By Lee Davis
There is a constant coo-ing, just beyond the open blinds on the windowsill. The sound emanates from a slow procession of grey and black pigeons on the tiny sill. An overcast sky hovers high above the park. Roller-bladers, bicyclists, and lovers move about below, unnoticed. Within these walls of a modern looking brownstone, the sound of the pigeons blends with big band music. This is the solitude of Ceylon Waters.
From an iPod dock, masquerading as a nineteen twenties style gramophone, the full sounds of Tommy Dorsey and his swinging orchestra fill the sparsely furnished loft. A platform bed inches off the floor, beside it empty containers of half eaten Chinese food, and discarded soy sauce packets. By the bay window, a large drafting table. Affixed to the chair, Ceylon, pencil in the blur of a hand. His eyes focused, determined. Like a Jean Pierre Juenet sequence, each stroke of his pencil seems linked to the Dorsey orchestraʼs swing, and the coo-ing of the pigeons on the sill.
Ceylon had not worked this feverishly in years. Twelve years in fact. He once was the single most requested name in the business. He was a top dollar man in demand to pencil and write the hottest books in the industry. He, along with his partner Van Smyth, had reshaped what comics would become. Once something of a childʼs pastime, comic books had evolved into something more, something closer to modern myth, allegory. Waters and Van Smyth infused their characters with such humanity and vulnerability that they leaped off the spinning rack in the center aisle of the drug store, faster than the shipments could arrive. The storylines rose from the common neuroses and fears of everyday life. The mundane world we lived in seemed that much richer in the hands of Waters and Van Smyth. CIRCUS FREAKS was their biggest commercial success. For twenty-two pages, the world outside seemed to freeze in time, the curtains would draw back on a new world of pencil and ink that unfolded with each panel and became more complex, more heart-felt, more human.
For a time, they sat at the table with the biggest names in the business, weaving their tales of wonder, spellbinding audiences across the world. That was when everything was black and white, when theirs was a world of noir; it was before Ceylon got the big idea, the idea to modernize their work, open it up to a new audience, and introduce inks with color. In effect, Yasmin was his idea, and so it was that he blamed himself for what transpired.
The hotel hallways were littered with dirty plates and silverware tucked at every doorway. Comic convention flyers and discarded artwork were strewn on the rug like large pieces of confetti. Waters had noticed a flyer ripped down the middle on the carpet. The tear was right between a picture of he and Van Smyth. It was a sign. Seconds later, he noticed her as she hurled through a doorway, and against
a wall, collapsing on the carpet. Her clothes and shoes were tossed out after her. Her dark face was tear streaked, and their eyes met. She quickly tried to cover her nakedness, wiped the tears from her eyes. Those eyes, he thought, could sink ships and tumble mountaintops.
As he walked past her to his room, Ceylon convinced himself that none of this was any of his business. It was a practice heʼd made perfect. He would certainly forget her in a few moments. The elevator would “bing” and she would be on it and go home or wherever it was that women like her went. Only she didnʼt leave. And moments after he entered his room he heard the sound of her whimpers on the other side of the thin wall, as she sat on the floor in the hallway. He wished she would leave. Ceylon lifted the phone to call the front desk. The sound of her weeping moved him to replace the phone on its cradle. He was compelled to open the door, and she literally fell into his life, for she was leaning on his door, not on the wall. The words he searched for never arrived, he merely motioned to her, and helped her to his couch, letting the door slam shut on its own. He went to the bathroom, wet a washcloth with warm water, and returned to find her face down on the bed, trying to hold back her tears. He handed her the damp cloth, but ended up wiping her tears away himself. And he put his arms around her and assured her that it would be all right, for he couldnʼt know then that everything would be anything but all right. He covered her with a blanket and watched her lay asleep on his bed until the early morning.
