Note: in 2005 The Swamp changed its format, removing previous stories. Here is its rendition of "Banshee," a Skeeter Kitefly excerpt.
The night after John Lennon was killed, Peyton heard a scratching at his door and there she was. Looking brittle of body, pasty of face, hair like black cobwebs--remorseful maybe, but uncommunicative. Where was she living now? What was she doing for money? Had she gone back to her "Semibrokenoff" ex-fiancé, and exactly what part had he played (did he play) in all this?
Just that generic hold-me gesture.
Thus she came and went that winter, like something out of unhappy Celtic legend: a muted banshee who slipped away before the dawn. Peyton took to staying home every evening he wasn't in the classroom, abandoning all pastimes in case she might show up; though when she did, he felt oppressed by futility. Playing Pietà: Joyce huddled in his lap under a quilt, watching Late Late Shows with her face pressed against his neck, shivering. They saw several old movies in this manner--The Lady from Shanghai, The Glass Menagerie, Of Human Bondage--none of them very cheerful. Heavy flicks.
What reinforcements could he enlist? Two, three times he urged a return to therapy, a detox center, a hospital; but away she would run and not come back for days or weeks. Shouldn't he be taking a firmer stand, make her stop somehow, have a straitjacket handy and the phone predialed: I've got her! She's here! Come and take her away ha-ha to the funny farm before she breaks loose and vanishes again!
God damn it, he hadn't asked to be cast in some ongoing madness-takes-its-toll. There was a fine line between involvement and obsession, and Peyton didn't want either side of it.
There was also the obscure fear that They would cite him somehow as being liable, culpable, blameworthy--you mean you knew she had this problem, yet you stood idly by and did nothing? (I tried! I offered--) You tried! If you'd at least doodled on the test paper, we'd give you some credit--
Another night of heavy flicks: Friday the 13th of February, Peyton in the tub when he heard a scratching as of someone's claws a-catching at his chamber door. Towel wrapped around him, he ran to answer; truly your forgiveness I implore--
She stood at his front window, staring out between Corinthian columns, while Peyton dressed and explained that she'd caught him on the verge of making his radio debut. A.K.A. Enterprises was suffering a financial crisis, wild schemes had been hatched to stave off bankruptcy, the latest taking place this midnight on Sargent Poach's Scrambled Segue Show, broadcast live on KLOT-FM.
"The Mighty Yellow Tee, you know... We need every last bit of ballyhoopla we can get... I think I will wear a necktie, for moral support... Keeping busy, are you?... Joyce? Still with us?"
He came out of the bathroom in some haste. She remained at the window, her back to him, it still retaining its voluptuous curvature even while the rest of her ebbed and waned.
"Ah... I realize this is radio we're talking about, but... how do I look?"
She turned around.
Peyton had grown somewhat accustomed to her hollow brink-of-drowning eyes, but tonight he was struck by how infinitely dry they seemed: all tears shed. The very pupils losing their Glocka Morra glint, dissolving into the irises to form two black holes--
He changed his mind, he wouldn't go, Bonzo and the Muffin Man could handle it without him, he would stay here with her--
And then; and then.
A lass and a lack.
Like that scene at the end of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter hide in a cave from the pod-people who've replaced their friends. Dana's exhausted, dozes for just a second... and awakes taken over, body snatched, having become a pod-person with coldblooded eyes in a blank masklike face, one of the chillingest images in Peyton's picturewatching memory: you're next! you're next!
"No, you go on." She stepped forward, reached up to tighten his tie, settle his collar. "I'll come back later."
He might have invited her to come with him, or to wait for him there, but he didn't. Considered asking again for a current address or phone number; thought better of that too.
She walked him down to the silver Porsche, grimaced at it, declined his offer to drop her anywhere. They embraced briefly, along former lines: her arms around his neck, his hands upon her rump.
"Take care of yourself, Ms. Finian."
"I will," she said.
So he left her; and they parted.
The Scrambled Segue endeavor did not pan out. Sargent Poach kicked things off by suggesting the No-Nazz do a hardboiled exposé of his invisible parrot, Egbert Soufflé, and went on about how morose Egbert had been since his lover Omelette flew off--
"--to that big cage lined with newspapers in the sky! Egbert never drinks on-air, but he's frequently hung over--isn't that right, Egbert?" [Pained parrot-voice: "Squawwggkh."] "So let's humor him and all you last-minute Valentine shoppers with something new from Gino Vannelli, called 'Living Inside Myself...'"
