Saturday, March 14, 2009

Licks and Promises by M. Christian

From "The Train They Call the City of New Orleans"

The rails were clicking and clacking out a message, Maggie was sure, but it was one she didn’t want deciphered or explained. She knew the nature of it, after all, if not the exact words: Come back.

A seductive message, an alluring bait, hidden in the sounds of the train, but she’d escaped; she’d made it to the station, boarded the 6:15 to Atlanta, and she wasn’t coming back.

The train rocked her gently over uneven rails, a slow side-to-side sway that reminded Maggie of being on a ship caught in low swells. Closing her eyes, she pictured herself sailing somewhere, the ocean patiently rolling around her, the warm wooden deck under her bare feet. It was a thin illusion. She’d never been on the ocean, but it was better than thinking of where she had been.

She tried to put herself on that ship, boat, whatever—anywhere but back in that hot city. The tiny, overhead air conditioning jet became a cool breeze coming off the waves.

Thin, perhaps, but Maggie suddenly had a surge of nausea. Smiling ironically at her suddenly too-successful illusion, she opened her eyes. A threadbare Amtrak coach; a scattering of tired travelers, the backs of their heads poking above their seats, a wide-ranging display of beehive hairdos and male pattern baldness; the gray distance blurring by the darkly tinted windows.

Turning, she watched the streaking view, her gaze catching on sudden details, barely registering before the train’s heavy momentum rushed it away: the green blur of close trees, the distant stroll of far ones, the scintillating snake of a side road, the sudden flash of crossings, the diagonal rush of a steel bridge. That last one, the bridge, brought a surge of fear — that maybe that bridge was the long one again, the one that had started her journey. Nevertheless, all the bridges remained short, and her anxiety flickered away. The Mississippi was behind her, as was the city on its shore, and its delta.

So much left behind: six months of paintings, some clothes, some cheap furniture, and a photo or two. Some of it she’d miss, but not for long, not after remembering why she’d escaped.

Evil city, a bad place. It had done things to her. The hot days; the hot nights; the slow, sensual lethargy; the undulating accent; the peppery meals — it had all seeped into her, mixed with her normally cool, reserved, immaculate body and will. There she’d steamed in the heat, had burned with a slow fire.

It had frightened her. She’d grown up in the high latitudes, the cold and rainy pine forests of Oregon’s Pacific Northwest. The days there had been thick with fog, the nights drowning in freeing rain. The only thing hot had been the bitter coffee.

Her early works had been local, her hometown flowing from her brushes onto the canvas: gray, black, white, and a deep, impenetrable green. She’d painted vistas and views, sky and landscapes. Like her works, Maggie had surrounded herself with the same colors, the same views. The world, while she was there, had been glacial and patient.

Light. It had been so totally missing in that overcast town that she had even been alien to the idea — then a chance visit to a museum. Brilliant, warm, burning, blinding; she’d stood before the reds and yellows for what felt like years, but what were probably just minutes. A month later, she packed her tired little Volvo and was on the road in search of the place where such shades lived, wild and free.

It had taken some time in the new city, but eventually the colors of New Orleans had started to work their way into her, seeping from the oil on her brushes and pallet, through her skin, and down deep. Subtle, for such brilliance—almost unnoticeable.

Someone bumped into her elbow, jogging her memory. With a sharp shock, she straightened.

“Sorry,” said a heavy voice from above. His smile was bright, beaming as he tossed it back at her from over his right shoulder. Her artist’s eyes picked him apart: the dull reds of his wool shirt, the aqua and white of his worn jeans, the terra cotta of his comfortable leather boots, the marbling of his black and white peppered curly hair and beard. The smile stayed a bit too long, a touch stretched out as he took a seat three rows ahead of her.

That damned place, that awful place. Iron balconies and brick, a turgid river moving with eternal purpose, shanty shacks and mansions, crawfish and red peppers, too-sweet drinks, and strong shots, an atmosphere of vomit and magnolia blossoms. She’d begun there as if it was just the same as the Pacific Northwest, just warmer, with more colors, but then it had started. Slowly, as said, insidious. Laying awake on a hot night, she fanned herself with a magazine, body bare for a simple cotton dress. Thoughts had emerged, and she’d found herself pacing — at first in her mind, then with her feet, like a trapped jungle cat.

