Will Christopher Baer
Hell's Half Acre
The third book in the Phineas Poe series, 2004
Let a pair be introduced and increase slowly, from many
enemies, so as often to intermarry-
who will dare say what result?
– Darwin, Notebooks on Transmutation
PINK AND GRAY SKY, THE COLOR OF MUSCLE. The truck screams past and its exhaust drifts into dark flowers that hang on the air and fade away like I’m staring through a mirror stained with my own fingerprints. I saved a guy’s life just now and I think it was a mistake. I didn’t recognize him, not at first. I jerked him back from the edge by pure thoughtless reflex, like I was saying god bless you to the stranger sneezing beside me on a bus. Then I got a shiver-fast scope of his face and in a far corner of my brain came a sunspot flare of recognition, like glancing up at a passing cloud and thinking wow, that cloud looks exactly like a girl on a bicycle. Blink, and the flare is gone. Even now the particulars of the guy’s face are dissolving into a thousand others, but I remember he had dirty blond hair and mercury eyes. The slow spin of echoes and I realize I know this man, and I believe him to be a monster. I think he is one of my own monsters come home.
This is how it begins.
I was crouched on the side of the curb at Geary and Jones, waiting for a dive named Mao’s to open. A dead dog lay stretched along the curb beside me, gold and black fur busy with flies. I kept thinking that if I picked up a stick, maybe that dog would get up and run. I had a touch of the dry mouth and dark clouds were forming around the periphery of my vision. These were the first indicators that a seizure was on the way and soon the air would commence to accelerate and pulse, like a bird was attacking me. I would suffer the imaginary rush of wings furious around my head, and I wasn’t in the mood for it.
And just then a man came running from a narrow dark gap between buildings. He staggered and turned toward me, confused. He didn’t realize he was in the middle of the street. I shook off the phantom wings and glanced left to see a delivery truck hurl around the corner way too fast. For my money, it was about to crush him to the pavement and burst his skull into nasty wet chunks, just like your average melon. I came to my feet and ran toward him as the truck heaved up close. I grabbed the guy and spun him out of the way and the truck squealed past, missing us by maybe a foot, the exhaust hot as god’s own breath. The man was an inch or so shorter than me and had liquid gray eyes. Blood down the front of his shirt, a lot of it. He stank to heaven of gin and there was something about him that screamed bad voodoo and at this point I suffered that flare of recognition, like I had seen this guy before. I just couldn’t say where I knew him from. A lot of faces have flashed by me over the years.
He grabbed my shirt in both fists and by habit or reflex I picked his pocket. My hand darted into his jacket pocket cat-quick and came out with his wallet and he never had a clue. This was a talent I’d picked up in the last few years as a means of survival. There was a wavering moment between us as the last splintered rays of the sun fell on our faces and I sort of froze in disbelief. I thought he might laugh or hug me or punch me in the face and all of a sudden I felt a hot wave of regret, like I might have just saved somebody who couldn’t wait to go home and kick the shit out of his dog and beat up his wife or worse, and maybe I ought to follow him. And maybe he didn’t want me to follow him because when he let go of my shirt he without so much as blinking slugged me in the mouth.
The guy had a heavy fist and I went down to one knee dizzy, while he sprinted up the street and disappeared. The bastard was gone and I was crumpled in the street with blood on my hands, on my shirt. Funny thing was, he may have done me a favor. Hitting me in the jaw had eighty-sixed that seizure I felt coming. A car horn sounded and I looked up. A woman in a gray BMW was honking at me, and giving me a dirty look through her windshield. I staggered up and out of the way and for half a tick I was just happy to be packing the same number of teeth. Then I glimmered the thin shadow mouth of the alley my possible monster had come running from and wondered why the dude was running and who from.
I walked into that dark mouth.
At the farthest end of the alley there was a shrinking egg of light. A man and woman were fighting in that sphere, fighting furiously. They were each of them expert fighters and crazy fast. Their hands and feet moved like insects attacking in mid-air. But the man was hurt, shifting his weight and trying to protect his left side. And as I approached, the woman spun and landed the kill shot, a knife to the throat. He went down so suddenly it was like pulling the plug on a computer. The guy just went dark.
Now the woman crouched low, looking at the body of the dead man on the ground. She didn’t see me, and I didn’t yet recognize her because the shadows were so thick and purple. I walked toward her slowly through the dark. I had no urge to hurry. I don’t know exactly what I was feeling. I had just pulled a guy out of traffic and my skin was humming. But there was still that echo of recognition and the slow forming notion that he was a demon from my yesterdays, an idea that was like the taste of sick in my mouth.
The woman never saw me coming. She crouched there not moving, not breathing. Long arms resting on her knees. Blood on her hands. She didn’t touch the man on the ground, not at first. She was hunkered over him like a wolf over prey. She made no effort to help him and something told me he was beyond help. I couldn’t be sure if she was waiting for him to hurry up and die, or if she was mourning his passing.
Black hair falling like spilled ink to her jaw. This was unmistakably Jude.
I almost stopped breathing.
Jude and I had wounded each other deeply, and we had not parted well. But still I had spent going on five years looking for her.
I was not close enough to see the stars around her eyes but I could see that the corner of her pale mouth had gone flatline, and by her posture she looked more than a little freaked out and furious but by no stretch did she look scared. She wore heavy boots and black military trousers and a thin pale blue summery wisp of a shirt mottled with blood. I could see the muscles jumping in her arms and I had a glimmer that her every molecule was on fire, her body caught in the slow whirl between shock and adrenaline. She was so still she might have been painted there. And now she moved. She wiped the knife on her thigh. She took the man’s head in her hands and, using the tip of the blade, made two fast flicking motions with her wrist. I couldn’t quite see what she’d done, but I had an idea.
Then she got freaky.
With no hint of ceremony or theater, Jude took a fistful of the dead man’s hair in her left fist and pulled it back like a clutch of dead flowers. She put the edge of her knife to his forehead, just below the hairline, and began cutting. She made a near perfect circle around his head, then twisted his hair in a truly violent motion. I was fifty feet away but still I heard the man’s scalp rip away from his skull. She flung the bloodsoaked mass of hair and skin into the shadows. She fucking scalped him. I knew why she’d done it, and as well as I knew her, I couldn’t quite believe it. My left boot touched a bottle and the sound of glass on stone shimmered like a bell. She came alive now and ran from me, never looking back. At the far end of the alley she hopped onto a stripped-down silver racing bike that looked like a pterodactyl on wheels, which I reckoned was a Ducati. She yanked a black helmet down over her head, roared the bike to life, and rocketed away.
Fine by me.
I knew where she was holed up, and anyway I wasn’t ready to talk to her.
I came to the body and knelt beside him. There was a wide black puddle of blood around him that ran to the brick walls in either direction. The guy was in his early thirties, handsome. That is, he had been. Pale and feral. He had a patchy gold beard and a girl’s rosy lips. I assumed his hair, too, had been the color of dirty gold. I couldn’t be certain, as the top of his head now was a horrorshow of seeping blood, wrecked tissue, and exposed bone. And he had no eyes. His eyes were gone. She’d scooped them out with the tip of her knife. I glanced around and saw one of them, a bloody knot glistening in the dark.
And like the guy with ghost eyes in the street, this man was familiar. I knew where I’d seen them. Even mutilated, the likeness was easily apparent. The men were brothers. I had laid eyes on them once before in the flesh, in New Orleans. And I’d dreamed of them many times since. Thinking about it made my skin crawl. I felt nothing much, but I was glad this one was dead.
He was thin, wearing a faded jean jacket. The knees of my pants were soaked through with his blood. I could see that his carotid artery had been severed and he was about as dead as anybody can be. I bent over him and sniffed at his mouth anyway, an unorthodox little habit that I picked up somewhere along the way. I don’t know what this is about, but I could always tell the living from the dead with one whiff and the air that seeped from this guy’s hole was pure graveyard. I touched two fingers to his throat for form’s sake. There was no pulse to speak of.
I slapped at the guy’s pockets and found a fat ziploc baggie that contained small individual balloons of what looked to be generous dimes of heroin. I stared at them a moment, tempted sore. Then hissed at myself and threw the lot violently into the far shadows. I found a cell phone in his jacket pocket and dialed 911. The operator came on and I muttered the words dead man at Geary and Jones, then dropped the phone on the guy’s chest. I wiped my bloody hands on his pants and stood up. I wanted to make myself scarce before the cops showed, and besides I had an appointment with an old flame that was long overdue.
Here’s what happened. I arrived in San Francisco five days ago, having tracked Jude to California after losing her in New Orleans some five years back. I have been on the road so long I’ve about lost myself. For the past nine months I’ve been crisscrossing the southwest, eyeballing the sun like it was my blood enemy. By the by, saying I tracked Jude anywhere is generous as hell. I’m not much of a hunter, never was. And most of the time I was wandering around on foot, as the seizures and false visions have got progressively worse of late, making it dangerous for me to drive. I do know how Jude’s mind works, however, and I’ve had some okay luck just following my nose.
Anyway. Two weeks ago, I was laid up in a shitty motel in Bakersfield, where Jude’s trail had run cold. The only evidence that she had even been there were the busted collarbone of a bartender in Flagstaff named Rabbit and the severed hamstring of his buddy Steve, a bouncer by trade and former kickboxing champ who was never gonna walk right again. Rabbit and Steve told me they had run afoul of Jude a month or so prior when she blew into town and began sniffing around for two guys, brothers named Shane and Sugar Finch. These names meant nothing to me, but they did mean something to Rabbit and Steve, who told me between shots of whiskey that they had been best pals with Shane and Sugar since they were all still wetting the bed. Shane and Sugar had moved on years ago, they said, having graduated from freelance thugs to mercenary killers. But they were still practically family, Rabbit said, and when Jude showed up looking for them, Rabbit and Steve got nervous, and rightly so.
The woman they described had identified herself as Jesse Redd, and they had taken her to be a professional bounty hunter. They said she had a body that knocked you out at first glimmer, but when you examined her up close she was pure muscle and hard as cut glass with a scar at the corner of her mouth and long devastating legs and hair so black it looked wet, skin somewhere between yellow and pale coffee, and eyes shaped like almonds. They said she was wearing desert boots and army fatigues that fit her ass snug as a bug and a scuffed black motorcycle racing jacket and a little white T-shirt underneath so thin and tight you could see her nipples plain as day.
That freaked me out, said Rabbit. She caught me looking at those high beams and she stared through me so hard I caught a chill.
No shit, said Steve. It was her eyes freaked me out.
How so? I asked.
She didn’t seem to blink, for one thing. For another, she has this long white scar that starts just above the left eye and disappears into her hair, like somebody tried to damn near cut off the top of her head. And around the other eye, she’s got three small black tattoos, three stars, like her own little constellation.
This was Jude, without question. The physical description was dead on, and I had known her to use the name Jesse Redd when we were on the run in Mexico. Jude had fake passports in a dozen different names. Wendy Sweet. Emma Frye. She liked names that sounded like superhero secret identities. As for the scar above her left eye, she’d acquired that in New Orleans, the same night I came by the massive blow to the head that caused a goodly knot of scar tissue to form in my brain, which may or may not account for the seizures and false visions that developed slow but sure over the past years. And while I’d known Jude to have several tattoos, an eye between her shoulder blades, a Greek symbol on her forearm, and a small dragon on her hip, the stars around her eyes were new. Apparently she’s acquired more ink since I lost her.
The long and short of Rabbit and Steve’s story was about what I expected. Jude was looking for info on the possible whereabouts of their childhood buddies, Shane and Sugar Finch. She was asking nicely, at first. Everybody was getting along. And then Rabbit got a little too fresh with her, and maybe Steve gave her some static about hassling their friends. At which point she handed their asses to them, in exchange for the information that Sugar, which they swore upside down and sideways was his real name as shown on his birth certificate, used to have a girlfriend named Maggie who slung cocktails at a tittie bar called the Painted Lady, in Bakersfield.
I HEADED FOR BAKERSFIELD THAT SAME NIGHT, where I learned that the Painted Lady had burned to the ground almost a year ago. Nobody knew anything about a waitress named Maggie, so I checked into a motel with a bottle of rum and a notion to get drunk and take a three-day nap before I contemplated my next move. I stretched out on the bed with a plastic cup of rum on my belly and stared at my boots. The heels were worn down to nothing.
I flipped on the TV, realizing I couldn’t remember when I last watched a baseball game, the news, or a stupid movie with explosions and chase scenes. I was barely aware who was even president these days, or who we were currently at war with. I surfed around until I came to CNN, which was airing footage of some political block party in Berkeley, where some guy in a suit was giving a speech. His name was MacDonald Cody, and after a while I gathered that he was a senator, recently elected, the prodigal son of a former California governor, Anderson Cody. This younger Cody was talking about jobs, healthcare, the environment, family values; he was covering all the bases. He had a smoke-and-gravel voice and rugged movie-star looks, with a glint of the rogue sparkle in his eye, silver blond hair, nice tan, healthy American teeth, and he looked vaguely familiar to me in that way that a lot of people on the box do. But then he raised his left arm to emphasize a point and I saw that he wore a prosthetic hand, and I popped upright like a half-drunk jack-in-the-box, my stomach in my mouth.
It’s a small world and getting smaller, but the source of my shock was as follows. Not quite six years ago in a brightly lit motel room in Mexico City, I held a sponge and bucket while Jude surgically removed MacDonald Cody’s left hand with an electric saw for twenty-five thousand dollars, paid in advance. We had no idea who he was, at the time. First names were discouraged in such transactions, and for all we knew he was just another sick, rich fuck from the States who’d come south of the border to satisfy his amputation fetish anonymously. Jude had performed a half dozen similar procedures in the space of four months, and this one was nothing special. She wore a clear plastic raincoat while she worked. She cranked up London Calling on a boombox to drown out the noise as she took his hand.
Then, a year or so later. Jude and I had made our way back to the States and landed in New Orleans, and were uneasily adjusting to our re-entry into the atmosphere. One day Jude came home with a funny look on her face. I asked her what was up and she said she had run smack into one of our former customers from Mexico, one of our flipper boys.
Which one? I said.
She shrugged. The handsome one.
That narrows it down.
She poured a glass of wine. As I recall, there were only two I would have called handsome. This one looked like an ex-quarterback.
Did he recognize you?
I think so, yeah. But what difference could it make?
And I had to agree. It was a funny coincidence but one that seemed not to matter. We weren’t going to bother the guy, and it seemed unlikely that he would bother us.
Two days later, four men wearing masks entered our rented French Quarter flat. Jude had gone down to the market to buy limes and salt. She wanted to make margaritas. I was taking a bubble bath, of all things. I was thumbing through a Rolling Stone magazine and smoking a cigarette. I remember the ashes fell into the bubbles like little black snowflakes. I heard the front door open. I heard footsteps that weren’t Jude’s. Voices, low and dangerous. We didn’t have any guns in the apartment, having ditched our gear before flying into Miami, and we hadn’t gotten around to picking up new shit. I got out of the bath, wrapped a towel around my waist. There wasn’t much in the bathroom that could pass for a weapon but the lid of the toilet tank. I picked it up and eased the bathroom door open. I could see two of them, lean fuckers in black masks, with their backs to me. One of them had pushed his mask up over his forehead and was sniffing a pink thong of Jude’s that had been laying on the coffee table since the night before. I swung the heavy tank lid like a baseball bat and hammered the panty sniffer in the small of the spine hard enough to break it. He went down and I thought okay, he’s done. I caught a sideways flash of dark hair and bright eyes, but I was in a hurry and didn’t really study his face. I dropped the tank lid as his partner spun around roaring at me, and I swung what I thought was a pretty nasty punch at his throat, a shot that never hit its target. Instead I felt what I took to be the heavy talons of a massive bird sink into my back, above the shoulder blade, and I went down like a sack of bones. At which point they commenced to kicking me in the head with their boots, and were still kicking me when Jude came home.
I was barely conscious by then, with a fast-seeping hematoma on the brain so profound the doctors later told me it ought to have killed me. I was also bleeding pretty good from the wound in my back, which as it turned out came not from a giant bird, but from the claw end of a hammer. The guy had sunk it in me about as deep as it would go. Anyway, I was dead to the world when Jude returned. I didn’t see anything for a while. And when I started to come out of it, my vision and awareness coming back in splintered flashes, I was strapped into a chair. I reckon they figured they would have plenty of time to kill me later.
Jude was tied to the bed, her clothes bloody and torn to ribbons. I still don’t know how they got the drop on her. And yes, there were three of them, as my guy was down for the count with what I hoped was a shattered tailbone, but I had seen Jude take on three guys at once on more than one occasion. The average hired muscle stood no chance against her, weapons notwithstanding. Jude had been in the Army, special forces. She had spent two years training with an Israeli death squad and she could throttle a mountain lion in a fair fight. But somehow these humps took her down.
She would barely talk about it, later.
They were pros, she said. They were very fast, and very good.
I pieced it together from what she didn’t say, and what little I could remember. The way I figured it, the guy I nailed with the tank lid was the crew leader, and since he was down, the others decided to have some fun with Jude before they killed her. They took off their masks and arrogantly allowed her to see their faces. Two of them were feral white guys with dirty blond hair, thin hard guys built like welterweights who could have been brothers. The other was a silent, muscular black man with shaved head. They tied her facedown on the bed and tortured her, and they took their sweet time about it. They sniffed out that she had a thing for knives, so they cut her. They cut up her feet. They opened up her left arm. They made shallow cuts on her back that I think were meant to look like wings, and they gave her that long curved wound that Rabbit and Steve described, that begins above her eye and wraps halfway around her head.
Then one of the white guys backed off, lit a cigarette. He waved his hand like he was bored with this shit. And his buddy then did the worst thing I could imagine, he did something worse to Jude than just rape her. He knelt on the floor like he was receiving the sacrament and went down on her. He took his sweet time about it, then took off his pants and fucked her proper, grunting as he did so. Jude was silent throughout. She just lay there on her belly, eyes streaming with blood and tears, glittering like two pieces of glass on the beach. When he was finished, his buddy stepped in to have a go. I struggled in my chair, hopeless, slipping in and out of consciousness. These men had come there to kill us, no mistake. You don’t rape and torture somebody like that unless you mean to kill them. And even with a concussion it wasn’t hard to glimmer that they were hired to erase us and thereby protect the identity of the man Jude saw downtown, the one she said looked like an aging quarterback.
Shudder and sigh, five years later.
I was crouched on a rented bed in a shitty motel with a bottle of rum between my knees, and that quarterback was on television, giving a speech. I wondered how his people had spun the story of that prosthetic hand. A wild tale of Mexican banditos, perhaps, a story so wild it had to be true. He had rescued a servant girl from certain death and lost his hand in the process. The brave, sympathetic hero. The shy, handsome California boy who would be king. A story that would start to stink fast if there were even murmurs about amputation as a sexual kick. The Codys had been a proud California family since the gold rush days, boasting a long line of congressmen, state reps, and two governors. And according to the CNN commentator, this MacDonald Cody was now on the short list to be running mate to the Democratic frontrunner for president. Good god, I thought. No wonder they had come for us in New Orleans. And as the camera panned the crowd for reaction shots, I saw her for just a second.
She wore rose-colored wraparound sunglasses and a stylish white designer suit. The jacket was cropped short and the pants rode just a little low on her hips. She looked like a very expensive prostitute or runway model who had borrowed or stolen a trendy lawyer’s clothes for the day. She was watching the handsome senator with the cool detachment of a spider, and just as the camera paused to linger on her she seemed to feel it like the sun on her skin and she turned away.
The next morning, I headed for the nearby Denny’s to get a bite and some coffee while I waited for the next Greyhound north. I took a stab and asked my waitress if she had ever known a girl named Maggie, who used to work at the Painted Lady.
Sure, she said. I know Maggie. She went up to San Francisco after the Lady burned down, got a job at some little bar. She sent me a couple postcards.
That’s nice. Do you remember the name of the bar?
The waitress grinned. It was called Mao’s, like the Chinese dictator. I remember because I used to love those Andy Warhol paintings.
I’M STARING AT THE BACK OF A CAB DRIVER’S NECK. The thing is, I’m not used to being around people. I have been living on the edge of nowhere too long. I’ve been asleep for years, it feels like. My sunburned hands twitch like birds. I crush them together, force them to be still.
This is heavy traffic and nothing more.
Downtown San Francisco, or thereabout. I don’t know the city well, but it looks to be composed of wrong angles. It’s one of those cities where two streets may run parallel for a few blocks, then cross each other. The streets are not to be trusted. I need to relax. I’m an ordinary passenger in an ordinary yellow cab, waiting in traffic. I’m on my way to a hotel called the King James. Upon arriving in San Francisco, I experienced a rare moment of trouble-shooting cool and called a dozen hotels asking for a guest named Jesse Redd until I got a hit. The receptionist who answered the phone was a young girl named Holly, apparently new on the job, and I had managed to flirt with her just enough to wrangle Jesse Redd’s room number out of her.
The mind wanders, forward and back. Jude was never my girlfriend in any conventional sense of the word. I met her in a hotel bar in Denver almost seven years ago, less than a week before Christmas. I had just been released from a state hospital with my head shaved and my emotional infrastructure rewired. I was an ex-cop but my judgment was poor. I mistook Jude for a prostitute and invited her up to my room. She relieved me of all my cash and didn’t give me so much as a handjob in return. I barely copped a feel before the horse tranq she’d slipped me robbed me of my senses. I woke up some twenty-four hours later in a bathtub full of ice, and one of my kidneys was gone. She’d targeted me before I ever walked out of Fort Logan, having helped herself to my med records and shaky psych profile.
It sounds complicated but it amounts to boy meets girl and girl steals his kidney. Boy wants his kidney back. Boy wants to kill girl. Boy catches up with girl and decides he likes her. He just might love her. And so he doesn’t kill her. He becomes her partner, and pretty soon boy and girl get along like two ducks flying high in a washed blue sky. I called her that sometimes, when I was feeling daffy.
Give us a kiss, I’d say. Give us a kiss, duck.
It annoyed the hell out of her. She reached for sharp objects. And eventually those two ducks fell to earth and I found myself in a world of shit, a world where I didn’t think twice about holding sponge and bucket while she amputated a future senator’s hand. Jude and I were together for just over a year.
I remember the strangest things about her. I remember she played with matches when she was nervous or bored, lighting one after another until she burned her fingers. She favored a black raincoat on cloudy days, and wore nothing under it. She liked to flash me in elevators. She trimmed her pubic hair into a narrow, shadowy wing. She had a tendency to bite but never broke the skin. She was a trained killer but still she was afraid of spiders. She brought me ice cream when I was sick, and she spent a lot of money on fantastic hats. Jude never did anything lightly. She could be washing the dishes, making spaghetti sauce, playing a video game, or painting the bathroom red. Or fighting a guy twice her size. She did everything with the same delirious gum-chewing mania. In the bedroom she was reckless, she was all over the map. The sex was exhausting, hilarious, fragile, and scary. And sometimes, as I closed my eyes at night I wondered if she would kill me in my sleep.
I last saw her in New Orleans. Late morning and Jude was brushing her teeth. Blue around the lips. The drone of pipes and ultraviolet light. Her back against the sink. The shadow of wet hair in the mirror, black with traces of chemical red. One arm dangling, she wore a blue shirt unbuttoned. Thighs and belly bright with oil and sun. Trickle of blood down one knee where she had cut herself shaving. Dead flowers in a teacup on the television behind me. I stood in the doorway, on the threshold. I was holding her suitcase, which I’d found in the living room, in one hand. It felt heavy.
What’s this? I said.
Hazy silence. She turned her head, so I could see the pink scar.
I’m leaving you, she said.
Where will you go? I said.
Don’t follow me, she said.
Flicker of hurt in her eyes, like moth’s wings.
You, she said. You disappeared long ago.
The yellow cab heaves to a stop. The slow turn of the driver’s face, white and sickly.
Twenty-two fifty, he says.
This is it, man. The King James Hotel.
I turn to the window, my nose against glass. I am still in San Francisco. The mad shamble of downtown humans. Towers of glass and stone and fingernails of sky, blue and white. Long shadows and swirl of dust and trash. The driver begins to cough and choke without stopping. The slushy noise of ruined lungs. He has emphysema and this actually makes me crave a cigarette, maybe two.
Don’t follow me.
Bittersweet, yes. Pale with sorrow and heartbreak and soft light. Also complete and utter bullshit. That tender farewell bathroom scene is a load of something stinky, it’s bad fiction. The other version, the truthful one, has me living for weeks in the attic above our rented flat in the Quarter. I was busy talking to myself and slowly going bugshit crazy. I was a busy little toad. I was plotting the murder of three men whose proper names I didn’t even know, whose whereabouts were impossible to say. I barely knew what they looked like and I was so far from finding them they might as well have been living on the other side of the sun.
Thoughts of revenge will eat the brain away sure as cancer.
I should have just been happy we were alive. It was a small miracle, really. Four men had entered our apartment. One of them lay crippled on the floor, groaning. The two white guys had raped my woman, savagely. They had finished in under an hour, and now they lounged about, smoking cigarettes. One of them was raiding our liquor cabinet, the other had flopped down on the sofa to watch TV. The black dude was taking off his pants, stopping to fold them carefully. These guys were taking too long, and being very stupid, and I knew that a window was opening. I just wasn’t sure how to climb through that window. I kept blacking out, which scared the shit out of me, because dimly I was aware that I was sporting a serious concussion, and I could feel the blood seeping inside my skull. Each time I blacked out could be my last. And I was tied down so securely, I could barely wiggle my fucking toes. I hoped Jude had an idea about that window. The black man put aside his pants. He rubbed his gleaming skull for luck and lowered himself onto the bed.
Jude opened her eyes. She managed to smile.
Let me use my hands, she said. It will be so much nicer for you.
I was in the hospital for a week. My doctor told me I would have blurred vision for a while. He said that the bleeding around my brain had stopped, that scar tissue would soon form, and that I would likely have headaches the rest of my life. Otherwise, I would recover. He asked if I could identify my attackers, did I want to file a police report. I declined. I asked about Jude, but he shook his head. He knew nothing about the woman who brought me to the ER, only that she had paid my medical tab in full. I went home in a taxi.
The apartment bore no evidence of the attack, not a drop of blood. But then Jude had always been meticulous about cleaning up a crime scene.
Jude was locked in the bedroom. She refused to come out.
I’m going to take the door off the hinges, I said.
Jude didn’t answer me. I went to the kitchen and came back with a hammer and screwdriver. The apartment was ancient and the hinges on the doors had been painted over probably a dozen times. I was starting to knock the pin loose from the bottom hinge when Jude spoke up. She said in a cold voice that I would be sorry if I did that.
Jude, please. Just come out.
Tomorrow, she said. Maybe tomorrow.
But tomorrow came and went and Jude didn’t come out. She wasn’t starving herself or anything. She was just avoiding me. Now and then I found a bowl in the sink, a spoon.
Okay, I thought.
Jude didn’t want to be seen and she didn’t want to talk. She didn’t want to be loved or touched or comforted. I could have tried. I should have. But guilt is a terrible bedfellow and maybe I was afraid to look at her. I told myself she would come to me when she wanted comfort. I shut myself in the attic room with a laptop and searched the Net for three men who may well not have existed, and for the flipper boy who’d hired them.
I searched for just three men, because the black man with shaved skull had unwisely succumbed to Jude’s offer, perhaps thinking he would get a blowjob out of the deal, and untied her hands. Maybe he was just stupid. Maybe he didn’t know how dangerous she was. Whatever the reason, he had complied and Jude had run her hands seductively up his chest as she kissed him, pulling him close. She promptly bit off most of his nose and upper lip, wrenching her jaws so violently that I actually heard the flesh rip from his face. Then she snapped his neck. The two white guys looked at each other and said fuck this, and disappeared like vapor, while Jude was untying her feet. She could have easily killed their crew leader, the one I’d disabled with the toilet lid, but didn’t. She barely looked at him, in fact. She stepped gingerly around the man, almost as if she were afraid of him, and came to me. Maybe she was in a hurry to cut me loose and take me to the hospital. Either way, the chance was lost, because when she returned, he was gone. The white guys had come back for their leader, apparently, because the faceless body of the black dude was gone as well.
Pretty soon I was on a shitload of painkillers and I had started using crystal meth to stay awake and for me it was always too easy to go mad. It was like rolling out of bed. I didn’t speak to Jude for days, maybe weeks, and anyway she never came out of her room. I saw her a few times, though. I saw her reflection in the window, a dusty flash of her in the glass. I saw her behind me on the stairs once, naked and descending like a wraith but when I turned to look for her she wasn’t there. The speed was getting to me and my brain wasn’t right. The phone was long dead but I ripped the cords out of the walls anyway. I removed the bulbs from all the lamps. I carried the screwdriver everywhere I went. I didn’t eat or sleep and before you could say Howdy Doody, I had gone over the wall to crazy land. I was limping around the apartment at night, pouring sweat and muttering.
One morning, the bedroom door was open. I went in to ask Jude if she was hungry but she was gone. The bed was stripped bare and there was a splash of red in the center of the mattress. It wasn’t a lot of blood at all but it scared me. I thought she had killed herself and started looking around for her body. I came out of the bedroom and there she was, sitting at the kitchen table. Jude wore sweatpants and a jean jacket buttoned to the throat even though it was not cold. Her posture was very straight. I sat down across from her and put the screwdriver on the table. I could smell myself and it wasn’t a good smell. I was wearing white pants for some reason, and nothing else. I was hungry and I felt like I was coming back to the world.
Hey, I said.
I just came from the clinic, she said.
Are you okay?
No. I’m pregnant.
Shit, she said.
Eight weeks. She lit a cigarette and immediately put it out.
Bad for the baby, she muttered. Her hand was trembling and she made a fist. I wanted to say that everything was okay, that we were together and everything was okay but it was almost impossible to conceive of Jude pregnant, Jude a mother, and finally my brain kicked in like a radio that only works on rainy days because rats have been chewing the wires. That blood on the bed was something to worry about yes but there was something else, wasn’t there. But I couldn’t bring myself to say anything.
The attack was exactly eight weeks ago, she said.
And we, I said. We had sex that morning, and the night before. I remember because the phone kept ringing and you threw the portable out the window.
Jude half smiled. That’s right.
We didn’t use a condom, I said.
No, she said. But you withdrew.
And they didn’t, I said. Did they?
Jude sighed. She said that she was tired.
Look, I said. It’s okay. We’re gonna be okay.
Jude shook her head. No, we’re not.
She went to take a nap and when I went to check on her, she said she wanted to be alone. I tried to pull myself together. I got myself cleaned up and went to the grocery store, numbly thinking that she would need things like chicken soup and milk and ice cream and bottled water because even if she was going to get an abortion she would need to eat. I wasn’t too rational. I hadn’t been out of the apartment in almost a month and my vision was still blurry and when I came back to the apartment Jude was gone. She was just gone. I went out and bought a shotgun, and waited as long as I could stand it, maybe a month. I was hoping the men would come back to finish the job. But they never did and I realized Jude was probably hunting them, and maybe she’d already found them, and after a while the silence of the apartment and the springtime stink of the Quarter had driven me half crazy, and I decided Jude wasn’t coming back. I got on a bus and headed back to Denver, where I plunged myself into an altogether different nightmare. But that’s another story.
I’m still sitting in a yellow cab outside the King James Hotel. The driver is waiting for his money. I reach into my pocket and find the wallet I took off the dead man in the alley. I flip it open to find a wad of small bills, maybe ninety bucks. No credit cards. Driver’s licenses from five states. The same blond hair and silvery eyes with five different names, and if the IDs are fakes, they are well crafted. I study his face for half a tick. Thin, intelligent, fierce, hard as the underside of your boot. The Nevada license, expired, is the only one that bears his Christian name, Sugar Jefferson Finch. This was one of the dogs Jude was hunting. This was one of the men who attacked us in New Orleans, one of the savage fucks who raped her, and I saved his life today. I wonder if he was the one who took me down with that hammer, and I feel sick.
Furious and sick.
The dead man in the alley was presumably his kid brother, also known as Shane. Tucked into Sugar’s wallet is a book of matches from the Alamo Hotel, with a phone number scribbled on the inside. Might be a long shot, might be an easy ground ball, hit right at me. The cab’s radio crackles with the dispatcher’s voice, and now my driver turns around to favor me with his gray fleshy face, mottled with a pink rash.
What’s it gonna be, pal? In or out.
You know a place called the Alamo?
The driver grunts. Big drop-off from the James to the Alamo.
That’s cool. Is it far?
The Alamo is strictly Section Eight. Peeling paint and the stink of mildew and a humming death vibe. The lobby is a narrow brown tomb, the walls painted the color of shit. I hate to generalize, but if I was looking to kill myself in a cheap coldwater garret where none of my neighbors are gonna say boo, this is the place. The receptionist is a guy watching TV behind a chickenwire cage. The house rates are scrawled on a blackboard behind his head, which is shaved smooth as my ass and covered in fine, intricate tattoos. I step up to the cage and the guy growls at me, jerks his fascinating skull at the blackboard. I glance at the board just long enough to register the notion that a bed in this shithole may be rented by the hour for the kingly ransom of ten dollars.
I’m not interested in a room, I say.
You a cop?
I’m looking for a buddy of mine, Sugar Finch.
The skull gives me a long look, and apparently decides I am just unsavory enough to indeed be pals with a piece of shit like this Sugar Finch.
He’s in room 39, third floor.
You know if he’s in?
Think I saw him, yeah.
Don’t buzz him, okay. I want to surprise him.
Buzz him? Shit man, you think we got phones in the rooms?
I take the gummy wet stairs up to the third floor, my steps echoing soft. The fire door opens onto a long windowless hallway with rancid gray carpet and gray walls streaked with water damage. The air is funky in the Alamo. I cruise silent down the hall and find the door marked 39, keep going. Communal toilet at the opposite end, which accounts for some of the funk. I retrace my steps to the fire door. On the wall to my left is a fuse box. I flip it open and take out my knife; what I aim to do deserves the cover of darkness.
I shove my knife into the control panel and twist. The hall lights blink once, and go black. It’s just like being inside my head. Dark, with lingering echoes and the faint stink of mildew. I touch one hand to the wall and stealth-walk along to 39. Trouble is I’m not much of a killer. The fact is, I’ve never killed anybody, not on purpose. I’ve wanted to, plenty of times, but always stopped short. It’s just not part of my wiring. Now I’m in a dark hallway, maybe twenty-five feet from one of the men who raped Jude, and I don’t quite know what I’m going to do. I may suffer mind-ripping headaches all the time, and with them apocalyptic visions, but I can’t discern the future.
The best I can imagine is disappearing into the shadows along the wall. In a minute, Sugar Finch will come out of the room nervous and freaked by the power failure. It would be the easiest thing in the world to sweep his legs out from under him, to fall like a cat onto his chest, to slash open his throat before he even cries out. Easy as cake to imagine, damn near impossible to see myself doing it. Now the door to 39 opens cool as a whisper and I fade against the wall.
THE KING JAMES HOTEL IS STRICTLY OLD WORLD. I limp into the lobby, still shaken. A silent valet in an elegant green uniform comes forward to take my bag, a shapeless leather pouch that holds my toothbrush and what remains of my wardrobe. I shake my head and mutter that I’m not feeble. The valet tips his cap, flashes me a ghostly smile. I give him five dollars, because I believe in big tips and because I don’t necessarily want him to notice that I’ve just had my ass kicked good and proper.
The valet is young and thin with dark circles under blue eyes.
What’s your name? I say.
Jeremy, sir. I’m here until midnight.
I have a bad hangover, Jeremy. What do you recommend?
He shrugs. Vanilla milkshake with a shot of espresso and splash of brandy.
That sounds perfect.
Your room number, sir?
I glance at the scrap of paper on which I’ve written Jude’s room number.
My name is Poe. I’m in room 1221.
The kid blushes at the mention of this number and I gather he’s met Jude. This makes me smile. Jude was always very sweet to grocery clerks and postmen. I give the kid another five and he says the milkshake is already on its way.
The elevator rises slow and dreamy. I use the time to pull myself together. Take a few deep breaths to slow the pulse, examine the shoes for dog shit. Look in the mirror, check my face for spattered blood. Polish the teeth with my shirtsleeve and hope my breath is not too poisonous. I slap my face for a touch of color. Drag the fingers through my hair and sniff the clothes. Tobacco and vodka and unwashed Phineas. I stare at my hands, which tremble. I tell myself that everything is right as rain. Only now do I allow the video drone in my head to replay the unhappy meeting I just had with Sugar Finch.
On the third floor of the Alamo I had disappeared into the shadows, soft and velvet. A fire alarm sounded, a low-pressure slow burning grind that hit you in the spine and made every molecule in you beg to get the fuck out of there. I waited, though. I was gonna kill this guy. I didn’t know how. I imagined he would be running when he came out of the room and I was going to sweep his legs, take him down the way Jude taught me. Then disable him with a punch to the throat and figure out how to stop his heart beating. Maybe I would ram my thumbs into his eyes and just keep digging until I struck gold, until I scooped out brain matter. But when he came out of room 39, Sugar Finch wasn’t running. He was walking, right at me. Like he knew I was there, like the motherfucker could see me plain as day. I went low and tried to sweep his legs but it was a joke. He was way too fast and he jumped right at me. He was on top of me like a spider on a moth, his hand on my throat.
He leaned close and said, I remember you. You saved my life today. I won’t forget that. But come to my house even once more and you won’t walk again.
He stood up, yanking me to my feet. I could barely breathe.
I remember your girl too, he said. That pussy tasted just like sunshine. He grinned, and licked his teeth. I should have kissed you goodbye that day, you could have tasted her on my mouth.
Then he was gone, blowing away easy as smoke.
Now the elevator groans and the doors open on the twelfth floor of the King James.
The hallway before me is silent. Blue and comforting. The light is soft and there are no shadows. Hum of a faraway ice machine. Lush carpet underfoot, dark as midnight with random flowers and triangles of pink and gold. And so soft that my footsteps are a whisper. I could fall over dead and the carpet would swallow the noise and this is why I love hotels. Two a.m. and two p.m. are interchangeable. The light is ever gentle. There is always ice to be had and a body may hit the floor without disturbing anyone. The room numbers descend to the left and I move along in search of 1221, the fingers of my right hand trailing down the wall behind me. The hall twists and turns and intersects itself more than I feel is necessary, and I wonder if the rooms come in unusual shapes and sizes. I am soon lost down a narrow tributary and the numbers are pissing me off. They irrationally grow larger on one side and smaller on the other. I pass 1217, 1219 and stop. Blue midnight stretches before and behind me. Traces of pink and gold and the underwater light of dreams.
The door to 1221 is cracked open. Not a mistake Jude would generally make, not in this life or the next. I push it open ever so gentle, and still there is a soft hiss of escaping air, as if I have just opened the hatch of a spaceship. The room is five degrees colder than the hallway and completely fucking dark. The door closes softly behind me and I’m blind as an underground beast.
Exhale and wonder.
The brain of your average human male is damp and slippery and the descent into adolescent fantasy is as casual as falling off a log. I turn on the light and Jude is naked and blue on the bathroom floor, a plastic bag over her head. I turn on the light and Jude is lounging on a puffy white bed in black leather pants and nothing else. Tangle of wet black hair on white pillows twisting like snakes and the pants are so tight they will have to be peeled from her skin. I turn on the light and Jude stands an arm’s length away, a straight razor in one hand. She wears dark sunglasses and a glossy red raincoat that won’t show blood.
I turn on the light and the room is empty.
Make a fast sweep through the entire space, which is big enough to house a small army, to be sure. I take a pass through the bathroom. Nightmares and bad blood be damned. Black tile and three walls of mirrors. The shower is a dark chamber behind pale green glass, empty. The tub is sunken into the floor. There is a bidet, which pleases me somehow and I smile into three mirrors at once. There is an antique cosmetics bag on the edge of the marble sink, black leather with silver clasp. The only other sign of her presence is a fine black streak of fecal matter on the slope of the toilet bowl.
Taped to the bathroom wall are three photographs, bright color shots taken with a telephoto, blown up to eight by ten. By the angles, I’d guess she shot these from high above. I see Jude on a rooftop, crouched like a sniper and wonder why she didn’t just kill them when she had them in her sights. And a voice in my head says, because that wouldn’t have been so up close and personal as an intimate scalping. I focus on the three faces, three monsters. Two of them are Shane and Sugar Finch. Their names, birthdates, Socials, tattoos, and distinctive marks are written in fine black ink along the borders, like delicate marginalia. The third photo is a guy with dark hair and blue eyes flecked with black, like turquoise in the sun. The name is John Ransom Miller. Five foot nine, one seventy. No Social, no distinguishing marks. D.O.B. is 11.02.59. Blink and I’m back in our flat in the Quarter. I see John Ransom Miller sprawled on the floor. This is the guy I crippled with that toilet tank lid. I wonder if he’s up and walking again. Maybe he’s in a chair.
Scrawled on the mirror above the sink, in brown lipstick, are five words. The velvet warms and binds.
The trouble is I don’t know the frame of reference, the context.
Jude always loved the word. She tossed it around like spare change and it had more than one meaning to her. In friendly conversation, the velvet may simply be defined as twilight. The gloaming. The velvet was telephone code for heroin. I had often heard Jude refer to her pussy as the velvet. And the velvet was used metaphysically to refer to the subconscious, to childhood memories. For Jude, velvet was the lost time of alien abductions. Velvet was euphoria and dread. Velvet was a perfectly good word, but one that always troubled me.
To my mind, the velvet is best translated as the sleep that resembles death. Velvet is the sleep that becomes death.
Outside of the bathroom proper is a vanity area with mirror and sink that serves as the bar. I reach for an open bottle of Jack Daniels and take small contemplative sips from it as I survey the room. The windows are blotted out by heavy curtains the color of smoke that fall from ceiling to floor. The sun may as well not exist. The sun has no hope in this room, and again it could be day or night. The television and refrigerator are tastefully housed inside an armoire. The carpet is the pale fleshy pink of a monster’s tongue and the walls are painted red.
Two queen beds, one of them stripped bare.
The exposed mattress is yellow with pale gray stripes and a bright red bloom near the middle that looks like fresh blood but is actually a pair of red silk underpants and now I feel a faraway surge of nausea tinged with memory. My head is fucking with me. The other bed is covered in a white quilt with splashes of blue flowers and looks as if it has not been touched since the housekeepers left it.
Along the far wall are two Beowulf chairs and a curved glass coffee table the shape of a teardrop, beneath which are two curious blue sneakers with orange stripes. Jude does not wear sneakers, as far as I know. I try to imagine her jogging along a bike path in sweatpants and sports bra and it just doesn’t work for me.
The cracked leather pouch still hangs around my neck as if I’m afraid someone might steal my toothbrush. I shrug it to the floor and kick it into a corner. I lift the bottle to my lips and commence to take another, longer drink of whiskey.
Jude blows softly on the back of my neck as she walks past and I nearly jump out of my skin.
Drinking from the bottle, she says. What would your mother think?
I choke and spit and manage not to bite off a mouthful of glass. I turn around slow as blood clotting, my eyes shut tight. Five years since the attack and in my head her face is still terribly swollen and bruised. The skin is black in some places and her left eye is drifting loose in the socket. I open my eyes and her face is perfect but for the pale narrow scar that nearly blinded her, that left a notch in her right eyebrow and now runs almost parallel with the worry lines in her forehead and disappears into her gold and brown hair.
Jesus, I say. Have a little mercy.
Mercy, she says. Mercy?
Compassion, I say.
Huh, she says. Any relation to the word merchandise?
The same Latin root, I say. I will give you this fine pig and ten sacks of grain if you spare my miserable life.
I thought you liked being miserable, she says.
Her hair is damp and longer than I remember. Her mouth is unchanged, the round lush lips with a tiny scar at one corner, where her boyfriend hit her with a rock as a kid. She wears a tight lime green shirt with no sleeves. The shadow and distraction of ribs and muscle and nipple. She’s had her bellybutton pierced since I last saw her. She wears blue jeans too big for her, that hang well below the hip. Barefoot, she is perhaps two inches shorter than I am but it’s hard to be sure because she rarely stands still. I’m dizzy, looking at her. The air between us is bright with sparks, like there’s static electricity coming from her skin. I have an urge to back away from her and I tell myself not to be silly.
She reaches to touch my face and I flinch away.
There is a brief, heavy silence. Jude stares at me, not smiling.
I open my mouth and she leaps on me like a cat. I drop the bottle and we fall to the bed, struggling. Jude was always very strong and she enjoyed violent foreplay but she’s not laughing, her eyes are shining with something that resembles desire but isn’t and when I try to kiss her, she moves her head and sinks her teeth lightly into my throat. I throw her to the floor and roll away. My hand goes to my neck and I am fairly surprised to see that she has actually drawn blood.
Jude breathes heavily, grinning at me.
What the fuck, Jude?
Her eyes are wild and manic, pupils big as marbles. Jude rarely touched drugs when we were together but I can see she is extremely high, almost vibrating. She shrugs and picks up the fallen bottle of Jack, most of which has seeped into the fleshy carpet. She takes a highball glass from the dresser and empties the bottle into it.
Mind if we share? she says. It’s the only clean glass.
I AM SITTING ON THE NAKED YELLOW MATTRESS, numb and staring at Jude with my mouth open like a mental patient in front of the television. My throat is bleeding and I think maybe I should look at it. I go to the sink and run cold water over a washcloth, cocking my head sideways to examine the wound. The skin is broken and there will be a bruise but it’s not bleeding so badly. Jude paces back and forth and now she appears in the mirror behind me. I notice that she is grinding her teeth, sucking at her tongue. The voice in my head keeps muttering that she’s high, that I have no idea what’s been happening to her these years, that I should be gentle with her.
What are you on, baby?
Nothing, she says. I’m happy.
I saw you today, I say. In the alley.
That was you?
Jude backs away from me. Her eyes fall on the mirror and she spins away from it, lifts the whiskey to her mouth. I can hear her teeth chattering against the glass. I stand and take the drink from her. I could put my arms around her. I could try. I remember lying in bed with her like it was yesterday. Her flesh sticking together with mine in a hot room and white sheets flung to the floor. Jude always wanted to be touched. But now she’s volatile, untouchable. Jude has become an unknown compound.
