art by Cheryl L Owen-Wilson
Cigarette Lighter Love Song
by Josh Rountree
Josh Rountree's short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Polyphony 6 and Happily Ever After. His short fiction collection, Can't Buy Me Faded Love, is available from Wheatland Press. His first novel, Alamo Rising, was co-written with Lon Prater and is now available from White Cat Publications. "Cigarette Lighter Love Song" is not the first story he's written that has some element of rock and roll, and it's unlikely to be his last.
,***Editor's Note: Adult Story, Adult Language***
Before this place becomes a bowling alley, a rock and roll dive, a karaoke bar, a Tex-Mex joint, before this place becomes the spot where the only girl I'll ever love escapes the world, this place is a roller rink, a hangout for middle school kids mostly too afraid to do more than hold hands as they take another unsteady spin together, maybe sneak a kiss in the wash of red, blue, green strobe lights. Maybe not. I'm really not sure, anymore. The roller rink is where I desperately want to be. I know that much. But this place has a whirlwind nature and I often find myself sucked in by the music and the lights and taken to other whens that aren't nearly as great as this one.
No. This is the roller rink. This is nineteen eighty-five. I can tell because I can hear Ms. Pac Man chewing her way through another mouthful of dots and that song "Mickey" is playing on the too-loud sound system, that song I secretly love but claim to hate when all of my friends start to rag on it. Same way I claim to hate girls. Used to be I hated them for real but something in me has changed. It will change for my friends too but they still haven't caught the bug. Lucky them. Or maybe they have caught it and want to keep their secrets just like I do.
I can't say for sure.
What I know is that on this day, in this place, I fall in love.
Her name is Melissa.
The thing is, I never had a chance. I couldn't have resisted her even if I'd known that at age twelve she was already beginning to curl up into herself. A tumbleweed in the making.
Ready to pull loose and blow away
God damn it.
See, this is how it happens. I'm in that place I want to be, then suddenly it's twenty years later and Melissa is telling me what a son of a bitch I am and why did I have to screw the whole thing up just as she'd finally got the fucking spell right?
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Maybe because I don't want her to go.
That sounds right.
This is not a roller rink anymore but a karaoke bar that only takes up half the building. The other half is a nail salon. A haircut place. Something. Doesn't matter, this is the good half, the half with the juice. The half with Melissa's escape route.
"I had it," she says. "I fucking had it!"
"It wasn't going to work," I say.
"Yes it was! It was right there. I saw it! You ruined the whole thing."
Some tone-deaf fool is trying to belt out a Nickelback song and I'm half drunk and choking on cigarette smoke. I'm not in the mood to fight.
"It wasn't going to work," I say. "You don't know that."
"I do know! Why did you do that?"
"You can try again."
"Yeah, in ten years!"
"In ten years."
I'm pretty sure the building was a grocery store to begin with, but it's nineteen seventy-five and someone's converted it into a disco. The white lines on the bar are cocaine. My two-year-old self has no clue but my grown up brain seems to be along for the ride, and there's no mistaking the stuff. Melissa's Dad has chopped it into nice neat rows with a business card from his car detailing business. He has one cowboy boot hitched up on the barstool. He keeps rubbing at his nose with the sleeve of his silk shirt. He's young but his hair has already left him, so he wears a cowboy hat.
Melissa's mom is beautiful. Just like her daughter will be. The daughter is straddling her mother's knee. Mother takes daughter's chin gently in her fingers and turns her gaze away from the drugs. Does that even make a difference?
Two-year-old Melissa looks right into my eyes then. She recognizes me from her future. That much I can tell.
I'm not even here. I mean to say, I wasn't even here. Somehow I am now. Thank Melissa's spell I guess. Doesn't matter. She sees me and she knows.
"What are you doing?" asks Melissa's mother. Her name is Joan.
Bradley, the soon to be deceased stepdad spares her a weary look before snorting one of the lines.
"Do you want to go to jail?" asks Joan.
Melissa keeps right on staring at me.
"Fuck you," Bradley says. "No one cares."
"I care. There's a baby here. You should care about that much at least."
"She's not mine."
"You're right about that," says Joan.
The music is so loud and pulsing--I never learn to love disco, not even ironically--that I can't make out exactly what they say to one another next. Joan's wrist is draped in bracelets that slip down her forearm as she pulls Melissa tighter to her. Protective. Or what passes for protective in this time and place. What few lights that break the gloom are erratic, flashing. They splash off the obligatory disco ball in a nauseating wash of colors. I'm sitting on the floor, looking up at all this. The floor sticks to my ass, my palms. The music is so loud it's holding me in place. And Melissa won't look away. She knows where this is going. She won't break our connection because she doesn't want me to be alone with this. That's how much she loves me.
