By Josh Hanson
When the plane landed, Celia gathered her things from where they sat on the empty seat beside her. It was extravagant, traveling with two seats, but it had been too late to refund them on the morning of the flight when Nick told her he wouldn’t be going. She imagined the whole trip would be like this: gently correcting everyone who thought she was a party of two. A party of one, she thought. And not much of a party. A pity party.
She’d cried all the way to the airport, her Uber driver not speaking and not making eye contact. Five stars, Raheem. You’re a champ. By the time she’d stepped out of the car and into the weird echoes of the airport entrance, she was done crying. She’d cleaned herself up in the public bathroom, sent texts to Jenn and Alex, apologizing for her earlier texts and assuring them she was alright.
And she was alright. Mostly.
She’d cultivated a black widow persona on the flight, constructing a whole narrative in which her boyfriend didn’t dump her before she left for a six week residency but instead died suddenly, in mysterious circumstances after having taken out a large insurance policy. This character was what she needed, at least until she was in her room. She’d lean on her as much as she needed.
She put her sunglasses on, though they were still standing in the plane’s aisle, and she pushed her chin up into the air. Jacket over her arm. Unfuckwithable.
There was a whole string of texts from both Alex and Jenn, and she simply responded with “Arrived safely. Talk soon.” Cool and collected.
The hatch finally opened and the stairs were folded out. This airport was so small that you walked right out onto the tarmac, which felt like something out of some French New Wave picture and matched her current persona perfectly. She strode across the pavement, heels clicking between the yellow painted lines. It was overcast and muggy, the sky a uniform gray.
The Airport was a small square building with high ceiling and scale models of old biplanes hung from wires. She tried to imagine Shae in a place like this and couldn’t. Really, the idea of Shae in California didn’t work, though it appeared that the weather in this northern corner of the state might have borne some similarity to his native Ireland. Was the airport even here in the thirties? She’d have to look it up.
A man, early thirties, handsome and dressed for travel–which was a lost art–came through the front doors and seeing her, nodded and then lowered his eyes.
Glory. It was like magic, this attitude she wore like a coat. Perfection. She wanted all men to admire and fear her. Avert your eyes, worms. You don’t know what you’d be signing up for.
Her car arrived, and the middle aged man lifted her bags into the trunk and held the door for her, which was a good start, acknowledging the femme fatale, but unlike Rasheem, he of the silent journey and eyes-to-the-front attitude, this one was a talker. She tried to look out the window at the gray ocean water, seeming to lie motionless in the bay, giving short answers, but he wouldn’t take the hint. Two stars, Walter. Learn to read the room.
“Boston? I love Boston. Lifelong Sox fan. Used to go almost every summer, take in a game. You ever take in a game?” He stared at her in the mirror for so long that she feared she would either have to answer him, or he would drive them off into the bay.
“Not a fan. I never got baseball. I’ve tried. So much standing around.”
He laughed and nodded. “It’s a thinking man’s game. Leisurely. I like leisurely. More things should be leisurely. Like vacations. How long are you staying in town?”
“Six weeks,” she said, her phone buzzing in her hand. It was Nick, checking to see if she’d arrived okay. It seemed he’d meant it when he’d said he wanted to keep it amicable, and that pissed her right off.
“Six weeks? That’s what I’m talking about.” He slapped the wheel. “That’s leisurely. Not sure we’ve got enough sites to fill six weeks, though.”
“I’m not really doing the tourist thing,” she said, putting her phone face down in her lap and ignoring it. “I’m on a fellowship. Here to do some work on my PHD.”
He made a suitably impressed face in the mirror. Femme Fatale he didn’t get, but PHD he understood. Whatever worked.
“Marine biology? That kinda thing?”
“Huh. We get a lot of the marine biology folks, with the university. Don’t know if I’ve ever met a poet before.”
“You probably have and just didn’t know it. They look almost like everyone else. But I’m not a poet. A literature student. Studying a poet. Dolin Shae. Famous Irish poet. Spent a couple of years here in the thirties.”
“Never heard of him.”
“Well, Walter, poetry is a thinking man’s game.”
He gave a little nod in honor of that shot, which was really much bitchier than she’d meant it. She’d teach him to spot a femme fatale if it killed him.
“There’s a foundation that has his papers, and I’m going to study them.”
“In a leisurely fashion.” he smiled at her, showing there were no hard feelings, that he could take a little riposte among friends.
“That’s the idea.”
They had crossed a narrow two lane bridge across a little inlet, and now they were cruising through the dingy outskirts of the town. Pawn shops and cheap motels. Check cashing places and a card hall. Was gambling legal in California? Shae had been an incorrigible gambler, if an unsuccessful one.
Walter took a right at a wide intersection, and soon they were in a very different part of town. The streets were red brick, and the buildings aggressively victorian. It was cute, but kind of quaint by Boston standards. Are these buildings even a hundred years old? Maybe just.
The car stopped in front of a big three story building, white, with what seemed like a hundred windows facing the street, and also, she imagined, if one were up high enough, offering a view of the water. It had the same weathered look as everything here: the harsh mixture of painted wood and salt water. But it looked nice enough.
“This is an apartment building, no?” Walter said as he set her bags on the sidewalk.
“I think so. I’ve got an AirBNB.”
“Nice. great location. Lots of good food down here. You like crab?”
It was time to get inside. It sounded like Water was ready to ask her to dinner.
“Not especially,” she said, and she took her bags by their handles and walked away.
Inside the main doors, it was dark and smelled slightly of mold, and directly ahead was a wall of brass mailboxes. It was really a pretty exceptional piece of work, with scrollwork and leaves at the corners.
