Melinda Jankovich was a young woman in 1979. In 1979, the young woman strode into Festival Hall B of the labyrinthine glass structure built over the old brick walls of the University of Illinois campus, which once sat among the boats on Navy Pier. Her hair was not as short as it is in 2010. In 1979, she used less rouge. Her skin did not billow when she smiled, and she had yet to ever talk to herself while looking into a mirror. Nineteen seventy-nine was a good year for Melinda Jankovich.
It was the year she met John Malkovich. In fact, she met him that very night in Festival Hall B, at the inaugural Entrepreneurial Women’s Convention, the night her lips parted in awe as her eyes traced the lightbulbs that outlined the main supports of the vaulted ceiling. Melinda would spend most her time during dinner fixated on the tiny lights high above her, frustrated by her inability to determine how the maintenance crew replaced the dead bulbs so high off the ground. At the 31st Annual Entrepreneurial Women’s Convention in 2010, the year her story would be written, Melinda just looked up at the dead bulbs and was glad no one ever figured out how to replace them. But in 1979, before her hair began to fall out and her cheeks began to sag and mirrors weren’t something she spoke into just yet, John Malkovich was absolutely certain he had found someone at this fucking thing his aunt had dragged him to that might actually have drugs on them. The wonder in her eyes when she leveled her gaze at him, her crooked smile, revealed the perfect mixture of intoxication and stupidity that John Malkovich had been searching for all night, and his penis was startled too. It jumped in his pants.
He cornered her that night in the back of Festival Hall B, beneath the banners of the corporate sponsors. When he mentioned acting at the Steppenwolf she looked at him the same way she looked at one of the tiny bright lights on the ceiling. Melinda told John Malkovich that she was a realtor, catering only to the high-rise crowd, the fabulously well-to-do that filled the seats of the Steppenwolf. John told her he had been looking for a place to live, a flat he could retire to after an opening night to celebrate. She asked him if he had a “boopah,” which is polish slang for a grandmother. John Malkovich, whose star in the universe was only beginning to rise in 1979, had never been asked a question of this nature during sex. “That is the weirdest fucking thing someone has ever fucking asked me mid-fuck,” he informed her. Melinda, alone, cleaned the apartment she had taken him to see that night. She put her dress back on in the bathroom, and the cosmetic mirror didn’t say a thing to her as she inspected her make up before leaving.
When Melinda told Becky Jacoby about the mirrors in 2009, Becky neatly penciled
onto an empty line in her notebook. It was part of the standard protocol she had adopted during her 15 years in psychotherapy to counter any ominous notation with a reassuring nod, so as not to startle one of her patients with the truth. Becky nodded reassuringly. She reached into her desk and retrieved a few sample packets of INVEGA, offering a handful of the tiny white pills to Melinda as their hour together expired. “Take these,” she said.
Melinda tore at the foil of a sample packet later that afternoon. Her ex-boyfriend, a man she dated for seven years and lived with for three, Sean Loop, had been pounding on the front door of her apartment for the last five minutes. She swallowed the white pills and opened the door. Sean had come for the signed Brian Urlacher jersey Melinda had given his autistic son some time ago, before she accused the boy of putting shoe polish in her coffee. Melinda had no intention of relinquishing the jersey, and Sean knew it. He wandered about the apartment as Melinda ignored him. Sean Loop knew Melinda would soon be moving into one of the condominiums she had failed to sell. It had been two years since her last sale. With every month, she seemed to recede further into herself, into dusty memories of her past that didn’t sound right anymore. Memories of her father, the policeman, anecdotes about what he had been like when she was a child and not the confused, bitter man she coerced Sean into visiting on occasion. He worried about Melinda, but hated her too. Sean had also taken white pills recently. His were meant for people who felt blue. When Sean Loop told Ken Salazar that he sometimes went over to Melinda’ apartment because he took pleasure in watching Melinda unravel before his very eyes, Ken carefully scribed
onto the bottom line of his legal pad, and underscored it twice. Ken nodded reassuringly.
