Greta Stromach prayed one night for heaven to save her and dreamt of these bright white tendrils descending from the sky like jellyfish tentacles, or what jellyfish tentacles would be like if jellyfish were some amalgamation of Jesus and grandmothers with purelight tendrils, they wrapped her and lifted her to heaven, but the dream ended before she got there.
When she woke up from that dream she saw hanging above her sleepercouch a couple thousand strings of lights – Christmas lights, small bulbs on wire – hanging down from the ceiling like hair. “What the hell?” she said with mumblemouth of morning befuddlement and stumbled down, feet to the cold floor. The lights only allowed about three and a half feet of space – if she stood up, the final two feet of her five and a half foot body would be surrounded by those lights – but would she have to hunch now to navigate her tiny house? Greta had a bad back at only twenty-three – she had the back of her grandmother, the back of an old lady worn down by work and childonhip household thisandthats, a bad back Greta had not yet earned.
“I know who did this,” Greta thought to herself still in painful hunching. “I bet Sister did it with that weird cruel ha ha laughy laugh jokey bullcrap she does,” she said and stood now, certain and painless (well, relatively painless) but with head and chest now engulfed in lights. It had to be a practical joke by Sister, she thought. Sister must’ve been listening at the wall when Greta prayed last night and knew she’d be down deep with the backpain pills and thought how hilarious to make a mockery of heaven.
Sister was an old lady, but she was nothing like Greta’s grandmother – who’d let Greta lay her head on her good old lady lap and stroke her short blonde hair and say, “I love your hair like this” – and she kept her hair like that – and “I love you in that pretty blue dress” – and she always wore that pretty blue dresses now.
Then when that was all gone away from this world, Greta called the hotline, and the hotline said they’d send out the councilor to stay with her and talk – to keep her from killing herself, that was the premise, but she never was going do that – she only wanted someone to talk with, someone to listen, the whole boatload of grandmotherly sensitivities. Sister called herself Sister over the phone with that oldladyvoice, and Greta knew she was no sister but a grandmothernunlady who’d let her lay her head in her lap and remind her of her prettiness.
She may have been a nun for real, but Sister slept like a homelesslady now on the other sleepercouch in her livingroom and ate all her food and made Greta buy beer and drank it and sat around all day watching the Judge This and That Show. Sister would get her buddies to call and make fun of Greta – not people from the hotline who seemed to not believe anything she said about Sister but these bitchyoldlady bitches who’d call her and say stuff like “So I hear nobody wants to screw you” and in the back ground there’d be witchcackling, like Sister was in two places, there in the livingroom drinking beer and off with her coven of bitchwitches.
Greta imagined Sister hearing her praying to heaven to save her the night before, and she imagined Sister pulling some elaborate bullcrap like this to prove there was no heaven – Greta assumed most nuns didn’t believe in heaven – so she kicked Sister’s sleeper couch and shouted, “Sister, don’t be a dick! I know you’re not sleeping.”
“I’m trying to sleep, but some squeaky little virgin keeps screaming at me.”
“Sure, pretend like you can sleep with all these lights. Real funny.”
“These lights, all these lights, all these stupid lights you put up,” Greta shouted and shook some of the strands at her, now tinkling like tooquiet alarms.
“It’s pitch dark in here. I can’t even see your face right now.
Truthfully, Greta couldn’t see Sister’s face either because everything was obscured by light string – Greta only managed to kick the right place because she could see her own feet – so the notion of not being able to see faces threw her sleepybrain off a bit, but Sister would not win this. “I’m supposed to get up for work. How’m I supposed to get up when I can’t even go to sleep?”
Sister rolled off the sleepercouch without replying – the top of her head hitting the lights – and stood like the lights weren’t even there – a dedicated performance – and waddled to the fridge, flipped on the nowonlyredundant kitchenlight, got out a beer – no time was not beertime for Sister – and she said, “What time did you have to be at work?”
“You know the routine by now. I get up when you go to bed so that we don’t have to see each other. I need to get up at nine to be there by ten o’clock.”
“Ten a.m. or ten p.m.?”
“Ten p.m. The only bartenders who tend bar at ten a.m. are sadpeople bartenders.”
“Didn’t you see the microwave clock? It’s 9:44.”
“How is this my fault?”
