After a lot of technical difficulties involving ISBNs and corrupted files, the ebook edition of Cruel Stars is now available on Amazon here: https://t.co/Lp2sbTbBNp.
Many thanks to everyone who bought the book and expressed support.
After a lot of technical difficulties involving ISBNs and corrupted files, the ebook edition of Cruel Stars is now available on Amazon here: https://t.co/Lp2sbTbBNp.
Many thanks to everyone who bought the book and expressed support.
Fun news: I just published my 32nd piece of short magazine fiction, this time in Ink & Coda magazine. You can read it for free on their website: http://www.inkandcoda.com/issues/4-1/bora-bora/.
I first noticed the wolf in East Africa. Heard of brothers fighting and killing each other outside Makamba, daughters poisoning fathers in Goma, laughing while their houses burned, and everywhere the ritual of suffering enacted with a kind of desperate abandon. So I knew it had come around to this once again: an axe age, a sword age, a wind age, a wolf age. An age of bullets. An age of scorn, of grief, of fire and ice and tongues of rust filthy with blood. In such times, no one has mercy or even remembers it. Instinct rules. Understanding is rare. And few hear the wolf creeping up behind.
I knew Bujumbura waited to impart such knowledge to me when I saw the catherine wheel in a stand of trees beyond the airfield—a frame for breaking and burning witches—with an empty metal folding chair waiting beside it. I stepped away from the plane and stared at purple thunderheads hanging low over the steaming hills. I’d arrived during the rainy season, prop wash of the Dornier 228 twisting bits of paper and plastic bags over fields of grass and ochre mud. Then into town on the back of a piki-piki, plumes of brown water shooting up behind the wheels into the rain.
Streets with broken ditches, piles of burning garbage that smelled like shit and rubber. And everywhere: singing, chanting, drumming, sirens, heavy bass, the crackle of French radio through the wet dark as we passed yellow rectangles of light cut by barbed wire, spiked security bars, the black silhouettes of branches waving in the storm.
Arrived at crumbling plaster villa with collapsed third floor, brooding and dark and unoccupied for months—the best the company could get me on short notice. Two blocks down the hillside from the President’s mansion, the house had its own water cistern on stilts, gate guards, and a cadaverous German Shepherd, who sat beside the front door and frowned at me as I carried my suitcase in. Rusted rebar lattices over the windows. The outer wall pitted by bullet holes and topped with broken glass. The bedroom ceiling covered with spiders. My home for a month.
In the morning: Laurent Nzikobanyanka pulls the outside bell rope. Bald, smiling, gold Masonic ring, pressed blue suit and cream tie, long handshake. Regional supervisor for the company—a man in love with absurdity and beer and the absurdity of beer. Straight to Ubuntu Résidence for pizza with bitter Goma cheese and 40oz bottles of the local Primus for hours.
Then slow, the ground tilting, we walk the Public Gardens while jogging clubs in identical berets run around us, three gravely serious men in yellow track suits do Tai Chi on the wet grass, and a laughing girl flips somersaults on her roller blades. A passing woman nods at Laurent. Ça va? Ça va bien. It starts to rain. People look up and laugh at the rain. And this, too, is Africa.
The report I’m supposed to write for Laurent—what report am I supposed to write? I take the Lariam I brought with me to keep off the malaria and have bad dreams, wake up in the middle of the day with cockroaches on my belly, kill them, go back to bed and have bad dreams of cockroaches. Laurent comes by and pulls the bell rope, but I don’t go to the door. Three days in, and I’m pale and trembling. I’ve started vomiting and shitting uncontrollably. I worry I might have typhoid. So I add Cipro to the Lariam and spend ten days going from bed to toilet. Ça va? Ça va bien.
On the eleventh day, I rise again, thinner, with clean intestines and more circumspection. Before dawn, dogs are howling all across the city at a WWII air raid siren being cranked for no discernable reason. The house German Shepherd, who I have learned is named Jean-Pierre, howls back one raspy and exasperated howl, his duty as a dog. But he’s heard it all before. I lean out the back door and give him an ancient withered galette from the tin I found over the sink. The dogs in the distance begin again. He holds the end of the flat cake in his mouth and looks up at me with something like sympathy. “Good boy,” I say. “Fucking eat it or I’ll take it back.” He growls a little, but he doesn’t put it down. When I close the door, I hear him whimper. Growl or whimper: life is simple until you need to do both at once.
Laurent takes me to meet Father Martin, a Catholic priest, a descendent of a Tutsi king, and an initiate of Imana, the old creator god. Father Martin has no problems with this. We walk through his small, crumbling Église de l’Ascension while he talks to us about water issues, the rebels, the Evangelical Christian missionaries defacing ancestor shrines outside Gitega. Half-burned pillar candles in wrought iron stands line the bare walls. Spiderwebs over everything. The tiny arched windows have no glass, only black bars set deep into the frames. A breeze twists down, guttering the candles, lifting the webs like an invisible hand.
That night, there is mass and then, in a tent behind the church, the worship of Imana. Drumming. Singing. I pass out on a bench and no one notices, not even me. When I come to, Laurent is gone. Covered in sweat and smelling like incense, I walk through silent black streets until I find my way home, where I drink and smoke cigarettes and talk to Imana in the dark of my bedroom.
Day fifteen, halfway through the report, chain smoking, writing what the company wants me to write to calm the investors: emerging technologies, very good, country is on the upswing, great opportunity for development, everything is wonderful, god is in his heaven, all is right with the world.
I don’t mention the child who’d been thrown in a pool of acid when he was three, who is now eighteen and assigned to guard my front gate in a blue uniform with only half a face. I don’t mention the woman who weeps every night somewhere nearby or that I heard the catherine wheel was used a month before I arrived to break every bone in a woman’s body. They said she used sorcery to make her boyfriend impotent. Grenade attacks at gas stations. Shootings in the central market. The Muslim Brotherhood taking revenge for someone taking revenge for something another group did in some other country at an earlier date. A rebel general in the hills above Kigali, raping and murdering villagers, mounting their heads on spikes by the side of the road. The wolf age. The wheel of iron, come back around for its bloody payment.
Sicker than five dogs, but no time to relax. I stop writing only when Laurent insists that I get out of the house for my health. I stink and speak incoherently and sweat and grope for a cigarette every few minutes. But Laurent is determined. We have lunch at New Parador with Jessica Stanley, a functionary from the U.S. Embassy so far up or down in the hierarchy she doesn’t have a job title. Blonde, early fifties, stick thin with a pearl necklace and a pained squint. “What do you do?” I ask. “I work at the embassy.” “And what does that involve?” “It involves embassy work.”
Laurent smiles broadly and orders three big beers.
She goes thirty minutes later, her Primus untouched. Laurent drinks it slowly and sighs. “An unfortunate woman, but someone I thought you should meet.” I don’t ask him why. The interior of the New Parador dining room is covered in chipped gold leaf. The ceiling drips water into a plastic bucket. I decide Laurent is too sincere to be putting me on.
With the month almost up, I write continuously, pausing only to feed galettes to Jean-Pierre and drink filtered water that smells like an unwrapped condom. Before I can finish, I’m visited by Reverend Moonstar, an old high school friend who used to be named Sean Roberts. He got rich importing wicker things from the Congo and selling them in Manhattan. Now he practices polyamory and runs a coven of divorced Wiccans in Italy.
Reverend Moonstar has become pale and obese. He tells me Wiccan bitches are all succubi while he mixes a pitcher of martinis in the kitchen. “You know, this light in here, I think it’s flickering ‘cause it’s broken, Mikey. And, uh, you’re not living here permanently, are you? You’ve got a serious fucking roach problem.” I tell him he’s got a dirty mouth for a man of the cloth. The reverend offers a martini to Jean-Pierre, but the dog nips his hand. Even this doesn’t bother him. He laughs and sips his martini while I bandage him up. In the morning, I open my eyes to see Jean-Pierre snap a cockroach off my shirt, bite it in half, spit it out, and lie down again with his head on my body. I don’t know how he got inside, but I decide he gets double galettes later.
I finish the paper and Laurent is pleased. He pats me on the shoulder and hopes I get over my chronic cough, trembling, and fever. I have started to sweat profusely and I’m out of Cipro. The Lariam gives me dreams of my dead mother, memories of my father on one of his two-week whiskey benders where he called the house and told us he’d been elected governor of Alaska, dreams of a man-sized cockroach kneeling by the bed, hissing terrible things into my ear.
I’ve got an extra week paid for if I want to stay and Father Martin has invited me to another service. The Public Gardens are empty and covered in mist. I walk through them in the morning, feeling like the mist is more solid than my body, like I could hike up the side of the mist to heaven where Imana waits to explain Burundi to me, the wolf age, the twilight of the gods. I realize I know nothing. I have learned nothing. And, at best, I am seriously ill.
So I take a moto-taxi out to the airport where the catherine wheel is now soot black. They have broken and burned another witch since I arrived—always a poor village woman or a rape victim. Never someone like our Reverend Moonstar, who can wear pentagrams and talk about spells and Wiccan bitch-succubi all he wants. I vomit twice in the airport bathroom and pay the attendant 500 BIF for the trouble. A mustard yellow gecko crawls out of my laptop bag before I board the plane.
Brussels. I miss my connecting flight to London and get a closet room at the Hotel Friederiksborg instead. Too weak to get to a clinic, I soak the bed with sweat and think about dying. I think about Jean-Pierre, my best and only friend, and that I should have taken him with me. Room service leaves bottles of carbonated Spa outside my door with dry toast. The conceirge is understanding and discrete; though he is clearly worried about what to do with my corpse should I kick off in the middle of the night. I live on bread and mineral water for a week until I can keep it down and am strong enough to bathe myself and walk outside.
I look up friends of friends who live on Rue de Lakenstraat—three Estonian girls who give me tea, wine, and chocolate. In my lingering dizzy exhaustion, they seem to me like creatures of pure air and fire, filling up my glass, laughing, wanting to know—everything—how many people there are in Burundi; what the climate is like; why I went there; whether I have read a certain Polish travel writer; what I think of Belgium; what I think of Obama’s administration relative to the Bush administration and if there is much pro-American sentiment in Burundi; if anyone I know has been a victim of the grenade attacks; what my dissertation was on; what they should see if they visit Rwanda other than the gorillas; and whether I am a vegetarian. I look around and tell myself none of it is real. Any moment, a man-sized cockroach will sit down next to me and raise his glass. Cheers.
When I leave I feel I’ve spent time with the fairy court in the kingdom of the Shining Ones. But when I walk along a canal into a bad part of town I see dull-eyed prostitutes leaning against the buildings and the primered chassis of an Audi up on blocks behind a chainlink fence. And I remember the catherine wheel and decide that I am somewhere on the earth after all.
In the morning, the money comes through. Job well-done. Everyone is happy. Glowing praise from Laurent. In the unfathomable machinery of coincidence, I am offered a small part-time position at the university in Tallinn, Estonia.
Sure, I think, why not? I can spend some more time with the Shining Ones in a beautiful European city. But, of course, it’s not that easy. Even now, in my dreams, the empty roads are still and silent under windows painted with the brown of old gore. And the ragged lines of cities have given way to sand and weeds. And no one cares about the trash in vacant lots or whose bones lie there, warm and pale in the sun. Of these things, only those with eyes to see can recognize the Ouroboros coming full circle again. The blackened catherine wheel. The rows of heads by the side of the road. Only those with ears to hear will notice the wolf sniffing at the door in the dead of night or recognize the riddle of our beginnings tied to the wheel and broken by the ignominy of our end.
* Note: this story originally appeared in The Painted Bride Quarterly, Print Annual 6 (2013)
Astrid went up the spiral stair and, keeping her knees bent, made her way to the back corner of the deserted observation deck where her mother sat knitting and frowning at Nebraska.
“This state is endless,” her mother said, an expression of abject disgust in the turned-down corners of her mouth. “And boring. I have to agree with you on that.”
Astrid sat down with a sigh and pulled her brown hair back into an elastic band. “You’re the one who wanted to take the train. I wanted to fly, remember?” She looked at the cornfields sliding past, a carpet of unruly green to the horizon. In the distance, a miniature water tower proclaimed the existence of yet another small town. The name had faded from the side of the cistern. Only the red diamond-shaped background was visible. Astrid wondered if the town was named “Diamond” and if there were hidden diamond mines under the corn. The thought made her smile, but her smile vanished when she looked back at her mother.
“I’d rather be bored than be dead,” her mother said, returning to the indeterminate woolen something she’d been knitting since before they’d left San Francisco for Virginia two weeks ago. They were on their way back to California from visiting Astrid’s father in Arlington National Cemetery. This was the third summer they’d made the trip.
“What’s the difference?” She stood up again and had to catch herself on the metal pole beside their booth when the train lurched.
Astrid never met her father when he was alive. In fact, most of what she knew about him, she’d learned from the movie that showed how he and his buddies crashed their helicopter in the desert and fought their way back to a US outpost. Sean Penn had played her father. And as much as Astrid felt it was probably a good thing that people paid their respects to men like her father who’d died serving their country, she suspected her mother made her come wholly because she hated Astrid’s boyfriend, Julian. They could have flown just this once. But she knew her mother had insisted on the train again because it took up more summertime that Astrid could have been spending with him.
“You want some money for the dining car?”
Without looking back, Astrid made her way to the other end of the observation deck where the little spiral staircase led down to the main body of the train. She could feel her mother’s eyes on her and a faint smile passed over her face. It wasn’t over. It wouldn’t be over until she called her mother a stupid, desperate whore obsessed with a dead man who’d never loved her and wouldn’t marry her. Astrid was saving the words up, rehearsing them over and over in her mind. It had become a way to pass the time while the Midwest slipped behind the train hour after hour. Every time Astrid imagined her mother’s reaction, a spark of malicious joy flared in her heart.
