Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Guest Writer: Gita Smith

Tale of a Salamander

“Not drinking has added an element of uncertainty to my life,” Nicki laughs. “I used to know how I’d die.”
She wraps long, elegant fingers around an iced tea glass and gives it a practiced shake, her old bourbon-and-soda gesture.

Nicki lived in Savannah with Joe above his used furniture store during her drinking days. Mornings, she’d awaken to the sound of sofas and chairs being scraped out to the sidewalk in front, to the thud of crates landing on concrete. She would test the air on her face and mouth before opening her eyes. If the salt air was gently moist, she would chance it and ease up gingerly.

There was a space between the Nicki of the early morning hours and the self she would be by noon. In bed alone, with the window open and a sea breeze stirring the sheer curtains, she relished being clear, flying solo. By noon the feeling was replaced by a whiskey thirst that reached to her knees.

Joe had been a seafaring man for most of his life. And, like a sailor’s chest, he had seemed sturdy and safe in the beginning when she first wandered into his store, looking for lamps. But now, good solid Joe was a highway to nowhere, and Nicki saw herself as only a dotted line on their map. Day by day, she felt herself fading, felt like she soon might disappear.

Nights, they would sit at Joe’s scarred formica kitchen table and drink. Now and then a pal of Joe’s would wander in with half a bottle. Sometimes Joe would go downstairs and meander through the store, sitting in every chair, “so no one feels left out,” he said.
Then she’d hear him bellowing his sailor’s songs.

Farewell to Nova Scotia, the sea-bound coast
Tho’ your mountains dark and dreary be.
When I’m far, far away on the briny ocean deep
Will ye ever heave a sigh and a wish for me?”

Or, Joe would lean across the table and take Nicki’s hands. His words seemed to come from far away although he was right in front of her.
“Baby,” he’d say, “I want to give you everything. Someday we’ll have it all: Louis Quatorze and Frank Lloyd chairs and Baccarat crystal. Lalique. The works.”

He would gaze at the long, cool length of her and get lost in her olive-green eyes. Nicki would regard his broad, pale forehead and half-shut lids. “I know,” she’d say. On some nights Joe would scoop Nicki up and carry her on a looping walk around the store. Inevitably, the bourbon overtook him and he’d stumble and drop her. The next day they would pretend not to see the bruises.

The day Nicki stopped drinking, she did it without Joe. She awoke with eyelids blue as plums and just as swollen. She looked in the mirror and looked away. There had been a new chip in a tooth, she’d noticed; some capillaries showed in the flesh of her nose.

Nicki started keeping a journal and hid it in her douche kit. She wrote down her dreams and poems and feelings. She looked up AA in the phone book and slipped away to meetings at hours when Joe was delivering furniture. She met Alana and Katya at an all-woman’s meeting, and she hung around with them in coffee shops.

Alana was Nicki’s sponsor. She had graying hair and amethyst eyes that gazed levelly at the world. One time, after a meeting, high on a coffee buzz and fellowship, Nicki said, “You know how they always say a woman is like a flower? Like her parts down there are like an orchid, and all?”
Her new friends were attentive now.

“Yeah,” Alana took up the thread, “like the romance novels always say ‘her petals opened,’ and all that crap?”
They were laughing harder.
“Well mine is nothing like a flower,” Nicki said. “Flowers need a gardener to move them around. Mine is like a salamander -- it’s moist and alive!”
Katya shrieked.

Nicki was down to pleading. She hid bottles and, in the process, found other bottles Joe had hidden, who knows when? She tried to drag him out for walks, for booze-free outings to Cumberland Island where they could camp on the beach and watch shorebirds.
Joe was unmoved, unimpressed, un-sober.
She mocked him. She begged.
She called their life “the days of wine and roses,” and Joe laughed. “What’s wrong with roses?”
He called her a dramatist.
“A drahh-ma-teest, a DRAMA-TEST.”
He brought her a rose and pulled the petals off, soaked them in wine and pasted them with small slaps onto her belly, in concentric circles. Each one stayed in place until the wine dried. Nicki said nothing. She felt weightless now. She felt like she would blow away with the next coastal storm.

The afternoon that Nicki walked out on Joe, she’d been sober seven weeks. Joe was helping a customer load a camel-backed sofa onto a flatbed truck when a taxi pulled up. Joe took in the scene – Nicki stepping carefully down the cracked pavement with luggage, her blue-white grip on the handles, the taxi trunk ajar -- and felt an icy fear. The words welled up, “You CAN’T!”
He plunged towards the curb.
His mouth was an O full of “NO!” and “DON’T!”
But that taxi was already gone, bearing his Nicki away like a flower on somebody else’s lapel.