Of course, Greta didn’t see the clock with the strings of light all over the apartment. She rushed into the bathroom but couldn’t possibly see the mirror without parting the strings like a bead curtain so decided to just be unwashed and changed her clothes. Then, in the livingroom in a blindscrabble flash of rage and fear – Greta hated to change or shower around Sister whom she suspected of just being a skeevy oldmandirtbagindrag, but at least the lights blocked her view as Sister stood in the kitchen sipping the beer, as apparent from the slurpsounds, like nothing special was happening.
“I like those blue panties,” Sister said. “You think anybody will ever see them on you?”
“Screw you, Sister!” Greta said pulling her unbuckled pants up and slipping her shoes on. Sister light ignorance was bluffing unadulterated, that cruel old bitch, and when Greta had time she would find a way to make her crackandspill, even if she had to wait around until Sister died or shriveled up like dust and blew away.
But then Greta rushed out of the door and saw the whole world was covered in bright strings. “That fanatical bitch” was Greta’s first impulse, but then when the impossibility of that hit her and a new impossibility sunk in, her thoughts now became, “Oh my God, I’m insane.” She had to lean down with her terribleback to navigate to her car. Looking into her window – at the sad contents, the backpillow and scattered compilations of sadgospelsongs it took forever to compile from her grandma’s old tapes – Greta realized there was no way to drive to work now, the lights covering the windshield. Cars were flying down the street whooshing the lights past like they were nothing – because to the people driving those cars maybe they were nothing, this was all inside Greta’s head after all – but regardless, there was no way for her to see to drive.
She wondered if this was a kind of hysterical blindness, if these were brightspots in her own eyes blinding her, parts of her spine decaying and affecting her higher autonomic functions. But no, she could touch the lights, and she could hear them rattle as people walked through and as cars drove through and sent them clacking into each other and clacking back together to fill the windrushgap.
Schizophrenia. It starts in your twenties, you know. That had to be what it was. Just go to the shrink, get a few antipsychotics, maybe a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor or a couple dozen – as soon as she could save up enough money to get real therapy – that would solve the problem and these lights would go away.
Thoughts of a drugdreamfuture gave her the limited ability to walk now. She had to walk, no choice, but she had to look down at her feet and had to walk slow to not bump into anybody – all these onlyfeet people ambling by so fast, and bumpbump and clatterslam, disinterested in this hunchedover lady’s condition and down she went to her knees But she had to keep going. She got up and walked into the sea of bumpbump once again.
She got to work an hour late. The only reason she knew this was because her boss said, “You’re an hour late.” They didn’t mount a lot of clocks four feet up, and she never owned watches or phones. “You’re lucky I like you.” He, like all people now, was nothing but feet to her and a moving jangle of lights as he went this way and that around the kitchen.
“I know, Derrick. I haven’t been feeling well. I mean … still.”
“I thought I was back or at least okay enough to come back for now.”
“No, I mean your back-back.”
“Oh, right, yeah.”
“I’m going to tell you this, Greta, and I want you to take it the right way. There’s not a lot of bartenders in wheelchairs.”
“I know, Derrick. I’ve tried to just suck it up.”
“No, what I’m trying to tell you is to go home and rest. I don’t want you to put yourself into a wheelchair. I can’t pay you because you’re sick days were up a long time ago, but I don’t want you to fall to pieces.”
“Thank you, Derrick. I got a little bit of inheritance and grant money to live off of still, so I’ll be fine.” She started working in a kitchen, to begin with to research kitchen equipment she could make more efficient to fulfill this grant she miraculously received – she realized later it was a grant for mentally handicapped juveniles, and the grant committee somehow mistakenly believed she qualified as both handicapped and juvenile – but so far she only invented a magnetic glove for better grip on knives and pots and pans, but nobody liked it or considered it useful. “But you’re so kind to not hate me about all this.”
“Did you take too many of those pain killers, Greta? You’re all glassy-eyed and staring off like a blindman.”
“No, it’s nothing. It’s just … I think it’s still my grandma.” It was a soft confession like this was only a conversation with a friend in a private place, not a busy kitchen.
“I’m sorry, what was that?” her boss said, still dashing from place to place.
“I said it’s my grandmother. That’s all.”
“That was over a year ago.”
“I know, Derrick, but I think it’s a psychosomatic thing.”
“You should talk to a professional about that.”
“I did, but she was kind of an asshole.”
“I’d love to talk to you about this all night, but it’s Saturday. You remember what those are like right?”
“Of course, Derrick.” He rushed off.
Greta left through the dining room – customers in high booths, heads in the lights, hands on batteredup chicken appetizers and weird littlepinkshrimplikefingers, fingers eating fingers, and hands on neoncolored drinks made brighter in the bright light.
