Canadian-born and raised in South Dakota, Haley McCallum has achieved critical acclaim throughout a music career spanning nine albums. Her music, as the artist Haley, has rested upon a unique gift for pop hooks that accompany her penchant for writing brutally honest, self-reflective and witty lyrics. The following is from her forthcoming short story collection, Modern Animals, and is reprinted in its original form with permission. Courtesy of Northstar Literary.
You were real, once.
I saw you, driving down the road in a pale blue shifter car, stickers on the back, a postal workers sweater on, Dead Kennedys patches on your pants and worn leather Army boots on your feet.
You liked dead things, or at least, wearing dead people’s things. You were tall and Jewish and your hair was raven black, Fingers long like skinny branches, knotty at the knuckles and pale like a web.
I passed you a note, on my way to class, after I tracked you down, Seeing you in the car that day and then allowing my imagination to paint your storied personality, giddy and wet at the thought of you looking at me with those blue eyes that were shaped like fat almonds.
You liked me back. We spent our afternoons lazing about in your parents basement, Listening to Fugazi records that your sister brought back from Minneapolis, and we would kiss and once your mother caught us messing around and laughed. “No monkey business”, she would say after that, and I would glow red with embarrassment.
We planned the day we lost our virginity, and still I recall the khaki walls of a friend’s father’s guest bedroom, how dull it was, how little I felt, but how glad I was when it was accomplished. You drove me to Planned Parenthood 2 weeks later, when I was convinced, mistakenly, that I was pregnant and fourteen and another South Dakota statistic. But you would never be a father in this life.
Two years and two summers passed, and though I remember shreds of our young love, it is often muddled with the smell of pot and sweat and laundry piles. Your hair was often greasy, and you started becoming more angry and less funny. I started liking another boy down the street, and you likely never forgave me when I told you it was over.
Years later, I’d see you on occasion when I came back home, out at the bar downtown where they served minors and punks and hicks could play darts in harmony. The first few times, you were cold, but after some time had passed, you hated me less, and we drank a beer once, your eyes squinted with laughter on the sides like they used to. I wondered if I reminded you of me back then, in the days of your parent’s basement and Jimi Hendrix Experience.
I think that was the last time I saw you alive, because the next time was in a dream, years after you hung yourself in the bathroom of your apartment after a night of heavy drinking. After you died, all of our friends went to your parents house, where they bought us 20 boxes of Little Ceasar’s pizza and looked about as haunted as they did happy that there were living reminders of their son’s life. Your mom looked at me with such tenderness, but I could tell her lights were fading out, and she probably wouldn’t be going to the basement for a long time.
I kind of forgot about you… I didn’t want to remember you swinging from a bathroom ceiling. I think that made you mad, because the night you came into my dream, it frightened me awake. I was at a party, much like the dead party your parents had at their house that night, and I looked around and there you were in the corner, white t shirt with sharpie letters on it, Faded army green pants, boots, bracelets up your wrists. You were so pale…
You were staring at me through a part in your greasy black hair and you knew I saw you and you knew you were scary. A tiny smirk crawled across your face, I felt panic because nobody else could see you except me.
I forgot about you some more after that. Unless I heard a certain Fugazi or Nation of Ulysses song, you stayed in the closet of my memory. But one night, years later, you presented yourself again, this time in a very different light.
The dream was the same scenario- the party, the same kids from our high school, same pizza boxes strewn about. But we were all waiting, anticipating someone… Your parents were crying with happiness, hugging each other and whispering about a miracle. There were suddenly news reporters outside of the house, and police cars. You were escorted out of one, and walked up to the door in the midst of the bustle…
When you walked through the door, you were covered in dirt. Your mother wept at your feet, and we all stared in disbelief as you brushed the dirt out of your hair and shoulders, your skin was glowing and your eyes twinkled. “I wanted to let you know that I’m okay… I’ve learned so much…” I can’t recall the exact words, but you had travelled to another dimension and had some It’s a Wonderful Life moment, and upon returning to your body, dug yourself out of the grave and came home. I think you looked at me, and you were happy, coughing up dirt through a genuine smile.
I haven’t seen you since, but I wanted to let you know I did see you, as was your intention. And that I loved you with the salty sweetness of first love, candied and preserved forever without competition or distraction. You never broke my heart, as you did with so many, but you let me break yours, with fractured joy, an enduring passage into the soul of youth.
This article is part of the Ocooch Mountain Music Review in SEVEN magazine and website.
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