Mastodon Melissa Febos - Somerville, a novel excerpt


An excerpt from “The Savage Library”

I just knew that Somerville would be the kind of neighborhood to go all out at Christmas. I was right. Winter Hill in particular was an orgy of blinking lights and glowing plastic figures. Our block alone had four Rudolphs, two with real blinking noses. The house next to ours had papered their entire front door in shiny gift wrapping, complete with a gigantic bow. You could tell how white the neighborhood was by the number of Santas. In the black and Hispanic neighborhood that I rode the bus through to get to work, there was a baby Jesus for every Santa, a wise man for every Rudolph. I guess it said something about whose faith lay where.

“Let’s go on a walking tour of Somerville tonight!” I begged my roommates. This would be the first Christmas that I had ever spent away from my family, the first year my mom and I wouldn’t take our local Christmas light tour. Jen and Dara, both Tufts dropouts, would be going back to their respective hometowns in Connecticut and New Jersey. They stared at me, uncomprehending. “To look at the Christmas lights,” I added.

Die Antwoord
Die Antwoord, photograph by Charlie Homo

“It’s, like, no degrees out,” said Dara, shaking an Old Gold out of her soft pack and tucking it between her lips. She sifted through the clutter on our kitchen table for a book of matches.

“Yeah,” said Jen, reaching down to tie the black sneakers that were part of her uniform at The Border Café, where she waited tables. I could tell she hadn’t washed her pants by the smoky smell of sizzling fajita platters that emanated from them. “I have to look at them every day on my way to and from work. What’s the point?”

“No point,” I said. “Just an idea for some wholesome fun for once.” A wave of homesickness washed over me. There is a special loneliness in realizing that the rituals of your childhood are not honored in the greater world. I grabbed Dara’s pack from the table and pulled a cigarette out. We all smoked Old Gold’s because Tom Waits did. We were those kind of girls: pretty and foulmouthed, carelessly sexual, unsurprisable. At least, that was the image we cultivated—wordlessly conspiring with our black jeans and eyeliner, Converse and falling apart t-shirts—as if the tough veneer might immunize us to the universal hurts of being eighteen-year-old girls. Well, only I was eighteen. Dara and Jen were both twenty, almost of legal drinking age. Not that that stopped any of us.

“We could bring a bottle, and some boys,” I gave one last half-hearted attempt. “It might be fun.”

“Why don’t we just go to Charlie’s,” said Jen. “There’s boys and booze there.” She finished tying her shoes and grabbed a cigarette of her own. “I get off at eleven.”

“Yeah, and there’s a jukebox,” said Dara, smoothing her baby-bangs. “I vote for Charlie’s.”

“Okay, fine,” I said. “Meet me when I get off?”

They nodded. We all stubbed out our butts and went to find our aprons.

Tangier was on Brattle Street, just a few blocks from Charlie’s, on the perimeter of Harvard Square. The Greenhouse, where Dara worked, and the Border Café, were both close enough that we could practically take smoke breaks together. I’d been waiting tables at Tangier for about six months, which was practically a lifetime in waitressing years. Emil, the owner, only hired female servers, and the only one who’d been there longer than me was Miriam. She had poreless skin that matched the café’s mahogany tables, full lips crowned by a faint moustache, and thick black hair that she tied in a bun with no elastic—deftly winding the great snake of it into a coiled knot that stayed all night. She was beautiful, with a perfectly rounded body and knowing air that won her the most in tips every night. She never seemed to get sweaty or stressed when we were slammed, just sailed between tables, humming along to the Fairuz CD’s that were always playing.

“Good morning, Little Mermaid,” she said, brushing by me with a tray of Arabic coffee. It was 5:05pm, and I was late again. I wrapped my apron strings around my hips, tying them in the front, and felt in my pocket for a ticket pad. It was Miriam who had taught me to keep a secret pad, in addition to my assigned one whose totals I added up at the end of the night. One out of every ten tables or so, I’d use a ticket from my secret pad and pocket the bill along with the tip. It nicely compensated on slower nights, and I rarely went home with less than $85 in cash, sometimes as much as $150 on a Friday night. This way, I didn’t have to ask my parents for anything. My dad had insisted on paying the tuition for a couple of night classes at Harvard Extension the previous semester—both of which I had dropped after a few weeks, and taken the partial refund—but I declined any other help. This made it easier to not return their phone calls, but especially his. He never failed to ask me if there was a softball team I could join at school. A Harvard Extension women’s softball team. I didn’t have the heart to reveal to him the ridiculousness of this, nor the further ridiculousness of his suggesting that, if there were one, I would join it.

It wasn’t my fault they’d decided to get divorced. Lonely holidays were part of the package. “It’s not a big deal, Mom. Just a Christian excuse to spend a bunch of money on crap.”

