Rin Kelly’s stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Fabulist, Penumbric, No Contact, Hobart Pulp, The Courtship of Winds and Contemporary Magazine. Another has been accepted by Green Hills Literary Lantern. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She was invited to read at San Francisco LitQuake, Bang! Bang! Gun Amok in Manhattan, Writers with Drinks. Her completed speculative fiction novel, The Bright and Holo Sky, currently is being edited and prepared for publication. She studied writing with Heddie Jones at the New School and was a fellow at the Stabile Center at Columbia School of Journalism. Rin Kelly passed away unexpectedly in 2020. A scholarship in her name has been established at The San Francisco Writers Grotto.
White is for Complacent
Kim looks down when she walks, or at most holds her dark eyes at half mast, because looking up at the sky – stars or sun – makes her feel like she’s plummeting, which makes her feel high (up) and she’s trying to quit even though she wants to like the feeling so she doesn’t feel like she’s wasted her life being too up there to function and so has at least gotten something like enjoyment out of it but also doesn’t want to like it because then she’ll keep doing it. She doesn’t remember thinking about whether she would wake up but she did and has now tried to walk to the emergency room. She twisted an ankle in middle school and fell but got up and finished the two-mile track-meet race anyway because her coach was always yelling “run through the pain.” The other girls on the team laughed at her for being so literal so now she runs from the pain wherever she finds it.
The sun’s premie rays need permission from even the weak wisps of cloud to fall to the ground. She’s not as hesitant as they are, the baby beams of light; she’s walked the mile and a half from her shoebox of an apartment and it’s turned out to be two and a half miles because being under the influence means sometimes taking scenic routes to the hospital. That’s where you’re supposed to go when you’re trying to quit but have had too much for the rehab center to take you because when you’re trying to quit, anything at all is too much and Kim, like any expert, knows it’s too much when she feels it stronger in the morning, hours after ingestion. She can see the hospital, now, finally, but the stern, utilitarian hunk of sewer-water-colored structure doesn’t calm her any.
Her black corona of rickrack hair whooshes little puffs of air around her cheekbones as she looks around, because she thinks she’s being followed but it’s just the rain, which sounds on the brick like a group of women walking in pointy heels. Temperatures are climbing up to and including the sky so when Kim starts shaking, it’s not because she’s cold. Her jaw is where most of the shaking’s happening. Her jaw and tennis match of thoughts about how to check into what will probably end up mistakenly being the psych ward again. Will I get a phone call this time? (Would you answer?) Who takes care of the sensitive-stomach-people’s meals if I have to actually stay? She let many of these thoughts bounce out of bounds but Dotty keeps coming back.
Kim and Dotty had been friends since before the season of that track race more than fifteen years ago. Kim and Dotty played with Kim’s younger twin sisters (Dotty had four much older half brothers but was functionally an only child) and made sled ramps in the street every time it snowed because they lived closed enough to walk to each other’s houses. Dotty got bitten by a neighbor’s large, mostly black Sheltie a week before the meet Kim hurt her ankle and was fascinated by the fact that the cop who responded was the first female cop she or Kim had ever seen. Kim thought it might have been her fault because she was always pushing her face into the Sheltie’s and kissing it and loving it and it probably got impatient with that the night it bit Dotty. Dotty’s stepfather disappeared while out on a jog (he’s still missing as far as Kim knows) the day after Kim’s ankle-ruining race so Kim’s family took Dotty along on their next vacation to Cape Cod, where Kim and Dotty played hide-and-seek with the twins well into the night. The dark didn’t slow Dotty down at all; when she was “it,” she continued to be the fastest finder.
Kim feels like a bad friend that she didn’t see these moments in Dotty’s life being put together to make her the best cop, and also the only black one, in their evangelical enclave of white Suburbia until Dotty won her first award. Most Served or something; it was several years and many more frames and trophies ago. They are exactly as hollow and flimsy as the participation trophies Kim, and maybe you, got playing soccer as a kid, and have accumulated like plaque on teeth. If there were an award for most suicidal people saved, Dotty would have won it way before she joined the force, if saving the same person on multiple occasions can count more than once. Kim counts it because she was a different person every day back then and Dotty rescued them all.
A shiny new fit of raging shakes puts Kim down just outside the ER doors on her knees, then elbows and knees, elbows and stomach and thighs, elephantskin elbows and forearms and stomach, chest, chest and runny nose and thighs pocked at the upper sides like golf balls, running nose and teeth, scraping teeth and damp, cold gray, which she, zoomed in, can see is micro-pocked. Kim thinks Dotty has probably held many a head down like this and maybe pushed, though maybe, she wonders now, if it is to counter the effects of the substance that can have you sailing away, far away, from cheek-shredding sidewalks, damp clothes and friends who become cops.
