#166: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, "Imperial Bedroom" (1982)

166 Imperial Bedroom.jpg

Her first drink was straight gin. Neat. Her Papa travelled for business and one time he came home from a trip with one of those small airline bottles of gin, no more than a shot. Her parents were born again and seldom kept alcohol in the house, but her father thought the small bottle was novel, so he put it on top of the Frigidaire for a time when he felt in the mood, or her mother did, or maybe they would split that one shot of gin in two glasses with tonic and lime on Christmas Eve.

She was twelve. She watched him put the tiny bottle on top of the Frigidaire while she sat at their kitchen table, so happy her Papa was home. She decided to joke with her Papa. She and her Papa were always joking. “The next time you leave me here on my own,” she said, “I’m going to climb on the counter and get that bottle of gin and I’m going to drink it.”

Her Papa stood up from the kitchen table, walked to the Frigidaire, took down the gin, and sat back at the kitchen table without a word. He held the small bottle in his hand and studied it. He set it down on the table, then slid it across to her. “Drink,” he said.

She looked at her mother, hoping for a way out of this joke. Her mother hung her head and went back to the dishes.

“Go on,” her Papa said. “Drink it. I want to see your face when you learn how alcohol tastes.”

*

“Merry Christmas,” the man says. She props herself on an elbow, lights a cigarette, and blows smoke straight ahead of her. “Would you like me to stay?” the man says.

Her small apartment is only one room, two if you count the bathroom, but she doesn’t count the bathroom. They’d fucked on the Hide-a-Bed. Next to them the small fake tree’s lights blink on and off.

“It’s late,” she says, though she knows she won’t sleep. She’ll lie awake, clenching her fists in time to the slow blinking of the Christmas lights.

The man zips the fly on his khakis. He leans over and kisses her cheek because she doesn’t turn to offer her lips. “I’ll call you sometime.”

“OK,” she says. “Sure,” she says. “Merry Christmas.”

*

When she’s drunk and maudlin she listens to Elvis Costello. She’s worn out the tape on one cassette of Imperial Bedroom and had to replace it. When she’s drunk and maudlin she likes to think “Shabby Doll” is about her.

*

At night her neighborhood in Federal Way gets quiet. Her one-room apartment perches above a garage detached from the house where the Roseliebs live. The Roseliebs rent her the room cheap. Their house sits on a cul-de-sac and the garage and apartment sit behind the house, away from the road. Behind her, nothing but forest. The quiet spooks her. The nights she sits alone all she can think about are the girls, the girls whose bodies keep turning up throughout King County, the dead girls, the nameless girls, the runaway girls discarded like spent gum or cigarette butts.

*

What she remembers most from her Papa’s funeral is the shoes they’d dressed him in. Shiny black leather shoes at the end of his casket. She was thirteen and she’d never seen Papa in black leather shoes. She’d never seen him in shoes that weren’t dirty. That was half her life ago and she still pictures the shoes clearly.

*

She’s never been a singer, but she sings when she’s drunk and maudlin. Flirting with this disaster became me, she sings. It named me as the fool.

*

She thought she would marry once, when she was seventeen. She had just left home, left her mother and sisters and stepfather in that rambler house in SeaTac. She had left school, dropped out, moved out and took the first job she could find, answering calls at the Kenworth plant. She was seventeen, he was thirty-five and a worker on the assembly line, and she was sure he would marry her. He told her he would marry her, but he was already married and his promises meant shit.

*

She lies in bed and clenches and unclenches her fists in time with the blinking of the Christmas lights and she worries, worries about those girls discarded throughout King County, worries she could be one of them. She worries she’s growing old. She worries about her pretty face turning ugly as she watches the mirror. She worries about the damnation her mother told her awaits women like her.

*

When she was in seventh grade she would play chess with a boy from school. She wasn’t very good, but he was worse. She once claimed checkmate in only three moves. One day the boy told her his pet lizard had babies. He asked her if she wanted a lizard when the babies got bigger. She wasn’t allowed to have pets, and she knew her mother would never tolerate a reptile in the house, so she made it a home in a shoebox and hid her new pet under her bed.

She had no idea what to feed a lizard, so within a few days her mother found a dead lizard in a shoebox under her bed, and her mother took away her tape deck and all her cassettes to punish her, made her take all the posters down from her bedroom walls and burn them in the trash barrel out back, and made her begin private Bible studies with the pastor from their Pentecostal church. It would be in those meetings that a man first grabbed her breasts even though she barely had breasts. The pastor didn’t seem to mind.

*

Another older man she had dated once put her in a chokehold. They’d come back to her garage apartment drunk from a party and as she stumbled toward the door she felt an arm around her throat from behind. She thought she was dead but she fought. She kicked, she scratched, she flailed until he dropped her gasping on the gravel driveway. The man had run back around to the driver’s side of his van, then came running to her, pretending that it had been some other man who tried to strangle her, some other man who ran off into the cul-de-sac or perhaps the forest. He wanted to stay with her to protect her, then he pleaded with her not to call the police, and he tried to force his way into the apartment after her but she screamed and screamed until Mr. Roselieb came out and ran him off. She never saw him again, but sometimes at night, she would imagine his van turning slowly around the cul-de-sac. For a while, every set of headlights that swung onto her apartment were the headlights of his van.

*

She worries she should be more careful. She worries she’s only ever said “I love you” when she’s drinking. She worries she drinks too much, drinks alone too often, drinks with strange men too often. She worries.

*

When she drinks she remembers her Papa, his smile, the way his hands felt coarse and strong against her small hands when she was small. She remembers him taking her fishing, using lizards as bait as they waded into creeks and streams, the cold water churning around her waist. She remembers the fish they caught, the way those fish tasted once Papa had gutted them and cleaned them and fried them with flour and lemon and light beer. She remembers the taste of those fish only when she’s drinking. But when she sleeps, all she remembers is Papa’s shiny black shoes, so she prefers to drink.

*

The attack left her bruised. She swore she was done drinking. She swore she was done with men. Men had never done anything she wanted to remember. She had learned shorthand and she had left the Kenworth plant for a better job doing transcription. She swore she would turn her life around, swore to swear off men and alcohol. But her promises also meant shit.

*

She doesn’t remember how old she was the time she stole her mother’s powder and lipstick, smeared too much over her face as she looked in the mirror, then tangled her mother’s curlers in her hair. She can’t remember how old she was, not old enough to know what she was doing, but old enough to know she’d done it poorly. Still she wanted to show her Papa, wanted him to tell her how beautiful she looked, tell her she was beautiful the way he would tell her mother how beautiful she looked on those rare occasions her mother curled her hair and put on powder and lipstick.

But her Papa didn’t tell her how beautiful she looked. He laughed and made her cry. He lifted her onto his chest and consoled her, called her “Papa’s best girl” over and over, then dried her eyes, washed her face, tried and failed to remove the curlers without pulling her hair. She wouldn’t cry even though he hurt her as he yanked the curlers out, she wouldn’t let herself cry to protect him from the hurt he caused her, but after Papa put her to bed and kissed her goodnight and shut her bedroom door, she bawled as quietly as she could stand, clenching and unclenching her fists until her bedroom walls grew lighter with the rising sun.

—Joshua Cross