When I’d refused to go back to high school, and refused to give them a reason, it had flipped something in him. He stopped yelling after a few weeks, but our relationship flattened into a lifeless thing. Two years later—most of which I spent living with Mom—I announced I was leaving home. He barely argued. When I went home that first Christmas, he had gone back to his crutches and put on twenty pounds. I couldn’t bear it again—the shame I felt for having failed in my promise to protect him, both of them. Still, it wasn’t easy; I’d had to banish some part of me in a tall glass of whiskey before I told my mother I wasn’t coming home this year.

“We’re doing this thing with all our friends,” I said, squashing the image of her disappointed face, and the excruciating question of whom they’d spent Christmas Eve with, if not me. It wasn’t my fault they’d decided to get divorced. Lonely holidays were part of the package. “It’s not a big deal, Mom. Just a Christian excuse to spend a bunch of money on crap.”

She had sighed. “You know that it’s never been about that for us, Ariel.” I did, but I wasn’t interested in being reminded.

“The Shah would like his tea now, Princess,” Miriam nudged me with her hip on her next pass by. “You know how irritable he gets when you are late.” Her accent’s inflection made everything sound as if the ends had been hammered into a delicate leaf. It was a stark contrast to the native Boston accents some of the other waitresses sported, whose flattened vowels and dropped r’s—Haavaaad, Baahston—I couldn’t help but hear as stupid.

“Tell him I’m coming,” I called to her retreating form.

“I tell him nothing,” she sang back to me. Emil—a Muslim—was religious about many things, but nothing so much as his late afternoon tea and Shisha. It was his tradition to have the waitress most in his favor prepare and serve it to him, at precisely 5pm every day. The night shift began at 5pm, which meant that the reward for being his favorite was an obligation to arrive at least fifteen minutes early for every shift. When Miriam pointed out the tiny face of the Ayatollah on our custom-printed hummus containers, I didn’t know who she was talking about, but I understood what she meant when she referred to us as his harem.

I hurried to fill his special teapot with mint leaves. As it steeped, I filled a hookah with water, covered its bowl with foil, and chose a small puck of apricot tobacco—his favorite. All of this I placed on a round tray with a teacup and saucer, and hustled up the narrow stairs that led to the upper floor, at the back of which, behind a thick curtain, was Emil’s office.

“I’m sorry, Emil,” I cooed, setting the tray down on the low table in front of his miniature sofa. “The T was running slow.”

“Hmmp,” he grunted, and gestured for me to pour the tea, which I did. He took a tiny sip, and I waited for the nod that indicated my dismissal. Instead, he patted the sofa beside him. I hesitated. “Sit,” he commanded. I sat, hoping Miriam would cover my tables downstairs. Now that we were face to face, he gave me a squinty smile, the skin around his mouth and eyes folding deeply. Though he was petite—only my height with the hunch in his back—and his face resembled a balled napkin, you could tell he was once a handsome man, who had been treated handsomely by women.

He held out his dry hand with its longish yellow nails, and beckoned once. It took me a moment to understand what he wanted. I reached into my apron and handed him a lighter. Flicking it once, twice, three times, he held the flame to the puck of tobacco until it glowed red, and emitted a fruity wisp of smoke. He drew a long inhalation from the mouthpiece, the water bubbling, and exhaled slowly, filling the small curtained space with apricot flavored smoke.

“I wish,” he began, smoke still trailing from his mouth. “I wish I could tie a string.” I leaned in to decipher his words. With his accent—a thicker, less lyrical version of Miriam’s—string sounded like “strdreeng.” He drew another lungful from the hookah. “From this office, to your bed.”

“Excuse me?” I asked. He chuckled, which turned into a cough. I waited for him to recover.

“To your bed,” he repeated. “A little knot around your smallest toe.” He held up his hand, forming an o with his thumb and forefinger, like the “okay” sign. “I would pull on my string,” he made a little pulling motion with his fingers. “And you would wake up.” He lifted his heavy eyelids in a wakeful expression, then dropped them again. “Then, I would receive my tea on time.” Satisfied, he reached for his cup and sipped his tea again. Then he gave me the nod. I nodded back, and ducked out of the smoky den.

Charlie’s was on the second floor, above a dry cleaners. The sign was small, easy to miss, which made us feel like insiders for knowing it was there. It was one of the smaller, darker alternatives to the bars packed from wall to wall every weekend with Sam Adams guzzling frat boys, and MIT geniuses, who seemed to be as retarded socially as they were gifted in the sciences. Charlie’s jukebox was filled with everything from The Breeders and Joy Division to Bruce Springsteen and Boston, whose classics we sang along to with the exuberance found only among young drunks in fresh possession of a sense of cultural irony.