This was the third time she’d walked the length of the train from their sleeper compartment in the back to the observation car up front behind the forward engine. She had a key card that opened the sleeper, but there was only so much sleeping a person could do. And whenever she sat in there by herself, listening to music or to the faint hiss of the air circulating through the vents and the thump-clack of the rails, all she could think about was Julian. She’d written him three letters during the trip, each about 15 pages in length. When she got back, she planned to give them to him in a big envelope with a red bow on it and say, read these—then we can talk because otherwise they’d be out of synch and things would go bad and she’d feel stupid, like her mother had won.
She bought a Coke in the concession car and sat down at one of the tables. In the evening, the observation deck would be crowded by those who hadn’t paid for sleeper compartments and couldn’t get comfortable enough to fall sleep in their seats. But, during the day, people would linger at the concession car tables—all long-distance travelers, all bored to death and willing to make temporary friends in order to pass the time. It could become a party atmosphere, especially given the number of Marines onboard, and Astrid wondered whether the train made more money from alcohol than it did on tickets.
Sitting at the table across from her, a man in a wrinkled green suit drank canned martinis with a fat red-faced biker sporting a gray ponytail and a Harley Davidson muscle shirt. She counted six of the thin white cans on the table between them. They spoke but hardly moved their mouths as if they’d been injected with a slow setting concrete.
At another table, three enormous Marines played cards and traded their own cans of Budweiser out of an large baby blue Playmate cooler they kept in the aisle. Their voices filled the car and when the enormous blond Marine with the scar on his jaw won a hand, he half-stood and whooped like a cowboy. People had to edge around their cooler to get to the concession counter, but people did and no one complained. No one even looked their way—except for the man in the white button-down and khakis sitting by himself at a far table, who’d look up from his laptop with a level stare whenever they got particularly loud.
Astrid watched the Marines, pretending she was looking past them or at the writing on her Coke can, which she held in front of her face from time to time like it was a fascinating alien artifact that required further study. She decided that none of them were handsome, exactly. But they had an unstable, rollicking energy that magnetized the air around them—an invulnerable wall of sand-colored fatigues and muscle. If the train derailed and everything turned sideways, she imagined they’d still be sitting there, laughing and tossing each other beers while everybody else screamed for their lives.
“Fuck off, Smits. You got shit and you know it.” That was the one who had stubble and squinted a lot like he didn’t believe anything at all. His name was Leitner. Smits was the big blond with the spiked up hair. And the other one—shaved completely bald, even his eyebrows—was Johnson. That’s how they addressed each other: Smits, Leitner, Johnson, not private or lieutenant. Astrid wondered if they were old friends from high school who’d met up in the Midwest after being on duty in different parts of the world and decided to ride the train somewhere together and play cards all the way.
Julian’s last name was Kettlefield. She tried to picture him sitting at their table in sandy fatigues with Kettlefield on a rectangular patch over his heart, saying Fuck you, Johnson or Gimmie two, you cheatin’ bastard, but she couldn’t. Julian was wiry, an inch shorter than her, with beautiful eyelashes, long black hair, and a cousin who was a pro skater. His two deepest secrets were first, that next year, after they graduated, he planned to steal a bunch of money from his dad and move to Hawaii so he could go into business in a skate shop with his cousin. And second, that he’d gotten Astrid in black cursive tattooed on the flat smooth place right above his pubic hair.
She couldn’t imagine Smits with a tattoo like that. He have a name like Rosy or Sheresse or I Love You Mom in barbed wire around a bleeding heart. And it wouldn’t be above his pubic hair. It would be on the hard slab of his thigh or the side of his neck or high up on his shoulder above a skull with a knife in its teeth. She noticed that Leitner had a blue scarab tattooed in the webbing between his left thumb and fingers. Johnson had a black thorn pattern inscribed around the back of his neck, the kind she’d seen posted up as examples in the windows of tattoo parlors in Berkeley.
Smits won again. This time he jumped out into the aisle, gyrating his hips like Elvis, saying, “That’s right! That’s right you sonsabitches! Keep makin’ me rich!” The other two tossed their cards down and cursed, but they were still smiling as if it didn’t mean a thing. Smits sat down and scooped up the pile of dollars on the table. The scar on his jaw was long and pale. The rest of his face shone red with beer and joy.
They traded up more cans of Bud from the cooler. And she noticed that the biker and the businessman had also reprovisioned with six more little white cans between them. Now they were slouched way down in the circular booth seats around their table, looking sedated and completely unaware of anything in the world, least of all the soldiers directly beside them.
Astrid smiled at her empty Coke can. This was far more interesting than staring at Nebraska with her mother or listening to sad songs on her iPod in the sleeper while she worried about Julian.
It got even more interesting when the man in the white button-down cleared his throat and said, maybe a little too loudly, “HEY GUYS. You think we could dial it down? I’m doing some work over here.”
Leitner and Johnson turned around in their seats and looked back at him. Smits just sat where he was, his enormous freckled hands folded on the table beside his beer. And there was a moment of silence in which the air in the concession car seemed to have solidified in a way that would hold them all there forever: the businessman and the biker with drooping eyelids, the old train guy sitting over behind the concession counter, the Marines glaring at the man in the white button-down, and Astrid.
Then Smits frowned. He knitted his eyebrows in a look of intense deliberation and said, “Fuck it. He’s right.”
Johnson nodded slowly and scratched the top of his bald head. “Excuse us. Sorry to have bothered you.”
Leitner just turned back around. The three of them looked at each other for a moment. Then they burst out laughing just as loud and as violently as before. They laughed for a full minute with Smits slapping the table and Leitner losing his unbelieving squint while he rubbed a hand over his stubble and listed against Johnson.
That was when Smits looked across at her and said, “That’s some funny shit. I love this train.”
Astrid felt a bolt of white hot electricity explode in her chest. The three Marines were looking at her, grinning, expecting her to say something. But her mind was blank. She was now a senior at North Beach Preparatory Academy, and Astrid felt she had better judgment than most girls she knew. She could certainly call things better than her mom, who was a sad stress case most of the time and only seemed to come alive on these miserable summer trips to Virginia. Astrid also felt she had an extrasensory awareness of when guys were looking at her like that. And she didn’t mind when they did because looking at girls like that was part of being a guy. But the like that of Smits, Leitner, and Johnson seemed overwhelming in its suddenness and their good humor did nothing to lessen its impact. Astrid knew she was blushing and hated herself for it.
“Yeah,” she said, giving them a weak smile.
The man in the white button-down stood and slammed his laptop shut so hard that it sounded like a bullwhip. Leitner and Johnson turned to watch him go.
“Have a nice day,” Leitner said to his back. The man didn’t turn around and the far door of the concession car hissed shut behind him.
Smits was still looking at her. He thought for a moment, then made up his mind and slid into the circular booth on the other side of her table. “What’s your name?” he said.
Johnson slid into the booth next to Smits. And Leitner moved in next to her, shifting the Playmate cooler two feet to the other side of the aisle. He handed out a round of beers and smiled at her with the squint back in his eyes. “Drink?”
She gave a half-nod and Leitner immediately replaced her empty Coke can with a full can of Bud, opening it for her with a flourish.
“Astrid,” she said to Smits.
“Astrid,” he repeated as if he were savoring the way it felt on his tongue. “Ever hear of a name like that?” he asked Johnson, who scratched his head and said, “Can’t say that I have. What is it, a name of a flower?”
She smiled and shrugged. She touched the side of the beer can with her thumb and felt the little nubs of ice stuck to the metal.
“She don’t know,” Leitner said. “Right on. Americans don’t know that shit.”
“Yeah,” Smits said. “Well, if it’s a flower, it’s got to be a pretty flower.” His face was wide under his short crown of spiked blond. He had lines on his forehead and a dusting of freckles there and over the bridge of his nose. Astrid looked at his pale blue eyes and smiled down at her beer.
“I’m just fuckin’ with you, Astrid,” he said with a shrug and another grin. “Let’s play some cards. You play cards?”
When she hesitated, Johnson said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll teach you.” And he slid a small square of lined paper across the table to her. It had a fairly realistic line drawing of her face in the center of a sunflower with the sun laughing down at her from one corner and the moon weeping from another like comedy and tragedy. Under the drawing, he’d written Astrid in over-exaggerated script.
“Oh my god. Thank you. That’s beautiful,” she said. “Did you do that just now?”
“I did.” Johnson bowed, clicked his ballpoint, and put it in his pocket. She noticed a Gothic E.I. tattooed on the inside of his wrist. “I’m quick on the draw,” he added.
“He’s a quick shooter,” Leitner said.
“A real speed demon” said Smits as he brought out the deck of cards and started shuffling them.
Astrid took a sip and remembered she hated the taste of beer. She swallowed it anyway and pushed a loose strand of hair away from her face. “What’s that tattoo mean?”
Johnson looked down at his wrist then back up at her and smiled. One of his eye-teeth was dark silver. “That? That’s Latin. Stands for Ex Inferis. All you need is love.”
“That’s the goddamn truth,” Smits said, drinking half his beer and dealing cards around the table. “That’s all you ever need. Right, Astrid?”
She laughed. “Right.”
“And beer,” Leitner said.
Johnson pointed at Leitner and made his eyes big and round. “Truth. Cold beer and warm women.” Then he winked at her.
For her benefit, they played a few test hands of hold’em, described by Smits as “the purest game of cards given to man by god.” But when they started to take out their wallets, she still felt hopelessly lost. The way they spoke was so full of inside jokes and loaded references that when they’d gone over the rules, it was like they were trying to explain the grammar of one foreign language by using another.
The half-can of beer she’d drunk in polite sips had made her woozy and tired. Astrid thought she might want to crawl back to the sleeper compartment and take a nice long nap until dinner, but the incomprehensible bulk of Leitner was blocking the way—a squinting, beery pile of cinderblocks dressed up like a Marine. And now they’d been debating something and they were looking at her, expecting an answer.
“What?” She raised her eyebrows and tried not to burp.
“Do you have any money?” Smits said, leaning back in the booth and gesturing to the freshly shuffled deck on the table between them.
“Look,” Johnson said, “she don’t have no cash. How old are you anyway, honey?”
“21,” she lied.
“Exactly,” he said to Smits, “you can’t take no money from a 16-year-old girl.”
“But you can give it.” Leitner nodded at her, a faint smile at the corners of his mouth. “You can sure as hell give it.”
Smits held up his hands, palms open, in the universal gesture of diplomacy and reason. “All I’m saying is this is a pure game. You don’t bet, you’re not really playing. Might as well play checkers. But, shit, I’d want to bet on that, too.”
The three of them laughed and Astrid laughed along with them, thinking that she should have understood why it was funny. She noticed that the businessman and the biker and all their little canned martinis had gone. Their table was deserted as if they’d never existed. The sun had slipped farther toward the cornfield horizon on the other side of the train, and the shadow of the concession car had gotten deeper and thicker on the gravel beside the tracks. How long had she been sitting here? She wondered if her mother were angry, walking through the train looking for her, holding her cloth knitting bag in front of her like a Geiger counter as she swayed down the aisles.
“Alright. I have a solution.” Johnson took out more of the paper that he’d used when he drew the picture of her. Astrid saw that it wasn’t a pad but an extremely long sheet Johnson had meticulously folded into three-square-inch sections. When he put it on the table, it expanded like an accordion. He carefully tore off the top section and then tore that into quarters. He did the same with two more pieces. Then he wrote Astrid Chip $5 on each little square and pushed the pile towards her. “This is Astrid credit,” he said. “Every $20 you’re in for pays out a kiss. Okay?”
“Always thinking, Johnson.” Leitner smirked and replaced Johnson’s beer.
Smits sighed and held up his hands again. “Well, it’ll fuck up the natural rhythm of the game, but I guess it’s better than nothing. What do you say, hun? You okay with that?”
Astrid hesitated. But this time Smits didn’t shrug and grin like a schoolboy or say he was just fuckin’ with her. He waited for her answer along with the other two, the new breath of seriousness between them completely unlike the mock solemnity they’d shown the man in the white button-down ages ago. Was it ages? It felt to Astrid like a different lifetime.
She thought of Sean Penn playing her father in Fallen Arrow, a film Astrid had seen many, many times because her mother watched it whenever she was feeling depressed. There was a part where Penn and his surviving chopper crew—a farm boy from Missouri named Lieutenant Barnes and a British intelligence agent named Mr. Streeter—are captured and held in a cavernous dungeon by the Taliban. The night before they’re scheduled to be executed, the local village girl tasked with feeding them and tending to their wounds helps them escape—but not before lifting her veil to share a passionate kiss with Penn, who swears he will return for her someday. Only he doesn’t. He dies in a firefight, sacrificing himself to save 20 men pinned down by a sniper in the last scene. Her father got a bronze star for that.
“Okay,” she whispered.
“Atta girl,” Leitner said, drinking the rest of her beer and putting a new one in front of her. “Game on.”
“Game on,” said Smits.
They played a few hands and she was surprised that she’d won more than she’d lost, always folding before having to contribute more than $15 in Astrid credit. Finally, Johnson threw down his cards in disgust. “Beginners luck,” he said. “Thus, I must go take a piss.”
“Don’t be a sore loser.” Leitner came back to the table from the concession counter with three six-packs of Bud to restock the cooler. He started pulling the cans out of the plastic rings and placing them in the ice, which was now floating in a miniature arctic sea. The cans made a koosh sound when he dropped them in.
One of the cans slipped out of his hand and missed the cooler, rolling down to tink against the base of the concession counter. The concession man brought it back and handed it to Leitner.