She opened the box marked 201, which was unlocked, as promised, and took out an envelope. She could feel the key slide heavily inside.
Staircases flanked it on both sides, and Celia dragged her bags bumping up the steps, the noise echoing in the stairwell. Not very fucking femme fatale.
201 was at the end of the hall, furthest from the stairs. The hall’s carpeting was faded and dirty, the pattern all but lost, and only a few of the half-dozen light fixtures seemed to be working. If I have to spend six weeks in a dive…
But inside, the room was open and airy. The kitchen window was cracked open, letting the sea air in. A galley kitchen with a little dining table, a living room that faced out toward the water, a square little bedroom with a double bed and one chest of drawers, a bathroom with what looked like original fixtures in steel and porcelain. The ceilings were high, and the molding curved inward. This will do. This will do fine.
She ate at a little seafood place just a block from her room, and she had the crab. She sent silent apologies to Walter, wherever he was now. It really was wonderful. And instead of answering any of the texts from her concerned friends and her ex boyfriend, she ordered the chocolate cake, which was ridiculously big and ridiculously rich and just exactly right. She had to admit that the food was better than she’d had any right to expect from what she couldn’t stop thinking of as a northern backwater.
I’ll be the widow of the sea, in my two story walk-up, eating chocolate cake and red wine and glaring daggers at men in the street. She would take up smoking, only cigarettes made her barf. It could be worse.
That night, lying naked in the very middle of the double bed (take that, Nick) she listened to the waves, just beyond the next block of buildings, constant and soft, and she left the window open, even though the air was outrageously cold for June, and she cried quietly. Not very femme fatale at all, Cece. Tomorrow, she’d see who she was now, without Nick, on this other coast, so very far from home.
The next day, she walked through the fog-laced streets, down and out of the quaint little downtown, to where the highway cut through town. Her destination was the Daly Foundation, some random NGO that had managed to come into possession of Dolin Shae’s California-era papers. Celia had spoken to the director on the phone, and the woman had been cheerful and accommodating. Very businesslike.
Now, Celia stood in front of an odd, triangular shaped building, staring at her phone, looking back and forth between the published address for the Daly Foundation and the painted numbers above the door of a building with a golden eye painted in the window and a sign hanging out over the road that read “PSYCHIC READINGS” and pictured a diagram of a hand. No matter how many times she compared, the numbers still matched.
She walked around the block, seeing if there was some more likely building, but the numbers jumped into the next hundreds, and the buildings were all low, dirty apartment complexes with a dozen bicycles all chained to the railings.
She went back to the front of the Psychic Readings place, took a breath, and went inside.
Little bells announced her entrance, and a plump, dark haired woman looked up from her seat behind the counter. Her face broke into a smile that lit her whole face. A good face, Celia thought. The woman stood up, revealing a sleeveless purple dress over an expansive bosom. A streak of gray at the front of her hair was so perfect that Celia pondered if it weren’t fake.
“What can I do for you,” the woman said, and Celia crossed the little room, across its dark carpeting and through the cloying scent of nag champa.
“My name is Celia Green, and I’m trying to find the Daly Foundation. The address is, well, it’s your address.”
“Celia, yes! We spoke on the phone. I’m Marty.” She held out a hand and Celia shook it, all the while unable to hide the perplexity on her face.
“Not what you expected, huh? Well, this right here,” she waved her hands at the entryway, “is not the Daly Foundation. Follow me.”
She lifted a section of the countertop up and gestured Celia through, and then she led her through the back room, which was more of a hallway lined on both sides with wire shelving, the shelves stacked high with cardboard boxes. They went to the far end, where Marty opened what looked like a steel fire door. She wedged a rubber doorstop under it, propping it open, and went up the stairs just beyond.
“The foundation was my dad’s. Owen Daly. He was a bit of an amateur historian and a professional packrat. He collected everything from the early part of the last century that he could find. He had a special interest in your poet. Thought it was a real claim to fame, for some reason.”
The stairs ended in a long, slant-ceilinged room. Both sides were lined with stacked file boxes, and in the center was a folding table, a metal chair, and an old fashioned library lamp, complete with green glass shade.
“He did win a Pulitzer. And was nominated for the Nobel twice,” Celia said, attempting for some reason she could not fathom, to defend the honor of Dolin Shae, dead some ninety years.
“I didn’t know that. Huh.”
She led Celia down the stacks of boxes and stopped in front of one tower of four file boxes, brown, with a faux wood grain printed on them. The labels on each were scrawled in a loose, flowing script: Shae.
“That’s all of it. I’m afraid it’s not allowed to leave the premises, but you’re welcome to work here as often and as late as you like. I live just behind the shop, right below us, and I’m happy to let you in whenever. You think there’s something juicy in there?”
Celia grimaced. “Juicy? Probably not. Shae was kind of… open with the juicier parts of his life. Not much of a filter on him, you know? But I don’t think this material has been accounted for in the scholarly work. So, juicy for me. Probably dead boring to anyone else.”
Marty placed her hand on Celia’s arm, her fingers soft and cool. “That is so cool. Well, like I said, make yourself at home. I was thinking of ordering a sandwich in a bit, because I’m a lazy bum. I’d be happy to order you one as well.”
Celia was genuinely touched by this woman’s friendliness and warmth. “Thank you. I’d like that.”
“I’ll bring up the menu in a few. But I promise you I won’t bother you.”
“You’re no bother. Honest. Thank you.”
Marty gave a little squeeze to her arm and then vanished back down the stairs, leaving the heavy door open.