Frankie, Melinda’s three-year-old, caramel-colored daschund, was in desperate need of the outdoors later that night. He could not afford another mistake on the carpet, as the last one had resulted in a baffling hour spent watching his owner sob uncontrollably while rubbing the stain into oblivion, uprooting the tendrils of the carpet and leaving a bald spoton the floor. He would wait as long as he could. Frankie patiently sat in the hallway as Melinda held two of the tiny white pills up in front of her eyes in the bathroom mirror, confident that she would notice him soon enough. “I should’ve had children, Frankie,” Melinda said.
Hours later, Frankie would successfully defecate mid-sprint for the first and only time in his short life. Melinda lifted herself from the floor of her garage, long after the white pills that stuck in her throat had taken effect, and tore off into the darkness on the tandem bicycle Sean had bought her years before, towing the reluctant dachshund in her wake. She had become surprisingly adept at riding the bike meant for two by herself, leaning into her turns along the pathways as the moon lit the breakers of Lake Michigan beside her. “Paliperidone,” Melinda laughed.
John Malkovich did not resurface in Melinda Jankovich’s life until the weekend of her move in 2010. Melinda had been expecting him. She delicately removed the packaging and pushed past the packing peanuts. Frankie tugged at the leather straps that hung from Melinda’s hands. The doorbell rang. Melinda hid John Malkovich in her duffel bag. The woman she had hired to pack her things arrived. Melinda left after assuring her that she would surely notice if the woman stole anything. She drove to her office with the top down on the Mercedes that she could no longer afford and John Malkovich asleep in the trunk.
There were 79 messages on Melinda Jankovich’s answering machine. She laughed. Ben Fusberg, marketing coordinator at Gold Coast Realty, watched Melinda from a distance. Ben was an aspiring playwright, and had been working on a stage play about Melinda for some time. Melinda had attended every play of his to date, and Ben despised her for this. He did not want Melinda Jankovich in his audience. It was embarrassing enough that he worked at Gold Coast Realty without Melinda misinterpreting his work as she butted into the conversations of his pupils at the after parties. His plan was to reveal his hatred by personally inviting Melinda to the desecration of her character on stage. When Ben Fusberg told his father, Charles Fusberg, PhD, that he had written such a scathing account of one of his co-workers, Charles made a note of it on his personal voice memo recorder, enunciating each letter
while nodding to himself, but did not feel reassured.
And with this prescription dominating much of his character, Ben’s aripiprazole would collide with Melinda’s paliperidone and give him the spite he needed to continue rifling through her drawers on the days she couldn’t drag herself to work. Melinda fired almost a dozen temporary workers because of the obvious snooping that had occurred after each hiatus from her office. The aripiprazole made it hard for Ben to feel any remorse for this. The aripiprazole made it hard for Ben to feel anything. As he observed Melinda on the 20th Floor of the Hancock Building, Frankie tore at the foil of a sample packet of INVEGA in the guest bedroom of the apartment Melinda's old apartment. He had not eaten in days. The two white pills tasted not at all like food to the poor dog.
Melinda coursed through her new condominium in the dark that night. She did not turn on the lights in fear of one of the neighbors noticing her. She had explained away the boxes and the movers by claiming that she was bringing in furniture meant to showcase the dramatic features of the apartment when it was viewed by potential buyers. She had been searching for Frankie for some time. Frankie’s life had taken a turn that evening; the paliperidone that he ingested had manifested a lucidity within him that was not meant for dogs. Melinda found him asleep on the duffel bag she had stuffed John Malkovich inside earlier that day. With one in each hand, she proceeded to the bedroom that did not belong to her.
Frankie felt heavier than she remembered. She set him on the bed, and he settled limply between the sheets. Melinda opened her duffel bag and kissed John Malkovich on the top of his head. She stroked the latex shaft, and ran her finger along the veins that bulged from his sides.
