Pauline and Jess at Sunset

Published on 17 September 2022

What follows is a snippet from a longer story I have written that would probably be considered science fiction. The scene may change when I get around to revising the text.

Friday evening, Jess and Pauline sat on one of the Acreage’s four stoops, the ambiguous odor of stinkhorn diffused through the air. In the pink light, Jess’s palms looked as though hewn from the same substance as the concrete into which she pressed them, although the lusty plasmas and globins under her crust teemed with red and purple. Jess and Pauline talked, or rather Jess spoke to Pauline, whose own voice could muster little beyond yeses and trues, like those of the dialogues’ mutterers incapable of any act save agreeing with Socrates.

Suddenly, Jess said, “You’ve wanted a parrot the last couple years.”

“I’ve always liked birds,” said Pauline, wondering how Jess had gleaned this when Pauline’s few comments had contained no mention of any bird. Perhaps Pauline had wanted a parrot back in high school, and Jess remembered although Pauline did not.

“A parrot could be my friend for the rest of my life,” said Pauline. “And I could hear my voice spoken back to me. A voice that wouldn’t judge.”

“Aw, that’s cute. If I had the room and money, I’d take a peacock. Those feathers full of eyes. Have you ever heard a peacock talk? Sounds just like a woman yelling. My dad used to live near a peacock farm, and he says it took a long time before he learned to sleep through the screams. So anyhow, your classes go well, and you’re adding this internship to your résumé, so for sure your future is bright.”

“That’s my hope. But…”

“There’s no time to worry. Life is short, girl. If you get a job that pays well, there’s nothing more to ask for. Make wise investments, drink wine responsibly, exercise regularly, and you’ll end up living great—or like my mom, she got an English degree, married an engineer, and didn’t have to work a day in her life except on her poems.”

“What about raising you?”

“Granted.”

A pager attached to Jess’s belt rang, seeming to zap her whole body from ease to alertness. From the speaker a voice, crackling like burning pages, uttered incomprehensible syllables.

Jess told the pager she would be there. “Sorry, Paul. I better get going.”

“How long have you been wearing those?” said Pauline, noticing several other gadgets clinging to this waist whose accoutrements she had missed although mere inches from her own.

Keys, dangling like wattles from a ring hanging from a belt loop of her jeans, rattled as Jess stood. On every pink-drenched surface around them a biological delight drew the eye—flowering clover, the dragonfly resting on the Acreage’s bricks, the lichen foliating an oak trunk—but Jess stared at nothing.

“What do you mean?” said Jess. “I was wearing these when we ran into each other last week. Like I said, I’m the super at the Acreage. I got responsibilities.”

“Wasn’t your cousin the super?”

“You always were forgetful. But the way you wear it, it’s hella charming. Let’s talk later, girl!”

The keys jangled, and the pink of Jess went blue, vanishing into the Acreage’s interior shadows. Suddenly Pauline felt not as if a friend had stepped away, but as if there had been no one there, and she became conscious of her top’s thin fabric pressing against the pimples on her back. Jess Blair was not the Jess Blair whom Pauline remembered. Out of the soft, larval original had emerged, as from a cocoon, this Jess as super and social butterfly. Yet Pauline could not imagine that Jess would intentionally mislead her, even in the increasingly solid, statuesque form that gentle child had assumed.

Pauline shivered. Above, in the manner of the eyes scattered over the back of a chiton, the Acreage’s windows assured her she was not alone.