She’s All Right
By Joel Tagert
Art by Jason White
Published Issue 096, December 2021
“Brain worms,” Satan told her, baring his canines. “Can’t you smell it on ’em?”
Talea sniffed the air as they passed an older couple walking arm in arm. “I don’t smell anything.”
“Bah, you humans never do. Noses like old turds. Trust me, half the people you see are infested.”
It explained a lot, now that she thought about it. “How do you get them?”
“Electromagnetic radiation, cell phones. Comets, occasionally. Just be careful when the sunset is especially pink. I know it looks nice and all, but those suckers will swim right through the air and into your ear holes when the light is right.” He shook his furry head.
Well, right now it was just past one and the sun was high and bright in blue skies. The grass waved cheerily at her and the Jack Russell terrier as they strolled. “The grass is happy today. I’m glad we met.”
Satan paused to whiz on said grass, which reached up happily to the stream. “Me too. I don’t find a lot of people I can talk to, you know?”
“I do know. I have the same issue.”
The dog turned and looked seriously at her. “Can I ask a favor, though? Like kind of a big one?”
“You can ask.”
“Here’s the thing: I’m kinda between houses right now, you feel me?”
Jay was not remotely as charmed by Satan as she was. “Talea,” he said slowly when he came home from work, speaking above the barking. “Whose dog is this?”
“I don’t believe in owning animals,” she said primly. “We met in the park.”
“‘We met in the park,’” Jay repeated, a look of despair falling upon him. “Did he have a collar at any point?”
“I don’t think so.” She picked him up. “Did you have a collar, Satan?”
Satan curled his lip. “Nah, I don’t believe in that shit. I’m a free agent.”
“He says he’s a free agent.”
“‘He’ being this dog. Who is named Satan.”
She rolled her eyes. “Obviously.”
“Dear lord.” He set his bag down and dropped haggardly onto the couch. Then he paused, fatigue shifting to horror as he saw that much of the living room carpet was covered in soil. In places it was inches thick, especially where Talea had removed their houseplants from their confining pots and placed them in their new beds. “What. Did. You. Do.”
“Isn’t it great? It was so sterile before.” She set Satan down to fondle the leaves of a croton.
“They call that being indoors.” He stared at the new garden for a whole minute and finally turned his horrified gaze back to Talea. Looking exhausted if not outright dazed, he stood up. “I’m going to take a walk.”
Satan’s ears perked up at the W-word. “Do you want company?” she asked.
“No,” Jay said quickly. “I just need to clear my head. Don’t do anything until I get back, okay?” She shrugged.
He was gone half an hour. His mood did not look to have much improved, but he seemed to be trying. “How about going for a drive?” he asked. “I was thinking about a place I want to show you.”
“Oh!” She brightened, smiling. “Where to?”
“It’s a surprise.”
“Can Satan come?”
His lips tightened. “Sure, Satan is always welcome.”
As they neared the edge of town, Talea saw a sign for an ADULT SUPERSTORE in a shopping center surrounded by a few stands of pines. Was that really where Jay was taking her? “What are you thinking?” she said aloud.
He glanced sidelong at her. “What?”
“I’m not in the mood.”
“The mood for what?”
She pointed at the sign, but Jay just looked confused. “That’s not where we’re going.” And he slipped the Corsica into the right lane, heading for the on-ramp to Interstate 57 North.
“Nice catch,” she said. “You were thinking it though. I can tell everything you’re thinking, you know.”
“The same way you talk to animals?”
“Exactly the same. And you don’t have to sound snide. I know you don’t understand how I do it.”
“Understand how you do it?” he repeated incredulously. His gaze was fixed on the road ahead as they accelerated. “Talea, how do you think you can do things that everyone else thinks are impossible?”
Almost she told him. When Talea had seen her mother lying in her coffin at the Church of God in Christ, something cracked open as she bent over the casket, wracked with sobs. Even in death her mother had looked not peaceful, but merely beaten. Her mind entered the Abyss, as she thought of it, and Talea staggered from the church full of unholy power and knowledge.