She walked out onto the terrace after John had finished making love to her. She lit a cigarette for the first time in ages. Melinda blew smoke at the moon and laughed. She looked out over the Field Museum, at the lake, as it quietly churned against the shoreline. Then, in the pearl-white hue of the moon, a figure passed over her shoulder, beyond the railing of the porch she had no legal right to. Frankie’s nose flared and his fangs settled as air and life and energy flowed inside him for the last time, enveloped in an absolute unending shade of black in all directions. His owner watched as he soared out into the night with John Malkovich still strapped to his head.
Melinda spent most of the night with Frankie, in the parking lot where he had landed. When she awoke in the morning, she walked the eight blocks to her office and put her head down on her desk. The phone had barely stopped ringing since her arrival. She finally picked up. A voice on the other end asked if she was Melinda Jankovich.
“I haven’t been Melinda Jankovich for a long time,” she said.
Ben’s play began with the flower scene he had cut from his first draft. As the house lights dimmed, Melinda lugged an arrangement of potted flowers across the garage floor of her condominium and mumbled to her summer intern about the neighbors. This last minute decision plagued his dreams in the early morning hours of opening day. His first draft began with a scene in which a younger Melinda arrived at the 1979 Entrepreneurial Woman’s Convention on Navy Pier. His more discerning friends would have had a field day with such heavy-handed symbolism in the opening minutes of the production. The aluminum ribbing strung with the tiny light bulbs that capture young Melinda Jankovich’s imagination would be lowered into sight for the second scene.
Aside from this change, Ben’s original draft survived to see the stage. A few mechanical problems had been smoothed out. Not that it was any sort of surprise, but John Malkovich’s agent never responded to Ben’s email with the “e-n-v-e-l-o-p-e-s” manuscript attached. Luckily Gary Sinese was available, and had done a rather impressive job of quickly memorizing the few lines and stage directions he had been given.
From the moment the curtains were pulled back, this play spoke to Melinda, and not in the condescending tone the rear view mirror had taken when it criticized her choice of lipstick in the parking lot. She could relate to this Melinda woman. She seemed to grapple with the very same issues that the real Melinda Jankovich struggled with. Could this be? The real Melinda Jankovich watched as the Sean Loop on stage sidled out of the mock-apartment and towards the fourth wall at the end of the first act. The stage darkened, and a lone shaft of lamplight focused on a much more attractive, crowd-worthy version of Sean Loop.
“I love Melinda Jankovich.”
A man wearing a hat and sunglasses seated in front of Melinda stood quickly and darted up the main aisle. The real Sean Loop pinched the bill of his cap as he passed the real Melinda Jankovich but Melinda wasn’t looking at him anyways. After all, the Sean Loop on stage, however derivative and specious the words Ben had given him might have been, was much more attractive, and Melinda had always found it hard to listen to the real Sean because he wasn’t.
“I love Melinda Jankovich. But I hate her too. I hate loving her almost as much as I love hating her. She’s sick and it’s not going away. And I can’t remember why I’ve stuck around for so long anymore. There isn’t anything left for me here. There isn’t anything left here for anyone. I’ve spent the last three years of my life falling out of love with the woman I spent two decades falling in love with as she fucked every available rich guy in Chicago. I loved her so much more then, when I couldn't have her, when even a kiss was just too much to ask. I cried the night she met John Malkovich. We were friends back then and I thought she was the one and then she met him and I was sure that was it. I fell in love listening to her go on and on about him and his penis that had jumped out of his pants that night. I fell in love with her as the days and weeks went by and he didn’t return her calls or the messages she had written on his car in lipstick. But I hated her too.”
When the stuffed daschund with a strap-on dildo attached to its head was hurled from the scaffolding on the stage towards the end of the play, over the shoulder of Melinda Jankovich as she stood frozen and drenched in spotlight, the real Melinda Jankovich could not stifle her laughter from the audience. When Melinda Jankovich reappeared on the stage below the scaffolding, sobbing over Frankie’s carcass, the real Melinda realized something that she was not prepared for. She had never enjoyed one of Ben’s plays as much as she was enjoying this one. Frankly, his other pieces bored her. Too preachy.