“Concession’s closing now,” he said. “You want to eat dinner, the dining car’s opening back that way.” He nodded, put his hands in his pockets, and then paused to look at them. He had a white handlebar moustache and a shock of unruly white hair. It took Astrid a moment to bring him into focus but, when she did, she thought he looked like Mark Twain—a guy who’d stepped out of a different time, someone who seemed right at home standing around on a train with his hands in his pockets. All he was missing was a pocket watch on a chain. He looked at her. Then he looked at Leitner and Smits, who gave him a blank stare in return.
“Check,” Smits said.
“Sounds good,” said Leitner.
The concession man looked at her again and raised his eyebrows. “Okay,” he said. “Whatever.” Then he was gone and Johnson came back.
“What’d I miss?” Johnson looked from Smits to Leitner.
Smits shook his head. “People never cease to amaze me.”
Leitner dropped the last can in the cooler. “Which is the source of your troubles,” he said.
Astrid had never drunk three beers on an empty stomach. And though that might have explained her eventual losing streak, it could also have been due to what Smits called the “beginner’s curse”—the moment when your beginner’s luck runs out and you have to pay your dues. He said you never knew how deeply you were going to be cursed before you started winning again. By the time the sun disappeared completely and the train’s interior lights turned the windows into scuffed black mirrors, Astrid had been cursed enough that she owed both Leitner and Johnson a kiss.
When she kissed Leitner, that sense of him as a mountain of bricks returned, the roughness of his stubble, the smell of beer and deodorant. Then there was Johnson, who let her give him a peck on the top of his bald head and bowed to her over the table—a grinning tattooed knight with a dark silver tooth.
But it was Smits who took her back to her compartment when she fell asleep. Later, she’d have a vague memory of holding onto his enormous neck while he carried her through the darkened coach cars. People were wedged uncomfortably in their seats, trying to catch a few hours before the next stop, and he’d said, “You gotta be quiet now, hun. There’s people trying to sleep.” But she felt it was important that she explain to Smits about her mother and their trips to Virginia and how Sean Penn was probably nothing like her father and how he’d gotten the bronze star even though he’d never come back for the woman he loved.
When she woke up at 10 AM the next day, her mother had already eaten breakfast and taken her place on the observation deck. They’d left Nebraska far behind in the night and were now well into Iowa, the noticeable difference being that the fields were brown as often as they were green and the water towers were closer.
She would no doubt have to work up an explanation for being carried to the sleeping compartment by a strange beer-doused Marine. But that could wait. Astrid walked through the upper and lower decks of the train several times, looking for her three friends, lingering in the concession car just in case one of them came back to restock their cooler or even look for her.
Astrid waited there most of the day before she realized that they must have gotten off at one of the nighttime stops. And although she tried to focus on Julian that day, she couldn’t. When she discovered a few of the little pieces of paper that said Astrid Chip $5 in her pocket, she felt that something precious had come into her life and then disappeared forever before she could understand it. She looked at the little drawing Johnson had done of her as a flower between a laughing sun and weeping moon and wondered where he was and whether anyone had ever given her mother something like that.
* Note: this story first appeared in Small Print Magazine, Winter/Spring 2014.
On the second day of the third week of the fifth month of her marriage, she already wanted to kill him. It was after the pills, after the night cab to the airport, after the restaurant fit. He didn’t give a damn. It was November.
She bought a whip. She started smoking. She changed her wardrobe to blacks, leather, reds, PVC, nothing. Some of it worked. Some of it made her think of something else. But she was all alone. She had an allowance, a gold Rolex, an eight bedroom house in La Jolla by the water. Fuck all that. She tried to burn the house down but stucco doesn’t burn. And as hard as Andy tried, she couldn’t cry.
She told people her name was Condra, but they called her Anaconda at the Sports Club, even though she didn’t touch anyone and no one touched her. No one got close. She wore silk on Thursdays. What was life for? She didn’t know. The bitches at the club all hated her when she walked in. $2000 got the burns on the house removed before Conrad got back from Japan.
He was on tour when he wasn’t composing, teaching, rubbing his tired eyes at the piano. She walked across the carpet naked like the mechanical duck that comes out of a clock when the little door opens at noon. Automated. Ignored. Displaying her body. But she might as well have been dead. Corpse porn. Conrad was killing her. He was there, playing Mahler. She knew Mahler. Mahler was dead. And so was she.
She looked at him.
He stopped playing and said, “Yes?”
Her hand twitched. “Fuck Mahler.”
He resumed playing.
Her gossipy, mouthy friend, Dimitria: “Just have an affair, Andy. Just get it out of your system, you know?” Dimitria wore a lot of purple. She was divorced and fantasized about Conrad. He was so sensitive; he had beautiful hair; he’d done a classical performance on PBS and wasn’t it brilliant? She’d saved the piece in TIME where he’d sat on the leather couch and talked about his muse. Andy stopped inviting Dimitria over a long time ago. Dimitria had a kid and lived in a sad bachelor apartment in Brea. She was a secretary in an insurance office.
“Just do it. Fair is fair. You’re not getting any younger? Am I right?”
“They call me Anaconda at The Sports Club. They think I’m a dominatrix.”
Dimitria lit a thin cigarette and rolled her eyes. “Please.” Purple lipstick on the filter. “You want one?”
Andy took the Whopper while Dimitria ordered another through the drive-up window. Andy blew smoke over the orange carpet that ran across the top of the dashboard.
“Your car’s a box of shit.”
“It’s a Corolla, Andy. Of course it’s shit. Eat.”
“Remember that Chevy Nova I had in high school?” Dimitria laughed. Dimitria always asked Andy if she remembered the Nova. And then Dimitria always laughed. Andy looked at her with a mouthful of burger and sighed through her nose.
Dimitria dropped her off at a shoe boutique on Rodeo. Then Andy walked 15 blocks back to the Burger King and ordered another Whopper. And another. Then she vomited behind the dumpster on the other side of the parking lot and rode the 3:15 bus to the Amtrak depot at Union Station. She bought a ticket back to San Diego and sat down on a wooden bench to wait for her train.
A bum said, “Hey Vamparella, how about a dollar?” She gave him three fifties and the ticket for her return flight to San Diego that she wasn’t going to use. He handed the ticket back and said, “Baby, I don’t fly.”
It was the funniest thing she’d heard in a long, long time and she said so. He said, “Blow me” and shuffled off.
Right, she thought, everybody but Conrad. Her train boarded thirty minutes later. She got on and watched the tracks speed past. Then she slept.
Anaconda. What did it mean? It was a snake. Woman becomes snake. Was that sexy? All those pictures of Nastassja Kinski. Everyone agreed Nastassja Kinski had been very sexy. But why? Andy had a framed poster of Richard Avedon’s “Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent” in black and white over her bed. It was a mystery. Andy lay upside-down with her feet on the pillows, and stared at Nastassja, the serpent wrapped around her, emerging from between her legs. Nastassja had a belly and the snake was a boa constrictor, not an anaconda. But still. Nastassja’s belly was small. But still. What was it about her? She tried to imagine Conrad staring at that belly and masturbating, but she couldn’t.
A horn honked down in the circular drive. That would be his cab to the airport. A week with the Boston Symphony. He’d been practicing for it all year. They’d said their good-byes the night before at The Marine Room. He’d ordered the Brandt Farm beef carpaccio with chowder. She’d had the free range veal tenderloin and two martinis.
“I’m going tomorrow,” he said. “I’d invite you, but I know how you hate Boston.”
He looked like an alien masquerading as a human. Or a mock-up of a man done in white porcelain with stylish hair to his shoulders and Armani glasses. Or maybe fine china. She could knock him backwards and he’d shatter.
“You could say good-bye.” He blew on a spoon of chowder. “Do you have emotions anymore, Andrea? Really. If it’s the meds, we can change them, I’m sure.”
She stood. “Blow me, Conrad.” He flinched. That was something, but she knew it was just because there were people sitting all around them, looking. She was wearing a black latex Oscar de la Renta minidress with a vintage white Members Only jacket over it. She slapped her thigh. It went SPACK!
“I’ll call Dr. Bundt from Cambridge and get your prescription adjusted.” He ate his spoon of chowder.
Now he was gone. The sound of the cab faded. But still. A snake like that. It didn’t look like a penis. More like a limp fire hose. Was that it? Limp dicks to put out the fire?
That night, she went to The Sports Club in one of Conrad’s winter suits. It’s wasn’t Thursday and his suit wasn’t silk. It was a Herringbone Stanwyck Stripe Navy, the pants and the jacket. She had to cinch his belt to the last hole. Would he miss it if she pushed it into a trash can and walked home at the end of the night in her red thong? Had he worn the suit even once? The coat smelled like closet. She hadn’t taken her meds in over a month, even though her mother called every Sunday to ask if she had. She always said yes.
“So, you a dyke or what?” Blond. Say, twenty-two or twenty-three. Rugby shirt. Stupid. Not even sharp enough to be president of his fraternity, but fraternity was all over him.
“Probably more of the what.”
“You want a drink, don’t you?” His friends across the room, making faces at him.
“Drink is good. Go ahead.”
“What do you drink? The weird shit? You always slick your hair back like a dude? You want an Obsidian Death March? I can’t believe I just said that. Obsidian Death March.” He had trouble with the words, laughed at his own cleverness, one hand on the bar.
Then the inevitable question: “So what’s your name?”
“Like nasty? You like it nasty?” Loud enough for his friends to hear. Somebody whistled, hooted.
“Contrara Nosferatu. You like that? You like it nasty? What’s your name? Brad?”
“Yeah. I like a nasty bitch. My name’s Penguin.”
Two Obsidian Death Marches. Purple black cough syrup. Jaegermeister base. $60. His wallet had an inch of bills.
“Bottoms up, Penguin.”
“You’re not even fuckin drunk.”
“Oh, I’m wasted.”
“I knew it,” he said. “You’re a dyke.”
“Look at this.” The whip. Conrad’s coat had hidden it well. Andy drew it out with an air of mystery and a smile.
“That’s a fuckin bullwhip.”
“Yeah, Penguin. It’s a fucking bullwhip. What’s wrong? I thought you liked it nasty. You want some of my nasty?”
He got pale, took a step back. “Fuck you, you fuckin dyke.”
“Come on, Brad, how about another drink? Let’s talk about your feelings.”
She could live or she could die. She felt like he could hit her and she might feel better. Andy tried to imagine what it would be like. It wouldn’t feel good. But what felt good? Maybe bad was good. Or better. She left him by the bar, staring at her, and went to the ladies’ room, where she purged the Obsidian Death March with two fingers just like mom taught her when she was 15. It burned like white fire. Blurry octopus cloud in the toilet. The phone number on the stall had the name ELIAS over it in black Sharpie. She called it on her cell. No such number. No such Elias. Poor Elias.
Andy uncoiled the whip and let it drag on the floor as she walked out of the restroom. Brad the Penguin was back at the fraternity table. She could live. She could die. She could die twice. Maybe bad was better. What would Conrad do if BP and friends killed her? He’d play Mahler. He’d buy her a tasteful casket. The upscale crowd didn’t come to The Sports Club on Monday nights. Just knucklehead frat boys living it up in the posh wood-paneled booths and paying $15 a beer.
“So Brad. How are you feeling now? You get it touch with your inner pussyboy? You still want the strap-on? It’s gonna cost you, Brad. I got an eight-inch dick out in the trunk. Come on, Brad. Fuck these guys. Let’s go.”
Uproarious laughter. The other three: two blonds like The Penguin with fake tans and whitened grins. One dark-haired boy who needed a shave. Sweatshirts. K ball caps on sideways. Teasing: Come on, P. You know you want the input. Don’t say no. We won’t tell. No blood left in the Penguin’s cheeks. Bitten by the Vamparella.
“Fuck you,” he said and threw a crumpled napkin at her.
“Fuck me? Fuck me?” The bullwhip took one of the tall beer glasses off the table. The glass shattered behind her. They all tried to stand. But it’s hard to stand up in a booth with an oak table that’s bolted to the floor. And, anyway, she’d been whipping cigarettes off the edges of brandy snifters for three weeks. A hat came off. A bloody strip across a face. Screams. The dark-haired one—she whipped him as he climbed over the back of the booth, cut straight into his ass through his jeans. A bullwhip could be incredibly precise and satisfying instrument of destruction. But you had to practice. Andy shook her head. It was all about self-discipline and practice, precision, and lots of wrist. The Penguin was screaming the long distorted scream of the terrified and the damned. He had pissed his khakis. Andy whipped him hard around the neck and he dropped to his knees, fumbling to undo it.
26 hours later, she was released by the SDPD with a citation. A notice to appear would be coming in the mail. The duty officer was in his fifties. He had a long head and dimples from smiling too much. But he wasn’t smiling.
“You can’t go whipping assholes in bars, honey. You could put someone’s eye out.”
“Actually you could kill someone with a thing like that.”
“Yeah. That, too. But they’re not pressing charges and whips aren’t classified as deadly weapons no more in the State of California. And those four dumbshits were high as hell. You got lucky.”
“I have problems with how I express my emotions, officer. I’ve got medication, but I haven’t been taking it.”
“You’re just like my daughter,” he said. “But she’s in the Army.”
They did not return her whip. Andy wandered through downtown San Diego to Seaport Village and then up to the port. She sat on a shipway and watched a rusted trash barge spackled with arrows of white bird shit carry its load south to Mexico. She imagined what it would be like if she swam out to it and climbed in, riding it all the way down to Jalisco. At dusk, she called a cab and threw Conrad’s suit jacket in the water.
She didn’t see anyone for four days. This, too, was part of her discipline. She shaved her head with a Norelco electric razor from Rite-Aid, listing to Sweet Dreams on repeat, so loud the walls of the house vibrated and a painting fell in Conrad’s bedroom. Then she lathered her head with shaving cream and Bicced it down to the skin.
On the second day, she shaved her eyebrows and her bush and her legs and under her arms.