She’d had lovers before, of course, but they’d been intellectual, artistic interludes, executed with caution. They had either faded way, leaving nothing but memories, or had broken apart with only a few tears. But after she’d started renting that little place, the high-ceilinged loft near the river, she’d begun to crave, to hunger, in a way that was unfamiliar. Maggie had eaten before, but now she wanted to hunt and feast.

On the train, leaving that hot and humid city, she looked at the back of his head, recapturing for herself, the breath of his shoulders, the tightness of his stride, the strength of his legs, the firm muscles of his back and ass. It was too easy to picture him, standing on the rough boards of her studio floor, clothes piled into a far corner, standing firm and large before her. She saw her hands holding a bit of charcoal, capturing the flow of him, the planes and curves of his broad, firm body on a sketchpad.

It had been that place. It had hexed her, seeped into her open pores, working its way into her. All that light, heat, spices, had done something to her. It had started burning her, making her smoke and steam.

She started masturbating; casually at first, but then with a passion for herself that no lover had ever shown. It became an act of love, a thought-out and anticipated event. She’d spend the sweltering days thinking of a fantasy, constructing in her vivid imagination the location, feel, the color of his eyes, the sound of his voice, the words he’d speak, and the feelings that would come to her. She’d sketch him, capturing him on a few scraps of paper: his face, his chest, his arms, his legs, his penis — both hard and soft. Then, prepared and burning even hotter as the sun set on the filigreed rooftops, she’d stretch out on her cheap little bed, pull up her simple cotton dress, and tangle her fingers, at first, in the curls of her pubic hairs, and then, with a few deft strokes, part her lips and relish in the humid excitement of her cunt. Her other hand would be reserved for her tight nipples, the right when she wanted the familiarity of her favorite breast, the left for when she imagined his mouth or hand, there. It would go on for hours and even longer as the reds and yellows of her pallet, of the city, had started to really penetrate her skin.

On the train, leaving at last, she felt the heat again — the heavy, hot glow starting in her lap then spreading up her chest, forming twin flares of warmth at the tips of her breasts. Looking at the back of his head, she conjured him more fully; the curls of his peppered beard, the wrinkles around his nose, and the fullness of his lips. She closed her eyes briefly and sketched in her mind the charcoal outlines of his strong legs, the flat muscles of his chest and belly, the unashamed determination of his hard cock. Focusing, feeling the reds and yellows of that far-off city, she even conjured from her imagination the pearly tip of early excitement swelling at the tip and the silken embrace of her lips, descending and tasting its sharp saltiness.

She was too hot. In the cool cabin of the 6:15 to Atlanta, she was molten. It was familiar, as typical as any day she’d spent in New Orleans, as if the now-distant city had somehow stoked up the embers she’d thought she’d cooled by stepping onto the train.

Looking out the window again, Maggie tried to bring back the cool patience that’d insulated her — before the heat, before the reds and yellows, before the sweltering summers, before the warm winters, before New Orleans — but it was as if trying to speak a language long out of practice.

The blurring trees didn’t bring it back and neither did the quick flashes of power and phone poles. Instead, she thought about Louis. Tall, thin Louis with eyes like ball bearings. Young Louis — maybe just in college. They didn’t talk about such things together. In fact, they rarely spoke at all. Louis had come into her life one very hot summer day, a burnished-ebony young man who had helped deliver a crate of paints and books she’d had shipped from Seattle. He’d stayed, fascinated by the images captured on her canvases, then he stayed even longer after Maggie had allowed her hands to play along the strength of his back and shoulders.

She’d had lovers, yes, but none who burned like Louis, who smoldered and smoked like that young man. She hadn’t done it out of curiosity, or as a way of getting to closer to something she’d wanted. No, Louis had been what she wanted. He was a blistering conflagration.

The view didn’t cool the fire and certainly recalling the passion of young Louis didn’t. The fire roared now — a steaming kind of blaze that made her body a hothouse, a sauna. Her nipples ached from the heat and from the absence of lips and hands on them. Her legs throbbed and quivered, as if she’d been sitting for too long.

Finally, just a second before she thought she’d start to smoke, she got up — the action of her breasts changing position sending a quiver through her — and worked her way forward along the cabin. As she passed the man, the salt-and-peppered man, she actually tilted herself to one side to brush a strong hip against his shoulder.

“Excuse me,” Maggie said in a harsh whisper, stretching the words like a curled finger toward him. Feeling herself smile at him — a lingering, hungry smile — she almost rushed, almost ran to the bathroom.

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