Celia looked around the little room, with its tiny windows at each end and its layers of dust atop the towers of boxes, and she sighed. This is it. This is my glamorous life. She set her laptop bag on the folding table, hung her purse from the back of the chair, and pulled down the first box of Shae materials.
She set it on the far end of the table and lifted the lid. Resting atop everything was a typewritten inventory, listing twelve items, labeled journal 1, journal 2, and so on. Moving the page aside, she saw twelve cloth-bound journals, spines facing up, each labeled so very conscientiously by the elder Daly.
She drew out journal 1 and opened the cover.
The first page was scrawled in Shae’s almost indecipherable script, in blue ink: Dolin Shae, Jan 1932-March 1932.
She rifled the pages quickly. Every page was crammed front and back with Shae’s script, thousands of words, with his own marginal notations. Celia’s heart beat in her neck, and she found herself holding her breath as she pulled out journal 4, finding the same thing. Front to back, writings no one had ever seen. Journal 8. Journal 12.
She pulled down another box, setting it on the floor, and performed the same routine of a random sample of the next twelve journals. All the same. She replaced the lid and set the third box atop it. Again. Twelve journals. All full.
She removed the lid from the final box. The inventory sheet looked different this time, and it lay at a slant. No dozen volumes here.
The list read :
Photo packet (18 b/w photos)
Keyring (two keys)
Greedily, Celia dug out the manila envelope, untying the red string, and she dumped the photos out atop the lid of the nearest box. The photos were small and square, maybe four by four, with scalloped edges.
Several showed boats out on the bay, gray on gray with a dark mast cutting the horizon. One photo appeared to be taken in a bar, the camera looking down the polished bar, taking in the shadowy shapes of patrons, or at least their elbows. Looking closer, Celia didn’t think the patrons were the subject at all. At the far end of the bar, was what looked like a seagull, hung upside down behind glass. Several photos of a beautiful woman with a mass of dark curls and a painted mouth, looking generally more sultry than Celia was accustomed to expect in photos from her great-grandparent’s days. Two photos of another beautiful woman, this time on a boat. Shae, you dog.
And one photo of Shae himself, taken in a tall, gilt-edge mirror, the camera, a black boxy thing, at his hip. He wore a graying beard, and his hair was long, swept back behind his ears. In a pea coat, he looked like Ahab, but the light was coming in from one side, lighting his face so perfectly, and the way his left shoulder disappeared out of frame… The composition was beautiful.
That’s a book cover. A never-seen photo of Dolin Shae. A self-portrait even. During this period, when he’d written almost no poetry but instead focused on Vox Domini, his “spiritual autobiography.” Celia placed the photograph atop the pile and raised her hands in fists above her head. This, this was what she’d come for. Fuck Nick and all of his simpering. The contents of these boxes would make her name.
In an hour or so, when Marty came up the stairs with the take-out menu, Celia was deep into transcribing the first of the journals.
“Going okay?” Marty said, placing the menu on the corner of the table.
“Marty, is your dad alive?”
The woman looked nonplussed.
“Because I want to kiss him right on the lips.”
Marty let out a barking laugh.
“Dad’s been dead twenty years, and you wouldn’t have wanted to get near his lips when he was alive.”
“Well, this stuff, I mean, Jesus, Marty. This is a goldmine. Not, like, literally. Maybe not worth money, although some of the photos probably are valuable. But for the scholarship around Shae, ugh. I’m… I don’t know what I am.”
“Well, good. I’m glad you didn’t come all the way out here on a fool’s errand. Just let me know what you want, and I’ll call in our lunch order.”
Celia took up the cardstock menu and selected something called the California Dream, which featured avocado and sprouts on sourdough bread. Marty smiled and vanished below again.
It felt as if no time had passed at all when Marty called up the stairs that lunch was there.
Almost grudgingly, Celia left the table, the journal open beside her laptop, and descended the stairs.
Marty had set their food out on the little round table that sat in the bay window at the front of the shop. Celia wondered if she performed reading there. The fog was burning off, and the sun was hitting the window, so her chair was warm. She unwrapped her sandwich and took a bite.
“Good, yeah? It’s the reason I can never leave. This little town has the best food in the state. I’ll stand by that.”
Marty took a bite of her own sandwich.
It was good, and the bread was incredible.
The Widow of the Sea, alone in her seaside room, living on warm bread and crab legs.
“So this Shae was a poet, huh?”
Celia wiped her mouth with a paper napkin.
“He was. Kind of a big deal if you’re into the modernists, which I am.”
“So you think you’ll find new poems up there?” Marty seemed genuinely excited, though Celia could tell she didn’t know or care one bit about Dolin Shae.
“Not likely. In the thirties, especially, the first half of the decade, he wasn’t really writing poems. He was working on this massive project, Vox Domini, the voice of the Lord. It’s a weird memoir about his falling out with the church and his messing around with theosophy and what they called spiritualism back then. Actually, your forte. Seances and automatic writing and exploring past lives. He was deep in it.”
Marty perked up at this last. “Well, maybe this will be good for business,” she winked.
“I don’t know. Maybe. It’s a weird part of his life. Most of the rest of Europe was done with all of that stuff by the turn of the century. It was kind of a fad amongst the intelligentsia. But Shae never let it go. A true believer.”
Not a bad book title, to be honest. The True Believer: Dolin Shae on the California Coast. She could picture the cover. Shae’s self-portrait and the title in maybe a gold color, but a modern font, something clean.
Her phone buzzed.
She glanced at it and set it face down on the table. Jenn again. She was going to have to respond to them eventually. There was no reason not to. They were her friends. Good friends. The kind of friends she needed right now.
