Her stage name—same as her real name—is Natalie LK.
The K is for Klein. Natalie L Klein. The middle initial is subject to mystery.
It could be Natalie Lisa Klein—three syllables, then two, then one, nice and crisp, like a door closing and latching shut. It might be something distasteful like Natalie Loretta Klein or Natalie Louisa Klein—the sounds of those combinations made Mason’s elbow joints scrape in a way they shouldn’t.
He liked to think of her as Natalie Leah Klein. Lynette was also appealing—how it washed off the tongue like summer laughter. Sometimes he thought of her middle name as Lake—that was when he was feeling amorous, mostly. When he was depressed, he dubbed her Laurel. When he hated the world, she would be Leslie. There was a Natalie LK for every occasion.
Why the sky was orange Natalie did not know. Why she felt the texture of pavement bite into her back probably had something to do with the sky being orange.
A pair of hands was on her neck. She couldn’t tell if they were massaging her or feeling for a pulse. Whatever it was they were looking for, it continued to elude them.
The why of the situation hovered above the sidewalk and dissipated like smoke when she tried to grab at it. She still tasted Randal’s sweat on her lips.
“Nattie, I know you can hear me.” Anybody who still called her ‘Nattie’ might as well just shut up. “I can see your jaw tensing.”
The cold hands moved down to her collarbone, fingertips pressing into the center of her chest.
“And I know you can feel that.”
The name got stuck somewhere in the miles of deserted highway between vocal chords and tongue.
She tried again and managed a cough. It was a weak cough—that phonetically began with the letter R—and she felt it in each vertebra, stamping the gravel cityscape onto the skin of her back through a wet layer of cotton that would probably hurt if anybody tried to peel it off.
Was there any reason somebody might undress her? The thought assaulted her like a spray of needles.
The hand spread out, seeming to cover her entire chest. It stifled the cough.
Randal. Randal. Randal? Randal? Randal?
Mucus stirred in her pipes. It tickled.
“R-” The name popped like a puss blister and dribbled onto her chin.
Her forehead flexed. The effort to remember made her breath feel wet.
The broad shouldered man in the green blazer. He had his palm over her memory like a sponge stuffed into an ant hole. He had walked nonchalantly out the back door and onto the street.
She always groped for moments that had obscure significance and replayed them over and over until they cracked open like a walnut shell. It gave her ease.
Mason’s first wire to Natalie LK read
Your voice is perfection; it’s actually quite ugly. It has far more important things to do than be beautiful. As do you. ?
He clicked SEND and then took a phone call from an investor who wanted to discuss the floor plans for the new archive facility. He had been waiting for the phone call since Four Thirty PM of the previous day. The conversation lasted twelve and a half minutes and ended on a promising note, although by the time he hung up the phone, the L in Natalie LK had gone from Leah to Louellen, and quite what that meant he wasn’t sure.
Mason Quincy was a consultant for a biotech company called Creosome Inc. that fabricated and manufactured new species of microscopic organisms for the stabilization of ecosystems that new agricultural technologies were reliant on. In his bathtub was a grid of seven hundred and forty frog hearts connected by catheters (from a standing position with his glasses off, it resembled the surface of a waffle covered in strawberry goop) and all pumping in unison, powered by a homemade nine-volt DC motor and a reservoir of actual frog blood. Every sixth heart in every fourth column had been injected with a culture of an experimental life form known as XC900087A that, in theory, would cause the infected tissue to oxidize and then dehydrate. Mason had a different theory.
What he didn’t say was
It’s like listening to a live album of some Seventies icon, waiting for the part where they launch into a classic we’ve all heard a gazillion times, and they just run with it and jam. The listener wants to trespass in that uncharted realm where guitar solos can erupt from the soil and nobody knows what key you’re in anymore. That’s what I mean: there is no live album, there is no Seventies'' band and there is no familiar song, there’s just that spontaneous magical place, and that’s where you live.