On the third day, she drank a bottle of Grey Goose and shat herself in the bathtub.
The fourth day was for mourning. She wore a black veil and walked through the neighborhood feeding pigeons. She placed an ad in the San Diego Reader: “Cheap Castrations – Outpatient Only.” She placed another with a different credit card and phone number: “Thank you, Saint Oedipus, for Mommy.” She thought about the randomness of the world. She told herself she was Shiva, God of Death.
When had she eaten? She was dangerously thin. Her pelvis could be seen from space. She had no hair. She looked like a prisoner of war. The shag carpet was growing into the bottoms of her feet. The stars were winking at her. The universe had a Morse Code and she was receiving it. She was melding with the rocks. She had creeks and valleys. Andy looked at her naked body for hours in the bathroom mirror. She was an A-cup and had never cared about being anything other than an A-cup. But what if the universe wanted her to be a C-cup or a D? You don’t get breast implants just because the universe is horny. But fucking the universe would be amazing. Nastassja Kinski had fucked the universe, was fucking it eternally in that picture with the snake. You could see it on her face. She had a little belly. But it was there. It was definitely a belly.
On the fourth day of the second week of the sixth month of her marriage, Andy called Dimitria. “I’m taking you on a trip. Pack your suitcase.”
“I can’t. Some of us have to work, doll.”
“I’ll pay your salary.”
“But I won’t have a job when I come back.”
“Goddammit, I’ll pay your stupid fucking salary for the rest of your sad fucking life, you whore. Now get ready.”
“Okay.” Dimitria sounded very small.
Andy didn’t care. They were going to fuck the world. Both of them together. Like a road trip back in high school. But, of course, Dimitria had her job and her 8-year-old boy named Chris and her fantasies about Conrad. She weaseled out of it with a text message. It was just like her. Mouthy. Weasely. Texty. The trip never happened. What could you do with someone like that? Andy bought a blond wig with pigtails for $700 and a special hypo-allergenic adhesive to stick it to the top of her head. She bought salmon-colored lipstick and a red PVC corset with lace-ups from House of Harlot. It was a 4, the smallest they had. It was uncomfortably roomy. What could you do?
She could have called Dr. Bundt, her cheerful roly-poly psychiatrist with the special pills. Pills that compressed her emotions into crystal spheres that floated hither and thither through her brain. Hideous: knowing that she was feeling emotions without feeling them, looking at Conrad behind his piano every day he was home, thinking, I hate him; I really hate his fucking Mahler ass, while smiling pleasantly on her morning corpse walk across the den. Andy did the walk every morning when he was home. Next time, she’d wear a snake.
Sometimes, if he were feeling magnanimous, he would smile, back—the dreamy smile of a musician occupied with his music or thoughts of beautiful raven-haired Danica Gepura, who taught vocal performance at the university and who he’d been sleeping with for two months. Danica didn’t have a snake, either. Or did she?
Sticks and stones. You can’t fuck the world when your emotions are floating away in crystal spheres. She bought a past life regression cd and booked a weekend at the Disneyland Hotel. When the cab came, she left the front door of the house open, the alarm off.
“I need a whip is what I need. I had one before but the cops took it.”
The cab driver eyed her in the mirror as they pulled onto Mission Boulevard. “For reals?”
“For reals.” Under her white fox fur coat, Andy was wearing the PVC corset and a navy thong, matching navy heels with diamonds on them.
He adjusted the rearview and swerved when a car merged in front of him. His eyes took up the whole mirror. “Shit, I been waiting for you my whole life.”
She smiled. “Just drive.” Her lips were very red.
Andy did all the old rides. She did Tomorrowland with a pint of peppermint schnapps. Small World depressed her. She opened her legs and the paunchy father of three almost fell out of his teacup when his wife wasn’t looking. She bought a novelty whip and broke it trying to lash the receiver of the Mickey Mouse telephone in her suite. She hated Mickey. And Goofy always seemed high. Minnie was just mousy eye candy with polka dots. Three college girls with too much makeup flipped her off in line for the Matterhorn and screamed at her because she was wearing fur. She blew them a kiss and laughed when all three of them turned around and started whispering to each other. She fantasized about whipping them bloody. She felt she understood Charles Manson.
Past life regression was all about reclaiming your cycle of reincarnation, working back through your memories until you bumped against your mother’s vagina. And then farther. Going back up the birth canal. Back to the moment of your previous death. Then getting over that and going even farther. You were supposed to learn things about why you were here now. She did a few of the guided meditations sitting cross-legged on the king-sized waterbed shaped like a giant Mickey head. All she got was mom slapping her when she couldn’t vomit, the weekly weigh-ins, the feeling terrified about gaining a pound.
Her father was a blur. She could barely remember him, barely knew him as a child before the acrimonious divorce that turned mom into a fire-breathing lizard. Her father never visited. He was management in a company that made ships and he lived somewhere in Rome. When he left, her mother started dieting more heavily, tanning, wearing more gold. Now, as an adult, Andy would have foreseen that you couldn’t go down that road without encountering collagen. But back then she was just a kid and collagen injections were still experimental science.
You could only get the injections in Europe, which her mom did, which lead to the collagen accident—the swelling of her lips and cheeks to monstrous proportions. Hospitalization. Four years of psychotherapy and a lot of plastic surgery. Hideous allergies. A suicide attempt in their Park Slope condominium. But you can’t kill yourself with a vacuum cord from a chandelier. Even someone as light as her mother. Now, at age 68, she was very calm. She knitted. She lived alone and dreamed about the days her husband would pick her up in a forest green MG and take her out to the best clubs in New York.
Andy wore jeans. She wore baggy boy shorts. She wore a cream linen blouse and a sweater set that made her look like Barbara Billingsley. She got sick of Disneyland and wandered around Anaheim in Chanel glasses that hid half her face. In the Cathedral Bar on 4th Street, she met a short fat guy, named Wilson, who wore a white track suit with a yellow stripe down each leg.
“You repulse me,” she said, after he’d bought her a second vodka tonic.
“Yeah, I’m fat. I gotta do something about that. But I got too much life to live. You know? Who has time?”
“Take me somewhere. I have to get out of here. Let’s go to a concert.”
“Okay. Let’s go to a concert. I don’t give a shit. I can go to a concert. What do you like? Kenny G? Metal? Violins? Let’s do it.”
Wilson said he was going to the bathroom to smoke a rock and he’d be right back. When he returned, he didn’t look any different. He was a little sweaty. “Let’s go. Let’s ride. I don’t got a car. You got a car? I can probably get a car.”
They took a cab to a mall where Wilson said there was a Ticketmaster. But there was nothing but an organic market, a Starbucks, a massive gray Home Depot sprawling to infinity.
“I gotta piss,” he said. “Wait here. Don’t go away. Just wait here. Really. I gotta piss.”
He went into Home Depot and she walked down the street. She went into a diner and sat at the counter. Outside, two men with torn clothes and ruddy skin were trying unsuccessfully to take the rim off a truck tire with a small crowbar. She took her coffee outside and watched them.
One of them stopped and straightened up. He looked at her jeans, her cream blouse, the beige sweater tied around her shoulders.
“What do you want?”
“I’ll give each of you $100 to throw that tire through the window.”
His friend put his hands in his pockets and looked at her. “Bullshit,” he said.
Andy took the money out of her little black purse and showed it to them.
“Why?” The first one was a little rougher looking. Blond. Paint-stained T-shirt. Pants that had never been washed. A moustache straight out of the Old West.
“I don’t need reasons. Take it or leave it.”
The second one grinned. He was missing his front teeth. “Okay, your highness. Money first.”
Andy handed each of them a bill. They did a test-heave with the tire but they couldn’t coordinate enough to do it together. So the first one said, “Somebody might get hurt. We better create a diversion.”
“Just do your thing and act stupid.”
The toothless man understood that. He grinned, nodded. They calculated. They walked up to the window then back to the tire.
The man with the moustache sighed and shrugged. “This ain’t never gonna work. We don’t got enough torque.”
“What the fuck is torque?” asked the man with no front teeth.
Andy put her hand on her hip.
“Like, am I gonna throw this discus style? I’d have to stand in the street.”
“So stand in the street,” Andy said.
“It’s dangerous. There might be oncoming traffic.”
“That’s true,” the toothless one said. He took a watch cap out of his back pocket and pulled it over his wild pepper-gray hair. “Well, maybe her highnessness could keep an eye on the street and give a holler if there’s like a truck coming or something.”
“Whatever,” said Andy. She set her coffee cup beside her foot on the sidewalk.
“Yeah.” The blond man leaned the tire against his leg and folded his arms. “What do you want us to do this for anyway? We could go to jail. I hate jail.”
“I hate jail, too,” the toothless man said. “I been there half my life. What, are you mad at the folks that run this place? It’s a good café.”
His friend nodded. “Good warm coffee. Good pepper steak.”
“They got a wicked chili bowl. You ever try that?”
“Yeah, man, like every day of my life. They put that cheese on it. I love that fuckin’ chili bowl.”
“You remember when Armando used to work here? I ate here all the time back then. I had that job down at Liviccio’s flipping pizzas.”
“Right. And we all got those free Rams tickets that one time? What was that, like 1988?”
Toothless nodded. “That was a long-ass time ago.”
“Look, I don’t have all day,” Andy said.
They both looked at her. The blond man handed his $100 bill back to her. His friend sighed and did the same. She looked at the bills, then back at them. “I thought we had a deal.”
“You thought wrong,” said the blond man.
“Yeah,” said the other, “wouldn’t be ethical. Wouldn’t be good for the neighborhood.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“Believe it.” The blond man lay the tire down on its side and picked up his crowbar. “We’re union. Machinist’s Local 173.”
“United Food and Commercial Workers, 312, out of Pasadena,” Toothless said, pointing at his chest with his thumb. “And I voted for Obama.” He said it and smiled as if he’d just beaten Andy at cards.
“Oh,” she said. “I see. Well, give this to Obama.” She tore up the bills in front of them and sprinkled the pieces on the sidewalk.
“That’s very wasteful,” the blond man said.
Andy turned away and started walking down the street. They called out something else, but she wouldn’t turn around. Her face was twitching.
Wilson caught up with her at a bus stop four blocks away. “What’s with you? What’s wrong? I said don’t go anywhere and you walked away. I thought we were gonna have fun. I thought we were going to a concert.”
“Give me some rock. I want to smoke it.”
“You’re not a rock smoker, girl. You’re not a rock smoker. It’ll ruin your looks. You don’t want that. You have beautiful hair. You’ve got good looks. I mean, damn, you’re good-looking.”
“It’s a wig. My hair. I’m dying of cancer.”
“That’s not a wig. That’s bullshit. You’re a natural blonde. I know a natural blonde when I see a natural blonde. And you are. I mean, it’s obvious.”
“Nothing’s obvious? You’re obvious. I mean, you’re very obviously fucked up over a guy.”
She looked at him. Wilson’s brown hair was stuck to his forehead. Pale. He smelled like an old locker room. His smile looked gray like fish scales, like rainclouds.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m a crack addict. But it makes me feel better. So who’s the guy?”
“I should’ve guessed it. A rich bitch with a cheating husband. You got it written all over you. And you’re a natural blonde. He’s stupid, n’est-ce pas? That’s French. See? I know my shit.”
She smiled. “Yes, you do know your shit.” She took his hand and pressed it against the inside of her thigh. His hand was limp as if he were afraid that if he gripped her thigh something horrible might happen.
“Let’s go to a concert,” she said. “Fly with me to Boston tonight.”
The bus stopped and the driver opened the door. There was no one on the bus. The driver wore black aviators. He looked at them sitting there, Andy holding Wilson’s hand against her thigh, and shut the door to the bus. His face registered nothing. The bus pulled away.
Then Wilson said, slowly and clearly, “I would be honored to accompany you.” A drop of sweat fell off the tip of his nose and she kissed him on the mouth.
Symphony Hall was on Massachusetts Avenue. When she called the concert director’s office and identified herself, the director’s secretary immediately booked her into the Presidential Suite at the Back Bay Hilton three blocks away. Andy used the voice of the pearl-wearing society women who frequented the university concert series at UCSD. She told the secretary not to inform Conrad. Her arrival was a surprise and she didn’t want to disturb her husband on the first night. The same concert—Mahler’s Symphony Number Five, Grieg’s Piano Concerto, and Sibelius’ Finlandia—would be given for three consecutive days. But the first night was always the most tense. Everybody knew that.
Meanwhile, Wilson was out scoring more rock. She’d bought him a gray Burberry suit with Italian shoes and a wool tweed belted topcoat. And when he returned from his quest, shaking and wet from the snow, Wilson looked like a well-to-do middle-aged businessman coming home after a long day at the office.
He went into the bathroom and, when he came out, his pupils were enormous. A dark gleam radiated from his face and his smile reminded her of a shark. He poured them whiskey from the wet bar and shook his head. “Boston rock is intense rock. Quality shit. You don’t get quality shit like this back on the west coast. No way. You just don’t. This is—this is ghetto fabulous.”
After handing her the drink, he added, “And this, for a classy lady with great pigtails.” From under his coat, he drew out a new bullwhip. Andy gasped and held it to her chest like a baby. Fragrant leather, cured and woven the way it should be, the handle widening out into an evil-looking knot.
“How did you get this at 7 PM on a Friday night?”
Wilson winked. “I have my ways. I’m magic.”
So they went: Wilson in the suit she’d bought for him and a tastefully muted black and gray tie and Andy in a crimson Terani Coture cocktail dress with white nails, white eye shadow and lipstick, and her blonde pigtailed wig. She had black-toned stockings and red heels and when they walked through the lobby, everyone in the building seemed to be offended. Nearly all the men wore tuxedos and the women were in black evening gowns.