Just before eight, he woke to a familiar knock on the door. It was Vanʼs knock, although it hardly originated with Van, the “shave and a hair cut ---ten cents” thing he did, more to announce his presence than to actually ask permission for admittance. That was Van. He was the smell of burnt toast in the room that lingered for hours. He was that thing a stranger said to you at a party that made you cringe, not enough to leave the party, but enough to avoid him for the remainder of the evening. So when he knocked, Ceylon answered and there he stood. When Van saw her, his face morphed into that devilish grin of the high school jock with date rape drug in his back pocket. Her naked back could be seen in Ceylonʼs bed, stirring ever so slightly, and Van moved to get a closer look. Ceylon told him to meet him at the train station, that it was too much to go into, adding that he might miss the train, but heʼd see him back in San Francisco. Van hardly heard a word. His attention was focused on the sleeping beauty.
The next few hours were less clear in his memory, mostly because Ceylon blocked those images out. They had faded into blank panels, discarded, in self- defense by the subconscious to protect Ceylon. But if those panels were fully penciled and inked, they would illustrate the happiest memories of Ceylon Waters’ life.
The first words she spoke to him were “Is it checkout time?” She was still naked in bed facing Ceylon. He was fully dressed, luggage at his feet, train ticket atop his bag. As he replied, she rose matter-of-factly, nude, and immodest. Ceylon looked away, daring to steal a glance of her nude reflection in the mirror of the open bathroom door.
Later, as she placed her shoes on, she asked his name, and she seemed to take no notice to his response. She growled “that bastard Kaminski.” Ceylon nearly dropped his bag. “Not Ruben,” he asked her. She nodded as they walked out of Ceylonʼs room. Then she ran towards the nearby room, pounded on it with all her weight. “Give me my bag you bastard before I call the police!” she screamed. Ceylon tried pulling her away, to no avail. Kaminski, in a robe, opened the door and tossed the bag against the wall spilling out the contents. He looked at Ceylon, who nodded respectfully, “Ruben.” Kaminski shut the door. She moved to gather her the contents. Papers, drawings, Ceylon looked at them as he handed them to her. Each was uniquely colored and signed, Yasmin.
“Whose are these?” he asked. She barked back, “Who do you think?” She had met Kaminski in the hotel lobby days earlier, and knew that he was one of the top publishers in the industry, and had shown him her work. The inks were made through a family process devised in Pakistan; her family had fled there when she was young. Inking was one of the things passed down to her by her father before he was killed. It was in the wake of his death, and the death of her mother several years earlier, which left Yasmin Lahore alone and frightened and indeed desperate. “I have spent months looking for work. Waited tables for a week before I threw a plate of food at the smiling man who ran his finger down my leg. I read about the convention and Kaminski, I called him and told him about my colors and he told me to meet him here. Lunch, he said. I was to meet him after. He paid for my ticket in, and when he spoke I was so excited, it was like all my dreams had come true. Here he was telling a thousand people about the future of the industry being in the hands of people from different cultures, women and men from around the world telling their stories, in their own way and I thought this is the man that is the reason my parents brought me here, this is what I am to do, this is how I will earn my way, through this man this man I have never met but read about...and afterwards lunch came and he was too busy, and he said he would call me and we could meet for dinner, and I waited. Until dinner and he was called into a meeting, so I ate crackers and coffee, and he suggested maybe we could meet at he bar, and then he says come to his room. And there I was in his room showing him my work, and he unzips my dress and pulls down his pants and stands there holding it in his hands, expecting me to...” her voice trailed off.
Ceylon sat in the train station, sipping coffee at a counter beside Yasmin. He flipped through her pages, the inks, and vibrant pages colorful, more alive than
anything he had ever seen. As she brushed her hair from her face, and smiled at him, Ceylon fell in love with her; he knew it because he had written about love, heʼd seen it in the movies, and even though he had never experienced it before, he was certain that this was what it was, even as he bought her ticket on the train and sat beside her on the way back to San Francisco, he knew. As the train swayed, as she laid her head on his shoulder, and took his hand in hers, he knew. It was in her quiet snore, and the seductive perfume she wore, the way her neck sat atop her chest, proud, strong, it was in all these that Ceylon Waters knew. Deep down he knew that it would not have a happy ending, and that he would one day erase these memories; they would be blank panels of his life, un- colored, empty.