Whoa, I say. Don’t freak.
How did you find me? she says.
Doesn’t matter, does it?
I’ve been tracking you, feels like forever. Finally landed in Flagstaff, where I talked to a couple guys named Rabbit and Steve.
Her eyes flicker dark. How were they?
She nods. I felt bad about that.
I’m not the same, she says. Not the same as you knew me.
She scowls. Everything, my heart. My head.
Come on, I say. From the look of that guy in the alley, his eyes gouged out and missing his hair, I’d say you’ve reverted perfectly to form.
It’s impossible, isn’t it? For a man to imagine what it’s like.
I’ve tried, Jude. I’ve spent five years trying.
And you’ll never get it.
There is a soft knock at the door and Jude has a gun in her hand before I can blink.
Expecting someone? she says.
I ordered a milkshake, I say.
Rustle and sigh and dead leaves falling.
How boyish, she says.
Jude bends close to me and slips the gun under the mattress, the back of her hand just touching my leg. Our eyes crash together.
What have you become? I say.
Very careful, she says.
Jude goes to the door and I am alone for a moment. Breathe and release. Two minutes in this room and she is well under my skin. That’s the trouble with the human body. My ex-girlfriend is armed and dangerous, and I have an erection. This is how people wind up on afternoon talk shows. Blood rush and I stand up, cross the room on stiff legs. I pick up one of the blue sneakers and turn it over in my hands. Size 9, a man’s shoe. Jude wears a woman’s 7. I lift the sneaker to my face and it smells new. I turn around as Jude returns with a silver room service tray. Thick milkshake in tall glass and stainless steel beaker. She places the tray on the coffee table and crouches there, not smiling. I watch as she lifts the milkshake to her mouth, then swabs the white cream from her dark lips.
How is it? I say.
I sink into one of the Beowulf chairs and let the sneaker fall from my hand.
Who is the runner?
Jude stares. Friend of mine, she says.
Does he have a name?
Jude sips the whiskey.
I tell myself not to push. I watch her throat move. She sits on the bed beside me, our hands not quite touching. The yellow mattress is a dirty lemon sky between us. Jude sinks back into that sky, her hair dark as seaweed. She balances the drink on her tummy and a lazy smile drifts across her face and disappears as if chased away by memory. I hesitate, then lie down beside her. Together we stare at the ceiling like two kids looking for reptiles in the clouds. We are surrounded by the sky.
I’m glad to see you, I say.
I’m not ready to have sex with you, she says.
Who said anything about sex?
I just want to be clear, she says.
Okay, she says.
This is a nice room, I say.
Jude looks around. It’s obscene, she says.
How are you paying for it?
Don’t be rude, she says.
What are we doing here, then?
There is a long silence.
Jude swallows the last of the whiskey and allows her arm to fall lifeless on the bed. She closes her eyes and stops breathing for a moment and I remember a fetish of hers that I never much cared for. Once in a while, Jude liked to pretend she was dead while I fucked her, a beautiful dead girl. The glass rolls out of her hand and across the mattress. She sits up and slowly turns her doll’s head around to stare at me. Her eyes are glowing and suddenly I don’t recognize her at all. I feel my body go tense.
I found them, she says. The three of them.
Yes. I saw the photos in the bathroom.
She sits up and lights a smoke. Handsome, aren’t they?
Now there are two, I say.
Yes, she says.
What will we do with them?
Kill them, she says. Slow and careful.
The silence in the room is like copper in my mouth.
I followed the brother, I say. Today, after that scene in the alley.
Sugar Finch? she says.
Yeah, I say.
Don’t you love that name? she says, bitterly.
I love it.
Where to? she says.
A hotel called the Alamo.
I had him. Then lost him. He’s dangerous.
That’s okay, she says. It will be nicer to kill him together.
I hope so, I say.
Jude glances at her watch and sucks in her breath.
We’re gonna be late, she says.
The fuck. Late for what?
Jude doesn’t look at me.
Where are we going?
She touches her mouth with two fingers barely trembling and I remember how she used to sink into these funky silences just before she was about to lie to me.
Shopping, she says. I need a new pair of shoes.
I stare at her, wondering if she knows how psychotic she sounds.
Jude smiles. Come on. Your baby needs a new pair of shoes.
There follows a strange hazy almost domestic moment as Jude and I gather ourselves and prepare to go out. She touches up her makeup. I give my shoes a fast polish with spit and a washcloth. I brush my teeth, washing away the taste of booze and smoke. Jude examines my face the way she used to, checking my skin for blemishes. Our faces close together, sharing the same air. I can almost taste her smoky lips. I can feel the burn of her eyes as she takes care of a blackhead for me, and all the while the words your baby ring in the air.
I have to ask, Jude.
Did you have the baby?
She kisses my left eye. What do you think?
DOWN TO THE SURFACE IN A HUMMING BOX and the elevator game resumes between us as if we have not been apart more than a day. Jude stands on the far side of the box, rocking slightly back and forth and cleaning her fingernails with the edge of a key. She is the only woman I know who can clean her nails and give the impression that she is stripping down an assault rifle. I slouch on the far wall and stare rudely at her. The elevator game has two rules: Jude and I are strangers and we must stand on opposite sides of the box, no matter how crowded. Otherwise we are free to stare and flirt openly, to speak or not speak.
The elevator shivers and stops on the ninth floor.
A man and woman get on, a married couple in their sixties. The man has gray hair almost blue. Black wool overcoat. The woman wears a string of pearls and her face is stretched and glossy with Botox and plastic surgery. I imagine she has a poodle at home, and a hired dogwalker. The two of them smile and nod and move to the back wall but I can’t acknowledge them because I am staring at Jude, who stands with her eyes closed and her arms crossed over her breasts. She is trembling slightly. Her eyes seem brighter, perhaps because her face has gone pale. I don’t know if this is arousal or anger or what and I think it might be terrifying if there were a blackout right now and the elevator stopped between floors.
I would not be afraid for myself, but for them. Because I have a feeling that Jude might do something well north of freaky.
What the fuck are you staring at? Jude says softly, to me.
The old woman with altered face is so visibly uncomfortable I’m afraid she might pee on herself.
Nothing, I say. I’m sorry.
The game is over when one of us apologizes. Jude comes close to me and I can smell her. Oranges and musk. I am intensely aware of her every bone and muscle, her small round breasts. Her long, volatile throat and dark eyes. The old guy to my left is making damp, fleshy noises in his throat and shifting on his feet. Jude looks at him, smiles sweetly.
This world, she says. Then the fireworks.
Pardon? the old man says.
Jude turns to me.
Empty your pockets, she says.
Ah, says the old man. Excuse me.
Jude’s left hand snakes out and touches the emergency stop button. The elevator heaves mightily and stops between floors.
What’s going on?
Impromptu theater, she says.
Let these people go. They don’t need to be here.
No one is going anywhere, she says.
Please, says the old woman. Please. I have asthma.
Jude pokes her index finger into her mouth and slowly withdraws it, staring at me with lazy eyes.
Asthma, says the woman.
Her husband makes a clucking sound and she slumps against him. He puts his arm around her and pats her shoulder.
Well? says Jude.
I thought you weren’t ready for sex, I say.
Jude grunts. A blowjob is not sex. It’s a favor, a service.
That’s great. Let them go.
No, she says. Empty your fucking pockets.
The old guy sniffs. Think you better empty your pockets, son.
I crouch and empty my pockets onto the floor. There isn’t much. A clump of money, two hundred dollars or so. A half pack of cigarettes, a book of matches. Pocket knife. The key to Jude’s hotel room. Sugar Finch’s wallet, thin and useless. Jude takes it all, putting everything in her bag. She counts the money, then puts it away too.
Having fun? I say.
Not yet, she says.
The growl of a zipper and now Jude gives me something in return. The gun she was waving about before, the little black automatic, a Walther P22.
What is this? I say.
It’s a gun, sweetie. Do you like it?
I turn it over and over in my hands. Black steel under fluorescent light. The gun fits nicely in my palm. To my left, the old woman is breathing like a wounded horse and I think she’s going to have a heart attack. I run a hand through my hair and it comes away wet.
Do you like it? says Jude.
Yes, I say. It’s very nice. Why are you giving it to me?
Jude shrugs. Would you rather lie around that hotel room and wait for the world to end?
I stare at her. Would I rather lie around the hotel room waiting for the world to end than what?
This is about the old man, she whispers.
What about him?
He’s a molester.
Please, I say.
Look at him, she says. Look at him.
I glance to my left and imagine the old guy down on his knees. Eyes pink and streaming. The old man has manicured hands, immaculate clothes. He doesn’t look like a molester but then they never do. I see a hole in his forehead the size of a quarter.
What are you looking at, sir? says the old man in a quavering voice.
Do you have an erection? Jude says, to me.
Jesus. This isn’t funny, Jude.
Do you? she says.
I touch myself. This level of public intimacy is like waking up covered in sweat.
Well? she says.
Like a dead bird, I say.
Jude sighs. Maybe you should consider therapy.
Are you going to shoot the old man? she says.
He’s not a molester, I say.
There’s no way of knowing that, she says. Maybe the wife knows.
The old woman begins to weep. Jude folds her arms across her chest and stares at me.
And if I say no?
Then I might just kiss you goodbye, she says. You could find yourself walking out of here with the clothes you are wearing, a pack of cigarettes and a gun. I imagine you are resourceful enough to find your way home.
I don’t have a home.
Jude sighs. It’s a figure of speech.
The old woman continues to weep. The sound is like that of a radio stuck between two stations. I look at the gun in my hand. I wouldn’t care to hitchhike back to Flagstaff. There is a lot of desert between here and there and the sun would be unfriendly. I could possibly carjack a tourist and rob a few convenience stores for cash and food. But I would most likely get shot by a kid with pimples and a plastic name-tag and besides, I just got here. I lift the gun. I touch it to Jude’s head, gently. The old man groans.
I want my money back, I say.
Jude yawns. What?
The money. I’m going to need it for incidentals.
Incidentals? she says.
Taxicabs, I say. Food and drink. More than one drink.
No, she says. I want this to be difficult for you.
Believe me. It hasn’t been easy so far.
Jude shrugs. She hits the emergency button and the elevator resumes its slow fall, stopping again on the fifth floor. The old man and his wife get off without a word. No one gets on. I slump against the wall with the gun in my hand. I am soaked with sweat.
Jude nods at the gun. You might want to put that away.
What was that shit about fireworks?
It’s a short story by Jim Thompson, she says. It’s about incest.
Outside and everything is pale and strange. I stand on the sidewalk, blinking. The gun is heavy in my pocket. It seems like forever ago, but Jude gave me two fat lines of coke before we left the room and my skull feels stretched thin. I breathe air that doesn’t stink of fear. Jude walks away and I’m not ready to follow just yet. Jeremy the doorman watches me, a withered smile on his face. He comes over and offers me a cigarette.
Thanks, I say.
Familiarity breeds contempt, he says. Am I right?
Your wife there, he says. She’s pure hell on wheels, no shit. But sometimes a man needs a change of scenery.
I sigh, weary. She’s not my wife. And get the fuck away from me.
He shrugs and slips me a card. The Paradise, he says. You won’t recognize your own dick when you come out of there.
Jude is disappearing in the distance. I look at Jeremy. He smiles at me, as if he’s my buddy. My new pal. I can see the traffic and bobbing faces around us but there is an internal vacuum, an absence of noise. The sunlight is rosy. The sunlight is meaty, bloody. This is the moment before the gunfight in a movie. I tend to get squeamish in crowds but everyone is fluid, perfect. Everyone cruises along in his or her own bubble and I wonder if today is a holiday. I take the gun out of my pocket and Jeremy takes a step back. I try to imagine how his face would change if a bullet ripped through his abdomen.
I can’t see it, yet.
Jude pushes through the heavy glass doors of Nieman Marcus. I follow her and regret it immediately. The ceiling is fifty feet above the floor and composed of elaborate gold and white stained glass, like the roof of a cathedral. I tell myself not to look up again, unless I want to vomit in public.
These posh fucking stores.
They always have a grinning torturer standing just inside the doors, a guy whose job it is to greet you with white teeth and cool, appraising eyes. I am about to dodge away from him but Jude gives him a mercurial nod and he just melts away. She glides to the first exhibit and pretends to examine an array of hairy sweaters. I come up behind her, breathing like a pervert. I violate her space.
Dead cats, I say. They look like dead cats.
Jude doesn’t look at me, she doesn’t even tilt her head.
Keep walking, she says. Pretend you don’t know me and whatever you do, do not call me Jude.
What should I call you?
I’m going to count to three, says Jude.
I touch her shoulder and she spins around.
You will fucking talk to me, I say.
She smiles, harshly. What’s the matter?
Everything, I say. Why did you run that scene in the elevator?
Instinct, she says. It felt right.
What was it about them?
You saw that woman, didn’t you? Her face, her plastic fucking face. She went under the knife for him because she wasn’t pretty anymore.
Jesus, I whisper. That was about your face?
Keep walking, she says. Pretend you don’t know me or I will start screaming.
I try to be cool. I try not to blink but I have a bad mixture of junk and fear and confusion in me. I try to imagine how Jude feels, how it would feel to be a woman raped and mutilated. She is still stupidly beautiful, to my mind. Men and women alike still turn to look at her on the street, but that curved white scar above her eyes may be the only thing she sees when she looks in the mirror. Try as I might, though, I can’t feel what she feels. The bitter shame, the hatred of self. Irrational or not. My brain is heavy with bad water and my heart is actually chirping. I’ve got crickets in there. That coke she gave me was some kind of uncut Bolivian rock, nasty stuff. I don’t know where her money is coming from but she apparently has plenty of it.
Anyway, she told me to be cool and I don’t feel cool at all.
I mutter something incoherent and totter off to look at a display case of men’s watches, as if I might buy a Rolex. And when I look around, she’s gone.
Freak out. Phineas gonna freak out.
I don’t function so well in these high-dollar department stores. The problem is comprehension, identity, sensory deprivation. I have muddy vision. Brown beige gray black. Everyone in the store is narrowly focused on some unseen prize. Everyone is looking for salvation. If they find the right pair of shoes or the perfect new raincoat they will be saved for an hour, for a day. I can’t see the big picture and so I walk in circles. I get lost. I’m fearful of the salespeople. They lean against marble columns, mute and faceless, pods recharging and when they lay eyes on me they will detach themselves from their stations and come forward with teeth bared.
Can I help you can I help you? Are you okay? they say.
No, I say. I’m only looking. I’m looking for something but I don’t know what.
I don’t understand the layout of the fucking store. The clothes are arranged without regard to season or function. The prices are hidden from sight and it’s certainly shameful to ask. There are too many shoes by far and the suits just frighten me. I contemplate a new pair of pants but can’t bear to try them on. I’m afraid someone will come to the dressing room door while I’m wriggling out of my old pants, sweating, fumbling with a knot in my shoelaces.
The polite knock, the hushed voice. Are you quite all right in there, sir?
It’s brutal. The dressing rooms have become these new world torture chambers. I like to ride the escalators, though. The slow freefall, the mirrors. The escalators go up and down, up and down. I have these childlike fantasies that I am secretly a rubber-limbed superhero who can slide through keyholes and I don’t have to get off the escalator, that I can disappear in the crack between escalator and marble floor and get a brief glimpse of the afterlife below that resembles the dark, stinking hold of a slave ship. I try not to stare at anyone and I successfully disembark before security decides I’m a nutbag.
Eventually I break down and ask someone where women’s shoes might be.
JUDE SITS IN A BLACK LEATHER CHAIR WITH CHROME ARMRESTS. Legs crossed. She is thin as a spider and she has taken her boots off, her socks. Her naked left foot bouncing. I see a yellow flower in the rain. I lean against a far wall between opposing racks of jackets and watch her. She flashes from psychotic to fragile so fast it’s like watching a strobe light. I don’t know what to do about her, honestly.
Follow her, play the game.
Or walk away and pretend I don’t know her. Tell myself I never loved her.
I stare at her like I want to take her skull off. I put out a fearsome sexual vibe but she doesn’t seem to notice. A salesman with red bowtie and receding hair approaches her, his face faintly flushed. Four shoeboxes in hand. He kneels like a zealot and takes her foot in his hand. Jude’s lips move but I can’t read them. The salesman touches the curve of her foot, the instep. Her eyebrows twitch and from across the room I can see the man’s hands are shaking. I imagine she has said something innocent about male pattern baldness, about men who wear bowties in public and how such men secretly want to be whipped by a woman in leather. She may have said something about his chapped lips or the sorry hygiene of his fingernails. She may have offered to suck his cock. Whatever it was, she touched a bone. Jude loves to touch a bone. The salesman fits her with a pair of green velvet stilettos and Jude stands, she turns a circle and takes a few experimental steps. She’s looking for a mirror and she walks right past me, her right hand brushing against my thigh. I close my eyes and now I hear a man’s voice, a voice full of smoke and money.
Very nice, he says. You have beautiful feet.
I open my eyes. Jude is standing before one of those low mirrors, her legs cut off at the knee. Her legs float away from her body and the green shoes seem to sparkle. She does have beautiful feet and a lifetime ago, I spent a lot of time biting and sucking at them. Jude ignores the man who spoke to her but I take a good long look at him. White male, thoroughbred. Expensive education, manicured face and hands. He holds a long black umbrella in his right hand. He has an arrogant mouth and I’m sure his teeth are perfect. Probably in his middle forties and he looks better than me. He wears a charcoal suit, elegantly cut. Dark gray shirt buttoned to the throat and no tie. Fine black hair shining like metal. Bright blue eyes. I saw this guy’s photo on Jude’s bathroom wall just an hour ago. According to Jude’s notes, this is John Ransom Miller.
Jude ignores him. His lips curve and he blows softly on her hair.
My stomach makes a funny noise and I chew my lip. I feel strange, jealous. On one hand I am positive that this man is about to die, that Jude is about to turn and just gut him where he stands. But on the other, I don’t think so. Jude is acting not like herself and I can see this guy has some hefty mojo, some bad juice about him, and I wonder briefly does he have some hold over my girl.
You are very pretty, the man says. Are you a model, perhaps?
I recoil, unnoticed. I can’t tell if he’s fucking with her, or if he simply cannot see the left side of her face from his vantage point.
Jude turns, slowly, and shows him her whole face. That’s not funny.
His expression doesn’t waver. I don’t mean to be funny.
I’m an actress, she says. Or I used to be.
Really. The man smiles. I’m sure you were very talented.
Oh, my. I don’t know about that, she says. But thank you.
This new Jude is packing a mean bag of tricks and now she whips out an otherworldly mixture of nubile self-consciousness and predatory voodoo. She is suddenly leaning toward the man, her lips slightly parted and I’m irritated to realize I’m getting an erection. The man looks more than a little bothered himself.
Would you like to have dinner with me tonight?
I would, says Jude. I really would. But I have a prior entanglement.
Are you sure? he says.
Yes, she says. I’m afraid so.
Oh, well. That’s too bad.
Jude licks her lips. Too bad, yes.
The man stares at her and I fancy there’s a trickle of sweat along his jaw. But he’s a tough cookie, I think. He reaches into his breast pocket and produces a business card. On the ring finger of his right hand he wears a heavy fraternity ring with a dark red stone. I hear myself exhale. Jude takes the card from him as if it’s a long-stemmed rose.
You should call me, the man says. I have a friend or two in Hollywood.
Lucky you, says Jude.
Are you a spiritual person? he says.
No, she says. Not anymore.
He smiles. I’m a Buddhist, myself.
Jude nods, considering. You must have a great capacity for suffering, she says.
You have no idea, he says.
Tempting, she says. Maybe I will call you, after all.
Yes, the man says. He stands there, rocking back on his heels as if he needs more oxygen.
Goodbye, says Jude.
The man stares at her, mute. Then turns to go. Jude glances down at the card he gave her.
Wait, she says.
The man keeps walking, his back to her.
This is just a phone number, she says. Who shall I ask for?
He grins at this. My name is John Miller, he says. Then steps onto the escalator and disappears.
Jude doesn’t look at me, not yet.
The salesman sits patiently in one of the leather chairs, his head bowed. She touches his sleeve. I love these shoes, she says. Will you box up my boots, please?
The salesman nods, his face turning pink. Then he scurries away. I walk toward Jude, my head buzzing. The locusts in my head are getting ready to descend, and my brain is a field of wheat. Jude is glowing like she just swallowed a fistful of stardust. She stands with hands on her hips, pelvis thrust out.
Did you not recognize him? she says.
I stare into the mirror and see the photos in her bathroom again. I see a sideways flash of dark hair, of blue and black eyes. John Ransom Miller was one of the masked men who’d come to see us in New Orleans. He was the panty sniffer, the one I’d hammered to the floor with the toilet lid. He had lain crumpled on his side the entire time, watching as the others raped her. He barely looked at me, that day.
Yeah. I recognized him.
Well? she says.
This is why you gave me the gun? I say. You want me to kill him.
Jude shrugs. Perhaps you should rethink your ideas about fate.
The gun is heavy in my pocket.
Yeah, I say. Perhaps I should.
Don’t kill him, she says. Not yet.
Because we need him to get to the quarterback.
Senator Cody, I say.
Yeah. She points at the mirror. If not for him, I’m not looking at this face.
What then? You want me to make friends with this guy?
If you want to hurt him, she says, bring me his finger. The one with that hideous ring.
I stare at her.
Go, she says. You’re going to lose him.
I take the escalator down to menswear. Jude stands at the top of the escalator, hands on her hips and a crooked little smile on her face. I’m going to hell, of course. I turn around to face the descent and when I look back she’s gone. The escalator nears the bottom and I wait for my feet to touch solid ground. Five seconds, four. Time enough to contemplate my situation. Jude wants me to follow this man, but I am not to kill him. Thank god for that. I had an opportunity to kill Sugar Finch earlier today, and fucked it up like a rock star. I tell myself that if I love her, I will not fail her again.
Five years have passed since Jude and I were together. The years just slip away. I take off my shoes and pause to examine my toes and two days disappear. I wander into the bathroom to brush my teeth and a week is gone. I pour myself a cup of coffee and a month floats past. The years tumble past you like bits of paper on the street and you may not even feel the breeze at your back but then something catches your eye, a twist of black hair or a dog leaping to catch a tennis ball. The splintered chorus of a stupid pop song. You turn around and another chunk of your life drifts by like unrecognized trash and it was never yours to begin with.
But look at it this way. Jude and I had a fight once, way back when. The apartment was expanding, warping. The rooms were gelatinous and everything was curved. Our bedroom was taking the shape of an egg. The room was freaking me out and drugs were involved. They usually are. This is a natural law, like the one about gravity. If a body has physical mass, then it will fall to earth. If your hotel room is transforming into a metaphysical bubble, then drugs are probably involved.
Jude was completely nonverbal and I was crouched high atop an armoire, stuck there. I was suddenly terrified of heights. And of her, probably. I watched Jude crawl around on the floor with a knife in one hand, a long bright red dildo in the other. Jude was trying to speak. She was grunting, snorting. I was pretty sure she wanted to kill me, she wanted to fuck me to death. Her shoulders were slick with blood and snot and black grime and her brain was so shredded by coke she would not have blinked if I had spontaneously burst into flames. But that’s just another drug story, a psycho love story. The real Jude lay curled up like a cat beside me less than twenty-four hours later asking me what color she should paint her toenails. She wanted to drink cheap white wine and eat chocolate for breakfast. She wanted me to stay in bed all day and watch MTV with her. Jude put her head in my lap and asked me in a destroyed voice if I still liked her. Jude is composed of claws and teeth and unblinking eyes but she is vulnerable, perhaps now more than ever. She is a wolf but like anybody else she’s afraid to grow old, she’s afraid that one day she will walk into a room and no one will look at her.
I touched her hair and whispered yes, I like you.
There is an obscure musical instrument called the theremin that produces sound without ever being touched. The player moves his hands in a slow circular motion between twin antennae thin as ghosts, calling forth eerie underwater noises akin to whalespeak. Brian Wilson was particularly fond of the theremin. He used it sparingly on the Pet Sounds album, I believe. Anyway, Jude and I have always managed to extract sound from each other, without ever touching the skin. And I think that’s love, or something like it.
John Ransom Miller is nowhere to be seen and I hear Jude’s voice in my head.
Do you believe in fate, she says. Or not?
I want to go back to that hotel room and I might need to bring her a strange man’s severed finger to gain entry. It sounds like a bad joke but now I’m anxious that I’ve lost him. I have lost the owner of the finger and I hurry through a demilitarized zone of postmodern Italian shoes. Gucci and friends. A green and black spaceman’s boot catches my eye and I pick it up by the laces and let it dangle. Prada. Nine hundred dollars and I laugh out loud, nervous. I don’t want to hunt this man and I don’t want to lose him, either. I want to go back to the obscene hotel room. I want to get good and drunk. I twirl the boot and stare at it until mesmerized. I feel like a monkey confronted by the miracle of a yo-yo. A salesman glares at me and I put the boot down as Miller walks right past me.
I follow him. What the hell, right.
John Ransom Miller doesn’t drift and meander the way I do. He knows where he’s going and he obviously expects people to get the hell out of his way. He takes the escalator two steps at a time and bullies his way past a throng of Japanese tourists, then outside. This no-nonsense attitude of his gives me a sense of purpose and I hit the street at a cool ten yards behind him. There’s a nasty wind coming off the bay and I button my coat against it. I light a cigarette and wonder grimly if I will have to ration them, as I have no cash on me. Then I start to worry that Miller will hop into a yellow cab and leave me standing on the sidewalk, a scarecrow equipped with useless skin and teeth.
If he does get into a cab, then I could get into the next cab and tell the driver to follow him. This maneuver probably doesn’t work outside of the movies, but who knows. I might get a driver who has seen a lot of movies and secretly wishes his life was more interesting and I can always show him my gun when the subject of money comes up. But I don’t like this plan. It has been my experience that big-city cabdrivers are not to be fucked with and you never know when you will meet the one who has his backseat boobytrapped with poison gas and spring-loaded spikes and is in fact driving around all day just hoping to encounter someone like me, a stupid asshole with a gun.
I keep one eye glued to the back of Miller’s head and scan the street with the other. A half block away I see a stout, middle-aged guy buying coffee at an outdoor espresso hut. The guy wears gray pants, a dark blue blazer. Bright red suspenders under the jacket, white shirt. He wears glasses and his hair is long and wispy. The man is distracted and soft. I watch as he pays for the coffee and receives his change.
He puts his wallet into the left breast pocket of his jacket and proceeds toward me. I take a breath. I have done this more times than I can count, with mixed results. But this guy looks like an easy mark. He takes a drink of his coffee and cringes as if he has burned his tongue. He’s perfect. I look ahead to be sure that Miller is still in sight, then lower my head and stumble directly into the guy with red suspenders and that hot coffee pretty much explodes all over his white shirt and now I see that it’s not actually coffee but some kind of giant mocha with whipped cream, which of course not only burns him but makes a fine mess. The poor bastard yelps and nearly falls over, which is not at all what I want. A good pickpocket is fluid and graceful and easily forgotten. He doesn’t cause a scene.
Jesus, I say. I am so fucking sorry.
The guy is sputtering and I catch him by the lapels, as if to help him up. The mocha is dripping down the front of his pants in little chocolate rivulets and the guy moans in despair. No one pays us any attention and I glance up the street to see that Miller is disappearing around a corner. I apologize loudly and use my right hand to smear the whipped cream around on my guy’s chest and slip my left hand into his breast pocket, palming his wallet.
My favorite shirt, the guy says. My favorite shirt is ruined.
It’s not ruined, I say. Take it to your dry cleaner and it’s good as new.
I can’t, he says. I’m a communist.
I don’t believe in dry cleaners. They are servants of the ruling class.
How about that. I just mugged a communist and I will eat my hat if his wallet is not empty. The last time I looked at a newspaper, the Russian government was running vodka into Canada and selling used office furniture for pennies. This guy has probably got moths in his pockets. I give his collar a brutal tug and he flails weakly at me. He is so mournful that I’m tempted to slap him around but I don’t have time for such indulgences.
You motherfucker. What kind of communist drinks a mocha with whipped cream?
The guy moans. I can’t help it, he says. I’m a victim of advertising. I walk past a Starbucks and I become a robot. Their mochas are divine.
The gods are laughing at me. I can hear them up there.
You’re a class traitor, I say.
The communist goes limp in my arms and I drop him like a sack of compost. He immediately curls up on the sidewalk and I imagine he will lie there until the stormtroopers come for him.
I RUN LIKE THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN IS BEHIND ME and come around the corner in time to see Miller walk into a drugstore maybe a block away. I take a breather and fade into the shadowy mouth of an alley to inspect the comrade’s sticky wallet.
The wallet holds three yellowed clippings from a communist newsletter, two sad dollars and one expired library card. Leonard Brown, 2112 Valencia. I regard the dollars with a gassy sigh and lean back against a wall of red bricks to contemplate life. One man is soft in the belly and clumsy. He is confused. He drops three of his last five dollars on a capitalist mocha and is allowed a brief moment to savor the hot, bittersweet chocolate. Then another man, thin and hungry and only slightly less confused, comes out of nowhere and uses that mocha to fuck up the first man’s favorite shirt and thereby ruin his day.
For two useless dollars.
I could buy a pack of gum and god knows gum will be handy when I run out of cigarettes. I won’t go insane and I will have fresh breath and this shit should be funny. Jude will surely think so, tomorrow. John Ransom Miller might think so. I leave the two dollars untouched and dart across the street to drop Leonard’s wallet into a mailbox.
What to do.
I can’t grab another wallet. My skull is still tingling from the first. I stare at the dark windows of the drugstore and wonder what the hell Miller is doing in there. I could use the gun to rob the store and maybe take him out in the crossfire, thus solving two problems at once. I could empty the cash register, then chop off his finger and hustle back to the King James. Then I would have plenty of time to get good and drunk before dark.
I feel a headache coming on. My vision goes black around the edges. Blackbird on the wing. I’m tired of walking. I’m tired of stink and vapors. I’m tired of California already. Winter is gone, a torn wing. The horror of Christmas lights in the month of May. The swab of yellow glimpsed through trees is nothing to fear, the yellow is nothing but the sun. I have to keep walking. But when did you last eat something, when did you become sick. Such a simple thing, to ruin the body from within. Child’s play, chutes and ladders. Easy to poison the blood, to wither the precious organs. The nervous system is consumed by Phineas and already the sense of smell is gone. Perhaps it’s time to kill yourself and soon, before madness sets in. The fingers and toes will be first to fall from the host. The shadow that walks beside you is neither man nor woman. The shadow is a friend, the shadow is your beloved. The shadow beside you is death.
Come on, boy. Don’t you know me.
Death is always on the wing.
Lucy. Henry. Eve. Moon. These are my dead. They died on my watch, all of them an arm’s reach away. The beautiful dead flutter beside me always, torn clothes I can never take off.
John Ransom Miller exits the drugstore, a small white paper bag in hand. Prescription drugs, maybe. I hope he has some good stuff, something I can steal from him later. He heads up the street and I follow him, still penniless. Three blocks pass and I start to wonder if the bastard is just walking home. Now he’s entered a BART station. I follow, wondering how far two dollars might have taken me. The machine that dispenses tickets informs me that for two dollars one can gain entry on BART, but not necessarily return. I am weirdly cheerful as I hop the turnstiles like the scumbag I never wanted to be and luckily the guard is off taking a crap somewhere, or shining his shoes.
The train isn’t crowded.
Windows streaked with fingerprints. Smoke blue carpet. There are so many empty seats that I feel indecisive and find myself standing across from Miller. He is too restless to sit. He stands with his feet wide apart and his hands in his pockets. The train lurches forward and as I reach for the bright steel safety bar, a smile edges across his face.
The smile disappears without recoil and maybe I imagined it.
I feel warm, though.
John Ransom Miller is staring at me, or through me. His eyes are unfocused and this is but the etiquette of trains. I tell myself to let my own eyes glaze over, to look at the flashing windows. I tell myself to close my eyes but I’m stubborn. I can’t help but stare at him. I am thinking of killing this man, unlikely as it sounds. His name is John Ransom Miller and he is the force behind a lot of evil doings in the velvet. I tell myself that if I kill him, none of what follows will come to pass.
I want to remember his face and at first glance, he is near perfect. He looks like a movie star. Upon close inspection though, he is not so perfect. He leans hard on the umbrella. His black, square-toed boots are fairly ruined. The leather is gouged in places and streaked with brown and yellow grime. He recently stomped through some nasty shit. His pale charcoal suit is a fine Italian wool and silk blend and probably cost five thousand dollars. But the jacket is soiled and wrinkled, as if he slept in it. The trousers are flecked with curious stains and his gray shirt is missing a button. He licks his lips once, then stops himself. His lips are red and cracked, as if he’s dehydrated. His left eye is bloodshot beneath the drooping eyelid, which makes the right eye appear very white in contrast. There is black stubble along his chin and upper lip.
John Ransom Miller played rough last night, obviously.
He slept on someone’s floor and went to work without changing clothes. He slept in the trunk of someone’s car. He’s having a nervous breakdown, or his marriage is fucked up. Or none of the above. He continues to stare through me and one thing is clear. He doesn’t look vulnerable.
Ten minutes pass, pushing twenty. I relax. And then two white guys come hopping down the rabbit trail and my heart begins to wiggle around like a spider caught in its own web because the headache ratchets up a notch and I have a vision of what’s going to happen, real or false. I know what’s going to happen.
Dirty clothes and expensive tennis shoes and fierce rabbit faces. They have the look of those Nazi rabbits in Watership Down, the ones that shredded the ears of their enemies. Those rabbits were tough motherfuckers but they were still rabbits, and they ran like rabbits when that big black dog showed up to eat them in the end. They died like rabbits and now I watch these two human rabbits approach us from the rear of the car and I am not surprised when Miller moves his hips to force a little unnecessary physical contact with them.
John Ransom Miller is a black dog at heart.
The first rabbit is muscular and rubbery, with red hair that falls in greasy shanks. He stumbles into his friend, a bald skeletal kid with metal studs through his eyebrows and blackened lips. The two of them turn to stare at Miller with the splintered flashes of hate and love that usually mean violence is on the wing. The adrenaline kicks in and I feel the muscles tremble in my arms.
This is a scene from the dark side of my skull. This is a product of one of my seizures but it can’t be. This is random. This isn’t my drama and I tell myself to back off, to relax and let it happen. As if I’m watching television.
Miller smiles. How clumsy of me, he says.
His voice is a soft, metallic monotone. His voice is computer-generated and I believe these rabbits are fucked. The bald one wobbles a step back and glances fearfully at me. He knows it too, perhaps. I look at him without emotion. I don’t know him and I don’t care if he lives or dies. I truly don’t give a shit. The rubbery rabbit-boy sneers and tosses his red hair out of his eyes.
Every motherfucking day, he says. Every day I pass your narrow ass on this train and every day you bump me.
I know, says Miller. It’s weird, don’t you think?
You a faggot, says the rubbery guy. Or what.
He wants to be mean and dangerous, a human razor. He looks the part but his lips tremble slightly as he says these words. His little bald pal shifts from one foot to the next and the tension is like jelly. I’m thinking I might as well stick out my finger and taste this jelly as the rubbery redhead smiles and leans forward and Miller steps into him, bringing his forearm around like the butt of a shotgun. A great purple scarf of blood billows from the redhead’s nose and hangs in the air like comic book art. He buries his face in his hands as the train rattles to a stop.
Miller shrugs. Excuse me, he says. But this is my stop.
The redhead is bent over, bleeding onto his own shoes. His little bald friend has already bolted from the train. The redhead tries to speak but his voice is far away, underwater. He is gurgling and I wonder if he is swallowing his own blood.
Miller nods. His throat is full of blood, he says.
I stare at him, unblinking. That doesn’t seem good. Does it?
It probably won’t kill him.
The redhead chokes and spits blood. I shoot a glance at the doors and they remain open, for now. The air shimmers between train and platform. The redhead will soon be blowing bubbles with blood and I wonder if I should just get off. John Ransom Miller is looking more and more like a psycho and maybe I don’t want him to think I’m following him but the doors will surely close soon and I can see myself standing on the wrong side of them if I get off too quickly and Miller decides to hang around and torture the rabbit some more. I shove my hands into my pockets, gaze up at a snarl of graffiti where someone has written you are beautiful in black ink. Beneath it, someone else has written or else you’re dead.
I scratch my head.
The doors have been open forever. John Ransom Miller crouches down to face the bleeding redhead, who is still hunched over with his face in his hands. Miller smiles warmly, tenderly.
My skin crawls.
Miller reaches into his breast pocket and the redhead flinches. Miller laughs and hands him a gray silk handkerchief. The redhead stares at it as if he’s never seen a handkerchief before, as if this might be some kind of trick. Miller shoves it into the rabbit’s hand and says softly that no one ever died from a nosebleed. The redhead gurgles back at him and John Ransom Miller shrugs.
He nods at me. Are you coming?
I’M GETTING COZY WITH THE IDEA THAT TIME IS CIRCULAR, that lost time will come back.
I find myself outside in the final minutes before dark falls over California and I am confronted by an apocalyptic sunset. The odds of this happening today and not tomorrow seem astronomical or anyway too staggering for my small brain to contemplate right now. The hills before me are splattered with some kind of freak sunlight that appears to exist on a physical plane but is forever shifting from one form to another and is therefore impossible to contain. If only I had an instant camera, then I would never need step outside again. I despise cameras, though. They butcher your memories and anyway when you’re an old man drooling yellow shit down the front of your pajamas and your eyes are long gone, what good is a boxful of shitty snapshots that have turned green with age.
Nothing is real to me anymore. The world around me has been systematically reconceived through digital imaging and computer animation until every flower and raindrop is pure and flawless as the flowers and raindrops of the book of Genesis. The new world is brought to life in high-density pixels and is then transferred to human memory. The digital sunset always looks better than the real thing, always. Because a sunset generated by the basic package of yellow sun and blue sky is unreliable. Today it may be stunning, hypnotic. Tomorrow it may be lifeless and dull, a white sky scorched with yellow. Tomorrow the sky will be velvet.
Beautiful or not, it disappears. The sky goes dark and what are you left with.
The image stored in my head suffers rapid decay and within hours I will be unable to describe the sunset that I have just witnessed without accessing the false but technically perfect sunsets that I’ve seen on a thousand television and computer screens. I have no personal memories that are untainted by media and marketing and I often suspect that I am dead but still functioning. My heart is raw and pink, a package of ground beef wrapped in plastic. My body is composed of shatterproof glass and fluoride and vitamins and sheep hormones and recycled copper wires. There is no poetry in such a being but neither is there fear. I tumble easily into the void and I am safe as a kitten in the bony confines of my own skull. If I can afford the proper software, then I can download anything imaginable. The physical world is getting less and less realistic by the minute and eventually I will learn to pay it no mind.
John Ransom Miller and I have been walking for nearly an hour, most of the way uphill, not talking. I am chewing a hole in my lip. Miller is much too cool and friendly and unconcerned about my sudden presence in his life. The silence is heavy between us, but not terribly unpleasant.
What’s your name? he says.
First names are dangerous, I say.
Why, he says.
The intimacy, I say.
My legs are heavy and I hope Miller doesn’t try to run away. The BART station is a long, long way down. He won’t run, though. John Ransom Miller could not be any less afraid of me. But he might like to fuck with me. I would probably fuck with him, if our positions were reversed. Miller nods and again I have the sticky feeling that he can hear my thoughts.
Yes, he says. Intimacy is a tricky thing. I would think it’s hard to kill somebody if you are in the habit of calling them by their first name.
I whistle through my teeth, irritated. Why don’t you have a car? I say.
Miller shrugs. I have two cars. Three, actually. I had a driver for a while, a guy who wore one of those fucking sailor hats. I don’t know. I started to hate the cars after a while. I would sit in traffic, listening to Mozart and drinking bottled water and it was like my soul was trapped in a Mason jar.
The hole in my lip is getting bigger. It will bleed, soon.
I like cars, I say. I believe in cars.
What about the soul, he says. Do you believe in the human soul?
No. But I think mine would be perfectly safe in a Mason jar.
Miller stares at me, unblinking. You might want to punch holes in the lid, he says.
Okay, I say. What makes you think I’m going to kill you?
He laughs. You would be wise to kill me, that’s why. You would save a few lives and probably your own sanity. But you won’t kill me.
You won’t even try.
That’s a good answer, I say. Damn good.
By the way, he says. You can call me Miller for now.
His voice trails away from his mouth, exhaled like smoke. There is a narcotic quality about it, as if it comes from inside my head and now a feeble smile drifts unwanted across my face, a polite muscle spasm. Which bugs the shit out of me. This is my face, right. This is my fucking face and I will be one sorry meatpuppet if I ever lose control over who sees me smile. When and where and so on. I keep shining my crippled smile at this man and I may as well piss myself on a crowded bus. I may as well be a whore with a weak bladder. I abruptly take the gun from my pocket and Miller doesn’t blink. I wave the gun at a low stone wall that creeps along the side of the road and tell him to just sit the fuck down. He shrugs and sits down, crossing his legs and fiddling with the crease in his trousers.
Are you okay? he says. You look green.
Miller is one of those rare fuckers with a psychic sense of smell. He takes one sniff and he knows you. He knows things about you, things you might not want him to know. He should have been a cop, probably. The funny thing is I am starting to like him, and this idea makes me feel slightly carsick. I tell him to get up and we keep walking. I put the gun away and try to relax.
Pretty sunset, I say. Don’t you think?
Miller shrugs. I saw a peculiar story on the news the other day. A newspaper in China confessed that they’ve been falsifying their weather reports for the past twenty years.
What do you mean?
They would claim that it was sunny yesterday when in fact it rained.
Revisionist weather, I say. That’s brilliant.
What the fuck, I say. It’s nice to meet you, Miller.
Miller yawns. You never know when that person will come along, the person you have been waiting for.
Yeah. What is that supposed to mean, exactly?
Life, he says. It’s often a dull dream.
I scratch my head and suddenly I hear something like the manic hum of locusts but it’s only the drone of rubber tires on blacktop as two boys cruise by on mountain bikes.
They look like brothers, I say.
Miller and I turn to watch as the boys disappear over the next hill.
Poof, says Miller.
Like they just fell off the edge of the earth, I say.
Amazing, says Miller. How easily a child can vanish.
Miller takes a sheaf of mail from a bright metal box on the side of the road. The box looks new. The surface is shiny as a silver dollar and unblemished by bird shit, but there is a nice round bullet hole in the thing’s belly. The hole is black around the edges and I poke two fingers in there without lubrication. It was a big bullet.
You have enemies? I say.
No, he says. The neighborhood kids. I love it, though. I love it when the kids have spirit.
I finger the hole. That’s some fucking spirit.
Miller might be a liar. He might not be. He has the eyes of a sleepy blackjack dealer and why should I care if he wants to lie about a misplaced bullet. I lie all the time, to myself and others. I lie whenever it feels right. I’m a cheap rug. I am not very good at lying, however. Jude can always sniff out a lie before I take another breath. Then again, she’s a woman. Jude says that if a woman has ever fucked a guy and studied the ugly contortions of his face, the face that he wants to hide from sight, then she knows the machinery behind his mouth and eyes and thereafter she always knows when he’s lying.
I shot up a few mailboxes when I was a kid, with a pellet gun and later a.22, a rifle meant for shooting squirrels. This hole came from a big gun, a serious gun. Miller has got Dirty Harry shooting at his mailbox and it’s none of my business.
Not yet, says Miller.
What? I say.
It’s none of your business, he says. Yet.
It is still not quite dark but the air is the color of blue plums. A black Mercedes rolls past with headlights off, eerily silent. It looks like a tank on a night mission. A white moth flickers past my face and I wave it away, distracted.
Do you want to come in? says Miller. Have a drink?
I sigh. Are you going to be doing a lot of that?
What? he says.
Oh, you know. Reading my mind and that sort of thing.
Miller laughs. I can’t read your mind, man. I pretend that I can.
It’s easy, he says. People aren’t very complex. You take a stab at what somebody is thinking. Then politely spit it out like a piece of gristle. And even if you’re wrong, it makes people nervous. There’s no better way to fuck with a snotty waiter, or a salesman. Try it sometime.
Interesting, I say. Do I look like a salesman to you?
Why, he says. Are you nervous?
Miller pushes open the iron gate that opens onto a downward drive lined with gravel and heavy flat stones the color of cigarette ash. The front yard is a hillside, wild and dark with twisting rose bushes and exposed roots. The house is barely visible from the road. The white moth returns to strafe my face and I wonder if I’m glowing. I try to catch it in my fist, to kill it. But the little bastard is too fast for me and I clutch at the air like a spastic. I lower my head before it decides to fly down my throat. Miller starts down the slope and I follow him.
The house of Miller is bewildering, and much larger than it looks from the outside. He gives me a rapid tour of the lower level, telling me there are nineteen rooms in all. The house is primarily constructed of stone, but some of the walls are made of glass. The house is cold and dark and I imagine it is cold and bright by day. There are three floors, or levels. The house is not vertical, but staggered. It clings to the hillside like a giant spider. Two massive trees come up through the back of it, like twin spines. A complex series of wood platforms is built around these trees, with rope ladders connecting the various levels. The kitchen door opens onto level two. I stand in the doorway, a goofy smile on my face.
It’s like something out of a fairy tale, I say.
Miller is pouring tall glasses of bourbon and soda.
Yeah, he says. I think the guy who designed it was out of his mind, however.
Miller shrugs. You can feel it. There’s madness in the walls.
Ah, yes. Madness in the walls. I hate it when that happens.
Miller stirs our drinks with what appears to be a bright blue chopstick.
Do you live alone? I say.
Not exactly. He hands me a drink, very strong.
The kitchen is black tile and bright steel. Harsh white light. Functional, cold, a surgical theater. I imagine myself laid out on the island with a mask over my face and tubes running in and out of my belly, surrounded by a crew of silent men in dark red gowns. I doubt there’s anything in the refrigerator but olives and French mustard and spare plasma.
Come on, says Miller. Let’s go to the lizard room.
