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C. Abe Gaustad

Mosquito Nose

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 their ears.

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 switch.

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 that?


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 for you.

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 published story.

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