Music of the Write: “Shutter Island” by Jessie Reyez

I saw Vogue included Jessie Reyez in their list of “Bright Young Things: 2020 Rising Stars” and was reminded of how important her debut single, “Shutter Island,” has been to formulating a number of characters.

“For a second I forgot I was a bad bitch. Begging you to stay became a habit” — that’s Axiom (whom you’ve met), as well as Pru to some extent, and a new character I haven’t published here yet. Of course, I realize that it’s also me: A fact I’m grappling with while also reflecting on a number of other things about my love, professional and creative life at the moment…

Axiom Thorne: Before there was Ansel

I’m sure by now you’ve inferred that I got my warlockian powers just in time for Ansel to mysteriously disappear from the landscape of my life. You forget: I’m the one painting this picture, and it’s not a landscape, but a self-portrait, which means you get to see exactly what I want you to see the way I want you to see it.

If you squint and look past the last layer of oils I smeared on the canvas, you’ll see another figure. Stephan, the baker’s boy. He was beautiful, and he hated me.

No, that’s wrong. He liked me, but in the way you like having an old scab ready to pop off the skin: Something to pick at.

If it wasn’t tripping me in the mud, it was baking pine needles into a cookie that he slipped into our weekly order with a note that said “For sweet Axiom, Love S.” Mamma said it was because he liked me. I still say it was because he was an asshole.

But the thing about picking at scabs is that you eventually peel off all the crusty, curling skin and hit fresh flesh underneath. And when you do, it bleeds.

We were playing along Bounty’s Creek. “Playing” might be the wrong word, as my version of it was watching Stephan pluck tiny fish out from the shallows and place them on rocks to flip, flop and bake in the hot sun. I was entranced, not repulsed, by the way the light glinted off their scales, almost strobing as they danced away their last breaths. But Stephan couldn’t care less, sweeping the dead bodies back into the water to make room for his next victims. Whenever he’d pivot around, the light would flash off the gilded viper fang that hang around his neck — a trophy from a kill, he’d boast, even though we all knew it was purchased off one of the roving traders that came through town.

I must have stepped on a twig or sneezed, because at some point he noticed me standing in the brush, a voyeur to his routine pescacide.

“Freak,” he spat at me, the one word stinging my ears.

Says the boy killing fish for fun, I now wish I had retorted.

This was about two weeks after I had first encountered the Man in the Scarf and Diamond Shoes and he had tapped me on both cheeks and told me I was magic. The tattoo on my ankle at that point looked like a couple of overgrown freckles.

So how was I to know that Stephan had said the magic word?

Just after the last fish on the rock flipped its last flop, the sun grew dark, as if a cloud had crossed it. Looking up at the brilliant blue sky, I saw instead that a mass of dark speckles had gathered above us.

Stephan let out a loud swear, and I turned to see if he was looking at the sky, too. Instead, his eyes were trained at the ground, where it looked like a landslide had started at my feet, slipping down the bank towards him. Upon closer inspection, however, it wasn’t dirt but thousands of gleaming beetles clamoring over each other to get to the water. But then I realized the water wasn’t their target.

The baker’s boy didn’t dance like the dying fish. Instead, he screamed, and the bugs from above funneled into his open mouth while the bugs from below coated his skin. It was funny, really, watching a once-human body become a wriggling mass of black exoskeletons clicking and clacking against each other. Once they had had their fill, they collapsed to the ground and skittered away into nothingness.

I stepped to the edge of the water. There wasn’t even a smudge of flour where Stephan had been standing, as if the beetles had just carried him away. But there was one thing: a sliver of something shiny poking out from the silt, just past where the water lapped against the shore. It was the gold viper fang from around his neck, still attached to the chain.

Plucking it from the muck, I polished it on the hem of my shirt. Without a look back, I trudged up the bank to the high road as I clasped it around my neck.

“These are my roaring, roaring 20s”

He looked like John Mulaney, and I kissed him — not at midnight on New Years, but sometime around 12:38 a.m.

At least, I think he looked like John Mulaney. That could have been the gin martinis making my eyes thirstier. He was taller than me, even when I stood out like a sore toe in a thigh-high stiletto boots, and had the same long, 1940s face with the added charm of a small gap between his front teeth. Dark V-neck sweater. Clear liquor in a glass. Can of Red Bull because he asked the bartender for it. A medical degree in the works.

I though he was named Ken and from Philly, but when he gave me his number, learned he was actually named Phil and from Kentucky. Blame the gin and the number of times he twirled me around the dance floor like it was 1920, not 2020.