That night they lay together in his bed, the bed that was closer to the floor than most; they lay naked and passion-filled and alive. It was everything Ceylon Waters could have hoped for, the very definition of bliss, down to the melted end of the candle, the wax spilling across the floor.
Days later, Van knocked his knock: “C-Dub what say we...” He froze as Yasmin stepped into the room in jeans that ended just below her knees, and a white tee shirt that hinted at full nipples beneath the cotton, her eyes frozen in amber. It was her long dark hair that gave her away, and Van knew immediately. As she left the room to pour an extra cup of coffee, Van mouthed “from the hotel in San Diego?” He didnʼt have to wait for an answer from Ceylon, he knew already, but he wanted more. And so Ceylon told him, and then showed him her work, and before long, the three of them were working together on the idea that had long escaped Waters and Van Smyth, the story simply entitled THE BRINK. They had long discussed and debated it; both knowing it would deviate from the stark black and white genre they had made famous. This would be to their audience what the early talkies were like to moviegoers after the silent pictures. This would change everything. First, all the heroes would die. Second, there would be no love interest. And third, the storytelling would unfold in non-linear chapters, leaving the audience to piece together the whole picture after. Finally this would be in color, not just in color, but also in Yasminʼs colors. Even in their discussions they agreed that after this book, nothing for them would ever be the same. Now as Yasmin and Ceylon sipped red wine, and Van Smyth drank scotch, the excitement was overwhelming.
They wouldnʼt always stay in and work. There were times when they would take in a café or a pub in the financial district. They became known, the odd looking trio, Ceylon for his dark skin and wide glasses, Van for his penchant to sing Sinatra at the bar, and Yasmin for the easy way in which she seemed to protect them both, insulate them with her staggering beauty, her street smarts. She was a deft pickpocket, and on more than one occasion embarrassed Ceylon for her ability to lift wallets, billfolds, even an i-Phone on one occasion. She would simply
leave the items in question at the bar, in fact bartenders noted she had a singular habit of finding things, but the owners were always so happy to get the items back, they would buy a round of drinks and no one would notice, no one but Ceylon.
Then there was the night that Ceylon met Kaminski quite by accident at a newsstand. Ceylon was afraid Kaminski might remember that morning, remember him picking up Yasminʼs portfolio, but he didnʼt. And it was only at the end of the conversation, when Kaminski asked Ceylon if he had gone to the convention, and Ceylon lied that he had missed it, and Kaminski remarked he was never going back again, his last experience was dreadful. Heʼd met some woman who had followed him around the entire convention, lied her way in to see him speak, stalked him for twenty four hours, even getting inside his room. She told him she was penniless, and would do anything for him if he would help her, and then to his surprise she disrobed and knelt before him, unzipping his fly. He threw her out and threatened to call hotel security to have her removed. The next morning, sheʼd come back demanding her portfolio...
Ceylon rode the BART, with Kaminskiʼs words echoing in his mind. And over dinner later, as her eyes met his, he couldnʼt disguise the doubt now cast upon her. The pall was palpable, that night and in the nights following.
At night, as she worked on THE BRINK by candlelight, he often watched nearby from a corner of the room, searching for a sign as to which woman she was, the one Kaminski talked of, or the one he knew; they couldnʼt both be right.
Ceylon grew more and more distant from her. It did not go unnoticed. He shared his misgivings with Van Smyth. He offered the standard “stiff upper lip, mountain out of a mole-hill” clichés, poured scotch for the both of them. They would sit and drink until the problems went away, although in truth they never did.
The night Ceylon found out, he had traveled to the W Hotel downtown. Heʼd followed her to the lobby and then up the steps to her room. He knocked on the door and when she opened it he lunged past her hoping to discover her lover, only he wasnʼt there yet. She begged him to leave, but he refused. She blamed him for many things, for the failure of their relationship, for pushing her away, for things he would later admit to, and things that he would deny till his dying day. It was then that she asked him why, and he told her what Kaminski had said to him. She held her head low, as he told her he could forgive her of everything, even now, if only she would tell him that Kaminski was lying. He waited as the silence engulfed them. He waited for her to speak the words that never came to her lips.