It’s like someone is holding her down now. She can’t release the right thought in her brain that would kick off the standing-up procedure and she isn’t sure if she should activate the worrying process and she can’t lift her head enough to keep the convulsions from forcing her cheek down into the concrete. The sprinkler heads jut up and bloom, tsking like peeved moms and she feels cool little kisses on the bottoms of her threadbare-socked feet. (Her shoes were tied up, swaybacking the telephone wire across 8th at Hoyt to indicate a safe spot the cops wouldn’t know to monitor for an exchange with a dealer.)
Kim, now looking up, sees several gentle-hued hems swish quickly by. Scrubs. Something gritty, coagulated blood or a chunk from the last time she ate anything, scalding Cup of Noodles, beef-flavored, two days ago?, nests at the base of her tongue but she tries not to cough because, since she can’t raise her head, she would be chipping away more at her cheek on the concrete. An ambulance, with lights – white flood ones on top of red ones – and siren engaged, pulls out and one of its plump-but-fit tires makes to graze her trembling hand and she just manages to curl it back toward herself by tilting up onto her side slightly and briefly. She catches a yellowed moon, stuck in the dawn like a hangnail you probably don’t have clippers to deal with (she doesn’t), before slumping back down on heaving torso and stinging cheek.
Suddenly the sun is out and comes down on her like a pestle. More people – parents walking arm in swinging arm with kids tricked out in back-to-school fervor – are starting to pass. Light-up shoes, or backpacks, maybe, that jingle cheerfully with each step, at least one coat, the only one she saw (it was dropped in all that arm swinging), with a white, plastic Andy Warhol-ish cartoon face ironed onto the front of it whose lips turned blue in the cold and who had cracks where the sick-pale purple of the jacket showed through instead of just the wrinkles that normally come with age. It has to be pointed out to the little girl who dropped this jacket that she dropped it, interrupting her song, which Kim thinks goes: “Eat my NGO, eat my NGO, eat my NGO and Bingo was his name-o!”
Another kid, close behind the girl with the face on her jacket, is complaining about swimming lessons. “Every time I go, it feels like my ear swallowed a mouthful of water.”
It must be an elementary school that’s nearby. She’s lived in this neighborhood on and off since being kicked out of her parents’ house and having a subsequent Internet-arranged roommate situation disintegrate and is now mostly only familiar with the community’s dourly-lit parking lots and privately funded nonprofit (so: sparse, struggling) rehab centers. With few exceptions, they are repurposed warehouses with remnants of machinery or abandoned buildings with crumbly facades and stairs that are almost certainly not up to code. There was always this little roped-off area at the front with a sign welcoming you to the “community zone,” which is the encouraging way of saying waiting pen.
The waiting areas are always spotted with cheery chairs and typical stacks of crusty, way outdated issues of magazines like People and National Geographic but also beanbags as bright as gumballs. Pictures of mountain ranges and huge deer leaping through high, bleached grasses hang ruler straight at even spacing on Easter-green walls. Snaking off the community areas are weirdly wide hallways with treatment rooms protruding off their sides, very small gentle-blue vestral enclosures that assume all that’s needed for intimacy is proximity. She always found that the teensy studio she’s managed to hang onto, not knowing each month if it will be her last one, was easier to get along in than all that billowy good will and pity. She tried to explain it once to one of the dependence counselors, the only one who ever actually asked about her story: “I’m not out of my mind,” she said. “I know every thought in it. I have to know, grab, touch, follow, wring out every thought in there. So, no, I’m not out of my mind. It’s actually that I can’t get out of it. I can’t get out of my head.”
Her petting zoo of a head. When she was a kid, her mom had trouble containing her as she would run from goat to sheep to duck to pot-bellied pig and back. She had to touch them all, to love them all. She thinks she remembers her mom saying she was really drawn to the darker, shaggier animals, which also happened to be the smallest, like the black Shetlands or the painted pygmy goats with their pushed-in noses. She would stick her hand in every cage in the rodent hall and root around in their bedding with her fists, allowing guinea pig, mouse and ferret to crawl all over her hands, the tails of the mice and rats slipping like worms around her fingers, and sometimes all the way up to her shoulders. Even after being kicked at by one of the ponies and having her finger almost snapped off like a carrot when she was trying to feed a sheep, she had to get her hands on everything, until she’d found and touched and held every last small, shivering little one.
Now, the joggers are out in their sharp new shoes, so many of them white, which she finds strange, white shoes, with their dogs – who don’t have white paws, for the most part – and it seems like the humans are louder than the dogs. Everyone’s in shorts and everyone is light but tan. They all wear white duckhead socks revealing sun-dried skin or parts of teenage-rebellion tattoos or, once or twice, raised evidence of a surgical incision. The dogs’ tags make Christmas sounds as they trot at various distances from their owners’ sides. You might think the assorted waves of people – early workers, parents and children, joggers, who knows what’s next – is staged. Kim does and her suspicion is reinforced when, after the pack of dogged joggers passes, people in various permutations stroll to the many coffee shops, cafes and restaurants, as if cued by the smell of over-roasted coffee and boiling sugar she’s now gagging on. Actually, she can’t tell if she maybe hasn’t stopped gagging since just before she collapsed.
