Tad Bartlett was born in Ankara, Turkey; raised in Selma, Alabama; and married into New Orleans. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in print and online at Oxford American, The Carolina Quarterly, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Euphony Journal, Bird’s Thumb, The Writing Disorder, and The Stockholm Review of Literature, among others. He earned an MFA in fiction at the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans; and is a graduate of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and Tulane University Law School. He is a founding member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.
A Short Story
By Tad Bartlett
“What’s your art?” I ask.
She looks at me like I’m just another workplace annoyance, perhaps no better than a spot of sticky, dried-up creamer on the countertop. Perhaps I miscalculated.
“I don’t mean, like, painting, necessarily,” I say, always saying too much, and then saying more. “I paint sometimes—you know, maybe not people or things, but the space between them—but that’s not what I mean. Everyone has an art of some kind, right? Dancing, writing, singing, painting, paperclip sculptures, something. One of those.”
Her face evens back out, but, if anything, she’s more detached than before. “I don’t do any of those things,” she says.
“You must do something.”
“No. I like art. I listen to singers sing. I read books. Maybe some people do art, and some of us don’t.” Maybe I love her even more than I thought.
“My name’s Joe, Joe Alsobrook,” I tell her. I think of offering my hand to shake, but that seems too formal.
“Can I get you something, Joe Joe Alsobrook?”
The line behind me grows noisy with throat-clearing, foot shuffling. Impatience. “Coffee,” I tell her. Rosetta, her nametag says. I know little else about her, little beyond her deliberation, her command, her I’m-not-one-of-you-college-kids-I’m-something-else-and-better-ness, her liquid voice, her spare words, her tight shirts, the rings on all her fingers, and the way I fell for her the moment I saw her when I walked into the coffee shop across the street from the back gate of campus the day I moved into the dorms two weeks ago for the second semester of this, my sophomore year, a white boy in a white college down deep in Mobile, three hours south of my little hometown and all its seriousness and bickering.
“You don’t want cream or foam or flavor or nothing?” Rosetta asks.
“Yeah. No. Just coffee, thanks.”
She pokes out her lower lip, blows up into her bangs to move them out of her eyes. Green eyes surrounded by brown skin. “One ninety-eight,” she says. I give her two wrinkled dollars from the pocket of my jeans, wave off the change.
“Wow. Thanks for the tip,” she says. “Next?”
Twenty minutes later, and Rosetta stands with her back to me. I sit at a little sidewalk table in front of the coffee shop. She smokes a cigarette.
“So, really, what’s your art?” I ask.
She turns around. “Really, still with that?”
“I think you’re just not looking at it expansively enough. What about modeling?” There’s got to be something, some way to get her to engage with me. “Maybe you’ve modeled, and well, that requires control of your body in the same way as a dancer, and dancing is unquestionably art. It’s all related. Art and beauty.”
“Who are you?” she asks.
“Art and beauty and truth. It’s all related,” I tell her, putting on like I’m an authority on something. I’ve got to interest her, some way.
She sits down at my little table, across from me, and takes a deeper breath through her cigarette. “You’re too serious,” she says.
“I’m not, really. People think that, but I’m not. Just telling a joke on myself, most of the time. Of course, sometimes the joke’s on me, like that time I was engaged.”
Her eyes opened a little wider. “Engaged? How old are you?”
“See? Too serious. Way too serious.”
“And a half,” I add.
“What are you now, like four?”
“And a half,” I say, and I smile, too, because I don’t think she’s getting me.
“But engaged at nineteen and a half. If that’s not someone who’s too serious, then I don’t know what,” she says, shaking her head and looking out at the traffic.
“Yeah, but see, it wasn’t about being serious at all.”
“Did you get her pregnant?” she asks, before adding, “No reason for getting pregnant, not these days.”
“There’s lots of reasons—love, lust, being broke, too broke for condoms, running up on curfew, I don’t know—but no, it wasn’t that. She wasn’t pregnant.”