A long, windowless room that glows from the light of twenty-two terrariums. These contain lizards, iguanas, chameleons, and various snakes. Obviously. I walk the perimeter and look them over. I am fond of reptiles, generally. Because they can sit on a rock for two days without moving. Because they are untroubled by the loss of a limb and more than likely will grow another one. Because they methodically seek out sources of heat, but will not necessarily perish without it. Their chances of survival on this planet seem so much better than ours and I think Miller is wise to be friendly with them. The last terrarium along one wall houses a very large boa constrictor, coiled and sleeping. I stare at him for a while and I think I would like to hold him, to close my eyes and wonder at his strength.
It’s too bad you didn’t come yesterday, says Miller.
Why is that?
It was feeding day, he says. The boa put on quite a show.
Does he have a name?
I’m sure he does, says Miller. But I don’t know it.
There are two black leather chairs at the far end of the room. Miller sits in one of them, his legs stretched out and his feet up on a round coffee table of solid, roughly cut glass that looks like a block of ice. The wood floor is stained the color of black cherries and down the middle of the room runs a narrow Turkish rug, green and gold. The rug comes to an end under the glass table and the colors melt and magnify. The walls are painted a dark, faintly metallic green.
Miller tells me to sit down. He doesn’t sound like he’s asking.
I take a sip of whiskey and suddenly feel strange, almost happy. This place smells of Dr. Moreau’s island and there may be much mischief in store for me, but I don’t care. Miller is an excellent host and I like it here. I am wary of telling him so, however, and I have to remind myself who he is and what he did to Jude. I have to steel myself against his charm. The house feels empty but for the reptiles and ourselves. The house has been utterly silent since we entered but now I imagine that I hear music, the soft lament of a solitary cello. The same few notes over and over, stretched and groaning. They stop and start, as if there is someone practicing upstairs. It’s a mournful tune and the only explanation for this sort of thing is that my brain is full of poison. I sink into the chair across from Miller and put my feet up.
He smiles at me and promptly the cello resumes, urgent now.
Okay, I say. Do I hear music? Or am I fucking nuts.
The cello stops. Miller lights a cigarette.
Beethoven, he says. Piano Trio number 4, in D Major. The love song for Anna Marie.
Who is playing, though?
I don’t hear anything, he says. Perhaps you’re nuts.
Uh huh. Give me a cigarette, please?
Miller pushes a pack of Dunhills across the glass table. I light one and we blow smoke and stare at each other. I wait for the cello to resume but it never does. The player is self-conscious, maybe. He heard us talking about him.
I feel like I’ve seen you before, says Miller.
I have that kind of face.
It’s a good face, he says. Not too handsome, but interesting.
Thanks, I guess.
Miller leans forward, pours two fingers of whiskey into my glass.
Have you ever tried acting? he says.
The whiskey burns my tongue. I light another cigarette, vaguely uneasy. Miller smiles at me and I wait for him to tell me what I’m thinking. But he doesn’t.
I can become someone else, I say. If that’s what you mean.
Interesting, he says. I’m talking about regular drama, however.
Only as a child, I say. In the fourth grade I had a non-speaking role in Great Expectations. I was beggar number nine. And one Christmas I was an anonymous shepherd in the nativity scene.
Why do you ask?
I’m interested in making a film, says Miller.
I am a thousand miles from home and once in a while I have to remind myself that I have no home. This is California and on any given Thursday there could be a nuclear sunset. And it’s earthquake country. The earth could come apart beneath my feet, any day now. Jude is waiting for me in a hotel room but I am prepared for the possibility that she may not be there when I return.
I won’t like it.
But I will sit down on the bed and take off my shoes. I will breathe the recycled air that may or may not smell of her hair. I will read the newspaper and smoke a few cigarettes and eventually I might take a nap. There will be no one to hear me if I speak in my sleep.
What sort of film? I say.
I finish off my bourbon and consider shooting Miller.
Do you know anything about snuff films? he says.
Urban legend, I say. But probably true.
Why do you say that?
Anything you can imagine is probably true. And the worst you can imagine is probably worth money.
How philosophical, he says.
Fuck you. People tend to kill people. And they do it every twenty-nine seconds. In the time it takes me to smoke this cigarette, eleven people will be murdered in this country.
Where do you get these statistics?
I make them up.
Excellent, he says. What else?
Everything is on videotape. Vacations, weddings, birthdays, dogs and cats doing tricks. Every time you go to a cash machine or mail a letter or purchase a quart of milk, you’re on tape. If you get murdered, you’re probably on tape and somebody somewhere on the Internet is going to masturbate while watching it. Reality is in the business of killing off fiction.
I like you, says Miller.
There is a brief silence. Miller picks up a remote control and aims it at what I thought was a giant mirror on the wall behind me. The mirror flickers to life, a television. He mutes the sound and flips through the channels until he finds a baseball game, the Mariners and A’s.
Why do you ask? I say.
Because I want to make one, he says.
A snuff film?
I take the gun out of my jacket pocket and point it at him, politely.
Take off your fucking ring, I say.
I’m leaving now. And I need proof that I killed you.
Art, he says. It’s going to be a quality piece of film, a masterpiece of blood porn. Literary, mysterious. The kind of thing you can screen at Sundance.
Mysterious? I say.
Miller smiles richly. That’s the beauty of it, the suspense factor. Because I have not yet finished the script, the victim will be uncertain until the end. It could turn out to be me or you. Or someone else. Perhaps an innocent will die. It will be called The Velvet.
Oh, fuck you, I say. You’ve been talking to Jude.
Miller picks up the remote control and my eyes go to the television, where the Oakland game rolls silently. Ichiro has just stolen third base for the Mariners and the cameras cut away to the crowd for reaction shots. The fans are not pleased. They boo and hiss. They bang drums. There is a close-up of a bearded man with a massive naked belly and a plastic jug of beer sloshing in each hand, dancing like a drunken god. The camera zooms on his face, then cuts to a luxury box where the fans are a bit more sedate. Miller pushes a button and the picture goes to slow-motion. And there is a lingering shot of MacDonald Cody, senator and tapped to be president one day, sitting next to a small blond-haired boy with the same dark eyes. The boy looks to be about five years old. He laughs and claps his hands with the kind of glee that most adults can barely remember and now someone who sits outside the frame leans over and gently touches his hair. The shot widens and I see that the man who touched the kid’s hair is Miller.
Motherfucker, I say. This is a tape?
Sort of a home movie, says Miller. His voice has slipped into that narcotic tone.
What the hell does that mean?
Miller presses another button, freezing the tape. The kid with dark eyes stares out at me. He is no longer smiling and like his eyes, his lips are dark and just slightly too big for his face and now they are pressed together and he looks very serious, almost somber. He looks sleepy.
Beautiful kid, isn’t he? says Miller. Those eyes could break your heart.
Yeah, I say. He looks just like his father.
I suppose you recognize him? says Miller.
MacDonald Cody, I say. The senator.
Miller stares at the TV, then looks at me.
But you’ve met him, am I right? He says.
Turn it off, I say.
Look at the kid, he says. The camera loves him.
I’m gone, I say. I’m fucking gone. It was a real thrill to meet you and everything.
Look at the kid, he says. You wouldn’t want anything to happen to him, would you?
Fuck you, I say.
Whatever you say.
I stand up and Miller lazily tells me to hang on a minute. He tugs at the big ruby ring, but it won’t come off. He slips his finger into his mouth and sucks on it for a moment. The ring slips off easily and Miller offers it to me, red and wet as a bloody eye. I hesitate, trembling. The gun still in my hand, forgotten. I should just put a bullet in his skull. I should. I should. I should. I should put the motherfucker to sleep forever and maybe Jude and I could rest easy tonight. But I have never killed anyone, outside my dreams. It’s not an easy thing to shoot a man who has done nothing but talk to you, a man who sits in a leather armchair smiling. Miller smiles at me and I take the ring from him. I drop it into my pocket and now it occurs to me that I need cash for cigarettes and the train back to San Francisco. I hit Miller up for fifty dollars and he gives it to me without a word.
THERE ARE FOUR CHAMBERS IN THE HEART, four rooms. I stumble through the house of Miller and my chest is full of terrible echoes.
Through the kitchen and a woman is there. Blue jeans and a white tank-top. Pale blond hair, wispy. She stands with her back to me, staring into the open refrigerator. Her shoulders are narrow and bare and I don’t want to frighten her.
Excuse me, I say.
The woman turns around, slow. Honey brown eyes with dark circles. Thin lips, silent and moving. As if she is whispering to herself. Or praying.
I thought I heard voices, she says. She shrugs. I wondered if we had company.
Exhale. Sorry if I startled you, I say.
Molly, she says. My name is Molly Jones.
Phineas, I say.
Her lips begin to move again and I think of Franny Glass. Her mouth silent and ever moving to form the words Jesus Christ have mercy on me in not quite perfect time with her heartbeat as she slowly came to pieces in a snotty restaurant while the ivy league boyfriend yawned and explained that Flaubert was ultimately a mediocre talent because he had no testicles. Franny Glass was my first love. Hopeless and somehow appropriate that at the age of sixteen I was in love with a fictional woman.
Your lips are moving, I say.
Oh, she says. I’m sorry.
It’s a short monologue that I’m having trouble with.
What do you mean?
I’m sort of an actor, she says. I’m a theater major at Berkeley.
And the monologue?
I’m playing May in a production of Fool for Love, she says.
Sam Shepard, I say.
Do you know the play?
Hell, it’s the story of my life. Do you want to practice on me?
Molly smiles, takes a breath.
I don’t understand my feelings, she says softly. Her face goes pale, as if she’s banished the blood from her skin. I really don’t, she says. I just don’t understand how I could hate you so much after so much time. How… No matter how much I’d like to not hate you, I hate you even more. It grows. All I see is a picture of you. Of you and her. I don’t even know if the picture is real anymore. I don’t even care. It’s make believe. It invades my head. The two of you. And this picture stings even more than if I’d actually seen you with her. It cuts me. It cuts me so deep. I will never get over it, never. And I can’t get rid of the picture. It just comes, uninvited. Like a little uninvited torture. And I blame you for this torture. I blame you.
I stare at her. I feel hot, almost guilty. Molly shrugs and her face returns to normal. I’m having trouble with the tone, she says. How did it sound to you?
Very cold. A little psychotic.
I know, she says. It needs to be more vulnerable.
Heartbroken and weary, I say.
Molly bites her lip, thinking. Yes.
Think of your mother, I say.
What do you know about my mother?
I shrug. Mothers. They are often heartbroken, weary.
She nods, staring. Do you want a sandwich?
Yes. I was going to make a tomato sandwich.
You have a gun in your hand, she says.
Is that a prop, she says. Or is it real?
Uh. I believe it’s real.
I am so fucking stupid. I know that. The gun hangs at my thigh. I slip it into my jacket pocket and mutter an aborted apology. Molly shrugs and turns back to the fridge. She takes out mayonnaise and a brick of white cheese, then leans over the sink to get a red tomato from the windowsill. She opens a drawer and takes out a long sharp knife.
Echoes, footsteps. Miller is nowhere to be seen.
Molly wears scuffed brown cowboy boots. I look around. The kitchen is not so cold and frightening as before. The lights are different and I never noticed the tomatoes in the window.
It’s okay, she says. But would you mind leaving the gun on the island, where I can see it?
I hesitate, watching her slice the tomato on a round wooden cutting board.
Please, she says. Humor me.
I take out the Walther and remove the clip, then place the gun on the bright steel surface between us. I am tempted to give it a spin, to see who the gun favors.
Thank you, she says.
Oh. You’re welcome.
Long pretty hands, unpainted nails.
Molly cuts the sandwich in half and wipes off the knife. Takes two red paper napkins from a drawer and gives me half the sandwich. White sourdough bread, red tomato that drips onto my fingers and white cheese. Molly leans against the island while she eats, holding the sandwich in two hands.
I realize how hungry I am.
John refuses to get barstools, she says. He thinks they reveal a profound lack of taste.
I nod, dumbly. Molly takes small, fierce bites of bread and tomato. She murmurs softly as she swallows. I contemplate the aesthetic of barstools. I watch the muscles in her throat ripple.
The corner of your mouth, I say. You have a bit of mayonnaise there.
She touches the red napkin to her lips and says thank you.
I should be going.
No, she says. Don’t go.
The soft flash of honey eyes. That monologue got to me, the way her lips moved. It tore me up. I tell myself to be careful.
Miller is your husband? I say.
Molly frowns. Did he tell you that?
I stare at her and realize she has likely not read Miller’s script.
He has gotten so weird, she says. I can barely talk to him.
Yeah. He seems a little preoccupied with…baseball.
You’re going to work on the film with us? she says.
I don’t know, I say. I haven’t decided.
You have a beautiful face, she says. Your cheekbones would look good in black and white.
Have you read the script? I say.
Molly sighs. Only bits and pieces. John is very secretive with it.
I’m sure he is.
Molly has finished her sandwich and now she takes out a red and white pack of gum and pulls one stick out. She offers it to me and I shake my head. She slowly peels away the cellophane and folds the stick into her mouth. I reach for the gun between us and at the same time her hand drifts down and brushes mine. She is reaching to touch the gun, to touch my hand. I don’t know which. But her touch is soft and maddening, the touch of someone in a dream soon forgotten. Then she pulls her hand away and her face is slightly red. The blood comes and goes in her face. Molly is sensitive to barometric pressure. I put the gun away and hesitate, then offer her my empty hand. Molly doesn’t smile. Her lips come apart and I can see her teeth. Now she takes my hand and I feel her pulse with the tip of my middle finger and this is not what anyone would call a handshake because our hands are not moving but holding each other and our skin is the same temperature and after a long silence one of us lets go.
Dark outside and moonless. I stand in the middle of Miller’s road, staring at his mailbox. Bullet hole in bright metal. I wonder if there are phantoms out tonight. Neighborhood kids with spirit. I touch my hand to my mouth and wonder if Jude will smell Molly on me. It doesn’t matter. Jude pushed me at these people and now there’s a small body of water between me and the King James Hotel. I should go east but I won’t.
Fool for Love. I know that play, yeah. Three people in a room, two of them lovers. Tortured, forbidden. The third is an old man who may or may not be real. Then another man enters, the hapless blind date, who one might suppose represents the unsuspecting audience because the two lovers proceed to fuck with him without mercy. I have never seen a live production but I have seen the movie with Kim Basinger and Harry Dean Stanton a few times. It’s a tight, claustrophobic picture. One long act, relentless. Four people in a room, crashing into walls. Four people turning inside out. Four people in a room and the whole time you’re wondering which one of them is going to get killed.
Down the black, winding hill. Lost and then not. I wander along Telegraph a while. Faces bright and searching. The infinite flow of tourists and junkies and homeless guys and skate rats and lost hippies and spare changers and vendors and privileged boys and girls. This is the sweet hate machine of human chaos and no one wants to be noticed, no one wants to be saved. My brain is a rattling trap and I think it would not be easy to live here. I have a low tolerance for the culture of emptiness. I buy cigarettes and a green slushy drink at a convenience store. Brief overhead view of myself through the store’s surveillance camera. Black and white. I’m looking through the eye of a fish. The subject is a white male, late thirties. Medium height and thin. Dark circles under pale eyes, unshaven. Dirty blond hair. Brown leather coat and blue jeans and black T-shirt. He is not a student, not a thief but possibly an English professor, which makes me laugh at myself.
I walk until I come to the BART station. The machine that dispenses tickets is complex and unforgiving, but I manage to buy a ticket without causing a scene. The platform is crowded with people who don’t look at each other. I want a cigarette but the use of tobacco is prohibited in California, everywhere it seems.
I crouch against a wall and wait.
Drunk white guy shambles up and down the platform. He wears torn gray pants stained with bodily fluids and he’s looking for someone to talk to. Young black girl sits on a bench, reading a book. Drunk white guy sits down next to her and everyone on the platform takes a breath.
I love to eat out a girl’s asshole, he shouts.
I love to eat asshole, he says again.
The drunk is going to touch her any minute and she’s going to freak out. I have a gun in my pocket. I could show it to him, if he touches her. Everyone is watching but no one has moved. The drunk reaches for her hair with one trembling hand but the black girl doesn’t freak out. She laughs and the drunk’s hand falls as if it suddenly became too heavy for him to carry. He wanders away.
I almost miss John Ransom Miller. He was a freak but at least I had a sense of purpose when I was following him. And he would have loved the drunk guy, the asshole eater. I take out his ruby ring and slip it onto my finger. Rumble and sigh and here comes the train. I wonder what time it is. Every other car is packed with flesh but mine is ghostly, quiet. I turn my face to black windows and no one pays me any mind.
Downtown. I retrace my steps past Nieman Marcus and back to the King James. There is a different doorman on duty. This guy is massive, maybe a foot taller than me. His arms are the size of my thighs and his face is like a fat gray melon, with small dark eyes sunk into gray skin. Thin cruel mouth. He shrugs and opens the door with a grunt.
What happened to Jeremy? I say.
Don’t know, he says. Punk called in sick.
Why? he says.
I shake my head. No reason.
There’s nothing Jeremy can get what I can’t get. You need a whore?
THROUGH THE MEDIEVAL LOBBY. Empty as before. The elevator, the isolation chamber. I chew at a fingernail and find myself thinking of Molly. The way her color rose and fell. She made me a sandwich and I am so stupid that only now does it occur to me that she was the phantom cello player. The love song for Anna Marie that haunted us down in the Lizard Room. I wonder if she was just fucking with us.
I come to room 1221 and remember that Jude has stripped me of my key. This irritates me, now. I feel like a delivery boy, a chump. I knock on the door and after a long suffering silence I get the ticklish sensation that someone is breathing on the other side, eyeballing me through the peephole.
Jude. What the fuck.
The door opens slowly and the temperature changes. Jeremy the doorman stands there.
Hey, he says. The smile melting across his face.
Jeremy is not wearing a shirt. He wears pale blue jeans. He is barefoot. I glance down at my boots. I am technically still in the hallway. I am outside the room. Jeremy leans against the open door, against the flat of his hand. He looks comfortable. He has an underwear model’s body, muscular. Tattoo of a monkey’s head above the left nipple. Jeremy has a washboard stomach but my teeth are better than his. He’s got a mouthful of crooked, fucked-up choppers that indicate poor breeding.
Jeremy, I say.
Jude’s in the bathroom, he says.
Jeremy shrugs and lets go of the door. It swings toward me, silent as a puff of smoke. Jeremy drifts back into the room. I catch the door and stand there a moment. Rapid heartbeat and a basket of snakes in my skull.
Here we go. Things get complicated.
I follow Jeremy into the room. Pause to glance at the bathroom door. Slash of yellow light at the floor. Listen and breathe and stare at the door until it pulses and for a moment I expect to hear Jude’s thoughts, her voice in my head. I wonder if I love her. I wonder if it’s relevant. Two hours ago, I touched another woman’s hand. I felt her pulse and I wanted her. It was a physiological reaction, molecular. People crash into each other and things get interesting. Jude may have fucked this guy and she may not have and maybe she’s in the bathtub right now, washing his juices from her body.
Jeremy sits on the floor, smoking a cigarette. I go to the vanity sink and pour myself a glass of gin. The sink is a nightmare of ashtrays and Chinese take-out. In the heart of the mess is a blue plate flecked with cocaine. Beside it is a big fat hunting knife, like a small sword. I remember the stiletto Jude used to carry. It was a nasty weapon and she wielded it like it was part of her, like a talon freakishly evolved. I taste the gin and it might as well be water. I find myself staring at Jeremy’s bare feet.
What size shoes do you wear?
Nine, he says.
Those would be your running shoes, then.
Jeremy glances over at the glass coffee table, where the blue and yellow sneakers fairly glow.
Yeah, he says.
Why are you here, Jeremy?
You should talk to Jude about that. I’m not in charge.
Jeremy shrugs. How did you like that magic milkshake?
Delicious, I say.
He blows smoke at me, thin and blue. I put down the glass of gin and pick up the knife.
I’m glad you liked it, he says.
Yeah. Why don’t you put your shoes on.
Jeremy smiles and closes his eyes and I take two, three steps forward to crouch beside him with the knife. He flinches away and I grab him by the hair. His eyes are wide open, now.
I’m not going to cut you, I say.
Okay, he says.
Did you fuck her?
He hesitates. No.
I don’t care if you fucked her. That’s her business.
The hair, he says. Please, man. Let go of the hair.
Jeremy, I say. You may have fucked Jude today, or been fucked by her.
You may fuck her in the future. It doesn’t matter. But you are a guest in this room, a visitor. You are an employee of this hotel and I don’t like it when you smile at me.
Okay, he says.
Pick a body part, any body part.
I changed my mind. I’m going to cut you after all.
Then silence. I wonder if Jude is listening to this sorry episode of male theater. My knees are trembling and I will have to stand up soon.
The arm, says Jeremy. The left arm, if you don’t mind.
You want me to cut your left arm?
He grunts at me, his face red. This is enough for me. I don’t feel better, exactly. I feel different and now I let go of his hair and he falls away from the knife. I stand up slowly, legs still trembling.
You’re not going to cut me?
Jeremy grins. I think a knife scar might look cool, actually.
Yeah, I say. Put your shoes on.
I want to stay.
Whatever. I just don’t want to look at your naked fucking feet.
The bathroom door is not locked. I knock softly, then push it open. Jude wears snug leopard pants and a black T-shirt too big for her. That’s my shirt. She is leaning into the mirror as if to kiss it. She is doing something to her eyes, her eyelashes.
She is barefoot, like Jeremy.
You’re wearing my shirt, I say.
I hope you don’t mind, she says.
No. I don’t mind.
Are you okay, honey? she says. You’re stuttering.
What’s happening here, Jude.
Be specific, please.
I slip Miller’s ruby ring from my finger and drop it into the sink. Bright and clattering red against hard white porcelain then disappearing down the open drain.
Jude frowns. I hope he didn’t want that back, she says.
Fuck him. The guy’s a freak.
He’s a wealthy freak, she says.
I light a cigarette and Jude extends her left hand. She wants to share. I ignore her for a moment. Then pass her the cigarette.
He wants to make a snuff film, I say.
Yeah, she says. He’s just a tiny bit nuts.
Jude shrugs. He’s sitting on a pile of money.
What’s the problem?
Where the fuck should I start?
Do you have to swear constantly?
Are you fucking kidding?
Please, she says. I’m so tired of that word.
Fuck fuck fuck, I say. Fucking fuck. When did you get so fucking sensitive?
Are you finished?
Listen to me, please. I just spent four very scary hours with the man. If we make this film with him, somebody is going to die.
Maybe, she says. Maybe not. The most interesting art is a little dangerous.
Oh, please. Don’t give me that shit.
Her voice goes cold. Take a good look at my face and tell me about danger.
And don’t sulk, she says. It’s not attractive.
Look, I say. By definition, you can’t make a snuff film without a victim.
She shrugs. Some victims are predestined.
I suppose you’re too clever to get waxed, I say.
Jude smiles and blows smoke at her reflection.
What about me? I say. I’m not so clever.
Phineas is only stupid when he’s drunk, she says.
Maybe, I say. But I tend to drink a lot, when I’m with you.
Jude shrugs. I will keep an eye on you, then.
Jude finishes reconstructing her eyes and turns to look at me. What do you think? she says.
I stare at her. I can’t tell the difference.
Jude sighs. What do you think about the film, she says.
I have my doubts about the concept, I say. The genre seems… played.
Listen, she says. Miller is going to give us a million dollars and deliver us MacDonald Cody on a silver plate. I don’t care if he wants to shoot a remake of Old Yeller with fucking Muppets.
Travis? I say. Where you going with that gun in your hand?
Jude smiles. That poor boy.
Did you ever see that snuff film flick with Nicolas Cage?
Yawn, she says. And I love Nicolas Cage. I would watch him eat soup. But after two hours of him looking worried and morally compromised…I was ready to scream.
What kind of soup?
Jude stares at me. Campbell’s tomato.
Long silence. I watch her in the mirror. I flush the toilet, restless.
This bathroom needs a sofa, I say.
Miller called, she says. Just now. He said you were quite taken with Molly.
I chew at my lip. Yeah.
Well, she says. You wouldn’t want her to be the victim, would you.
Oh, you bitch. That’s why you wanted me to follow him home.
Jude sits on the edge of the tub and turns on the hot water.
Okay. Let’s talk about Jeremy, then.
Who? she says.
The half-naked boy watching TV in our bed.
Oh, she says. Jeremy wants to make movies when he grows up, just like everyone else on this sad fucking planet. He’s very clever with a camera. And we need someone behind the camera.
How old is Jeremy?
The room slowly fills with steam. Jude pulls the black shirt over her head. Leopard print bra and yellow skin. Today, she is a cat.
Jeremy? Twenty-two, she says. Adorable, isn’t he?
Umm, yes. Why is he here?
He quit his day job, she says. I told him he could stay here until we begin the shoot.
That was nice of you.
Phineas. Are you jealous?
I don’t get jealous. Shit, two hours ago I wanted to fuck Molly.
Jude rolls her eyes. Why does this bother you, then?
I don’t like surprises. I want some privacy with you. I don’t want a stranger in the cocoon.
Please. The cocoon is an illusion.
Where will he sleep?
I don’t know, she says. There are two beds.
And three of us.
Jude turns off the water and the silence is sudden. Dripping.
Yes, she says. There are three of us. I like him and I imagine you like him. Maybe you would like to explore some of your multicultural urges.
The steam is thick and I can barely see her now.
I don’t think Jeremy is interested in me, I say. I took a knife to him just now.
Jude is a ghost, gray and faceless in the steam. I imagine she drops the leopard rags to the floor and slips slowly, carefully into the burning water with a sigh and moan.
Try, she says. Try to be friendly.
How long have you and Miller been cooking this thing up?
Jude shrugs. A week or so.
Give me some back story.
Simple, she says. I arrived on his door one day, looking to kill him. He offered up the Finch brothers, but I already had them. He said he would give me Cody, if I played nice. And only if I did this film with him. He already had Jeremy and Molly in the fold.
I need air, I say.
I come out of the bathroom and crash around for a minute, ignoring Jeremy. The sound of pay-per-view porn from the television.
Jude sinks underwater in my head, her flesh slippery.
What do I want?
I want anonymous flesh and unconsciousness. I want to cut my head off and use it as a strawberry planter. I scrape together a skinny line of coke from the ashy remains on the blue plate.
Unspeakable dialogue and electronic music. Heavy breathing and I tell myself to be friendly.
Get out, I say.
What? says Jeremy.
Get the fuck out, boy. I need to talk to my girl.
LONG SHADOW OF A NAKED WOMAN becoming man with green skin. The velvet surrounds us, keeps us. Two bodies in the dark. The only light comes from television and bathroom in fever pitch of dream and mirrors. Otherwise dark. I separate from her in dreams and go belowground to hunt blind silverfish, bony creatures that are more frog than fish but taste of spider. Other travelers pass me in the dark and I offer to trade my silverfish if they can answer a riddle.
What is the shadow with green skin that is not man, not woman?
The mind wanders, as it will.
At one point, there was a digital clock in this room. It gave off fine green numbers that floated in the dark like fireflies until the clock met with a sudden misfortune. Jude took it apart in a cocaine fury several hours or days ago and now there are bits and pieces of clock in the bed and on the floor, plastic bread crumbs scattered for terrible birds. Because it was humming, she said. Humming. The internal clock says this is morning and backs it up with the big morning penis that comes out of nowhere, wandering and discontent. The penis that wants a piece of chocolate cake and won’t be fucked with.
Jude is asleep, however. Or pretending to be.
I grope through the tangle of sheets and find under my pillow a small tube of Astroglide, a substance originally designed for the slippery purpose of getting astronauts in and out of their spacesuits. To my mind, space travel is an accurate but ultimately gruesome metaphor for fucking. There is no air pressure in space, no gravity. For one breathless moment you are a feather in the void and the brain is on holiday. The dead weight of soul and ego are cast adrift and you are nothing but blood. Then you achieve orgasm. You notice the tiny hole in your spacesuit and now your guts are spilling out of your ears like pudding.
Curious George, I say. It all goes back to the man in the yellow hat.
Jude pushes two fingers into my mouth and tells me to shut up. Her fingers taste of salt. I nibble at them and the bed heaves and she is on her feet, breathing like a fighter. The shadow bends, as if to kiss me. Her hands find my throat and I tell myself not to fight and abruptly she kisses me. The taste of her mouth is like chewing on rose petals sweet with mint, with poison and I want to kiss her again but she dodges away and now one of her hands slithers over my ribs and across my belly and down. I try not to think of monkeys and in another minute I’m inside her.
Arms and legs thrashing. The hammer of blood and so on.
It’s okay, she says. I’m right here.
But I can’t see you.
Violence and whispered apologies. Detachment of self. The eyes wander and drift, as if searching for something never seen, something that hides in the dark under bone.
What’s wrong with my eyes?
Hush, she says. Nothing is wrong with your eyes.
How long? I say.
How long what? she says.
How long have we been crashing around in the dark.
Two days, she says. Maybe three.
Jude and I have returned effortlessly to form. Immediately after I evicted Jeremy from the room, Jude broke out a large quantity of the excellent pink cocaine. Together, we snorted enough of it to kill a small horse. My face was completely numb. Jude picked up the phone and called John Ransom Miller. She told him that we needed some time to get reacquainted. She also told him I needed time to get into character, which made me laugh like a goddamn crazy person. Then she hung up the phone and turned off the lights, one by one. She told me to take off my clothes.
The skin between us is destroyed, unrecognized. Dead and dying tissue between us. Visible wounds that move from one to the other and back. There’s a nasty gash down my right shoulder in the shape of California but backwards, gouged by Jude with a corkscrew. The wound is much worse than she intended. Oozing and slow to heal and soon it will be impossible to lift my arm. And perhaps was not Jude at all. Perhaps was inflicted on self. I remember how awkward the cut had been to make, how unlike the cut of a knife. The flesh unyielding, slow to give. And it happened not long ago because an echo of the pain lingers in my arm now even though the skin appears to be smooth and good as new, the wound is gone without trace but this is not possible and I worry for Jude, I worry for the body that moves with me now as if through water. I have mistaken her breathing for my own and it seems that she pushes me along even as I push at her and I have the idea that neither of us can swim and if one us fails to push then both will drown. I am aware too that I should stop thinking, that conscious thought will surely fuck things up between us but I am worried about her shoulder, I want to examine her shoulder for a wound in the shape of California and already I am losing her and now she swims ahead and it appears that if anyone is going to drown it will be me.
Arms and legs thrashing. The hammer of blood.
I’m coming, says Jude.
And holds her breath. Orgasm is brief, nonviolent.
What color? I say.
Devastating blue, she says. The pale blue eyes of a murdered boy.
You remembered, she says.
Jude comes in colors. How could I forget. Trembling blond orgasms that seem to piss her off and rare pink orgasms that never end. Chemical red orgasms that fill her with guilt and perfect orgasms black as fresh earth. Orgasms shadowy and gray that may or may not cause her to weep and orgasms the color of bruised skin, orgasms that fade from purple to yellow and remain visible for days.
I want to turn on the lights.
Please, she says. I prefer the dark.
But the dark is making me insane.
You’re not insane, she says.
Thanks, I say. How do you know?
Because insane people never think they are insane.
I’m tired, Jude. I’m tired of sitting in the dark.
You remind me of Pinocchio, she says.
Before or after he became a real boy? I say.
Did you hate your father? she says.
No, I say. I don’t think so.
Jude blows air through her teeth. Then it was your mother who fucked you up.
Fuck you. What’s this bullshit about Pinocchio?
I think it’s obvious, she says. He hated his father.
One of her hands slips into my lap, cold. I flinch and she laughs.
I could eat you, she says. Truly. I could eat your skin from the bone.
Geppetto wouldn’t hurt a mouse and the boy adored him.
Whatever, she says. Pinocchio was a freak. He was the little wooden Elephant Man and he would never have existed if the old man hadn’t carved him. Gepetto was like any other punchdrunk god who thinks he’s doing you a favor and then just completely shits on you.
Which is it? I say. Pinocchio or the Elephant Man.
Jude shrugs. Both.
Well. I can see the Pinocchio bit, I say. The donkey’s head, for instance. And his problem with telling the truth. The Elephant Man, though. He was a sweetheart. Hideous to look at and you wouldn’t want to touch him, but he was probably a nicer guy than me.
Who do you think of? she says. When you fuck me?
I close my eyes and try to think of a normal, well-adjusted response. My mind does tend to wander during sex. I suffer strange, inappropriate visions. I often think of Jenny, a neurotic border collie I used to have. Jenny had wings. That dog could catch a Frisbee no matter how high or far I threw it. The trouble with Jenny was that she would never give the Frisbee back unless I threatened her. Jenny would run from me, she would hide in a patch of tall grass and chew and suck at the Frisbee in a way that was manic and eerily sexual. And she could destroy a good Frisbee in five minutes.
Do you see whores from your past? says Jude. Pale pubescent girls? Waitresses with bad skin or small hairless men?
What was the third choice? I say.
Jude bites my ear, hard enough to draw blood. I push her away from me.
You haven’t come yet, she says. It’s been three days. Three days of sex and not a trickle. I try not to worry about it. I tell myself that you’re a freak. That it’s because of the drugs. That it’s not my problem.
But you’re a liar, I say.
Yes, she says. I need to make you come.
What does my come taste like?
Aluminum, she says.
The taste of fear, I say.
Exactly, she says.
I grope the walls and flip the lights. The room is a horror and my dick is soft, very soft. It sleeps, meek and fleshy against my thigh and I’m sure that a soft penis is what death looks like. Loose skin and a thousand wrinkles, gray and wasted.
I offer this comparison and Jude doesn’t smile. I offer to go down on her.
She squints at me. Your eyes are the same blue. But exactly.
Don’t look at them, I say.
We have been in the dark too long. I have acquired the blue eyes of a murdered boy and I want to go outside.
Irrational or not, the horror of space travel goes back to Curious George and his sinister companion, the man in the yellow hat. That guy was obviously not right and I instinctively hated him as a boy. I see his face whenever I hear the word pedophile and as it happens, the only Curious George story that stuck in my head is the one in which the man in the yellow hat blackmails poor George into outer space. And there you go. If my mother had reached for a different book, I might have manifested a sexual fear of bicycles or kites.
Four hours later, give or take.
I wake up and the bed is empty. Jude is in the bathroom, naked and sitting on the edge of the tub, head cocked like a praying mantis and her hair falling in a mad tangle over her left shoulder. A vanity mirror between her thighs and she’s probing herself with two fingers. She looks too crazy and hostile to be masturbating and I know she hates stupid questions so I decide to pee and say nothing.
I have an itch, says Jude.
What kind of itch?
A maddening itch.
I glance over my shoulder, sympathetic but obviously trying to pee.
There was no itch yesterday, she says.
I’m not awake yet and to my mind yesterday is still happening. I stare at the ceiling and wonder if she’ll freak out if I mention the word imagination. There is water damage on the ceiling, a warped and dripping stain in the shape of Bob Dylan’s head. Imagination is never a popular word in these domestic situations and at four in the morning it might be deadly. The only solution is to back away from the toilet and change the subject.
Water damage, I say. The ceiling is fucked.
What? she says.
It may not be safe in here, I say.
Her eyes narrow. If you say this is my imagination, or even think it.
Imagination? I say.
The feet, she says. I will do something terrible to your feet.
Do you think I afflicted you with something?
Maybe, she says. Maybe not.
I scratch my head, helpless. Do you want me to look at it?
No, she says.
Maybe it’s a spider bite.
Jude stares at me. A spider?
What would a spider be doing in there?
I chew on my lip.
Careful, she says.
Oh yes. I want to be careful with this question. I promptly discard the notion that the spider was looking for food. I like the sound of gravitational weirdness but this is perhaps too vague, too unscientific. Jude sighs, staring at the little mirror. I slide close enough to touch her shoulder, to breathe her air.
Eucalyptus. Dandelions and salt. Opium and rainforest.
I have no idea what her scent is called, or where it comes from. Jude uses a lot of mysterious oils and lotions and it could be any of them, none of them. It could be her blood, her internal juices coming to the surface. Her smell is always on my skin and always fading. Jude turns the mirror sideways, squinting.
Fancy, she says.
What? I say.
It looks like a tiny deformed heart, she says. From a certain angle.
I count to five. What time is it, do you think?
Jude puts the mirror aside. Two o’clock, she says.
Come back to bed.
Why? she says.
We should get some sleep.
It’s two in the afternoon, she says.
We could have sex, I say.
Jude stares at me.
Or not. What about a drink, then?
Please. With just a drop of vodka.
I hold out my hand and she allows me to lead her back to the bed.
There are two empty bottles of vodka at the vanity sink. A jug of ginger ale, a fifth of Jack that we’ve barely touched. There is a carton of milk, unopened and no doubt very sour. The ice is gone and the sink is foul with gray water and mutilated limes. The refrigerator is stuffed full of drugs and cash. When Jude checked into the room, she apparently removed all of the overpriced cheeses and chocolates and white macadamia nuts and miniature bottles of liquor and Snapple and put them in the hall and told the first maid who came along that we didn’t want that shit and that she would personally hurt anyone who tried to restock the fridge. Jude can be very convincing when she promises to hurt someone and the maids have barely peeked in here since. They leave fresh linens and soap outside the door every morning but I don’t think we have changed the sheets even once.
The vodka is gone, I say.
Jack and ginger then, she says.
The crushed pulp of limes. My eyes water. I consider opening the drawer to my left but don’t. I mix the drinks like a robot. Jude is watching me in the vanity mirror.
You have a nice body, she says. For a junkie.
I stare back at her, wary. Thank you.
It’s not hairy, she says. And it’s almost perfectly symmetrical.
I regard myself in the mirror and decide that I am malnourished and freakishly pale, considering that I spent the last few years living on the edge of my imaginary desert. I’m no ghost but three days in this room and I have started to fade rapidly, to disappear. Jude is brown as deerskin.
I move out of her line of sight, then open the drawer to my left. There is a brief, contemplative silence. I turn on the cold water tap and hope that Jude will think I am brushing my teeth, that she will not register the sound of an otherwise intelligent man snorting a bump of cheap brown heroin that may or may not be poison. Jude has forbidden me to touch it because yesterday, when she was taking an endless bubble bath I got restless and snorted too much of it. Jude came out of the bathroom with a towel around her head and found me nodding and drooling and grunting like a monkey that can’t decide where he wants to lie down and die and soon I was feverish and hallucinating and spewing a grim yellow substance from my mouth and ass.
The heroin has turned me into jelly. I carefully give Jude her drink, then float backwards into a chair and spill my own drink all over myself. It feels nice, actually.
Bananafish, I say. Let’s go fishing for bananafish.
Jude sips her drink, staring at me. Her eyes are sharp as nails and I can feel them poking through to the back of my head.
You opened the drawer, she says.
Oh that’s true.
She stands on the bed, naked and very tall. I peer up at her from my sunken position, Jack and ginger pooling in my bellybutton. She drains her glass and I watch as her face shrinks through the bottom of it. I’m sure I have a stupid expression on my face but there’s nothing I can do about it and now Jude throws the glass over my head. She throws it sidearm like a shortstop and it curves slowly past my line of sight to crash into the wall.
I told you to stay out of that drawer for a while.
Jude pulls on underpants, staring at me. She takes a big black gun from beneath her pillow, one I had not known was there. Looks to be a Glock 37, a serious fucking weapon. I wonder how many guns she’s got hidden around this room like deadly Easter eggs and now that I think about it, I’ve lost track of that Walther she gave me the other day. I’ve a bad habit of misplacing weapons when I’m high. Jude checks the clip, glances down the sight at me. I’m fairly confident that she won’t shoot me because our relationship has evolved. Now she hops on the bed and bounces up and down, rising like a dead leaf caught in a warm updraft. The room has low gravity.
You need to get dressed, she says.
Because we have a meeting.
I don’t understand.
A meeting, she says. It’s when two or more humans sit down together and talk.
Oh, I say. That sounds horrible.
Too bad, she says. It’s been three days and Miller is getting clinical. I told him we would meet him for cocktails at six.
What does he want?
What do you think he wants? To discuss the film.
I shake my head, violently. Fuck that, I say.
Please, she says. Pull yourself together.
No, I say. Not gonna do it.
I want her to stop bouncing and I’m about to say so when she springs across the gap between bed and chair and lands in my lap. Jude is very light on her feet and somehow I don’t start hemorrhaging upon impact. Now she sinks her teeth into my nose and my peripheral vision disappears.
Get dressed, she says.
Yes. Why not.
A walk sounds fine. The legs are functioning like never before. Brilliant glowing hole where my face used to be but that’s no trouble. Personal supernova. I rumble around the room, negotiating with my clothes. Black jeans and black T shirt and brown leather jacket. Feeling colorful, yes. I dress myself without difficulty and I’m confident it’s a pretty rapid process but when I finish lacing my boots, Jude is smoking maybe her ninth cigarette and gazing at me with disgust. I see that she is wearing a much more complicated outfit than mine. Pale silver boots that buckle up to the knees and a black skirt with steel zippers up the sides, a transparent orange shirt and some kind of black nylon vest that looks to be painted on. She has applied immaculate lipstick and she still holds that gun, I notice.
On your feet, she says.
She takes my outstretched hand and drags me over to the vanity area. Taps the mirror with a short blunt fingernail. The mirror ripples like water but does not break.
Look, she says.
I look in the mirror and I see what she sees. My hair is dirty but not so short and frightening now that I have stopped cutting it myself. I could use a shave, but none of my clothes are inside out. Probably I have looked worse in the past, a lot worse. Jude looks great, though. She looks like she should be with some other guy, someone much younger and cooler and altogether more hygienic than me.
You’re staring, she says.
I like to look at you.
Jude hands me a pink CD jewel case that previously held a mysterious software called Darkstar. Jude has a slick new laptop and lately she likes to disappear online when I become dull or impotent. I was sure she would spend most of her time hitting porn sites but was somehow not surprised to learn that she is in fact a compulsive day trader. Jude has changed since I saw her last. She has become infinitely more competent and dangerous than even before. There are two fat lines of coke chopped onto the pink plastic case. I reach for a red cocktail straw and snort them without hesitation.
Phineas has a dubious policy about cocaine: When it’s offered him, he tends to do a lot of it.
I rub a little into my teeth and suddenly I look much better in the mirror.
I’m a handsome motherfucker, I say.
Jude opens the drawer that contains the stash of bad heroin. She removes the foil lump and shows it to me. Her left eyebrow goes up.
Are you paying attention?
I nod and follow her into the bathroom and watch as she flushes the little package down the toilet without comment.
There’s still plenty of cocaine, I say.
Jude turns. You’re not that handsome.
I smile provocatively at her, then turn and vomit into the sink.
INTERNAL DISTORTION, OVERLOAD. Too many conflicting desires and anxieties and I walk five blocks without thinking about where I’m going.
Flesh, perhaps. Inexpensive flesh.
Jude was pretty irritated about the vomiting. She said some very nasty things that I’m sure she didn’t mean, then went to meet Miller without me. I took a couple of Vicodin and went to sleep.
That was yesterday.
I woke up the next morning and she hadn’t come back. I took a bath and called room service for some breakfast. I needed a drink and thought solid food would be an interesting plot twist but I found the bacon too crunchy and alarming and the Western omelet downright objectionable. I drank the bloody mary and went back to sleep. There was no sign of Jude when I woke up and I formed the theory that she was busy fucking Miller to death and taking her sweet time about it.
I want to lose myself for a while. I want the anonymous touch of a whore. The streets are fuzzy. The hiss of traffic on wet blacktop sounds like analog, like vinyl. I’m angry and not sure why. I vaguely remember telling Jude that I don’t get jealous but now I’m thinking that was a lie. The swirl of cigarette smoke and ruined voices around the corner. I come upon two women with thick, muscled shoulders and narrow hips, heavy thighs. Terrible mouths and the bodies of men. I ask them to point me in the direction of the Tenderloin and they commence to hoot and holler. They ask me what I’m looking for.
Gratification, sympathy. False intimacy.
I don’t know, I say. Maybe a massage.
Honey, says one. I know just what you need.
Lord yes, says the other. Four hands better than one. You come along with Sorrow and me and we gonna take care of you. You think you gone to heaven.
Sorrow? I say.
That’s right, says the first one. My name is Sorrow and this my sister, Milky Way.
I am briefly tempted by the horror of another rented room. The sour sheets. The stink of boiled skin, the heavy perfume. The flicker of dying light. The panic and grind of Latin pop music. The raw, foreign hands of two transvestites with such unlikely names.
I could easily lose myself, I think.
No, thanks. I’m looking for a regular girl.
Oh, honey. Now that’s rude.
I believe you want to apologize, sucker.
I’m sorry. I’m looking for a different girl.
Uh huh. You sorry as can be.
What kind of girl?
I don’t know. Foreign.
They laugh and screech like mad chickens and Milky Way finally tells me to go fuck myself.
Jude and I are two people, not one. Funny but I have to remind myself of that sometimes. The velvet warms and binds but I don’t really know her. I don’t know what’s in her heart. I am safe with her for one day, two. The cocoon is temporary and what do I want. Obliteration. The ability to fly.
I tell myself to shut up, to keep walking. I have four hundred dollars. Enough to take me back to Flagstaff, to a mattress on the floor. Dishwater skin and bourbon in a jelly jar and a window with an unbroken view of the sky. The edge of the desert. I can listen to public radio and daydream about Atlantis and I can satisfy my physical hunger with my own two hands. I can destroy myself, if necessary. I stop in the middle of the street and look down at my open hands. The little finger of my left hand has twice been broken, and is now crooked. Otherwise they are ordinary hands with but one visible scar between them. Twenty-nine stitches on the palm of my right hand that effectively wiped out my life line. I tell people that it happened in a knife fight but the truth is that I was the only one involved. The wail of a car horn and someone yells at me to get the Christ out of the road.
I keep walking, keep walking.
This is the wrong way.
I am moving slowly uphill and I have a feeling that the Tenderloin should be down from here. I should be moving in a downward spiral. But perhaps this is metaphorical thinking. Or would that be irony, symbolism. These things are vaguely defined in our culture. This is San Francisco and eventually I will find whatever it is I’m looking for.