But, honestly. She wasn’t really thinking about Nick much. Maybe it was denial, or maybe it was just the excitement of this new project, this incredible find. Maybe when the buzz wore off, at night, in her rented room, alone, she’d crumble and wish for her friends. But for now, she was going to ride this wave.
And maybe she wouldn’t go back. Maybe she would find everything she needed right here, where at least there was good bread.
She worked until dark and then, apologizing to Marty, stepped out into the crisp night air. The fog hung out over the bay, and the headlights of the passing cars reflected off the wet street. It wasn’t raining so much as just misting, cold vapor hanging in the air, wetting everything.
She was hungry, but the idea of sitting down somewhere and going through the entire ritual of ordering, eating, getting the check, just seemed like too much, and any fast food was back the other way, back toward the edge of town, so she decided to go back to her room and order something in. Need to get some groceries.
The quaint little downtown looked amazing in the mist, the old-fashioned street lamps glowing with yellow halos, and the water on the brickwork was enough to move even a hardened Bostonian.
It was also at least as busy with foot traffic as during the day, but the clientele had changed. Men sat along the sides of shut up businesses, legs inside sleeping bags, old nylon jackets shiny with wet. One man pushed a jogging stroller, the space inside jammed full with clothing, the smell of old, sour urine radiating off of him so powerfully that Celia crossed the road.
“Marianne!” a voice called out behind her, and she looked over her shoulder to see a thin man in a red raincoat rushing toward her. He was dragging one of those rolling carts Celia associated with old women on buses, and it was overfull. He was almost running, and Celia looked back and forth, seeing if this Marianne was anywhere in the vicinity.
He called out again, not twenty yards from her, and it was now impossible to pretend he wasn’t speaking to her.
“Marianne! Wait for me!” He stopped before her, the sharp scent of his body floating around him. He set the cart upright and put his hands on his knees, breathing ragged, wheezing breaths. “Wait for me.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not Marianne,” she said.
“Aw, Marianne, you always say that.” His face broke into a wide grin. He had about three days worth of beard and deep hollows under his eyes. “Let me show you what I found.”
He got closer, opening his red slicker, and started digging in his pants pocket. He pulled his hand out and scraps of paper, pennies, and cigarette butts all scattered. He opened his hand, and Celia saw, there amongst the other debris, what looked for all the world like a fetus, gray and pink, the misting rain wetting it, turning the water in his palm rusty red.
She couldn’t even scream. She just stared, frozen. She hated herself in these moments. Some femme fatale. A man shows you his dead baby and you don’t even have a witty retort.
“It’s a kitten,” he said. “Momma got hit. There were five. I took this one. It was the best one. You wanna touch it?”
And she was suddenly walking away very quickly, her heels too loud on the pavement, and to her horror, she realized he was following her. He’d even left his cart behind, and he was jogging along behind her, hand held out, the hairless thing in his palm.
“Marianne! Wait! I got it for you!”
On the corner, just across the road was a bar with a red awning, and Celia ran up the three steps and pushed into the fuggy warmth of the bar.
The man stopped at the doorway, watching the big wooden door swing slowly shut before him. He looked so sad, that Celia almost felt sorry for him, or would have if her pulse was anywhere within human limits.
There were three men at the bar, and a couple in a booth. The whole place was all dark wood and red upholstery that might have been new a hundred years ago. She understood why they kept it dark. Waylon Jennings was singing about a Black Rose on the jukebox, which was somehow not a digital playland monstrosity but a genuine Wurlitzer, spinning forty-fives. Celia was willing to bet there was nothing in it later than 1979.
There wasn’t really any decor to speak of, just wood paneled walls and odds and ends in cheap frames screwed onto the walls.
She set her bag beside a stool, sat down, and rested her purse before her on the bar. She ran a hand through her hair and realized that she was soaked through. Probably look like a drowned rat. Or a kitten. She shook the image away.
The bartender was an older woman with close cropped hair and a thick scar on her upper lip. She wore a black t-shirt tucked into her jeans, showing off a solid belly, and a wide leather belt.
“What can I get ya?” Her voice was soft, nothing like Celia imagined.
“Double bourbon, neat. You do food here?”
She shook her head. “Angelo’s is next door.”
“Just the drink then, please.”
She pulled her phone out of her coat and looked at the string of messages. Alex. Jenn. Nick. Her mom. Jenn had probably called her, and now she was freaking out. She set the phone face down on the bar as her drink was set in front of her.
“Close it out?” she said.
Celia looked around the little place, realizing it was actually L shaped, bending around the far end of the bar.
“Open a tab.”
The bartender tapped the bar and walked away.
That’s how you femme fatale. She wished again for a cigarette, just to give her something to do with her hands. She wondered if the man was still standing outside or if he’d gone back for his cart. Of course it seemed silly now. Harmless. Just a man with obvious mental health issues, trying to show her his prize. If she hadn’t run, he wouldn’t have chased her. But she still thought of that first glimpse, of her absolute certainty that he was holding a tiny fetus, a human baby, there with the butts and loose change.
She took a long drink of the whisky, letting it warm her, and she felt better. No food since lunch, so she’d be feeling something real soon. The other men at the bar didn’t even give her a glance, just drank their beers and watched an old television that sat behind the bar. Looked like a ballgame. Fuck you Walter, wherever you are. Baseball is boring as shit.
She gathered up her things, and made her way precariously over to an open booth, careful not to spill her drink. She took off her coat and threw it on the seat, and sat down, finishing the whiskey in one go and waving at the bartender, who nodded back.
