Short Fiction 1st Place - Literary LEO 2015

Jan 28, 2015 at 5:16 pm

The Kind of Story a Coat Tells

by Kaitlyn Burd

Lucy sits on the lip of the bathtub, smoking a cigarette out a window of an apartment that is not her own. A soft knocking interrupts the comparison she’s drawing between herself and a radio broadcaster who plays songs once everyone has already fallen asleep.

“Can I come in?”

Exhaling, Lucy leans to unlock the door. Perched in this porcelain bathroom in her green and gold dress, she seems to the man in the doorway to be staging a rebellion of color. She is more dressed up than he is used to seeing her.

“How did you know I’d be in here?”

Sounds of the cocktail party slip into the room with him. Shutting the door and re-locking it, Hugh admits, “I didn’t. I looked everywhere else first.”

“How did you know I hadn’t left?”

“Your coat is still on the arm of the sofa.”

“My coat,” Lucy nods. “An over-sight.”

“I took it as an invitation.” Hugh sits atop the lid of the toilet. “Do you want to be left alone?”

“No, I just wanted you to leave so that then I didn’t have to be the first person to go.”

“Neither of us can leave yet. Jake hasn’t even gotten here, and he’s the whole point of this thing.”

“I know. You’re right, but this is a sorry state of affairs.” Lucy drags her cigarette down to the filter. Because the distance between them is so small, her knees bump against Hugh’s as she leans to toss her cigarette butt out the window.

“Why didn’t we just tell Jake we’d meet him at the bar?” she asks.

“I came for the free alcohol.”

“Yeah, I guess I did too.”

“Lend me a cigarette?”

Lucy pulls two cigarettes from her pack.

Before she can reach for her lighter, Hugh produces one from his shirt pocket.

“Do you know that Tim Dana just tried to quote Nietzsche to me?”

“God, is Tim here?”

Lucy nods. “And he got the quotation wrong.”

“What did he say?”

“Supposing truth was a woman -- what then?”

“Did you correct him?”

“Yes, I said, ‘Supposing truth IS a woman, Tim,’ and then he just chuckled and said, ‘Yes, think about that, Lucy.’ Oh, and he has a new satchel.”

“Tim Dana and the infamous satchel,” Hugh shakes his head. “Do you know he apparently has a part-time job at an ice cream parlor -- Jake overheard him taking a call from his manager one night when they were out for drinks.”

“Is that why he always wears his hair slicked back into a ponytail? To adhere to health code regulations?”

“A likely theory,” Hugh smiles, leaning his knee against Lucy’s with a bit more strength.

Cigarette only half smoked, Lucy considers it for a moment before flicking it out the window. Hugh wishes she would have stubbed it first.

“Did someone just queue up every album by Astrud Gilberto?” she asks, hearing the melancholy croon begin yet another song on the jukebox.

“Seems like it,” he says, then after a drag he grins and admits, “Then I queued Harry Nilsson’s version of ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ seven times in a row.”

“You did not.”

“I did. Emptied my pockets of all their change to do it.”

Lucy’s smile is brilliant. “That is going to be so annoying.”

Wanting that smile to stay, Hugh defends himself: “Well, it’s annoying to have a jukebox installed in your apartment. I mean, this is the third floor for Christ’s sake. How did they even get it up here? And you still have to pay money to get it to play songs even though it’s owned by -- what’s the name of the guy who’s throwing this party again?”

“I forget. It might also be Harry.”

“Why not?”

“Well, at least he doesn’t have a money jar next to the drinks like people used to at Davidson parties.”

“If I’d had the foresight, I would have brought a bottle in here with me.” He gets to the filter of his cigarette and stubs it out on the edge of the window sill before dropping it outside too.

Lucy hums, moving her legs over the lip of the tub so that her heels are placed at its empty bottom. Knees no longer touching his, her back faces him.

“Want me to go out there and try to retrieve one?”

Lucy looks over her shoulder at Hugh for a second, as if considering his person, not his question. “No, just stay,” she says. “Unless you’d rather have a drink.”

“I’m fine.”

Nearly half of ‘Who Needs Forever?’ plays before Lucy repeats, “supposing truth is a woman -- what then?” She doesn’t look at Hugh as she says it, but he still responds, “Then I’d like to undress her.”