But Jay, in his Nirvana T-shirt and work pants still crusted with filth from his job at Arby’s, would never understand. She might as well have asked him to predict the movement of the comets (which to her were clear as day). “Never mind,” she said.
Ahead of them stretched the Illinois countryside, green rows of corn tall with summer. Every few seconds, she noticed, they would pass some kind of sign, words and numbers telling them how fast, how slow, how far, how much. They were put there by men to tell everyone where to go and what to do, but you could read the signs within the signs, if you had the power.
“I don’t know what to do with you,” Jay said quietly. When she said nothing, staring out the window and keeping Satan calm by rubbing his head, her erstwhile boyfriend went on. “I know it was hard for you when your mom died, but … You haven’t been the same, Talea. You don’t sleep, which means I don’t sleep, and by this point I feel half crazy myself. You start trouble with the neighbors, you talk when no one’s there, you … fuck. You need help.”
She let him talk. The air from the open window smelled slightly of manure, but she didn’t mind. She imagined the signs saying shit, shit, shit, which would have been accurate if not more useful. She didn’t mind Jay talking. She knew he meant the best for her, but he was always trying to fix things, like most men. Men saw a field and felt they had to stick a grain silo or water tower or communications tower in the middle of all that empty space like a flag, like an upright dick.
The thought aroused a flash of anger in her. “I’m fine, you know,” she snapped, interrupting whatever Jay was saying. “My mom died and I’m fine, which you never even asked me, by the way, or not really. You’re so concerned with managing me, I don’t think you ever even see me. Maybe I don’t do things the way you expect. But I’m not just something for you to worry about. I’m a spirit. I’m a pillar of fire.”
“Nice,” Satan said after a respectful pause. Talea nodded in acknowledgement.
Jay looked at her, but not for too long. “You need help,” he repeated.
“Help yourself,” she said.
They turned off past Rantoul onto a county road. It was when she saw the white church with the steeple that she realized she knew where they were and where they were going, but she said nothing. She was more concerned about the pink hue that was steadily seeping into the sky. Satan looked at her significantly with his big wet eyes. The church, she remembered, had a cross hanging from two thick black chains from the ceiling, an emaciated Jesus upon it weeping blood. As a child she had assumed, somehow, that the chains were an essential part of the icon, that perhaps God held their other ends, up in the clouds.
As they neared the farmhouse, she murmured to Satan, “You got my back, right?”
“Why, is shit about to go down?”
“Look at the sky,” she said. It was brilliant fuchsia from horizon to horizon.
The car ground to a stop on the dirt drive. In the front yard rusted iron figures of cowboys and horses stood in rigid languor. Dogs were barking behind the front door. Without saying anything else, Jay got out.
Alerted by the dogs, her grandmother came outside, while the goatish old man waited behind the screen, eyes hidden behind thick glasses, his beard more yellow than ever. The pink sky vibrated and pulsed in time with the cicadas. It had weight and texture, like a frayed fabric.
Talea opened the door and Satan slipped free. She stepped outside. “Hi, honey,” her grandmother said. The sky reached out with vivid tendrils, and Talea saw clearly the intestinal workings of her grandparents’ brains, the writhing worms consuming them from within.
“Satan!” she called, and with sudden fury the dog launched itself at Jay. Startled and swearing, Jay just ran. Talea ran too, into the drivers’ seat. She held it open just long enough for Satan to race back and inside.
“Where are you going?” Jay yelled, waving the keys.
She showed him the keys she was holding before starting the ignition. He seemed to have forgotten she had her own set.
“You’re crazy! You’re out of your fucking head!”
The dust from the spinning tires was her answer. As she hit the highway she turned on the radio and was pleased to hear David Bowie’s “Suffragette City,” which of course she had known would be playing. She sang along in a yell out the open window: “She’s all right!”
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.
Jason White is an artist living in the suburbs of Chicago. His favorite mediums are oil on canvas and pencil & ink drawings. When he was a kid he cried on the Bozo Show. His work varies from silly to serious and sometimes both. Check out more of his work on Instagram.