That’s what happens in a time machine. Through a subtle entrance sandwiched between a CVS and parking garage, down a flight of stairs, and we had slipped a century away. A big band greeted us from the main stage upon our arrival. Charlie Chaplin illuminated the library wing as a woman swung from a suspended hoop behind a popcorn vendor in plum brocade. Tasseled burlesque dancers performed behind crimson curtains in another side room. The stage was flanked by “Adults Only!” peep show nickelodeon boxes — dip your face into the viewing window and see Mae Dix slide off her stockings. Lift your face up, and three women in beaded flapper gowns might tickle your nose with their cigarette holders as they pass by, balancing delicate coupe glasses in their silk gloves.

Follow one of those women, and she was likely to lead you to the barber in a black vest and wax mustache, prepped with a straight razor and cream for any lady who’d like to get the closest leg shave imaginable while reclining in a chair in the middle of the main dancefloor. Exhibition at its finest, as the women would tilt their heads back with a smile, drop-pearl headpieces dangling in the light, as the barber ran the blade up their shins (though never past their knees).

At 1:30 a.m. the overhead lights came on, reminding us that we had rung in 2020 and had to return to the world of rideshares, drunken text messages, braggadocio Instagram posts, disposable fashion, Monster energy drinks, microwaveable breakfast sandwiches, scheduled blog posts, Netflix accounts, Venmo requests, yoga classes, allergy pills, teeth whitening, chipped nail polish, and Lululemon merchandise exchange lines. I had lost track of Phil from Kentucky — or was it Ken from Philly? — and had gained clear consciousness of the pain in my feet from five solid hours of dancing.

One 30-minute Lyft ride in a Nissan Altima, and I was home, about 10 minutes from the speakeasy supper club on a normal night, ready for the roar in my ears to subside for just a few hours so I could get some sleep and start 2020 well-rested and ready to dance the nights away all over again.

A flapper in black and pearls sits in a barber’s chair in the middle of a club dance floor as a 1920s-styled barber shaves her legs.

A flapper gets her legs shaved at Untitled Supper Club’s “Bootleggers Ball” on New Years Eve 2020

Music of the Write: Top 5 Songs of 2019

Short entry this week to make room for my longer piece next week. This year I listened to a lot of music, discovered myriad new artists, and wrote a ton while doing both. Check out the top songs I found helped the words fall out this year:

*Note that these are songs I found this year, not necessarily released in 2019.

1. “Blood // Water” by grandson.

Call this the biggest find of the year: Jordan Edward Benjamin, aka “grandson.” “Blood // Water” isn’t my favorite of the political chainsaw rock-tronic he produces, but it resulted in the final action scene of Nobody’s Hero and acts as soundtrack to our Dungeons & Dragons Byssia campaign.

2. “Prophet” by King Princess

To be fair, King Princess’ entire Cheap Queen album was a lifesaver this year. While Lizzo’s music is killer for an explosive breakup, King Princess explores the other kind: those that fizzle out so slowly that no one notices until something extraneous happens that puts things into perspective. “Prophet” made this list because I recently added it to the playlist for a book I’ve struggled to write for seven years now — maybe 2020 will be the year I find inspiration thanks to Mikaela Mullaney Straus.

3. “Succession Main Theme” by Nicholas Britell

Find me one writer who didn’t become obsessed with Britell’s score for HBO’s dynastic drama. Seriously, I fell in love with Succession‘s theme before I saw a single episode of the show. With string blasts akin to Junkie XL’s “The Red Capes Are Coming” from Batman vs. Superman, the show’s theme is the perfect march for a pissed-off protagonist or acid-minded enemy (both of which you’ll find in the Roy family).

4. “All for Us” by Zendaya

Another HBO show find, this one pairing Labrinth with Zendaya for the song that ends Euphoria‘s first season. That show is a treasure trove of tune, including one of the first major uses of Billie Eilish and “Bubblin’,” an Anderson .paak bop that almost made this list. But “All for Us” comes packed with genre-crossing drama: soundboard aesthetics, Zendaya’s silky-to-raw vocal range, and a heart-stopping choir that carries everything on its shoulders.

5. “Honky Cat” by Elton John

“Honky Cat” was always a song that existed, but not one that I put much thought behind until hearing it in a new light in June as part of Rocketman. Everything about it is Elton, who was one of the first voices I recognized on the radio (my favorite song at age 4 was “Crocodile Rock”), and since then has been an enticing enigma of a person who finds a way to surprise me every year when I find another song from his library. Last year’s Elton Discovery was “All the Girls Love Alice,” and 2017 was “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore.” With seats at his Chicago show in June, who knows what 2020 will bring?