She looks right at me, points her finger and says, “Then, my point, too serious.”
“Really, it wasn’t. I wasn’t. She had just dropped four hits of acid …”
“Are you insane?” And now she’s getting interested after all. I just have to keep pushing it.
“No, not at all,” I say, “but see, it wasn’t the acid she had dropped, really, but right after she did, she said she thought our thing just wasn’t any good unless we meant it, and that the only way she could be sure I meant it was if I proposed.”
“And you bought that?”
“Well, I was naked, and I had dropped ten hits of acid myself about an hour before,” I say, lowering the real number, because I don’t want to scare her off now that it’s possible that she’s getting interested.
“Now I know you’re lying,” she says, and I wonder if she really knows in which direction the lie falls. She stubs out her cigarette on the cast-iron tabletop and looks at her watch. “Got to go back in, Joe Joe. Break’s over.”
“OK.” Something is passing quickly by, I can tell. I grab for it before she is back through the door. “Rosetta …”
“I’m going downtown, to this thing, this march, tomorrow afternoon. You off? Want to go?”
“You mean the MLK Day march? You’re going to that?” She raises an eyebrow.
“I don’t know about going with you, but maybe I’ll see you down there.” And she leaves. My coffee cup is empty.
I don’t see her. I thought she’d be at the march, but she wasn’t there. Just me, a few gray-heads, and a bunch of kids wondering what the hell this white boy was doing there. And now I don’t see her here, at the coffee shop. She’s got to be here somewhere. She’s always been here before, like every day. I count on it. I run my hands through my hair, hope it’s falling in just the right way, that whole Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club bad-boy thing and not the Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science thing it does sometimes. I stare into my coffee cup. It’s empty again. Then I wonder if Rosetta gets stoned. Rosetta’s stoned. That would be cool.
And then there she is, stepping out the front door, stepping up to the curb, lighting a cigarette. Her back to me.
“I didn’t know you were working today, Rosetta.” I hope I don’t sound too much like the puppy dog I feel I am. That first hit of conversation with her had been magic. Losing that now, turning back, would be dismal.
“Well, I’m here.” She sits down at my table. Clouds are gray today. “Stinks,” she says.
“Brussels sprouts and sauerkraut,” I answer. “All those paper and textile mills up the river.”
She smokes her cigarette and studies me.
“So I didn’t see you at the march yesterday,” I say. “Guess maybe you were up at the front.”
“Didn’t go. It’s pretty pointless.”
“Why would you say that?” I ask, though I’d kind of thought the same thing.
“Well,” she says, hesitating a moment before deciding to plunge on, “when the march was over, you went back to your dorm room, right?”
“I’m not like that. I’ve marched before. Back home, we marched, we sat in … hell, we closed the schools down. And I didn’t get to just go home like nothing happened. Not at all. They tried to expel me. They called me on the phone with death threats. They …”
Rosetta holds her palm up to me, for the first time smiles at me, just a shade. “Hold on, Joe Alsobrook. You really are too serious sometimes. We’re just talking here.”
I breathe in car exhaust, calm down, though my heart beats even faster now at the sight of her smile.
“So did you think any more about your art?” I ask.
“My last boyfriend took some naked pictures of me. Maybe that counts.”
“Sure it does. That’s the most classical form of body expression, the foundation of all art, right?”
“They were Polaroids.”
“Huh,” I say, not sure how that impacts my whole theory.
Rosetta studies me as she takes another drag from her cigarette, then asks, “So what are you looking for, Joe Joe?”
“What do you mean?” I truly don’t know. I never do.
“Come on, serious boy, you know what I’m saying. You ain’t looking for art. You got a thing for black girls?”
“Rosetta, no, I, well …” How do I not sound like a fool? Maybe if I smoked cigarettes, too, maybe I could just suck on them and not talk so much. Maybe I’ll buy a pack tonight.
“Look,” she says, “Call me Rosie. My break’s over.”