"I'm leaving," says Joan. "Tonight."
"The fuck you mean you're leaving?"
"Just what I said. I don't want to be married to you anymore and I'm going away. Tonight."
"You're not going anywhere." Bradley is grinning. All but sweating blood. "Where would you go?"
"A long way from here," says Joan.
She's holding a pistol now. Under the table so Bradley doesn't know she has it.
It's a good time maybe to press my palms to my ears, to close my eyes. But Melissa won't look away.
The noise of it all is deafening.
Not long after that, Joan takes the short cut out of there. Alone.
They passed a smoking ban earlier in the decade, so there's no smoke to cover up the stench of alcohol and sweat in this crowded section of the karaoke bar. This is the first decade of the two thousands, or whatever people call them. This a few minutes before I fuck up Melissa's spell. Accidentally on purpose. This is before she gets seriously pissed at me.
She's lying to me one last time. Telling me we're leaving together. I know this is bullshit. The reality is she's leaving me and she doesn't want to admit it.
"Where do you think we'll end up?" she asks.
"I think the question is, when do you think we'll end up." I'm playing along. I'm nothing if not a good sport.
"She always liked movies set during the war. Old black and white stuff. I think that's where we'll find her."
"Using the ten year rule, that would mean nineteen forty-five. Summer. So the war will be pretty much finished. Should be a good time to be alive."
The karaoke in this place is torture. Modern country. Classic metal. Top forty screeches. Songs an octave higher than anyone in this bar can sing. Why the hell would anyone think they could get drunk and actually sing Journey?
"You're sure we won't be... what? Unborn? Not in existence." I ask this like I really believe I'll be going.
"Yeah, I'm sure. I've got it worked out. The other times I screwed up but I didn't know as much about it as I do now. It's hard because I've been picking at my memory, trying to remember things my mother said and did before she left. But I was just a baby, you know? I've talked to some friends of hers. I think maybe I have all the pieces now. You know, for a long time I was afraid she'd died, or maybe wound up somewhere worse than the place she was running from. But I don't think that's what happed. I think she just messed something up."
"And you're sure it's possible for both of us to go?"
"Yeah." She looks away, sips a cocktail through a narrow straw. "We're going this time."
I've heard this before. Every ten years a portal opens in this place. Probably been happening since before this building was even built. Before anyone lived in this country for all I know. It's about ley lines and the season and the fucking orientation of Jupiter for all I know, but it happens. With the right spell--that's what Melissa calls it, like she's a witch or something--you can step into this portal and travel forward, backward, ten years, twenty, thirty. You get the picture.
The way it's supposed to work is, you actually go there. Body and soul. But based on all the memories I have right now that I shouldn't, and the fact that these brief moments spaced ten years apart are the only times I can even remember from my life anymore, I don't think that's always how this works.
I've asked Melissa to give this more thought, to be careful, but she doesn't want to hear it. Her mother went somewhere, right?
"Hold my hand while I say the words." Melissa has positioned a few knickknacks on one of the rickety bar tables, just so. A candle, a bell. A paperback with the cover ripped off. This is the right spot and this is the right time. I hold her hand and she closes her eyes. She pumps my hand twice; a covert goodbye. Then she starts to mumble. I've known Melissa in so many times, for so much of my life, but this is the perfect age for her. Early thirties with her hair still long down her back. Brown, streaked with barely perceptible strands of blond that will become falls of gray by the time we're here again in ten years. She'll still be beautiful, but right now she's perfect.
She still loves me now. In this moment.
No matter, though. She's still leaving.
The room heats up around me and she opens her eyes. Something over my shoulder and just beyond this reality reflects back at me from her widening stare. It's shimmering, beautiful, like an eruption of stardust.
That's when I pretend to slip from my chair. Too much beer maybe. That's when I accidentally on purpose manage to sweep all the elements of her spell from the table and onto the floor.
There will be another chance. In ten years.
The roller rink is the key here.
That night has none of the anger or heartbreak or sadness that our other moments have, and only a hint of the melancholy.
I hate skating. I'm only here because a couple of my friends twisted my arm and now they're off skating, playing air hockey, shooting pool. I'm not in the mood. Even the first time I lived this I must have known what was going to happen this night. I'm dressed for the occasion, I guess. Good jeans to protect my ass when I fall. Scuffed rental skates. Lime green polo with the collar down. Not quite a match for all the guys with their collars up, a couple of rolls in their short sleeves, all of them crowding around the Defender machine as if their lives depended on saving one more evacuee from the planet's surface. They're effortlessly cool and I can't compete with that.
