhut, so I stay put and don't worry much about it. The way I figure,
Vanity Fields needs its share of crackheads and prostitutes too. You should see
the place, really. It's not as nice as the name. Someone planted some flowers in
a stolen shopping cart lined with plastic. I can see that from my booth, and
when it's dark out, when the streetlights are making strange shadows out of
normal things, that shopping cart looks like it's about to run me down. I get
tired in my booth after working at the cereal factory all day and I can't help
it if that's what I see.
But one of these days I'm going to be able to quit one of these damn jobs,
get some real sleep and take the other one seriously. I haven't got time to
worry about what crackheads and prostitutes do now, but if I could get some
sleep I'd run them off more often.
But I didn't want to tell you about all this. I wanted to tell you about my
dead wife, Helena. The first time we met she had on this red dress. I was
working at a restaurant then--an Italian place with orange candles on every
table and lights so dim you can't see your food. She had long black hair that
stretched halfway down her back and a smile that melted something in me.
You look smart, she said. Why do you say that? I asked. Because of those
glasses of yours. They make you look real smart, like you're going to go on
Jeopardy! and get the Daily Double or whatever the shit is called. Thanks, I
said. What's that on your nose? She asked. Oh, that. That's my birthmark. It's
beautiful, she says. It's Beauuuuuuuuuuuutiful. And then she lifted herself up
and she kissed my mosquito nose.
She liked spiced rum. I like spiced rum, so that's what we drank on our first
date. We screwed, and she conceived Max. At least that's what she told me later,
because I was dead drunk to the world. Anytime I get a headache now I know it's
still just that old hangover throbbing again. I call all my headaches Helena's
Hangovers. I think she would get a kick out of that.
But that was the last time I was drunk, except for Helena's funeral. Spiced
rum again. My sister was watching my kids, thank God for her. I wandered in with
my big ass bottle and I poured some on Helena's corpse. And I brought my
saxophone from home and started to play Stars and Stripes Forever real sloppy,
notes slammin' into each other like people fucking. (I remember all this. Our
first night together I forget.) I'm tryin' to jazz it up a little, make it mine.
But the notes don't come out mine; they come out like someone is trying to steal
them, and even though I'm drunk, I know I'm stealing them from someone.
But the family got up off the pews when I finished, and they cried. It was a
standing ovation. Everyone clapped except my kids. They screamed and covered
That's when I took on the job at Wakenhut. Right after Helena died I didn't
want to sleep much anyway. I kept dreaming about her and methadone and spiced
rum. She would come to me in my dreams and ask me why I had played Stars and
Stripes Forever at her funeral. I couldn't explain it. She yelled at me in my
dream. Why couldn't you play our song? Why couldn't you play it? I wouldn't have
cared if you murdered it like the other one. If you had just tried, you bastard,
it would have been nice.
I always woke up crying because I couldn't even remember our song. The room
would be spinning and I'd look around and see my kids asleep in the corner, see
the piles of cans they had collected. All the dreams made my bedroom look so
much more real. The ceiling fan that I had never fixed hung over the bed like
the claw of a giant bird trying to get at me from up on the roof. There are
times like that, when I wake up after a good weekend sleep and I think I can
remember the first night with Helena. I think I can actually see what dress she
wore, and feel her smooth calves in my hands. And a faint melody pulling at me
from way back there. But when I pick up my sax it's gone like light when hit a
Then I realized that I had to get back to our first night somehow. If I could
just remember the first night, the night I blacked out, I could remember our
song. It was probably a song on the radio. The more I thought about it the more
I knew that there must have been a song on the radio that night. I even thought
I could half remember it--da-da-dee-da-doo-- but I think it was the kind of
memory you create after you've thought too much.
There weren't as many criminals at Vanity Fields when I first started, and I
did a good job of keeping them out at first. But then there weren't any shopping
carts with gardenias in them either. And my booth was clean. Everyday I cleaned
it. Now, there's piles of magazines and the busted radio, the coffee stains and
cigarette burns everywhere. And now the prostitutes have made Vanity Fields
their stomping ground. Of course I have to sweep them out whenever a resident
complains, but they don't complain as much as you'd think. When I was a kid this
was the place to live, but it's not anymore--even though it beats my shithole
down on Eighth.
So one night this resident complains about some prostitutes being down by his
apartment. He's this older guy with glasses and he walks right up to my booth
and knocks on the window while I'm asleep. Helena said I always slept with my
eyes open, so I guess that's why I still have a job at Vanity Fields.
The old guy leads me around the corner to building H, one of the ones I can't
see from my booth. He points to two girls in miniskirts and heels. They're
leaning against a Mercury. I'll take care of it, sir, I say. You'd better damn
well take care of it, he says, I'll be watching you from upstairs. I watch him
go upstairs. Building H, I think, is full of assholes.
I know one of the two girls. They call her Lenny. Lenny, I say, this old guy
wants you girls to leave. We don't got to leave, she says, Victoria here is a
resident of Vanity Fields. Yeah, Victoria says, I'm a resident of Vanity Fields.
She pulls out her key and waves it at me. Victoria, says Lenny, this here is
Mosquito Nose, the friendly security guard. Why do they call you Mosquito Nose?