Honorable mentions: “bellyache” by Billie Eilish, “The Chain” by The Highwomen, “Every Time I Hear That Song” by Brandi Carlile, “Pretty and Afraid” by Jidenna, “Doin’ Time” by Lana del Rey, “I Love Me” by Nikki Lynette, “Standards” by Leslie Odom Jr.

What songs inspired you this year?

Vignette: The Dictator’s Punishment

When they finally extricated The Dictator from his home, they stood him on the front porch and surrounded him with their guns aloft, the barrels creating a starburst pattern around his crimson faux-military getup. And from there he had to watch as they deployed his punishment:

With the flip of a small red switch, it all happened at once. Streets named after him were rechristened with the names of the people who died under his policies. Portraits of him in government offices were taken down. The buildings he had prominently displayed his name on Lost their signage to become just another skyscraper, just another hotel. Every internet post and social media account bearing his name was wiped clean. Book publishers replaced his name in every draft with just “A Man” and pulled existing copies containing his identity from the shelves.

Nobody eradicated the facts of what he had done and how he had ruined everything he touched during his rule. They didn’t ignore the ways he had come into power. To forget history doomed the country to repeat it, and no one wanted that.

What they did do was remove the memory of his name. They denied The Dictator a legacy. Because in the end, he was never concerned with doing good for the country. He was only concerned with implanting his name in its history, raising it in ten-foot letters across the fruited plains and purple mountains majesty.

Once they barred him from re-entering the home, they let The Dictator walk freely among the people he had once ruled. The Dictator waited for someone to yell something, throw something — anything to assure him they knew who he was and remembered that he once had power.

But no one did anything. No one spoke to him directly or whispered his name. A woman hustled past him with a quick “excuse me” that he heard her reiterate to other strangers on the street in the same tone.

The Dictator wasn’t special anymore. He was just another person on the street, and it was the worst torture a man like him could ever be asked to endure.

Excerpt: The Gladstone Gala

The Mornays knew how to show up in style, with Darin in bespoke Tom Ford and Lilah in a crimson Dior evening gown that strategically hugged in some places and flowed in others. Around her neck glistened a spectacular diamond necklace that was so heavy it had once bruised her collarbone. Lilah contended the twice-weekly Pilates and calcium supplements she was taking had solved that problem.

They walked the red carpet, which was attended by a cadre of camera-wielding local press, and smiled and waved like they told all their clients to do at these kinds of things. Pru suspected that’s why they loved the Gala so much: It was their turn to be the show. Pru didn’t care as much, but this evening was different. She was going to be the show whether she wanted to be or not, so she might as well lean into it.

When she stepped out of the black town car she had hired, she heard a gasp from Amy Charles, the fashion columnist for Centropolis Weekly.

“Pru, who are you wearing?” she yelled.

“The last person who asked me that,” Pru snapped back.

In truth, she was wearing Foster Updike’s first red carpet fashion, and if the crowd reaction and her own style sense told her anything, he could have a fallback career if engineering for a vigilante was no longer an option. Using the long black train of her gala dress from three years previous, he had created a hostess coat that fanned out behind her and showed off the stunning metallic black leggings underneath. It magnetically snapped together in the front to hide her chest plate, and its sleeves covered the utility arm-guards she knew she’d need.

But when she turned around, everyone got the real show. On the back of the coat’s skirt was the brilliant turquoise Nightfire flame that seemed to glow in the light. In reality, it sort of did — Foster had coated the blue fabric (sourced from another year’s dress) with a flexible phosphorescent finish that created a holographic effect. If anyone was still unclear who she was in the PR world, this would set them straight.

When she got to the entrance of the gala hall, Lilah raised an eyebrow, made a comment about not knowing 1950s fashion was back in vogue, and eventually threw her hands up with an admission that “It’s your money and your body, so dress how you want.” Her father said nothing but at least acknowledged her with a nod before escorting her mother toward their other guests.

Dinner at the gala always seemed to take forever, and this year was no exception. It especially didn’t help that the Gladstone Foundation’s event planning team received a barrage of complaints from attendees after last year when it decided the salade nicoise would already be plated and waiting for each guest when they entered the dining room. The logic was sound — Pru had seen how so many of the guests had stumbled in from the cocktail reception in search of bread baskets and more booze — but their donors, many of whom distrusted any kind of produce they couldn’t ensure was organic-grown, weren’t pleased at the prospect of eating anything they suspected of being room temperature (unless it was a draught of scotch).