The Paradise Spa on Hemlock, a nasty little alley off Van Ness. Tanning and oriental massage. The very same establishment recommended me by young Jeremy. The sign is barely visible from the street and I might have easily walked by it. Blue neon, pale and wispy. Tucked in along a doughnut shop, a Vietnamese grocery. The Paradise Spa is open until midnight. Because you never know. You never know when you might suffer a pinched nerve, or when you might want to do a little maintenance on that tan. I wonder if they even have tanning beds.
The front door needs a coat of paint.
Open it and step inside and I’m facing a steel mesh door, locked. Dark red curtain behind it. To the right of the door is a small black sign with white lettering that tells me a half hour massage is fifty dollars. A whole hour is very economical at eighty dollars. Tanning is twenty bucks for twenty minutes but who gives a shit. To the left of the door is a buzzer. Press it with my thumb, briefly.
The red curtain is pulled aside and the face of a troll appears, shriveled and brown as a peach pit with black eyes bright. The eyes study me a long moment. Troll apparently decides I am neither cop nor psycho because the door is unlocked.
Come, she says.
Troll takes me by the wrist with little claw, pulls me inside.
Come. You ever be here before?
You want half hour?
I want to be agreeable. Yes, I say. The half hour.
Warm, soft light. Japanese prints on the walls of the hallway. The furniture is cheap, simple. The kind of shit you find in a Holiday Inn. Troll leads me down the hall past several closed doors, her sandals flapping softly on tile floor. I hear whispers.
Then grunting, man or pig.
Pulse quickening now. Troll shows me to a tiny room with bed and chair. The bed is covered with white towels. On the wall above the bed is a shelf with yellow lamp and radio, a box of tissues, and various oils and lotions. The radio is tuned to soft jazz, elevator-style. Troll holds out her hand, impatient. The money, yes. Fumble in pockets and produce fifty dollars.
You need shower, she says.
Take shower. You wash.
No. I’m clean.
Troll makes a nasty smacking sound with her leather tongue, stares at me. I stare back at her, hoping she doesn’t insist on the shower. I feel relatively cozy in the confines of this room and I just want her to close the door, to go away. I don’t like this idea of a shower at all. I would be vulnerable, paranoid under bright lights. I would be slippery and exposed and I don’t want my asshole inspected.
I don’t want a shower.
Troll stares at me and I decide she wants an explanation.
I’m afraid someone will steal my shoes.
Troll frowns and sighs. Undress, she says. Lie on bed.
The door closes behind her and I sit down in the chair. Unlace my boots with fingers numb, unresponsive. Wonder how it is that my hands fall asleep in my pockets. I flex them a few times. Touch left thumb to throat and find my pulse is racing. I shove the boots and socks under the chair and out of sight. Pull off the rest of my clothes and try to fold them but I’m incompetent and finally heap them on the chair. I stand naked beside the bed a moment, staring at the radio. The soft jazz is maddening and I flick at the tuning knob until I find Patsy Cline and stop. I turn around in a manic circle because country stations are tricky. Patsy may be followed by Kenny Rogers or worse. I tell myself to lie down. There’s a laminated notice on the wall above the radio that lists the house rules of Paradise Spa, with a lot of misplaced apostrophes and inappropriate italics. The thing is framed, like a diploma. Translation: no alcohol, no illegal drugs, no weapons, no violence. No solicitation and no sexual acts of any kind because the Paradise is a wholesome place.
Patsy Cline falls to pieces. The bed smells like disinfectant, with a hint of breezy fabric softener. Bounce, I mutter to myself. Downy. I flop on the mattress, belly down. Then wiggle around like a nervous cockroach and clumsily cover my ass with a towel. Take deep breaths, meditative. I wish my heart would stop pounding and I wonder what Jude is doing to young Jeremy and abruptly Patsy is muscled aside by Kenny Rogers. “The Gambler.” I want to laugh but I can’t.
The door opens with the coo of a dove. Hello.
Open my eyes and at first I think there is some mistake. The girl is barely five feet tall in a little plastic white dress that clings to her like wet tissue. Her hair is a massive, fizzy black nightmare. She has arms and legs thin as sticks and surely this is illegal. The girl is maybe fourteen. I roll over and try to sit up but she pushes me down with a cool hand and now I see her face. Tiny wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. And her breasts are surreal, too large for her body and perfectly round and defined by the clean hard edges of the surgically enhanced. Her breasts swell above her ribcage as if they might float away.
What’s your name? she says.
Um. Fred, I say.
Please. On your tummy, Fred.
And what’s your name? I say.
I am Veronica, she says.
A slight accent but her English is not bad. Better than the troll’s and no doubt better than your average American’s. I think she is Vietnamese but then I am only slightly less stupid than the next white guy when it comes to distinguishing one East Asian group from another. Veronica runs a hand up my thigh and pulls the little white towel aside. I don’t have an erection yet but I can feel the blood gathering. She smiles faintly and I feel a gentle twitch of nausea. I roll over onto my stomach and close my eyes.
Veronica has great hands.
This is not a massage, however. It’s foreplay. It’s like being tickled by silk feathers, by the tiny velvet fingers of dolls. Her hands roam up and down my legs, stroking my ass and thighs and feet with the sweet lazy touch of a lover and now one hand sinks shivering between my legs to lightly touch my penis.
What’s this? she says.
I don’t like this hide and seek shit, usually. But it’s nice to close my eyes and pretend I’m twelve and playing doctor with the girl next door. I don’t remember her name but she has dirty blond hair and crooked teeth and she smells like strawberry lip gloss and maybe, just maybe she has a fucking Band-Aid on her knee, oh my.
What do you want? she whispers.
I open my eyes and roll over. Veronica massages my chest and belly and leans close to me, rubbing her hard round tits against my arm. What do you want. What do you want. I want her to do whatever she wants to do. I want her to be professional. I want her to touch me for money.
You want to make love, she says.
Love. The word seems grotesque.
I don’t think so.
Veronica shoves one finger into her mouth and sucks at it. You want?
You will give me nice tip, she says.
Veronica is already bored with me. She sighs and mechanically lowers the straps of her dress and her cartoon tits bounce into my hands. She allows me to fondle her nipples for approximately ninety seconds, then pushes my hand away. Veronica straddles my torso, her ass in my face. The white plastic dress is short and quickly rides up over her hips and under it she’s wearing a black lace thong that is too small for her and her shaved red pussy is two inches from my face and I am tempted to lift my head and bite her, to rip at the thong with my teeth but now she is nibbling and kissing at my rock-hard dick and briefly I am confronted with an image of Jude wearing the same black thong and she’s laughing or crying and Miller stands over her and just as Veronica sticks her pinky in my ass I grab her by the shoulders and push her ravenous mouth away.
Stop, I say. I’m sorry, but just stop.
And with that, the transaction is finished. Veronica hops off me and quickly straightens her dress. She adjusts her mass of hair and I see now that it’s a wig. She leaves the room and I lounge there, a frog waiting to be dissected. I have been injected with that shit that makes the blood purple and gelatinous and still I feel empty as hell. I just want to get the fuck out of here. I reach for a tissue and swab at my package but it’s pretty gory down there, still rock hard, now marked with red lipstick. I won’t wash her mouth away without a nice long bath. The door opens again and Veronica slips through, smiling. She holds a Diet Pepsi in one hand and a warm washcloth in the other. She hands me the soda and I sit there like a soiled child while she wipes down my gear with the washcloth. And when she’s finished, she holds out her hand. I give her the Diet Pepsi and she frowns. I reach for my pants and pull out three twenties. Veronica rolls her eyes and I pull out another one and now she smiles and nods and the money disappears into her shoe. Veronica asks if I am not thirsty and I say no, thanks. She shrugs and leaves me to dress myself and when I open the door, Troll is waiting to escort me out.
I could kill myself sometimes. I am cast adrift in California and though I may appear to be easily confused, I know exactly what I’m doing. Through the filter, removed. One angle black and white fuzzy with no sound. I am talking to myself on a wet sidewalk tainted with yellow then red of traffic lights in a strange city and I’m not wearing a watch but I imagine it’s been less than an hour since I left the hotel room. I have just had my cock effectively gobbled by a stranger and I am feeling no pain and now I am aware of blue neon behind me, the fading signature of a ghost.
I LEAVE THE PARADISE SPA and walk up Geary to Jones. Enter the bar called Mao’s that is empty but not. The walls are painted with black and white murals of old world film actors. Charlie Chaplin. Fatty Arbuckle. Laurel and Hardy. They stare and stare and I feel surrounded. I go to the bar and an old guy with silver hair and little round eyeglasses comes over, puts a napkin in front of me. The empty barstools to my left and right are too perfectly aligned and a little creepy. I ask for ice water and two shots of whiskey but I am really tempted to demand a glass of hydrogen peroxide because my mouth feels wrong. It feels like it’s full of fucking cigarette ash. I suck down the water in a long furious swallow, drooling. The bartender has a lazy brown eye that wanders around loose as a marble while the other stares straight through me.
That’s gonna be eight dollars, he says.
I give him a twenty and tell him to go ahead and bring another shot.
Long day? he says.
Endless, I say.
The bartender shrugs and glances up at one of the overhead televisions. There are seven of them, I notice. On two screens are the same silent baseball game, the Dodgers and Braves. Three of the others are running old movies. Bette Davis howling and bug-eyed and completely nuts on the left. Jimmy Stewart peeping at his freaky neighbors to the right. And Laurence Olivier tediously dying straight ahead. The last two screens are gray and blank.
Are you Mao? I say.
Professionally speaking, yes, the bartender says.
Interesting name for a bar.
It’s all about mind control, he says. Propaganda, baby. The customers come in here like suicidal sheep and the televisions mesmerize them. The old movies make people melancholy and therefore thirsty. The baseball keeps them sedated. Think about it. Television and advertising and the power of mass hypnosis were completely unrealized before Mao and Hitler showed us a thing or two. Of course, it would be financial suicide to name a bar after Hitler.
I stare at him and he laughs, low and rasping.
The place is kind of empty, I say.
Yeah, he says. What the fuck do I know?
What about soft porn, I say.
Nah. He waves a hand. Don’t want the wrong element in here.
I shrug and swallow the first whiskey.
Pull up a stool, boy. You might as well stay a while.
I sit down and take slow, cautious sips of the second whiskey. I would hate to get drunk. I grin to myself and look up at the Dodgers game and see that the Braves are methodically destroying them. The players on the Dodger bench are serene, peaceful. The camera moves in on one young black player, a rookie who wears silver wraparound sunglasses even though it’s a night game. He stares out at the field as if he’s sitting in church and his face is frozen, cut from stone. The camera lingers and now I detect the faint twitch of artery or muscle below his jaw.
You said that the customers are suicidal, I say. The sheep.
The bartender nods. Yeah.
What do you mean by that, exactly.
Huh, he says. I’m not a goddamn psychologist and wouldn’t want to be. But it seems to me that anybody comes into a bar and sits by himself and sinks five or six cocktails one after another and never says boo to another soul well he’s got a gun to his head. He’s just taking his time about it.
I regard my own row of drinks.
Don’t take offense, he says.
The bartender grins. Like I said previously. I don’t know shit.
You ever think about it, Mao?
Pull my own plug?
Once or twice a day, in the morning especially.
What the hell. I’m sixty-four years old. I got arthritis. I try to jerk off and all I get is a fucking cramp in my neck. Thinking about suicide is the next best thing.
You want another? says Mao.
I shake my head.
Well, then. When are you going to eat a bullet?
The third whiskey sits before me, untouched. My stomach is gurgling for lack of food and the bartender is a madman. I think he should have called this place The Faustus. I think my skull is full of black ice. Mao begins to wipe down the bar with a rancid yellow towel. The stink of mildew. That lazy eye drifts by, unfocused. The fucking thing is making me seasick and I try to ignore it.
Were you ever married? I say.
Mao jabs one finger at the lazy eye. No, he says.
I shiver, unsurprised. That eye would be hard to deal with.
You? he says.
A long time ago, yeah. But she killed herself. Blew herself to bits.
Mao looks up. You serious?
Then I apologize to you. That was some insensitive shit to say.
I tell him not to worry about it. I tell him that it was a long time ago, another lifetime. Mao nods and murmurs and graciously tilts his head to the left so that I don’t have to face the lazy eye. I tell him she was very brave, my wife. That she killed herself only out of the desire to sidestep a slow death. I am tempted to tell him that I don’t have arthritis, that I spend a lot more time daydreaming about various gruesome ways to kill myself than I do actually bothering to masturbate. I’m not quite sure if this is true, however. And while it has a nice ring to it, I don’t think such a confession would exactly put a smile on Mao’s face. Anyway. I am trying to cut back on these incidents of drive-by intimacy. I stand up and tell him thanks and realize I am a trifle unsteady. I am wobbling. The third whiskey remains untouched and I ask him to please raise a toast to the next suicide that walks through the door.
Outside and yes, noticeably drunk. I have no sense of direction, no sense of time. I am wobbling on a street corner in downtown San Francisco. Vision is unreliable and after six, seven blocks, I am fast approaching blackout but not yet illiterate and the street signs that loom fuzzy black and white along my periphery identify this corner as 6th and Mission and danger is everywhere. Don’t laugh but I think I’m being followed. I hear footsteps, echoes. I take a few steps and I hear the scrape of leather against stone behind me. I stop walking and the echo is gone and I know this is the paranoia of bad movies.
The nostrils twitch and I smell feces.
Cut away to handheld camera, delirium tremens.
I swing left and right now full circle and find the shitter, a runaway white girl sixteen maybe seventeen, a poor little crackhead crouched in blue doorway with bright yellow miniskirt bunched around her waist, leaving a wet black steaming coil of shit on someone’s stoop.
This could be a clip from 20/20. Lost children etc.
Probably her condition should trouble me, it should offend me or move me somehow. But I am too drunk and blind and preoccupied with my own problems to care about the public health and anyway it’s not my doorway. The girl has to poop somewhere and even now her lips curl into a yellow snarl because I am staring at her. From her point of view, I am a stupid drunk middle-aged pervert and I’m staring at her, I’m invading her personal space. And if I breathe a word to her, if I offer to help this girl or give her money or a word of advice she will surely bite me.
I stand with my back to her a moment. Drunk but not unaware. The shitting girl is exactly the sort of lost soul that normally I would be compelled to help. I have a touch of Travis Bickle in me, says Jude. The watcher, the idiot avenger. But I’m not half the psychotic cracker that Travis was and I like to think my social skills are better by a mile or two. Anyway, something possesses me to turn around and ask the girl if she needs help. She has finished shitting by now and I can smell it. Her face is cracked and yellow and what’s left of her brown hair is thin and stringy. Her eyes are black holes but I notice with a kind of horror how shapely her legs are.
This girl was once a beauty.
Five dollars, she says. Give me five dollars.
I fumble with my money and locate a five dollar bill. I don’t want to think about what manner of service she might provide for five dollars. And when she sees the money, her small teeth flash.
Hey, mister. Let’s go. I’ll make you feel alright.
I shake my head, confused. Because this isn’t going to help her and I don’t know what will. I try to think what Jude would want me to do. She’d want me to be kind to this girl. Take her to IHOP and feed her pancakes with blueberry syrup, then coax her life’s story out of her. Then go out and kill the father or brother or boyfriend who made her like this. But I can only imagine that. I can only give her the five dollars and turn away from her but she grabs at my arm, her nails raking the skin along my wrist.
I raise my hand to hit her, to drive her away, but stop myself. She falls against the wall, screeching.
Jude would not want me to hit this girl, I don’t think.
The death shuffle. I walk a mile, or so it feels. And I have no fucking idea where the hotel is. I mutter to myself about milk and fallen angels and pretty polly and the glory of Ludwig Van in a terrible British accent because in the adolescent reptile portion of my brain I want to be Malcolm McDowell when I’m drunk but I am generally not so clever or elegant. I am stupid and cruel and violent and lonely and aching and maybe it would be best to take a cab out to Berkeley and curl up between Jude and John Ransom Miller like a lost sibling and worry about my intentions tomorrow but I am drunk and like any droog what is full of piss and lacking the common sense to lay down his head and sleep or die, I want to fight or fuck someone.
I want to fight John Ransom Miller.
Dear Jude, where are you. I want to be perfect just like you.
I can hear the freeway, the rush and hiss of a thousand cars. The edge, I am coming to the edge of something and I wonder if I am near the ocean and now I raise my eyes to see the curved freeway overpass like the massive spinal column of conjoined twins and glowing against black sky are the big green signs that provide blunt directions to Chinatown and North Beach and suddenly I am scared of the government and I want to get inside. I want to get inside and in the distance a shadowy line of people waits against the white wall of a building below the freeway. Three vertical black words against the wall over their heads, with a crude black arrow pointing to the heavens. It takes me a minute to make out the words but soon I form them silently with rubber tongue. The End Up.
Fate, baby. This is my new destination.
Melt into the line outside the End Up. Become a falling leaf brown and gold falling anonymous to earth with thousands of others. Infinity is mine, for two seconds. Then spot a mesmerizing blond girl with wide brown eyes and sharp features, hip bones jutting through thin nylon skirt. Belly button and nipples and goosebump arms and meathead boyfriend. Wobble like a duck. I gaze up the length of the line, where two very muscular bouncers with gold jewelry and black baseball caps are methodically patting people down before they go inside. They are looking for drugs, probably. But this is no problem, as I’m not holding. I forget for the moment that I am carrying a gun.
I turn to the nearest person, a Latin kid with blue hair. What is this place? I say.
He regards me with pity, scorn. It’s like a rave, man. But better.
The kid edges away from me, as if I have the pox. You better straighten up, he says.
What’s the rumpus?
You’re drunk, he says. And you smell like almonds.
I sniff myself, lifting one arm to my face. The kid is not wrong. I stink of almonds and I am about to say so but the lifting of my arm has apparently caused an unfortunate redistribution of personal mass which throws me off just slightly and I fall sideways into the blond girl with goosebump skin. She recoils in disgust and says loudly, oh gross and now the boyfriend leaps on me, beating me in the face and chest with stony fists and I am knocked backward, flopping into the crowd like an inflatable man and now fists come hammering down on me from all sides. Monkey in the middle. Something hits me in the eye that feels like a rock. Claustrophobia, numb panic. My cheek is gouged open by a sharp ring and the blood runs into my mouth and now someone lands a heavy fist in the back of my neck. This drops me to my knees. I’m trying to decide if I care for a fight and really I don’t. I’m too sleepy and my arms and legs are like boiled noodles but I can fight if necessary and so I try to push myself upright as a heavy boot sails into my ribs, maybe six inches north of the hole Jude left in me so many years ago and I roll heavily over the curb. I flop into the gutter on my back like an old dog that wants his belly scratched.
The commotion draws the attention of the bouncers and one of them stomps down the sidewalk, muttering into a headset. For one truly stupid moment, I think he’s coming to save me.
The bouncer crouches over me, cursing. He says some unkind shit to me. Then frisks me with big, unforgiving hands. He gives my testicles a brutal squeeze and I nearly vomit in his fucking face. He takes my money, all of it. He puts it into his own pocket, which seems grossly unfair.
But then I’m drunk, yes.
I am really very drunk and a drunk is not quite human. I have therefore forfeited my civil rights. I mumble at him to please fuck off anyway and he laughs. He finds the gun. He grunts with purely sexual satisfaction and leans down close and whispers, the cops are coming you piece of shit and I hope you sleep like a baby. Then unceremoniously bashes me between the eyes with the butt of my own gun.
AND I WAKE UP ON A RUBBER MAT. Bright light overhead and fine powder of broken glass in my eyes. Force them shut and extend one hand to examine my environment. There’s maybe an inch of water on the floor, cold water and I can hear the steady drizzle of a burst pipe. My hand splashes around in the water a while, blind and weak. My hand is a drowning rat. Unsanitary perhaps, but I use my wet fingers to soothe my eyes. I sit up and look around. The cell is five feet by seven. Overflowing toilet and two bunks tricked out with rubber mats. An inch of standing water on the floor and now I comprehend that I touched my sore eyes with toilet water. Brilliant. I’m alone in the cell. I was violent and they wanted to isolate me. I was comatose and they wanted to keep the crazies in the drunk tank from eating me alive. I’m wearing an orange jumpsuit and my bootlaces are gone. I was suicidal, maybe.
The memory is fucked, full of holes. Handcuffs chewing into my wrists. Crumpled in the backseat and my view of the world is sideways, upside down. The back of a cop’s head through steel mesh. Fuzzy blond hair. He wears no hat and I am muttering a lot of nonsense about Nazis. He ignores me but when we arrive at the station he drags me out of the car in such a way that my skull smacks into the doorframe with a lovely hollow thud. The booking process is hazy. But I can imagine it. I have been arrested before and I always fuck up the fingerprinting. They tell me to relax and I immediately go tense. The prints smear every time and it pisses them off no end. I was carrying no identification and I wonder what name I gave them. Ray Fine. Fred, or maybe Jack. That would have been beautiful. I might have slipped into my role of Jack the retard. The cops would not likely be amused by Tourette’s. They would probably beat a guy pretty severely if he was barking obscenities and repeating everything they said.
I seem to remember a gloved finger wiggling around in my asshole, but maybe I was dreaming of Jude just now. I remember the sudden flash of the camera. That mugshot is a rare beauty, I’m sure.
I sit up and stare at the toilet. The water is churning up over the sides like there is big trouble underground. The water looks clear enough, for now. But as soon as I use the toilet then I will have my own nasty fluids rippling around me. I may as well take a shit on the floor.
I wonder if they gave me a phone call. That phone call shit in the movies is nonsense. The scene where some poor bastard is moaning about his rights. I know my rights, he says. I want my phone call. The phone call is not a constitutional right, as far as I know. Thomas Jefferson and the rest of his crew didn’t have telephones, and anyway they sure as hell didn’t give a shit about any drunk asshole’s rights. And the word asshole is crucial. If you get arrested for public drunkenness, it’s because you’re an asshole. You walk in the door and you’re already an asshole. You’re an asshole. I’m an asshole. Everyone in here is an asshole. The cops can wait three days to charge you if they feel like it. And if you’re an asshole with no manners, well. You may as well forget about your fucking phone call for a while.
But I appear to be on suicide watch. And this means that somebody will come by to rattle my cage before long. They have to be sure I don’t eat my own tongue or gouge out my eyes. They have to at least pretend to care. I slosh over to the door like I’m going duck hunting and man I am none too steady. Drunk as a bishop even now and when did I last eat something. The tomato sandwich that Molly made for me. I wonder how she would like me now. I lean against the steel door and I hope my neighbor is friendly. I put my mouth close to the little window, pressing my lips against the cool mesh.
Hey, I say. Anybody out there?
Long hollow silence and for a few horrifying moments I imagine I’m the only one. Like something out of a science fiction movie. All of the prisoners have died of some horrible virus. The guards have fled and the prison is functioning on computer autopilot. But that can’t be.
Hey, I say.
Shut the fuck up, says one thin voice.
Then another, dry and torn. What’s up, cousin?
Confused, I say.
About what? says the voice. You’re in the pokey.
Yeah, I get that. Are we on suicide, though?
Damn straight, he says.
Fuck me, I say.
I always go suicide, says the voice. Always. Like flying first class. I got to have my privacy.
Yeah. But they hold you for seventy-two, I say.
Nothing wrong with that, cousin. Three days peace and quiet.
I close my eyes. Three days drifting on a rubber mat in a pool of my own urine. And no cigarettes. I will probably die without cigarettes.
How long since the sheriff last came by?
Don’t have a watch, cousin. But I’d say a half hour. At least.
The thin voice pipes up. Bullshit. It was ten minutes ago.
You shut your hole, says the torn voice. You got no concept of time.
Hey. You want to come suck my fucking dick?
Laughter, wheezing. What dick?
Thanks, I say. Thanks anyway.
I flop down on my little rubber lifeboat and wait for the next head count. I chew my lip for the residual taste of tobacco. I stare up at the bright fluorescent tube of light and wonder if it is day or night. I would sleep, if I could. I would dream.
Come footsteps. The rattle and echo of a billybat against one steel door after another. Then a chorus of voices, the music of hollow bones. I can’t be sure if they are coming from within or without. To hell with boys creeping up slowly. I’m hungry, hungry. And a man may fish with a worm that hath eat of a king and then eat of the fish that fed on the worm and around and around you go. Through the guts of a beggar and I don’t like ice cream.
On my feet and to the door.
The face of a young black guard appears at my window. The whites of his eyes like porcelain. He thumps the door and asks if I’m okay.
Yeah. Thanks for asking.
He grunts and starts to move on.
Yes? His eyes narrow.
I hesitate. I need to sound sane and I’m not sure my voice is reliable.
What do you want?
I need to speak to someone. I’m not sure I belong here.
The other prisoners begin to wheeze and cackle like a gang of chickens.
I’m not suicidal.
The guard peers at me. What’s your name?
Poe, I say.
He consults a clipboard. Yeah, he says. The ex-cop.
I’m not a cop. I’m just a regular asshole, now.
Says here you’re an ex-cop.
Furious whispers from left and right. Long slow, creeping shadows at the edge of my vision.
I sigh. Yeah. What am I charged with?
Assault, he says. Public drunk. Vagrant. Resisting arrest. And oh, shit. You won the lottery. Looks like you’re up for murder.
Did you say murder? That doesn’t sound right.
Tell it to the detectives, he says. They’ll be wanting to talk to you, now you’re awake.
He moves along to the next door and my neighbor says that he doesn’t belong here either. That he’s not crazy. He wants a phone call, a lawyer. He knows his fucking rights. Then he lowers his voice and confides to the guard that the fallen prophet Jeremiah has in fact been creeping around in his cell all night with his guts leaking out between his fingers and the motherfucker won’t shut up. Jeremiah is pissed off at God and he won’t let the rest of us sleep. The guard laughs and moves along.
I squat in the center of my cell with eyes closed. Murder, huh. That wasn’t part of my plan for this night, I know that much. I try to remember what happened. There was a sad fucked-up scene with an Asian whore. Then stumbling drunk. I was offensive. There was some sort of slapstick confrontation with a bouncer outside a nightclub that might have got messy, but murder seems a bit extreme.
I open my eyes now and a funny thing happens. I look around and for two seconds maybe three, this is no jail cell. I see fake wood paneling and molded furniture, avocado green. I see a stained mattress with faded blue stripes and I see an open doorway and miles and miles of yellow earth and this is home. This is my trailer back in Arizona.
I believe I would trade my soul for a cigarette.
The mad jangle of voices, farther away now. The drip of my toilet like a soft summer rain.
The thin voice. Hey, man. What the fuck? You five-oh, or what?
Long time ago, I say.
Once a cop, he says. Always a cop.
Fuck you, kid.
You talk like a cop.
Then laughter, like glass breaking apart.
Hours pass, maybe days.
My neighbor with the torn voice tells me that they never turn off the lights, that time is therefore elastic and that if I am not insane now, then surely I will be soon.
The young black guard returns and says the detectives are ready to interview me. I am led down the hall in shackles. My unlaced boots loose and flopping.
Hey killer what you got in that bag is it my true love’s head?
I don’t listen. I maintain a straight face. I keep my expression straight and true, like a well-groomed garden. I want to get out of here and I need to look right.
The guard is silent.
A security check-point and we wait to be buzzed through. Something stinks of sweat and vomit and I have a pretty good idea it’s me. Now I catch a muddy glimpse of myself in a bank of plexiglass and baby I’m a fright. Bruises and black streaks on my face and scarecrow hair. I touch my face and remember lying in the street, bloated and damp and I have to say my hat’s off to that bouncer. He bounced me good.
The guard deposits me in another small, windowless room. He tells me to shut up and wait, as if I have a choice. I sit at a scarred wooden table and flash back to the interrogation room back at the Denver P.D., not to mention a thousand and one poorly drawn rooms from the movies and television. I have been on both sides of the table and I know that interrogation is a pretty simple game of rhetorical hide and seek. The results are written in advance, like the streaming threads of fate, but however you arrive there the scene is bound to be ugly, and numbingly tedious, poorly designed and self-consciously acted.
Even so. I didn’t kill anyone and I want to see the sun today. I want a cigarette. There are right answers and wrong answers. The right answers will get me out of here. The right answers will put me on the street with the other humans. The wrong answers will get me a shot of Thorazine. I think of my neighbor, the one tormented by Jeremiah and I wonder if I should present myself as a paranoid Christian. A lot of good it’s done my neighbor.
The first cop is a short white guy, heavy and morose, with a bad mustache. It droops down over his lip and his tongue darts in and out as if to taste it. He adjusts his belt and gun and crotch and belly and heaves himself into the chair across from me, sighing. The second cop is small and pale. He doesn’t look like he weighs more than 140 or so and his hair and skin are the same pale beige color and basically he has a lot to overcompensate for and I have a feeling he’s as mean as he can be. He stands against the back wall, silent and staring.
Name? says the first cop.
Phineas Poe, he says. Formerly of the Denver P.D., Internal Affairs Division. He spits out these last eight syllables like bad meat.
Long time ago, I say. Hell of a long time.
Do you know why you’re here?
What’s your name? I say.
He stares at me. He stares at me for a while and I wonder if he’s counting to ten. His tongue darts out again, pink and terrible. That mustache truly bothers me and I try not to look at it. I realize that I have made a mistake. Questions will only make these guys angry. Your lines are already written so just spit them out in the proper order and everything will be fine. I tell myself to sit up straight. I try to indicate by my expression that I’m an okay guy. I’m intelligent and cooperative and respectful and all that shit but I don’t really think my face can handle so much at once. I glance at his pale little partner and he’s licking his lips, as if he just can’t wait for me to say the wrong thing.
Where are my manners, says the first cop. My name is Captain Kangaroo.
I tell myself to shut up, shut the fuck up. Don’t breathe.
But it’s like I have a manic little butterfly in my mouth, dying to get out. I shoot a glance at the pale little cop and I say it. I just say it.
I guess that makes you Mr. Green Jeans, I say.
He smiles at me and his teeth are the same shade of beige as his hair and skin.
Again, says Captain Kangaroo. Why are you here?
Because of a misunderstanding?
I see. What did you do tonight?
Nothing interesting, I say.
He yawns. Tell us anyway.
I had a couple of drinks at a place called Mao’s. Then I wandered down the street and immediately got my ass handed to me by a very unfriendly bouncer. Then I woke up here.
I guess you’re harmless, says Captain Kangaroo. I guess we should let you go.
The two of them stare at me and I just feel weary.
I know that I have a role to play here, I say. But I just can’t do it.
What? he says.
Why do we have to dance around this fucking bush? I say. The guard told me I’m charged with murder. Why don’t we talk about that?
Are you suicidal? says the pale cop.
I don’t think so.
Do you ever entertain suicidal thoughts?
I entertain such thoughts every day. Don’t you?
I think it’s normal.
It’s not normal.
Define normal, I say.
The pale little cop begins to whistle tunelessly. His partner sighs and looks at his watch. The pale cop sits down for a moment and takes off his left boot, which is an imitation leather Teddy boy boot that zips up over the ankle. He comes around the table, still whistling and walking funny because he only has the one shoe on. He smiles and shows me the boot, like a salesman. I look at it politely. Then he bashes me in the head with the heel of the boot and I feel something in my neck pop.
Normal, he says. There’s no such thing.
No such thing, says the Captain. He speaks in a numbing monotone.
That’s why we have crime in this country, says the pale cop. Because nobody feels normal and nobody wants to be normal.
There’s blood in my mouth. I swallow it.
Philosophy, I say. To be normal is to be dead.
Exactly, he says. And you’re about one smart answer away from another bump on the head.
You call that a bump?
Okay, says the Captain. This is boring the shit out of me.
He tosses an envelope on the table. The envelope contains crime scene photographs. I look at them one by one and they’re pretty bad. There’s so much blood I don’t recognize the girl at first. But it’s the yellow-faced girl I saw shitting on the street. Dead from every angle. Her skirt up around her waist and her pretty legs spread wide. It looks like her head was just about cut off. The last photo is a grim shot of her blackened fingers clutching what looks like a bloody five-dollar bill. I stare at her fingers until the scratches she left on my wrist begin to throb. There is something different about her and I realize it’s her hair. The girl shitting in the street had stringy brown hair like she was already dead, but in these photos she’s wearing a frizzy black wig.
That’s odd, I say. It sounds terrible as soon as it comes out of my mouth.
Odd? says the pale cop. I take it you’ve seen her before?
She’s wearing a wig, I say.
The pale cop shrugs. Her natural hair was falling out.
Captain Kangaroo tosses another photo on the table, a Polaroid. I reach for it, then pull my hand back. I can see from where I’m sitting it’s a picture of a Japanese fighting knife that’s been dipped in blood and looks a lot like mine. I look at the Captain. He yawns and his tongue flicks out to taste the mustache.
I guess I want a lawyer, I say.
The pale cop flashes his brown teeth. I’m sure one will be provided for you, he says.
Another guard comes to take me back to my cell. He informs me that I can see my lawyer in the morning, before I’m arraigned. His words sound so strange. I wonder exactly how many courtroom movies and television dramas I have seen in my lifetime. I sit on my rubber mat and watch the water rise around me. I wonder if anyone has ever died by drowning in jail. My neighbors have become moody and silent, which makes me lonely. I contemplate my situation and it seems pretty clear to me that I’m fucked. The girl in the street was apparently killed with my knife. The medical examiner will find bits of me under her fingernails. The black wig she was wearing will turn out to be Veronica’s, the whore from the Paradise Spa, and even though I never came, the wig will no doubt have traces of my semen in it. What else. That’s enough, isn’t it. They don’t need much else.
Phineas is fucked.
I crush my eyes with the heels of my hands until I see stars but I am not transported back to my trailer in the desert or anywhere else. I wonder who it was, who set me up. John Ransom Miller. Molly. Jude. Jeremy, the spurned doorman. Veronica had no discernible motive but then motive is the biggest crock of shit in legal and literary terminology. Consider the waitress with a hacking cough who serves you hashed browns at five a.m., what the hell motivates her. The guy outside the diner, waiting for a bus with a hole in his shoe. The guy who drives the fucking bus, for that matter. What motivates them. What motivates any of us but money and sex and basic survival. Veronica had arms like winter twigs but she might well have been stronger than she looked. She had intimate access to that wig and if someone offered her a thousand dollars, who the hell knows, she might have been happy to shank a common street whore. How the hell do I know. I had my cock in her mouth for about ninety seconds but I didn’t get to know what was in her heart. I can’t help but laugh. I love this society we live in. I don’t know. I don’t know who rang my bell and it really doesn’t matter. It could have been any one of them. It wasn’t me, anyway. I was drunk as a lord but not drunk enough to kill.
I am left to decompose for a few hours.
At what feels like two in the morning, the new guard arrives with a gloomy kid in medical scrubs who takes samples of my blood and urine. Then at dawn I am served a meal of processed meat on white bread, half of a canned peach in sticky syrup, and a small paper cup of grape Kool-Aid. The meat is slimy, the bread damp. The peaches are gray and the Kool-Aid is grape only in name and color. I need my strength, though, and I consume the food mechanically, masticating with a dull efficiency that pleases me.
Along about five, not long before the first pink fingers of dawn, I get another surprise. The guards bring me a cellmate. A white guy, cat thin and lined with tattoos. The hard leather arms of a welterweight. Dirty blond hair and eyes like smoke, a scruff of beard. His name is Sugar Finch, and when he sees me, he just grins. He grins like his mouth is full of locusts.
AND THE GUARDS TAKE HIS BODY AWAY AT NOON. I never get breakfast or lunch. I expect them to move me into another cell, an isolation unit, but they never do. I expect them to come beat me half to death, but they never do. I expect the detectives to send for me, so they can tell me just how badly I have fucked myself, but they never do.
I dragged Sugar Finch into the corner, where the water was up to my ankles, and killed him with my hands before dawn. Impaled his eye sockets with my thumbs, just as I’d imagined. I skull-fucked him with my fingers and the blood spilled up my arms, all the way to my elbows. I don’t want to talk about it, not yet. I may never want to speak of it. It was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do. This little cell is now the perfect crime scene. I expect dire consequences, but none seem to be in the offing. No one says boo to me.
Come six or seven next evening and my head is a pocket of rage. Tunnel vision. The angry flap of blackbird wings, just out of reach. I am crawling with imaginary bugs. My skin is slick with sweat and I’m cold. This is one of my usual headaches, with a touch of the delirium tremens thrown in. I reckon my body has designated this as happy hour and now it wants a fucking cocktail. And here comes the guard, just like that. Wonders never, so they say.
Phineas Poe, he says. Time to see the judge.
I don’t understand. They wouldn’t take me directly to be arraigned, not after I’d killed my bunkmate, would they. I would expect another round of questioning, maybe even a beating.
The guard leads me down a long corridor with flickering lights. My hands remain shackled together but I consider myself lucky. I am told to wait in line with about twenty prisoners to be transported to court and several of the poor bastards are wearing those leg and crotch shackles that make them walk like angry ducks.
The courtroom is fairly disappointing. The walls are a pale pea green and the floor is carpeted. The lights are fluorescent and everyone’s skin looks faintly orange. There are no shadows. I am taken in by the bailiff and led over to the defendant’s table where John Ransom Miller is waiting for me. He wears a black suit with black shirt and black tie. He has recently shaved and smells vaguely of licorice.
You. You’re my fucking lawyer.
He hisses at me to be quiet and sit down.
This is just great.
Maybe I have something to say.
Later, he says. You can talk later.
I curse inwardly at him and sit down in a wobbly wooden chair. It seems to me that the state could step up and provide chairs that didn’t wobble but then maybe they have other fish to fry. Miller sits beside me and shuffles papers. I find my nostrils twitching every time I catch a whiff of licorice.
The whole thing plays out with very little drama. The bailiff coughs and tells everyone to rise and there is great, unceremonious shuffling of bodies as a middle-aged white man with a shiny bald skull comes in wearing the standard dark robe. My name is called and the charges are read. The judge barely glances up through the whole thing, which takes about ninety seconds. He asks how we plead and I flinch as it occurs to me that Miller and I didn’t exactly discuss that. But he says not guilty and no one is surprised. The assistant prosecutor makes a fairly convincing statement about the horrific nature of the crime and claims that I am a vagrant and therefore a flight risk and should be held without bail. Miller says nothing, which pisses me off. He stares at his fingernails, bored, as if he knows the outcome already. Then the judge whacks the gavel and says that the prisoner will appear before the grand jury in one week and bail is set at two hundred thousand dollars and that’s that. The prosecutor mutters a few sweet nothings to herself and the bailiff comes to take me away. Miller informs me that because the police are holding my clothes as evidence, he brought me a suit to wear and he hopes it fits.
He says he will be waiting for me outside.
The process of being released from lock-up involves a lot of waiting on benches with three or four other gloomy fuckers who smell bad and look sorry as hell. I am given a small, grimy envelope that holds a mashed pack of cigarettes and ninety dollars. I had no wallet, of course. I had no identification and no jewelry. There is blood in my hair and I stink to heaven, so I ask to be allowed to shower but the guards ignore me and it seems like a good idea not to push it as I wouldn’t want anyone to get the bright idea to delouse me or something. Then I am given a new Hugo Boss suit in a sort of chocolate brown color and stylishly cut with narrow legs and wide lapels. The material is a wool and silk blend and light as a feather. There is a pale pink shirt to go with it and no tie, and I must say I look fucking sharp. I particularly like the way the bloodstains on my motorcycle boots complete the outfit and I start to snort and giggle like a mental patient.
Then outside, flinching away from the sun like a rat. Miller waits for me on the steps. He asks me how I’m doing and his tone is casual, as if we are meeting for lunch.
I’m a peach. Where is Jude?
Detained, he says.
How did you know I was arrested?
He shrugs. Heard it on the scanner, actually.
Cool, I say.
Yes. He sniffs me.
I know. I stink.
You’re deadly, he says.
I assume you paid my bail.
He smiles. It was the least I could do.
Thanks. I take it you’re a good lawyer.
The best, he says. And very expensive.
I nod and he nods and the two of us stand there, nodding. I extract a bent cigarette from my pack and Miller hands me a gold lighter. I fire the thing up and it’s probably the best cigarette I ever had. The smoke drifts hazy in the sunlight and if I close my eyes, the traffic sounds like the ocean.
You killed that girl, I say. Or arranged for someone else to kill her.
Miller raises an eyebrow. I glanced at the evidence, he says. And it looks like you killed her.
Oh, yeah. The evidence.
Pretty damning, he says with a sigh.
I agree. I am living in agreement. But doesn’t it strike you as a fat freakish fucking coincidence that just when you get tangled up with Jude and you want to cast me in a sensitive snuff film that you can screen at Sundance, I get charged with murdering a junkie on the street and then you happen to be a lawyer with the necessary juice to bribe a judge.
I didn’t bribe him. But I could easily see to it that this goes badly for you.
What about Sugar Finch? How did you arrange for him to be placed in my cell?
My gift to you, he says. Did you like that?
I loved it.
Tell me about it, he says, Don’t leave anything out.
Fuck you, Miller.
My pleasure, he says.
The DA was right, you know. I am a flight risk.
You won’t run, he says.
How do you know?
Because you’re a nice guy. Molly thinks so, anyway.
Please. Why not just let me rot in jail?
Jude, he says. Jude won’t do the film unless you’re involved.
I don’t deserve such faith.
Miller whispers. Maybe…she wants you to protect her from me?
I flick my cigarette away and sparks tumble down the steps. And as if this were a signal, a reporter appears out of nowhere with a cameraman.
For god’s sake.
Miller grins at me. I think you might want to take this seriously.
He steps between me and the reporter and I feel almost grateful. Don’t get me wrong because part of me wants to turn and run like hell from him. But part of me wants to do this. The idea of shooting a snuff film with a crazy stranger and his beautiful girlfriend is weirdly appealing. It makes sense to me. And maybe I want to find out what happens. I want to know who the victim will be. Miller is right about one thing, sort of. Phineas is an arrogant fool, sometimes. Because I believe that somehow I can control what’s going to happen, that I can protect Jude and Molly and whoever else drifts into his path.
Miller dispenses with the reporter and turns to me. Are you ready to go, he says.
Yeah. I’m ready.
Excellent. I have a car waiting.
When he says he has a car waiting I foolishly imagine a limousine with somber driver and a fully stocked wet bar with shimmering mirrors. But it’s just a simple yellow cab with a fat bald driver who smells of Old Spice. The radio is tuned to the Giants game and the driver sighs mightily whenever the Giants do something stupid. He sighs frequently. Miller takes a silver flask from his breast pocket and mentions that I have the look of a man who wants a drink.
I badly want a drink. I need one. I might trade my left foot for a long greedy swallow of whatever is in that flask. But I really want to straighten up, to see clearly for one night at least. I shake my head and he puts the flask away without comment.
Where are we going?
To meet Molly and Jude for dinner.
Miller shrugs. A hideous little place in the Mission. Very trendy.
You will love it, he says.
An endless red light and pocket of silence. I catch an unexpected whiff of myself and it’s a complex bouquet. Blood and general funk. Essence of urine and something in the vicious chemical family. I remember being dizzy and I wonder if the cops gave me a splash of pepper spray.
Maybe I should shower. Or something.
He smiles, or bares his teeth. Actually, I would rather you didn’t.
I smell like urine. Unless that’s the cab.
The driver turns around slowly, his eyes raw and poached. What did you say, convict?
My cab don’t freaking smell like urine.
Of course not. I was joking.
And I don’t like comedians, says the driver.
Miller smiles. I will give you a twenty-dollar tip if you turn around and shut up.
The driver stares at him. And if I don’t.
Miller shrugs. Then I will break your jaw.
I try to indicate by my blank, universally friendly expression that Miller is not serious but the driver is already fairly pale and now the light is green and he turns to face the front without another word. I glance over at Miller. His hands are carved and white, resting easy on his knees. His eyes are nearly closed and his face is meditative but for a faint movement in his cheek that suggests he is chewing at his tongue and I have the distinct feeling that he wishes the driver had not shut up.
The remainder of the drive is somewhat uncomfortable.
But Miller is true to his word. He gives the man a twenty-dollar tip as soon as we are deposited safely in front of the restaurant.
Exterior, night. The façade of the restaurant is pale with ghostly lights. Twenty or so very beautiful people wait around in little clusters, smoking cigarettes and talking in murmurs. I’m not quite ready to go inside yet. There’s surely no smoking allowed inside. I am learning to hate California. The veneer of humanity is stretched impossibly fine and no one seems to care. I stand on the sidewalk, sucking at a cigarette. I recently went eighteen hours without one and I feel like I owe it to my body to get the nicotine count up. Miller is a few feet away from me. He doesn’t want a cigarette. He wants to taste the air, he says.
What’s the matter?
Nothing. Did you really need to threaten the driver?
Miller smiles. I know a few things about you.
Of course. I looked into your past, when Jude suggested I use you for this role.
And what did you find?
I found that you tend to be morally ambiguous.
Again, fuck you.
Am I wrong?
I didn’t say that.
Then what’s your problem?
No problem. It’s not about morals. But if you walk around randomly fucking with everyone who comes into your peripheral vision, you will eventually be sorry.
Miller nods. Interesting theory.
Take it or leave it.
Relax, he says. You’re right. There was no reason to threaten the driver. But I get irritated sometimes. I get irritated when confronted with stupid, brutish people. I have been trained by society to apologize, to pacify such people. To avoid trouble. And this irritates me.
I toss my cigarette in the street. And for once, I smile.
Why are you smiling?
Because I know exactly what you mean. And because I think you’re fucking dangerous.
He steps close to me. Are you afraid of me?
You will be, I think.
I don’t usually like it when people stand so close to me. It makes me think they might want to stab me or kiss me or something. I don’t think I’m paranoid or overly sensitive but I really prefer a little cushion between me and the other mutants. But I don’t want to back away from him because I think this would please him. I breathe through my mouth.
Jude says you’re going to pay us a half million each to do this film with you.
What kind of lawyer are you?
He waves a hand. I represent a very large, very old and powerful corporation that is responsible for the use of asbestos in hundreds of schools, hospitals, and government buildings. My job is to fend off the class action suits and generally drag things out until the plaintiffs either give up or die.
Yes. Very Hollywood, isn’t it?
I shrug. It pays well, yeah.
Absurdly well. But it’s very, very boring.
The ghost lights flicker around us and Miller glances at his watch.