* * * * *
Act as though nothing's changed, as if the No-Nazz enjoys unlimited life potential. Stroll on over to the campus Book & Supply Store, lay in extra bristol board and India ink for drawing all the cartoons off the top of your head. Every one a guaranteed chucklebuster! "Claptrap Gives You Mental Clap." "What You Need Is a Long Ocean Voyage." "Okay, Okay! You're Not an Asshole--"
Handing the cashier your Mastercard, she handing it back with a headshake: "Sorry, you're over your limit." Astonishment, impossibility, must be a screw-up on somebody else's part--the students in line behind you clearing yeah-sure throats--
To the phone then with an assumption of dignity, calling up Mastercard--yessir, over your limit--must be a stupid computer error, of course. If you'd learned nothing else from Lucky Pierre, it was "Lose if you have to--hock what you must--but always pay most of your debts, my boy, and that way they'll let you keep playing."
Demand a statement achtung tout de suite; find one already in your mailbox, from the bank. Good news here, at least; interest rates on savings were going through the roof and so too, cartoon-style, was the top of Peyton's head when he opened the envelope and found his account cleaned out empty.
Goggle and boggle: two computer errors? Somebody impersonating him? Some--
When had she managed it?
Ample opportunity, over the past year; access to all his vitals; clerical expertise. Perhaps she'd been biding her time for months.
He signed affidavits, closed his savings account, cut up his Mastercard; did without from then on. Did without many things--such as his silver Porsche, lost before long to the repo man. Why not report her to the police? "My toothead ex-girlfriend ripped me off royally in order to obtain controlled substances. No, I have no idea where she and her sweet ass are, which makes it kind of hard (you must admit it's difficult) to prosecute the latter off the former--"
She hadn't gone so far as the sung-of Mary Lou, who stole Bob Seger's watch and chain and EV'rything--but that might have been because Peyton owned no gewgaws. Otherwise they too could have been heisted and handed over to some Semibrokenoff entrepreneur.
The No-Nazz folded; A.K.A. Enterprises scattered; the Mercury Theater showed Atlantic City, and there to take your mind off reality was Burt Lancaster selling cocaine when he wasn't watching Susan Sarandon anoint her Renoiresque chest with lemon juice.
And yet there were depths still to be charged.
At the steamy end of May, having just given a final exam, he went back to Saturn Street to change his sweated-through shirt. Coming down the hall he heard a Marley's Ghosty sound of dragging chains, followed by a tremendous BOOM that turned out to be his disconnected air conditioner hitting the floor. Deposited there by Joyce Finian, who must've had a key cut by hook or by crook--Let my love open the door--except that a sudden wind blew through the gaping hole in Peyton's window frame and slammed the door shut behind him, giving them all a start.
Joyce in tough-chick clothes, no makeup, eyes no longer half-shut but wider-open than he'd ever seen them and not with love either, nor with fright. Beside her was a handtruck, and loading the air conditioner onto it was an undeniably beautiful woman, wholesome-buttery like the young Shirley Jones of Oklahoma! or Carousel, but with a top-sergeant's haircut.
"Yikes," she said at the sight of Peyton's perspiring wrath.
"I suppose you think you're going to steal that now, and turn IT into snow!" he thundered.
But those were the only words he would get in, as the wide-eyed Ms. Finian opened her mouth.
Molly Bloom ends Ulysses with a monologue; Joyce Finian took her banshee leave (and Peyton's air conditioner) after a diatribe. A chew-up-and-spit-out tirade too, executed as if by an etcher's scribe with a diamond point for engraving the finest of lines.
She didn't need "snow" anymore, she'd found her true being, her true self, she'd been deluded by Peyton but knew better now, knew him for what he was: a gross fat man who'd reduced her to a helpless slobbering whore night after night, making her feel defaced and dismembered and why? why had he done it? because he was a fraud and a sham and a very bad man who'd never loved her not once, who wasn't capable of loving anyone, of doing anything but strip her naked and devour her, stab her and shoot her with his rotten Thing that would serve him right if it shriveled up and withered on him, women were far better off by themselves, with themselves, for themselves and they were taking this air conditioner not only because she'd earned it and deserved to have it but as partial reparation for all the outrageous atrocities inflicted on Joyce and womankind, all the misery, the nausea, it made her sick when she had to let him kiss her, she only did it because he drove her crazy, and afterwards she always had to wipe her mouth, that's right, WIPE HER MOUTH--
Even then, through all the diamond-pointed crosshatchery, he realized this last bit had been swiped from Bette Davis's conniption fit in Of Human Bondage.
