Jackson Miller, in the middle of one of the strangest nights of his life, felt nothing short of fractured. In a room full of aspiring writers—who the hell else attends a fiction reading—he was a celebrity. But this seemed to elicit only disdain from his friends, at least from Eddie. Eddie acted pissed off that he'd bargained a reading in order to get them a table, and Jackson was tempted to tell him to grow the fuck up and realize that he'd done it not to show off but for Henry's sake. Instead he tried to appease Eddie by talking up his book to fans, but those efforts also met with disapproval. All he seemed to be able to do for his once-best-friend was to give him yet another excuse to drink too much.
And then, watching Margot read, Jackson was overwhelmed by tenderness. He toyed with the idea of begging her to marry him but was also taken with the notion that Margot and Henry might be hapless soul mates. Mostly, he worried that he could never have real friends again. As he clapped loudly after Margot's mostly inaudible reading, he realized again what she'd know all along: she was better off without him.
What he needed was a woman like himself. He wanted a woman who was successful and good-looking so could he be sure he was truly desired rather than seen as a good trade-up, an opportunity, an object of bragging rights. What he needed was the female equivalent of the Jonathans. He stared at Eddie, whose posture already sagged with the liquor he was knocking back, and resisted the urge to hit him as hard as he could. Eddie had no idea what to do with a woman like Amanda. Jackson should have stopped him from marrying her in the first place.
Whether or not he really would have decked his friend, he would never know. Several women shrieked, and the room seemed to roar. A tall woman in a long, black wig and white cat-suit stalked through the CIA Bar. Jackson measured the perfect but familiar line of arm, the bottom shaped like an inverted heart, the long curve of slender calf. The woman grabbed the microphone.
“I don't want an introduction,” she said loudly, surveying the crowd. “I am an introduction.”
All she needed was a guitar to convince anyone she was a rock star. She even sang her first story: a short-short told from the point of view of a politician's penis. Her falsetto was confident, and she swayed her ribcage in a snake-like move.
“That one's titled ‘Little One Eye',” she said to the raucous room. “And now for something serious.”
She read from a pristine manuscript in an unnaturally low voice. Jackson concentrated on her features, imaging her without the wig and makeup. He glanced at Henry, to his right, whose hands fell to his lap as he leaned forward, staring. To his left, Eddie was scanning the room as he swirled his melting ice cubes around his almost-empty drink. Even when he looked toward the podium, his stare was vague.
Clarice Aames continued to read her story about a movie star trapped by her own fame who hires a ghostwriter to pen a fake autobiography. Toward the end of the story, the narrator puts her ghostwriter in his place by calling him an amanuensis. Jackson had not seen nor heard the word since Iowa, when the workshop had argued that Amanda couldn't use it, that it was too pretentious for fiction. Amanda had been furious, in her subdued way, arguing over post-class drinks that nothing was too pretentious for fiction, that she could use the word if she damn well pleased.
And so it was the theme of the story and that single ridiculous word, even more than the hints of Amanda's silky voice leaking through Clarice's low husk, that convinced Jackson that he was right at first sight. Clarice Aames was Amanda Renfros. Barely hearing the story now, he watched her mouth open and close over her words. He adored her more than ever.
Jackson studied Eddie's face again and decided that his friend was too far gone, was beyond contempt if he couldn't even recognize his wife's fabulous limbs under the skin-tight white spandex, her hand in its glove, the shape of her eye under the thick black liner and purple contact lenses. Eddie was a ruined man if he didn't remember how badly she had wanted to get away with using the word amanuensis to distinguish someone who merely copies from someone who writes.
He no longer wanted to punch his friend. As he watched Amanda frenzy the room with rhyming couplets, he wanted to kill him.
As Amanda pushed herself through the rising swarm of fans, Jackson stood and kicked Eddie's chair out from under him. He grinned, feeling strong. But pity overcame his rage at the sight of his old friend inebriated, knocked back on his can, oblivious to the life he could have claimed for himself. Too drunk to realize why he was ass to the floor, Eddie reached up a hand for help and was pulled to his feet by Jackson's old basketball hoist.
Elise Blackwell is the author of two previous novels (The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish and Hunger), and her stories have appeared in Witness, Seed, Global City Review, and elsewhere. Originally from southern Louisiana, she has an MFA from the University of California-Irvine and teaches at the University of South Carolina. She is married to writer David Bajo. Her novel Grub is forthcoming from Toby Press