She walks back into the store. I get up and head to the mini mart. This is the end of January. Things will be different this year.
2. Early Spring
I can’t believe my luck. She’s delicious, she’s beautiful, she’s here, right in front of me, her arms draped over my shoulders, the room dark, the music on, dancing with me, me. Me. In my dorm room, easy, like nothing in the world is happening.
She smiles. “What’s going on in that head, Joe Joe Alsobrook?”
I laugh and close my eyes. Looking into hers seems almost too much to hope for. “I’m just glad you’re here,” I say.
“You said that already, at the restaurant, then at the movie theater.” She wraps her arms tighter, pulls me in so our bodies are fully touching. “You’ve got to be thinking something besides that over and over.”
“It’s just,” I pause, “It’s just I’ve been wanting to get to know you for the longest time, and then all of a sudden you were out with me, at a restaurant, and then, touching arms in the dark of the theater, and now, here, dancing …”
“Why, Joe?” She stops the dance, holds me out at arms’ length.
“Why’d you want to get to know me for so long?”
“I don’t know.” I pull away from her. I don’t want my words clouded by contact. I sit down on my desk chair. “I would say it’s that you were different, but it’s really the opposite of that. All these girls at the college, they’re the ones who are different. When I saw you that first time at the shop, you just reminded me of home, and beauty, and I don’t know, I felt like we’d been having conversations forever, and I wanted that to be true, before the fact that it wasn’t true just crushed me.”
As I say this, my gaze drifts farther and farther down, until I’m staring at my shoes, so I’m surprised to feel her fingers under my chin, jerking my face up square to hers. She lowers her face until our lips are on each other’s lips, parting, tongues wet, gentle, together. Then she draws away.
“Is it true, Joe Joe?”
“Yes. And I can’t believe it, or understand it.”
“Well, understand it. It’s here, right in front of you. Ain’t nobody come into that coffee shop like you and actually looked at me like a person, and pressed to talk to me, never. Hell, not even those boys back when I was in high school. Nobody talking about art and all that. I got plans, Joe Joe, and either boys didn’t care or they just got in the way. But you. I like you.”
And so we kiss more, and the sap rises in the trees outside, pushing forward leaves we will see in the coming days, light green and fragile.
3. Later Spring
“Do you want to be uncomfortable?” I ask Rosie.
“Of course not.”
“Because I’m more than willing to talk about the sex right now, right here.” I’m being too loud, and I know it. I want it. The woman at the table next to us stares at the wall on the other side, chewing her food forcefully. The wall is wood-paneled. She’s eating a hot dog with chili and onions. Two flies buzz above her sweet tea. The man with her stops eating, his fork suspended above a plate of fried catfish and mustard-yellowed potato salad, and he looks over at my shoes, his head tilted slightly sideways like a ground-bird listening to a worm crawl just beneath the soil’s surface.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Rosie says. “We’re in a restaurant. People are eating.”
“Well you brought it up.”
“I didn’t. I just said you been studying a lot with that college girl after your play rehearsals. I mean what I say, Joe Joe, nothing more. I know you’re not into her. Or in her. Jesus. Why do you have to be reading into the lines all the time?” The clock on the wall, an old Mickey Mouse job, his arms contorted backwards as he tries to keep the hours and minutes straight, reads half past three.
“All right. Fine. We won’t talk about it,” I say. After a beat, I add, “You want to go? You done with your food?” Rosie’s veggie plate sits in front of her, remnants of squash casserole and fried okra in the middle, green beans with bits of ham hock pushed to the rim. “I could use a banana shake from Old Dutch,” I say. “It’s fucking hot today.”
Outside the Dew Drop Inn, it’s a wet oven. We move under a blue spring sky, an ocean wave poised over us, its pressure moving against our skin. The air conditioning in my car is broken. We roll down our windows. Rosie puts a coiled lighter up to light a cigarette. I put my hand over hers. Her skin is smooth. I pull the cigarette from her lips with my other hand, lean over the stick shift and kiss her. There is onion and grease and spit and sweet slip of tongue, but there is nothing perfunctory about this kiss. Instead, I register the moan at the back of her throat, the momentary giving of the muscles in her arms and her back and her hips and her belly, the soft of her breast against my upper arm. But then she pushes me away, but gently.