The concert director met them at the inner door—a reedy man in a white tuxedo with nervous eyes and a deliberately tousled black mop of hair. He began to perspire the minute he laid eyes on them, handing them off to an usher and putting as much distance between them and himself as possible. Andy and Wilson were placed in the second row, center, right behind Danica Gepura—in her black evening gown and sapphire earrings. The sapphires looked like deep blue stars against her fair skin.
When Conrad walked out on stage, Danica looked up adoringly and Andy imagined Danica was made of porcelain or find bone china—brittle, delicately wrought in white, blue, and black. So in need of protection, of nurturing. Danica needed a glass display case, not a snake. Andy imagined strangling her from behind.
After the orchestra began—the first movement of Mahler’s fifth—Wilson started to shake uncontrollably. He put his head between his legs and began to retch sharply and prodigiously. The white-haired woman sitting directly in front of Wilson shrieked as the violins rose, and the distinguished-looking old man on the other side of Danica half-stood, staring down at his feet. That’s when Danica interrupted her trance of musical rapture to turn around in her seat and look straight into Andy’s eyes. They’d met before. As soon as Danica recognized her, a look of such profound shock crossed her face that Andy felt it was almost better than strangulation.
Then Danica turned back around, double-triple waves of horror washing over her, and the first movement continued as planned—except that, for a while, everyone around them could hear Wilson choking and groaning when the volume of the music went down. Did Conrad notice, enveloped in his bubble of Zen musician concentration? A spotlight was directly above him. When he played, the Steinway resonated like a force of nature, like the musical part of god. People had said he was the greatest concert pianist in the world.
Andy called Dimitria and, when she answered, Andy just held the phone so they could both listen. Conrad was a boorish, self-obsessed prick, but when he played—played for real, with an orchestra, with a crowd—even Andy couldn’t deny that he was beautiful. She watched his calm expression, his white cuffs glowing in the spotlight. And, for a time, Andy forgot all about snakes and bullwhips, about her corpse walk and why she wanted to die and even about her meds. She only listened, even if the truth was that she hated, hated, fucking hated Mahler.
When Danica looked back again and opened her mouth to say something, Andy said, “I voted for Obama” and gave Danica the finger. Andy thought she now understood what the toothless guy in front of the diner had meant. Danica shook her head. She turned to say something to the old man in the seat next to her.
Wilson tapped Andy on the shoulder. “You gonna fight?” Vomit-putrid breath, but he still smiled.
“I’m gonna slap a bitch.”
He nodded. “Thought so. I got your back.” And he handed her the whip.
That Wilson, wasn’t he just a precious wonder? She stood and bunched the whip in her hand. Danica looked up.
And it was on.
* Note: this story originally appeared in The Atticus Review (2013).
Oh no. She’d send you there, wouldn’t she? She’d transport you there just so she could feel your pain and write about it. But you’re not going. You’re never going back to Texas. Not for fame. Not for money. Not for the glory of Victoria Volt. Not for that article she wants you to outline. Not for anything. Not on your life.
Sure. You check your bags in at SFO and get on the plane. You hate everything about yourself as far as Nevada. You can’t imagine the number of things Victoria demands, all the things she wants from you. You don’t want any of them back. There might have been a time when the deal could have been reciprocal. But now, no. Now you’re lost in lackeyland. If you had a personal life, it’s dead. Working for Victoria kills.
While you’re cursing and grinding Delta peanuts and hating yourself for giving in again, the perfect date is going on two blocks east of Coit Tower back in San Francisco at a little café called Nunu’s—where the perfect couple is getting together under a Tiffany lamp with carpets on the floor and drinks and everything good. There’s no weird. There’s no crazy. No pretend happy. No dull-eyed shrugs. No lying. No flight to DFW. Your boyfriend, Dane, and his new girlfriend, Adriana, will have their perfect date and then get married and live the rest of their lives together and die on the same day and be buried in the same grave and everyone will talk about how right and how beautiful it all was.
None of that will ever happen in or anywhere near Texas. The last time you were there, you saw a house out in the desert half-full of sand, a dead horse by the side of the road, a coyote wandering in circles because it drank from a poisoned spring. Years ago, your older brother, Stevie, dead in a Lubbock parking lot. The Klan and rancid TexMex and border towns that look like the zombie apocalypse. There’s a vein of spite flowing up in the contrails of the sky and blocked up anger in bowels of the earth. Texas is a tragedy. It hates you and maybe your dog and the President. It isn’t a state of the Union; it’s a state of disunion, a wretched state of mind, of being in a rotten place at a lousy time with locusts and bad Santeria and guns. To hell with Texas. But that’s redundant.
Victoria doesn’t believe in direct flights and always sends you coach. The plane is packed and smells of all the drama and passion of the Lone Star State. You can’t get away from it. The guy sitting next to you once had curly brown hair but now it’s gray and his name is, in fact, Curly. Dark blue jeans, plaid long-sleeved shirt, suede blazer, his fingers covered in silver and turquoise. Curly introduces himself at pushback, shaking your hand a little too long, grinning a little too much. He drinks beer after beer, telling you about his life in San Antonio and asking too-personal questions when you’d prefer to brood in silence.
“Little lady, whatcha got there? What do you do for a living? You married?”
“Got a boyfriend?”
“Yes.” No hesitation. Because you do, right?
“You live in San Francisco, don’tcha? I can tell. You got a San Francisco accent.”
He tells you he owns a chain of vegetarian restaurants and he figures that being from San Francisco, you’d be into that. You look at Curly and think, yes, he looks like Texas. He drinks beer like Texas. His name is Texas. And you’re thinking that everything about him comes straight out of the old stereotype you knew as a girl, when your dad would make you drive part of the way, long distance from Bakersfield to his refrigerator factory in Lubbock. You hated Texas for that reason alone. On some other level, you knew it was your father’s attempt to spend some quality time. But it didn’t feel like anything but a rolling prison to your 12-year-old self, forced to drive the truck while your father read the paper or slept in the passenger seat. That drive from Bakersfield to Texas. It was shit. And then your brother died.
Still, you’re thinking that this Curly might actually be okay. Slightly unstable—but who doesn’t seem slightly unstable if you look closely enough—an affable old coot. And when it comes to men from Texas it might not get much better than “old coot.” Old coot might be the best that Texas ever has to offer. So you think: maybe. Maybe the odds are getting better. Maybe, on this trip, Texas won’t be what it has always been, a depressing, disturbing bout of alienation and repugnance.
Then he starts talking about his restaurants. “Are you a vegetarian, little lady?”
“Well shit you have to come to my restaurant in Houston. I own about 15 of the fuckers.” He gives you his card. It says Silver Star Vegetable House – Curly Morgan, CEO. A white card with an embossed star in the middle, shaped out of silver leaves.
“Really? Texan vegetarian cuisine?”
“We grow all our own produce. Science is amazing. I can grow a bell pepper half as big as a Volvo. Have you ever eaten a mutant bell pepper just for dinner? A stuffed bell pepper? We put sour cream in those fuckers. Shredded cheese? Fake tofu bacon chips? Just dump it in there. I got some of them bigger than a plate. They look like small dogs. It’s amazing. People love it. And you know what? You don’t have to eat meat to have food that good.” He pounds the arm rest, takes a fierce gulp of beer. Curly really cares about his mutant peppers.
“That’s interesting.” What else are you going to say? You’re stuck with the mutant vegetable restaurant tycoon of the universe for the next three hours.
“Yeah, and it’s real popular with the tourists who come from, you know, California.” He winks. “A lot of tourists come in terrified, traumatized, because they think Texas is all just steer and beer. But we grow our own stuff.”
At this point, you’re fighting a flashback, thinking of Jim Logue, your father’s partner. Creepy Uncle Logue, who always came by for dinner whenever you and your father got into Lubbock. He managed the refrigerator factory and did everything while your father was home in California. Uncle Logue used to poke you in the shoulder and say you were growing up to be a sexy little thing and to call him in 5 years.
That creepy-crawly feeling you’d get from Uncle Logue—that’s what Curly’s giving off. Only he’s not thinking about you. He’s thinking about a Honcho bell pepper as big as a small dog. It makes you wonder what Curly gets up to with his mutant bell peppers at night when nobody’s around. And suddenly, all the possible ideas you have about what Texas could be, vanish into what it clearly is. You look around the plane and realize that nothing changes—that every city in Texas has a different permutation of the same dysfunctional human blight. Uncle Logue was supposed to teach Stevie the business. But Stevie got killed. He’d only been in Texas for a few months.
“People need it big. They want it now, you know? And if it moves, we can kill it dead. And if it don’t move, we can cook it,” Curly says with his vegephile grin. That’s how it is. People need it big.
Why you choose to live in California: everybody who hasn’t been to California says Los Angeles, fires, crazies, gangs, riots, San Francisco, godless homosexuals, cults, earthquakes, falling into the ocean, weirdo freak Democrat liberals. But maybe that’s okay. And even if that’s all there is, you’ll take it any day. In fact, the perfect day in San Francisco goes like this. You’ll get up late and you’ll take the BART from Hayward into the City. You’ll have a crepe at Tart-to-Tart and walk down 7th Street pleased with the world. Then you’ll go by the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park and look at the dogs playing on the grass and at the wandering peacocks and the Korean girls trying to make sense of tourist maps on rented bicycles.
The sky will be blue. And someone will be doing Tai Chi beside a pond. The disc golfers will be laughing. You’ll pause to watch a mime do the entire second act of Hamlet, playing all the characters himself. And then you’ll go sit by the stone lion in front of the de Young museum, where there’s an Andy Goldsworthy installation that’s just a crack that runs down the center of the entryway. You’ll wait and nobody will notice it, thinking it’s just a crack in the concrete. And you’ll enjoy watching everyone, until a crowd of extremely self-conscious tourists in electric blue jumpsuits arrives on Segways. And then you’ll go in and look at the art. And this will be your day.
Curly’s ordering another Amstel, flirting with the flight attendant. You’ve bored him. You put his card in your pocket and close your eyes. You’d give anything to have a job that’s stable, that would allow you to pay your bills and live back in the City. And then Dane would realize that you are around and that he really does love you. But life isn’t like that. It would be too perfect. That perfect couple on their perfect date back in San Francisco are as far from Texas as Texas is from anything good.
Knowing this, you also know the fault is yours. You’re the one that got on the plane, telling yourself you had to. Your last experience in Houston (fiancée George, dentist, mistake) was as horrific as your first experience in Waco (12 years old, on a trip with dad, thrown from a horse, six weeks in bed). Sitting in the factory office in Lubbock for hours with nothing to do but watch the workers load refrigerator shells into the backs of trucks. Stevie in his coffin, laid out in a black suit that he’d never worn while he was alive, the deep cuts in his cheeks spackled and rouged. Texas has enough bad memories and ghosts for you to fill the back end of a horror story—when all you want is to make up with Dane, at least to break even as friends, at least to walk with him down Embarcadero one more time and look at the bay. But here you are.
So you touch down in the mutant cyclops state that only gets one star. DFW’s full of idiots in cowboy hats, morons in mongoose, monitor lizards in Durango dusters. And you’re going to get on that connecting Fokker F-27 and it’s going up in the sky and coming down in Houston. Blind date in Texas? Oh yes, motherfucker, you’re all about it. You’re doing it for Victoria. You’re doing it to get paid. You’re doing it because she forces you to do things like this. And then she’ll write about it as if she did it herself and you’ll fade into freelance vapor. You’ll try to recover, curling up in your studio apartment in Hayward, feeling like a beaten animal, nursing your wounds. Blind date in Texas? Shit, you’re helping Victoria Volt get famous. You’re fueling her image, doing what she’s supposed to be doing instead of raising her son on 7 acres in upstate New York, eating vegan, and going to yoga twice a day. Research assistant? There’s no such thing in Texas. You’re going to wind up skinned in a barn, tied up on a farm, overwhelmed by locusts, lynched by rednecks.
You get off the plane and avoid the urban cowboys, the dudes with handlebar moustaches trying desperately to look like Sam Elliott. You sit in a small bank of chairs far away from everyone between the boutique that offers bells and little glass angel chimes and the food court with four varieties of Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que. It’s a trade-off. You have to smell the meat, sauce on a slab of death, but it’s far enough from the gates to discourage new cowboy friends.
The first thing you have to do before you read the files Victoria sent is check your email—the special account you have just for messages from She Who Must Be Obeyed. You open your laptop and go through the motions. There she is. She’s left you the usual video message. She has the clearest skin of any woman you’ve ever seen. Short brown hair in a bob and a radiant white smile—so constructed, so perfectly put together that it makes you think of an artificial sun. She wears blue contacts, does Yogalates multiple times a day. She has an obese 10-year-old boy named Frederick, but there isn’t an ounce of fat on her body. In fact, Victoria has biceps cut so severely you can see them ripple.
Her face is frozen on the screen in that perfect smile, ready to deliver the usual instructions, veiled threats, and warnings about spending any unnecessary money. You plug your headphones into the computer and notice Curly embracing a tall Asian man, dressed in a black suit, black Stetson, and a clear glass bolo tie with a spider encased in it. They’re standing right in front of you, but Curly doesn’t notice.
Curly says, “Well, shit, Robbie, what the hell have you been doin’ with your life?”
Robbie bows. “Do you want me to get your bags, Mr. Morgan?”