Let’s go inside, he says. I’d hate to keep the girls waiting.
I follow him inside, a half step behind. Down a long dark tunnel, my thoughts buzzing. Miller is a bored and wealthy sociopath, which makes him the best kind of friend to have. It also makes him the worst kind. He pauses to exchange cool whispers with the hostess, who is typically thin and pale and at first glance rather beautiful but somehow ugly in a fierce ravenous way and wearing a glittering black sheath that grimly reveals every bone in her body, and it occurs to me that the one word I would not use to describe Jude lately is girl.
THIS WAY, GENTLEMEN.
Our waiter is a male model in a perfect white shirt. He leads us through a shadowy dining room to an outdoor grotto where smoking, by God, is allowed. Small miracles keep me afloat. Jude and Molly sit at a table in the back. Two women, dark and fair. They sit across from each other, drinking red wine. Their heads rise and fall at opposing angles like two predatory birds warily feeding on the same kill. Miller moves to greet them. I hesitate, confused because there is a movie playing silently on the brick wall behind them. Unsettling because no one else pays it any mind and so I assume that only I can see it. Cool Hand Luke. Paul Newman is coming out of the box in a white nightgown. He looks like an angel with a hangover. Molly smiles when she see us and stands up to brush Miller’s mouth with her lips. His expression remains neutral. Molly wears dark suede jeans and a white shirt, open at the throat. Behind her, Paul Newman is ten feet tall, as he should be.
Jude does not stand, but she looks at me in that way that tugs at my belly. Assimilation, husbandry. Her eyes glitter like wet green glass and her scar is a bright white line across her face. I realize how glad I am that she doesn’t try to hide it. I jerk my head at Molly and mutter hello as I sit down next to Jude, who immediately puts her hand on my thigh. I am very pleased to see her. I tend to be uncomfortable in these social situations and somehow she puts me at ease. Because she is familiar, because she smells like memory. She smells like my own disordered thoughts. Paul Newman is running through the swamp. The dogs are on his ass. Jude wears a slim green dress and a black leather motorcycle jacket, zipped to the throat. Her hair is loose and I remember dimly that the reason I left the hotel room and got so drunk and subsequently was arrested for murder was that I was angry at her.
They put him in the box because his mother died, because they thought he would run.
Jude’s breath is a hot whisper in my ear. You did it, baby.
Sugar Finch, she says.
It wasn’t easy.
Jude kisses me and I feel like our heads will come screaming off. I feel like every fucked-up thing I’ve ever done has been worth it, worth this kiss. Miller smokes his cigar, meanwhile, and Molly watches us with the unblinking eyes of a cat.
Cocktails? says the waiter. He speaks to Miller in a dry, civilized voice.
Miller orders a whiskey sour and nods at me.
What is this place? I say.
Foreign Cinema, says Miller.
What the fuck does that mean?
It’s the name of the restaurant.
And they show American movies on the wall, I say.
Miller glances over his shoulder. Brilliant, isn’t it.
Would you like a drink…sir? The waiter is staring at me with pure hatred.
Yes. I want a glass of water.
The waiter sighs and turns on his heel.
Dot com, says Miller. This place is filthy with dot com dollars.
Dot com, baby.
Is that an adjective or a noun? I say.
He grunts. I believe it’s an obscenity.
Molly smiles at me. I don’t think the waiter likes you.
They never do, I say.
Why not? says Molly.
Look around, says Miller. This place is thick with the privileged, the chosen. Handsome educated white people with tasteful hair and clothes. Phineas is not one of them.
I shrug. I went to college.
But you understand that you are dying, yes?
Of course, I say.
Most of these people are not yet thirty, he says. And they believe they will never die. They believe the world is a giant yellow peach waiting to be eaten.
Jude snorts. Did not Al Pacino teach us that the world is a giant pussy?
Miller smiles at her. And one should not eat pussy unless invited.
The two of them should write greeting cards. Then the other psychopaths would have something nice to send their mothers on holidays. Molly turns to watch the movie. Paul Newman is bruised and weary and the man with no eyes stands over him with a rifle. The sun is low and fierce, throwing razor blades off those mirrored shades. Molly twists a strand of hair around and around with the little finger of her left hand. Her ears are small as a child’s. Her throat is long and fine. Jude strokes my thigh and whispers, how pretty she is. I glance at Miller, who is studying the menu.
Have you fucked him? I say softly.
Jude hums, studying her menu.
Miller looks up. Do you know what you want?
I’m not sure, I say.
Jude leans close to me, bites my ear. Puritan, she says.
The lamb is generally good, he says.
I jerk my head away from Jude, dizzy and irritated.
And by the way, says Miller. The answer is not yet.
What? says Molly.
The waiter returns, scowling. Are you ready to order?
I will have the lamb, says Jude.
Miller nods. The same.
The steak, I say. Medium.
Molly politely orders the chicken, and the waiter goes away. I take a drink of my water and decide to ask for a big glass of gin as soon as the bastard comes back. Jude has not fucked Miller, yet. I pat my psyche down, wondering if I care. Molly is staring at me.
How long have you two been together? she says.
Oh, I say. We’re not really together.
What does that mean?
Yes. What does that mean? says Jude.
Molly leans forward, her elbows on the table. Her mouth is red with wine and falling slightly open and I can just see the tip of her tongue. Her gray eyes are sharp and I wonder if she ever tortures Miller, if she ever fucks with his mind. I wonder if he ever thrashes awake beside her, his arms wild and twisting in the dark because he is unable to breathe and when he tries to pull her small strong hands away from his throat there’s nothing there, if she then kisses him and tells him that he’s only dreaming. I wonder if he ever wakes in the morning to find her naked and crouched beside him, studying him in the first blue breath of light as if he were not her lover but a strange new insect that crawled into her bed.
We aren’t married, I say.
Molly shrugs. That hardly matters.
I wonder if he ever feels like an insect she may or may not impale on a slab of foam.
And we have been separated for…a while.
Why’d you split up?
You ask a lot of questions.
Does it bother you? says Miller.
Why did we split up? says Jude. I would like to know.
I slouch low in my chair. The three of them are like wolves and it occurs to me that evolution is a funny business. I don’t particularly want to tell the kidney story. It never goes over well and anyway it’s not nice dinner conversation. Paul Newman is getting his ass kicked good and proper. The waiter hovers at the edge of my peripheral vision and I turn to face him with what I hope is a friendly smile.
I would like a large glass of gin, please.
Excellent choice, he says. Would you like that mixed with something?
No. Thank you.
Jude smiles at the waiter, apologetically.
Anything else? he says.
Champagne, says Molly.
The waiter fucks off and I turn to Jude.
What was that?
What, she says.
That look. The look that says my poor stepbrother is retarded.
You are so paranoid.
He wants to change the subject, says Miller.
Paul Newman is digging his own grave in the prison yard and in a minute one of the guards will tell him to fill it again and start over.
Answer the question, says Jude.
I smile at her. I despise couples who fight in public, I say. You know that. But in about two minutes I’m going to politely tell you to shut the fuck up.
I look at Molly and she smiles, as if to encourage me. Molly seems very relaxed and I wonder if she’s not drifting on a private little ocean of prescription tranquilizers. Now the waiter arrives with my gin and I decide he’s not such a bad guy. I have four inches of gin in what looks like an actual jelly jar, a big one. I take a drink and watch as he tries to open the champagne. He looks uneasy, our waiter. His upper lips is damp with sweat. He’s having a spot of trouble with that bottle. The four of us are staring holes through him and I imagine the vibes coming from this table are nasty. After what seems like forever he pops the cork and slithers away and I feel relieved for him.
I raise my jar.
To the truth, says Miller.
Come on. Tell us how it is to live with Jude.
I stare at him. It gets weird sometimes. One day she drags me into a public bathroom and hands me a gun. I ask her what the gun is for and she tells me to kill the man in the blue suit and meet her outside in five minutes. Then she asks if I want to get a latte.
Miller nods, sympathetic.
And for my birthday one year, she took me to Mexico City for the weekend. What a sick time that was. Our second day in the city, she turned to me on the street and gave me a mask. What is the mask for? I said. Didn’t I tell you? she said. We’re going to rob this bank. And then we’re inside the bank and everybody is freaking out and I don’t know what to do because I never robbed a bank before and I don’t speak Spanish. And then Jude shoots the little blind bank teller because she won’t stop screaming.
What the hell are you babbling about? says Jude.
That was a bad dream you had, she says. You were sleeping right next to me. I remember the night you dreamed that.
Well. That is peculiar.
You and I never robbed a bank together, says Jude.
False memory. I got hit in the head a while back.
Interesting, says Miller. The artificial flashback. A feeble attempt by the subconscious to cover something more painful.
I wonder would anyone notice if I went ahead and bit off a chunk of my jelly jar and swallowed it whole. On the wall above us, Paul Newman is a wreck. He’s in worse shape than me, anyway. He’s crawling before the guards like a dog, begging them not to hit him anymore and I think, what we have here is a failure to communicate.
TWO HOURS LATER WE ARE FLYING ACROSS THE BRIDGE in a silver Mustang and I am glad it’s not a convertible because sometimes the elements are just too much to bear. Not quite midnight and there is very little traffic. Jude is leaning against me, her head on my shoulder. I don’t think she’s sleeping but I have this funny idea that she is happy, or possibly nervous. But surely she is not nervous because this is what she wants. Molly drives with the cold manic fury of a girl who grew up in a household full of boys. I am tempted to ask her about her childhood but I stop myself. I don’t want to talk to her in front of Jude. There is no music in the car, no conversation. Miller is silent in the passenger seat and I imagine he is contemplating the velvet.
Over the bridge and through the hills. We are going to Miller’s house.
By the by. The remainder of our dinner party passed without relevant incident. Or nearly so. I knocked over a bottle of champagne around the time Paul Newman was shot in the throat, but Jude managed to make the waiter feel so hot and guilty about it that he gave us another one on the house. None of us got particularly drunk and no one asked me any more difficult questions, and I refrained from demanding another jelly jar of gin. Jude kept trying to talk about the film, but Miller wasn’t having it. He wanted to wait until we got home.
I was informed over crème brûlée and coffee that Jude and I would be staying with them for the duration of the project. Our things had been transferred from the King James to Miller’s house while we were at dinner and for some reason I imagined a little team of munchkins, ferrying our stuff across the bay on the backs of winged monkeys. This image pleased me and I was about to share it with Jude, but when I turned around I saw something in her face that I didn’t like. Jude looked scared. Jude had obviously not known about this move.
The Mustang glides down the dark driveway. Miller holds the car door open for us and Molly darts ahead to unlock the house. She’s a little too happy, to my mind, and I wonder if it’s the champagne. Jude holds my hand as we go up the steps, then stops and whirls around to kiss me, a long kiss. Her tongue is sweet in my mouth and something is wrong. This is the sort of kiss that resembles love.
What’s the matter? I say.
Uh huh. Why are you being so affectionate?
She jerks her hand away and hisses at me to fuck off, then.
There you go, I say. Doesn’t that feel better?
I wonder if she is feeling guilty about something. Jeremy, perhaps. The meeting for cocktails with Miller that inexplicably lasted a day and a half. It’s always possible that she missed me while I was falsely incarcerated. But somehow I don’t think so.
Inside and the house is warm with soft, rosy light. Jude and I pass through a shadowy entryway that feels very small, as if I should duck my head. Then we come into a large open room, the living room. The furniture is elegant, minimal. Dark wood and leather and red velvet the color of freshly spilled blood. The floors are hardwood. Molly is curled barefoot at one end of the bloody sofa. Her shirt is loose and unbuttoned to the waist, revealing a nearly transparent camisole of white gauze. Molly is small and curvy and probably doesn’t weigh much more than a hundred pounds but I notice her breasts are bigger and rounder than Jude’s, who glances at me with a cold little smile. I shrug in response, but I am not stupid. Jude is five foot five. She weighs one hundred twenty pounds and doesn’t have a shred of fat on her body. She has the muscles of a snake. I wrestle with her sometimes and I cannot hold her down. She is too slippery, too fast. Too strong. Her breasts are very small but I have always thought that large ones would only annoy her.
I wonder where Miller is. Jude sits down in a leather chair and slowly pulls off her boots, dropping them to the floor with one distinct crash, then another. I remain standing. There is another armchair, but it is way the hell across the room next to a bay window. I am reluctant to move it and the most logical place for me to sit would be at the other end of the sofa, next to Molly. But I am still conscious of the way I smell and I have a feeling she would promptly put her small white feet in my lap, and she has very nice feet. Jude watches me and I can tell she’s pleased by my confusion. She takes off her leather jacket and tosses it on the floor. The green dress has long tight sleeves and small green buttons all the way down the front and the dress fits her so snugly that I can see the muscles in her arms and stomach. Jude isn’t wearing a bra and her nipples are pretty much always hard.
Do you want to sit down? says Molly.
I have a headache, actually. I see things that aren’t there.
Molly frowns because this is not really an answer but it’s the best I can give her. I have a headache and I wish I’d not stopped at one glass of gin. If there’s one thing I understand, it’s my own fucked-up biochemistry. I wander over to the bar, where I find a set of beautiful highball glasses. They weigh about two pounds each and it would be easy as falling out of bed to kill somebody with one of them. I find ice and a bottle of Bombay and I feel better already. I wouldn’t mind so much if Molly put her feet in my lap. I have a thing for feet, sometimes. And maybe my sense of smell is out of sorts and this is all a lot of misguided body language but something tells me that Jude or Miller or both of them are setting me up to fall for Molly.
What are you babbling about over there? says Jude.
I ignore her. I pour myself a sensible shot of gin and tell myself to be careful, for once.
Miller comes limping out of the dark carrying a black ceramic tray in both hands, and I remember smashing him in the back with that toilet tank lid, and at the same time I remember him not limping the other day. Apparently, I didn’t damage him so badly as I’d thought, and wonder if he’s faking it for my benefit. He has changed clothes. He has undressed, basically. He now wears old, torn blue jeans and nothing else. Miller is dark and hairless. He has a belly but it looks okay on him. It suits him. He passes very close to me, close enough for me to touch him. On the tray is a stack of papers, a pot of espresso and four small cups, a woman’s antique hand mirror and a big, friendly lump of coke chopped up very fine.
Here we go.
Miller places the tray on a short wooden table at one end of the sofa.
I thought some of you might be tired and I want to talk.
He moves across the room with the maddening ease and comfort of a panther at the zoo. You can see him back there in the shadows but he doesn’t want to come out into the light. He moves back and forth in the dark recesses of his habitat. He’s not hungry and he’s not sleepy and you know he’s conscious of you. He just doesn’t want the humans to look upon him. Miller slowly drags a chair over to the circle, the same chair I was reluctant to move.
I stand by the bar, sipping my gin.
Jude and Molly have moved to crouch beside the tray, whispering and giggling and probably plotting something. I love the way women will become temporary allies, even when they don’t like each other. Jude lights a cigarette. Molly takes it from her fingers and has a puff. Jude pours out four small cups of espresso. Molly gives her back the cigarette, then begins to cut up lines with a small pocketknife that she takes from her pocket. Jude rolls up a bill and gives it to Molly, who bends delicately over the mirror. Her fine blond hair falling over her eyes like silk. Jude moves on her hands and knees to give Miller a cup of espresso. I have never seen her quite like this. Molly does another line, then climbs back onto the sofa with Jude’s cigarette between two fingers.
I stand by the bar, sipping at my gin.
Poe, says Miller. Come and sit down.
I would rather you sat down, he says. He points at the sofa.
I finish my gin and pour another, smaller shot. I don’t move for two breaths, three. Then I walk across the room. I bend over the tray and touch the coke with the tip of my finger, which I rub slowly over my teeth. Miller points at the sofa and I sit down. Molly sighs and stretches her suede legs. She puts her white feet in my lap, curved and serene as two porcelain doves. I don’t touch them but look at Jude, who kneels on the floor. Her dress has slipped up nearly to her hips and I can see that she wears tiny yellow underpants. She holds a cup of espresso in both hands. I wonder if she’s carrying a gun or anything. She seems to be armed all the time, lately.
I begin to rub Molly’s feet.
Now, says Miller. I want to talk about The Velvet.
Jude flashes her eyes at me and I’m not sure if she said this or I did. Miller blows thin blue smoke rings. He drinks his espresso like it’s water but I notice he hasn’t done any coke. I want some, though. I want a nice fat line but I don’t want him to know it.
Morality, he says. It’s a morality play like any other.
My favorite, I say.
Jude stands up and I can tell she’s getting anxious. She thinks I’m fucking with Miller and she doesn’t like it. She walks around to the far side of the sofa. She leans over the red velvet edge and places one hand flat on Molly’s stomach. Molly closes her eyes and begins to rub her feet together in my lap. I pull my hands away and watch Jude’s face, her eyes. She is staring at me, at me. Her eyes are narrow and dark, then slipping away. I know that look. She might be seducing me, she might be threatening me. It’s a familiar and useful look. I begin to touch Molly’s feet again. Molly lies perfectly motionless, as if asleep or dead. But she is obviously not asleep. Her face changes like the ocean at the slightest touch. Jude’s finger trails slowly down to her bellybutton then moves away. She remains standing, though. Jude sways slightly from the hip, staring now at Miller. This pleases me, because she is more menacing when she’s moving. Miller coughs. He is becoming rather pissed off, it seems to me. Jude smiles at me, a secret smile that the others don’t see.
Please continue, she says.
Well, says Miller. My vision of this film is old world. It has just a touch of The Turn of the Screw, very Henry James, but with an edge.
Henry fucking James? I say. With an edge?
Phineas, says Jude. Be nice.
Molly sighs. You still haven’t told us what the film is about, John.
He nods at the stack of papers on the tray. Those rough pages comprise the first act, he says. If anyone wants to have a look.
The room becomes a vacuum and I hold my breath. Everyone wants to have a look at the script, of course. But no one wants to show it. I stroke Molly’s feet and she runs her hand along my thigh in response. I have an erection and I wonder if she notices. I wonder if Jude notices. I wonder if anyone gives a goddamn.
It’s pretty much a Joe Blow story, says Miller.
Joe Blow, says Jude.
That’s right. Joe Blow in a world of shit.
Okay, says Molly.
Think about it, says Miller. The books that really get under your skin and the movies that are worth two hours of your time are always about Joe Blow.
Jude is pacing around as we talk, a nervous beast in strange quarters. She has no doubt heard this Joe Blow theory before and maybe she is less than mesmerized. She stops and does another line and I think maybe we should put that shit away. My hands soon move up Molly’s legs, to her knees. The suede is so soft, it’s like touching her bare flesh.
Give us an example, I say.
Miller shrugs and begins to rattle them off. Odysseus was the original Joe Blow, he says. Then you have Moses and half the poor fuckers in the Bible. If you think about it, pretty much everybody in the Bible was Joe Blow, they were all walking headfirst into a world of shit, except Jesus. He was the only one who had any idea about what he was getting into. After that, the list is endless. Hamlet. Ishmael. Tom Joad. Huck Finn. Philip Marlowe. Nick Carraway and Holden Caulfield and on down the line. Luke Skywalker is probably the Joe Blow to end all because that boy was dumb as a post and it was really a miracle that he survived.
Molly pulls one foot away from me and curls onto her side, fetal. The other foot remains in my crotch, pressing against my dick as if it lives there.
And what about the world of shit? says Jude.
She drifts in the dark somewhere behind me, as if she doesn’t want to be seen.
The world of shit, says Miller, is composed of three acts. And yes I know Shakespeare did most of his work in five acts but he was fucking Shakespeare. He could do whatever he wanted. But the second and fourth acts were transitional anyway. Are you guys even interested in this?
I shrug. Miller seems calm but I notice a muscle jump in his jaw.
I am, says Molly.
Anyway, says Miller. You introduce Joe Blow in act one and casually let it slip that he’s terrified of heights. Then you encourage him to climb a tree from which he cannot get down. In act two, you surround the tree with dogs and maybe set the woods on fire. Then you start throwing rocks at Joe. And in the third act, Joe either falls from the tree and shatters his spine, or he gets over his fear and climbs down. Maybe his girlfriend or his faithful buddy comes along to help him or maybe he just stays in the tree until he dies of exposure.
Jude moves around the couch, sparks flickering from her body. Her legs are long, curved, and yellow. The dusty yellow of flowers, of butterflies, the yellow that disappears when you touch it. I must be high.
And who is Joe Blow in your movie? I say.
Miller smiles. Any of us could be. But I think your odds are best.
I reach for a cigarette. No doubt. I am certainly in a world of shit.
Let’s talk about the characters, says Jude.
Please, says Miller. This is the fun part.
Don’t tell me, I say. I get to play a dwarf?
Miller takes Jude’s knife from the table, lifts it to his mouth and takes his time licking coke from the blade. I am dying for some of that shit. I look at Jude, and she looks away from me.
No, says Miller. Much better. You will be Molly’s husband.
Molly takes a breath. What?
Miller shrugs. Swing, baby.
Jude does another line of coke, then leans over me with a generous bump on the end of the knife. I think she’s offering it to me but I’m wrong. Molly sits up and presses a finger to the side of her nose and she’s very trusting. I’m not sure I would let Jude hold a knife to my face like that. Miller slips from his chair and crawls across the floor. He removes mirror and knife from the tray and sits crosslegged, arranging lines. He passes the mirror to Jude and she leans over it like an animal bending to drink. I am beginning to feel a bit claustrophobic. I push Molly’s leg away and she makes a soft noise in her throat. I stand up and light a cigarette. I am tempted to light three or four at once.
I look around the room and everyone is sky high.
Jude is crouched on the floor near the wall, twisting her hair into pigtails. Her movements are feverish and precise and I know she knows that I think pigtails are terribly sexy. I am sitting on the sofa, in a low humpbacked position that makes me feel like a troll. Miller is like a dead man. He lies on the floor at my feet, his head cradled in his hands. Molly is on the far side of the room. She is dancing, I think. Molly is floating on air. But there is no music. I am becoming painfully aware of the fact that there is no music in this house, which is just creepy. I am about to say so when Miller beats me to it.
There’s no music, says Miller. Because I want you to get used to functioning without.
What do you mean?
Molly will play the cello over the credit sequences but otherwise there will be no music on the set, no music in the film.
Why not? says Jude.
Because music manipulates the emotions.
And what about silence, I say. Does it not manipulate the emotions?
Maybe. But it’s more organic, says Miller. And I want it to be creepy.
I smile and smile like a madman because I’m tired of talking to John Ransom Miller. I’m tired of listening to him think out loud. I’m tired of him reading my mind like it’s nothing and I am fast coming to the conclusion that, like cab drivers who secretly want to be writers, lawyers who want to be filmmakers are often dangerous assholes.
Excuse me, I say.
Where is the bathroom? I desperately need a bath.
Yes, he says. You do need a bath. But I thought we might have a conversation.
About sleeping arrangements. About personal philosophies.
The fuck do you mean.
Monogamy, he says.
I reach for the gin. I change my mind and reach for the plate of coke. Monogamy, I say. What about it?
Do you believe in it?
I look at Jude. She’s crouched against the wall, angry. Her arms and legs are pulled close to her body and she looks like a beautiful, yellow spider monkey. I’m not sure what she’s angry about. But I see her as a whole, a composite. I see her ankles and feet. I see the tiny white scar on her left knee, the big scar over her eye that she hates. I see the long shadows of muscle in her bent thighs. I see her dark green torso and I suppose I regard her body as mine in some way, simply because I know it so well. Every curve and hollow. I close my eyes and I can see her fingers, furiously twisting in her hair. I see her face, the long sharp cheekbones. Her lush wet lips. Her dark yellow eyes. I don’t particularly want her to fuck another but I know she will if she wants to and ultimately I don’t care if she does. She is not mine but on some molecular level I feel like I am hers, if only temporarily.
No, I say. I don’t necessarily believe in monogamy.
Excellent, he says.
I like Miller, really. He’s an interesting person. But he is beginning to irritate me. I want him to stop using that word. Excellent. It bugs the fuck out of me.
What about you? he says, looking at Molly.
She stares at him and I get the feeling they have had this discussion before.
Yes, she says. I believe. You know I do. I want to believe and I want love to work. I may be romantic and stupid and puritan but I believe that monogamy is possible. And I expect to find it, with the right person. I am with you now, but I don’t want to be yours.
That’s enough, says Miller. That’s more than enough.
He turns to Jude but she withers him with such a look that even I feel pale.
Never mind, says Miller.
Where is the bathroom? I say.
The nearest one is upstairs. Down the hall to the left.
THE UPSTAIRS BATHROOM IS LARGE and relatively spartan with a black-and-white tile floor and a white clawfoot bathtub. Toilet and sink and shower with smoky glass door. Black towels. The closet is empty. In the shower are expensive shampoo and conditioner and black soap. I have brought my glass of gin with me. I am smoking a cigarette. I drop my clothes to the floor and consider the bath. I don’t much like baths. I don’t care to sit in a pool of my own filth but I have always loved the clawfoot bathtub, as an abstract concept. And it reminds me of my mother’s house. I stand there, naked and smoking. It is everything I can do to stop from looking in the mirror. The coke is causing a nasty rattle in my skull and I don’t want to descend into any prolonged examination of self. I have an unfortunate tendency to cut my hair in these situations, to somehow mangle myself. There are knife scars on my arms and chest that no one can account for. I drop my cigarette into the toilet and crank up the hot water in the shower.
I scrub myself fiercely with the black soap. It smells of opium, of wormwood. There is something visually disturbing about black soap and somehow this appeals to me. I wash my genitals with curious fanaticism. I let the water pound down on my head. I am obliterated by needles and I am slowly disappearing into the smoke of irrational shame. If not for the night in jail and a fear of parasites, I’d probably not bother to wash my hair. The shampoo is also black. I dump a small amount of it into my hand and drag it through my hair, then rinse. I sink into the corner of the shower with glass of gin in hand and breathe the hot steam.
Jude opens the shower door and stands there, looking at me. I am crouched in the corner, rubbery and wet and dizzy from the heat and under her gaze I feel like Gollum with my empty glass in hand. I have lost my precious. I want to ask her a riddle. What is the shadow with green skin that is not man and not woman, the shadow that stretches before us and becomes another.
It’s not fair to ask us what it’s got in its nasty pockets.
Jude still wears that green dress.
She mutters something that I can’t hear.
What? I say.
She smiles and steps into the shower with me. The water crashes down on us and soon her hair is wet and hanging like black ribbons in her face. Her dress is soaked, a dark green secondary flesh. Jude kisses my neck, my chest and belly. I am thirsty and I want her. I reach for her but I am clumsy and my muscles are atrophied from the heat. I am briefly detached from my arms and legs. I want to drink her, to eat her wet eucalyptus skin. I want to rip the green dress from her body but I am floating somewhere above her and I have a magnificent almost distended erection. I pull Jude close to me and lift the wet green dress up over her waist and slip inside her and she is so wet and my thoughts are so splintered that it is hard to say where either of us begins or ends but soon the noise of our breathing is like the rattle and hiss of new fire.
I read somewhere that more than half of all household accidents take place in the shower and I am not surprised. It’s very slippery and dangerous in there, what with your arms and legs wet and twisted into rubber doll parts that don’t quite belong to you. Your mouth is full of hair and you can’t breathe and you can’t talk and within five minutes I come inside her, which is exactly what she wanted. Because I have been unable to come lately. And because it makes her feel pretty when I come inside her, or so she says.
Are you joking? I say.
But she just smiles at me. If I were her shrink, I would probably say it has to do with power. I would speculate that she was anorexic as a girl. I would root around in her skull for some barely remembered incident of childhood fondling or worse. But I’m not her shrink and wouldn’t want to be. I would rather eat my own eyeballs with a spoon than wiggle around in that head for money. As for birth control, well. Jude told me a few nights ago, in bed at the King James, that she doesn’t bother about birth control anymore because she had her tubes tangled sometime after the unwanted pregnancy in New Orleans.
Ten minutes later we sit on the black-and-white floor. The air is white with mist and we pass a damp cigarette back and forth. I’ve put my borrowed pants back on and Jude has wrapped herself in a massive blue towel. She’s wrapped in a chunk of sky and only her feet poke out. Her feet are beautiful, but not so pretty as Molly’s. I shut my eyes. I have a sudden urge to grind the cigarette out on my arm.
What are we doing here? I say.
Jude blows smoke at me. Don’t, she says.
Don’t think about it so much. And don’t try to suck me into some philosophical debate.
Brief silence while I wonder who is going to die.
What shall I think about?
Jude shrugs. The sleeping arrangements, she says.
What about them?
You’re sleeping with Molly tonight.
Jude is not kidding, it seems. She gives me that look of stone and I can’t tell what she’s thinking. She lets the blue towel fall to the floor and stands there a minute, naked and foreboding. Now she gives her hair a shake. The water flies from her in tiny rays of broken light.
You’re kidding, I say.
I’m not kidding.
What’s the problem, she says. You want her, don’t you?
Maybe. But I might rather make that choice on my own.
Jude shrugs. I don’t see how it makes a difference.
And where are you sleeping?
Wherever I want to, she says. With menace.
With Miller, you mean.
I have to get into character, she says. We both do.
Give me a fucking break, Jude.
Listen, she says. We are shooting this goddamn movie with Miller. When it’s done, he will bring Cody to me. Until then, we cooperate.
I watch as she takes a robe from the back of the door, a man’s robe. Black with green checks. She pulls it tight around her and she doesn’t look like any of this bothers her much.
And this doesn’t bother you? I say.
Weren’t you listening? says Jude. Monogamy is hopelessly antiquated. And therefore defunct.
You want me to sleep with her.
Jude stares, never flinching. Yes. Tonight, I want you to sleep with Molly.
I just nod. All right, I say. Anything for you, baby.
I walk down a hallway of muted yellow light. Molly is waiting for me behind door number three and I feel flushed, nervous. Like I’m on a blind date. And Jude is right, sort of. Monogamy is defunct, an antiquated concept that never held much water. I had tried to educate myself while I wandered the desert, chasing Jude’s shadow, and one of the books I slogged through was Darwin’s The Origin of Species, or one of its sequels. I wouldn’t call it a page-turner but one thing was pretty clear: Darwin was a maniacal old fucker half-addled by cocaine but the man was no dummy and he wouldn’t have bet a nickel on monogamy hanging around as long as it has.
Monogamy doesn’t work unless it rises up from the bones. Because it promises nothing but fear and tension when forced on you. It fills you up with despair where there might be joy. It shoves guilt and paranoia and self-loathing down your throat, if you don’t truly want it. Jude and I were monogamous when we were together, for the most part. And monogamy was a fucking drag. It seemed like a social obligation, an arbitrary puritanical construct, and after a while we started lying to each other. When I was with Jude, I pretended to know what I wanted, and with a hellish quickness my face became a jackal’s mask. Then I took a bubble bath one night and a gang of psychos ruined her face before we figured the shit out.
I used to watch her sometimes, when she was painting her toenails or brushing her teeth or yawning on the floor in her underwear, flicking through a glossy woman’s magazine. I loved her. I didn’t love her. Once, I watched her take the television apart in the middle of the night because she was bored. I watched her reduce the television to a scrap heap of apparently ruined fuses and wires. Then I watched her put the television back together and was not surprised when the reception was improved. I thought I loved her, then. I watched her smash the same television to bits two days later because she didn’t like some snotty actress and in that moment, I thought I loved her. But there was fear between us, truly. There is always fear but when two artists, two liars, or two killers occupy the same house and sleep in the same bed, rage runs rampant and becomes entangled with mistrust and doubt and alcoholic despair. The love between them isn’t safe in the bones, the marrow.
Jude doesn’t belong to me and never did. I don’t belong to her because our love is unsafe in the marrow.
Therefore, Jude and I are each set free with the flickering hope that we may come back to each other and the knowledge that we may not. And in the meantime we may as well fuck other people and we may as well be casual and nihilistic about it. It doesn’t mean anything because we don’t belong to each other, at least, not now. One day, though. One day. I might just come around a corner and stumble into the version of Jude that I belong to. And when I find her, I just hope I have the good sense to give myself to her.
This is the moment when the blood throttles up to eleven and everything else slows down. The air around me glimmers and I can see the world a little too clearly. I can see the imperfections in the wood and brick and I can see the fine threads in the carpet under my feet. I can hear Miller breathing downstairs. I imagine Jude tying him up, whispering sweet nothings in his ear. The door at the end of the hall is a little black square that from six seven eight feet away looks much too small for me to pass through. It’s just large enough for a little British girl or a fat white rabbit and I love it when pop culture bleeds through to the cellular level. The endless memories that are not my own.
I stop at the door and listen.
She’s got a razor sadness about her, nothing a hundred dollars won’t fix. Tom Waits is playing softly in Molly’s room. Rain Dogs. Bob Frost is a good egg. This is encouraging, I think. Any woman who likes Tom Waits is bound to have sweetness in her heart. I open the door without knocking. Molly sits cross-legged on the bed, her hair hangs yellow and loose. The room is softly lit and eerily windowless. There’s a green armchair in one corner. The red walls are lined with bookshelves. Two silver curtains shaped like angel’s wings hang over a doorway opposite. The bed is small and puffy, with an iron frame. I’m sure it would make a hellish commotion during even the most careful sexual activity.
Molly’s feet are still bare. Hello, she says.
This is awkward and I wait for her to say Can I help you? But she smiles and shrugs slightly and I take it that she is expecting me.
This is awkward, I say.
No, she says. I like you. And we don’t have to do anything.
Oh. Thank god.
But you have to be nice to me.
I stare at her. It’s not a request I’m used to hearing.
Molly picks up a book and curls into a pool of lamplight. The bathroom is there, through the curtains, she says. If you want to brush your teeth.
Thanks. Do you mind if I smoke in here?
Molly shrugs and I sit down on the end of the bed. I dig out matches.
By the green chair, she says. There’s an ashtray.
I move to sit in the green chair. I smoke and watch her read for a while. It’s peaceful but weird, and I realize I’m unaccustomed to peace. Jude and I are rarely so quiet together.
What are you reading?
The Lover, she says. Margurite Duras. Have you read it?
It’s pretty sexy, she says. And depressing. But it reads like film.
What’s it about?
She stares at me and I wonder if she suspects the truth, that I’ve seen the movie twice and, for perverse reasons of my own, don’t want to admit it. Molly smiles and before she can tell me what the book is about, I commence to babble at her.
It’s about obsession, I say. It’s about a French girl living in the Philippines. She wears a man’s fedora, which probably has to do with the fact that her father is dead or missing from the scene. I don’t remember which. Her mother is crazy and her brother is crazy and they have no money. Then she meets a very wealthy Chinese man and becomes his child lover and pretty soon she’s extracting money from him.
You’ve seen the movie, she says.
Why did you pretend to know nothing about it?
Because there’s something wrong with me.
Molly kneels on the bed, eyes bright. Her shirt hangs open as a promise. Throat and collarbone exposed. Her nipples are shadows behind pale camisole and I wonder what her hair smells like, what her skin tastes like.
You didn’t say a word about love, she says.
What about it?
Do you think she loved him, the Chinaman?
No. I think she loved the sex. She loved being the object of desire. But then, I haven’t read the book. I may be ignorant.
Are you in love with Jude?
I’m sorry, she says. Too personal?
No. But kind of sudden.
I’m sorry, she says. Anyway. Are you?
Fuck. You’re one of those people, I say.
I light another cigarette, still jumpy from that coke. Molly seems serene, though.
Which people? she says.
The relentless question people.
I’m just curious. And I think it’s relevant to the project.
Okay, then. I don’t know.
Jude and I have been apart for too long, I say. And when we were together, we went through some hairy shit, old-fashioned psycho-ward shit. And I don’t think we trusted each other, which is a problem. The sex was good, is good, but it has a lot more to do with domination and pain than actual tenderness.
You believe, though. You believe in love.
I have to believe in something.
Molly shrugs. Good answer.
Thanks, I say. I want to brush my teeth.
Okay, she says. There’s a spare toothbrush on the sink. Or you can use mine, the blue one. And there’s Valium in the medicine cabinet if you want it.
Valium, yes. I could use some of that.
She nods. You look a little…uneasy.
What about you, I say. Do you love Miller?
Molly sinks onto the bed, gazes up at the ceiling. He doesn’t love me, she says. He never loved me.
That isn’t what I asked you.
No, she says.
I wait for her to finish the thought but there’s no more coming. Her eyes are closed tight but she’s staring hard at something unseen.
I get up and walk through the silver wings. I lean on the sink with both hands and give myself a good long stare. I just wish I had a reliable smile. The sort of smile that flashes out of reflex, the smile that puts other humans at ease. I work on it for a minute but it’s just no good. I still look like Travis Bickle when I smile. I look like a young Robert De Niro with a bellyful of maggots and a ticklish hair up his ass. Best not to smile at all. But it will come in handy when I want to become Joe Blow and I might as well take care of my teeth. On the edge of the sink is a toothbrush still in the package. The kind the dentist gives you after he’s done fucking up your day. I flick at it with my finger and it spins slowly. Then I reach for the blue one in the pewter cup. Molly’s toothbrush, still wet. I have a feeling we’re going to be intimate.
When I come out of the bathroom the room is dark but for a guttering candle. Molly is tucked beneath the covers, shadowy and feline. I hesitate. This is a peculiar situation. I am about to crawl into bed with a woman I don’t really know. And yeah. I have done that before, numerous times. But I was typically a lot more fucked up on those occasions and there was a different energy in those rooms, with those nameless and faceless women. There was that underlying vibe of desperation and self-destruction, that slow aching psychological suicide by a thousand cuts that comes with meaningless sex. But I feel none of that now. Molly is just another human, with warm blood and fragile skin and a skull filled with her own angels and insects and childhood shadows. She wants nothing from me but kindness. I take off my clothes and blow out the candle, then creep into bed next to her.
She sleeps with her back to me. I move close enough to smell her hair but not close enough to poke her with my erection. Because that would be rude, I think. Molly wears a long white nightgown, silk with thin spaghetti straps. Her hair smells like the wind when there’s a storm coming. Her shoulders are pale and smooth as eggshells. She sighs, or growls. Then moves close to me. Molly presses herself against me and I realize that she wants to spoon, which seems bizarre to me, freakish.
But I know good and well who’s the freak in this bed. I’m just not used to this sort of thing. I can adjust, though. I tuck my penis out of the way so that it presses innocently against her thigh, then slip an arm under her neck and without really thinking about it, I find myself holding one of her breasts in my hand. As if someone just handed me a ripe melon and said with a sly smile, are you hungry old boy? I move my hand away and tell myself not to grope or fondle her again. I position my arms so that one hand is flat against her stomach and the other is resting on her shoulder. Molly is smaller, softer than Jude. Her bones are arranged differently and somehow her body is a better fit against mine. This feels absurdly good and it occurs to me that it is easier to find someone on this planet you want to fuck than someone you might really want to sleep next to.
In a city like San Francisco, you can throw a rock out your front door and hit someone with a nice ass and pretty brown eyes. But to find someone you want to fall asleep with, someone you want to breathe and dream next to, is terribly rare.
I kiss her softly on the back of the neck, just once. Good night, Molly.
I wear yellow gloves, yellow gloves stained with blood. I’m in a motel room with bright orange carpet the color of dull fire under plastic sheets. There’s a single naked light bulb above casting shadows like manic fingers. The bed is stripped of linens and covered in thick plastic. A tall pale handsome white man, early forties, is handcuffed to the bed. Jude stands over him and in this particular dream, her name is Jesse Redd. She wears a white raincoat, sprayed with blood, and holds an electric bone saw in gloved hands. I stand across from her holding bucket and sponge. Jude takes a breath, then resumes the task of hacking off this pale man’s left hand just above the wrist. I look at the man’s face, twisted and white with endorphins and sheer masochistic joy. He looks like a Heisman quarterback gone gray and this man is not a victim, but a client. He is paying us twenty-five thousand American dollars for this service. He has a profound amputee fetish, and he wants to become one. The handcuffs were his idea and he declined the use of ether. Jude is a field surgeon but this work requires very little skill. It requires steady hands and a belly of stone, which I lack. The one time I tried to wield the saw, I threw up a muddy puddle of beans and rice and tequila and I’ve been relegated to sponge duty since then.
This is the last one, I say.
What are you talking about?
I’m not kidding. I’d rather just kill people.
You’d rather kill people than what?
I’d rather kill people than mop up another drop of this motherfucker’s blood.
Wake up, she says.
I’m not kidding, Jude.
Wake up, says Molly. I am not Jude.
I pull myself out of a motel room that exists only in my own damaged head and false visions. Molly is beside me. The smell of wind and thin strong arms around me. I am covered in sweat and shivering, cold. Delirium tremens, my favorite new affliction. Molly tells me to hold on. She slips away from me and goes to the bathroom, returns with a warm washcloth and a small bottle of brandy. I reach for the bottle and she tells me to take small sips. Molly kisses my cheek, a cool dry kiss. She puts the washcloth on my forehead and gives me a cigarette.
Tell me, she says. Tell me about the dream.
And for an hour or so, Molly and I sit in the dark. I tell her a nasty bedtime story and she is so polite she never says a word about my tendency to cast Jude as a psycho in my dreams.
AGORAPHOBIC YES, AND WEIRDLY HAPPY. I wake up alone. The room is dark, muted but it feels like morning. The sound of water falling behind silver wings. Molly is in the shower. I can see her standing with eyes closed and head lowered as if praying. The blades of her shoulders, the fine ridge of her spine. The bed is very comfortable and I might like to lie here and smoke a cigarette and daydream for a while but I don’t think I’m ready to see Molly just yet, what with the aftershock of new intimacy and bloody bedtime stories between us. There’s always the possibility of a sudden freakout when you get to know someone a little too well, too soon.
Therefore. I drag my intimate ass out of bed. I’m looking around for my pants when I notice there are no shadows in the room and I remember how Peter Pan misplaced his shadow and Wendy was kind enough to sew it back on for him and this makes me think of Molly and I tell myself to be very fucking careful with this line of thought. And besides. I always hated Peter Pan. The Lost Boys were pretty cool of course but Pan himself was a complete wanker, a fancyboy. Peter Pan was a racist sexist little fuckhole in green tights. He was shitty to the Indians and mean to Tinkerbell. I wouldn’t mind seeing a remake directed by John Woo in which Captain Hook kills off the Lost Boys one by one, gutting them like rabbits, after which he feeds Pan’s liver to the ticking crocodile and puts his impish head on a stick, and then gets into some serious bondage with wee Wendy. Now that would be edgy.
The shower still hums.
I make the bed, or rather I jerk at the bedding until it looks presentable. I am tempted to leave Molly a note or something, a few words. But I don’t have a pen on me and anyway I don’t know what I would say. Thanks for keeping me warm last night, and thanks for not being horrified by me.
Fuck it. I’m going downstairs.
I find Miller in the kitchen, standing at the counter. He wears the black and green bathrobe that Jude was wearing last night and his dark hair is slick with gel, combed into a skullcap. He’s eating a bowl of Fruity Pebbles and reading the Wall Street Journal. The windows are open and the air swirls, tugging gently at his newspaper. I glance at the sky, white with clouds.
Poe, says Miller. How goes?
I light a cigarette. Is there any coffee?
He shrugs. French press by the sink. But I think it’s gone cold.
That’s fine. I ramble around the kitchen as if I live here, opening and closing cabinets until I find what I want. I pour lukewarm but very black coffee into a tall glass, then add ice and milk and sugar. I take a long drink and feel better right away.
How’s Molly? says Miller.
What do you mean?
He smiles at me over the stock page. How did she fare last night? he says. How did you fare. How do you like her. How does she like you? That kind of thing.
Molly is fine, I say.
Miller squints at me, amused. That’s your answer?
Yeah. Molly is fine.
Do you have another cigarette? he says.
I give him one and we stare at each other.
How is Jude? I say.
Ahh, he says, blowing smoke. Here it comes.
I shake my head. Never mind.
He grins. Molly is sweet, isn’t she?
Yeah, I say. She is. What the hell is wrong with you?
Listen, he says. You ignorant Philistine. There is nothing wrong with me. I am simply trying to expand my horizons, and yours.
By letting me fuck your girlfriend.
Did you? he says.
Did you fuck her?
No, I didn’t.
He laughs. Jude was right. You’re soft around the edges.
Have you ever been married? he says.
How did you like it?
My wife is dead, I say. I wouldn’t insult her.
Miller leans forward and his robe falls open. He scratches his chest lazily and smiles at me, shaking his head and rolling his eyes as if he feels sorry for me and I remember practicing my crippled smile in the bathroom mirror, my deathly grimace. He picks up his spoon and wipes it down with his tongue, then tosses it into the sink with a clatter. Molly said that he doesn’t love her, that he never loved her and I wonder if he has ever hurt her. I wonder what his head would look like in a box.
Your sense of loyalty is fascinating, man.
Fuck you, Miller. Where is Jude?
She took one of the cars and went into the city.
He shrugs. To get some equipment.
What kind of equipment?
Lights, cameras. Nothing special.
Be warned, man. If you put her in danger, you will be crawling around on prosthetic limbs.
Miller shrugs and concentrates on his cereal.
What are you doing today? I say.
I thought I’d get started on the storyboards.
Yeah, I say. Regarding the script…I wonder if I could get a look at it.
Miller slurps his milk and grins. Had your chance the other night, he says.
Then what the fuck, right?
Why do you want to see it? he says.
Because I’d like to know what I’m getting into.
Oh, says Miller. You’re in well over your head.
Long humming silence.
Speaking of fuck-ups, I say. Have you given any thought to my case?
The murder charges?
Pretty cut and dried. They have you by the short hairs and all. But I think with a little slick lawyering, I can get you down to manslaughter.
Thanks for that.
Enter Molly, agitated.
I’m late, she says. I’m so fucking late.
Her hair is still wet. She wears a white cotton sundress and the destroyed brown cowboy boots she was wearing when I met her. She touches the back of my head as she passes, a soft cool touch.
The whispering breath of fairies.
A voice in my head says she smells like sunflowers but upon reflection I have no idea what sunflowers smell like. Molly acknowledges Miller with a smile, a cool shrug. Then goes to the refrigerator and takes out a container of strawberry yogurt. She rips it open and uses her finger as a spoon.
Miller sighs, opens a drawer. He removes a bright silver spoon and hands it to her.