The bartenders were mostly women, pretty but seasoned, a few years older than any of the college kids. One of them was rumored to have dated Moby, who hadn’t yet released the album that would make him a superstar and so was still cool to us.

“Hey Kelly,” I said as she passed by me with a tray of clean glasses.

“Hey,” she said, giving me the bartender “you’re my friend, but so is everybody else in this room” smile. Dara and Jen and I scanned the busy bar before bee-lining for our usual table in the corner. It was too early yet for the rest of our crew, but Jen’s boyfriend, Shawn, was saving our spot, his skateboard and backpack covering the long tabletop. He put down his beer as we approached.

“Hey babe,” he said, sliding over to make room on the long bench. We all piled in. “How was work?” Jen pulled out her smokes and we all took one. Shawn leaned over with a Red Sox lighter.

“Work was shit,” said Jen, exhaling smoke. “A bachelorette party took up half my section all night, ‘margaritas, yaaaaaay!’” She waved both hands in the air. “Should have been a huge tip for all those drinks, but they practically stiffed me.” She dragged on her cigarette again. “Women are such bitches.” She shook her head, and then stabbed the air with her finger. “And, they left deflated penis balloons all over the fucking floor.” We all laughed.

“Aw,” Shawn teased. “Poor baby! I’ll inflate something later that will cheer you up.” He threw his arm her shoulders and winked. Dara rolled her eyes.

“You are so damn romantical, Shawn,” she sneered. “I can really see what she sees in you.”

“Hey, fuck you Dara,” Shawn said, smiling, though his eyes hardened. Shawn was one of a certain kind of Cambridge-raised boys, who spoke with faint Boston drawls, even though their parents didn’t, who shoplifted cans of spray paint from Pearl Art even though they came from money and had grandparents who lived on Brattle Street. Shawn ran with a crew of his kind, who spent their nights skateboarding drunk, or watching skate videos in barely furnished apartments with graffitied walls and all new bathroom fixtures, smoking bowl after bowl of expensive pot. They called themselves the “Fuct Crew,” and their FUCT tags were scrawled all over the city—in silver paint-markers, on stickers, and spray painted in swirling text murals they’d emulated by watching movies about black graffiti kids in the 1980’s a hundred times. I could see why Jen liked him, with his angry, handsome features and hard stomach, but he made me nervous. Dara loathed him, but didn’t seem intimidated by his mercurial mood shifts, as I was. I’d seen him throw punches at other guys for a lot less than the stuff she said to him.

“I’m gonna play some songs,” I said, standing so that Dara would let me out. “Order me a Tanq and tonic?”

“Play me some Bowie,” she said. Dara was in a Bowie phase that had lasted as long as I’d known her—at least 18 months. She had been through his early psychedelic folk, and his glam Ziggy Stardust phase, his “plastic soul” phase (if I ever had to hear “Young Americans” again, I’d probably barf), his boring Brian Eno collaborations, and was now all about Let’s Dance—my favorite so far. She watched The Man Who Fell to Earth until we begged her to stop, and now she was onto Labyrinth, which never left the VCR. She would just play it—like an album, while she was cleaning, eating, getting dressed—from wherever she’d last left off, reciting the lines along with Jennifer Connelly. We all had the thing memorized at this point.

“Ugh,” said Jen. “How about something we don’t have to listen to every day at home?”

“That fag? Why don’t you listen to some real music?” Shawn added.

“Like what?” Dara snapped at him. “Vanilla Ice? Since when do you know real music from your dickstains?” I hurried from the table before it got uglier.

Weaving through the crowd, which had thickened, I got some change at the bar and made my way to the jukebox. Flipping through the familiar pages, I selected The Cure, Radiohead, Nick Cave, Pixies, A Tribe Called Quest, and Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure” for Dara, which I loved, too. As I was looking for my last song, a pair of hands grabbed my waist.

“Guess who?”

The breath on the back of my neck sent a shiver up my spine, and I twitched.

He laughed, and pulled my hips back, against his.

“Hi,” I said, over my shoulder. The current song ended and my Cure started, Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick/the one that makes me scream, she said.

He laughed again. “This must be your song? So predictable.”

“So I know what I like? What’s wrong with that?” I feigned offense. Really, I was proud to be predictable in that way. Knowing what I liked comforted me, made me feel solid. I knew the nothingness of not knowing what I liked, and who I was, and it was like not existing—the way that I had existed before I met Lex, and after she left. You had to have something to believe in, even if it was just a song, a set of songs, a movie with singing puppets—otherwise, you’d die inside. The part of you that wanted to believe in something would eat itself, and make you weak. If you didn’t push it out of you, other things would get in.