Then you hit play and your patron and mentor, Victoria Volt, begins her pronunciamento, which will regulate and define all things for the next minute and 38 seconds of your life: “Hi Allison,” she says, losing her smile a little as if your name were a term for something necessary yet disappointing. “I hope you’re well. By now, I’m sure you’re already either on the plane or touching down in my favorite state. I understand it’s not your favorite state, but let’s not forget this is a job I need you to do. You’re going on a blind date, Allison! This should make you happy. Does it make you happy? It makes me happy thinking that you’ll be getting out for a change with an eligible guy. This is as much for you as it is for me. You need to get out more, you know. By sending you on this trip, I’m doing my part to help you out. And if writing comes out of it, then all the better, right? Think of it as a paid vacation. I’m paying you to go out on a date. How much better could it be? And this guy, Harley Winslow, he’s perfect for a human interest piece. I discovered him through a friend of mine at the Houston Chronicle. Harley’s amazing. He used to be a travelling preacher, but now he raises alpacas on a farm and it’s really fantastic because he wrote a book. Would you believe it? It’s a book about dating.”
She holds the book too close to the camera then pulls it back and the image of a glowing white crucifix on a hill comes into view with a man and a woman holding hands and kneeling before it. “It’s called Sacred Love: the Words of Jesus as the Ultimate Guide to Life and Romance. How about that? I think he might be an idiot, which would be perfect.” She puts down the book and raises her eyebrows. Directive number one: make sure you note any details that would make him seem like a fool.
“Anyway, he’s not very attractive. Not too hunky. At least by my standards. But he’s certainly interesting. You need to find out all about him. I think he’s human interest gold. Magazine readers would find him very entertaining. Don’t you think so? I hope you do. You’d better.” Victoria smiles—not at you, but beyond the webcam lens at the Universe, with whom she shares various running jokes. You watch the video a second time with a certain Zen detachment.
Victoria’s real last name, her maiden name, is Vichinsky. You have no idea what her husband’s last name is. Victoria would send you into a swamp to investigate alligators. But she’d do it with a wink and her supernova smile. Every time she sends you on a job, which is about once every three weeks according to her writing schedule, she frames it as something that’s good for you, something that can make you better and more like her. If you thought in such terms, you might be flattered, since she’s the most attractive competent woman you know; though, you suspect she spends hours a day on her appearance. You also suspect she’s OCD, a hypochondriac, and very possibly an agoraphobe.
But that’s all beside the point. The point is: you have a job to do. As you watch people from the plane drift into Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que and drift out, looking slightly bilious and poisoned, you realize that part of Victoria’s success and beauty lies in the fact that she hardly ever leaves home or deviates from her schedule. She lives on several acres of old farm land in upstate New York in a barn that has its own air purification system and is riot-proof. It’s even got a moat. On those rare occasions that she does go out, she checks the driving routes in case everything hits the fan while she’s on the highway. Her husband carries a gun to protect her.
She has only granted an in-person audience to you once—when she hired you. And, even then, there was a certain skittishness about her, the sense that you might, in fact, be a vector for some kind of bacteria that would eventually kill her and her entire family. These are things the world doesn’t know about Victoria Volt, columnist, celebrity, who has appeared on Oprah, Doctor Phil, The O’Reilly Factor, and even Charlie Rose. Radiant avatar of failed marriage and doomed romance, hidden away in her secret temple in Saugerties, New York, who has written many books, who is everywhere and yet nowhere. The times she has to do a show or an interview are periods of great stress and there’s always a blackout interim before and after in which she speaks to no one—probably doing Yogalates.
You open the Word file that Victoria sent. It gives contact details, your motel, what she wants you to do. Victoria writes that Harley calls himself Lord Harold sometimes, which is his bowling club nickname. He was an itinerant preacher on the old chitlin circuit. He went to Hosanna Bible College of North Texas and drove around in a 1972 Winnebago with a box full of Gideon Bibles, sanctified nails, and gallon milk jugs of holy water. He was casting out devils, exorcising the peoples—until he had a faith crisis and became a Unitarian. Then the Longree Pentecostal Sanctuary in Bethel kicked him out. He started selling power tools door-to-door, but that didn’t work, either, because he was more interested in talking about the Lord. So now what does he do? Now he’s a cell phone salesman at The Galleria in Houston and he raises alpacas. He does Christian Star Wars reenactments in his spare time. This is the guy she wants you to go out with—the embodiment of everything Curly could have been had he made slightly different decisions and not had a fetish for oversized Honcho peppers.
There’s a small photograph embedded in the Word document. Harley’s details: 6’2” tall; sunburned pink scalp under sparse blond hair; blue eyes; small nose; thin lips, but a prominent chin with a cleft. In the picture, he’s wearing a western shirt with pearled snaps. And you think he isn’t attractive, but he doesn’t look that bad. More like an extra in a cowboy movie. Someone you take for granted as you’re watching a young Clint Eastwood put a steel plate under his poncho to stop bullets before a gunfight. Victoria has set you up on a date with this man in order to vicariously live it and write about it. Yes. Okay. You can do this. You’re a professional. But dating for money sounds like something else—something that almost came up before. What if Victoria decides to write about what it’s like to be a hooker again? Does she send you out to some guy’s apartment and tell you it’s going to be good for you? Every now and then, she tries to broach the subject.
You’ve got 20 minutes before boarding starts for the short flight to Houston. So you wander around the airport. There’s a kiosk with shelves of tiny ceramic dogs. Serapes are hanging everywhere for sale, more serapes than in all of Mexico. And DFW smells like dust. The hot dust of Texas. Even in the hermetically sealed biodome of an airport, the outside world will seep in over time. And this is true even here at Dallas-Fort Worth. The airport resembles a dystopian bubble city from bad 70s science fiction—with its own rail system and outlying terminals designed to contain a terrorist blast. You think DFW probably has machines in the basement that could independently support it as a city-state in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Logan’s Cattle Run. You can even see the dust on some of the people just in through security. You wonder if you’re going to smell like Texas when you get back and how many showers it will take to get it off you. This is something Victoria would know.
In the restroom, you look at yourself in the mirror, your brown hair has streaks of gray in it like little lightning bolts of death. Gray already at 31. You keep your hair tied back most of the time. It’s easier that way. You haven’t worn nail polish or lipstick in a dog’s age and why would you? All you do is work. And the type of work you do doesn’t require you to look like Victoria Volt. It requires a laptop, focus, and self-discipline most days. When you have to meet with someone, you have the basic ensemble ready—a black two-piece Donna Karin business suit, a few silk blouses.
But right now, you’re wearing the blue Cal sweatshirt that belonged to Dane. You kept it because giving it back would have been like giving him back to the world. And that isn’t on the docket. He’s still your boyfriend. Looking at yourself, at your gray in the mirror, you feel a wave of sadness rise up through the center of your being. But nothing’s changed. Everything’s on track. You’re going to do this job, make 2 gs. You’re going to go back to the bay area and call Dane and he’ll actually answer the phone and you’ll go out and have dinner at the aforesaid chic little café called Nunu’s, his favorite.
If you don’t call him your ex, he’s not really your ex—Dane now has Adriana and, yes, she’s from Brazil. But it’s because you’re never around. And really, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s because of Victoria. Adriana’s a model who doesn’t shower. And even though she stinks, she’s possibly the most well-put-together woman you’ve ever seen in real life other than Victoria. Her father owns a villa in Belo Horizonte, which you know because Dane has a framed picture of it on his wall. And when you come by his place to check on all your things still in his closets, Adriana’s always there and you leave faster than you arrive. Victoria wants you to write about that, too—at least to make an outline for her as usual and work “frenemy” into the title.
The crowd on the Fokker F-27 is sparse, which is strange because the trip from DFW to Houston is popular, but today there’s hardly anyone on the plane. You have an entire row to yourself. Below, the tawny lion hide of Texas goes past as the plane reaches 37,000 feet. The flight attendants are all female, blonde, and look vaguely porny. Centerfold material. They have a festive air. They’re telling jokes to each other, imitating people they know and laughing hysterically. The few passengers consist of a South Asian gentleman who goes to sleep immediately, three old ladies sharing a crochet bag, a business man on his day off in an Izod polo and a baseball cap, reading the Wall Street Journal, and you.
It will be a short flight. You consider watching Victoria’s message again. But you know Harley’s waiting for you. He told Victoria he’d pick you up at the terminal. You won’t have a chance to put yourself together. He’s going to be there from the minute you set foot in Houston—another thing you don’t like. But you’re not being paid to look good for Harley Winslow or even to like him. You are a prosthetic eye that will not be touched and that’s how it’s going to be. You are the agent, representative, and sometimes ghost writer for a famous author. So you put your laptop back in its leather shoulder bag, drink the 7-Up that Miss November just brought you and close your eyes, listening to the hiss and rumble of the plane. Someone had too much Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que and it’s evident. Your seat is up against the restroom bulkhead. You close your eyes and try to ignore the smells and sounds of air sickness coming through the wall.
This is your life. You had a Confucian exit strategy as recent as last year—the cheerful retreat, the thank-you-for-teaching-me-so-much-master, the take-care-can-I-use-you-as-a-reference sort of thing. But reality: you don’t know how to operate a hydro-encephelator or manage IT security for an auto parts chain or give MRIs. You could apply to wash dishes at Golden Wok across from the library in Hayward. You could maybe get a job selling shoes at the mall. Instead, Victoria pays you $2,000 to spend the weekend riding along to meth labs with the LAPD. She then sells the article to Vogue, “Dark Days: Victoria Volt goes Undercover in the Inland Empire.” Your title.
She acts like she’s your mentor, like she’s grooming you to be her. But you’re already Victoria in many ways, her muse, her lackey. She supports herself with blogs and pastel-colored books on divorce. She’s the divorce queen. The diva of despair. Five Things I Learned from Divorce. Vengeance and the Abandoned Spouse. Things You Should Never Do After a Divorce. Men: Do we Need Them? Seven Things About Me You Didn’t Learn Until You Divorced Me. You Haven’t Divorced Me…Yet! Maybe You Haven’t Divorced Me But It’s Like We’re Already Married So Maybe You Could. And What I Hate About You: A Book of Holiday Lists.
Victoria has a problem. But it isn’t divorce. She’s married to a guy she calls “The Plumber” because he’s a plumber. But there’s supposed to be a double meaning in that. He doesn’t get a name. He’s just The Plumber. She has attempted to castrate him 17 times with a wood chisel. It’s an ongoing project. And she writes about it, about how he’s distantly amused by it: The Plumber comes into the room and says, “Tried to use the chisel on me last night, eh?”
She has written that the Plumber sleeps in a different bedroom. She needs to pick the lock every time she wants in. But he’s always one step ahead of her. He leaves crumpled up newspapers around his bed. He has pepper spray stashed everywhere. He doesn’t talk much, this plumber. But they communicate in absolutes, in physical essentials, like: “Did you try to castrate me with a wood chisel again?” or “Did you lock me out last night?” According to Victoria, she hasn’t had sex in seven months, 22 days, and 7 hours. She has some scheduled for around Christmas Eve—when she’ll put down the chisel and he’ll unlock the door and first they’ll go have prime rib in some restaurant in Saugerties and she’ll blog about it later.
But you’ll be shivering in someone’s basement with a can of pork and beans, even though you’re a vegetarian and you hate pork and beans. You’ll be eating it anyway for some kind of experiment of Victoria’s—because she’ll want to know what it’s like to spend Christmas alone in a cold basement and eat pork and beans out of a can. And that would be the lesser of evils. You’ve dug out latrines and spent the night in subways and halfway houses and bungee corded into rivers and all sorts of other things that Victoria wanted to pretend she’d done. Only Victoria and The Plumber know about you. Whenever you narrowly escape something awful, she says, “I think your reportage is really coming along.”
And how much is she paying you and why do you do it? It’s because you majored in English. That’s why. Because there are no jobs. Because you’re not good at poker and you couldn’t afford the gas to Vegas anyway. You answered the ad in your last year of grad school: Research Assistant for Nationally Recognized Columnist. Must be obedient, smart, and hard working. Victoria said you got two out of three, but it was enough. She liked the fact that you didn’t know how to dress yourself when you flew out for the interview and she offered to teach you how to write because people don’t learn anything in graduate school. “I’m absolutely willing to learn” you said, which was code for: soon I will have a MA in Victorian lit., which is to say, soon I will have nothing. I have massive student loans. And I need a job like I need the air. “Breathe,” Victoria said.
Harley drove 47 miles from Bethel, Texas, to pick you up. Harley opens the trunk of his white Crown Vic in the airport parking lot and points everything out because he thinks you’ll want to write about it. In his trunk: a rubber tourniquet, a box of spoiled Taco Bell chalupas, duct tape, a bag of shriveled biscuits, a Taser gun, a Dragunov SVD sniper rifle, and an enormous fucking jar of Metamucil.
You wonder what Victoria told him about you. He’s a lost tumbleweed that blew up against your door. The last thing anyone wants to do is take something like that in, break it open, and see what kind of strange sick thing is curled up inside. The whole research project has felony murder potential. It’s the tumbleweed of death. It’s a tractor wheel rolling downhill and killing an old lady at a bus stop. A random bolt of lightning. The zombie apocalypse. It’s the end times. You look at the rifle—DRAGUNOV SVD on the stock in slanted black letters—and decide that going on a date with Harley just so Victoria can write about it isn’t even a real job. It’s a tragedy. You tell yourself this won’t become a felony murder. And the sky won’t be filled with bullets. You tell yourself it’s just another research project. But you’re not stupid. You can’t deny your sense that the excrement is heading for the air conditioning. And Texas is where it’s at.
“I collect all kinds of stuff. I just keep it all in my trunk. You ever heard of Watts Towers?”
“I’m from California, Harley.”
“Watts Towers is a beautiful thing, man. I got five books on it.”
“I’m not a man, Harley.”
“Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior, Allison?”
“I realize that this is some sort of test tube experiment for that writer. But could we at least try to make the best of it and be friends?”
“You’ve got a rifle and a tourniquet in your trunk.”
“Sniper rifle, honey. And that’s actually a hospital grade medical tourniquet.”
“Are you a junkie or a juicer of some kind?”
“I have been known to make a mean banana-guava smoothie.”