He watches her chin dip toward her shoulder, as if she were about to say something, but she doesn’t, and he can’t imagine her expression.

“I think I want to move,” she finally announces, picking up Harry’s shampoo bottle.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, we’re twenty-five -- ”

“I’m twenty-six now actually.”

“Oh, right. April tenth.”

“So you did remember.”

Lucy replaces the shampoo bottle on the corner of the tub.

“I think I need to go somewhere that I don’t know,” she tells the shower tiles, “I want to see myself figure things out on my own. I don’t have that here, and I think it is keeping me from feeling self-sufficient.”

“How’s that?”

“Everything I love about this city I have loved in the company of others.”

“Others?”

Ignoring the question, which isn’t really a question at all, Lucy asks, “Do you feel self-sufficient?”

“Sure,” he tells her shoulder blade. He can’t take it. “Will you turn around again? You look like you’re about to take a bath, and I can’t tell what you’re thinking.”

“Maybe that is what I’m thinking.”

“Oh.” The sensation comes over Hugh that he will later replay this part of the conversation, and he knows that lying in bed some night -- away from this moment -- he will come up with the words he should say right now.

Instead of saying anything, though -- without really considering it -- Hugh finds himself standing. He reaches over her shoulder, and turns on the faucet. The sound of running water muffles Astrud.

Lucy finally turns to look at him once more. A hand drops to slip off her shoes.

“Will you unzip me?”

Hugh moves his hands to her dress but waits a moment before drawing the zipper down.

“It’s not like you haven’t seen me naked before,” Lucy prompts him.

“I wasn’t hesitating,” he says, in one motion revealing her spine to the porcelain room.

Pulling off her dress and tossing it to the ground, Lucy becomes negative space, her skin blending into the white around her. There are only dashes of color -- an eyebrow, her lips, that scar on her thigh, her nipples -- and her navy underwear, thrown to join the dress. As she bends to put in the stopper in the tub, her ribs reveal themselves beneath the flesh of her back. What would have to stretch to reveal the parts of her less familiar than ribs?

“Do you want me to wash your hair?” Hugh asks.

“My hair is clean.”

“Does that matter?”

“That is the question.” Lucy sits back in the bathtub, stretching out her legs as the water begins to rise around her. Her body wants to float, but there isn’t enough space in this tub for her to become buoyant.

“Will you just put your head under the faucet?”

Lucy holds his gaze for a moment but doesn’t move. Only when Hugh takes hold of the shampoo bottle does she comply, shifting forward so that her head can bend under the faucet. Hugh’s hand moves to the base of her skull, does not leave until her hair is completely wet. But Lucy shifts away from his touch once the water has covered her, sitting in the middle of the tub with her legs folded onto themselves.

Hugh turns off the faucet, squeezes Harry’s shampoo into the palm of his hand. Placing his hands back on Lucy’s head, he turns her to face him as he begins to massage the shampoo into her scalp. There are goosebumps on her arms, perhaps because she is cold. He is unsure, but his hands are steady as they comb through the dark tangles of her hair.

“I lied,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as self-sufficient.”

“Why not?”

Hugh takes a moment, watching his thumbs disappear and reappear in the whorls of hair around her temples. He has always loved that she is her most honest, her most vulnerable, in her asking of questions, but before he can answer her, there is a rapping at the door that makes them both turn toward it.

“Hey, is anyone in there?”

Hugh and Lucy make eye contact. They recognize the voice.

“Take a guess,” Lucy says, eyes still on Hugh.

“Okay, sorry,” Tim says, but instead of leaving he adds, “Only, it seems like the bathroom has been occupied for a while now.”

“There’s another bathroom down the hall,” Lucy responds.

“There is?” Hugh whispers.

“Great,” Tim shouts. “Take your precious time, then.”

“Of course not,” Lucy whispers back.

They hear retreating footsteps. “You know that means he’s just going to come back in a minute.”

“Then we will have to tell Mr. Ice Cream Parlor to split,” Lucy shrugs and smiles at Hugh. It’s a triumphant smile, mischievous, and it is a smile he has imagined on her face often but which has become unfamiliar to him. This might be because it has been quite some time since he has seen her face at all.