She opened her bag and took out her laptop. The document with her transcriptions of the journals was the first open tab. Nothing very interesting. It looked like the journals were mostly drafts of Vox Domini with boring little notes about what he ate and how much a taxi ride cost. She had come across a few phrases that stood out, and she’d have to cross-reference them against the collected works. There might be the bones of some of the late poems buried in there somewhere.
For the moment, she was less interested in the journals. She opened her phone and selected eighteen photos from her camera roll. She sent them to her laptop and was pleased to hear the little chime. They opened, one atop the other as they arrived.
Marty said nothing could leave, but she didn’t say anything about photographs. She was still not thrilled with the quality. She wondered if she could buy a scanner tomorrow. But they weren’t bad. She minimized each of them until she came to the woman with the dark curls. Celia liked her face. She looked like she didn’t take anyone’s shit. If she was in Shae’s circle in the thirties, that was almost a minimum requirement. Dolin Shae had been hard on women.
The bartender set a fresh drink on the table.
“Will my stuff be okay here if I go to the restroom?” Celia said.
“I’ll keep an eye on it, yeah.” She gestured to the far end of the bar.
She shut the laptop and slid out of the booth. As predicted, the whiskey had gone straight to her head, and she felt a little light, a little swimmy. She straightened herself up, took a breath. We’re going to walk to the bathroom like we’re not a lightweight.
She thought she did a pretty good job. She didn’t fall down or anything, but when she turned the corner, she came up short. There was only a short stretch of bar on this side of the L, maybe half the length of the other, and it ended in a wall, a dirty white door in it that must have been the bathroom. But she wasn’t looking at the door. She was looking at the glass case hanging on the wall beside it. Worn wood, and a crack in one corner of the glass, dusty, it was almost out of the light, almost as if it were hiding there in plain sight. A seagull, hung upside down, a rope tied around one leg trailing up and ending in some complicated looking sailor’s knot.
“Holy shit,” she whispered.
She lifted her phone and took five or six quick shots of the case, then turned off the flash and took a few more.
Finally, she opened the door, revealing a narrow hallway. One door to the left was marked as the bathroom, and then a flight of stairs leading upward into the dark.
She used the restroom and hurried back to the front. Leaning on the bar, she nodded the bartender over.
“What can you tell me about the bird back there? Under glass.”
The woman put her hands on the bar and leaned forward. “That’s the albatross. Been here forever.”
“What’s it about?”
“This is the Albatross. You’re standing in it. Been here since 1919. We’re on the registry of historic places.”
Celia smiled. “Thank you.”
She returned to her seat and opened her laptop, typing in a search for “Dolin Shae + Albatross.” No hits, but a whole string of results with “albatross” crossed out.
Maybe in the journals. It was in the pictures. She needed a different strategy. Maybe just read through the journals and then transcribe them. The good stuff was all crammed in amongst the familiar. She had no idea why the connection was so compelling. It’s an old bar, and Shae was a mostly functioning alcoholic right up until his death. Their paths were sure to cross. But there was something there.
She pulled up the photos again and flipped to the photo of the bar and the albatross behind glass. To the right of the glass case was the doorway, just as it was now, but there didn’t appear to be a door. Instead, what looked like a bead curtain hung in the passageway. But it was hard to tell. The photo gave the impression of a hasty snapshot, but it was actually just that the shot was so focused on that bird hanging suspended, that everything else was slightly out of focus.
She felt like someone in a movie, which was ludicrous. But her mind flashed through montages of people poring over microfiche and heavy old volumes of family trees.
But really, she was just drunk. Lightheaded from the whiskey and the lack of food, still tired from traveling. Working overtime to keep her sadness tamped down so that it wouldn’t flare up and burn down the whole trip.
She finished her whiskey, settled up with the bartender, and walked the couple of blocks back to her room, where she fell into bed still dressed and dreamed of dark passageways and musty libraries and brave women who wouldn’t stop until they’d got to the truth.
The next morning, she walked the ten blocks down to the Walmart, bought a cheap printer with scanning capabilities, picked up a half dozen sausage McMuffins, and walked back to Marty’s place.
“My turn to treat,” she said, holding up the greasy bag.
Marty smiled and took the bag. “Coffees on.”
They sat at the little table and ate, Celia devouring four of the sandwiches and then feeling decidedly sick.
“What you got there?” Marty said, poking the box with her shoe.”
“Scanner. I thought I could work more efficiently if I spent my days scanning the materials and my evenings reading.”
“Smart. I should probably pay someone to digitize the whole collection, but I don’t know that anyone would really be interested.”
“Well, this stuff on Shae is pretty great. I’m really excited.”
“Glad to hear it,” Marty said, and Celia believed her.
The scanning turned out to be tedious work, three clicks for every page scanned, and then a long wait while the scan completed, and soon Celia was having second thoughts about her second thoughts. Maybe just read them all and flag the good stuff. Then I know what to scan. If there’s time at the end, scan the rest.
So when Marty called her down for lunch–leftover casserole that made Celia feel almost human again–she was lost in the fifth journal, sitting cross-legged on the floor, back against a tower of file boxes.
She ate quickly, thanking Marty over and over, and then hurried back up to the journals.
It was starting to unspool. In May of ‘32, Shae starts writing about a Grace, a local woman, though he doesn’t give many details. Shae was still married at this point, though he and his third wife had been separated for more than a year. He calls her his Virgil, guiding him into the unknown. Celia wonders if she’s guiding him into the world of poetry, of the spiritual, or of the flesh. And honestly, with Shae, those worlds tended to overlap rather liberally.
But it’s not until June that there’s mention of the Albatross. Celia ripped sticky notes into strips and started flagging passages until the journal was bristling with blue paper.