He read over his rambling praise while brushing his teeth. Too much. The line about her voice might get her attention. Witty and simple.
Well put. Do I know you?
Mason arched his back to give the computer screen some breathing room. His glasses were starting to fog. Did Natalie Leah Klein talk like that, in clipped, succinct, upright, get-my-information-and-get-out-of-here tones? Why would she be talking to some dorky fan on the internet? It didn’t fit with his image of Leah. Lisa, perhaps… Lisa—he imagined—was the pragmatic, efficient side of Natalie who paid all her bills on time, ate three meals a day, drove the speed limit and washed her hands before making phone calls.
Fluids combusted inside the meaty part of Mason’s cheeks, stretching his lips against his teeth like a boat tugging on the dock, bucking in the current from a passing vessel of immense size.
The sensation was not a smile. Gourmet chocolate made him smile. Irreverent political cartoons made him smile. Paychecks made him smile. A personal message from Natalie LK?
…The frog heart grid seemed to be accelerating. He could faintly hear its pulse from the downstairs bathroom.
He began to type a reply, stopped and started again.
The song always opens with an explosion that’s been burning fuel since long before you got there. I don’t know if I’m listening to a ballad or an asteroid collision or the sound a sunrise would make, but the music makes more sense than I do.
He deleted that and typed
I won’t waste your time saying what I don’t have the language to-
He bit his tongue, paced over it with the cursor.
He hit CANCEL and shut his laptop. It sounded heavy, like a manhole cover latching.
The frog heart choir suggested something better. Almost verbally, it seemed at times.
Randal was lying beside Natalie on the futon in the back of the van. She had realized a long time ago that she no longer needed him.
Randal had been the manager of The Soiled Seraph who booked her first show with the Bottom Breeders, Randal’s brother’s grunge band that had collapsed after the saxophonist went bankrupt and mutilated his lip. Randal had a thing for “chicks who can keep a rhythm” as he put it, and his knowledge of the music industry had sustained enough conversation to shuttle them to the bottom of a pitcher of some microbrew (Randy was weird about microbrews) when he leaned both elbows across the table, the whites of his eyes sizzled like egg hitting a frying pan and he said "You want a job?"
The fact that Natalie had drifted into town two months previous with fifty dollars in her pocket and most definitely did want a job was arbitrary; she gave him the Slow Nod—the slow nod that meant strap your emotional seatbelt, we’re about to be attached at the hip for at least one rotational cycle of the Earth about the sun - because his eyes did something she had never seen a human pair of eyes do before. They changed color. They moved through a spectrum too fast to tell what color they were at any instant. His pupils did that every time he was nervous, turned on or inspired. She wondered if it made any anatomical sense.
By the time she realized the phenomenon was caused by a blotch on his contact lenses, they were already living together.
His arms and diaphragm pressed against her nakedness suddenly felt like the steel wreckage of a car crash that had miraculously left her uninjured. She squirmed. Her body temperature dropped. She shivered hard enough to bruise Randal’s arm.
“Nattie, I don’t get your music. I never- I don’t even like it. I wanted to admit that to you two years ago, but it felt like, like, I don’t know, like giving up.”
He kept talking but she didn’t hear him. She thought of the green blazer.
The song was called Gradations Of Pink. Her titles had no intended nuances or meanings, and they had little to do with the music they tagged. It was at the song’s climax of pure violence that fish had swam through her head in intersecting loops. On stage, she knew it was working when she lost all distinction of what objects in the room were instruments and what objects were just objects.
Her decision to slowly shove a drumstick down her throat during a tear-filled scream over three measures of silence was not a decision at all. She descended to her knees in a style of gradual deconstructed histrionics that was uniquely her own, and with the drumstick still in her mouth, proceeded to vomit all over the stage and then run out the side door and into a night that had become orange.
She did not feel the pavement make contact with her legs.
This sort of thing was expected of her.