What are you late for? he says.
Rehearsal, she says. Fool for Love.
He snorts rudely.
Molly smiles at me. John doesn’t much care for Sam Shepard.
He’s a minor playwright, says Miller. And a redneck, besides.
Ignore him, says Molly. She touches my arm. Do you want to come?
I follow Molly to the garage, glad to get away from Miller. The garage is cavernous, cold, and smells of chemicals. I see several red plastic gas cans. Miller strikes me as the sort of cat who’s prepared for the end times, and as I look around I see he’s laid in a six-month supply of water, batteries, first aid gear, canned goods, emergency flares, camping equipment, and more. He’s got all manner of fishing and deep sea gear: wet suits, surfboards, spear guns, oxygen tanks. Mounted on one wall are two small sharks he presumably murdered himself. As for vehicles he’s got jet-skis and a speedboat named Jezebel and several cars. An old white Jaguar XJ6, the silver Mustang, a dusty green Jeep, an ancient but gleaming convertible Mercedes coupe. I wonder what sort of ride Jude is tooling around in. A black Range Rover, probably, with black windows and a cloaking device and hidden gun turrets. Two motorcycles, Ducati Monsters, skeletal street bikes silver and black. They look like birds of prey on two wheels, and now I remember that Jude was riding a black Ducati the day I watched her scalp Shane Finch.
Let’s take the silver one, I say.
Molly tosses me the keys and a black helmet. She grins at me and pulls her own helmet on. This is trust, baby. I haven’t been on a motorcycle in years and anyone who knows me would say that’s a good thing. I tend to fly too close to the sun, when given half the chance. I tend to get distracted. I have smashed up more than my share of vehicles while daydreaming, and lately I have the headaches and blackbird visions to worry about. But my skull feels clean and clear and sometimes you have to say fuck it. The bike purrs to life and Molly climbs on behind me. Her arms slip around my waist like they belong there. I take it easy up the long driveway and I’m about to glance around and ask her which way am I going when she tells me that she’s not really so late and maybe we should just ride a while.
It’s a fine day for it, she says.
The sweetest decline is always voluntary. I cruise through the hills above Berkeley, slow and winding, and soon I’m wondering how fast this bike is and how long it would take me to kill myself on an open road. I begin to descend, with no idea where I’m going. The wind and sun are sweet narcotics and I imagine Molly’s dress whipping about her thighs and now she slips one hand under my shirt to touch my chest, and oh, the galaxies in my head. The way she kissed me last night. The way she held me when I was shaking. I was covered in sweat and she didn’t pull away from me. The pulse of sorrow and loneliness between us. The mad babble of imagined friends. The dizzy smell of her hair. I woke beside her twice in the night, drunk and still dreaming and I wanted to just eat her cold white skin. I remember how she said the bellybutton is terribly sensitive, how death is always on the wing. But I must have dreamed these things. I must have been dreaming. My skull begins to ache and my vision shimmers. Deathly, the crash preconceived. The earth forever pulls at you, gravity and all. It pulls you down. I suffer random, grasshopper thoughts. The subconscious fancy that I will lose Jude in this, that she will never be mine. That tomorrow is possibly unkind. Tomorrow is unknown and one of us may die in traffic today and I have to wake up before tomorrow comes.
The inside of my own head is a half acre of hell.
I run through a red light and the blast of a truck’s horn rips a nasty hole in my internal sky and I nearly lay the bike down.
Jesus. Are you okay?
I bring us to a shivering stop under a grove of lemon trees. My heart is hopping around in my chest. Molly yanks her helmet off and her yellow hair is wild around her face and I taste the guilt, the sour guilt of nearly killing someone I barely know and prematurely adore.
I’m fine, she says. What happened back there?
Dreaming, I say. I was dreaming.
I open my mouth and realize the answer is foolish, romantic but foolish.
Never mind, I say. I’ll tell you later.
It doesn’t matter, she says. Are you okay?
Molly smiles, then takes one of my cold hands in hers.
You’re none too steady, she says.
If you say so.
Torn shadows and silence under the lemon trees. The motorcycle warm, ticking.
THE HOWL AND SWARM OF TELEGRAPH AND HASTE. The hyper mingling of pretty little Asian girls and junk-ravaged homeless guys, gutter punks and skater kids, wealth and despair. I park the bike between a polished black Saab convertible and a snot-colored VW bus where two white guys with dreadlocks are cooking what look like seaweed burgers on a hibachi. The sun is too hot and everything is razor bright. The smell of curry and gasoline, of clove cigarettes and patchouli. There is a sign in a shop window that declares this block to be a nuclear-free zone.
Molly sighs. I hate Berkeley.
I stand on the sidewalk, smoking. She says she’s thirsty and wanders into a little café. I toss the cigarette and follow her.
Aren’t you going to be late? I say.
No, she says. I’m getting a soda. Do you want anything?
I shrug. Espresso, a double.
The girl behind the counter looks familiar. Nineteen or twenty, with short black hair falling out of a baseball cap worn backwards. Dark almond eyes and lush lips. Very thin, with big round breasts compressed into a red sports bra. She’s maybe Vietnamese.
Do I know you? I say.
Her lip curls. I doubt it.
What’s your name?
Scooby Doo, I say. Where are you?
Funny, she says. You owe me six dollars.
Molly is watching me closely, pale hair around her face like a hood of light. I shrug and reach for my money.
We sit at a table outside and watch the world drift by. I realize why Berkeley is so strange to me. It feels like a miniature town, like a kid’s model train set. I mention this to Molly but she doesn’t smile or respond. She drinks a lemon and vanilla Italian soda, her jaw working as she slowly chews a piece of ice. I finish off my espresso and light a cigarette. Molly takes one but does not light it. She begins to pull the cigarette apart.
Are you nervous? I say.
I have to tell you something, she says. Two things.
I don’t have rehearsal today. I quit the play, in fact.
Why? I say.
Why did I quit the play? Or why did I lie?
Either, I say.
Molly stares at the sky behind me, shredding her cigarette.
I quit the play because it was a conflict. When we begin shooting the film, there won’t be space for anything else.
Are you sure you want to do this film? I say.
Yes, she says.
How old are you?
Twenty-seven. I know what I’m doing.
That’s not what I meant.
What did you mean?
I watch a guy across the street in yellow clown pants, juggling apples. I blow smoke.
Aren’t you afraid of dying? I say.
Of course. But not terribly so.
I have lost people, I say. And think of Henry. Eve. Moon. Their faces boil in my head. I tell her it rips a part of you away that you don’t get back.
Molly shrugs. I want to do this movie. And I don’t think I will be the victim.
No one thinks they will, I say. That’s the genius of this thing. Put three people in a lifeboat, tell them that a storm is coming and that one of them will be dead by nightfall, and they all think it will be one of the others.
Brief, complicated silence.
Then maybe we shouldn’t get attached to each other, she says.
I mash my cigarette out and stare at her. I remember the day I found her in the kitchen. Blue eyes dark with circles and thin lips moving, as if in prayer. I thought she was Franny Glass come to life and she’s right. If I am attached to nothing, then I have nothing to lose.
Too late, she says. Isn’t it?
Jude’s voice. John says you were quite taken with Molly.
Maybe. Why did you lie about the rehearsal?
John, she says. He wanted me to get you out of the house for a while.
I don’t like the sound of that. I look over my shoulder, then back at her.
Why? I say.
Molly hesitates. The Velvet, she says. It may not be exactly the film you think it is. It’s a little more complicated.
I haven’t read the whole script, she says. Only bits and pieces.
How? I say. How is it more complicated?
Molly never answers me. Her eyes roll away white. A vein jumps in her throat and her left arm twitches once, twice. Then clutches at nothing. For one regrettable moment I think she is playing around, fucking with me. Then she slips out of her chair and begins to jerk around on the sidewalk like a fish.
Okay. Molly is having a seizure.
I come out of my chair and fall to my knees beside her. I reach for her hand, my thoughts rattling. The cries of distant birds. Her face is so pale. The traffic noise dies and everyone on the sidewalk disappears. I’ve suffered a dozen seizures in the past five years, but I have no memory of them.
What the hell do you do when someone has a seizure?
I wish Jude were here. She knows about these things. I remember being on a ferry on the Panama Canal with her when a German tourist suffered a violent grand mal. Everyone got out of the way and eyed him with horror and disgust and someone screamed that he was swallowing his tongue, his tongue oh god but Jude said that was nonsense. She said that a seizure victim might bite his tongue, but he doesn’t swallow it. She pushed everyone out of the way and gently held the German tourist’s head until he stopped thrashing, to prevent him cracking his skull, she said.
Molly seizes beside me and I can’t do anything for her but put my hands under her head.
One minute, maybe two.
Then it’s over and she goes fetal. The baby, she says. What about the baby?
I pull my hand away from her as if she’s burning up. I tell myself that she doesn’t know what she’s saying, that a seizure is like fireworks on the brain.
You’re okay, I say. You’re okay.
But I have no idea. I have no idea what I’m talking about.
Molly comes around pretty quick. She sits up and her eyes dart this way and that. Bright blue, with pupils like needles. I hold up three fingers and she says three in a cold, faraway voice. Her voice is angry and I think I understand. I have had seizures, blackouts and whenever I come out of one I am angry and paranoid. I can’t remember anything and I don’t know who has been watching me. I carry her inside and the girl named Daphne brings over a glass of water. Molly says thank you and Daphne smiles and perhaps I’m imagining it, but a look seems to pass between them and I wonder if they know each other.
I called an ambulance, Daphne says.
No, says Molly. I don’t want to go to the hospital.
Daphne shrugs. I don’t care what you do. Just don’t die in here.
Milk, says Molly. Will you bring me a glass of milk.
Whole or nonfat? Says Daphne.
What the fuck kind of question is that? I say.
Daphne glares at me. This is a coffee shop.
Whole milk, says Molly.
Anything for you?
No, I say. Thank you.
I take Molly’s hand. Her skin is a little warm but not unusually so. I find her pulse and glance at the clock on the wall. Thirty seconds crawl by. Her heart beats thirty-three times.
You sure you’re okay? I say.
I’m fine, she says. Fine.
Molly is slouched low in her chair, staring at me mournfully.
I don’t quite believe you.
What was the other thing you were going to tell me?
Molly smiles, a thin bright smile. That I have seizures, sometimes.
Molly drinks her milk slowly and the color returns to her face. It seems unwise for her to get back on the motorcycle anytime soon and she shrugs when I say so. But she doesn’t resist when I take her outside. Molly stands beside me, silent and docile and possibly embarrassed. I tell her not to worry but she just stares at me, forgotten helmet in hand. I hail a cab and help her into it. Molly recites the address and the driver shrugs, says it might be twenty bucks. I give him forty and tell him to make sure she gets there. The cab disappears into slow, maddening traffic. I get on the bike and just sit there a moment. Molly never answered my question. The film is more complicated than Miller gave us to believe. What the hell does that mean. I cruise around Berkley in low gear until I come to a sporting goods store. I go inside and purchase a set of compact, high-powered binoculars, then head for the hills.
I approach the house of Miller from above. I leave the bike on the road and walk until I come to a reasonable vantage point, creep into the neighbor’s yard and climb his tree. If trespassing is the only law I break today then it’s a good day. I am not directly above Miller’s house, but at such an angle that affords me a view of eleven windows. I am less than a hundred yards away. I scan the windows for signs of life and nothing is doing. It occurs to me that Miller might very well be performing animal sacrifice in one of the rooms I can’t see, but I tell myself that that which I cannot see does not concern me. It doesn’t exist. I settle into the crooked arms of the tree and light a cigarette. I contemplate a nap. I don’t sleep, however. I don’t care to wake up with a broken neck. Twenty minutes pass, slowly. I am bored silly and my ass is sore. I would give my left arm for a pint of whiskey. I smoke cigarettes and watch the house.
The yellow cab rolls up and deposits Molly in the driveway and it does seem like she should have gotten home long before now. She carries a package wrapped in plain brown paper, entering through the kitchen doors. Miller appears and they talk for a minute. Their conversation is relatively subdued, their body language wary. They appear to disagree for a moment. Miller tries to kiss her, but she withdraws. Molly moves into a part of the house that I can’t see. Miller goes into the living room and flops down on the couch. He puts one foot up on the coffee table and does not move again.
A black Range Rover arrives with a U-Haul trailer in tow and I bring the binoculars up. The first to get out is Jude. She wears jeans and boots and a white leather jacket. Her hair is loose and she wears no sunglasses. Now the other doors are thrown open. Two men and a woman get out. One of the men is Jeremy. He wears black jeans and a black T-shirt under a black vest. The other man I have not seen before. He is large, slow and burly, with a red beard and a wild head of red hair. He wears brown coveralls and boots. The woman looks tiny beside him. She wears black sweats that hang loose from narrow hips and a red tank top. There is a camera bag slung over her left shoulder. Now she turns slowly in my direction, as if regarding the sky. Daphne, from the café. She no longer wears the baseball cap and it hits me. I know where I’ve seen her before. Two nights ago, her name was Veronica. She gave me a grim blow job for ninety bucks. She stares in my direction for another minute, then bends to remove a video camera from her bag.
This is getting interesting.
Jeremy and his burly pal begin to unload equipment from the trailer. I watch them for a moment, glad I am not home. That shit looks heavy. I check the windows of the house and see that Miller has not moved, but now he is wearing a straw hat. He looks like a coke dealer. I find Molly in one of the bedrooms. She wears a black leotard and appears to be practicing yoga. One long white leg is perpendicular to the floor. This is very sexy but I don’t have time for casual peeping. I return to the scene out front. Jude is standing at the back of the truck. The hatch is open and I can’t see her face but I get the feeling she is talking to someone.
Jude leans into the truck and helps a small boy climb out.
He is five or six years old, with a shock of blond hair. He wears green pants and a green T-shirt with a big yellow Nike swoosh across the front. The boy is shivering and so am I. I’ve seen him before. His mouth is covered in duct tape and he is blindfolded but I recognize him straight away. He’s the kid from the videotape, the kid from the baseball game. He is the first-born son of MacDonald Cody.
Jude is gentle with the boy but he looks fucking terrified.
Legs cramped and bright with needles. I stumble, running for the bike.
Exterior, house of Miller. Day.
Wide angle of yard. Long shadows stretch across a gravel driveway. Two white men, fat and thin, struggle under the weight of a large, black metal case. The thin man is Jeremy, 22, recently employed as a doorman at the King James Hotel in downtown San Francisco. Jeremy is an aspiring filmmaker born in Mississippi. He has lived in San Francisco for seven years, surviving alternately as a bike messenger, meth dealer, male prostitute and busboy. The fat man is Huck, 29, originally from Los Angeles. Huck is a guitar player who supplements his income by running lights and sound for small-budget films, primarily in pornography.
Huck- Get your end up. Get the whore up.
Jeremy- Fuck you. I’ve got my end.
Huck- Just hang on to it. I’d hate to lose a toe.
Jeremy- Take it easy. This is the last one.
The roar of a motorcycle as a rider in black helmet comes down the hill, too fast. The bike spins out of control and the rider lays it down on its side. The rider yanks off his helmet and tosses it to the ground, where it twirls for a moment before coming to rest. The rider is Phineas Poe, white male, 39. Disgraced and severely disturbed ex-cop, with a history of drug and alcohol problems. He is prone to petit mal seizures accompanied by apocalyptic visions. He wears a brown leather coat, jeans, and black shirt unbuttoned at the throat. He approaches Jeremy and Huck, his face pale with anger. He stops just short of Jeremy and puts one hand on the metal case.
Poe- What the hell is going on, Jeremy?
Jeremy- You need to talk to your girl. She’s in charge.
Poe- Were you with her when she grabbed that kid?
Jeremy- I don’t know anything about the kid. He was in the truck when she picked me up.
Huck- Hey, man. This box is heavy. You mind getting the fuck out the way.
Poe- The box is heavy?
Poe shoves Jeremy and the box falls to the ground, spilling open.
Huck- Motherfucker. That is some expensive gear in there.
Poe- Do you think I give a shit?
Huck- Jeremy, who is this asshole?
Poe- I’m Joe Blow. Who the fuck are you?
Huck- The name is Huck. I’m running sound and lights on this picture.
Poe- I hope somebody is paying you well.
Huck- None of your business but yeah, they are.
Poe- You’re an accomplice to kidnapping already.
Jeremy- Listen, brother. We’re on the clock, okay. Why don’t you let us do our job and you can take this up with Jude directly.
Poe turns his head to the right and looks directly at the camera. Now he glances back at Jeremy.
Poe- If you call me brother again, I will eat your fucking heart.
Huck- Oh, man. This is gonna be fun.
Poe approaches the camera. In the background, Jeremy and Huck can be seen picking up the box and carrying it to the house. Poe comes closer now and his face fills the frame.
Poe- What’s your name? Daphne or Veronica.
He puts his hand over the lens. Dark, with slivers of light. The sound of breathing.
Poe- Put it down. Put the fucking camera down.
Daphne- Miller wants everything on tape. Everything.
Poe knocks the camera to the ground and there is a prolonged, blurry shot of dust and green leaves.
Poe- What is your name?
Daphne- My real name is Jennifer. But you can call me Daphne.
Poe- What about the other night?
Daphne- That was like…an audition.
The crunch of gravel as Poe walks away. The camera is picked up and now there is a shot of his back as he approaches the house. The camera follows him inside.
Interior, the house of Miller. Day.
The living room. The camera swings around Poe as he enters, then slowly pans room. The room is bright with sunlight. High ceilings and massive windows. The window frames splinter the room with shadows in the shape of crosses. The décor is gloomy, futuristic. Bright blue sofa, kidney shaped. Metallic chairs without arms. A chrome loveseat and a coffee table of bubbled volcanic glass. There are a number of kitchen appliances scattered about, broken or taken apart. There is a puddle of red paint on the hardwood floor beneath a bay window. The small, uneven footprints of a child lead away from the puddle and stop near the center of the room, where a number of broken toys lie.
John Ransom Miller reclines on the sofa. White male, 42, dead or sleeping. He wears white linen pants and a straw hat and nothing else. Miller is a homicidal Zen Buddhist with a degree in criminal law, originally from Florida.
Enter Molly Jones. White female, 27. Miller’s girlfriend. She came to California from Tennessee six years ago, hoping to become an actress, and is currently a student at Berkeley studying theater. Molly is epileptic. She wears a white cotton sundress and brown cowboy boots. Her blond hair is pulled into a ponytail. She glances at Poe, who stands in the doorway, then averts her eyes. Molly sits down on the edge of the coffee table before Miller.
Zoom slow on Poe. He scratches his head, scowls at the camera.
Poe- What’s happening, Molly?
Molly- Phineas…you’re here. Thank god.
Molly- It’s begun.
Poe- I can see that. Where the hell is Jude?
Enter Jude, white female, 35. Last name and place of birth unknown. Estranged girlfriend of Phineas Poe. Jude is a professional killer, formerly of the Army’s special forces, who honed her skills with an Israeli death squad. She has a long white scar on the left side of her face. Black hair, unkempt. Jude wears red velvet jeans and a white tank top, black motorcycle boots and no jewelry. She crosses the room and sits down on the sofa beside Miller.
Poe- What’s going on, Jude?
Jude- I just heard the funniest joke. I almost died.
Poe- You brought a kid in here, just now. I saw you.
Jude- Are you sure about that?
Molly- There’s a kid in the house?
Poe- A little boy.
Molly- I don’t understand. Where did he come from?
Poe- They snatched him, apparently.
Poe- My girlfriend, there. And your husband.
Molly- He’s not my husband.
Poe- Whatever. Hey, Miller. Wake up.
Jude- Do you want to hear it?
Jude- The joke.
Poe- (glaring at Miller) What the hell is wrong with him?
Molly- I know. He looks dead.
Jude- He’s depressed, maybe. He’s afraid you don’t like him.
Poe- I don’t. I don’t like him.
Molly- He looks dead.
Poe- Are you high?
Jude- He’s not dead.
Molly- But he’s not breathing.
Jude- It’s a Buddhist thing.
Poe- That would explain the funny hat.
Jude- Anyway, the joke concerns Billy the Kid…
Poe- Enough of this shit. Where is the boy?
Jude- Do you want to hear this joke, or not?
Poe- Please. Tell us a fucking joke.
Jude- Billy the Kid was in a shootout with his pal Charlie. Billy shot Charlie in the throat, but didn’t kill him. Charlie fell in the dirt and started rolling around like he was drowning in yellow dust. He was taking forever to die. While he was thrashing, a chicken waddled over to Charlie where he lay and grabbed hold of this exposed vein in his neck, grabbed it up in his beak and just yanked it out like a purple rope, then tugged and tugged until it was like ten feet long. And what do you think Charlie said?
Molly- I don’t…I don’t know.
Jude- Get away from me yer stupid chicken.
Molly- That’s not a joke.
Jude- No. It’s kind of a poem, by Michael Ondaatje. He wrote the English Patient.
Poe and Molly exchange glances.
Jude- Come on. You can’t tell me that’s not funny.
Molly- I hated that movie.
Jude- Don’t even think of fucking with me, honey.
Molly- Yeah, well. I just kept wishing the English guy would die, already.
Poe- Where is the boy, Jude?
Jude- I can’t tell you.
Jude begins to laugh. Molly chews a thumbnail, worried. As Poe exits the room, Miller opens his eyes and draws a finger across his throat.
Cut to black-and-white overhead surveillance cameras and follow Poe as he searches the house. He moves from one room to the next but finds nothing. In the basement, he comes upon Jeremy and Huck, who are surrounded by an array of sound and video equipment. The three of them stare at one another.
Huck- You. You fucked up my boom mike.
Poe- Unreal. This is unreal.
He stalks around the room and comes upon a large box marked props. He throws open the box and methodically digs through it, tossing aside cell phones and wristwatches and eyeglasses and a prosthetic arm until he finds what he’s looking for: A small snub-nosed pistol, a.32.
Jeremy- You’re wasting your time, man. Blanks in it.
Poe- I don’t want to kill anyone, yet.
He glances up, suddenly aware of the tiny camera in the corner. He gets up and stares into the lens, then wearily smashes it with the pistol. The picture goes to snow for a moment.
Fade to interior, living room. Day.
Miller sits on the sofa with Jude. Their heads are bent together, as if sharing a secret. Jude smokes a cigarette, reading from a page of the script. Miller has a red pencil in his mouth. There are more pages of script on coffee table and floor. Molly paces around the room, turning now and then to glare at the camera.
Molly- Does the camera have to be on for this?
Miller- The making of the film and the film itself will overlap and become one.
Molly- It’s self-indulgence. It’s bullshit.
Miller- Maybe. But I think the making of the film might ultimately be more interesting than the film itself. And more frightening.
Jude- What’s with this scene between me and Poe?
Miller- Which scene?
Jude- This sex scene on page 36. It says here that I make his nose bleed without touching him.
M i l l e r -
Yeah. I’m thinking you have telekinetic powers, or something. I haven’t sorted that out, yet.
Molly- What sex scene?
Jude- Don’t tell me you’re jealous.
Enter Poe, holding the gun. He looks at Molly, then down at the child’s footprints. He bends to touch the paint and his finger comes away red. He shakes his head, disgusted. He kicks the glass coffee table sideways with his boot. The loose pages of script fly into the air. Poe points the gun at Miller.
Miller- Improv. I love it.
Poe- This is going to hurt, I’m afraid.
Miller- Please…you must be joking.
Poe- Where is the boy?
Miller- The boy?
Poe- Don’t do that. Don’t fucking echo me.
Miller- The script does mention a boy. But I haven’t decided what to do with him. Child actors can be such a nightmare.
Poe- I saw Jude bring the boy in here.
Jude- He’s imagining things.
Molly- What about these footprints?
Poe stares directly at the camera again.
Miller- I wish you wouldn’t do that. I hate it when actors address the camera.
Poe- What are you afraid of?
Miller doesn’t answer and without warning, Poe swings around and fires the gun at him. The shot is loud, deafening. Everyone jumps.
Miller- Missed. He missed me, by god.
Poe- I missed on purpose. For effect.
Molly- What about these footprints?
Jude- I can’t stand the smell of this fucking place. Did you ever notice how every family has its own terrible smell?
Pan to Molly, who stands on far side of the room, in the puddle of red paint. She has removed her cowboy boots and her feet are smeared red. Now she unbuttons her sundress as Jude reads aloud from the script.
Jude- The smell of furniture polish and dead flowers, the smell of shampoo and dirty boots. The smell of ashtrays and garlic and spilled gin.
Molly steps out of her dress and throws it aside. The dress flutters toward Poe, who catches it. His face is blank. Molly stands in red paint, wearing white underpants and bra. The camera moves closer and closer.
Jude- Every family has its own smell and if you’re not careful that smell will attach itself to you, it will sink into your skin and wipe out your own smell. It will become your smell. And ever after you will smell like a family.
Molly sits down on the chrome loveseat and buries her face in her hands. Poe goes to her. He stands over her but does not touch her.
Miller- Beautiful. Print it.
I SIT DOWN ON THE CHROME LOVESEAT beside Molly, who wears just a thin white bra and panties. Her feet are stained, red. I have a gun in one hand and her crumpled sundress in the other. I offer the dress to her and she takes it, holding it in both hands as if she doesn’t quite recognize it. I look around the room and Jude is at the bar, mixing drinks. Her hair falls shadowy around her face. The muscles jump in her brown arms and I can see that she’s glowing.
Jude loves this shit.
Miller is bent over the coffee table, making notes on the script. I look over his shoulder and my eye catches on a random line of dialogue, attributed to me: Who is the shadow that walks beside you? It sounds like something I might say when drunk. It seems like this should disturb me but I don’t much care. Daphne has opened a window and now sits on the ledge, smoking a joint.
Will somebody please tell me what’s happening?
Miller peers at me, confused. Jude brings me a margarita on the rocks.
I would like some of that weed, says Molly.
You might want to get dressed, says Jude.
Oh, says Molly. You’re right.
When did you change the furniture? I say.
Molly touches my thigh. While we were out, this morning.
Do you like it? says Miller. I think it makes for a nice set.
Molly gets up and pulls her dress over her head and buttons it slowly, her bra and panties exposed in flashes. The monologue, I think. She got a charge out of Jude’s psycho monologue. Molly reaches back and pulls her ponytail apart, shakes her hair as if wet. She glides across the room and takes the joint from Daphne. They whisper to each other briefly, like two thieves. Daphne yawns and stretches lazily and announces that she wants to take a dinner break.
Okay, says Miller. But don’t be long. We’ll be shooting tonight.
Daphne nods. Do you mind if I take one of the cars?
Take the Mustang, says Molly. The keys are in the kitchen.
Daphne exits, pausing to pluck a dead yellow flower from a vase.
I take it you know her, I say.
Molly nods. Daphne goes to school with me.
I can’t trust you, can I?
Why do you say that?
Did you fake that seizure today?
No, she says. No.
Please, I say. Button your fucking dress.
Molly looks at me, hurt.
I’m sorry. I’m an asshole, I say.
This is breaking my heart, says Jude.
You love this, I say. Don’t you.
What do you mean?
I mean you’re a compulsive liar.
Everybody shut the fuck up, says Miller. We need to talk.
The whine of a power saw from downstairs.
Hammering, grinding. I wonder what the hell Huck and Jeremy are up to. Molly comes over and hands me the joint. I take a long, grateful drag. I stare at Jude, who lounges on the edge of the couch, stroking herself like she wants to fuck somebody.
The boy, I say. I want to know about the boy.
You’re wondering how he will fare in the film, says Miller.
The fundamentals of The Velvet are simple, he says. One of us in this room will die. That has not changed. But relationships can be tedious, I think. This is not a comedy, after all. It’s a postmodern horror. And so now we are making a film about four people who have kidnapped a small boy to finance an independent film about four people who have kidnapped a small boy. Or something like that. The boy will be the focal point of the conflict between these four characters. The sexual relationships will be secondary.
You like to throw that word around, I say. Postmodern. You realize it doesn’t mean anything?
Miller shrugs. I like the way it sounds.
Where is the boy?
Upstairs, says Jude. Downstairs. In a secret room.
Did you know about this? I say to Molly.
No, she says. Of course not.
I want to see him.
Jude shrugs. And if I say no?
Don’t fuck with me, Jude.
She lays one hand flat on her stomach and thrusts her hips once, twice. But it’s so much fun, she says.
I know this is a bad idea but I walk toward her, my hands out wide to show her that I am unarmed. I shuffle my feet, as if I want to dance with her. Jude raises her arms over her head and pumps her hips faster now, fucking the air. I am a terrible dancer but I’m not shy and I drift close to her, shaking my ass like a fool. I close my eyes for a moment and I see her in a Mexico City motel room, an electric bone saw dripping blood in one hand and a pint of vodka in the other. Her raincoat is covered in blood and she sways back and forth, slowly grinding her pelvis against mine. I look down and her boots are slick with blood, she’s dancing in blood and now I open my eyes and throw my right fist at Jude’s head, a short compact swing that should knock her flat on her ass but she vanishes, she ducks under my fist and when she rematerializes she is to my left and slightly behind me and she hits me with a jab in the side of the throat, then casually sweeps my feet out from under me. I go down like a sack of fertilizer and now Jude is squatting on my chest with a scowl on her face. I am having difficulty breathing and I will be eating nothing but ice cream for a while. I take shallow, gasping breaths, my hands at my throat and I have a feeling she pulled that punch, that she could have crushed my fucking esophagus, that she could have killed me if only she wanted to.
Wow, says Miller. I wish we’d got that on tape.
Are you okay? says Jude.
I see a dark and thorny bramble of emotions in her face. Worried that she has really hurt me, scared but angry as well. Jude bends to kiss me softly on the side of the mouth and I know she loves me, she hates me.
Don’t speak, she says. It’s going to hurt for a while.
Get away from him.
This comes from Molly, who stands a few feet away, a baseball bat in her hands. She has a nice, relaxed grip on it and I believe she knows how to use it. But she doesn’t know Jude very well.
I’m serious, says Molly.
Jude sighs. Honey, I could take that away from you with my eyes closed. I could make you suck it.
Easy, baby, says Miller.
The word baby rings in my head like hammer on stone.
But I won’t, says Jude. I’m done fighting for the moment. I’m tired and I have to pee.
She heaves a theatrical sigh and stands up. She stands over me for a moment and I get a nice view of her crotch. The velvet pants fit her perfectly and her package looks like a ripe red plum. Jude looks good from this angle and she knows it. Now she walks away and Molly bends over me.
Are you okay?
No, not really. My voice is gone, a ragged whisper. I sound like I have laryngitis.
Why did you do that?
I try to smile. I want to tell her it’s complicated. Molly helps me up and I don’t really mean to, but I push her away. I don’t want her to touch me, or something. I don’t want her to help me, to be tender with me. And I like Molly. I think I’m falling for her but right now I need to go talk to Jude. I glance at Miller and by the expression on his face I can see that he is very pleased with things so far.
It’s a waste of breath, I know. But I ask him anyway. Where is the boy?
Sorry, he says. The kid is Jude’s project.
I stagger down the hallway to the bathroom. The door is locked.
Jude, I croak. Let me in.
There is a brief, calculated silence.
The stink of melodrama, sweet and acidic. Then she opens the door, turning aside as she does so. I kick the door shut behind me and go to the sink. My face in the mirror is relatively purple and I don’t know if this is shame or anger or internal bleeding, in which case I’m dead in the morning and none of this shit matters. I take a long sloppy drink from the tap. Water runs down my chin onto my shirt. Jude climbs into the clawfoot tub and sits with her knees drawn up to her chest.
I’m really fucking mad at you, she says.
Oh yeah? I hadn’t noticed. I was too busy choking to death.
Okay, I say. Enlighten me. Why are you mad at me? Because I didn’t fuck Molly last night, or because I wanted to?
You asshole. You ignorant asshole.
I don’t care what you do with that wet bitch. I could not care less.
Phineas, she says. You and I are never going to be happy. We are never going to be an attractive couple with a dog and a kid and a house in the hills. We are never going to file a joint fucking tax return.
Do you even pay taxes?
That’s hardly the point.
Tell me, then. Why are you mad at me.
Because you’re stupid. You’re so stupid. Because you don’t trust me anymore. Because you tried to hit me just now. And because you seem determined to fuck up this project.
This project is a nightmare, I say.
It’s barely begun, she says.
You should have told me.
I couldn’t tell you.
Because I knew you would freak out, just like this.
Then it did cross your mind that I might not be up for an actual kidnapping.
Trust me, she says. You have to believe that I know what I’m doing. And it doesn’t matter because you’re already involved.
I stare at her. The only sound is the dripping tap and it suddenly occurs to me that we are probably on camera right now.
Is this fucking scripted? I say. Did Miller write this scene?
What. Why do you say that?
It’s just a little late in the game to talk about trust.
That hurts, she says.
Answer the question, Jude.
No, she says. This exchange was not scripted. But yes, the cameras are everywhere. Anything we say or do may end up in the film.
I smile because suddenly I have to take a tremendous shit and I feel just a little self-conscious.
What’s so funny?
Nothing, I say.
You don’t have to love me, she says. But trust me and you will walk out of here alive, with half a million dollars in an offshore bank account.
If you want me to trust you, then let me see the kid.
Jude sighs. Fine.
I follow her upstairs and through the kitchen. Molly stands by the stove, stirring a cup of tea. Jude growls at her and I understand that I need to keep an eye on them, that I should never leave them alone together. I smile at Molly, or try to. I tell her everything is under control and Jude laughs like a mad bird. I follow her down the hall and there are voices coming from the Lizard Room. Miller is in there and at first I think he must be talking to Jeremy but then I realize that one of those voices is mine.
Hang on, I say. What the fuck?
Miller is sitting in one of the black leather armchairs, his legs slung over the side. He wears thin cotton pants and no shirt. He is barefoot. He is smoking a cigar and lazily stroking his chest and watching five televisions at once and my handsome face is on every one of them.
Black and white video, poor quality. Fisheye perspective. I am in a room full of mirrors. Television number one features me and Jude in a stalled elevator with two very frightened senior citizens. Jude is so sexy it’s disturbing, and she clearly knows where the camera is. I look diseased, next to her. We are talking about money and blowjobs and whether or not I should kill the old man and pretty soon I am holding the gun to her head.
Motherfucker, I say.
On television number two, I am having my cock munched by Daphne at the Paradise Spa in grainy black and white, poorly lit. Miller chuckles and freezes the picture. I have to admit, the expression on my face is priceless. I look as if I’ve just seen God in the flesh and at the same time realized that I am terribly constipated.
Oh, honey. That’s special, mutters Jude.
On the third screen, I am stretched out in the gutter, getting bitch-slapped with my own gun by a fatass bouncer outside the End Up. Miller is kind enough to rewind that one a few times, so we can view it in slow motion. On television number four, I am crouched in an alley talking to an emaciated junkie who wears a yellow miniskirt. I give her money, then pull back my hand as if to strike her.
And finally I am in bed with Molly, trembling like a kid. She bends to kiss my forehead and there is a lingering, shadowy shot down the front of her nightgown.
Dynamite, says Miller.
The way she comforts you when you have a scary dream. I wish you wouldn’t mumble so much, though. I can’t always make out what you’re saying.
I stare at him. I just don’t know what to say.
Maybe later, he says.
Miller eases out of the armchair, rubbing his belly. It occurs to me that he’s really a lot like Captain Kirk. His chest is completely hairless and he’s packing a nice set of love handles and he’s way too smug and pleased with himself all the time. He walks over to the entertainment console and fiddles briefly with the controls, then slips in another tape.
Fade in. The living room, day. The furniture is as it was before Miller redecorated. Jude sits on the couch in a black dress with slits up either side. Her bare legs are stretched across Miller’s lap. He stares at her legs but does not touch them. Jude leans close to him and begins to whisper or blow into his left ear. Miller pushes her away. Jude smiles as he removes a black Magic Marker from his pocket. Miller slowly, deliberately scrawls the word Mother on one pale thigh and Repent on the other.
Is that permanent ink? says Jude.
He shrugs. It’s as permanent as your skin. It will disappear in five, maybe seven days.
Jude climbs into his lap. She squats over him as if she is about to pee in the woods.
What do you want? she says.
Dominate me, says Miller. His voice is sarcastic.
I’m no good at domination, says Jude. That’s why I’m such a terrible mother.
Funny, says Miller. Very funny.
Jude kisses him, roughly. They wrestle for a moment, panting. Miller tugs at his belt buckle and she tries to pull away.
No, she says. I’m not in the mood.
Miller holds her by the wrists and she just sits there, glaring at him. I wait for her to headbutt him or something but she just sits there on his lap.
Honey, he says.
Don’t fucking call me honey. I hate that.
Miller’s eyes become slits. His nostrils flare. He slowly begins to twist Jude’s arms and she sucks in her breath as if in pain.
Are your wings broken? he says.
Fuck you, she whispers.
Fly away, he says. Fly away, Jesse.
Jude struggles with him but he is too strong for her. I assume she’s taking a dive for the video, but it looks very real. I glance at her now and her face is stony, watching. I look back to the screen as Miller relaxes his grip and Jude yanks her hands away. She stands over him now and her eyes are terrible with fear and anger. I can’t remember ever seeing fear in her eyes, real or not.
Miller yawns on the screen. Fly away, he says.
And beside me he whispers, fly away.
Jude slowly pulls her underpants down from under her dress, standing on one leg, then the other as she slips the panties over her feet and drops them to the floor. She raises both arms over her head and twirls a slow, seductive circle. Her eyes to the floor,. Jude twirls once more and now she begins to spin, faster and faster, so that her dress rises and falls and the curve of her white ass flashes the camera like a blinking light and finally she stops spinning, dizzy and breathing hard.
I’m Mary Tyler Moore, says Jude. I can make it anywhere.
But you will always come back to me, says Miller.
Zoom on her face, then fade to Miller sitting on the edge of the coffee table, naked. Jude is crouched sideways on the couch, legs folded under her like a grasshopper. Her back is to the camera and I can’t see her face, but her hair is damp and tangled and she makes no effort to fix it. She still wears the black dress, now wet and barely recognizable, ripped open down her spine. There are new bruises along her back, dark plum bruises the size and approximate shape of a man’s hand. Miller lights a cigarette. He offers one to Jude but she doesn’t respond. She doesn’t look at him. Miller reaches for her and she flinches away.
Easy, he says. Take it easy.
Miller leans forward and strokes Jude’s legs with one finger, barely touching her. Jude shivers, or trembles. Then slowly Miller begins to pull at her legs, unfolding them. Jude doesn’t resist, but shifts her weight and allows him to extend her left leg so that her foot is in his lap. Now he massages her foot, rubbing it softly with both hands. He might be an affectionate guy whose girlfriend has just had a long day at work except that she is bruised and trembling and he is naked and sweating and has a cigarette hanging from his lips with more than an inch of white ash.
You have beautiful feet, says Miller.
Jude says nothing and he continues to rub her foot.
It’s too bad, he says.
Why? she says. Why is it too bad?
Miller removes the cigarette from his mouth and impossibly, the ash does not fall.
Because one day I will cut off your arms and legs.
The picture abruptly goes to snow, then blue.
Beside me, the physically present Miller sighs as if bored. I look around and see that all of the screens have gone blue. Miller flicks the televisions off one by one. He moves over to the bar, stopping to whisper something to the big boa constrictor. Then he chuckles, as if the snake said something clever in return. I look at Jude and her face is completely blank. She could be waiting for a bus or making up a grocery list in her head. But I notice that she is flexing and unflexing her hands.
Who shot that video? I say. And when?
Jeremy shot it, says Jude.
When? I say.
Miller pours whiskey into a glass. Anyone want a drink?
When? I say. Your hair is much longer now.
I think we should go see the kid, says Jude. Before I change my mind.
Excellent idea, says Miller.
Jude turns and walks out of the room.
I stand there a minute like a dummy, staring at the blank television.
Miller raises his glass in my direction. Cheers, he says.
THIS PLACE IS A LABYRINTH. And it seems to me that most of the people who went into the labyrinth were killed by the Minotaur. I mention as much to Jude and she grunts at me. Jude doesn’t want to talk, it seems. She is stomping along in a mild fury and I reckon she wants to inflict some physical harm on somebody or something. I’m curious as hell about that video but tell myself to save it for later.
She leads me through a series of forgotten, unfurnished rooms and narrow passageways. The house is much larger than I imagined and I am forming the notion that it simply expands whenever necessary, like a house in a cartoon. I follow her along a hall that I have not been down before. Bare wood floors, unlit. The smell of dust. I have a feeling this part of the house is never used, possibly haunted. I follow her around a corner and into a library. Thousands of books, from floor to ceiling. Persian rugs, faded with age. Bright splashes of the sun from skylights above. I take a deep breath and release it slowly.
The room is awesome, the kind of room you whisper in whether you want to or not.
Jude doesn’t blink, of course. She acts like she owns the place, and I have a bright strange vision of her when she was nineteen, sailing through here on a skateboard.
What are you staring at? she says softly.
I love her briefly, for whispering.
Don’t, she says. Don’t stare at me.
There is something wrong with her. The girl on the skateboard disappears and now I am looking at the woman who made a very creepy video with Miller, weeks or even months ago and never mentioned it and now her voice sounds almost fragile, torn. Her face is still a mask but slipping at the edges.
Do you want to talk about that video?
Jude folds both arms across her chest. What do you think?
I think your voice sounds strange.
And how does it sound strange, exactly?
Torn, I say.
Don’t fuck with me, she says.
I take a step toward her and Jude does something I never expected. She takes a step backward, into a box of sunlight so bright she appears to glow. She stands very still and for a moment I think she is vibrating, humming. And then she abruptly sits down on the floor, as if standing before me was becoming a nasty chore and she needed to rest or die.
What’s wrong with you? I say.
Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.
Jude moves away from the sun to slouch against a wall of books. I sit down beside her and we share a cigarette. I won’t ask her any more questions, not now. After a few minutes of silence, she brings herself to lay her head briefly on my shoulder, but that is all the comforting she will allow.
Then she stands up.
Do you want to see the kid or not?
Jude removes a copy of Treasure Island from the fifth shelf. The sound of gears and hinges groaning and then a wall of books on the other side of the room swings open to reveal a hidden door.
You must be joking, I say.
Don’t you love it, she says.
Oh, I love it.
It was designed by a magician named The Fantastic Marco, fifty years ago.
Behind the secret door is a spiral staircase that disappears into the darkness below. Jude produces a small flashlight and says, I hope you’re not afraid of the dark. At the bottom of the staircase is another door. Jude takes two plastic white masks from a box on the floor and instructs me to put one on.
I don’t want to scare the boy.
Do you want him to memorize your face?
The mask has two round eyeholes and a narrow gash at the mouth and I’ve seen this mask before, at the movies.
Jason? I say.
Michael, she says. I wanted something from the movies. I wanted something simple but menacing.
Are you ready? she says.
Don’t go soft on me.
Jude unlocks the door and I push it open slowly. The room is small, with dark wood floors and walls like a little ski lodge. There is a lamp in one corner and the soft yellow light is warm, almost cozy. There is a small refrigerator in one corner, the kind you might find in a college dorm room. In the opposite corner is a toilet and sink. There is a television on, the sound turned low. And then there’s the boy. He’s silent, tiny. He’s lying curled on his side on a narrow futon, his back to us. He is not bound or gagged and he is not blindfolded. Jude and I stand in the doorway and he doesn’t notice us at first. He is watching Tom & Jerry. The boy is transfixed, numb. He holds the remote control in his left hand. His face is dirty and his hair needs to be brushed. I am glad to see that Jude has provided him with the Cartoon Network and a Gameboy to play with and two pillows and a puffy comforter and even a fat stuffed bear for the bed but even so I feel sick to my stomach.
Hey, little man.
At the sound of my voice the boy scrambles into the corner near the toilet. Dark feral brown eyes, so dark it’s like he has no pupils. Or maybe his eyes are completely dilated with fear.
It’s okay, I say.
He shakes his head violently. His whole body is shaking. I take my mask off and drop it to the floor. Jude makes a noise in her throat and I have a feeling she is not amused. I glance up at the ceiling and find the video camera in the corner above the television. Miller is in the Lizard Room, watching us. I can feel his eyes on me. I stare at the camera with pure sweet hatred and slowly mouth the words fuck you.
I turn to Jude. I want to be alone with him, I say.
She stares at me, disgusted. But then she shrugs and walks out.
I sit down on the edge of the futon and pick up the stuffed bear. The boy still crouches by the toilet.
My name is Phineas.
The boy peers at me. I will never hear the end of it from Jude but I tell him my real name. I look at the television and see that Tom has a giant, swollen red paw. He’s hopping around like a maniac and Jerry is laughing at him, hammer in hand. The boy follows my eyes. He stares hard at Tom & Jerry for a minute, then back at me. I wish he would laugh. I want to ask him his name but I reckon it’s best not to push him. We watch Tom & Jerry for ten minutes or so, until it gives way to Dexter’s Laboratory. I’m not familiar with Dexter but I notice the kid’s eyes light up. During a commercial I go over to the little fridge and check out the contents. It seems to me that the boy is more likely to freak out if I stand up, so I crawl over to the fridge on my hands and knees. Jude wants people to believe that her heart is made of stone but she’s not so bad. The refrigerator is stocked with juice boxes and pudding packs and pickles and individually wrapped American cheese and grapes and yogurt and baby carrots and animal crackers and a big plastic jug of chocolate milk. On top of the fridge is a green plastic cup, brown at the bottom with the dregs of chocolate milk.
Whoa. It’s the mother lode in here.
The kid just looks at me. I might be babbling in Greek, as far as the kid is concerned. But I notice he is no longer crouched by the toilet. He has moved maybe two or three feet closer to the futon.
Do you want some more of this chocolate milk?
He stares at me.
I’m gonna have a juice box, I say. You want one?
The kid doesn’t answer. He manages to shake his head and nod at the same time. I get out two juice boxes anyway, and the bowl of grapes. I crawl back to the futon and I’m near enough to touch him. He doesn’t move away, which seems like a good sign. We watch Dexter for a while. I drink my juice box, slurping at the straw and making appreciative noises now and then. I leave the extra juice box on the floor by my foot. I eat a few grapes and the boy looks at me a few times, like he wants a grape but doesn’t want to ask for one.