So this year, each course came out in the hands of white-jacketed waiters, and at what seemed like a glacial pace. Pru kept glancing at her phone to check the time, at one point incurring her mother’s hand pushing it down into her lap.

“The work is here, Pru,” she whispered.

He wasn’t yet, but he would be in three hours, Pru thought.

Darin still hadn’t spoken, though smiling for the cameras and cordially offering one arm to his wife and the other to his daughter hadn’t taken much verbal commitment. Throughout dinner he pushed his salad around his plate, hoping no one — meaning everyone — would notice that for the fourth year in a row, the Gladstone Gala planning team had forgotten his biological intolerance for eggs and psychological intolerance for olives that weren’t soaked in gin or vodka.

Once the little sandcastles of chocolate mouse and raspberry sauce had been delivered to the tables, the dancing started and, more importantly, the open bar resumed operation. Knowing his audience was mostly older donors wealthy enough to pay people to make them feel young, the DJ stuck to playing electro-swing that balanced swelling horns and deep base. A few overly tan, freshly Touch-of-Grayed men entrenched in mid- to late-life crises swung their 20- and 30-something wives around the dance floor, pulling foxtrot and bossanova moves while their partners peppered in body rolls and a bit of grinding here and there. Darin and Lilah Mornay avoided the dancing entirely, preferring Tanqueray to the tango.

Pru, meanwhile, had excused herself to the ladies’ room, where she knew there was a couch she could crash on to reset her mind in the moments before Flashbang was due to arrive. Unfortunately, the pink velvet settee she remembered from galas before was already claimed by an unconscious woman with what looked to be a Cosmopolitan soaking the front of her dress.

“It’s not even nine o’clock,” Pru said in disbelief.

“She saw her ex-husband making out with his new girlfriend in the back hall and decided to drown her sorrows,” said a tall woman reapplying her lipstick in the mirror. “Don’t worry: We already called a medic.”

The Gladstone Gala wasn’t the Gladstone Gala without at least four people needing medical attention. The first time Pru had attended, Portia Abrams and Kaitlyn Ducker’s rivalry hit a fever pitch and resulted in acrylic-nailed slaps being thrown, blood spattering on Yves Saint Laurent gowns, and a clump of hair extensions flying into Lilah Mornay’s martini glass. Portia still had a scar on her wrist that she covered with a thick diamond bracelet purchased with the settlement money.

On cue, two women wearing navy blue t-shirts and carrying medical bags entered the bathroom and immediately started taking the unconscious woman’s vitals. They lifted her up and she groaned, muttering something about a dirty bastard who could never get it up.

“Ma’am, we’re going to get you some help,” one of the medics said. “Can you stand?”

As they started to leave the bathroom, the drunk woman starting to talk louder now about her limp-dick ex-husband and his Playboy Bunny bitch. Pru and the tall woman with fresh lipstick could hear her shouting through the door and both started laughing.

“And to think this thing is a charity event,” Pru muttered, mostly to herself.

“Lifestyles of the rich and generous,” the woman said. “Maybe they think being philanthropists is enough to excuse the rest of their behavior.”

“You should have been here last year,” Pru said, inspecting the couch for potential vomit. It was clean, so she plopped down and swung her feet out, stretching her legs. “Paulie Ferguson literally pushed the DJ off the stage and did a 20-minute set of deep-cut B-52 tracks.”

“Sounds entertaining.”

“Truth be told, it was better than what the DJ was playing,” Pru shrugged. “If they had let him get to ‘Love Shack,’ it might actually have been a fun party.”

“That’s saying something,” the woman said, taking a seat in one of the straight-backed armchairs across from the couch. Something about the woman seemed so familiar to Pru, but she couldn’t place it—then again, upscale fashion, professionally applied makeup, and hairspray-shellacked updos made it hard to recognize pretty much anyone in the room. “You don’t seem the type to be at these kinds of things,” she continued. “Is it the people watching that brings you here?”

“I prefer the term ‘social observation,’ and it’s more a survival tactic than my idea of a fun Saturday night out.”

“What, did your husband drag you here or something?”

“Parents,” Pru said. “They come every year because so many of their clients are here. On top of having their own plus-ones, every year they get asked by at least eight people or companies to come as their guests. It’s a whole political strategy meeting for them to decide who’s going with whom. Now that I’m with the firm, they have a third player to throw in the game.”

“Lucky you,” the woman smirked. “Who are your parents?”