June 15: The closest thing to true poetry I’ve experienced was at the Albatross, and it did not come in words. The magic of the unseen world is communicated in a voice without words.
June 17: Grace sd God is waiting. For so long God just a story of a bad father, face of my da. Hands of all the fathers before him, rough and hard. But above the Albatross she showed me something else. I think God is a woman, and she is calling me home.
The psychosexual stuff here was too thick to even cut through, but Celia was continually amazed that she’d stumbled upon some whole part of Dolin Shae’s spiritual journey that he’d somehow omitted from Vox Domini, the supposed narrative of his spiritual life. What had he found ‘above the Albatross?’ And what light might it shed on those late poems? She read greedlily, but less a greed for fame and recognition–though that lurked back there–and more a greed for understanding. Shae was right there, at her fingertips. She just had to draw him out.
June 20: Grace introduced me to T. If I have ever approached poetry, it was in her presence. G assures next step is crucial & simple. I told her of the Irish kings, the bodies found in bogs, preserved in the peat, their throats’ slit/guts tkn out/faces slashed. Rituals of renewal as Celtic tradition. G laughed. All I hrd was the voice of God.
Careful not to overstay her time again, Celia gathered her things in early evening. She felt a twinge of guilt as she slipped the next two journals into her bag. After all, Marty had been wonderful to her. In fact, Marty was what made all of this possible. Her and her obsessive father.
But she could feel this thread of the journals ramping up, like it was a novel. And it was there, in what would later be excised from the published manuscript, that she’d found the only use of that phrase. The voice of God. Vox Domini.
She walked the blocks downtown again. The homeless hadn’t come out in force yet, the shops still open, and traffic still on the streets, but the streetlights were clicking on, and the fog was hanging heavy, just beyond the last row of buildings before the bay.
She went into Angelo’s and ordered the seafood manicotti and a glass of house red, which came in a goblet the size of her head. The food was glorious. Light but rich. The crab flavor coming through clearly, but not at all fishy. She finished off the wine and left a hefty tip. She was feeling magnanimous. A little bit high. Maybe this is what it felt like to touch poetry.
When she stepped outside, it was full dark, and the fog had arrived, giving everything that out of focus feeling. Or maybe it was the wine. She walked the twenty steps around the corner and went into the Albatross.
This time she went straight to her booth, and within minutes, there was a double bourbon at her hand. The bartender, who Celia now understood was named Dan–and if that wasn’t plain enough, one drunken patron held up his empty bottle and called out for “Dan the man”–and Celia quietly shuffled pronouns around into their proper place. Anyway, Dan poured like an angel. Sweet fire and vengeance. Though the vengeance was likely to come tomorrow.
She settled herself in, stacking the two “borrowed” journals on the table, and started in. Within minutes, she was fishing in her bag for her sticky-note strips.
Aug 1: Washed in bay. G says salt is cleansing. Must be clean in body/intention. Oisín wrong to fight waves. Must surrender. Salt in the blood. Blood in the song. Tomorrow, I find my voice.
Okay, so Shae was off the rails. Not too surprising. She was honestly surprised he’d cut this part out of Vox Domini. He’d never given much thought to appearances, just so long as everyone recognized his genius. James Joyce had once called him a Botched Baudelaire, and that was based solely on his public writings. They never actually met.
She closed the journal and pulled out her laptop, flipped through the photos once again. There. The woman with the dark curls and the dangerous face. That was Grace. She was sure of it. That was based on absolutely no textual evidence. Shae had left no description, usually only referring to her as G in the journals, but Celia knew. Now that’s a femme fatale. Taking Dolin Shae by the scrotum and dipping him in the frozen brine of the bay.
“Mind if I join you?”
She looked up to see what had to be the youngest customer she’d seen in the place, barring herself, and he still had to be pushing fifty. He had a pockmarked face and bad haircut, and the loosened tie of a man who had spent a long day doing meaningless work for people he hated. He wasn’t bad looking, but he seemed more sad than interested. Maybe that worked sometimes?
“Actually, I’m busy right now.” She gave him her best wicked sneer, lids lowered, mouth twisted up at one side.
“Can I at least buy you a drink?” he actually shuffled his feet. Celia didn’t think that was a thing people did in the real world, but here he was, this sad sack, shuffling his feet and looking at the floor, hoping against hope that this strange woman would take pity on him.
“I buy my own drinks, thanks.”
He nodded and began to turn away.
“But you don’t happen to have a cigarette do you?”
He fished a pack out of his breast pocket and extended it to her. She took one, holding it awkwardly between her fingers.
“How about a light?” She did her best to keep the sultry but unavailable routine going, despite the fact that she didn’t know what to do with the cigarette.
“You can’t smoke in here, ya know,” he said, placing a book of matches on the table. The cover was an embossed albatross, hanging suspended. Sad Sack was a killjoy, too.
“Of course. Thank you.”
He wandered over to the jukebox and soon Hank was singing “You Win Again.” At least Sad Sack had good taste in music.
She placed the unlit cigarette between her lips and flipped to the next pictures. The blonde woman on the boat. Beautiful and distant. This could be T. Let’s say it’s T. What the fuck are they all doing? A sex thing? In ‘32 Shae was what? Fifty-three. Still spry, though with the heavy drinking… Thirty years later she’d have said he was being drawn into a cult. Were there cults in the thirties? She took the cigarette from her mouth, holding it between her first two fingers. Getting the hang of it. I’ll know it’s really worked when the sad sacks won’t even approach.
Dan brought her another round, said that it was paid for, pointing with his head toward Sad Sack.
“Would you mind putting it on my tab, Dan? I already told him no.”