“What’s a former preacher doing with a Taser?”
“Technically, it’s a stun gun. Don’t tase my balls, bro! You see that video? That was funny. Internet. It’s on the internet.”
“I’m going, Harley. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Don’t you want a ride?”
“I’ll get a cab.”
It was supposed to be a date that lasted three days. The first day lasted three minutes. After a year of working for Victoria, of coming up with ideas and outlines for chapters of books and magazine columns, there’s one thing you know for sure: as long as you get her a nice article to write—not too serious, not, as she says, “offensively smart”—she’ll love you long time. You’ll get paid. Victoria will get the credit. Life will continue.
It’s 7:00 PM in room 14b at the Roundup Motel when you decide to call Dane again. His cell phone rings and rings. Sometimes it’s good just to hear his voice on the outgoing message. You used to leave messages for him, trying to sound casual:
It’s me. Just checking in. Just want to see how you’re doing.
Hey, I saw this funny thing on Facebook and I thought—hey, are you online?
Hey, I thought maybe you and—your friend—want to catch a movie. Or maybe just you.
Hi, it’s me—wondering what you’re up to. It’s so weird. I’m going to be in the neighborhood again.
Hey you! Thinking maybe we could meet up if you want to get a cup of coffee, may at that café down by the tower. What was it called?
Everything in room 14b is vinyl. It has a Bates Motel lamp hanging loose by a cord from the ceiling—something to send shadows all around the room while an occupant gets knifed. The motel is outside the city on Highway 35. Victoria’s all about the work and never about luxury. You can’t count the number of roadside motels you’ve stayed in—Motel 6s, Super 8s, Red Roof Inns, Budget Suites. Truckers welcome. Once, she sent you to Osaka for two days and you stayed in a coffin hotel—which, although creepy and uncomfortable, was still infinitely cleaner and better put together than any American low-budget motel you’ve used.
The smell of the dust is here, too. But this time, it’s not Texas dust per se, just motel dust. Still, you unroll your sleeping bag on the bed because there’s no way in hell you’re getting in those sheets. At this point, you feel you know about motels. The only vegetarian fare on the menu is a small apple and a bottle of water. You have suspicions about the water. Somehow, Texas would find a way to put meat in it.
So you sit there in the mustard colored bank chair with cigarette burns in the wooden armrests, looking into the mouthpiece of the ancient room phone. It’s holes are crusted with the creeping crud of the ages. You listen to Dane’s outgoing message: Hi. You’ve reached Dane Robbins. Leave a message, okay? He doesn’t mean it. You call back and listen to it three times. His voice is beautiful. Like him. At the beep, you always hesitate. What do you say? Dane, I’m in Houston but I’ll be back in a few days. (Would you be interested in leaving that stinking bitch from Brazil? Moving in with me? Getting married? Having 2.3 children? Changing our names and moving up to Pacific Heights where we’ll have perfect jobs, perfect happiness, and relief from the horrors of life?). But you just listen and hang up.
For some reason, your cell phone can’t connect whenever you call Dane, but you won’t believe he blocked you. When you call him, you always have to do it from hotel phones. You wonder if Victoria has paid attention to those charges because she always requests the motel receipts. She knows you have no living family. What does she think about the fact that you call the same San Francisco number every time? She has to wonder. But she’s never brought it up. Hopefully, she never will.
The psycho killer lamp, the single light source in room 14b, is dim. Not enough light to read. The TV is a Zenith. Its screen is a dark 1970s olive green. You turn it on and get the agricultural channel, three channels of Spanish news, and Doctor Phil. Tonight, he’s featuring real life vampires and the people who love them. You turn it off. Outside the hotel, there’s a truck stop gas station and a Burger King. You’re scheduled to be picked up by Harley at 4:00 PM tomorrow, when he will take you on a tour of his alpaca farm and then buy you dinner. That’s the plan.
You take a shower and get back in your sleeping bag, but you can’t stand the buzzing of the gas station floodlights, enormous orange sodium vapor floods that cast a flat matrix of light and shadow around the motel. The 16-wheelers are giant rumbling monsters blinking their headlights and hissing in the dark. It will be a long night. So you hop over to the TV in the sleeping bag and turn on the Doctor. It’s the middle of the show. A very large pale man with purple streaks in his long black hair and a silver stud below his lower lip holds hands with a heavyset woman in an orange sundress. Doctor Phil says, “Really? And you go to these clubs and you never have any trouble with him getting together—”
They both start talking at once. Then the woman holds up a hand and says, “It’s a lifestyle thing. This isn’t like cheating.”
The crowd boos.
“I’m not being unfaithful,” the man says. “It’s just part of our vampire culture. We’re predatory. We need to hunt.”
“Yes.” The woman nods. “It’s a need.”
“And you’re okay with this? You take precautions? Isn’t this sexually dangerous?”
This time, the man holds up a hand bedecked with steel rings. “Being a sexual outlaw is part of it. You take a chance in your life walking across the street. But, you know, it’s like playing roulette. We don’t expect the mundanes to understand.”
Doctor Phil raises an eyebrow the way Victoria might if she were proposing that you walk naked through Times Square just so she could learn what it feels like. “Sexual roulette? You’re sexually gambling?”
The woman grips the armrest of the chair with her free hand and leans forward, displeased. Then she says, “It’s not random like that. He has this ability.”
“Yes,” the man says. “I can sense my prey. I can sense when someone wants it. Can’t you, Doctor Phil?”
Silence and then a few tentative boos from the audience. The camera pans over the faces—people straight out of middle America. Weight problems. Bifocals. Chunky sweaters and bad haircuts. The disapproving frowns of suburbia. Doctor Phil makes an interested face with an under layer of extreme boredom. He says that after commercial they’ll be back to talk to someone who claims she must drink blood in order to survive.
You fall asleep with that thought: some people have to drink blood to survive. And you dream that you’re in China in the Forbidden City. And Sun Yat Sen, dressed in saffron robes, is giving you a tour through its empty rooms. And then he’s sitting at the foot of your bed, smiling and nodding and telling you the location of the emperor’s silverware that he hid many years ago—a treasure room of such vast proportions that it’s amazing it has never been found by the government. A treasure room cunningly hidden far below the Forbidden City. And even in your dream, you’re putting together an outline on this for Victoria.
You eat a greasy truck stop breakfast and drink a small chemical orange juice. Then you call a cab and take it into downtown Houston and walk around, feeling lost, feeling like a ghost, a Sun Yat Sen poltergeist. You snap some photos with your cell phone for Victoria so she can write more convincingly about what the place looks like. She wants photos, video, sounds of people talking, images of food, descriptions of the weather, major landmarks. It works quite well. The final copy of her articles read as if she were really there. She always wants you to start with downtown—places, she says, that the rednecks might avoid, even in Texas, because she hates rednecks. This takes you several hours, as always, before you go to Starbucks to email it all.
While there, you look at Victoria’s latest blog post. It reads like straight fiction. “The Chisel Report: How to Know What You Need in a Man.” It describes her latest attempt to overpower The Plumber while he slept. This time, she picked the lock early and waited all day in the closet, razor-sharp chisel, mallet, latex gloves, coffee, bag of doughnuts, penlight, the question: Does he really need his balls to be my husband? circling through her thoughts. But Victoria fell asleep.
Four or five paragraphs into the post, she speculates: was it was the extra cruller? Too much milk in the coffee? The lack of movement and light? The warm closeness of The Plumber’s overcoats and suits around her like a comforting wooly uterus? Victoria admits that she doesn’t know exactly why she drifted off. When she awoke it was the middle of the night. She crept out into the dark bedroom, feeling a sense of triumph, tasting victory at last.
However, when she drew back the comforter, she saw that he had anticipated all of it. He’d shaped an outline of himself with pillows under the blankets and left her a note that said he’d been living at the Holiday Inn Express in Tannersville for the past week. Toward the end of the post, Victoria admits that she hadn’t noticed his absence.
In the last paragraph, she writes, This is what I need in a partner instead of husband-ballast, dead weight, a man who brings nothing to the table. I need a man sharp enough to stay one step ahead. This is what we all need in a partner if it’s going to last and I know I’m a fortunate girl. This is love in case you were wondering. Are you lucky in love?
You think this might be one of the worst pieces of writing you’ve ever seen from Victoria. It’s surprising. But she’s told so many lies about her life and herself at this point—her participation in Viet Nam protests as a toddler; beating and making a citizens arrest of a potential rapist in Central Park using only a rolled-up magazine and Krav Maga techniques; turning down an invitation to MENSA. The Victoria Volt image, brittle and constructed, a gilded eggshell.
During a Skype call in which you were waiting for Victoria to come back from the restroom, The Plumber once paused on his way past the computer to ask you how you were. He’s a short paunchy man who wears baseball caps and has a pencil-thin moustache. And, as he stooped over the webcam, he seemed like someone from a different era, maybe the 1930s—the sort of man who’d peer carefully through a peephole before opening the door to a speakeasy. He wiggled his fingertips at you and said, “I admire your skills and so does Victoria. We’ve got a lot to thank you for.” At the time, you didn’t know what to say. Now, if you could relive that moment, you might say, “No, actually you don’t.”
Doctor Phil is always on. You return to Room 14b and watch a rerun of an earlier broadcast. No vampires this time. Now it’s people who secretly try to make their spouses obese. The panel members on stage are very large and very unhappy. They speak over each other, a certain dark luster in their eyes. You picture them skinny under their voluminous T-shirts and muumuus with pillows strapped to themselves so they could be on TV. You try to imagine the hidden world of such people, delighted, desperate, depressed, full of the need to be on television, to be seen.
The sun goes down and Harley never shows. Once again, you watch the telephone, imagining the best worst Dr. Phil episode: Ex-Girlfriends in Denial Who Call from Texas. Some of them are sad and desperate. Some of them will drink your blood. It’s easy to be in denial when you don’t know what went wrong. You have four pictures of Dane in your wallet and you lay them out on the bed like Tarot cards: Dane playing water polo with his headgear pushed slightly back, his arm in mid-throw. Dane in his living room trying to play a didgeridoo. Dane riding his father’s horse, Sugar, in Connecticut. Dane laughing at the Gypsy palm reader that day in Berkeley.
You shut off the TV and the room is silent. You think of the last time you saw him. You’d gone out for a drink to celebrate his acceptance by Hastings. You said congratulations and he just shrugged. “I’m so dedicated to life,” he said, “that I can’t tolerate weakness in others for very long. It gets disgusting waiting for the world to catch up.” But Dane had cried like a baby when he didn’t get into Boalt Hall and stayed drunk for a week. He’d hired a ringer to impersonate him and take the LSAT again. You didn’t bring these things up. Why would you?
It’s then that you see the procession beyond the curtains of Room 14b and you forget about Dane completely. Maybe you notice it out of sheer luck or fate. Or maybe it’s just something randomly ejected from the great machinery of happenstance that turns beneath the sodium floods outside all one-horse motels. It doesn’t surprise you at first because you’ve heard about the kinds of things people have seen in Texas: ghost caravans emerging out of the fog, a semi-transparent circus, a silent menagerie floating north toward Nacogdoches, invisible by dawn.
A heavy mist, maybe a fog, has risen six feet above the ground. A ghost mist from which anything might emerge. But you’re not prepared for a night procession, cars rolling past, a hearse covered in flowers, various old convertibles driven by skeletons, and at least 50 mourners afoot, each carrying 7-day vigil lights, little sugar skulls. Some are dressed as the Grim Reaper. Some carry statues of saints. Some have burlap bags over their heads, inching forward in prayer. All in perfect silence.
You stand in the doorway to your room and close your mouth. If there is anyone else staying at the motel, their cars are gone from the parking lot, their windows dark, curtains drawn. Maybe they’re terrified of this. You look at your long shadow stretched out before you in the light from the room. Then you look at the procession still going by and take picture after picture with your phone. No one looks at you.
What are you now? Are you the ghost? The ghostwriter? Are you a journalist? Are you still that prosthetic eye and is this something that the eye should see? Is this something you could tell Dane about? Maybe it’s not something you could describe to anyone. It’s not something Victoria would ever write about. It’s not something Doctor Phil would want on his show, five kinds of Grim Reaper sitting on the stage and an audience in skeleton drag.
Taking a step backward, you almost fall. You’re dizzy with surprise and unsure whether to shut the door. You could zip yourself all the way into your sleeping bag, like a body bag, and pretend that you, too, are part of it somehow in the dust and vinyl of Room 14b. Or you could walk out and take more pictures and follow this strange parade.
You run back into the room, pull on your jeans, Nikes, a T-shirt and the Cal sweatshirt. Then you lock the door behind you and fall in with the mourners, your heart triphammering in your chest. No one speaks to you or looks your way, except for an old woman who hands you one of her candles—a white taper with a paper guard to keep hot wax off your hand.
Silent, you walk for over an hour according to the clock on your phone. And when you reach the graveyard hidden from the highway by buttes on either side, it’s a quarter past midnight. When the hearse rolls down a dirt path and stops at an open grave, you realize it’s November 1st, the Day of the Dead. This is someone’s funeral mass. You make your way to the front of the crowd and kneel with the family by the mound of fresh earth as the coffin is lowered.
The priest is all in white with a green stole. And the graveyard is already full of burning candles like a fairy metropolis, pinwheels, tiny chimes tinkling in the wind. The priest says, “Oremos” and everybody bows their heads. You do, too, even though you were raised atheist and have never been to a religious service in your life.
“Escuchanos, Señor,” the priest says.
“Amen,” responds the congregation.
A woman beside you collapses forward, wailing. No one touches her. She drops her candle on the mound of fresh dirt, digs in it with her hands. She pulls on her hair and moans and says things not in English or Spanish but in the special language of grief that everyone eventually learns. And part of you feels you should take a picture of this, if not for Victoria, then for yourself. But it wouldn’t come out or make sense if it did.