How old are you? he says.
The kid nods, as if calculating.
How old are you?
Five and a half, he says.
Damn good, I say. Damn good age to be.
That’s a bad word, he says.
You’re right. It is a bad word.
My dad says that word when he’s mad. Are you mad?
This just about breaks me.
No, I say. I’m not mad.
He looks at me. Can I have my juice box now?
Yeah, I say. Of course.
I pick up the juice box and hold it out to him. He comes over and takes it from me and I offer to help him with the straw but he says he knows how to do it. The boy has a serious little face and he frowns, working on the straw. But he gets it in the hole eventually and sighs, pleased with himself. I imagine the juice tastes pretty good. He sits down on the futon, a couple feet away from me.
Do you want a grape? I say.
Yes, he says. Yes…please.
What about some of those animal crackers?
The boy shrugs one shoulder. Okay.
I get out the animal crackers and we sit there munching them a while. Pretty soon, Dexter gets himself into some kind of terrible jam with a time machine that keeps coughing smoke and sending Dexter sideways in time, and then a noisy girl appears, who keeps yelling at him. The boy explains that this is Dexter’s sister, Deedee.
Oh, I say.
Do you like this show? he says.
Yeah. It’s good, I say.
It’s pretty good, he says. Johnny Bravo is my favorite, though.
When does that come on?
It’s coming up next, he says.
What’s your name? I say.
Sam, he says. My whole name is Samwise. Samwise Cody.
Samwise, I say. Your mom and dad must have liked The Lord of the Rings.
The boy’s face lights up. Yeah, he says. Except I don’t have a mom. But my dad reads me that book, sometimes. When I go to bed. How did you know?
I read that book when I was a boy. It was one of my favorites.
He nods. It’s my favorite, too.
Your dad’s name is MacDonald Cody? I say.
Yeah, he says. Most people call him Mac.
I nod. Your dad seems like a good guy.
The boy gazes at me, hopeful. Are you a friend of my Dad’s?
No. I’ve never met him. But I’ve seen him on TV.
The boy nods sagely, and I figure he’s used to hearing people say that. After all, his father is a senator from California. He plays one on TV.
I sit with Sam for another half hour or so. We watch Johnny Bravo together, and he laughs a time or two. Or he laughs when I laugh, that is. The kid has a sweet voice, soft and a little hoarse. I ask him what kind of toys he likes to play with because I notice there are no toys in the room except for the stuffed bear. He says he likes action figures, mostly. I tell him I’ll look into getting him some, and then I say it’s time for me to go. He looks so heartbroken that I am tempted to just sleep down here with him, but I have a feeling that Jude wouldn’t stand for that. But I promise him I will be back soon. I tell him to stay up as late as he wants and to watch cartoons until he’s sick.
The boy looks concerned. Do cartoons make you sick? he says.
No, I say. They never made me sick.
Jude is waiting for me in the library. She sits high atop one of the shelves, still reading about Jim Hawkins. When I come through the secret door she drops to the floor like a cat.
What is wrong with you? she says.
What do you mean?
You let the kid see your fucking face. And then you hang out with him for over an hour. What were you doing down there?
I shrug. We were watching cartoons and eating animal crackers.
Motherfucker. You were bonding with him.
He’s five, Jude.
Jude begins to pace back and forth.
He’s five, I say. Five.
I know how fucking old he is.
The kid is scared, I say.
I suppose you told him your name, as well.
I shrug. He broke me down.
I’m so glad you were thinking straight.
That’s funny, I say. The only thing worse than a sociopath is a funny sociopath.
Fuck you, Phineas.
And how much do you suppose the kid is worth? I say.
Jude stops, her eyes narrow. A million, easy. Maybe five.
His father is the senator, MacDonald Cody.
Jude shrugs. How did you figure that out?
I’ve seen the kid before.
One of Miller’s creepy video tapes.
Jude nods. He does enjoy the home video.
What the fuck is going on between you and him? I say.
I told you. I don’t want to talk about Miller.
What makes you think Cody has five million lying around?
He’s a politician. Fat cats pay a thousand dollars a head to have dinner with him. He’s got more dough in his war chest than your average third world country.
I light a cigarette.
Okay, I say. Here’s the way I see it. If I try to fuck this up and return the kid to his family before we collect the ransom, you will…what? You’ll kill me?
Jude shrugs. Maybe.
Nothing about this is nice, she says.
I shake my head. No shit. Have you read Miller’s script?
No, she says. Not really.
Molly has. She read the first draft, I say.
So what? Jude says.
So, she says the kid dies in the second act. He dies, Jude.
He’s not going to die.
Then he might as well be comfortable, I say.
Cozy, I say. I’m going to hit Toys-R-Us, get him some action figures to play with. I’m going to make sure he eats once in a while and I’m going to hang out with him in the afternoons, when we’re not shooting this goddamn film.
That sounds like an unhealthy level of attachment, Jude says.
Why don’t you come with me? I’ll buy you something pretty and pink.
Jude smiles, a glimmer of affection in her eyes.
It might be fun, I say.
Miller owns us, baby. Best not to aggravate him.
I grab her hands. Let’s just kill the crazy fucker and get lost.
Jude pulls away, cold. It’s not half that easy.
Jude takes the cigarette from me and takes a fierce puff. She crosses her arms, backs away from me, her face so miserable I don’t recognize her.
Because, she says. I’m kind of married to him.
Bullshit. That’s not even funny.
I’m not kidding, she says.
Jude and I sit in silence in the library for almost five minutes. A long time to go flatline with a person who’s got your heart in their fist. Miller’s library is plush as hell, and I could think of worse places to torture myself. There’s a nicely stocked liquor cabinet along one wall, for instance. I pour myself a glass of gin, retreat into a corner and crawl into a leather armchair and smoke one cigarette, then another. Jude’s face is very pale. She drifts around the library a minute and I think she’s looking for something to hit, really. I shake my head. She is so pretty it’s stupid. She climbs the ladder and dives back into Treasure Island. One long leg dangling, a curved blade. I watch her turn the pages. Her hands are amazing, I think. Very strong, and elegant as twin birds of prey. A stray lock of hair keeps falling down over her eyes and she brushes it back with a long finger. I stand up and Jude snaps the book shut.
Explain this to me, I say. When, for instance?
Nine years ago, says Jude. After I left the Army. I met him at a casino in Morocco. He was…well, you’ve seen him. He was powerful, mysterious, he was rich as God. He was the most arrogant man I’d ever met. And he had…certain appetites that appealed to me.
Fucking hell, I say. What are you doing to me?
Back off, she says. You were married once, too. Your wife died under mysterious circumstances and have I ever fucked with you about that?
This shuts me up like a charm. I sip my drink.
Anyway, says Jude. I liked the twisted shit, for a while. And then I got tired of him. I got tired of his lifestyle. Everything was protected by his money. I wanted to get outside and get dirty. I had spent my whole life training to be…what I am. I wanted to work, you know. Miller just wanted me to eat room service and go shopping and be his little psycho playmate, his windup fuck buddy. So, one night when he went to the opera with a client, I got spontaneous and disappeared myself.
WHAT WAS AND WHAT WILL NEVER BE ARE NOTHING TO ME. My head and heart are upside down. Jude is a married woman. She’s married to John Ransom Miller. The way she explained it to me, she got bored with him. She left him but never got around to divorcing him. Why would she bother, she asked. A divorce required paperwork, and paperwork creates a trail. She had simply disappeared, erasing her identity behind her. Jude had been expensively trained by the government to become a fucking shadow in the rain. People generally did not find Jude unless she found them first, and the people she found were generally sorry.
But it’s a small world, and six degrees of separation are like a ticking clock. She had never told me about him, and I suppose that should hurt me somehow. Maybe there’s something wrong with me but everything I feel right now can be gathered into one cupped hand. I feel the fading rush of being surprised, the stupidity of not knowing, which tastes a little like dogshit in my mouth. The most clear and present thing I feel is the residual echo of Jude’s shame and self-hatred. And I am not one to judge. I had been married before I met her too, and I had rarely spoken to her of Lucy. The only difference was that Lucy was dead.
Jude had a sniper’s brain, though. She lived in a world that was defined by mathematical probabilities, and I’m sure that in her mind Miller had been as good as dead. The version of her that had been married to him was therefore dead, too. But still, Miller represented a massive loose end, and Jude did not tolerate loose ends, which made me think she was afraid of him.
The way she told it was flat, unemotional.
She had vanished into the ether and begun freelancing. She had done a few contract hits, but mainly she’d been a hired seeker. If you had wealth and you wanted to recover something that was impossible to find, a stolen Van Gogh, a rare religious artifact, or a military document that didn’t officially exist, you hired Jude. She had done very well, living a shadow existence free of relationships, sleeping in posh hotels, working only when she needed to, or when a job appealed to her. Miller had rarely, if ever, crossed her mind. She knew that her husband worked for the Cody family, but she’d never met any of them, never given them any thought. They were public people whose activities were generally aboveboard, and they weren’t the kind of people who had occasion to employ her. But one day an obscenely rich drug and weapons trafficker in Texas had hired Jude to find a kidney of an uncommon blood type, and that was how she found me and fell into a relationship. The relationship took her to South America on the run, where she had needed to make money. She had been trained as a field surgeon in the army, and she learned early on that there was good money to be had doing procedures that regular doctors would not do, so she set up shop in Mexico City. I knew this story, of course. I was there, holding the bucket. She performed a couple of expensive fetish amputations for rich Americans who recommended her to their friends, and eventually a very disturbed man who looked like a quarterback gone soft had come to us and paid Jude twenty-five grand to cut off his left hand. That man, as it turned out, happened to be MacDonald Cody, and when he saw Jude on the street in New Orleans he was being groomed by his family to make a run at the senate, and it had been only days before Miller found us.
I find Molly in her bedroom, reading. She has changed into black leather pants and an impossibly small, transparent T-shirt that says pornstar across the tits. I stare at her.
What? she says.
I don’t like those pants. You look like Jude.
Why don’t you suck my dick?
That’s nice. Now you sound like her.
I’m sorry, she says. I’m just trying to get a handle on my character. I don’t want her to be too passive.
What do you think? she says.
My character, she says. Do you think she’s tough enough?
I close my eyes. Do I think Molly is tough enough? No, not really. Molly is too neurotic and fragile. Molly is sweet but there’s something ghostly about her and you get the feeling she’s not gonna make it.
Molly stares at me.
I’m sorry, I say. This thing with the kid is making me…uneasy.
Did you see him?
How is he?
He’s a nice kid. His name is Sam.
Is he okay, though?
He’s scared. What the hell do you think?
Molly hesitates. I think he would break my heart.
There is an incessant grinding noise coming from down the hall and suddenly I don’t want to talk about the kid anymore. I have a powerful urge to rip off my own head. Or Molly’s head. The grinding noise is slowly but surely eating into my spine. I have a beauty of a headache, a whopper. I push through the silver wings to the bathroom and commence to root around in Molly’s medicine cabinet for pills. The grinding noise is louder in the bathroom. It’s coming through the pipes, it’s echoing. I want a muscle relaxer, something in the narcotic family. I want a big glass of whiskey but I don’t care to wander around the house anymore so I eat a Valium and two aspirins and chase them with a chewable vitamin C.
What the fuck is that noise? I say.
That grinding noise down the hall.
Oh, she says. Huck and Jeremy are constructing something in the dining room. We’re shooting the dinner party scene in a few hours.
Fabulous. I sit in the green chair and close my eyes. Then open them. What dinner party scene?
Molly frowns. I think it’s one of the new scenes John added to the script.
Brief, awkward silence. What color would they be? says Molly.
I hold my head. What color would what be? I say.
Those Nazi lampshades. Do you think they would be pink or yellow?
You know. The Nazis made lampshades from the skin of death camp victims, supposedly.
I stare at her, helpless. What the fuck are you talking about?
It’s a line from a Sylvia Plath poem.
Do you like poetry? she says.
No. I don’t like poetry.
I don’t know. Because I’m empty inside. Because I have a headache.
But you’re such a good kisser.
Have you been talking to Jude?
No, she says. Why?
Because Jude has a funny theory about murderers and poets being the best kissers and now I wonder if you and she are only pretending to dislike each other.
Molly stares at me. Are you a murderer?
I have never kissed you, I say.
Anyway, she says. Pink or yellow?
I don’t understand this conversation.
Molly rolls over and stares at me. I’m reading lines from the script. You and I have a scene later where we discuss Sylvia Plath.
Oh, I say. Of course.
Molly smiles at me and she looks so sweet and normal I feel insane. I cover my eyes with my hands. I try to crush my eyes into my skull.
Are you okay? she says.
No, I don’t think so.
Molly sighs. I think John just wants us to go mad and kill each other.
He’s succeeding, I say. And those lampshades would definitely be yellow.
The grinding noise stops, mercifully. Then immediately resumes. I light a cigarette and notice that my hands are twitching.
I don’t know, says Molly. I think they would be pink.
Molly, I say. I have to get out of the house.
Let’s go somewhere, she says.
Do you want to go shopping with me?
Where? she says.
I explain that I want to get the boy some action figures, that if he has his own little army of five-inch superheroes to wreak imaginary mayhem with, maybe he won’t be lonely. Molly kisses me, a quick darting kiss on the mouth and I remember something my redneck baseball coach once told me, perverse but true. Be kind to dogs and children, he said. Women love that shit.
And so we take the motorcycle across town to a Toys-R-Us.
It’s an American afternoon, by god.
The parking lot is a shiny wasteland of family cars and minivans and I wish the sun were not so bright. I wish the sun would fuck off for a while. The statistics claim that people in the Northwest kill themselves at a much higher rate than those in any other region, presumably because of the endless rainfall. But it seems to me that the opposite should be true, that the unfortunate souls who are confronted day after day by the glaring sun would be the ones most likely to reach for the sleeping pills. The sun is neither flattering nor sympathetic. The average American is afflicted with some combination of bad skin and bad hair, bad posture and bad shoes. Bad habits and bad genes and bad taste and bad fucking luck and the sun seeks out such flaws with the cool, detached efficiency of a sniper.
Just ramble down to the beach on Labor Day weekend. Take a good look around.
Once inside the store, I relax a bit. There is music in the air-the theme song from the recent Winnie-the-Pooh movie featuring Tigger, a happy wacky little tune about the semi-charmed life that is just perfect for bouncing and therefore perfect for Tigger. But the lyrics are not so cheerful, however. I may be ignorant about contemporary poetry, but it seems to me that the song is about the perilous highs and lows of being a crystal meth addict. And this puts a smile on my face. I turn to Molly and she too is smiling. It is one of those goofy moments that needs no words and I feel like my head will soon be in a box.
I take Molly’s hand and we literally scamper through the place. Down the gloomy aisle of stuffed animals waiting to be loved and past the freakishly pink Barbie aisle, then past the brightly colored plastic swing sets and sandboxes shaped like turtles and bumble bees. Past the gleaming rows of bicycles and tricycles and red wagons and midget electric cars. Turn a corner and come upon the action figure aisle. I stop and suck in my breath with reverence. This is a kid’s promised land.
Molly laughs at the expression on my face.
I reach for a shopping cart and start loading up on little role models. Explaining to Molly as I go that Batman is indispensable. The Dark Knight, baby. Spider-Man is a nerd and talks a lot of trash but he has the coolest powers. Wolverine is your ultimate psycho and what kid doesn’t want adamantine claws. The Silver Surfer is the mad philosopher, the cursed poet, Hamlet on a magic surfboard. And then there’s Ghost Rider. Obscure as hell but I was always partial to him because he has a flaming skull and he’s not always a nice guy. Ghost Rider is sometimes a bad guy, and this is an important lesson for a kid to learn. I pass over Superman because he was such a bore. He was like the president of the student council. And he hung out with Aquaman, over there in the Justice League. Now there was a worthless ninny if ever there was one. Aquaman talked to the fishes. He was handy during an oil spill or a tropical storm, maybe. But if somebody was robbing a bank, where the fuck was Aquaman?
Women, says Molly. What about some women?
Of course. I immediately reach for Catwoman.
Catwoman? says Molly. The femme fatale from hell?
Or heaven, I say. It’s just a matter of perspective.
If she’s handing your lunch to you, then maybe you don’t like Catwoman. And rightly so. But if she’s giving you a superfreaky blowjob in the back of the Batmobile, then she’s your best friend.
Uh huh. Does the Batmobile even have a backseat? says Molly.
I scratch my head.
And does a five-year-old need to contemplate such things?
No. I guess not.
Now we argue about female superheroes, briefly and with a fair amount of giggling. I am not wavering on Catwoman so Molly insists on Jean Grey, on the grounds that she’s essentially the opposite of Catwoman.
Jean Grey is an intellectual, says Molly. And she doesn’t generally flash her tits.
Okay, I say. Wolverine likes her, anyway.
I throw in a sweet Batmobile with a lot of high-tech gear and a few villains, explaining to Molly that superheroes tend to lose their will to live without bad guys to tangle with. And then we are on our way to the cash registers when I am temporarily mesmerized by the Hot Wheels aisle and I flash back to the elaborate, multileveled, and structurally unsound metropolis that I constructed from those plastic orange tracks as a boy.
The silence of snow falling outside.
The oppressive smell of garlic and mushrooms and red pepper. There was spaghetti for dinner and now my mother and father linger in the kitchen to finish a bottle of wine. Their voices rise and fall and slip easily from flirtatious to hostile and back to tender and estranged and all the while it is impossible to say whether or not they are happy.
And here comes Carly Simon on the record player, her voice hoarse and splintered by static and fine scratches in the vinyl. You’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you.
This song was the soundtrack of my childhood, and I often wonder about its long-term effects.
You’re so vain.
I am maybe seven years old, sitting on the floor of my room in cowboy pajamas. I am surrounded by the small orange universe of my own design and even though I lack the necessary vocabulary, I am no doubt contemplating the laws of physics, the inevitability of inertia and gravity. I place a very small turtle on one of the orange tracks, the kind of turtle that cost ten cents at the pet store and usually died within a week. I select one of my fastest cars, a blue Corvette. I position the car at the top of the track and hold it there a moment, watching the turtle wiggle along the track. I release the blue Corvette and it drops straight down, as if falling down the sheer edge of a cliff, and crashes into the turtle with a nice meaty thud.
The turtle is knocked from the track and is dazed but not killed.
My parents are arguing now, or maybe not. Maybe one of them is seducing the other.
I return the turtle to the track and reach for another car. I reach for a glossy black Aston Martin and I am stupidly pleased to see that the cars are still exactly the same, composed not of plastic but actual metal and perfect to the tiny detail. The packaging has not changed and the Hot Wheels logo has not changed and a single car costs just a dollar, which seems to me a reasonable level of inflation over so many years.
Vertigo, dislocation. You’re so fucking vain.
Hey, says Molly. You okay?
She takes the little car from me.
Don’t I look okay?
No, she says. You look like you’re going to cry, or throw up.
I’m not sure how to explain what happens next, but I reckon my head is still halfway morphed into the inarticulate seven-year-old cowboy-pajama-wearing version of Phineas and the only reasonable way that a boy can show a girl how much he likes her is to hurt her somehow.
Boy pokes girl, pinches girl, pulls girl’s hair.
Boy makes girl cry and everyone says oh, well. He just likes you. And how many battered wives and girlfriends soon to be murdered will stare at you with puffy, blackened white marble eyes and insist that their abusers love them. The words like slush from their mouths, because their lips are blackened.
Anyway. I regard Molly for a moment, then hit her.
What the fuck?
Molly backs away, her hand touching lightly the place just above her heart where my fist struck her. The blow was not terribly hard. But it was not gentle. And just as I am about to apologize, to attempt some lame explanation about Carly Simon and Hot Wheels, she hits me back. Her fist catches me like a hammer below the eye and I’m going to have a ripe blue shiner come morning. Molly holds her fist out away from her body and looks at it, fairly horrified.
Oh, my god. Oh god, she says. I’m sorry.
No, I say. That was the perfect thing to do.
I hold my arms out wide. It seems like the perfect moment for a slow, zooming close-up.
INTERIOR, HOUSE OF MILLER. NIGHT.
Bright lights come up on the dining room. Jude sits at the head of a long, carved black table that has been placed on a raised stage of rough, unfinished wood. The table is polished and bare except for a single unlit candle in the center. Jude’s hands lie flat on the black surface before her and she stares straight ahead. She wears a white, sheer blouse with elaborate ruffles around a plunging neckline. Her hair is loose. I stand in the doorway where she can’t see me.
Pan the room, slowly. There is no furniture other than the table and chairs and the skeletal light stands. The windows have been covered with heavy black shades. Huck is crouched in a corner. He wears a tool belt and appears to be repairing or modifying an electrical outlet. He glances briefly at me and winks.
Jude is now standing. She sighs, impatient. She takes a book of matches from her pants pocket. The table is so long and wide that she cannot easily reach the candle and so she crawls slowly across it to light the candle and then remains there, stretched on her belly and staring at the flame.
My skin tingles and Molly appears at my shoulder, dressed as before.
Are you ready? she says.
It’s okay, she says. It will be okay.
We enter together, then separate and go to sit at opposite sides of the table. Jude lies between us, still staring at the candle. She doesn’t speak or acknowledge us. I am restless and soon light a cigarette, flicking my ashes on the wooden stage. Molly leans back in her chair and puts her feet up, crossing one leg over the other, the heels of her boots striking the table like hammers.
What’s on the menu, then? I say.
I don’t know, says Jude. You should ask the lady of the house.
Who is the lady of this house? says Molly.
That’s become rather unclear, says Jude. Hasn’t it.
Everyone shut up, please. This from Miller, entering.
He wears a gray wool suit and tie and an incongruous black top hat. In one hand he carries a flat cardboard box. In the other, what appears to be a small birdcage covered with a black hood. He stares for a moment at Jude, who remains on the table. She yawns, as if sleepy. Miller sits down and opens the box to remove a stack of bound, photocopied scripts. He tosses them around the table. Molly takes a copy and begins flipping through it. I pick up my script but I don’t open it.
This is the final draft? says Molly.
For now, yes.
Then you must know which of us is going to die.
The final scene has been removed from your copies, he says.
Of course, says Jude. Her voice very dry, like salt.
What’s in the cage? I say.
It’s a surprise, he says.
I don’t see a dinner party scene, says Molly.
Ah, says Miller. That’s because there isn’t one.
What’s going on, John? says Jude.
Tonight’s shoot has been cancelled, he says.
Why? she says.
Jude, he says. Get off the table. You look like a tramp.
Jude scowls at him, then slithers slowly to the other end and takes her seat. She stares at Miller for a beat, then lowers her eyes and sullenly picks up her script. One copy remains on the table. Jeremy is behind me. I can feel him back there and I have a feeling the camera is pointed directly at my head, like a gun. I would love to see a swinging, upside down shot of the room that slides out of focus and returns to focus on the back of my head before cutting away. Miller laughs softly and turns to look at the door as Daphne enters, leading Samwise by the hand. The boy wears blue and white striped pajamas. He is frightened, numb.
What’s going on? I say.
You fucking psycho, says Jude. You’ve let him see my face.
You’re his mother, says Miller. He’s got to see your face.
Jude is seething. I am not his mother.
Who’s the father? says Jeremy.
Miller frowns. That’s not your line, boy.
Molly reads from the script, irritated. Who’s the father?
I am, says Miller. Or I might have been.
This is a scene? I say.
I thought we weren’t shooting tonight, says Molly.
Fuck this, I say. I’m not playing this game.
The boy needs you, says Miller, softly.
The boy, I say. The boy needs to go home. He needs to sleep in his own bed.
Why are you doing this? says Jude.
Miller shrugs. I have a theory that actors need to be surprised now and then. Besides, the boy has to get used to being in front of the camera.
The boy is terrified, says Molly.
What’s your point?
John, for god’s sake. You can’t make a kidnapped boy memorize dialogue.
Of course not, says Miller. He will be allowed to improvise.
How is that going to work? I say.
Witness, he says.
Miller removes the black hood from the cage to reveal a small brown rabbit. Now he takes off his top hat and places it on the table, upside down.
Do you believe in magic, Sam?
The boy looks at me and I shake my head, fiercely.
No, he says.
Interesting, says Miller. I thought all little boys believed in magic. Would you like to see this rabbit disappear?
The boy shrugs one shoulder. Then nods. Daphne reaches down and strokes the hair out of his eyes. Miller takes the rabbit from the cage and places it inside the hat. He waves his right hand slowly over the hat, muttering incoherently. Everyone watches him, curious to see what will happen. Miller counts to five, then turns the hat over. The rabbit falls out of the hat and crouches on the table, shaking.
Tharn, I say. The rabbit is tharn.
Miller feigns surprise, waving his hands.
I know what he’s going to do before he does it, but I can’t stop him. I sit frozen, my hands like stones on the table. Miller picks up the rabbit with both hands and strokes its head once, twice. Then without changing his expression, tries and fails to break the rabbit’s neck. Blood sprays from its nose, and the rabbit begins to scream like nothing I have ever heard.
Molly cries out loud, incoherent.
Goddamn it, says Jude. Goddamn it, John.
She picks up the crippled, screeching rabbit and takes it out of frame, to the kitchen. The screaming abruptly stops. Sam still clings to Daphne’s hand. His face is so white he looks as if he will faint. A puddle of urine appears at his feet.
Motherfucker, I say.
I come out of my chair and hurry to the boy, growling at Daphne to get the hell away from him. I lift the boy up by his armpits and hold him close to my chest.
I whisper to him, my voice low. Okay, you’re okay.
Jeremy moves in with the camera, a slow zoom.
I look up and Miller has taken a gun from his breast pocket. His face still bloody.
What are you doing, Poe? he says.
I stare at Miller. I pray God strikes him with boils.
This gun contains live rounds, says Miller. If you’re interested in such matters.
Are we done? I say. Are we done with this scene?
The boy is heavy, so heavy he could crush you but at the same time he weighs nothing. I take him down the hall to the bathroom. He’s trembling, a little. His face pressed against my neck. His pajamas are wet and now my shirt is wet but I don’t want him to think I notice. I hold him close. I tell him he’s cool.
You’re cool, little man. You’re okay.
Into the bathroom and I close the door. The same black-and- white tiles. The light over my head is bright as the sun on snow and I wonder where the camera is.
The camera. The camera is obscure.
I ease the boy down onto the fuzzy black bathmat. He doesn’t look up. He doesn’t look into my eyes. His hands on my shoulders. He stands with his feet wide apart and I notice how small his feet are, smaller than my hands. His feet just about kill me. He doesn’t look up. I can hear him breathing.
Do you want to take a bath? I say.
He doesn’t answer at first. Then nods, fiercely.
He doesn’t want to let go of my shoulders so I pull him over to the clawfoot tub with me. I turn the hot and cold taps until the water feels warm but not too warm. There is a bottle of cucumber-flavored bubble bath on a little shelf next to the tub and I dump some of that in.
The water turns pleasantly green.
Does your dad ever call you Sam I am?
The boy nods again.
Would you, I say. Would you could you in a box?
He stands there, breathing.
Not with a fox, he says. Not in a box.
The tub fills slowly and the room is white with steam. The boy and I are quoting everything we can remember from Green Eggs and Ham, and making up new ones. Not in a boat, not with a goat. Not on a slippery slope. Not at the end of a rope. Not on a train by god, and never in the rain. Not in the house of pain. I ask him if he wants to take his bath now. I know it won’t kill him but I hate for him to stand around in pajamas soaked with urine. I have been in those shoes. I have stood in my own piss and it’s not cool. The boy nods and says he needs some privacy.
Yeah, I say. That’s right. Everybody needs privacy sometimes.
Sam looks up at me now and I see how red his eyes are, how dirty his face is. I want to wash his face but I don’t know if he will let me.
The action figures. The action figures are in Molly’s room.
Hey, I say. Do you want some friends to play with in the tub?
Sam nods. Okay, he says. What kind of friends.
How about some good guys, I say.
He shakes his head. I don’t want any bad guys.
I leave him to undress and go down the hall to Molly’s room. She is sitting on the bed, smoking a cigarette and agitated as hell. I ignore her. The toys are in the green chair. I dropped them there, before we went into the dining room. I dig through the bag and come up with Batman and the Silver Surfer. D.C. and Marvel and therefore not of the same universe but a fine combination nonetheless. Vengeance and poetry, the stuff of life. What else is there. I rip the packages open, careful not to drop Batman’s grappling hook. I wonder if the Surfer’s little surfboard will float and now I notice that Molly is staring at me.
Molly is staring bullets at me.
I don’t know.
How is he? I say.
Yeah, she says.
He pissed himself. He’s not happy.
Molly wraps her arms around herself. She’s pretty, so pretty. I wonder what it’s like to be pretty. If it gives you strength. If it pulls you under the surface, somehow. Molly begins to rock back and forth and I know she needs me to talk to her, to sit on the bed with her and make sense of things but she’s going to have to wait.
Wait, I say.
Back down the hall and I have a feeling that Jude is lurking, waiting for me in the shadows. Jude will soon jump out at me and stick her tongue in my ear and say something freaky. Jude is always lurking somewhere, lately. But there’s no sign of her. I can’t smell her and instead I run into Huck. He’s crouched in the hall, a beer in each hand.
Hey, he says. Hey, man.
I stop and stare down at him. Huck is a big man but he manages to shrink into the shadows. He lifts one of the beers to his mouth and drinks. Then wipes his mouth on his sleeve.
Hey, I say. Are you okay?
No, he says. I’m about two thousand miles from okay.
Where is Jeremy?
The fuck I know. He went off with Jude somewhere, and Daphne.
Nice, I say. That gives me something nasty to think about.
Huck shivers. Uh-huh.
What about Miller?
The fucking Lizard Room, he says. Feeding another rabbit to his snakes, probably.
He’s watching us.
Fuck him. You want a beer?
No, I say. Thanks. The kid is waiting for me.
Huck crumples the empty beer can into a jagged knot and tosses it into a potted plant. He shakes his head and says, you tell that boy to keep the faith.
The boy is swimming in the bathtub when I return, the bubbles around him like fallen clouds. His head comes out of the water and he is slick and dark as a seal. I offer him the action figures and he takes them from me, murmuring. Batman he’s familiar with. But I have to give him the historical lowdown on the Silver Surfer. He listens intently, nodding. He frowns when I tell him how lost and heartbroken the Surfer was and there is a brief, contemplative silence between us.
Does his surfboard float? he says.
I smile. That’s the question, isn’t it?
Sam doesn’t want to wash his hair or his face but I figure he’s wallowing in enough cucumber bubblewater to purify a pig, so I leave him alone. He asks me to stay in the bathroom with him until he’s done with his bath. I tell him not to worry. I’m not going anywhere. I sit on the floor with my back against the wall, watching him play with Batman and the Surfer.
The surfboard does float.
It tends to fall over when the Surfer is actually standing on it, but the boy doesn’t mind. He’s got Batman hanging upside down from one of the taps, his legs tangled up in the cord of his own grappling hook. The boy is narrating.
Help me, says Batman.
I’m too sad to help you, says the Surfer.
Help me. I’m drowning over here.
I smoke a cigarette, dropping ashes into the toilet. I know that I shouldn’t smoke around him but this has been a long fucking day and I’m waiting for the boy to ask me about the rabbit. I want to tell him the rabbit wasn’t real. It was a fake rabbit and I know it looked real and maybe that’s why it was so disturbing but I know this is bullshit.
If you lie to a child, he will smell it.
He will smell the untruth coming from your skin like the sweet smell of rot and he may accept it or he may not, but he won’t thank you for it.
Footsteps and there’s a knock at the door, soft. The boy is spooked and disappears underwater. I figure it’s Molly at the door, come to tell me something. But when I open the door it’s Jude and I guess she sees my face change. She hands me a glass of scotch and a clean T-shirt for the boy. Her lips move to form the words I’m sorry and she touches my hand before turning away. I shake my head. Her talent for slipping and sliding between evil and kindness is extraordinary. I tell myself that everyone is this way, that most people are just very clumsy about it. I take a small, medicinal swallow of the scotch and it feels good, it goes down like liquid smoke and I am surprised to realize this is my first drink of the day. I thump the side of the tub with my knuckles and smile, remembering how I used to lie underwater with my eyes shut tight, the faraway echoes stretching in my skull.
The boy comes up for air and I tell him it’s time for bed.
He convinces me to let him stay in the bath for five more minutes. Five more minutes. He says it like a mantra and I imagine he has had this conversation with his father a thousand times.
Five minutes, ten.
I am not too concerned about bedtime, you know. What difference does it make. The boy is a hostage. It’s not like he has a soccer game tomorrow. And after a while, he tells me that the water is cold, that his skin is getting a million wrinkles. I pull him out of the tub and wrap him in one of the big black towels. I offer to help him with his T-shirt but he says he doesn’t need any help because he’s five and a half.
I’m big, he says.
Okay, I say.
I watch him wrestle with the T-shirt. He has a little trouble negotiating the second armhole but he sticks with it. The shirt is on backwards but he doesn’t care. His hair is sticking up all over the place and he looks like a little madman and when he smiles at me, I am tempted to take him to bed with Molly and me but I’m not sure this is a good idea and I know that Jude wouldn’t like it.
I take him through the library and down the stairs, taking care not to clue him in to the workings of the secret passage. This has to do with instinct, or respect for Jude. I tuck Sam into bed and he promptly burrows into the corner with the stuffed bear. He arranges the pillows around himself, like a fort. He’s got Batman in one hand, the Silver Surfer in the other. Vengeance and poetry. There are no books to read and I wonder if I should go up to the library and look for a copy of The Lord of The Rings, but the boy’s eyes are heavy already and I don’t want to leave him. I flip on the television, thinking cartoons will give him pleasant dreams, colorful and two-dimensional and easily resolved. If he was my son, I might lie down next to him and let the sound of my heartbeat ease his mind. But he’s not my son and I am reluctant to get too close. I don’t want to freak him out so I sit down on the floor beside his bed and halfway through Johnny Quest the boy is asleep and snoring softly.
MOLLY’S ROOM, NIGHT.
I lie on her puffy white bed, smoking a cigarette. I wear filthy blue jeans and nothing else. I am exhausted and pissed off about the rabbit, but I could be worse. I have a fresh glass of scotch balanced on my chest, my third of the evening. I am staring dumbly at the little television across the room. The sound is low but I can just make out the numbing dialogue of a sitcom involving a gang of attractive white people and their innocuous homosexual black pal. I flip around until I land on CNN, hoping to find something about Sam.
On the bed beside me is Miller’s script. The Velvet.
I don’t know what I think of that title. Too oblique, too nihilistic, or too esoteric or something but it’s not my problem. The Velvet is Miller’s baby. Molly has left the room, to get into character. She wants to run a scene with me and of course she already has her lines down. I have agreed to cooperate, but I’m going to read my lines from the script in a voice composed of discarded feathers and broken glass.
Molly enters, wearing white underpants and a little white tank top. Her hair is wet. She’s carrying an open bottle of red wine and an orange. She tosses the orange on the bed beside me. Takes a drink of wine and wipes her mouth on her wrist. She offers the bottle to me and I shake my head. I put the glass of scotch aside and sit up, the script in hand.
What’s the orange for, I say.
I have a vitamin deficiency, she says. I’m getting rickets.
That would be scurvy.
You’re getting scurvy. And deaf, too.
Oh, shut up.
Have you seen a doctor?
I toss the script aside because I remember how it goes. This scene is based on an actual conversation between Jude and me, so long ago that I feel sick with loss. I take a shallow breath, realizing that Jude must have at some point collaborated with Miller on this thing. Molly ignores me, bends to pick up a shirt from the floor. She smells it, apparently decides it’s relatively clean and begins to rub her hair dry with it. I watch her for a while.
Isn’t that my shirt? I say.
Yeah, she says. I already used my shirt to dry my poor body.
Why don’t you buy some towels? Your houseguests might appreciate it.
I take the shirt from her. I rub her head gently with it.
What houseguests? I don’t have houseguests.
You have me.
Well. I don’t know where they sell towels.
They? she says. Who would they be?
You know. The household luxuries people.
Molly laughs. Phineas…towels are not luxuries.
They are if you don’t have them.
You have sheets, she says. You have nice, clean sheets.
Yeah, well. My girlfriend bought the sheets. Before, all I had was a dusty mattress and a sleeping bag. She said I would never get laid unless I had real sheets.
Molly’s hair is dry. I toss the shirt aside and lean over, reaching for my scotch. Molly bites me on the shoulder. Then we wrestle for a minute and I let her pin me to the bed, or so it goes in the script. Molly is wiry and strong, though. She doesn’t need a lot of mercy from me.
Your girlfriend was right, she says. Wasn’t she?
There is a long silence, which Molly interprets as me being lost. I am lost, but not in the way she thinks. Molly sighs and takes a drink of wine and her lips come away dark as berries.
I don’t know, I say. This was a nice sleeping bag, a mummy bag.
She rolls her eyes. Why don’t you ask this girlfriend to buy you some dishes, too. Wine glasses, for instance.
I have coffee cups, I say.
Two coffee cups. One of them is dirty. The other one has a plant growing in it.
At this point, the script calls for Molly to nonchalantly remove her tank top. I am weirdly nervous about this. Because while Molly and I have been slowly, painfully seducing each other for days now, and it seems reasonable to assume that any day she might in fact remove her top, there is a sense of detachment and hostility between us that seems to arise directly from the script. Anyway, after slight pause, Molly shrugs and pulls the tank top over her head and she is exposed to me.
The script now suggests that I fondle one of her breasts as if I’m preoccupied, distracted. I am supposed to randomly tweak and pinch her nipple between thumb and finger as if fiddling with the tuning dial on a car radio. This seems rude but I give it a whirl. Her nipples are hard. She tolerates my affection for a minute, then slaps my hand away.
What is that, she says. Foreplay?
I shove her off me, gently. Then pick up the orange and begin to peel it.
Why do you have a vitamin deficiency?
Because I never eat vegetables, she says. Because I’m anemic.
Yeah, I say. Maybe you should lay off the coke.
Phineas, she says. Don’t…
I feed her a fleshy chunk of orange.
Okay, I say. What kind of towels should I buy?
Thick ones, she says.
Dark colors. Something that won’t show blood.
Then you will be the perfect man.
I feed her more of the orange. Molly nibbles at my fingers and I notice a flicker of electricity in my chest.
By your definition, I say. The perfect man is one who has clean sheets and plenty of nice, thick towels that don’t show blood.
That’s right, says Molly.
She begins to giggle. I feed her the last of the orange and juice runs to my wrist. Molly licks at it, then kisses my hand, sucks at my fingers. Her mouth moves to my throat.
Jesus, I say.
What’s this girlfriend of yours like?
I glance at the script, suddenly uncomfortable…She’s like a hummingbird, I say.
Does she drink sugar water?
She vibrates, I say. She moves so fast you can barely see her.
And should I be jealous of her? she says.
You, I say. You’re a blur. You’re already gone.
This is the end of the scene but I slip my hands under her ass and lift her onto my lap again. Molly fumbles with the buttons of my jeans and I think I’m going to come any minute. I touch her through her panties and she’s wet, she’s melting. Molly pulls my cock loose and begins to run her hand up and down, barely touching me. I push her panties to the side and slip my fingers inside her and now she moves her hips, pushing her pubic bone against my hand and one of us is groaning and then suddenly we pull away from each other.
Whoa. What the hell was that?
Drama, she says. Her voice is bitter.
What’s wrong with you?
You, she says. You still haven’t kissed me.
Bright pocket of silence.
That dialogue, I say. What a load of shit.
I think it’s romantic, she says. Or it would be, if it were real.
It’s embarrassing, I say. It’s pap.
What is pap, exactly? she says.
I stare at her and realize I am not sure. Pap is a sticky, sweet mucus type substance the color of pus. Jesus, I don’t know. Pap is fucking pap.
Well, she says. I think he sounds like you. Your character sounds just like you.
Molly folds her arms across her chest. I shove myself back into my pants, rather grimly. I sit beside her, listening to my rapid heart. I want to scream. I lean over the side of the bed for the bottle of wine. I take a long, greedy drink and pass her the bottle. She lifts it to her mouth and stops, staring at the television.
Oh fuck, she says.
There is a picture of Sam on the screen.
…Samwise Cody, five years old…presumed to be kidnapped… blond hair, brown eyes. Forty-nine pounds, with no identifiable scars or birthmarks…missing two days now.
The camera cuts away from photo of Sam to footage of his father at a press conference. Distraught, unshaven. He appears to be unable to speak.
…is the son of MacDonald Cody, popular U.S. senator from California and one of the power players in the Democratic party, figures to be a factor in the next presidential election… There has been no ransom demand, no contact from kidnappers at all.
I look at Molly. The bottle of wine still tucked between her legs, forgotten. One hand over her mouth. Her hair still wet and she is naked, lovely. But I feel nothing resembling desire. I feel nothing much at all.
This is wrong, I say. So fucking wrong.
It will be over soon, says Molly.
I sink back and yes there is rage in me but not enough. Pale rain clouds faraway and they may not get here anytime soon. They may pass by, they may fade away. I remember nothing but ailments. Impatience, affliction, and morbid restlessness. I cut my hair last night and saw your face. I saw the uselessness of the organism, the sequence of maladies. Disorder of the stomach and love letters amount to threads. The imperfection. The difficulty in forming ordinary vowel sounds. The sleeve of the female engages threads of the male. This is the hum of empty space. This is a photograph of a boy no longer a boy. Please, don’t. Don’t interrupt me. Badly drawn stick figures and the voice of another is like a forgotten blue T-shirt on the floor. He came inside me and said he didn’t mean to. This room has such poor light. Why did you buy an orchid of all things. Because you were not home. Because the phone just rings.
The light touch of rose petals on my shoulder.
I am asleep, or nearly so. I’m dreaming in my own voice. This can’t be good for anybody. Molly has turned the light off and she lies half-naked beside me, not quite touching me. But I can feel her breath on my skin and the rose petals might have been her lips. The television is still on and I am grateful, because the silence can be too much to bear. I might have been dreaming but I thought I heard the rest of the news. The sports, the weather. Partly cloudy tomorrow. Partly, partly. Uncommonly hot. A train wreck, brutal traffic. Power lines down. Forest fires and earthquake weather. Followed by a story about a monkey. A monkey has apparently escaped from the Oakland Zoo. A three-year-old ring-tailed lemur by the name of Casper.
And then in the dark hours, the following conversation. Awake or dreaming. Drunk and still dreaming and who is speaking I can’t say.
He could be mine. He’s the right age, anyway. And he does look like me.
Are you talking to yourself?
But a lot of guys look like me. I have an ordinary face and god knows who else she was fucking.
The whore with the ruined face.
Jude, you mean.
You’re not the father. You’re dreaming.
I’m not dreaming.
Wake up. Please wake up.
I could teach him to ride a bike, to throw a baseball. I could buy a new car, a family car. I could buy a big American car with airbags and we could take him fishing. I can see the three of us in a little boat, laughing and eating sandwiches on white bread.
Three people in a family car doesn’t make a family.
But it looks real. It looks like a family.
Do you even know how to fish?
Hah. I could teach him to be a fisher of men.
Who am I speaking to?
Disconnected. Drunk and still dreaming.
I wake up and my chest is slick with sweat. Molly snores softly beside me and there’s no way I’m going back to sleep right now. I get up and pull on a pair of jeans. The clock says four a.m. but that means nothing. It would be useful, though, to explore the house a little during the wee hours. Maybe I can find something to eat in the kitchen.
I check on the boy first. He sleeps in a fierce ball, one corner of his pillow clutched in his fist. His face is peaceful, his cheeks rosy. I can see his eyes flickering behind their almost transparent lids. I touch his hair and move on.
I turn the corner into the kitchen and stop when I hear voices. Jeremy and Daphne are in there, making out like teenagers. Which they are, basically. Jeremy sits in a wooden chair and she straddles his lap. Her tank top is pushed up and I catch a very brief glimpse of her breasts by moonlight and they are still amazing. Jeremy is whispering sweetly into her ear and she is stroking his hair. I slip away without them noticing me and I find myself smiling. For some reason, I feel like the world might still be okay.
I drift down to the Lizard Room and just being in there gives me the creeps. The televisions are blank and lifeless and I am tempted to screw around with the controls to see if I can find anything on the monitors. But this idea makes me uncomfortable, like the smell of vomit. And I know that I would fuck something up and then Miller would know I was in here. Then I notice a flicker of green lights coming from a cabinet door that hangs open. I shrug and take a look inside to find stereo equipment. The green light is coming from the digital meter that indicates the recording levels. I don’t hear anything, though. I adjust the volume and fiddle with various controls and I get nothing. I find a pair of small headphones and put them on and Jude’s voice fills my head. I sink into crash position, hands over my ears.
Jude- Don’t fucking touch me. I don’t want to be touched right now.
Miller- You’re pathetic. You must be the only narcissist on the planet with a face that would make children run away screaming.
Jude- You can’t hurt me. You can’t hurt me.
Miller- I don’t want to.
Jude- You’re such a liar.
Miller- What do you think Poe is doing downstairs, with Molly? Do you think he’s fucked her yet?
Jude- Doesn’t matter. His heart is his problem.
Miller- For now, anyway.
Jude- He won’t let you do it, you know.
Jude- He won’t let you kill that boy.
Miller- I’m writing this picture. He’s got no control.
Jude- Believe me or not. I don’t care.
Miller- What about you? Do you think he will let me kill you?
Jude- I don’t know. He might have no choice.
Miller- Because I will, baby. I will break you in half.
Forever, it seems. I wait in the dark forever but she never answers him.
MORNING FINDS YOU, NEVER FAILS. I sit on the porch with a mug of black coffee laced with Irish whiskey. Miller may be a bastard, but he keeps a very respectable liquor cabinet. It’s early yet and the sky is white with fine threads of pink, like quartz. I light a cigarette and turn my attention to the scene unfolding in the driveway before me.
Jeremy and Daphne are in the back seat of the silver Mustang. Jeremy is naked. Daphne wears a bright red bra, and from what I can tell, nothing else. They are fighting, or fucking. It’s violent, whatever you choose to call it. The car is trembling. Huck is crouched low on the driver’s side, filming them through the open window.