The silence was broken by a knock at the door. It was that knock that said it all. Knuckles rapped against the door, rhythmic, excited and all too familiar. It was Van Smythʼs knock, once the jovial signal of the entrance of his best friend; to Ceylon it was now chilling and horrific.
Yasmin tried to form the words “Iʼm sorry,” but they never came. Instead she opened the door and Van Smyth ʻs face blanched as he entered to find Ceylon holding himself against the wall. Yasmin calmly muttered the words under her breath as she walked out, “Checkout time.” Van Smyth followed.
There was still the mini bar. Ceylon emptied it. The maid woke him later, as she was attempting to clean the room. Tiny bottles of scotch littered the bed surrounding Ceylon.
By the time Ceylon reached his brownstone, “the whore,” as he would call her, was gone. He would never see her again.
That was twelve years ago. There was speculation that Ceylon Waters was penciling books under another name, that he and Van Smyth severed their partnership over creative differences, that THE BRINK proved too big a departure for them. No one knew the truth, and frankly Ceylon didnʼt care. For years he simply stopped drawing. He watched as Van Smyth bounced around the business, his name turning up on this book or that. He never enjoyed the commercial success that heʼd had with Ceylon, and there was some small comfort to be derived from that. One afternoon Ceylon ran into Van Smyth at a diner. Both men were seated alone at their table. Ceylon looked up from his newspaper and spotted Van Smyth. They locked eyes. Van Smyth offered an insincere grin. Ceylon asked his waitress for his bill despite the fact that his plate had just arrived. Van Smyth laughed out loud, left a few dollars on the table and walked away. Ceylon watched him leave. He returned to his meal, startled when Van Smyth leaned down and said, “If it makes you feel any better, she left me a month after she left you. And I havenʼt seen her since. Sucks the way things turned out.” With that he was gone.
This evening at a local rare bookstore, a customer in a Yankee cap approached Ceylon Waters, as he sat taking books out of boxes to stock the empty shelves. The young man stared at him for a moment then approached him. “I know you. Youʼre Ceylon Waters,” he said. “From Waters and Van Smyth—you were huge.” Ceylon shook his head, ignoring him, but he was undeterred. “I was on the train when I read my first CIRCUS FREAKS. It was number 111. It blew me away.” Ceylon stood, placed books on the shelf, tossing aside the empty box. The young man started to walk away. Thinking better of it he re-approached Ceylon. “CIRCUS FREAKS 137 changed my life. The whole Asteroid Z saga, as far as Iʼm concerned, that was the biggest most important battle in comic history. I
Mean, it was a hero story, yes, but at the end of the day it was really was all about loss and death. Acceptance. That issue came out the same month that my grandfather died of cancer. It forced me to deal with it all, first time anybody I loved ever died. That comic got me through. Challenged me to be like Wally, find the inner strength, to keep going even when everything in my body was shouting for me to give up. I guess thatʼs what makes us human.”
This caught Ceylon by surprise. “You got all that from a comic?” He nodded. “When Wally Winters is holding the body of the woman he loves in his arms, moments after she has sacrificed herself for humanity. That wasnʼt a comic. That was Puccini, it was opera. Reading CIRCUS FREAKS made me want to write. Iʼm a playwright now. ” But Ceylon walked away. The young man added, “Why did you stop?”
Ceylon sat in the tiny break room in the rear of the bookstore and thought about what the young man had said.
Later Ceylon stared at the drafting desk heʼd abandoned years ago. It stood silent in the empty room.
He put on the iPod. The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra jumped to life filling the room with an ocean of swing.
Ceylon opened up a drawer beneath it and took out a pencil. Putting pencil to paper he began to trace circles on the paper. Slowly over the course of hours the circles began to take shape.
It was the figure of Wally Winters, standing on the surface of Asteroid Z, arms outstretched, holding the slumped body of a woman, the love of his life. No coincidence that the woman bore strong resemblance to Yasmin Lepore.