That’s only happened once before, that Kim knows of, because she likes to retain her consciousness in all the alleys and back streets and risky parking lots she has to go to, and it was during her high school band’s performance at the state fair, which was just before the real plunge into the substances. She was a flag twirler so she didn’t have to wear the full-body suit made of dyed-black wool like the horn players or the drum line, which Dotty was on, but she did have to run around a lot more and catch spinning metal poles, sometimes with one hand, sometimes behind her back, a few times with her shoulders, her arms spread crucifixion style. The preliminary competition that year coincided with the hottest day on record in Virginia and she, two other flag girls and the only male flute player all hit the field. Heat exhaustion. Everything went as white and clumpy as goose down just before she fell.
Now, there’s so much heat Kim can see it, waving up from the asphalt maybe three feet from her nose, stuffing the air, painting every inch of exposed skin, all lighter than hers, she can see and feel, combining forces with the clammy concrete to steep her wedding-dress-white shirt, because Kim can’t help being hopeful, and brown corduroys which she chose because the unmistakable texture keeps Kim grounded. The single siren she hears seems to drag through the air and loses steam before she can see the vehicle it’s coming from. She doesn’t know if the flapping in her stomach, which throws off the little timpanist in her chest, is relief or disappointment.
Dotty was making her first arrest about the time Kim started tying her shoes together and hanging them by telephone wires. It was now Dotty’s job to look for people like Kim, not like high school anymore, when Dotty would worry about Kim and search for her to keep her out of trouble, self-inflicted or otherwise. Kim remembers exactly how this all started, or maybe more when it all started, as she was mostly a good kid – Dotty would have vouched for her. But this is why she went down so fast, she sees now, why it wasn’t hanging out with the wrong crowd or a traumatic childhood but sneaky things adults don’t direly warn kids about, like curiosity or boredom, that started this whole thing.
Kim followed every rule at least as well as her understanding of its intention so well that her friends, if they did any of these things, didn’t even bother inviting her to parties or ditch class and hang out in a haze by the creek behind the school. She was grateful for this; she was too afraid of being lonely to have said no had she been asked and they hung out with her enough that it didn’t occur to her that they might be doing more than sneaking into the occasional R-rated movie or egging someone’s car, which she wasn’t invited to until she, wondering about what it would be like to break a serious rule, snuck out of her own volition to play video games with the group at Dotty’s house. After that, she was curious if the exhilaration was from simply having done something for the first time. So when Dotty’s family started being harassed by their next-door neighbor, it was Kim’s idea to TP the house and then mix molasses and maple syrup to write a choice phrase in their lawn. It turned out that the irresistible pins and needles was not a one off.
The boiling sugar tinge is thinning out with the morning humidity, which still has a long way to go to be tolerable since it’s starting from what it would be like to be inside a dishwasher in the middle of its cycle. Kim realizes that it’s too warm – and the sidewalk cool but not cold enough anymore – to still not be able to feel her hands and feet and starts to wonder if maybe she really is as invisible as she’s often wished to be. If she had enough power to wish herself invisible, is that really how she would use it? Perhaps she might do something like solve global hunger or find all good but cracked people safe, loving relationships or rescue abused animals. She considers these things, too, as she tries to make fists and point her toes, falling way short of her ballet and tap days with Dotty in first grade. Kim’s ankle twinges in the bad-pins-and-needles way and her calf muscles twitch just thinking about all the en-pointe prancing and clacking around they did in their class.
Only in tap class did the prancing have as much clickety-clack as the next round of dogs, which are being walked rather than jogged this time, probably by the parents who’d dropped their kids off at school earlier, she’s guessing, though all dogs have springs in their feet, it seems. She can tell the pace is slower because she can’t hear the panting like she did before, or maybe it’s that she can hear her own breath and heart in her ears more clearly now, which may or may not have anything to do with the dogs. The back of her neck now has pins and needles, too, but that could be nips from a now much more direct sun.
The sun warms your hair, too. You tug at your brown and white Cocker Spaniel’s leash; you should be getting to work and need to leave time to dry off his soggy, white paws, which he hates and fights against, so he doesn’t leave prints of dew all over the hardwood floors in your apartment. You turn from the girl on the concrete just outside the hospital doors – she’s close enough that someone will surely see her soon – and wonder if the sun will be strong enough to dry her clothes through all this soggy heat. You wonder how long she’s been there, hoping her periodic shudders are her breathing and then you look up.
Are those sirens?