© Gita Smith 2010

Gita Smith is a career journalist, whose work has appeared on The Sphere, Fictionaut, Pen10, Not From Here Are You (The NOT), and her reporting on the South appears at, a news site.


  1. love the details of the furniture store and Joe having to sit in each chair and promising name-brand furniture. felt so real!

  2. Damn, that was a good read. And "...a whiskey thirst that reached to her knees" was the salt on the rim. Nice one, Gita - good choice Michael.

  3. This is rich in colour, texture, taste and temperature - I love the depths of the characters you have brought to life here and the details of their living quarters. I just hope Joe has the sense to get sober and go find her - and himself - once again. A great longer than six read Gita, thank you

  4. A sad lonely despondence settles over this piece with its fine descriptive prose. Nuanced and oh so very tightly woven, this is a pronounced basket of good telling that is Gita's hallmark.

  5. Beautifully done, Gita. You've caught real life in a jar and given it to us with a smile, "Look what I caught for you!" Really, really good work!

  6. This is achingly beautiful in its imagery. Wonderfully told.
    Adam B

  7. Oh, this was so wonderful Michael, I could have gone on reading and reading, it is a shame it hadn't been a novel. I really enjoyed it. I am sorry it had a sad ending, but such it life too at times. Thank you for sharing with us. Ingrid

  8. Few write as captivatingly as you, Gita. I number you among the best! This story is only one of yours that proves why.

  9. I'm thrilled Nicki got sober and was easily swept along by your descriptions of her struggle and journey. Beautiful work and I agree with Ingrid, I wish this had been a novel.

  10. Thank you all for such kind comments. But kudos go to the real-life CB Hackworth who, years ago, plopped down across from me at a Mexican cafe one evening and annnounced, "Not drinking has added an element of uncertainty to my life; I used to know how I'd die." The stunning self-awareness of that line alerted the magpie lobe in my brain and got filed under "future use."

  11. Gita this was excellent. So nice to get to read something longer of yours.

  12. As exceptional as you are, this is exceptional squared!
    Fluid, descriptive and reality based warmth.
    This wants to make me give up drinking!
    (Nahhh; that was a bad thought:)

  13. Superb character piece, G. The line that set wind to my sail was: "Nicki saw herself as only a dotted line on their map." Perfect!

  14. Wonderful Gita- it is a pleasure to read 'the longer you' - enjoyed the farewell to Nova Scotia ditty!

  15. Thank you again. @ Paul: it is a Canadian folk song and you probably can find the sheet music online. Wish I could provide the audio on here.
    @ Edward: you who wrote a best selling book about wine? Quit drinking? Not before I can visit your wine cellar, please.

  16. So late to the party, it's all been said and I agree with it all. The way you have captured the sad waste of life is gut wrenching and your capture of her brave, determination to move on, inspiring - well done!

  17. A prize winning story, Gita. Deep and human. May your write many more.

  18. I love and I hate this. It reminds me of so many of my friends, before it was too late. Seriously,
    you did a magnificent job on this story. I'm very proud to have you join us.

  19. I loved the theme of movement and the contrasts between Nicki and Joe. You turned the flower metaphor upside down in more ways than one. For example, Joe's destruction of the rose, which was very moving. There are too many parallels to mention, Gita, and "Salamander" deserves very careful reading. Supreme.

  20. A tale well told of awakening, survival, and triumph in the rediscovery of hope. Nice job.

  21. Wonderful Gita,I loved and enjoyed in this story.

  22. Gita, thanks for directing me to this absolutely stunning work. Everyone else has praised this and rightly so. A finer piece I haven't seen in quite a while.

  23. This piece reads so ethereal and wispy that I was almost surprised by the taxi at the end. This could’ve been set in a wooden tavern, tucked away deep in an enchanted forest. I felt almost magically ferried through this story by the effortless prose. What an extraordinary talent you have.

  24. Norman: No one's ever told me my writing was ethereal and wispy before. Frankly, I thought this one was a bit raw, given the bruises and Joe's sarcastic "drahma-teest" and the woman losing her identity the longer she stayed with the man. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. Thanks for liking it.

  25. I waited a long time to put my two cents here, but I guess it's because I didn't want to seem prejudiced. I love everything this writer produces, and this is one more example of how her keen powers of observation pick up on the telling details. The story is sad for the most part because we feel bad when relationships hit the rocks, but at least Nicki finds redemption and is empowered by her decisions, and damn, I wish I knew the tune to which one could put the lyrics of the Nova Scotia song.
    Memorable, Gita. Thanks.


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