The image of your brother beaten to death by someone you’ll never know. He’d had an open casket and you were not grateful for that. No embalmer’s art could completely obscure the lacerations or reconstruct the extent to which Stevie’s cheekbones had been crushed, shattered, they thought, by a metal bar. Hit by a bar repeatedly, they said, in the restaurant parking lot.
Then you’re crying, too. You’re looking down at Stevie laid out in the bottom of the grave in his cheap black suit. His eyes are open, staring at you. Dizzy, you can feel the tendrils of the mist on your neck as you listen to “Bendito seas por siempre.” And the great world seems hollow, the great gilded eggshell world—a fragile empty thing made to seem fine and rare but secretly thin, as brittle as bone, and capable of shattering in an instant.
Hit by a bar.
You think of all those years back and forth to Lubbock with your father, who has now also passed on. And a great terrifying knowledge rises up inside you where before there has been merely an empty space that sometimes filled with longing. This knowledge, like the rising mist, like the body now in its coffin, like Stevie’s broken face staring up: the knowledge that you will return to Hayward, that the sun will come up, and that these moments will be hidden by the lying, prevaricating customs of the daylit world. You will submit your outline and materials to Victoria, carrying on the gilded fairy tale that everything is fine, that Victoria Volt is a brilliant journalist. You will continue to think of your brother as the victim of an impersonal tragedy—as if he’d been caught in an earthquake or drowned at sea instead of being beaten to death in Texas by someone he knew holding a metal bar. Beaten repeatedly. The heart of things, the truth, will sink back into the rotten shell of the earth where no one wants to look. But you will have seen the Forbidden City, at least in your dreams.
This is how you spend your night, crying silently with a Mexican woman dressed in black with dirt in her hair, watching, listening, kneeling. They take communion by the open grave. And by the end of the service, people start drifting back toward the road. You follow, feeling that you’ve left your body, that you’ve seen something hidden, horrible, beautiful—something that you shouldn’t have seen, something that cannot exist after sunrise, that could not be true in the same universe as Victoria Volt, that has never existed anywhere near Coit Tower or Dane Robbins or a chic little café named Nunu’s.
When you reach Room 14b, the sun is rising from the middle of the road beyond the Roundup Motel. The mist is gone. Your TV shows the morning news. They’re talking about a Day of the Dead gun battle between rival gangs in downtown Houston.
Later, as you doze, Sun Yat Sen comes to you again in a dream, dressed as a Buddhist monk. He takes you by the hand and leads you through hallways of filigreed gold, down red carpets with embroidered dragons, through hidden doors beneath Fou dogs. You travel far beneath the Forbidden City into the caves, through waterfalls in caverns as big as football stadiums. You follow him down a twisting stair into a darkness, where his torch shines like a lingering candle flame in a hidden graveyard. And when you reach the bottom, he’s no longer there. But you do see the Emperor’s silverware—enormous mounds of it, forks, spoons, knives, chopsticks shaped like dragon claws, like tiny Dragunovs, like the mandibles of great golden scarabs. And there are horses made of rubies. And there are mountains of inlaid plates and loving cups and jade bowls. And even a mountain of brass bullet casings, smoking in the torchlight. You wake up covered in sweat, your sleeping bag stuck to your bare skin. And you breathe the dust of the motel and you still want to cry but you tell yourself there’s nothing to cry about.
A few hours later, you wake up and listen to Dane’s outgoing message again. The connection picks up but there’s nothing on the other side other than the sound of whistling air, a series of clicks, a weird insectoid trill. What does this mean? You know it should upset you. You should take it as a sign. But something is different. You can’t say, Hi! I’m just up the street! because you aren’t. You can’t say, I just attended a midnight mass and saw the ghost of my dead brother. It seems that those clicks, that empty whistling, that computerized insect song is fitting—wind through an empty shell. You hang up, dial again, and then hang up before it connects.
There was that day after you both had class. You walked down Telegraph with Dane and saw the Psychic Hoodoo Palm Reader. You both went in just for fun, Dane repeating that he didn’t believe that horseshit and you daring him. “What’s the problem, then?” you said, winking, happy, laughing.
An older woman dressed in stereotypical Gypsy silks, as if she were in a perfectly arranged Gypsy Halloween costume, with a head scarf and big silver hoop earrings and electric blue eye shadow and blood red nails. All part of the fun. You sat in what used to be the living room of a house but was now done up in purple velvet. Her name was Madam Philomena. The requisite crystal ball was in the middle of the table. She held Dane’s right hand in both of hers as if it were made of fine china.
You remember that moment when he couldn’t control the muscles around his mouth and she said, “A dark-haired man with blue eyes. Your uncle has an evil cloud over his head. He’s addicted. He’s speaking Spanish to a policeman. He has a message for you.”
And Dane looked sick and terrified. “Where is that in my palm?”
“It’s not in you palm,” she said. “It’s in your face.”
“My uncle has blonde hair.” He stood up and threw down a twenty. But what he didn’t say was that the rest was exactly right. His uncle died a few months before, trying to bring cocaine over the border.
As he walked out, you took his picture, laughing again, ha ha, what a joke.
He grinned. “The stupidest twenty dollars I ever spent.”
Neither of you brought it up again. You held onto the picture of Dane you took that day because he didn’t want it. His family told everyone that his uncle got framed by corrupt Mexican police, that he was a victim. That it just happened like a rainstorm or a flood, another innocent American victimized south of the border, shot for being in the wrong place. In time, even his family believed it.
You dial his number again by heart, one last time, and this time it doesn’t even ring. There’s only that whistling sound, that black space, as if the wind is twisting through a hole in a window that no one cares to replace.
Your hands won’t stop shaking. So you buy a pack of Marlboro Lights at the truck stop, even though you haven’t smoked in months. You’re halfway through it when Harley knocks on the door.
He looks you up and down. “Rough night?”
“You could say that.”
“Yeah,” he nods. “For me, too. But I guess we gotta do this. I promised.”
“Let me get in the shower before we go. Do you mind waiting?”
“Not at all.” Harley bows slightly. “I’ll be in the car.”
When you come out, you’re almost awake. But you bring the cigarettes in your purse. As soon as Harley pulls away from the motel, you ask him if he minds.
“Just roll down the window,” he says. “I personally have never smoked, but it doesn’t bother me.” You go through two cigarettes before he gives you a sideways look. “I guess you’re supposed to be interviewing me or something. But maybe you want me to ask a few questions like, what happened to you last night?”
“I went to midnight mass.”
“You mean the graveyard mass they have sometimes back down the road? They do it for Day of the Dead if somebody’s died around that time. I hear there was some pretty bad stuff back in the city.”
“What do you really do, Harley? You don’t sell phones in the mall.”
The highway opens up and every now and then when a car or truck passes, heading in the opposite direction, people raise their hands in salute. Harley does the same.
“What do I do? Well, I suppose you’re asking because I stood you up yesterday. I suppose I owe you an explanation.”
“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“I’m a known exorcist, Allison. You know what that is?”
“I read something—you travelling around with holy water. Something like that.”
“Something like that.”
He turns right onto a dirt access road and everything gets bumpy. You still feel like you’re not completely in your body, not completely present, like part of you is back at that service the night before, kneeling on a grave with candles all around. If asked, you might have considered trading the experience for more of Curly and his Honcho peppers. That you can understand, expect, laugh at. But this? You can’t shake the image of your brother, of those candles amid the headstones, of the priest like a ghost floating above the grave, and the mourners drifting by the motel—a secret parade that only appears on the night of the Day of the Dead.
“Here we are,” Harley says. “My place.”
It’s a nice one-story ranch house. A big affair with two backyard pools and a guest house done up in Western-brick-fireplace grandeur. But he doesn’t take you inside. And you don’t want to go in anyway.
“I was going to show you the ’pacas, but quite frankly, I hope you don’t mind if I just go to the range.”
“The firing range. I hope that doesn’t bother you.”
You light your 15th cigarette off the butt of the 14th with slightly trembling hands and shake your head. “Whatever. It’s all for Victoria.”
Harley coughs and squints at you. “Right.”
His trunk, in addition to the Dragunov SVD sniper rifle and the various other items he showed you before, now contains a large box of assorted melons. He places them at periodic intervals of 900 feet, head high along a wall of square hay bales. Beneath every melon, he tacks a fresh black-and-white bull’s-eye target with numbers on the rings. Then he comes back.
“You ever shoot a rifle?”
He laughs. “You got quite a mouth on you. I’ll give you that. But that’s okay. I guess I deserve it 90% of the time.”
Harley unrolls a felt blanket on a slight rise of earth. He puts a clip into the rifle. He chambers a round and adjusts the scope. “Stay behind me.”
DRAGUNOV SVD is written on the stock, but you might have guessed a name like that. It looks like a long black mandible, a sleek dark stinger with nothing on it that would glint in the sun. When he takes a shot, a cantaloupe vanishes in a mist.
“Marine sniper school,” he says. “That was my real job.” The brass casing ejected from the gun smokes on the ground beside him. “You can take the man out of the Corps, but, well, you know how the saying goes.”
A loud pop like five balloons punctured at once. And what used to be a honeydew melon is no more.
“Nothing I have says you were a military sniper.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not something I necessarily put on my resume anymore. I like to think of myself as a godly man.”
Pop. Another melon down.
“How do you justify it?”
“Justify it? I know it’s a waste of good melons, but you gotta pick your battles.”
“No, being a sniper and being, you know, a preacher.”
“I did two turns in Iraq. I gotta believe in god, honey. If not, what was all that killing for?”
“I never accused you of wasting melons.” You’re thinking of that midnight mass, the woman on hands and knees clawing the dirt from the open grave, the carpet of candle lights between the headstones in the darkness, the priest with his hands outstretched. You’re thinking about Harley as a young man somewhere in Iraq, dug in with a rifle just like this one, sighting into a building, saying the Lord’s Prayer. You’re thinking of your vision of your brother in a black suit, staring up at you from the bottom of the grave.
“I guess this isn’t much fun for you and for that I apologize. But exorcisms will change a man. They leave a spiritual taint. And you don’t get that off you for a couple days. I’m afraid it sours my disposition.”
“When the devil gets up in someone, you gotta pull him out. It can go on for hours. It can go for a whole week. And you better pray hard.”
“You want to tell me about how you do it?”
“Not particularly, Allison. I understand you came here to parody me. Well, I can be parodied and that’s fine. Most of my life is a bad joke. But I’d prefer that my spiritual beliefs not be made fun of by some New York writer.”
“I can understand that.”
“Thought you might.”
He kills two rows of melons in silence with only the pops and the mist of melon juice as punctuation. Then he does a round of wine bottles. And then he starts on the paper targets. 90 minutes later, you’re back in the truck. He hands you the targets and you hold them up so you can look through the bullet holes.
“You can have ’em,” he says as he pulls up outside Room 14b. “I suppose that will give your boss something to write about.”
“I think it will, Harley.” You extend your hand. He takes it and kisses the back.
“I’m honored to have made your acquaintance, Allison. And I hope that someday our paths may cross again, if only for the pleasure of seeing you once more.”
You’ve smoked all your cigarettes. When the white Crown Victoria pulls away, you stand in the parking lot of the hotel and think of Stevie buried up in Lubbock and that you might go find him sometime.
Your flight leaves at noon. Before the cab arrives, there’s time to walk out to the hidden graveyard. You leave Dane’s four pictures beside a burned-down vigil candle. You look around the graveyard at all the drippings, wax spilled onto headstones, wrought iron fences tilting into the dirt over forgotten graves, tall glass holders lying on their sides, flowers and an ornate black and white cross made of sugar laid on the freshly filled plot. It’s here that you will put your love for Dane to rest and let the sun bleach the pictures. You will never come here again. It will be as if you had never visited this secret place. No one for a thousand years will discover your path to the emperor’s silver.
Waiting in the room for the cab to come, you see the same things on television, the agricultural channel, the news, the temperature at the Alamo, Dr. Phil coming on in 14 minutes. Then you go back to the parking lot with your suitcase and breathe the hot dust of a Texas afternoon, composing your letter of resignation to Victoria. It will say, Dear Victoria, I appreciate everything. I’ll remember everything. But the time has come to lay our relationship to rest. Harley Winslow might be insane. But even if he is, he’s still too good for you. Come meet him yourself. She’ll be furious. She won’t say that your reportage is coming along. She’ll say she’s going to bury you, that you’ll never work again, that she’ll hound you to the ends of the earth. But none of that will be real.
* Note: this story first appeared in Forge 8.4, April 2015.
Don’t buy into the romantic assumption that being a creative artist is easy for those who are truly talented and meant to do it. This is a materialistic commercial lie. Something I believe: art is part of being human and must therefore be available to everyone. And those who do it right never find it easy; though, the publishing industry, for example, may find it easier to sell certain books if readers believe that the writers being published are like idiot savants.
Everyone has an aptitude for some kind of creative process. Finding out what it is means finding out more of what it means to be human and alive. Not investigating this firsthand means voluntarily accepting an impersonal, commercially interested assumption about one’s creative potential—some external story about you imagined and written by someone who doesn’t even know you. It’s an affront to everything unique and valuable in the individual self.
Moreover, it elevates money over art, which is fundamentally disconnected from the reasons we make art in the first place. This is essentially stupid. Therefore, we need to appreciate art. We should create it and consume it, but we should not assume that it is something mysterious, selective, elite, or random. It is better to think of artistic ability as an attainment, a product of self-cultivation that uses materials we already have. And our job is to understand it, interact with it, develop it, and teach this praxis to others. Our job is not to worship those being held up to us as a select, anointed group. Our job is to understand how commerce reacts with art and then to set all that aside so we can do our own work.