“You still want that shake?” she asks. A smile, faint.
“I do. I do.” I pull out of the parking lot. “Damn, Rosie. You know it’s only you. You know that, right? I don’t care about any of that other crap. None of it.”
Rosie leans closer to the wind coming in the window. It riffles her hair. She turns her eyes toward me, holding me with them while I drive. I can’t tell what she thinks most of the time. I can’t tell what I think most of the time. I think I want to feel her, heavy, above me, slipping, her sweat mixing in my sweat, sweet, feet gripping into the sheets of my bed, green eyes to the ceiling, fingernails digging into my forearms, awkward in our not knowing, an afternoon unspecial to the rest of the world, an afternoon lost, a day off work, a day skipping class, a day together, not arguing for once, an afternoon not talking, contrasting flesh. A relation.
Old Dutch comes up and slides by as I keep driving. I reach over and take the now-lit cigarette from Rosie, put it to my own lips and take a deep drag, holding it in, letting the smoke go out my window, then give the cigarette back.
“I’m sorry, Joe Joe,” she says. “I’m just not part of what you have going on up there. I feel that sometimes. I won’t say it hurts me. It doesn’t hurt. But I feel it.” Rosie turns her eyes away from me, watches the road ahead.
4. Summer, Early
From somewhere below, not quite hearing it, but feeling it vibrating through the house framing, the wood planks of the floor, the plaster of the walls, the sparks of electricity through old wiring, the trembling of window glass, we sense the front door of Rosie’s house open and shut. We are up in her room, making out in between arguments, my hands over her skin, quick intakes of breath. Kids. I know that, deep down in young marrow. We’re just kids. This is what kids do. Nothing more, though we think it, think we feel it.
But the open and shut of the front door stops that.
“Shit, Rosie, I thought you said they were gone till after three on Sundays,” I whisper. My heart pounds. My fingers slide up and away from her skin. I’d never been to her house before, but always up in my dorm room or in my car or in her car or that one time, in the back storage room of the coffee shop.
“I don’t know. Usually they are. Church must’ve let out early.” There is a quick fastening of shorts, pulling up of panties, smoothing out of dress.
Close now, we hear a wooden stair tread creak. “Rosie, is that that boy’s car out front?” her dad’s voice booms up from the stairway and through her open bedroom door. Thank God we hadn’t thought anyone would be home. Things would look much worse if her door were closed.
Rosie pushes her hair down and walks fast across the bedroom floor to her doorway. “Yes, Daddy. He was just bringing some books by that he was borrowing.”
Her dad is just on the other side of Rosie now, looking over her into the bedroom. I’ve landed on the white wooden chair that sits by the miniature desk that must’ve been here from when Rosie was a child. I try to smile.
“Hello, Mr. Underwood,” I say.
Rosie’s dad switches his gaze from me back to her. “What’s he doing up in here? Didn’t need to bring no books all the way upstairs. You know the rules in this house.”
“We were just talking, Daddy, and he was just getting up to leave.”
“Well, you finish talking outside. You know you’re not supposed to have boys in the house. Especially when your mama and I aren’t here.”
I get up, head for the bedroom door. I can’t go through it without brushing by Rosie’s dad, and he doesn’t budge. “I’m sorry, Mr. Underwood. I didn’t mean to be staying long at all,” I say to get by. He’s solid, his guts straining at the buttons of his shirt. When I’m past him, I keep rambling. “We just started talking for a minute, and then I thought I would bring the books all the way upstairs for Rosie, and then, you know.”
I know I’ve fucked up. I hear him behind me as I make the first stair, “I ‘know’ what?” he says, his voice raising on the last word. The banister vibrates under my hand.