Greta didn’t want to go home to Sister. She decided she didn’t want to go home ever again really. She decided to walk along – back straightened to ease the pain – and just accept the worry she’d bump into people, but at least she only had to walk slow now because she had no more home and nowhere to go.
She wondered if maybe her bestfriend could help her. Her bestfriend was Secret Hero, DJ near the restaurant in an abandonedwarehouse called The Mouse Factory. It was usually so dark when she went to see Secret Hero, and she was surprised to see how awful the ground looked around The Mouse Factor, all cigarettebutts and brokenconcrete and rustymetal. Inside all those people dancing in brightlight weren’t much less brokenlooking, only poorly painted over brokenness and matewanting spasms, butts and feet moving toward each other. At least they weren’t rushing away like the sidewalkpeople.
Then she came to Secret Hero’s DJ booth, and Greta had to step up completely into the light to reach Secret Hero – had to keep her hands on the side of the turntabletablething to navigate safely, felt the vibration deep in her heart – heavy beating like the beat that created everything – and the lights were jangling like jinglebells. “Secret Hero!” she shouted.
“Yeah?” She heard the voice come back through the brightness.
“It’s Greta,” she said, like Secret Hero really was blinded too.
“Yeah?” Secret Hero said.
Maybe she really was blinded. Maybe they could share this, and maybe she’d finally have somebody to share allofhereverything with now and forever, the two of them alone together destined to share their loneliness because of some mutualmalady given to them by God.
But maybe it was just a mundane “Yeah?” the kind you might throw out ten times a day and never used for anything all that meaningful. Shouting in a loud club made interpretation of this sort of thing difficult.
“I just needed to talk … when you get time.”
“I don’t do requests.”
Greta didn’t know how to read this. Still, she had the fantasy of their foreverdysfunction and their necessarytogetherness, but then there was the worst possibility – the possibility that Secret Hero didn’t remember her – after all those times she’d been there.
She decided she wanted to go away now, go away from all of it – shoulders slumped almost below the light line, she shuffled out – she wanted to go away into the woods – and die there of starvation if it came to that – but mostly she just wanted to be forgotten.
It wasn’t a far walk to the woods from there. All those factories and warehouses were dense in the city but scattered as they went west with long stretches of nothing but trees and dirt and rocks and everything in between. She looked down as concrete became dirt and grass, and everything down there would be beautiful and nice from now on, and then she could lay down and die and let it all end, sprawled out a few feet away from the lights a distance they could never touch her again – unless they decided to continue descending.
She walked and walked, and it must’ve been late by the time her feet hit grass and even later than that now, maybe one or two in the morning, no telling, and maybe she was walking along some people’s lawns, but they’d be asleep, so she couldn’t lay down and die there.
Soon she was walking among trees. No place seemed to be perfect to die, but then there was a house in front of her, darkbrownwoodfarmhouse, big windows, inside full of lights like all of the rest of it. This house was empty, everything in it she could see turned over in a hurry. This house had been abandoned. The whys and hows of this abandonment were irrelevant. It made sense to die here at this abandoned farm house. No one would care, even if a family came back. It would just be two dead abandoned things side by side. She walked around the farm house, climbed over a wooden fence, looking for a greatgreengrass spot, but all was black dirt.
A horse was on the ground there. A red and white horse. It was dead, it seemed at first, but then the ribs rose, one pained breath rattling out, then one even more pained going in. She knelt down to look at it better, crawled over to the head. It was a boy horse. He was dying here on this black dirt like she wanted to on some green grass. The black eye looked at her and it was nice to see something this dark and heartbroken. She was heartbroken because he was dying and there was nothing she could do. The thing killing him was heartbreak, she was sure of it. He seemed to be starving at first, but he wasn’t skinny. He’d been abandoned by those farm people and his heart had burst and deflated down flat, down to black dirt and death. This is why God gave her the light, to witness this poor lonely horse, and in turn the big black eye was witnessing Greta. It looked up at the lights. Greta knew this, knew the horse could see them too. She wondered if the light would lift him up. He was so soft as she touched him, and he jumped a little, a spasm of resistance then a giving in like love. He felt so warm for a dying animal.
She noticed the red was not the red of a red horse but blood. He was a completely white horse covered in blood.
Then the light in the eye left.
She cradled there with him and thought of her onedayhouses and onedayhorses, in a big wooden farmhouse with friends who loved her, maybe only in dreams. She wouldn’t die now beside the bleeding horse, only sleep, but she let that light overwhelm her eyes until all became black and dream again.