And, like gimpy Leslie Howard, he could do no more than dumbly take it. Too late for sarcastic ripostes; no swordplay could parry her perforations as his vessel cracked from side to side, twisting in the venomous wind, eyes ears nose throat suffocatingly congested--
"YOU PRICK," she hissed.
And vanished, she and face-averted Shirley Jones, together with their handtruck and the a/c à trois.
Then, at last, all was darkness and silence.
* * * * *
Change the locks. Wedge the windows when not there. Bar the door at all times. Make no effort to replace the air conditioner but do without, do without. Answer the phone only to hear It's about your parents, Mr. Derente, and I'm afraid the news isn't good--in fact, it's quite bad...
Of course it is. Of course they are.
And: at least this way I won't have to tell them about Joyce.
Then: could she have somehow been the cause of Lucky Pierre and Antoinette's circuslike demise? But no, that would be impossible, unless she was fiendishly clever by half.
Yet: why doubt that? Had he himself not been targeted from the start, turned into a shaven-and-shorn patsy? Hadn't her every gesture been calculated beforehand, her every step plotted in advance, right down to that shivering on his lap, face pressed into his neck...
No: it was a classic Magus case, straight out of John Fowles. Right from the very beginning she'd been putting him on with her sweet twofacedness, her ducks-and-titters and tee hee hees--
--could you fake a blush?
Like Miniver Cheevy, he thought and thought and kept on thinking; coughed and cursed and called it fate, and kept on drinking. Like Egbert Soufflé, he drank alone a lot that bleak dehydrated summer.
What about seeking counseling? Forget it; the funny-farmers needn't institutionalize him just yet. He did accept a prescription of little yellow pills, handy for deadening the senses. And the appetites: off came his Lumpy Humpty Dumpty weight, twenty pounds by Labor Day, thirty more by New Year's.
The pointless nature of It All. First one, then a couple. Initial promise of joy followed by grief and pain. The best-laid schemes, the best-schemed lays resulting in hearts broken, spindled, shredded, mulched. So why keep struggling? Why not commit some form of suicide--if not physical, then by becoming a sapphophobe, a misogynist, an insulated all-around misanthrope?
But even that was denied him.
His folks' estate not yet settled, he had to escape from haunted Saturn Street "straight into Uranus," a crackerbox walkup by the Interstate onramp. One sweltering August night he was packing his books in soggy cartons while listening to "She's Got Bette Davis Eyes" for the umpty-umpth time, when suddenly there came a scratching--
--Please. Is Joyce there?
--No! Go away.
--Please. Is Joyce there?
--NO!! Go away!
And they might have kept that up for quite a long time had Peyton not wrenched the door open and found Young Shirley Jones, looking wholesome-buttery beautiful and heartbroken.
Joyce had disappeared from their place. No word, no note, money missing. Shirley had searched everywhere, asked everyone else, found not a clue.
--Join the club.
--No, she talked about that--about you--
--I'll bet she did.
--No no, no really, I think--I mean--she felt--about what she said--when she thought about it--she got so... that's one reason I was hoping... she might've come back here... to you.
All things considered, it didn't much matter whether Joyce had ever loved him, or Young Shirley either--in a way that would be far worse, her loving either or both of them, and they unable to save her from her jitters and restlessness and insecurity; from living in dread of what the darkness hides.
We can't be responsible for that.
But if only they'd shown more patience, taken more upon themselves, maybe...
Peyton retrieved a bottle from a soggy halfpacked carton and he and Shirley shared it, hand to hand, sitting shoulder to shoulder on the carpet in that accursed hot apartment, mourning together.
It was very late and very dark when the bottle got emptied, but they continued to avert faces from each other as they wiped the moisture from their eyes. She offered him the air conditioner back; he said no, you might as well keep it; she handed him a scrap with her number, asking him please to call if he ever heard anything. He never did; so he never had.
And that was the last time he'd been that close to a woman, to another human being, to anybody, till a couple of years later when Skeeter Kitefly came skating out of nowhere to sweep him off his feet and bloody his nose...
Note: Other online and in-print Skeeter selections appear in Ten Thousand Monkeys, The Sidewalk's End, Unlikely Stories, Entropic Desires, Rhapsoidia, and Lynx Eye.