Then it’s Rosie talking, and she is moving past him, too, getting between him and me: “Just that we kept talking, Daddy. That’s it.”
I keep going down the steps, trying not to run or fall. Rosie’s steps follow mine. Certainly her dad knows what I meant by “then, you know.” He was once like me. We all are, or were, or will be.
As quick as I can, I’m down the stairs, across the entryway, and out the door on the front porch, ready to head for my car out by the street, but then Rosie’s hand is on my arm. “Sit down here. Mama won’t let him come out here. You’re out of his house, and she won’t want him letting the neighbors know he’s mad. It’s better for me that you stay here so we can talk awhile and he can cool down before I go back in.” I look at Rosie. I know she’s serious.
“So you want me to stay after all?” I don’t mean this in direct response to what she’s just said, and she knows it, knows that I’m diving back into the argument, getting old now, the talk that ended up with us on her bed a half-hour before.
“That’s not what I mean,” she says. “Just sit on the damned glider and hang out with me for a few minutes.”
I sit down next to her. “This can’t be over, Rosie.”
“What did you think was going to happen? You and I both knew you weren’t sticking around Mobile for the summer.” Rosie is calm as she says this, though she’s tearing us apart.
Inside her house behind us, it sounds like her dad is literally trying to tear us apart. I hear the sound of something like a lamp crashing to the floor, the tinkle of small glass.
“I told you she shouldn’t go work up at that coffee shop,” he bellows deep. “Let me by, woman.”
Then, hissing, Rosie’s mom. “She’s a grown woman. She’ll take care of it. Leave them be.”
Then, quieter, the father, more pleading than enraged. “One of those boys from that college, Livonia? Lord help him if …”
“There’s no point to it,” Rosie continues, pretending she hears none of it. “You’re going to be home for three months, with all your old friends, and working at that mill. It’s been hard enough for us the past couple months and we’ve been in the same town.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. “It’s been great.”
“You know it hasn’t. About the only thing I’ve seen up there is the inside of your room. Half the time, the campus security guards won’t even let me in. And look what happens when you come here.” Rosie throws a look toward the walls of the house behind us.
“Maybe things will get easier,” I say. “Shit changes, Rosie, not always for the worse.”
“You got to get real,” she says.
“Don’t you love me?”
“You know you don’t ask me that.”
I hear a bump against the window behind us, the one behind the sofa that you would have to climb on to peer out onto the porch. “Dad, go away,” Rosie calls out. Then, “Joe, you go now, too.”
I put my fingers to my lips. I smell Rosie on them. “Can’t we make it work?” I ask. “I can call you. Every night.”
“Daddy ain’t going to let that get through.”
“Some weekends I can get away, come down here, pick you up from work. We can go down to Dauphin Island, do whatever. I’ll sleep in my car. Maybe you can come up to Selma.”
“The hell she will,” I hear her dad say through the walls.
“Look, Rosie, I’ll write you letters, letters like you’ve never seen before. And then in September, I’ll be back.” I lower my hand onto hers. She lets it stay there.
“I’m not waiting for you. I don’t wait.” She pulls her hand out from under mine.
I stare at the painting of the bricks. Out of my mind at the red, not brick red but fucking brilliant neon, pulsating red. And emeralds on earth, and stickiness, warm and wet, my eyes blurring over, a cigarette afire and dangling from my lips. I take my hand and smear it down into the bricks. They dissolve into oily pigments, just red blurred now, smearing closer to the green, the brown. I step back, pleased. I’m smiling, fucking smiling for the first time in awhile. The canvas itself has disappeared, is nothing, paints flat in one place, globbed up in another, brushed fine in between.
A coffee cup sits on a wooden stool behind me. It has been empty so long that the last drip of coffee is a solid brown plastic lining the bottom. Ashes cave in on top of the stain.