Melinda drank too much at the after-party. Ben’s aripiprazole had helped him pick out a nice tie and shirt combination, and the suit Ben’s father had handed down to him the week before fit as if tailored to his own dimensions. When Ben first noticed Melinda at the play earlier in the night, he instantly regretted his decision to invite her. He hadn’t fully considered what she was capable of if she caught on and decided to do something drastic.
Melinda kept her eyes on him as she crossed the small tavern’s basement that Ben reserved for the cast and close friends. She approached him, kissing him hard on the lips. Ben Fusberg didn’t know what to do. The room went quiet as every eye and ear trained itself on the pair. His cheeks flushed and his arms reached around her. Melinda cradled his bulge in one hand, and put her lips to his neck.
It was very late when the two arrived on the doorstep of Melinda’s new apartment. Ben tried not to look around too much on their way into the bedroom. Everywhere, boxes were stacked on top of one another, and personal effects covered what little floor space remained. Melinda put Ben’s cock in her mouth. Her tongue was dry and she made little sucking sounds when the head of his penis escaped her lips.
Ben eased his way onto the bed without interrupting Melinda. His eyes adjusted to the shadows. The faint, putrid smell of dead meat made its way to his nostrils. Ben looked around. A black duffel bag sat in the corner of the bedroom. A tail poked out of one end, and something else Ben could not make out in the half-darkness of the bedroom protruded from the opposite end.
Ben walked out onto the terrace after Melinda had finished making love to him. He lit a cigarette and laughed at the moon. He looked out over the South Loop. A Metra train pulled into the station from the north. The lake shimmered against the shoreline. Suddenly Melinda appeared next to him under the spotlight of the moon, cradling the fur and pulp that was left of Frankie. She put one leg over the railing and then the next, holding on to the opposite side with one hand. Her lips parted in awe as she gazed up at the tiny bright lights high above them.
Melinda said nothing. Her cheeks billowed. Her rouge had rubbed off on Ben’s pants in the taxi.
Two minutes passed.
“I really liked your play.”
“Who was it about?”
“You, mostly. And Gary Sinese.”
Melinda lowered her head and peered below her. One of Frankie’s legs detached and fell. Melinda didn’t notice. She looked back at Ben.
“It was very accurate.”
Ben was becoming impatient.
“Die,” he said, and began to pry her fingers from the railing.
“There was a time in my life when I considered myself beautiful. There was a time in my life when I was considered. I never loved Sean Loop. I never loved Gary Sinese or Frankie or John Malkovich. I've never been in love. I know I’m sick, and I have been for long time. It’s not my fault. I am not Melinda Jankovich. I’m not anyone, neither are you. And while you fucked me I couldn’t stop thinking about the bald spot on the back of your head.”
Ben’s aripiprazole contemplated the possibility of finger prints, of trace amounts of semen that might be found in her pulverized cervix if she were to fall. Ben had not listened to Melinda’s final adieu. Ben’s aripiprazole was resistant to the temptation of aiding Melinda’s suicide. It seemed cliché, even to a prescription drug for bipolarity.
“I’m going to help you. Give me the dog.”
Melinda handed Frankie to Ben. The weight of John Malkovich had become too much for the dead daschund’s tiny neck, and Frankie’s head fell off onto the porch. Melinda laughed. She hastily began to climb back over the railing to retrieve it, but slipped. Melinda fell backwards.
Ben watched as she made her way down into the parking lot. Melinda tucked her legs up into her chest, somersaulted twice, and straightened out into a swan dive for the remainder of her journey. Ben pondered this as he laid Frankie on the terrace. He couldn’t help but think about what a tidier ending he had given Melinda on stage earlier that night, bringing up the house lights as she admitted on the phone that she was no longer Melinda Jankovich, but he couldn’t fault her for lack of originality. He looked down on Melinda.