Dan smirked. “Another swing and a miss for Carl.”
“I mean,” she held out her hands, cigarette waving. Maybe I get it. It’s not about nicotine at all. It’s a fabulous prop.
“Oh, I know. Believe me.” Dan went back to the bar and Celia watched the pantomime as Dan broke the news. She watched with the cigarette dangling from her lip. Can’t femme without the fatale, Carl. You’re just another casualty.
She had no idea what she was thinking, but she suddenly realized that she hadn’t checked her phone in hours. It was dead. Had she even charged it last night? She threw it into her bag. Whatever.
“You have no heart. You have no shame,” Hank cried.
“Damn straight,” she said aloud.
Out on the street, she tried to light the cigarette, but her hands weren’t working quite right, and the filter was soggy from hours of her playing with it. Finally, she threw it into the gutter and walked back to her room.
Upstairs, she stripped down to her bra and underwear and stood in the window, looking out over the bay. The fog hung low, and she could actually look out over the top of the bank, as if the ground were rolling hills. She looked at the phone in her hand. Dead. She should plug it in. In the morning, she should text everyone back. Let them know she was okay. Her mom was probably already on a plane.
Is that what she was doing? What–precisely–was the difference between surrendering to something and simply giving up? She was pretty sure she was walking that thin dividing line. She pressed her forehead against the glass, felt the cool on her skin.
Blood in the song.
The next day, she was at Marty’s just as she was opening the front of her shop. In truth, she’d been there for about thirty minutes, walking around the block, smoking a cigarette from the pack she’d bought that morning at the gas station. It tasted terrible, and it made her queasy, but it gave her a buzz like she’d done a shot of tequila. Mostly, she walked in the foggy morning, playing with smoke, letting it drift from her open mouth, lifting her chin and jetting it straight up into the air. Vamping. Like a god damned kid.
When Marty opened up, Celia greeted her quickly and hurried up the stairs. She needed the next journals, and she wanted to scan the passages she’d marked in the first eight.
She pulled the metal chair over into the weak light from the east-facing window, and opened journal 9.
She read it from cover to cover, not even marking anything and then set it down beside her. She had that floating feeling again, as if she’d just finished a large glass of wine. But she also felt like she might retch. And it wasn’t the morning’s cigarette.
This can’t be real. Shae was playing with fiction. Winding it around his autobiographical sketches. A genre experiment. Vox Domini was already understood to be something other than straight autobiography, whatever that even meant. Embellishments were to be expected.
She got up and wandered downstairs.
Marty was in her chair behind the counter, knitting.
“You smoke, Marty?”
“Cigarettes? Not for years.”
“I’m gonna go out for a smoke.”
Marty made a show of being torn and then set down her knitting. “Oh, alright. Just one.”
They sat on the wooden steps and smoked in silence. Celia only inhaled about every third draw, mostly just playing with the smoke still. She didn’t want to barf on Marty’s front walk. Marty smoked her cigarette down like she was savoring a fine steak.
“I think I just read an admission of murder.”
Marty scrunched up her eyebrows and let smoke curl up from her nostrils. Finally, she exhaled the last breath of smoke. “What?”
“In the journals. Dolin Shae. Famous poet. I think he killed somebody.”
“Like a hundred years ago?”
“No shit. You know that bar downtown, the Albatross?”
“I think they did it there. Upstairs. The entries were… intense.”
“But it’s good, right?”
Celia gave her a puzzled look, the end of her cigarette tucked in the corner of her mouth.
“I mean, not good for the dead person, obviously. But, I mean, long time gone, right? And you just uncovered some kind of, I don’t know, literary mystery?”
Celia tilted her head. Maybe. She wasn’t wrong. This wouldn’t just make a book. This would make the news. NPR interviews. Maybe a podcast. Movie rights.
“I guess. It’s just… I don’t know. I’ve spent the last three years up to my ass in Dolin Shae. Eat, sleep, and breathe Dolin Shae. Those late poems, oh, Marty.” She made a chef’s kiss with her fingertips. “Some of the best writing, word for word, in the twentieth century.”
“And he was maybe a murderer,” Marty said.
“And he was almost certainly a murderer. Jesus, there’s like thirty more journals up there. What else did he get up to?”
“Folks will get up to almost anything, if they think they can get away with it,” Marty said, rubbing out her butt on the step. She stood up. “Not much surprises me anymore.”
“Amen,” Celia said. “A guy tried to give me a cat fetus the other night.”
“And they say romance is dead.” She climbed the steps and opened the door, stopping just inside. “Don’t let this shake you too much, Celia. Dig enough in anyone’s past, you’d be shocked at the shit you’ll find.”
“I suppose,” she said, stubbing out her own cigarette.
Did she believe all that? Is that how people were? Doing anything they could, so long as they don’t get caught. Celia herself hadn’t always been the most well-behaved, and some people might have critical things to say about her, but she’d never killed anyone. Never even hurt anyone, not really. Not intentionally. Maybe it was just white dudes from the last century with god complexes?
“Hey, I think I’m going to walk down to the library, do a little digging, see if I can find anything about this thing. You need anything?”
“Not a thing.”
And she closed the door behind her.
Celia understood why the movies did this part in montage. It was dull as shit. The local library didn’t even own a microfiche machine, so you had what had been digitized or you had nothing at all. They did have all of the Times Reporter from its beginning in 1907, but its search function was the actual worst. So, she was reading all of the papers for the month of August, 1932.
The front page from August 12th presented a very grainy picture of the woman on the boat. It was a formal photo, maybe some coming out celebration or some such antiquated shit.