The word “spontaneous” was emphasized in every review and promotional blurb, usually quoting Natalie herself. The industry’s vocabulary was a flat landscape when it came to her music, and “spontaneous” was the edge of its world. Her face was concealed behind an outpouring of bark colored hair when she thrashed around. By the way in which everyone stepped back as they would on a subway platform and at the same time leaned in closer as they would in an art gallery, it was clear that spontaneity had nothing to do with it. Her petite body had long since been abducted by a restlessness that was neither sexual nor youthful nor anything familiar.
It was pure evil.
There was a tasteless, substanceless, soundless feast emanating, throbbing from the amps outward, teasing his fingertips and pushing blood to the surface of his teeth. It made him feel hungry, and the hunger had no connection to his stomach.
Natalie was a pale goblin writhing in a pastel smudge of energy. There could not possibly be enough physical space inside her jeans and sweat-drenched red t-shirt for that guitar solo to live. It was a flailing venomous snake that only her guitar strings could contain, and Natalie volunteered to protect her audience from it.
She dropped to her thighs and howled, her back arched nearly ninety degrees and the tendons in her neck threatening to emit sparks. Her face—still recognizable as the pensive, fair-complexioned young woman pictured on the back of the CD jacket—was a beehive of projectile sweat and saliva.
The beats were arrhythmic, syncopated assaults of percussion like the firing of synapses in the brain of a genius at the moment of a historic scientific breakthrough—rumbles of symbol crashes punctuated by thuds of base drum forming bridges over unexpected beats of silence. Most songs began with complex minor chords on keyboard from which vocal harmonies flowered and flowed prettily into wails of distortion and then settled back into calmly trickling refrains. Simple lyrical phrases would be repeated measure after measure for four minutes straight until the words lost any simplicity or clichéd packaged meaning they may have held elsewhere.
Base riffs tightened the air pressure in the room, tugging on Mason’s intestines, his body one intricate rubber band stretched around the fingers of a monster waiting to be flung into outer space.
This isn’t a concert, this is a fucking exorcism was his last conscious thought before he slid his arm back into his green blazer.
“Is there a band here tonight or something?” a burly, hooded kid on a skateboard had asked him outside the door, when the last arms of sunset waved from behind the skyline on the other side of the train tracks.
“Yeah, there is. It’s called Bodily Fluids.”
“No shit, are they good?”
“It’s Natalie LK’s side project. Natalie L. K.?”
The kid shook his head, openmouthed.
“For six bucks at the door, they’re better than sex.”
“What are they, punk or something?”
Mason thought for an awkwardly long moment and said “not exactly.”
He had left it at that.
Holding the sidewalk in her gaze like a slippery fish in a vice grip, she did not see Mason until he was already crouching down to sit beside her. The green blazer smelled like antiseptics.
"Mind if I talk to you?"
She looked up at him cross-eyed. "Thanks for coming out to the show. I’m not much of- um, I don’t- I’m sorry, I’m not feeling well."
"Do you ever feel well after that?"
She looked away from him, focusing her eyes on a root that wound its way through a crack in the pavement, twisting and diving and driving to its own hidden conclusion.
"I don’t really have much to… I just felt compelled- you jetted off the stage, then I saw you across the street, I was curious."
"How you do it."
Randy and Martha were already briskly shuffling toward her with concern. Mason made a staggered waving motion with his hand, mouthed the word ''anyway'' and walked back toward the Spider Lounge.
"Wait." Natalie caught and squeezed Mason’s hand. Her highly arched, linear brows and etched features had an aristocratic delicacy, coupled with an awareness that transcended queasiness or any temporary condition. Her face belonged in a seventeenth-century oil painting hung in an elegant hallway where classical music played and guests sipped wine and commented on the sensibilities of the brushstrokes to the haunting intelligence of that face. Laura, Lisa, Leanna, Lina, who was this? Her middle name did not matter. This he realized.
Mason wondered if one heart was deviating from the tempo of its brethren back at home.
That would confirm his theory.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED