Dennis and Edna sinned. They also disappeared into the Severn River thenight of the Believers’ album release,
which is why the police think they’re dead.
Dennis sinned against whatever code makes us decent and spark-lit and
Edna—even worse—sinned against
Just now I was looking up
adultery in the Oxford. I let the lens passadrenal and adrift and
adsorb, but I rested on adulteration.
Adulteration, perhaps, is the more damaging act. Sal called me earlier from his desk at the ad
agency, told me to stop being “a maniac.”
He thinks I should drop the whole investigation—“Just let it go, Jamie,
fuck it, relax.” But to let it go,
wholly, would make adulteration possible.
The truth could twist to fiction like a bending harp note.
The afternoon, since Sal called,
has swooned by. It’s a typical Baltimore spring day—some
clouds, much sunlight. I’ve tried to
relax. I shot baskets in the church
parking lot, ate corn flakes, browsed through old City Papers and Eight by Ten
band flyers. I put Desmond Dekker’s
“Israelites” on CD thirty-five repeat. I
ran my hand over paper edges, drew my blood, studied it.
Last summer, before Edna and I
were married or even knew each other, Sal and I played a lot of
basketball. We both worked part-time for
The CityPaper—Sal sold ads, I wrote word puzzlers—and when things were slow we
went to the Vo-Tech school on Howard Street and played h-o-r-s-e. Instead of h-o-r-s-e, though, we used
whatever word occurred to us: c-r-a-c-k-p-o-t or w-i-n-d-f-a-l-l or
afternoon Sal suggested d-a-z-z-l-i-n-g b-r-u-n-e-t-t-e g-o-d-d-e-s-s, then
laughed and asked if I’d seen the new music reporter. “Uh-uh,” I said. “Worth braving the Eight by Ten for?”
“Worth ruining my jump shot for,”
he said, bricking one into a parkedCressida. Imagine
naming a car after an unfaithful woman.
We found Edna that night at the Eight by Ten, drinking whiskies and
scribbling at the bar. Sal and I pushed
through the punkers and retro kids, introduced ourselves, sat down, asked about
the band. “They just play Dylan,” she
told us. “A brave idea after Under the
Red Sky, but it works. Lots of Blonde
and Highway and Harding. They’re called
The Obviously Five Believers. Their
fifth guy, the harp player, is gonna move to Boston, so I don’t know if it’ll be The
Obviously Four Believers or what.”
“Like James at 15 that became
James at 16 when it made it to a new season,” Sal jumped in.
“Mmm,” said Edna. She turned to me. “I like your anagrams. Excepthorsecart to orchestra this week, which
was too easy.” She slid me
herwhiskey—raising one eyebrow, crescent-like.
I took a small drink. She
laughed. “Have some more—I need to be
able to write later. These shows make me
want to get drunk. That’s a good sign.
It means a good review. When Mighty
Congress or the Yack Boys play, I order Fresca.” I smiled, took another drink, looked up at the stage. The singer wasscreaming “I couldn’t see where
we were going, but you said you did and I took your word.” He was tall, with blonde bangs and a black
jacket. When he crouched down with the
mike, his collar pushed around his face like a leather veil.
Veil to evil is an easy
anagram. Edna and I began spending a lot
of time together—we’d catch Believers shows, drive to the reservoir, make love
by the side of her van. “Jaaamie,” she’d
whisper, in that perfect alto voice, and the birch trees would echo. Sometimes we’d stay till after dawn, watch
the sun creep up, imagine it looking for us.
We’d cover each other with our sweet and sticky bodies, kiss and suck
and whisper, shutter off the day.
Finally, Edna would stand up, step into some jeans, throw back her hair
like so much black water. I’d get into
The sun wasn’t looking for us—we
were just rotating towards it.
By October the Eight by Ten was
into techno. The club gilded its walls
withflashing white lights and hired a DJ to spin Nine Inch Nails and Meat Beat
Manifesto. Edna and I started hanging
out at the Irish Pub, a Charles
Village dive that won us
over by having “Israelites” on its jukebox.
We sprawled across the splintered wood tables, drank whiskies, sang,
sometimes wrote. Edna told me funny
stories about growing up with her grandparents.
(“I’d be playing Barrel of Monkeys,” she said, “and eventually my senile
granddad would run into the closet, crying, “That girl is after me!”) Often Sal would join us, and sometimes it
would just be Sal and I because Edna was covering a show. The Believers started doing their own songs,
got gigs at Max’s and Ledbetters and the Loft.
Flyers saying “Believe yet?” were posted everyplace.
I was scrambling Asian capitals
on a Thursday night, rocking my shoulders to Dekker singing “I don’t want to
end up like Bonnie and Clyde.” Sal had just got a real job at an ad firm,
and he was sitting across from me, reading The Sun. “What do you think of these guys?” he asked.
“The Believers.” He passed me the “Weekender: What’s Hot”
section. “They made the fucking
“I only saw them when they did
Dylan. ‘Fucking corporate’?”
“Gimme a break. Edna goes to all the shows, right? It’s becoming agoddamn hipster scene, Jamie.”
“And Edna’s a goddamn
reporter. So what?”
“I just wondered if you thought
it was weird. Hey, I got an idea for
theGap account. It’ll play off those London subway warnings,
with some chipper Brit droning ‘Mind the Gap, Mind the Gap.’ What do you think?”
“No one will get that.” I grabbed my capitals, left Sal a handful
ofquarters, walked into the night. It
was only seven blocks to the Loft. The
Believers were between sets. Edna was
sitting on the edge of the stage, wearing a Modigliani-print T-shirt, sharing a
fat whiskey with the singer. I watched
her laugh for a moment—she couldn’t be heard over the heavy boots and drink
orders—but I watched her laugh and imagined a silent film sequence, with
Chaplin or Keaton or Harold Lloyd. What
would the caption say? I wondered. What
the hell would someone think to write, under that laugh, for a caption?
“Jamie!” I heard, after I had
turned my back to get a whiskey. It
wasEdna waving me over.
“What are you doing here,
baby? I thought you’d be hanging out
withSal.” “Yeah, I was. I mean, I did for a while.” Under the stage lights, the singer’s hair
looked almost ghost-white.
“Anyway, this is Dennis. We’re gonna give him the cover in
mid-January. This is sort of an
“Oh. Hey. I
liked your ‘Pledging My Time’ last summer.
It was hard, itwas good.”
“Word.” He put his hand up to me. “Now we do my songs. You write those word puzzlers, right?” I nodded.
“Man, I do that kind of stuff too.
Check out this pangram—Jackdaws love my big sphynx of quartz. If you want to use it, you can.” “Thanks.”
Dennis got up to gather his band for the next set. I looked at Edna. “What?” she said.
“Jackdaws love my big sphynx of
“Come on, Jamie, he’s just trying
to help. How many people do you runinto
who even know what a pangram is?”
“Still. . . .”
Dennis and the Believers took the
stage. I listened to a few songs about
aliens and betrayal, then told Edna I’d see her after the show. “I love you,” she whispered. And I loved her. I thought it all the way home, passing
stalled cars andbus-stop bums—I love her, I love her, I love her. It was the only caption worth worrying
about. Later, when she came over, I sunk
myself deep into her musky flesh, breathed roses and licorice and chamomile.
At our wedding, Edna wore a white
cotton dress that she had traded a rainstick for. She twirled on the steps of the Irish Pub,
whiskey in one hand, bouquet in the other.
It was December 14th—the air was chalky with snow. We had to borrow Aran sweaters from the
bartender. We didn’t have a priest, it
wasn’t legal, but it was something we decided to do a few days earlier, coming
down from a drunk.
“Let’s have a party,” Edna had
I pulled my head from under the
pillow, checked the clock—2:00 p.m. “How
about a wedding?”
She ran her tongue from my ankle
to my lips and slowly back down again.
“This is a good yes,” I finally managed.
“There’s more,” she whispered,
climbing on top of me, hair spilling wildly in folds.
December 14th is the birthday of
Nostradamus and Morey Amsterdam.
Idiscovered this later, searching for clues. Edna and I went to a New Year’s Eve party at
the Loft a few weeks after our wedding—the Believers were playing, and Sal was
revved up about an ad idea. “It’s
for Pepsi,” he told us. “It’s a bunch of
old ladies at a banquet table, sipping on Cokes and nodding their heads to some
Lawrence-Welk-type tune. Then U2 bursts
out of nowhere—they each have Pepsis—and Bono kicks over the banquet table and
starts rocking out to that song ‘Even Better Than the Real Thing.’ The ladies are on the ground with their
mouths open, the Cokes pouring out of their hands.” “U2 would never do it,” I laughed. “A little faith,” Sal chided. “Have a little faith.” The Believers took a break.
Edna cut through the green-haired and spiked-jacketed crowd, leaned
against the stage next to Dennis. I
watched them for a moment—the way he took a drink out of her glass without even
asking. Eventually I walked over.
“Jamie, man, I got another one
you can use,” Dennis greeted me. “Waltz,
nymph, for quick jigs vex Bud.”
“Uh-huh. Who’s Bud?”
“Any Bud, man. Any person named Bud.” Edna brought her glass to herlips, looked at
us both. Dennis shrugged. “Anyway, you can have it. People should share.” I told them both I’d see them later and walked over to Sal. “I hate thatsinger,” I said.
Sal nodded. “They should play that Monkeys song. The one about being abeliever.”
“I guess.” A lot of people were stage-diving and getting
kicked in the head. I saw Edna with her
notepad. Believe yet? Believe her believe her believe her.
I drank more in January. I really drank a lot. Pack my box with fivedozen liquor jugs—that’s
a pangram. It’s got all the
letters—nothing’sleft out or adulterated.
The unbent truth, remember. But
there are partsof the month that I’ve just lost. The City Paper came out with Dennis onthe
cover—he talked like a fool about singers he admired, people who “wentout on
top”—Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin. He said
he wanted to “take it onestep further,” spewed that Lizard King crap, ranted
and rambled. I kept reading for one of
Edna’s lethal asides. She reported it
straight, though. I showed Sal the
article at the Irish Pub and he shrugged.
“That’s her job to build those guys up, Jamie. Fuck, you know that.” Someone put a fiver in the jukebox and played
“Shanty Town” twenty times. It wasn’t “Israelites,” but it was okay, it
made me feel better.
If you could take one thing back
in your life, knowing it might changeeverything, might cancel out every
subsequent pleasure or even get youkilled, would you do it? I’d do it.
I’d go back to February 8th—James Dean’s birthday. Edna and I had tacos, cake, whiskey at
Mencken’s. I tried to get her to go to
the Irish Pub. “Come on,” she said, “I
need to sleep.” She was going to Annapolis
to cover a release.”
“Why? No one’s gonna buy that record. Your article scared everyoneaway.” “Uh-huh. That’s really nice.”
“It’s a 20,000 unit first
printing. That’s big. It’s also my job. Do your palindromes before you lose your job,
“Fuck.” She drove me to the Irish Pub and left me
there. I watched hergo. I watched Edna drive her van away, the van
beside which we used to make love. It
made a sweeping left on MLK
Dean. Edna. This is the thing I would change.
I passed out drunk that
night. I got a call from a cop about six
thenext morning. He wasn’t really sure
what had happened, except that Dennis and Edna had taken a rowboat out on the Severn River and never come back. People at the party got worried. The cop found the boat, with most of their
clothes in it. That’s how he got the phone
number, he said. It was about thirty
degrees outside. Thirty degrees. The cop told me this as gently as he could.
I think I stayed inside for a
while. I don’t want to
adulterate—butagain, it’s just not clear.
Sal left a lot of messages, maybe knocked onmy door a few times. I wrote some stuff down:
Believers. Bee slivers.
nothing, nix, nada.By the time I returned Sal’s calls and told him to
meet me at the Irish Pub, my world, recently resolved, was re-focusing.
Sal was reading The City Paper at
a corner table when I walked in.
“Israelites,” thankfully, was playing on the jukebox. “It’s his song lyrics, Sal. His song lyrics are full of clues.”
He looked at me and nodded. “I’m glad you came. I’m really glad.”
“The lyrics. I’ve transcribed them all. Not the Dylan, you know, butDennis’s own
songs. There are all these hints about
the disappearance. Acrostics.” I handed him a spiral notebook.
“How’d you even get the
songs? You bought that album?”
“Edna had bootleg tapes. Some of it was pretty hard to make out, but
Ithink I got it. Read it.”
Sal pushed aside his paper and
looked through the notebook. I ordered
acouple whiskies while he read. “Well,”
he finally said. “What are youtalking about?”
“Look at this line from ‘Fish
Scales for Eyes.’ ‘It moves us past
isolation, makes ravishing images . . . Seeing is no guarantee.’ I’m up, I’m rising. And in ‘Sonic Blues,’ ‘Hit on a
“Those are the best ones.”
“Jamie, you go through any thirty
pages of words and you’re gonna findall kinds of shit. It’s like a monkey with a typewriter will
eventually write—what? all of Edna’s articles, plus some save-your-relationship
tracts—if you let him type long enough, like a trillion years. Anyway, even if Dennis meant to do this, it’s
just that Mr. Mojo Risin pose we both hate.”
“I don’t think so.” I took the notebook, told Sal I’d call him
when Ifound something new. This was
about a month ago.
The editor at The City Paper has
left some sympathetic messages about mynot turning in the palindromes and
probably needing some time and all that, but I notice that someone new is doing
the word puzzlers now. Fuck it. I’m re-focusing. Yesterday I found my name scrambled in
“American Jive,” the Believers song that’s getting radio play. So I’m getting closer. Closer.
Sal thinks I’m turning ordinary
events into rituals. I don’t even know
what he means. Isn’t corn flakes at noon
a ritual? Isn’t practicing free throws a
ritual? Isn’t drinking whiskies and
pushing F128 next to Desmond Dekker’s beautiful name, night after night, a
So then is tracing maps of the Severn River, bathing in rose water, running my tongue
across licorice. So then is anything.
Sal sent me a poem by Weldon Kees
called “Crime Club.” He didn’t saywhere
he found it. It ends with the sleuth Le
Roux “Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues / Lead nowhere, or to
walls so high their tops cannot be seen. . . .”
Sal adds that “Kees drowned also”—but also may not be the right
word. He wants me to come back to the
Irish Pub, and I might, I might.
Blood is not wine, not
whiskey. Blood is thicker, deeper, it
moves atits own speed. I’ve been playing
a lot of Dylan lately. It strangely
comforts me. “Obviously Five Believers”
is a hell of a song.
Yeah I could make it without you
honey if I just didn’t feel so all alone. Dennis
and Edna sinned. Read it backwards or
forwards, it says the same thing. When I
find them, I’m going to kill them, or I’m going to kill somebody.
Teaches English at the University of Washington and poetry as part of Seattle’s Writers in the Schools program
Margie, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Spinning Jenny, Pontoon, The Cream City Review, The Madison Review, The Cortland Review, etc.
Pushcart Prize nominee, 2003 James Boatwright III Prize for Poetry from Shenandoah