Outside, rain falls. It’s a wet autumn, tropical systems rising slow from the Gulf, pulsing, spinning, sputtering, turning off, breaking east, breaking west, breaking. The wind with this one is a hammer, banging leaves and twigs like nails into the side of the old house I’m renting for the semester. Rosie sits under the porch overhang outside, waiting for me. I don’t want her to see this until I’m done, but I don’t know when that is.
She bangs on the door. “Joe Joe, let me in. The lightning is coming closer.”
I stand back again and assess the changes to the canvas.
Rosie bangs again. “It’s windy. Let me in or I’m going home.”
I guess it’s done. I walk over and slide open the deadbolt. Rosie blows in with a saturated gust. I fight the door back closed.
“Where is it?” she demands.
“You’re looking at it.”
“That mess of color? That’s supposed to be me?” She doesn’t seem angry, just doubtful.
“It’s both of us,” I explain, “and everyone around us.”
“I call it ‘Rosetta’s Stone.’”
“OK. It’s real nice.”
“You think so?” I want to believe it’s nice, but more than that I want her to believe it’s nice. I want her to understand.
“Real nice,” she repeats, rolling out the “real” a little too long.
“I think you’re patronizing me, Rosie.”
“What do you want me to tell you? I think it probably does what you wanted it to do. That makes it nice, good, whatever,” she says, clearly making an effort. I should calm down.
“I guess so,” I say. The storm has soaked Rosie’s clothes, so I add, “You want to borrow something to put on? I can throw your things in the dryer, make us something to eat.”
“You shouldn’t have made me stand out there. I shouldn’t have let you.”
“I wanted you to see it finished. It meant a lot to me. Look, let me make you something. I went to the grocery yesterday, so I can pull something good together.”
Rosie doesn’t make a move toward me, but stands as she came in, close to the door. But she isn’t leaving, either. “Take me out somewhere, Joe Joe. We don’t need to stay here.”
“I got the off-campus place because I thought you would be more comfortable here, and now we hardly ever hang out here.”
“Shit changes,” she says. “You said so yourself.”
“But I didn’t mean like this. We haven’t made love in a proper bed in weeks. Always fooling around in a car or something. We’re not in high school. We’re adults, right?”
Rosie takes a step toward me. “How about a movie, Joe?”
“How about you let me get you dry and make you dinner here?”
Rosie bites her lip, casts her eyes back to the canvas. “You’ve got housemates.”
“So? They’re not here.”
“But you don’t know when they’ll be back.” She hesitates, stuck in some web between the door and me.
“I don’t care when they’ll be back,” I tell her. “We’ll be in my room with the door closed the second we hear a car pull up.”
“You ever see how they look at me?”
“They look at you like they look at anyone.”
“You don’t see it.”
Rosie sighs, then closes the distance between us, puts her arms around my neck. “You’re a sweet boy.” She kisses my chin.
“OK, then, a movie,” I say. “A movie will be good.” Rosie leans into me for a second, and I smell the storm on her, salt and tree limbs. “You’re still wet. You sure you don’t want to borrow something dry?”
“We’ll just get wet again, the second we step out the door. We’ll play in the rain, get wet together. See a movie. We won’t care.”
And we don’t care.
6. Winter, again
“I love you, Rosie.”
“Damn, it’s cold this year.”
“Did you hear me?”
“It’s not supposed to be like this.”
“But it’s Mobile.”
“I love you.”
“I heard you the first time. I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“You know what I want you to say, what anybody would want you to say when you hear that.”
“Well I ain’t saying that.”
“I thought we talked about all that seriousness you got.”
“I just wish you would.”
“There’s no harm in it.”
“It’s everything, Joe Joe. If you really mean it, then it has to be everything. And I’m not ready for that with you.”
Rosie pulls a pack of smokes from her coat pocket, shakes one out. “Want one?”
“I’m not your magic negro, you know.”
“What the fuck does that have to do with anything?” I stop myself. “Look, I know you’re not. I never meant anything to be like that.”
Rosie nods. “You quitting again?”
“Me, too.” She lights her cigarette.