Victoria asks. Because of this, I say, and I shine my Mag-Lite on my face. Isn't
it weird? Lenny asks. No, Victoria says, It's beautiful.
Victoria and I talk for a while. The orangeish-pink streetlights make looping
shadows across her face. Her hair is black and long, halfway down her back. It's
hard to look at her. She reminds me of you-know-who. I look around, expecting
Helena to be behind a dark bush. I listen in between our words and I hear
someone's radio from building G, but I don't know the song.
Victoria invites me to her place for a drink after I get off work. I have
about two hours before I have to be at the cereal factory so I accept. I
wouldn't have but she said my mosquito nose was beautiful. I walk up to her door
and knock. She lets me in.
Her apartment is clean. There are tons of books and magazines around, but
they're stacked up nice and neat. She pours us some brandy into two large
glasses and I swirl it around and around the same way she does. I'm still sleepy
on account of the old guy with the glasses from building H, so I don't say much.
I look at a painting on the wall of a tiger in a forest. The tiger's eyes seem
to watch me.
We start to talk a little about our families, and I can tell she's sleepy
too. She turns on the stereo as we talk and I memorize every song we hear so
that I can know our song if we're ever to have a song together. After an hour my
head is full, so I ask her if I can borrow a piece of paper and a pencil. Why?,
she asks. I want to write down all the songs, I say. What for? She asks. I
forgot a song once, can't get it out of my mind that I forgot it. I don't want
to forget another one. What song did you forget? She asks. Our song, my dead
wife's and my song, I say.
She finds me a pen and paper, and I write down all the songs that've been
played since we began talking.
I can help you remember, she says. What? I ask. I can help you remember your
dead wife's and your song, if you want to, she says. You can? I ask. Yes, she
says, I know someone who is psychic and she can tell you your song.
Helena was a lot prettier than Victoria is, but I started spending my two
hours between jobs at her apartment. One Sunday she takes me to see her psychic.
We walk in and the music is real weird, and there are purple curtains all
over the place. Even though it's July, there's a fire burning in the fireplace.
The psychic lady asks us if we want some tea. No, thanks, I say. How ‘bout
you, Victoria? she asks. Yes, ma'am. I'd like some tea, Victoria says. When the
psychic lady goes to get the tea Victoria whispers real close in my ear. Whatcha
gonna do with that song when you find out what it is? She asks. Make it mine, I
say. Make it mine.
The psychic lady comes back with the tea. Sit down, she says, and we do.
You're looking for something, aren't you? She asks. Yes, I say. Does it have
something to do with a girl? Yes, I say. Not this girl. No, I say. A girl you
lost? Yes, I say. What is that on your nose? she asks. A birthmark, I say. Is
the girl named Mary? No, I say. Are you sure? She asks. Yes, sure. I say. Why
don't you tell me what it is then? Okay, I say, My wife Helena died of a
methadone overdose and I can't remember our song. Your song? She asks. Yes, I
say, she came to me in a dream and she said I should have played our song
instead of Stars and Stripes Forever at her funeral. But I don't know what our
song is, because I drank too much spiced rum that night. The psychic lady thinks
for about two minutes. That explains it, she says. The Wind Cries Mary!
So I learn The Wind Cries Mary, which is real tough to play on the saxophone
unless you're good. But I practice over at Victoria's apartment and with my kids
on the weekends. Victoria cries every time she hears it. My kids dance around me
as I play. It takes two months, but I finally make it mine.
Helena's grave marker is in the corner of the cemetery. There are trees
planted in straight lines that lead off into the horizon. The sky is the same
kind of gray as my Wakenhut uniform. It's Saturday, and my sax is around my
neck. I take a sip from the bottle of spiced rum and I sit down in front of her
gravestone. Oct. 13, 1968 - Jun 19, 1997. I play our song as loud as I can belt
it. When I finish I'm out of breath and I take another sip and say, How was
I turn around and there's Helena, more beautiful than ever or I've had too
much spiced rum again. She has her hands on her hips and her hair is straighter
and much shorter than I remember. She's wearing a flame-orange dress.
Her hands are on her hips, and I know what that means.
You didn't like the way I played our song? I ask. That wasn't our song, you
fool! She yells. Whose song was it? I ask. Hell if I know. That psychic bitch
stole your money, Cole. So what's our song then? I ask. I'm not going to tell
you now. You're hanging around with some whore! She yelled. Then she grabbed me
by the collar. You keep my kids away from that bitch, understand? Yes, I say.
She starts to leave. Please, I say, I just want to know our song. Just tell
me and I'll play. Even if I don't know it, just hum how it goes so I can play it
She turns around. Forget it, Cole. Just forget it.
My name's Mosquito Nose, I say. Stop callin' me Cole.
Your name is Cole, she says, being all gentle for once, and I'd get that
thing removed if I was you. You ain't gonna have it in Heaven anyway. And you
sure ain't going to have that bottle.
She leaves me in the graveyard, with my rum and my sax and hell if I know
what she wants me to do. She walks down the straight line of trees until all I
can see is her dress moving slowly away like a fuse. So that's it. I play The
Wind Cries Mary until it's time for me to head of to Vanity Fields. Just one
barber to pay off and I can try sleep again.
C. Abe Gaustad is a student in the M.F.A. program at the University of
Memphis, and like everyone else, he's hard at work on a novel. This is his first