He turned my shoulders so that I spun around, and leaned his hands against the jukebox on either side of head. I liked the caged-in feeling, but something about the pose, and his sultry gaze down at me, seemed stagey, like he thought we were in a bar scene in a movie and he was the irresistible leading man.

“Nothing wrong with that,” he said, leaning closer. “You have very good taste in things.” He kissed me then, and he was a good kisser, so I quickly forgot how much like a line that line had sounded, and how his tone confused me. He often spoke to me as he would a child, and though there was something about his coy placation that I liked—I enjoyed being the youngest of my friends, had always like being precocious—I didn’t always know if he understood that I wasn’t actually a little girl, didn’t have the thoughts of a little girl.

His name was Tyler, but he went by Cornbread—the sort of affectation only a white Harvard student studying music theory, with a minor in philosophy, would don seriously. I knew even then that he was kind of a jackass—with his scruffy facial hair and long scarf—a cliché, it turned out. It had taken me about a week of waiting tables in Harvard Square to figure out that the school was brimming with jackasses. The ice cream shop cum espresso bar that I’d worked at before Tangier had a storefront located across the street from a campus entrance on Mass Ave. On my first shift ever, the other employees enacted their nightly ritual of each filling a paper dish with scoops of whatever the brightest colored flavor was, and flinging them in unison over the brick arches and onto the historic manicured lawn. After a week of serving cappuccinos to snooty graduate students and frappes to drunk undergrads, I joined in with gusto.

Which is not to say that there wasn’t still a subtle sheen that glowed from Cornbread’s distressed leather jacket, his milky aristocratic complexion and soft hands. Harvard still meant something, as much as we pretended it didn’t, and Cornbread still knew more about almost everything than me. And he was a 22-year-old man. That was something. He wasn’t my boyfriend, but he did kiss me in public, did spend hours at Tangier drinking free espresso over his stacks of books, and even came to our apartment once in a while, when he was drunk. Sometimes he stayed for coffee in the morning, helped himself to a bowl of our cereal, and criticized our record collection.

I let his hands roam under my sweater for a while, and was relieved when the rest of our regular crowd appeared behind him. Cornbread and Shawn alone at a table was never a good idea—their social poles were magnetically opposed—but these boys bridged the difference. They weren’t all students—a few Emerson and Tufts—but mostly just smart kids more interested in music and drinking than getting a degree in anything. They knew Cornbread from shows, and Shawn from bars, and us, well, we were the kind of girls who could hold our own with a crowd of boys who majored in drinking and music.

The rest of the night was like most—Kelly kept bringing my gin and tonics, and Cornbread made a big deal about paying for every third one. Dara got loud, arguing the superiority of Bowie over Iggy with somebody, her trademark red lipstick worn off on the sides of glasses. At some point, Shawn’s boys showed up and he took off with them, which I was glad about; I wouldn’t have to listen to him and Jen fuck through the wall that night. Cornbread might’ve thought he was starring in an Jim Jarmusch movie, with a dash of John Hughes, but Shawn thought he was in a Ron Jeremy production.

Half of them came back to our apartment after last call, and I listened to them do bong hits and watch Labyrinth while Cornbread grunted over me. He flipped me over and pulled me up onto my knees during the masked ball scene. There’s such a sad love/
deep in your eyes, Bowie crooned from the living room, as the enigmatic goblin king, in his spandex pants. Though we’re strangers ’til now/We’re choosing the path/Between the stars, as he spread my ass cheeks and slammed into me. But I’ll be there for you-ou-ou/ As the world falls down, as he came on my back with a groan, and rolled over, giving the back of my thigh a friendly pat as he passed out.

In the morning, after Cornbread had taken a shower, and taken off, I pulled out the small stack of packages sent by my parents. I unwrapped the brown paper wrapped one from my dad first, imagining him neatly scissoring the empty grocery bag, folding the corners in the precise and confounding origami of correct gift-wrapping. Inside was a reused Newport News box. I opened the card taped to its lid. The picture on the front showed a cartoon airplane dropping tiny wrapped gifts out of its hatch. Inside was a check for $500, and a message that said: Found this. Still broken in so well – though you might find somewhere to use it up there. Love you, daughter. Dad. I opened the box, and underneath some tissue paper was my old baseball glove. I stared at it for a few seconds, and felt a spilling inside my chest. I knew the feel of its leather, the smooth brown skin with its knots and creases, like a worn ogre hand. I pulled off the rubber band wrapped around its fattest part, and took out the scuffed softball inside, knowing, too, its exact weight. Slipping my hand inside, it still fit perfectly, hugging the shape of my fingers inside its larger ones. Raising my arm, I held it over my face, inhaling the leathery scent, pressing my nose into the soft palm.

–Melissa Febos


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