Fishermen had found her body about ten miles up the coast, turning over in the surf. Her name was Theresa Carson. Shae’s T. The news story was vague, which was annoying. Whatever happened to If it bleeds it leads? How do you get your hands on police reports? Freedom of Information Act? She had no idea. This wasn’t her wheelhouse, no matter her dreams of mystery stardom.
There were three more stories about the case, and then it was gone. It didn’t look like anyone was ever arrested.
Even without the coroner’s reports, she could picture the pale, naked body bobbing in the water, her torso riddled with dozens of bloodless cuts. She imagined the moment in the movie where the detective says something like, “It looks like the killer lost control.”
But he didn’t lose control. He’d tried. He wanted nothing more than to lose control, to surrender to it, but every stab was conscious and deliberate. He’d described it in chilling detail. He’d expected some transformation. He thought he would hear the voice of god. The song in the blood.
He’d found nothing. Just a dead girl and a new reason to despise himself.
Could this have been the catalyst for those late poems? Those cries of spiritual despair? Those screeds against mankind and its monsters? Did Theresa Carter give her life for a handful of poems and one man’s nearly forgotten legend?
She felt sick. She’d felt sick almost every day since she’d arrived, but this was something else. She found the whole project disgusting. She didn’t care about Dolin Shae and his search for enlightenment. She didn’t want to write a book about this bastard. She’d take a year. The dissertation could wait. She’d travel.
She thought of Jenn and Alex and the line of texts that must have been a mile long by now. She’d never charged her phone. She’d just drop out of sight, like Theresa Carter. Here one day and then gone.
She’d sent copies to the printer of the news stories, but she didn’t even go to pick them up. She just walked out of the library and wandered down the boardwalk.
The air was cold off the water, and she didn’t have her coat. It was upstairs at Marty’s, along with her laptop. She couldn’t bring herself to care.
She lit a cigarette and burned it down to the filter, almost daring her body to revolt. Puke it all up. Get it out. The cigarette tasted better in the cold. It didn’t make sense, but it was true.
She dropped the rest of the pack in a garbage bin and walked on.
She found herself at The Albatross, of course. It was mid-afternoon, the jukebox quiet, only a couple of lonely daylight drunks at the bar. Dan was leaning on the bar, reading the paper. He looked up and nodded when she came in.
She nodded, threw her purse on the bar, and sat down.
Dan placed the glass in front of her and went back to his paper. No matter the time, day or night, it was always the same temperature, always the same twilight lighting.
“Is this your place, Dan?”
He looked up, still holding the paper. “Nah. General manager. That means they pay me the same and I have to do all the shit work, too.”
“You know the owners?”
“Yeah. Owns half the building downtown. Not a bad guy, if you can get over the bloodsucking leach bit.”
Celia smiled and took a drink. She suddenly wished for the cigarettes again. Hard to quit, I guess.
“You know someone was killed here?”
He set the paper on the bar and walked closer.
“Probably a few. What are you talking about?”
“Back in the thirties. Upstairs. By a famous poet. You can put it on a plaque, along with your historic places thing.”
“Hadn’t heard about that one. Not terribly surprising.”
“The second person to say that today.” She finished the bourbon and nodded for another. “Maybe I’m naive. Do I look like a Pollyanna, Dan?”
He filled the glass and set the bottle down on the bar.
“You look tired. Everything alright?”
She gave a little laugh, but even she could hear the sadness in it. She hadn’t even surrendered to anything. She’d just come unmoored. She was floating. The next gust of wind would carry her away.
“Nothing is alright. But thanks for asking. Hey, can I ask you a favor?”
“Depends,” he said, resting his hand on the bottle.
“I’m leaving tomorrow. Going home to Boston. Is there any way you’d let me look upstairs?”
He looked at her for a long beat.
“Nothing but broken tables and booze boxes up there. Why do you want to see that?”
“I don’t know. I’m just, like, going through this thing right now, and I think it would give me some closure.”
“Because of a murder?”
“Kind of. Yes.”
Dan considered for a short beat and then shrugged. “What the hell. Come on.”
He waved her after him, and she moved along the bar, only a little unsteady on her feet. What had she been doing to herself this week? It didn’t feel good, whatever it was.
Dan came out from behind the bar, and opened the door. Celia looked at the Albatross in its glass case. Its glass eyes appraised her coldly.
Past the bathroom, Dan stopped at the bottom of the steps and flipped a light switch. A faint glow illuminated the top of the stairs.
“Just turn out the light when you’re done, okay?”
She put a hand on his shoulder. Even she didn’t know if it was a gesture toward him or a means to steady herself. Maybe both. “Thank you.”
“Whatever floats your boat, hon.” He left, closing the door behind him.
She stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking up. What did she expect to see? The scene of the crime? It felt like everywhere was a scene of a crime, if you dug back far enough. So many people hurting each other with such casualness. And it was nothing new, it seemed.
What was she doing here?
And why had she wanted to be the femme fatale? They were cold and loveless women. Women who lived by their wits because when their wits failed the ground would crumble beneath them. They only saw angles, not people. She was sharp and beautiful, but so sad. The femme fatale never really won. She might get away with it, but that was all. And then it was the next fraught interaction with desperate men. And nobody saves you. And in the end, no one remembers.
She turned off the light switch and went back out to the bar.
“Find what you were looking for?” Dan said.
She passed him her credit card and shook her head.
“There’s nothing to find.”
Josh Hanson lives in Northern Wyoming, where he teaches English, writes, and makes little songs. He is a graduate of the University of Montana’s MFA program, and his work has appeared in publications such as Diagram, RealPoetik, and Rain Taxi.