I can see my reflection in the car window, the white sky endless behind me and superimposed upon my reflection hangs one of Daphne’s skinny legs, a pale yellow question mark dangling over the front seat. Jeremy’s dark shoulders, lunging. Now the sound of masculine grunting and a low, whining scream that must be Daphne achieving orgasm. Or Daphne’s dramatic portrayal of Daphne achieving orgasm.
Miller comes out onto the porch, his face sliced open by a hard little smile.
Do you mind telling me what’s going on? he says.
I glance at him, amused. Looks like Jeremy and Daphne are shooting a love scene.
Was this your idea?
Nah. I came out to have a cigarette and Jeremy said he needs me to be his brother. His character just got out of jail or something. And I’m not too happy to see him.
His character? says Miller.
Yeah. Jeremy says it will crank the tension up a notch.
This character of his, says Miller. He’s meant to be your brother?
I know. He doesn’t look much like me, I say.
Miller scowls. Yeah. He’s too good-looking.
That’s true, I say.
And Jeremy wrote this scene?
He conceived it. The dialogue will be improvised, apparently.
Miller is so irritated that his mouth opens and his lips twist speechless in the breeze and this amuses the hell out of me but I don’t get a chance to enjoy it as there is a sudden flash of gray and black fur cutting across my peripheral vision and out of nowhere there is a monkey crouched on the hood of the Mustang, a ring-tailed lemur idly chewing on one long black finger. This can only be Casper, the fugitive monkey. I open my mouth, then close it. My only coherent thought is that the monkey is probably not safe here.
I’m a son of a bitch, says Miller. That’s great video.
Huck turns to get a shot of the monkey.
It’s a Disney moment, I think. Everyone loves God’s noble creatures.
The monkey screams and leaps away as Daphne’s head comes splashing through the Mustang’s passenger side rear window with a rain of sparkling glass. It seems like it takes forever for the glass to stop falling and Daphne’s head flops hard against the side of the car.
Thrilled. I can see by Miller’s face that he’s weirdly thrilled, and so am I.
But I need to be angry. I prepare to improvise. Daphne’s head is bleeding but I don’t move. Huck is coming around the car to get a close-up of Daphne through the broken window but then he is distracted by me. He zooms on my face. He wants a shot of my reaction.
What is my reaction?
Vaguely horrified, now. I scroll through my consciousness and there is little else. Detached spontaneous compassion, perhaps. The thrill is gone. I pollute my lungs with smoke and contemplate how my behavior is affected by the presence of the camera, how I am holding the cigarette the way I imagine James Dean might hold it, if he were hungover. But upon reflection I decide I am more interested in Casper the monkey than Daphne’s bleeding head. Daphne’s not going to die and anyway she agreed to this shit, yeah. But head wounds are tricky. The blood is running freely down her neck and her hair is thick with it and she will probably need stitches but I have a feeling it’s just a minor laceration.
Huck cuts away from me, to the interior of the car. Miller stands behind me, cursing.
Did you see the monkey? says Jeremy.
Daphne touches the back of her head and her hand comes away red.
Did you? he says.
Daphne scrambles into a ball against the rear door, away from him. She makes herself as small as possible. Jeremy hops out of the driver’s side, humming to himself. He is naked and evidently pleased with himself. He comes around to the front of the Mustang and peers closely at the hood.
Monkey footprints, he says. How fucking cool is that?
He cocks his right hand into an imaginary gun and fires several shots into the sky, then raises both hands over his head. He does a manic little dance and stops suddenly, his face shining.
Children everywhere will weep tonight, he cries. For Curious George must die.
Jeremy shrugs happily and cruises around to the passenger side. Huck backs away from him. Jeremy opens the rear door and extends a gallant hand. Daphne hesitates, then allows him help her out. By now she has pulled on a pair of black silk pants and she stands in the driveway in black pants and bra, the blood still wet on her face and shoulders.
Daphne is obviously confused. What with loss of blood and so forth.
I glance at Miller, who stares at the sky as if he despises the sun.
Thanks, says Daphne.
No worries, says Jeremy.
He stands there, nodding. Then turns and begins to knock the remaining shards of glass from the broken window frame. He glances at Daphne.
You might want to go inside, he says. You’re bleeding pretty good.
Daphne stares at him. You’re a fucking psycho.
Jeremy smiles, pleased. Have a nice day, he says.
Daphne hurries up the steps and now my humanity kicks in and I have half a mind to ask if she’s okay, if she wants me to look at that head wound, but according to Jeremy’s brief instructions, Poe had too much to drink last night and it’s got him in a bad mood, so he must leer at her instead.
I barely notice that Miller has stepped into the shadows.
Daphne’s breasts are fantastic. Unreal, but fantastic. The red bra barely contains them and she is so skinny that her belly is concave. Daphne doesn’t look so healthy, when I think about it. Daphne looks like a starved junkie with a boob job. She looks like your average Hollywood actress. It may be inappropriate but I can’t help remembering that hypnotic massage she dropped on me at the Paradise.
Despair, alienation. Loneliness and hatred, oh boy.
There were visible threads of each of these between us but still she had the hands and mouth of a fallen angel. In that brief moment before I punked out, Daphne was divine. She could have turned my friends into pigs. But a hired blowjob is no way to start a friendship and now Daphne brushes past me, slamming the door. I finish my coffee and wait for Jeremy, who is whistling as he removes a pair of jeans from the trunk of the Mustang. I watch as he hops around the driveway, pulling his pants on over skinny legs.
He approaches me, now.
Big brother, he says. How goes?
Uh-huh. When did you get out? I say.
Yesterday. He stands on the bottom step, grinning at me.
That’s a nice car.
Umm, he says. It’s stolen.
Bad luck about the window.
Tragic, he says. Fucking tragic.
Who’s the girl?
Whore, he says. Asian, isn’t she. There’s nothing like yellow pussy in my book.
Sure, I say.
Anyway, he says. She doesn’t speak English. Don’t pay her any mind.
I just heard her call you a psycho, I say. In perfectly good English.
That’s strange, he says.
It irritates me to realize that this scene isn’t half bad. And the monkey carried it.
You can’t stay here, I say.
I shrug, tired of the conversation. It’s not safe.
Jeremy grins. Did you see the monkey?
Miller steps out of the shadows, coins jingling in his left fist, and Jeremy stops laughing as if his cord were yanked from the wall. He peers up at Miller like a kid sweating for approval, glowing and nervous at once. Miller wipes at his mouth and I see that he’s drooling slightly, he’s losing his cool and he’s losing it in a slow, dangerous boil. His eyes seem to shrink and the white trickle of drool reappears at the corner of his mouth. His face turns gray and cloudy and a single vein stands out in his forehead.
Jeremy looks nervous.
But not nervous enough, I think. He stands too close to Miller, smiling now and puffing out his chest stupidly.
You nasty boy, says Miller. You nasty little pup.
Take it easy, says Jeremy. Take a pill. You’re going to pop a blood vessel.
Easy, says Miller.
What did you think? says Jeremy, softly.
Miller stares at him, his jaw bulging. I think we have a failure to communicate.
But the scene, says Jeremy. What about the scene?
The scene, says Miller. The scene was ill-advised.
I’m trying to help, says Jeremy. I thought another character or two would add depth, man.
Miller is spitting, now. This is my project, my fucking project.
Jeremy frowns. Phineas said it was okay with him.
Oh, is that right?
I shrug and smile and say nothing, looking from one to the other. I wouldn’t mind seeing Miller throw a massive hissy fit, personally. I think I would enjoy it quite a lot. I also think it would be best to push his buttons carefully.
Don’t get waxy, says Jeremy.
Miller smiles, a horrible gray smile. There is a long, shimmering silence. I light another cigarette and wonder if I should say something to ease the tension, or something to aggravate it.
I loved the monkey, I say. That was a nice touch.
It was a pure moment, says Jeremy. And purely coincidental.
That monkey saved your life today, says Miller. He turns and walks inside.
Jeremy looks at me. What did you think?
It was a hell of a nice scene, I say. But apparently not appreciated.
Yeah, he says. The old man is mental.
Maybe. But I would be careful with him.
Jeremy shrugs. It’s boring to be careful all the time.
He strolls inside, humming. I flick my cigarette and follow, slowly. Huck with the camera is a shadow behind us. The wheels are turning in my head. Miller is vulnerable. Daphne is stretched out on the stainless steel island in the kitchen under bright, white lights. Jude crouches over her. She is sewing up the cuts in Daphne’s head and face with black thread. Daphne has a big loopy smile on her face.
Miller stands behind her, his face recomposed.
Oops, says Jeremy. I’m sorry but I just sewed your eye shut…
Jude gives him a dark look but says nothing. Jeremy opens the refrigerator, still humming. He tells Huck to get some close-up footage of Jude sewing up Daphne. Jude regards him with her sleepy, assassin’s eyes.
What happened out there? says Jude.
Miller and Jeremy exchange glances but neither of them says boo.
Jude looks at me. Well? she says.
My brother got a little…extreme with his affections.
Do we have any ice cream? says Jeremy.
Jude looks at Miller. I didn’t realize there was a brother in the picture.
There’s not, says Miller. He makes a throat-slashing gesture to Huck, who promptly lowers the camera. Jeremy is cheerfully preparing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
You’ve made an error of judgment, says Miller.
What’s your problem? says Jeremy.
People skills, says Miller. I have poor people skills.
Jeremy shrugs. You know what this picture really needs?
What? he says.
Dwarfs, says Jeremy.
Miller takes a deep breath, apparently deciding to ignore him. He leans over to get a better look at Daphne, who remains blissful as Jude patches her face together.
How is she? he says.
Minor cuts, she says. But a lot of them. Her face is a mess.
This reminds me that I have a lovely black eye. It looks like I was in a bar fight and no one has even mentioned it. What’s the world coming to.
Dwarfs on motorcycles, says Jeremy. Doing stunts and such.
Molly mutters at him to shut up. He winks at me, his mouth full of peanut butter.
Are you high? I say.
Miller sighs. He tells us to ignore him. Jeremy just wants attention, he says.
Jeremy, I say. I want you to apologize to John.
Jeremy laughs, insolently. Miller turns to look at him, a gruesome smile grafted to his face. Jeremy shrugs and offers him a bite of his sandwich and Miller punches him hard, in the stomach. Jeremy is caught completely off guard and goes down in a spastic wheezing heap. Everyone is distracted and I take the opportunity to fuck off. I grab the bread and peanut butter and head downstairs to look in on the boy.
THE BOY IS ASLEEP, or appears to be. I crouch beside the bed. His eyes flicker. Long dark lashes that remind me of the wings of a dying moth. There is a spot of blood on his pillow, as if he’s had a nosebleed. I ask him if he feels okay and he doesn’t seem to hear me. There’s a slow trickle of yellow liquid laced with blood coming from his left ear. I touch his face and his skin is so hot. His breathing is shallow and I can barely find his pulse. I pick him up and take the stairs two at a time, yelling for Jude.
I carry the boy into the futuristic living room. The stage lights are blinding. I lay the boy down gingerly on the chrome loveseat. He wears new brown corduroys and a white T-shirt that says there’s no escape from New York. He wears black Chuck Taylors, new and unlaced. His face is pale and the chrome beneath him is polished so bright he looks like he’s asleep on a bed of glass. I chew my fingernails a minute, staring at his shoes. I need to tie those laces before he steps on them and takes a spill. I need to tie those suckers into double knots. I drag my hand through my hair and it comes away dripping with sweat. I holler for Jude, again. I murder her name with my voice and just when I’m about to snap, she appears out of nowhere.
Relax, she says. You would think you’re the father.
What’s wrong with him?
How do I know? she says.
Jude eyes the child as if he is a piece of muddy firewood and she’s reluctant to touch him. But perhaps her ability to remain detached is for the best. She takes a breath, then bends to press her ear to his chest, listening to his lungs.
What is it?
Jude ignores me. Fucking stoic, she is. Now she uses a penlight to examine his eyes, to look into his ears. One by one, the others drift into the room. Molly sits close to me, but not too close. Her face is an unfamiliar mask. Her eyes are black with mascara, her lips painted red. Otherwise, she wears jeans and a T-shirt. Her face is disconcerting. Miller is muttering softly. It sounds like he is calculating figures, running numbers. But then I might be imagining that. Jeremy and Daphne barely pay any attention to us. They are at the bar, arguing in whispers about the proper ingredients for a margarita. Daphne looks like she was in a car wreck and I guess she was. The white bandages on her face are proof that she was chosen by the gods, that she was given one more day to live. Jude is peering into Sam’s little brown eyes as if they are a deep, dark wishing well and she is wondering just how much cash is down there.
Jude, I say. Talk to me.
I may be wrong, she says. He seems to have an ear infection, which is causing the fever.
The shit oozing from his ear, I say. That’s normal?
Drainage, she says. He probably burst his eardrum.
That’s bad, right? That’s bad.
It’s not the end of the world.
I stare at her. He needs his eardrum, I say.
The eardrum will repair itself.
He’s barely breathing.
Jude nods. I’m not sure what’s causing that. Maybe an allergic reaction.
I shake my head. The boy’s eyeball could be hanging out of his skull by a fucking bloody thread and butter wouldn’t melt on your tongue.
There’s no reason to get nasty.
No, I say. What are you going to do?
Jude stands up as if to go.
What are you doing? I say.
I’m going to the bathroom, she says. Will you please fucking relax. Have a drink, or something.
I would love a drink. I wish someone would bring me one.
Molly slips away and everything seems to go on autopilot until she returns. She hands me a glass of vodka, with ice.
Thank you, I say.
He watches too much television, says Molly. That’s what it is. When my baby comes, I won’t let her watch so much TV.
I glance at Molly and I feel like I just swallowed a bug.
You aren’t really pregnant, I say. You know that, right?
She stares at me for a moment too long. Of course, she says.
The boy is pale and catatonic against chrome. His breath comes thin and slow. The grim hiss of air seeping in and out of his lungs.
Does anyone have a cigarette, says Jude.
She stands over us, a small bottle of liquid Benadryl in one hand and a blue can of Pepsi in the other. There’s a white plastic eyedropper stuck between her lips like a cigar.
I can’t wait to hear your plan, I say.
Trust me, she says.
Jeremy brings over a glowing tray of margaritas. He gives Jude a cigarette and lights it for her. I try to meet his eye and now it occurs to me that there is a shadowy area of my mind that has somehow accepted him as a brother. I don’t like this idea and I remind myself to harden my heart against the script.
I have an overwhelming urge to get outside. To get the fuck away.
But I look around and the boy remains on the chrome loveseat, feverish and barely breathing. Molly is a ghost at the edge of my vision, her mouth so small and dark it might be a scar. Her hands fidgeting, fidgeting. I get the feeling she wants to hold my hand but is reluctant to do so, maybe because Jude is watching. Maybe because I just suggested that she’s nuts. Miller appears and reappears across from me, his eyes closed. Jeremy is whispering something apparently pornographic to Daphne and she is laughing, covering her wet mouth with her fist. I drain my vodka and place it carefully on the floor, then take one of the margaritas from Jeremy’s tray. There is thick salt around the mouth of the glass and I lick at it, hungry.
Jude lifts the boy into her lap and holds him so that he’s sitting up. She twice fills the eyedropper with liquid Benadryl and pushes it between Sam’s pale lips.
Jude looks at me. The antihistamine, she says. It will reduce the swelling in his ears.
And the Pepsi?
I don’t know, she says. The sugar and caffeine should give his heart a jumpstart and maybe that will help his breathing.
I nod, silent. It makes as much sense as anything.
Jude frowns. He needs antibiotics, probably.
He needs to see a doctor.
But we can’t take him to a doctor, says Jude. Her voice is slow and gentle, as if I am the child.
Jude begins to funnel Pepsi into the boy’s mouth, her eyes downcast and lips pursed. She blows softly on his face. He coughs and Pepsi dribbles between his open lips. She wipes it away with the back of her hand. How tender she is. I don’t quite recognize her.
Sam wakes up, now. The boy is disoriented and unhappy. He doesn’t like the idea that everyone is looking at him. I can sympathize. He turns his head and I don’t think he knows where he is. He doesn’t seem to recognize any of us and he does not come to me for comfort. He allows Jude to hold him, to wrap her arms around him. He rests his head on her shoulder, his eyes flat and glassy. Jude blows softly on his hair and whispers to him in a way that angers me. Because lately I want her to be the villain. I want her to be the one who dies in the end.
But the boy apparently feels safe with her. In another moment he is asleep again and I don’t know what to make of this. I put my hand on Jude’s thigh and I am confused, vaguely queasy. I don’t know if this is guilt or love. Her mouth twitches and now I think it’s a little bit of both. She glances down at my hand and I slowly withdraw it.
Miller is staring at Jude as if she has just grown a spotted tail. I reckon he thinks she’s gone soft on him. Jude stares back at him with eyes narrow and feral and I have a happy image of Miller waking up with his intestines spilling out of him in a rich steaming mass. I sip my margarita and look from one to the other. It occurs to me that I have been ignoring them lately and now I realize that I have no idea what manner of nastiness transpires between them in the dark. Jude stares and stares and Miller never turns his eyes away from her and after two or three minutes of savory, textured silence during which Jeremy and Daphne drift uneasily from the room, presumably to have sex without bloodshed, Jude passes the boy to Molly, who glows upon receiving him.
Do you see something green? she says to Miller.
He shrugs. Repent, he says. Repent, mother.
Molly walks slowly around the room, hugging young Sam to her chest. She sways back and forth, instinct kicking in. She begins to sing, softly. Momma’s gonna buy you a diamond ring. Her face is shadowy and blissful and I shake my head. Molly too is falling for the boy and I believe we are fucked, all of us. The boy is definitely getting to her. There are black streaks on her face.
Molly, I say. Your eyes are dripping.
I take the boy from her. You’ve got black shit running down your face.
The mascara, she says. I forgot. We were getting ready to shoot a scene.
You’re not in it, says Miller. Only the girls.
That reminds me, says Molly. I want to talk about the nudity.
What about it?
The script says that Jude and I are sitting around the bedroom, right. We’re drinking wine and smoking cigarettes and having a raunchy conversation about sex.
Yeah? says Miller.
Jude is topless in the scene, says Molly. Which seems unrealistic, frankly. And I’m supposed to be bottomless.
Bottomless? I say.
Jude laughs. She takes the margarita from my hand and finishes it off.
Two girls getting drunk and friendly, says Miller. A prelude to sex.
Maybe, says Jude. But nobody sits around bottomless and chatting.
Would it be more realistic if there was a pillow fight?
This is hopeless, says Molly.
Okay, I say. How about we talk about reality for a while?
What did you have in mind? says Miller.
The ransom, I say. I think we should make the ransom demand today.
No, he says. That’s impossible.
Because we have just begun shooting The Velvet.
Jesus. The film is a farce. It makes no fucking sense and we should end it now.
Miller stares at me, his eyes mild. Whatever you say.
The boy is sick, I say. He needs a doctor.
He frowns. Don’t you have faith in Jude?
Jude strokes my thigh, her hand venturing close to my crotch. Molly turns away and goes to the bar. The sound of ice in a glass. I shift the boy in my arms. He’s heavy. Miller lights a cigarette and watches my face. Blue smoke whispers between us. Jude strokes my thigh and I stare into the distance. I stare into the past, into the future. I consider the word faith.
Miller shrugs. Neither here nor there. We will make the ransom demand when I say so.
And if he dies in your basement?
Then it gets more interesting, doesn’t it?
BACK THROUGH THE RABBIT HOLE and down the stairs. I tuck the boy into bed and arrange his pillows around him. Sam is breathing well now. But his body is too warm and the hair at the back of his neck is damp. I settle onto the floor with the remote control and flick on the television. I watch cartoons for a while but they depress me for some reason. I surf away and come upon a rerun of Starsky & Hutch squatting on some channel ominously called TV Land. The implications of such a channel are too brutal to wrap my noodle around and anyway Huggy Bear is giving a wildly animated, hopelessly rhetorical, and truly surreal speech about human rights. He’s wearing a maroon suit and a pink tie and a big straw hat and his eyes are bugging out of his tiny head. I’m good for about five minutes of this before I freak out and am forced to flee TV Land. I cruise the TV universe until I find a ball game, the Red Sox and Yankees.
This has potential tragedy written all over it and I promptly mute the sound.
I am tempted to skulk upstairs and get a beer and a sandwich but I’m in no mood to run into any of the others. I don’t want to know what they’re up to and besides, beer would only make me want a cigarette and I would rather not smoke around the boy. I fetch a juice box from the little fridge and settle in to watch the Yankees massacre the Sox.
Baseball slows the vital functions and in no time I am dreamy, contemplative.
I contemplate the boy. He is approximately forty-nine pounds of flesh and bone. Blond hair and big brown eyes nearly black. He has eyes that could swallow you. His nose is the size of a button, the size of my thumbnail. His unflawed skin is somewhere between pink and pale yellow, the flesh of a peach. His hands are devastating. His hands could make a monster weep. He smells like the sun, like the fine sparkle of dust swimming in a burst of sunlight. He smells like a color you can’t name.
He breathes, in and out. Five years of life, barely a ripple.
But there is some serious voodoo packed into his small body and it’s not just him, but all children. There is nothing on the planet quite like a sick or injured child, a frightened child. Jude is a cool hand and usually nothing touches her, nothing moves her. But I could see the boy tugging freely at her cold, broken heart.
This is something that fills my head, sometimes. The idea that I broke her heart somehow.
I fall asleep next to the boy and dream that we are lost in the woods together. Sam is unchanged. He is five years old, with long blond hair. I am nine, his brother. The trees are dense and twisted, with thin black branches that hang just above our heads and tangle together like terrible hair, blotting out the sky. Unseen wolves howling in the dark, their voices ghostly.
Sam is brave, though.
He pushes ahead and I follow him and when we come to a house of gingerbread and licorice, I know that the house is not safe. It’s not safe but I have no control over my limbs and I stroll directly up to the door and hammer on it while Sam helps himself to a tasty chunk of cinnamon rain gutter. The woman who comes to the door is no crusty hag, however. She is maybe thirty, with hair black as tar. She wears raw leather pants stained with what looks like blood and a vest made of fine silver chain. The woman smiles when she sees us and her teeth glitter white as needles. I don’t trust her but Sam shouts hooray when she asks if we like sugar cookies. He trots inside and I follow him, helpless. The woman strokes my face and her fingers are cold and bony, with long black nails. She purrs that it’s a shame but I am too old for her table, that my skin will be tough and gamey. But my brother is still soft and plump and if killed properly and marinated in butter and blackberry wine he will make a delicious stew. The woman asks me to gather wood for her fire and I comply.
I am not stupid, however.
I am only vaguely aware that this is a dream and I can’t seem to wake myself up but I know this woman. I would know her anywhere. I shiver myself awake and Sam is sitting on his haunches like a little stone frog beside me, staring at my face with profound curiosity.
My head hurts, he says.
I know, I say. Mine does, too.
You were talking, he says.
What was I saying?
You said you weren’t hungry. Then you said the boy is my brother.
Am I the boy?
You were having a dream, he says. A bad dream, huh.
Very bad, I say.
What was it about?
His face is pale and fine, his lips still rosy with fever. He is so close to me that I can smell his breath when he exhales. The air coming from him is sour. The smell of sick.
How do you feel? I say.
He thinks for a minute. Okay, he says. But not my arm. My arms hurts.
What’s wrong with your arm?
I don’t know, he says.
Show me where it hurts.
He pulls his sleeve up over the elbow and I see it right away. On the pale underside of his biceps, there is small white mark surrounded by red flesh. It could be a puncture. It could be an insect bite. I take a deep breath and remind myself that kids get nervous when adults freak out.
That doesn’t look bad, I say. Do you remember feeling sick today?
Yeah, he says.
When did you feel sick?
Today, he says. A little while ago.
He bobs his head up and down and sideways and shrugs one shoulder and I remember that he’s five and therefore has no real sense of time.
Uh-huh. What were you doing?
I was sitting on the floor, he says. I was playing with the guys you got me. Wolverine and the guy with fire on his head. They were fighting.
Ghost Rider, I say.
The guy with fire on his head is Ghost Rider.
Who was winning?
That makes sense. What else were you doing?
Nothing, he says. I was only watching TV… I was watching Sailor Moon and I was having some chocolate milk. That’s all.
Chocolate milk, huh.
He nods, vigorously. I like chocolate milk. I love it.
The trees are dense and twisted, with thin black branches that hang just above our heads and tangle together like terrible hair, blotting out the sky. Unseen wolves howling in the dark, their voices ghostly.
The boy is brave.
I don’t even have to think about it. The chocolate milk is bad, poisoned. I haul it out of the fridge and look at it carefully. The boy is watching me and it occurs to me that children, like animals, generally have a keen nose for madness. I don’t want to scare him, so I whistle softly as I examine the chocolate milk.
Paranoid people don’t whistle, surely.
What I’m looking at is an ordinary plastic milk jug with a white, screw-on top. Brown and white paper label with a bar code and the words chocolate milk two percent and Sunny Fields Dairy in bright, cheerful script followed by your average nutritional bullshit in small print. The jug is half empty. Or half full, if you’re a positive thinker like me. I unscrew the top and sniff it, then the contents of the jug. It smells like chocolate milk. But that’s too easy.
Do you want some? says the boy. He’s looking at me.
No, I say. I’m not thirsty.
Oh, he says.
He doesn’t say anything else but I can see the little-kid wheels turning in his head. Why are you sniffing it, then?
I think this chocolate milk is bad, I say.
It’s good, he says. I think it’s good.
Yeah. But sometimes milk just goes bad, when you least expect it.
Can I smell it? he says.
He hops up and comes over to me. I crouch down so he can reach it and he inhales deeply, frowning as he does so.
Trust me, I say.
The boy nods, gravely. As if he knows the world to be a mysterious, often nonsensical place and is therefore willing to accept the notion that chocolate milk, while it may smell good and taste good, may in fact be bad.
What have you had to eat today?
He tells me that the lady brought him some chicken nuggets earlier.
I don’t know, he says. The lady who wears a mask and doesn’t talk to me.
The lady who wears a mask and doesn’t talk to me. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it. I head upstairs, taking the chocolate milk with me. I cruise through the kitchen, the living room and dining room. I peek into the Lizard Room and no one is about. The house is endless and silent. They could be anywhere, and I begin to go from room to room.
I find them in Molly’s room. I open the door and everybody is packed in there under white, hot lights. The air feels thick, almost humid.
Molly sits in a wooden chair, crying. She wears white underpants and bra. Jude is behind her with scissors in hand, bright steel blades that look very sharp. She is apparently cutting Molly’s hair. There are yellow tufts of it like a ring of feathers at their feet. There is a nasty bruise on Jude’s face, puckered and bloody. It looks like a bite mark. Her shirt is torn at the throat. Miller lies naked on the bed behind them, staring at the ceiling. Huck stands in one corner with a camera, Daphne in the other. They don’t look too comfortable. Jeremy sits in the green chair, out of the shot. By the expression on his face, I would say he has an erection.
Why are you crying? I say.
I’m okay, says Molly. I’m okay.
Jude, your face. What happened to your face?
She doesn’t answer. She snips at Molly’s hair and Molly winces at the sound.
Miller looks at me. What do you want, Poe?
Where should I start? I want to know why you’re naked. I want to know why Molly’s crying and I want to know what happened to Jude’s face. I want to know what’s in this fucking chocolate milk.
You. You’re in my chair, I say.
Jeremy stands up, shifting his gear to hide that inconvenient wood. He looks around but there’s nowhere else to sit. I brandish the jug of chocolate milk like it’s a weapon. I approach him, menacing but feeling ultimately goofy.
Have a drink, I say.
No, thanks. He scratches his head, confused.
Jesus. Just sit down, I say.
Meanwhile, tufts of yellow hair fall slowly to the floor. I find myself staring at them. The hair falls so slowly. It floats.
Dreamy, isn’t it? says Miller.
I look at him on the bed and he is lying on his side, playing idly with his flaccid penis.
What? I say.
Haven’t you ever noticed that our eyes, our very brains have been programmed to register certain images in slow motion?
I shrug. I have noticed that, yeah.
Television and film have been around for what, a hundred years? he says.
That sounds about right.
In less than a hundred years, our brains have mutated. We don’t process visual information the way our great-grandparents did.
What’s your point, Miller?
You walk into a room and you see the following things. Two attractive women in their underwear. One is crying. The other has a bruised face. You see a naked man on a bed. You see two minor characters in the shadows, holding cameras. You see a young, handsome boy who will soon be dead, sitting in a green chair.
What is your fucking point? I shout.
What do you see?
In the green chair, Jeremy croaks like a frog. I’ll be dead soon?
Jude, I say. What happened to your face?
Molly bit me.
Okay. That makes sense.
She stares at me like she has a thousand times before. Her eyes open in such a way that I know she actually sees me. The scissors gleam in her hand and her face is temporarily ruined. Her hair is braided into pigtails so that her face is fully exposed, as if she had planned for this.
What’s in the milk, Jude?
Chocolate, she says. It’s chocolate milk.
Where did it come from?
Who knows. A brown cow, I suppose.
Are you poisoning that boy?
What? she says.
There’s a mark on his arm, like the mark of a needle.
Miller scoffs. It’s probably a spider bite.
Taste it, says Jude. Taste the fucking milk.
Molly wipes her face and stands up. Everyone, she says. Everyone get the fuck out of my room. Everyone, please.
Her voice is silent and roaring at once. Her voice is mildly terrifying, like driving into an ice storm. The silence ripples and after a brief pause, everyone begins to come alive. I stand in the doorway, wondering if she wants me to go. Or just the others. Jude puts down the scissors and walks toward me. I step aside to let her pass, which she does without quite looking at me. Miller flops off of the bed and comes toward me, naked and hairless. He scratches his chest, grinning. He doesn’t say a word. Jeremy, Huck, and Daphne troop past me, their heads lowered. Molly stands in the center of the room, arms folded across her chest. I tell her it’s okay, we’re off camera. She stares down at the yellow hair at her feet and mutters a response I don’t understand and, with two fingers, gently pushes the wooden chair over backward so that it falls with a dull crash. She turns to the bed and violently strips the sheets from the bed, throwing them to the floor.
What did you say?
Molly turns her doll’s head around slowly to look at me, her blue eyes unblinking.
What did you say just now?
Dead flowers, she says. My hair looks like dead flowers on the floor.
Molly crawls onto the bare mattress and crawls slowly across it and for a moment it’s like she’s crawling across an endless table, blue and white. There’s a bowl of porridge at the far end and she just wants to taste it. She huddles in the corner against the wall, arms wrapped around her legs. She looks like a kid on a boat and she’s afraid the waves will take her away. Her hair is short and wispy but it doesn’t look bad. Jude could have butchered her, if she had wanted to. She could have cut her ear off or something. I expected her to, really. Molly looks cold and I crawl across the mattress to give her a sweater. I sit next to her, not touching her. The air in the room has a silver, post-apocalyptic glimmer, a strange fairy dust quality that I associate with dinner parties and domestic violence.
You’re still here.
She lowers her head to rest on my lap, and I stroke her new hair.
What do you think? she says.
You look like a boy. But not bad.
What happened? I say.
The scene, she says. We were shooting the scene. Jude and I were lying on the bed, talking about you and John. We were sharing a cigarette. We were talking about sex and drinking vodka and Jude was touching my arm, just lightly touching it, you know. It felt nice and I kissed her, I kissed her cheek and then she kissed me on the mouth and we started sort of making out and it was weird because everyone was in the room but I think it was a nice scene. The lights were soft and there were good shadows and it felt natural, it felt pretty. Jude was touching me, touching me and I was spinning or falling like I was going to come. And then suddenly John was on the bed, he was naked and he stank and he started kissing Jude, grunting and groping at her and she pushed him away and I started to sort of panic. I wanted John to go away. I wanted everyone to go away but John was trying to get Jude’s clothes off and she was telling him to stop, just stop but he jerked her pants down and he was trying to get inside her and she was crying and the three of us were tangled together and suddenly it was hot, I couldn’t breathe and it was like I had these extra arms and legs and too much skin and Jude was kissing me, her mouth was all over me, her mouth on me and John’s eyes were so black and the light started to turn green around the edges and I was slipping, disappearing. I had a seizure and I was gone for a minute and when I came out of it Jude was holding her face and there was blood in my mouth.
By now she has climbed on top of me. Molly is as small as she can make herself, crouching like a bug on my chest. I wrap my arms around her, carefully. I don’t want her to feel trapped but maybe it’s what she wants. Molly is no longer shaking but her arms and legs are so cold. Her skin feels like she’s been outside in winter. I have an erection but I ignore it.
And then what?
Then John told Jude to cut my hair, to punish me. He told her to make me ugly.
What did Jude say?
Molly shivers. She didn’t want to do it but I think she’s afraid of John.
I think so, too. It worries the hell out of me but I don’t say so and then I forget about it because Molly is aware of my erection. Her hand drifts down into my crotch to give me a squeeze. It seems like the wrong time for this but I groan and she unbuckles my belt and slips her hand into my pants. Molly kisses my ears and throat and chest but she avoids my face and mouth, as if she is reluctant to let me see her. She unbuttons my shirt without looking at me.
A ring of yellow hair on the floor.
Lost feathers, dead flowers.
I make love to Molly on her bare mattress and the sex between us is grim, tender, wordless.
MOLLY SLEEPS BESIDE ME, snoring softly. I’m wide awake and staring at nothing in muddy underwater light. The gloaming, baby. Panic attack, delirium tremens. Headache and shrinking vision. Blackbirds on the wing. I can’t tell the difference between panic and sickness but my body is begging for a drink. My arms and legs are numb, naked and tangled with Molly’s. The separation between us is vague. I slip out from under her and she mumbles nonsense at me but does not wake. I gather my clothes and creep into the hall to get dressed. The clock chimes four times and for a moment I have no idea whether it’s afternoon or morning.
Jude is in the kitchen, drinking coffee. She holds the cup with both hands and sits with her back very straight. She stares through me and says nothing. The mark on her face is purple and swollen. I take a bottle of vodka from the freezer, then fetch a glass and pour myself a generous shot over ice.
Happy hour? she says.
I grunt and light a cigarette.
Your hands are shaking, she says.
It’s a new feature. I don’t want to talk about it.
Jude sighs. You are dying before my eyes.
How’s your face?
It hurts. But it’s no one’s fault.
What about Miller?
What about him?
Molly said he forced himself on you.
Jude flinches, slightly. That’s not true.
What is the truth?
He wanted to make love to me, she says. I wasn’t interested.
I don’t understand.
What, she says. What don’t you understand?
I don’t understand why you don’t cut his wee willie off and feed it to him.
Jude takes a cigarette from my pack, fumbles with the matches.
Are you afraid of him?
Jude strikes a match and lets it burn down to her fingers without lighting her cigarette. She strikes another and watches it burn. I push the glass of vodka across the table but she shakes her head. I reach for her hand but she pulls it away and now Miller crashes into the room. He wears black jeans and a black military-style sweater with patches on the shoulders. He tosses my jacket at me.
On your horse, Poe. We’re out of here.
Where are we going?
Baseball game, he says. The Giants are playing the Reds.
Oh, yeah. Who’s going?
Miller winks at Jude. The boys, he says. Just the boys.
I finish my drink but make no move to get up.
Don’t tell me you’re not interested, says Miller. These are dream seats, behind third base.
I look at Jude, who nods and lights another match.
Yeah. I’m interested.
Excellent choice, he says. I’ll meet you out by the truck.
Outside and the sun is fierce in a white sky. Jeremy and Huck wait beside the Range Rover and I have a sudden, surreal vision of the four of us at the ballpark. The crowd like an ocean around us, roaring. The smell of peanuts and big plastic cups of warm beer. Miller waving a big puffy hand. Huck grimly shoving fistfuls of cotton candy into his mouth. Jeremy flirting with a red-haired girl behind us. I can see it like it already happened but there’s a tracking problem and the back of my neck has gone cold. Huck sits on the hood of the truck, smoking one of Miller’s cigars. His hands are filthy and he looks tired. Jeremy crouches in the driveway, tossing pebbles at an empty wine bottle. His eyes are narrow and red and he regards me warily as I approach.
I crouch next to him and pick up a rock. I whip it at the bottle but miss.
What’s up, I say. You look like shit.
Jeremy shrugs. Nervous. I’m nervous.
You heard what the man said. I’m gonna be dead soon.
He’s fucking with you.
Oh, yeah? Why don’t you ask brother Huck what he’s been doing this afternoon.
I glance up at Huck. Well?
Digging, he says.
A very deep fucking hole.
It’s a grave, says Jeremy. The man had him digging my grave.
It’s a sweet little spot, says Huck. Around the east side of the house. Jeremy’s going to be tucked in between a fig tree and a chunk of limestone.
I glance at the house. What the hell is Miller doing in there?
Fuck him, says Jeremy. Let’s take a look at my final resting place.
The three of us drift around to the side of the house and Huck’s hole indeed resembles a shallow grave. Four or five feet deep and the approximate length of a body. I drop down into the hole and lie down. The sky is white framed in black. The tops of trees. Huck and Jeremy peering over the edge.
It’s cold, I say.
Get out of there, says Jeremy. You’re giving me the creeps.
The two of them pull me out and we sit at the graveside, smoking.
Why are you guys doing this? I say.
I want the dough, says Huck. But I’m done. That little rape scene today was the end for me.
What do you mean? says Jeremy.
Huck shrugs. I’m gonna run. When we get to the ballpark, I’m gone. It might help if one of you wants to keep the psycho occupied.
Jeremy, I say. You should run, too.
No, he says. I want to do this.
Jeremy sighs. I don’t want to go into the whole tear jerking poor little orphan routine, but my life has not exactly been rosy, you know. Miller hooked me up with that doorman job and I feel like I owe him. Before that I was selling meth to college students and freaks on the club scene. Before that I was sucking cocks for twenty bucks a throw in the Castro. And before that…did you know I was born in a halfway house. Did you know that? I was actually born in a fucking halfway house. My mom was sixteen, a junkie runaway. She was living in a shelter for teenage heroin addicts when she popped me out and she was gone before I could sit up. I’ve been in the system ever since. Foster homes, group homes, jail. I just want to be in the movies. I want to have a normal life.
There’s no such thing, says Huck. And nothing resembling it in California.
Jeremy scowls, stubborn. Well, anyway. I aim to find it.
You shouldn’t have done that scene, says Huck. That scene where you put Daphne’s head through the car window. All you did was aggravate him.
But I was good, says Jeremy. I was good wasn’t I?
Yeah, I say. You were good.
I had a funky dream last night, says Jeremy. I dreamed that I killed that monkey. I bashed his head in with a rock. I cut him open and there was a white bird where his guts were supposed to be and it just flew away, easy as you please. I felt its wings brush my face.
Blackbirds, I say. I always dream of blackbirds.
You guys are freaking me out, says Huck.
What do you think it means? says Jeremy.
I don’t know, I say. It seems to me the white bird is lucky.
The sky is changing colors and Huck says we should probably head back to the truck before Miller gets cranky.
That scene today, I say. In Molly’s room. He raped her?
Damn near, says Huck. Near enough.
And neither of you did anything?
Jude told us to back off, says Jeremy.
I wish to god she would just kill him, I say.
Jeremy exhales loudly. You don’t know shit, do you?
What do you mean?
He looks at me with eyes dead as coins. What god has joined, he says, let no man put asunder.
Yeah, I say. That’s right.
Miller is waiting by the truck. He holds an aluminum briefcase in one hand, a black flight bag in the other. He wears a black jacket and a black knit cap pulled tight on his skull. He doesn’t look like he’s going to a ballgame, but my head is full of noise and juice and I’ve got a monster headache on the periphery and so I don’t give his outfit too much thought. Miller tosses the keys at Huck and tells him to drive. Jeremy climbs into the front passenger seat. I get in the back with Miller, who lights a joint and passes me a silver thermos.
Have a martini, he says.
What were you doing in the woods with Heckle and Jeckle? he says.
Gathering flowers, I say.
What time is the game? I say.
We aren’t going to the game.
I didn’t think so. Where are we going?
To get cigarettes, he says.
I have cigarettes, actually. I offer him my pack.
He shakes his head. I prefer a different brand.
The truck winds down out of the hills and Miller tells Huck to take a left. I am sitting with my back against the door, my feet up on the seat.
The thermos between my legs, unopened. I take the joint from Miller and allow myself one puff, to calm my nerves. I am watching him closely, every movement of his face. Every tick and flicker. The way his eyes go narrow and dark when he’s thinking. The way he licks his lips and the way his nostrils flare. I’m looking for a family resemblance and now I see it, now I don’t. The power of suggestion. I could ask him, I suppose. But I’m starting to hate him and I don’t want to see him smile at me.
After a beat, Miller instructs Huck to pull into the parking lot of a 7-11 that squats on the edge of a ravine. Huck obediently kills the engine and the four of us sit there, eyeballing each other.
Jesus, says Jeremy. Pass me that joint before I scream.
Miller gives it to him and he sucks at it with almost sexual intensity. I look out the window and watch as a guy and a girl get out of a red Toyota and go into the store. There are two other cars parked in front, but I can’t see more than three people inside. The sun has not yet gone down but the fluorescent lights have come up in the parking lot and the result is a bright haze that hovers over the 7-Eleven like a solar cloud. Miller opens the flight bag and removes four rubber masks. The shriveled faces of dead celebrities. John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, and Alfred Hitchcock. Woody Allen, who is perhaps not actually dead. He gives the John Wayne mask to Huck and tells him to put it on. He gives me the Marilyn Monroe mask, then smiles and apparently changes his mind and gives Marilyn to Jeremy. He takes Hitchcock for himself and gives me the Woody mask. The rubber is cold. I hold it in my lap like a dead fish. In the front seat, Jeremy and Huck are doing startlingly accurate impersonations of John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe.
What are we doing?
We are shooting an action sequence, says Miller.
I shake my head. Tell me we’re not going to rob the store.
Ah, well. I need cigarettes, like I said.
This is unwise, I say.
It’s a pointless risk.
You are just like my wife, he says. Always worrying.
Oh. Do you want to talk about your wife?
Miller pushes the mask up over his eyes so that it looks like a deflated Alfred Hitchcock is chewing at his hair. He grins at Jeremy. What have you been telling him? he says.
Nothing, says Jeremy. I don’t know anything.
Miller, I say. This is stupid.
Do you know why the boy is sick? he says.
It’s not the chocolate milk, he says.
I close my eyes and I can see Miller naked and grunting on top of Jude. It was an image I could live with this morning and now it’s all I can do to stay calm because I want to gouge out his eyes with my thumbs and eat them. I can taste them already, warm and salty as sheep testicles. I keep my voice low, my teeth together.
What are you doing to him? I say.
I need cigarettes, he says. Then perhaps we can discuss the boy.
Have you contacted Cody yet, about the ransom? I say.
No, he says. And I’m not going to.
Don’t smile at me, motherfucker.
Hear me, says Miller. Jude can do whatever she wants with that kid, but she is kidding herself if she thinks I’m gonna hand her Senator Cody on a plate.
For thirty ticks that stretch and pop like dry wood in a fire, Miller and I are alone in a bubble, and I understand that he has the power. And he is abusing it. He is playing Jude like a kid’s guitar, something I would have thought impossible. I think it’s time for me to do something. I pull the mask over my head and I’m Woody Allen. Miller removes a small digital camera from the flight bag and gives it to Huck, who receives it reluctantly.
Oh and by the way, says Miller. Don’t try to run.
No, says Huck. Why would I do that?
I don’t know, says Miller. I really don’t. But I would be more comfortable if you let me hold onto the car keys.
Huck hands over the keys, which Miller deposits in the breast pocket of his jacket. He now opens the briefcase and takes out three identical handguns. He gives one to Jeremy and one to me, and keeps one for himself, selecting them seemingly at random. Huck does not get one, apparently. I examine my gun, which is a.40 caliber Sig Sauer Pro, matte black, a nice gun. I feel fairly certain mine and Jeremy’s are loaded with blanks, if at all. But I refrain from checking the magazine. Finally, he passes out latex gloves.
Now, he says. Let’s play.
The four of us cross the parking lot slowly under a pale electric haze, walking abreast as if we’re going to a gunfight. Miller is a step or two ahead of me and I point my gun at the back of his head.
Pow, I say.
Miller reaches the door and hesitates, his breath ragged through Hitchcock’s mouth. The plan is simple enough. Jeremy will hold a gun on the clerk. I will control the customers and watch the door. Miller will roam the store, amusing himself. And Huck will get it all on film. He throws the door open and I go in first, thinking that if I’m careful, I can stop him from killing anyone.
This is a hold-up, I say.
The music in the store is loud, Sonic Youth. No one hears me. No one pays me any mind and I reckon people in Woody Allen masks walk in here every day. Hitchcock comes in behind me and fires one shot into the ceiling. There is a spray of falling white plaster and now everyone is paying attention. Marilyn Monroe comes in and goes directly to the counter with his gun held chest high. The clerk is a ratty white kid, mid twenties. He has a long dirty blond ponytail dangling from a black baseball cap. He’s chewing gum, the muscles jumping in his face. He watches Marilyn closely. I count four customers. In the back is a white girl in motorcycle leathers with a stud through her nose and blue hair, maybe twenty. She was stirring cream into her coffee when we came in and now stands very still, staring at me. Near the counter is a crusty old white guy wearing a T-shirt that says Jesus Freak. He holds a quart of beer in one hand, a package of beef jerky in the other. And near the Slurpee machine are the guy and girl who got out of the Toyota. They are attractive in a blue jeans ad, immediately forgettable way, twin models with blond hair and perfect teeth. The girl has a sweet smile but the guy is an arrogant bastard, probably abusive, you can tell by the way he talks to her. It’s not fair but I decide that if anyone in this scene gets shot, it will be him.
It helps to have a ready sacrifice in mind.
This is a hold-up, I say. Everybody be cool.
John Wayne cruises around the store, camera in hand. I stand by the door, one eye watching the parking lot. Hitchcock is amusing himself, as he said he would. He is tearing up the store, knocking displays over and throwing bags of chips and cookies and Hostess goodies into the air. He comes up behind Marilyn and tosses the flight bag at the clerk.
The money from the register, he growls. All of it. And throw in the latest issue of Playboy and a few cartons of cigarettes.