Melinda rolled her lips off of yours when she kissed. They touched yours plushy and soft all at once. And when she pulled away it was like something that had always been there was gone and it shouldn’t be. Ben hadn’t been taking his aripiprazole. Or going to work. Ben probably wasn’t employed at the moment. His parents, Charles and Ruth Fusberg, rancorous hosts of the past seven Fusberg-Salazar Thanksgiving dinners, seven, let the basement to their son, whose apparent grief over his fallen coworker had begun to affect Ben the way puberty had during but not limited to the first three or so of the aforementioned Thursdays in November when the mail isn’t delivered.
Ben drank lilac wine. It put his mind at ease, but more importantly it made him drunk. When he was drunk he could think about Melinda’s lips and they way they felt that night and not about how he had said “Nine-point-five” when she hit the pavement. That was cold. He couldn’t believe he said that. Ben drank out of the disposable cups his mother had socked away somewhere in the unfinished half of the basement. Ruth kept things like that. Not a hoarder, Ben didn’t suppose. Hateful of waste. The childhood boxers he found in the unfurnished storage area and had resorted to wearing didn’t fit anymore, and the elastic waistband kept flipping over from the fat he stored on his abdomen, fat he had been keeping much more of now that he was at home and drunk on lilac wine and not taking his pills anymore.
Ben went to the funeral. He was worried that if he didn’t it might look suspicious, and he didn’t want that. The night his play debuted, Ben got out of Melinda’s building and away from where she and Frankie had landed without much hullabaloo. When the police interviewed him he admitted that he had been there earlier in the night, the only night the two had shared since Melinda admitted her deep seeded desire to do things to his cock. No one needed much convincing that Melinda had jumped without any help anyway.
Her funeral mass was held at St. John’s downtown. Melinda’s pearled-pink coffin sat on casters behind Frankie’s tiny urn. Heavy rays of sunlight streamed through the inlaid chunks of stained glass mosaics lining the walls. In the first row of pews, a few people sat facing the casket. Ben was late. No one noticed him as he approached. Someone coughed. Ben ambled up the center aisle, closer and closer to the casket. Melinda was always willing to help others, but, in her later years, never seemed able to help herself, said the priest from behind the pulpit.
Her body was interred at Palamino Pines Cemetery later that afternoon. In a moment perceived as tenderness by those around him, Ben ran his hand along the paneling like it was the brand new car he had never bought or owned.
Ben looked across the plot and saw Sean Loop standing next to Sean Loop from Ben’s play. How embarrassing. The actor was at least a half foot taller than his source material, and his hair was much thicker. He had been crying. The real Sean Loop had not. When it was all over, Ben could tell that Sean was waiting for him, waiting for his chance to say something to Ben. Ben made sure to separate himself from the small --very small-- group of people gathered around the grave when he was certain that Sean was making his move towards him.
Ben said nothing.
Two minutes passed.
“I liked your play. What I saw of it at least.”
“It was very accurate.”
“I loved Melinda Jankovich. But I hated her too. I hated loving her almost as much as I loved hating her. She was sick for a long time, you know. I spent the last three years of my life falling out of love with the woman I had spent decades falling in love with as she fucked everyone else in Chicago. I loved her so much more then, when I didn’t have her, when even a kiss was just too much to ask. I cried the night she met John Malkovich. We were friends back then and I thought that someday she’d be my wife and then she met him and I finally understood that there would always be a John Malkovich, some brighter light from on high that would eclipse me in her eyes. I fell in love listening to her go on and on about him and his penis that had jumped out of his pants that night. I fell in love with her as the days and weeks went by and he hadn’t returned her calls or the messages she had written on his car in lipstick. But I hated her too.”
© Joe Sorrentino 2011
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Joe Sorrentino is a 26-year-old graduate of DePaul University's Writing and Publishing program. Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, he currently resides in Chicago where he is working on his first novel and a collection of short stories.
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