So I'm surprised, the first time, when Melissa finds me haunting a chair in the back corner of the arcade and asks me if I want to skate.
I can't skate worth a shit. But what am I supposed to do, tell her no?
She only makes fun of me a little when she sees how unsteady I am. Still, she doesn't leave me behind. I don't know what it is to be drunk yet but that's how I feel amid the music and lights, skating next to Melissa from history class, Melissa whom I'm pretty sure used to live down the street from my grandparents. Melissa who maybe I met when we were babies but I don't quite remember it? I've seen her in town all my life, but now suddenly we are skating. Together. In front of everyone, including all of my friends who are not quite ready to admit that girls are actually pretty wonderful.
And I don't care.
"I know this is weird," she says, skating backwards in front of me. I'm doing my best to stay on my feet. "Me asking you to skate."
"It's not weird."
"Yeah, it kind of is," she says. "But here's the thing. I'm leaving tonight. For good. And I've always kind of felt like we should be friends. So, this is my last chance, I guess. I didn't want to let it go without telling you."
On the rink, under the disco ball stranded here from another era, together in front of everyone. That's supposed to make her my girlfriend or something, right? But she's leaving?
She grabs both of my hands, spins us around, then puts an arm around my back to catch me as I almost go skidding.
"I'm going to find my mom."
"Where's your mom? Don't you live with your dad or something?"
"Yes. That's why I'm going to find my mom."
I don't ask.
"I think I know how to find her," she says. She pulls me to the side of the rink and in her infinite mercy, plops me down onto a chair. We sit together and I have to wait for her to speak because I'm not sure I even can.
"Can I tell you a secret?" she asks.
"My mom killed my stepdad right here where we're sitting."
"Yeah, I remember that," I say. But that's impossible. I can't remember something I wasn't there to witness. No way I said that the first time. Every other time, maybe.
"I'm serious," she says. "She killed him and then she left. Through a portal. To another time."
I remember. I think. I definitely remember how loud it was.
"You don't have to believe me," she says. "I don't even expect you to. It's just this. I'm leaving forever and I want to leave something of myself behind. My story, maybe? I don't want everyone to forget me, and I want at least one person to know that I wasn't kidnapped. In case I end up on a milk carton or something?"
"No one will forget you."
"Why are you leaving?" I ask.
"I told you, I'm going to find my mom. I'm going through that portal when it opens up. I don't think she meant to leave me here. Something just got screwed up. And I'm not living with my real Dad anymore. He's... pretty bad."
"Drug dealer beat you with a belt bad," she says. "There's a reason Mom left him when I was a baby. Though from what I hear, my stepdad wasn't much of a catch either."
"God, I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry," she says. "Just skate with me."
It's hours yet until the portal opens, and those hours are the finest of my life. Pretty sad, I know, but when you're stuck in these small moments like I am, you latch on to good memories a little harder. You're reluctant to let them go. We spend those hours like we'll never have more. Like a summer camp romance in fast forward, cramming all the hand holding and laughing and secret sharing and covert kisses into that short slip of time because we know it's all we have and pretty soon the real world is going to ruin it all.
And so it does. But not quite yet.
"Do you ever wish you'd made it through the portal when we were kids?"
"Of course not," Melissa says. "We wouldn't have had enough time together to become us."
We're screaming because now the building has become a rock and roll bar and some shitty local band has finally discovered grunge a few years late and they're doing their best to chase everyone out of the room with a wall of guitar fuzz. And that's okay because we're young and music doesn't have to be good to take hold and shake you around the room. These could be our last minutes in this place and we're making the most of them.
From what I can gather, we've been inseparable for the last ten years. I wish I could remember some of it. Melissa working overtime to figure out how to make sure she didn't screw things up this time around. Me holding on for the ride. I don't really know, but it sounds good.
The band slows down, remembers it's a bar band and dusts off a slow hair metal ballad. A cigarette lighter love song. And we know them all. About half of the forty or so people in the room lift lighters in response. Melissa and I do, too. Grinning and singing along now. It's what people do.
Our hands grip--unbreakable. Afraid one of us might get sucked into the portal without the other one. In this moment we can't live without one another. In other moments things are different.
Right now, this song is about us. All of these songs are about us.
I have no idea where we're going to end up and what kind of songs they'll be singing there.
Melissa knows the words to the song. To the spell.
We see the portal explode to life near the entrance to the bathroom, exactly where we expect it to be. We are aware. No one else is hip to what's happening and so they don't perceive the change in temperature, the jarring, jagged colors stabbing into the darkness and erasing the stage lights.