“Darin and Lilah Mornay,” Pru said, unsure of why. She didn’t like disclosing her lineage to strangers in case they were disdainful of the Mornays’ work or, worse, big fans.

“How did I not recognize you?!” the woman half-shrieked, throwing a hand dramatically to her forehead. “I can’t believe this coincidence. I’ve been trying to reach you for three weeks!”

Fuck, Pru thought. Instead, she just smiled in a way that said “Fuck.”

“I won’t talk shop tonight,” the woman said. “But my name is Constance Lin, and I’m with the Centropolis Sentinel. They sent me here to cover the gala, but I usually cover the Crime and Vigilante beat.”

Now Pru knew where she had seen this woman before. She was the one who had brought up Flashbang’s memo at the press conference three weeks ago. She had also been the one to ambush her outside the FVA with questions about Opal’s background.

“I want to talk about Flashbang’s last appearance,” Constance said, her voice quickening. Pru tried to detect the smell of alcohol on her breath — her demeanor was so different from when she was in the press pool. “Any chance we could get out of here and talk about it?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be covering the gala?” Pru said, eyeing the large clock hanging on the opposite wall. There were fewer than five minutes before Flashbang was due to meet her in the sculpture garden. “You probably shouldn’t abandon your assignment.”

“This is more important,” Constance said. “The gala is a couple ‘graphs on rich people and how much money they raised as an excuse to guzzle champagne and punch each other out on the dance floor.”

“Fair enough,” Pru said, unable to argue with the reporter’s assessment after she herself had just confirmed most of it through sardonic nostalgia. “But I can’t leave yet, so let’s plan on talking next week sometime. I’ll give you my card.”

Her fingers reflexively slipped a card out of one of her hostess coat’s pockets and handed it to Constance.

“Call me when you get out of here and leave me a message,” she said. “We’ll set something up for Tuesday or Wednesday, Candace.”

“It’s Constance,” the reporter called after her as Pru bolted from the bathroom and went to blend in with the drinking, dancing, check-signing throng.

Vignette: The Return of Calvin

From the sidewalk Calvin saw them all sitting at the bar, nursing pink martinis in precarious glasses and golden beers as tall as chihuahuas. Outside it had begun to snow, making the glowing yellowish interior lighting even more warm and welcoming. The laughing patrons in their thick Irish knit sweaters, with their sharp haircuts and soft smiles, only added to the effect.

He had been standing outside long enough to lose track of his nose, fingers and toes, all carried off by the cold. A couple snowflakes slipped down the back of his jacket with perfect aim, and he took it as the universe’s signal to either muscle up and walk in, or keep going in search of somewhere else to thaw with a glass of Scotch or port, or any of the other pricy potables he had suddenly begun to crave.

But before Calvin could turn to go anywhere — the door, the crosswalk — Tyler looked up from where he had nestled his nose into Melissa’s neck and gazed straight through the window. Their eyes locked.

Tyler’s expression was the same as everyone’s that day when Calvin turned up. The internal dialog was broadcasted through the twinges and tweaks of his facial muscles, which morphed like a grotesque time lapse feed:

“That guy looks just like that weird dude, Calvin. Wait — is that Calvin? No, it can’t be Calvin. I know what that guy looked like and that is not him. But he’s got those weird amber eyes that Calvin had. It’s definitely him. But how could that possibly be him? It’s not him. Well, maybe?”

And, as he had all afternoon since coming back to his hometown, Calvin put the man out of his mental misery by giving his signature floppy wave, a trademark that earned him the popular kids’ ridicule in high school, much more than his baggy thrift store jeans and obscure graphic t-shirts ringed with sweat stains.

The bell above the bar door rang, and suddenly there were six open seats at the bar as the entire group rose to repeat what Tyler had done, gawping at Calvin in his sleek leather coat, bright cashmere scarf and dark designer jeans that framed his toned legs. He shrugged as he pulled his Burberry wallet from his back pocket to pass a gold American Express card to bartender before asking for a Glenmorangie 18-year scotch on the rocks and asking to keep the tab open.

“Been a while, Melissa,” he smirked as he pulled the glass toward him. Flanked three on each side, he felt them watch as he took a sip without the hint of a wince. “Looks like Tyler’s keeping you warm.”

“C-Calvin,” Melissa stuttered. “You— How—?”

“It was a good trip, thanks,” he said, tipping the glass in salute. “Did a lot of thinking. Some personal growth. I tell you, though. It’s great to be back.”

Calvin sipped his scotch victoriously as the onlookers gaped. Resurrection was a lot more fun than he thought it would be.