“I don’t think I’m self-sufficient,” Hugh returns to her question, “because it takes talking to people for me to know what I really feel and think about things. Even when I’m alone, I sometimes imagine myself having a conversation with someone else as I work through my thoughts.”

“But maybe that’s just because you’re used to talking through things with other people. Our thoughts follow the grooves we carve for them.”

The rapping at the door returns. “Hey, are you still in there?”

“Excuse me?” Hugh turns to the door, both irritated and relieved to have the interruption.

Tim, clearly unsure of how to navigate his current situation, hesitates before admitting, “Look man, I really have to use the bathroom.”

“Me too,” Hugh dips his hands into the water, before pouring what he has collected over Lucy’s head. Sensing Tim still on the other side of the door, Hugh adds, “There’s another bathroom down the hall.”

“No there’s not.”

“Yes there is. It’s in the master bedroom. You have to go through the walk in closet to get to it.” Hugh continues to pour handfuls of water on Lucy’s head, watching water drip from her earlobe to be collected on her collarbone.

Hearing his hurried departure, Hugh grins while Lucy shakes her head under his handfuls of water, but before they can say more, the rapping at the door returns, more urgent than ever.

“For fuck’s sake, Tim,” Hugh turns toward the door. “When a door is locked, that means it’s occupied.”

“Hugh is that you?” Jake’s voice comes from the other side of the door.

Lucy and Hugh look to each other.

“Jake, it’s about time,” Hugh says.

“What do you mean? I’ve been here for a half-hour.”

“You have?”

“Yes. What are you doing in there anyway?”

Lucy kneels to lean her arms out the tub. She is reaching for a towel.

“What do you think?”

Hugh takes the towel himself but does not hand it to her.

“Okay, well I look like an ass shouting at a locked door right now so just hurry it up and get out here. Some wise guy put on ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ a bunch of the times, and we can’t take it, so we’re going to the bar. I just ordered a cab.”

Lucy goes to take the towel from him, but he resists her. Water drips from her elbows onto his pants. She puts enough strength into her pulling that if he stopped his own resistance he could slip into the tub with her.

“All right. I will be out in a minute.”

“Hugh,” Lucy whispers.

“Okay, man,” Jake gives the door two excited pats. “Oh, and hey, have you seen Lucy?”

Hugh looks to her. “The eternal question,” he says. He hands her the towel.

“I know, right. Her coat’s still here though.”

Lucy takes the towel to her hair and begins drying it so that he face disappears in its folds.

Hugh can look at her with impunity as he says, “She probably just forgot it. I’ll be out in a second, though, and we can look for her.”

“Right,” Jake agrees, and he leaves them to listen to ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ playing from the room outside the door. How many times had it already played without them noticing?

Hugh doesn’t know, but by the time Lucy has taken the towel from her head he knows he can no longer look at her as he was looking. “You want to go out there and meet him.”

“You don’t?”

Hugh reaches his hand into the bath and pulls the stopper out of the drain before picking up Lucy’s underwear off the floor and handing it to her.

Neither will think about alternatives to what could happen until after it already hasn’t.

Lucy stands, gets out the tub, wraps the towel around her body. Her underwear is in her hand. She smiles, holding it up.

“Look at us,” she says.

“If that’s what you want,” Hugh replies, looking at her.

Lucy bends, becoming temporarily compact as she slips her underwear up her legs. Then she retrieves her dress, zipping it herself.

“Ready?” she asks.

“I’m following you,” he gestures toward the door.

Hand on the doorknob, Lucy turns to look at him once more. “I’m glad you found me in here.”

By the times that they emerge from the bathroom the jukebox is quiet, and everyone has already left.

“Jake must have taken the cab,” Hugh says.

“I guess we should just meet him at the bar then.”

Reaching for the coat on the arm of the sofa, Hugh hands it to Lucy.

“Hold on,” she says as she takes it only to reach into a pocket. She pulls out a coin, slips it into the machine. It is easy to queue the song she wants. Hand against its glass pane, Lucy can see in it something of the reflection of things. She sees herself, looking golden in the jukebox’s glow as Harry Nilsson sings, “Come on baby, show me how you feel.”