After repeatedly living through this night and all the others, I've pinpointed this moment as the zenith of our relationship. The last second that Melissa loves me as much as I love her, and the last night she truly plans to take me with her.
We stand together at the portal, waiting for it to let us in. A sea of cigarette lighter flames flicker as the portal exhales.
Melissa knows all the words to the spell now.
But words aren't enough.
Two Thousand Fifteen is the last time I see Melissa, as far as I know. I mean, apart from the numberless times I've repeated all the earlier moments.
"Why are you here?"
Melissa looks tired and that gray hair I mentioned is in full bloom. She's not surprised to see me though we haven't spoken in years. I knew she'd be right here, right now. Our place, as I think of it now, has become a restaurant, though one in a rapid state of decline. A bad Tex-Mex joint that's one health inspector shy of turning this place into an empty building. We're picking at the chips and salsa, sipping iced tea from red plastic glasses as we wait for the portal to appear.
"I'm here to see you." The truth is, I don't know why I'm here. That's the best answer I have.
"I don't want you screwing this up for me," she says. "Not again."
I put my hands up in mock surrender. "I'm not here to get in your way. I'm just here to tell you I'm sorry for last time. And I'm sorry for... whatever."
"Don't tell me you're sorry!" Melissa says. "You don't even know what you're apologizing for."
She's right. I don't know what happens, what happened, outside these moments. Not anymore. But I know she's leaving for real this time.
"You're not going with me," she says as if stating it for the record.
"I know that now." Pretty sure I've always known that. "I just wanted to tell you goodbye."
Melissa shakes her head. "No, you just thought maybe you could talk me out of it or stop me somehow. And I'm not going to let you! We've spent most of our lives circling this same problem and you still don't understand it. You still don't understand me."
Melissa is wrong about that. I understand her completely. But I'm just starting to learn about myself.
"I've always been straight with you," she says. "I want to find my mom."
"You want to leave this world," I say.
"Yes! I want to leave this world. Is that too much to fucking ask?" A plate of onion-drenched enchiladas cools uneaten on her plate and a thirty-year-old top-forty hit that we both used to love plays softly through the restaurant's sound system. The air conditioning spins a dusty piņata overhead. It hangs from the exact spot where there used to be a disco ball. Melissa is crying now and we're starting to draw attention.
"It's not too much to ask," I say in a low voice. "Let's not get kicked out of here, okay? I don't want you to miss your chance this time. Seriously."
She studies me for a few seconds, nods, and wipes her eyes with a paper napkin. "I'm sorry. I've just had enough of all this."
Enough of me, too.
But it's not about me and I finally realize that.
Melissa gets her wish. She knows all the right words now. She doesn't need any knickknacks to focus on. She has nothing holding her back.
I watch her pass through the portal alone.
And I think I'm ready to let her go, that I've matured to the point where I can move on and let her have this.
But I'm so fucking wrong.
There is still one more scene in my life, one more moment I'm allowed to experience. I view it by the light of a cigarette lighter for reasons of nostalgia. Memories are all I have, after all, and few enough of those. The building is nothing now. Boarded up and darkened with age. Animals scurry in the shadows. Bits of trash and broken glass shift underfoot as I cross to the exact spot where I know the portal will be. I wait in the gloom with my flickering lighter, the near absence of everything my penance.
It seems I still won't let her go.
I've figured this whole thing out now. Melissa learned long ago, I suspect, that you can't take someone with you through the portal. You can only pass that way if you're meant too, but that didn't stop me from trying my hardest to hitch a ride. That's why I've broken loose from the natural order of things.
I can't even remember our life together.
These moments, these nights of the portal, they're all I have, anymore.
I've figured something else out, too. I don't think Melissa's mom wanted her along. She was running, after all. Just like her daughter would be. She had to have known. But Melissa didn't want to believe that, any more than I wanted to believe Melissa would leave me. And our fumbling attempts to hold back the ones we love somehow broke this magic.
That's what I think happened, at least. I don't know.
Somewhere Melissa and I are skating together amid a riot of kids with disco ball lights causing the room to spin. Somewhere we're singing together at the top of our lungs. But here it's just me, alone with my fleeting butane lighter and not enough memories to warm me.
When the portal opens, Melissa could be standing there, hand out to pull me in and take me with her. We had a life together, whether I remember it or not. And that's got to count for something.
Still, I don't really expect her to come. She never does. But it's possible. Every time it's possible.
And in some time, some place, I can't help but believe she still loves me.
This story was first published on Friday, January 17th, 2014
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